"We’re going," Kross said, rifle on his back and akubra on his head. “Get in.”
It was the first time he’d spoken to me directly all week.
We’d spent the best part of the morning loading hover in complete silence, filling the jerry-can last and shoving in under the tarps at the back. The hover was now radiating with about heat as the midday sun as I climbed on, rusty metal burning underfoot.
“Where are we going?” I asked, sweat already starting to pour down my back.
Kross’s only answer was to light up a cigarette as he revved the ignition.
The engine stalled three times before it finally spluttered into life, Kross swearing at it until the hover finally lurched upwards and knocked me clean off my feet. Even machinery knew when to back down with Kross.
He jerked the hover northwards sharply and I winced. You could always tell Kross’s mood from the way he drove, and at that point in time he was likely to kill us all. I carefully kept my eyes away from his face, knowing there was no hope in hell that he’d let me drive, not since someone crashed the hover a while back.
As we got moving the breeze started roaring through the hover, making the sweltering heat a bit more bearable, but threatening to throw us off the back, if Kross didn’t beat first. I was stuck in a hover going to Gods-only-know-where, with a man who was likely to crash us. The sad part was, with Kross talking again it was probably the highpoint of that week.
You could see the mountain from kilometres off. In dune country, one part of the desert looks pretty like all the rest. There’s no trees or animals, or any real scenery at all, just kilometers and kilometers of shifting dunes, which change shape overnight.
The mountain itself was huge, a massive slab of red rock sitting in the middle of nowhere, like a giant got bored with playing it and chucked it as hard as they could against the ground.
It was also obviously a hive of activity, even from a distance. Miners dotted it like termites, railway lines spewed out of its base and stretched off into the distance, and caverns gaped from inside its depths. As we approached the foremen’s camp also became visible, with tents, warehouses and several small cooking fires, with the usual slackers dotting around them. Said slackers gaped up like a bunch of bored bunyars as we landed.
Kross stubbed out his cigarette with his steel-caps and leapt off the hover even before it had properly landed, showing that he always did have more balls than common sense. Kudos for not falling flat on his face, or inhaling the shitload of dust the hover was kicking up around him.
He got straight to the point. “Where’s Ramouf?”
“Who the hell are you?” a foreman grunted back, unimpressed.
Before Kross had the chance to stare down the foreman properly a voice floated from between the tents. “Ah, Kross, you have arrived.” Ramouf Magaruk emerged, bowing formally and greeting us in the merchant tongue. “Eá and Badiyanu be praised for your safe arrival. I trust you are well?”
“Yeah.” Kross was a man of few words, as usual. There was an awkward silence, as the two men faced each other. “You?”
“Very well indeed.”
They were an unlikely pair of merchants. Kross was dressed more like a jackaroo and lacked the flowery language of most traders, while for all his silken tongue, Ramouf donned the more practical clothes of the locals, favouring a white tunic and head-scarf over the rich, deep colours of the very wealthy, which tended to give people heat-stroke. Kross was a good foot taller than Ramouf, who was neatly groomed despite the isolation of the area, while Kross brought to mind the fact that a beard really is only three weeks of regrowth. You’d have never guessed they were related.
“So, my nephew,” Ramouf said, as the silence stretched on, “I trust this is the boy you spoke of?”
Shit, not again.
I found both their eyes on me and bowed awkwardly, wondering what in the hell was going on now. You’d have thought I’d be used to it by now.
Ramouf sighed. “Well, let’s have a look at him. Come forward.”
I looked at Kross questioningly and he gestured for to move, impatiently.
“You’ll find him to be all I promised and more, let me assure you,” Kross said, in his gravelly pack-a-day smoker’s voice, as I stepped forward, painfully aware of Ramouf’s eyes on me.
“He does seem to be in good shape,” Ramouf agreed, approvingly, “good muscle for one his age.”
“You don’t mind if he has…?” Well, there wasn’t really any nice way to put it.
“Old healed scars,” Ramouf dismissed his concerns with a flick of his hand. I winced as he poked at the huge scabs on my back. “Yes, I think he’ll last quite nicely
It was at that point I realized what was going on. What slave hadn’t heard of the death-traps which were the great desert mines? I knew I’d pissed Kross off, but until then I hadn’t realized just how much.
“Good. You got the paperwork signed yet? You said you wanted the first shipment shifted in a few days, the legwork had better be finished.”
“Straight to the point as usual, my nephew,” Ramouf sighed. “But as a matter of fact, I do. All that remains is to show you the mine and get this one,” he barely even glanced at me, “working.”
The foreman was overweight, hairy and strutted arrogantly towards us. “Kross,” he greeted him, with disdain. His nostrils flared as his eyes leapt from Kross to me and rested there. He scowled.
“Fariz,” Kross acknowledged, stony faced, but that wasn’t unusual for him. Looking at Kross you got the feeling he probably would be moderately unfazed even through bushfires, earthquakes and plagues of locusts. That would probably a be mostly accurate assumption, although his face would start twitching if anything so much as touched his precious citrus crop – the damn things were hard enough to get established in the desert.
Meanwhile, Faris was staring at me as if I was something which had just crawled onto his boots and died. “This a new slave?” he grunted.
Well done, very observant.
“Get him to work,” Ramouf said, dismissively.
Fariz’s eyes jumped back to Kross and he glowered at Kross, who seemed utterly unmoved by this. “Yes, boss”
He directed me towards the mine with an elegant jerk of a filthy thumb. Out of habit I looked towards Kross for instruction, but Kross ignored me, and I stared at him dumbly until Fariz barked at me to get moving.
It still hadn’t quite hit me yet what was happening. I suppose the shock hadn’t quite set in, or else I couldn’t quite believe it. That changed very quickly.
It smelled. Going straight into semi-darkness after noon sunlight left me staggering around, blinded, but even before my eyes had a chance to adjust themselves I was already close to gagging from the smell. The dusty air, already vibrating with the echoes of metal against rock, was polluted with the stench of human filth, dust, sweat and blood.
“Get moving,” Fariz snapped and I blundered forward, tripping on a railway track, staggering and catching myself before I fell over. Murky shapes moved around me, slowly coming into focus as my eyes gradually grew use to the lantern-light.
“You had best stay still until your eyes adjust,” Ramouf was advising Kross, behind me, “the darkness is something of a shock at first and it is easy to stagger off a ledge if one is not careful.”
I froze midstep and promptly thwacked by Fariz. “I told you to move, boy!” He raised his voice. “Katya!”
I smelt the group of slaves hauling a trolley towards us before I saw them, the pungent odour of shit getting stronger as they approached. About the same time, the sound of their approach became distinct from the general cacophony of the mine, and a few moments later they came into view, stopping and waiting for orders, I could not see their faces. The leader, Katya, waited as he loomed over the group and inspected them. “Rotate,” Fariz rumbled. “Let’s see how the new boy does leading, eh?”
“The main product is high quality iron ore, although there is also an inpure seam of copper, embedded in which are occasional greenlets. The deepest levels contain mineral springs, from which medicinal haliomoss is harvested in small quantities,” Ramouf was carefully explaining to Kross.
Fariz grunted at me to get over there and I scampered forwards hastily towards the indistinct shapes and joined one of the two parallel lines. “You’re going to be hauling trolleys, boy. A nice easy job for a new boy.”
I followed the lead of the other slaves standing next to me and picked up the metal chain fastened to the huge trolley.
We were part of an assembly line, I later learned. Ore from inside the mine was transported to the service then loaded into larger trolleys for bunyars to haul to the smelter. The empty trolleys were transported back into the depths of the mine to be filled again, and this was my job. It was one of the easier jobs in the place, but even so each trolley required at least four people to pull them comfortably, and about ten more when they were full. We had to make do with half the number. It was back-breaking work.
“The copper ore is sold directly to buyers, but the iron ore is transported from the mine by bunyar and rail to the north for smelting. We used to use slaves but they died too quickly. The steel ingots are then transported back here again for transportation by hover to Collier to be sold. That is where you come in, my nephew,” Ramouf’s voice drifted distantly through to us, as he and Kross moved further into the mine, leaving my group of slaves to heave the trolley.
I could see more clearly now and took in my surroundings. Smokey oil lanterns dotted the walls and roof of the cavern, although not quite enough to properly illuminate it. The cavern itself was organized into layers of ledges, each lined with tracks and slaves hauling trolleys. In fact, the entire mountain was hollow. What really surprised me though, as we navigated the extensive system of tracks, straining to build up momentum in the trolley, was the sheer depth the mine descended to. The levels below us seemed impossibly black and I felt dizzy just looking at them.
As I stopped and stared, and the slave slammed into my back, shoving me forward. I hastily resumed moving, peering over my shoulder to make a sheepish apology, which froze as I caught sight of the slave behind me. If possible he was even more intimidating than Fariz, his features utterly blank. His cold eyes seemed to look right through me as if I didn’t exist. To put it elegantly, it scared the shit out of me.
I turned around again in time to catch sight of a ripple of movement in the distance, and now the rest of the slaves stopped, dropping the chain.
“What was that?” I demanded, heart pounding faster.
No response. Gee, thanks guys.
We had started moving closer together unconsciously and now Katya, the leader Fariz had barked at, stepped forwards, leaping agilely to the next platform along, which was slightly elevated above ours.
It seemed like the entire mine was holding its breath and waiting. The shape had vanished.
“Behind you!” I shouted, just in time.
Katya didn’t hesitate, leaping straight off the platform and catching herself mid-fall from one of the stabilizing cables without even a scream.
The same could not be said from the rest of us, as we turned tail and fled like a bunch of cowards. The screams of the other slaves echoed all around me. I could feel its breath on my neck. Something behind me seized my leg. I stumbled and fell.
I don’t know how I caught myself, but I’ve never been the same with heights since. I could hear it pounding onwards on the platform above. The momentum of its huge bulk wouldn’t let it stop straight away. I staggered to my feet and turned to run. Moments later, the creature landed heavily behind me and the whole platform shook. Somehow I managed not to lose my footing and kept running towards the light.
Like an idiot, I peered back at it, and really wish I hadn’t. Sometimes I still see it in my nightmares, and wake up shaking like a little kid. One glimpse over a shoulder was all I got, and that was more than enough. Obscured by the darkness, the first I saw of it was the glistening of mucus off blue, clammy and rubbery, almost transparent skin. I could see organs and muscles leaping every time it moved. Its eyes glowed faintly red, and tentacles and teeth exploded from within its gaping mouth as it pounded towards us on the legs of a man.
I’d never been so glad as to see Kross, standing flanked by Ramouf and Fariz, rifles raised.
The explosion echoed around the mine, causing rock to dislodge and cause the platform to vibrate so hard I was sent flying. For one stupid moment I thought it was I who had been shot. Then, as I landed back on my feet and kept running, an unearthly screech of pain and outrage joined the chorus of screams, followed by the thud of a body hitting the ground.
We slowly crept forward towards the writhing creature.
There was silence.
Sudden movement caused everyone to leap backwards. It hacked up a hunk of blue-green phlegm then was still. The only sound was the soft squealing as it deflated, and slowly everyone’s heart-rates returned to normal.
“Krayak,” Ramouf commented, lightly. “Nasty creatures, quite common in the lower levels. We were unlucky to encounter one so close to the surface.”
I realized just how close a brush I’d had with death. I still had its slime on my leg.
To my shame, I was shaking like a child as I ran to Kross’s side. “Please, please Master, don’t sell me here, not here!”
Kross’s disinterested eyes and the quick movement of Fariz behind me were the last things I saw before a sharp blow of pain washed over the back of my head and I slumped into unconsciousness.
When I came to I was outside and the sun was setting. My head throbbed as I blearily sat up and took in my surroundings. Kross was gone.
The dull clanging of the bell that woke me signaled the change of shift for foremen and the camp was in organized chaos as groups of slaves assembled to be fed while others resumed their duties. I had been dumped in the red sand near the edge of the camp, next to one of the foremen’s campfires, so they could keep an eye on me, but they hadn’t yet noticed I had awakened.
Instead the slave woman, Katya, walked towards me. Her face radiated hostility. “Fariz knocked you out before you made a scene. Only bad slaves and those whose Masters have fallen into hard times end up here. Your Master looked rich. Were you disobedient?”
I shook my whirling head and sincerely regretted it as the world shifted in and out of focus. “No, I was a good slave.”
Her voice could have cut glass. “Then why are you here?”
I was asking myself the same question.