Saturday, September 22, 2018

Chapter 8

It turned out to be much easier to get into the Loki mines than it was to get out of them. No one was allowed back into the colony until their shift was finished, and then the guards herded them into cramped living quarters by beating them with shock batons until they arrived.

Bodies pressed against bodies outside the entrance. Jane could barely shift her shoulders in the mass of humanity. She tried to stay in sight of Bhutto, but lost her in the churning crowd of vac-suits almost immediately. Pressed on by the miners behind, she slowly shuffled towards the chamber entrance.

The structure of the chamber reminded Jane more of a crypt than a slave barracks. The ‘bunks’ were no different than burial niches, simple man-length nooks carved out of the rock wall stacked on top of each other. Ladders made of small handholds chiseled into the wall separated the columns of niche-bunks. They wasted no space on the slaves’ quarters, yet many of the bunks were conspicuously empty.

When Jane reached the threshold, a clay bowl full of sloshing slop was shoved into her chest, and the miners behind prodded her forward almost before she had even taken hold it. The stench hit Jane immediately. Open barrels reeking of human excrement clustered in one corner of the chamber, and it permeated everything. There must have been some filter malfunction in her vac-suit. There was no way anything that awful should have gotten through.

Jane began breathing through her mouth, wondering why they would keep the awfulness around—it could not be any better for the guards. She realized that the waste must have been collected for fertilizer, the same as they did on Freyja, but without the sewage channels or machinery. It must have been an ordeal to transport it.

The workers removed their vac-suits mechanically and tossed them into a repurposed mining cart flanked by baton-wielding guards. In contrast to the boisterousness of the bosses, these workers were either cowed or stoic, or simply exhausted. Jane could not tell the difference from one to the other. She stood back behind the mass of men and out of sight of the guards.

A sudden murmur moved throughout the quarters, and the murmur became a series of gasps. “Alright, you crazies, get your hands off me,” Bhutto cried, from among the mass of slaves. Decrepit and malnourished miners reached to touch her hair, her face, they spoke strange words she had never heard before and could not look up without access to the neural net. They spoke them with a sense of reverence, as if speaking a magic incantation. Some combined their words with strange gestures that reminded her of a salute.

Jane took a deep breath and removed her helmet as well, if only to give her partner some reprieve. The healthier workers whistled and laughed, and their demeanors were decidedly predatory, in contrast to the awe of the ones who had had their bodies broken by hard labor. She noticed that there were plenty of miners who had broken limbs, some who had burned faces or backs, and some who had even lost a hand or a foot.

“Please,” a gravelly voice came from the back, “Give these women some space.” A completely hairless man with sunken eyes and a misshapen head put up his arms. “You’ll have to excuse us. These men have not seen women in a very long time—not even the Warden’s temptresses.”

Jane was caught off guard by the contrast between his tone and his words. The man looked and sounded compassionate, all while holding a constant air of contempt not just for the Warden, but for her and the rest of the workers.

“Ahh shit,” Bhutto muttered. “One of them. A Catechist.”

“Is there a problem?” he asked.

“Religious zealots.” Bhutto added. “They don’t deal with women,”

“Not true,” he replied, he did not show anger, but his eyes were fiery. “Our Lord was birthed by a woman. We only wish to keep them in their rightful place of honor.”

“Birthed by a woman without having sex,” Bhutto said.

“The child was implanted, then.” Jane said. She would have ended the lecture, but she could use all the information she could to understand these people. Where the Corporates disgusted her, these people merely baffled.

“No, Red. They don’t believe in using any unnatural conception process, no body modification.”

Jane furrowed her brow. “Ok, so they have some strange beliefs. Maybe they can help us.”

“Like I said, they don’t like making deals with women,” Bhutto said.

“We are free to make contracts with unmarried women.”

Marriages, Jane thought. Merging the individual resources and legal rights of sexual partners. That settled it. She preferred Grid to this place, but she would be happy never to go to a ‘free’ world ever again.

“That should not be a problem. Neither of us are married, are we, Bhutto?”

Bhutto shared a quick glance with her. “No,” she said.

She was lying. It was none of her concern, but that caught Jane off guard.

“Anyway,” Bhutto said, “This is Red, and I am Iridene.”

“I apologize, where are my manners,” the bald man reached out a gnarled hand. “My name is Father Ezekiel.”

“Father?” Jane reached out and shook his calloused hand. He had a kindly smile, and she had to remind herself that everyone here was at best a rapist. The miners as a whole did not seem particularly threatening, however. She had to outweigh most of them, and the whole of them seemed content to lounge on their bunks in lethargy.

“You have reached the moon recently, I presume?” Ezekiel asked.

“That’s right,”

“Well, I am sure that everyone here has plenty of questions for you. Would you be willing to answer them?”

“I don’t see why not,” Jane said.

“I do,” Bhutto said. “There is no reason to give away something for nothing.”

Ezekiel smiled. “I would be willing to answer any questions you have.”

Bhutto narrowed her eyes. “Okay, then. What are you in for?” She smirked. Jane grimaced. She could see why Bhutto had trouble making contracts.

“You don’t have to answer that,” Jane said. “What we really need to know is--”

“No, I will answer the question.” Ezekiel replied. “It does not matter why any of us got to be in this awful place. All of us are sinners. We all deserve Hell. We all deserve to be here.”

Jane scowled at that. She most certainly did not deserve any of this. “That being said,” Ezekiel continued, “I came here voluntarily.”

“Bullshit,” Bhutto said. “He might not have murdered anyone, but he’s a pedophile or something.”

“You can accept the truth or not,” he said. “I came here to spread the word to those in most desperate need of it.”

“You sacrificed the rest of your life to sell these felons a fairy tale?” Bhutto asked. “I don’t believe you.”

“My reward comes not in this life, but the next.”

Jane found it as difficult to believe as Bhutto. Without regular mind wipes and education, it appeared that people will develop some terribly irrational ideas. After she recovered the Leviathan and the resources it held, perhaps they would be able to help more people like him.

“More important questions,” Jane said, “What is the regular routine for the mine? Is there any way to the fields? To obtain weapons and armor? To take this place from the bosses?”

“Come on, Red,” Bhutto said, “why don’t you show some ambition?”

Ezekiel nodded. “I believe that if there was some way to do that, many in our number would have tried already. The Lord’s will carries the day regardless.”

“Perhaps he needs a nudge,” Jane said idly. “All of the workers combined have to outnumber the bosses at least five to one.”

“And with power armor and projectile weapons, it would take that many to have even the slightest hope in any violent encounter. Not only that, but these people feed and shelter and clothe us. If we resist, they would starve all of us to death.”

Bhutto laughed, “Won’t take their own freedom because they’re afraid of losing handouts.”

Not handouts, Jane thought. Compensation, inadequate as it may be.

“Why do you mine these tunnels?” Jane asked.

Ezekiel furrowed his brow. “What do you mean?”

“For ice crystals,” one of the miners said. “So we can get water.”

“And the serfs in the fields are producing all of the food for this colony, are they not?”

“Who else would do it?” A voice asked from one of the top bunks.

“Exactly,” Jane said. “No one. The bosses don’t. They don’t even provide protection. There is no one here threatening you other than them.”

“Where are you going with this?” Ezekiel asked.

“Simple,” she replied. “I propose you do exactly what they do. Nothing. Stop working for them. Stop feeding their fat children while you exist on the scraps. Stop letting them profit off of your misery.”

“They’ll kill us if we don’t work.” One of them said.

“They can’t kill all of you,” Jane said. “They can’t live without you. Do any of the bosses know how to mine these tunnels? Do they know how to plant and harvest crops?”

“No,” a group of them agreed in unison.

“They will kill some of us,” they said. “To make an example.”

“Everyone dies,” Jane said. “Those lucky few will become martyrs, rewarded in the next life, will you not?”

Ezekiel nodded cautiously. “If we retain our faith.”

“How better to show your faith in your Lord than to reject these earthly ones that have been forced upon you?”

The nodding heads became calls of assent, and then grew in number—the lethargic automatons had finally come to life, eyes bright and mouths chattering. Jane could not help to feel the buzz of the blood pumping through her head, caught up in the euphoria of her own words. She barely noticed Bhutto tugging at her shoulder strap. She turned and raised an eyebrow at the woman’s grave face.

“Red, can we talk?’ she asked.

Jane glanced around at the crowd, who she had forged into a mob. She pursed her lips and nodded. “What is it?”

Bhutto pulled her away to a corner of the chamber near one of the unoccupied bunk niches. When she glanced around and made sure no one else was listening in, she lowered her voice.

“I’m not sure about what you are doing here, Red.”

“What do you mean?”

“I know you don’t believe in this superstitious bullshit.”

“Maybe not, but they do, and that’s what matters.”

Bhutto stared at her for a solid second. It seemed that she was taking time processing what she had just said. “Okay, Red. I guess if they are sucked in by your pretty words, it’s their own damn fault.”

Jane did not like how she put it, but she was happy that the dispute was settled. “Good. If we can figure out a way to spread this plan to the fields, we should be able to pressure the bosses into negotiating.”

Bhutto glanced over at a pair of miners dragging one of the latrine barrels to the entrance of the bunk chamber. She grimaced and shook her head. “I have an idea, but you aren’t going to like it.”

Jane guessed that Bhutto was right.

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