The shriek of the whistle upon the beginning of the shift dispelled the last traces of sleepiness from Monazite. Her ear holes burning and her eyes wide open, all that was left to remind her of the meagre amount of sleep she was afforded was the weariness in her body. Monazite glanced behind her and saw Agate fared little better; she rubbed her sensitive ears as she adjusted her posture before any foremen saw her slouching and commented on it.
The line to sign in only moved in slow increments. Sometimes, Monazite could swear it – not the actual work in the mines – was the hardest part of the day. Though the mining work was tedious and painful, it at least gave her mind a single purpose to focus on. But when there was nothing to do but wait, her eyes began to wander; and that was often the riskiest thing she could do.
A short distance away, at the entrance to one of the other sections of the quarry, was a collapsed miner. The red Aisha, devoid of energy, gave slow, ragged breaths. Alive, but in name only.
One of the foremen for that section, a brown Techo, briskly walked to the miner with a pail in his hand. All in a few motions, the foreman poured the water on the miner, threw the pail next to his head, and kicked him in the side. “We don't pay you to lay around!”
When the miner could only respond by coughing up the water in his mouth, the foreman grabbed the back of his collar and lifted him up enough to growl into his ears, “If you're not back to work in two minutes, I'll be making an appointment with the Boss. And if you really don't like the work we're giving you, he'll find something else for you to do. Got it?!”
The miner gave a minute nod, then was thrown back to the ground. As the foreman turned in Monazite's direction, she likewise turned her head.
Head pointed straight ahead and eyes locked in place, she remained as still as could be. When the line moved, she gave only the stiffest of steps forward. The foreman began to walk alongside her line. She held her breath. In her peripheral vision, she could see the foreman look at her – however briefly – and her scales felt like they were about to dislodge out of her skin.
There was a silence that grew longer and longer, punctuated only by the foreman's vanishing footsteps. Once he was gone, Monazite allowed herself to exhale and look around at the other miners in her line. Those ahead of her still looked just as petrified as she was a moment ago. Only Agate was behind her, and her only response was to glance back at her with still-nervous eyes.
Monazite looked back to the exhausted miner. He had managed to drag himself a few feet past the entrance, but that was it. There was no way he'd be back on his feet in the two minutes the foreman allotted him. She heard rumours that miners that displeased Granite were forced into fighting matches for his and the foremen's entertainment. She suppressed a shiver. For that particular miner's sake, Monazite hoped he could find a burst of energy before it came to that.
It was a few minutes later that Monazite and Agate were signed in for their shift. They stood at the mouth of a tunnel as they gathered their tools and gear. Obsidian Quarry was called that for a reason, and thus most of the mining was done in open pits. But Granite often ordered exploratory tunnels to be created to look for new veins. It was one of the worst jobs, as there was a constant sense of claustrophobia and a lingering fear of cave-ins at every moment. And it was just Monazite's luck that was her shifts' current assignment.
Just as she was about ready to head inside the tunnel, Monazite heard a noise coming from behind her. A red Mynci jumped up and down with his hand outstretched, trying to reach the shelf that held the helmets. He bent his knees as he geared up for a big leap, but the edge of the shelf just slipped out of his fingers. Try as he might, he was far too short to reach it.
This was because he still had yet to grow enough to have anything to do with the mines. The Mynci was about eleven or twelve and looked about as scruffy with a couple of gaps in his teeth as most kids in Obsidian Quarry did. He had only recently started working on Monazite's shift, and thus time had yet to wear down his laid-back demeanour. If it had, he wouldn't have been so nonchalant about almost arriving to work late.
After watching attempt after attempt fail, Monazite sighed and felt the need to step in. “Cinnabar, let me get that for you.”
But just as Monazite began to extend her fin towards Cinnabar's helmet, Agate swiftly stepped in front of her. She seized the helmet and – with a running start – threw it over a nearby cliff.
“Hey!” Cinnabar shouted as his head followed the curve the helmet made in mid-air. He growled at Agate before he left behind a cloud of dust as he chased after the helmet.
Agate only snorted in response. Monazite was still too stunned to move at that point, but Agate walked past her towards the tunnel with hardly a care. Monazite commented, “That was mean.”
“Good. I wasn't trying to be nice.”
Just as Monazite started to become concerned with how Agate's stunt might get Cinnabar into trouble, her fears proved unfounded when he came back with helmet in hand and a scowl on his face. Monazite supposed that Agate underestimated just how quickly a Mynci could scale a cliff, as she could only give a defeated groan in response.
“You jerk! Are you trying to get me fired or something?! I would've spent all day looking for this if I didn't see where it landed!” Cinnabar spat at Agate as he angrily strapped the helmet onto his head. “What's your problem?! You've been on my case ever since I got here!”
“This is a mine, not a daycare. Nobody wants to put up with a brat all day,” Agate scoffed.
“I do my job just fine! And I don't bother any of you!” Cinnabar retorted.
Monazite stood by on the sidelines, fins clasped and eyes examining the mineral content of the wall next to her. Usually, she felt it best to not involve herself in their spats. But that time, something compelled her to say in a quiet voice, “I think Agate's just worried about you.”
In an instant, Cinnabar shifted his ire to Monazite. “I'm not a baby and she's not my mother! I'm not even doing any mining! I just sort rocks all day! Anyone could do that!”
“You think that's what you'll be doing forever?” Agate crossed her arms, then leaned down to look Cinnabar straight in the eye. “One of these days, there's going to be a fissure or tiny tunnel the foremen are going to want somebody to go investigate. And since us adults are too big, you're going to be the one they send in. How'd you like that? Crawling through some tiny, dark crevice. Barely any air to breathe, and plenty of rock to get stuck in. You'll cry and cry for hours, begging for help. And if you're lucky, maybe someone will hear you. But what if they don't?”
Cinnabar stared back at her. His scowl remained tight. For a very brief moment, there was a flash of trepidation in his eyes, but he quickly became incredulous.
He briskly turned around and stomped down the tunnel to his station. As he disappeared into the dim light, Monazite heard Agate exhale heavily as she shook her head. She watched him leave, yet her eyes seemed to be less focused on Cinnabar and more on the distant darkness.
“I'm sure it'll sink in one of these days,” Monazite tried to offer.
But Agate wasn't so sure. “Hopefully by then, it won't be too late.”
* * *
For an Obsidian Quarry miner, there was no such thing as “slacking off” when under the watch of a foreman. Any hint of weariness, any moment taken for the slightest of breaths was met with furious reprimands. Early on in her career, Monazite wondered if the foremen were even aware that the miners weren't made out of gears and springs. Of course, she had since learned that they just simply didn't care.
“You've been at this for a week! So why haven't you hit any veins yet?!” the foreman currently in charge of Monazite's shift roared at them. Diorite was about as ill-tempered as any of the foremen, but the fire Kougra never seemed too upset at the prospect of raising his voice. He stood over Cinnabar's station, where there was a lack of obsidian for the boy to sort.
The miners continued their work silently, responding to Diorite only by increasing the speed at which the pickaxes struck rock. His question was rhetorical, of course, and no-one had the gall to even make an attempt at an earnest answer.
But it was an unwinnable situation for the miners. Just as a response would have gotten them on Diorite's worse side, the silence inflamed him all the same. He slammed his fist against the nearest wall. “All of you, listen up!”
Everyone paused. Their eyes moved in Diorite's direction but took care to avoid any direct eye contact.
“This is your last warning. If I don't see any obsidian by tomorrow, you lot are going to regret it! Mark my words!” Diorite shouted, his voice echoing within the tunnel so crisply that it was impossible for his threat to not strike at each and every miner present.
Diorite then took his leave in a series of loud stomps. Where he went once he left the tunnel was anyone's guess. The job description of a foreman was to manage the everyday workings of the quarry and supervise the miners to see to that end. But how it actually worked was that the foremen spent half of their time lording over and intimidating their subordinates. If the rumours that Agate told Monazite about were anything to go by, the other half apparently consisted very little of what anyone would consider “work.”
Whether he left to do something with purpose or just to slack off, Diorite's absence allowed a bit of reprieve for Monazite and her co-workers. Now, without the insults and threats, her mind could return its focus to how close her arms and back were approaching their limits.
When the point came that her pickax could do little more than make tiny chips at the rock, she took a moment’s – and only a moment’s – rest. All the while, she kept her head turned in the direction of the entrance, watching for the slightest glimpse of the shadow of a foreman approaching.
Though the miners would be left to their own devices for a while longer, Monazite eventually felt like she was standing at the edge as she idled. But try as she might, she couldn't put another drop of energy into her swings. She glanced toward the loose rocks that she dug out currently sitting at her feet, and figured out a way to appear busy while taking a breather.
Monazite gathered up as many rocks as she had the strength to carry and lugged them over to Cinnabar's station. Nonetheless, she could feel a number of them spill out of her arms as she walked, and had a much smaller pile to deposit when she arrived than when she started.
Cinnabar looked up from the rocks he was sorting. As soon as he saw Monazite, he stopped and reached into a box at his side. He pulled out a small crystal that almost looked like it had been burnt. “Check this one out.”
He handed it to Monazite, who was more than happy to take and examine it. “Ohh, this is smoky quartz!” she announced eagerly, but under a whisper. “It's such a nice orange-brown colour too. Probably one of the best ones I've seen.”
“Yeah? Is it worth a lot?” Cinnabar asked with a hint of excitement.
“No, not really. They're pretty common,” Monazite answered as she handed the crystal back to him.
Cinnabar immediately deflated and grumbled, “Oh. Well, that bites.” He tossed the smoky quartz back into the box and resumed looking over the new supply of rocks. “Eh, not like I coulda kept it anyways.”
Three boxes sat next to Cinnabar as he worked. One was for the ordinary rocks that the miners dug out and was currently overflowing. The second was for any obsidian that Cinnabar managed to find among the common rocks – that one was empty. And the third was for any gems that anyone might have come across. It too was usually empty, but that day it held the lone smoky quartz.
It didn't matter who managed to find the few gems that were excavated once in a while. They were all to be relinquished to the company and sold or used as Granite saw fit. Thus the only time Monazite could ever make use of her skill at identifying minerals and gems while at work was when they were briefly in the hands of her co-workers before they were taken away. How nice it would have been to start her own mineral collection, though...
Before she allowed herself to lose herself in her daydream, Monazite shifted her attention back to Cinnabar. He wasn't in such a testy mood as he was earlier that day, that was for certain. He usually wasn't, but Agate's rather... overt attempts to get him to leave the mines always did sour him in the moment. Thus, Monazite herself preferred going about the matter more subtly. “So, how's that debt coming?”
“Pretty good. I'm almost all paid off!” Cinnabar announced with no lack of cheer.
Monazite cracked a smile, but unlike Cinnabar, hers was coated in only a thin layer of happiness. “Good... So you won't be here much longer, then?”
“Geez, I dunno. That loan that Granite gave my family was a ton of Neopoints, but I'm already almost through with it. I think I might take out another few. My family and I are doing pretty well now, you know?”
That was exactly what Monazite was afraid of. The thing about the loans that Granite gave out to the miners was that the relief they provided was only ever temporary. In the long run, they only ended up serving misery. But when he really wants someone in his debt, especially a gullible kid, he deliberately sets up the first loan to be easy to pay off to lure them in. Then when they take out subsequent loans, the debt becomes so heavy that escape is all but impossible.
It was that way for most of Obsidian Quarry. Loans for housing, loans for food, loans for medicine... Everyone owed something to Granite.
But as much as those thoughts played out in Monazite's head, she wasn't able to put them to words. How could she put all that delicately without Cinnabar brushing her off? It was at such times that she wished she was as blunt as Agate. But even that method saw little success.
Even if she had the heart to push the conversation further, Monazite knew that every second she spent talking and not working made it all the riskier that she'd be caught. She began to return to her spot, but immediately caught sight of all the rocks she dropped earlier. It was a mess that no foreman was going to tolerate, so she took haste to pick them up.
As Monazite bent down, a small reflection of light caught her attention. It came from one of the rocks. No, something in a rock. She picked it up and brought it closer to her eyes. Embedded in a small rock was an even tinier red, prismatic crystal, barely even a centimetre long.
It didn't seem to be a ruby or a garnet, nor did it strike her as even a variety of diamond or spinel. Monazite couldn't identify it on the spot, but somehow as she stared at the gem while the seconds ticked by, she could feel her heart pound louder and faster.
“Find something else?” Cinnabar called and jarred Monazite back to reality.
All gemstones go to the company. Monazite knew that. But the more she mentally reminded herself of that rule, the tighter her fins clasped around the rock. She couldn't shake it; there was something about that gem that stirred up a sense of excitement deep within her. Somewhere, at some point in time, she had seen it before. But she simply couldn't place its name.
“N-no. Just catching my breath,” Monazite said as she remained huddled over the gem. She carefully glanced over her shoulder. Cinnabar had taken her word for it and continued working. There were no foremen coming over her other shoulder. Straight ahead, her co-workers remained back-to her.
Her fins slowly cupped around the gem and carefully slipped it into her pockets as she stood up.
Monazite grabbed her pickax and struck the rock with as much speed and strength as she could muster. To those around her, she had regained her energy and was rapidly making up for lost time. Though they might have noticed that her heavy breathing was quick to return, what they didn't realize was that it was already thin by the time her brief rest ended.
At her side, Agate kept up a steady pace. It wasn't unusual; Monazite's stamina simply wasn't made for mining, while Agate always seemed to have an excess of it. She was rarely grabbed by distractions and often appeared as if in a trance while on the job.
But Monazite's reappearance seemed to snap her out of it, if only for a moment. Agate quickly looked around for any foremen, then shouted to Monazite over the cacophony of steel against stone, “I don't know what the foremen are thinking, but we sure aren't hitting any veins today! I just hope our relief shift gets lucky, 'cause tomorrow's about to look pretty bad!”
Monazite could only give a small nod. That thought that Agate presented was foreboding, but even it failed to pierce through the fog in Monazite's mind. It was so thick that if Agate found it odd, Monazite wouldn't be able to notice. All she could think about as her arms acted automatically was that little speck of red sitting in her pocket.
To be continued…