9th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Adjar Dominance – Bada Aso Region
9 Days Before Generalplan Suden Zero Hour
They kept chickens and a rooster in the tenement’s backyard, and everyone could count on the latter to bring in the day without fail. Ajith woke before the dawn with the crying bird, and he walked out of his apartment with the first rays of the sun.
He dressed in a pair of overalls and a dress shirt, but over it he wore a traditional robe red and orange like blood reflecting the sun, with tassels hanging from the cut.
In order to work safely Ajith would have to remove the robe, but he was sure that today was the start of his turn as overseer, so he might get to keep it after all.
From the tenement he followed the street up to a corner where a green truck with a long, flat bed was parked, and he climbed onto the bed of the truck and sat there.
A thin trail of smoke rose to the sky from the front of the truck. It curled around the side of the truck, emanating from the end of a cigarette. Ajith’s driver Chanta was an older woman, tall, thin, with black skin and a lot of frizzy hair under a green cap with the crow logo, symbolizing the regional worker’s council.
They exchanged enthusiastic but largely silent greetings.
Both of them were tired.
Thankfully weekend was coming, and they got 3 good days off this one. It alternated between weeks. Sometimes it was two days. Ajith could take any time off if he wanted, he had worker’s protections, everyone had; but everyone knew that if they just disappeared, work wouldn’t get done. If he didn’t go mine, rocks wouldn’t come out; workers would get less raw materials, he supposed. Everyone worked for the sake of everyone.
Even the driver did too. She could take off; but there’d be one less driver. And it wasn’t exactly a skill that was prolific in Ayvarta, where most people didn’t have a car. Everyone worked to keep everyone else working and fed. Everyone understood how the chain worked, and they tried to show up for their job every day. Tired maybe, but ready to go.
Ajith sure was.
So it was best for everyone that Ajith only took it easy on the designated weekends.
From the adjacent tenements and even from adjacent boroughs a slow trickle of other men and women approached the truck over the next fifteen minutes. Once the truck was fully loaded, the driver took her place, and they backed up off the street.
Driving west, they stopped first at a civil canteen, where a girl waited with a stack of prepared lunch boxes. She handed them one by one, and people closer to the edge of the bed passed them around to those farther back, until everyone had a box.
Canteen girl waved them goodbye and wished them a good day, and the truck was again on its way to its destination, a quarry far away on the eastern edge of the Kalu hilltops, about two hour’s drive from the city. A dirt road would take them there.
Almost everyone used the time to sleep more, except Ajith.
He watched the world roll by; the hilly terrain rising, flattening, falling; the green grass and white dirt across the landscape, colored like the cream of kale served at the civil canteen; gazelle flocking to watering holes in the morning while lions slept.
He even saw a tusker off the distance when the truck rose further uphill.
It was a bumpy ride, and too cold when it began, and too hot as it ended! Nevertheless he enjoyed these moments of peace, watching such a lush world unfold around him through the wooden frame of the truck bed. He took a mental note of everything he saw.
It would definitely inspire a few drawings when he got back home in the evening.
Soon the truck veered off along a broad, dusty, featureless stretch of pale rock.
Ajith and his comrades worked at a limestone quarry. Stretching out kilometer in front of them the terrain descended before a stark, man-made escarpment, as though a knife had come down from the sky and shaved away a chunk of the hillsides, carving a flat, rocky space. Their handiwork transformed the landscape here. With explosives, they blasted all the useless topsoil and got right to the limestone. Then they blasted the good rock out, and worked the pieces for shipping to various industries that made them into goods.
Everyone got off the truck, and got out to work.
For the driver, she would be switching vehicles, until it was time to pick the workers up again. And as Ajith expected, when he got out to the line of tents straddling the “safe zone” outside the reach of flying debris, there was Shasra, one of the previous overseers, a sprightly woman ten years his junior, to hand him the whistle and the clipboard.
In turn, she took the hard hat that was left for him in the basket labeled “Ajith” that was just outside the equipment tent, pulled out for the first shift workers.
They would be trading duties today.
In their country the workers all had their turn managing, cutting, blasting, driving (if they knew how, or wanted to learn), taking inventory, and so on; in this way they self-managed everything. They even took turns sitting at the desks of the union council.
“You’re on Overseer duty, Ajji, from today until 34th of the Gloom.” She cheerfully told him, adjusting the hard hat. “So I’ll be out there blasting rocks for you. You better make sure everyone’s working right! I don’t want to get buried just yet.”
“Ancestors defend, don’t tell me that on my first day.” Ajith said, rolling his eyes.
“It’s just a joke! Don’t enjoy a little dark humor? See, it works on two levels–”
He laughed and waved his hand as though fanning away her words, and walked past her into the equipment tent. He had a checklist of things to do, helpfully written in a curly, childish-looking script by Shasra. Managing wasn’t as hard as he thought.
First he had to check equipment: he peeked over the crates of stick-bombs to insure that they had not gotten wet, and looked for the general presence of rust on the picks and the rock saws. Once he was sure all the tools were fine, he would sign off on it to the other workers, and they would come in and pick their things. Everyone patted him on the shoulder on the way in and on the way out. It was sort of a joke to them.
Every Overseer stood like a statue near the tents while equipment was distributed.
After everyone had bombs or a pick or a saw or a shovel, Ajith checked the water trucks. There were two, similar to the transport truck, but with large containers to which hoses were attached. They needed to be filled to a certain level in order to last the day.
Water was essential for the cutting of stone, and of course to keep everyone alive in the heat. Ajith checked and signed off on that as well, and Chanta took a water truck and drove out to the escarpment, the chiseled face cut against the hills. Ajith hitched a ride.
For the rest of the day, he would be working there: taking measurements, checking the rocks, making sure they filled their quotas with the right size rocks that their contracts stipulated, and so on. Barely cerebral work. It would go by quite easily, he thought.
Or at least, that was the plan; until the KVW half-track drove in.
Unlike their old truck, this was a big powerful vehicle, meant for battle, with its face and the sides of its bed armored against light firearms. Windshield and both windows had received some kind of tint to block one’s sight of the driver and passenger.
A tarp had been rolled across the top of the bed, so the occupants could not be seen anywhere from the outside, save for the dispassionate, black and red uniformed woman crewing the open-air machine gun mounted atop the vehicle’s pintle mount.
Every head in the quarry turned over shoulder to watch the vehicle drive in, and kept their eyes on it as a pair of passengers walked out to the escarpment from the back.
“I think they’ll be wanting to talk to you, boss,” Shasra said mischievously.
Everyone else took this visit as an entertaining novelty, but Ajith felt a little nervous about it. The KVW always claimed to be there for the workers, but he felt a great unease at any armed presence. Whether wielded by folks on your side or against your side, guns were guns. Ajith had been in the state army, for a few years at least, long before it was split up like the Councils. After that he was in the reserve. He knew what guns did.
As such he was always nervous around guns.
Two women left the vehicle and approached him.
Ahead was a taller, older woman, of obvious Umma ethnicity like Ajith himself: she had skin so that dark it gleamed with sweat in the sun, a convex nose, broad lips, and a lot of dark curly hair under her peaked cap. Her uniform was the red and gold of an honored KVW officer, and displayed a few ribbons proudly; it contrasted with the black with red trim uniform of the woman on the gun mount, who was an average KVW riflewoman.
Clearly this was the boss of the two: she had a calm and serious expression, and she moved with confidence. She stood her full height, taller than anyone around.
Behind her trotted the other woman, a little shorter but still fairly tall, dressed in the green uniform of the state army and the rare few uninitiated KVW forces. She was an Arjun, the most numerous of the ethnicities in Ayvarta as a whole, but not as much in the Kalu Hilltops and Bada Aso region. Her skin was brown, rather than black, and her nose and lips were smaller and thinner, and her shoulder-length hair was straighter.
Judging by the honors on her uniform she was a Captain, while the other woman was probably a Colonel or higher. These were experienced, veteran officers.
Ajith drew their attention, waving his hands and ambling forward to meet them.
“I’m Ajith Diaye. It’s my turn at Overseer here in the quarry. How can I help you?”
“Inspector Chinedu Kimani,” the older woman introduced herself, extending her hand to Ajith, and taking it with a strong grip, “and this is Captain Madiha Nakar of the 3rd KVW Motor Rifles Division. We would like to discuss a few things in private.”
A shudder traveled down his spine, but Ajith kept his composure.
He led the two women back to the tents, one of which had a desk, a few filing cabinets, and an old radio unit that hardly anyone used. It was the size of a clothes chest, and Captain Nakar sat on top of it, while Inspector Kimani took one of the chairs. Ajith, behind the desk, felt no more authoritative or prepared, only ridiculous, and quite anxious.
Inspector Kimani looked at the discarded things atop the desk, a dusty rag, a wooden clock, and crumpled up papers. Ajith swept them off and sat down.
“So, let us discuss. What brings the KVW to a limestone quarry?”
“It’s not necessarily the quarry.” Kimani said. “We need to consult a local miner.”
“I’ll try my best to represent my fellow workers, but know that I’m only one person.”
“I understand.” Kimani reached into her jacket and withdrew a few photos. She put them on the desk for Ajith. They were aerial photos of a military convoy carrying people and equipment up mountainous terrain. Ajith recognized it immediately.
It was a cave system in the northeast called the Shetani Kinywa, demon’s mouth.
It was a source of iron, but it was dangerous. There were already open pit sites in Adjar and the unions in Bada Aso had refused to work the Kinywa for years.
In the photos he saw trucks and workers there, all clad in military uniform.
“Battlegroup Ox is mining the Kinywa? I don’t understand the point of that.”
Inspector Kimani nodded, and took the back the photos, stashing them inside her jacket once again. “It’s a very rich site, or so I’m told. During the Imperial days they completed excavation and had access to significant ore bodies, with an even greater quantity projected to be deeper underground. After the fall of the Empire the Kinywa went untouched. There had been many deaths there, and even rumors of evil spirits and such things – self-managed workers had rights now and they opted to leave it alone. Nobody could force them to work the site any longer, and so it was left to fester. The Demon’s Mouth, they called it.”
“Even if it was safer to do, it’s not worth it. I remember that the unions around here have told the Regional Council in Bada Aso as much. We’re working open pit sites right now that are yielding more than enough of all kinds of ore to ignore the Kinywa.”
“Yes, and getting to the Kinywa and back is difficult enough without hauling ore.” Inspector Kimani said. “However, that has not persuaded the Council or Ox’s Army-level command. They’ve gone over your heads and are working the mine alone.”
Ajith blinked at the way she phrased it.
He had never quite thought of it that way.
For himself and the other workers, and probably for the union, it was not seen as a competition with anyone. They were guaranteed work, after all, and wages; they had both right now. However, hearing the Inspector saying it that way, it did feel as though a trust between the Council and the Union had been violated by the mining of the Kinywa.
After all, things tended to be done by agreement between Councils and Workers.
The Council had ignored them, gone behind their backs, and recruited an entirely different, ill fitting corps of laborers to do the work they had rejected.
It felt very wrong indeed the more he thought about it.
“We were heading to the mine to talk with the soldiers and commanders there,” said the Captain, Nakar, from the back of the room, “We would be going there this weekend, and wondered whether a representative of the miners here could accompany us, and help us judge the conditions at the Kinywa site. The KVW believes this project is a flagrant abuse of power: soldiers are not miners, and it should have been implicit that only miners should do contract mining work. So we find this project highly suspicious.”
“I don’t really think it could be anything too sinister.” Ajith said. He felt nervous again about this situation. This was some kind of friction between the KVW and the Regional Council and its military, Battlegroup Ox. He was in the center now. And yet, he felt a duty to his fellow miners. “I had plans for the weekend, but I guess I can go.”
“We will compensate you.” Inspector Kimani said.
Ajith accepted. They shook hands, discussed a pickup, and the women went on their way. Their Half-Track disappeared behind up the ramp out of the quarry site and behind the hills. Ajith resumed work, telling everyone that it was all fine.
On the 11th of the Aster’s Gloom, instead of waking with the sun, Ajith slept in a little, ignoring the rooster’s cries. He left the tenement around nine o’ clock.
A KVW Half-Track was waiting outside the tenement to the bewilderment of everyone around. This time the gun was crewed by a young, tan-skinned man but he had the same blank expression as the woman before, making them almost eerily interchangeable.
Ajith climbed into the back, where a squadron of twelve riflemen and women sat along with Captain Nakar and Inspector Kimani. All of the riflemen and women looked like they were daydreaming, with eyes partly closed, and lips offering no indication of contentedness or dissatisfaction. Kimani looked about the same, but when Ajith examined her more closely he found her eyes much more intense, and her posture stronger.
Nakar on the other hand looked simply depressed and exhausted.
Soon the Half-Track was off, out of the city, past the Kalu hill-tops, joined by a Goblin tank along the way, for who knows what purpose. The little convoy drove far north at top speed for several hours, almost half the day, out to the edge of the Kucha mountains. They drove up a steep, rocky road far up into the belly of the mountain, and found themselves before a massive jagged opening, surrounded by sharp stone teeth on all sides.
The Half-Track parked, the rifle troops disembarked, and they marched carefully toward tents set up at the edge of the cave. Inside the jaws of the cave the floor slanted down for several meters like a natural ramp onto an adjoining tunnel.
One slip of the foot and the hapless worker would slide down to the bottom and break several bones. Ropes and wooden supports had been bolted down onto the rock to help navigate the ramp and reach the tunnels down to the mining area.
While Captain Nakar and Inspector Kimani bickered in a tent with a Lieutenant from Battlegroup Ox, assigned to oversee the military labor in this site, Ajith and and half of the rifle squadron examined the cave itself. Ajith was not an expert on underground mining, but he could easily see the deterioration all around him. If Ox was planning to renovate the place, they had not even begun. Lighting was dim, and the elevators were old.
Cranks and other mechanisms were rusted and creaked loudly under everyday abuse. The elevator off the main tunnel led down two tiers. While tight, the first one was manageable enough, with almost proper lighting, provided a large diesel generator that had probably been disassembled and then pieced back together in the spot.
On the bottom tier they found the true horror.
From the elevator platform, a short tunnel led to a stark void, into which miners dropped down with sturdy hopes to survey the walls of what seemed like a literal bottomless pit. It was like opening a gate to hell. Staring into that lightless pit, Ajith could tell why the place was called Shetani Kinywa. The air was thin, and he smelled something foul. Every sound echoed seemingly infinitely.
Soon he found it hard to tell his surroundings.
He felt sick, and he begged the rifles to take him back up.
Ajith was so dazed and suddenly ill that he almost had to be pulled physically back to the top by the soldiers escorting him, a task which they took to without even a twitch of the brows, their expressions as stony as the walls.
Above ground, Kimani and Nakar had taken their bickering with the lieutenant out of the tents and into the cave. Soldiers stood in the periphery, watching with unease, while their commanding officer irascibly confronted the two KVW women.
He was shouting, and gesticulating wildly with his hands at the sharp stalactites around the maw. Kimani was shaking her head and gritting her teeth; Nakar still looked simply exhausted and depressed, with her head down and her clipboard against her chest, sighing frequently and averting her eyes. Out of the crushing tightness and darkness of the tunnels, Ajith felt like he could breathe and move again. His senses slowly returned.
Inspector Kimani and the Ox Lieutenant both turned their heads from their argument to silently greet the new party coming out of the elevator. Ajith stood under his own power, still a little shaken. Captain Nakar sat back, and started taking notes.
“Thank you for your time. What is your assessment of the site?” Kimani said.
Ajith caught his breath first, but he hardly needed to think much before speaking.
“This place is very dangerous. I’m surprised nobody has been killed yet. All the shafts need to be maintained or replaced, and the supports are old and need to be reinforced. Those elevators haven’t been touched in decades. Lighting is weak and dim, all of the torches need to be replaced; no matter how new your generator is those lights won’t give you any more glow. On the lowest tier there are people doing vertical mining almost entirely in the dark, save for battery torches. Whatever amount of iron is here, it’s not worth digging out. It’s endangering these people, who have no mining expertise and nobody to train them. If I’m being called on to make a suggestion from the Union, it’s to stop this now.”
“Sounds like a very convincing case to me. However, Lt. Hako,” Kimani turned to face the mortified Lieutenant once again, “it’s in someone else’s best interest to keep it running, isn’t it? This isn’t about production or quotas or surpluses: it’s about the mining here going directly into someone’s pocket. That seems like the only reason I could see to be so adamant about digging here. With a mine this inaccessible, ignored, rejected by the unions, and far away from the eyes of Solstice, you can do whatever you want with the ore as long as you have complicit cronies overseeing every step of the way, and a connected fellow at the top to push the product to someone who wants it. Maybe Cissea; maybe Nocht?”
“How dare you!” Lt. Hako shouted. “Are you accusing me of treason, Inspector? Is that the KVW’s task now, to seek after paranoid delusions? It is impossible that any of us could have had dealings with the enemy, and you know this perfectly well!”
Perhaps she did. Ajith thought it sounded ridiculous himself.
Perhaps it was just agitation?
But the accusations did not shake Kimani at all. Undaunted by the lieutenant’s growing wrath, she crossed her arms and gave him a cutting look before speaking again.
“Answer me this then,” She began, “did this quarry not once belong to one of the old bourgeoise who switched loyalties during the Revolution? Was it not part of Gowon’s portfolio? Is it not then being reclaimed for him? Or am I mistaken about this theory?”
Quickly the lieutenant snapped back. “You are mistaken, his family mines are in Dori Dobo! They supply his steel mills! If you want to inspect his mines, go there and leave the Kucha alone, it is entirely unrelated, he has nothing do with things here!”
“I guess we’ll be paying a visit to the border then, to inspect these quarries.” Captain Nakar said. She looked up from the ground finally, displaying some curiosity for the world around her. She grinned wickedly. “So many things owned by a Major in the army.”
Suddenly the lieutenant went pale.
He had, in his anger, given something away. His body shook.
Kimani grinned. “Yes. Major Gowon will be hearing from us personally about this.”
Nobody knew how complicit Lt. Hako was, personally, in any of these misdeeds. However, everyone could tell from his appearance and the shaking tone of his words that he was guilty. “Comrades, I did not mean it in that way at all. Of course, the Major gave up his claims years–”
Kimani stopped grinning, and snapped her fingers.
Captain Nakar drew her revolver on the lieutenant, aiming at him from where she was seated, on a rock a few meters away from Kimani and him.
There was a collective gasp among the soldiers, but none of them intervened, not with the KVW rifle squadron in the room. As one, the KVW rifles raised their weapons and stood in phalanx, facing different directions in the room. Stray soldiers and military laborers held up their hands and made obvious their surrender.
Those with weapons discarded them immediately.
Ajith was in the middle of all this, stunned to silence. Inspector Kimani, satisfied with how things proceeded, stepped aside and gestured for the Lieutenant in charge to surrender himself as well. “Lt. Hako, you’re under arrest for complicity in the misappropriation of funds, aiding and abetting the exploitation of workers, and misuse of military materiel. I would not resist if I were you. Madiha never misses a shot if she has time enough to aim.”
“Perhaps you could testify about all these things Gowon’s family has.” Nakar added.
Lt. Hako extended his arms. Kimani handcuffed him, and the situation was thankfully diffused without bloodshed. Ajith sighed and felt faint with anxiety.
Immediately, orders were given to gather up everybody and begin dismantling the operation. All of the soldiers looked scared and ashamed of what was happening.
Ajith wondered if on some level they knew that they were used for somebody’s benefit, and that taking part in the military, they simply went along with it and followed orders. Or if perhaps all of them were benefiting directly, with hidden perks for those who took special part in these projects. He wondered what compelled these people to try to do this.
There was a lot Ajith didn’t know, and he didn’t really desire to think about it. His experience was with mines. He waited outside the cave until Kimani bid farewell to him, and ordered the Half-Track be used to drive him back to Bada Aso. This would be the last he personally saw of Captain Nakar and Inspector Kimani, but not the last he would hear of the friction and conspiracy between the Councils. Soon, it would be public knowledge.