The Malcontent (Prologue, Working Title)

Johan’s entire world was a cavernous yet somehow claustrophobic pocket of earth, the air damp and heavy and hellish with the competing sounds of men and machinery. A pair of pneumatic steam drills whuffed and chuffed thunderously as their massive bits bore deeper into the bedrock before them, ever in search of yet another massive deposit. The men manning them worked in tandem, doing their level best to regulate the steam flow to their devices so that each fired opposite of the other in perfect sync. The result was a nonstop, uninterrupted pneumatic assault that would surely break the bedrock and reveal a fresh trove of brillium just waiting to be harvested. The crews nearly had them singing in harmony now, it sounded like.

Still, Johan Vessir was concerned. His crew was already approaching the record for the deepest dig in the duchy’s history without discovering any new veins of its most prized export, and still they were told to dig deeper. Always deeper. Something had to give eventually, he felt, but his superiors up top disagreed. The surveys said the ground was solid and sound, more than capable of supporting the cavernous passage they were carving through it in search of their elusive prize.

At his side was Devaux Cobal, a reedy young man roughly half his age who was co-foreman strictly by virtue of his father-in-law’s position within the consortium funding this operation. Each wore heavy padded boots, dungaree coveralls over canvas work shirts, earmuffs against the hellacious cacophony, and protective goggles made from leather and specially glazed glass lenses that were resistant to fogging. Johan also carried a number of useful accessories, among them — but not limited to — a handkerchief, work gloves for handling hot machinery, his trusty multitool, and the like. He had no idea, or interest in, whatever Devaux might have outfitted himself with.

Sparing a glance from the drills, Johan noticed that Devaux was yammering away about something or other. The idiot always seemed to forget that you had to use sign language this deep down and so close to the machinery; between the muffs and the deafening output of the drills, there was no way to communicate verbally under such an onslaught.

Johan gave his earmuffs a tap, and Devaux frowned.

Sorry, he signed. Still getting used to all of this.

You could be doing worse, Johan signed back, being charitable in his assessment. What were you saying?

I was just wondering if you and your wife would like to attend my father-in-law’s end-of-season gala? It’s usually quite the affair, and it would be a good chance for me to sing your praises as foreman.

Well, wasn’t that quite the surprise? Maybe Johan had misread Devaux, after all. The gala he was referring to was one of the largest and most exclusive annual events on the duchy’s social calendar, one well known to all her citizens including Johan, though he had never imagined that he and the missus would be invited to attend. He may have been one of the consortium’s most experienced foremen, but that did little to enhance his social standing. 

I appreciate the offer, but I’ve never been to a gala before. My wife, either. I’m sure we would stick out and be quite the distraction.

Nonsense, Devaux signed, still just a bit clumsily. And besides, you’re helping me get acclimated down here; let me repay the favor and do the same for you with the consortium.

If only his co-foreman knew what Johan had been thinking of him moments earlier. He smiled slightly, which Devaux mistook for a show of collegial friendship.

Johan was about to sign his acceptance when all at once one of the drills started to grind and grate, apparently hitting a part of the mantel even it couldn’t penetrate.

He rushed forward without hesitation, waving his arms to signal a full stop, but the lads  manning the drill either didn’t see him or were determined to etch their names into duchy history by striking the motherlode. They continued to push the drill, apparently thinking there was a flaw in the rock face to be exploited. Even from a distance, though, Johan’s experienced eyes could see that it was impenetrable, at least without further priming. That meant extensive seismic mapping followed by timed and controlled detonations, likely several of them.

The first drill had already begun to overheat. When it detonated, it was anything but controlled. The force and ferocity of the blast was more than enough to take the second drill with it, creating a daisy chain of armageddon-like destruction.

A super-heated, steam-fueled eruption followed and flash-cooked Johan, Devaux (whose every instinct had advised him in the strongest possible terms to high-tail it away from the drills, not toward them), and every other man present. Moments later their bodies were entombed under tons upon tons of earth and debris, where forever they would remain.

The only ones to escape more or less unscathed were a few lucky souls who had just taken a staggered lunch break; they had barely emerged from within the mine’s snaking tunnels when the first booms could be heard reverberating deep inside. They knew to run, and even with several seconds to get as far as they could, most were enveloped in the belching cloud of noxious fumes and stinging, ember-stoked smoke that erupted from the mine’s entrance after it collapsed in upon itself.

The citizens of the Duchy of Nictas didn’t hear the collapse of the Keyhole Mine so much as feel it, and when the tremors rolling down from the mountains to the north shook the ground beneath their feet and the buildings around them, they knew with a common certainty which direction to look. And when they did, they would see a cloud of hundreds of blackbirds taking flight and blotting out the sky.

A most foreboding omen, indeed.