< 3 >

He entered the main building and headed toward the elevator in the rear right corner. Sump's assignment for the past few weeks was to repair a support beam in one of the southern tunnels, the deepest section of the mine. The tunnel had gone unused since the beam had given way that July, taking two men with it. Sump was making progress with the task. A group of miners had already cleared away the dirt and rock that resulted from the cave-in, and all that was left was to replace the beam. It was a one-man job, and so he did the work alone except for the company of a small yellow canary in an old cage.. It was customary, especially if you were working by yourself, to have a canary near by. The birds could be lifesavers; if you dug into a vein of dangerous gas and didn't realize it, the canary would let you know, giving its life as a warning to others. According to some of the miners, the birds died quietly, leaving only a small puddle of blood at the bottom of the cage. The gas got inside their tiny bodies, ate away at their organs. It must be a terrible way to go, Sump thought. In a few rare incidents, the birds didn't perish right away. As a result, the gas invaded the senses of miners, quietly tugging at their reality, or in extreme cases, driving them into maddening hallucinations. If you heard the faint echo of a man conversing with himself, all alone in the dark recesses of the ore tunnels, the canary had failed and gas was seeping through the walls.

He stepped into the elevator with a group of about seven other miners. The chainlink door was pulled closed and all at once they were enclosed in an iron cube, eight feet by eight feet. There was nowhere to go but down. One of the men pushed a large round green button and the iron chamber began to shake, roaring and screeching as the engine fired up. Sump looked above him at the rusted metal pulley as it slowly started turning. The elevator hopped, then began its slow descent down the shaft. The noise of the engine faded as they dropped farther into the earth, like standing underneath a bridge as a locomotive barreled overhead and finally passed.

< 4 >

Sump stood at the back of the elevator, leaning against the railing and chainlink wall that separated the men from the layers of bedrock and shale. It got cooler as you went down, deeper into the ground and out of the sun's reach. To his right, a boy shivered slightly. His face was pale and smooth, not like the hard faces that surrounded it. He had to be about seventeen or eighteen, maybe even younger. He was probably from a poor family, maybe had a single parent, and was forced to go to work in order to keep the bill collectors at bay. Sump looked at the boy's helmet. It was clean, not dented, sparkling as the light from overhead dwindled. The lantern that was fixed to the front still had a fresh covering of smooth glass. His boots were clean, no sign of soot or caked mud. Sump looked down at his own boots, soiled and scuffed around the toes.

"You new?" he said as the boy shivered again.

The other miners remained motionless. Some glanced over at the boy and one leaned in and spit a wet clump of chewing tobacco through the elevator's chainlink wall. The boy moved his head slightly, but didn't respond.

"Hey," Sump said, "didn't you hear me?" The elevator shook violently for a moment, creaking and grating against a narrow segment in the shaft. The chamber slowed, scraped past, and then regained its pace.

"I said, didn't you hear me?"

The boy turned and looked up at Sump, nervously opening and closing his fist around the handle of his pickax.

"Yeah," he said, "I heard you. Sorry."

"That's alright," said Sump, looking up to the light at the top of the elevator shaft. It got smaller and smaller, more distant. The long cables twinged with the weight of the men and the iron cube. "You new?"

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