The next morning, one thought stuck with me from my nightmares, the night before: Lyman hadn’t been the only one down there, ghostly, ghastly, grinning under the waves. There’d been other faces, faces of other men I’d come to know during my contract here, men who finished before me and headed home to their families.
Had they all made it home safe? Or were they in somebody’s stomach, just like most of poor Lyman?
I did my best to make my inquiries discreetly. I knew who some of those former guys had been friends with, who they’d been most likely to contact after they got back home. I dropped by those guys, reminisced about old times, tried to figure out if they’d heard anything from their buddies since their departures.
I got a mix of answers. Some yesses, some nos. In the end, I sat down at lunch, thought about the responses I’d gathered, and decided that it was all crap. Sure, maybe one guy never sent back that email response that he promised for his buddies, but what did that really mean? Maybe he was just busy, distracted, wanted to leave his time in the mine behind him. I understood that urge. We weren’t high society, and the big payouts for taking on a job as dangerous as ours would put those guys that finished out their contracts in a whole different tax bracket from us.
I was so distracted by this shitty data I’d gathered, so lost in thought, that I missed the initial announcement. I sat up at the sound of renewed chatter, looked around at the excited faces all around me. “What?” I asked, feeling like I’d just missed something important.
“Dude, weren’t you listening?” Gonzales asked, his eyebrows raised in astonishment. “Corporate is coming!” he echoed. “They’re sending a representative here!”
The blood in my veins turned to solid ice. “What? Why?”
He shrugged. “No idea. Probably to check up on us grunts, make sure we’re still hauling the ore out like they want. You know, we’re doing what they’re paying us the oversized salaries to be doing.”
I nodded, even as my thoughts turned to Charlie’s recent probing of the logs. Had Corporate noticed that? Were they suspicious, thinking that someone had worked out that they were telling some sort of lie?
This was hopeless. I knew that there was a lie happening, but I didn’t know exactly what the lie was, or how big it was, or how deep it went. All I could do right now was go with the flow, try to blend in, and hope that the Company had even less information on what was happening than I did.
We all heard when the Company representative arrived. Two of them, in fact, stepping off the skyplane that dropped down out of the sky into the middle of the compound. It was technically during the middle of the work day, but we all still made excuses to take a break, step out of the mines, get up from our equipment and stretch our limbs. Probably half the entire compound’s population was standing conspicuously in the main courtyard when the skyplane touched down.
Two Company representatives emerged. No trouble picking them out. The man looked older, probably in his fifties, with iron gray hair and a hatchet nose that could probably split the mine rocks all on its own. His companion was a young woman, reddish-brown hair whipping around her in the breeze generated by the skyplane’s engines as they cooled down. Shorter than her male companion, she held a slim briefcase to her chest, looking around with some trepidation at the rather harsh surroundings.
What did you expect, lady? We’re in the middle of a hostile alien jungle. No classy hotels around here. What you see is all we got.
The older man ignored all of us gawkers. He’d handled this before, I saw. He strode immediately towards the main building, probably planning on talking with the supervisor. The woman seemed to hesitate, but the man called out to her – “Laura!” he shouted – and she followed after him.
Now, that might sound uneventful to you, but you haven’t been trapped in a jungle compound for a few years with nothing to stare at but Horst’s hairy-ass back. A few of the guys hooted after the woman, Laura, waving their arms like damn deranged monkeys, as if this would accomplish something for them.
One of the hooting guys stood a little too close to Horst. The big blonde man reached over and, without changing expression, cuffed the hooter in the back of the head hard enough to knock him to the ground. “Knock it off,” he growled.
The offender hopped up to his feet, spinning around angrily, but his angry words died in his mouth as he looked up at Horst. “Sorry,” he muttered, stalking away before he got himself in any more trouble.
“What do you think they’re here for?” Gonzales asked, always one to toe the line of too much information.
“Probably something routine,” Charlie answered, not sounding confident in his answer.
Gonzales shot a look over at him. “Routine? How often do Company execs pay us grunts a visit in flea central?”
“Well, never. But maybe something came up, or we just haven’t been here long enough.”
Gonzales sniffed, dismissing this weak counter. “They’re digging into something,” he predicted darkly. “Mark my words. Someone’s been fucking around with something that they shouldn’t’ve touched, that’s what this is.”
I hoped that no one saw my fidgeting. I felt the weight of the ring from Lyman still in my pocket. My bunk in the barracks didn’t exactly afford me much in the way of hiding places, so I’d decided to keep it on my person. It now seemed to pull me down, as if my guilt and fear condensed to make it heavier.
I did have one other option. I’d been putting it off, hoping to come up with an alternative. It involved telling someone else what I’d seen, what I had found. I knew that this would carry some risk, that I’d be putting my secret in far more jeopardy than if I just swallowed it all, threw the damn ring away into the forest, and pretended that none of this ever happened.
But I’m an idiot, and I don’t make good decisions.
So as the assembled crowd started to move away from the compound’s main courtyard, I stepped away from Gonzales, Horst, Charlie, and the others that I normally hung out with. Instead, I approached an older fellow on the far side of the expanse, a man who moved slower, needing to rely on a cane to help himself along.
“Hey, Garrick,” I called out to him as I drew alongside. “Need a hand with anything?”
Garrick turned and fixed me with a bloodshot eye. Something in his manner always reminded me of an old crow, canny and smart, but always caught up in looking for the short term profit. Not that anything about him was short term, mind you. He’d been here at the mining compound for years, far longer than anyone else. Rumor had it that he started off in the mines, but got hurt on the job. Company tried to buy him out, but he didn’t want to leave; he said that he didn’t know anything else, didn’t want to go out in the real world. So in a rare act of mercy, the Company instead gave him a supervisor position, running one of the big machines. They never bothered to increase his rank, however, so he still fraternized with us grunts, instead of with the other officers.
For obvious reasons, everyone called him “Gramps.”