The cold wind cut through to the very core of the men as they walked to the entrance of the mine. It was dark, well before dawn, in the dead time of the night. The cold was complete, a January cold, dry, harsh and sharp. Soon they would be down in the dark and warmth of the mine. Deitrich, the shift foreman, still smiled at the incongruity of the whole thing. They were going into a mine that had been started over three hundred years in the future, and abandoned because it wasn't profitable enough. Abandoned with a large amount of the equipment in place. The power, phones, ventilation equipment, even some of the low electric carts were still there. It was almost as if they were placed there for the men to pick up and start the operation again. Of course, many things were missing, or so the up-timers said. But there was much that they could use. So they did.
The mine was a dangerous place, but Deitrich always felt safe there. Even after the up-timer training about the dangers, it seemed a much safer place than the front of a tercio. There he could take a musket ball or a pike at almost any time, and it was far beyond his control. "No," he often said, "the mine is a much safer place." There he had some control over what happened. There were procedures for safety and rescue techniques, and equipment that was designed to provide them with the ability to survive in the worst of conditions. He spent ten days in a special mine safety school before he was even allowed to be on the job site. Deitrich often said that his job under the ground was a warm and safe place to be. It was secure. Snug somehow. That confidence, many said, had made him a natural foreman in the mine. Some said that he was too confident.
Twenty-eight men went down in the mine that late January night.
As part of their training, the new miners had visited a local park and the "Memorial." The memorial was an imposing black granite pillar, twenty feet high, and was inscribed with the names of seventy-eight men who had died in the "Consolidated Coal Number Nine Mine Disaster." The incident had happened back up-time. The trainees were brought to the natural glen that nestled in a small valley, a short distance out of town. There were many carefully planted trees in a small meadow that was now groomed by a flock of sheep. The monument itself was imposing, almost frightening from some angles. From others, it was gentle, stepping back in two places as it reached for the sky. It was most gentle at the top, where there was a cross carved into the face, in a style that looked strange to most down-timer eyes. The clean outlines and the perfectly formed hole in the center of the cross drew their eyes skyward to the top of the monument, away from the seventy-eight names carved into the face. The hole represented loss, a black hole, aching to be filled by those no longer there. Along with the names carved into the front face, there were words calling the ground beneath their feet a cemetery. It was considered hallowed ground.
The miner who trained them spoke of unity and brotherhood. He sounded like a priest as far as Deitrich was concerned. They were told that many famous up-time leaders had been to this place to pay homage, and that it was still used even today as a memorial by families who had lost a father or a grandfather in the explosion. The down-timers brought there became hushed, picking up on the somber mood of their usually jovial up-time partners. This was a holy place for the up-timers, and the rare display of public and universal piety surprised many of the old-hand down-timers. It had struck Deitrich as an unusual mood for the up-timers, especially in public.
It was shift change at the mine, and Deitrich met briefly with his counterpart, the afternoon shift foreman, Johan Gruber. The previous shift had noticed slightly elevated levels of methane near the working face. It was well below the danger level but Johann had duly noted it on his safety report. This wasn't unusual. The Ring of Fire had lifted a three-mile sphere of twentieth-century West Virginia back in time, and its active geology of coal and gas along with it. Methane is common, and there were clear procedures for dealing with it. As well, on a night when the weather was cold and the atmospheric pressure was low, methane tended to outgas at a higher rate.
"Not something to worry about," thought Deitrich. "We have training to deal with an increase in elevated methane. Simply clear the area and wait for the ventilation system to do its job."
The ventilation system was a giant fan. Deitrich had seen it as part of his training. An up-timer and several down-timers were assigned to keep it running day and night. Without the fan operating, the methane would seep out of the surrounding coal and rock and could build up to dangerous levels and cause an explosion. The fan drew fresh air into the mine through the same shaft where the lift moved men and equipment in and out. It was expelled at another shaft, where the coal was hoisted out. The fan was driven by an electric motor that was five hundred horsepower. Deitrich had seen five hundred live horses at once before. When the fan was turned on, he believed that every one of them had been somehow harnessed in the large metal housing. That fan pulled air through the mine with a tremendous amount of volume and pressure, turning the passageways into large pathways for the air. Concrete block barriers were installed through the mine to guide the air to the areas where men were working and along escape routes. Behind the barriers didn't matter, since nobody was working there. As long as those barriers were in good condition and the fan kept running, the methane wasn't something to seriously worry about.
This mine had started as a "room and pillar" mine, Deitrich recalled. That style of mining was practiced back up-time, with up-time technology. Over the past two years the up-time equipment had begun to fail, and old techniques had to be rediscovered. Instead of a conveyer belt, they now used mining carts pulled by mules. Instead of the roof bolts that had supported the up-time mine roof, they now used timber for support, and carpenters and timber men to put in the supports. It was a hybrid operation, but always it was tested so that it would be safe, always safe.
As Deitrich was turning away, Johann called to him. "One more thing, Deitrich. Do you know where your crew is working tonight?"
Deitrich looked at Johann and shrugged. "Of course I do. I inspected it yesterday."
Johann smiled. "You are near the old mine, the one with the monument we visited. Some of the bodies of the men are still in it. Also, it's near the Ring of Fire border. This will be the last shift working in that section. We don't want to get too close to either of those things. The seams and roof are unstable, the engineer tells us, and the old mine may be flooded."
Deitrich shrugged again. "How close are we supposed to be to the other mine? Wasn't that mine massive and went on for miles?"
Johann counted off the hazards on his fingers. "Yeah. Watch out for methane, unstable ribs and roof, and be on the lookout for ghosts under the ground. There were bodies left in that mine up-time, don't forget. They just sealed it up." He was holding up three fingers.
Deitrich also held up three fingers. "I always watch the roof and the ribs—" He dropped one finger, leaving two. "I always watch for methane—" He dropped the second finger, leaving the middle one extended to Johann. "And that's what I think of your ghosts!" Both men grinned, and moved away with a wave, one going home, and the other to work underground.
Their up-time hard hats were now fitted with the old-time carbide acetylene flame lamps. The warm light shone off of the black walls. They were in the Pittsburgh seam, a ten-foot thick layer of coal. That seam had been mined back up-time for a hundred years, and the up-timers had developed amazing ways of bringing it out of the ground, in quantities that were astounding to Deitrich. With the mining machines, conveyors, and the automated processes, the up-time miners could move more coal in a day than Deitrich and his crews could move in a week.
As he walked, Deitrich kept scanning the ceiling, what the miners called the "roof," and the walls, which they called the "ribs." In the older, up-time part of the mine, he didn't worry about the ceiling coming down. They used technology to drive long bolts into the rock to hold it together above their heads. The bolts worked well. When he got to the part of the mine that had been worked since 1631, he always paid more attention. There the roof and, occasionally, the ribs were supported by wood beams and planks, the same way a down-time mine would be, with wooden beams and supports overhead. It had worked for them well in the last couple of years, and they had only lost three men to falls of the roof.
He was always listening to the mine. Deitrich joked that he could almost hear her talking to him. As their mining activity expanded, they eventually reached the edge of the Ring of Fire. The closer to the edge of the ring, the more unstable the rock became. They could hear the rock above them "working" more and more the closer to the border they mined.
The men soon reached the point where they were to part for their different tasks.
"Ernst. Take your crew to the end wall at the far east end. Pay attention to your methane monitor. Get the machinery up and running. I'll be back to check on you when I'm done with these guys. You know where you are going?"
"Ya. West face, cuts twenty-two and twenty-three. Build stopping, remove tracks, secure equipment, get ready to stop operations. Close to Ring Wall. Test for the methane and make sure the ventilation is good. Okay." Ernst nodded and smiled. He was nearly fifty, one of the oldest men on the crew, but strong and steady. He had been one of Deitrich's men when they were with Wallenstein back in '31. He knew Ernst, and knew that he understood.
"The rest of you guys are with me. Ernst, give me your carpenters, you won't need 'em for a while."
"Okay, Deitrich. See you later."
The men began to move to their assigned areas. By the time they started to work, they would be more than a mile apart. Deitrich's crew was mostly apprentices. Young electricians, carpenters, general maintenance men,and miners who still wore the red hard hat that signified that they had been in the mine for less than six months. They began their short hike to the east side of the mine. The west side of the mine, where Ernst and his crew would be working, had initially been mined before it was abandoned back up-time. The east side had not been developed as much. As mining activity ended at the edge of the Ring of Fire, they were stopping mining in that direction, and turning the mine around to the east. Deitrich and his crew were going to begin preliminary work to prepare the area: pull power lines, prepare the floors to accept the relocated rail lines, and general preparation and safety inspections. Good work for the apprentices to learn, and he could check nearly everything they did before it would be put into critical service. Ernst and his crew were shutting down the mining operation at the west end, and preparing to relocate the operations to the east side. There would be no actual mining this shift, only maintenance and prepratory work.
As Dietrich and his crew headed to the east side of the mine, they passed a large device with cables coming in and out of it in the mine passage.
"Hey, Zing!" One of the red hats with the carbide lamp turned to him. Zing was a little guy, only on his second trip out of the classroom and into the mine. His real name was Zingerle, but the up-time instructor had called him Zing. His nickname also reflected his attitude, as he occasionally overcompensated for his small height with excess bravado. Deitrich knew this. Knew that it could be good to be brave, but bad to be foolhardy. "What is in that big box with the wires? You electricians keep quiet; he should know the answer."
Zing nodded. "That's easy. It's a suction breaker." Several men laughed, most of them electricians. "What? That's what it is," he said defiantly, turning to his fellow classmates. "It's a switch for the high voltage electricity that's used on the machines and battery chargers. It's called a suction breaker. It needs that because the high voltage can jump, so it uses suction to open and close."
The group laughed, but abruptly stopped when Deitrich asked the next question. Deitrich's tone wasn't conducive to humor.
"Metzinger. What is that thing? Zing is close, but not right"
The apprentice electrician smiled. "It's a vacuum breaker. Almost everything he said is sort of right. Sort of. But it does disconnect power inby from here. Normally in an up-time mine there are more of them, but we have what we have."
Deitrich aimed the light from his carbide cap light on to Metzinger's lean face. "Good. But you're an electrician, you should know." He raised his voice to make his point. "What Metzinger does with that box is life or death for our little Zing." He shone his light on Zing. "Isn't that right, Zing?" Deitrich asked the question in the voice that he had used as a soldier. It was a voice than held men in place in the face of a musket volley or a pike charge. Unlike most, Zing straightened instead of cowered and answered in a brave, if somewhat tense, voice.
Deitrich glowered. "What is inby?" Several cap lights now illuminated Zing's face, as more heads turned to watch the exchange. There were a few suppressed snickers. Deitrich's eyes hardened.
"We learned that our first day . . . ummm . . . inby is toward the working face—where the actual mining is done."
"Just the opposite."
"So if we're walking toward our new work area, are we inby or outby?"
Zing took a deep breath. More cap lights turned his way. "We're outby." The answer didn't come with a high degree of certainly. He then brightened. "But we're walking inby, toward the east work face."
The cap lights went to Deitrich. He smiled. "Good answer, Zing. Now what is that thing?" He pointed down a passageway that intersected their path at a right angle. Cap lights illuminated it as the passing group glanced down the intersecting passageway. They saw what looked like a concrete block wall.
Zing looked at him in shock.
Deitrich growled. "This keeps you alive too. You should know what it is. Everyone halt!" The knot of men stopped cold with the command. Deitrich walked down the short passageway. "This passage is called a . . . " he looked to Zing to finish the statement.
"Umm. It's a concrete block wall that seals off the passageway?"
"No and no! I asked you what the passageway is called."
"Uhhh. I think it's a crosscut. Sir." The sir was added after the fact, with a measurable degree of hope.
"You think?" Deitrich's voice boomed and echoed off into the darkness. "You can't 'think' down here. You've got to know, Zing. Know! Our lives—my life—yours, all of us—depend on one another down here. We cannot have you taking the time to think. Do you know what you are, Zing? You are an unconscious incompetent!" His booming voice went off into the darkness, as confusion over the up-timer phrase bubbled through the little group.
The bellowing continued after a brief pause. "First word. Unconscious. Asleep, unknowing, unaware. Next word. Incompetent. Don't know what you're doing, not adept, inexperienced. In other words, gentlemen, you are all so wet behind the ears that you don't even know enough to ask the right questions to keep from getting killed. What is that wall called, Zing?"
Deitrich watched as Zing clenched his jaw, straightened to his full diminutive height, and looked him in the eye. "That's a seal, sometimes called a 'stopping,' sir. It secures the area against flowing or escaping gas. It's there as a barrier to isolate working parts of the mine from non-working parts of the mine. It also guides the ventilation."
Deitrich suppressed a smile. Zing was doing well. "And if it's made of wood and cloth, and it's temporary, what is it called?"
Zing stood up a little straighter, if that were possible. "A brattice, sir!"
Deitrich looked up at the group, satisfied. He felt a little bit bad about picking on Zing. Zing always reminded him of a terrier with his quick movements, and the way he was small and seemingly fearless. Deitrich had never liked terriers. "By the end of this month, I want to elevate all of you conscious incompetents. I want you all to wake up and know you don't know anything, and that almost anything down here could kill you. I want you all to know when you are being safe and to recognize when you are not, before it kills you. Or me, God forbid. If you kill me, I'll come back to haunt you for the rest of your life, so be extra careful. Learn your procedures, learn your safety gear, and take care of your fellow miners. Take care of this mine, and she will take care of you." As he finished, his voice once again echoed off into the surrounding darkness.
"Let's go to work." Deitrich began walking, and the rest followed him, subdued.
Peter was very tired. He was driving one of the old Grantville public works dump trucks, full of sand that had been hand-shoveled out of a dried up bend of the river. It had been two days of backbreaking, cold, hard labor. Much of the sand in the old riverbed was frozen, and breaking it loose with shovels and picks was difficult. He would arrive at the Grantville public works department soon, park the truck, and head home to bed. The sand would be used on the steep roads around Grantville to maintain traction. He was going to make sure next year that they had enough sand so they wouldn't have to dig it in the winter. It was much easier to remove from the riverbank when it wasn't frozen.
Stuffed into the cab with him were the three men who had helped him with the task. They were asleep, but crammed into the cab of the truck this way, they were at least warm. He looked at the dark road ahead of him through the dusty headlights. He knew that the road conditions could change fast, so he tried to drive no faster than his headlights could see ahead. The frozen dirt roads had been easy and not slippery, but the blacktop roads could be treacherous in icy conditions.
Peter had struggled to stay awake most of the way back to town, but now, near the turnoff for the mine, he began to relax. He shifted in his seat, and stretched to relieve the cramps in his back and shoulder. The downhill road was in good shape, with only spots of snow and ice left in the shaded areas where the afternoon sun didn't reach.
As he was stretching, the truck hit a small patch of ice. It caught him unaware, and because he was tired, cramped, and half asleep, he overcompensated when the truck started sliding. The result was that the back end of the truck caught the ice and then lurched toward the shoulder. The whole thing happened in slow motion.
As he violently jerked the wheel back to counter the developing skid, a joint in the steering assembly broke, causing the left side wheel to part from the steering gear. The massive wheel now moved in whatever direction it wanted, and it was generally not in the direction that Peter wanted it to go.
He saw a slope off to the side of the road that led to the river below. All he could see with the headlights was the blackness of the drop-off. He jammed on the brakes and the truck lurched off the side of the road, halted for a brief moment, its nose down the slope and the back wheels still on the shoulder. It then began to slide down the icy slope.
He kept trying to make it go nose first, but there was no real control. He realized he was now only a passenger, with nothing to do but wait until it was over. He yelled at his co-workers to hang on. He was afraid that the truck might roll over, but it stayed upright, going straight down the embankment. The slope wasn't steep and the transition to the frozen creek wasn't as severe as it could have been.
The truck gained speed and hit the bottom of the ditch nose first. The front bounced up, and then slammed down and through the ice in the shallow creek bottom. There was enough momentum still left to carry the truck out the far side of the creek bed and bounce up the other side. The truck began to slow in what appeared to be someone's side yard. Peter had a brief thought that they were going to make it without any major damage when he spotted the power pole dead ahead.
Ernst wasn't happy. "Willie. Get your head out of your ass." He liked many of the up-timer sayings, and that one was his favorite. It wasn't quite as crisp in German as it was in English, but Willie got the idea. Willie was twenty, and the newest member of the crew, having only just recently finished his safety training. He, too, was wearing the red hat of a new miner. He was daydreaming, gazing into the darkness. His coworkers smiled. Willie was newly married, and his wife kept him up very late. It was unusual for down-timers to get married so young, and Ernst didn't approve of this break with custom. He blamed it on the bad influence of the up-timers.
"Willie. Do you hear me?" Remove your head from your ass. Pay attention."
Finally Willie looked at Ernst and blinked. Ernst was standing on top of one of the battery-powered carts, which had a coal scoop on the front. When the coal was blasted away from the mine face, the cart acted as a small bulldozer, quickly scooping the coal into the waiting cars, which would be pulled to the exit by mules. It was the typical incongruity of the new and the old, the familiar and the unfamiliar, that his men had become accustomed to.
Ernst was finishing his start-of-shift methane reading. It was less than one half of one percent, well within safety limits. He eased himself off of the heavy battery compartment to the ground. Since methane was lighter than air, he tested it at the roof of the tunnel, where he could smell the fresh cut pine boards that formed parts of the roof of the mine.
"Time to get to work, gentlemen. Let's go. Willie, get the pneumatic hammer drills and the twenty-foot bits, and start to load everything into the coal cars. Next shift will haul it out.
"Schmidt and Fredric, pick up the undercutting equipment on the other face." Those two men grabbed the heavy pneumatic jackhammer that was mounted on a cart horizontally, right at the floor. Normally, they would cut along the floor into the face as far as the highly-modified tool would reach. When they blasted the coal out of the face, the undercut would make it easier to control the blast and to recover the broken coal. But tonight they were disassembling it and all of the support equipment that went with the tool, such as the pneumatic lines, braces, and wedges.
"Hans. You are the loader driver tonight; you passed your certification. Back it outby and put it in the next crosscut. I want it out of the way." He turned to the rest of the men. "When that machine finally breaks down, we go back to shoveling coal into the carts by hand, so we're all very careful of it, aren't we, gentlemen?" He smiled, and the rest of the crew responded with a friendly and half-satirical, "Yes, Herr Ernst."
"Very good. Now get to work" The work area erupted with activity. Hans backed the noisy battery-powered hydraulic loader away from the coal face. The noise of the loader could be deafening and only hand motions and signals with their headlamps could be used. They could communicate basic signals by facing their partner and nodding their head in such a way that the light formed a pattern. Ernst found himself once answering a man in the Gardens by using these headlamp signals. It was so natural that the other man immediately understood.
Ernst watched Hans closely and walked with him as he backed the loader down the tunnel. At the crosscut, Hans backed the loader around the corner. He did it rather fast, and looked to be accelerating instead of slowing down.. There was silence for a moment as the loader was put into an emergency shut down, but not soon enough. Ernst could hear the heavy impact of splintering wood as the loader began hitting something.
"Scheiss," is what Ernst heard from Hans.
Peter's truck hit the wooden power transmission pole squarely in the center of the hulking front bumper. The truck pushed the pole to the ground as if it were a sapling, and drove the top of it into the ground with a hammer blow. Darkness turned abruptly and prematurely to day as the wires hit the ground and the transformer mounted on the pole exploded. The truck continued to slide toward the transformer and its associated fireworks until it finally eased to a halt. It stopped just inches from the transformer. Peter re-fired the truck engine and put it into reverse to back away from the transformer fire. He stopped when there was no more traction; the back wheels now deep in the frozen creek bed.
Peter's three passengers were awake now. Wide-awake. They shielded their eyes from the bright blue light of the burning transformer and saw the sparks from the downed power lines. They all sat transfixed by the display. Peter saw that the transformer and the top of the pole had landed on a piping assembly that he knew to be a natural gas wellhead. This one appeared to have been abandoned, as there wasn't anything connected to it on the surface. Once they began to understand they were uninjured, they began to smile at each other, and then laugh the giddy laugh of surviving a close call.
One of the men opened the passenger door and started to step out. Peter shouted to stay in the truck, but it was too late, and the down-time laborer jumped out and onto the ground. Peter thought for sure the man would be killed with that much voltage flowing around them in the snow and ice. But he soon realized that the wellhead was acting as a grounding rod, pulling all of the high voltage current away from them. They were safe.
Ernst frowned. The small amount of electric lighting they had in the work area had gone out. "Double Scheiss," he thought. At least the air compressor, service power, and the large fan ran off of the emergency generator, so they could continue working for a couple of hours when the generator came on.
It grew very quiet.
Ernst wasn't pleased. it was a matter of honor that Ernst's shift was the most productive, and this wasn't shaping up to be a very productive day. He adjusted his carbide light up higher, and strode toward the crosscut where the loader had disappeared.
Stacks Shackelton had bad knees, the kind that hurt just because the weather changed. The kind of knees that had more than one large scar from surgery, and he was always pulling up his pant leg to show them off. Those knees were really hurting tonight. He sat in the control room topside, monitoring the large fan that supplied fresh air to the mine, watching the lift, and manning the emergency phone. His feet were up on the desk, and he was beginning to get comfortable, when the lights went out.
"Awwwww, crap." He grabbed his radio and stood up, then winced as his knees straightened out. Dawn was beginning to break over the hills. "Hey, Fred and Fred. You copy?"
The radio popped and crackled in his hand for a moment, and he listened to the unusual quiet around him. Without the noise of machinery and the hum of the transformers it was eerily quiet. He chewed on his lip as he waited for the response. Fred and Fred—or, more properly, Fredric and Fredric—were the day shift maintenance electricians. Their job was to pull the manual switches that allowed them to start the massive backup generator and feed power to critical systems. It was something that would happen automatically back up-time, with lots of complex equipment kicking in during a power failure. But they didn't have the complex equipment. They had Fred and Fred.
The radio came alive. "We're on it, Stacks. Gen should start in a minute. Are you ready to accept load?"
While Fred—or was it Fred?—was talking, Stacks began throwing switches in the control room to shut down non-critical equipment and lessen the load on the generator. They were not totally comfortable with the mine operating this way, so the procedure was usually to contact the power plant and see how long they thought they might be down. Usually he got a call if there was a trip at the main plant, so Stacks figured that it might be a downed line. He would call when the generator started, and then call for more maintenance help to start the mine back up when the power came back on.
Stacks smiled. "All set there, Freddy, my boy. You can hit the go button whenever you want to, over"
"We're starting the generator now, hope it starts in this cold. Damn, it's cold out here. Are you warm in your chair, Stacks, you lazy up-timer?"
"Don't you two boys worry 'bout me none. I'm nice and warm in here. You get the generator goin' and you can cuddle up to the big ol' exhaust and warm up just fine." Stacks looked over at the Franklin stove that kept him relatively comfortable and rubbed his left knee. It was really acting up today.