Snakes and Pills

044 - shin

They had been running hard for hours. Langford tried to rub the grime off of his face, but it didn't do much. His sweat had mixed with the black dirt and dust in the air and covered his face with a layer of dark gray muck that was nearly impossible to remove, even when he was back at camp at night. Under the hot, powerful blast of the shower nozzle, it still took upwards of thirty minutes to remove a majority if it. But now, in the shaft, there was no way the sleeve of his shirt was doing much good.

He did it anyway, though. Making an attempt to get it off, even if ultimately futile, was better than just letting it accumulate undisturbed. The others on his team looked about the same as him, and in this poorly-illuminated hole, there was very little to distinguish the men from each other. Indeed, to an outsider, there was very little that might distinguish Langford and the other miners from the walls themselves. Their yellow safety helmets, each with an illuminated head torch strapped on, were the only things giving their identities away.

The sound of the drill's labor, on the other hand, gave itself away quite conspicuously as it rang out along the walls of the shaft, although none of the men seemed to notice it anymore. They had grown accustomed to it, or more precisely, they had gone deaf from it, and it no longer seemed like such a nuisance. The bit dug lovingly into the rocks, throwing debris every which way, and driving the men ever deeper into their pit.

Lyle operated the drill itself. He managed its speed, and carefully watched for any problems that might harm the machinery or the men. Langford's job was what the crew affectionately called "the overseer," he guided the path of Lyle and the drill, and generally made sure all of the other men were doing their duties.

Those duties, for the other men, consisted mainly of clearing the path of debris left behind the drill and properly preparing it for extraction to the surface. It was mundane, but it was vital.

Generally speaking, Langford's men were pretty good and he didn't have to micromanage them much. This freed him up to focus most of his attention on navigating the drill, which was good, because navigating this deep under the surface was no easy task. He had a very rudimentary map, a compass, and a stopwatch.

Every minute or so, Lyle would call out their approximate speed to Langford. Langford would quickly do the math and compare it to his compass and his map, and then shout back course corrections, if any, to Lyle. Lyle would then adjust the treads that the drill rolled on, and in this manner they continued on for hours at a time.

Still, it was an extremely imprecise system, and so Langford never truly knew where they were on the map. They started off the day without knowing where their precise location on the map was, and each further update also carried inaccuracies, and thus Langford knew that hours later, all of those small deviations could add up to them being literally off the map.

And the map itself wasn't that good, anyway. They were aiming at a nebulous target, one whose existence wasn't even confirmed. Langford and his crew might die down in this shaft, he thought, from a random cave in, gas pocket, or a number of other calamities. And that which they aimed for might not even exist.

Or it might exist. But it might be one foot above them, or one foot below. And they would never know.


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