Fiske sauntered into the room. Every time they met the room was different, but this one was barely a room. Two of the walls had buckled, plaster cracked and crumbled at their base. The room hadn’t kept rain out in years. “How do you find these places?”
A short man stood next to a rotten table with a tiny lantern flickering back against the dark. “You are just one of the people in my employ. You have your talents, others have theirs.” The hood the man wore muffled his voice. Fiske had never seen his face. Probably safer for both of them that way. He had wondered more than once if he should wear a hood, but what good would it do now? This man, he had taken to referring to him as Hood, had already seen his face
“I’m assuming,” Hood said as he turned from the tiny lantern and regarded Fiske, “that since we are meeting you’ve found someone who fits my requirements?”
“Yeah. One of my ears heard about a guy fed up with his work down in the Lowers. Seems to want out and doesn’t much care what it involves. Peculiar thing about this guy. Rumor is, he’s a foreman down there. You don’t see that type want out too often.” Fiske waited for Hood to respond, but the silence stretched. Fiske felt Hood’s eyes burning into him from behind their dark slits.
“So,” Hood broke the silence. Fiske’s heart slowed back down. “We have someone who’s willing to take risks and assume he can keep his mouth shut? You know I don’t like assumptions.”
Fiske had worried about this. Hood was cautious and didn’t like surprises. “Yeah. I know.”
Another long pause before Hood spoke. “I think I have just the thing for this situation. A few experimental Tiles that need testing. They will be at the drop point in the Lower’s eastern overflow spillway the day after tomorrow.”
“So, what do they do?” Tiles could be dangerous if you weren’t ready for what they could do. You might burn yourself or rip an arm off. Fiske figured this was probably why Hood paid him to find people. He was most likely a researcher from the Crest who wanted fast results.
“They can make you look unlike yourself. There are three Tiles in the set. The first two are insufficient for anything other than training to use the third. I will have instructions left with them at the drop point.” Hood picked up the tiny lantern and began walking toward the door. “Collect whatever fee you think you can get from the man. It’s yours to keep. I just need to know the Tiles work and require them back.”
Hood ducked out of the room. As he left, Fiske saw two figures detach from the shadows and follow him out. How had they been there, and he hadn’t noticed? Fiske stayed in a room a few minutes longer, waiting for Hood to leave. Waiting for Hood’s shadows to leave. He left the room behind and worked his way back up the iron steps to the lum grinders.
Raul Finnis leaned against the railing, staring out over the large pit that was his mining site. The blackness of the vaulted ceiling ate the light from the miner’s lanterns. Raul didn’t like it. Caverns shouldn’t be this large. What held them up? If they collapsed, he and all of his workers were as good as dead. The echoes of picks and his thoughts muffled the man’s approach.
Raul turned to face a man with a crooked nose that seemed to flat against his face. “Raul Fennis. Foreman on duty. I don’t have any openings for work, so before you start begging for a job, there aren’t any.”
Crooked nose broke into a grin, the chipped teeth didn’t help his appearance. “Not looking for work foreman. I’ve already got a job.” Fiske glanced around, noting the nearby miners. “You got a place we can talk.”
“I do, but who is it I’m talking to?”
“You lead on friend, we’ll talk in private. Let’s just say I’m here about giving you a promotion.” The two men walked down the catwalk and into a small shack that served as the foreman’s office. Fiske closed the door behind them.
The room was small and smelled like rust but; it was quiet. The ringing picks barely made it in. Raul sat on the top of his desk and regarded the ugly, nameless man. “What’s this you say about a promotion? I haven’t heard my uppers say a word about that.”
Again that ugly broken smile. “Didn’t say your job was giving you a promotion. There’s been whispers that an unnamed foreman of an unnamed dig site has had enough of his life in the lowers.”
Raul’s eyes went wide as saucers. “Uh,” he cleared his throat. “That would be news to me. You make it to foreman down here in the Lowers and your life is pretty much set.”
“Funny thing. I had that exact same thought. What man who’s made it up the rungs, would want to tear it all down and move on. Doesn’t make sense. How about you enlighten me? What would cause this unnamed foreman to want to drop everything, disrupt the lum mines and vanish? Tampering with a mine’s production could carry all sorts of nasty repercussions.“
Though he took several deep breaths to hide his shaking hands, Raul’s voice still quivered. “I don’t know anything,” cough “about this man. So why…”
Fiske cut in. “Okay, listen. I’ve had my fun, let’s get to the point. I’m not here to turn you in or kill you. Not this time. Wasn’t paid for that. Your name came up in the circles I frequent. I have someone who’s interested in people like you. You need to disappear. This someone has the means to make it happen. I get paid as a liaison between you two. You get promoted up the social ladder, Midder, maybe you even get to brush elbows up in the Crest. My someone gets a test subject.”
The shakes had left Raul’s voice once he realized the ugly man wasn’t there to kill him. He hoped. “Test subject? What type of test subject. I’m looking to get free of this soul sucking world, but I’m not about to let someone experiment on me and mess me up.”
“Listen, I get it. What’s the point in risking your life if the life you get is worse. Thing is, you don’t get a choice. I don’t control what type of thing you get tested on you, but I can tell you it’s always Tile tests.”
“Tiles? Who is this someone?”
Fiske let out a chuckle. He wished he knew the answer to that question himself. “You know I’m not telling you that. Besides, you’re stuck with me now. You turn down this offer and maybe the nameless foreman from my story gets a name. Maybe that name ends up in the ear of a Trade Justice. That something you want?”
Raul crossed his arms and leaned back. “This went from a friendly offer to extortion.”
“I prefer the term ‘shake down’. I also collect a fee for my services. Fifty cyls silver when we meet next. By the way, that’s tomorrow night. There’s a collapsed tunnel in the Eastern overflow spillway. Meet me there. Half past midnight. Don’t forget my cyls.” Fiske opened the door and said over his shoulder, “Good doing business with you.”
Fiske sat on a hunk of stone that had fallen from the ceiling when the tunnel collapsed. Fortunately, no one has seen fit to fix this section of the spillway. How Hood knew about this collapsed tunnel, or the chamber below, was a mystery to him. A leather satchel slung over Fiske’s shoulder contained a small box that had been at the drop point. It wasn’t the first time Fiske wondered what would happen if he vanished with the Tiles, but he had a pretty good idea.
Despite the constant flow of water, plodding footsteps announced Raul’s approach. “Could you walk any louder?” asked Fiske. “Every guard in the place will be down here wondering what you’re doing. Fortunately for you, every guard means exactly one guard, and he’s half deaf. Listening to roaring water all your life will do that to a guy.”
Raul wore the same thing he had the day before. Fiske wondered if that was everything the man owned. He decided it didn’t matter. “Well, come on, we got some climbing to do.”
“Climbing?” Raul asked as he looked up at the collapsed tunnel.
“Nah, we aren’t going up there. Nowhere to go anyway. We’re going down.” Fiske pulled aside a chunk of stone, revealing a heavy canvas tarp. “Hope you brought your calluses, you’ll need them,” Fiske said as she disappeared down the crawl space the tarp had concealed.
It took the pair almost twenty minutes of climbing down to reach the chamber. The floor and walls were worked stone. Some former owner of the Lower had cut it, or it predated the city entirely. Fiske wasn’t sure and how old the chamber was, but it was secluded and forgotten.
“This is an awful lot of work just to get out of the Lower,” Raul said. “I hope this is worth it.”
Fiske unslung the satchel and flipped up the flap, revealing the box. “It’ll be worth it if you make it out and are alive and not wanted. Sure, you could get out easier, but we both know the easy way out never ends well, don’t we? Speaking of getting things done the hard way,” Fisk said while reading over the instructions Hood had left. “Why don’t you tell me how one of the higher-ranking socialites of the Lower comes to have your position. Many people would think you had a nice cushy setup.”
Fiske continued to read while Raul answered. “I’ve spent my entire life in the mines. Moved more times than I can count. Every mine was the same. Gem mine, silver mine, lum mine. All the same. People barely scratching out a living. Hoping for more, knowing there wasn’t any more. One day I couldn’t take it anymore. A good friend of mine had recently had a child. He was telling me how there wasn’t enough food for his family. I started giving him some of mine. Went on that way for a while. Miners talk and word got around. It’s rare to get someone in the mines that looks out for anyone but themselves. Well one day, our foreman didn’t show up. A few of the guys went to look for him. Found him crushed under a collapse. We could barely identify him. He didn’t have any family that would miss him, and the others felt that I would make a better foreman than any replacement we would get. So we formed a plan, and I started working as the foreman. The Trade Commission never noticed, or if they did, they didn’t care. We maintained production. From that point on, I worked as a foreman. Well, it’s been eight years and I can’t do it anymore. The same hopelessness. Defeat in everyone’s eyes. I can’t lift these people from their lives. I need to get away. See something that isn’t hopeless. It’s time for a change.”
Well, that’s all rather good and touching. I hope it works out for you, but if you want out, you have to learn to use these.” Fiske showed the open box to Raul. It held three Tiles, each wrapped in a piece of leather.
Raul reached out to take one. “Let’s get this over with,” he said.
Just before Raul reached the box, Fiske snapped it closed. “Not yet. There’s a matter of my fifty cyls. No money, no deal.”
Raul pulled a bulging pouch from his belt and tossed it on the floor. The heavy thud brought the broken smile to Fiske’s face. “Let’s get started.”
Fiske handed the first Tile to Raul. “The instructions are pretty clear with these,” Fiske said. “That’s good for you. Sometimes it just says ‘use the Tile’. These Tiles will allow you to change the way you look. Should let you slip right out and never be noticed.”
Roul turned the Tile over in his hand. “I’ve never heard of one that can do that.”
“Like I said, you’re a test subject. The first two are to get you used to the Tile’s effects. It says if you try to use the full Tile before you’re ready, you’ll kill yourself. Bad for my payday if that happens. You know how they work?”
“Yes, focus on the symbol while I’m holding it and my energy goes into the Tile and it does something.”
“Look at that. Not only do you know how to mine lum, you know what to do with it once it’s processed. Give it a try.”
Raul gripped the Tile and focused on the two inverted triangles etched into its surface. He felt a sudden rush of energy leave his body. It happened so fast he fell back against the wall. When Raul looked down, his arm from the elbow down had darkened and grown thinner. Raul passed out.
When he came around, Fiske was standing over him. “Quite a show you gave me there. I guess just because you know how the things work doesn’t mean you are ready. How’s the head?”
Raul felt like he had stayed up for three days straight. It took effort just to blink his eyes. “So...tired.”
“I know. That’s why you’re going to practice with these two starter Tiles. You try to hit the full power one and you drop. I’ll meet you here again in two nights. This is going to take a few months. Settle in, it’s only going to get worse before it gets better.” Fiske took the Tile from Raul’s hand, wrapped it back in leather, and stuffed it in the box. He could hear Raul snoring before he started his ascent.
The late nights of practice with the Tiles blurred together for Raul. Towards the end of the third month, he could use the final Masking Tile and maintain a full body illusion for almost five minutes. Beyond that, exhaustion took over, and he had to sleep.
Raul stood in an alley near the customs office, waiting for Fiske.
“Big day today. You ready?” Raul jumped when he heard Fiske’s voice. He was coming down the opposite end of the alley from where Raul was watching. “Three minutes should be long enough to pass the customs check going from the Lower to the Mids. Got a present for you. My someone has sent a different Tile for you to use today.”
“Different?” snapped Raul. “But I’ve been training with that Masking Tile.”
“Calm yourself,” Fiske said through his broken grin. “This is a Masking Tile, but it’s one designed to make you look like an authority person the customs agents won’t question. Besides, if we wanted you through to the Mids, that’s easy enough. This is about testing how believable this thing is. This one’s pattern is very similar, but I was told it will drain you faster so you will have to wait until the last possible minute to activate it. Take this,” Fiske placed a cloak with a deep hood to Raul’s left hand and the Masking Tile in his right. “Keep that hood up until they make you take it down. Just before, activate the Tile. It should buy you the time you need. If this works, I’ll meet you on the other side in an hour to collect the Tile. Off you go. Time for that new life you want.”
Raul pulled the hood up and stepped out onto the street. He heard Fiske call out, “Your name is Demitri Grob.”
The customs office was small but crowded. The place made Raul nervous. If he got caught, Trade Justices he would label him a deserter and would have to explain how he had an experimental Tile with him. His stomach turned in knots. “Next person.” called the lady behind the desk. “Please remove your hood and state your name.”
Raul took a deep breath through his nose and grabbed the Tile. He felt his energy form the shape and knew just how to maintain it in his mind. The altered Masking Tile had three additional pips placed in a cluster in one corner. He focused his mind and his energy flooded into the pips. And continued to pour in. All of his energy in the blink of an eye poured into the Tile. The heat of the thing became unbearable. That was the last thing Raul experienced.
From the alley, Fiske watched as the building burst apart. Timber and masonry flung into the air, down the streets, and through the walls of nearby buildings. Flames tore through the few remaining stretches of wall. “Well, I wasn’t expecting that today.” Fiske said to himself.
Hood and Fiske sat on a bench that faced a small arrow slit. From this distance, Fiske could just make out a tall pole with a fluffy green top on the horizon. He had once heard someone call it a tree. Strange word for a pole. “It looks like this experiment failed.” Fiske said, never taking his eyes off the tree. “Do I still get paid?”
“There was no failure,” replied Hood’s muffled voice. “On the contrary, we now know that the Masking Tile is a success. We also know the Bedlam Tile is a success. Expect payment at your normal drop point.”
Long after Hood and his shadows left, Fiske sat staring. Again he spoke to only himself. “Fiske, I believe you are getting played.” But what did it matter, he was getting paid well. Why mess up a good thing?