"The badge is real—you can stare at it all day, but that doesn't change the fact that I'm here and I need to get into those tunnels."
The gate clerk handled the silver piece, moving it closer and farther away from his face. Perhaps looking for signs of forgery? Rone couldn't guess how someone would fake that. The polished metal was unmistakable; the state's crest flawless. If a forger had found a way to duplicate that, the Office of Inquiry would've dispatched someone like Rone to hunt them down immediately.
The gate clerk didn't work for the state. This was a private property. Did the foreman train him for such an encounter? That opened all sorts of difficult questions. Though, if Rone was being honest with himself, questions that filled him with a perverse curiosity. What was Caemer doing here that they kept their employees on the lookout for officers like him?
"There was no call ahead," the clerk barked. "A formal inquiry—"
"That's not how state policy works and you know it," said Rone. "Though if you want to submit a wire in town, I'm sure your foreman will be willing to foot the bill. Or perhaps dock it from your pay."
That had the desired effect. The clerk paled, eyes frozen. He ran his thumb over the badge once, not bothering to look down. Finally, reluctantly, he stood and gathered a large set of bronze keys from a hook on the wall. Without speaking, he turned and marched out of the office. Rone snatched up his badge and followed.
It was a beautiful day in the Omauk countryside. Rone enjoyed the spring sunshine on his face and the smell of wildflowers along the dirt road. Spring came early to this part of the state. A stark contrast to the cold and snow he'd come from on the train ride out. It was a wonder more people didn't live out here. The town where he'd stopped off was little more than a depot. About the only thing worth note out here was the company Caemer Mining Industries the clerk worked for. And they didn't do anything that that interesting; just mine quarry stone.
It was the perfect place in the middle of nowhere for something to go unnoticed by the state.
Rone didn't think the clerk knew anything. Good secrets rarely included men of his level. But the foreman would make sure his people were paid to be obstinate at the front gate. That would keep away the curious and delay the dangerous. Rone was dangerous. Anyone who carried the Office of Inquiry's badge with the state crest was not to be trifled with; lest the might of the whole state come crashing down on their jurisdiction. Rone hated that kind of power. But he couldn't deny how useful it was.
The clerk walked silently ahead of Rone. It wasn't far from the gate house to the first tunnel entrance. Rone wondered if he'd signaled ahead that they had a guest. He couldn't imagine how. There weren't any wires or hidden switches Rone saw around the desk. And the clerk kept his hands in full view during their brief introduction. So if he needed to warn his superiors that Rone was coming, how would he do it?
The answer was surprisingly simple. As they approached the tunnel, the clerk stopped at a phone box on a pole that ran wiring from offsite into the mineshaft. He lifted the receiver and said, "This is Kork up top. I've got a state inquirer here to see the tunnels. Send up the elevator."
Elegant. Rone couldn't go down without an elevator. The elevator wouldn't wait unless someone down below sent it up. And that would give whoever was down there plenty of time to prepare for his arrival. Rone cracked a grin as it all sank in. Of course, even if they had him sit at the top of the shaft all afternoon waiting for an elevator, they couldn't possibly hide everything from him in so short a time. There was a reason he was a state inquirer. No one slipped things past him.
The clerk gestured to the tunnel mouth. "They'll have it up for you in a minute. I'm sure someone will be waiting to escort you down."
"Doesn't matter to me," said Rone. "I'll find my way around."
The clerk had nothing to say to that. He headed back up the dirt road to the gate house. No doubt to place a priority message to his foreman about the surprise inspection. There was always the chance that the tip Rone's office got was little more than supposition. But it was too juicy to pass up. If there was any substance to it, he was about to find out.
The tunnel mouth revealed a black interior. When Rone stepped inside, his eyes adjusted and he realized it was a loading platform. The elevator shaft groaned as metal cables squeaked from the abyss below. That was fast. He guessed they'd at least make him wait a few minutes to get affairs in order. What did that say about their confidence? That he could walk right in without threatening their operations?
The elevator car was a beast. Wide enough to haul ten men and a full load of stone. But for the moment it was empty, save for one petite woman in work trousers and a chalky coat. She wore a hard hat and sported a pair of massive spectacles. Rone hadn't seen glasses that big before on anyone. But judging by the rotating attachments on the rims, they were for work. Something for a closer look at the stone.
She yanked open the cage doors with both hands, clanging the edges loudly. Her mouth was screwed up in a frown, and the oversized glasses made her eyes seem massive with rage. "And who in Toka's Holy Name are you supposed to be?"
Rone smirked, flashing his badge. "State inquirer. Here for a lookyloo downstairs. I assume you're my handler?"
The woman took a deep breath, bracing one hand against the cage door; the other pressed to her temple. "I am trying to handle a time sensitive operation. I'm here to make sure you don't botch that up with this unannounced show of muscle. I don't care if you're the chief secretary to the President or God's right-hand seraphim. You ruin my project and I will take your badge as reimbursement."
She moved aside, gesturing fiercely for him to get in. Rone stifled a chuckle as he stepped aboard the lift. It rocked under his weight, but that was nothing compared to when the woman slammed the cage door closed. The shifting made Rone a little seasick. He had no idea how far of a drop it was to the bottom.
The woman thumped a button on the control box and the elevator started its descent. She folded her arms, half turning away from Rone.
"What's your name, Miss…?"
"That's Doctor Bethall Froanum."
"Doctor, eh? I assume that makes you the resident geologist."
"If you must know, I'm an archeologist specializing in languages and religion."
That gave Rone pause. What in Toka's name was an academic doing in a quarry? One under investigation by the state no less. And she was getting on him about ruining operations? Rone couldn't imagine the miners enjoyed having a scholar poking around their worksite. How could her studies—paid for or otherwise by Caemer—be so important to have her jumping down his throat?
"You find some ancient burial tomb down here?"
Bethall gave him a sharp sideways glance. Damn if those glasses didn't make her eyes look scary. "That also part of your inquiry?"
"As a matter of fact, yes. My office got a tip about your so-called operations, and until I can vet everything down here I'm considering it all suspect." Rone still had no idea why an archeologist had anything to do with it, but it was an easy way to establish precedent. He needed to know everything, anyway; even if it was just for personal curiosity.
Bethall exhaled, making an exaggerated show of rolling her eyes. "Fine. If it'll get you out of here quicker, then I'll explain everything."
The elevator groaned to a halt, the cables whining as they screeched in their winch housing. Bethall yanked open the doors, this time with less force. There was resignation in her actions. Good. Things always went easier when people accepted that they had to cooperate with Rone. He followed her into a tunnel wide enough to fit two construction trucks driving side by side. Large, yellow lamps bolted to the ceiling providing light off into the distance.
"Caemer Industries found several cultural artifacts in their mines two months ago," said Bethall. She walked at a brisk pace; Rone had to run to keep up. "The university out of Kiasser sent me out to offer an opinion on their worth. I determined they were authentic and we've been digging up more of them ever since."
"What sort of cultural artifacts?"
"Metal tablets. Etched with archaic runes and pictograms from nearly six thousand years ago."
"And this is time sensitive because…?"
"The metal is highly corrosive when exposed to air. I have to oversee each excavation before we seal them up. Every second I'm away from the site entertaining you is another second these artifacts disintegrate. That's history lost forever. So if you would please walk a little faster I would appreciate it."
Rone grunted as he sped up. It wasn't far to a chamber blocked off by a set of industrial doors. It was all very official for an archeological dig. Clearly Caemer was footing the bill on this dig, since Rone doubted the university could spare money for these accommodations. But it still left a few questions. What did this have to do with the tip about smuggling out valuable finds? And what the hell kind of metal corroded so fast in open air that the ancients thought it was wise to use?
Bethall used a personal set of keys to get them through the doors into the chamber beyond. A dozen other men and women in the same chalky coats as Bethall worked around the room. Three were hunched over a work table with fragments of stone and metal under close scrutiny. Most of the others were hauling wrapped material from an excavated wall to a set of wooden crates. The rest were inside the excavated wall, some on their hands and knees with tools to poke at the stone and dirt.
Bethall faced Rone. "Don't touch anything, don't breathe on anything, and if you have one of those infernal photographic devices, do not use it without first consulting me."
With that, she turned on her heels and marched over to the exposed wall. Rone watched her go, hips waggling with self-righteousness, and this time he did allow himself a chuckle. Dr. Bethall was a queen in this little kingdom of hers. Though it didn't take more than a cursory glance to reveal there was nothing illicit in this part of the mines. Rone had little interest in whatever historical relics these academics pulled out of the ground.
Still, it would help round out his report to take a look. The Office of Inquiry would want to know for certain that this operation wasn't related to whatever Caemer was really up to.
Rone approached the work table where the three examined fragments laid out in orderly piles. A man and woman were hotly debating a particular piece of metal; they completely ignored Rone. The other woman—a taller lady with ruddy colored hair—stood scratching her chin and looked at Rone.
"You the reason Dr. Froanum is having a conniption?"
"Guilty as charged. What, may I ask, is so important about these carved pieces of metal that she's so excitable?"
"Well for one thing they test positive for markers from the Valkver civilization."
Rone recognized the name, but only just. History wasn't his forte. "Valkver? Isn't that where a lot of myths and legends spring up?"
"That's where all mythology springs up. Every major world religion can trace its roots back to stories born in the Valkver civilization."
Yes, that's right. Rone remembered now that one of his colleagues was an avid reader of adventure literature. Usually the subject dealt with ancient relics or mystic powers related to those old mythologies. Lost temples. Hidden chalices of power. Stolen jewels imbued with the grace and wisdom of Toka. There were even popular radio dramas capitalizing on those stories.
"Don't tell me you believe any of that drivel," said Rone.
"I'm an academic. I study the artifacts, not the legends. You can consult the anthropology department for customs and myths if you're into that sort of thing."
Rone smiled. Not a superstitious sort among this crowd. "Tell me something, Doctor. Why is Caemer Mining Industries so interested in sponsoring this dig?"
"It gives a good public image to fund the sciences. And they get a wing of the university named after them."
"Good publicity all the way around," said Rone. "And I suppose any of your geologist students would take note of that and apply for apprenticeships with the company."
"I suppose a few may. Again, that's not my department."
If that's all there is to it, then why is Craemer getting whispers about scandalous activities at this site? Rone stared at the scattered shards of metal and stone on the table. Most were covered in fragments of rich, brown dirt. The same kind out of the exposed wall where Bethall was now hunched over on her hands and knees. But a few had paler, gray dirt clinging to their surface. One that Rone realized didn't match the color in the rest of the chamber.
Rone pointed to one. "Where did this one come from?"
"That? A miner brought that to us from Site Two."
"Site Two? There's more of your team digging down here?"
"No, this is all of us. There just wasn't much to find at Site Two. And Craemer had a schedule to keep there, so they shooed us out quickly."
I bet they did. "Thank you, Doctor." Rone marched away from the table and over to Bethall. She pretended not to notice him as he stepped up. But Rone saw the creases in her forehead; there was no hiding her irritation.
"Dr. Bethall, I need you to show me where Site Two is."
She exhaled, finally looking up at him. "And what is so important that I have to show you where to find it?"
"I need an expert."
Bethall frowned, but her expression softened. She didn't realize he was buttering her up, which was fine by Rone. It meant she'd probably comply.
"Fine." She pushed herself up, dusting brown earth off her trousers. "It's a bit of a walk, so please keep up."
"Right beside you, Doctor."
Outside of the chamber, they took a forking tunnel left. It slanted downward, taking them past several darkened chambers. Rone started a mental map—before he got impossibly lost.
"I assume that was Site One we just left," he said.
"No, that was actually Site Five. We've examined multiple chambers with artifacts. Craemer notifies us the moment they discover something new."
Something about that didn't add up. Rone had a good guess what part that was. "Shouldn't that have been Site One? It was one of the first chambers out of the elevator."
"Craemer didn't probe that way for minerals. This tunnel we're following was the pathway they cut into the earth."
"And they just happened to get lucky digging back there after poking into Sites One through Four?"
Bethall shrugged. "I don't know how they choose where to dig. If they find something, they let us know."
Judging by the tone in her voice, Bethall also didn't care. Which was perfect for Craemer. The academics could come in, fill their eyes with wonder at every little piece of history, and no one bothered asking the important questions. After all, Craemer was a mining corporation. It was their job to nudge around in the ground. Who cared whether there was any sense to how and where they chose to dig?
Around another bend, Bethall paused, craning her neck. Up a separate tunnel on their right was a blue light pouring out of the darkness. The rest of the tunnel was black.
"That the way to Site Two?" Rone probed.
"No…that's the way to Site Three. And Craemer closed down operations in there two weeks ago." She started marching up the tunnel.
Rone caught up to her, putting a firm on her shoulder. "Slow down, Doctor. Discretion is key right now."
She whipped around to look at him, frowning. "What are you—?"
"Think, Bethall. They told you this Site is closed, the tunnel is dark, but someone is here. Do you really think they'll be happy to see us sticking our noses in where they're not expecting us?"
Bethall continued to frown, but something changed in her expression. She understood. Probably didn't want to believe it, but at least she was now on the same page with Rone. He only hoped that meant she'd comply.
Rone held a finger to his lips. Then he crept forward gingerly on the packed earth. Bethall did the same. In a few moments they were finally to the edge of the chamber entrance. There were industrial doors set in the walls here as well, but one was left ajar. Probably because they were in a hurry with Rone's surprise arrival. This was precisely why he made his inspections unexpected. People made mistakes when rushed.
Through the gap in the door, Rone could see a pockmarked wall surrounded by work tables like the ones back at Site Five. He could see where Bethall and her team of academics had pulled open the earth to look for artifacts. But where their work ended there was a gaping hole in the wall that opened into a separate chamber far beyond. Harsh work lights lit up the space, but all of that paled in comparison to the object emitting blue light in the center.
Rone couldn't get a proper look at it. The angle of the tunnel into the secondary chamber was all wrong. What he could see were sharp angles, reflective metal; all giving off that ungodly blue light. Rone hadn't seen electric lights in the city that could get to that shade of blue. It was captivating. It was also unsettling.
"What in Toka's—?"
Rone slapped a hand over Bethall's mouth. She was a bit dense. At least she had the good sense not to raise a ruckus over his quick action. She did pry his hand away, shooting him a look that spoke murder. Rone managed an equally harsh stare. She needed to remember to stay quiet.
Someone spoke up from the chamber immediately beyond the doors. Male; someone close. "Dynamiting the entrance is no good. We'll just entice him down here."
"It's a mine," said another male voice. "We use dynamite. It's expected here. This isn't the governor's picnic."
"Irrelevant." This time it was a woman's voice. "We can't risk damaging the fabrication."
Bethall inched closer to Rone, dropping her voice to a whisper. Apparently she did have good sense. "I know that voice; it's Jeya Murns. She's one of the liaisons with the university and my team. She keeps us alert about the artifacts the miners find."
Rone grunted. "Apparently she forgot to tell you about this one."
A gun hammer clicked from somewhere behind. Rone grimaced. That one was on him. He'd turned his back for too long, captivated by whatever the hell in there was glowing so brightly blue. Long enough for someone to sneak up from behind and get the drop.
He slowly raised his hands, turning. Bethall spun around, confused. Until she saw the pistol pointed at both of them. The man wore miner's overalls, but his outstretched arm was steady. And he'd placed a healthy distance between them to keep Rone from stepping outside his field of view. Or disarming him. Dressed as a miner, but probably hired muscle for these special occasions.
"Step into the room nice and slowly," said the muscle.
"You can't do this to us," Bethall barked.
"Come now, Doctor," said Rone. "This is a unique opportunity. Don't you want to see what's through that doorway?"
The hired muscle didn't say anything, gesturing once more with a slight nod from his pistol. Rone didn't want to test his patience. He nudged the door open with the back of his foot and backed in. Thankfully Bethall stayed beside him.
And into whatever waited beyond.