Edition 8: Digging In The Deep by Tonia Brown
When miners lose their jobs and start disappearing, it’s chalked up to desertion. Thomas knows better. He starts digging, but perhaps the family line of work is not the safest pursuit in these dark times… SY
“He’s my pa,” Thomas said. “I just want to know where he is.”
The officer nodded at him, but said nothing.
“I ain’t seen him in three weeks,” Thomas said.
“He isn’t in there,” the cop said. “if that’s what you’re thinking.”
Thomas looked past the officer, into the darkened recesses of the mine beyond. “I know that. But…I mean…isn’t there anything you can do?”
The officer looked up to him, more exasperated than concerned. “Look, kid. A lot of men have supposedly gone missing in the last few weeks. Not just your father.”
“I know.” Thomas was sort of worried about the other guys too, but mostly about his father. Jack Barns was the first to go missing weeks ago, then Roger Wells a few days later, then Marcus Downey, then Jeremy Stills, then Donald Walker. The list went on and on.
“Sorry,” the officer said. “I don’t mean to jump you about it, but between the missing person’s reports and this mess going on out here, we can’t keep up with it all.” The officer glanced to the crowd behind young Thomas, then back down to him. “To be honest, you wanna know what I think happened to them?”
“This is gonna sound cruel, but I think they just took off. They know they’re fighting a losing battle, but rather than risking the anger of your friends back there for giving up, they decided to slip off in the night without a goodbye. Got it?”
Thomas did get it, because that’s what everyone else said about his dad.
The protest was into its third week, with no signs of slowing down. Thirty men stood together against the Company, fighting for their jobs, their pay, their very livelihoods. On the other side, the Company hired lawless goons to keep the miners at bay by any means, all while that machine did the job of all thirty men or more. Death threats circulated among both camps, with those involved coming to blows numerous times. The affair was a powder keg, just waiting for that single spark to blow the entire thing to kingdom come.
Still, Thomas’s dad wouldn’t just go off and leave the family.
“No,” Thomas said. “Maybe some of the guys just took off, but not my pa. He wouldn’t just go off and leave us like that. Not my pa.”
“Really?” the officer asked. “You’re what, seventeen?”
“Fifteen and a half.”
“Whatever. Point is you’re old enough to know better. You don’t think a man can be desperate enough to abandon everything?”
“I understand why you guys are so upset,” the officer said. “One day someone is going to invent a machine that will do my job, and I will be pretty pissed off about it when it happens. But that’s life. This is 1890, not the dark ages. Things are going to get more and more automated, whether we like it or not. You really need to suck it up and move with the times.”
“And you need to shut the hell up!” someone behind Thomas screamed.
“Don’t make me come over there!” the officer yelled.
The crowd cried aloud for a few minutes about the state of police brutality, before they returned to chanting and shouting and protesting. Thomas slipped away from the exchange before he could get caught up in another fight. He hated to admit it, and would never let the man know, but he completely agreed with the officer. Thomas couldn’t care less about the mines. He had only been on the job for a few days before he was let go. No warning. No nothing. One minute he dreaded going into the same blackened pits his father had worked most of his life, and the next minute Thomas was unemployed. It seemed unfair, but Thomas understood that life was just plain unfair. Nothing new to him. He was born and raised in the small town of Graftwell. Those mines broke his father, and killed his mother in the process. With no future and a crappy excuse for a past, Thomas was used to a certain lack of fairness in all things.
Thomas slipped behind the protesters’ tents, where Tim and a handful of other kids awaited him.
“What did he say?” Tim asked.
“They can’t do nothing about it,” Thomas said.
“Likely story,” Dale said. “They just don’t care. If it was that fancy doctor’s pa had gone missing, the cops would turn our homes inside out. But one of ours goes missing and they don’t give a fat rat’s ass.”
“You know what I think?” Bobby Mack asked.
Everyone eyed him in silence.
He hocked a thick logy in the dirt and said, “I think Shale is making them power that machine of his.”
Thomas snorted. “Don’t be daft.”
“I’m being serious. It can’t run on coal like they said, else there’d be smoke. So much smoke it would fill up the mines and kill that crazy doctor and his creepy manservant.”
“Well, think about it, Tibs. If it don’t run on coal, what does it run on?”
Before Thomas could think about it, Tim whispered, “The sweat of men.”
“You’re joking,” Thomas said. “Right? Tell me you’re kidding.”
“Who knows?” Bobby Mack asked. “All I can say is that I’ve seen that creepy little manservant come and go a few times, on his own, and last time I swear I saw him take Sam Duncan off somewhere with him.”
Thomas could almost believe that. Sam was the last man to have gone missing. It would make all kinds of sense if the missing men were down there somewhere. Only a handful of men came and went into the mines these days, but the most hated and most protected among these were Dr. Shale and his assistant, Flint. Thomas only saw them once, while they were unloading their equipment. Shale was haughty enough to be a doc, but his assistant was a bit manic for Thomas’s tastes. Flint was all over the place, trying to do ten things at once, while the doctor seemed unconcerned with everything and everyone around him, save for his precious machine.
“But they claim it runs on its own,” Thomas said.
“We don’t know that for sure,” Tim said. “I mean, did you get to lay eyes on it?”
From the moment it came off the back of the wagon to the instant it disappeared into the depths of the mines, the machine stayed under heavy canvas wraps. No one was allowed to gaze upon it, lest they steal the doctor’s precious design. Even so, the men bet the Company that they could out work the machine. A bet they lost most shamefully. The machine tore through three times the earth a single crew could manage in the allotted time. All sight unseen, of course.
Dr. Shale and his miraculous machine put every man out of work in a single day.
“Nobody’s seen it,” Dale said. “So, how can we be sure how it works?”
“I bet all of those men are down there right now,” Tim said. “Tied to that machine, like donkeys strapped to a grindstone.”
“And that doc whippin’ them,” Bobby Mack said. “Like they was slaves.”
“You don’t really think that,” Thomas said.
“Why not?” Tim asked. “Makes sense, don’t it?”
“No. I can’t believe that. My pa wouldn’t be tricked like that.”
“Sorry, Tibs,” Bobby Mack said. “But it’s the truth.”
“You wanna throw rock at the police horses?” Dale asked.
Thomas shook his head. He didn’t want to get into any more trouble. He just wanted to make sure his pa was fine, and then get the heck out of this dying town. The other boys walked away, returning to the protestors and leaving Thomas to ruminate over the whole idea. At least it was an explanation, and Thomas had spent the last few weeks racking his brain for just that. He thought about going back to the officer and asking him his thoughts on it, when a curious sight caught his eye.
Flint, the assistant to that hated doctor, stood in the shadows behind the tents, whispering something to Johnny Wray, one of the older miners. Thomas ducked behind the canvas flaps and watched. The way the old coal miner was smiling and nodding lead Thomas to think that perhaps Bobby Mack was right after all. Maybe that assistant was tricking men into the mines with him. Maybe the doctor was forcing folks to power that machine of his. Which meant maybe Thomas could get the police to arrest that crazy doctor. Maybe the jobs weren’t a lost cause after all. But more importantly, maybe, just maybe, his pa was somewhere down there too, still alive.
The moon was just a sliver of a thing, but that was okay because Thomas always had good night vision. It was almost a requirement for the work he was born into. He watched from the shadows as the little man pulled a strange device from the depths of his cloak; a metal box with a round, fist sized opening on one side, and a crank on the other. Flint turned the crank on the metal box a few times. The box then did something that defied all logic.
The hole on the other side began to glow with a soft light.
“Well, I’ll be,” Johnny said.
“Yes,” Flint said. “And he has many other inventions just like this one. And you can be the first to test them out. Think about it. Unlike your Luddite friends over there, you will help usher in the dawn of a new age.”
The miner grinned wide. “I like the sound of that.” Johnny’s smile came off sort of eerie in the mechanical lamp’s glow.
Thomas wanted to warn the old timer against Flint’s well practiced lies, but if he knew he would lose his advantage if he did. Instead, he needed to follow the men, trace them to the machine and see if the obvious was as true as it seemed, and then race back to get the authorities. Thomas would be a hero. A bonafide hero.
By the light of that strange device, the pair of men headed out, traveling into the dead of night away from the coal mine and the camps. Thomas could do nothing but follow them, and try his best to stay out of that halo of soft, artificial light. They traveled away from the camps for a long while. The three of them—the two conspirators striding purposefully with Thomas secretly tagging along—must’ve traveled at least a mile, maybe more, before Flint stopped and pointed at the ground, uttering something in a low voice at the old timer.
“But there ain’t no shaft here,” Johnny said.
“There is now,” Flint said.
Johnny’s mouth fell open in disbelief.
Thomas’s did as well.
“But we’ve been digging in that direction,” Johnny said and motioned away from where they stood, back toward the camps.
“You were,” Flint said. “The machine finished with that vein last week. We are over here now.”
“Here? In a week? Woo wee, that thing sure is fast.”
“I know.” Flint lifted the box to his left side. “Now, pull the handle to open the door.”
Johnny cut the little man a suspicious look. “Why can’t you do it?”
“Because it is so very heavy and I don’t have the strength. I’m not strong, like you.”
This was enough to grease the palm of Johnny’s ego, prompting him to flex his aging muscles enough to do as asked. Johnny reached down into the tall grass and to Thomas’s amazement, pulled open a well hidden trapdoor.
“You first,” Flint said, offering the opening to Johnny.
“No sir,” Johnny said. “I followed you this far, I think I will follow you all the way.”
Flint sighed. “If you insist.” The little man disappeared into the opening.
True to his word, Johnny Wray followed.
Once the door slammed shut, Thomas moved fast, lest he forget just where it was hidden. It still took him a few minutes of riffling around in the grass, searching, but he soon found the handle to the mysterious door. Thomas yanked on the handle until it swung free, quickly scurried down the ladder and closed the door softly behind him. The hole plunged into darkness at once, but that didn’t trouble Thomas. He closed his eyes and felt his way along the ladder, taking each step in careful and slow succession, down, down, down, until his feet touched what he assumed was solid earth. There he stood, eyes shut, clutching the ladder for a few moments as he listened to his surroundings. In the darkness he heard the distinct shuffle of feet moving away from him, and echoing voices bouncing down the tunnel. When Thomas opened his eyes, he was delighted to see a soft halo of light in the distance before him. The men weren’t that far ahead. Thomas took off for that sliver of light, following those voices.
“This shaft is good work,” Johnny said.
“Why thank you very much,” Flint said.
“For a machine.”
“What do you mean for a machine?”
“I’m just sayin’ I didn’t expect it to be so even. That’s all. Don’t get so worked up about it. These are better tunnels than we could’ve dug by hand. And in half the time.”
Thomas followed the pair through the newly formed route, also taking some professional interest in the uniformity of the fresh tunnels. That machine might’ve been a horrible, job stealing thing, but Johnny was right, it did that job much better than the men could mange. And faster too. Thomas chuckled to himself as he followed the men, feeling all sorts of silly at being jealous of a soulless machine.
“Sure is quiet,” Johnny said.
“Quiet?” the assistant asked.
“Yeah, I thought that strange machine would be making all kinds of noise.”
“Ah, well, we don’t run it quite this late.”
“I thought it never got tired?”
“It doesn’t tire, but it does need periodic rests to refuel.”
“Makes sense, I suppose. Didn’t you say the men were down here working too?”
“Of course. But, um, right now everyone is on break. It is very late.”
“Yeah, I reckon it is. You know, it’ll be good to see some of the boys again. Is Joe and Don here too?”
Thomas swore it sounded more like a question than an answer.
“I sure miss them,” Johnny said.
“Then it will be a pleasant reunion,” Flint said. “For they are all down here. Resting. Peacefully. Speaking of here, here we are.”
Without warning, the light grew stronger, shining like a beacon around the bend ahead. Thomas realized the men must’ve come to a stop. He slowed his steps and crept to the turn of the tunnel, peering around the corner.
“Mr. Wray,” Flint said, “I give you Doctor Thaddeus Shale’s Bone Machine.”
Johnny whistled low.
“Impressive,” Flint said. “Isn’t it?”
Thomas was forced to agree, for he had never seen the likes of it in all of his days. It was a huge monstrous thing, at least twice the size of Johnny Wray. Maybe three times. That little man called it the Bone Machine, and Thomas could see why. A skeletal framework lay exposed to show its inner workings of belts and gears and cogs, while the front end consisted of giant metal teeth, not unlike the grinning skull of some great beast. Thomas was filled with a sense of wonder, awe, as well as a touch of fear.
“It’s amazing,” Johnny said, staring up into the jaws of the metal beast.
“Yes,” another man said. “It is.”
Doctor Shale stepped into the circle of light, bearing a curt frown and staring down his thin nose at Johnny.
Johnny took off his hat and approached the doctor, wiping his free hand on his trousers before he offered it in greeting. “Sir, I’m John Wray, though most folks call me Johnny. I am very glad to make your acquaintance.”
The doctor continued to stare down his nose at the miner.
The old timer pulled away his hand. “I was told you needed men, sir.”
The doctor still said nothing.
“Well,” Johnny said, “here I am. What can I do for ya?”
“What are you doing here in this manner?” the doctor asked.
Johnny looked to the assistant in panic. “I thought you said he was wanting men?”
“He wants men,” Flint said as he took a few steps away from Johnny.
“Then what does he mean by that?”
“He means you should be more careful what you believe.” With that, the little man rushed Johnny, pushing him backward.
Johnny Wray tumbled, ass over elbows, right into the mouth of the machine. The jaws clamped down on the man, closing him inside. Thomas could just see Johnny through the slats of metal teeth. The man didn’t move. His head bloomed with a crimson spot where he had struck it on something in his tumble.
“They are so easy to manipulate,” Flint said.
“You!” Shale shouted, shoving a finger at his assistant. “You shouldn’t have brought him here like this. He could’ve changed his mind too soon. I told you to strike before they enter the tunnels.”
“Why?” Flint asked. “Why should I wrangle a full grown body down that tunnel, all the way into that thing of yours, when they have two perfectly useful legs?”
“Thing? This machine is a masterpiece of engineering! It deserves far better than the trash this town has to offer. Poor excuse for men, every one of them.”
Thomas covered his mouth just before a gasp of surprise could escape. Then it was true? They really were forcing men to work that machine of theirs! How terrible! How awful! How …just how? Thomas knew he should go. He knew he should follow his plan, turn back and go for the authorities. Yet, morbid curiosity got the best of him, gluing him to the spot with a gruesome interest. He had to know what became of his pa. He had to know how it all worked.
“Next time you will do as asked,” Shale said.
“But I am so weak,” Flint whined.
“You aren’t weak. You are old. Like me. Too old for this work.”
The assistant sighed. “True. You should also know, it is becoming more difficult to convince the men to come with me.”
“You marvel them with the gadgets, yes?”
“Yes, but they aren’t as interested anymore. I think they are catching onto us.”
“Nonsense. They know nothing. Rumors. Innuendo. Gossip. Nothing more. For all they know those men ran off in search of better lives. No one knows what happens to them down here. Soon, it won’t matter because we will finally find—”
A low moan echoed from the machine.
“Looks like our new friend is awake,” Flint said, motioning to the awakening form of Johnny inside of the machine’s mouth. “Shall I do the dirty work? Again?”
“Yes, yes,” Shale said. “By all means, be my guest.”
“You are far too kind.”
Mocking pleasantries exchanged, the assistant approached the machine and pressed a green button no larger than his thumb. The contraption shuddered and groaned, coming to life under his touch. Gears set to spinning. Belts pulled. Cogs turned. Flywheels flew. The metal jaws bore down and up and down again upon the poor form of old Johnny Wray, mangling and mashing him into a bloody pulp. He might have been knocked unconscious for a few minutes, but once the machine started its horrifying work, the man awoke in full. Johnny set to filling the tunnels with a terrible shriek, each passing of the jaws quieting his cries bit by bite, until he fell eternally silent.
All while Thomas watched on in amazement.
As quick as it started, the machine stopped its chomping and shuddered once more. A soft whirring noise filled the air for a few moments, and when the machine opened its jaws, Johnny Wray was gone. Nothing was left behind. Not even a smear of blood. It was as if the machine had swallowed the mashed up mess whole.
The machine had eaten Johnny Wray.
It took a moment of astonished clarity for Thomas to piece together the gory images of what he had just witness, to the awful truth of the matter. The boys were wrong. Close, but so far off. The machine wasn’t powered by the sweat of men, it was powered by their blood! The same machine that put everyone out of work ran on the life’s blood of the very same men it ruined. Thomas may have only been fifteen and a half, but even he could see how cosmically unjust that was. Aside from the fact that the doctor and his strange assistant were killing men, but to kill them in such a manner in order to feed their horrible job stealing machine?
“Shall I return to the west tunnels tonight?” Flint asked. “Or shall I start on a new one further south?”
Of course, now that the machine was refueled they would begin digging once more. Thomas had seen enough. It was time to fetch the powers that be, and let them deal with this horrible mess. He turned on his heel, ready to flee, when he heard something he didn’t expect. Something that stopped him in his tracks.
“Have you found any sign of them in the west tunnels?” Shale asked.
“Not yet,” Flint said.
“That is because you dig far too quickly. I can only manage half the pace you dig.”
“I dig at a normal rate. You are just too slow. Too slow and too particular. Smelling every rock and root as if you will recognize something.”
Shale gasped at this accusation. “I inspect the soil for the signs. It is the only way we will know if we are close.”
“Close?” Flint sneered at the doctor. “You said you were certain this was the place.”
“I am. All of the stars pointed here.” Shale turned away from his assistant. “I’m just unsure how far down.”
“Then I will dig at my own pace until–” the assistant’s words fell sharply short. He raised his nose into the stale air.
“What do you smell?” Shale asked. “What is it, old friend?”
Flint sniffed the air as he narrowed his eyes. “I smell a small one, very near.”
Thomas’s eyes went wide when he realized the little man meant him. He pushed away from the scene and took off running for the exit somewhere behind him. But it was no good. Flint was on him in seconds, catching him by the throat and dragging him kicking and screaming back to that terrible machine. Where he would surely toss Thomas inside to be mashed and mangled and swallowed whole.
“What do we have here?” Shale asked.
“I told you I smelled a young one,” Flint said.
“Please!” Thomas cried. “I won’t tell nobody nothing! Please don’t make me into fuel for that horrible machine.”
Shale and Flint exchanged amused glances, before they began to laugh aloud at Thomas’s request.
“Fuel for the machine?” Shale asked. “What are you talking about?”
Thomas figured now wasn’t the time to lie. He had been caught red handed, might as well come clean. “I-I-I watched what you did to Johnny Wray. But I won’t tell nobody else. I promise. Just don’t feed me to it. Please. I don’t wanna fuel your digging machine.”
“What do you think, Shale?” Flint asked. “Shall we throw him inside? Let the machine have him?”
“Certainly not.” Shale said. The older man licked his aged lips as he eyed Thomas’s quivering form.
Flint tossed Thomas aside, away from the exit.
“You won’t feed me to that thing?” Thomas asked.
“Not at all,” Flint said.
“Why should we waste such precious, young flesh?” Shale asked, and began to loosen his tie.
“Yes, why waste it?” Flint asked, and unbuttoned his trousers.
“No!” Thomas cried. “Please sirs. I beg of you. Please don’t do this to me.”
“But I am afraid we must,” Flint said.
“The hunger is too great,” Shale said.
“Please no,” Thomas begged. “I don’t know the ways of such things. I haven’t even been with a girl!”
The pair of men glanced to one another with a look so comical, so confused, that Thomas would’ve laughed, if he weren’t in fear of his own life and innocence.
“Is he saying what I think he is saying?” Shale asked.
“I believe he is,” Flint said.
The men returned to laughing aloud, as well as stripping themselves naked. Thomas could do nothing but tremble and wait for the worse to be over with. Perhaps when they were done satisfying themselves on his tender, young flesh, they would set him free. And then he would sic the authorities on the disgusting pair. Then he would be the hero. Yes, it was a small price to pay to rescue his town from that machine and those men.
“You misunderstand us,” Flint said, once he was down to his skivvies, his clothes heaped at his right.
“You mistake our intention,” Shale said, as he stood in his long underwear, his suit neatly folded at his feet. “You see, the machine is powered by blood, but it is not for mining your precious coal.”
“It’s not?” Thomas asked. “Then how do you make those tunnels?”
“We dig the tunnels,” Flint said. “We dig, because we have always dug.”
“For eons we have moved through this rock and soil,” Shale said. “Long before your kind came down from the trees, our kind was digging. And we dug so far down, so far into the cold and the black and the silence that some of us became lost in the deep.”
“And now we search for those lost. But not with the machine. No.”
Thomas had no idea what madness the pair was spouting. He just wanted to make sure they weren’t planning on tossing him inside of the thing that ate Johnny Wray. And, most likely, ate his father too. “If it doesn’t dig, then what does that thing do?”
“The machine is for collection and storage,” Shale said.
“C-c-collection of what?” Thomas asked, even though he knew the answer well enough.
“Food,” Flint said. His skin rippled and his face swelled.
“For when we find our brethren,” Shale said. The muscles all across his arms and legs bulged and writhed.
“Oh,” Thomas said. It then dawned upon him that being tossed into the machine was a blessed finish compared to where this little show was headed.
“But for a treat as rare as you,” Flint hissed, and licked his lips with a blackened, forked tongue.
“We just can’t help ourselves,” Shale growled, and gnashed his twisted fangs.
There came a great ripping of fabric as the pair of men shed the last of their clothing, and changed into, well, young Thomas didn’t really have a word for it. And even if he did, he wouldn’t have been able to think such a word, as his mind shattered at the sight of so much fang and claw and darkness. He cowered dumbly as the things that once were Shale and Flint closed in on him, and tore him into two, even pieces.
And swallowed them whole.
Tonia Brown is a southern author with a penchant for Victorian dead things. She lives in the backwoods of North Carolina with her genius husband and an ever fluctuating number of cats. She likes fudgesicles and coffee, though not always together. When not writing she raises unicorns and fights crime with her husband under the code names Dr. Weird and his sexy sidekick Butternut. You can learn more about her at: www.thebackseatwriter.com