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By MICHAEL BLUMLEIN
Copyright © 2005
Michael Blumlein, MD
All right reserved.
Chapter One Five years later, long on lessons but short on experience, he received his first assignment, the Pannus Mining Company, which shipped him immediately to its Great North Mine. Remote and isolated, the mine had been in continuous operation for more than a hundred years. It was legendary for its wealth of ore, having yielded trainload upon trainload of high-grade copper and of late, other, more exotic minerals. Legendary, too, for the breed of miner it attracted: hard-bitten, self-sufficient, able to withstand the long, harsh winters, the lack of amenities, the isolation. Taciturn men who favored the company of other men or no one. Payne's job was to keep them healthy enough to work. In its wisdom the Pannus Corporation kept the healer tours of duty brief. His was slated for three years.
The trip to the mine took a week by rail. He was the sole tesque in a four-car passenger train filled with miners. It was summer, and traffic to and from the mine was at its peak. The rails were clear, the days were long, and miners, being miners, were on the move. There was not a lot of talk among the men; it was a point of pride to look and act reserved. But beneath the surface there was an undercurrent of excitement. A new mine, whatever its record or reputation, always conjured the hope of being better than the last.
For the first few days they traveled through a prairie with tall grass as thick as fur, bleached pale yellow by the sun and swept by gusts of wind. Payne had never seen such grass before, nor such a plain. There seemed no end to it, no limit; it stretched as far as the eye could see in all directions. Overhead, the summer sun seemed suspended in an equally vast sky. It hovered up above like a kiting bird, and when it neared the horizon, it hovered there as well, as though afraid to set and put an end to the day. And it rarely did set, and rarely rose: as they drew farther and farther north, the days grew longer and longer. Nights were brief and never fully dark. Payne found it hard to sleep in the insubstantial, gauzy light.
One day passed, and then another, and another. The landscape didn't vary, mile after mile of the same pan-flat prairie and cloudless sky. Before long, he lost track of time and distance. In dreams and half-dreams he imagined that he would never reach his destination, that the longer he traveled, the longer he would have to travel. When he searched the faces of his fellow passengers for someone who might share this peculiar and troubling thought, all he saw is what he usually saw when their eyes happened to meet: indifference.
They weren't interested in him and kept their distance, which was a human habit when it came to tesques. It was a pity, he thought, and a wasted opportunity, for humans were notoriously ignorant of his kind. They were also, it was said (and he was taught), notoriously fragile creatures, at heart soft but on the surface guarded and hard to get to know. Which was also a pity, because he was interested in learning more about them. And he could have used the company, for it was a long journey to endure alone.
Then one day there was a break in the monotony. Something new on the horizon, a line of darker color set off against the flaxen pallor of the grass. It stretched north to south a great distance, and steadily widened, like ink spreading through cotton, broadening from a narrow stripe into a band and then a sheet. The color of the plain seemed to change before he saw what caused the change, before he even could discern movement. Ort, someone said, and then the train's brakes squealed, and everyone in the car lurched forward, then back against their seats. The herd was still a quarter mile away when the train ground to a halt. Payne pressed his face against the glass in great excitement as the tide of near-legendary animals approached.
Ochre-colored and glossy-skinned, with shaggy hair, blunt noses and rounded heads, ort walked on two stout legs, with a third, thinner and more agile limb behind them. They were only slightly taller than the tallest grass, and like a flock of birds or school of fish seemed to travel as a single entity, veering one way then the next for no discernible reason but always in the same general direction. They reached the train, engulfed it, and with no more sound than that of bodies brushing grass, moved on. There were thousands of them, hundreds of thousands; Payne tried to keep his eye on one, any one, to study it, but couldn't. They were so similar to one another and so numerous, his eye kept flicking from one to the next, and it occurred to him that this might be a survival mechanism, that a predator, if there were such a thing for ort, might have the same difficulty singling one out. Indeed, there was no word in the language for a single ort, no distinction made between one and many. As far as anyone had observed, the animals did everything together, moved and ate and bathed and slept and mated in large, often enormous, throngs. They lived together and they also died together, a fact that the Pannus Corporation had been quick to notice but slow to absorb, slow to assimilate and fully comprehend. The early trains, on encountering a herd, plowed right through it, the soft, pliant creatures no match for the impatient wheels and hard, pointed prows of the locomotives. The conductors might have stopped had there not been a timetable to keep and ore to deliver. Besides, an animal with any brain at all should have known the meaning of danger or at least known enough to learn from its mistakes. It was a pity, but not to be helped, for industry required a wide berth, and progress, as everybody agreed, had a mind of its own.
Thing was, when one ort died, others came forward. If blood happened to be spilled, and blood was, much blood, many ort came to investigate. More of them died, which in turn drew still more, until the tracks were covered with the creatures, sometimes for a mile ahead, milling, cooing, lowing, and doing that strange thing that ort did with their third appendage.
Blocked and surrounded, the trains could not proceed. Victims of their very speed and doggedness, they foundered.
It was a scary business, for conductors, engineers and passengers alike. Here they were, awash in a sea of animals with globelike, rather human-looking faces, that had every reason to be peeved and out of sorts, every reason, if so inclined, to seek revenge. But ort were not vengeful creatures, or if they were, it took a form beyond what humans understood. All they wanted, it seemed, was to stand with their dead, mingle with them and perhaps prevent further killing. At any rate, the trains could not move until they dispersed. Later trains carried bounty hunters to shoot the animals, which they did by the hundreds, by the thousands. But this did nothing to diminish the herds; in fact it seemed to have the opposite effect of increasing them, exponentially, until the plains-and, more to the point, the railroad cutting through them-were literally overrun with ort. It seemed that the death of even a modest number of animals had a profound effect on the entire herd, far and near, transforming all save a tiny portion into breeding females. Simultaneously, it shortened the gestation period and dramatically increased the number of offspring, sending the birth rate soaring. The hunters could not keep up. The hunters, it turned out, were their own worst enemies.
So now there were no hunters. There was no killing, no carnage, no barreling of train through flesh. The conductors, upon sight of a herd of ort, would instantly cut back the throttle and apply the brakes, giving the animals room to breathe and time to pass. If it took hours (and it never took less), then it took hours. An entire day, then it took a day. Going faster only slowed things down.
The last ort crossed the tracks at dawn, and the train resumed its run. Later that day Payne caught sight of a line of hills in the distance, blue and hazy, and beyond them, higher hills. They wavered and bent in the waves of heat radiating off the grass, and when the train tracks took a lazy turn and he lost sight of them, he thought that maybe he'd been dreaming. But then he noticed a subtle change in the cadence of the wheels as they ticked along the rails-a slowing, as if they'd begun to climb a gentle grade. Trees appeared, scattered broadbeams with enormous horizontal branches, bronze-skinned arbitis, fat-trunked puzzlewoods with jigsaw bark. The land began to rise, inconspicuously at first, but soon audaciously. Hills swept up on either side of them, rolling into one another like waves of water, like muscles. Some were cut by dried-up, jagged creek beds, some were smooth, some topped by rocks that looked like fists. Payne had never seen such land before. Desert born and bred, schooled like a monk, he had rarely seen a tree.
All day long they climbed, and all through the brief and ersatz night, and for once Payne was happy with the partial darkness, the ever-present twilight glow. Too excited to sleep, and too enchanted, he stared out the window, watching the land soar up around him and the trees multiply.
By dawn they were encased in a forest, stands of fir and pine so dense they kept the ground perennially in shade. Paralleling the tracks was a river, another miracle that Payne had never seen. Such an extravagance of water. In Gode the only riverbeds were dry ones and the only water at the bottom of deep wells.
After a while, the train began to labor as the grade steepened. The river dropped away into a slotted canyon, and the trees all at once seemed to be leaning forward, as if into a stiff wind.
Without warning the car was plunged into a thick and total darkness. It was a shock, and at first Payne thought that something dreadful had gone wrong. He was frightened, and apparently some of the other men were, too. But then he heard the word "tunnel," and shortly after that, they emerged to light and level ground.
Now the train seemed bent on reaching its destination without delay. It surged forward, and the stout trees that lined the tracks whipped past. Some of the miners began to gather their belongings. Payne had only one small bag, and he took it down from the overhead rack and held it in his lap.
An hour later the train slowed and with a long, tired squeal of its brakes, accompanied by the shifting creak of heavy metal, came to a grinding halt. On one side of them stood a weathered wooden platform, and beyond it, a wide expanse of flat, cleared land. Here, enormous trucks were busy digging, scooping, pushing, scraping and loading. Some had big buckets in their fronts; some, thick steel plates; some, massive jaws; some, interlocking tusklike pincers. They moved on gigantic spiked metal wheels or on equally gigantic treads. Mounds of rock, some the size of small hills, were being bullied into shape. A pair of cranes, looming over these hills hungrily, like their namesakes, were simultaneously disassembling them, bucketful by huge bucketful, transferring the rock to empty hopper cars. Other, fully laden cars were being coupled to an engine. The yard was the source of a symphony of blaring, belching, rasping, thunderous noise. The air above it was smeared with smoke and dust. For a hundred yards in every direction the ground trembled.
One by one the miners exited, congregating loosely on the platform. A man appeared and led them down a broad dirt road that gradually climbed and circled above the yard, then disappeared behind a hill. Payne followed, keeping to the rear of the group. After a week of travel he was happy to be outside, and he slowed, enjoying the freshness of the air. The sun beat down on him, and he enjoyed this, too. It was a whole new world here, and despite his lowly position, he considered himself a lucky man.
The road wound around the hill, then forked, the right branch leading northward through a copse of fir and spruce, the left leveling off to become the main street of the camp proper. At the fork Payne got his first glimpse of Pannus Mountain. It took his breath away.
It was immense, shoulder after shoulder of bare-knuckled rock sweeping upward to a dome-shaped summit capped with snow. The rock was mostly gray, and it was fissured into enormous slabs and faces, which were separated by vertical chutes and chimneys, some of which looked to be hundreds of feet tall. Cliffs gave way to ledges, which gave way to new and higher cliffs. It seemed, in fact, that this one mountain was made of many mountains. He had never seen a thing so massive or so big.
Or so oddly shaped. One whole face of it looked all wrong-scooped out and craterous and deformed, as though some mythic bird as mighty as the mountain itself had come and taken an enormous bite of it. Or as if the mountain had been eviscerated and then imploded on itself, which, in a sense, is what had happened. It had been mined since ancient times, but in the century since Pannus had lain claim to it, the mining had accelerated: millions upon millions of tons of rock had been excavated from the mountain. Beneath the surface it was honeycombed with tunnels, riddled with them, in some places riddled rotten. In parts of its upper reaches it had been almost entirely hollowed out and allowed to cave in upon itself. Which is why it looked so lopsided and so strange. It was an awesome sight, this vast, transfigured monolith. Payne had never felt so tiny. Or so in the presence of something beyond his powers of expression. He'd seen a forest, he'd seen a river, and now he'd seen a mountain. Life would never be the same.
By the time he started up again, the men were out of sight, and he made his way into the camp alone. The first building that he came to was some kind of storage shed, the next, what appeared to be a bunkhouse. Across from it a man was sitting on a porch, feet resting on a rail, watching him. Payne smiled and crossed the road to introduce himself and ask directions. The man regarded him for quite a while before eventually pointing the way.
Ten minutes later, he stood in front of the mine and camp headquarters, a solid-looking wooden building with painted siding and an overhanging A-frame roof. A black dog lounging in the shadows jumped up and barked as he approached. The door to the building swung open, and a man in overalls came out. He halted when he saw Payne, looked him up and down, spat in the dirt, then motioned with his thumb for him to go in, he was expected.
The door to the building was ajar, but Payne took no liberties; despite what he'd been told, he knocked. A rig nearby was kicking up a racket, and he could barely hear the sound of his own knuckles. He knocked louder, to no response, and after waiting for what seemed a polite amount of time, he entered.
The site boss, a lanky man with short-cropped salt-and-pepper hair, was looking out a window on the far side of the room, his face averted, his back to the door. There were several beat-up chairs on the uneven wooden floor, small casement windows in all the walls, a desk, and an ancient potbellied stove in one corner. Payne couldn't tell if the man knew he was there and cleared his throat to announce his presence.
The boss didn't turn. "Have a seat."
Payne did as he was told.
He nodded, then realized he would have to speak. "Yes. Very interesting."
"Too damn long if you ask me." His attention was fixed on something in the distance. "What the hell?" He leaned forward as if to get a better look, swore, then wheeled around and with a scowl rushed out of the room. Ten minutes later he was back. "Morons. You'd think they see a line go all goofy like that they'd know to cut the switch."
He looked to be about sixty. Gray eyes, lined and weathered face, stubbled chin, with a prominent, beak-shaped gouge in one temple that might have come from a bird of prey but more likely was from a rock.
"Bunch of clowns. I'm too old for this. Tell me you're not a clown."
"So what's your story?"
The boss grumbled something, evidently still displeased, and continued glaring out the window. At length the tension eased off his face and, satisfied, it seemed, that things were finally under control, or at least as much under control as he could hope for, he took a seat behind his desk and turned his attention to Payne.
"So you're the new healer."
"You look too young to be a healer."
Payne did not reply.
"You ever worked before?"
He shook his head.
The boss shook his. "That's great. And I don't suppose you've ever been in a mine before."
"No, sir. But I've read what I could. I've studied them."
"You've studied them."
His face sagged, as if punctured. "What's your name, son?"
Excerpted from THE HEALER by MICHAEL BLUMLEIN Copyright © 2005 by Michael Blumlein, MD. Excerpted by permission.
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