Saturday, January 21, 2017

Into the Mines, Part 6

Anger built on Zeke's face. "What are you talking about? I don't understand every word, but I get the drift." Zeke raised his gun again and pointed it toward the nearest orb. "I'll just point out that I have a gun and I plan on protecting myself. I'm working as your slave, and I don't think you'll find too many takers on the outside, either. They all have guns, too."

"You will obey. You are now Amalgam."

"I've had enough of this." Zeke pulled the trigger. The gun boomed in his hand. The echo reverberated in the chamber. Weyman winced as a number of small rocks tumbled to the ground, but the chamber ceiling held. The bullet appeared to pass directly through the orb nearest to Zeke and hit the side of the space craft. It left a noticeable ding on the metal hull before ricocheting off.

"We sense a threat to the safety of Amalgam. We will neutralize the threat." The five orbs stopped bobbing in air. Their positions became fixed in a pentagram, and each of the humans heard a humming sound, as though an electrical generator had started up. The hum became louder and louder before an arc of electricity joined each of the five orbs. The pentagram glowed with an unbearable intensity for just an instant, then a beam of electricity shot from each of them, converting to a single point as the beams reached Zeke's chest. His chest burst into flames, the gun clattering to the ground of the chamber. When the others could see, they looked at Zeke, now lying on the ground, a hole in his chest where he had been hit, the wound still smoldering. The air crackled with static.

"Zeke!" Gayle cried, running to him. He stared at her with lifeless eyes.

"Threat neutralized," came the voice inside their heads.

"You didn't have to do that," said Weyman.

"We protect Amalgam."

Vernon stepped toward them, palms displayed outward. "Gentlemen, no need for violence. Surely we can work out something... If you've waited on Earth all this time, you can wait a few more years. Work with us - help us develop our technology - and we might surprise you. We'll help get you home. We might even be able to make some improvements." As he talked, Vernon slowly moved his hands down and simultaneously edged toward Zeke's body, where his gun lay on the floor of the cavern. "Really, there's no need for this talk of slavery."

"Threat detected."

Vernon lunged for the gun. Before he could reach it, the orbs again built up a beam of electricity, this time aimed at Vernon. Again, the beam leapt from the foremost orb, striking Vernon chest-high. He fell only feet from Zeke's body.

"Threat neutralized."

"What did you do that for?" Weyman demanded angrily.

"We sensed that the human intended to harm Amalgam. His words suggested acquiescence, but his thoughts indicated he intended violence toward us."

"You can read our thoughts?" asked Gayle.

"Not directly. We can sense emotional states. This man's emotional state was hostile. Now we will leave."

Gayle locked eyes with Weyman for a moment. He gave a brief nod, then returned his attention to the orbs. She hoped he understood what she wanted to communicate. Weyman clasped his hands behind him and started pacing. "Your murderous bastards!" he said. "You think you can force us to work for you, to be your slaves, but you don't know humans very well. We all will be hostile to you. We will rebel at every opportunity. Oh, not all of us; some will decide that it will be easier for them to do things your way. The rest of us, though, oh yes, we'll be hostile to the core. Every day. What will you do then? Will you kill all of us? One at a time, or will you engage in mass murder every time things don't go your way? We always thought that when we met another race that they would be enlightened and peaceful, that any civilization capable of creating technology so advanced as to allow interplanetary travel would have long since evolved to the point where they respected life. What a bad assumption that turned out to be!" He pace as he talked, the orbs following intently his every change of direction.

"We sense this human is emotionally disturbed. Human, remain calm or we will neutralize the threat."

This seemed to rile Weyman even more. "You'll 'neutralize the threat'?" He sneered. "You're a pathetic excuse for a race, if you ask me."

"We owe you no explanation. We are Amalgam. We act in accordance with our needs. Our highest need is to remain alive."

Weyman thought he knew what Gayle conveyed in her glance. He understood why the cavern had been tightly sealed, and why the exterior door had warned future travelers not to enter. He understood why the mine had closed, despite the heavy concentration of cavorite remaining in this area. But knowing what had happened and knowing that the Amalgam could not be permitted to leave the cavern was not enough. Weyman was armed only with his anger. He focused it on the orbs, daring them to use their weapon on him. "Are you prepared to try to subjugate millions of us, all as hostile as I am, as Vernon was, as Zeke was?" His pacing took him to the aft end of the ship, and further and further from the torches that he and Zeke had set out. He wandered back into the light, then out again. Each time the orbs followed his progress. He could feel the static electricity in the air as they readied their killing shot. Just a little longer... Do you feel my hatred? he thought toward them.

Evidently they did, as the electrical hum increased in intensity. As Weyman circled in closer to the orbs, they fired, the weapon crackling with energy as it discharged.

At the edge of the cavern, Gayle tried to prevent the orbs from reading her emotions. She focused on her happiest thoughts. Outings with her children, intimate moments with her husband. The day she was accepted into university. She reached into Zeke's bag. Tea with her best friend. Her fingers found the sticks of dynamite and the blasting caps. The sensation of ice cream on the tongue on a hot summer day. She worked quickly, attaching the blasting caps to the dynamite. Curling on a sofa next to the fireplace, a new novel by Wilkie Collins in her hands. She dug into the bag for matches. Her first ride in an airship, and the feeling she had as the ground receded from her. She opened the box of matches and grasped for one, dropped it, and took another. Feeling safe as a child in her mother's arms. She struck the match. The pleasures of falling asleep, safe in her husband's arms. She lit the fuse.

The sound of the explosion filled the chamber. The entrance to the chamber collapsed instantly, burying Gayle in a shower of rocks. As the detonation forced itself outward, first the wooden scaffolding in the outer tunnel fell, then the ceiling of the tunnel, then the ceiling of the chamber. As each successive level of the mine disintegrated, the level above lost its support, and the effect rippled upward. The areas most heavily tunneled were nothing more than a hollow shell, the ancient wood the only thing holding together the remaining rock. All of the weight came down on the space ship and its hapless occupants. Though the ship itself had enormous tensile strength, the orbs, caught in the open, had no such protection. The light from the orbs flared briefly before dying out.


The blast leveled trees and houses in the Moors, and shattered windows in Victoria City. Even the instruments on the sky base in far away Middlesea detected the event. The militia, concerned that this might be an attack on Caledon herself, was first on the scene, followed shortly by rescue personnel. They arrived in time to see a few stray pieces of cavorite float gently into the sky before disappearing. Of the mountain there remained little trace, just a plain consisting of chunks of rock.

Later, of course, inquiries from the families of the expedition as to the whereabouts of their loved ones convinced the authorities that the four explorers were buried under the uncountable tons of rock. The Guvnah himself spoke solemn words at a memorial service. There were tears and mourning, but Caledon returned to its business, found ways around the shortage of cavorite, and soon gave little thought to the old cavorite mine - or what  lay beneath the surface.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Into the Mines, Part 5

Beyond the door lay a vast cavern. The lamps penetrated only a few feet into the darkness, but their footsteps echoed a long way into the chamber. Eastcott said, "I'll do the honors" and stepped through the vault door. The others followed warily.

Clark and Johnston pulled out torches from Clark's bag. They left the bag at the entrance to the chamber and, moving cautiously a few feet at a time, placed the torches at intervals, lighting each one as soon as it was anchored to the hard cave floor. When they ran out of torches they had not yet illuminated the entire cavern. What they could see of it, however, caused all four to stop in their tracks and stare.

The near walls, which were the only ones visible, were studded with large chunks of cavorite. Loose pieces of the rock floated gently in the cavern, while still other, purer pieces hugged the top of the cavern. Standing in the midst of the cavorite was a metal craft, thirty by twenty feet in area and a half-dozen feet tall. The exterior of the craft was badly damaged, with fire damage visible along the right-hand side and crumpled metal at the point of impact with the floor of the cavern.

Gayle stayed by the chamber opening, cautiously peering into the gloom. The metal craft was obviously created rather than formed, but it would have been impossible to get such a large structure into the cavern. Unless... but no, the mountain had existed for millions of years.

Vernon Eastcott did not share Gayle's sense of caution. He burst past her and hobbled toward the craft as fast as his injured leg would allow. "Vernon, wait just a minute!" Weyman Clark called out to no avail. Vernon reached the side of the craft and banged on the metal exterior. The sound echoed in the chamber. "Vernon, we don't know anything about this... spaceship."

Gayle exhaled when she heard Weyman use the word. She wasn't the only one who thought that the craft was unlikely to be of human origin. But did Weyman understand the implications of what he was saying? An alien race discovered Earth before mankind even existed? Her thoughts were interrupted by a high-pitched shriek. She returned her attention to the craft. After Vernon's repeated bangs on the hull, a door opened, and what appeared to be five balls of light tumbled out.

"What the hell?" That was Zeke. He backed up, pulling his pistol as he moved, and aimed it at one of the balls of light.

"Don't shoot!" Weyman said. "We don't know what these things are, but they don't seem hostile. And at any rate, that kind of loud, percussive sound might bring the ceiling down on us." Zeke didn't fire the gun, but neither did he put the revolver away. He looked at the balls of light suspiciously. By this time, they had separated considerably, bobbing in air in a semi-circle in front of the craft

"What are you?" Weyman asked.

He didn't expect a reply and was considerably startled when he heard, "We are Amalgam. Out of many, one." The voice appeared to be coming from inside his head. Weyman turned to the others. "Did you all hear that?"

"Bloody hell!" Vernon swore, which Weyman took as agreement. Zeke nodded his head, and Gayle, who had taken a tentative step into the chamber, said, "Yes, I heard it, too."

Weyman turned to the orbs. "You understand me?"

Again, the voice came from inside his head. "We understand. We are Amalgam. We know what you know."

Still with a look of shock on his face, Vernon turned to the orbs. "What are you doing in here?" he demanded.

"We were trapped here when our vessel crashed. The force of our impact took our vessel to this, the lowest level of the mountain. Then rock dislodged by the impact fell upon us, sealing us in this chamber. Our power source - the green rock you call cavorite - was dispersed throughout the mountain. What little we had left we used to expand this chamber to attempt to reach the remainder of the cavorite."

Gayle said to the creatures, "But that must have been millions of years ago! How have you survived all this time?"

The orbs bobbed in unison. "We do not need corporeal bodies. We are energy. We are thought. We live until we run out of energy. With enough cavorite, a million of your years is but a moment in time."

Zeke asked the practical question. "What do you plan to do now that your chamber is open? Are you going to go home?"

From inside everyone's head there was a resounding. "YES. But we lack energy. Your world is rich in energy. You have much coal to power your steam machines. If there is coal, there is likely much radioactive material as well. You will mine this material for us and rebuild our engines so we may escape this world."

"We'll do your mining? Why should we do that for you?" That was Zeke again.

"We are energy. We lack the bodies to do this ourselves. Once we had mechanical machines to mine, to build. You would call them automatons. They did not survive the crash. Instead, you will be our automatons. You will mine, you will build."

Weyman asked, "How many people are we talking about? And for how long?"

"We calculate that two million people each working one of your days will take approximately ten thousand, six hundred and twenty-four days to complete the task."

"WHAT?" Vernon said. "You're insane. You can't get two million people to work for a day, much less, what, twenty years for you."

"Slightly over 29 years," Gayle said quietly.

"You have no choice. We are Amalgam. You are now Amalgam. If you do not obey, you are an impurity in the system. We will expunge you."

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Into the Mines, Part 4

Johnston pried the plywood off the door. In faded letters, a sign on the door read, "Danger! Keep out - DO NOT OPEN!"

"I don't understand," Sawyer said. "This area has hardly been mined, and it should contain some of the richest cavorite deposits.

"Perhaps the ground here is unsafe," Clark replied. ", we're on solid rock at this point. Whoever was here before us clearly dug their way in, and intended to make this an active mining spot, given the size of that doorway."

Sawyer nodded. "And yet they didn't mine it. Maybe we should pay attention to the sign."

Eastcott shook his head. "Are you crazy? We set out to find cavorite. We made it all the way down here, you think there's cavorite behind that door, and now you want to stop? You lot can go back home if you want. I'm going in.” No one moved. “Just remember, I’m not paying quitters. Leave now and our deal is off.” He took the pickaxe from Johnston and swung it at the door. The dry wood splintered at the first blow. Eastcott kept at it until he had created a space large enough to walk through. "Anyone with me?" He stepped into the chamber.

Beyond the doorway was a small tunnel, its ceiling low enough that even Gayle had to stoop to walk through it. At the end of the tunnel, perhaps fifty feet from the wooden doorway, was a wall of rock. A metal door, like the door to a bank vault, was built into the rock. Instead of a timer lock, however, a metal wheel protruded, presumably linked to the bolt holding the door closed. The entire structure was about the size and appearance of the maintenance hatches that led to the lower levels of Victoria City, only installed vertically, on the wall, rather than horizontally, on the ground. The vault door appeared to have been installed hastily, but fitted later with airtight seals along the door's edges.

"Looks like someone was not only here before us, but they wanted to make sure whatever is on the other side of the door stays there," Clark said.

"Mebbe poison gas?" Johnston suggested. Various heads nodded, and Johnston removed a set of gas masks from his bag.

"Wait," Sawyer said. "You're not thinking of opening that seal, are you?"

Eastcott smirked. "Not much sense of adventure from you, eh, Miss Sawyer?"

"A sense of self-preservation, sir."

Weyman Clark caught Eastcott by the arm. "I've had just about enough from you, Eastcott! We all want to know what's on the other side of that wall, but this is not a time to be reckless. Someone went through the trouble of putting not just a doorway there but a sealed vault, and you want to blunder past it? If you have a death wish, that's none of my business. But I draw the line at getting killed with you!"

"Oh, grow up, Clark." Eastcott shrugged off the thin man's grip. Johnston is probably right, there's gas in the chamber. I'll wait until everyone has a mask on, but I intend on going in. Perhaps miners back in Horg Neurocam's day didn't know how to work safely in an area with gas, but we certainly do now. There's cavorite inside, and I intend to be the one to get it out!"

Clark and Sawyer exchanged looks with one another, but neither made a move to leave. Finally, Clark shrugged and said, "You're a fool, Eastcott."

All four placed their gas masks over their faces and adjusted the straps so that the masks fit snugly. Eastcott grabbed the wheel and tugged sharply. It did not move. He placed his body above the wheel and used his mass to create more torque, but still nothing. "It must be rusted shut," he declared.

Johnston rummaged in his bag once more and brought out a stick of dynamite. "We can blast 'er open."

The other three turned at once and said in near-unison: "No!" Clark continued, "The structure above us is unstable. An explosion is likely to bring down the whole thing onto our heads."

"We'll have to settle for some method other than brute force," Sawyer said.

Eastcott brought the pickaxe forward and banged it on the wheel a half-dozen times. "To loosen the rust," he said by way of explanation. He called Johnston over and the two of them gripped the wheel. "One...two...three!" They turned simultaneously. Metal groaned, the wheel moved a fraction of an inch, and, with another mighty push from the two men, started to turn freely. Eastcott spun the wheel until he felt it stop, then pulled the door open.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Into the Mines, Part 3

Weyman Clark took the lead as the group started its descent into the mine, with Zeke then Gayle behind him and Vernon bringing up the rear, limping badly.


Vernon strode into the Sign O' the Times, a student bar convenient to his apartment and even more convenient to the lecture hall, flanked by John and Morris, two of his cronies. The Sign was crowded, as it always seemed to be - doesn't anyone study at this university? Vernon thought as he elbowed his way to the bar.

He waved some coins until he caught the bartender's attention. "Two pints and a Cognac Alexander." He tossed the coins on the counter and watched as the bartender mix heavy cream and creme de cacao with a generous measure of cognac, pour the concoction in a glass, and top it with a sprinkle of nutmeg before turning his attention to the ale. Vernon was a regular at the Sign, and the bartender knew where the mixed drink was headed; Vernon tipped well but he did not like waiting for a drink. He knew he was showing off for his friends, the rich boy who could not only afford to buy a round but could also afford the comparative luxury of hard liquor rather than the endless pints of ale that most of his fellow students consumed. However, it was also true that the cream helped soothe his stomach, and Vernon's stomach needed frequent soothing.

Earlier in the day he had received a generous cheque from his father to cover the new school term's tuition and expenses - and God and Father both knew Vernon had considerable expenses - along with a predictably insufferable letter from the old man once again complaining about his dissolute son. The routine was almost comical in both its regularity and its lack of effect, but Vernon, despite his outward joviality that evening, wasn't laughing. His father wanted Vernon to take over the business, which in the elder Eastcott's opinion required starting, as he did, on the factory floor and working toward more responsible positions. This plan did not, again according to Eastcott pere, require a university degree, much less one in French poetry, much less one that involved as much alcohol consumption as this degree appeared to require. This debate was an ongoing one, trench warfare of a sort, wherein neither side was able to take much ground despite ongoing casualties in the form of the deteriorating relationship between father and son. As a consequence, Vernon's stomach acid burned even more intently than usual. He’s show his father, though. One day he’d be wealthy, but not by working for his old man, nor by toiling on a factory floor. He just needed the right opportunity.

In the meanwhile, living well was better than living in poverty. And perhaps he could convince his father to provide some seed money for a promising venture, should one come his way. For the moment, the was drinking to be done.

"Drink up, lads! No point in letting the beer sit in barrels on the floor when it could be sitting in your stomachs instead!" he shouted to John and Morris as he balanced the three glasses over his head, making his way to the corner of the bar where his friends stood, already eying a group of local girls on the prowl for husband material of the rich variety. Vernon handed over the two pint glasses. He took a gulp of his Cognac Alexander, feeling the cream coat his stomach and the alcohol hit his bloodstream.


Weyman Clark peered down at the blueprints and back up at the steel structure under construction. He frowned. He wasn’t looking forward to delivering the bad news to the construction foreman but he could see no way to avoid the conversation. The steel used in the structure was riddled with impurities and would not bear the weight of the completed building. To play for time, he took off his glasses and polished them vigorously. He noted ruefully that while no one wanted his building to fall down, no one was kind to the structural engineer who bore bad news.

The foreman was arriving, but, to Weyman’s dismay, he wasn’t alone. The engineer recognized the two beefy men with the foreman, and their presence meant Weyman’s day was not going to get any better. “Gentlemen!” he said to the two newcomers, “What brings you here? I didn’t expect to see you at my place of work.” He emphasized the last four words in the vain hope that the moneylender and his muscle would take the hint.

“May I have a word?” asked Ffinch, the lender, and the muscle man steered Weyman away from the baffled-looking foreman. “You owe me a great deal of money. You’re not just a gambler, but a very bad gambler. I don’t mind lending to gamblers. The ones who never pay me back… well, I don’t often make a mistake, and when I do it makes me very angry.”

Weyman said nervously, “I promised I’d get you the money, Mr. Ffinch. I just need more time.”

“Which is exactly what you don’t have,” said Ffinch. “But don’t worry. I’m not here to break anything. No, as much as I’d like to hurt you, I’d prefer to have my money back. I’m here with an opportunity for you that could help out both of us. Have you ever heard of a man named Vernon Eastcott?” Weyman shook his head. “No? I’m not really surprised. Eastcott has never done anything for himself, so no reason to pay him any mind. His father is rich, though, and the young Eastcott has a crazy idea. The combination of the two creates… opportunities, and that’s where you come in. Are you interested?”

“If I can clear my debt with you, Mr. Ffinch, I’m certainly interested.”

“Good. Just what I wanted to hear. Now go to this address when you’re finished at this site…”


The group continued to make their way into the mine, through one twisty passage after another, spiraling downward from the higher, played-out seams to the lowest reaches of the mine. Zeke Johnston allowed his mind to wander.


Zeke Johnston knew the first punch was coming. Not the specifics, mind you, but a brawl was inevitable. When a punch landed on his jaw, he was not in the least surprised.

The bar - really a long plank of wood under which the barman kept semi-clean glasses and jugs of either whisky or beer - was mobbed, filled with miners with wages freshly paid lining their pockets. The last shift at the cavorite mine had ended, the mine was now closed, and every miner had just lost a job. True, the severance pay was generous - possibly too generous, to judge by the melee now under way - but the men knew that they were unlikely to find other jobs that paid nearly as well. Despite the various hardships and dangers that accompanied the life of a miner, the pay was enough to make it worthwhile, especially come payday and an evening at the Miner's Lamp, as the bar was styled.

Zeke had knocked back a few whiskies with his crew, more to be sociable than anything else. He dreaded this day. The mines were all he knew. He was too old to learn a new trade, far too young to stop working, and his wife and children were depending on him. Nearly everyone was in the same boat, of course, but most seemed to think of finding employment as a problem to tackle at a point in the future, one so distant that it wasn't worth contemplating at present, not when there was more whisky to drink.

Although Zeke responded to the first punch with one of his own, his heart wasn't into the brawl.


Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Into the Mines, Part 2

One evening, drinking in a seedy bar in Morgaine, Vernon Eastcott heard a rumor from a man who claimed he worked as a foreman in the old mine: the mine had plenty of cavorite remaining, easily accessible to a crew, but the owners refused to allow the most valuable section of the mine to be developed. Why would anyone do this? Eastcott asked, rightly suspicious of such a story in spite of the amount of young whisky he had consumed. The foreman said he didn't know, merely that the owners stood by their decision despite the entreaties of many of their employees. Later, even after he sobered up, Eastcott continued to mull over the story. He finally decided to act by lining up a geologist and structural engineer, the first to assess whether the mine still had commercially viable quantities of cavorite left in it, the latter to determine what kind of work would be necessary to turn the idle mine into an operating one. He needed Zeke to bring samples back to Gayle and to use his knowledge of the inner workings of the mine to guide the team. Eastcott would put up the small amount of money to equip the team and to get them there and back, and, if things worked out, he would put up the much larger sum to buy ownership of the mine and start it working again. The other three would receive small shares.

So far, progress had been slow, as the condition of the wooden supports had deteriorated more than expected. Although they had started in the early morning, they were only now, nearing noon, reaching the mouth of the mine.

As the group walked on Gayle thought about that moment, several years back, when she first heard the name Eastcott.


"Tell me, Gayle, when did you know he was the one?" Lady Tain took a sip of tea and stretched her legs on Gayle Sawyer's divan. The aristocrat kept a steady gaze on her hostess.

Gayle had been surprised - mostly pleasantly - when Lady Tain invited herself to the house Gayle and her new husband had just moved into. Lewis Sawyer had purchased the town house for his much younger bride in a good part of Caledon Regency and the eccentric Lady Tain turned out to be a neighbor. 

Gayle sat erect in the straight-backed chair, her bottom barely touching the front of the seat. She had served tea and biscuits to her guest and poured a cup for herself, but her cup sat, untouched, on the small table to her right. Gayle had only the vaguest notion of how to entertain a member of the aristocracy and was operating on the assumption that being as polite as possible could not hurt. She was also a bundle of nerves. "I was in Steelhead at the time, Your Ladyship," she began in a practiced voice that indicated this was not the first time in telling this anecdote. "I had called upon Lewis's firm to offer my services. At the time, the firm operated a number of coal mines in Steelhead and was considering an expansion of the business to minerals as a large tract of land on what was believed to be a dormant volcano became available. I thought I might be able to help the firm understand what the composition of those volcanic minerals were likely to be." Gayle played with her cup but did not remove it from the saucer.

"Do go on."

"Although I had completed my studies two years prior, and had made similar proposals to other firms, I had not yet been commissioned to undertake a geologic assessment. Indeed, often my request to present myself to discuss my services were summarily rejected. Lewis not only met with me, and showed no disfavor at my sex, he also treated me with the utmost seriousness and fairness. How could I not love a man who accepted as a matter of course what I desired to make my life's work, unconventional though it is for a lady?"

Lady Tain chuckled, knowing something herself about being unconventional. "Indeed, Mrs. Sawyer." She ate a biscuit, brushing the crumbs off her blouse. "And did you win the job?"

Gayle nodded. "I did. It was not as long-lived or as lucrative as I had hoped, however. As it turned out, I discovered that the volcano was not quite as dormant as believed, and that mining activity in the area would be quite dangerous. Though Lewis's firm chose not to undertake the new business, and in short order I was once again unemployed, I gained a husband."

"And do you continue to do this...unconventional work?"

"I would very much like to do so." She sighed. "At times I despair that I will never be taken seriously. Yet how can I fail to pursue my passions?"

"Well said, Mrs. Sawyer. Well said." Lady Tain’s expression turned unexpectedly businesslike. “Have you, by any chance, heard of a wealthy gentleman named Eastcott, Vernon Eastcott? I should think he would very much like to make your acquaintance. He may have an intriguing proposition for you…”


Vernon Eastcott had never been a patient man. As a child, each year he tried to find where his parents hid his Christmas present, opened the package to see what was in it, then tried to conceal his mischief by re-sealing the package, invariably in a way that was obvious to all. At university, Vernon was bright but often bored, leading him to tune out the lecturer after Vernon thought he understood the basics of the lecture. Even in adulthood, he flitted from one project to the next, never maintaining interest for long.

Now, his impatience was once again getting the better of him. He pulled ahead of the group, eager to reach the depths of the mine to find out how much cavorite remained. He trod heavily on the wooden scaffolding, and soon the inevitable happened: his foot punched through one of the planks, causing him to trip and fall with a heavy thud. The scaffold shook. Far behind him, Zeke Johnston yelled, "Hey! Careful up there, or you'll get us all killed!" Vernon tried to stand, but the pain in his ankle was intense. He felt dizzy, and sank to his knees.

"Are you all right?" Gayle asked as the other three drew nearer. Weyman helped Vernon to his feet and steadied him as Vernon tried to keep weight off his injured ankle. Zeke just shook his head and muttered, "Damn rich kid. No business to be out here."

"Can you keep going?" asked Weyman. "If we're going to have to turn around, let us know now, before we get deeper into the mine."

The pain had started to subside. Vernon tested the ankle with a careful step and grimaced. "I think it'll be okay," he told the others. "Let's keep going."

Monday, January 16, 2017

Into the Mines, Part 1

I have been known to use these pages to describe some of my own adventures in the Steamlands. The manuscript that follows is not part of my own tale, however, and the manner in which it came into my possession is somewhat unusual. One morning, while I waited for the kettle to warm, I stepped outside to take in the brisk dawn air. I saw a parcel wrapped in brown paper, tied with a string, addressed to me. The outside bore no other markings - in particular, it gave no indication as to the origin of the parcel or its sender. Curious, I brought it inside, snipped the twine, and removed the contents, which turned out to be a handwritten manuscript, author unknown.

Over several cups of tea, I read the manuscript, then read it again. Though the story was fanciful, it had the ring of truth to it. And, in fairness, I have seen my share of unusual events in the Steamlands. More importantly, the tale offered an explanation for what until now has been a deep mystery: what happened to Caledon’s cavorite mine? This is the tale of the last expedition to the mine. I offer the manuscript as I received it, and make no guarantees of its veracity. - RJ


Vernon Eastcott stepped hard on the wooden plank, making the entire bridge bounce. He didn't bother to look behind him - he knew that the other three were glaring at his back. If he looked, they would take the opportunity to remind him that the wood was old, rotten in places, and that falling through the bridge, to the rocks below, would be bad for everyone's health. He twirled his handlebar mustache and smiled to himself.

Eastcott had no particular expertise for this expedition, unless one considered the ability to write a substantial check to be an expertise. Certainly he thought that ability entitled him to walk ahead of the others, his broad back side constituting the main vista for the three followers.

Just behind Eastcott, Weyman Clark wondered, not for the first time, what he had gotten himself into. Eastcott was correct about not looking back, because Clark, a slender man in his early 40s wearing wire-frame spectacles, was on the verge of reminding the big man to be careful where he stepped and to tread lightly. Clark was an expert in structural engineering, and was there to offer his opinion on whether the mine passages were still sound enough to resume operations. He had no experience with old wooden bridges, but his instinct said this one had little life left in it.

"Stop bouncing!" called out Gayle Sawyer, a petite woman wearing overly-large trousers and work boots, as she walked gingerly behind Clark. Sawyer was a geologist in her early 30s, a little worried about leaving her husband alone with their infant son while she traipsed about the shuttered cavorite mine. But she had analyzed the soil and rock samples that Zeke Johnston, the last member of the team, brought to her, and it was her conclusion that the mine still contained commercially-viable amounts of cavorite that led to the formation of the little group.

Zeke Johnston maintained his position in the rear. He was mindful of the problems with the bridge but assumed that, if it had stood this long, it would last a few more minutes. Johnston had worked the mine for years before the closure, and looked the part: solidly-muscled, with an unkempt beard and faded and fraying clothing. A well-worn revolver hung in a holster on a belt. Johnston hadn't worked steadily since the closure of the mine. He needed the money that would come with re-opening the mine, which is why some weeks ago he was willing to trespass on the grounds of the mine in order to collect the samples for Gayle and why he was trudging behind the rest of the group that morning. He carried a large rucksack filled with tools: pickaxes, miners' lamps, dynamite and blasting caps, and shielded containers to keep any cavorite samples from drifting off into space.

The foursome was making their way from the flatlands of Caledon's Moors to the rocky expanse of the old cavorite mine. For many years, the mine supplied most of the cavorite - that mysterious green ore with the property of generating a field of negative gravity - used throughout the Steamlands, from keeping airships and hovercraft aloft to creating floating buildings. The output of the mine declined precipitously in the 80s. Ownership changed hands several times, and the last owner finally stopped production entirely, closing the mine and declaring the entire area off limits. The years passed and the infrastructure of the mine slowly decayed.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

No Free Lunches - or Child Care

Paid family leave - it’s all the rage! Getting to spend sixteen weeks with that newborn child and still collect a paycheck sounds like a great idea to most people, but it’s another example of economic illiteracy.

The Washington Post describes the DC Council’s efforts to put together such a mandated benefit to city workers, financed by a tax on businesses. The Post being the Post, it adds some editorializing-through-quotation by citing Labor Secretary Perez as saying the DC effort is “an end on a Republican-controlled Congress that has refused to take up the president’s call” for a national family leave law. The least they could have done was interview an economist to explain why this is silly. As this blog is just that - the least I can do - I’ll bridge the gap.

Claiming that the tax to finance family leave is imposed on “businesses” doesn’t mean that the incidence of the tax really falls on businesses. It’s like the Social Security tax of13%, half of which is nominally paid by the employee and half of which is nominally paid by the employer. But employers understand that hiring someone at a wage of, say, $100,000 a year means a cost of $106,500 to the employer, ignoring other employee benefits and hiring costs. If $100,000 is the prevailing wage for the job, then the Social Security tax means paying the employee $93,500 (and change) and paying the government the remaining $6,500. Ultimately, workers bear the entire incidence of the Social Security tax. Similarly, a corporate income tax is paid by the corporation, but the incidence of the tax falls primarily on shareholders.

Consequently, let’s dispense with the fiction that the DC government can tax businesses to pay for this benefit. (The article says “an extra 1%,” without explaining what it’s 1% of, and then acknowledges that no one has any idea whether the tax revenue raised would cover the costs of the benefit.) Sixteen weeks is a long time. For our hypothetical $100,000/year worker, that’s roughly $31,000 of wages. I don’t know how often one would get to use this benefit, so let’s say it’s a one-time deal. If the leave is self-financing, the cost to the worker is the full $31,000, spread over a career. You’re not getting a freebie, you’re paying for it.
Would you rather have $31,000 or a benefit worth $31,000? I know I’d rather have the cash. I can take 16 weeks of unpaid leave and be just as well off, I can take eight weeks of unpaid leave and be $15,500 in cash ahead, or I can take no unpaid leave and pocket the $31,000 - all my choice. Deduct the money from my paycheck, and the only way I get any benefit is by taking the leave.

So employees are better off with the cash - how about employers? Under the forced family leave policy, some employees will take the leave even when they’re prefer to continue to work. Without this policy, employers will be better off by having fewer disruptions to the work force. The cost to employers is the same one way or the other, whether employees are paid in cash or leave, but employers should at least weakly prefer no forced leave policy. (Employers who feel differently - for example, if an employer thinks it attracts a more loyal work force by offering paid leave - are always free to do so. The fact that the DC government, not to mention Secretary Perez, wants to force firms to have these policies means that most firms believe they’re better off by paying the cash instead.)

In summary, it’s another feel-good government policy that doesn’t actually benefit the people it is supposed to benefit - yet voters are duped into supporting it. As for me, show me the money!

Monday, June 13, 2016

Civic Duties

My number came up for jury duty a month or so ago and I ended up having to report in on Monday. The system is usually not too crazy: get a number, check the web site the night before, and see whether your number is above or below the cutoff. Mine was 468, so I figured I had a great shot at avoiding the whole thing for another year or more. Nope: they called up to number 623. (As some of the people called asked for deferments, it wasn’t really 623 jurors, but still, a big number.)

I reported in on time, went through the metal detector - twice, because no one bothered to say that the cafeteria was outside the security perimeter - and sat. And sat, and sat. In fact, the entire day they called only three groups to form juries, getting through roughly numbers 1 through 295.

Here’s the thing: every time I’m called, I get the lecture about how important this is to the process, yada yada yada. And, to be fair, Montgomery County has made the room as comfortable as a waiting room can be - true, that’s a low bar, but it’s still something. But calling huge numbers of people to sit and wait clearly means that process is done for someone else’s convenience, not mine.

I don’t have a great solution for the problem. I know that the system relies on a whole bunch of people - judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, the perps (er, defendants), jurors, clerks, and so on - and that no one wants the whole shebang to come to a halt because they’re short a few potential jurors. It’s also the case that cases often settle at the last minute, so the court has to prepare for those trials even though they know from experience that some sizable fraction won’t need juries. But damn it’s irritating to sit around all day. Maybe they could give us pagers, like the ones some restaurants use to let you know when your table is ready. At least I could have been outside on a nice day, or hanging out in the Rockville library, or drinking decent coffee nearby.

On the bright side, not having been on an actual jury, I can go back to work tomorrow and catch up on the crap that I let slide today. No rest for the wicked...

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Privacy, Productivity, and the Open Workplace

Ana from the Well-Appointed Desk blog had a recent piece motivated by an article on Facebook’s new work space in Menlo Park, California. Ana and I were both horrified by this picture:
Facebook office wp
(Image from The Independent)
As Ana said,
I find the interior space of the new Facebook office neither aesthetically appealing nor engaging for working or collaborating. It just looks cluttered, messy and noisy. The fact that no one is given any storage space nor are they encouraged to have personal items on their desk seem to only make it more disheartening and cluttered. The overly high, unfinished ceilings with cables descending down are even worse!
More to the point,
...I don’t believe that this much openness is genuinely conducive to non-distracted working and thinking. I believe it leads people to seek out other places to work, or they choose to come into work either early or stay late in an attempt to avoid distrations. I think the myth of multi-tacking needs to stop. It makes people sloppy and tired. We can multi-task for a little while but, in the end, I don’t think its effective, efficient or healthy. I don’t think we, as idea workers, can come up with our best ideas when we are constantly distracted by co-workers, bleeps, or other disturbances. Yes, its nice to have a way to bounce ideas off other people, but we need to find a better way to do it other than forcing people to sit shoulder-to-shoulder with headphones on while they madly type into their laptops and mobile devices. That’s not really collaborating, is it?
I’ve read elsewhere that there’s a generation gap in how employees perceive open workspaces. Older employees are horrified, while younger ones enjoy the camaraderie. Perhaps so. I’ve always found working in a noisy environment to be difficult, and listening to music through headphones doesn’t really help the problem. I’ve been very lucky at my organization: some years prior to my arrival, younger employees shared offices, and today younger employees are again sharing offices. When I started, we had enough space that the professional staff all had individual offices - mine was an interior private office, on a corner, with hand-me-down furniture that consisted of the leftovers after the more senior staff had picked through everything they wanted, but the key word in that was “private.” I’m now in a much nicer office, albeit next to a conference room, and the difference in my ability to concentrate between when the conference room is and is not occupied is profound. Still, I can’t complain: it’s a private office. I can stare at the screen when writing is not coming easily. I can pace around the office. I can stretch, or stare out the window, or yawn, with no sense of embarrassment. When I need to talk to someone, I can walk to another office, use the phone, or make arrangements for a meeting room. I’ve never found that collaboration is difficult. Indeed, after a few hours of solitude, it’s nice to occasionally talk to another human.

We’re supposed to believe that the open space is fine because the CEO uses it as well - the original article notes that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg just have desks in the open space. But a guy like Zuckerberg likely isn’t around much - he travels to visit parts of his empire, and I’m willing to be that, when it comes to booking the meeting rooms, all employees are equal, but Sheryl Sandberg is more equal than others.

Of course, whether this system works or not depends on a whole range of factors, from the type of employees to the nature of the work. And no doubt it’s a lot cheaper than having private offices. But, like Ana, I hope this fad fades away sooner rather than later.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Disaffected

It was a scenario too bizarre for the Onion: Donald Trump as the Republican nominee for President. Hard to imagine, and yet at this point it seems inevitable. Many Republicans are gnashing their teeth, rending garments, and going through the five stages of grief, while Democrats are chortling with glee, anticipating an historic blowout come November. Whether or not the last part comes to pass, it’s worthwhile to consider how we came to this point.

The electorate is so varied that it’s difficult to make useful generalizations, but it seems clear that a large body of voters feel that they’re being shut out of the prosperity that others have achieved and that politicians don’t seem to care. These are the Disaffected, voters who see a filtered version of what goes on in Washington and feel left out. Their preferred solutions may vary: some may want greater spending on the poor, or a higher minimum wage, or taxpayer-funded health care and college education; others see jobs taken by illegal immigrants and want better border control, or fewer job-killing regulations (for example, on coal), or just to be left alone and not taxed at every turn. Maybe they don’t spend a great deal of time thinking through the issues, but they don’t see Washington working for them. To quote Network, they’re mad as hell and aren’t going to take it any more.

This isn’t a new phenomenon, nor contained to Republican voters. In 2008, when Hillary Clinton expected to cruise to the Democratic nomination, Barack Obama was the outsider candidate – yes, sure, a U.S. Senator for a couple of years, in Chicago politics before that, but here was a guy who had almost nothing of substance to say, and in 2008 this was an advantage. His campaign was about “hope and change,” and the Disaffected convinced themselves that, whatever the problem, Obama was the answer. This election cycle, the continued strength of Bernie Sanders reflects the unhappiness Democratic voters have with Mrs. Clinton. Ethical problems and legal problems aside, Mrs. Clinton acts like a career politician, going through the motions on the campaign trail, making one uninspired stump speech after another, as if she can’t wait to get the process over with and get on with the business of doing things her way, away from the unwashed masses. Sanders sounds inspired, and offers up a steady stream of promises: free college! Free health care! Anything you want, all free! He’s pretty vague on how he plans to pay for all this, other than some references to “corporations” and “the rich” who aren’t paying their fair share. Never mind that the numbers don’t add up. What’s important to the Disaffected is that he represents hope ‘n’ change, 2016-style, and never mind that he’s spent almost his entire career in politics, mostly in Washington.

On the Republican side, voters had all sorts of candidates from which to choose, most if not all of whom could lay claim to being outsiders in one form or another. Two Senators (Rubio, Cruz) who were relative newcomers to Washington and, particularly with respect to Cruz, doing business differently than usual. A former Representative, now governor (Kasich), and four governors who had no ties with Washington (Perry, Walker, Jindal, Christie). A businesswoman (Fiorina) and a surgeon (Carson). Voters weren’t starved for anti-establishment choices, and they chose… Donald Trump. No one is voting for him because he’s conservative, and he feels free to state a position one day and contradict himself the next, so no one is voting for him on how intensely he holds his views. As far as I can tell, his positive attributes in the minds of voters are:
  • Opposition to illegal immigration. Forget the goofy “make Mexico pay for the wall” thing, and, as in everything else, he has walked back his statement that he plans to deport millions of illegal immigrants already in the country. This is the issue that got him on the Presidential radar, and the one that no other candidate, with the exception of a halfhearted Cruz, was willing to address. People who don’t have to deal with the consequences of illegal immigration can afford to be hostile toward border security, but those who have to deal with increased crime, reduced jobs for unskilled labor, and a feeling of cultural appropriation (say, why are all these signs in Spanish, anyway?) seem to think this is a serious problem. And many legal immigrants apparently are cool to the idea that other people didn’t have to go through the time or expense to do things the legal way. As Democrat Mickey Kauss often notes, it’s weird how so much ink can be spilled on how Trump got to where he is and yet not discuss his signature issue.
  • Protectionism. As in every other policy proposal, he’s maddeningly vague, but part of the populist appeal (see: Sanders, Bernie) is to focus on the down side of international trade, the part where U.S. workers lose their jobs because foreigners make stuff more cheaply. Trade often, though not always, makes both sides better off in the aggregate, but it’s hard for the losers to swallow the idea that the winners are better off by more than the losers are worse off. If you’re out of work, complaining about NAFTA or Chinese-made electronics doesn’t seem unreasonable.
  • Belittling the opposition. Frankly, I find the name-calling (“Lyin’ Ted,” et al.) to be juvenile and beneath a serious politician, but what do I know? I’m a genteel sort of person who is not comfortable with people sharing personal information talking on a cell phone in public spaces. I suspect that many people see the name-calling as an example of how Trump tells it like it is. He’s willing to insult the appearance of an opponent (Fiorina), carp about a TV talking head (Megyn Kelly), belittle a war hero (John McCain). I’d prefer politics not stoop to that level – or continue to stoop to that level – but apparently millions of others find it refreshing.
  • An empty vessel. Like the 2008 Obama, the 2016 Trump can be anything his supporters want him to be. He says a lot of things, but, as noted above, he often is for an issue and then against an issue – something for everyone! The anti-Trump crowd claims he’d govern as a liberal. Maybe that’s right, but how could anyone know? The Disaffected see a candidate who is not part of the Washington establishment, has enough money not to need the establishment, and is willing to antagonize the establishment. To a voter who is pissed off at the way things have been going, that sounds pretty appealing.
  • Making America great again. Consistent with the previous point, Trump’s slogan is both appealing, especially to people who have been left out of the good times in recent decades, and completely meaningless. (Who doesn’t want to make America great? How exactly does one go about this task?) But he presents a positive view of the country: he’s a proud American, he sees promise in other people, he sees opportunities just waiting to be realized. He doesn’t apologize for America’s past, or bow to foreign leaders. He sees a sunnier tomorrow, even if the path to get there is fogged in. In contrast, his Republican primary opponents droned on about tax reform, the debt, opposition to ObamaCare – all fine topics, worthy of discussion and debate, but hardly the stuff to inspire the Disaffected.
Maybe all of this is nonsense. I work in Washington – heck, step out of my building and one can see the Capitol – so I’m clearly part of the establishment. But the career politicians are just whistling past the graveyard if they ignore the Disaffected (just ask former Majority Whip Eric Cantor). Left-wing celebrities, TV pundits, and middle-of-the-road Republicans all lament Trump and engage in the childish name-calling that Trump himself enjoys – yes, he’s orange, I get it, okay? – and refuse to try to understand what created the phenomenon in the first place.  This reaction isn’t confined to the U.S., mind you: the problems of mass immigration in Europe have led to the rise of various nationalist groups, and the mainstream political parties and the intelligentsia castigate supporters of these parties as xenophobic or racist, without trying to understand the problems that nationalist voters face.

In my view, it’s a big mistake to ignore the concerns of a big chunk of the electorate.