(© Biswapriya Purkayastha)
the heat of the forenoon, the air over the quarry was hazy with dust and the
bare rock was painfully bright in the sun.
Jamilah stepped carefully down the zig-zag metal stairs, holding
on to the thin railing and trying not to get her stiletto heels caught in the
narrow rungs. The dust mixed in the sweat on her skin and left tracks down her
face, and she wished she could have dressed in something more appropriate than
a business suit. But she was an executive, a representative of her company, and
she had to look the part.
At the bottom of the stairs, a drill operator in an orange
high-visibility jacket silently handed her a yellow hard hat. She looked it
over before putting it on, noting the scuff marks and scratches, and a gash
near the crown that must have almost penetrated all the way through the hard
plastic. The operator stared back at her, his eyes daring her to make an issue
of the quality of the headgear.
They all hated her, of course. They would, at this time of
all times. She was the face of the company, and the one to blame for everything
that had happened.
Well, screw them. She had enough problems to deal with
already, and she wouldn’t let some passive-aggressive drill jockey with a tenth
of her education put her off her stride.
The heat down here was incredible. The quarry, a huge
semicircle, pale yellow stone honeycombed with tunnels, seemed to focus the
entire fire of the sun to the precise spot where she stood. The floor of the
quarry was littered with pieces of stone, from boulders the size of houses to
pebbles smaller than her little fingernail. When she moved, they skittered away
from her feet as though alive.
She thought about asking the lout in the orange jacket where
the manager’s office was, but she was damned if she’d be obliged to him for
anything, even if it were something as small as that. Giving the hard hat a
shake, to rid it of any grit that might be stuck in the lining, she clapped it
on her hair and stalked off across the floor of the quarry.
Here and there, among the rocks, she saw piles of miniphant
dung, and over on one side the long sheds with corrugated roofs that had to be
their stables. A trio of crude haystacks towered over the sheds, and were
fenced off with posts and barbed wire. Jamilah’s lips tightened when she saw
the wire; the contract for leasing the miniphants specifically prohibited that
kind of thing.
She was still looking at the stacks when there was a soft
heavy tread behind her, and something snorted deeply, blowing a gust of air at
her. Slowly, not making any startling movements, she turned.
The miniphant was pulling along a line of trolleys of
crushed ore, a towing harness around its barrel-shaped body. Its short trunk
was extended in her direction, breathing in her unfamiliar smell, its large
ears held out alertly. She saw the tattooed identification number on its ear,
304x31. It was a 304 series, meaning it must be an old animal, something borne
out by the cracks in its toenails and the deep wrinkles in its grey-brown skin.
She noticed a small wound in its near haunch, a half-healed double laceration,
and wondered how it had managed to hurt itself.
"It’s all right," she said softly. "Carry on with your
work." The miniphant eyed her for a moment more, and then lumbered past with
its train of trolleys. It was big for a miniphant, almost as tall as she was,
another confirmation of its age. The newer series ‘phants were equally strong,
but tended to be much smaller. She’d certainly have all the details of its
personal history in her files. They contained the data of every animal leased
to this particular mining company, now and in the past.
Turning to see if she could find any other ‘phants, she
finally located the manager’s office. It was a prefab construction on a metal
platform, partially built into a niche in the cliff. A stocky figure stood
outside, arms folded across its chest, watching her. When the man saw that she
had noticed him, he turned and walked back into the office.
She fought down the spasm of irritation. She couldn’t afford
to let emotion affect her judgement. She wiped her face on her handkerchief,
leaving dirty grey streaks on the white linen, and walked off across the quarry
floor towards the office.
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