V4: Chapter 9 – Criminal Justice | Part 2.1 – Let It Crumble
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“A silver mine…” Gatrim muttered to himself once their location became obvious. Everything was starting to add up now. The prison must have been built on a deposit of silver ore veins, only to be discovered later, or they never would have wasted the land. Though that could have been the plan from the start to keep it hidden.

While possible that the guards were working on their own, it was more likely that someone higher up in the prison, possibly even the warden themself was part of this racket. So the idea was to use forced labor to mine and smuggle silver out of the prison, cutting out any workers or middlemen so that they could keep all the profits for themselves.

It was hard to say how long the mine had been around, but it was pretty well dug out. There was a chance it existed even before the Lesser prisoners, but once those with boosted strength came along, the choice to transition was an obvious one. Now it made sense why the penitentiary was so adamant to take in Lesser convicts. Gatrim had always assumed it was manual labor, but hadn’t come close to guessing that it was for a mining operation.

“Welcome to the mine,” the assumed head guard greeted them in the main cavern. “Operations have ceased for the day, but we’re going to give you the tour so that you’re ready to start first thing tomorrow. Be glad you already had your dinner, or you wouldn’t be getting any tonight otherwise,” he laughed to himself.

Gatrim and Itsy were then pushed down a series of tunnels to show them where the active veins were. They had quite a few exposed pockets already, the mine far from running dry any time soon. This also meant there was a good chance the two of them could work alone, away from the guards and the other Lessers if they needed time to discuss their plans.

But still, the main purpose was to gather evidence, and Gatrim hadn’t stopped recording since they were shown the hole in the solitary cell. The foolish guards were already spilling just about everything they’d need. But unfortunately, the boy hit his recording limit and had to stop temporarily. So he elbowed Itsy in her side to get her to pick up the slack while his synced and cleared up, wanting as little downtime as possible during those crucial moments.

They were shown where the tools were stored, constantly guarded and under lock and key after hours. Then, they were shown where to take any silver they mined. “Food for silver, that’s how it works down here. Don’t work, you don’t eat. We’ll keep you alive, but just barely. So if you want to thrive, then you’ll show results. Work extra hard, and we’ll knock time off your sentence.”

That was almost certainly a lie, but the prisoners would need that small glimmer of hope to keep going. Since this was a secret operation, the guards must have been certain that the Lessers would never see the light of day again. Even if they served their full prison sentences, they wouldn’t be allowed to leave the mine alive. But sadly, it wasn’t uncommon for ‘accidents’ to happen in a prison. High mortality rates were the standard across the world, highlighting the failing system.

When the two of them were taken to the cells, they got a glimpse of just how little hope there was left amongst their senior miners—Gatrim counted nine of them in total. A few of the Lessers looked okay, just ragged and hungry. But more than that looked on the verge of death, practically skeletons that were disgustingly dirty and bruised.

It was hard to understand how they could be treated so poorly. Maybe the guards took too much stock in how much of a boost being a Lesser provided. Or maybe they were counting on it. If they kept them weak, then that little bit of extra strength brought them back to around the capability of an average human, keeping them effective while also breaking their will and desire to revolt.

And their cells looked more like barns. For flooring, they had just some sawdust and hay with a blanket thrown over it. The bars were clearly made from scrap and rebar. All the more reason to weaken them so that they couldn’t break out. They were also chained to the floor while in their cells, so even if they broke out of containment, they were still trapped.

“We expect good work from you tomorrow, so try to get some rest.” Gatrim and Itsy were shoved into their cells and then chained, left alone and in the dark for the rest of the night.

Eventually, the lights were turned back on, blinding them for a split second. Gatrim hadn’t gotten much sleep, but Itsy had seemed to manage, or so her snoring told him. Now they didn’t have any way of knowing if it was actually morning or not. There were no convenient windows, no clocks, no connection to the outside world. It was astonishing how fast they felt isolated and trapped.

But Gatrim didn’t plan on sticking around for too long. Both he and Itsy were handed a pickaxe, a single packaged sandwich, and a canteen of water at the start of their workday. During the tool exchange, there had been several guards all aiming their weapons. But now that the Lessers were armed and dangerous, the man was surprised by how much freedom they were given.

They were essentially allowed free reign of the mine. Obviously, they couldn’t go near the exit or the tool stash, but there were no restraints otherwise. They could even go back to their cells and get more sleep if they wanted, which a few Lessers chose to do. But they wouldn’t earn any food that way, so most were actually eager to get to work.

By Gatrim’s best guess, he assumed the miners would use whatever energy they had to gather a few pieces, exchange it for rations, and then rest the remainder of the day to preserve what strength they could. Silver turnover was almost certainly pretty low, but the mineral was also in high demand.

Just a few pieces a day would be more than enough for the exploiting guards to make a good living off of. So as long as profit was being made, they had no real reason to try and force the workers to their limits, spurring their rebellious sides. For a forced labor camp, it probably wasn’t the worst in the world. But it was still exceedingly inhumane.

“We have three objectives,” Gatrim whispered to Itsy when they were finally alone, off down an isolated tunnel with a pristine vein. They’d followed a few miners first, to get pictures of them actually mining, but then split off from the group. “First, there’s a bit more evidence we need to collect.”

“Second, we need to get these miners out of here safely. They may be criminals, but they don’t deserve this treatment. And third, while it’s not part of the scope of our mission, we need to disable this mine so that no one can be exploited further. Investigations might take a while after we hand over the evidence, and there’s always a chance it might fail. But we can make sure to end this operation for good.”

“Ain’t there a fourth thing?” Itsy questioned, and then answered herself when Gatrim just looked at her with confusion. “We gotta get the mawhg outta here! May be criminals ourselves, but I ain’t ready to rot in prison for the rest of my life. Ain’t even kissed a feller yet.”

That made Gatrim smirk. “Well, as long as you're here with me, I’m confident we can break out anytime. We also need to get in contact with Riki and Ketzka somehow. But that can wait for the moment. First, we need to figure out where this silver’s going.”

◆◆◆

“Hey, this where I’m supposed to bring the silver, right?” The guards nearly doubled over in surprise when Itsy approached them with her arms stuffed full of ore—barely a few minutes of work on her part. “How much food you think this gon’ get me? Hold on, let me count em.”

She dropped the ore onto the floor into a pile, then started picking them up one-by-one as she counted aloud. One of the greedy guards got impatient and ordered, “Just leave them there. We’ll bring your food.”

“Ah, Cosdammit, you made me lose count! Now I gotta start over!” She set down all the ore and began counting again. The guards didn’t take any action after that and just watched with eager eyes, likely not wanting to upset their new cash chow.

“There, that’s all of it, I’ll be expecting a buffet.” During her second counting, one of the guards rushed into the room behind them to retrieve a minecart, rather than carry all the ore into the room themselves and deposit it. Once it was loaded, they shooed Itsy away and brought the cart back into the room. Together, the two of them hoisted it back onto the track and got it moving.

Gatrim, who was already in the room—having used Itsy as a distraction to sneak by—continued to lie in wait for his opportunity. As soon as the guards’ backs were turned, he dashed towards the minecart and clung onto the side. This sort of thing was more suited for Kaizu, but he’d manage after having watched her enough times.

The cart then went into a narrow passage, too tight for a person to even crawl through easily. So Gatrim had to really wrap his body around the cart, barely avoiding scraping the rocky wall as the minecart slowly rolled along the track. It went on for a minute or so, but the passenger let go of it and dropped down before it could reach its destination—bailing as soon as he saw light.

He then shimmied his way along the rest of the track, peering out of the opening, smelling fresh air, but he didn’t dare proceed any further. Instead, he just watched and waited. A minute later, a truck pulled up at the end of the track. There was a man and a woman in civilian clothing, but the peeper immediately recognized one of them as a prison guard. They didn’t take off their helmets often, but he made sure to memorize their faces any time they did.

So even the retrieving party was part of the prison system. Less people they had to pay off, so more profit for them. Gatrim made sure to take pictures of the actions, especially of their faces. Once the cart was unloaded, the ore was stored into a trunk on the truck, and the cart was sent back. The Lesser, of course, hitched a return ride, not wanting to have to crouch-walk the entire length of the tunnel.

But when he was back in the room, the guards didn’t come to check on the cart right away, or at all. So the boy had to wait for his opportunity to dash by them and rejoin Itsy. He then spent the rest of the day mining his own small pile of silver. Itsy offered to do it for him, but he wanted to earn his food with his own hands, and his mind wouldn’t have let him rest anyways if they just lounged around.

That night, he was far more exhausted, more primed to fall asleep. But just as he was about to drift away, he was snapped back awake by whispers in the walls—literally. “There you are,” Kaizu’s voice trailed from the nearby vent.

“Oh, you found us,” Itsy perked back up, wiping the sleep from her eyes. “That was faster than I expected.”

“Never doubted you, Ketzka,” Gatrim yawned. “But how’d you get out of your cell?”

“Please, I stole a key off a guard before we were ever put in them on the first day,” she almost sounded offended by the question. “Finding you wasn’t too hard, just had to find a path in the vents that headed down. They’re surprisingly roomy and easy to navigate. I even brought Riki with me.”

“Hello,” the boy offered a muffled greeting, clearly farther from the speaking vent. “Ketzka here memorized all the guard’s patrol patterns, so we had plenty of time to explore. But I also crafted us some body doubles to leave under the sheets.”

“Well, that’s all good to know,” Gatrim thought on the new information for a minute.

While he was pondering, Kaizu added, “I hope we can get out of here soon. Since you two have been gone, some other Lesser keeps trying to tag around with us. She’s way too friendly, and keeps asking questions about the outside world and what’s been going on. Hell, the woman even asked about Fiends in general and our group. She hasn’t made us, only knows about the big players, but I’m going to strangle her soon if she doesn’t leave us alone.”

“Okay, I’ve finalized our plan,” Gatrim ignored her plight but then delivered good news. “We should be ready to get out of here in a day or two.”

“How will we know when to start?” Kaizu asked once the rest of their operation had been explained.

“Don’t worry,” Gatrim assured them. “You’ll be able to hear it.”

◆◆◆

“Where the heck are those two? Hey, shift’s over! Head back and turn in your tools!” Two days later, the guard's voice echoed down the tunnels. Gatrim and Itsy had purposefully ignored the call for end of shift, wanting the guards to spread out and start looking for them. But more importantly, they needed to still be on the outside while the rest of the prisoners had been returned to their cells.

Gatrim grabbed his pickaxe and snapped off the head, turning the handle into a spike. It was certainly less effective of a weapon in that state, but all of his training had been with something long and pointy. “Alright, Itsy, we’re ready. Let them hear what real justice sounds like.”

“Ahhh, I been waiting for this!” She started to get excited. The gargantuan woman grabbed her pickaxe with both hands and winded it back behind her as far as it would go. Then for the first time since they were incarcerated, she used her full strength. The pickaxe swung forward, the tip slipping into the rock like smooth butter.

CRACK

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