The Contest in the Mines

Here’s another bit of never-before-published writing, this time from back in 2008, only a year after I graduated college. It’s a very short story (500 words, or about two pages). It’s unusual for being pretty character-driven, whereas most of my fiction is plot-driven to a fault.

But even though it’s almost a decade old, I’m still very happy with it. And that’s unusual, too.

She’s legend now — of course you’ve heard the songs about Alainna-moch-Derr, the Catlike Trickster. Once, though, she was real, and the songs are lies, or miss the point. But I knew her, from the days when she was called Alya and worked in the Cottonmouth Mines, and I will tell you a true tale of Alainna-moch-Derr.

The mines were a prison, and we were prisoners. I was into my fourth year working that basaltic hell, for political stumblings I won’t bore you with. Alya told me she was in the mines for offending a baron’s honor, but then she told Maxis her crime was grand larceny, so I guess nobody really knows. But in those days we only really thought about three things: how thirsty we were, how tired we were — and arm wrestling.

That was our sport, bored, hopeless creatures that we were. The strongest men, the dust-stained titans fresh from outside with biceps like timber, would kneel by a crate and go at it, and all of us crowded around, our food-credits riding on the winner, quiet so the Metallics wouldn’t hear.

One day a Metallic did catch us, and you know how they are — always playing at being human. So this one made a fake smile and said he wasn’t here to punish us, just wanted to know if he could join. Did anyone care to challenge him, he asked — because otherwise the game was done, we could all go back to work (and extra shifts too, no doubt).

We all looked down except Alya, who stepped up cocky as anything and said she’d do it.

Now Alya was even scrawnier than me, and of course a Metallic could crush basalt between his fingers anyway, so in a fair match she was hopeless. But even then she had a reputation for cleverness, and we all wondered what kind of trick she could pull. It was the first interesting thing to happen in months.

The Metallic didn’t act surprised, just sat in the dirt and clanked his coppery elbow against the crate. His middle eye twitched as Alya knelt on the other side, took her time rolling up her sleeve, and finally set her arm down. She wrapped her slim calloused fingers round that deathtrap hand, cocky as anything, lips a smooth straight line. I would’ve bet my credits on her if I could, but I guess we all knew the stakes were higher than that.

There was a long tense quiet and the metal arm cracked her hand down like a mousetrap.

They gave her the twenty-eight hour shift but didn’t punish the rest of us, so I didn’t see her again for almost a week. Her knuckles were scraped but I knew her arm was okay, because she was still alive. I asked her if she did it to save the rest of us punishment. But she said hell no, she didn’t love anybody else that much.

Why, then?

“He was just a bastard,” she said, and of course Alainna-moch-Derr had never had a plan at all.

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