The Earth Movers


The photograph above is entitled Earth Mover and is by Peter Atkinson and is used in accordance to his Creative Commons license.

Here’s a sample from The Night Girl. It takes place after Perpetua discovers the mysterious “EM” division in Earthenhouse’s files, and after Fergus convinces her to head to the worksite to check things out.

The doors parted and Perpetua stepped from the subway train, not believing she was going to do this. She thought about hesitating, but the crowds behind her, heavy even during midday, pushed her up the steps. She stumbled and shouldered her way in front of hurrying business suits before she found a small still patch in the corridor where she could stop and collect her thoughts.

Utilitarian grey tiles stretched around her. Fluorescent lights glowed in recessed casings spaced evenly along a ceiling of vinyl/metal struts. The air pulsed with footsteps and the hish and sigh of a train opening its doors on the platform below. The warm baking smell of a cinnamon-bun concession stand overpowered the station’s scents of creosote, body odor and cleaning fluids. Perpetua noticed that the concession stand had a long lineup of people interrupting their commute. Her own mouth watered.

One wall was covered over with plywood hoarding, with signs announcing the new subway construction project that kept the city “growing to serve you”, exclamation mark, exclamation mark. And that was it: the only sign that there was construction going on here - and no sign whatsoever that this construction site employed goblins or trolls.

In fact, save for the hoarding and the signs, there was no sign whatsoever that this was a construction project. It was the middle of the day and she didn’t hear any hammering; no roar of power tools.

The ground beneath her shook, though there was no subway in the station. Nobody heard it; it was a rumble, like heavy machinery far away, which Perpetua felt in her chest.

She shouldered her rucksack and crossed the stream of commuters to the other side of the corridor. She ran her hand along the wooden wall. It was solidly built, but hollow-sounding. There was space on the other side, but nothing was going on beyond. She tracked along the wall and saw the door set in the middle of it, a smooth rectangle of grey veneer, punctuated by a stainless steel doorknob, cut into the temporary wall. Probably locked. But she could stake herself out by the cinnamon bun stand and wait for somebody to come out.

She shook her head. This is a mistake, she thought. I’m spying on my boss. I’m risking my job, my apartment, my financial independence. Why am I doing this?

Then the door swung opened. A construction worker came out, wearing grimy overalls, hardhat shadowing his heavy-set eyes. Perpetua stared. Stared because no one else did.

The worker was a troll; a smaller, stockier version of Howard, but like Howard, the arms were too long, the shoulders too broad. And yet the troll shambled through the crowd, wearing an orange utility vest, and nobody noticed.

Wedging the door open, it made a beeline for the cinnamon bun stand. The cashier on duty stopped chewing her gun long enough to ask, “Whatcha like? A dozen?”

The worker grunted.

The cashier rolled her eyes. “Two dozen, then? And coffee too I bet.”

The worker grunted twice and slapped a handful of bills on the counter. The cashier pulled out a box which she loaded with pastries while her helper filled paper cups with coffee which she set on a tray which was itself set on the worker’s ample palm. He grunted and gave a little half bow and left them to keep their change. It waded into the crowd, which flowed around it like a river around a rolling boulder.

Okay, thought Perpetua. This is it. Try to practice those breaking and entering skills she’d learned on the Internet the night before. Be smooth. Be brazen.

She sidled along the wall, keeping on the edge of the stream of people, while the troll leaned against the open door and worked on the wooden wedge holding it open. He finally kicked the wedge free and it went skittering across the floor, embedding itself in the plywood hoarding. He paused, looking at it a moment, then shrugged, grunted, and stepped through, allowing the door to swing shut behind him.

Perpetua stepped out from the crowd and went down on one knee to stare pointedly at her shoelaces. The toe of her shoe caught the door and held it ajar. She stood up, trying to be nonchalant about having her foot caught in the door, but nobody seemed to notice her.

Be smooth, she thought. Be brazen. She counted to ten to give the troll time enough to amble away, thought about the speed of trolls, and counted to ten a second time. Then she pulled the door open slightly and ducked inside.

She breathed a sigh of relief as she watched the door click shut, then turned and ran face-first into a man wearing a hard hat and carrying a clipboard. He grabbed her before she could run away. “What are you doing here?”

Perpetua swallowed and said the first thing that came into her head. “Uh…” Then, “I work for Earthenhouse?”

She stopped just short of slapping herself on the forehead. Great move, dumb dumb! You get caught trespassing and you give the name of your employer?

But the man’s face cleared. “Oh!” He let go of her and held out a hand. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t expecting you so early. Mr. Thompson. I’m the foreman here. Miss…”

Right, she thought. Plan B. She clasped his outstretched hand. “Collins,” she said. “I’m Earthenhouse’s new secretary. Pleased to meet you! Earthenhouse asked me to look in on you and make sure you’re satisfied with your… hired help.” Her mind raced forward. Why didn’t I make an appointment, he’d ask. Oh, but I did, she’d bluff, and hope to heck that he didn’t call Earthenhouse up to check on her. But Thompson just beamed and pumped her hand as if he expected her to spit water.

“Absolutely we’re satisfied!” He let go of her hand, leaving her to rub her sore knuckles. “They’re the best workers I’ve ever had the pleasure of dealing with! Always on time, never ask to take bathroom breaks, and efficiency! Machines couldn’t do better. Sure, they look odd, but who doesn’t? I assume you want the full tour?”

“Yeah,” said Perpetua, fixing a smile to her face. Full tour. Spotted by who-knew-how-many goblins and trolls. Spotted by who-knew-how-many pairs of eyes that could report her illicit visit to Earthenhouse. This could be your last chance to get out of here. “As long as I’m not disturbing anything important.”

“Oh, they’ll hardly notice us,” said Thompson. “It’s like digging dirt is the greatest thrill of their lives. Come on, I’ll show you!”

He motioned her ahead of him and she had no choice but to sacrifice her escape route. He fell in behind her as they marched down the dusty corridor. The tiled wall gave way to bare concrete, and then plywood panelling. Bare lightbulbs hung down from the ceiling at haphazard angles.

The corridor ended at the top of a flight of stairs built of temporary scaffolding and enclosed in plywood. Now Perpetua could hear something: a distant, constant rumble, rising up through the metal struts and making her chest tremble. It didn’t sound like machinery, but what else could it be?

They stopped by Mr. Thompson’s office; a temporary cube lined with bare drywall, as he went through a locker to find her a hardhat. He frowned at her low-heeled shoes, but led her from the office and further along the corridor anyway. As they walked, he kept speaking.

“They dug this in half a day, would you believe?” said Mr. Thompson. “We just pointed to the wall and they clawed it out. We could barely keep up with trucking the dirt away. We only had to tell them, dig here a little more, a little to the left, and so on. Getting the professional crews in to pour the walls and the floors, and get the supports in place, that took twice as long. Two weeks’ work done in two days. Amazing! And they weren’t done.”

He nodded to a flight of metal steps with scaffolding between them, walled on the outside with plywood and board. Perpetua took a deep breath and went down the steps. Mr. Thompson followed behind. The rumbling increased the further she went. Then they met a wall of plywood placed between the flights of stairs, and the way down was blocked by a door.

Mr. Thompson took out a set of keys. He glanced at her. “You’re not afraid of heights, are you?”

She shook her head.

“Good!” He put the key in the lock. “Welcome to the worksite.”

He opened the door and Perpetua’s eyes went wide.

They stood at the top of a cavern as big as an airplane hanger. She’d never expected to see trolls from above, but here they were, a line of them, heads down, digging at the far wall and sending mounds of earth flying back ten feet. Goblins attacked the mounds like bees on honey, shovelling the loose earth into carts which other goblins rolled away when full, ensuring an empty one rolled into place.

“EM stands for Earth Movers,” she muttered.

“Even with the redesign, we’re ahead of schedule,” said Thompson. “The concrete work and tracklaying will take a couple of years, of course. Precision work takes time, but I’m sure we’ll have the Eglinton line up and running before the decade’s out.”

Perpetua couldn’t count the number of goblins were working here, but they were hard pressed to keep up with the mounds of dirt the trolls kept adding as they attacked the far wall.

Construction workers, human, strolled around with clipboards under their arm, standing clear as the goblins and the trolls did their work. Other engineers were further back, putting up rebar and mixing concrete. The air was filled with the sounds of hammering, the fizzle of welds, and the constant rumble which Perpetua realized was the grunting of happy trolls.

Then she remembered the file folders. Eglinton/Bayview, Don Mills/Overlea, Sheppard/Weston. Over a dozen worksites, multiplied by dozens of trolls and goblins equalled…

Why keep all of this a secret? How could he keep all of this a secret?

She realized that she’d been silent a long time, and looked at Mr. Thompson to find him looking back, curious. She wracked her brain for something intelligent to say. “Um… What redesign?”

“You know; your boss’s suggestion,” said Thompson. “To dig deeper? Something about the shale in the area: easier for the guys to dig through than higher up. I guess he wants to save his boys’ knuckles, but the stoners know their rock, so we took his advice.”

“Sorry, ‘stoner’—” She stopped. She knew a racial euphemism when she heard it. Mr. Thompson wasn’t being derogatory, just thoughtless, which makes it the worst kind.

And I can’t ask, Earthenhouse wants you to dig deeper, without looking more suspicious than I already am, thought Perpetua, so she let her question go unanswered.

Okay, I’ve seen everything I’m going to see, so now’s the time for me to go, she thought. But how? Mr. Thompson seemed determined to give her the full tour. He led her forward, down the remaining steps to the cavern floor. They paused as two trolls ambled past, big as dumptrucks.

“So, you can see,” said Mr. Thompson, “everything is as smooth as a drum! The stoners are happy, we’re happy! I hope your boss is happy.”

“He is, he is,” said Perpetua, trying to keep her breathing under control. I’m going to be recognized. Earthenhouse will know that I’m here.

But as Thompson led Perpetua across the cavern floor, he stopped and peered at the space in front of the tunnel, and then flipped through the sheets on his clipboard.

“Hey!” he shouted, stepping forward. “This trench isn’t on the plans! Are you sure you guys should be digging here?”

The goblins scrabbling and balling up mounds of dirt in a wide circle in front of the tunnel entrance looked up sharply.

Just then a goblin ran over and tugged at Mr. Thompson’s sleeve. “Mr. Thompson, sir?” he said in a wheedly voice. “Ernest is eating all the cinnamon buns again.”

“What?” Thompson looked around frantically. “I told him specifically to save me one! Wait here!” he said to Perpetua. He passed his clipboard to the goblin, and ran off.

The goblin watched him go, and then pulled a piece of paper from his pocket and fitted it to the top of Thompson’s clipboard.

Perpetua frowned. “What are you doing?”

“Revised plans,” said the goblin. “He was out of date.”

He stopped then, and looked up. All the goblins in the vicinity looked up and stared at her. Perpetua swallowed. This was it. She was in deep trouble now.

This leads directly to this scene.

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