“Lot more people here than I thought there’d be.”
Steph nodded, agreeing with Alex’s statement as she glanced around. There were at least a hundred people milling around the large room inside the town hall, talking quietly in small groups. “I think everyone’s curious about what SubTerra has to say,” she stated.
“I guess.” Alex looked at the front, where the council members were gathered. Ryan, Pike, Charlotte, and Duckie were conversing quietly, while Eleanor stood apart and spoke to a man she immediately recognized. “Look who’s here.”
Alex pointed, and Steph followed her finger. “It’s Ted.”
“Huh.” Steph pressed her lips together. “Guess we shouldn’t be surprised, since he’s in charge. You know who those two standing behind him are?”
“No.” Alex looked over the two people right behind Ted, a woman with blonde hair tied back in a long braid and a dark-skinned man with short dreadlocks. “Do you?”
“I was asking you. I’m assuming they’re more of SubTerra’s people.” Steph pulled her towards the back of the room. “Come on, let’s sit.”
Alex frowned as they took their chairs. “Why are we so far away?”
“Because I don’t want anyone to notice you. Or try to get you involved.”
“I told you guys that I don’t want to talk.”
“I know you did. But I’m not taking any chances.”
Alex sighed in irritation, but ultimately acquiesced. The room slowly filled up over the next fifteen minutes until there were almost no seats left, before Eleanor stepped up to the microphone in the middle of the room.
“Okay, everyone, I think we’re ready to begin,” she announced. “If you guys could please quiet down, we’d appreciate it.”
The conversation slowly stopped, as everyone directed their attention towards her.
“Welcome to tonight’s town hall meeting,” Eleanor continued. “We’ve got two things on today’s agenda. The first is an open forum with the new owners of the local mines, SubTerra Industries. The next is going to be a council vote on the opening of a second mining location outside of town. I expect everyone here to listen when others are speaking, act in a civil manner, and not interfere with the process. Are there any questions before we begin?”
Nobody raised their hand.
“Very well. Then let me introduce Ted Peterson, who will be taking over as the new Operations Manager.”
Ted stood up as Eleanor retreated, taking her seat beside Duckie. He cleared his throat as he stepped up to the microphone.
“Thank you, Miss Lethe,” he mentioned before he gave the crowd his attention. “So, I recognize a few of you guys in the crowd, which means I’ve already introduced myself. For the others, as she said, I’ve recently been assigned as the Operations Manager for the uranium mines in the area. That means that all the mining operations fall under my purview, and I report directly to my bosses in Seattle.”
He gestured behind him. “I have two other members of my leadership team here with me. First is Jessica Winslow, my Chief Engineer. She’s coming to us from another one of SubTerra’s uranium mines in Wyoming and will be mapping out the digging here in Haven Springs. Beside her is Darryl Newstrom, our Chief Administrator who manages our logistics, personnel, and planning.”
Ted turned back to the crowd. “I want to start by addressing the elephant in the room; Typhon.”
The whole room murmured at the name. “I thought he’d dance around that,” Steph whispered.
“Probably figured there’s no point,” Alex replied back just as quietly. “Gonna have to address it eventually.”
“We’re aware of Typhon’s history in the area,” Ted continued. “We know about the miners who died in oh-eight, and that Typhon tried to cover it up with an unauthorized demolition charge earlier this year. We also know that when they learned that there was a child in a dangerous part of the blast zone, rather than delay the detonation, they went through with it anyway. And someone who was very important to this town died as a result of their negligence.”
Gabe. Alex could feel Steph gripping her hand tightly, as she let out a slow breath. She looked at Charlotte and saw that the other girl was clenching and unclenching her fist as she listened.
“I also know that with that history, and all of it coming to light over the last couple of months, a lot of people are pretty wary of anyone who works for a mining company. And nobody here’s going to blame you.” Ted nodded. “The first thing we wanted to assure this community is that an incident like that will never happen again. Not on my watch.”
Bold statement, Alex decided.
“The last mine I ran was a copper mine north of Spokane,” he continued. “There are thirteen thousand active mines in the United States, and the National Mining Association recognized us as the safest underground metal mine in the country six years ago. We earned that recognition because we abided by one principle: safety above all else. Our culture was built around the idea that all of our miners were going home at the end of the day, no matter what. And if there was even a question about our operational safety, we stepped back and worked the problem until we were sure that everything was going to be fine.”
Steph hummed. “Guess we were right about that award.”
“To that, end, I want to let my guys talk a little bit.” Ted looked at the woman first. “Jessie, you’re up.”
The blonde stood, taking his place at the microphone before she began speaking. “So, like he said, I’m Jessica Winslow, Jessie for short, and I’m the Chief Engineer. My team and I have been going over maps and blueprints since we got here, making sure the mines are safe for our people to be in while planning our next moves.”
As she spoke, Ted produced a stand and some posters from behind their chairs, setting up a map of the area behind Jessie. Alex noted that all of the mines were highlighted.
“The primary mine is perfectly stable, though we plan on shoring up several spots to ensure that we meet or exceed industry standards,” Jessie continued as she pointed towards the map. “The mine that collapsed in oh-eight, where Typhon set off their unauthorized explosion back in April, is not. A preliminary survey of the area showed that the internal structures are too damaged to repair, and the soil has shifted beyond its safe point. The mine has been-”
“What about the bodies inside?” Alex looked as a middle-aged man stood up, interrupting Jessie’s statement. “The ones that were left in there when the mine flooded? How are you going to get them out?”
Jessie was already shaking her head. “It’s too dangerous to attempt a retrieval,” she explained. “The slightest disturbance could-”
“So you’re just going to leave them there?”
Ted stood back up, motioning Jessie aside to take the microphone. “I understand that hearing this might be upsetting,” he started, “but it’s not safe to go back in the mine. As Jessie was saying, the slightest disturbance could bring down the whole thing, and then we’d have more people buried under there.”
“What about their families?” Another man asked. “What are they supposed to do?”
“Are those guys miners?” Alex asked Steph quietly.
“I think so, yea.”
“We already reached out to the family members that we could find, and made them aware of the situation,” Ted was replying. “They aren’t happy, but they understand that the danger is too great.”
Jessie took the microphone back. “I’d also like to add that the state’s division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety has reviewed and concurred with our survey findings,” she added. “They agreed with our assessment, that it’s too risky to send anyone into the mine. And they’ve declared it a collapsing hazard.”
Another woman stood, raising her hand. “Then what’s going to happen to the mine?” she asked. “Is it going to be blocked off?”
“We’ve submitted permits to have a demolition company come in and seal the mine’s entrances with explosives,” Jessie answered. “The main entrance, as well as the three ventilation shafts that extend up to the surface. It’s the easiest and safest way to ensure that nobody will enter.”
A low murmur ran through the crowd.
“Again, we understand that this is an upsetting subject,” Jessie continued. “But we have to do what’s safest for everyone. When we did our site survey, we found a fire pit, beer bottles, and cigarette butts at the site entrance. Which means that people, probably local teenagers, are going up there and hanging out. If one of them decides to wander into the mine, they could get seriously hurt or killed. Which is the last thing anyone here wants.”
She paused, looking around, but nobody else spoke. Alex got the feeling that the crowd had resigned themselves to the mine’s fate.
“Now, I’d like to move on to the second operation we’d like to open.” Jessie pointed to an area of the map that wasn’t marked. “A twenty-acre site, right here, where surveys have revealed a large uranium deposit below the surface. It would be an underground mining operation and includes the construction of processing facilities on-site.”
Jessie proceeded to lose Alex as she spent ten minutes explaining what they would build, the mining process, and how SubTerra would comply with environmental laws. Alex tried to get a read on her, but like Ted, there was no visible aura that she could pick up.
“I think she’s being sincere,” she mentioned to Steph. “Or at least she isn’t trying to be sneaky like Diane.”
“No, we never got this much info from Diane or Typhon,” Steph agreed. “These guys do seem legit.”
Jessie took her seat when she finally finished, letting the other man stand and take the microphone.
“Alright, folks, the name’s Darryl, and like Ted said, I’m the Chief Administrator for SubTerra’s operations. Before this I was working at a different site in Arizona, and they asked me to come up here. Aside from doing the logistics thing, I also run the front end of the business, which means that if you call our office, either me or my assistant is going to answer the phone.”
He looked around as he continued. “Our office deals with a lot, including licenses, permits, and supplies. But we also work with the local area to ensure that our operations won’t affect the community. For example, we ran into an issue back in Prescott where the twice-weekly equipment movements were affecting the school bus schedule. We resolved it by pushing the movements to the night shift.”
“Nice of them,” Steph noted quietly.
“What I’m trying to say is, don’t feel bad about calling us to complain.” He smiled and spread his arms. “I hear complaints all day. My wife complains about the alarm in the morning, my daughter complains that I chew my cereal too loud, my son complains that my music is too old, all day I hear complaints. I’m not worried about hearing more of them, I promise.”
The crowd was chuckling as he finished, finally lowering his arms. “I don’t really have a lot else to talk about. Those guys handle the digging and whatnot, I just push papers.” He thumbed at Jessie and Ted, both of whom smirked. “But if you have a problem, please don’t hesitate to call us. I want to work with you guys, not keep people in the dark.”
With that, he sat down, and Ted stood back up to take his spot at the microphone again. “Look, we’re just gonna finish off with this; we’re not bad guys,” he stated. “There’s uranium to mine here, and we want to do it as safely as possible. The second site we want to open is going to create more jobs and bring-”
“But not for everyone, right?” Alex blinked at the interruption as another man stood up, though she was sitting in a way where she couldn’t immediately see who it was. “Just the miners who weren’t being browbeaten by Typhon?”
Steph sat up straight. “… what the fuck is he doing here?”
Alex leaned over to get a better look.
Holy shit, is that Mac?
Riley’s ex-boyfriend had a bright red aura around him as he glared at Ted. The older man didn’t have an aura, but he did have a look of irritation on his face. “Mister Loudon, we’ve already given you our answer. Bringing this up here isn’t going to change things.”
“I had nothing to do with what happened during the blast in April!”
“This is not the time or place to discuss your application denial. You’re welcome to escalate to our corporate HR in Seattle-”
“You already made them blacklist me!”
“Again, Mister Loudon-”
“I was a good miner with a spotless record! I still need a job!”
Ted’s facial expression didn’t waver. “Your record is the opposite of spotless, Mister Loudon. You were the Safety Manager during a demolition, and you didn’t pass along information about civilians in the blast-”
“Diane wouldn’t let me!”
“You had a radio and the engineer’s phone number. You should have made the call anyway.”
Eleanor, Pike, and Ryan were already on their feet. The men headed for Mac as Eleanor took a spot beside Ted at the microphone. “Mac, this is not the place to do this,” she said sternly. “We’re here to listen to what SubTerra has to say, not confront them about your job prospects. Please sit down.”
“They won’t hire me for something that wasn’t my fault! They already arrested that bitch for what she did! If I’d gone around her, I would’ve lost my job!” Mac pushed back at Ryan and Pike as they tried to quietly get him back under control. “Fuck you guys! I didn’t do anything wrong!”
Alex watched him glance at the crowd desperately. And as he did, he happened to make eye contact with her.
“Hey! Ask her!” he pointed straight at Alex. “It was her brother! She knows it wasn’t my fault! Alex, tell them!”
The crowd turned to face her all at once, and Alex felt her blood chill as she instinctively shrank away.
“Absolutely NOT!!” Eleanor emphasized into the microphone. “You’re not bringing anyone else into your disagreement with SubTerra, and especially not Alex!”
“She knows I had nothing to do with it! I know she does!”
“Okay.” Steph grabbed Alex’s arm. “Let’s go, babe. We’re out.”
Alex didn’t argue as she let Steph drag her upright, the brunette ushering her out the door. She could still hear Mac yelling behind her as they left the auditorium.
“The vote passed.”
Alex looked at her girlfriend as they lay together in bed. “It did?”
“Yea. Charlotte just messaged me.” Steph read the text on her phone. “It was four-to-one. Ryan said no, just like he told us he would.”
“Mm.” Alex sighed as she closed her eyes, resting her head on Steph’s shoulder. “Hope that’s not going to get him in trouble with the others.”
“Eleanor and Pike didn’t seem to care yesterday. Charlotte is for sure not going to hold it against him, she knows how much the park ranger thing means to him. And I don’t think Duckie knows how to get mad. He’ll probably be fine.”
“Good point.” Alex paused. “I just realized that I haven’t seen Mac since the festival, back in May. Has he been in town this whole time?”
“I guess. I haven’t really seen him either.” Steph put her phone down. “Riley hasn’t mentioned him. I don’t know what he’s doing for work, either. I honestly thought he’d left.”
“So did I.” Alex sighed. “I feel a little bad for him now.”
“Why, because SubTerra won’t hire him?”
“That’s his own fault,” Steph reminded her. “Ted’s right, Mac still could’ve made the call anyway. Then Gabe would still be alive.”
“Maybe he didn’t know what Diane was doing.”
“… who knows.” Steph wrapped an arm around Alex’s shoulder. “We can speculate all we want. But hiring him or not isn’t our decision. And honestly, Ted blacklisting him gives me some hope that SubTerra isn’t as bad as Typhon.”
“I hope so too,” Alex admitted. “I mean, they can’t possibly be any worse.”
“Let’s not tempt fate.” Steph squeezed Alex’s bicep. “Come on, turn the light off. We’ve both got work tomorrow.”