by Walt Staples
Someone once said you can tell a field geologist’s environment suit from a miner’s by the smell. While in both, sweat overpowers the other normal suit stinks—halitosis, machine oil, and urine—there’s also the whiff of erudition. Whoever said it must have been a field geologist, because it’s a cinch nobody else would.
Oolite-Head Marx and I were working the north slope of Quatermain’s core caldera. Head got his nickname from two things; his head is shaped just like an egg and his was the biggest discovery of oolitic hematite on the south caldera slope.
What’s oolitic hematite?
Look it up, Ace. That’s why you lug that computer around on your wrist, ain’t it? Can’t watch porn all the time.
Anyway, as I was saying, the two of us had been dirtside for about a five-day when we’d made camp the night before. Next morning I’m dragging my butt out of the bubble--we were carrying one-mans because we’d had to leave the hopper eight klicks back down slope while we yomped all the field equipment up to the bluffs—and there’s Head staring through the theodolite at the bluffs. Head is not a morning person so naturally I had to say, “My, getting dedicated in our old age aren’t we.”
Without turning around, he stepped to the side, gestured at the theodolite and said, “Shadup and take a look, funny man.”
I stooped down—Head’s shorter than me—and looked through the eyepiece. About 200 meters down from the edge, something gleamed in Eclectia’s bounce light. “Interesting.” I straightened up and looked at Head. “Do we set up the laser?”
The Whale was below the horizon so we didn’t have our filters down. I could see him chewing the end of that mustache of his. “We could…but if it’s noble, we just gonna put a hole in it.”
“Could be pyrite.”
He nodded. “Could be but…” He let it hang for a minute. He cocked his head and squinted one eye. “Just don’t feel right for fool’s gold.”
Head’s famous for his “feelings.” But, considering he’s right about 80 percent of the time, you listen to him.
With a bit of dread, I asked, “So we go down and drag the laser back up here?”
Head put his fists on his hips and looked at the ground for a moment. Then he looked back up at me. “I’m agin it for the same reason you are, Roy. I’m just as lazy as you are an’ it’ll blow the whole day. Though there is another way…” He leered at me through his visor.
With a prophetic sinking feeling, I knew just what he meant. I shook my head in defeat. “Yep, you did it last time. My turn again.”
I checked that the spider silk cable would run free and that the hoist was properly anchored. The old rock hound joke runs that if it’s not, you’re the first to know, the recovery party is the second, and the coroner is the third. I don’t buy it. The insurance types seem to show up pretty fast.
I looked over the edge. In geology, you get used to looking off heights or you go into some other line of work, like pastry chef. Head was small as he looked back up at me from the theodolite about 100 meters from the cliff base. “Okay, Roy, I’ll tell you when you’re in the crosshairs.” The Whale was up and drowning out the bounce light from Eclectia, so we left the theodolite pointed at the location of the glimmer. Head would coach me to the spot.
I pointed the laser rangefinder at the foot of the bluff. The reading came back 643.81 meters. I did a little math in my head. If the hoist has 800 meters of line and something goes wrong, that means I can still dig a 156.19 meter hole in the ground. I hate those Jernigan hoists, they kill too many people. But, when you’re just starting out…
I checked my rig and turned my back to Head. “Okay, starting down.” I swallowed and stepped off. The overhang at the top meant I was dangling about a meter and a half from the buff face on the way down. All I had to do was stop lowering when Head sang out that I was even with the spot and shoot a sample. The sampler bit is rocket powered so there’s no kick to screw up your equilibrium and set you swinging. You might get the feeling that there’re a bunch of us idiots doing this sort of thing.
I tapped the “slow release” button and fell like a stone. Like I say, I hate Jernigans. I managed to say something pithy like, “Holy--!” before the reel seized up. I hung there for Lord only knows how long, trying to talk myself into opening my eyes. Instead, I decided to try to think up some better last words. I’d gotten to “Cry not for me, beautiful maidens of…” when something slapped me on the lower leg. Head’s voice was gentle between gasps and pants in my earphones, “Roy, open your eyes. It’s okay.”
I peeked out of one, then opened the other. I was hanging maybe two meters off the ground. “How do you know my eyes were closed?” My voice sounded shaky in my ears.
I couldn’t see Head’s grin through his filter, but I could hear him still panting from the run. “Because mine would be, son.”
I climbed the rest of the way down. “Now what? That motor’s got to be burnt out.”
Head plucked a pair of ascenders from his belt. “Can’t go down, so you go up. My turn--you go watch through the theodolite.”
Anyway, that’s how Head and I made the “Crappy Jernigan Strike.” He was right, it wasn’t pyrite. The gold assayed out at 18 grams per ton. Ever since, we’ve used a Haman Hoist. Like Head says, “Hey, use the best you can afford.”