Chapter 24: Hazmat
Kaitlyn awoke first the next morning, fellating me awake. I pretended to be asleep for a while, then she bit at my glans, and I said in a hurry, “I’m awake! I’m awake!” while she cackled evilly.
I sat up feeling picked on, then a thought struck. “So let me get this straight: I wake up with morning wood, you start beavering on it, yet it is the female pubic area that is called a beaver. Doesn’t that mean your beaver should be munching on my log?”
“You’d like that,” she said archly.
“And you would, too,” I returned pointedly.
She licked her upper lip a bit then said decisively, “Yeah, I would. But we’ve got to be moving on.”
I sighed, then got up and began helping her get breakfast together.
At some point, Kaitlyn burst out excitedly, “I’ve got it! I know how we can solve the recruiting problem! We’ll start a desert nudist resort! A resort and spa… Yeah, that’d work.”
“What, and somehow trawl the clientele for magical talent?” I asked.
“Yeah, exactly. Get them out away from technology, show them their talents, and recruit them!” she enthused.
“Might work,” I said. I thought we were going to have trouble with the Utah political apparatus, but maybe it would work. “You keep thinking on that.”
“I will,” she said determinedly. “I will.”
“It sure beats generations of cultish incest,” I opined.
“Yeah it does,” she agreed.
We biked from there to the fifth mine in our planned circuit, which was taking us up north and around the Salt Lake area. By the time we finished, we’d be completely on the opposite side of the city from where we’d started, having traveled some 300 miles.
We snuck out to the mine site as we’d done for the previous four, naked but invisible.
This place was entirely different from the prior ones. On the site was a large building with wide industrial-grade conveyor belts going in and out of the building, a big front-end loader dumping coal onto the upward-tilted ingest belt on this side which pulled the coal quickly into the building. I could see a dark streak on the belt emerging from the far side of the building, too far away to see details, but it appeared to be more coal on a flat conveyor belt running along level with the ground. Strange. What were they doing in there?
“I’ve got to have a look inside, figure this thing out,” I told Kaitlyn. “It’s going to have to be me solo on this one. That building’s too big for you to get through on your current reserve.”
“All right,” she agreed. “I’ll poke around outside instead.”
“Sounds good. I’ll find you nearby with my life sense.” Kaitlyn and I had learned to uniquely recognize each other’s life presences. There’s a…shape, I suppose, to each life presence, no two identical. The more life, the ‘taller’ the presence is, but given practice, we could both tell the difference between presences. I wondered if twins would appear the same magically as to our other senses? One more experiment for our ever-growing list.
The conveyor belts entered and exited the building through large bay doors, so I could see that I’d be able to just walk right in and through to the other side. Once I touched the concrete foundation that the building set upon, I knew that I had about two minutes to make my explorations and get out. After that, my internal magical reserves would be drained, and I’d become visible right here in the middle of this industrial processing site if I hadn’t made my way back to an island of nature first.
The first thing I noticed was the smell coming out of the building. It was oddly minty, with a hint of licorice. Not bad, actually. All of the workers that I could see inside from the doorway were wearing respirators and gloves, but I decided to go in as I was, unprotected. Worst case, I could scamper back out and heal myself, assuming I didn’t just drop dead on entering. That would be embarrassing.
As soon as I got past the doorway, the noise level rose dramatically. All of the workers were wearing hearing protection, so I decided I didn’t need to sneak. I saw an expanded metal staircase leading to a maze of catwalks running along near the roof of the facility, which was mostly occupied by a series of large tanks. I decided that a bird’s eye view would answer my questions the fastest, so I began running up the nearest staircase, which took me up past the rising ingest belt. At the top, I saw dirt-powdered coal being ejected into the highest tank in the facility, which had a continuous oscillating wave going on over its surface, that wave being produced by a big rotating cam on an arm below the tank.
The liquid was dark, nearly opaque, and there was a low scummy foam around the edges of the tank, the bubbles speckled with some kind of dross. The coal emerged from the other side of the tank only to fall into another that looked like it was doing the same thing, just lower down.
I weaved through the metal maze quickly, dodging workers, taking brief looks down into the tanks as I passed over them.
By the last tank in the building, the liquid was nearly clear and had no foam on it at all, the coal emerging wet, shiny, and jet black.
My magical mojo was being drained fast by the uncomfortable metal walkways and stairs, so I decided to run outside and walk in the dirt alongside the exit conveyor, recharging as I continued to study the resulting coal. It looked…cleaner, somehow. I touched one of the pieces of wet coal. This made my fingertip visible, but only pointing downward towards the conveyor belt, so I wasn’t worried about anyone seeing my little sample-taking trick. It couldn’t be a natural liquid, else my fingertip would have stayed invisible, so I decided to “taste” the liquid magically and then break it down, causing my fingertip to become invisible again. I didn’t know what this stuff was, but I’d be able to recognize it now if I came across it again.
On a hunch, I ran back around the outside of the building and saw that the coal going in had a lot more dirt and other impurities in it. I realized then that my impression was right: they were somehow washing the coal! Whoever heard of coal-washing? But that’s what they were doing all right.
After a quick magical look around, I found Kaitlyn and told her what I’d learned and the speculations I’d built atop that.
“Well, that doesn’t sound bad,” was her verdict. “I’ve heard of clean coal, but I thought that was just greenwashing bullshit. Here they’re actually doing it, but now I want to know why?”
“My guess is that the coal just burns better without all of the impurities. That probably makes for less ash, which means the smokestack filters get less dirty. It’s probably cheaper to wash it before burning it than to pay for all the cleanup and inefficiency of not washing it.”
“Makes sense,” she said. “I haven’t found anything worrying out here. So, is it good, then? Do we need to do anything here?”
“Let me take a peek around underground,” I said, sinking into a meditation pose near one wall of the building. “Come join me. I’ll look east, and you take west, OK?”
“All right,” she agreed.
Ten minutes later, Kaitlyn spoke up. “Davie, there’s a big leak over here! The tank is enormous, too, and it’s actively leaking. It’s not an old leak like the others!”
I followed her magical presence underground some distance from the building, and I saw what she’d reported. And I recognized it! It was the minty licorice liquid from the washing tanks!
“Let’s just grab a sample and go,” she said after I told her this.
“Won’t work. The stuff made my fingertip visible when I touched it. If you grabbed a lump of coal, it’d make your whole hand visible. Someone would notice.” I thought about it for a while, then said, “I’m not sure we need a sample. This stuff is being stored here in industrial quantities. It’s got to be listed somewhere on a report. I’ll bet we can find out what it is from the document trove, or maybe even online.”
“Yeah, maybe,” she agreed tentatively. Then after some thought, she said, “Better idea: go look for one of those hazmat signs on the big tanks. Nearby might be a label!”
“Good plan! Let’s go.”
Five minutes later, we were pretty sure it was something called MCHM, which was in parentheses after a truly horrendous organic chemical name, the kind of thing you find on a pesticide container. It sounded downright scary, in fact.
That got me to worrying, so I delved my own body, and didn’t find that I had some kind of horrible disease. “My lungs and skin are fine, Kaitlyn. I guess the protective equipment is only for long exposure.”
“You’re sure, Davie? I can’t marry a corpse. Not in this state, anyway,” she joked.
I chuckled, then reminded her, “A body’s own mage-sense is impossible to fool. If I was dying, I’d know it, fo-sho.”
“Well, that’s a relief,” Kaitlyn said with a sigh.
“I don’t think we can reasonably break this one down with magic. It’s too big, and it’s continuing to leak. We’re just going to have to report it and hope JRE fixes it themselves.”
Kaitlyn thought about that for a while, doubtless mentally scaling up the amount of work it’d taken us to fix the much smaller leak at the second mine, and then thinking about how we’d almost gotten caught several times. “Yeah, you’re right,” she said regretfully. “Let’s get to the next mine, then.”
As we were riding to the final mine that we had lined up on our tour, we passed through a small town. It was about 2pm, and we’d pushed past lunch, so we decided to stop in town and eat at a restaurant. We were both getting a bit tired of our dried camping food. While in town, we mailed off another pair of sample boxes, one to each of our friendly labs.
By the time we selected a restaurant, it was closer to 2:30, so we were alone in the restaurant, which suited us just fine. As we waited for our late lunch, Kaitlyn called her mother and arranged transport back into town the next day.
The final mine was maybe fifteen miles outside of the town down a well-maintained gravel and dirt road. I guessed that most of the town’s residents either worked for the mine or knew multiple people who did. It was that kind of place.
We hid our bikes, stripped bare, got invisible, and snuck out to the site.
This was a pit mine, like the third one we visited. We sat down on the edge of the pit and quested around for a good half hour, but we found no leaks or other signs of badness.
Kaitlyn then proposed that we repeat this around the pit edge several times, since we were unable to stretch our magical senses clear across it, there being so many technological artifacts in the way.
As we made our way to the back side of the pit, from the perspective of the entrance road, we saw that the mine was actually “moving” up towards the road. The parts farther back from the road were all but abandoned. It looked like they had only a few pieces of heavy equipment working here, and they were trucking dirt in and packing it down. They were clearly finishing up here, reclaiming the land as required by federal law.
“Another good mine, Davie?” my fiancée asked.
“Maybe. Let’s plan to camp near here and see what happens around shift change. We aren’t far from the rest area you told your mother about on the phone. It’s not far from that town we lunched at, so maybe an hour back to the town and another hour down the highway back towards Salt Lake. We can stay here until, oh, 10 or so, I’d guess.”
“All right,” she said with a bit of a heaving sigh. “You do take me to the best places, Davie,” she snarked at me.
“Look at it this way: if we find something, that’s more leverage against JRE, which reduces the chance your family farm gets turned into a mine.”
Kaitlyn’s voice beside me brightened. “When you put it that way…”
About 6pm, I said to Kaitlyn, “That guy over there, by the big shed. The one with the tan pickup truck parked next to it, out to the right there. See it?”
“Yeah,” she agreed, “the one with the backhoe driving around nearby?”
“How do you know what a backhoe is?” I asked, distracted.
“Farmer’s daughter, remember?” she said, giving me a bit of a push.
“Oh, right, sorry. Anyway, yeah, that guy. It looks kinda weird to me. Why just those two over there? All the other areas of activity have a bunch of guys all running around. Let’s go check it out.”
“I have no better idea,” she agreed.
We stood, brushed the sand and pebbles off our butts and took off at a jog toward the shed.
When we got there, we saw the guy remove a 5 gallon bucket from the shed and put it into the back of his pickup truck. As he was going back for a second, Kaitlyn whispered to me, “I’m going in. Wait here!”
I thought of a better idea, so while Kaitlyn was sneaking after the man on his way to the shed, I hopped up onto the rear tire of the truck to peer closely at the label on the bucket. I needn’t have gotten that close: it was marked in big bold letters, “Hazardous Materials. Dispose of Safely.” The bucket had clearly been opened and then re-sealed. I hoped that meant they’d put something harmless into the bucket, reusing it.
As I got down from the truck, the man was coming back, and I could see that he was carrying another similarly labeled 5-gallon bucket to the truck. He put it in, then walked back to the shed and locked it. I could feel Kaitlyn’s life presence beside me. We were staying silent, to not give our presence away to the man.
He walked from the now-locked shed door to the driver’s side of the truck, oblivious to our presence and started it up. We walked quickly backwards to get out of his way now that he couldn’t hear us, and he backed up in a K turn and took off back down the road leading to the shed.
“Let’s go after him!” Kaitlyn urged, and she took off without waiting for my answer.
We were a lot slower than the truck, even with our magically-toughened feet and long distance bicyclists’ staminas, but we were able to stay close enough that we saw him pull to a stop near the backhoe we’d seen from the pit rim earlier. The backhoe had dug a small pit, probably 10 feet deep. As we ran up to the truck, we saw the man feed a rope through the bucket’s handle and then swing the bucket down into the pit, holding onto both ends of the rope, then letting go of one end to pull the rope back up. He repeated this with the other bucket, by which time we were nearby and quietly recovering our breath.
Then as we watched, the backhoe filled the small pit in and then drove back and forth across it several times, adding more dirt with each pass to fill in the compacted pit. The man in the truck had driven off before the first load of dirt went into the pit.
They’d practiced this! This was not their first dumping!
“Keep an eye out for me, Davie. I’m going to delve that pit.”
I felt Kaitlyn sink to the ground into a meditation pose while I kept an eye on the backhoe, ready to warn Kaitlyn to run should it start coming our way. Before that could happen, Kaitlyn said, shocked, “There’s dozens of them down there, Davie! Dozens!”
Then she got up and we walked away from the work site.
“What do you want to do about it, Kaitlyn?” I asked sincerely.
“Let’s wait until the backhoe finishes and pull one up. You know, like in the canyon we cleaned up, only a lot bigger.”
When we’d first met, I taught Kaitlyn magic in part by having her pull discarded trash up from under the sand of a wash near our home. We can’t touch technological artifacts with our magic, but we can touch the sand and dirt they’re buried in and move that instead. I’d never lifted anything this heavy, magically, but in principle, it shouldn’t be difficult. It’d just take more time and concentrated effort. With Kaitlyn’s help, we should have it out of there pretty quickly.
Soon, the backhoe drove away, the operator’s night’s work completed. We waited for a short while to ensure that they weren’t coming back to dump more waste. It was probably important to the operation that they not dump too much at once. I guessed they’d want the next day’s layer of fill dirt to be packed in over this site before they dumped anything more. A few buckets a night, and they’d empty that shed before they filled the pit back up and laid topsoil over it. The illegal dumping might never be discovered, out here in the dry desert. Those plastic buckets could last hundreds of years before they started leaking.
Convinced the workers weren’t coming back, Kaitlyn and I got to work pulling one of the buckets up through the freshly-compacted dirt. It took a while, but eventually we brought it to the surface.
“Help me get it open?” I asked Kaitlyn. “I want to take a sample of it before we break it down.”
“How’re you going to do that? You talked me out of it earlier today at the other mine.”
“Watch and learn, shishya,” I said.
“I thought we were done with that shishya stuff,” she said.
“We said we’d be each other’s guru. Let’s be each other’s shishya, too. I’ve been a student my whole life. It’s no different to me.”
“All right, my guru, impress me,” she challenged.
After we got the bucket open — rather painful on the hands, without tools! — I shooed Kaitlyn away and just dumped it on the ground.
“Eccch! What’d you do that for, Davie!?” she exclaimed disgustedly.
“What I have here now is a bucket lined with my sample. I’m going to carry it out of here in the dark, and no one is going to even notice a bucket bobbing along in the night.”
“Okay…” She drew it out, uncertainly. “And the spill?”
“Oh, you can guess that one, my shishya.”
She groaned. “We’re going to bone it away, aren’t we?”
“You got it. Now come get some lovin’.”
It was a lot of work. But it was fun work!
It turns out, magic obeys an inverse square law. Because the spill was much closer to us than the one at the second mine, up on the surface, we were able to break it down with only one session of sex magic. An energetic one, to be sure, but not nearly so heroic as we’d had to employ before.
We finished at about 8pm, the chemicals reduced to their component elements, harmless. Then we compacted the disturbed dirt back down into its hole, leaving no trace we’d been there.
“What’re we doing about the other buckets, Davie?”
“Tonight, nothing. Later? We’ll see.”
Kaitlyn and I jogged back out to our bikes. Once there, I pulled a clean cloth out of my camping gear and used it to wipe down the inside of the bucket. Then I sealed the soiled cloth in a zipper baggie as my lightweight sample, broke the material on my hands down, and then sat down and broke the whole bucket down to a pile of carbon, water, and assorted trace elements.
I even broke down the bent metal rod that formed its handle, rusting it away at high speed.
We got dressed and rode off into the night, finding a spot near the rest area we’d planned to meet Mama Mary at, at about 10pm. We just stripped off in our concealed gully, lay down on a small blanket I’d brought along and fell asleep, exhausted but satisfied. We’d done a lot of good work out here this week.