Chapter 20: Swiping Samples
The first site was less than an hour’s bike ride away, and we rode straight out there from the town library.
When we saw the sign for the mine down the dirt road leading to its entrance, we pulled off into a gully out of sight from the road, locked our bikes to a tree, stripped off our clothes, and stowed them in the bikes’ cargo carrier bags. Then we weaved invisibility bubbles around ourselves and took off running at an angle to the road, aiming for a hill that overlooked the mine site.
When we got to the top of the hill, we sat down and did an initial melding with Gaia to check out the land around us. It was a bit of difficult work since there was so much technological impact on it that it wasn’t at all like spreading out into a purely natural area. We had to snake our senses around buried power cables and bypass minor spills of petrochemicals and other bits of unpleasantness. All of this was small potatoes; we wouldn’t be able to affect JRE policy by reporting such minor problems.
Eventually, Kaitlyn called out, pointing “Over there, Davie! See it?”
“You’re invisible, Kaitlyn; I can’t see where you’re pointing,” I said with some asperity.
“Oh, right, sorry,” she said. “See that big pile of rock over there, several hundred feet from that cluster of prefab buildings? That pile seems… I don’t know, just wrong to me.”
I moved my magical senses from the sector I’d been working, moving in the direction she’d indicated, and I saw it: it was a tailings pile next to a small desert river that flowed through the area, what in wetter areas they’d just call a stream, but out here it was life itself. I was no mining engineer, but even I could see that rain would wash material from the tailings pile into the river and out into the fields and town water supplies it fed. I tasted it through my Earth senses, but I didn’t recognize the trace ore in the tailings.
This was a skill just like learning to taste food critically. I wasn’t very practiced at it yet; the main things I’d learned to “taste” were the materials I’d needed for the project of making Kaitlyn’s engagement ring: copper-infused rose gold, silver, and gems.
Gems were easy to discern, being relatively large regular crystalline shapes in the Earth: they stood out just as plainly to my magical eyes just as cut crystals do to physical eyes.
The copper, gold and silver I learned about through comparison to an old circuit board I’d scavenged from a broken computer back at work. I knew that the electronics industry used gold for protection of exposed electrical contacts, silver for some types of soldering and electrical component contact plating, and copper for the actual circuit board traces protected by the solder mask and gold plating.
I’d also learned about lead, tin, copper, and other metals from that same circuit board, but since I hadn’t found their ore forms out in nature yet, I didn’t know whether I could actually recognize them in that form yet.
This tailings pile tasted like none of those. It was natural, but until I knew what was in it, I couldn’t say whether it was a problem.
“We’re going to have to take a sample,” I told Kaitlyn.
“How are we going to do that?” she asked.
“Easiest thing in the world: just go take a chunk of it,” I said. When she didn’t answer, I said, “It’s just natural rock. There’s nothing that’ll prevent us from just walking down there and picking up a sample. We’ll have to reshape our invisibility bubble around it, and we don’t want to be seen taking the actual rock, since it’ll just disappear to anyone watching, but no one’s going to miss any of those rocks otherwise.”
Kaitlyn and I walked gingerly down the hill, naked but invisible, jogged over to the tailings pile, and sat down there.
“Before we get our sample,” I said, “let’s spread out from here and see if we can find any more problems.” We were now closer to the center of the operation, so we could “see” farther in the direction we’d moved now, magically speaking.
I was deep into an examination of the tanks surrounding the sheet metal prefabricated buildings, my eyes closed and my attention concentrated on the task when Kaitlyn cried, “Look out!”
I looked up and saw a two storey tall front-end loader driving towards us at speed! We’d been caught!! They’re trying to kill us!!!
I barely maintained my invisibility bubble through the panic and scramble of getting to my feet and running away at a ninety degree angle from the loader’s path.
Once well clear, I turned to see that it had gone right on past me, not veering from its path in the slightest. It dumped its load onto the tailings pile, backed up into a K-turn, and drove back to where it’d picked up its prior load.
I heard Kaitlyn jog up beside me, and I started laughing quietly. “Thank you, Kaitlyn. We need to pay attention out here. It’s a working mine site, and I find myself without a hard hat.”
“Yeah, OSHA’d have you up on dozens of workplace safety violations right now,” she replied, joining in the laughter.
“Starting with being nekkid at the job site,” I put in.
After Kaitlyn’s laughter ran down, she said, “The tanks look fine to me.”
“All right,” I concluded decisively, “that’s a good day’s work. Let’s grab our rock samples and go.”
It was tricky reshaping our bubbles to cover a few handfuls of the rock each, but we managed to figure out the trick of it without losing control of our own bubbles. It took a fair bit more energy to maintain that shape, but we were standing on bare earth. Scarred earth, but still natural despite the damage to it. We had power to burn on this.
Back at the bikes, we dropped our invisibility spells and put the rocks into some baggies I carried among my camping supplies for odd purposes. I dug deeper into the bag, found a Sharpie, and labeled the samples with the location and date where we’d found them, then placed them in the cargo bags. I figured we’d offset the food we consumed with samples collected, so the weight would come out about the same.
As I was bagging the samples up, Kaitlyn asked, “How are we going to get this stuff analyzed, Davie?”
“I’m not sure,” I said. “Part of the problem is that we only have half a week left up here, and I think this sort of analysis normally takes weeks. Do you know anyone through BLM that could push it through?”
Kaitlyn works for the Bureau of Land Management, the part of the US federal government that looks after land that isn’t yet privately held or set aside for some other purpose and is thus looked after by some other part of the government. Keeping an eye on mines operating on that land was part of their remit.
“Not personally, no, but maybe I can find someone through my boss,” she said.
So, we cycled back into town and started making calls on our mobile phones.
Half an hour later, Kaitlyn had a contact within BLM, and I had a separate one at a local university that I’d gotten through Jess, my grey hat hacker friend. Both contacts were reluctant to dedicate lab time to the project, but we managed to convince them that we were on the side of the angels with this, both agreeing to do some after-hours testing for us.
We went down to the local post office, dropped the rocks into some bubble envelopes, and mailed them off to the two independent labs. Since both labs were in Salt Lake, we were able to send them overnight for a reasonable shipping fee. We could have called Kaitlyn’s mother out to pick them up, but this would be fast enough for our purposes.