Chapter 5

The Mine

Kisho walked up the stone steps carved into the side of the hill. From the top he looked out over the pit mine and the gray hills beyond it. The terraced layers of the mine extended deep into the ground, but the pit was so wide that it was difficult to discern the actual depth. Heavy industry steambots walked slowly across the gigantic landscape. Each of them was the height of a house, but the far ones seemed to be tiny bugs crawling across a scale model of a vast stony terrain. The gray clouds overhead cast a diffuse light and the entire scene seemed vast and timeless.

The supervisor, perhaps thirty years old, appeared from the other side of the hill and he approached Kisho. He stopped, bowed formally, and introduced himself. “Kisho-san! It is an honor to meet you. I am supervisor Nobuki.”

Kisho had gotten used to not needing to introduce himself. He was the only senior member of Henjo heavy industry with a scar running from his temple to his jawline. Kisho responded, “Supervisor Nobuki, thank you for taking the time to meet me.”

The supervisor bowed and gestured for Kisho to follow him. They walked down a long path toward the mine. 

The supervisor said, “I have been the supervisor at this site for eight months. I was previously a manager of materials and logistics at Henjo corporate headquarters. Henjo prefers that its senior managers have direct experience on site, and for that reason they offered me the opportunity to supervise this mine.”

Kisho said, “It is a very distinguished position, congratulations!”

The supervisor said, “Thank you! I am learning a lot from my work here. And all of the other staff know to only follow my instructions when I tell them to do the right thing.”

Kisho laughed. He said, “I am sure that the staff also appreciate humility.”

The supervisor clapped his hands to his side and bowed formally. He said, “Thank you, sir!”

The supervisor brought them to the open structure overlooking the mine. From there they could see the heavy industry steambots digging and carrying rocks with their enormous shovel hands. Kisho noted the way that the desk vibrated when the steambots moved. The supervisor’s teacup rattled when the huge shovel hands excavated stone.

The supervisor noted Kisho’s glance and said, “Kisho-san, may I offer you some tea?”

Kisho shook his head. “Thank you for the offer, but no.” He looked out over the pit and remarked, “I worked here at one time, almost twenty years ago. This location has a certain nostalgia for me.”

The supervisor replied, “I feel that I have much to learn.” He said, “There are still so many noises that I cannot identify.” There was a slow and distant rumbling. The supervisor continued, “That sound, for example, is still unclear to me.”

Kisho smiled. He gestured toward a pair of bots. He said, “Do you see those two bots standing near each other?”

The supervisor squinted. He said, “Yes! I do see them.”

Kisho said, “They are rolling a boulder back and forth between them.”

The supervisor squinted more and leaned slightly forward. He said, “Ah, yes. I see that now. Thank you, Kisho-san! It is the rolling of the boulder that makes the noise.”

Kisho said, “This is not quite accurate. Those two bots are playing.”

The supervisor furrowed his brow. He asked, “They are playing?”

Kisho said, “Yes, they are playing a game. They are rolling the boulder. But it is not the rolling of the boulder that makes the noise.”

The supervisor tilted his head. “I see,” he said slowly. “What is it that makes the noise?”

Kisho smiled. He said, “The bots are laughing.”

The supervisor turned to look at Kisho, then quickly turned to look back at the bots. He said, “The bots are playing a game and the noise is the sound of their laughter.”

Kisho nodded.

The supervisor asked, “Should I order them to stop?”

Kisho controlled himself to not laugh. He said, “No, they are having fun.” The supervisor said nothing so Kisho continued, “Fun is good for them.”

The supervisor looked at Kisho again and then back to the bots. He asked, “The fun serves a purpose?”

Kisho accidentally let a tiny laugh escape, but he concealed it by clearing his throat. He said, “Yes. The fun serves a purpose, but sometimes the purpose of fun is best served if one does not worry too much about the purpose of fun.”

The supervisor replied, “Ahhhhhh… soooooo.” Then he took a small notebook from his coat pocket and began writing. He said, “Please excuse me, Kisho-san, while I write down this most interesting observation.”

Kisho nodded seriously.

The supervisor finished writing and looked up again. He said, “Fun serves a purpose!”

Kisho nodded again and said, “Yes, fun serves a purpose. You should try to have a little fun every day.”

The supervisor clapped both his hands to his side and bowed. He said, “Yes! I will!”

Kisho nodded seriously again.

The supervisor looked up toward a foreman who was waiting politely. The supervisor turned toward Kisho and said, “Would you please excuse me, Kisho-san? There seems to be a small matter that requires attention.”

Kisho nodded and said, “Of course.”

The supervisor bowed and stepped away to speak with the foreman. 

Kisho shook his head and whispered to himself, “Did I really just give him orders to have fun?” He cleared his throat and looked down. He shook his head again and said quietly, “It is probably not helpful to attempt to clarify the situation now, it would only confuse things more.” 

The supervisor returned and asked Kisho, “Please excuse me, Kisho-san, but I wonder if I might inquire about a minor matter?”

Kisho shivered slightly then calmed himself. He said, “Of course!”

The supervisor said, “The heavy industry corporations have undergone consolidation recently. Certain business practices have become standardized. While there are fewer independent firms, the corporations that are still competitive are experiencing a thinning of the profit margins.”

Kisho nodded.

The supervisor continued, “At this point, the two main competitors are Henjo and Hayachi.” The supervisor paused and gathered himself, then he continued, “Hayachi heavy industry is very dependent on its mining operations for its materials. It has very few independent suppliers. This is also true of Henjo heavy industry.” The supervisor paused one more time before finishing, “If Hayachi were to have some problem with its heavy steambots… if they were to get out of control… it is likely that the Kogen shogunate would feel compelled to respond.” He turned toward the mine, clearly tense.

Kisho nodded. He said, “That would certainly affect the business environment in heavy industry.”

The supervisor said, “Even a minor problem with Hayachi bots would require extensive involvement of the shogunate. Hayachi heavy industry would be significantly impaired for at least a year, quite possibly much longer than that. During that time, Henjo heavy industry would have almost monopoly control over the market.” The supervisor continued, “And it would be easy to create evidence that Hayachi bots were not adequately controlled, even if that were not actually the case.”

Kisho nodded again. He said, “Henjo heavy industry is in a similar position. Both Henjo and our competitor, Hayachi, are at risk of such evidence being created.”

The supervisor exhaled slowly. He said, “This is the nature of my concern.”

Kisho said, “In this situation, both Hayachi and Henjo are motivated to act first. Only ethical self-restraint would prevent either corporation from creating evidence that indicates that the other company is experiencing difficulties with rogue steambots.”

The supervisor nodded. He said, “When I heard that you were coming to visit this site, I was hopeful that I would have the opportunity to talk to you.” He turned to look at Kisho, bowed, and said, “You have a reputation for de-escalating conflict.” The supervisor continued, “I hope that I have not bothered you with this minor concern.”

Kisho nodded and said, “Thank you for bringing this issue to my attention.” 

In the mine, the steambots were piling gravel into funiculars that traveled along rails up and out of the mine. Wind swirled dust and created small whirlwinds. The rumbling noises of bots were interspersed with the clanging and general din of heavy industry.

Kisho tilted his head to the side, looking thoughtful. The supervisor began to speak but Kisho held up his hand, requesting quiet. After nearly a minute, Kisho walked to a rack of colored flags and pulled out an orange flag. He held the flag thoughtfully for a moment and then waved it back and forth over his head. At dozens of locations around the pit, similar orange flags waved in response. Deafening steam whistles sounded, two short blasts. The pattern of whistle blasts repeated three times. All around the pit, motion stopped. The work site, previously raucous with activity, became suddenly quiet.

Kisho stood with his head tilted to the side and his brow furrowed. The supervisor stood next to him, waiting. Nearly a minute passed in stillness. Then there was a faint rumbling sound. Kisho tilted his head quickly, attempting to discern the direction of the sound. There was another stretch of silence followed by a second rumbling. Kisho put his hand down.

The supervisor asked, “Thunder?”

Kisho nodded slowly, “Yes.”

The supervisor picked up the red flag and looked at Kisho. Kisho nodded. The supervisor waved the flag over his head. All around the work site other red flags appeared. The steam whistles sounded, three long blasts followed by two short ones. The pattern repeated three times.

The steambots roared to activity as their engines restarted. Plumes of smoke and steam erupted from their stacks. The bots near the rim of the mine turned and began walking.

Kisho asked, “How long will it take them to reach shelter near the lightning rods?”

The supervisor said, “Usually about eight minutes.”

There was a long silence as they watched the steambots moving toward shelter. Eventually Kisho said, “I assume good intentions.”

The supervisor turned toward him and said, “I am sorry, Kisho-san, I did not understand.”

Kisho said, “The way that I de-escalate conflict is to assume good intentions. Everyone believes that they are doing the right thing. I simply try to understand what right means to them.”

The supervisor said, “Ah. I see.” He nodded slowly, then he gestured toward the mine road. He said, “Kisho-san, I would be honored to give you a tour of the mine.”