Set in a distant future, a place without day nor night, a time of no light, the lightminers blindingly dedicate themselves for the needs of others. But at what cost?
“I’ve been working in the mines since I was very young,” says the grizzled man sitting before me. His hands are weathered, and his grey beard is dotted with crusted dirt. The only way I was able to conduct the interview was by arranging to appear on site near the shafts. The hours the miners worked were merciless and it just wasn’t possible for him to travel into the city and still meet shift requirements.
“I remember the early days when opening a light vein was as easy as opening a new shaft. It was everywhere. Now, I’m not talking about the times of Day and Night, but there was plenty to go around!” he smiles wistfully.
I had heard of it of course, Day and Night. My grandfather had told me the stories when I was younger that he himself had heard from his grandfather. The government had once filled and maintained enormous lamps in each city set to radiate for 12 hours at a time. It had completely removed the need for personal light devices in almost all major locations across the country and had even been synchronised internationally. As I glance over at the bulb flickering dimly next to us, I find I can’t even begin to imagine it.
The dangers of the job and the glory of providing light for the people had given them a mythic status.
“Light is volatile, you see?” the miner, Johnson, was opening up now. The recording equipment was capturing his voice and this interview would be reaching radios across the country. “It’s the fire that gets you. That’s why we need the firebirds. If the ore spoils during extraction it can start a fire. Imagine a greasy wave of invisible heat, crawling along the tunnel toward you. It’s taken too many good men from us.” He stops talking and looks away, always away from the light it seems.
“You were saying about the firebirds, Mr. Johnson?” I try to coax him back. “Yes, yes, the firebirds. Very sensitive to heat, you see? They’ll cause a great fuss as soon as a fire is present. At that point the whole shaft is evacuated until the fire is spent.”
“So, you are risking your life each time you enter the mine?”
“Oh yes, there aren’t many who have lasted as long as me.”
There had been many attempts to synthesise the element with varying degrees of success. Scientists in Persia had managed to generate a simulacrum which could radiate for a short time, but the cost and energy required had rendered the process completely non-viable. Natural light was still the only option we had. Hopefully this interview could make a difference. If the public could be made aware of what was missing from their lives, of how much beauty that light and sight could reveal for them. Maybe then, they would do something about it. The rich and the privileged had been jealously guarding light for decades. I had to be able to make a difference somehow.
“And what is a dulcet girl like you doing down at the mines anyway?” It seemed Mr. Johnson wanted to take a turn at being the interviewer.
“I haven’t heard someone as beautiful as you in many a year!”
“I just want to let the world hear about what you are doing here Mr. Johnson, about how much you give and risk to provide light for only the richest of us.”
“Not my business where it ends up, I’m afraid. We do our job as best we can!” His eyes are closed as they have been for the whole interview. Red rimmed and crusted, I can faintly make out the subtle movement of his eyes underneath. The glow from the lamp is starting to fade. Once it’s exposed to air, light immediately begins to dissipate. That’s why it’s mainly sold as a powder to increase the surface area. However, it does require some exposure before sale to render it safe for use. In its pure, elemental form it can be extremely dangerous.
It’s time to change tack. I want people to understand the sacrifices of the miners. I want people to know what they do for us.
“When was the last time you saw light, Mr. Johnson?” I ask, fully knowing the answer will be hard to hear. He takes a moment to think before speaking.
“It’s been so long, I don’t think I could tell you Miss. As I said before, light is dangerous. Striking a vein and exposing the raw ore can cause fires or worse. But even without causing a reaction, if you expose the raw ore to oxygen it will glow intensely. Most miners go blind within the first few weeks. For me I would guess it was the same.”
He sucks in a long breath as the last of the light dies.
“Those up top don’t mind, as long as the job is done.”