The bond of partnership encounters its first test!…
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Last week’s story fork…
1. Shake his hand.
2. Punch him in the face.
3. Do both.
The group chose #1 and here is how that played out…
Competing urges within me played tug of war with my response. A part of me wanted to punch him in the face. Hard. Hard enough to break his nose and maybe even crack the orbital bone around an eye if I got lucky. Something to cause him pain. Something to make him feel the consequences of what just happened.
But instead, I shook his hand because it was better to have an ally than another enemy. I could count my allies with a single finger. Martinez. I needed more, even if that meant accepting one with a dubious sense of morality and an even more dubious hold on reality.
Still, his attitude rankled me.
I yanked him around and let go. We stood side by side, staring at the destruction of the battle. “This is the beginning, partner.”
Already, the cries of elation at the unexpected victory had disappeared. The survivors huddled in ones and twos around those lying on the ground. There were several with serious injuries and more that were already gone.
A woman placed a wadded up bit of blood-soaked cloth under a dying man’s head. Silent tears streaked down her grimy cheeks. She gathered one of his hands in hers and held tight.
Small comforts for his final seconds.
His chest leaked red into the dirt. He spasmed with short airless breaths. Blood bubbled up out of his mouth and dribbled down his chin. His eyes wide with a question that would never be asked.
The woman held his hand and cupped his cheek. She whispered words of soft assurance.
“It’s okay. You’re gonna be okay.”
She wasn’t attempting to deceive him. To suggest that he would live if he could just hold on until help arrived. He was dying, and they both knew it. She was only telling him that it was okay. That he was leaving and not to worry.
The man shuddered a final time and went still.
Only then did the woman’s muted pain find voice. Her sobbing came out in wracking fits of animal agony.
Further into the marketplace, the orange glow of fires burned here and there. They needed to be put out before they spread and burned the whole place to the ground.
“Martinez, round up some of these people and go help get the fires under control! Send any wounded you encounter to this location! We’ll triage emergency care and supplies here.”
“On it!” She got straight to carrying out the mission.
Frantic screams echoed around the voluminous cavern as the toll of the attack became evident. Some of the sounds were clearly coming from the injured. Other sounds were from the loves ones who’d found them.
“A lot of people died and more will before it’s over,” I said, to ensure Crypto understood the point I was trying to make.
He shrugged. “Don’t be so glum, partner. The suffering that these people endured today has meaning. A higher purpose.”
I snorted with disgust. “Having survived the battle unscathed, that’s easy for you to say.”
“Agreed. But people die in utterly meaningless ways every single day. A man keels over from a heart attack. A woman is finally dragged down after long years of decrepitude. A child perishes from a devastating disease. A baby goes cold and still in its mother’s womb. Their lights blink out like sparks escaped from a fire. And, yes, they are all tragedies. But they mean nothing.”
He surveyed the carnage before us and the disasters unfolding around the marketplace, and then turned back to me. His eyes gleamed with inner light. “This suffering has meaning. And that makes all the difference.”
“And what if all this leads to nothing? What if today or tomorrow or the next day, we’re all wiped out?”
It would then be impossible to claim it was worth it. The argument was irrefutable.
He slapped my arm like we were old chums.
With effort, I refrained from slapping his head off.
“Well then, partner, we’d better make damn sure that doesn’t happen.”
“Do you think it’s going to be that easy?”
“Do you think I’m that stupid? Look at me,” he said as he gestured at himself from head to toe. “Nothing in my life from the minute I was born has been easy. Easy and me aren’t on speaking terms. Whether by choice or circumstance, I have lived the path of most resistance. And I prefer it that way.”
I stared at him a second, in wonder at how this man could have me agreeing with him one minute and then wanting to smash his face in the next.
Maybe I should’ve led with my fist instead of that hand shake?
“I’m going to help the others,” I said as I started off.
I hadn’t gone three steps when the entire cavern shook with a thunderous explosion.
It knocked Crypto off his feet and nearly did the same to me.
I spun around to see a thick cloud of brown particulate dust explode out of the mouth of the exit corridor. The one that General Curtis and the surviving Grays had escaped through moments before.
It was the way out of the marketplace and back to the rest of Residence 1.
Clouds of impenetrable dust billowed out like smoke and rose toward the roof of the cavern above.
One of Crypto’s apes helped him to his feet, patting his black uniform, igniting puffs of tiny dust clouds. One enveloped Crypto’s head and he began sneezing violently.
He smacked the huge hand away and muttered a curse after the sneezing fit wound down.
The dust took a few minutes to settle, but it didn’t take more than a few seconds to realize what had happened.
And what it meant.
The general and his men had collapsed the tunnel.
We were trapped.
I pointed at the nearest ape and then at the tunnel. “Go check it out! We need to know what we’re dealing with.”
His upper lip curled up into a snarl.
“Do it,” Crypto said.
The brute flashed me his bared teeth before wrapping a cloth around his face. He pulled a small flashlight out of his pocket and headed into the dark tunnel.
“Buried alive! Really!?” Crypto said and then spat to get the dust out of his mouth. “What a pathetic way to go. I’d always imagined something far grander.”
I swallowed and the inside of my throat scraped together like it was coated with sandpaper. I hacked a thick glob out and noticed my front side. What had seconds ago been slick with blood was now powder-coated with fine grit. I scraped a finger down my cheek and came away with a brown paste that I flicked away.
Crypto finished patting more of the dust out of his clothes as I stopped next to him.
“Is there another way out?”
He looked up with a frown. “No.”
“Well, then we’re going to have to clear the tunnel.”
He shook his head. “We have no idea how much of the corridor has collapsed. It could takes weeks to clear it. And the surrounding rock will have faults in it now. We could clear a section only for it to collapse on our heads!”
“Do you have any better ideas?”
He coughed a few times and then gestured at the layer of smoke hugging the ceiling. It was noticeably much lower than before. “The collapse cut off the air circulation. How long will the air in here last? Not long is my guess. Not with all these people and those fires chewing through the oxygen.”
“Then we’d better get started.” I waved to the other survivors nearby. “Gather up what tools you can! We have to get the tunnel cleared out or we’ll all end staying here forever!”
A murmur of somber agreement made the rounds. Several people disappeared down the lane, heading to wherever supplies could be gathered while others remained with the wounded that still needed tending.
One of the orange glows in the distance went dark.
Good. One of the fires had been put out.
People began returning carrying shovels and pry bars while others arrived carrying or supporting the wounded.
“Does anyone here have any medical training?”
A man raised a tentative hand. “I’m an orderly. I’ve seen what the nurses and doctors do.”
“Then you’re the best we’ve got. Recruit two assistants and get to work on diagnosing and treating the injured.”
He stood there, frozen in place. Eyes wide with fear.
“Do the best you can! Now!”
“Yes, Sir,” he stuttered and then got to work.
“Bring everything we can use for digging and hauling over here!” I shouted to those returning with supplies. I pointed at the destroyed battering ram. “Crypto, do you have someone who can take a look at that vehicle?”
“I don’t think there’s enough left to repair.”
“That wasn’t my question. And if we don’t need a barricade anymore. We need something that can drag out any rocks too large to carry.”
“I know a guy here. If he’s still alive.”
“Good. Find him. Get him on it ASAP.”
Crypto’s lips pressed together into a tight line. He clearly wasn’t used to taking direction.
And I couldn’t have cared less.
“What are you waiting for, partner? Are we going to make this mean something or not?”
He bit his lip and motioned to the bodyguard standing nearby. “Let’s go.” The two vanished from my thoughts before they’d vanished into the marketplace.
Before I sent anyone in to start digging, potentially sending them to their deaths, I wanted to take a look myself. “We need more buckets and things that can haul out the dirt. Keep gathering it all right here.” I pointed at the growing pile of tools and supplies.
“Does anyone have a flashlight?”
A few people raised their hands and I accepted one from the nearest volunteer. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
I yanked my shirt off and tied it around my face to somewhat filter the air.
Which was smart because it became apparent within the first twenty feet that while the mouth of the tunnel was relatively clear, further in was choked with dust.
The light of the flashlight bloomed into the particulate fog, making it next to useless. Next to. Not fully.
I continued with squinted eyes and slow, shallow breaths.
It went on like that until my eyes burned and every breath ended with a cough.
Until I nearly ran into Crypto’s ape.
He was half-buried at the top of the pile of rubble blocking the corridor. His legs thrashed about as he wiggled back out. He noticed me with a nod. “I dug a few feet in, but couldn’t see anything but more dirt. Not sure how far it goes.”
I shined the flashlight along the top of the corridor, looking for cracks or faults or anything that might hint at instability. I didn’t see anything.
But that didn’t mean they weren’t there. Either in the part that I could see or in the part obscured by the rubble.
Thinking more to myself than anything, I spoke. “We’re going to need to spray everything down to get the dust to settle. Also going to need to pump in air to keep from suffocating.”
What else did I expect from this guy?
“Head back and have people start gathering water and some pumps and lines. We need to get started immediately. I’ll be back out in a few. I want to look around a bit more.”
He stared at me for a second, deciding on where I stood in the hierarchy now that I was his boss’ partner. “Okay.” And he left without another word.
I’d expected more resistance. More grumbling or threats or something.
But I guess officially being partners with Crypto came with certain advantages. That was a welcome surprise.
I just hoped the partnership didn’t come with other surprises.
Three crews of eighteen dug for two hours each, and twelve shifts had passed and still there was nothing but more rocks and dirt clogging the tunnel. No hint of where it might end. No clue as to when we might break through to the other side.
Though Crypto and I were the de facto leaders of the escape effort, I didn’t think that meant we should get a free pass on the digging and hauling.
Crypto, not surprisingly, thought differently.
He lounged at one of the local watering holes that hadn’t been touched by the grenades or the resulting fires. Each time he returned to check in on progress, he was drunker than the last.
I’d assembled an efficient operation.
Diggers cut the dirt and rocks away from the packed wall blocking the tunnel.
Scoopers right behind them filled the buckets.
Carriers took full buckets out and brought empty buckets back.
A guy from the Water department that had been spending off duty time in the marketplace turned up. He’d installed a tube that pumped in the fresher air from the cavern.
Another guy from the Power department had strung out a cable of lights along the edge of the corridor so we had light throughout.
The work was filthy and exhausting.
But we kept at it like a hive of orchestrated insects.
At first, no one complained.
Everyone one knew their job and did it.
Every hour of effort brought visible progress.
But with every passing hour of continued progress that led to nowhere, morale began to fall.
This shift, thirteen and counting, had started a few minutes ago and two people hadn’t returned from wherever it was they disappeared to during the rest period. Of the sixteen that did show, three were intoxicated if not outright drunk.
Crypto’s drinking buddies, perhaps.
I’d been forced to make them leave to maintain order and safety within the tunnel. All of the remaining workers were exhausted and far less effective than when we’d started.
The machine I’d so carefully assembled was falling apart.
I slammed a pickaxe into the wall of rubble and tore out another chunk. Over and over, swing after swing until my shoulders burned like fire.
Breathing hard with my chest heaving like a bellow sucking air into my lungs, my head started to swim. A slight disorientation at first that quickly got stronger.
I stumbled back a few steps and leaned against the wall while I worked to slow my breathing. My fingers ached from being curled around the shaft of the axe for so long.
Martinez slammed another swing into the wall and tore another chunk free. She looked over her shoulder. “What’s wrong? Can’t keep up with a lady?”
I laughed. “Are you trying to tell me you’re a lady?”
She laughed in return and then spit a brown loogie into the dirt. “Yeah, you’ve got a point there.” She turned away and kept digging.
A tight gray tank top showed the lean muscles bulging in her shoulders and arms. The curvature of her breasts hung below her arm each time she lifted the pickaxe for another blow. Soaked with sweat, her uniform pants clung to her hips and backside. Revealing curves that had been hidden before.
As tired and beat up as I was, I noticed.
Even having no intention of doing anything that remotely approached acting on the observation, I still noticed.
I was a man. Admittedly, a man past his prime.
But she was a woman. A woman unquestionably in the bloom of her youth.
Between being tough as nails and undeniably attractive, she was going to make some lucky guy happy someday.
If only I was twenty years younger.
“Hey,” Martinez said. “Are you going to just sit there looking dumb? Or are you going to help me dig us out of here?”
I blinked out of the daze and found my breathing had slowed and the dizzy spell had passed. “Cut me some slack, Martinez. I got out of brain surgery less than two days ago.”
She snorted. “Excuses, excuses.”
I rolled my sore shoulders a few times and got back to work.
Minutes rolled by as the axes rose and fell. Pecking the dirt away like chickens hitting a bowl full of feed.
I angled my pickaxe sideways to have a swing at a stubbornly lodged rock stuck near the top.
An accurate swing and it split down the middle.
The two halves tumbled down and a whooshing sound of equalizing air.
“Did you hear that?” I asked Martinez, thinking maybe my delirious exhaustion was making me hear things.
“I heard it! I heard it!”
Adrenaline flooded my limbs and I went after that spot at the top. After another five minutes of furious digging, sweat poured off my chin like a faucet. I hadn’t revealed much, but there was a small void that extended into the rubble that seemed to be less packed than everything we’d encountered to that point.
“I knew it,” a disappointed voice said from behind.
I turned to see Crypto, swaying slightly as if responding to an invisible wind. “They said you’d gotten us out. But no, you haven’t.”
“I dug back as far as I could, but still haven’t gotten through. We’re going to have to dig out the main body a ways yet to find out.”
Crypto looked up at the hole I’d created near the roof. His lips pinched to the side. “I can fit in there. I’ll check it out.”
“Your drunk. Go eat and get some sleep.”
His eyes flashed. “We’re partners, if you’ll remember. You’re not my boss!”
“I’m just saying we’ll get through it eventually. We don’t need your help at this point.”
He yanked off the thus far unused trowel hanging from his hip and stomped around me. “And yet, my help is what you will have. Move aside!”
He marched by, then teetered to the side and smacked into the wall. He steadied himself and winked at us like it he’d meant to do that. He scrambled up the pile and started singing as he burrowed into the hole.
The first scoop of dirt shot out and hit me in the eye.
“Watch out below!” he said as he wriggled deeper and then continued on with the song.
I ducked to the side as the next scoop sailed by. I scraped the granules out of my eye and fought the urge to hit him with the shaft of my axe.
“Lean down,” Martinez said with a grimace.
“You’re thingie has dirt in it.”
“Your brain pipe or whatever you call it. There’s dirt sticking out the top.”
“Oh.” I crouched and tilted my head forward.
Martinez reached up to get it out and her chest brushed against my cheek. She didn’t seem to notice.
“Ouch!” I said as a sharp pain stabbed into my head.
“Sorry. There’s some lodged in it.”
I gritted my teeth as pain spiked every time she jostled the tube.
“There we go. Got it. Mostly. You should probably wash that out. It doesn’t look remotely sanitary.”
“Good point.” I should’ve covered it before we started.
A deep cracking sound in the surround rock.
Everyone in the vicinity froze.
The diggers, the scoopers, the carriers. Martinez and I.
Everyone but Crypto.
Another scoop of dirt flew by.
His feet were no longer visible. His voice echoed out as he continued singing like an idiot. I didn’t catch all the words, but the virtues of cold beer and hot women were mentioned more than a few times.
No one moved. Other than Crypto.
Another cracking sound.
A thunderous, terrifying breaking.
The nearby roof cracked open and huge chunks of rock crashed down.
“Everyone out! Now! Run!” I shouted.
Everyone but Martinez took off toward the exit into the cavern.
She grabbed my wrist. “Come on! Let’s go!”
I turned toward the hollow at the top of the rubble and the muffled singing echoing out.
A jagged fissure split across the tunnel above our heads.
1. Leave Crypto behind and go with Martinez.
2. Tell Martinez to go and try to save Crypto.
3. Get Martinez to help rescue Crypto.
What do you think should happen next? Let me know in the comments!