Our heroes try to save Crypto, but do they end up dying in the process? Time to find out…

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Happy reading!

Will

Last week’s story fork…

CHOICES:

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.

The group chose #3 and here is how that played out…

 

Chapter 35

Martinez yanked my wrist so hard she nearly pulled my shoulder out of the socket. “What are you doing? We have to run for it!”

I shook my head. “No. We have to save him.”

“Save him? Are you crazy? We have to save ourselves!” She tugged my wrist again, but I wasn’t going to be moved.

“We’re in this together now. We’re on the same side.”

She let go with a frown. “That’s what you think. But I’m betting he doesn’t share that view. My bet is that he’s on his own side no matter what happens. And the minute our side doesn’t line up with his side, he’ll dump us. Or worse.”

“Maybe,” I said with a nod of acceptance. “But his view of the world doesn’t change mine. We have to help him.”

Martinez’ nostrils flared with anger.

The fissure in the rock above our heads jumped another foot across the surface. A shower of dust and pebbles rained down.

Martinez shook her head. “Fine. But if we die, I’m going to kill you.” She elbowed me aside, not gently, and scrambled up the pile of debris. “I’ll grab him and you pull me out.”

“Got it.”

She extended her arms in front of her and wriggled into the hole. It was barely bigger than her body. She inched forward like a worm, and slowly went deeper until only her boots remained.

A deep creaking and the tunnel shook.

It was going to come down any second.

I climbed up, grabbed her boots and shoved forward until I my shoulders hit the rock surrounding the hole.

“Stop it!” she screamed. It came out muffled from the cramped space, but I could tell it would’ve been loud and furious from the point of origin.

“Sorry,” I called into the dark crevice.

“Not talking to you!” she said. “Stop kicking, you pint-sized idiot!” Her torso and legs thrashed around and then settled. “Got him! Pull me out!”

I latched onto both boots and heaved with all my strength.

She slid out a few feet and then stopped.

I pulled again, but to no effect.

“Owww! Stop it!” she shouted.

I kept pulling as hard as I could.

“I mean you this time! Stop pulling!”

I let go of her boots. “Oh, sorry!”

Crypto’s drunken singing drifted out.

Oh, one hot woman

And two cold beers

Keep ‘em coming like that

Til the morning appears!

All three go down

Is the way to start.

Then the lady gets a turn

Cuz I’m a man with a heart.

“Will you shut up already!” Martinez yelled. “Scout, I’m stuck on something.”

“Can you reach it?” I asked.

“If I could’ve done that, I would’ve already! I can’t bend my arms.”

“Where are you stuck?”

She wriggled back and forth. “Feels like the buttons on my pants.”

Crypto snickered. “I can fix that for you, madame. I can undo the button’s on a woman’s pants with a snap of my fingers.” He broke into hysterical laughter.

I was starting to regret forcing Martinez to help me save the lecherous wretch.

She wriggled again and I pulled.

Nothing.

“I can’t get it off. Can you reach in and do it?”

Crypto hooted like a baboon. “The woman’s asking you to take her pants off, Scout. Be a gentleman and oblige her!”

“Shut up!” Martinez and I said at once.

I slid my fingers in the narrow space between her leg and the surrounding rock. My hand barely fit. I shoved harder, dragging her pants up on the one side and gouging the rock into the back of my hand on the other.

Further in and increasingly constricted movement, but I got to her hip.

Crypto continued singing while Martinez continued telling him to shut up.

This wasn’t the rescue plan I’d imagined.

Stinging pain traced down my knuckles as they scraped by a sharp rock. I gritted my teeth and kept pushing.

Now, up to my shoulder with my neck cranked over and my cheek smashed into the rock surrounding the whole. But I could feel the hem of her pants.

I traced it underneath but didn’t feel anything that was caught.

Was it on the other side?

If so, we were doomed. There wouldn’t be time.

And that was assuming that I was going to get my arm out in the first place.

The fissure growing across the roof groaned and jumped another serrated foot forward. A huge chunk of rock broke loose and fell to the ground with a thunderous crash.

I strained to force my fingers a little further. The vertebrae in my neck were about to snap, like a sapling bent too far.

There!

A button hole was caught on a small bit of jagged rubble. I shoved my finger forward and pushed it free.

“Got it!” I said as I tried to pull my arm out.

It didn’t budge.

I used my other hand to push off the surrounding rock, straining to get free.

And it still didn’t budge.

We were all three stuck now.

Unbelievable!

We were going to die, like idiots. I could already see the look of confusion on the faces of those who eventually dug out our bodies. They’d shake their heads in disbelief and years later tell their grandkids about the morons they found that day.

“I’m stuck,” I said, even as I kept struggling to pull free.

The tunnel shuddered and there was suddenly space where there was none before.

I yanked my arm out and latched onto her boots in one fluid motion. A huge heave and the two shot out of the hole.

All three of us fell backward into a heap.

The fissure in the ceiling above split apart several feet in a blink.

A deafening cracking and the roof came down.

Like a curtain signaling the end of the show.

 

Chapter 36

I coughed and wheezed and coughed again. The wracking spasms in my chest were my first clue that I was still alive.

An endless, continuous chain of coughing. Hacking fits linked one to another until it seemed my ribs would shatter.

And finally, the seizures ebbed and I could breathe.

More or less.

The air was thick with dust.

It was more like breathing smoke than air.

I lay on my back in the darkness, wiping spit or blood from my mouth.

The darkness.

The inky black void of nothing.

I tried to move and found my legs couldn’t move.

An unbearable pressure pinned them in place.

I reached down and my hands smacked into rubble covering me from the waist down. Enough of my pants pocket was exposed to dig out the small flashlight I had there.

I clicked it on and the light bloomed through the brown dust into a blinding haze.

I snapped my eyes shut and clicked it off.

“Martinez?”

A groan from somewhere to my left.

I reached out, feeling the air, hoping to find her.

Another groan and a shifting of rubble.

“Martinez?”

“No,” a shaken voice replied.

“Crypto?”

“Yeah. I think so, anyway. My brain feels like it got squeezed in a nut cracker.”

Another sound of a pile of rubble shifting. Small rocks tumbling down an incline and coming to rest.

“Martinez, is that you?”

“Me again. And it’s so nice to know you care.”

I clicked the flashlight on again, this time with my fingers covering most of the lens so it wouldn’t be so bright.

A dim red fog surrounded me. Through it appeared Crypto’s face. A stream of blood poured down his cheek and dripped off his jaw. He touched the side of his head and winced. “Oww. That’s gonna need stitches.”

“Where’s Martinez?”

“How should I know?” Crypto replied with an angry edge to his voice.

Not being able to move my lower half, I arced the light from one side, above my head and to the other.

There!

Fully buried in rubble except for a sliver of her face.

My heartbeat tripled in an instant. Adrenaline surged through my limbs.

“Dig her out! Now!”

Crypto crawled over and got to work while I tore into the loose fill pinning me down.

A couple of minutes of frantic excavation and I got myself free. I scrambled over and checked her airways. Her nose and mouth didn’t appear to be clogged. But if she was breathing, I couldn’t tell.

Crypto clawed at the dirt and had her head uncovered but his progress was too slow.

So I knocked him out of the way and threw myself into it. The loose dirt and rocks weren’t hard to move, but there was so much of it. My arms and shoulders burned and my fingernails were torn and ragged by the time I’d removed enough to pull her free.

I gently laid her down and checked her airways and breathing.

She was breathing. A feint whisper of air tickling my cheek. An imperceptible rising and falling of her chest. Her eyelids fluttered and opened. Her eyes rolled around until they found me. “Scout?”

I nodded. “You’re going to be okay. The tunnel collapsed behind us.” I shined the dimmed light around to survey our predicament. “We’re in a pocket between two piles of rubble.”

It wasn’t much space. Barely enough for Martinez lying down with me crouched on one side and Crypto on the other.

And not much space meant not much air.

I spotted the black tube bringing in air from the marketplace and swiped the dirt away. I held my fingers over the drilled holes but couldn’t feel any movement.

Maybe the ports were clogged.

I pulled my knife out and slashed it open.

Still nothing.

The collapse must’ve cut the tube somewhere before it reached here.

I turned and sat down hard, biting my lip, trying to think of plan B.

Crypto caught my gaze. “That bad, huh?”

Martinez shifted to sit up and groaned like she was a hundred years old and getting out of bed for the first time in fifty of them.

“You should probably stay,” I said I tried to keep her lying down but she slapped my hand away.

“I’ll be okay.” She pushed up to a sit and swayed for a second before getting her bearings.

“You look drunk,” Crypto said with a grin. “I know the feeling.”

She leaned over and slapped his face so hard his head snapped to the side.

“Ouch!” He said as he cradled his jaw. “What was that for?”

“For being a stupid drunk jerk.”

Crypto rubbed his cheek. “A stupid drunk jerk? Me? What did I do?” He turned to me for an answer.

I nodded. “You got off easy with a slap.”

“Easy?” he said as he continued rubbing his cheek. “You didn’t feel it!”

“You’d be dead if it weren’t for her. She risked her life crawling into a hole to pull you out.”

Crypto opened his mouth to stretch his jaw. “I suppose I owe you a thank you.”

Martinez combed fingers through her hair, releasing dirt and pebbles as she stared at him with flat, menacing eyes.

The two stared at each for a minute.

“I’m waiting,” she said.

“For what?”

“For the thank you. Supposing you owe one isn’t the same as delivering it.”

“Thank you. There. Did that count?”

“Barely,” she said as she shook her head. “I think I’ll leave you to die next time.”

“Fine. Thank you. I mean it. Thank you.”

“Better,” she replied and then turned to me. “What’s the plan?”

I was still working on that. The obvious choice was to try to dig ourselves out. But this wasn’t a big space. More importantly, it wasn’t filled with a large volume of air. If we didn’t get through in a hurry, the increased respiration from working so hard was going to increase the levels of CO2 to toxic levels in short order.

The effects of breathing too much CO2 are not pretty.

It would start with a simple headache. Then grow into fatigue, anxiety, and a loss of coordination. Then a doubling of the respiration rate, panting and dizziness with a severe headache and vision disturbances. Then increased respiration at four times the resting rate while choking for air that wouldn’t help and incapacitated with head pain. And finally, unconsciousness that ended in death.

In other words, we’d suffer horribly and die.

But we couldn’t sit still waiting for rescue forever either. The air would eventually run out that way too.

“I’m working on it,” I said.

Crypto snorted. “That means we’re dead.”

 

Chapter 37

Martinez looked ominously at him. “The air would last longer with one less body sucking it up.”

Crypto’s brows bunched together as he placed his hand over his heart. The wounded look was utterly manufactured, but still superficially convincing. “I’m beginning to think you don’t like me.”

“Beginning? What took—”

“Enough!” I cut in before it could spiral further. “You two arguing like petulant children isn’t getting us out of here any faster.”

Crypto rolled his eyes. “And people think I’m overly dramatic.”

Not for the first time, I regretted not punching him in the face when presented with that golden opportunity. I refocused on our situation to keep the temptation at bay.

“I think we need to stay put and wait for rescue.”

Crypto blew out an exasperated breath. “That’s your brilliant idea? To sit here until we die?”

“If you have something better, I’d love to hear it.”

“Why not dig our way out?”

The dust in the air had settled and the tight confines of our environment were all too visible. “Because this is a small space and any amount of sustained exertion is going to increase the carbon dioxide levels to dangerously high levels in no time.”

I let that sink in.

“We wouldn’t get two feet through rubble before it started to seriously affect our bodies. We can probably survive six to ten hours in here at regular breathing rates. Maybe two hours if we try to dig ourselves out.”

I saw the despair in their eyes and knew they understood the gravity of our situation. There were no solutions. No easy fixes. It was a gamble with our lives the money placed on slightly better odds.

“They know we’re in here and they’ll be working to get us out.”

Crypto stood up and started unbuttoning his shirt. He shrugged out of it.

“What are you doing?” Martinez asked.

He folded it up and pressed it against the wound on his head. “What? You thought you were about to get lucky?”

Martinez’ nostrils flared again and she was about to fire back a response, but caught my stern gaze and instead chose to look away.

Small miracles.

These two were wearing on my last nerve.

Crypto eased down into a sit and leaned back against the rock.

“Is everyone in agreement with the plan?” I asked.

“Yep,” Martinez replied.

“Why not? But if I die first, no one better eat me. Deal? I’m not that much meat. It’s not worth the inevitable and crushing guilt.”

Martinez snorted and then coughed to hide what had obviously been a laugh.

The tension eased and I leaned back and took a slow breath. Slow in. Slow out. That might help. A little. “Try to slow your breathing if you can.”

I saw them nod as we all fell into our own thoughts. The mind. The creature that peers into the water and sees its own reflection. The bottomless well that can as easily drown a person as bring life-sustaining water.

I thought of all that had happened since I’d woken with the alarms blaring. Tracing through each moment. Trying to squeeze out more understanding.

It felt like things were starting to become clear. Slowly, but progressively.

My thoughts went back to Grizelle’s. To the the vision I’d had.

No, not vision.

Memory. I’d lived it. And there was one question that arose now that there was nothing more pressing demanding my focus.

Why did Crypto plant bombs in the White House?

Was he trying to kill me?

No. That didn’t make sense. He thought I would be in a meeting at his location at the time. Instead, I’d decided to meet with General Curtis and reschedule with Crypto later.

Why plant the bombs then?

Of course!

Because he’d been hoping to kill the general! Because the general didn’t accept competition. And Crypto’s influence in the lower levels was a direct threat. Taking out the general would eliminate the backbone of the opposition.

It made sense, from a coldly strategic point of view.

But I wanted to hear it from the man himself. I came out of the reverie of contemplation with Crypto staring at me.

“The wheels are turning, huh?”

“Why did you try to kill General Curtis?”

His eyes slowly widened.

I’d guessed correctly, then.

He pulled the makeshift bandage away, checked it, and then pressed it against his head. He looked back at me as I waited for an answer. “I didn’t.”

“What do you mean, you didn’t?”

“I didn’t plant those bombs.”

What?

“You’re lying. If you didn’t, then who did?”

Crypto laughed and then closed his eyes as he rested his reclining head. “You’re lucky you have me on your side.”

“Am I? And why is that?”

“Because you’re swimming in depths you don’t understand. You can’t see past the murk ten feet below and so you assume it ends there.”

“Then tell me who else would’ve planted the bombs?”

Crypto opened his eyes and met my gaze. “The bottom doesn’t end there. The dark descent keeps going and going. Likely further than even I can fathom.”

Crypto’s cryptic responses weren’t the answer I was looking for. Either he was going to answer the question or this conversation was going to elevate into an altercation. One that wouldn’t end well for my new partner.

“Who?”

“Who else?” he said. “General Curtis himself.”

The ground shifted under me. Not physically, but I felt it all the same.

General Curtis? Why would he…

And the the puzzle pieces scrambled, rotated and then settled back into place, revealing a new picture.

Crypto spoke words that reflected my thoughts.

“It was a master stroke. I’m ashamed I didn’t think of it before it happened. Perhaps I could’ve stopped it. In any case, here is my thinking. He planted the bombs for twofold reasons. One, to kill you. The one man powerful enough to stand in his way. The only person that was holding back his preferred solution of using overwhelming force against an inferior opponent.

Against us.

The lower classes.

That would’ve solved one of his problems. But it gets better. Because then he blames your death on a terrorist group. A terrorist group that I am the leader of. Everyone on the upper levels swallows that whole and then zealously supports his use of force to subdue the danger and get the lower classes in line.”

The truth of it shocked me. That a man in a position of such power and responsibility could sink to such depths. But it felt right. A gnawing in my gut that tasted the truth in it.

“But then you didn’t die. I sent Barrow to get you out, and he succeeded. Somewhat, at least. I assume he’s dead. Is that so?”

I nodded. “Yeah. Another agent shot him.”

“I suspected the general put him down, by one means or another. He was a good man. Born to the lower levels and one of a handful that has beaten the life he was sentenced to by birth.”

“So, why did the general blame me for the bombs then?”

“With you still alive and on the loose, I suspect he decided you were the bigger threat. If he takes you out, nothing stands in his way of going after me next.”

A part of me wondered if I was being manipulated. But no. That feeling stirring in my gut knew the truth. And this was it.

And that meant there was only one of two choices left. If we survived and escaped this predicament, the time for running was over. The time for doing had arrived. The question though was doing what.

CHOICES:

1. It was time to arrest General Curtis. To have him stand trial and be convicted. Doing so would respect the laws of our community and go some way toward bringing the divergent classes back together. Surely I had allies in the Grays that would rally to my call and help make it happen.

2. It was time to kill General Curtis. A trial would be pointless. He would buy or bully his way to freedom. But taking such extralegal action would go against every law and convention our community held dear.

What do you think should happen next? Let me know in the comments!