Serge crash-landed on a small platform scattered with rock and tumbled to a stop. Smoking hot, his gloves had worn half-through during the descent. He flung them off and focused his helmet’s carbide beam.
He’d found the primary exhaust for #13, doubling as an emergency exit. Or in this case, emergency entrance. He breathed deep. The air tasted acrid, thick with smoke and carbon dioxide, nontoxic in the short-term.
If the explosion that caved in the #4 tailgate originated from here, reason held he might find his way from here to the trapped miners. In theory. But Serge knew as well as anyone that shafts rocked by explosion became the devil’s playground. Freshly exposed rock faces and constantly shifting ventilation meant new out-gassing. Topping it off with open flames and cramped spaces created a hell not fit for the damned. And his brother was trapped in it.
Quickly scanning the small space, his beam caught the glint of a metallic surface heavily smudged with coal. Bingo. With the heal of his fist he slammed the storage locker built into the rock and popped it open. He snatched one of the four pick axes hanging neatly in a row. With his shoulders hunched, a snarl on his lips, he shuffled steadily through the debris and into a low tunnel heading toward #4.
After less than twenty yards he hit his first obstacle—a cave in. Dammit. But the shaft had been venting smoke from somewhere. However small the opening, air was getting through. Slowly he ran the back of his hand over the surface of the rock slide until he felt the faint brush of moving air.
He held his face close and took a sniff. A thick, metallic taste caused his hair to stand on end. It wasn’t the standard nitrogen/oxygen mix one grew accustomed to on the surface, nor any combination he’d known in the mines. But it had oxygen enough to breath. “Dino!” His voice fell flat, muffled by the smoke and dust. “If you can hear me, stand back!”
He tapped the surface of the rock several times with his pick, listening for a weakness. Nothing guaranteed he could dig his way through before he passed out. At the same time, he could bring the rest of the shaft down with a single blow. Times like these, every miner grew friendly with God. Lord, get us out of this one and I’ll sing the loudest at church every Sunday of my life.
Directing his pick at the spot he’d chosen, he reared back and let it fall. Like pushing on the magic brick to a hidden passage, a manhole-sized circle in the rock gave way and collapsed with the single stroke. Good God, it looks like I’ll be joining the choir.
He set down the ax and leaned forward to inspect the opening, his carbide light struggling to pierce the plume of dust. After busting away rock with his hands, he lifted his legs and lowered himself through. What he discovered on the other side caused him to forget about the ax.
This definitely wasn’t #4. It wasn’t even a mine. Slowly sweeping his head back and forth, the dim beam revealed a gaping expanse of natural cave. Drawn first to the ceiling, he marveled at the height of it, until a scuttling sound startled him. “Ciao? Someone in here?”
For the first time, he realized that #13 must have had a purpose. Whatever that purpose, someone might have survived it. “Are you hurt? Show me where you are.” More rustling, this time closer. A shadow darted through curling smoke and a strange red dust, reflecting the glare of his carbide. Whoever he was, he was mobile.
“Look, I need to find the #4.” He scanned the rubble closer to him, shocked to discover a jumble of fancy equipment.
“It’s not safe.” The soft sound of a female voice, coming from much deeper in the cave, startled him.
He shook off his surprise, “If you’re not injured you can help—”
A beastly snarl, only feet away, punctuated his sentence a split second before a ghastly pale form slashed across him, stripping his helmet and hurtling him to the floor.