The foreman was a huge Australian named Lamont Neville, almost seven feet tall, and the size of the pit awed even him. He glided to a stop on an upended chunk of concrete amidst tumbled houses and roofs, and pulled his helmet strap loose. Sun beams streaked the sky over him, but the pit itself was deep in shadow. He flipped on the light on his helmet, and saw other lights slashing through the shadows cast by looming debris. A thumb switch activated the walk talkie. “Neville here. Everyone okay? Check in.”
He licked his lips as the rest of the team checked in, till all thirty were accounted for. Surveying the ground around him, he was reminded by contrast of the bitter, dashed hopes of New York City. There were recognizable pieces of debris around him, things that hinted as to what had happened here. A telephone lay at his feet. A man’s shoe—only one---lay on top of half of desk, spilling out layers of paper. All around him, the debris rose and fell in peaks and heaps, with the walls of the pit circling everything, the lightening sky like the lid of a pot. Houses clung here and there to the edges, and heaped on the slopes. “Stay in contact, everyone, but be alert. We’re looking for survivors.” Despite the surroundings, he felt an absurd leap of hope. There was so much debris that there had to be people locked inside it. Dust, he thought. That’s all that was left on that last job. Here there were whole buildings. Inside some of them, there could be people.
Hope was a distraction in his business, and he shoved it away, like a piece of disused equipment. He eyed the ground beneath his perch. A weird selection of items lay scattered beneath him, like items spilling from some giant’s pocket. A cantaloupe. A record turntable. A woman’s purse. Photographs. A toaster. The corner of a street sign poked out of a sheaf of papers. He lowered himself to the next slab and looked around again. He was at the very lowest level, and smashed buildings crowded around him. He pulled himself over more heaped slabs of sidewalk and found himself at an impasse. A house that looked like it had been squeezed in a giant’s hand loomed over him, with three others piled up against it. There was no real way around them. He tossed his hook at the nearest windowsill, and pulled himself up the sloping cement toward the building. Furniture was tossed around inside in a crazy pile and he turned and looked for another way.
There was no way around it; he was going to have to backtrack. Turning away, he slid back down, then maneuvered to the top of the cement slab again. “Good job, butthead. Good job.” The sun was now hitting just below the rim of the pit, but the contrast made it more difficult to see, not less. Neville tossed the grappling hook yet again, and wrapped the line around the chimney of the nearest house. He yanked a few times, but the line held. Finally he got the line clipped to his harness and rappelled up the side of the house and onto the room. The structures were jammed so tight together that they held each other up. He clambered to the peak of the first roof and braced his feet, but nothing shifted. After getting his bearings, he unhooked the rope from the chimney and tossed it to the next roof, where it snagged on a crumpled satellite dish. That line got him to the second roof, where he sat down on the chimney itself to figure out his next destination . A parking lot and a splintered building lay before him on the other side of the house. He unhooked his line once again, tossed it to the next roof, and snagged it on the roof itself. He looked down, looking for something that would be both easy to hook to, and easy to unhook from. Finally, he hitched it to a window frame and started his descent. The windows he slid past were crammed full of furniture, and rags---but no glass. That glittered on the ground beneath him, and he hit the cement with a crunch.
The sun was slowly working its way down the far wall of the pit, but he was on the wrong side to take advantage of the growing light. Biting the finger of one glove, he pulled it off and wiped his forehead, then rubbed his hand on his thigh. Usually, one would see lots of cars in a collapse like this, because they were comparatively light, and tended to squirt up through the wreckage of buildings. Or maybe everyone got away. He looked around, choosing his footing carefully. He couldn’t see a single car. This provoked only a shrug. Don’t get your hopes up. The pit was scatted with heaped ruins of houses, like entrees across a plate, and he knew he wasn’t seeing everything. Don’t get your hopes up.
He checked his watch. The whole process of moving approximately two hundred feet had taken him almost a half an hour. Time to check in. He keyed the walkie talkie and and cleared his throat. “Neville, here, Team sound off.”
The heaps of ruins swallowed the voices, and when he pulled the earpiece from his ear he couldn’t hear so much as an echo. He could see rising dust, but no flames. Another concern was flooding. He could see puddles here and there from broken water mains. The state had shut off the pipes before the pit flooded, but if there was a fire, they’d be out of luck without water pressure.
Everyone was still alive, at least till the next check in. He concentrated on picking his route through the rubble.
Funny. It was obviously a parking lot. The lines that he could see were bright and newly painted. The building had been a sleek behemoth, judging by what was left---all straight lines and cantilevered layers. The double doors had been blown out by the ground collapsing, and one of them made a bridge for him between two hummocks of concrete. Reaching the vestibule made his heart trip faster, as he saw the banner laying under the other door. “ dale High Sc---“
“Oh, shi---“ he hissed, keying his mike. “I found a school! I repeat, I found a school! Rally point is now my location. I say again, I found a school!”
Calm now, he thought, but his heart was hammering with anticipation. He ducked under the slanted doorframe, broken glass crackling under his feet. Dust whirled in the beam of his head lamp, and he pulled up the mask dangling around his throat. The dust swirled as he waved a hand through it. It was different from concrete dust, too, which was heavy and tended to settle. This was light, ethereal, and danced around almost like it was alive.
Shouts echoed thinly outside, and lights bounced at the entrance. “Boss?”
“In here. Keep it down.”
“Damn.” It was Gibbs, repeating his motion, and pulling his mask up. “What is this stuff?”
“Science lab? It’s not from the concrete.”
“No, it’s not.” He cast a worried eye at what was visible of the ceiling. “Asbestos?”
“Building’s too new.” Neville frowned. “Stand still for a minute.”
Gibbs obeyed, and they stood for a few moments, hands jammed in pockets. The air in the ruins was motionless, but the dust danced and bobbed around him. Gibbs looked left and right, then met Neville’s eyes. “This is weird shit.”
“We’ll have to get it analyzed.”
They proceeded onward, glass rustling beneath their feet. They found the first casualty at about the halfway point. She lay beneath a stair that had been torn from its moorings and now lay upside down on top of a heap of collapsed walls. Streaks poked through the holes in the roof, making dust swim before them. The girl’s bright hair was choked with dust, and nothing of her body was visible beneath her shoulders.
Neville searched for a pulse, but there was nothing. Something glinted through the dust, and he frowned at what looked like a sword hilt. Drama club? He thought. There was no time for pity, not while other people might be lying injured.
Slowly, tentatively, they worked their way downward, as the hallway began to pitch down. The high ceilings had collapsed at the end of the hallway, and the walls had tented against each other, but it was structurally sound. The dust was heavier, however, and his eyes stung.
“Down here!” He waved at the dust around his face, but it didn’t accomplish anything productive. “This way!”
Footsteps clomped down the hallway. The dust turned brighter, then a sharp point of light pierced the curtain of particles, and Butterfield appeared, like he was surfacing out of murky water. “What is this shite?”
“I don’t know,” Neville said thoughtfully. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“Governor’s coming to see the site.”
“Good for him. Maybe the bugger can do something more with that stupid gold shovel than plant cornerstones. Come on.”
They moved forward, passing more stairways torn from their moorings, before then stopping in confusion as the masonry ended and they found themselves standing on bare earth. They’d moved steadily downward at a very gradual angel, but when Neville turned and looked back at the hallway, he realized they’d probably moved a good thirty feet below their entry point. Gibbs met his eye. “Building fell into its own basement, did it?”
“Looks like it. I wonder what---“
“Another one,” Butterfield said quietly. Tumbled boulders crammed together appeared at the far edge of their lamps’ range, and beneath those lay one small hand. “Didn’t even have time to run---“He checked the pulse, but the when he tried to work his fingers around the wrist, he overbalanced on his haunches and sat down abruptly. The hand came with him. He looked at it miserably, biting his lip, then shudderingly put it down. “Did they run down here when they felt it?”
“Dunno.” Neville climbed on top of the highest rock, and looked over it. “I’ve got fresh air here.”
“Yeah. I think we got ourselves the cause right here.” He hoisted himself higher, and the rocks shifted ominously. Butterfield leaped back, but Neville got tossed forward as the boulders shifted like piled marbles. He rolled with it, bouncing from rock to rock till he wound up flat on his back at the bottom of a long slope. His gloves disappeared as he grabbed at anything that would slow his falls. Pebbles and tiny pieces of debris pattered down around him, but he finally landed in a pile of dust that gave like a plump pillow when he flopped down on top of it. It felt like pieces of glass were poking into his back. He let his head sag onto the ground, his headlamp dancing over the rock walls. Up the slope he could see the bobbing lights of the men as they scrambled over the rocks to get to him.
“Good one, dude.” Wong said. “Anything broken?”
“Yeah, I wanna see somebody put your hairy ass in a sling. Come on.” Wong offered him a hand, and Neville lurched to his feet with a groan. He yanked his hand away as soon as he could, waving it painfully in the air. Wong handed him his battered radio, ripped off his belt by the fall, and one glove. His hands were raw and speckled with little cuts and scratches.
“I’m too old for this crap.”
“So retire and give young whippersnappers like me a shot.”
“You haven’t even made it to whippersnapper yet, you’re still an ankle---Oh, God,” he muttered, his jaw dropping.
It was a cavern. He stared at it, awestruck, thinking only that if he’d fallen ten more feet, he’d have gone over the edge. His light didn’t have enough range to hit the bottom. He tossed a rock over the edge and waited, rubbing his scraped hands as he counted off the seconds. It took six seconds for the rock to hit the bottom.
“Damn,” Wong said. “How big?”
“I don’t know,” Neville said quietly. “That thing is huge. Frickin’ huge. But the vault’s intact, and this isn’t Carlsbad.”
“Could it have been…?” They looked at each other, the same thought on their minds.
“I dunno,” he said. He’d seen cases of undiscovered cave systems getting discovered when some foolhardy construction project had pierced the roof of a vault and brought it all down. If that was the case here, then there had been two vaults stacked on top of one another. “If there was another one, it should have brought this one down, too.”
“Think it could go, too?”
“It’s possible. Anything’s possible.” He checked his radio, but either there was no reception this deep or he’d finally broken it. “Head up and give the word, okay? We’re going to need some talent down here.”
“Kay, boss.” Wong turned and began the long scramble up the slope. Neville turned back and looked at the dust he’d landed in. Every surface was coated with it, and there were piles of it everywhere. It looked like people had been systematically emptying huge ashtrays down here. He kicked one of them experimentally and it almost seemed like the dust flinched from his boot. Trick of the light.
The other searchers hung back, awed by the sheer size of the cavern. He waved a couple of them back up to the surface, but Gibbs he beckoned over to him.
They were standing on something like a balcony at the very edge of the cavern, and he could see beneath them another rock formation like the one they were standing on. More dust. Something else---something pale. Something that wasn’t grey. In the dim light, it took him a moment to realize what he was seeing. More bodies. More young girls. There was no easy way to get there, though, and he wondered how they’d gotten there. Fallen? Carefully, he played his light over them, noting splashes of blood. Or pushed? They hadn’t seen a male victim yet. He nudged Gibbs. “Look at that.”
“More bodies.” Gibbs looked closer. “Don’t look like it was the collapse that got them, do they?”
“What do you think?”
“Give it your best shot.”
“That’s definitely a stab wound, there.”
“That’s what I thought.”
Neville braced himself on the rock, then flinched back, hissing. “Great time to take a tumble. Glass everywhere, and me losing my frickin’ gloves.” He backed away from the edge and examined the palms of his hand. Sure enough, they were crusted with bits of rock and glass, and blood welled thickly as he pulled the splinters of glass from his hands. He turned to Gibbs. “We’ll have to rope this off. I think we got a crime scene here.” He shook one hand viciously in the air as the pain from the scrapes flared. “I hate splinters. Feckin’ things. Don’t see my first aid kit, do you?”
“Nope, boss, I think that went the way of your other glove.”
“Great, just great. Just what I need. Gotta rope this off as a crime scene, and some rocket scientist is gonna find my glove and tell me I did it.”
“Here.” Gibbs unclipped his own first aid kit from his harness and handed it over, but Neville shook his head at it.
“I’m going to have to get these taken out and cleaned. Bugger. All right, let’s go up. Don’t want to contaminate this scene. Did those two have both their hands?” He pulled another splinter from his palm with two fingertips and held it up for Gibbs to see. It was a long, vicious thing, fully a quarter of an inch long.
“Looked like it.”
“The one upstairs sure did. So we’ve got at least four victims.” He stretched his hands out and winced, ignoring the drops of blood that dripped from his fingers. “Gotta get the feds in here. Let’s go. We need some serious linkage to go any further. We’re clearing out till we get this lifted off this pit.”
They headed back up the unstable slope, Neville wincing as he had to use the wall for support. “Splinters, man---give me a broken leg. Like they give you a medal for a splinter. Hurts like hell, but the damned thing is so small, nobody respects that! Ouch, bloody thing…”
The light faded as they worked their way up the rubble to the circle of light at the top. Behind them, the dust danced in the breeze that came sweeping in from the cavern, weighted down only by the few drops of blood that had fallen to the ground.
The blood glittered for a moment before sinking into the dust. Like flour, it clumped around the liquid, and then, the lumps began to grow and move. The pile of dust shifted and solidified, spreading across the floor. Long tendrils formed limbs and arms, fingers and toes. The rough texture became smooth, and the skin flushed with color. A tentative pulse sounded, then leveled off into a rhythm.
Unconscious, the form curled onto its side, cradling a burned right hand to its bare chest. The only sound in the cave was its soft breathing.
Continued in Chapter 3