The soldier’s voice rang inside Papa Rose’s head. He squeezed his eyes closed. It wasn’t real. Private Carter had died when they’d rolled across the Kuwaiti border into Iraq. He’d been dead years.
They were all dead.
Get it under control. Papa Rose drew air into his lungs to a count of four and held it for two seconds. Focus on the here. The now. The abandoned gold mine. Colorado. The nuclear holocaust outside. He opened his eyes. Unrelieved blackness blanketed his vision. Christ Jesus. He squeezed them closed until white spots danced inside his skull.
“Don’t let me die, Staff Sergeant.” Carter’s voice whispered in the shell of Papa Rose’s ear.
Not real. Not real. Not fucking real. Papa Rose exhaled slowly. His vision was out but he had other senses to ground him in the mines. He peeked through his lashes. Still darkness. With his next breath, he assessed the situation. A metallic taste flooded his mouth. Blood. He swept his tongue over his teeth and felt the sweetness. Okay, he was bleeding. Had he gotten into a fight?
He shook his head. Vomit burned the back of his throat and he stopped moving. Liquid trickled down his jaw and stung his eyes. His brain struggled to reconcile the cold and hot. The mines dripped with cold water and the hot… Running his hand over his scalp, he felt the prick of stubble before encountering the jagged edges of torn flesh and the warmth of blood. Pain rattled his eyes in his sockets right before he jerked his fingers away.
“Son of a bitch!” His growl echoed down the dark tunnel. What the hell had plowed into his skull? And how bad was the trauma? He licked his dry lips. Could he stand? Make it to help? Christ Jesus. What had happened?
Replaying the man’s voice, Papa Rose set his hands on the damp stone ground. Hard consonants and clipped words. Not Carter’s slurred speech as life drained out of him. Someone else. Someone in pain. “Hello?”
His fingers crawled over jagged edges of pebbles and rocks. When his elbow encountered a protrusion, heat rocketed up his arm. Damn he was an idiot. How many blackouts had he endured since arriving two months ago? A hundred. Two. No one moved until the lights came on again. Muscle twitched. His gut urged him to run. Something was wrong.
He rolled his eyes. Guess he wasn’t the only one knocked stupid. Which was his only excuse for heeding his gut and moving.
“Papa Rose.” Clearing a patch on the ground, he flattened his hands and levered himself up. The world bucked and tilted before steadying. He swallowed the bile rising in his throat. “What happened?”
“There was an explosion.”
“An explosion.” The word was foam on his tongue–wrong and dangerous. He slowly eased his legs under him. Muscles morphed into rubberbands. He listed left, pushed with his fingertips then pitched right. His shoulder slammed against the wall; his temple quickly followed. Stars twinkled in his vision but did nothing to shed light on his predicament. He rolled back and landed on his ass. Once the world stopped playing Rock-A-Bye-Baby, this position was much better. “I didn’t think the engineers were working in the tunnels down here.”
“They’re not.” A grunt sounded ahead of him. “I think the electrolysis machine went.”
Papa Rose blinked. The word crawled through his skull like a worm in soggy soil. “The atom splitter?”
He sipped the air. Tasted like oxygen, but what the hell did he know? He was an ex-grunt masquerading as a counselor to the few people who managed to survive the apocalypse. It was a hell of a resume builder.
“Yessss.” The man hissed. “Do you think we could skip the chit-chat for a bit? I’d really like to be able to get my leg out from under this rock so I can limp out of here in case the rest of the tunnel decides to fall in.”
Damn! Six weeks of cave comfort had dulled his survival skills. He had to stay sharp. Lives depended on him. He’d already lost four folks when one survivor had gone bat shit and shot twelve people before deep throating his gun. He rested his fists on his knees. “How badly are you hurt?”
“Banged and bruised mostly, but I can’t move my right leg.”
“Can’t move it, huh?” Papa Rose inched closer. That was vague enough to be almost useless. Then again, he wasn’t exactly a St. Bernard carrying a first aid kit. But there should be one close by. There were several on every level of the cave system. If someone hadn’t stolen them.
His balls drew up so tight he nearly sang soprano.
He could no longer ignore the signs–items missing, hushed conversations in the vents and bad vibes around certain individuals. Several someones were mixing up a batch of FUBAR. Had he just gotten the first taste of it?
He had to find out. And what better way than to start with Johnny-on-the-spot? “Can you feel your leg?”
Where were the fucking lights? They always clicked on after a few minutes.
“I’m trying not to.”
For the moment, Papa Rose called up his first aid training. The pain was good. If the trauma was severe enough, the brain would have shut down and not processed anything. But that didn’t mean the man wouldn’t bleed out or slip into shock. Lights or no lights, he had to be helped. Papa Rose scooted forward. Pebbles knocked and rattled.
“Is that you, or the Tommyknockers?”
“Me.” First, he had to find the man, access his injuries then decide on a course of action. Now he was sorry the engineers had widened the damn tunnels. “Do you know which side you are on?”
“The one with the current giving me a white water wedgie.”
“At least you’ve kept your sense of humor.” Forcing back the nausea, Papa Rose turned his head as the man spoke. If bats could use echolocation, he should be able to as well. Of course, in order to have a chance in Hell of finding the guy, he had to keep him talking. “What’s your name?”
“Eddie. Eddie Buchanan.”
Papa Rose flipped through his mental contact list. That name was familiar, but not as a patient. His buddy Falcon had taken on the little group of survivors from Tucson. “Buttcannon?”
He winced. Yeah, he’d never ace any sensitivity exam. Then again, the man’s job was to gather up all the poop and send it on its way to be processed into soil. The idea certainly made the notion of eating potatoes a little less appetizing.
“I prefer Eddie.”
“Who wouldn’t?” The stubble on Papa Rose’s bald head stood on end. Falcon had said the guy was unwilling to talk about the end of the world. Could he have used the human waste to construct a bomb? “What are you doing down here?”
“You mean aside from getting that fresh clean feeling from the mountain spring bidet?”
Papa Rose scooted closer. Eddie didn’t seem unhinged, but the dark humor could be a smoke screen. “Yeah, aside from that.”
Not that he really expected Eddie to confess that his nut was cracked and he wanted to bury everyone under tons of rock.
“I was supposed to report to Forrest at the electr–, er, atom splitter.” Rocks tumbled.
Papa Rose pictured Eddie sitting up straighter. “Guess the flotsam really does rise to the top.”
“I earned the job.” Eddie snapped. “Hell, I practically built the damn thing with duct tape, wire and mason jars. I got shit detail because I was the only one who could keep the sewage suckers running.”
And now the bit of crapshoot engineering seems to have exploded. Papa Rose bit his tongue. Maybe he shouldn’t keep his peace. If the guy could rig the machine to work, he’d know how to make it go boom. “You probably should have used a few garbage bag ties for good measure.”
“Maybe Forrest had. He said he’d made some improvements on my design.” Eddie snapped practically in Papa Rose’s ear.
He paused. The guy had to be close. Rolling onto his knees, he reached out his hand and swept the darkness. Cold air streamed through his fingers. “Did you have a problem with him tampering with your design?”
Papa Rose ignored his gut. He couldn’t afford to believe in Eddie’s innocence, not without proof. Those atom splitters were the only thing providing oxygen down here. Unfortunately, they also created a nice hydrogen bomb on the side.
“He didn’t tamper with it. He reduced the amount of hydrogen being wasted, made the electricity turbines more efficient and the machine safer.”
“I don’t exactly feel safer.” Crawling forward, Papa Rose’s hand hit something soft and wet.
Eddie grunted, grabbed Papa Rose’s hand and set it on his damp hair. “Something must have gone wrong.”
He was gonna nominate the guy for the understatement of the year award. Considering the year that just passed, that was saying a lot. And none of it was good.
“Since you’re the expert, when will the lights come back on?” Papa Rose swept his hands down Eddie’s head. Blood made his hands gummy but he detected no soft parts in his skull. The kid must have a hard head. Papa Rose skimmed his neck and followed the slope of his shoulder. Nothing dislocated.
“They won’t. At least, not in this branch of the tunnel. We created a failsafe to keep the lights off in the tunnels near the atom splitters until an operator turns them on manually. Sparks are a problem with pure hydrogen and oxygen.”
“Sounds like you know your stuff.” Papa Rose’s fingers skimmed the bones.
Eddie sucked in a lungful of air. “I had to pass a test to work on the system.”
“Looks like your arm might be sprained.”
“Gee you go to medical school when you earned your head shrinking certificate?”
Leaving the arm for now, Papa Rose checked Eddie’s ribs and abdomen. Muscle tensed under his hands. “Stick with understatement and leave the sarcasm to me.”
“Why? Do you need the practice?”
Smart ass. Papa Rose smiled. It was a protective attitude, not a guilty one. Just like him, Eddie had been in the wrong place at the wrong time. “I don’t think you broke any ribs. But you can always walk outside and get an x-ray.”
Eddie snorted. “Gee thanks. You gonna go with me to read my day-glow bones?”
When Papa Rose checked Eddie’s thighs for fractures, the knuckles of his left hand skimmed wet rock. The boulder stopped two inches below the knee, pinning the femur. He wouldn’t be able to tell if it was broken until Eddie was freed. “I don’t suppose you have a wrench or something I can use as a lever?”
“I had a tool kit but I can’t tell you where it went.”
And finding it in the dark would be about as easy as finding a virgin in a whorehouse.
Papa Rose smiled. Which meant he had to try. “What’s in the kit?”
Humming sounded over head. Something clicked. Red light cut a rectangle in the tunnel branching fifty feet away. Silver fabric hung like battle-worn flags from the cut rock roof. Water plopped onto the wet stone.
“Screwdrivers, wrenches, tapes, gaskets and a bottle of soapy water to check for leaks.” Eddie leaned forward. His shadow separated from the dark walls of the tunnel. “My lunch MRE, a bottle of water, spare wires, a small tire iron and a flashlight.”
Papa Rose’s ears perked up. “A flashlight?”
That was worth finding. He peered into the void. Jagged rock protruded from the walls. Right, because the stupid tools would hang themselves on the walls. He dropped his gaze to the floor. Nothing was distinguishable in the inky blackness. Guess, he would have to do this the old fashioned way.
“Yeah. Flashlights are standard equipment and worth their weight in gold.”
Papa Rose slowly eased around Eddie and his boulder. With tools inside, the kit couldn’t have gone far. “I would think charged batteries are worth more.”
“We have plenty of batteries and extra ones already recharged but spare flashlights are hard to find.”
Another small inconvenience that could mean something big. Something unpleasant. Inching forward, Papa Rose swept the ground with his left foot then his right foot. Rocks clattered. “You guys shouldn’t be so careless with your tools.”
Eddie snorted. “We’re not careless. Someone is taking them and because we have no military left, there’s no one to stop them.”
There was military left. They just were scattered in the network of mines and caverns acting as peacekeepers. Of course, the peacekeepers were just like policemen–never around when you needed them. Metal thunked against Papa Rose’s boot. Only he and Eddie with his insider knowledge were here. “Why would someone take flashlights?”
“You’re the head shrinker. Are you treating any Kleptos with a flashlight fetish?”
“No one like that.” Squatting, Papa Rose skimmed his fingers over the ground, dipped them in a puddle and finally touching down on canvas. “Most of the folks I see are dealing with survivor’s guilt.”
He fumbled with the soggy flap before reaching inside.
“The flashlight should be on the right inside pocket.”
Papa Rose nodded. Cold, wet metal glided under his palm. Yanking on the elastic he freed the corrugated barrel and flicked on the switch. A cone of light shot out of the cracked lens. “It works.”
“Of course it works. I waterproofed it.” Drying blood webbed Eddie’s pale cheek. A gash wept red tears from his hairline through his black eyebrow. “Did you find the crowbar?”
Papa Rose handed Eddie the flashlight then angled the bag to illuminate the contents. The stainless steel wrenches caught the light and reflected it onto the blue pry par at the bottom. “What do you think someone wants with a couple of flashlights?”
“It’s not a couple.” The beam wobbled in Eddie’s hands. “It’s hundreds.”
Christ Jesus. The kid was guarded. No wonder Falcon hadn’t been able to make any headway with him. He set the bag by Eddie’s feet. “Okay, so what can you do with hundreds of flashlights other than make one big disco ball?”
“Pipe bombs.” Eddie jerked his head toward the dark end of the tunnel. “The military locked up the guns but no one thought about the ammunition. Lots of gunpowder and ready made tubes, already threaded.”
“Fuck.” Papa Rose dropped to the ground. Why hadn’t he predicted that? Because he hadn’t known about the missing flashlights. What else didn’t he know about? He rammed the long end of the pry bar under the boulder and shoved a rock under it to act as a fulcrum.
“When I lift, you move your leg out as soon as you can.” He wrapped both hands around the bar, locked his elbows and slowly eased his weight down. Stone ground together. Sweat stung his eyes. Tendons stretched across his back. Down. Down. His arms trembled from the strain. Was he even lifting the blasted rock? Maybe he should let it down and try again. He pushed harder.
The boulder began to roll back toward Eddie. He caught it and push it back. “Almost there.”
Papa Rose eyed the ground. The crooked top of the bar nearly touched the ground.
The rock wiggled at bit, then Eddie shifted his weight. “I’m free.”
With a sigh, Papa Rose released the pry bar. The boulder landed with a thump that raced down the tunnel. “Is your leg broken?”
Eddie shone the light on his boots. Damp laces slapped the worn leather. He flexed them both then rotated his feet at the ankles. “Nope. I’m good.”
The guy was lucky. Then again, so was he. Papa Rose pushed to his feet. His joints popped. “You’re going to have a helluva bruise.”
He was already one big bruise. Getting old sucked. He held out his hand.
“I have someone who’ll kiss it and make it better.” After looping the bag’s handle over his head, Eddie slid his calloused palm against his. “We need to go check on Forrest and report in to the Doc.”
Forrest. The other man. Papa Rose braced his feet, leaned back and hauled Eddie to a stand. “How many flashlights does Forrest have?”
“Dude, you’re off base there.” Eddie took a step on his right leg and collapsed to his knee. “Fuckin’ A.”
Push his buttons, see if he cracks and bleeds psycho. Papa Rose worked the pry bar free and bit his lip to keep from chuckling. “Did you mean to do that?”
“Just help me up.”
“Tell me about Forrest.” Papa Rose crouched down, dragged Eddie’s arm across his shoulders and pushed them both up.
“Not much to tell.” Eddie’s fingers dug deep when he put a little weight on his right leg. The flashlight bounced as they three-legged walked toward the metal door at the end.
“Then how do you know he’s not a flashlight klepto?”
“The dude doesn’t stop talking. I’m sure he’s told me his whole life story by now, but he doesn’t speak English so I can only understand every other word.”
An outsider? Some folks had been less then welcoming to the refugees. Could that be the motivation behind the thefts? “Where’s he from?”
“Somerset, England.” Eddie shone the light on the rivets of the metal wall. The Royal Air Force emblem stared back at them. Bolts connected the repurposed plane fuselage piece to the metal ribs on both sides, sealing the electrolysis chamber from the rest of the tunnel.
“England?” Papa Rose snorted. “You do know why it’s called English, right? Because it originated there.”
“Yeah, well, you listen to him. I know that’s not English.” Eddie tapped his finger on the metal. He held the contact a little longer each time. “The door is warm.”
Papa Rose brushed his hand over it. Heat seared his calloused tips. “That’s fucking hot.”
Eddie bit his lip. “Guess we know where the blast came from.”
Shit. Shit. Shit! He had his fill of counseling today. “Your friend might not be in there.”
“He wouldn’t leave his post for anything.”
Devotion to duty should be rewarded, not penalized. Papa Rose scrubbed his hand down his face. He knew he shouldn’t have gotten out of bed this morning. “How long do we have to wait until the fire goes out?”
Eddie cleared his throat. “It’ll be out already. We designed it so in case of an explosion the water basin would release and douse any fire.” Pushing his jacket sleeve over his hand, he pulled up on the lever.
Papa Rose’s hair fluttered as air rushed inside.
“Forrest? Are you in here?” The hinges protested as the door opened.
The scent of charred meat hung heavy on the air.
Eddie’s flashlight danced over the wreckage–shredded fifty-five gallon drums, twisted pipes, black-coated wires, diamond shards of glass, and a charred leg sticking out of the debris. The spotlight paused there before drifting to the scorch marks. The explosion’s epicenter was smack dab in the middle of the room. Was that where they’d kept the atom splitter?
“Do you smell gunpowder?”
Papa Rose sniffed. Death smells and… A chemical smell hit the back of his throat. With whiplash speed, he crossed time and distance returning to the Sandbox, to the IED that hit his convoy, and to Carter’s death scene. “Not gunpowder. C-4.”