Twilight Eyes Page 57

I thought Rya whispered, “Careful, Slim,” but the roar of the underground river and the rumbling powerhouse were too loud for me to be certain she had spoken. Perhaps I’d heard the thought in her mind—Careful, Slim. By then we’d been through so much together, growing steadily closer with each shared danger and adventure, that a little mind reading—more instinct than telepathy, really—would not have surprised me.

Standing, I put my face to the underside of the steel grate and squinted through the small gaps in the grid. I could see only a very tightly proscribed circle. If crouching goblins had ringed the hole, only one foot back from the edge of it, I would not have been able to spot them. But I sensed that the way was clear. Trusting in my hunches, I put the pistol in the deep pocket of my ski suit and, with both hands, lifted the grate up and to one side, making less noise than when I had muscled it the other way fifteen hours ago.

Gripping the edges of the drain mouth, I pulled myself up, rolled out onto the powerhouse floor. I was in a shadowy area between big machines, and no goblins were to be seen.

Rya passed our gear up to me. I helped her out of the drain.

We hugged tightly, then quickly shrugged into the backpacks and picked up the shotgun and the rifle. We put on our hard hats again. Since it seemed that we had no further use for anything in the duffel bag except the candles, the matches, and one thermos of juice (which we kept), I lowered it back into the drain before replacing the grate.

We still had thirty-two kilos of plastic explosive, and we were unlikely to find a better place to use them than here, in the heart of the facility. Scurrying from shadow to shadow, not yet having given our final performance as rats, we went half the length of the enormous chamber, successfully dodging the few powerhouse workers. As we went, we quickly planted charges of plastique. Nasty rats, we were. The kind that might eat holes in a ship’s hull, then flee the sinking hulk. Except that no rat could ever take such intense pleasure from destructive labor as we took. We found service doors in the bottom of the iron housings of the two-story generators, and we slipped inside to leave small gifts of death. We planted other charges under some electric carts used by the powerhouse workers, put still others in whatever machinery we passed.

We activated the timer on each detonator before plugging it into the plastique. We set the first one for an hour, the next for fifty-nine minutes, the next two for fifty-eight minutes, the next one for fifty-six because it took us longer to find a place to stash it. We were trying to assure that the first blast would occur simultaneously with—or at least would be followed swiftly by—other explosions.

In twenty-five minutes we placed twenty-eight one-kilo charges and set the clocks ticking on them. Then, with only four kilos left, we entered the intake ventilation duct where we had sneaked out the previous evening. We pulled the hinged grille shut behind us, and with the aid of flashlights we retraced the route by which we had arrived at the powerhouse.

We had just thirty-five minutes to get down to the fifth floor, locate the four charges we had planted yesterday, plug detonators into them, take an elevator to the level at which we had first entered, put detonators in the charges we’d left on that unfinished floor, and follow the white arrows that we had painted on the walls of the old mines until we’d gotten far enough away to escape the worst of the chain-reaction cave-ins that might be triggered by the blasts within the goblins’ haven. We had to move silently and cautiously—and fast. It was going to be a near thing, but I thought we could make it.

The journey through the ventilation ducts was easier and quicker than when we had been coming from the other direction, for we knew the system now and had no doubt about our destination. In six minutes we reached the vertical duct that was fitted with rungs, and we climbed down fifty feet to the fifth level. Four minutes later we came to the intake grille in the room that housed a lot of hydroponic farming equipment, where we had interrogated—and killed—the goblin whose human name was Tom Tarkenson.

That chamber was dark and deserted.

The corpse we’d left had been removed.

I felt horribly conspicuous behind the beam of the flashlight, as if I were making a target of myself. I kept expecting a goblin to rise up from between the empty hydroponic tanks and order us to halt. But the expectation went unfulfilled.

We ran to the door.

In twenty-five minutes the explosions would begin.

Evidently our long wait in the powerhouse drain had convinced the demonkind that we were no longer among them, that somehow we had slipped out undetected, for they seemed not to be looking for us anymore. At least not underground. (They must be frantic, wondering who the hell we were, why we had come, and how far we would spread the details of what we had seen and learned.) The corridors on the fifth floor were as deserted now as they had been when we’d entered the complex the previous day; this level was, after all, nothing more than a warehouse, already fully stocked and requiring little attention from maintenance crews.

We hurried from one long tunnel to the next, the shotgun and the automatic rifle held at the ready. We paused only to plug detonators into the four kilos of plastique that we had previously molded around sheaves of water, gas, and other pipes that crossed or paralleled some portions of the tunnels. Each time we stopped, we had to put down our weapons so I could boost Rya up and so she could fit the detonator in place, and I felt terrifyingly vulnerable, certain that guards would come upon us at just such a moment.

None did.

Though they knew intruders had breached their haven, the goblins evidently did not suspect sabotage. They would have had to undertake a painstaking search for explosives in order to find the charges we had planted, but it could have been done. Their failure to take that precaution indicated that in spite of our intrusion, they felt secure against a meaningful attack. For thousands of years they have had every reason to feel smug and superior toward us. Their attitudes regarding humankind are deeply ingrained; they see us as game animals, pathetic fools, and worse. Their certainty that we are easy prey . . . well, that was one of our advantages in the war with them.

We reached the elevators with nineteen minutes remaining until zero hour. Just eleven hundred and forty seconds, each of which my heart counted off with a double beat.

Though everything had gone smoothly to that point, I was afraid that we could not take the elevator to the unfinished floor below without drawing unwanted attention. It seemed too much to wish for. But because the old mines beneath us had not yet been converted into another wing of the goblins’ shelter, there was no ventilation duct leading down to them, and the elevators provided the only access.

We stepped into the cage, and with great trepidation I shoved the lever forward. A frightful creaking and grinding and grumbling marked our descent through the shaft of rock. If any goblins were in the chamber below, they would be alerted.

Our luck held. None of the enemy was waiting for us when we arrived in the huge domed chamber where construction supplies and equipment had been provisioned for the next phase of the shelter’s development.

Again, I put down the rifle and boosted Rya. With a swiftness that would have done credit to a demolitions expert, she plugged detonators into each of the three charges that I had shaped into depressions in the rock wall above the three elevators.

Seventeen minutes. One thousand and twenty seconds. Two thousand and forty heartbeats.

We crossed the domed chamber, pausing four times to deposit the last four kilos of plastique among the machinery.

Fourteen minutes. Eight hundred and forty seconds.

We reached the tunnel where the double row of ceiling lamps, burning under conical shades, threw a checkerboard pattern of light and shadow on the stone floor, the place where I had shot a goblin. There I had left one-kilo charges on both sides of the tunnel, near the entrance to the large room. With growing confidence we paused to set clocks ticking in those final bombs.

The next tunnel was the last with lighting. We raced to the end of it and turned right, into the first mine shaft on Horton’s map (if you read it backward, as we were now doing).

Our flashlights were not as bright as they had been, and the intensity of the beams fluctuated, a bit weak from all the use we’d put them to but not weak enough to worry us. Besides, we had spare batteries in our pockets—and candles, if it came to that.

I unstrapped my backpack and abandoned it. Rya did the same. From here on, what few supplies the packs contained were unimportant. All that mattered was speed.

I slung the rifle over my shoulder by its strap, and Rya did the same with the shotgun. We stashed the pistols in the holster-deep pockets in our pants. Carrying only flashlights and Horton’s map and a thermos of orange juice, we tried to put as much distance between ourselves and the Lightning Coal Company’s property as we possibly could before all hell broke loose.

Nine and a half minutes.

I felt as if we had broken into a castle occupied by vampires, had crept into the dungeons where the undying slept in earth-filled coffins, had managed to drive stakes through the hearts of only a few of them, and now had to flee for our lives as sunset arrived and brought the first stirrings of life to the blood-hungry multitudes behind us. In fact, given the goblins’ consuming need to feed on our pain, the analogy was closer to the truth than I liked to consider.

From the meticulously designed and constructed and maintained underworld of the goblins, we advanced into the chaos of man and nature, into the old mines that man had bored and that nature was sullenly determined to refill piece by piece. Following the white arrows we had painted during our inward journey, we ran along musty tunnels. We crawled through narrow passageways where walls had partially caved in. We clambered up a cramped vertical shaft where a couple of corroded iron rungs snapped under our feet.

A repulsive light-shunning fungus grew on one wall. It burst as we brushed against it, spewing a stench like rotten eggs, smearing our ski suits with slime.

Three minutes.

With our flashlight beams fading, we rushed down another musty tunnel, turned right at the marked intersection, and splashed through a puddle of scum-filmed water.

Two minutes. About three hundred and forty heartbeats at the current rate of exchange.

The journey in had taken seven hours, so most of the return trip would still lie ahead of us after the last charge of plastique blew, but every foot we put between us and the goblins’ haven improved—I hoped—our chances of escaping the zone of associated cave-ins. We were not equipped to dig our way back to the surface.

The steadily weakening flashlights, bobbling wildly in our hands as we ran, threw leaping dervish shadows along the walls and ceiling—a herd of ghosts, a pride of spirits, a pack of frenzied specters that pursued us, now chased at our sides, now flew ahead, now fell back once more to nip at our heels.

Maybe a minute and a half.

Menacing black-cloaked figures, some bigger than men, appeared to be springing up from the floor in front of us, though none reached out to seize us; we flashed through some of them as through columns of smoke, and others melted back as we raced at them, and still others shrank and flew up to the ceiling as if they had changed into bats.

One minute.

The usual sepulchral silence of the earth had been filled with a multitude of rhythmic sounds: our slamming footsteps; Rya’s hard-drawn breath; my raging breath, even louder than hers; echoes of all those bouncing back and forth between the rock walls; a cacophony of syncopation.

I thought we had the better part of a minute left, but the first explosion put an early end to my countdown. It was distant, a solid thump that I felt more than heard, but I had no doubt what it was.

We came to another vertical shaft. Rya tucked her flashlight into her waistband, the beam pointing up, and climbed into the dark bore. I followed.

Another thump, immediately followed by a third.

In the shaft one of the badly rusted iron rungs broke in my hand. I slipped and fell twelve or fourteen feet, back into the tunnel below.


“I’m all right,” I said, though I had landed on my tailbone, jarring my spine. The pain came and went in a flash, leaving only a dull throbbing.

I was lucky that one of my legs hadn’t twisted under me as I’d fallen. It would have broken.

Climbing into the shaft again, I scrambled up with the sureness and quickness of a monkey, which wasn’t easy given the throbbing in my back. But I didn’t want Rya to worry about me, about anything, except getting out of those tunnels.

Fourth, fifth, and sixth explosions shook the subterranean installation that we had recently departed, and the sixth was much louder and more powerful than those before it. The walls of the mine shook around us, and the floor leapt twice, nearly pitching us off our feet. Dust, bits of earth, and a veritable rain of stone chips fell around us.

My flashlight had virtually given out. I did not want to stop to replace the batteries, not yet. I swapped lights with Rya and led the way with her fading flash as a chain of explosions—six or eight more, at least—rocked the labyrinth.

Overhead, I saw a crack open in an ancient ceiling beam, and I no sooner hurried under it than it crashed to the floor behind me. A cry of terror and dread flew from me, and I whirled around in expectation of the worst, but Rya had also gotten through unharmed. My hunch that our luck would hold grew stronger, and I knew we were going to make it without getting seriously hurt. Though I had once been acutely aware that it was always brightest just before the dark, I had for a moment forgotten that truism and would, in a moment more, regret my forgetfulness.

A ton of rock had come down atop the falling beam. More was going to give way in a moment—the rock face was buckling as if it were soft earth wet with rain—so we ran again, side by side because the tunnel was wide. Behind us the sounds of the cave-in grew louder, louder, until I was afraid the entire corridor was going to collapse.

The remaining charges of plastique were detonating in a single tremendous barrage, of which we heard steadily less even as we felt more. Damn, the whole mountain seemed to be quaking, its foundations shaken by massively violent tremors that could not have been induced by the plastique alone. Of course, half the mountain was honeycombed by more than a century of industrious coal mining and was therefore weakened.

And maybe the plastique had triggered other explosions of fuel oil and gas within the goblins’ haven. Nevertheless it seemed as if Armageddon had befallen us ahead of schedule, and my confidence was shaken with each massive shock wave that passed through the rock.

We were coughing now because the air was filled with choking dust. Some of it sifted down from overhead, but most of it burst upon us in thick, rolling clouds carried on gusts of air from cave-ins to our rear. If we could not soon escape the ring of influence of the collapsing subterranean city, if we could not get to unshaken tunnels and clean air in the next minute or two, we would suffocate in the dust, a death that was not among the many that I had contemplated.

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