The litany slowly worked its way through the wadding that seemed to have filled Eric's mind, gradually pulling him back to consciousness. Beyond the steady chant, the first thing he realised was that the chant wasn't the only thing he could hear repeating.
"Warning: Power level critical."
Hot on the heels of that recognition came the realisation that he and the chanter were trapped, together in a very dark, confined space. That alone was enough to bring cold, hard fear flooding through his system.
Eric drew in a long breath and let it out. Keep calm. You need to keep it together right now, Myers. He swallowed. There's someone else in here with you. For their sake, you need to keep it together.
"Ma'am, are you all right?" The last thing he was expecting was for her to scream, but she did, the sound cutting right through his head. "Ma'am -- please don't do that."
"No ma'am." Eric squinted into the darkness. It was almost too dark for the night vision element to function. He found where she was huddled in this hole and reached for her hand. She flinched at his touch. "Trust me -- I just want to prove I'm breathing."
He heard her gulp, but she allowed him to guide her hand to his chest. "I thought you were dead...I thought I was stuck in here with a dead body...you didn't say anything...or move...for so long..."
"Morpher, cut audible power level warning and tell me how long I was unconscious for," Eric requested sub vocally. Aloud, he answered, "I think I must have hit my head."
"It's my fault."
"Unconscious for twenty three minutes and fifteen seconds," the morpher's computer responded.
Eric slowly shook his head, the motion felt sluggish, a sure sign he still wasn't fully conscious -- which was not a good thing at all. "Your fault?"
"If you hadn't seen me, you could have gotten out," she answered.
Eric frowned, trying to remember what had happened. It finally came to him. "No I couldn't. The stairs had already gone." Slowly he pulled himself into a slightly more comfortable position, careful to not dislodge any of the surrounding masonry. Over the comm. system, he tried, "Red three to anyone who can hear this." Static was his only answer. "Morpher, how deep in the rubble are we right now?" he asked.
"I wish I hadn't come back to Silverhills," the woman admitted, her voice sounding a little more certain now.
"It's the sort of place that drags you back," Eric agreed. "Do you have family here?"
"You are eight feet beneath the surface," came the response from the morpher.
"Son," the woman answered. "We're...estranged."
"Estimate chances of digging ourselves out."
"I'm sorry," Eric replied. "That must be tough."
"It's my own fault, really," she replied. "But...I did think he might want to hear me out."
A chill ran through Eric. It couldn't be...? "I take it you met with him recently?"
"This morning, actually," said the woman. "And to say it didn't go well is an understatement. I...suppose I didn't realise just how angry he was."
"As you currently are, your chances of successfully digging yourself out are zero."
"Gee, comfort much?"
"Sarcasm is not required." Who knew computers could sound huffy.
"What are the oxygen levels like?"
"What did he do?" Eric asked.
"I thought he was going to kill me." Eric froze. Of all the people to get trapped with, it had to be her. "But I suppose I can't blame him." Her words threw his own actions into sharp relief and he cringed. "I was the one that walked out on him -- not the other way round."
"That's still no excuse for his being violent towards you."
"Oxygen levels are good -- there is an airflow in this cavity."
"It's not an excuse," she replied. "Not precisely." She sighed. "I'm rambling. I'm sorry. I spent three days screwing up my courage to go and see him and then I don't get beyond telling him I want to explain."
Eric didn't know what to say.
"I'm Annie Myers, by the way," she said as an introduction.
"I'm...pleased to meet you," Eric answered.
She gave an amused snort. "You don't have a name?"
"It's..." But again, Eric didn't know what to say, beyond the obvious, which was he couldn't admit to being himself.
"Don't tell me -- it's a top secret identity," Annie guessed.
"Something like that," Eric answered.
"Well I have to call you something...unless we should be conserving oxygen?"
"Oxygen levels are fine," Eric answered. "And you can call me...Daniel," he finished, falling back on the cover name he'd used for the six week placement he'd done at Del Oro Bay College.
"You don't sound like a Daniel," Annie observed. "Maybe a Dan?"
"If you want."
"Dan it is, then."
"OK." Over the comm., Eric tried again: "Red three to anyone receiving this." Still static.
"So how do we get out of here?" Annie asked.
Eric sighed. "Not sure," he admitted. "We're under about eight feet of rubble, so they're going to have to dig down to us rather than the other way round."
"How do you know this?" Annie wondered.
Eric smiled faintly. "I carry a wrist unit which has a powerful computer in it."
"And you just asked it how deep we were?" She sounded dubious.
"Oddly enough," Eric answered, finding himself grinning, "yes."
"I bet that's not something you picked up at your local Radio Shack."
Eric chuckled. "No -- it's...a proto-type." Which was certainly true, if he recalled Trip's words correctly. "Made by Biolab." Which wasn't so true -- but it was the cover for Quantum Morpher's presence in the twenty-first century.
"Big science firm..."
"I know who they are," Annie replied, cutting him off. "You work for them?"
"Sort of. I actually work for the Silver Guardians."
"Then..." Annie hesitated.
Eric waited. When it seemed as if she wasn't going to say anything, he prompted, "Then...?"
"My son is head of the Silver Guardians." There was another, long, long pause. "Um...do you know him?"
Ben looked around the group. Taylor was leaning against the SUV, arms folded, face giving nothing away. Foster and Hines were standing together, both looked dazed and both were covered in cement dust. Wes and Jen, both demorphed for the time being, were also together. Like Taylor, their expressions were closed, giving nothing away but Ben knew both well enough to know that both of them were itching to start searching the rubble of the collapsed hotel. The six members of Beta team circled the group, all looking concerned and drawn. The last member of the group, Kimberly, was standing close to Wes and Jen but apart. She looked pale but there was a hardness about her expression that told Ben that, much as he would love to send her home at this point, there was no way she was budging.
"We all know the situation," Ben began. "The hotel has collapsed with at least two people inside. We will be starting to search the rubble just as soon as Meachen has certified it's safe." He glanced around at everyone. "I want to go ahead with this as much as anyone but, as cliché as it sounds, safety has got to come first. Further more, if the rubble pile is insecure, there's a better than good chance that we could dislodge it and hurt those trapped."
"What's the plan?" Taylor asked, cutting to the chase.
"The plan is simple. When we have the go ahead, we dig. Because of the likely hood of people being trapped, it's hands only -- again, we don't want to cause any further injuries. Delta team will be here in a moment; that will give us nineteen people on site. It will be two teams. Team one: Delta team plus Wes, Fos and Barbie. Team two: Beta team plus Jen, Taylor and myself. Kim..."
"Stay on comm.," she finished. "You got it."
Ben nodded. "Wes, Jen -- you have IR capabilities; we're going to need them. For the moment, Meachen needs all his IR crews on the west side of the mall." There were a few nods that met that statement. Ben took another look around, meeting everyone's gaze. "I am not going to give up until I know for one hundred percent sure there is no-one left in that pile. And if that means working right through the night...well that's what I'm going to do."
"Your son would be Eric Myers, right?"
Annie smiled a little. "Yes."
"I know him," 'Dan' answered.
"Fairly," came the cautious response.
Annie chewed her lip. "Would you..."
"Would I...?" he prompted gently.
"This is going to sound awful -- I mean, what mother doesn't know their own son, but...would you tell me about him?"
There was a hesitation, then 'Dan' replied, "Sure. What do you want to know?"
Annie bit down on the urge to say 'everything'. "Well...what he's been up to...how he's doing."
"OK." There was a pause. Annie guessed it was while 'Dan' ordered his thoughts. "Well he's been a member of the Silver Guardians for three years. Before that...I think he was in the Forces."
"Do you know which branch?" Annie found herself asking.
"No, sorry -- he doesn't talk about his past much."
"Oh...I suppose he doesn't really have much of a cause to." Annie sighed.
"What makes you say that?" 'Dan' asked. "If you don't mind me asking," he added.
Annie smiled self-deprecatorily despite knowing 'Dan' couldn't see her expression. "I wasn't a good mother."
"Ah -- don't say it, 'Dan'. I've had thirteen years to think about it. I know that I wasn't a good mother. I did some..." Annie sighed. "Some bad things. Not to Eric," she added hastily. "At least," she amended, "not directly." There was a long silence. "You must think I'm an awful person."
"I don't know the circumstances," 'Dan' replied. "I can't offer that judgement. What I can tell is that whatever happened hurt you -- and that you regret it."
"That's very charitable, 'Dan' -- I doubt Eric would see it that way."
"You know him that well you could get him to listen?" said Annie dubiously.
"I can try," 'Dan' replied. "When we get out of here -- I can speak to him."
"You think we're going to get out of here?" Annie asked.
"Of course," 'Dan' said.
Annie shook her head. "How can you be so sure?"
"Well," he replied, "I was in comm. contact with the team outside when the hotel came down. They know we're in here."
"Are you in comm. contact now?"
There was a lengthy and slightly sheepish silence. "No."
"So you don't know they're looking for us," Annie answered.
"Not specifically," 'Dan' replied. "But I know the team outside. They'll be looking."
"You are good to go," Meachen announced, walking up to Ben. "May I have a word privately?"
Ben nodded. "Of course."
Meachen led him away from the gathered group of Silver Guardians.
"How many people were in there when it went?" the fire chief asked.
"At least two -- we were two floors short of clearing the whole building."
Meachen looked grim. "I don't want to be a wet blanket but..."
"But the chances of us pulling anyone out alive are slim." Ben folded his arms and met Meachen's gaze. "I know that."
"Not just slim," Meachen retorted. "That building is pancaked."
"And I can't not try," Ben replied. "If nothing else, if I don't try, I will have Eric Myers' wife climbing that rubble pile and looking anyway." Meachen winced. "I know the situation isn't good, but I also know that there are at least two people in there, one of whom is a very good friend of mine."
Meachen nodded. "I understand -- but I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't tell you that."
Ben nodded. "I know."
"I'll get Mackenzie to put a fire under the people collating that list of missing hotel guests. So that you know how many people you are looking for."
"Or how many bodies."
Meachen nodded. "Good luck."
Ben returned to the rest of the guardians. "OK people," he called. "We are good to go. Team one -- let's get this show on the road. Team two, get your heads down and catch a couple of hours' rest. This is going to be a long job."
Instantly, the group sprang into life. Those who had been designated as part of team one headed out towards the rubble pile that had once been the East Plaza Hotel while everyone else made for the two spare SUVs, intent on getting the rest. Ben himself headed for the comm. post. Sure enough, Kimberly had already retaken her seat.
"OK?" Ben asked.
"All set," Kimberly replied, not making any effort to actually answer his question. "I've set a new frequency for the two rescue teams on an all hear all basis, leaving the original op frequency free."
"Have you spoken to Ellie?" Ben asked.
"I don't need to. Eric and I will be home..."
"Kim, listen to me," Ben cut in gently. "You need to start thinking, and I don't mean about the details of the operation. Alice gets out of school about now. I know Ellie will pick her up and look after her but...it isn't fair to Ellie not to tell her what's going on."
"He's going to be OK," Kimberly insisted, not looking at Ben.
"Kim..." Ben closed his eyes. "Kim, I know you don't want to hear this but you have to: The chances of Eric being OK are not great. In Meachen's opinion, the chances are zero. I don't want to believe that but I have to maintain a realistic view."
"He is going to be OK."
Ben bowed his head. Denial ain't just a river in Egypt. "You still need to call Ellie. Let her know you're going to be late."
"Now," Ben ordered. "Because if Eric does get out of this, he will kick my ass if you don't; and if he doesn't, I'm damn sure he'll haunt me."
That provoked a hiccup of near-hysterical laughter from Kimberly. "All right...I'll call Ellie."
Silence descended after his last comment. "Morpher -- can you tell if my comm. signal is being blocked by interference?" Eric queried the morpher.
Kimberly would be going nuts, he reflected. That was one reason why he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that someone would be looking for him and Annie. But there was no way for him to tell Annie that. So the next best thing was to try and re-establish contact with the outside world.
"Negative," came the response from the morpher.
"Negative, meaning what? You can't tell or there's no interference?"
There was a pause. "No interference."
"So why aren't my comm. calls getting through -- and why aren't I picking up any comm. transmissions from outside?"
"Are you talking to that computer thing of yours again?" Annie asked.
"Yes," Eric admitted. "Hoping to find a way to make contact with the outside world."
Eric smiled wryly. "Not yet -- still working on it."
"Comm. unit requires more power," came the eventual answer from the morpher. "Suggest demorphing."
"Will that guarantee the comm. works?"
"And if I demorph, will I be able to morph again?"
"And what happens if I do demorph -- will that endanger this space?"
The morpher sounded sheepish. "Yes."
"Then, guess what: I'm not going to be demorphing any time soon." Eric sighed. "Other options?"
"That doesn't sound promising," Annie observed.
"Just wondering which technocrat thought it was a good idea to give this computer a sense of humour," Eric replied.
"I can boost power to the comm. system," the morpher announced.
"With or without me demorphing?"
"Without," came the fractionally offended response.
"What's the catch?"
There was a long pause. If Eric didn't know better, he'd suggest the morpher was nervous when it replied, "Physical burn-out."
"You mean you'll tap my energy reserves on top of yours."
"Turn me into a human battery, in effect?"
"How long would burn-out take?"
"Do you have a family?" Annie asked.
"Yes." A thought occurred to Eric. "In fact, it's my first wedding anniversary this week."
"Congratulations." There was a wistful note to Annie's voice.
"Estimate depends on how long a planned comm. transmission would be."
"Keeping the channel open until we're dug out," Eric answered. "Thank you," he added aloud.
"Do you have any children?"
Eric knew he should have found the questions invasive, but strangely it wasn't bothering him. "I have a seven year-old daughter." An image of Alice danced through his mind.
"She's a lucky child." Eric could just about make out the smile on Annie's face. "You must be a wonderful father to her."
"I hope so." Eric realised he was blushing.
"I cannot compute that estimate," the morpher finally announced. "Please supply a fixed length of time."
"All right." Eric did a hasty calculation as to how long it would take people digging to get through the eight feet of rubble. "Say eight hours."
"How about you?" Eric asked, not really wanting to know but needing to keep some sort of real conversation going.
"I don't know," Annie admitted. "Eric is my only living relative and...I don't know if he's married...divorced...living with someone...whether I have any grandchildren... And I know you could tell me but I'm not so sure I want to know...not if I have no chance of ever getting to know them. Just...tell me he's happy."
"He's happy," Eric answered. "I can promise you that."
"Eight hours is impossible to achieve," the morpher stated. "You would reach total physical burn-out in one point oh six hours."
"And you couldn't have told me that before because...?" Eric growled. "What would the effect be of a short -- say five to ten minutes -- comm. blast be?"
"Good," said Annie.
"And I promise you you'll get a chance to talk to him," Eric added on impulse. "I said I'd talk to him for you -- and I will."
Jen tried to rest, but it was hard. She kept replaying events. She should have insisted to Ben that she help clear the hotel. There had to have been something more she could have done that would have helped...that would have prevented this.
"He knew the risks," said Taylor, apparently apropos of nothing.
Jen blinked. "What? Who?"
Taylor just gave Jen an 'are you kidding me' look. "Eric. You were thinking you could have done something else."
"Was it that obvious?" Jen asked sheepishly.
"You're just doing what every other person here is doing," Taylor answered. "You don't think I'm not trying to work out how I could have made it clearer he needed to get out? You don't think Ben's second guessing himself about what he ordered?"
"At the end of the day, it doesn't help. So all you can do is remember that Eric knew the risks of what he was doing." Jen opened her mouth. "And don't," Taylor added, "tell me I'm a bitch for saying that. Maybe I don't know Eric as well as you do; maybe I haven't put my life on the line for him yet or had him put his on the line for me but that doesn't mean he isn't my friend."
Jen slowly shook her head. "I see you, I hear Eric."
"And you know he'd be right."
"Doesn't make it any easier."
Taylor offered a tight smile. "No. It doesn't."
Annie sighed. That atmosphere in the hole was getting decidedly warm and stuffy. "Are you sure there's an oxygen flow?" she asked.
'Dan' sounded different -- upset. "What's wrong?" Annie asked.
"Bullshit," Annie retorted. "The least you can do is be honest with me 'Dan' -- you've found something about this situation you don't like."
He sighed. "It's not about this situation per se."
"Then what is it?" There was a long silence. "'Dan'?"
"I have a way of getting in touch with the team outside," he finally said.
"But if I do that, there's a better than even chance of it killing both of us."
Annie stared. "What? But how?!"
"The wrist unit I told you about generates a special...force field would cover it. Keeping that running doesn't require a lot of power, which is just as well because the unit is just about out of power." He sighed. "To generate it in the first place...or to stop generating it requires a burst of energy and it creates a...a kind of disturbance."
"Well...OK -- don't stop generating it," said Annie. "I'm not sure I get what this has to do with contacting outside."
'Dan' sighed. "I'm sorry -- I'm not explaining this very well. I'm just a grunt not a tech-head." He paused. "The comm. system is a part of the force field. Right now, it's running on backup power only -- to conserve energy. Which means it doesn't have the range to get through eight feet of rock."
"OK," said Annie, nodding slowly.
"But boosting the power to the comm. system will mean I force-demorph...the force field will stop generating," 'Dan' amended. "And that could very well bring this hole crashing down around us."
Annie felt sick. "That... What are you going to do?"
"I don't know."
Eric sat back against the cement wall of what was rapidly turning into his tomb, closed his eyes and tried to work out what options he had open to him. There was an additional problem, on top of what he'd rather clumsily explained to Annie -- something he really didn't want to tell her if he didn't have to.
When the morpher had reported that rather handy fact about boosting the comm. system would force-demorph him, it had also stated that to maintain the morph, it was now tapping into his own energy reserves. When they ran down, he would force-demorph anyway and that would be that.
He had no more than four hours.
Kim, I'm sorry.
Dusk was starting to fall when Ben gave the order for the two teams to change over.
"Any luck?" he asked Wes as they passed.
Wes just slowly shook his head. "It's like looking for a needle in a haystack...in a field full of haystacks."
Ben grimaced. "All right. Get some rest -- we'll change over again in two hours. Meachen is organising emergency lighting, so we'll be able to carry on over night if we have to."
"Right." Wes nodded. "Good luck, Ben."
"See you in two."
They parted and Ben headed up onto the rubble pile. He could see where team one had been digging but he could also see how little impression they'd made on the rubble pile. He felt his heart sink. This was hopeless.
"OK -- c'mon guys. Let's get down to it."
"How long have we been stuck here now?"
Annie's question startled Eric out of the depression he'd slid into. "I'm not sure," he confessed. He glanced at the tiny countdown display the morpher was projecting onto the bottom right hand corner of his visor. Three hours thirty-nine minutes left. "It has to be at least a couple of hours."
"Is that all...I figured it had to be days," Annie joked weakly.
Eric found himself smiling a little. "I'm sorry I'm not better company." And to his general surprise, he found he meant that.
"It's not you," Annie replied, amusement lacing her voice. "I don't think the surroundings are exactly...luxury."
Annie sighed. "I really wish I hadn't come back to Silverhills."
"Why did you?" Eric asked, keen to latch onto anything that would keep him from thinking about what was going to happen. "I mean, why now?"
Eric felt as if she'd physically slapped him. "We're going to get out of this..." he began.
She laughed. "I don't mean that." Her laughter died. "I was a whore... No, wait, I take that back. I didn't have the brains to charge." Eric winced. "Somewhere along the way... You have to promise you won't tell Eric this."
"I promise," he answered mechanically.
Annie sighed. "I don't want...don't deserve his pity... I have AIDS."
Having confessed that much, Annie found the next part just spilling out, almost of its own accord.
"I really made a mess of my life...and...unfortunately Eric bore the brunt of that. Y'see...Eric's father was a soldier...in Viet Nam. We were engaged...and then he was listed MIA...and I found out I was pregnant." Annie sighed. "I did the only thing I could. I packed up my stuff and went home, to my parents...who were less than happy at the prospect of their daughter having a white man's baby out of wedlock.
"Then Frank came back. I never did find out what happened -- why he got listed as MIA -- but I was so happy...and my father told him he wasn't welcome. Every time I tried to explain to Frank...my parents intervened. I hated them for that. They said: He's ruined your life; don't let him ruin it more. Frank didn't want to ruin my life -- he wanted to marry me...build a family.
"In the end, I moved to Silverhills, desperately hoping that Frank would follow...I even wrote him a letter, telling him what I was doing. With a three year-old child, I moved to a strange city, cut myself off from my family...and he never showed up."
"Maybe he didn't get the letter?" 'Dan' suggested.
"He didn't," Annie confirmed. "It returned to me as 'not known at that address'." She sighed. "I was heartbroken, I was alone and I had a three year-old child I barely knew how to look after...no money...no family... I just...gave up. Self-destructed. If you could swallow it, snort it, inject it, drink it or screw it, I did it...and then managed to fake enough sobriety and sanity for parent-teacher days or for welfare interviews... Heck, I managed to fake sobriety so that Eric could get a shot at a better life... He won a scholarship to Billingsley Prep School. He was such a..." Annie sighed. "Such an intelligent, bright kid. Even as screwed up as I was, I could see that. So when the school board wrote and said he'd been selected for the McGregor Scholarship for Billingsley...I knew that when he went for interview, I had to be the model mother. I had to make sure he got that place...so that I wouldn't have dragged him down with me.
"And he got it, too. I was so proud of him...not that I had any right to be -- he'd gotten there in spite of me... I managed to stay clean, sober and celibate the whole of that summer...it was almost like I was a real mom. I...he took part in a karate tournament in Mariner Bay and I went along and watched. We did things...went to the movies...they did a Star Wars marathon at the local movie theatre and we went to that..."
"It sounds like a great time," 'Dan' observed quietly.
"It was. It really was," Annie agreed. "I saw him down to Billingsley and promised myself that I'd stay this way. I was going to pull my life around...I had a college degree, for Pete's sake! And then...first job interview I went to, they did a medical; did a blood test...just a routine one..."
"And they found out you were HIV positive," 'Dan' filled in.
"Yes." To her surprise, Annie found she was crying. She hadn't done that since she'd been given the news. She dashed a hand across her face. "I can't believe I'm crying...it's a useless emotion..."
"Sometimes it helps," 'Dan' replied gently. She felt him find her hand and gently squeeze it.
"It's not going to make me better," Annie sobbed. "It's not going to fix everything I screwed up... It's not going to make Eric ever forgive me."
Each and ever sob felt like a dagger to his heart. In an even bigger way than hearing his father's side of the story, Eric found himself hurting. And this time, it wasn't as if he could admit to it.
"You must think I'm an idiot," Annie presently managed, her sobs gradually easing.
"No, I don't," Eric answered honestly. "I think you've maybe made some bad choices...I don't think you're an idiot."
"Still say Eric will see it that way?"
"I do." He sighed. "Eric is a stubborn cuss -- but he knows how to admit he's been wrong."
Annie hiccuped. "Sounds like you know that from personal experience."
Eric smiled faintly. "Not me personally, no. But I've seen him do it."
"Tell me about him...please?" Annie begged.
Ellie Phillips, great niece of Walter Phillips, the Collins' family butler, looked at the golden-haired child before her and wished that she was anywhere else but where she was.
"But I want mommy or daddy to put me to bed," Alice pouted. "When are they coming home?"
Ellie crouched before her. "Alice...you know that daddy is a Silver Guardian?" Alice nodded vigorously, blonde braids swinging. "Well, that means that sometimes daddy has to work really late to help people who've got into trouble."
"I know that. When's he coming home?"
Ellie sighed. "I don't know," she admitted. He might not be.
"Is daddy helping people?" Alice asked.
"Yes he is."
"Lots of people?"
Alice sighed. "Then I guess it's all right... But why isn't mommy here?"
"Because your mummy is helping your daddy." Alice pouted again. "The people they're helping really need all their help."
"Can I help?" Alice asked. "I'm good at helping people."
It was an opening and Ellie pounced. "The best way you can help is for you to go to bed."
Alice pouted yet again. "Aw but..."
"No 'aw but' about it -- if you don't go to bed, you'll get sick and then your mummy and daddy will be worrying about you as well as the people they're trying to help."
It was bullshit logic, and Ellie knew that, but she had to get Alice to go to bed somehow. There was no way Kimberly -- or Eric -- would want to have Alice around when they came in just in case that arrival heralded bad news.
And Ellie knew from the spaces in Kimberly's words when she had phoned two and a half hours ago that the chances of bad news were far, far greater than any chances of good news.
"OK," Alice sighed, submitting. "But I want them to say good night when they come in. Promise me they will."
Ellie smiled. "I promise." Please don't make me into a liar, she pleaded silently.
Listlessly, Kimberly listened to the comm. chatter from team two. They were working flat out -- she knew they were -- but they didn't seem to be getting anywhere. Periodically, she tried Eric's call sign over the other comm. frequency, but that also wasn't getting anywhere.
You had to be so stubborn...you had to be a hero.
Silent tears started to track down her cheeks.
Eric you promised me forever... I've only had one year...you can't do this to me...
Eric could feel the physical exhaustion setting in as he watched the timer count down. There was only two and a half hours left now -- and he knew, from past experience, that the feeling of exhaustion was only going to get worse.
After the mammoth confessions and crying jag, Annie had fallen silent. A glance in her direction told him she was dozing now. He probably ought to make more of an effort to keep her awake...but perhaps it was better this way. If the demorph -- when it came -- destroyed the cave, it was better if she never knew what hit her.
Eric was tempted to follow her example; he wasn't especially keen on being awake for his death. But the faint hope he had of being dug out kept him awake, straining his ears for any sign of rescue. There was a chance -- so the morpher had told him prior to it shutting down to conserve power -- that if the rescuers got within about two feet, even in passive mode, the comm. would be able to transmit to them.
If they got within two feet; if someone happened to be listening.
Eric hated the word.
It was all he had.
The lights were gleaming when Ben ordered the teams to change over again. His hands were raw from handling rough concrete, he was dusty and he was tired...and there was still no sign of anything beyond more concrete.
"It's not looking good," Wes stated.
Ben shook his head. "No it's not."
"The good news," Wes continued, "if you can call it that, is that Mackenzie has finally provided a list of the missing from the hotel guests."
"Geez, takes his time, don't he," Ben groused. "How many others are we looking for?"
Ben stared. "You're shitting me!"
Wes shook his head. "Eric and whoever he had just found were the only people in the building."
Ben shivered. His decision not to let Jen help finish clearing the hotel came back to him. If she'd gone...
Eric was drifting.
He could barely find the energy to open his eyes to see how many minutes his life had left. Finally getting them open it took three goes before he could focus on the red digits.
One hour and forty-nine minutes.
That was all.
And he was so tired.
Too tired to care.
...ought to be...
A slow frown crossed his face.
It came again.
More this time.
"Red thr...do you...d me?"
That should mean something to him...
"Red three d...read me?"
"Red three do you read me?"
Adrenaline started to flood his system, dragging him back to the here and now. The red digits had climbed down to one hour and fifteen minutes. Damn! How long had he been listening to Kimberly's voice without realising it?
"Control this is Red three, I read you."
There was an agonising pause.
"Red three...is that you?"
Even over a staticy comm. transmission Eric could hear the fear and hope warring in Kimberly's voice. "Yes, Control, it is me. I read you."
"Just...confirm to me I really am hearing your voice. Please."
"Red three to Control, I read you loud and clear -- I promise it's me, Kim."
"Standby, Red three -- let me give folks the good news."
The comm. went silent for a couple of moments, then a new voice came over it. "Red three, this is Red one -- you wanna give us a clue as to where in this shit heap you are?"
Eric almost laughed at hearing Wes' voice. "I've gotta be within two feet of the surface -- energy levels are shot to pieces."
"Control to Red three -- is the person you found with you?"
"Yes she is," Eric answered. "Her name's Annie Myers. She'll be listed as hotel guest."
"What sort of shape is she in?" Kimberly asked.
"Dehydrated, probably bruised and cut -- she'll need looking over by paramedics." Eric hesitated. "And you're going to need to tell them she's HIV positive."
"Copy that," said Kimberly.
"Got that covered," contributed Wes.
"Red three -- what is your physical status?" Kimberly continued.
"Same sort of state," Eric answered. "I know I've taken at least one knock to the head. I was out cold for the best part of half an hour."
Eric glanced at the counter display. The five-minute comm. conversation had turned the counter from one hour fifteen to just forty-five minutes.
"I don't want to rush you guys," Eric said, "but I am a little too close to a force-demorph, which will cause this shit to come down on top of the two of us in here, and I can't keep using the comm., it's taking up too much energy."
"How close is too close?" Wes asked.
"If I keep using the comm. probably ten minutes. Otherwise..." Eric checked the timer again. "Otherwise you have a little over half an hour."
"Copy that, Red three," came Kimberly's voice, tight with fear.
"Sit tight, Red three -- we'll have you out soon," said Wes. "Promise."
"Copy that. Red three out."
Eric settled back, eyes rooted to the counter, watching the seconds tick over. It was all he could do.
Kimberly sat rigid in her seat. They'd found him on comm. but as yet they hadn't actually found him.
Paramedics were standing by.
They were ready for both Eric and Annie, although in Eric's case it sounded more like all he needed was sleep.
But none of that would matter if they didn't find him.
She couldn't lose him now. Not when they'd come so close to being in time.
Wes scanned the dig area, trying desperately to pinpoint where, under all the rubble, Eric was. It was frustrating to know that he was only two feet away but to not know which two feet.
"Need help?" Jen asked over the comm. as she approached the rubble pile.
"Yeah. He's here...I just can't get a fix."
"We'll do it," Jen promised.
She joined him at the dig site while the rest of the guardians hung back, waiting for the OK to start digging.
Minutes crawled by. Jen took up a position above the dig point, Wes took up a position just below. Between them they scanned the whole dig area -- a four-feet deep 'bite' out of the side of the rubble pile. The dig had begun there because of some faint IR readings but now there seemed to be nothing... Wes started to track back...
"Back wall!" he exclaimed, almost diving forwards. "Got him!"
"Red one -- say again?" Kimberly asked.
"Standby Control -- confirming my readings." Wes looked up at Jen. "Back wall, half way along. It's faint, but it's there. Life signs."
Jen dropped down into the dig site and took her own reading. "Red two to Control -- reading confirmed. Definitely two sets of life signs. They're faint but we've found them."
"You've got something?" Ben yelled up.
"Yep." Wes nodded.
"Let's go to this!"
Kimberly held her breath.
She'd heard Ben's order over the secondary comm. frequency but she'd also set a timer going when Eric mentioned how short the time was. Half an hour. A glance at her timer now showed that time was almost up.
The wait was killing her.
"Got it!" That was Ben.
"Careful -- it's not stable." Wes.
"OK got her." Jen.
"Control -- we have Annie Myers safe and sound," Ben announced.
Kimberly wanted to ask about Eric but didn't quite dare.
"Jesus Eric you weren't kidding were you..." Wes again.
"When have you ever...known me to...kid about this?"
That might have been the best thing Kimberly had ever heard over the comm. system.
"Control," said Ben, "we have him."
"Copy that, Ben," Kimberly managed to answer. "Control to all call signs -- operation complete."
Three days later and Kimberly was still barely letting him out of her sight. To say it was driving him nuts was putting it mildly. Then there was Ben, who was acting like an overgrown mother hen. Wes and Jen, at least, were resisting the temptation to react like that -- but he could see them controlling the impulse.
He shook his head as he made his way along the hospital corridor.
It could have been so much worse. The overall death toll from East Mall was fifteen, all in the mall food court, which had -- as it had turned out -- been the part of the shopping centre that had borne the brunt of the attack. And Eric was painfully aware of how close he had come to being the sixteenth victim.
Investigators were certain it was a series of bombs and were certain it was homemade explosives. Which, Eric noted, meant that it could have been done by anyone, from local crazies to international terrorists -- although the latter was unlikely. There was no apparent motive, no real target, and no obvious gain...unless the perpetrators wanted to cause mass mayhem, and carnage -- and even the latter they hadn't really achieved. Given the time of the blasts, the fact that there were only fifteen people killed was nothing short of a miracle.
He yawned. Nearing his destination, Eric privately admitted to himself that he was going to feel the effects of that power drain for quite a while yet. Maybe Kimberly had a point -- he was trying to do things too soon.
Unfortunately, this wasn't something he could put off.
He reached out and knocked politely on the door.
"Come in," called a voice.
Eric swallowed and pushed the door open.