Ben gasped for breath, coughing violently as dust invaded his lungs. It was pitch black and every second was a fight to remain calm. He knew something was deeply wrong with his legs, but he was too scared - and in too much pain - to feel down and see what the damage was.
He had been getting changed into his overalls in the lower levels of the chemical plant when it happened. He'd been late, thanks to his little girl keeping him up half the night crying. He was trying to be as quick as possible, and he was only ten minutes late. He'd thought that if he rushed, then maybe his supervisor wouldn't notice. Then there had been an almighty bang, and Ben found himself blown off his feet and propelled across the room, before hitting the far wall and falling in a crumpled heap. Rubble had started to fall all around him, and then everything went dark.
When he awoke it was still pitch black, and it had taken him a long while to adjust to his new situation. It was the smell that he'd noticed first; the air was stale, with the faint odour of smoke. The place normally smelt almost clinical, and that, more than anything else, showed Ben that something terrible had happened.
He hadn't felt the pain at first, it was only when he tried to stand that the problems arose. A large piece of wood lay across his lap and he had summoned all his strength to push it off. However, as soon as he pushed the beam to one side, pain like he had never experienced before lanced through his legs. He had roared in agony, arching his back against the wall behind him, his breath coming in quick pants, but there was no escaping the excruciating pain.
He had tried shouting for help, screaming even, but the factory was unnaturally quiet. He'd shouted until his voice had grown hoarse, then, when no one came, he picked up a small chunk of metal behind him and started banging it on the wall. His leg constantly throbbed in agonising protest, but hopefully, someone would pick up the sound he was making.
That was a long time ago now. Now, he had even given up on that. Instead he lay his head against the wall behind him, focusing on keeping his breathing under control. Dust drifted down onto him, covering him in a fine layer of dirt. The taste of it was sickening, and made his tongue feel disgustingly grainy. He could cope with the pain, but that taste was driving him insane; all he wanted was a drink of water.
Before, he had heard the distant rumbles of lesser explosions and the sound of machinery moving above him, but now there was nothing. They must have all got out, he thought to himself grimly; they must have thought he was dead.
He had lost all track of time. It was around ten in the morning when he had arrived to work, but it could have been hours, even days in this place. He had no way of telling. He tried once again to figure out the events in his head. He guessed there had been an explosion, the force of which had made the corridor cave in. That would explain the stuffiness in the room, and also the darkness. He hated to think what that meant for the rest of the building above him. Already he had heard ominous groans from the ceiling, like it was under a huge amount of strain. Occasionally there would be a crack, as abrupt as a gunshot, and dust would shower Ben from above. It wouldn't be long now before the whole roof collapsed on top of him.
He shifted slightly, wincing in discomfort as he tried to quell his rising sense of panic. He couldn't hold out much longer. And he wasn't ready to die. But how could anyone reach him when he was so far underground? And if he was hurt down here, what about his friends who were already at work on the shop floor? Were they still alive?
When the rumbling noise of machinery returned, he ignored it. They had passed over him dozens of times, this time wasn't any different. He continued to think that until the rumbling began to gradually get louder. He couldn't see, but he thought the noise was coming from the wall on the other side of the room. It was getting much louder now, the floor beneath him vibrating with the sound of it. Then, there was a light! He stared at the pencil thin beam of light stretching across the room, hope stirring in him once again.
Dust began to fall around him, moving through the light and creating swirls; it was the best thing Ben had ever seen. The rumbling noise got louder and louder, until it was almost unbearable. The vibration was causing jolts of pain to travel up his legs, and he groaned, though the rumbling noise was now so loud he could barely hear himself. Suddenly, there was a muffled bang, and dirt exploded from the spot in the wall where the beam of light had emerged from. Ben winced, covering his eyes as best he could as clods of dirt rained around him.
A loud, grinding metallic sound filled the void Ben found himself in, until it began to slow down. Eventually, the room became quiet again, and Ben lowered his arms cautiously. When he opened his eyes, he thought for a moment that he had passed out again. A giant iron conical sphere now jutted from the wall, its barbed edges coated in mud and grime. Ben stared at it in awe for a moment, then things just got stranger.
He had no idea where it had come from, but a thicker beam of light appeared, dancing around the walls until it rested on him. He winced at the brightness, until the beam was pointed away.
In the dim torchlight, he could make out the silhouette of a man. He rushed over to his side, pushing debris out of the way so he could kneel next to him. The man was wearing a filthy blue uniform and a face mask, which was apparently providing him with oxygen if the cylinder on his back was anything to go by. It made seeing his face difficult; all Ben could see was his blue eyes.
"Hi," he greeted, his voice strangely clear even through the mask. He placed a comforting hand on Ben'sshoulder. "Let's get you out of here."
Ben looked on dazedly as the man raised his arm up to his face. "Come in, Mole"
"This is the Mole, go ahead"
"I've got him, Virge. I need you to take a look at him before he's moved, though."
"F.A.B." The man with the blue eyes looked back at him and removed something from his pack.
"Here," he said gently. It took a moment in the dim light for Ben to figure out what it was, then he realised. Water!
"I can't give you a lot," the blue-eyed man apologised. "Not until we get you checked over, but it's enough to get that awful taste out of your mouth."
How did he know? Ben sipped the water gratefully, until the man regretfully took it away. He leaned his head back against the wall behind him, relief flooding him.
"No problem," the man said lightly, as though the action were just a normal, everyday thing.
The machine behind him whirred to life again, and moved back slightly, creating a tunnel of sorts. The man didn't seem phased by that at all as he walked around the various chunks of debris and picked upa long object that was lying carefully against the wall. Now his eyes had adjusted more, Ben could see it was a hover stretcher.
Lights powered up from the enormous metal contraption jutting from the wall, casting the room in a shadowy orange glow. For the first time, Ben could see what remained of the locker room. Part of the roof had caved in by the doorway, with cracks running all the way across the ceiling above them. In the room itself, the floor was littered with chunks of wood and concrete, as well as the twisted remains of the metal lockers. People's belongings were strewn around the room, a haunting reminderof the normality that had existed prior to the explosion. The room was barely recognisable.
"What happened?" he croaked, his thoughts easier to manage now.
"Big explosion," the rescuer confirmed, powering up the hover stretcher as he spoke.
"The whole building came down. They think it was a chemical leak. You're the last stop on our rescue tour!"
"Well, thanks for stopping by," Ben breathed, chuckling until the sensation caused him to cough again, which was painful. He felt some movement around him as the rescuer pushed aside more of the rubble and debris.
There was more light as another torch danced towards them. Then another man was there, wearing exactly the same soot stained uniform, except that his sash was yellow- though it was difficult to tell beneath the mud and grime. Thinking about it, who were these people? Their uniforms weren't that of the police or fire department, and they definitely weren't paramedics. Their equipment was completely unfamiliar too. Still, he was in no position to turn them away. Right now,he'd take any help that was offered.
The new rescuer removed a bag from his shoulder and then, to Ben's surprise, removed his mask.
"Hi," the man greeted. Ben was relieved to see a friendly face. The guy looked about the same age as him, with brown eyes and a warm smile. His face was covered in soot and dirt, though Ben had no idea how that had happened while he has wearing a mask.
"What's your name?"
"Ben," he responded, bewildered by the latest turn of events. "Ben Evans."
"Hi, Ben. You can call me Virge. I'm a medic. Do you mind if I take a look at you?"
"Knock yourself out," Ben breathed. These guys sure were to the point. 'Virge' proceeded to quickly check him over, focusing on his neck and chest.
"Are you in any pain?" he asked while shining a penlight in his eyes.
"Just my legs," Ben responded, wincing at the bright light.
"How about your breathing?"
"It'd be fine if it weren't for the dust."
Virge smiled, glancing around the shadowy room for a moment. "Yeah, you never really get used to the dust. I can't tell you how many times I've been at rescues and-"
"Virgil," the other guy cut in warningly and the man rolled his eyes.
"I know, I know," he said, taking Ben's pulse and looking at him with a raised eyebrow. "You know, it's a fine line between a good bedside manner and breaking secrecy rules."
"If it gets me out of here, you can talk all you want," Ben responded, coughing slightly.
Virgil chuckled and moved down to his lower half, manoeuvring himself around the debris to feel down Ben's leg. Ben stared down at his swollen and misshapen limbs, now horribly exposed. Both legs were obviously broken, with white bone jutting from his left shin. His right leg was covered in blood from various gashes and cuts, and looked like it was broken in around about the same place, though the bone hadn't broken the skin. He couldn't help but suck in a sharp breath as Virgil felt the area around the break. The man glanced up apologetically, but continued his exam as much as he could. Then he sat back on his haunches and smiled.
"Well, Ben, it looks like you've broken both your legs."
"So why are you smiling?"
"The good news is that you've no large splinters or shrapnel embedded in your skin anywhere, and you seem to have done our job for us and got yourself free of whatever did this."
"It was that," Ben breathed, pointing over to the large block of wood he had shifted from his lap earlier. Virgil nodded his understanding, and withdrew a needle from his bag. He removed it from its packaging.
"I'm going to give you some morphine for when we transport you," he explained as he was loading the syringe, before flashing him a supportive look. "Then I'm going to splint your legs. I wont lie to you, Ben. It's gonna hurt like hell, but once that's done, we'll have you out of here in five minutes flat. Just-"
"Mobile Control to Danger Zone," a new voice sprang out of nowhere and both men stopped. Then guy in the face mask lifted his watch to his mouth, for some strange reason.
"Go ahead, Mobile Control."
"You have four minutes and counting. I repeat, four minutes and counting. Do you understand?"
"F.A.B.," the man confirmed.
"Make that four minutes flat," Virgil corrected with a sheepish smile, and immediately sprang into action.
"Four minutes until what?" Ben asked dazedly; but neither would answer.
They were both still calm and collected, but seemed to work much quicker than before. Virgil injected the morphine into his upper arm with skill that only came with experience, and then set about binding his legs together with bandages and padding. Every movement caused a ripple of pain to move up his leg and through his body, but he tried not to cry out. He knew the rescuer was being as gentle as possible, and Ben could see that this was a man entirely at ease with the task at hand.
There was something about these two men that made him feel immediately safe. He was amazed at their calmness, and the way they worked together so seamlessly. Even friends he had in the emergency services didn't work as skilfully as these men. He had to ask the question that had been plaguing him since they arrived…
"Who are you guys?"
Virgil looked up from his task, surprised, and smiled.
"We're International Rescue."
Ben's eyes widened in shock, and before he could stop himself he started to laugh. It was a mistake. Pain shot up from his legs and through his chest. He groaned and arched his back, praying that the morphine would kick in quickly. Virgil took his own oxygen mask and placed it over Ben's mouth. The cool rush of air was wonderful, and he sucked in deeply.
Ben nodded, and watched in silence as he got his breathing under control. International Rescue! Now he knew he was going to be okay. He stared at the two men as they worked efficiently around him. They certainly weren't what he was expecting of the secretive organisation. They didn't look like the incredible heroes the papers made them out to be; they just looked like normal guys. Mind you, what was he expecting? Supermen in capes?
"Okay, Ben," Virgil said, tying off the final knot in the bandages around his legs. "We're getting you out of here. This might hurt a little, but just keep hold of my hand and it'll be over before you know it."
Virgil gripped his hand tightly and Ben looked nervously towards the other guy, who was standing next to the hover stretcher, which was now floating at waist level. He was about to ask what was happening…but there wasn't time.
There was a slow rumbling from above which grew gradually louder, and dust showered over them. Virgil immediately threw himself over Ben, protecting his body with his own as the walls shook violently behind him. He could hear concrete and steel falling from all around them, and Ben shouted in fear and pain. Then, he heard a menacing crack from the ceiling, and Virgil became suddenly heavier on top of him.
There was a terrified pause from them as the dust settled and silence reigned again.
"Virge, are you okay?" the other guy murmured, his voice unnervingly quiet. There was a long silence, until the masked man spoke again, his voice still soft and quiet, as though speaking normally would cause the whole room to crumble around them. "Virge, come on, man, speak to me. Are you okay?"
Virgil finally grunted from above him, and moved slightly, murmuring something incomprehensible as he did so. He then slowly pulled back. Ben was shocked to see a deep cut now above his eye, blood pouring freely down his cheek and down his neck. Virgil shook his head, as though trying to clear his vision, then looked at his colleague blearily.
Virgil was silent, his head bowed for a moment, his hands on his knees. He took a deep breath, closing his eyes as he exhaled. Then he glanced back up to his teammate, looking a lot more composed this time. He wiped some of the blood out of his eyes and nodded confidently.
"I'll be okay."
The other man was staring at him concernedly, though kept glancing upto the ceiling with equal concern.
Ben looked up and began to understand the severity of their situation. The whole ceiling was sagging towards them, and the cracks - which were only small patterns before - now gaped open, and were extending with every second, silently joining up with one another like trickles of water.
"We're almost out of time," Virgil murmured, staring upwards as he spoke. "How long will it take to secure him to the stretcher?"
"Around a minute," was the other man's hushed response. Virgil stared at Ben, before he seemed to come to a decision, and nodded to himself.
"Okay. Let's do this the old fashioned way."
This was apparently all the other man needed to hear. He put his arm around Ben's shoulders and waited for Virgil to explain.
"We're going to move you into our transport vehicle," Virgil said in a muted voice, glancing between him and the roof above them. "We don't have time to use the stretcher now, so Al is going to carry you."
Ben didn't care. He just wanted out of this place. Without another word, 'Al' lifted him up and onto his shoulders. Ben bit back a groan at the jolting movement as Al got him into the correct position. The whole time Virgil was standing beside them, glancing between Ben, the ceiling above, and his watch for some reason.
"Okay Al," he whispered urgently, "run!"
Al immediately began to move, and Ben couldn't help but cry in pain as agony blossomed from his legs. It didn't phase Al, who immediately set into a jog, running towards the jagged spike jutting from the wall as quickly as he could.
Ben could almost have dealt with the jarring pain, were it not for the catastrophic bang that came from somewhere high in the building on top of them. He felt a terrifying rumbling, that started above them, but within seconds seemed to surround them completely. The groaning and roaring got steadily louder until the noise became unbearable.
There was shouting coming from somewhere, but Ben honestly had no idea who, or where, it was coming from. The darkness returned, and he felt dirt and debris falling all around him as the roaring consumed them. There was a shout of pain from behind him, but they kept running until they were all plunged into complete blackness. Ben screamed in pain as Al dropped him and he felt something heavy covering him. He squeezed his eyes shut, waiting for the final blow that would end him. But it never happened.
The booming crashes and thuds continued, and Ben tried to make himself as small as possible, ignoring the agony that surged through his legs with every movement. He could still hear shouting above and around him, but the noise all merged together and he couldn't make out the words that were being said. All that existed was the screech of twisting metal and that awful roar of the earth caving in around them.
After what felt like a lifetime, the sound began to slowly desist and ebb away, until there was only the occasional impotent thud, like small rocks landing on metal. All he could hear for a long moment was the sound of his own harsh breathing. Then the thing covering him moved and lifted. It was Al! He had been covering him just as Virgil had done earlier. But why were they both alive?
There was movement and, to his shock, fluorescent lights buzzed and flickered on above him. He winced at the harsh light for a moment, before looking blearily around him. Adrenaline still coursing through him, Ben let out a sound of total disbelief. He had no idea how, but they were in a vehicle of some sort.
He was lying in the corner on a stainless steel floor, as far away from the door as they could get. Al was kneeling beside him, his face still obscured my the mask, but from the look in his eyes, Ben could tell that this one had been a close call, even for International Rescue.
Ben looked over to the other side of the craft. Virgil was lying against the doorway, which was only half closed. He had his eyes shut tightly, his breath coming in quick pants and his hands pressed against the wall behind him, as though his own body weight could keep the door closed. Through the half open doorway, Ben could see dirt and lumps of concrete attempting to force their way through the crack. Clearly the room that had been his refuge had now completely caved in.
Al stepped back and looked down at Ben, checking him over briefly with concerned eyes. Then he pulled off his mask and Ben got a look at him for the first time. Beneath the thick layer of soot and dirt, it was clear that he was fair skinned, with blond hair and bright blue eyes. He couldn't have been more than twenty-one.
Jeez, Ben thought to himself mutely, the man was younger than him. And he had just saved his life. Before Ben could find the words to thank him, Al got up and went to Virgil, kneeling next to him.
"You still with me, bro?" he asked concernedly. Virgil went to speak, then glanced to Ben and hesitated. He nodded wearily and sat up, wincing as he did so. Al helped him to his feet, and together, without a word, they used their joint strength to force the door closed.
Ben attempted to sit up and look around his new sanctuary. It was technology he had never seen before. Lights and computers filled the curved, tubular walls, and the vehicle itself, while utilitarian and robust, was sleek and obviously designed to perfection. Every inch of space had a purpose, and the equipment they had in here was clearly light years ahead of what existed at the moment. What confused him was the fact that the vehicle was completely undamaged. How had it survived that cave in?
Before he could contemplate the question further, Virgil was at his side again. His face was covered in blood, and his eyes looked tired, but he still had that same calming expression that made it seem as though everything was alright. He briefly checked the field dressings he had done only moments ago, then sat back on his haunches and looked wryly at his patient.
"Let's get you out of here," he said wearily, a smile playing at the corner of his mouth. Ben felt like crying with relief at those words.
He allowed himself to be lifted by the pair, the pain now only a dull throb as the drugs took effect. They carried him over to the wall and pulled down a makeshift bed. Virgil connected several pieces of medical equipment to him, seemingly from nowhere, then pulled a blanket over him. Al then took over, putting a pillow under his head and strapping him in without a word. The whole thing was a well organised machine, and this was clearly a routine they had been through dozens of times. He couldn't believe that these two men had got him out of there.
"Thank you, Al," Ben murmured, still a little shell-shocked by the whole thing. "You saved my life."
Al glanced up to his face, and looked almost surprised at the statement.
"We're just doing our job," he said simply.
Then the machine whirred to life and began to move. Ben looked over to the controls, as much as the straps would allow, and saw that Virgil was now at the helm, watching the monitors in front of him as he drove. It really was just the two of them that had saved him! And what was more incredible than that, was the fact that Virgil seemed to be driving without any visible window on the craft.
Al put his hand on Ben's shoulder, drawing his attention back to him.
"It's about a five minute trip to the surface. We'll then transport you over to where the paramedics are waiting. I'm going to be just over there with Virgil," he explained, gesturing over to the co-driver's seat a few feet away. "But you just holler if you need something."
"Okay," Ben responded. Though, truth be told, the morphine was doing its job brilliantly. He couldn't think of anything more he could ask of these men.
Al removed a medikit from the draw above Ben's bed and walked over to Virgil, putting a hand on his shoulder. They didn't speak to one another, but Virgil seemed to understand the gesture and nodded, still looking at the monitors in front of him. Then, as Virgil continued to drive the vehicle, Al sat beside him and began to bandage the wound on his head. Neither said a word the whole time; they were clearly so used to working with each other that words weren't necessary. Al turned around to check on Ben and smiled, all the stress and worry now gone from his face.
"You okay over there?"
Ben thought about the question for a moment, realising his situation for the first time. Only a few minutes ago he had resigned himself to dying in the bowels of a crumbling building, and now, he was safe. Completely safe. He looked back to the two men and nodded.
"Yeah…yeah, I'm fine."
Al grinned boyishly, still bandaging his colleague's head as he spoke cheerily. "Great! We'll have you fixed up in no time." Then he ruffled Virgil's hair in a half affectionate, half teasing way. "And the same goes to you."
He heard Virgil chuckle quietly and felt a little relieved. He didn't like the idea of this man being hurt on his account. More than anything, he wished he knew the two men's full names so he could thank them properly. But, of course, they hadn't asked for his thanks. And yet, lying there on a makeshift bed in a metallic underground craft, he couldn't think of anyone in the world who deserved more gratitude than those two men.
He thought back to his opinion of International Rescue when he had woken up that morning. The secret organisation was a myth that made his kids feel safer when they went to sleep. These anonymous supermen who swooped in and saved the day were just as good as any comic book character.
He looked over to the two men driving the craft, watching as Al finished tying off the bandage on his friend's head. Bloodied, exhausted, and covered in soot, dirt and mud, they definitely weren't the International Rescue he had pictured.
Ben smiled to himself, slowly lying back on the stretcher and closing his eyes. He took a long, deep breath and finally allowed himself to relax. As the tension sank away from his body, and his thoughts were filled with getting back to his kids, he began to realise the truth…
These guys didn't need capes or costumes.
They were heroes.
...And so concludes 'Strangers'
Special thanks must first go to Little Miss Bump for being my beta, and patiently correcting me on my many many grammatical errors. Couldn't have done this without her!
Huge thank you to all who have reviewed Strangers. Each one has been read and greatly appreciated. It has been such a wonderful and unexpected response for my first story, and has really encouraged me to keep going and write more!
So, from me, Stacey, Stan, Jane, David, Jack, Emily and Ben…Thank you!!!