Night and day they dug away, deeper every hour. Hammers, shovels, picks, and carts all lent their sounds to the echoes that filled the mine. It was hard work, and slow, but they had lost two tunnels already as soon as the heavy equipment had been brought down, so they made do with the strength of their arms. The eggheads and their fancy gadgets back on the surface said it would all be worth it, but these men could care less. They were paid by the hour, after all.
The constant crack of picks against rock was almost enough to drive them mad, but still they dug. The squeaking of the trolleys that carried the loose stone back to the surface was even worse, but every rock that was taken up was one less between them and the riches that awaited. Without their drills and jackhammers they worked harder than they ever had before, but they went at the cavern with grim determination, and the walls gave way to ringing clicks and the clatter of tumbling stone.
A foreman surveyed their work, his experienced eye studying the small passage, on the lookout for signs of weakness, or changes in the stone. They were digging through a labyrinth, though the eggheads' fancy charts said that every one of the hundreds of passages beneath this mountain led to the same place. That was the clue that this was a worthwhile place to dig: the tunnels may have been filled in, by time or on purpose, but they had been man-made. And it made what they led to either very old, very valuable… or both.
One of the workers stood up, removing his helmet to wipe the sweat from his face. He turned to face the foreman with a tired expression. "C'mon boss, we been at this for hours. Give us a break, will yah?" The repeating clinks slowed as a few other workers stopped to catch their breath, most grumbling their agreement.
The boss seemed to ignore them for a moment, casting a last look around the passage, before sighing and turning towards his crew. "All right boys," he called, his commanding voice echoing through the gloom, "take a breather." The last sounds faded away, most of the workers slumping down against whatever was convenient. Even the conversation was muted, most of the men taking the chance to try and catch a nap. The foreman crouched down and picked up one of the fragments of rubble on the cavern floor, studying it with a practiced eye.
An older worker, his face hard and lined beneath the sweat and dust, bent down next to him, the light from the lamp on his helmet dancing over the ground. Gray hair poked out from beneath his hard hat. "Strange dig this is. Don't you think, Mr. Duggin?"
"Yes," said Duggin, nodding. He looked up from the rock in his hand. "Most of this mountain is pure sandstone and shale, but the rock we've been going through is some of the toughest I've ever seen. This tunnel was filled in on purpose, I'm sure of it."
"Yeah," the worker agreed, looking back down the mine. Half a dozen diggers were now dozing against the extent of their progress, while the rest of the walls were lined with the men who loaded the displaced rock into the carts, and the men who pushed them back up the rickety rails towards daylight. "And all the test tunnels we dug in the softer stuff collapsed before we got twenty feet."
"Well, this passage seems stable enough. We've been careful," Duggin said, looking around at the many braces lining the walls of the tunnel. "But help me keep an eye on them, Granny," the foreman added. "We lost two men in tunnel sixteen yesterday. One second they're digging, the next they've got half the mountain on top of them. I don't want any sloppy mistakes."
"You can count on me, sir," said Granny. The man's true name was Kolby Granite, but as fitting as that was for a digger, he was also the oldest man on the crew by ten years, so everyone called him Granny.
"We're the farthest group down by almost fifty feet," Duggin said. His voice had dropped to a whisper, but it still carried in the silence. "But it just means everyone else will be trying that much harder to catch up." With the early misfortunes in their drilling, and so many routes to their goal, the crews had been split up to see who could make the most progress. Almost twenty teams were now inching their way through this ancient network, and there was a juicy bonus waiting for whichever team made it first. But the men didn't know that… yet. The foreman was saving that bit of motivation for when they got closer.
"Why the hurry, sir?"
"The geologists can't decide which is more interesting: the mountain, or the tunnels themselves. They want us out of here so they can have their turn." The foreman's expression turned into a grimace. "And the sponsors have been getting impatient for us to make good on our promises of exciting new finds."
"Well, sir, we'll make it, even if we have to start usin' our fingernails," Granny chuckled. The men had known about the bonus almost as soon as the foreman had; there were no secrets on these crews, who made a living putting themselves beneath billions of tons of rock. They were happy to let the bosses think whatever they liked, though. "After all, that's what—" he stopped abruptly, his eyes losing focus. He cocked his head as if struggling to hear a distant sound. The foreman looked at him with concern for a moment, but then a noise, more felt than heard, brought realization surging forth. The two men crouched in perfect silence, with only the soft sound of their coworkers breathing around them. Crack, louder this time, followed by a soft rumble and groan.
Duggin shot to his feet, nearly slamming his helmet on the top of the tunnel. "Everyone up and out of the mine!" he bellowed, pointing frantically back down the passage towards the exit. Granny added his voice, rousing the men and urging them out.
The dozing crew jerked awake, stumbling to their feet in the dim glow from their helmet lamps. Not wasting time with questions, they all began running as fast as they could back through the tunnel. Soon the groans and rumbles of loosening rock were audible even over the commotion, raising panic in the crew. They struggled over debris on the cavern floor, clambering desperately as the sound of the mountain's malice shifted to a deep and constant rumble. The mouths of the other passages flew by, filled with the men of the other crews as they joined them in their scramble for the surface. The lamps on their hardhats danced like mad fireflies as dust began falling around them from the low roof. The tunnel was packed wall to wall with fleeing men as the light of the exit came into view.
With a last horrible groan, the passage gave way behind them, rocks collapsing on men and scattered equipment. A few dozen made it outside ahead of the collapse, and more struggled out amongst the cloud of grit and sand, Duggin and Granny among them. They had to help one man dig himself out of the pile of smaller stones at the edge of the cave in, but somehow everyone had made it out alive.
Numb with shock, the foreman stared at the plume of dust spewing lazily into the air. His body was covered in dirt and small cuts. "How?" he managed. "The passage was fine two minutes ago!" his hand was shaking as he pointed.
Granny limped over, cradling his right arm, which was caked in dirt and blood. Not everyone had made it through the falling rubble unscathed. "If I didn't know any better, sir, I'd say it was rigged… trapped, like. No way it'd just collapse on its own."
Medics from the nearby base camp were swarming around the diggers now, followed closely by the director of the excavation, who was in a frenzy trying to determine what had transpired. He spotted Duggin and ran over. "What the hell happened?" he demanded.
"No idea, sir," the foreman replied, proud at himself for keeping his voice from shaking. "We'd sat down for a breather when the passage just gave way."
"Passages don't just give way!" the director exclaimed. His crews' near brush with death notwithstanding, they were well behind schedule. He was not an insensitive man, but everything he had was invested in this dig. He was looking at the end of his company if he didn't come up with something soon, and this setback looked to claim every scrap of progress they had made so far.
Duggin opened his mouth to reply when he spotted another man hurrying over, carrying a large bundle of crumpled graphs and charts. It was the lead geologist, running over from the seismic sensors they had on site.
"Sir!" he called towards the director, his nasally voice cutting through the noise and chaos outside the collapsed tunnel. "You have to see this!" He plowed through the crowds, skidding to a halt on the gravel, and then dropped to his knees and began spreading out the sheets.
Duggin and Granny leaned over with the director to study the charts the geologist was laying out. The scientist hurriedly began pointing at various spots on the chart from a seismograph. "These are the workers in passage eleven," he began without preamble, pointing to a spot of short, tightly bunched slashes. "And here is something I can't explain," the geologist continued, jabbing excitedly at a sudden rise on the graph. Only it wasn't a regular spike… the line rose in one direction, standing out amongst the other up-and-down scribbles of the chart, and kept rising at a steady pace, then abruptly dropped off to normal. The noise of the collapse, all spikes and jagged lines, followed after. "I've never seen anything like this."
"Perhaps your gear malfunctioned?" the director asked, studying the graphs with obvious incredulity.
The scientist shook his head, laying out more sheets of graph paper, one after another. "Passage six. Passage nine. Passage fourteen. All the same." Every sheet showed the same steady, impossible slope.
The other three men studied the graphs with varying degrees of understanding, but all knew enough about basic geology to see that what was before them was far from normal. In fact, it was impossible. Seismographs measured the subtle vibrations of shifting rock that traveled through the surface of the Earth, which caused the sensitive needle on the machine to oscillate back and forth, resulting in the unique look of the seismic charts. To see a seismograph peg in one direction like the chart in front of them was not just unheard of, it was contrary to the laws of physics.
Duggin, still half in shock, was the first to put together the puzzle. All the irregularities from this dig, from the odd rock composition to the sudden collapse to the puzzling seismograph readings, led him to one conclusion. "This collapse wasn't natural," he said softly, his eyes not leaving the graphs. "I think that something doesn't want us digging here."
"Not in those tunnels, anyway," the geologist said, drawing stares from the other men once more. "Take a look at this." He laid another sheet on top of the rest, its line steady as a ray, with barely even the lazy waves of the men at work as they dug. No spikes, no strange slopes, not even the noise from the collapse. "This is passage ten. I calibrated the seismometer five minutes before everything happened, so I know it's accurate. This tunnel is different; insulated, somehow."
"What are you saying?" the director asked bluntly.
"I'm saying passage ten is still standing. It's our ticket in."
-- --- --
Many miles away, over the swaying grass of a forest clearing, a cloaked figure hovered, his legs crossed in a meditative pose. His green skin contrasted sharply with the purple of his tunic and the white of his cape and turban. His pointed ears twitched, and his eyes jerked open.
What in blazes was that? It was a kind of energy he had never felt before, vaguely powerful but very faint. It felt hollow, not like anything living he had ever encountered. The sense was hazy as well; it was like a huge group of almost insignificant powers as opposed to a single small one. Either way, he doubted that he would have even picked it up had he not been meditating. He sighed and closed his eyes again, clearing his thoughts once more. The strange sensation did not return.
*A/N* – This is a resurrection of my first fanfic, which was originally published here in January 2003. I have no idea why my Dragon Ball Z spark was suddenly rekindled after so long (for perspective, this fic came out when DBZ had more fanfics than Harry Potter, Twilight was just a time of day, and Naruto and Bleach were being scribbled on the backs of bar napkins instead of the pages of Shonen Jump) but I've found myself going back and polishing this. It was fairly well-received before I took it down, but there were a lot more people browsing this section at the time. Regardless of whether its nostalgia or temporary insanity on my part, I hope you enjoy.