Authors: Anne McCaffrey
The big miner swung fifty times at his spot and then inspected his work. “Cristov, come here,” he called. Toldur got Cristov oriented and then the young miner went to work for another fifty blows. Zenor took over after that, then Kindan.
“My turn,” Renna declared when Kindan had counted fifty.
“This is not the time to learn to swing an axe,” Zenor swore at her.
“There’ll be plenty of work later,” Toldur promised, relieving Kindan of the axe.
“All right,” Renna allowed grudgingly.
A short while later, Toldur broke through. “How long did that take us?” he asked the group.
“Nineteen minutes,” Nuella responded promptly, “I timed it in my head.”
“Good,” Toldur said enthusiastically. “Let’s see if we can get a crawlspace done in the next twenty.”
In the end it took them twenty-three more minutes to clear a space wide enough for Kisk.
With Kindan’s encouragement, the small watch-wher poked her head through the opening. “Where are we, Kisk?” he asked her. The others waited silently.
Nuella felt for Kisk’s response. “We’re right behind the pumps,” she said.
“How’d you know?” Kindan asked, just about ready to say the same thing.
“I’ve gotten a
better at feeling watch-wher’s thoughts,” she told him.
“Come on, let’s get going,” Renna urged from the back of the group.
“Let’s go, Kisk,” Kindan said to the watch-wher, giving her a push.
“Everyone be quiet,” Toldur whispered.
“Quiet?” Zenor repeated incredulously. “After all our digging?”
“That might not be noticed over the noise of the cave-in settling,” Toldur explained. “But voices will.”
The group crept silently around the unused pumps and over to the new shaft’s lifts.
“Two groups,” Kindan whispered over his shoulder. Nuella passed his message on. Kindan, Kisk, and Nuella climbed onto the lift at the top of the shaft. Kindan and Nuella worked as a team from months of practice.
“Shards, it’s noisy,” Kindan hissed as the thick ropes creaked and the pulley at the top of the shaft squealed.
“Don’t go too fast,” Toldur whispered from above.
“Don’t go too slow,” Nuella hissed at Kindan.
She fidgeted nervously while they waited at the bottom of the shaft for the others to lower themselves down.
“We weren’t that loud,” she whispered to Kindan.
“How do you know? We were too busy trying to be quiet to listen,” Kindan countered.
Finally, just when she thought she couldn’t take it anymore, the noise stopped. The others joined them.
“There won’t be anyone at the bottom of the old shaft, will there?” Zenor wondered aloud.
“No,” Toldur replied. “It’s too risky for anyone to stay down here.”
After a moment, Nuella said, “Kisk could see anyone before they could see her, anyway.”
“Let’s go, then,” Zenor said.
Nuella and Kindan had already started moving, with Kisk between them.
“No blindfold this time,” Kindan murmured to Nuella.
“Which is a pity, because I could have used it for a dust mask,” Nuella replied.
“Hang on,” Toldur whispered from behind them. The group paused. “Yup, I thought so,” he said after rustling a hand about in his hard hat. “There are scarves in the hard hats. Pull them out, but make sure you keep your hat over your head—there could be loose rocks anywhere along here jostled from the cave-in.”
“Not that it’ll do much good,” Nuella grumbled as they set off once more.
“Then why’d you mention it?” Zenor muttered back.
Nuella sniffed and increased her pace.
“You are keeping count, aren’t you?” Kindan asked her after a moment.
“Yes,” she said immediately. “Aren’t you?”
“Third Street is twelve paces ahead,” Kindan said by way of confirmation.
“Nuella,” he asked as they passed Third Street, “what if we’re too late?”
“We won’t be,” she said fervently, wishing it to be true. “When did it happen?”
“About an hour before sunset,” Kindan said. In agony, he confessed, “Kisk was still asleep. There was too much light for her until the sun went down. We got to the mine as quick as we could after that.”
Kisk gave Nuella a disconsolate
Instinctively, Nuella reached out and patted the watch-wher’s side. “Not your fault, sweetie, you did your best.”
Beside her, Kindan took Nuella’s words to heart, as well.
“That’s nearly twelve hours ago,” she said after a moment. “How long can their air hold out?”
“It depends on the size of the tunnel that survived,” Toldur answered from behind them. “No more than a day, though. Maybe less.”
less, Nuella guessed. Desperate to avoid thinking about it, she said to Kindan, “Did you know that a watch-wher takes its name from its human?”
“Really?” Renna asked from the rear of the group, rightly guessing that Nuella was trying to distract herself.
“Yes,” Nuella affirmed. “And that the more bonded a watch-wher is with its human, the more closely the watch-wher’s name matches the human’s.”
“Oh,” Kindan said. “So I would’ve been better off to pick Kinsk over Kisk?”
“I don’t know how much it’s a question of
picking as it is of
picking,” Nuella corrected. “And it’s not to say that a short name won’t mean a long bonding. Renilan and Resk have been bonded now for over thirty Turns.”
“Oh,” Kindan said more cheerfully. Then he nearly tripped on a rock. “Rocks ahead!” he called over his shoulder. “Everyone mind your step.”
“Everyone start counting your paces,” Toldur ordered. “We don’t want to get lost.”
Nuella called out from the left, “First Street,” at the same time that Kindan called out from the right, “Main shaft.”
“Eighty-three meters from here,” Toldur said quietly.
“Do you feel that?” Cristov asked. “I feel a draft—it must be the pumps.”
“In or out?” Zenor asked. “It feels to me like it’s blowing in.”
“Everyone freeze!” Toldur hissed.
“What’s wrong?” Nuella asked.
“Tarik’s blowing air into the mine,” Zenor replied in a dead voice.
“We’ll have to turn back,” Toldur said.
“Why?” Nuella cried. “We’re almost there! We can’t stop now!”
“Nuella,” Zenor said slowly, “with the air blowing in—it’s like adding coal to a fire.”
“No, it’s exactly like adding air to coal-gas,” Renna corrected. “It could cause an explosion.”
“He’s not doing it on purpose is he?” Kindan asked. No one wanted to answer that question.
“Come on, we have to turn around,” Toldur repeated.
“Wait!” Nuella cried desperately. “If we can get the pumps to suck the air out, could we go on?”
“It won’t work,” Zenor said. “You’d have to get crews on both the old and the new shafts or it’d have pretty much the same effect.”
No one knew what to say.
“We tried, Nuella,” Kindan said as the silence dragged on.
“I’m not quitting,” Cristov announced. “I won’t leave them.”
“We can come back when it’s safe,” Toldur said.
“For the bodies?” Zenor cried.
“Wait!” Nuella hissed. “If we
get the pumps on both shafts to suck the air out, could we continue?”
“It’d be too risky,” Toldur said after a moment. “The air has been pumped in here for hours now. At any moment it could meet a pocket of gas and . . .”
Everyone shuddered at the thought of the fireball that would result.
“We could leave our picks here,” Cristov suggested. “That way we couldn’t possibly make any sparks.”
“We’d have to move the rocks by hand anyway,” Zenor agreed.
“We still don’t have any way to get the pumps manned,” Toldur pointed out.
“Oh, yes we do,” Nuella said, her heart lifting. “Kindan, can I borrow Kisk for a moment?”
“Sure,” Kindan said instantly. “Where are you going?”
“Nowhere,” Nuella said in a tone that discouraged further questions. She put her hands on Kisk. “Kisk, I need you to talk to Lolanth. Tell Lolanth to talk to me, please. It’s an emergency.”
Kisk nodded her head and blinked her eyes slowly. Then she chirped a happy acknowledgment and butted Nuella in search of affection. Nuella gave the green watch-wher a quick pat on the neck.
“Thank you Kisk,” she said. Then she continued, “Lolanth, please tell J’lantir that I need the pumps on both mines manned to suck the air out of the mines. Ask him to get the MasterMiner. Tell him I’m trying to save my father.”
J’lantir asks if you’re in danger,
the dragon relayed.
“Only if we don’t get the air sucked out of the mine,” Nuella said aloud.
J’lantir says he will do it,
He is very worried. I am very worried. We are calling Gaminth. M’tal comes. Ista comes. The miners have been told.
“If Tarik complains . . .” Kindan said, guessing what Nuella was doing.
“Are you talking to a dragon?” Zenor asked in amazement.
“Dragons will talk to anyone if they want to,” Kindan told him.
“Really,” Zenor muttered in amazement.
From above, they heard a chorus of dragon bugles loudly in the night.
The MasterMiner is here,
Lolanth informed Nuella.
He has started the pumps the right way. He is very angry with someone.
I am here, Nuella,
the gentle voice of Gaminth called.
M’tal wants to know where you are.
“We’re down here, in the mine,” Nuella answered aloud.
MasterMiner Britell is very worried,
Gaminth informed her.
He says you should come up immediately.
“I can feel the pumps,” Cristov said. “They’re pulling the air out.”
“The MasterMiner is here,” Nuella told them. “He says we have to leave.”
“We’re not going!” four voices responded in unison.
“Well, I can’t drag you all out by myself, and I won’t leave you,” Toldur said slowly. He said to Nuella, “If you can get a message to the MasterMiner, tell him what we’re hoping to do and ask if he has any suggestions.”
Nuella relayed the message.
The MasterMiner says you should hope your luck holds,
“He says good luck,” Nuella told the others.
“Okay, let’s get going,” Kindan said. “It’s another eighty-six meters to Second Street.”
In silence, the group trudged past the mine shaft and the vigorous sound of the pumps. The rocks on the floor of the tunnel grew more numerous, and larger.
“We cleared a path on the tracks,” Toldur said. “If you walk in the middle of the road, you shouldn’t have to worry.”
The air was thick with dust. Occasionally they passed a glow, its light doing little other than illuminating the thick clouds swirling around them.
The darkness grew worse. Kindan realized that he had come upon another glow only because he’d insisted on keeping his fingers touching the sides of the tunnel and had felt the frame of the glow basket.
Shortly after that he barked his shin on a huge, irregularly shaped boulder. A cry from Nuella beside him made it clear that he wasn’t the only one to suffer.
Kindan realized that he couldn’t see her.
“How can you guys see?” Zenor wondered aloud.
“If you can’t see, hold hands,” Toldur told the group.
“Grab onto Kisk,” Nuella said. “She can see in the dark.”
“Second Street,” Kindan announced. “Here we are.”
“The cave-in is about two meters inside the turn,” Toldur said.
“Figures,” Kindan muttered, remembering the bad joists he’d encountered.
“We dug out a meter before we stopped,” Toldur added.
“So the edge of the cave-in was one meter inside?” Kindan asked. “How low is the ceiling?”
“You’ll have to duck,” Toldur admitted.
Kindan crouched down and started forward slowly.
“No, you stay behind,” Nuella told him, grabbing his shoulder. “I’ll go forward.”
“Why don’t we let Kisk look first?” Kindan suggested.
“What for?” Toldur asked.
“Hot spots,” Zenor said. “If Kisk sees heat, a spark would look like a little hot spot, right?”
“Right,” Nuella and Kindan agreed in unison.
“You’re better at seeing in the dark,” Kindan told Nuella. “Why don’t you work with Kisk?”
“Thanks,” Nuella responded. “Kisk, can you see any little lights? Look for little lights, Kisk.”
Nuella concentrated on the image she was looking for. After a moment she got a feeling of comprehension from the green watch-wher and then Kisk diverted her attention to the tunnel ahead.
“Stale air,” Kindan translated. “Any lights?”
“No,” Nuella said. “No lights.”
“How about big lights?” Toldur asked. “Like people?”
“No,” Nuella responded immediately, in a bleak voice. “No big lights, either.”
“You mean no one’s alive?” Renna’s voice broke the silence. “No one at all?”
“Kisk said there was stale air,” Cristov said.
“Kisk can only see heat through about two meters of coal, probably less,” Kindan said.
“How do you know?” Toldur asked.
“We tested it,” Nuella said simply. She heard Kindan moving beside her. “What are you doing?” she demanded.
“Taking off my boot,” Kindan told her.
“Why? Have you got a rock in it?”
“Don’t make a spark,” Toldur warned as Kindan began to tap the sole of his boot on the hard rails that ran along the floor and into the cave-in.
“How far will that sound travel?” Nuella asked sourly.
“Shh!” Zenor hissed. “It’ll travel the length of the rail if you put your ear to it.”
Kindan finished tapping out his question and put his ear on the rail. He waited. And waited.
And heard nothing.
“Honestly!” Nuella snarled as Kindan started to rise. “You’re making too much noise. Don’t you know that you can’t hear half as well as I can?”
“Do you hear anything?” Kindan asked hopefully.
“Just you,” she snapped. “Shhh!”
Nuella listened. They waited. And waited.
“Eight,” Nuella said finally. “I hear eight taps, a long pause, and eight more taps.”
“They’re alive!” Renna shouted.
“It could just be rocks settling,” Toldur suggested soberly.