Linda laid a consoling hand on his knee. "Hey, at least you tried. And besides, there's no harm done. Heck, if I had been any smarter, I could've stolen a cube of Khalid's plastic explosive. We could have blasted our way out." She lifted his chin with a finger. "I'm very proud of you."
Jason tried to suppress a smile but couldn't stop it. "Thanks."
She tousled his hair, then turned back to Blakely. "I guess we've no choice but to search for an alternate route."
Blakely mumbled something in response, but Jason had stopped listening. Instead, Linda's words repeated in his mind: Cubes? Explosives? He stood up. Could it be?
He crossed to where Linda huddled in conversation with Blakely and tugged on her sleeve. Linda glanced at him, and Blakely frowned down, his eyes narrowed with irritation at his intrusion.
"What is it, Jason?" she said, pushing back a strand of blond hair.
He shifted his feet. "Um, Linda, that explosive you were talking about. I think I may have some of it."
Blakely stepped forward. "What? How?"
Linda placed a restraining hand on Blakely's arm. "Jason, why do you think you have some explosive?"
Scuffing the toe of his sneaker on the rocky floor, not looking anyone in the face, Jason explained about the incident in the bathroom when Khalid's bag spilled into his cubicle. "I have it in my gym bag," he finished, pointing to the red Nike bag at his feet. "I'll show you."
He unzipped the bag and rummaged through it. He should have told someone. Now he was going to get into trouble. He shifted the contents of the pack around. It was difficult to search, full of gym clothes, an orange towel, a pack of playing cards that had fallen loose, and scattered loose change for the video-game machine. Where was it?
After a full minute, Blakely exclaimed in exasperation, "Just dump it on the floor." He tried to take the bag from Jason.
"Wait!" Jason pulled his Nintendo Game Boy from the bag. "It'll break." He shoved the Game Boy in his jacket pocket.
The doctor overturned the bag and shook it. All his stuff tumbled to the floor. The three of them searched through his loot.
Jason carefully tucked his spare pair of underwear out of sight, mortified that Linda might see his boxers. As he was hiding it under his towel, he spotted the familiar gray material.
Picking up the clay, he held it out to Linda. "Here it is."
With a whisper of a smile on her lips, she accepted the sculpted clay, eyeing his handiwork. "Nice airplane."
He shrugged. "I thought it was some sort of hard Play-Doh."
Blakely looked on with disbelief. "Are you sure it's the explosive?"
Linda fished a piece of crinkled cellophane from his belongings. "Yes, this is the same cellophane that wrapped the other cubes."
Blakely took the airplane from her as if handling the most fragile piece of expensive art. "Okay, we've got an explosive, but nothing to detonate it with. We need a blasting cap."
"What's that?" Jason asked.
Blakely just frowned at him, but Linda explained, "They're little explosives that set off the chunk of plastic explosive."
"That would do the trick," Blakely answered, "but we're not going to find any fireworks stands down here."
Fumbling through the side pouch of his bag, Jason pulled out the little red cherry bomb he'd hidden from prying eyes. "Will this work?"
Linda stared at it. "Do you think…? Will it work?"
Blakely nodded, grinning. "I believe so."
She returned his grin, then turned and hugged Jason. "You're just full of surprises, little man."
Jason blushed purple. "Just don't tell my mom about the cherry bomb. She'd kill me."
Khalid crouched by the fork in the tunnels, leaning first into one, then into the other. He sniffed, like a cur on a trail. The left-hand tunnel had a subtle sting to the air, causing a slight burning in the nose. Smoke. He proceeded left, holding his lighter before him. He had been careful to twist the controls to set the flame at its lowest setting, creating only a feeble flicker, conserving the butane in his lighter. If it should run out, he would be blinded, unable to complete his mission. He had to pamper his tiny flame.
In the stygian darkness, even this small flame was enough to light the way for several meters. He marched steadily ahead, not wasting time to rest. There was no way of judging how much farther Linda and her group might be. But there were clues he was heading in the right direction: footprints in mud, a wrapper from a ration bar, a spot where someone had stopped to urinate, the ammonia odor still pungent. He was close.
His mind wandered as he raced along the monotonous tunnels, allowing his trained body to continue its pursuit, stepping around pitfalls, leaping crevices, climbing over boulder-strewn obstructions, hell-bent on narrowing the gap.
Linda pushed Jason farther back around the tunnel's curve, praying that Blakely knew what the heck he was doing. It was quite possible the entire tunnel system could collapse on them. Still, she knew they had to take the risk. To go back only invited disaster.
"I wanna watch," Jason said.
"No, honey. It's dangerous. Here, put in your ear-plugs." She handed him two cotton balls from their first-aid kit. "And when I tell you, cover your ears and open your mouth."
"The explosion is going to be dangerously loud. It can damage your eardrums."
Jason fidgeted. "I still want to watch."
Blakely suddenly appeared before them, slightly winded. "All set. I've shaped the charge to blow away from us. Are you ready?"
Linda nodded. "How good a shot are you?"
"Okay, but with this pressure… " He shrugged.
"You only have the one shot."
He raised the flare gun. "I know." The cherry bomb had been embedded in the plastic explosive, and the plan was to ignite it with the flare from a safe distance. He waved them back farther.
She nudged the boy behind her. "Good luck."
Blakely swiped his damp brow with the edge of his sleeve, then took a few steps down the tunnel to get a straight shot. She noticed his lips had a purple tinge to them. The stress and the foul air were worsening his heart condition. Watching as he plugged his ears with cotton, she admired his tenacity. He then gave her a thumbs-up sign and leveled the flare gun.
She pantomimed to Jason to cover his ears and open his mouth. He did as instructed but kept trying to peek around her to see where the doctor stood.
With her ears covered, she heard the pop of the flare gun, sounding like a toy, then saw Blakely lower his gun. Nothing happened.
He turned to her, shrugging, and opened his mouth to speak when the explosion occurred. The wind seemed to precede the noise. She watched as Blakely was suddenly blown backward by the concussion, flying off his feet, colliding with the wall.
Before she could move to help, she too was thrown down the tunnel, landing on top of Jason. The cracking roar washed over her like an invisible freight train barreling past, the noise so loud that her mind tried to turn it off. First the boom, then nothing but a dull ringing. Dust and smoke poured down the tunnel, choking her, leaving her and Jason isolated in a sphere of her helmet light. Walls of swirling dust swallowed them up.
She helped Jason to his feet. He held his elbow and winced, but otherwise he seemed unharmed. Dazed, she wasn't even sure which direction led back to Blakely. He could be hurt. She unhooked her hand lantern, hoping its additional light would penetrate the darkness better than just her helmet lamp. She swept the beam through the dusty air. Nothing.
Jason pointed with one hand, while pulling cotton out of his ears. "Over there. I think I see a light."
She now saw it too, a glow of light bouncing her way. She let out a relieved breath. She hurried over to check on Blakely, hoping that the way forward was now clear.
"Wait!" Jason suddenly yelled, pulling on her arm to halt her.
She glanced down at him. "What?" She then looked back as the figure penetrated the smoke, lunging into her sphere of light. It wasn't Blakely. She stumbled a step backward. No!
He held a lighter aloft in one hand and a pistol in the other, blood drizzling down his right cheek from a gash at his temple. "How appropriate that a thunderclap should precede my storm," Khalid said, then aimed the pistol at Linda's chest.
Blakely groaned, pain flaring red in his chest. His first thought was that it was his heart again, but he noticed that the pain worsened as he inhaled and retreated as he exhaled. Broken rib, he thought. He ran his hand over his right side. Just below his armpit, a lump of agony confirmed his suspicion. Definitely broken, but only one of them. Damn, like he didn't have enough problems already. He leaned his head back on the wall, closed his eyes, and pulled the damp handkerchief back over his nose. Although it stank of mucus and sweat, it was better than inhaling the air stirred by the blast.
He would wait for the dust to settle, then let Linda help wrap his chest before they continued forward. He sighed, meaning to relax, but a sudden fear opened his eyes again. What if the blast hadn't cleared enough of the rock to allow them passage, or worse yet, just collapsed the tunnel further? What if he had broken his rib for nothing? He needed to know.
Grimacing, teeth clenched against the pain, he reached to his waist for his flashlight. He popped it from his belt with a wince. Any motion felt like someone was jabbing him with a dull spear-and twisting it mercilessly! Struggling against the pain, he raised the light and clicked it on. The beam shot forward but was blocked by the eddying rock dust and smoke. He could not see beyond ten feet.
Maybe if he could move just a few yards forward he could examine the explosion site. What if he had screwed up in shaping the charge? No, he couldn't have. He had done just like Hans, the German demolition expert for Alpha Base, had shown him.
There was only one way to find out. He carefully pushed up to his feet; the pain flared worse but only to a point that raised tears in his eyes. He could stand it for a short time. He took a deep breath, girding himself for the painful journey forward. Just before he took his first step, he heard a raised voice echo from behind him. It was Linda. Good, at least she was okay. He pointed his light toward the voices. His lamp revealed only black smoke, and the dull ringing in his ears blocked out all but the loudest noises. He shook his head, swinging his light back toward the bomb site. They'd be joining him shortly.