This story is by Rita Campbell and was part of our 2018 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
A soft tugging on his shirt sleeve rouses him from his dream. He’s grateful, it was the moment before he had given the order. Reliving it every time he slept was killing him.
The tugging becomes more persistent.
Josh reluctantly opens his eyes, they feel as if ground glass is in them, every blink a new agony. Wiping them with the back of his hand makes the pain worse and he calculates how long since he has last properly slept. Three days, maybe four. As his conscious state emerges, he imagines the men trying to breathe, choking on the thick air. He gasps and chokes himself.
Blinking at the harsh sunlight, he recalculates, must be five if it was now morning again. He tries to shake off the tugging on his sleeve, but it persists.
Rolling over on his leather chesterfield he meets a pair of intelligent green eyes. He would know those eyes anywhere, they’re eyes of his chief engineer, Bill. Bill who is trapped 1000 meters under the ground in the mine because of Josh’s decision. It’s unnerving, even moreso as the eyes are staring at him out of the face of a young girl. Seven or eight maybe, same age as his son Nick. Josh wonders how she has dodged security to get into his fortress of an office.
“I know you,” says the little girl, her stare never wavering, her eyes taking on an accusing glare. Josh’s heart is like a marching band. Gasping he wonders again how she has dodged security and entered his private office.
“I saw you on the TV. You said you would get my daddy out. But you haven’t. It’s day six now. Why not? I want my daddy back. Please, Mister, please….”
The little girl’s resolve not to cry dissolves and Josh experiences a wave of nausea as tears sprout from Bill’s young eyes. Josh has known Bill for 25 years, since they had met at university, then later in the special forces. They were the only two in the specialized course to emerge from the grueling and highly dangerous bomb disposal phase. It had bonded them. They had faced possible death together, only their skills and levelheadedness saving them. The only two bomb disposal experts still with all their fingers.
Josh had never seen Bill cry, not through the hair-raising missions in the early forces days, or in later years when another of Josh’s bad calls at the mine had nearly lost Bill his right leg. Instead he had bravely endured the pain and uncertainty, staunchly supporting Josh and his decision and as he had so diplomatically defended Josh’s bad call, blaming the untimely weather change. He had saved Josh’s skin back then, only for Josh to have screwed up again. Big time. Risking Bill’s life again. Bill that now had a family, the little green-eyed girl – unbeknown to Josh.
Choking, Josh returns to the bigger problem. This time, now, there were 47 men’s lives at risk. 47 families going to be possibly torn apart. 47 souls to haunt the rest of his days.
He was well aware of the halo/horns effect, where if he managed the rescue of the men effectively his leadership would be ensured, whilst if he failed to do so, his power as a leader would be lost, like tears in a storm.
His thoughts were interrupted by the shrill cry of the little girl. Her silent tears had evolved into full blown tsunami level trauma. Her little face contorted and reddened, eyes narrowed to slits, mouth downturned, as she struggled with and finally lost to her emotions. As she choked on her tears, trying to breathe, Josh felt his own chest congesting, mirroring the pain and heaviness he knew the trapped men must be feeling.
The child’s wailing alert security. They barge through the door without knocking. One of the guards, a female, races to the side of the distraught child. Bending down to the child’s level, she envelopes the little girl in her arms.
The guard flings a challenging glance at Josh.
“We’ll get him out Arianna, I promise. If I have to go down there myself”, the guard comforts her.
Josh watches amazed as Arianna’s tense little body initially fights and resists then relaxes in the guard’s arms, finally going limp. The guard picks her up with a gentleness that is palpable, nods to her partner who moves and opens the bullet proof glass door. Her confident footsteps fade as she disappears down the long exquisite granite corridor, sensor lights switching on and off as she passes down its lavish path.
The state of the art flat screen springs to life. Josh ‘s eyes are drawn to it. The perky news reporter he usually fantasizes about as she pouts is straight faced and tight lipped.
“The 47 trapped miners have made it to the shelter where there are emergency supplies, but running out despite strict rationing. Two men are critically injured, chief engineer Bill Jacobs, and Pete Sunderland, an IT specialist.”
The reporter’s accusing eyes follow Josh as he paces the plush rugs on the floor of his corner office. Pete is Josh’s brother-in-law, he wouldn’t have even been down the mine, save for Josh’s request.
Josh can’t forget Pete’s face as he tried to reason with him, begging Josh to stall the blast until the second ramp was secure. But the China project was in danger of being lost. Josh had no choice, he was forced to make the call.
Josh’s mobile rings. Melanie’s ringtone. His heart twists as he decides what to tell his sister. Facetime gives the disadvantage of having to meet her accusing stare.
“Good news Mel, the drill is only 10m away, should be with the guys within the hour. “ His breathing turns to panting, gasps and gulps for air.
Josh’s landline rings, flashing RESCUE on the LED screen.
“Gotta go, sorry. Rescue’re on the other line…” He hangs up and exhales, sweat dripping from his brow.
He hits the speaker, relieved he extricated himself from the conversation with Mel without having to mention that once there the difficult process of hauling the men out one by one begins.
“We’re there boss, just broke through the wall ,” crackles the voice of Matt, the head of operations.
“Thank god. How long now?”
“There’s a problem. You need to come here, now.” The line goes dead.
Josh’s black Porsche Cayenne pulls into the car-park virtually unnoticed, the crowd at the yellow barrier focused on the happenings at the drill site. As Josh pushes through security unnecessarily flashing his ID a few of the crowd recognize him before he is engulfed by grim faced rescue operatives. The tone of the amassed families changes, it is angry, barely contained.
Matt escorts Josh to the control room and points to the wall of screens, showing both inside and outside the mine. Several illuminate the groups of trapped men in various stages of exhaustion and distress, another focuses on the medical center in the shelter, where Bill is tossing on a gurney and Pete is lying prostrate, a drip above him.
Matt directs Josh’s attention to a cave-in blocking the path being used to reach the trapped miners. He proceeds to explain that someone skilled in both delayed detonation and bomb disposal will need to descend to the area of the cave-in and blast the path clear. Scanning through the list of employees, Bill’s name illuminates as the only one with the required skills. Matt sighs.
“It’s over. Without him to clear that path, the rescue mission is screwed. I’ll go make the announcement.”
One of the screens showing the crowd of families outside zooms in on Arianne, she focuses on Josh with Bill’s accusing eyes. Josh’s breath is so challenged now he is gasping.
Josh turns to Matt.
“No, wait. I can do it. I trained Bill.”
“But it’s a ….”
“You think I don’t know this. Just get me to the shaft.”
Josh glances back at the image of Arianne, making a silent pledge to bring her father back safely. She smiles at him, then kisses her fingers and blows it to him.
As Josh descends into the shaft through the means of a hydraulic lift, the air becomes thicker, even at 500 feet he can taste the lime of the cave-in. His eyes sting and water from the dust, the light on his helmet picking it up as it dances around him.
As he finally positions and sets the last of the series of delayed detonators the air is so thick he struggles to see the wires. He stabs at the button he knows will start the process, the chain of small detonations which will clear the cave-in debris. The ground rumbles beneath him. The air is so thick with the dust he can barely discern anything around him. But after days of anguish at last he can finally breathe.