Screaming, weeping, Matilda followed the other three to the ladder, falling over obstacles in the dark, tripping on her own feet, hysterical with grief. She knew she had to get the rest of the team out, but she could hardly breathe. Panic took hold of her as another tremor, longer, deeper and more urgent shook the ground under their feet.
The other members stood by the ladder, uncertain what to do. "Up the ladder, reverse numbers!"
She had enough where-with-all to know she had to be last. Jane went first and the rest followed, hesitating over the gaps in their ranks, noticing and mourning those missing.
There was one person left, the largest man in the group. Mike delayed before going up. "You first, Matilda."
She shook her head. "By the numbers, Mike."
He forced a grin. "Yes, ma'am."
He put one foot on the ladder and the shaft began to crumble. He leapt back, knocking her aside as the soft, black dust fell over them. She had a moment of panic and she knew no more.
* * *
Matilda woke with a start, gasping for breath, the darkness thick around her. She couldn't move, her arms and legs pinned down. The weight was excruciating and she wished she had stayed unconscious. A minute or two later, she realized what had woken her.
"4-6-2, this is Base. 4-6-2, this is Base. Can you hear me?"
She moaned, her entire body felt broken.
"4-6-2, Matilda, this is Jane. Can you hear me? Mike? Answer me!" Her voice held an edge of desperation.
"It's me," Mike croaked. "Matilda is here, I can feel her next to me." He tapped her left arm.
"Can't see..." Matilda groaned.
"The tunnel fell in on you. A team is on the way. Can you move?"
"No," Matilda said after a few moments of trying.
"Negative, Base," Mike sounded less wounded than she.
After a few more minutes, she realized part of the weight on her was Mike's body. She moaned again.
The pain was incredible and she slipped once more into unconsciousness. When she woke again, she was in the Guild infirmary. Sterile white walls met a black and white tile checkerboard floor. Muted voices and the sounds of food carts greeted her ringing ears.
She could not turn her head as she was in a neck brace, but her peripheral vision showed her the bed next to her was empty. The sheets looked rumpled, so someone had been using it.
The toilet flushed and Mike hobbled out on crutches. His smile was warm and friendly, tinged with sadness. Reality struck home as she remembered Bobby's last words as he fell. Tears ran down her cheeks and she sobbed, mourning his loss and that of their friends.
"They are still looking, Matilda."
"He fell too far, Mike. I know it. Their bodies will never be found. What happened?"
She rubbed her eyes with the back of her right hand. The left was in traction.
"They hit a pocket of Essine gas when they were digging. That entire side of the mine went down. They've had to close the whole site."
"Tests and scans are supposed to be done for Essine...."
He nodded sadly. "Someone screwed up."
"I'll have their job for this!" The pain increased with her anger.
"They're dead, Tilda. Just like Bobby."
"Not just like! At least their death was quick! He fell and there was nothing I could do! Just stand there and watch!" It was then she noticed her ring finger was bare. "My ring!" Before she could get more worked up, he handed her a small plastic bag with her engagement ring. The band had been sliced and it was covered with muck and crusted blood.
"They had to cut it off, but the nurse made sure to save it. You can get it cleaned and repaired, it will be good as new." Her lip was trembling and hot tears spattered the bag, puddling in the folds and creases.
"It doesn't matter. Put it away."
He did as she asked and waited for the food cart to stop by. There was nothing left to say. No words could make her feel any better.