The air still smelled of smoke. Not your normal smoke smell, either, but with a bitter aftertaste. Not like the reek of sulfur--I'd smelled that often enough. I'd never smelled anything like this, though. Lembege hawked and spit. I wanted to do likewise, but didn't.
First we had to check to see how much of the supplies in here we could salvage. I almost hoped that there wouldn't be food left. The thought of eating something that tasted like the smoke smelled made me shudder. Hopefully the docs would pronounce it contaminated, or something. Most of the food was pretty burnt, though. Some of the cans were okay, though most had exploded in the heat.
Corporal Etheridge left half a dozen men checking the food and the rest of us proceeded down further. We were also supposed to try to find out what had caused the fire. We went down to the first basement. The smell got stronger, and I wished I'd been left behind with the food.
Lembege and I were taking the point. Suddenly Lembege's foot went through the floor, up to his knee. He screamed and dropped his rifle. I stood stock-still. The floors in this building were built to hold a hell of a lot more weight than Lembege's--he was the skinniest guy on the squad. His foot went through that like it was paper.
Corporal Etheridge barked, "Don't move, Niengor!" Like I was about to. I didn't. I didn't move a muscle. I waited for the floor underneath me to start creaking and crumbling away. But it didn't. Lembege wasn't so lucky. Corporal Etheridge was coming to the front, and was about ten feet from Lembege when the rest of the floor gave way, and he disappeared. We listened. We heard a sharp rending sound that was halfway between bending steel and tearing paper, and Lembege screamed again. Another tearing sound, then nothing.
We stood frozen for about a minute, still listening. Then Corporal Etheridge motioned me back, then again, imperatively, when I didn't budge. Slowly, I retraced my steps. It was only ten feet back to where the Corporal stood, but it seemed a hell of a lot longer than that.
The Corporal motioned Marple forward, and said, "Check the floor with your rifle butt. See if we can break through it now." Marple went forward slowly, on his knees, bringing his rifle butt down hard on the floor every few inches. Finally, about a foot short of the hole Lembege had made, he brought the rifle down and it went through the floor. Marple would've, too, but the Corporal leapt forward and grabbed him, pulling him back up.
We cleared away the edges of the hole, and shone our flashlights down. There was another hole down below, where Lembege had fallen through, which looked bigger than the one he'd made up here. The Corporal looked up and said, "Any volunteers to go down there?"
His gaze was fixed directly on me. I gulped, and bit the bullet. "Sure, I'll go, Corporal."
We had to wait about half an hour while they got a winch. They kept it far back in the hallway, not knowing how far the floor would support its weight. They used a steel cable, hoping that wouldn't fray on the edge of the hole. And they attached a little harness for me, giving me a head-lamp in addition to my flashlight. And I had my rifle, of course, and a walkie-talkie. I thought of asking for a gas-mask, but it wouldn't fit well with the head-lamp, and I preferred to have light.
They gave me a few feet of slack, and I walked to the edge of the hole and jumped in. After a fraction of a second of weightlessness, the cable stopped my fall and I started swinging back and forth. I looked around, but could see little. Still a generic hallway, as far as I could tell, just like the one above me. Except the metal was a little bit darker. Some of it looked like soot, but some didn't. It looked more like rust. I didn't think the stuff they'd built this place from could rust.
I reported my observations to the Corporal, and they lowered me some more. I swung over a bit to the side of where Lembege had fallen through. They lowered me down to the floor, and as soon as my boots started to rest on it, I could hear it creaking. "Seems to be a lot weaker down here, Corporal," I said. I started swinging a bit, so I could try to look down into the hole. There was another two levels below this one; I could see another hole in the floor beneath, but I couldn't quite get the right angle to see through both holes at once. So I started swinging harder.
I could hear the cable creaking above me. But I managed to get a good look through both holes. There was Lembege, sure enough. Sprawled on the cement floor, dead as a doornail. Looking skeletal, in fact. I started to swing back the other way, and waited for a chance to look again.
I looked more closely this time. "God, he's a skeleton," I said. He was. He looked like he'd been dead for a month. What the hell was down there?
Then the cable snapped, and I plummeted through the same holes. My last thought was--maybe I should've asked for a gas mask after all.
Based on the wods: Smoke Supply Brittle Boot
Back to the Four-Word Stories Page...
The Den of Ubiquity/ Aaron V. Humphrey / email@example.com