Just as Dr. Shallitt turned toward the door, Tennant heard a distant pop! A second later the building shook slightly. What the hell?
Two seconds later there was a louder bang, and then a whole series of explosions nearby. The ninth threw them both to the floor.
Before Tennant could rise, another explosion rocked the building. The far wall disintegrated, sending shrapnel in every direction. Beakers and test tubes shattered, contributing to the flying debris. Shards of something sharp struck Tennant in the face and shoulders, causing him to duck, but he couldn’t spare the time to check the damage. Most of the blast passed over his head, shattering cabinets and toppling heavy equipment. Bottles full of noxious chemicals crashed to the floor, while various bits of debris rained down from what was left of the lab. Black smoke filled the room and mingled with chemical fumes. Flames licked at the far wall.
Jesus. If we’d still been standing when that last explosion occurred….
“We’ve got to get out of here!” Tennant yelled. At least, he thought he yelled. Deafened from the explosions, he couldn’t be sure any sounds actually issued from his mouth. He choked on the bitter, sticky smoke and his eyes burned.
Tom must be in the same condition. He grabbed his friend’s arm and half-dragged the dazed man to the still-intact door.
Thank heaven for small favors. At least we’re not trapped in here. He grabbed the doorknob and instantly yanked his hand back to suck his fingers.
Damn that’s hot! So much for not being trapped. Now what do we do?
He looked at the ruin that was once the far wall of the lab. There’s not much fire that way, as far as I can see. The explosion must have blown most of it out. But it probably consumed most of the oxygen, too. So how do we get out of here?
Something trickled into his left eye, turning his vision rosy. He used his sleeve to wipe at the wetness on his forehead and cheek. The sleeve came away smeared with crimson. I can’t worry about that now.
Tennant cast about for anything that might help. It was hard to see much through the thick curtain of smoke, but there seemed little that hadn’t been smashed by the explosion.
Wait! Over there—an O2 bottle small enough to carry. Now if I can just find…. He hurriedly rummaged through several drawers and cabinets until he found the oxygen masks he was looking for.
“C’mon doc. It’s time to go.” He put one mask over his own mouth and nose and a second over the still-stunned Dr. Shallitt’s, then pulled him toward the hole in the wall.
I’ve got no way to regulate the high pressure coming out of the tank, so we can’t breathe it directly. I’ll have to improvise.
He held the tank nozzle up under his mask, and turned the knob for a moment. A jet of pure oxygen filled the mask. That’ll only last a couple of breaths, but it’ll have to do.
He did the same for his friend. Then they headed through the hole. The room beyond was in even worse shape than the one they had just left. Hardly anything remained intact, but at least it wasn’t on fire, and it led to yet another room. We may be able to get out this way, as long as we don’t run into any more fire.
At least the explosions have stopped. What the hell happened?
No time to think about that now! There’ll be plenty of time later.
He took another O2 shot from the tank, and gave one to Dr. Shallitt. One step at a time; one room at a time.
* * * *
Jardin listened to the madness erupting over the radio. It was a symphony to his ears.
He had used this same technique to his benefit several times before. Blow something up to show the people in charge that they were vulnerable, and then follow up with a pointed reminder of the benefits of cooperation. It worked every time.
“Jason! In here. I found another survivor.”
“Coming, Felix. I—”
“Look out! The roof’s collapsing! We—”
“…fire’s not out yet in—”
“…can’t see through the smo—”
There was so much radio traffic that the voices talked over one another, making the radios nearly useless.
Jardin smiled through it all.
What do you think of that, smart guy?
His face smiled, but his dark eyes were cold, dead, unyielding; twin lumps of coal that were impervious to fire.
* * * *
* * * *
Lee Tennant and Tom Shallitt emerged from the wreckage of the lab in the hellhole that used to be Mars Mining and Refining Site 23. Every single major office building and storage facility was destroyed or severely damaged. Fires still raged in some corners. Smoke filled the air everywhere. The emergency crews were doing their best, but many of them had been killed or injured along with the rest.
It was too soon to take toll of the casualties, but Tennant knew they’d be high. Parts of the site had lost air containment and were exposed to the Martian atmosphere, which was incapable of sustaining human life.
Anyone trapped in one of those sections was surely dead, if not from explosion or fire, then from asphyxiation. Fortunately the airtight bulkhead doors had worked as designed to automatically seal off the affected areas, otherwise no one would have survived.
The one small consolation was that at least the atmosphere in those sections was incapable of sustaining fire. That meant the structures not demolished by the initial blasts wouldn’t burn to the ground. They could be repaired.
Tennant helped Dr. Shallitt to the makeshift infirmary to get their superficial wounds patched up. Medical personnel were doing their best to help the injured and dying, however some of their number were among the casualties as well. They did what they could.
Tennant shambled back to his office to try to coordinate the rescue and relief efforts and figure out what he could do to lessen the magnitude of the disaster. He needn’t have bothered returning. He arrived to find the same sort of devastation that he’d encountered all along the route back. The corridor wall of his outer office was gone, reduced to splinters. Clearly, one of the explosives had gone off just outside the office.
Shards from Bella’s desk were embedded in the wall separating the outer office from Tennant’s inner one. One of the shards pinned a few strands of bloody blonde hair to the wall. Tennant forced himself to look beyond the large bloodstain on the floor and sidle past most of Bella’s body. Tennant avoided dwelling on the other stains on the floor and walls.
He shook his head in shock, eyes glazing over—too numb from what he had already seen to react more. I’m so sorry, Bella. You were only two years older than my daughter. His eyes misted and he brusquely swiped at them with his tunic sleeve.
I don’t have time to grieve for you right now. I’m sorry, but it’ll have to wait until this is all over and I can do it right. You deserve that much.
He walked through the doorway to his office. The door had been blown off its hinges and now leaned against his desk. Wall hangings and knickknacks were smashed, with bits strewn about the room. The door of a cabinet was blown in.
He walked to the credenza next to the office sofa and pulled out a light blue blanket from within. With heavy heart, he carried it back to where Bella lay and covered her with it. Within seconds, parts of the blanket turned purplish-red.
Tennant swallowed hard and turned back to his office. A corner of his cream-colored desk was charred black.
If I had been here instead of in Tom’s lab….
It was just one more shock on top of too many others that day. The significance of that thought hadn’t really registered yet.
Oddly, his desk chair seemed to be the only thing in the room untouched by the carnage. Tennant spun it around and was about to sit when he spied something on the seat.
He picked it up; it was a small square of plastifilm. He turned it over to find two words printed on the underside in block letters: PLAY BALL! It flashed into flame and disappeared. Tennant shook his fingers in pain for the second time that day.
The fire that seared his soul in that moment rendered anything that had wracked Site 23 trivial by comparison.
He did all this for money? He traded the lives of so many good and innocent people for money?
Lee Tennant’s eyes blazed with the white-hot flame of vengeance. So, you want to make this personal, do you? Very well. It’s personal.
I won’t rest until you pay with your life, you bastard. You’re going to die at my hand if it’s the last thing I ever do. Slowly and painfully. Very slowly. And very painfully.
My sci-fi thriller, THE MARS IMPERATIVE (Book One of The Imperative Chronicles) is available on Amazon in 13 countries: http://smarturl.it/TheMarsImperative. To find out more about my books, go to my website: http://MarkTerenceChapman.com.
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