The detonators were battery-powered, and each had a one-hour clock. I plugged one into each of the plastic masses, but I did not set the timer on either of them. I would do so only if we came this way again, with our enemies in hot pursuit.
We returned to the domed chamber and quietly crossed, taking a closer look at the machines and supplies, trying to extrapolate the nature of the pending project from the equipment the goblins had stockpiled. At the far end of the giant room, having learned little of consequence, we arrived at a set of three elevators, two of which were cages designed to convey small groups of goblins up through a big shaft in the rock. The third was a large steel platform slung from four cables, each as thick as my wrist; it was of sufficient size to raise or lower the largest pieces of equipment we had seen.
I stood for a moment, thinking. Then, with Rya’s help, I carried eight two-by-fours from the nearest stack of supplies and laid them on the floor, crossed like Lincoln Logs, to form a step stool of sorts.
Next I took two kilos of plastique from Rya’s pack and separated them into three charges. Climbing the makeshift step stool, I molded the plastique into depressions in the roughly hewn rock directly above each of the elevator openings. There, the shadows were not deep, and though the plastic explosive resembled the rock enough to virtually vanish against it, the detonators were still visible. However, I figured this level of the mine was not much traveled at the moment; and even those goblins that passed this way were not likely to look up and study the stone above the elevators closely.
I did not set those detonators, either.
Rya and I returned the two-by-fours to the stack from which we had taken them.
“Now?” she inquired. Though we knew we were alone on this level, she still whispered, for we could not be sure how well our voices would carry up the elevator shafts. “Up? Is that what you have in mind?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Won’t they hear the elevator moving?”
“Yes. But they’ll probably think it’s him, the one we killed.”
“And if we run into them upstairs, just as we’re stepping out of the cage?”
“We put these pistols away, go up there armed with the shotgun and the automatic rifle,” I said. “That’ll give us enough firepower to blow away any number of them that might be gathered around the damn elevators. Then we step right back into the cage, drop down here, and leave as we came in, setting the detonators as we go. But if we don’t run into anyone up there, then we slip farther into the mine to see what we can see.”
“What do you think so far?”
“I don’t know,” I said worriedly. “Except . . . well, they’re sure as hell not just mining coal in this place. The equipment on this level hasn’t been assembled to dig coal.”
“Looks like they’re building a fortress,” she said.
“Looks like,” I agreed.
We had reached Abaddon, the deepest level of Hell. Now we were required to ascend through a few higher rings of Inferno, desperately hoping to meet neither Lucifer himself nor any of his demonic minions.
The elevator motor hummed loudly. With an unnerving amount of creaking and rattling, the open-fronted cage ascended. Although it was difficult to gauge the distance, I calculated that we climbed roughly seventy or eighty feet before coming to a stop at the next level of the . . . installation.
I no longer saw any point in referring to that huge subterranean complex as a mine. The Lightning Coal Company evidently extracted large quantities of coal from other parts of the mountain, though not from here. Here they were engaged in something altogether different, for which their mining operation merely served as camouflage.
When Rya and I came out of the elevator, we were at one end of a deserted two-hundred-foot-long tunnel with smooth concrete walls. It was twenty feet wide, twelve feet high at the center. Fluorescent lights were recessed in the rounded ceiling. Warm, dry air wafted from ventilator grilles high in the curved walls, while one-yard-square return vents, near the floor, gently pulled cooler air out of the passageway. Big red fire extinguishers were mounted alongside sets of burnished steel doors that were spaced approximately fifty feet apart on both sides of the corridor. What appeared to be intercom units were hung next to the extinguishers. An air of unparalleled efficiency—and ominous, enigmatic purpose—marked the place.
I felt a rhythmic throbbing in the stone floor, as if gargantuan machines were laboring at mighty tasks in distant vaults.
Directly opposite the elevators, that familiar but nonetheless mysterious symbol was on the wall: a black ceramic rectangle four feet tall and three feet wide was mortared into the concrete; centered in it—a white ceramic circle two feet in diameter; spearing jaggedly through the white circle—a bolt of black lightning.
Suddenly, through the symbol I saw that strange, immense, cold, frightening void that I had sensed when I’d first glimpsed a Lightning Coal truck a couple of days ago. An eternal silent nothingness, the depth and power of which I cannot adequately convey. It seemed to draw me as if it were a magnet and I were an iron shaving. I felt as if I would fall into that hideous vacuum, siphoned down and away as if into a whirlpool, and I was forced to avert my eyes and turn from the dark ceramic lightning.
Rather than follow the tunnel to its end and explore the next horizontal shaft, which might offer nothing more than this one, I went to the first set of steel doors on the left. No knob, no handle. I pushed the white button in the frame, and the halves of the heavy portal instantly slid open with a whoosh of compressed air.
Rya and I went through fast, prepared to use the shotgun and the automatic rifle, but the chamber was dark and apparently unoccupied. I fumbled for a switch inside the door, found it, and brought banks of fluorescent lights flickering to life. It was a huge storeroom filled with wooden crates stacked nearly to the ceiling and arranged in orderly rows. Each bore the manufacturer’s shipping label, so in a few minutes, quietly prowling the aisles, we established that this place was filled with spare parts for everything from lathes to milling machines to forklifts to transistor radios.
Extinguishing lights and closing doors behind us, we went along the tunnel silently from one room to the next.
In every chamber we found more caches of supplies: thousands of incandescent and fluorescent light bulbs in stacks of sturdy cardboard cartons; hundreds of crates holding thousands of small boxes that in turn contained millions of screws and nails in every size and weight; hundreds of hammers in all designs, wrenches, socket wrenches, screwdrivers, pliers, electric drills, saws, other tools. One cathedral-sized room, paneled in moth-repellent cedar that somewhat took our breath away, contained tier upon tier of huge bolts of cloth—silk, cotton, wool, linen—spooled on storage racks that towered fifteen feet above our heads. Another vault contained medical supplies and equipment: X-ray machines snug in plastic sheeting; ranks of EKG and EEG monitors, also tightly covered; cases of hypodermic syringes, bandages, antiseptics, antibiotics, anesthetics; and much more. From that tunnel we entered another like it, equally deserted and well maintained, where additional rooms were filled with more supplies. There were barrels of whole grain—wheat, rice, oats, rye. According to the labels, the contents were freeze-dried and then vacuum-sealed in a nitrogen atmosphere to insure freshness for at least thirty years. Hundreds—no, thousands—of similarly sealed barrels of flour, sugar, powdered eggs, powdered milk, vitamin and mineral tablets, plus smaller drums of spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, oregano, and bay leaf, had been provisioned.
The vast facility seemed like a Pharaoh’s tomb, the very grandest tomb in all the world, fully stocked with everything the king and his servants would require to insure his perfect comfort in the afterlife. Somewhere in hushed chambers as yet unexplored, there must be temple dogs and sacred cats that had been mercifully killed and lovingly wrapped in tannin-soaked bandages to make the journey into death with their royal master, and somewhere treasures of gold and jewels, and somewhere a handmaiden or two preserved for sexual joy in the world to come—and somewhere, of course, the Pharaoh himself, mummified and reposing atop a solid-gold catafalque.
We stepped into an immense armory stocked with firearms: sealed crates full of pistols, revolvers, rifles, shotguns, and submachine guns packed in grease, enough weapons to outfit several platoons. I saw no ammunition, but I was quite sure that millions of rounds were stored elsewhere in the facility. And I would have bet there were rooms stocked with deadlier instruments of violence and war.
A library, consisting of at least fifty thousand volumes, was housed in the last room off that second tunnel, just before the second junction on that level. This was also deserted. As we moved along the shelves of books I was reminded of the Yontsdown County Library, for the two places were like islands of normality in a sea of infinite strangeness. They shared an atmosphere of peace and tranquillity—albeit an uneasy peace and a fragile tranquillity—and the air had a not unpleasant smell of paper and binding cloth.
However, the collection of volumes in this library differed from that in town. Rya noticed that there was no fiction here: gone were Dickens, Dostoyevski, Stevenson, and Poe. I could not find a history section, either: banished were Gibbon, Herodotus, Plutarch. We were likewise unable to spot even a single biography of any famous man or woman; neither could we find poetry nor humor nor travel writings nor theology nor philosophy. Shelf after groaning shelf held dry texts solemnly devoted to algebra, geometry, trigonometry, physics, geology, biology, physiology, astronomy, genetics, chemistry, biochemistry, electronics, agriculture, animal husbandry, soil conservation, engineering, metallurgy, the principles of architecture. . . .
With only this library, a quick mind, and occasional assistance from a learned instructor, you could learn to establish and manage a bountiful farm, repair an automobile or even build one from the ground up (or a jet aircraft or a television set), design and erect a bridge or a hydroelectric power plant, construct a blast furnace and foundry and mill for the production of high-grade steel rods and beams, design machinery and factories to produce transistors. . . . Here was a library specifically assembled to teach everything needed for the successful maintenance of every physical aspect of modern civilization but which had nothing to teach about important emotional and spiritual values upon which that civilization rested: nothing here of love, faith, courage, hope, brotherhood, truth, or the meaning of life.
Midway through the stacks of books Rya whispered, “Thorough collection.” What she meant was “frightening.”
I echoed, “Thorough,” but what I meant was “terrifying.”
Although we were swiftly arriving at an understanding of the dark purpose to which this entire underground installation was dedicated, neither of us was willing to put that understanding into words. Some primitive tribes, though having a name for the devil, refuse to speak that name in the belief that giving voice to it will instantly call forth the beast. Likewise, Rya and I were reluctant to discuss the goblins’ purpose in this elaborate pit, afraid that doing so would somehow transform their hateful intentions into immutable fate.
From the second tunnel we cautiously entered a third, where the contents of additional rooms confirmed our worst suspicions. In three immense chambers, under banks of specially designed lights that were surely meant to promote photosynthesis and rapid growth, we discovered large stores of fruit and vegetable seeds. There were big steel tanks holding liquid fertilizers. Neatly labeled drums were filled with all the chemicals and minerals required for hydroponic farming. Rows of large, shallow troughs, empty now, waited to be filled with water, nutrients, and seedlings, whereupon they would become the hydroponic equivalent of bountiful fields. Considering their enormous stores of freeze-dried vacuum-packed foodstuffs, and considering their plans for chemical farming, and considering that most likely we had seen only a fraction of their agricultural preparations, I felt safe in assuming that they were prepared to feed thousands of their kind for decades if, come Armageddon, they were required to take shelter down here for a long, long time.
As we progressed from room to room and from tunnel to tunnel, we frequently saw their sacred symbol: white sky, dark lightning. I had to look away from it, for on each encounter I was ever more forcefully assaulted by clairvoyant images of the cold, silent, and eternal night that it represented. I had the urge to attach a charge of plastique to those ceramic images and blast them—and all they represented—to pieces, to dust; but I did not waste the explosives that way.
From time to time we also saw pipes appearing out of holes in the concrete walls, traversing portions of a room or corridor, then disappearing into holes in other walls. Sometimes there was a single pipe, sometimes sheaves of six running parallel to one another, of various diameters. All were white, but symbols were stenciled on them for the benefit of maintenance crews, and each symbol was quite easily translated: water, electrical conduit, communications conduit, steam, gas. These were points of vulnerability in the heart of the fortress. Four times I lifted Rya while she hastily molded a charge of plastique between the pipes and plugged a detonator into it. As with previous charges we’d placed, we did not set the detonator, intending to start it ticking only on our way out.
We turned the corner into the fourth tunnel on that level and went only twenty or thirty feet when, immediately ahead of us, a set of doors whooshed open with a hiss of compressed air, and a goblin stepped out, five or six feet from us. Even as its piggish eyes widened, even as its wet, fleshy nostrils fluttered and as it gasped in surprise, I stepped forward and swung the automatic rifle, slammed the barrel across the side of its skull. It dropped hard. As the beast was falling, I reversed my grip on the rifle and brought the heavier butt straight down against the demonic forehead, which should have shattered but did not. I was going to strike again, hammer its head to bloody pulp, when Rya seized my arm to stop me. The goblin’s luminous eyes had dimmed and rolled back in its head, and with that familiar sickening crunch-crackle-snap of bones and with the mucous-wet surging of soft tissues, it had begun to metamorphose into human form, which meant it was either dead or unconscious.
Rya eased forward, pushed the button on the door frame. The steel portal hissed shut behind the crumpled form of our adversary.
If there were other goblins in the room beyond, they evidently had not seen what had happened to this one on the floor before me, for they did not rush out in its defense or set off an alarm.
“Quickly,” Rya said.
I knew what she meant. This was perhaps the opportunity that we had been hoping for, and we might not get another like it.
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