My Writing Portfolio

You are reading reading through my collection of short stories and poetry. No portions of this content may be used or published elsewhere, in print or digitally, without without my express permission.

© I. A. Phillips

Past's Echo

The miners gathered around the back of the collapsed tunnel. Twenty-three minutes ago, half a year's worth of industrial grade explosives were rigged to permanently seal the mine. The current workers felt that explosion before they heard it. An echoing caustic screech that without industrial grade hearing protection would have deafened everyone within a mile. There was no mistaking it for anything other than an explosion. No earthquake had ever sounded like that. Anxiety quickly settled in. Teams tried to call topside from the nearby wired phones, but interference was clouding their words. These phones were specifically developed to work despite cave-ins, and they were too new to be having technical issues. But, finding out what had happened in the mine was more important than checking the wires. Gradually each team left their stations, heading for the Hub. It was a slow, tense walk. Groups glanced down each corridor as they moved, old and new. Based on the volume of the sound, everyone thought that a normal cave-in should have hit near their own group. It was a mixed blessing when they only saw open tunnels as they walked. Tensions started to lower when they reached the main corridor. It was the most reinforced area of the mine. The 19th century tunnels were expanded from two men wide to six, and the excavated walls were strengthened with layers of steel in addition to the normal supports. The extra room was welcome when groups of twos and threes ran into each other, swapping what they knew as they continued towards the Hub. It was assumed the noise happened deep in one of the bum tunnels they didn’t bother expanding. Everyone was so relieved that no one noticed the gradual disappearance of the sparse lighting, parts shattered by the sound wave. If their head lamps weren’t always on maybe it wouldn’t have been so crushing when they made the soft turn to the Hub. The sight made everyone turn silent; the tunnel was filled with stone and rock. The rubble was so dense that no obvious light shone through the cracks. Everything was on the other side: their lockers, the emergency supplies, the lift. Emotions flooded through the crew. It took less than three seconds before someone started to laugh. Within nine the first person began to cry. Eighteen seconds before anyone clung to the ground. Forty-six for the first words to be spoken.

One of the techies was first to speak. In a monotone daze he turned to the nearest sane miner and asked, “How could this have happened?” The miner wasn’t sure what he meant. How could the double metal reenforced ribs fail? How could the tunnel cave-in at the most important spot? How could they have not taken extra precautions? Instead of answering the techie’s question, he asked his own, “You don’t think there’s anyone on the other side, do you? Wasn’t there another team down here?”

The miner’s question didn’t get an answer, either. A second dimmer tremble vibrated through the walls and floor. The whine of screeching metal following close behind, somewhere on the other side of the rocks. The wailing became louder and louder over a few seconds before a crashing impact scattered a second layer of debris over the rubble.

The seven workers stared at the tunnel in disbelief. It was too much. Everyone lost it. People’s thoughts twisted into knots, stalling their brains. One of the miners had fallen over unconscious, two others began to bawl. A conveyer workers rambled about terrorists. One techie fell onto his knees and started to pray. The other began counting. And the second mucker jumped onto the rubble and valiantly, or insanely, tried to tear it apart with his hands. In total, it had taken seventy-five seconds to break these men.

The first mucker, the one rambling about eco-terrorists, realized that the weeping foreman was the closest one still partially sane and decided to jump on him. He talked about how the team should have known that this would happen. That them being a coal mine was the reason. That protesters had tried to stop their bosses from even starting to mine here. Because of precious natural caves or trees. The conveyer worker was disassociating. The mine started during the 19th century to fuel the Civil War before being abandoned sometime around Sherman’s March. It was only within the year that it was reopened after evidence was found that there was still enough coal to warrant a buyout. Protesters didn’t seem to care that the mine would continue to be a mine. It was difficult to stand with the lunatic clasping him. He was wildly changing his grip up and down the foreman’s legs, like he was grasping at his last chance for life. That mixed with the tears obscuring the foreman’s view disfigured the miner, making him look more like a ghoul than a man.

The desperate energy of the room slowly faded as the workers tired themselves out. The rambling mucker was still attached to the foreman but was now slower and understandable. Apparently, he was going through each movie he’d ever seen about mines and just switched from legal drama to horror. He nearly started to cry after rambling that only the lead girl ever gets out alive and that they were all guys. The foreman escaped the mucker’s grip after a few tries. Sometime during the event the other miner who was weeping had left. The techie who had been praying went to wake the unconscious miner, a few drops of blood visible around his head. And the bearded digger stopped clawing the rubble and climbed down, regaining his composure.

 Protocol dictated that they put words to their situation, an attempt to ground everyone into a clear objective. The problem was he didn’t know where to begin. Thankfully, the senior techie began talking for him. The foreman had forgotten the techie was eidetic. It turns out he wasn’t counting randomly earlier.

“Brent, a cave-in like does not happen naturally. If I remember correctly, we should have exactly fifty-two det-packs stored down here for the year’s advancement. A fifth of that could have enough power to blow past the reinforcements. I can’t think of any of any other explanation. It would take half a century for our fresh layers of steel to think about decaying. And an earthquake would have caused the old weaker tunnels to also collapse.”

The senior technician was silent for a few moments. “Do you know where Clark is?”

The foreman thought it was as good as a starting point as any. As he replied he walked up to the rubble and tried to examine the deeper edges. “I don’t. His group was set to work on the rightmost tunnels. They should have gotten here before us.”

“Brent, those packs need to be pushed down, twisted, then released to be primed. Not to mention how many would be needed for us to feel it so far away. They don’t go off by accident.”

There was a thin black coating around the rubble’s edges, consistent with the gunpowder blowback from the company's demolition-packs. “Howel, this doesn’t look good, but I don’t want any more words about how the cave-in could have happened. We need to talk about now. Cause right now we’re cut off from our batteries, rebreathers, food, and water. How long do you think it’ll be before people come looking for us?”

“If the topsiders are still there within a few hours. If they’re not,” he checked his digital watch, “at least thirty hours before authorities will get involved. But it took us two days to install the modern lift. Not to mention however many layers of rock they’ll have to carefully get through if they want to reach us. So maybe a few days under two weeks. If they run into little trouble.”

The rest of the crew was listening in. In total, there were three miners, two technicians, and the foreman. Their seventh member had run off deeper into the mine. The previously unconscious miner nursed his forehead with his sleeve as he piped in, “So we need to get to those emergency supplies if we’re going to survive.”  The bearded mucker who had been clawing at the rubble said that they might have less than a day because he wasn’t sure if they were airtight. The religious techie said air shouldn’t be an issue. The wall vents they installed should still have basic functioning. Like everything, they’re made to work despite cave-ins. But once their current rebreathers get dirty they might get sick. Eddie, the conveyer worker who was rambling about movies, suggested that they crawl through the vents, but the techie said they were only up to a foot wide, to keep them structurally sound.

The senior technician started talking again. “If Clark's group were working today, they were supposed to install the new Grinder. So, if those tools are still there, we might be able to move it over and risk drilling into the Hub.”

The religious techie didn’t look convinced. “You don’t know if that will work. Besides we don’t know if the tools are still here. They could have never brought them down, or they could have put them back topside.”

The foreman thought seriously about the suggestion. “We can at least send someone to check. Make sure.”

Eddie immediately slinked to the back of the group. The bearded mucker still sitting on the rubble pile said either way they can break off some bits as makeshift tools for digging. The foreman looked over the crew. “Red makes a good point, but we can’t all make the walk.” He looked over at the miner whose head was still bleeding. “Some guys got to stay here, see if the rubble’s safe to pick apart, by hand or drill. Besides if we miss Clark’s group on our way, or Hagel makes his way back here, someone will be able to fill them in on our plan.”

The hurt miner and Red were elected to stay behind. Red being the group’s only dedicated digger, and Owen who said he got a concussion from the floor. Despite Eddie’s resistance, he was to come along. On their way back through the main corridor there was no trace of where Hagel ran off to. It was a five-minute walk to the entrance to Clark’s corridor.

The mood worsened when they started walking down it. As soon as they crossed over into the offshoot everything seemed colder. Michaels, the religious techie, said the area’s heating must have gone out. The foremen kept quiet about mines not using AC due to it being expensive and mines being naturally warm. He didn’t know enough to explain the sudden coldness and focused on the mission instead. Thankfully, it wasn’t hard to figure out where the group carried the Grinder. Grinders were heavy drills that dug laterally into coal deposits, the knocked off pieces falling onto the conveyer belt set up underneath. Because Grinders were so big, they had to be transported on three special minecarts in pieces for installation. So, to find where they moved the Grinder, they had to follow the railway tracks.

Everything got stranger the deeper they went into the tunnel. Lights would occasionally flicker, creaking would echo along the halls, and the temperature was always going up or down. The thing that really set them on edge was a large puncture wound through one of the wired phones. The hole was two fingers wide, jagged, and deep, cutting past the electronics and into the rock behind the phone. It was uncomfortable to see the first time, but they’d stumble onto the phone four more times while following the single line of tracks. After the second time Brent said that someone had systematically gone through and broken the phones. Howel disagreed, pointing out that the case number was the same as the last time. Somehow, they must have been going in circles. But just to be sure Howel clipped the handset off and carried it with them. And sure enough, the next phone they passed had the same puncture wound, case number, and missing handset. They were sure they didn’t walk in a circle, but Michaels had an explanation. He thought there must be a gas leak somewhere in the mine, and their rebreathers were failing. No one knew of a gas that could have caused that.

According to Howel’s watch, the walk took twentyish minutes, but it felt like the group had been walking for nearly an hour. It was far colder here than anywhere before. The heat from their breath escaping their masks as mist. The room looked frozen in time. Everything had already been set up and showed sign of use. Chunks of coal were messily aligned on the conveyor belt. The minecart at the end was nearly full. The three specialty carts were stored off track with Clark’s team’s toilet-cart and other bits of equipment. It was eerie, like the room was used right before they walked in. The foreman wasn’t sure to be grateful or angry that Clark and his group weren’t there. That didn’t matter to the others, who all went straight to work. Eddie set the carts back on the tracks while the two technicians started to deconstruct the Grinder. As soon as they started to touch the engine, the machine roared awake and continued tearing into the wall.

Despite being unplugged and not having batteries, the machine sway on its own. Back and forth. Left to right. It dug into the wall tearing chunks out of the stone and coal which fell onto the motionless conveyor belt. Michaels tried to talk it off, saying it must have been a new automatic model with batteries. The machine died down after a minute, but it had set everyone back on edge. Howel and Michaels continued to take apart the Grinder, finding no evidence of batteries. Eddie pointed out that the Grinder’s teeth were wet and went to investigate. Brent followed behind. Thankfully, Eddie had enough sense to not get within grinding distance of the machine, examining it from behind. Him and Brent saw that a liquid was pooling around the teeth to the point it started to drip. As they tried to get a better look the toilet-cart started to wildly bang, the conveyer belt segment fell over, and the Grinder turned on again. When the conveyer belt segment got knocked down, the two miners fell with it, safely out of range of the now red Grinder. The Grinder didn’t move around this time, instead sitting still and spraying the wall with the red liquid while the teeth tumbled around. The blood-red liquid never seemed to run out, continuously building. The coal wall was nearly blanketed in blood. Everyone was frozen except Michaels who had knelt and started praying. A large gray figure walked out of the red coal and through the equipment towards Michaels. Michaels responded by screaming at the figure about God and how he was safe from the devil’s grasp. The gray figure’s face hardened under the self-praising insults and manifested a pickaxe which he swung into the techie’s head.

The gray figure appeared brighter when one less light shone on him. He was a large man of African descent, dressed in ragged clothing and now holding a rough two-handed pickaxe in their coworker’s head. Broken chains rattled around his arms and legs as he used his bare feet to slide Michaels off the pick’s point before stepping towards the others. The figure relaxed his grip on the pick which he now carried in a single hand and his face was beginning to soften as he approached Howel who then made his move. Howel turned away from the figure and sprinted towards the tunnel, arms locked into a plow with the intent to ram through his friends. If he had been more athletic, he might have succeeded. But the strange miner’s swing was faster, lethally shattering his upper spine before he reached the others. Eddie and Brent bolted into the tunnel. Chains echoed behind them followed by a disgusting wet crack.

The path back took less than a minute to run. The exit to the main corridor suddenly appearing after the distant rattling ceased. Eddie was holding up better than expected. Instead of being a hysterical mess he was completely emotionless. Brent was taking things worse. He felt sick and couldn’t stop shaking as he ran. Movies might be able to look somewhat realistic, but reality was far worse. The events echoed in his head. Adrenaline was still flowing through his body, and he felt like his heart might blow out. Eddie started to stumble towards the Hub, muttering that they needed to get the others and hide. It was a tempting idea, but even terrified Brent knew they didn’t have the time. The longer they waited, the hungrier and weaker they’d get. They needed the Grinder to dig them out. Without the emergency supplies, dehydration would kill them if that thing didn’t.

“N-n-n-no time. W-we need to go back.”

Eddie turned to the tunnel with a blank stare before continuing towards the Hub. He wasn’t going back. Brent trailed behind.

Owen was already dead. Red was, too. They didn’t know for how long. Owen’s head was a mushy mess and a nearby wall looked like the culprit. Red’s body didn’t have a scratch, even though he died holding a switchblade. Its edge was bloodless and his skin uncut. His face looked similar to how Brent’s grandma looked when she died of a heart attack. The two living miners were too tired to overly react. They should have guessed the others were already dead. Hagel must have been, too. And Clark. And Clark’s group. The severed handheld was balanced against one of the walls. Suddenly it began to ring before a voice could be heard coming from it. Eddie’s demeanor changed as he listened, slowly became livelier.

In slow careful English a deep voice spoke. “You all brought this on yourselves. You listened to your masters, coming back, disrespecting the mine. You are not welcome here. Your leaders have failed you. I do not have the time to repeat myself, so listen closely. When I see you again, both of you better start apologizing and fix this, or you will end up like your friends.

With wild eyes Eddie stared at Brent. “This is all your fault. You brought us here, killed everyone.” Eddie began stepping closer. “We followed your plans and orders and ended up dead. So, now I’m the boss, and I want to set things right! I want to live!”

Eddie held Red’s switchblade and stepped closer. The foreman was cornered in front of the rubble. The front of the grey figure could be seen from the far tunnel. “Red died because he would have actually gotten us out. That’s why you wanted him to stay here! He could have gotten the Grinder with the techs. You split us up, killed us one at a time! Well, I won’t be next! The figure stood still; eyes focused on Eddie.

Terrified, Brent tried to explain that’s not what happened. Unconvincingly saying Eddie must be rambling about another movie. Eddie walked closer. “You can still make this right. To me. To them.” He charged at Brent; blade raised. “Apologize!”

Before the knife could enter Brent’s neck Eddie’s entire body was inching backwards towards the figure. Wildly screaming and cursing, Eddie tried to fight against the pull, flailing the knife at Brent. The figure began talking in the same voice heard on the phone. “Is this what you call an apology?” Eddie couldn’t break free from the pull, screaming that he was going to make things right using Brent’s blood. Suddenly the slow drag changed into a snap. Eddie flew headfirst through the figure and into the wall, snaping his neck. The figure didn’t acknowledge him, instead slowly approaching the foreman.

“So, you are the last one. You will need to prove you can make things right. As a start, apologize.”

“We didn’t do anything to you! Why-”

“That is not what I said. I do not have a lot of time for this. Now prove it to me. Apologize then make things right!”

Brent wanted to run, run as far as he could, but he was trapped against the figure and the rubble. The strange man looked fainter than before. "I don’t understand.”

The figure looked annoyed, his deep voice growling. “You all run when I try to speak, leave each other to die, and still do not listen to what I say. Fine. I will explain it all again. So, well a child could understand.” The figure held Brent’s head with one of his hands, the other clenching the pale pickaxe. “Last chance, so listen extra carefully. First you and the others are where you do not belong. Then you tear apart the mine, grab what I stopped others from taking, and insult the past. I thought you would leave soon, but then you pushed too far with the newest machine, digging where I once worked.” The figure’s face hardened, and he began to sneer. “You insult me directly!” Brent’s body rose a foot off the ground. “Now, you will make things right, or you will die.”

“I’m sorry! I’m really sorry! I won’t do this again! Please-”

The now nearly transparent figure threw Brent onto the ground. Clasping his second hand onto the pickaxe raised above his head. “Then prove it.” The grey figure swung the point of the pickaxe directly into Brent’s eye, cracking into his skull and into rock. The pain he felt was immense.

When Brent opened his eyes, everything was gone. The figure, the bodies, the rubble. He was standing in the normal main corridor with no one in sight. Brent walked towards the lift and saw everything in its proper place. Even the three specialty carts were loaded for transport, ready for their installation. The large bundle of explosives seemed to call to him, fifty-two if he remembered right. If this wasn’t some cruel dream Brent had a good idea how to prove his words. Determined, he started to haul them around, half to the tunnel, half to the lift. Everything was timed perfectly, down to the second. As soon as he was halfway up the first explosion hit. The second detonated when he got past the mine’s gates. The explosion was quieter than it was in the mine, and its light flared the night awake. His memories of what happened inside lost detail until they were forgotten. Forgetting what he had just done he sat back watching the mine crumble in the warm Georgian night.

The next day all his coworkers were talking about the camera footage showing a large grey figure sabotaging the mine and carrying Brent’s unconscious body outside. Eddie complained about them being screwed over by someone they never met. Everyone else joked they should send the bomber a gift basket, because of him they're going back home on paid leave.

Continue Reading

Pen Paper Logo

© 2019-2022, I. A. Phillips, Pen Paper. All rights reserved. | Admin