To Hope Anew

Chapter 5


They had been walking for about ten minutes already, within the upper level of the pipe tunnels, Diana carrying two grocery bags together in a cardboard box, and Samantha holding little Jacob by the hand. She was letting the child practice his ever more confident steps on this mostly level area of the tunnels and found that she almost needed to run to keep up with the little boy's eager mobility.

The wonder of the tunnels, their intricate twists and turns, the soft glow of torches and candles, always seemed to carry Diana away. And the fact that Samantha was capable of finding her way around them was just as miraculous. In another 20 minutes she would have them all safely home.

Reaching one of the myriad iron stairways that led to each deeper level of the Underground, Samantha picked Jacob up. "I don't think you are quite ready for these," she explained to the child, as she started carefully down. Diana, carrying the bulky box, took each step slowly.

At the bottom of the stairway they reached the first level of the stone tunnels and negotiated a length of several hundred yards before climbing down further on a second ladder. Intersecting paths were now constantly at hand and Diana marveled at Samantha's sense of direction here Below. At least, with her now more frequent trips, Diana was becoming somewhat familiar with their journey. The constant tapping on the pipes that ran along with upper edge of the rock walls had become quite familiar as well.

Along with the notion that although in the city Above it was a sweltering 92 degrees, the temperature in the tunnels remained at a rather constant 52 - 56 degrees year round. That fact alone had necessitated that their thin summer clothes be swathed beneath a layer or two of long-sleeved shirts and sweaters.

They came to one more turn around a narrow length of tunnel when Samantha suddenly stopped. Reaching her hand up along the wall closest to her, Diana saw a look of alarm on the girl's face. She understood why when she showed Diana her hand. It was wet.

"These walls shouldn't be like this," Samantha observed, now searching the entire side of the small chamber which the turn in the tunnel had caused. Then she saw where the water was seeping in from -- high on the far side of the chamber wall.

"Is it a pipe burst?" Diana asked, setting down her box to run her own hands along the wall.

"I don't think so. There must be a lot of pressure to force the water down here, more than just a single pipe."

The girl's knowledge of water pressure and seepage was not uncommon among the community in the Underground, Diana knew. Two things were foremost dangers in their world -- fire, and cave-ins. Luckily, the former was almost unheard of, despite the everyday use of hundreds of open flames in candles and torches, due to constant vigilance from even the youngest of the children.

Cave-ins were another story. Sections of the tunnels were more than a century old. The constant building and digging in the city Above could easily be the catalysts to destruction. As could be water. The miles of tunnels meant miles of pipes in their upper reaches, many of them carrying water from one part of the city to another. Heavy rains, too sometimes flooded whole levels of the lower chambers. It was a constant battle against nature.

These past few weeks, nature had been too generous with the rains. That's why Diana and the children had reveled in the day Above -- it had been the first truly sunny and hot summer weekend they had had in weeks.

"Could all of the rain have caused it?" Diana questioned.

"If that was the problem, the water should be coming from below, not above, on a dry day."

"Do we need to double back, do you think, Samantha?"

The girl never had a chance to respond. Her attention, and Diana's, was riveted to the tunnel ahead of them, as a deafening roar and shudder suddenly opened the ceiling of the chamber not fifty feet ahead of them.

"Sweet Jesus!" Diana cried out as she realized a wall of water five feet high was about to crush down upon them. "Hold on to Jacob and don't let go!" she screamed to Samantha over the hellish sound. Wrapping her left arm around both the children, she hooked her right arm onto a wrought iron torch holder attached to the rock wall in front of her. Then she leaned all of her weight against the children, holding them to the stone face of the chamber.

In a matter of seconds, the water hit them full force, along with the rock, timber, and rubble it had carried along with it from the levels above them. The icy current swept over them with a power that could dissolve the stone walls around them. The sound was as paralyzing as the force, primeval nature unleashed.

Diana fought frantically to keep her hold on the children, gripping Samantha's sweater fiercely. She watched helplessly as the girl was slammed up against the rock wall even harder, unable to do anything to cushion her from the impact. Samantha's face betrayed her pain. But she still clung to Jacob with both arms, the anguish of possibly losing the child to the current as terrifying as her own pain. Diana kept her grip on them both with an indescribable strength.

Miraculously, they managed to keep Jacob between them, but the frightened little boy was crying inconsolably as the frigid water swept over him again and again.

Rocks carried along by the rushing current pelted Diana's legs. She could do nothing to protect herself. Sand and dirt were piling around her feet and ankles. Her right arm, hooked on the torch holder, was numb from the force working against it. She could feel her strength sapping from it, the metal knifing into her flesh, and prayed her arm would not completely break in two.

Then, a crushing blow from behind her legs knocked her feet out from under her. A huge timber that had braced a tunnel passageway was propelled up against her. Diana felt her legs fold beneath her. All of her weight was thrown onto her arm. It snapped as well. In a moment she was pulling the children down into the water with her, no longer able to hold herself upright.

Trying to wedge her body between Jacob and the water as she fell, she felt her grip on consciousness begin leaving her. Pain was engulfing her, everywhere. Icy water streamed over her. She saw Samantha's lips move silently in prayer as she, too, dropped into the water as if in slow motion. Diana's last conscious thought was a plea to heaven as well.

"Please, God, let it be over with quickly. Don't let the children suffer any more."

Darkness was surrounding her. One final image fought its way through to her mind -- an anguished father gathering his lifeless children into his arms. "I'm sorry, Vincent," she whispered before the cold and dark overcame her completely.

There was one more step, and then the landing. Vincent forced his aching muscles to one last strain and pulled his end of the huge, ancient generator up onto level ground. Cullen and Mouse followed breathlessly with their end of the machinery, and then collapsed in a heap on top of it.

"It's days like these I'd give my eye teeth for a working elevator," Cullen intoned in exhaustion. Vincent came to his side and eased down to the rock floor as well, leaning against the carrying crate of the generator heavily.

The three men had been the last of the cleanup crew on the lower levels. The weeks of rain had flooded two separate areas of the tunnels, and for the past three days crews had been working non-stop to pump them out. Vincent, Cullen, and Mouse had been sloshing through the frigid and turbid water since seven o'clock that morning, finally getting ahead of the flooding in the last series of chambers. After hours of baling, diking, and reinforcing, they were still faced with hauling their heavy pumps and power sources up two levels to the machine shop. There the equipment would be cleaned and stored, to be ready for the next emergency.

"One freight elevator; that's all we need," Cullen continued his train of thought.

"I'm inclined to agree with you," Vincent answered wearily.

"Mouse will come up with plans. Next project. Need to find the right hydraulics . . . " The young inventor in their midst was quickly gaining a full head of steam with his idea, despite his exhaustion, brightening visibly at the thought of a critical need and how he could fulfill it, thinking his way through it out loud. Vincent knew the mushroom effect of Mouse's projects, even while still only on the drawing board. He needed to get a handle on this one quickly.

"You must give yourself a bit of a rest, Mouse, before tackling another involved project."

"Rest? Who needs rest? Not Mouse. Elevator needed . . . Mouse rigs it up. Okay good, okay fine."

Vincent was too tired to even attempt a practical discussion with the young man on the intricacies of hydraulics. It was Cullen who came to the rescue.

"Listen, Mouse. Why don't we talk your plans over tomorrow morning after breakfast? You'll need a fresh start to think things through. And I'll just bet William has saved us some of his dumplings and stew for supper."

"Do you think so?" Mouse's hopeful voice at the mention of a delicious meal reassured them all that the elevator plans could indeed wait till morning. Thankfully.

Vincent pulled himself up to his feet and extended an arm out to Mouse to help him on his way. "We shouldn't keep William too long in the kitchen. He deserves his rest as well."

"Right. Eat and sleep now, plan in the morning." Without another thought Mouse was off down the corridor heading up to the home chambers.

Cullen took Vincent's offered arm also, shaking his head. "I should know better than to say things like that around him" Vincent smiled in agreement.

"But you must give him credit for his undying hope in all that is possible."

"Possible, yes. Practical, I'm not so sure of."

Cullen's easy demeanor quickly vanished, though, when he took note of the sudden anxiety playing across Vincent's face. "Is something wrong?" he asked, watching a shudder run through his companion.

"I don't know. I felt a sudden -- cold -- run through me." Vincent tried to clear his exhausted mind and focus on the sensation he had just felt, trying to pinpoint its source and meaning. The feeling seemed to be both a physical reality as well as an emotional one -- the coldness, numbness, of -- fear.

"Jacob."

The soft sound of his young son's name forced the chill back through him. Vincent turned an agonized face to Cullen. "Jacob is in danger." In an instant, his renewed stride carried him in the direction of the home tunnels, leaving Cullen far behind.

 

The gentle touch of a small hand on her cheek pulled Diana slowly from the depths of unconsciousness. She fought to open her eyes, thought they were open, but couldn't focus on anything visible. Only that touch. Then Samantha's shaky voice, "Diana? Diana, are you all right?"

The darkness pulled back away from her slowly, and bit by bit she began to recognize the sensations reaching her: Jacob's little hand, frigid water, and -- pain . Finally she managed to clear her sight.

She called out hoarsely, "Thank God," when she saw both children still with her, alive. But not unhurt. Diana's heart nearly broke then, as well.

Samantha was leaning heavily against the tunnel wall, sitting up before it on the floor. The left side of her face, from the temple to the cheek, was bloodied and bruising from abrasions. Her left arm rested limply at her side. Jacob was crooked in her right arm, though, sitting in her lap. Diana judged the girl had not loosened her hold on the child since the water first hit them.

Leaning over Samantha's arm, Jacob was reaching over to pat her on the cheek. He was soaked, half-covered by the murky water even though he was on Samantha's lap. But except for a few scratches and scrapes on his face and a cut on his right elbow, the little boy seemed whole.

Diana moved to reach and touch her own hand to the children and found herself wracked with pain. She'd been shot once, when she was still on duty in uniform, taking a bullet in the shoulder while pulling a passerby to safety that had been caught up in a robbery shooting spree. That pain had been hot and fearful, causing her to momentarily doubt her ability to survive. She thought that she might die then.

She'd thought that they'd all die in the pounding water. But here they were, miraculously safe, if not whole.

On her left side, she was actually lying more or less, in the water that had remained about a foot deep in the chamber, her head resting on a pile of sand and debris. She could not lift her right arm and guessed it must have been broken.

Trying to pull herself up a bit more out of the water left-handed, Diana found that she was unable to move. She was pinned down by the beam that had struck her. Both her legs, below the knees, were trapped under the weight of the sodden wood, itself buried in a pile of stone and sand. She recalled feeling her right leg snap when the beam had hit her. Swallowing hard, Diana thought of what her leg must look like beneath the surface of the dark water. But she actually felt little pain from either limb. Not the best of indications.

She forced herself to focus on the children. "Samantha, how badly are you hurt?"

The young girl attempted to pull herself away from the rock wall, but called out in pain. "I can't move my arm at all, not even lift it. And my head is so very heavy."

Diana had been unable to protect Samantha from the first force of the water hitting them, as she was attempting to keep them all from being swept away in the current. The child had been slammed up against the wall. From the look of her arm, she must have dislocated her shoulder, and probably suffered a concussion as well.

"Do you think someone will find us?" Samantha asked in a very small voice. There was little of her natural positive outlook in that question. On top of everything else, the poor girl had begun shivering also, her clothes plastered to her body.

Diana tried to gather her senses and took a mental survey of their situation. The water had collapsed the stretch of tunnel before them for she couldn't guess how far. Piles of rock and sand had been left around them by the current. The turn of the tunnel in which they were caught had become a small, half walled off chamber, pooling a foot of water still around them.

Anyone on the home chambers side of them would have to deal with the tunnel collapse. She could only guess at the destruction that the water would have caused in the opposite direction, too, the direction they had already come down. It would be a long wait before anyone could get to them, she knew.

Trying to set a somewhat hopeful tone of voice for Samantha, however, Diana replied, "Everyone is well prepared to deal with cave-ins down here. I'm certain they'll find us. It'll take a while, I'm sure, but we'll be all right."

"Can't you get up, Diana? You'll freeze lying in that water." Diana managed a feeble smile at the girl's concern for her, even in her own painful condition.

"My legs are caught under this timber."

"Vincent should be able to find us", Samantha said, trying to convince herself as she spoke the words. "Jacob is with us." She pulled the little boy closer to her. He had begun to shiver as well, and she tried to enclose the child in a warming embrace.

Diana knew what Samantha meant. Vincent and Jacob shared an empathic connection, from the moment the baby had been born. His sense of Jacob's heartbeat had ultimately brought Vincent to Catherine's side moments before she died. He had been able to feel the child's illness when Gabriel had kidnapped him. Surely Vincent must have felt, by now, his son's perilous surroundings, even if he, himself, had come through the flood relatively unscathed.

But knowing Jacob needed help, finding him, and them, and getting them all to safety, were three distinct avenues of actions, each fraught with their own obstacles. Diana knew they would need to do what they could for themselves, as best as they could while they waited.

Working past her own pain, Diana forced her mind into survival gear. She was a police officer after all. She'd had training in first aid and emergency rescue procedure. She could do this -- get them on a more stable footing -- to await the hours she knew would pass before their recovery.

Taking note that both the children were still battling the effects of the cold water, Diana concluded hypothermia was one thing they would need to keep at bay, ironically, even thought it was hot summer in the city above them. And sodden woolen clothes would not be of any help. She needed to get the children dry.

Looking around the small chamber as best as she could, Diana noted the numerous piles of debris that were left in the wake of the current. One or two of the larger ones looked more solidly piled together.

"Samantha, do you think you can get up and move a bit?"

The girl gritted her teeth and forced herself away from the wall. Diana ached to reach out and help her, but she had only her words to offer.

"Good. See that pile of rubble a little more into the curve of the wall? If you can climb up onto it enough to get yourself and Jacob out of the water, you can get dried off."

"I'll try," came the determined answer. Samantha turned Jacob in her lap and put his little arms around her neck. "Hold on, okay, Jacob? Samantha will get you to someplace that's not so cold."

The little boy easily clung to the girl's neck as she slowly attempted to get to her feet. Once balanced upright, she took a few difficult, sloshing steps through the water to the island of debris about eight feet away, and climbed painfully upwards. There was enough rock and timber piled into place to lift the children completely out of the water when they sat on top of it.

Now we need to get you both warm. Those heavy clothes will never dry. See if you can get your sweater off. And try to get Jacob down to his diaper and T-shirt. You'll both dry off easier in those light cottons."

"What about you?"

Diana tried to reassure Samantha. "I'm all right. I'm not so cold yet. Don't worry." But inwardly she knew she could do little to free herself from the weight pinning her down. She guessed that remaining in the cold water would probably numb the pain for her for a while, before the effects of exposure started taking hold. Or the effects of whatever state her legs were actually in.

Gently encouraging the injured girl, Diana watched as Samantha stripped the baby down to his underclothes with one hand. She managed to wriggle herself out of the sweater she had pulled on over her summer jumper after a few moments of painful wrestling. Free from the bulky garment, Diana saw that the girl's shoulder was indeed dislocated. She must be in terrible pain. But she hardly let any of it show in her movements.

Settling Jacob onto the rubble pile closest to the wall, Samantha eased herself down into a semi-reclining position, acting as a barrier for the little boy. Jacob immediately crawled over beside her and nestled close. Samantha wrapped her uninjured arm around him and kissed him gently on his now gritty curls. "I'm so glad you're safe," she said quietly.

Diana felt the tears fill her eyes. Where had that little girl found the strength? She had kept hold of that baby throughout their inundation. And how had she managed to hold them both safe from the current? Perhaps they were not meant to be lost. Heaven had heard their prayers.

"Try to rest, Samantha."

"I wish I could help you get free, Diana."

"Don't worry. I'll be all right," she responded to the children, hoping that it would be the truth. Silently she wished she could feel some of that white-hot pain from her past wound in her leg now, to convince herself that her body would indeed remain whole.

 

Vincent was finally on the fourth level of the tunnels, the lowest one that still routed pipes, and a means of communications, through it. Those pipes, he found, were a frenzy of tapping at the moment, as urgent messages were being picked up and relayed from one end of the Underground to the other. Coming close to one of them, Vincent listened carefully to decipher the coded words. His heart sank and his fear grew with every tap.

"SOS -- collapse -- SOS -- collapse."

He closed his eyes tightly and forced his breathing to remain steady. But his mind was locked onto one thought: Jacob.

"Vincent! I was coming to get you."

The young female voice was nearly breathless as he -- Jamie. "There's been a collapse."

"I heard it on the pipes." Then, Vincent made himself ask the question. "Are Diana and the children Below yet?"

Jamie read the meaning in the words instantly. She heard her voice catch in her throat. "I haven't seen them."

Vincent felt his blood turn cold. He reached a shaking hand out to the wall for support.

Diana was to have taken Jacob and Samantha for their trip to the park this morning. He had left the children in Mary's care before he'd headed down to his work crew. They'd been so eager for the prospect of spending time in the sunshine above, in Diana's welcome company.

It was her custom to have them all back by late afternoon on the Saturdays they spent Above; she was always happy to share her time with the children, but so evidently anxious to take up her own welcome gift of time spent in the tunnels and chambers. It was her "recuperative down time" as she called it, the moments they'd actually be able to spend together in his world and sometimes even find ways of sealing the pain of the past far away from them for a moment or two.

Admitting to himself that he looked forward to those moments had been as painful a reality as he could handle, where Diana was concerned these days. And now . . . if she and the children had been anywhere near the collapse . . . The shudder of imminent anguish running through him was overwhelming.

Jamie could hardly bear the sight of the man she considered her dear and trusted friend, readying himself for a parent's most terrifying fear, envisioning yet another blow of desolation to a heart yet so fragile and pained. She had to say something. It couldn't be true. "That doesn't mean they were anywhere near that section of the tunnels, Vincent. Diana probably has the children sitting in your chamber right now, waiting for your return."

She saw the smallest flicker of hope light his eyes. "Where was the collapse?"

"West End. Below Durant. Helpers said there was a huge sink hole that took out part of the street. There was a fire in a warehouse that was being rebuilt."

"And the rains and all the water poured onto that blaze collapsed the street."

"Looks like it."

"Diana would need to come in from the West End. They hardly ever come directly back from the park. They stop at her home, pick up things to bring back with them." The words were soft, almost as if Vincent could not find the strength to utter them with more certainly.

Jamie fought to keep from crying. "The emergency crews are setting up on Level 3, down past the second junction."

Vincent merely nodded his head. He could see the tears shining in the girl's eyes. As he moved past her, he quietly said, "You'd better tell Cullen what is happening." Then he disappeared down a turn in the tunnel.

It was becoming increasingly difficult for Diana to keep her mind clear. Though she had no way of knowing for certain how much time had passed, she guessed that at least two hours had elapsed since the collapse had isolated her and the children in the makeshift chamber. Two hours with that beam crushing her legs. Though she felt little pain beyond the cold she was unnerved to realize there was blood mixing in the murky water below her waist. Two hours lying in that water. She could feel her reserves of strength and will pouring away with hurtling abandon.

Samantha and Jacob had fallen asleep on their debris island. Uncertain as to whether the young girl had sustained a concussion or not, Diana knew she had to attempt to wake her. As if reading her thoughts, little Jacob began to stir in Samantha's arms. With some effort, his young guardian pulled herself to consciousness. Diana drew in a relieved, but shallow breath.

"Are you doing all right, Samantha?" she asked, in a voice betraying her own failing condition, despite her best efforts to disguise it. She didn't want the children to know how tenuous her grip on survival felt at the moment.

"I'm okay," came the unconvinced reply. At least she and Jacob were close to being dry, if not exactly warm. Then the brave words. "They must be all looking for us."

"Of course they are, honey."

"Do you think we'll be dead before they find us?" The question was startlingly matter of fact. Diana worked against her own desire to slip away into painless oblivion, and fought to reassure the child.

"We're on a regularly used route in the tunnels, Samantha. They'll find us. They'll know where we are."

"But will they be able to get to us?" That was the very real crux of the matter, Diana knew, to their ultimate salvation. Tons of rock and earth could be blocking their rescuers' efforts. Perhaps having survived the flood was not the blessing they believed.

Diana would not accept that scenario, however, at least not yet.

"Do you think Vincent will easily give up on us?"

Samantha shook her head. Diana saw the hope returning into the young girl's eyes. "He will give his last breath to reach us."

The destruction was mind-boggling. Vincent, flat on his stomach on the rocky chamber floor, was peering into a gaping hole that cut through three levels of the Underground. Rocks, sand, wood, and metal piled along the tunnel walls for hundreds of feet. More of the same threatened to slide down into the hole from undermined areas around it. Vincent pulled carefully back from the edge of the collapse and joined Father and the rescue crews further back in the tunnel.

"We can't risk going down through three levels in an unstable hole," he pronounced. Father nodded in agreement.

"There must be another way to access the area. The entire end of the Western route is washed away beyond the last stairway. But we know that Level Four has held. Most of the water had drained into the river from there."

Pascal joined the discussion. "What about the crawl space tunnels that run along the major pipes? They could have held up. They're small enough to resist collapse and run through solid rock."

Father ran an anxious hand through his hair. "If Diana and the children are in an area near an access space. But those tunnels are barely the diameter of a man."

"A small man," Pascal observed, looking to Vincent for confirmation.

"Or a small woman." Jamie had come to Pascal's aide and quickly followed his train of thought.

Holding Vincent's eyes for a long moment, Father called back over the crowd of frustrated rescuers. "Jeffrey. Run back to my study and bring us the master plans of the pipes in this area. They're in the top drawer of the sideboard."

The boy was off even before Father could finish his sentence.

 

It was no use. Diana could not move the timber one inch off her legs. Even if it were pinning her down openly on the ground, she could never have moved it with all her strength and the use of both her arms. As it was, the timber was anchored into its own pile of rubble. It would take an able-bodied person hours of digging to free it, and ultimately, her. If she wasn't further buried by the debris in the process.

Besides, a black-humored particle of her mind told her: There would be little left of her to save. Her entire left side was completely numb from the cold and probably a lack of circulation as well. If she survived the exposure, she still had an unthinkable weight crushing down on both her legs. Though the flow of blood had seemed to stop staining the water around her, the very real possibility existed that she might not find her limbs in any manner of useful shape or form. That would be a damnable hell of a way to have to live the rest of her life.

Diana forced a look to the children. She would not give in to such thoughts. When she had laid wounded in that police gun fight for what had seemed like hours before help had arrived for her and the young man she had rescued, the only thing that had helped her believe in living another day had been her whispered prayers and her ability to focus on something away from the fear and pain.

Focus on the children, she told herself now. Think about them, and the wondrous possibilities of their futures. Don't let yourself slip into desperation. It could kill you as quickly as a bullet.

She began to softly engage Samantha in calculatedly upbeat conversation, despite the fact that her vision had begun to blur again, and the sound of her own pulse in her ears was becoming a rushing ache. Gently she coaxed the girl into talking about their morning walk in the park, what they'd seen and done, what they were planning for the evening Below. Anything to help the time pass and keep their spirits up.

But they could hardly overlook the fact that their futures were very surely in jeopardy. And as is often the case at such moments, their thoughts turned inwardly, towards hopes and dreams and possibilities, challenges to be met and plans to be developed, that might now never see the light of day.

"Have you ever thought about what you'd like to do when you're older, Samantha?" Diana asked quietly. She tried to shift herself a bit around to where she could see the children more easily but was successful only in dislodging several small stones from the pile of debris she was near that plopped into the water.

A touch of color had come back into the young girl's face, which Diana was able to note even in her constricted position. She was thankful for that, and for the fact that Samantha's summer clothing had dried. If she didn't move too much, the girl was able to keep the pain from her shoulder to a somewhat bearable level. And Jacob appeared secure and comfortable beside her, actually occupying himself with the buttons on the front of Samantha's jumper.

"I'm going to be a teacher in the community," came a certain and determined response.

Diana wasn't at all surprised at her companion's answer. She knew that even at age eleven, Samantha was a gifted instructor and student. Vincent was justly proud of the girl, who attacked her books with the vivacious enthusiasm she held for everything she did. Still, she wondered if a child with such a promising future truly would want to remain within the limited confines of the Underworld for her entire life. Again and again, Vincent had quietly offered the girl every opportunity at experiencing the world Above, with Diana's help, wanting his beloved student to be able to make an informed choice about her future and all its possibilities.

Wanting her to be able to make the choices freely, choices he'd never been able to make for his own life.

"Are you sure you'd want to remain Below and teach?" The girl was so certain of her commitment, her path seemed so clear to her. Diana felt a quiet awe for such a gift. There had been only confusion in her life lately, a chaos she ached to shed, a respite she longed to embrace. But it could only remain a dream, she knew.

"Oh yes. I'm going to begin leading a study group for the younger children in literature next week. By the time I'm finished with my own studies, Jacob will be ready for school. He'll be one of my students, eventually. I'm so looking forward to that."

Diana was grateful for the chance the child had given her to turn her thoughts to the future, hopefully. Samantha's dreams needed to come true, would come true, she let herself believe, the girl's innocent conviction so attractive to Diana's own tested soul.

"You've never thought about living Above?"

"I could never leave the tunnels." Samantha's response was filled with certain determination. "Nowhere else could ever be home. Everyone I love is here."

Diana found herself clinging to the child's last sentence: "Everyone I love is here." It had been increasingly true for her also, despite her best efforts to keep her heart shielded and responsive to her force of will. Everyone she loved was here in the tunnels, those that easily returned her care to her in easy acknowledgment, and the one soul she would give up the entire world for. Still, she knew any sacrifice she'd be willing to make, had already been willing to make, would count little against a desolate grief destined to be unending. She tried to pull her thoughts away from that reality.

"I know you are feeling that way now, Samantha, but the world Above could be a place full of wonderful opportunities for you." She had thought that once, herself, before she'd been forced to drag her unique abilities through the morass of humanity's darker nature.

But even beyond that plane of her life, even if she were to give up her police work and settle into another career choice freed of the frustrations and pain, the world Above would never hold the promise of love and fulfillment for her. That elusive, beautifully maddening dream would only be hers in the arms of a man never able to walk the city streets freely in the light of day. No, there was little promise in that world now for her. She understood Samantha's response, totally.

"I realize the possibilities, Diana. Laura and Michael have gone Above and are happy. But Laura has Jerry to be with her, and Michael is working on his degree. Even he has said that he just might return Below once he has it. He misses Brooke, I'm sure. I know she misses him, terribly."

The girl's words drew Diana back to the moment at hand. But the young police woman was startled to note that the pain of the cold around her vulnerable body at that instant was hardly a breath of the pain that had begun to settle around her spirit.

"Yes, there is something about the tunnels here that really shelters the heart."

Samantha nodded decidedly. She seemed so wise a young woman, beyond her few years. Diana knew how much the special influence of one particular heart had touched the girl's, how tender and open that influence had left it, free to dream and care.

"Even with all its possibilities, Topside will never have what we have here -- We have a place where no one needs to be afraid. We have people who will always be there to help each other. We have a life where everyone matters. From what I've seen of the world Above, it has very little I'd want to give up my home for."

The child's conclusions reached deeply into Diana's heart. She had been feeling just the same way, for such a long time: her life had been devoid of what really mattered, her attempts to bring justice and safety to a terrifyingly brutal world had time and again left her with bitter disappointment and pain.

A place of safety . . . People to love, and be loved by . . . Somewhere to find peace and shelter . . . Another heart free to touch hers in tenderness . . .

"Wouldn't you ever want to come live here Below with us?"

Samantha's question startled Diana. She had been thinking that exactly, the promising lure of rest and peace so often manifesting itself in her life lately fully resting on that enticing possibility. She desperately wished to take hold of it, she knew. But there was so much in the way yet, so much that would always stand in her way.

"It would be a wonderful thing for me to do with my life. But I have my work, and I have family, Above." The words sounded without conviction to even her own ears.

"But doesn't your work break your heart, Diana? Doesn't it frighten you to look into someone's mind and see only blackness and evil?"

Diana took as deep a breath as she could, past the pain enveloping her body. She turned a bit more in Samantha's direction, needing to see the girl's face at the moment. How was it possible that such a slip of a child could understand her own turmoil of heart?

She had set out to save the world. In her early hopeful idealism, she thought one person could make a difference. But the reality of her life was the fact that she was called upon to use her sensitive, intuitive nature only to pick up the pieces after all hell had literally broken loose, frantically attempting to stay the spread of madness in a world all too ready to accept it and its consequences as fact.

"I would love nothing more than to help build up the good in the world."

"Then come and live with us, Diana."

The simple request was so tantalizingly possible at that moment. To begin again, in a world receptive to her gifts. To create good and see it flourish, instead of battle evil and be tainted by its hopelessness. To help a child grow, to ease a burdened heart. Life could offer her no greater gift.

"I'd miss my sister terribly," Diana voiced quietly, the possibilities of a life Below still sweeping around her with gentle urging. The precarious nature of their present situation had all but vanished from her consciousness. She was in no danger, now. She was only attuning herself to accept all that had been in her heart from the first instant she had set eyes on an inexplicably familiar soul brought within reach of her own by an indecipherable act of God.

Samantha was so receptive to Diana's suddenly revealed yearning. The girl's generous observation of her friend's heart over the past year had not been in vain. As one loving female soul to another, she knew what her dear companion was truly in need of. And in taking hold of that need, that companion would be capable of resurrecting the promise within another heart she loved as no other.

"Father might let you tell her about us some time. Then she can become a Helper, too. You wouldn't need to leave her behind completely, Diana. You could still come and live with us here."

The gentle color in the girl's face touched Diana. She was so willing to believe that life could have its "happily every after" endings. Why shouldn't she? If she'd been left to herself in the world Above, she'd long ago become a casualty of the streets, a victim of the very evil Diana had so long battled. Yet, here she was, a bright, confident, caring young woman with a startling grasp of what was truly worthwhile in life: love, caring, making a difference, embracing the promise of the moment. She'd had her own happy ending, which was, in fact, only a beginning for her. Why shouldn't she want to reach that hopeful promise to her friend now?

Still, there was so much uncertainty standing in the way, so much Diana had very little control over. Reality was a sobering thing. It brought her back to the truth.

"It's a wonderful thought, Samantha, but a frightening one just the same. Sometimes what can make us happy is also what can test us beyond our hope. Maybe someday I'll be brave enough to find my happiness here in your world."

Samantha looked down to little Jacob who was nestling close to her body, having given up his exploration of her buttons. He was tired, cold, and hungry, but he seemed to know he was safe in Samantha's care. Still, his little heart reached out to touch his father's. It had been too long since the child had felt himself wrapped in that protective, loving embrace, today. And his young nanny was suddenly troubled, he felt, beyond the physical hurts she was enduring.

"I wish Vincent could find his happiness here again."

 

Usually his slight stature was a drawback, an obstacle he had to learn to live with. At the moment, Pascal blessed the fact that he was small enough to fit through the crawl space comfortably. For at least 50 or 60 feet, he'd been following the old steam pipe along its circuitous route between the walls of the tunnel chambers, easing himself along on hands and knees, the light from his miner's helmet casting only the shortest path of illumination before him.

The master maps of the pipes showed that this particular one should pull clear of the crawl space and into the open tunnel about another 30 or so feet, where the West End route took a pronounced turn on Level 4. Hopefully, that opening should put him clear of the collapse debris.

Stopping for a moment to resettle the rope he was carrying coiled over his shoulder, Pascal listened and tried to orient himself in the semi-darkness. The halt to his movements stopped the crunching of sand and gravel under his hands and knees, and all about him was quiet -- deathly quiet.

Pascal swallowed hard. He wasn't ready to think about that possibility. The lower levels had held, the flood waters were draining into the river.

And no bodies had been found.

Diana and the children were simply cut off from their route home. In a little while, everyone would be safely back together again, and not think twice about their past perils.

The barely disguised anguish in Vincent's eyes would turn to relief and joy. He'd been hoping that Diana had delayed her return through the tunnels with the children. Cullen had even been dispatched to Diana's apartment from Above, to see if she was still there.

But Cullen had run into the building super who had informed him that the young police officer and the children had headed out at about four o'clock. The elderly gentleman had been quick to point out to the tunnel dweller that he was happy to see Diana with her company, that the children were always so "quiet and well-behaved. Never a complaint. Baby always bright and cheery and never heard him cry." Cullen's news of the departure had nearly felled Vincent like a blow.

It wasn't possible that Pascal's childhood friend was destined to be shattered by yet another loss. It couldn't be true -- first his love, then his child, and his friends. Vincent would never recover from the pain.

Beginning his crawling trek once again, Pascal carefully moved past one of the iron brackets holding the pipe up against the stone wall. The years of rust had corroded part of the bracket into a sharp point jutting out towards him.

The momentary pause in his forward motion caused Pascal to listen carefully once again. He thought he heard it -- water dripping slowly, drop by drop and splashing into an accumulation below. There was a hazy glow, too, about 20 feet in front of him -- the crawl space end was in sight, and not blocked, or so it seemed.

Then he heard the voices -- soft, familiar, and female. His heart leapt for joy.

 

"Losing someone you love, someone you've hoped and dreamed with -- it takes a long time for a heart to recover from that. Some people can never get past such pain. And even if they do, their hearts are never the same again."

The explanation was meant as much for herself as it was for the young girl. Diana turned away from Samantha, the sudden lurch within her heart threatening to become visible with the tears she felt well up into her eyes. Her body felt leaden. She had slipped beyond simply enduring the cold and wet. Now only a weary heaviness was slowly enveloping her . . . beginning with her heart . . . at the sound of Vincent's name in their conversation.

To hear his soft, reassuring voice, look deeply into his eyes and read a bewitching honesty there, feel his strength and tender comfort wrap itself around her -- once -- just once. Then heaven or hell could open before her and she could survive eternity on that one moment.

She was able to find the courage to turn her head back far enough to take in Samantha and Jacob resting on the pile of debris. The young girl was gently rocking the little boy clinging to her side, despite her pain. She was smiling down at the angelic face lifted toward her, but Diana caught the glimmer of tears in the girl's eyes as well.

Guessing they were not caused only by their present situation, Diana stated, quietly, "You love him very much, don't you?"

Samantha let the tears fall down her cheeks without embarrassment, knowing that the beautiful young woman there with her could understand her heart completely. "He's the only real father I've ever known. I never knew my parents. They both died when I was about Jacob's age. A Helper brought me here and everyone became my family."

"But Vincent loved you especially." Diana helped the girl put her feelings to words, easily, in spite of her own mounting confusion of body and mind. Samantha nodded in agreement.

"He's always done the 'fatherly' things in my life, more so than even Father: Made sure I was finished with my school work before I went exploring with Jamie or Mouse, taught me how to swim, scolded me for enjoying beating Jeffrey at chess too much. But it's always been so much more than just that."

The love radiating out of the young girl's face was breathtaking, true, and so innocent.

"He's listened to you and helped you build your dreams and hopes and wiped away your tears and helped you feel like you could do anything with your life, be anyone you wanted to be.

"And in your most uncertain moments, you still knew that you could reach back and find him there watching over you, ready to steady your steps or gather you up into his arms and keep you safe."

Samantha held Diana's eyes in wonder, noting as well, that those green depths were shining with barely controlled tears. The woman had put to words her own most heartfelt experiences of the extraordinary man she carried within her very essence as the embodiment of "father".

The words were gentle, wonder-filled, tinged with Diana's own memories of growing up with loving care surrounding her, and yet, somehow, those same words were wistful and longing. These were not only a father's traits they were describing between them. And Samantha wasn't at all certain Diana was speaking only for her benefit. She risked giving voice to all the rest of the pain in her young heart, for she believed, truly, that her dear friend needed to hear it all now.

"I was so happy for him when Catherine came into his life. He's always giving so much to all of us in the community, always there to help us and encourage us. I thought, finally, there would be someone who could give him something back, bring him the happiness he deserved."

Stroking the curls of the little boy nestled close to her, Samantha continued softly. "I'd watch them sometimes when Catherine was Below. There was always something so . . . beautiful . . about the two of them together. It was like they were in their own world, shimmering with hope."

Samantha pulled her attention away from the baby and back to Diana. She looked so frightfully endangered, and by more than simply the catastrophic destruction around them. Samantha knew she needed to continue her thought.

"But, Catherine would never stay. She would always return Above, always. And Vincent would never ask her to remain. I couldn't understand it. I still don't. If he could never be a part of her world, why didn't she ever come to share his life in our world? Why did she always choose to leave?

"I would have given up anything, everything, to be with the one I loved."

There was no getting around it, Diana thought to herself, a sweeping wave of emotion linking itself to Samantha's pain from her own heart. The girl had reduced the very questions she had struggled with to their simplest terms. She wrestled a moment with her conscience, eager to put herself into Catherine's place and answer the girl's plaintive plea with some sort of balance and fairness. But she was asking those very questions herself, deeply within her own heart, and not coming up with any answers she could fathom.

"Life is never so simple, Samantha, no matter how hard we wish it could be. Sometimes it is very frightening when our dreams come true. We never expect them to, and we don't know how to get beyond the dreaming and on to the living." Still, within her own heart, Diana knew she could harbor no fears herself, would tolerate no such limits. Her heart had instantly recognized what it had so long sought, in the solace of blue eyes that were so true they were spellbinding. The only thing keeping her from embracing her dreams was the reality of what such questions had done to Vincent's own heart.

Samantha would not accept the answer, though, her own tenderness for her beloved teacher defending his pain with righteous outrage. "Yes, but in spite of everything Vincent loved her with every bit of his heart, with more than just his heart. And he was so afraid to do so. He didn't let that keep him from giving Catherine everything he was. I don't think he'll ever love anyone again as much as he loved Catherine. And I don't think he'll ever find his happiness in our world again. All he has is pain, emptiness . . . And Jacob."

Samantha's tears flowed freely as both women fell silent, lost in their own hurting perceptions of the true cost of love. One, a young heart, open and receptive to life's tender possibilities, suddenly saw only the pain that love could exact, pain unable to be shared and survived.

The other heart, itself battered and in turmoil, could never dare hope of a place of solace shared in love with a kindred soul. The burden of that truth was as heavy on Diana's soul as the fallen timber had become on her legs. There was no end in sight, in reality, for either pain, she conceded in desperation. The ache in her body began to join with the one in her spirit, sucking the promise from her.

It was suddenly hard to catch her breath, as Diana lost her ability to focus away from the circumstances surrounding her, both her deteriorating physical condition, and the aching hopelessness that had gripped her dreams. Like so much that had left its mark on her essence this past year, the reality of destiny's hand in her existence had tantalizingly reached out promise and warmth to her only to pull it away from her grasp with taunting cruelty. There was not going to be any happy ending to this fairy tale, she knew, even if she were to survive the day.

Diana allowed her attention to be pulled away from the painful truths she had caught a glimpse of within her soul, to a spot on the far side of the tunnel wall. A shower of dust and gravel slipped down from the opening around the pipe running along the opposite perimeter. Jacob's attention was also held. His eyes grew large with curiosity. Another shower came scattering into the water trapped on the chamber floor -- and the beam of a light glowing from around the pipe.

"Does anyone want to get home?" came the slightly breathless, and familiar sound of a man's voice -- Pascal's. In a moment his head popped out of the opening up on the wall. It was greeted enthusiastically by Jacob and Samantha. Diana, too felt a surge of relief fill her at the sight. She was able to momentarily battle the weariness that was fast overtaking her.

"Thank God," she whispered, hoarsely.

"Is everyone all right?" Pascal asked as he surveyed the situation carefully. Samantha was obviously injured, but safe with little Jacob, on a pile of stone and timber. Diana was half-submerged in the foot of water that remained in the room, the light in her eyes unable to disguise her ashen features.

"Diana's legs are caught. But we're okay, Pascal," Samantha responded. In a moment their rescuer was fixing his rope to the pipe on the wall, and then he was easing his way down it and into the tunnel chamber itself.

Vincent was not used to standing around and waiting when the lives of his loved ones were threatened. But he was forced to do just that at the moment, left to peer anxiously into the dark that Pascal had disappeared into several minutes before.

There had been some continued discussion as to the most practical and quickest method of working past the collapse debris to search for Diana and the children. In the end it was deemed the crawl space held the most promise of success, but it was the avenue Vincent could hardly pursue easily -- the tunnel around the pipe was barely a pipe's width itself, and he was not exactly slight of build.

Another group of rescuers had attempted to make their way down the remnants of the West End tunnel but had been stopped by stairwells that were still completely inundated and more unstable areas that were in danger of collapse.

So Pascal had climbed into the small tunnel to make his way down past the ruined passageways, and Vincent had been left behind to peer into the darkness after him, praying.

And trying to make some sense of the emotions battling within him.

Jacob was alive. He knew that with certainty. He could feel the little boy's heart reaching to him. It wasn't a sense of fear or hurt, but one of . . . longing. "Oh, Jacob, if you only knew how I ache to hold you right now," Vincent felt his heart whisper. The thought was no sooner formed in his mind than a gentle feeling of comfort touched him. Jacob knew it: soon his father's arms would be gratefully enveloping him.

But what of Samantha? If Jacob was safe and feeling relieved and comforted, wouldn't Samantha be in a similar state? Vincent was aware of how close the children had become in the past months. If Samantha was in peril, Jacob would surely sense it, and his distress would convey itself to Vincent's own experience of his son's emotions.

Yet, just because Jacob was not afraid for Samantha did not necessarily mean the girl was completely safe. She could still be hurt . . . or worse.

Vincent shuddered at the thought. The children were not the only ones who had grown close over the course of the past months. Samantha had been an invaluable help to him in Jacob's day to day care. Oh, all the women Below had been eager to give Vincent any of their assistance at any time he found himself in need, where Jacob's rearing was concerned, especially, as always, Mary. But he had been somewhat reluctant to impose on their generous help too often. They had their own lives to lead, their own families to raise under difficult circumstances, too, as Olivia and Lena did.

Samantha's generous young heart was eager to respond to his trying situation, though, he knew, a gift he could embrace with welcome. Jacob adored the girl, and Vincent was unshakable in his trust in her, placing his one joy in the world into her very capable young hands without anxiety.

Having Samantha's bright, hopeful spirit near his own so often had helped Vincent as well, he confessed to himself. She never averted her eyes from him when he painfully spoke his memories of Catherine, allowing him the sweet agony of his remembered dreams without a need to mask the desolation in brave acceptance. He was able to hare Jacob's day to day progression and growth with her easy enthusiasm and actually find promise in what the new day might have in store for the child. And in her lively intelligence he was able to picture a happy future for a least one person he loved in the world.

Now, God knows where she was, how badly she might be hurt. All he had wanted to do for her was to give her an opportunity to delight in the world as a child discovering the possibilities of life. He knew that more than any of the other children, Samantha's heart was totally, and completely rooted in her home Below. But, like his hopes for Jacob, Vincent didn't want her to believe the world Above was completely devoid of beauty and promise. He had found Catherine in that world.

And Diana had found him.

Though the children's safety was foremost in his mind, Vincent would not deceive himself: The young policewoman's possible condition at the moment was causing a cold and desolate feeling to surround his heart.

The sudden thought of a life devoid of her presence was startlingly painful.

Vincent attempted not to dwell on the possibility, but he concluded that with her tenacity, her strength of will and true courage, if there was anything at all Diana might have been able to do to get the children back safely to their home, she would have done so without a second thought to her own well-being. If they had been lost from the community's safe confines for so long now, it was because she was unable to do anything to help them on their way.

In the months since Catherine's death, Vincent realized his feelings for Diana were becoming powerful and encompassing in their own right. But what exactly were those feelings?

Gratitude, surely. Without her, he would never have found Gabriel and Jacob; his own life would probably be forfeit as well.

Friendship, indeed -- one tested in fire and worthy of his complete trust, for she had had a dozen opportunities to betray his existence and his world's to the powers that be Above and yet had jeopardized her own position in her world to keep him and his home safe.

But, wasn't there more to his experience of her than simple grateful friendship? In his honesty Vincent had to reply, "yes".

With her extraordinary intuitive nature reaching out to him, Vincent had been able to touch his own pain and acknowledge the extent of its existence. He was able to share with her his deepest anguish without uttering a word, for she could read it within his heart. He had felt, more than once, her own gentle essence reaching out to him, encompassing his heartache and making it her own, holding out to him a quiet, uncertain tenderness that she never believed she had a right to carry.

There was a frightening . . . melding . . . of their spirits that Vincent was startled to acknowledge. It was as if Diana was a part of his very nature that he had never known was lost to him, a mirror, an honesty of conscience, that helped him understand his own soul. He could look into her face and see . . . love.

 

Pascal threw his wool tunic over Samantha's small shoulders and tucked Jacob close to her in the folds as well. "Don't worry, little ones, we'll get you out of here soon."

"We'll be fine, Pascal," Samantha returned in a voice filled with gratitude yet quickly shaded with concern. "But, Diana is trapped. You have to help her."

Sloshing through the murky water, Pascal had felt the cold grip him immediately. His legs were like ice in a matter of minutes. The slender young woman at his feet had been lying in it for hours.

"Are you in much pain, Diana?" Pascal asked gently, as he came down to her side. Her face was ashen and her eyes were dull with the answer to his question. Still, she somehow managed to shake her head in response. That movement accentuated the growing rushing of her pulse pounding in her ears.

Pascal took one look at the pile of rubble holding the beam down on Diana and concluded it would be impossible for him to free her alone. Instead, he stacked several larger rocks immediately behind her and helped her get her upper body up out of the water a bit more. She began to shiver violently after the move.

"Diana, you take this. I don't need it." Samantha reached Pascal's tunic back to him. He draped it over the young woman as best as he could, realizing that she was losing ground fast. Though usually shy and reticent, Pascal set a hand onto Diana's shoulder in reassurance.

"I'll bring Vincent back with me. We'll get you free. Try to hold on a little longer, Diana."

"I'll do my best," came the labored reply that caught at Pascal's heart. He turned back to the children and gathered Jacob up into his arms.

"We'll need to splint your arm before we can move you, Samantha. There isn't much room in that tunnel, and you could really jar your shoulder, still. I'm going to take this little boy first, and be back for you. Don't worry."

"I won't worry," came the determined reply.

In a moment, Jacob was tucked into Pascal's vest, his little arms holding fast to the man's neck as he took in the words being directed to him. "You and I are going on a bit of an adventure, Jacob. What do you think about that? And at the end of our journey, your father will be waiting to take you into his arms." The child's face immediately brightened, fairly glowed. For, as much as his little heart loved the two women who had kept him safe today from the flood, he needed desperately to touch his father's spirit, be warmed by his tender and all-encompassing devotion.

Pascal had tied footholds into the rope he had fastened to the pipe along the wall, and managed to climb back up to the level of the crawl space opening easily with Jacob as his precious burden. At the tunnel opening, he gently collected the boy out from his vest and set him into the rock passageway. Then he pulled himself up into the opening.

"I'll be back with help in a few minutes," Pascal reassured Samantha and Diana. Jacob held them both in a lingering blessing of his limpid eyes. "Now, Jacob," Pascal 's teasing voice took the child's attention, "how about you and I have a race? I'll bet I can't catch you before you get to your daddy."

The sight of this grown-up on all fours was too much for the little boy to resist. He had played "catch me" with Samantha and the rest of the children of the community constantly. Doing so with a big person was a delightful challenge to him now.

With a mischievous smile and a sweet giggle, Jacob was happily crawling along the small tunnel. Pascal followed at a slower clip, urging the child onward to safety in the guise of a game.

 

It had been more than half an hour since the reconnaissance mission down the crawl space had begun, and Vincent had not left his post at the mouth of the tunnel. Every father's anguish came tearing at his heart as the minutes ticked by, for, to feel his baby's little arms safely wrapped around his neck would be the only balm to heal his fear.

What had Pascal found? Hand he been able to get through the crawl space without further calamity? Did he find the children and Diana? And the question he feared most that yet would not be banished from his mind and heart: Were they all still alive and safe?

Father came up behind his son and set a calming hand on the great, broad back. Vincent turned to him, the unsheltered fear in his face revealing his anxiety. "Such is a father's pain, my son."

Caring for his own child had given Vincent so much more of an insight into his own father's spirit, realizing with guilt the many interminable moments the elder man must have suffered through because of him. He wrapped the physician in a grateful embrace. "I know that Jacob is well, but . . . "

" . . . But you won't believe it till you see him with your own eyes, hold him in your own arms." Vincent nodded gently and Father smiled in return. "I know."

Suddenly, the older man watched as a play of emotion rushed through his son's heart and revealed itself in his unique features: delight, joy, and total confusion. Vincent immediately returned his attention to the crawl space opening and tried to catch his breath, but he had just heard it, as well as felt it -- a baby's giggle, tumbling through the dark passageway. then he saw a small, pale pool of light moving toward him. Jacob's chubby little form, stripped to his diaper and T-shirt, hurtling towards him with sheet, joyful abandon, was silhouetted in the light.

"Jacob!" The relief, wonder, joy and tears in that single word made everyone who had remained behind in vigil stop and catch their own breaths. Vincent reached far into the tunnel opening as the light came closer, and was at last rewarded with the feeling of his little son's body safely in his arms.

"Dada, dada." The little boy allowed himself to be scooped up into the welcome warmth and power of his father's embrace. Vincent felt the tears rush freely down his cheeks as he whispered a grateful prayer.

It was echoed in Father's words, and in at least a dozen other voices, "Thank God!"

"Here, Vincent," Mary handed the relieved father a small blanket. Vincent quickly wrapped the child in it and help him close to his heart.

In a rush of baby words and descriptions, the little boy proceeded to describe his past ordeal to his father. Two words were most distinct -- "Manta" and "Dina". As soon as Pascal had caught his breath, Vincent turned his concern to the fates of the two women.

"Boy, that child can move!" Pascal's observation lit up everyone's faces as they were momentarily carried into the delight of the first rescue. Vincent helped his friend stumble out of the crawl space opening, never relinquishing his hold on his child. But, the joy was only temporary.

"What of Samantha and Diana?" came the concerned inquiry.

"The collapse caught them in that part of the tunnel where it turns west. Samantha's arm or shoulder is hurt, maybe broken or dislocated."

"And Diana?" Vincent forced his voice to remain even. Pascal looked down at his feet as he spoke, unable to hold Vincent's pleading eyes any longer than a moment.

"She's caught under a support beam and a pile of debris. Her legs are pinned. And she's been lying in a foot of frigid water all this time."

Vincent did not have to ask his friend in what state the young woman could possibly be. His own anguished heart painted the picture for him. Little Jacob reached a small hand up to his father's cheek, feeling the sudden distress in his heart. Vincent took the child's hand in his and kissed it softly.

Father ran his fingers anxiously over his beard, holding his son's gaze with his own. "You'll need to immobilize her legs before attempting to move her through the tunnel," he instructed, never once doubting that Vincent would be heading through the passageway in a matter of moments himself.

"How can we get her through such a small space without causing her further injury? She's bound to have fractures, and a stretcher won't fit the tunnel."

"But a back board will. You'll have to rig one up to get her into the tunnel, then try to slide her along on it."

Half a dozen voices all joined in with additions to the plan, offers of setting up tools and supplies required, and observations of necessary inclusions to the rescue operation. In less than ten minutes, Pascal, Jamie, and Mouse were heading back down into the crawl space, laden with tools, ropes, blankets, and a rigid stretcher board. Vincent gently set Jacob into Olivia's awaiting arms.

"I'll take him to the hospital chamber. Father just want to check him over." The barely disguised pain in Vincent's face made Olivia reach out to him in her words. "You'll be able to help her and get her back to safety. Samantha, too."

"That is my prayer." Returning to the issue at hand, Vincent quickly pulled off his doublet and leather vest, and his woolen sweater, keeping on only his knit undershirt. Freed from the layers of bulky clothing, he hoped he'd be able to negotiate the narrow width of the crawl space more easily. Turning once more to Olivia, Vincent set a gentle kiss onto Jacob's forehead.

"Be good for Olivia, my angel. We'll be back soon with Samantha and Diana." Switching on the flashlight he carried in his hand, and picking up Father's medical bag, Vincent pulled himself up into the tunnel opening. His muscular form all but filled it up.

"God speed," Father called out as the retreating figure of his son was soon swallowed up by the dark tunnel.

 

Samantha was afraid.

Just before Pascal's arrival, she and Diana had been quietly speaking together. She'd been aware of the effort that her dear friend was making to remain detached from the pain she must have been engulfed by: Diana's words had been obviously edged with growing weariness. When Pascal had left with Jacob, the girl was filled with relief at their impending salvation. But, she noticed that Diana had become very quiet in the ensuing moments, responding to her inquires about her state of health with only a word or two of struggling reassurance.

In the sound of her voice, there was a touch of confusion, a slight slurring to the words. She sounded tired, so very tired. And not only bodily so.

"Diana, please try to stay awake. Pascal will be back with help soon. It won't be much longer." Samantha's soft voice, close to pleading, broke through the fog in her mind momentarily, dragging her back to full consciousness -- reluctantly. She was so cold, she almost felt like she'd been caught in a frigid snowstorm unprotected, the dirty water around her blazing to white in her pain-shrouded mind.

All she wanted to do was sleep, close her eyes and sleep. Leave everything else behind her. Jacob was safe. Pascal would be returning for Samantha. There was no longer any need for her to hold on. The children were safe. Now she could just sleep.

Or die.

"I don't think he'll ever love anyone as much as he loved Catherine." The words echoed in her mind, off the weary hopelessness blanketing her soul more and more. Those words were the truth, she knew, a truth more powerful in their pain than dying. She'd never had the courage to utter them herself.

Yes, she could die now.

Would it be so frightening to die? Heaven would be a place of peace and rest, where suffering was no more, pain was no more. She could die now, yes.

But, she must not be on her way to heaven. The pain was still so palpable that it knifed through her lungs, robbing her of breath: The cold felt like it was tearing layers of her flesh away, inch by inch. Her head was pounding with the labored rushing of her blood through her veins. And God only knew what her legs had turned into, beneath the dark water.

Samantha's soft voice was trying to pull her back, but she was ready to leave, in truth, eager to leave, to die. The children would be safe. They didn't need her any more. No one needed her any more.

Her struggle of spirit and conscience had all been in vain.

She would die alone, untouched, unclaimed by the one heart she would have welcomed into the deepest recesses of her soul.

No, she would never be Catherine, would never want to be Catherine. She could never hold her heart apart from its yearned-for fulfillment. She could never be brave and accepting, shroud the tenderness of her hopes in layers of protective, stifling, suicidal fear. She could never hold her deepest, sweetest dreams away from the bewitching agony of love . . . loving him . . . loving Vincent.

Catherine had brought them together in her death. Catherine would always keep them apart.

That realization would never change, its searing truth as responsible for her faltering hold on survival as any physical injury she may have endured this day. Because of it, Diana was ready to walk through the gates of hell now, ready to endure everlasting pain, expecting to have to. Her anguishing eternity had already begun, months ago. She welcomed the darkness enveloping her.

Yet, something would not let her go.

Something was holding her above the dark, lifting her away from oblivion with the barest trace of a touch, a caress, to her cheek.

A warmth was encompassing her gently, reaching out past the pain and fear and utter hopelessness. Then a voice called her name, not Samantha's soft anxious voice, but a quietly insistent one.

Diana knew she needed to open her eyes, she was desperate to open her eyes, no longer eager to relinquish her hold on life. She concentrated every last ounce of her depleted strength to clear her mind and walk her spirit back through to the other side. To life.

Slowly, maddeningly slowly, her vision cleared enough to help her recognize she was no longer journeying to hell, alone, in pain.

An angel was holding her, resting a tender hand, warm and healing, onto her face, cupping it gently. Blue eyes that opened into the depths of an extraordinary soul, held her own with a compelling revelation of emotion, so very close to . . . love. It was a glimpse of heaven after all.

Vincent was wrapping a blanket around her now, holding her up out of the frigid water, cradling her. The sight of her had nearly wrenched his heart in two when he had come to her side.

He had actually felt her losing her hold on her mortality, or more correctly, letting go of her hold.

For an instant, he was on a windswept rooftop watching in agony as his love took her last breath in his arms.

Catherine had fought against it with her final shred of courage: She would not leave willingly. But, Diana had nothing to hold on to, nothing to battle for any more.

He had been able to offer her nothing.

Until he had touched her.

And then, as the tears threatened to overwhelm him, he watched her struggle back, cling to that touch as though to life itself. Half an hour before, he had attempted to weave his way through the labyrinth of emotions that he carried for this woman, this ethereal being that seemed to have become so much a part of his existence, his very soul. Startled, in pain himself at the final revelation of those emotions, he was not yet able to acknowledge what was truly in his heart, suddenly overwhelmed by guilt and the sheer irony of it all.

She was burdened with no such struggle of the heart, he knew. Her way was clear. The pain-ravaged face she turned to him transcended its desperation, to radiate nothing less than . . . love . . . total . . . unafraid . . . unashamed.

"Vincent." The sound of his name, barely above a whispered breath, was nothing less that a prayer on her lips, of gratitude. Of resurrection.

He let his hand slip softly over her hair, damning himself to the ache in her green eyes, resting his cheek suddenly, with terrifying honesty, onto the disarrayed silk that was her auburn hair.

"We'll have you free soon, Diana," he spoke to her gently, pulling away from her frail form before his senses could totally stagger his iron will of control. At that instant he knew it surely -- that his heart was as entrapped as her limbs -- with no less threatening injury looming as a result.

Jamie came over to her side, then, and Vincent carefully shifted her slight weight over to the girl, who took Diana gently in her embrace. She could see that Diana's right arm was broken. Vincent helped her tuck it close to her body.

"Just try to rest."

Diana looked up into the uniquely beautiful face gratefully. It was courageously tender, promising an end to her pain, though she knew he'd always deny that truth to her, and to himself. She knew she could close her eyes now and experience only rest. Nothing more fearful than that. She would not die alone.

Even if she would never be Catherine.

Vincent moved over to Samantha and the young girl broke into desperate tears. Gathering her gently close to him, Vincent rocked her and stroked her long, disheveled braid. "It's all right, Samantha. You're safe," he assured her softly. "Don't cry." It was difficult for him to see the child cry, as Samantha was always quite a formidable young woman in her own right.

"Is Diana going to die?" came the sobbing question she had feared to voice, barely a whisper.

Pulling himself away from the girl a bit, Vincent knelt down before her on the pile of debris she was still resting upon, coming to her eye level. He tenderly smoothed her hair back from her face and wiped the tears streaming from her eyes with his indescribable hands.

"Diana is hurt, possibly seriously. We won't know how badly until we get her legs free. But I truly don't believe she is ready to leave us just yet." He knew he would battle the devil himself before he'd let her give up on life.

"She kept us safe, Vincent; you have to help her."

"We're doing just that. Mouse and Pascal are digging. And I need to help them. Will you be able to wait a little longer until we can get you ready to leave?"

"Don't worry about me, Vincent; just get Diana out of here."

Vincent touched a soft kiss to the girl's cheek. "As soon as Jamie is done helping us, she can get your arm bandaged properly."

In the interim, Pascal and Mouse had moved some of the smaller stones and pieces of timber from the pile of rubble Diana was trapped in. By the time Vincent rejoined them, they had cleared a shallow trough around the huge beam that was pinning down her legs.

Leaning down to the wood, Vincent tried to assess where Diana's legs were beneath the water level. They were not going to be able to lift the beam too far off without destabilizing the entire pile down on top of her.

Vincent took hold of a large crowbar that they had brought back into the chamber with them. Placing it carefully next to the timber in the trough that was cleared, he instructed his companions, "If I can lift the beam far enough for you to wedge some more rocks beneath it, we might be able to clear it enough to slip Diana's legs free."

"Right," Pascal answered, as he positioned himself with several larger stones on one end of the beam. Mouse did the same on the other end. Jamie wrapped her arms more closely around Diana, fearing that the poor woman would need to feel even more pain as her rescuers attempted to free her. Diana closed her eyes and mentally braced herself.

Vincent planted his legs firmly on the rock floor of the chamber beneath the water. Then he took hold of the bar and pulled with every bit of his already wearied strength. Some of the rubble pile began to shift and small rocks and sand splashed into the water. The beam itself finally lifted, a fraction of an inch, then an inch, then a bit more. Vincent's arms shivered with the exertion.

Mouse was able to shove a large stone beneath his end of the lifted beam. There was still room for another wedge. Groping around quickly for the right piece, the young engineer finally found one and packed it on top of the first stone just before Vincent had to release his hold on the bar. The beam came down onto the newly placed rocks, and held.

Moving farther down the timber, Vincent replace the iron bar closer to Pascal. With another total effort, he lifted that side of the beam as well. Pascal quickly braced it as Mouse had done, with more large stones. When Vincent felt the last of his strength leave his arms, he allowed the beam to come to rest once more on top of the rocks. One of the stones shifted precariously under the weight, but then settled into place.

In the end, the timber was lifted off Diana's legs about 3 inches.

Suddenly, Jamie felt the woman she held shake violently. Diana clutched at her arm with a fierce strength, born of sheer, physical agony. "Vincent!" Jamie called out in alarm.

He was at her side instantly, and with some difficulty pulled Diana's gripping arm off Jamie's slender one, instead offering her his own. Tears rolled down her cheeks and her teeth clenched. Vincent finally realized what was causing her frightening convulsion.

The beam, and the cold water, had deadened her nerves enough to actually shield her from the full force of pain from her injuries. Now that the timber had been lifted from her limbs, she had been battered by the complete, excruciating reality of her shattered leg.

After an eternity of time, Vincent finally felt the grip on his arm lessen. Diana had found some sort of momentary tolerance to the pain. Her eyes were sunken, beads of perspiration clung to her forehead. But she had not uttered a cry.

Trembling now as well, both from the force of Diana's agony and his own heart's anguish at her pain, Vincent wished desperately that Father might have been able to provide him with some sort of pain killer he could have injected the young woman with. But their stores of medial supplies were tenuous at best and Peter, Father's medical colleague and a trusted Helper, could not always provide them with such drugs without drawing attention to himself and possibly the Underworld as well.

There would be even more pain for her, he knew. They hadn't even attempted to move her yet. Mouse had gone completely white at the sight or her ordeal. Jamie was shaking, too. But Diana only turned her gentle eyes back to Vincent with trust.

"We have to get this over with," he spoke with uncertain conviction, when he could finally find his voice.

Pascal nodded, but there was doubt in his face. "We don't have much clearance. We'll have to pull her free."

"I know," Vincent responded. "Jamie, I'll need to take her from here. Could you get Samantha's shoulder immobilized?" Casting a momentary look at the child, his assessment of her condition was confirmed. She was terrorized at her friend's suffering. Dear God, he wished they'd been able to take the time and get Samantha out before they needed to deal with Diana's peril.

Jamie understood what was needed and quickly embraced the child with a hug, speaking to her softly. In a moment she was retrieving a sling and bandages from Father's medical bag and caring for the child's injury, eager to distract her.

Vincent returned his attention to Diana. There was going to be only one way to completely free her quickly.

Kneeling at her side in the water, Vincent slipped his arms beneath her back and as far under her legs as he could. Then he caught her trusting, ravaged eyes with his and willed her a share of his strength. "Diana, I don't know how we can keep you from this pain, but it must be done. I am going to lift and slide you and Mouse and Pascal will slip your legs free."

Diana nodded her head ever so slightly, never once taking her eyes from Vincent's face. He prayed that he would be worthy of her so total faith in him.

Holding her gaze for a reassuring moment, he called to Pascal and Mouse, "On 'three', then. One, two, three."

With as much gentleness as he could manage under the circumstances, Vincent lifted and pulled the young woman in his arms. But his efforts at deflecting the total anguish of the move on her battered body were to no avail. The moment Mouse and Pascal drew her legs to follow his lead, the pain engulfed her once more.

This time she could not bear it, nor in silence. A heart-wrenching scream tore from her lungs to reverberate against the chamber walls. Finally her legs cleared the timber to rest out of the water, on top of the sand mound where Vincent had lifted her.

"Oh Lord!" Pascal called out hoarsely. Vincent pulled his attention from Diana's face reluctantly. She had lost consciousness. Mercifully so. He followed Pascal's cry and caught sight of the extent of the injuries she was bearing. His chest began to tighten with the realization.

Her left knee was darkly bruised and swollen. It must have hit the rock floor first as she had fallen, now showing evidence of being twisted or sprained. That sight alone was enough for Pascal to have turned away in distress.

But the state of her right leg was even worse, having born most of the weight of the timber: It was completely black and blue, from knee to ankle, very nearly crushed in several places. Vincent made out a compound fracture halfway down its length, where a shard of bone had broken through her flesh and skin in a gaping wound now running heavily with blood.

Vincent slid Diana out of his arms and rested her head on Pascal's bundled up tunic. Then he grabbed the medical bag and came over to Pascal's side in one bounding motion.

Every Underground dweller was well-versed in first aid, even the children. They had to be. The prospect of being hurt in a remote area of their world was very real, and knowing how to handle injuries could save lives. Father had made certain, though, that at least a half dozen of the community were also able to assist in more involved care, his own advancing age and hip problems making his quick responses to distant emergencies at times unrealistic. Vincent thanked his parent for the training, now, as he worked to stop the bleeding from Diana's leg. Still, even with his considerable medical knowledge he found himself praying, literally feeling the young woman's life hanging in the balance.

It took several long moments before the flow of blood was slowed and finally stopped again. The timber's weight had apparently worked as a tourniquet on the wound. Without it, Diana surely would have bled to death by now.

Carefully, the injury was bandaged so as not to disturb the protruding bone too much. That would have to be left to Father's care. Letting his hands run slowly along the length of Diana's leg, Vincent found at least two more breaks. With Pascal's help he set a splint to the entire limb, then bandaged the damaged knee on the other one.

With the wounds on both limbs more or less stabilized, Vincent then ran a second splint between them and began to bandage both legs together for complete immobilization, from above the knees to the ankles. He could only guess with heartache at the pain the movements would have engulfed Diana in, and he thanked heaven that she had passed out.

Finally finished with all he was capable of doing for her most serious injuries, Vincent turned his care to Diana's fractured right arm. It, too, was a vicious break, just below the elbow. Splinting it, he couldn't help but be overwhelmed by how frail that slender limb seemed, how vulnerable even her hand had become. The knuckles were scraped and battered, too. He found an irresistible yearning rising up from within his heart to shelter her hand in his a moment before setting it to rest across her chest. He'd almost lost her, today. Not only had the children been in jeopardy; he'd almost lost Diana as well.

A startling pain knifed through him at the thought.

Mouse had begun rigging up the ropes necessary for them to lift their patient up into the crawl space tunnel. By now, Jamie had also safeguarded Samantha's shoulder. Her arm rested in a sling and then was completely bound to her body in bandages. The child was obviously weary, still on the verge of tears. Vincent packed away the last of the medical supplies and gathered the girl into his arms carefully. "It looks like you are ready to go. Jamie, why don't you and Samantha start off now? It will take us a few more minutes before we're ready to lift Diana."

Jamie easily pulled herself up the rope and back into the crawl space tunnel. Thank goodness for her fearless expertise, Vincent found himself thinking. Though Father had long ago despaired of attempting to more completely "feminize" the girl, he knew that her adventuring heart and generous courage would always serve her, and the community. Today's circumstances were no exception.

Noting that the girl was safely in position, Vincent gave Samantha final reassurance. "You'll be out in a few minutes. Jamie will help you along." Samantha rested her head wearily onto his chest, gathering her own strength.

Crouching down low beside her, Vincent then set her onto his shoulder. When he pulled himself up again to his full height, Samantha was just short of reaching the crawl space opening. Carefully holding the child steady, Vincent climbed atop another rubble pile near the wall. It gave him enough extra height to lift the child up to the tunnel level. Jamie took hold of her good arm, then her waist, and pulled the girl up into the crawl space beside her.

"Please bring Diana out soon," Samantha called out before turning into the tunnel. Vincent reached his hand out to hers.

"We will. Don't worry. You must take care of yourself now." In a moment, leaning onto Jamie for support, the child was safely on her way.

"Mouse is ready, too," came the familiar broken-sentenced sound of the young man's voice. Vincent patted him on the shoulder gratefully, retrieved the rigid stretcher board, and came back to Diana's side.

With a smooth movement, he and Pascal lifted her onto the board. She weighed next to nothing, it seemed, so very fragile in comparison to the chaos of stone and water she had been subjected to.

Though relieved that they had been able to free her and stabilize her wounds, a nagging fear still remained with Vincent where Diana was concerned: She didn't appear to have internal injuries, but her condition, he knew, was precarious just the same. Even though fractures and injuries resulting from living underground were more or less common among the community, and Father was a thoroughly competent and experienced physician with more areas of expertise than most general practitioners in the world Above by necessity, Vincent feared their little hospital chamber would be ill-equipped to hand such a traumatic series of wounds. And getting Diana up to Peter and a hospital Above, in her present state, was out of the question.

To have literally pulled her free from death only to lose her to a lack of resources would have been the ultimate blow to Vincent's heart. To have his home, his source of life and existence be the cause of Diana's loss would be the last anguish he could face. Home, then, would truly become little more than a tomb for him once again as well.

Pascal set a hand on Vincent shoulder. "She'll be well, Vincent. Father will take good care of her. It won't be easy, but she will be all right."

Had his fears been so plain? Or had his childhood friend recognized the turmoil he had been thrown in from the moment Diana had entered his life?

"I'm trying to believe that, Pascal," came the quiet reply. Vincent then set about readying Diana for transport, pushing the fears from his mind and working only on sheer force of will. He tucked a dry blanket over and around her completely, then strapped the slight form safely into place with the belts, trying not to aggravated any other injuries on her battered body. Lifting the stretcher board together, Pascal and Vincent brought it over to Mouse and the ropes. The lift was attached to the board's handles.

Mouse clambered up the free rope and pulled himself into the crawl space opening. In the chamber below him, Vincent and Pascal pulled on the lift ropes slowly until the stretcher was above them and even with the tunnel entrance. Tying the ropes to lock the lift in place, Vincent then climbed up the small mound of debris by the crawl space entrance.

Gently guiding the suspended stretcher, he placed it within reach of Mouse's grasp in the crawl space. As Pascal fed him slack on the rope, he pushed the board completely up into the small pipe tunnel safely.

Pascal caught the lift ropes when Vincent tossed them down to him and coiled them about himself, readying for departure. Vincent retrieved Father's medical bags and the extra emergency supplies they could carry, then cast a look about the chamber now empty of its victims.

In the water on the far side of the chamber, he noticed something brightly colored and fabric, caught beneath an edge of another smaller timber. He reached the object with three long strides, and bent down to pick it up. It was the canvas tote Diana used to shuttle Jacob's belongings between the Underground and her loft.

Pulling the small beam up, he was able to free the bag. How it ever managed to keep from being swept away he could not fathom. Glancing at its sodden contents momentarily, Vincent let an involuntary sigh escape his lips. There was Jacob's little bunny, actually his own, in the bottom of the bag. It was wet and covered in sandy grime, but it was safe, too.

A few of the tools they had brought with them they could still carry back this trip. Pascal had replaced them into his pouch. When he caught sight of Vincent with the soaked bunny in his hand, he smiled. "Looks like everyone is safe now."

"Yes." Vincent replied, swallowing hard. The realization had just about hit him completely. He owed Diana for Jacob's life, again, and even Samantha's this time. His debt to her was growing in fearful strides. She was proving herself, time and again, that very guardian angel of her Winterfest fable, watching over, protecting, healing.

It had always been his place.

Now, he was the recipient of the selfless care and protection, his family was the beneficiary of her devotion. It was more than a little frightening to contemplate. Because within him there was more than a little need to acknowledge the boundless, unashamed look of love she revealed to him in her eyes an hour ago. He might not be able to offer her what she yearned for, what she deserved, but he could look upon the revelation of her heart and cherish it just the same.

Vincent tucked the little bunny into his pocket and pulled himself up to the crawl space entrance where Mouse waited -- with Diana. Taking the little toy, then, he slipped it beneath the belt running across Diana's waist. One more little soul for her to watch over. He knew she would welcome the task. Just as he knew he would not deny her the opportunity. For whatever unexplainable reason, the battered young woman had become his own family's protector. He prayed for the strength to allow her her work. And asked heaven for forgiveness.

 

It was damnably difficult to negotiate the cramped crawl space tunnel with their fragile burden. Mouse was moving more or less sideways, taking three or four small steps, then reaching behind him for the stretcher and pulling it after him. Vincent was pushing the board in front of him as far as he could reach, then working his own body along the narrow width of the tunnel mostly on his elbows and stomach. In his position, in the semi-darkness, more than once he found himself hovering inches above Diana's body, his long hair actually falling over her face. It made breathing that much more difficult for him.

When Mouse needed to stop a moment longer and find his momentum once again, Vincent let his gaze rest on Diana in the sparse light coming from Pascal's helmet. A smudge of dirt had been lifted to her cheek from the awkward progress of their movements. He raised his hand to it without thinking and brushed it gently away. Her porcelain skin was ashen.

Mouse began his forward movement again. They had progressed thus, covering several dozen feet of distance, when the young man suddenly hit his knee on a rather large rock that had dropped free from the small tunnel's wall and settled onto its floor. He had been caught at the moment when he was balancing the stretcher behind him, and the sudden stop to his forward movement left him all but sprawling, causing him to lose his grip on one of the handles.

Even thought the stretcher was never really more than 3 or 4 inches above the tunnel floor at any given time as they made their way slowly along, the sudden drop threatened to tip it sideways and thrust Diana into the rough wall. Vincent automatically pushed his body between it and the board, hoping to keep the stretcher balanced. His own momentum, however, forced him hard up against the stone and the aging pipe they were following. He felt a sudden burning sensation high on his shoulder that momentarily knocked the breath out of him.

Pascal, moving behind the stretcher bearers with the tools and medical supplies, caught sight of the grimace of pain on Vincent's face. "What is it?" he asked in concern.

"Nothing. Just a scratch," came the reply he knew he would hear. Then, "Mouse, are you all right?"

"Sorry. Stumbled. Diana hurt?" The young engineer could not make out the faces of his companions because of the light beam shining in his eyes.

"She is not hurt," Vincent responded, as he took a moment to observe the fragile form on the board. Not even the jostling had awakened her. He was grateful for that, knowing the pain she would have to endure otherwise. But he locked his gaze on her breathing, the shallow rise and fall of her chest, to reassure himself she was still alive.

Once his knee stopped throbbing a bit, Mouse was able to renew his progress along the tunnel. Vincent eased himself from under the stretcher's side and resumed his own position. But when he reached his arms out ahead to move the board, there was another pang of pain in his shoulder. He willed it from his consciousness and continued onward.

Only Pascal could see the spreading dark stain on the back of Vincent's shirt. And he knew what Vincent had collided with on the tunnel wall: the broken iron pipe bracket, sharp and rusted. Just another 25-30 feet of tunnel to negotiate. Pascal closed his eyes momentarily and whispered a prayer.

 

The crowd that was still gathered around the mouth of the crawl space entrance was subdued. Pascal's return with Jacob had set collective hearts to soaring. Jamie and Samantha's appearance had been greeted by relief. Mary had quickly spirited the child to the hospital chamber for medical attention, Jamie still at her side.

But Olivia, Cullen, Timothy and the others keeping vigil had felt their blood grow cold at the sound that had reached them earlier through the narrow tunnel opening. It was not the delighted giggles of a toddler reaching for his father's arms. It was, instead, a heart-stopping cry of agony. Jamie had been reluctant to offer any details beyond the fact that the men were laboring to free Diana and that she appeared to be seriously hurt. No one pressed her further with questions.

Then Olivia called out -- "The light . . . I can see the light."

Everyone moved farther away from the crawl space opening except Cullen and Timothy. A few moments passed as the sounds of movement across grit and stone came closer and closer, heralded as well by the beam of light growing ever brighter.

Mouse's figure came scrambling through the opening at last. Cullen and Timothy helped pull the young man free. "Stretcher behind me. Careful," he admonished.

The back board supporting Diana then was pushed forward into the tunnel opening. Vincent waited until Timothy was able to grab hold of the carrying handles before he slowly and evenly moved the stretcher ahead of him and out of the cramped tunnel. Reaching far out with his own hold on the board, Vincent finally let Cullen pick up the weight of his end.

Turning a moment before whisking their patient away, Cullen told Vincent, "Father's waiting for her in the hospital chamber."

Mouse helped Vincent free himself from the confines of the small tunnel. He, in turn, reached back to steady Pascal out of the opening, burdened with ropes and tools. But making a move to follow Cullen down to the hospital chamber, Vincent suddenly found that he was light-headed and unsteady on his feet. He reached a hand out to the wall for support. Olivia came to his side.

"Vincent, are you all right?"

Shaking his head to clear his blurring vision, Vincent managed to focus on Olivia's concerned face. Before he could speak a reassurance, Pascal cut in. "He's hurt, too, Livy. A broken pipe bracket caught him in the back. He's bleeding."

Olivia swallowed involuntarily. Those were the last words she needed to hear. Father, Mary, and Terese would be occupied for hours with Diana. Every member of the community was keenly aware of the one real danger to Vincent's life -- any bleeding wound could become fatal. With his unique physiology, there was no one to donate blood for a transfusion if one ever became necessary. It was Father's everlasting nightmare: watching his son bleed to death and being unable to do anything about it.

"You're coming with me, " Olivia ordered, wrapping her arm halfway around Vincent's waist and hooking her hand onto his belt. About to protest, Vincent finally allowed himself to be helped down along the tunnel. Olivia's willing shoulder was truly a relief, as were her words: "Jacob is fine. Samantha, too. They are both resting. You can see them in the hospital chamber. And I can take care of that wound."

The faintness that had assailed him, though, was not only caused by his injured shoulder. As he had lifted Diana into the more well-lit passageway, he had caught sight of more than one shocked and pained expression on the faces of his friends at the sight of the young woman. They knew, too, he realized, how tenuous her grip on survival was at the moment. The truth washed over him with searing pain: He could very well still lose the young woman from his life. The pain had felled him as surely as any loss of blood.


Continued in Chapter 6