It really could not be more of a stereotypical villain lair if they'd taken the design straight from one of those execrable Captain America comics, Peggy thought, shining her torch above and around the empty, echoing halls. And it was entirely cleaned out. Not a stick of furniture, not even so much as a bolt. When Hydra cleared out, they really cleared out.
"I can't believe they had a facility this close to New York," Daniel said, coming up on her shoulder. "Right here on American soil. Unbelievable."
"Yes, but it's been empty for some time." Peggy dragged a toe through the dust. "It was probably closed up during the war. No sense bombing New York if you'll be killing a bunch of your own people, after all."
They were far up the Hudson River, somewhere near Albany, she was fairly sure. New York City wasn't the only place she'd been in the US -- there was also the national capital and a few other places -- but this was the first time she'd been outside the city into the more rural country north of it: farms and smaller towns all scattered along the river valley.
Some kids, exploring, had discovered the entrance to the facility and recognized the Hydra symbol from the news, which had eventually resulted in the SSR being called in. It turned out the massive combination lock on the sealed metal doors responded to an old Hydra code. However, the lab boys' hopes of getting their hands on new Hydra tech had been met with utter failure. The whole place was nothing but echoing subterranean chambers.
In the chaotic days following the Leviathan plot to gas the city, SSR had been stretched thin, and the lab team was already on their way back down to the city. The base was initially deemed interesting enough to call in the new provisional director -- Peggy was pretty sure Thompson just wanted an excuse to get away from his desk for awhile -- but from the look of things, there really wasn't much to see.
Still, Peggy was reveling in the heady delight of being part of an exploration team -- assigned, just like the other agents, and she felt her flat shoes and sensible ladies' suit were at least as practical as the boys' creased trousers and wingtips. There was nothing to see, and the subterranean tunnel system was sharply chilly, the walls damp. But she found herself reluctant to go back to the city quite yet. Later, the SSR's analysts would comb the entire facility at their leisure, and find anything that remained to be found -- documents, maps, codebooks. The whole place would be sucked dry as a bone. These early days were the only chance the initial exploration team would have to find anything of note.
It wasn't that she cared about the glory of it. It wasn't even that she thought it would justify her de facto promotion from coffee girl to front-line agent. She'd proved herself during the war; all else was just the gilding on the rose. But the idea of finding something hitherto undiscovered made a bubble of happiness rise in her chest. She'd always liked to explore the uncharted edges of the maps.
She still wasn't sure if she intended to stay with the SSR. There were other possibilities fluttering around at the back of her mind. So strange, to have gone from feeling as if she had no options, to seeing the world open up in front of her. Only now, looking back on herself, had she begun to understand her own mental state following the end of the war and Steve's death. It was as if the world had been a colorless cardboard copy of itself, and now a million shades of color and sensation began to seep back in, freshening the sunrise and bringing the flavor back to her morning cup of tea.
Not that there was much color here. With the facility's power out -- it had probably had its own generator at one point -- there were no lights, and nothing to see but smooth gray walls, with blackness before and behind. She and Daniel had already hit a few dead ends and had to double back. Peggy thought she was getting an idea of the basic layout of the place: a ring of tunnels around several centrally located storage areas -- big, like hangars.
She played her torch beam up a metal-grille set of steps. They were narrow and set far apart. "I assume you're all right with this, Daniel?"
"Long as I don't have to run down 'em."
At the top, they found a metal-barred trap door that swung easily upward, gliding on hinges still well-oiled after all these months. Their footsteps echoed in the darkness. So far, the purpose of the facility was unknown, and their exploration was shedding little light on it. "Downstairs" seemed to be large storage bays with tunnels between them; "upstairs" was mostly smaller rooms that the scientists persisted in calling labs, though since there wasn't a scrap of equipment left in any of them, Peggy supposed they could just as easily be for sleeping or training or heaven only knew what. The single entrance discovered so far was the one they'd come in through, a set of double doors in what looked like an old barn.
Peggy was starting to wish she'd worn a jacket. Of course, it was full New York summer aboveground: muggy and hot. She'd found the light cotton suit oppressive in the car.
"It's possible they never actually used this place," she remarked to Daniel as they stumped through empty rooms. "I would expect you'd see the outlines of where equipment used to sit, rust stains on the floor and the like. There's very little of that kind of thing." She'd seen a few emptied and abandoned labs in Europe, and there was a different feel to them. She didn't think this one had been in active use for long, if at all.
"Maybe they planned to expand into America but had to pull back to Europe once the SSR started nibbling at 'em," Daniel suggested.
The purpose of the rooms they were currently exploring was, at least, not in doubt: they'd found the bathrooms. Tiled floor, rows of open-fronted cubicles with capped pipes. Even the toilets and sinks had been pulled out, or never installed in the first place.
"At least the air's good," Daniel pointed out. He raised his torch to point at a narrow vent where the wall met the ceiling. "Surprising, with nothing circulating it."
He was right; the air smelled stale, but it wasn't bad to breathe. "Well, I doubt if it's been sealed up long," Peggy said. "Just a couple of years, probably. No more than five or so." She played her torch around as they walked down another hallway, finding more vents. "And it looks like the ventilation system is fairly extensive." Though, she thought, much too small for a person to fit through. Perhaps they really had been reading those comics.
They passed more stairs and had made, Peggy figured, about half a full circuit of the facility when a burst of static from their radios made her flinch. She caught the jolt and skid of Daniel's crutch, as well. They shared a brief grin.
"Hey, I've been calling you two clowns. Turn your radios on!"
"They are on, Jack," Daniel retorted.
"Yeah? Why aren't you answering? I was one step from figuring you two got eaten by a monster down here."
"We're picking you up loud and clear now," Peggy said.
"Yeah, that's because I've decided to join you in the labyrinth. Where are you?"
"Upstairs." She paused to shine her torch through a wider vent that was on floor level for some reason. When she knelt down, she could see why: it went through into one of the high-ceilinged equipment bays below.
"Hey, I just saw a flash of light," Jack said on the radio. "Tell me that's you two."
Peggy tugged on the grille. It seemed to be cemented in place. She contented herself with flashing the light back and forth across it in a Morse code pattern. "Can you read this?"
"C-O-OL Y-O-U-R J-E-T -- oh yeah, funny, Carter. How about this?"
Crouched as she was, she could see the gleam of his light as well, far below. She could also see the pattern as he covered and uncovered it with his hand. "Now, Jack, is that any way to talk to a lady?"
"I'm sorry, is there a lady present? And that's Director Thompson to you."
Daniel made a disgruntled noise. Peggy poked his ankle with her toe. "Nope, just us agents," she said. "As for the radios, ours were on the whole time. We must be too deep for the signal to make it to the surface, or perhaps it's shielded in some way."
"I thought you were gonna head out, Jack," Daniel said, leaning over Peggy's shoulder. He couldn't easily bend down as she was; it was more of an awkward rotation from the waist. Below them, Jack's light flipped around the room a bit -- oddly disjointed-looking from up here -- and then vanished.
"I was planning on it, but then I realized I had some agents unaccounted for. They tend to frown on it when you lose some, even if they have a habit of wandering off on their own."
"We're clearing the upstairs like proper agents," Peggy said, and winked at Daniel.
"Yeah, well, why don't you two proper agents get back to the exit, so we can all make it home by suppertime. Don't trip over any Nazis while you're at it."
"Yes, sir, Commandant Director, sir," Peggy announced smartly, before tucking her radio back into her handbag.
They started walking again. Peggy recalled from her earlier tour of the facility as part of the scientists' protection detail that another set of stairs should be close. There were four of them, arranged generally equidistant from each other, all with those metal-barred trap doors over the top. The trap doors didn't seem to lock, though, which made their purpose somewhat opaque.
"I can't believe you're okay with that jerk snaking your promotion," Daniel said after a moment.
"If I wasted my time being angry with the Jack Thompsons of the world, I'd do nothing but be angry. And I don't need anyone fighting my battles for me."
He raised the hand with the torch, two fingers held up -- the closest he could come, with both hands full, to the conciliatory hand gesture he obviously intended. "Didn't mean nothin' by it."
Peggy opened her mouth to answer, and then paused. Daniel went on another couple of steps, then stopped and looked back. "Hey, Peggy, I really didn't mean --"
"Shhh," she said absently, head cocked to one side. "I'm not angry, it's just -- Daniel, do you hear something?"
Daniel shifted his torch to his crutch hand so he could reach for his shoulder holster. "What kind of something?"
"I'm not sure." It wasn't heard so much as felt. A vibration, maybe? As they stood still, she became aware of the rhythmic, distant echoing sound of footsteps. Jack Thompson, she was fairly sure, elsewhere in the facility. At least she hoped so.
"Peggy," Daniel whispered. "I think I hear ... a humming sort of sound? Right at the edge of hearing."
He was right. Peggy felt the hairs rise on the back of her neck. She couldn't tell if it was new, or if it had simply been covered up by talking and footsteps when the entire SSR crowd were there. She reached for her radio. "Jack, where are you?"
"As far as I can tell where anything is in this pit, I'm sorta near the door. Why?"
"Because Daniel and I both think we hear a sound," Peggy said. "A sort of distant hum, such as electricity or machinery might make. Do you hear anything?"
"Not really, over the sound of -- Holy shit!"
Simultaneous with Jack's exclamation came a sudden series of metallic clangs. She couldn't tell the direction; they seemed to come from everywhere. Echoes ran through the facility in all directions. Daniel had his gun out, and Peggy reached for hers.
"Sousa, Carter, report!" Jack barked over the radio.
"We're fine," Peggy said. She and Daniel had automatically gravitated to stand back-to-back, torches and service weapons pointing out at the suddenly ominous darkness around them. The echoes of the clanging were dying away, but there was something else now: a low, deep thrumming. There was something familiar about it, very familiar, but Peggy couldn't make her brain cough it up. This was the wrong setting for it, she thought; it should be in some other context ... "Did you see anything?"
"No, but I sure heard something." Pounding footsteps, harsh breathing. He was running. Then the pounding steps halted, though she could still hear his breathing, and Jack said, "Well, crap."
"Real helpful, Thompson," Daniel said dryly. "Think you could be more specific?"
"I think we're locked in." There were some more sounds, hard to distinguish through the radio static. "Big door came down, sealing off the way out. Can't find a way to open it. You two find any other exits in all your wandering around?"
"Not so far," Daniel said. He shifted his weight to both legs so he had his crutch hand free to shine the light around.
The hollow thrumming was getting louder. I've heard this, Peggy thought, and had a sudden flash of the flat where they'd lived when she was a child. It was something about the terrible old plumbing in that place. One turned on the tap and waited, listening to the gurgling from deep in the pipes --
"Daniel!" she gasped, and just then water burst from the overhead vents, pouring down onto them.
It was ice cold. They both screamed reflexively and scrambled away from the cascade. Daniel dropped his torch, and then scrabbled to pick it up.
"The hell! What, what?" Jack demanded over the radio, and then, "Fuck!"
Peggy wiped her sodden hair out of her eyes. "Are you getting water down there too?"
"And how! Jesus!"
The mausoleum silence was now filled with the splash and rumble of water pouring from the vents, echoing and re-echoing -- it must be coming in everywhere, she thought. Around their feet, the water was puddling, but running off in all directions before it could form pools. Running where? Peggy asked herself, and then answered her own question: To the bottom floor of the facility, of course.
Where Jack was.
Daniel had clearly had the same thought. "Hey, Jack, I think you might wanna get up here with us."
"Way ahead of you, Sousa."
Peggy looked at Daniel. He holstered his weapon; she kept hers out, but at her side. There didn't seem to be any immediate threat other than the water. Although, she thought, if there's no way out, it will become a threat soon enough.
Unsure what else to do, they went on. As long as they stayed in the middle of the corridor, they were able to stay out of the cascade, though both of them were already sodden. The water was a surveillance nightmare. It filled the air with noise, so they couldn't tell if anything was approaching them from behind, and created constant movement in their peripheral vision. They both kept jumping and looking around. Peggy finally made herself return her gun to its usual place in her handbag; she was too jumpy, too worried about shooting Daniel by accident.
"When you're in a maze," Jack said unexpectedly over the radio, "if you keep your right hand on the wall, you'll eventually find your way back to the start."
"Useful trivia, Jack," Daniel said. "Thanks."
"Look, if you two get lost, I don't want to be down here twice as long trying to find you, is why I'm mentioning it."
"Isn't the entrance currently blocked?" Peggy asked.
"It's the general principle that's the point. Don't bite a guy's head off."
Daniel stopped so suddenly Peggy almost ran into him. "What?" she asked, and then murmured, "Oh."
They'd reached the stairs, so now she knew what the other clanging sounds had been. The barred trapdoor over the stairs had slammed shut. Water was pouring through the bars into the level below, running in a thin, steady waterfall all around the edges. It glistened silvery in the light.
Peggy knelt on the wet floor -- it wasn't like she could get wetter -- and, putting her torch aside, she gripped the bars with both hands.
The other one had risen easily at a touch. This one didn't budge.
"I think it's stuck! Daniel, help me."
Daniel went down to his good knee and got a grip on it beside her. The whole thing might have been cast from solid stone for all the difference it made.
"What on Earth? I didn't even see a locking mechanism." Peggy ran her fingers along the crack between the door and its setting. It was flush, fitting with barely a gap. "Unless this one's different from the other, it must have engaged something when it fell. Some sort of magnetic mechanism, perhaps, or something that deployed outward into the sides of the frame."
"Huh," Jack said over the radio. "Little problem here."
"Let me guess," Daniel said. "You can't get up the stairs."
"Yeah, there seem to be steel bars across the top. How 'bout you?"
"We're at another stairwell, and it's the same thing here," Peggy said. "There are two more of them. If you keep going -- well, whichever way you're going, clockwise or widdershins -- you should find both of them easily."
"What the fuck did you two do up there?"
"Nothing, Jack," Daniel said, sounding testy. "We weren't touching anything. Haven't touched anything the whole time we've been here, except the floor and a door here or there."
"Yeah, well, I was in a hallway that a dozen people have walked through today, so if anybody set off a booby trap --"
Peggy cut off his tirade by pressing the button on her radio, waited until he'd had time to wind down and release his own button so he could hear her, then said, "I expect it's no one's fault, Jack. It could easily have been on a time delay, running ever since the doors opened. We can sort that out later. Right now, Daniel and I will search for an exit or some sort of control room up here."
"Yeah, well, get a move on, ladies, 'cause there is a lot of water down here."
Peggy and Daniel shared a glance. "How much water, exactly?" Peggy asked.
"It's over my ankles already. And it's god damn cold."
She and Daniel shared a glance. "This place is huge," Daniel said, keeping his finger off the radio button. "Even at the rate it's coming in up here, it shouldn't be filling up that fast."
"There must be more water coming in below," Peggy said. "They could have it coming in directly from the river."
"It's been, what, fifteen minutes? If there's a few inches downstairs already, it's rising fast. We don't have a whole lot of time. Hours."
"And Jack has a great deal less, unless he can get upstairs." She glanced down at the radio. "He's scared."
"Heck, I'm scared." Daniel's face was stark white and black in the torchlight, beaded with water. "You think we did trip something? Cause all of this?"
"No point in might-haves and could-have-beens. It won't get these doors open." She straightened up. Just in the short time they'd been stopped, she was already beginning to shiver. The air, damp and cool to begin with, was positively clammy now that it was filled with cold water spray, and the fact they'd been soaked didn't help. She went to wipe her radio on her leg, but only smeared the water around.
"How well do these handle moisture?" she asked Daniel.
"They're designed for field work, so a little rain or damp isn't going to destroy them." He looked down at his own. "I dunno if I'd want to let it soak, though."
And without the radios, they'd all be completely out of touch. "Let's split up," Peggy said. "If time is of the essence, we'll cover more ground that way."
"So, hey, I can't get the stairs unblocked here, so I'm heading around to the next one," Jack said over the radio. "Four stairwells, then."
"Yes," Peggy said into the radio, "that's right. The main corridors wrap round. Ignore side tunnels, they're dead ends. If you just keep going, you should have no trouble finding the others." Daniel caught her attention, then pointed left, at Peggy, then right. She nodded, and he set off in the leftward direction at a good clip. "Jack, Daniel and I are going to split up and search for a way out, all right?"
"Yeah, all right, but stay in touch."
Their earlier explorations had been fun, but there was nothing at all fun about moving through the curtains of cascading water with deadly serious purpose. Hard as she tried, it was impossible to keep from getting soaked and soaked again. At least if she kept moving briskly enough, she stayed warm, but it was a temporary solution at best. They had no blankets, no food; the water probably wasn't safe to drink. Of course, all of that will only be a problem if we survive the next couple of hours, she thought.
Her radio crackled to life, a blessed point of human contact in the great, dark, splashing void. "Hey, you guys," Jack said, "I found out where a lot of the water's coming from. Just so you know."
"Daniel and I speculated there must be more water coming in below than what we have up here."
"Well, whoop-de-doo for you two. Yeah, it's coming in fast on -- I guess it's the river side. I can't even get close without being swept off my feet." His voice faltered just a bit on the end. She wondered how close he'd come to losing both torch and radio, being trapped alone in the dark. She also wondered how deep the water was getting down below, but didn't want to ask.
A pause, then Jack said, "How's it going up there? A lot of times, places like this, there's ventilation shafts that go through to the surface, things like that."
Like you have so much more experience with Hydra facilities than I do, Peggy thought wryly. "Nothing on my end," she said, sweeping her torch across another wet and empty room, more shimmering curtains of water cascading from the ceiling. "Daniel?"
"Nothing," Daniel said, sounding frustrated. "I found another stairwell and it's blocked like the others -- Gah!" Pause, then: "Sorry. Wet floor. Crutch. It's fun." After another pause: "You think we could stop up where the water's coming in somehow?"
"I don't see how." The pouring water glittered like fairy lights in her torch beam. Hard to believe something so innocuous and beautiful was also quite deadly. "It's coming in from everywhere. The entire ventilation system must be flooded."
"So here's another thought," Jack said. Rhythmic splashing was audible underneath his voice as he walked. "Not to borrow trouble here or anything, but how many extra flashlight batteries do you two have on you?"
"None," Daniel said, with a concerned drag under his voice that indicated he hadn't thought of that, and thank you so much Jack for pointing it out.
"I have two spare sets," Peggy said. "Really? Neither of you?"
"Two?" Daniel said.
"I also have two spare clips of ammunition, a pencil and notepad, gloves, penknife, a book of useful phrases in other languages, a cigarette lighter ... and a compact and lipstick, but I don't suppose that would be of interest to either of you."
"That tears it," Jack said. "When we get out of here, all SSR agents are going to start carrying handbags. Standard issue, color of your choice. Meanwhile, I've had another less than pleasant thought, in an effort to take my mind off my imminent watery demise."
"Our imminent watery demise," Daniel said, sounding a bit distracted; he must be looking around somewhere.
"Yeah, but mine's gonna come first. .... Anyway, I was thinking about how everybody else headed back to the city after packing up, and thinks we did likewise. Nobody's gonna miss us 'til morning."
"My God, you are simply a ray of sunshine, aren't you, Jack?" Peggy said, tripping briskly through the bathrooms they'd explored earlier. "Besides, you're wrong. I have a roommate, and she'll worry if I don't come home. Though," she added in the interests of honesty, "she normally works late herself, so it will be past midnight."
"And we're three hours north of the city," Jack said. "Let's face it here, we're getting out of this on our own or not at all."
Silence fell then -- but not true silence; it was filled with a million different shades of gurgling and splashing. Peggy had always liked falling asleep to the sound of rain, but this was magnified a thousand times over, until it became oppressive rather than pleasant. She was still jumpy, hating the way she kept glimpsing her own reflection on the wet floor, her shadow running up the walls, and whirling around to see if anything was there. Especially when she was moving, it was easy to hear murmurs of distant voices in the nonstop overlapping echoes of the falling water.
And there was nothing helpful, nothing at all. So far she hadn't found so much as a spanner abandoned in a corner, or the broken pieces of an old crate. Grimly she added more items to her mental list for her standard field-agent handbag kit, starting with a good-sized screwdriver.
The beam of her light illuminated a dark block on the floor, striped with glistening steel bars. She'd circled back around to another stairwell -- the one she and Daniel had come up, she was fairly sure. They should probably mark them so they didn't get turned around. She crouched beside it and opened the blade of her penknife.
One thing she would give Hydra: their engineering was excellent. The barred grate had swung flush into a metal frame, so tightly fitted that she couldn't get the blade of her knife between them. The bars were securely seated in their metal sockets and didn't even rattle. Peggy scraped with her knife at the floor around the edge of the frame and found that it was concrete with dull gray paint over the top. This might be a possibility, she thought, picking away chips of concrete at the edge of the metal frame. With a hammer and chisel, something could probably be done. The knife was useless for the purpose, though. If she were in prison and had months to work on it, she could probably dig the grate out, though she'd most likely wear the knife blade down to a nub in the effort. Given hours ... no. Not likely. Still, she scraped a little "1" in a circle to distinguish this particular flight of stairs from the others.
"Hey, where are you guys?" Jack asked. His voice sounded tight. "Cause I see a light and it ain't me."
"It's not me," Daniel said. "I'm in a ... heck, I don't know what this is, some sort of utility room I guess, but the only exit is the door I came in through."
Peggy snapped off her light and leaned over the bars. For the first instant all she saw was flat pitch black, but as her eyes adapted, she began to glimpse wavering reflections on the dark water at the bottom of the stairs. "I think it's me," she said, turning her light back on. "I'm at the top of a stairwell, if you're approaching one."
Shining the light down the stairs, she saw the waves of dark water ripple in a more agitated kind of way, and a moment later Jack splashed into view and looked up at her. He was utterly sodden, his blond hair slicked down and dark with water. She also saw with deep alarm that the water was past his knees, sloshing around his thighs. It was rising even faster than they'd feared.
"Nice to see a friendly face," Jack said. It was a little disconcerting to hear his voice in person, after talking to him only on the radio since they'd parted above ground. "Or ... you know. A face, anyway." He splashed up the stairs until he was out of the water, then sat down just below her and snapped off his torch to save batteries, plunging the area below him into darkness. By the reflected light of her own torch, Peggy could see him pick up his legs one at a time, wring out his trouser leg and dump the water out of his shoes.
"I have always been told I have a passable face," she said. "We're working on getting you up here, Jack."
"Yeah?" he said, tipping his head back. He looked oddly small on the stairs, his face pale in her torch beam: not the frightful bully of the interrogation room, but the man she'd spoken to on the flight back from Russia, huddled in the window of the cargo plane, guilty and afraid. "How's that going?"
"Well," she said, grimacing apologetically, "we know a number of places not to look, now, and have ruled out a number of things that aren't useful."
His laugh had a sharp edge. He was shivering, she saw; she'd managed to stay passably warm by moving around, but he had been partly submerged in ever-deepening water since the deluge began. "Still, even if you and Sousa by some miracle manage to get the grates open, we'll just drown together as a team. Useful."
"Stop it," Peggy snapped. "We aren't dead yet, and that kind of thinking is the best way to get us there."
"Yeah? You know what else is going to get you there?" His face was tilted toward her, blond lashes casting long shadows across his cheeks in the torchlight. "Trying to rescue the dead guy when you two ought to be focusing all your efforts on finding a way out."
"Believe me, we are entirely capable of doing both. And none of us is dead yet. I intend to see that it stays that way." She fished in her handbag and came up with one of the spare sets of torch batteries, still wrapped in their paper packaging. "Here," she said, holding her hand between the bars.
He didn't move. "You should hang onto those. You guys need 'em more than I do. Not much to see down here."
Peggy shook her hand at him impatiently. "I have more, and if Daniel runs out first, he's up here with me; we can share. The exit we need may be down where you are, and you can't search for anything if you can't see." She gave her hand another sharp shake. "Don't be a martyr. I'm kneeling in a puddle here."
Jack huffed a small sigh and reached up to take the package from her. "You're twice the man I am, you know that?" he said, looking up at her.
"No," she said, with a thin smile. "I'm twice the woman."
Whatever he might have said in return was drowned out by a burst of static from the radio. "Hey, Peggy?" Daniel said. "I don't know what I've found, exactly, but you should come look at it."
It took her more time than she liked to find Daniel. After having to double back once, she started using her penknife to scrape little marks on the walls. She wasn't sure what notation to use, so ended up simply making a little arrow in the direction she was going. If Daniel had found something important, it would be good to be able to find it again; if not, at least she could avoid retracing her steps. The only trouble was that it was difficult to get close to the walls without getting freshly drenched. By the time she reached him, her hair was straggling down her neck in a bedraggled mess, and she was starting to shiver. My kingdom for a hot bath and a cup of tea ... no, I take that back. No more water. A warm fluffy robe and a blanket and a good hot radiator ...
Daniel was at the far end of a long, echoing room. It was dryer than most of the other places they'd been; the nearest ventilation grates (turned water sources) were outside the door, so while there was a puddle slowly creeping into the middle of the room, Daniel's end was still dry. Peggy made mental note of that. So far, it was the only place they'd found where they could get out of the water, at least for the present time.
"Check this out," he said when she got down to his end.
He was standing with his torch aimed at a ladder. It was one of the metal kind that are found in utility shafts, bolted to the wall at top and bottom. It didn't seem to lead to anything, however: just a blank ceiling.
"How odd," Peggy said, shining her light up at the ceiling. There were no cracks, but ... was that a faint, suspiciously square shadow? "No one would put a ladder to nothing at all."
"Yeah, that's my thought. Go ahead and climb up there."
She did so. Wet marks on the rungs indicated that Daniel had already been. Apparently he could do ladders; she made a mental note of it.
At the top, she played her light over the ceiling and then reached up to run her fingers over it. There was definitely some kind of shaft -- or had been; it now seemed to be sealed and painted over. There were some fresh-looking chips where someone had been digging at the paint, much as she'd done at the stairwell. "You?" she asked, touching them with her fingertips.
"Yeah," Daniel said, looking up from below her. "It's concrete underneath. I think there used to be a shaft, but it's been filled in."
Peggy peeled away a long strip of paint. "Rather hastily filled in." The concrete at the stairwell had been good quality, but this was a poor, crumbling sort. She found the place it met the smoother, better-quality cement of the side, and dug her knife in. A large piece cracked off and fell to the floor. Daniel stepped aside to avoid it. Behind the piece she'd chipped out was ... more concrete, of equally poor quality.
"My kingdom for a crowbar," Daniel groaned. "There's no way to know how far up the fill job goes. Could be there used to be a shaft to the surface and now it's a hundred yards of solid concrete. Could even be another trap, straight into the river."
"True, but it could also be they capped it off and assumed no one would notice. Good work, Daniel." She pried out another chunk, making a hole she could get her fist into. He was right, though: for now, it was more worthwhile to look for a better tool than to risk breaking the few small tools they did have on a job designed for pavement-wrecking equipment. She scrambled back down and hopped off the ladder at the bottom, energized to the point of feeling warmer already.
"You were with Jack when I called, right?" Daniel said. "How's he doing?"
"Wet, gloomy, and insisting he's doomed," Peggy said. "Not that I can say I'd be much different in his place. The water's already up to his thighs."
Daniel winced. "That's coming up fast. We gotta find a way to open those trapdoors."
"As well as a way out," Peggy said, glancing up at the ceiling and the little fleck of darkness where she'd chiseled her hole. "I refuse to echo his fatalistic phrasing, but Jack is correct that there's little point in getting him upstairs if we don't also solve the problem of finding an exit."
Without discussing it, they stayed together as they left the room; somehow it felt comforting not to be alone, and splitting up hadn't proved so much of an advantage after all. Peggy pointed out her arrow markings. "Smart," Daniel said, and showed her the X's he'd been using to mark rooms as he cleared them.
Peggy smoothed back her straggling, wet hair with her fingers. "I'd say our biggest priority should be finding something we can use for a chisel or pry-bar. Even if there's nothing here but empty rooms, there must be something we can use. Think, Daniel! What are our assets?"
"Well ... " Daniel said. He shifted his weight so it was squarely on both legs, and raised his crutch.
"Oh." Peggy's eyes widened. Talk about missing something right in front of one's eyes. Or, rather, something that had become so much a part of the background scenery of her world that she no longer considered it an independent object. It simply was. "May I?" she asked.
Daniel slipped his arm out and handed it to her. It was lighter than it looked, with most of the weight in the handgrip and arm strap.
"Trouble is, it's aluminum," he said. "Really lightweight metal. The bars on those grates are steel. No way it could pop 'em up." He looked slightly embarrassed. "I actually tried a little, while I was on my own. It's not gonna do it, though, and putting too much weight on the end will just bend it, maybe break it. I'd rather not do that unless it's a last resort."
"I understand." She flipped the crutch around, so the rubber tip pointed at the ceiling. "What's under here?" she asked, pinching the hard rubber between her fingers.
"Just the blunt end of the metal. What are you thinking?"
"Aluminum, as you said, isn't very hard. I wonder how difficult it would be to grind a point onto it? I doubt if we could do anything with the firmer concrete around the stairs, but this might work for prying pieces out of that soft stuff in the ceiling." She handed it back to him.
"Huh. That's definitely worth a try if we can't find something better. Anything that's going to destroy it, though --" He grimaced. "Let's just say, without it, I'm not going to be much use to either of you."
"Don't be absurd," Peggy said sharply. "A sharp brain is more of an asset than any amount of brawn. Still, I understand that you rely on it. I'm not going to take it without asking your permission, and if Jack tries I'll push him right back down into the water." That got a small smile out of him.
"Hard to believe I want to keep the damn thing around so much. Time was, I hated it." He hooked his arm back into it. "I'm still not gonna say it's my favorite thing, but at least I can walk around with it."
"I wouldn't normally ask you this," Peggy said. "And you don't have to answer. But in the interests of planning --"
"How much can I get around without it? Not a whole lot, and not for very long." He made a hissing sound between his teeth, then leaned over and pulled up his trouser leg. He wore a normal shoe and a sock rolled up over his prosthesis. Above that, it was a smooth, dull material -- she couldn't tell in this poor light if it was wood, metal, or plastic. "This makes my legs the same length, at least, but my femur was shattered, and I guess you'd say the pieces didn't go back together so good. Hurts like hell -- like heck to put my weight on it, and the knee on this contraption sometimes bends the wrong way, or at the wrong time. So yeah, I can walk, but not fast and not easy." He said it all in a rush, not meeting her eyes, and let the trouser leg fall to cover it up again.
Sympathy, she thought, would be the worst possible thing. No more than she herself would want it under those circumstances, or any other. "Very sensible to ensure the crutch is accessible, then," she said briskly. "Trust me, Daniel, it will be a very last resort even if nothing else comes to hand. And I agree with you that it will be useless for unsticking the grates above the stairs."
"Oh, believe me, if the options are being crutchless or drowning, it's not even a choice. Or, I have to admit, even watching Thompson drown."
"Speaking of, we'd best move."
They passed into a hallway with ventilation grates at floor level. If her tracking of the twists and turns of the facility was accurate, this was the same one where she'd playfully flashed Morse code at Jack. That seemed so long ago now, back when the thrill of exploration was still keen. Now she just wanted to get out.
If only we hadn't come so deep -- but hindsight is 20/20, I suppose.
Water cascaded down the walls and ran through the grates to pour into the hangar, or whatever it was. Peggy crouched to flash her light through, catching scattered reflections off the water below.
"Find something?" Daniel asked, looking back.
"Only a memory. Nothing that will help us."
She straightened up, and marked the wall with a small X. A chip of paint and a chunk of concrete came away under the blade of her penknife. Low quality, she thought; as bad as the stuff filling the shaft Daniel had found. Probably the interior walls had been done with more haste and less care. The only thing on the other side of this one was that hangar. No need for security.
As they cleared more rooms, Daniel said, "What about the pipes? Remember back in the bathroom, there were pipe ends. Think we could do something with those?"
"I don't know," she mused, X'ing a doorway. Nearly all of the doorways stood open without doors in them. Even the hinges were gone -- or, she thought, looking more closely at the lack of screw holes, never installed in the first place. It was starting to look more and more like her theory was correct that Hydra had built the place but never got around to using it before Steve's team disbanded them ... which, unfortunately, made the odds against finding anything useful even higher. "I suppose it depends on how well they're cemented in, since we have nothing to saw them off with."
"You want plumbing duty, or exploration duty?"
She was impressed that he'd asked rather than simply taking the plumbing job himself, as the more "manly" option. "You decide," she said magnanimously.
"I can do the plumbing," he said, and Peggy suppressed her smile. "If I can figure out which way it is from here."
"Follow my arrows back. I came through there, or a similar one, on my way to you earlier."
"Stay safe," Daniel said, giving her a small salute with his torch, and turned smartly in the other direction.
As soon as his footsteps and light faded away, she was reminded just how alone the darkness could make a person feel. Jack hadn't called her back -- wouldn't, she suspected, simply for reasons of feeling lonely. So she decided to take pity on him, while she went on hunting for something, anything, that could give them all a shot at getting out. "Jack? How's it going down there?"
"You mean have I drowned yet? Impressively, no." His teeth were chattering. "On the other hand, there's nothing down here. Absolutely -- nothing -- fuckin' down here." This was punctuated by the clang of something, probably one of the metal staircases, getting kicked.
"We believe we are on the trail of something we can use to crack the grates off one of those flights of stairs for you," she said. "And we've also found a shaft of unknown purpose, bricked up with an inferior grade of -- oh, hello, what's this?" She was so used to empty rooms that she'd actually started to turn away from this one by sheer instinct before her mind caught up with the fact that something had sparked a glint of light in the back of the room.
"Find somethin'?" Jack asked, sounding somewhat more energetic.
"I'm not sure." She approached it cautiously, not sure what it was through the cascade of water raining down from the ceiling. Something metal. Smallish. Oh! It was an old paint tin.
There was something so shockingly normal about it that for a moment she just stared. Up until now, she hadn't thought about the fact that actual people had built this place. Hydra, yes, but still human beings, with families and hobbies. Regular people who might rush off after a job, abandoning a paint tin in a corner like busy workers on any construction project.
"Hey, Carter, you need me to come back there?" Daniel asked.
"No, no," she said absently. "Keep after those pipes."
It was a two-gallon tin pail with paint, the same gray color as the walls, crusted down the side. The lid lay beside it. Peggy picked it up and ran her finger along its edge. This, she thought. We could make a tool out of this. She dumped water out of the pail and discovered in the process that the paint-stirring stick was still in it, also crusted with old paint.
She tapped the lid lightly onto the tin and carried it with her through the next doorway.
This led to a short dead-end tunnel with more construction debris. It seemed she'd finally hit the point where the workers had been called away, or given up, or whatever had happened. There was a canvas drop cloth rumpled on the floor, brittle with age -- and, much more important for her purposes, a few pieces of nail-studded wood that had perhaps been part of a scaffolding at some point.
"Daniel?" she said. "How's it coming with the pipes?"
"Not great." He sounded out of breath. "They're cemented in. I could crack 'em loose if I had something to crack 'em with, but, well. That's kind of the problem. You find something?"
She hefted one of the lengths of wood thoughtfully. "I might have done. I shall rendezvous with you shortly."
Poking at the canvas with her stick in search of anything more tool-like that might have been abandoned with the rest of it, she became aware of a louder undertone to the constant rush of water. It was noisier here. Was that new? That couldn't be a good sign. Or maybe it was simply that she hadn't noticed it when she was talking to Daniel and Jack, distracted by their voices.
Cautiously she followed the sound. She must be on the very outskirts of the facility here. Unlike the neatly painted walls and smooth floors elsewhere in the complex, here the tunnels had a rough, unfinished look. Her torch beam roved across dirt floors pocked with puddles and damp, crumbling ceilings. One of the tunnels had suffered a recent-looking ceiling collapse, making her glance up nervously above her head.
But then she located a side tunnel where the deep-throated roar was suddenly quite loud. It sounded like a waterfall -- a big one. This tunnel was short and ended in a wall that was not dirt or concrete, but crumbling brick, with a tall, narrow grate of rusted iron set in the side. Peggy shone her torch through the bars, cupping her hand to direct the beam as much as possible.
Water was cascading into a broad, brick-lined shaft. She gauged the diameter of the shaft at about forty or fifty feet. Her light didn't penetrate quite far enough to see how it was coming in, but it was thundering down in huge quantities, the hollow booming reverberating up and down the length of the shaft. The spray glinted in her torch beam, and when she aimed it downward, she caught glimpses of churning, roiling water.
Now she knew what Jack had found. No wonder the water was rising so quickly. There must be a direct conduit to the river. She could also see why he'd said it was impossible to approach without getting knocked over. The water was quite turbulent below.
This bricked-in shaft was something different from the Hydra facility, she thought -- something older. The valley had been occupied by Europeans for several hundred years, and in that time, there must have been many mills and foundries and other buildings along the river.
She shone her light around the shaft, the torch beam glimmering off the wet walls. She couldn't tell how far up it went, though clearly not all the way to the surface, since there was no gleam of sunset or stars. There were bricked-in openings where other shafts had once connected to this one. High above her head, she thought she saw a dark opening gaping in the side of the shaft, but the angle made it difficult to see; it was almost directly above her, and she wasn't sure if it was just a shadow after all. Anyway, there was no way to get up there without a rope, though given sufficient time and lack of alternatives, it might be worth checking out. Maybe they could tear apart the piece of canvas and turn it into a sort of makeshift rope, like tying together bedsheets.
She flicked the light back down to the waterfall. Just in the time she'd been standing here, she was fairly sure the water had gotten deeper. Perhaps it really is possible to divert the water somehow, as Daniel suggested ... There was no way to block off that thundering cascade -- she could see, now, that such an idea was no more than an idle fancy. But it had been diverted into the underground complex. Somewhere the equipment must exist to reverse the process and put it back as it had been.
"Awwww, crud," Daniel said over the radio. "Hey, Peggy, you still got those extra batteries? Because I'm gonna need 'em."
"Your light's dying?"
"Yeah, I guess one of us was gonna sooner or later. How's yours?"
"Still bright." But it was a useful reminder that she shouldn't be standing here wasting it. She turned briskly and started back toward the cul-de-sac where she'd found the scattered junk. "Jack, what of you?"
"Kinda busy," he grunted. There was a scraping sound.
Peggy paused. "What are you doing? Are you climbing something?"
"Long story, tell you la -- shi --" Burst of static. Then nothing.
"Jack! What happened?"
There was no answer. "Jack?" she said again. Still nothing.
She waited, made herself wait -- if she had the button down, she wouldn't be able to hear him. Daniel apparently realized the same thing; there was a single, "Jack, for God's sake say something" on his end, then nothing but silence, filled with the light crackle of static on the radio, the slap and slosh of the water coming down around her.
There were any number of things that could have happened, Peggy told herself. His battery might have died. He could have dropped the radio. What had he been doing? She was fairly sure he'd found something to climb. He must have thought he had another way up to their level. And now he was -- doing what? And where?
She wet her lips and depressed the button. "Jack," she said, "if you can hear us, you may assume that we are continuing to search for a way out and a way down to the level where you are. We expect you to continue your own efforts as well. Daniel?"
"Yeah," Daniel said. "What she said." He took a deep breath. She could almost see him drawing himself up, mustering courage, going on. "So, Peggy, you said something about meeting me somewhere?"
"Let's meet at one of the stairwells," Peggy said. "I think I might have found something to pry it up."
She very resolutely did not think about Jack, and the possibility that there might be no point at all in getting the stairwells unblocked, anymore.
When she came out of the dark, Daniel was sitting by the stairwell with his torch off. Despite the tension of their situation, she laughed aloud at the look on his face when he saw her hauling the length of wood over her shoulder, the paint tin hung by its handle over the end.
"You had better luck than I did, I see," he said, struggling to his feet.
"There is also some canvas and some other boards, but these seemed the most promising of the options." She let her burden clatter to the floor and handed over the batteries. "Here; these are the last of them. I gave the other set to Jack."
Daniel sat down awkwardly on the wet floor and swapped the batteries. "I just made it here before these gave out. Guess we're on a clock now, huh?"
Peggy glanced pointedly down at the water creeping up the stairs below the grate.
"Er, yeah. A different clock, I guess."
They laid the paint tin on its side and made a simple lever from the slat, tucking the end into the grate, while water rushed around them and pattered down the stairs. Daniel went down on his good knee, and they both threw their weight onto the end of the length of wood. The paint tin dimpled under their weight. The grate didn't budge.
Peggy sighed and ruefully inspected the edge of the grate. Not even a crack or other sign of damage to the concrete. Hydra and their sodding competent engineers ... "I suppose it couldn't be that simple. Ideas?"
Daniel examined the edge of the paint tin's lid. "Think we could cut through the bars?"
"They're hardened steel, so I doubt it. Even if you could get through one or two, and I don't think it likely, we couldn't open up a large enough hole for a person to squeeze through."
Daniel put aside the lid and ran his fingers along the crack between the grate and its frame. "Whatever the latch mechanism is, it's buried in the frame. We can't get to it. No visible screws or bolts anywhere. I can't think of anything else to do other than hack at the concrete around it and try to loosen it, can you?"
"No," she admitted. "And it won't be easy with what few tools we have."
Daniel looked up at her and took a deep breath before he said, "So ... what do you think the odds are, that this is -- you know, what we should concentrate on? As opposed to finding a way out."
Peggy considered her answer carefully. "I don't think I'm willing to give up yet. Are you?"
His smile was rueful and a bit lopsided. "Nah. If nothing else, I'm not givin' that jerk a chance to say I told you so."
"In that, we are most certainly agreed." She opened her handbag and poked through it. Still sadly lacking in pavement-breaking tools. The closest thing she had was her penknife. She flicked it open and tried scraping the floor. If she tilted the blade to the side just right, she could peel away a chip. It was slow, hard going, though.
"Mine's a little bigger," Daniel remarked. It was heavier-duty too, she saw when he held out his hand with the knife in the palm. It was what he'd been using to cross off rooms, but she hadn't taken a good look then. The knife was a big one, with a horn handle and a sturdy-looking blade.
"I should get myself one like that, in place of this little lady's knife."
Daniel laughed. "Present from my dad when I turned sixteen. See?" He turned the knife around so she could see the initials scratched there: D.S. "Took it to Europe with me, too. Hoped it'd bring me luck."
"Perhaps it did," she said gently. "You came back."
She'd said something similar to him months ago in the SSR evidence vault, and she'd meant it no less then than now -- but this time, she didn't get a shut-down look; instead he offered her a slight smile in return. We'll never be the people we were before the war, she thought. We've all lost things we can never get back. But we can heal, perhaps.
Daniel tried digging his penknife blade into the concrete. "It'll do," he said at last, doubtfully. "But it's going to be slow going."
Peggy peeled off another tiny chip with her blade. It did, indeed, seem a futile effort, and kneeling in the thin layer of cold, swirling water on the floor was miserable. She looked at the small collection of objects she'd brought back with her, all of which seemed much better suited to construction-type work than a tiny penknife she carried in her handbag. "Shame I found all this and there's no use for it."
"If we do manage to loosen the grate, we'll need something to pry it up," Daniel pointed out. He laid the knife down, rubbing a thumb absently against the crease it had left across his palm, and thoughtfully studied the paint tin and board, then picked up the lid and examined it again.
"I'm not sure how useful that would be on concrete," Peggy said. "And I think it would just bend if we tried to use it to pry something."
"It would definitely bend. I was thinking about that, actually." Daniel laid the lid on its edge against the concrete, and bent it over with a quick thrust of his hand, then folded and creased it like a piece of paper. "Metal is stronger bent than flat," he murmured, and tested the sharp V-shaped edge on the concrete, cracking off a thin strip. He flashed her a quick grin. "Might be faster than the knives, you think? Or at least it might be easier for the edge stuff."
"Perhaps." She still couldn't see how much progress they could make. They'd need to remove a lot of concrete to get the grate out, and these pathetic little tools were simply not up to the task. Her penknife was already worn dull from scraping marks in the walls.
But it gave them something to work on. And she honestly couldn't think of another way of getting Jack up to their level of the complex otherwise -- unless he'd found a way himself; he'd definitely been working on something in their last, brief conversation.
It felt like such a dreadfully hopeless effort, though, removing these tiny chips of man-made rock. Like sweeping back the ocean with a broom. But she would not give up and leave anyone to drown. She simply would not.
"So, I was thinking about something," Daniel said. He grunted with effort as he pushed down with the edge of the paint-tin lid, worrying at the corner of the grate where the concrete was (potentially) weakest. "Even if we do get this up, we can't tell Jack where we are if something's happened to his radio, right?"
"I suppose not," Peggy said, stubbornly digging with her penknife.
"So how do we get him over here?"
"Fire our weapons," Peggy said immediately.
Daniel looked up and raised his eyebrows at her.
"It is a possibility, at least," Peggy said, a bit defensively.
"If he's close enough to hear it," Daniel pointed out. "No telling how well sound carries in here, especially through walls and around corners. For all we know, Thompson might've tried it already."
"Do you have a better idea?"
Daniel spent a moment digging with the penknife in silence, then he said, "The stairwells are the best landmarks we have, right? And since they're the only way up, he's gotta come back to one or another of them eventually. Suppose we stay here, working on this one, and leave messages at the other ones. Let him know where he can find us."
"I was rather fond of the idea of shooting my gun," she said wistfully. "There's nothing else to shoot at down here, it seems."
"I'm just going to pretend I didn't hear that."
Peggy grinned. "But in all seriousness, it's a brilliant idea, Daniel."
He blushed. "The sooner we do it, the better the chance he'll see one of the messages. Which means whoever does it ought to be someone who can move fast."
"I agree." Peggy stood up, dripping, and stretched her sore legs and back. "Are you all right to stay here and keep working on this?"
"Yes, ma'am," Daniel said with a smile, and renewed his attack on the grate.
She took off jogging into the dark hallways. By now she was starting to be able to find her way around with relative ease. By the time we get out of here, I'll know this place as well as I know Howard's mansion.
Which made her think of Angie. Her friend wouldn't have missed her yet, not until Angie got home from her shift at the diner, and even then she might believe Peggy was working late.
Help simply wasn't coming. The water would be up to the ceiling by the time they were missed. Which meant they had to rescue themselves. I didn't survive the war to be found drowned like a rat in a sewer, Peggy thought grimly.
She knelt at the first stairwell. And now, how to leave a message that would be clear and quickly understood? She had a notebook in her handbag, only slightly damp, but she couldn't imagine how she might affix a note to the grate in a way that wouldn't render it into a sodden, illegible rag.
"Oh, of course," she murmured, poking through her handbag. Her lipstick wasn't waterproof, but it was better than anything else she had.
To leave the message in a place where Jack would easily see it, she had to lie down full length on the floor, highly unpleasant even in her current dampened state. Water rushed around her and swirled through the grate while she put her arm through the bars and felt around beneath the edge. It wasn't entirely dry underneath, but most of the water seemed to be going straight down. At the very least, she thought there was a good chance the greasy red lipstick would cling to the rough concrete for awhile. Gripping the lipstick in her fist, she wrote clumsily, JACK - OTHER STAIRS, MEET US, and an arrow. Not the most eloquent message, but the brilliant red should stand out handily from below.
If he still had a torch.
Kindly do not borrow trouble, Carter, she told herself firmly.
Lying facedown as she was, she could see another thing not to borrow trouble about: the water was now lapping over the fourth step down from the top. It would be at least chest high on Jack. He must be swimming by now.
How long could a man swim? Especially under these unpleasant conditions. Stretched out on the cold floor with water sluicing around her, she was already starting to shiver.
"Jack?" she called, and shone her beam around, flashing it back and forth in case he was near enough to see it. There was no reply.
But she scrambled to her feet energized, and set out jogging for the next stairwell, using the exercise to warm herself. She was starting to get hungry, which she tried to ignore. She'd spent enough time on the front in the winter to know how this worked. The body, in the cold, used extra energy to keep warm. Eventually hunger would be a new torment. Under the circumstances, however, they would have plenty of other problems long before hunger became more than a nuisance.
She marked the other two stairwells in similar fashion, found Jack at neither of them, and looped back around to Daniel. He was sitting with his good knee up and bad leg thrust out, rubbing his thigh. His suit clung to him, dark and plastered to his body with water. "There is absolutely no comfortable position here," he remarked, glancing up at her. "And that --" nodding at the paint-tin lid "-- is doing nothing but scratching the concrete. You're right, the metal is just too soft. It bends too easily."
Peggy picked it up and turned it over in her hands. The pointed V-edge had been mangled, but he was right, there was little effect on the floor. "It may not work here, but what about that shaft you found? The concrete is so much softer. This might be just the thing for prying it out."
"You're faster, and better on ladders," Daniel said. "You better go. I'll keep working with the knife."
Peggy frowned down at him. She didn't like his growing fatalism; she thought it might be a symptom of impending hypothermia. "You should get up and walk about. You've been sitting in the water too long."
"I'm not gonna rust," Daniel said, then amended with a grimace, "Well, most of me isn't gonna rust. My leg's supposed to be able to get wet. Guess we'll find out how much of that is marketing hype, won't we?"
"Daniel, get up." She prodded him with a toe until he accepted her hand up. "We're no good to anyone, least of all ourselves, if we all end up in hypothermic comas. Walk about. Stretch out. Then work on the concrete."
"Yes, ma'am," he said, and flashed her the faintest ghost of his usual smile.
It was easier to put up a strong front for Daniel than to maintain her own optimism, and hope leaked out of her once she left him behind. The pressing awareness of the passage of time was starting to scrape against her nerves, as grating as the raw friction of metal on concrete. The water was rising, Jack might already be drowned, and she and Daniel were no closer, it seemed, to finding a way out of their prison.
She had little hope of being able to tunnel out with nothing but the paint-tin lid and her knife. There has to be some other way. That shaft ... But they'd have to get into it, and then get up to the opening she'd seen. And even if they did, there was no guarantee it led anywhere but a dead end, or another water-filled room.
The room with the ladder and filled-in shaft was still comparatively dry. Peggy climbed the ladder to the underside of the shaft, and then, bracing herself with one arm, she began to scrape at the cement with the folded metal lid.
As it turned out, this was much more effective than scraping at the harder stuff around the stairwell. The crude fill material came out in chunks and clumps. It was still nothing like a magic solution; the edge of the folded lid bruised her fingers mercilessly, and every so often she had to pause to stretch her aching shoulders. Contorted at this awkward angle -- face tipped back, working above her head -- her muscles quickly began to burn.
But she was making progress. After some ten minutes of work, she'd dug far enough that she could put her hand into the hole up to the middle of her forearm. There was no noticeable change in the amount of resistance from the concrete, however. It clearly was not going to be a simple matter of breaking through a thin layer of fill into open air.
If I'd built this dreadful place, she thought, not that I'd ever do such a thing, I'd have filled this shaft all the way up to ensure no one could escape. Still, there is no guarantee they were that thorough.
She chipped away for another few minutes. It wasn't until she paused to rest that she noticed her light had grown a great deal dimmer.
"Daniel, I believe my torch batteries are running low. How is your progress?"
"Frustratingly nonexistent," Daniel said. He was out of breath. "Work's keeping me warm, at least. You?"
She played the light around in the hole she'd made. "I'm definitely making a dent, but I can't tell if it's going anywhere. However, it's certainly possible to tunnel through this with the tools we have. More so than where you are."
"Well, that's something, anyway."
"I suppose so. Having obtained proof of concept --" Her light flickered. She began to descend the ladder in unseemly haste; it wasn't as if anyone was there to see her. "-- I believe your task is more urgent, for Agent Thompson's sake, so I'll come join you there, shall I?"
"Sure," Daniel said. "Jack, if you're listening to this, a little help would be appreciated. It's your life we're trying to save, after all."
Peggy's feet touched the floor just as her light died. The darkness was sudden and absolute.
"If it turns out this is some kind of extremely tasteless practical joke, Thompson," Daniel continued on the radio, "I hope you know that you're gonna be buying drinks for the office for the next year."
Peggy stood with one hand on the ladder, breathing slowly and deeply. On the radio, Daniel was still rambling, a sort of one-sided insult-fest with Jack in which the other half of their Laurel and Hardy act wasn't answering. He was doing it mostly for himself, she knew, trying to keep his spirits up and maybe give Jack something to hang onto, but his voice was a lifeline in the dark for her. It kept her from feeling completely lost, reminded her that she was not alone.
Earlier, she'd been thinking with smug satisfaction that she was starting to know the complex very well indeed. Time to put your money where your mouth is, Carter, she told herself.
Taking her hand off the ladder was ... hard. Very hard indeed. Before getting further than touch-distance from it, she shook her torch, tried taking the batteries out and putting them back in. No response. It was well and truly dead. Jack, I hope wherever you are, my spare batteries are more useful to you than they are to me.
She put the useless torch in her handbag and groped her way to the wall. Using the wall for a guide, she found her way out into the hallway. She knew she'd made it there because it was wet: now her sodden shoes splashed through puddles, and water rushing down the wall ran over her trailing fingers and trickled up her arm to soak into her blouse.
I am never going to swim again, she thought, grimly marching along, trying to follow her inner map and, with equal firmness, struggling to convince herself that she was not about to walk off a sudden drop-off or, even worse, stumble into some unseen enemy in the dark. I shall carry an umbrella if there is even the SLIGHTEST chance of rain. Angie and I will leave the lights in the mansion on at all hours; it's not as if Howard can't afford it.
At the doorframes, she was able to find the marks she and Daniel had left by feel. Now she wished they'd been a little more elaborate than simply using crosses and arrows. Strange how much more disorienting it was trying to find her way around in the dark. With the torch, she'd been growing confident in her navigation skills, going swiftly from room to room. Now ... all she'd have to do was miss a single door, take one wrong turn, and her entire mental map would be thrown into disarray. She could wander for hours while the water grew deeper and deeper ...
You are being absolutely ridiculous, Agent Carter, she told herself. It is only darkness. Nothing to be afraid of.
"Not to mention that proof of life might be nice," Daniel was saying on the radio. "Seeing as I'm digging through a concrete floor with my bare hands, more or less, it'd be good to know that the person on the other side is actually alive ..."
In the utter, oppressive blackness, Peggy was surprised how far off she was able to see Daniel's light. She thought she must be close when the gloom began to brighten perceptibly, but in fact there were still a few twists and turns before she came upon him from what turned out to be not at all the direction she thought she was coming from. The fact that she'd managed to get that turned around despite her precautions gave her chest an unpleasant twist.
"Daniel?" she said.
"Jesus!" Daniel gasped, dropping the penknife with a clatter. "Sorry, sorry. I didn't even see you." He frowned up at her, taking in the absence of torch. "Did your light --?"
"It died," she said. "Back at the ladder."
"And you walked all this way in the dark?" When she nodded, Daniel gazed at her. "I got all the way here before my batteries died, and waiting for you in the dark was, I guess, not one of the better times in my life. If you don't mind my saying so, you have nerves of steel."
"Slightly battered steel, at the moment," she admitted. "How is your work coming?"
He showed her. It was dismal. Despite his efforts -- and his hands looked even worse than hers felt -- he'd barely managed to widen the crack along one edge of the grate. The blade of the penknife seemed to have taken more damage than the concrete.
"I suppose if we were tunneling out of prison and had twenty years to work on it, we might get somewhere." Daniel looked down at his hands and seemed to notice for the first time the state they were in -- bruised and scraped, the fingers swollen. He chafed them together gingerly.
"Twenty years and an inexhaustible supply of spoons from the commissary," Peggy said, smiling. "Care for some help?"
She knelt beside him, so wet by now that she hardly even noticed the puddle she was kneeling in. The first scrape of the folded metal lid across concrete reminded her forcibly how much her hands hurt -- and also reminded her that she had a pair of gloves in her handbag. She hadn't even thought of them as work gloves; they were light ladies' gloves that she kept around for handling objects at crime scenes, as well as a certain lingering awareness, instilled by her mother, that a well-bred lady never left the house without a pair of gloves on her person.
"Would these fit you, Daniel?" she asked, offering one. "They're not exactly the height of men's fashion, I'm afraid ..."
He studied it and shook his head. "Can't say I care much about fashion when the alternative is chewing my hands to pieces, but I don't think so. I'd just rip 'em. Go ahead."
Peggy pulled on the gloves, feeling a certain guilt. There were times when she wouldn't hesitate to take advantage of her alleged status as the weaker sex with respect to her male colleagues, but she and Daniel were partners in this situation. She didn't like having an advantage he couldn't share, especially when she found that her hands were a great deal warmer and at least somewhat protected from the ravages of the work.
"This isn't going to work," Daniel said between his teeth, raking the knife down the gradually widening gap. It didn't help that they were working underwater, as it continued to flow across the floor in a thin sheet and drain through the grate. "Is it, do you think?"
"It certainly won't if we stop." Peggy braced her penknife in both her aching hands and dragged it down the edge of the frame, rasping off more specks of concrete that swirled over the edge. She tried not to think about how deep the floor was -- how much they'd have to shave off to loosen the grate enough to make a difference.
Something surfaced in the water below them with a tremendous splash. Peggy yelped and very nearly lost her grip on the penknife, sending it skittering over the edge. She caught it just in time.
"Jack!" Daniel said, half-laughing with relief.
With clumsy, tired strokes, Jack swam to the stairs. At first glance he looked sleek as a seal, water running off his wet hair and shoulders. But his clumsy thrashing as he hauled himself bodily onto the stairs was less "seal" and more "walrus". For a moment he just draped there on the steps, panting.
"Are you all right?" Peggy asked, leaning over the grate.
"Oh, I'm peachy," Jack ground out. Or at least that was what she thought he said. He was shaking and slurring so much the words were nearly unintelligible. After a minute, he thrashed a bit higher on the stairs, as far out of the water as he could get -- which wasn't far anymore. He was still mostly submerged.
"Brought you boys and girls a present," he panted, reaching up with something in his hands.
Peggy put her hands through the bars to receive it. A hard heavy weight of black iron was pressed into her palms. She had to turn it sideways and angle it to pull it up to her side of the grate.
"My God, Jack," she said. It was a piece of slightly rusty angle iron, at least four feet long. "Where did you get this?"
"Found it sticking out of the wall, up near the ceiling. Tried to climb up and get it. I was thinkin' we could use it for a pry-bar or something." Jack wrapped his hands around the bars of the grate to hold himself in place. His lips were blue.
"Have you been swimming with this?"
"The hell I'm gonna drop it after everything I went through to get it," Jack said. "Didn't get hurt, guess that's the advantage to falling into water, but I lost the radio and the flashlight."
His voice was painful to listen to, and his grip on the grate was making it rattle. Daniel stopped scraping and, without speaking, took off his jacket and stuffed it through the bars.
"Oh, come on," Jack protested, pushing the words out through chattering teeth. "I'm not your high school girlfriend at a football game, Sousa. Don't you need this?"
"I'm not sitting in six feet of water," Daniel retorted. "And work's keeping me warm. You could help out, you know."
Jack roused himself enough to wrap the borrowed jacket around his somewhat broader shoulders, huddling into it. "Gimme a minute to catch my breath here, Sousa; I've only swum through this entire damn place trying to find something that wasn't a dead end, okay? Oh, hey, Carter. I lost everything else, but not this." He stuck a fist through the grate, which turned out to contain the spare batteries she'd given him. "Hope getting wet doesn't hurt 'em."
"I hope not. We're down to one torch here." She pulled herself up to a kneeling position and began to change out her batteries. "We left you messages. I suppose you couldn't have seen them, in the dark."
"No. I saw your light." He tipped his head back, resting on the stairs on his back. The water was so deep now that most of him was floating. "What are you two doing up there?"
"We are trying to dig you out," Peggy said.
"Two pocket knives and a paint can lid," Daniel said. The knife slipped and his jaw clenched briefly in pain, but he went on digging. "If you laugh, I'm dropping a board on your head."
"Would never dream of it. Cross my heart." He spoke without opening his eyes.
Dear God, he's exhausted, Peggy thought. And there was no reprieve coming anytime soon, not if they couldn't make faster headway. The thought occurred to her that Jack could survive for longer in the taller parts of the facility -- the brick shaft or the tall hangar-like room. But he'd have to tread water. And from the look of him, he didn't have much more of that kind of thing in him, not after finding his way back to them by swimming through the dark.
"Jack, I'm going to try something," she said. "You might want to move. You too, Daniel."
One thing she would give them: when she said something like that, they both moved aside with alacrity. Jack slid off the edge of the stairs into the water and floated, holding on with one hand.
Peggy gripped the length of angle iron in both hands. She spread her legs apart, braced herself, and then brought it down onto the grate with all the force in her.
The noise was tremendous; the shock, reverberating up the length of iron through her hands and wrists, was agonizing. Peggy staggered backward. "Ow," she said faintly.
"God, Carter, are you trying to kill us?" Jack called from below.
"Don't complain; I'm trying to save your life." She dropped the length of iron and, holding her hands curled into claws -- there was still no feeling in them, and she wasn't entirely sure she hadn't broken something in her wrists -- she bent over the grate to see if she'd done any damage. One of the bars seemed to be slightly bent. That was all.
"Peggy?" Daniel said. He'd fallen back into an awkward, half-sitting sprawl on the wet floor. "Are you all right?"
"I'm perfectly well," she said absently. "Daniel, if metal is flexed repeatedly, it will break, won't it?"
"Metal fatigue." It was Jack who answered, as he hauled himself back onto the stairs with obvious effort.
"I don't think that much damage will do it, though." Daniel rolled himself forward, onto his good knee with his other leg stretched out behind him, and fingered the bar where she'd bent it. "You'd have to bend it back and forth quite a lot to see any effect, I think."
"There has to be something," Peggy snapped. Seeing Jack just below them, alive and well -- reasonably well, anyway -- had renewed her determination to find a more effective solution than the one they were currently attempting. There had to be a better way. "Jack, can you see any cracks, screw heads, or any other weakness we can exploit on your side of the grate?"
"No, and believe me, I've looked. Stupid thing doesn't even have any cracks."
"Hmmm." She worked the end of the metal bar through the grate again. "Perhaps if you pull down on it, using your body weight, it will be able to bend the bars. I'll keep it from slipping up here."
This was a little more effective. There was, at least, some give, the bars bending slightly under the pressure. But only slightly. Peggy pulled the iron bar back up, and studied the situation again.
"Just to head you off at the pass before you think of it," Daniel said, "I don't think shooting it would do anything."
"No shooting!" Jack yelped from underneath.
He'd climbed back onto the stairs, for all the good it was doing him right now. At least he didn't have to swim, but he was almost entirely submerged -- everything except his shoulders and his head. And soon, Peggy thought, the water would be up to the ceiling of the lower floor; he'd have to press his face against the bars to breathe. And then ...
"Think, both of you. What haven't we tried? Digging isn't fast enough. We can't open the grates. There's nothing to shoot, and we haven't seen any sign of a control room where we can turn off the water. What are our other options?" She paced around the grate, splashing through ever-flowing water. Reaching the useless paint tin, she kicked it out of the way. She'd been so proud of herself for actually finding something in one of the rooms ... "There are more boards and some old canvas up here. Perhaps we could build something to hold the water back."
Jack gave a short laugh. "You're proposing to build a dam?"
"Anyone else is welcome to come up with another idea at any time," she snapped.
"Look, I appreciate the effort you two are putting into this," Jack said. "I really, really do." He paused and took a deep breath, clenching his jaw to try to keep his teeth from chattering. "But this isn't gonna work. You need to go work on finding a way out."
Daniel glanced up at Peggy, not pausing in his efforts with the penknife. "You hear something?" Now that he no longer had his jacket, his teeth were starting to chatter.
Peggy shook her head. "I'm afraid not."
"That's an order, agents," Jack ground out.
"Water in my ears," Daniel remarked. "Can't hear a thing."
Jack made an incoherent noise and punched the grate. Hard. Brief silence, then he muttered, "Ow."
"If you're quite done with your tantrum," Peggy said, "I would appreciate input from either one of you."
Daniel dropped the penknife and warmed his battered fingers against his neck. "You know, I'm not throwing in the towel here, but I think Peggy's right -- this isn't working. Now that we have two flashlights again, I'm thinkin' maybe you ought to go look around some more, Peggy. You've got good eyes for finding things. Maybe there is a control room around somewhere."
"I have a better idea," she said, looking up from where she'd crouched once again beside the grate. "You should go look at the items I found, the canvas and the rest of it. You're very clever, Daniel. Perhaps you can think of something to do with it that I overlooked." And he'd warm up with the exercise, hopefully. His lips were blue.
He seemed to consider arguing, then gave a tight nod and levered himself to his feet with the aid of the crutch. For a moment he looked as if he wanted to say something; then he stumped out.
"You sent him away?" Jack asked after a moment. "Trying to spare Sousa's tender feelings the nightmares from my gruesome demise, or what?"
"We're making no headway," she said. "This isn't working, Jack. Having Daniel fall over from exposure while trying to tunnel through concrete helps no one. Sometimes getting away from a problem and having a little time to think about it -- as when, say, walking in the dark, not thinking about the problem -- can be the best way to come up with an unexpected solution. Or at least a new avenue to try."
"That's considerably more Machiavellian than I usually give you credit for, Carter."
"Should you decide that women can't be ruthless, Jack, against all available evidence, I'm afraid you may be in for a great deal of pain in your life. Most of it your own fault."
"I never said women, plural. Actually, you're refreshingly free of the scheming nature of your sex. That's why I'm surprised."
Peggy sighed in irritation that was mostly genuine, but not entirely. She stood up and regarded the grate with loathing. After some thought, she picked up the iron bar and tried to work it into the crack Daniel had been slowly opening along the side of the grate. It was too wide to fit.
"Come now, Jack," she said as she sought somewhere, anywhere, to get purchase for the pry-bar under the edge of the grate. "Don't boys grow up playing with machines? Where is that spirit of boyish derring-do? I thought all boys could build a small improvised explosive out of a piece of string and some gum, or at least you'd think so to hear my mother talking about my cousins."
"Make it easier if you had some TNT in your purse," Jack said. "You don't, by any chance?"
"Sadly, no." She leaned on the pry-bar and looked from the grate to the ceiling. Maybe the leather strap of her handbag and her male co-workers' belts could be knotted into a rope for a sort of pulley .... Oh, now she was grasping at straws.
"Batteries can explode, if they're wired wrong," Jack said. "My uncle had a truck battery blow up in his face one time."
"Not the sort in our radios and flashlights, I don't think. And even if I'm wrong about that, I can't imagine they'd have the concussive force we need."
"Gunpowder," Jack said. "We all have guns, with bullets in them."
"It's not a high explosive. I doubt whether the amount in all our ammo could damage the grate enough to notice."
"Demolitions expert now, are you?" His tone was nasty, spoiling for a fight. "Is that one of the infinite number of expert skills you picked up while running all over the front?"
"I know a little." Mostly by way of a handful of slightly-drunken conversations with Dernier, in which he'd tried to explain the finer points of his art to her. "I'd be willing to try it if you insist -- but I can very nearly guarantee that it won't work, and we'll squander an asset we might be able to use elsewhere."
Jack sighed, the flare of temper draining out of him. "Okay, so you're shooting down all my ideas. Hopefully something's percolating in Sousa's twisty little brain, but he's not here. For heaven's sake, Peggy, what am I supposed to do, just float here until I drown?"
"Of course not." She angled the end of the iron bar through the grate. "We've tried bending it up and that didn't work, so let's see if it can twist sideways. You might want to use your shirttail to protect your hands, by the way. Daniel and I are beating ours into chopped liver."
Jack ignored her caution -- she'd thought he might -- and grasped the end of the bar. "Oh, I see. Sousa's the brains and I'm the brawn."
"We're the brawn," she corrected him. "So let's have some brawniness down there."
They tried wrestling the grate sideways, up and down, every direction Peggy could think of, without success. It barely wobbled. Towards the end, Peggy was well aware that she was going a bit overboard with her efforts -- working out her frustration, one might say, but really more exhausting herself. Finally, she flung the bar aside, sending it clattering across the floor, and sat down beside the grate again. Jack, quiescent with weariness and, probably, increasing hypothermia, rested on the stairs in silence, with the fingers of one hand laced through the grate to keep him from drifting away. The water was high enough now that he couldn't even keep his head out of it, so he'd given up trying; he was simply floating on his back. He'll lose heat even faster with his head in the water, Peggy thought in weary dismay, but she couldn't figure out a solution, so she said nothing.
She'd almost stopped noticing the sound of rushing water, but sitting here in quiet semi-companionship with Jack, it seemed suddenly loud to her again, dripping and pattering and trickling in miniature waterfalls. It's got to be pumped in somehow, she thought. That takes power. Or, no, we're deep enough that perhaps it's simply gravity-fed ...
"You know the worst thing?" Jack said suddenly. "The very worst thing about all of this?"
Peggy leaned over the grate. "Tell me," she said quietly.
Jack clenched his fingers on the bars, knuckles white and bloodless. "It's how god damned terrified I am that you two are going to give up and ... and leave. The thing is, I know it'd be the right thing to do. I ought to find a way to make you leave. I'm not -- not getting out, and --"
"Stop," Peggy said sharply. "You are most certainly getting out, if I have any say in it."
"You might not," he said, his voice so soft she could barely hear it. "Anyway, selfish and stupid as it is, I keep thinking you'll leave me, and ... I don't want to die alone, that's all."
She wanted to tell him he wasn't going to die at all, but that was looking less and less likely. Instead she said, "If our positions were reversed, you wouldn't leave us, would you?"
"I don't know," he said. "I don't fucking know, all right? I'd like to think so, I'd love to think of myself as the guy who'd stand his ground and cover everyone else's retreat, who'd push his buddy up the ladder or throw himself on the grenade, but you know what, Peggy? Every single time I've had the chance to be that guy, I've taken the coward's way out instead. Every single goddamn time."
"So make a different choice next time," she said. "If it bothers you, don't waste your life wallowing in guilt and apologizing. Just do better the next time." As well she knew. Oh, did she know.
"It's not that easy," he snapped.
"Yes? Do you think it's easy for me, Jack? Do you think anything I've done has ever been easy?" She leaned closer to the bars; their faces were only inches apart. She could smell the heavy, clammy stink of the water lapping around him, pulling stands of his blond hair free and floating. "I have had to dig my heels in and fight for every single inch. Swallow every slight and every failure, pick myself up, and just keep going. Don't you talk to me about easy."
Daniel came in just then. He had the canvas bundled over his shoulder. "I brought this. Can't think of a thing to do with it, but it seems like it ought to be useful. Keep our things out of the water, maybe, so we don't have to be quite so careful with the flashlights --" He paused. "Am I interrupting something?"
Peggy sat back on her heels. "Merely a disagreement."
"Huh." Daniel glanced at her again, then unloaded the canvas onto the floor. "Anyway, I was thinking maybe you had some ideas about making some kind of rope and pulley setup. By the way, Peggy, did you see that brick shaft thing?"
"Oh, you found that," Jack said. He was floating once again with his eyes shut. "Exciting, isn't it? Imagine how much fun it is down below."
"I did see it," Peggy said. "I don't know if you looked inside, Daniel, but I think there might be another opening above us. If we could somehow get into the shaft, I was trying to think of a way we could climb up to -- Oh, my God." Her eyes opened wide; she stared into the dark. "We have been overlooking something terribly obvious all this time."
"What?" Daniel asked. "You have an idea?" Jack didn't say anything, but he opened his eyes, at least.
"Items float in water." She could have kicked herself, but there was no time. "Jack, I think I know how to get you up to our level, but you aren't going to like it."
"Peggy, I've got less than a foot of air space to go 'til I drown. Lay it on me."
Peggy took a breath and marshaled her thoughts. "Jack, do you remember that room where I signaled you with my torch, back at the start of all this? There are ventilation grates in -- well, it's the floor of our level, and the ceiling of yours."
Jack laced his fingers around the bars of the grate again. "Yeah, so, I don't know if you noticed, but I'm not four inches wide. Here or there, I can't fit through."
"But, Jack, the concrete is different there. Daniel, did you notice? The wall is much softer. Jack, I think Daniel and I could pull out those grates much more easily than these. I hadn't even considered it as a possibility because, I suppose, it was so far over your head. But I'm being a fool. With the room full of water, you can simply float up to us."
"After I get there."
"After you get there," she agreed. "That's the catch. The halls are flooded. You can swim there, but it won't be easy." She desperately wished she'd seen this sooner, but there was no sense beating herself up for it. They couldn't have communicated the idea to Jack for a good deal of the time they'd been separated anyway.
"Peggy, if that brick shaft really does go somewhere, the same principle applies, doesn't it?" Daniel said. "We can float up to that other opening you saw. Maybe Jack should go there instead, and meet us. We can start trying to get through the wall. Those bricks might come out pretty easy. The mortar's old."
Peggy shook her head. "I doubt he can get in, with the water so turbulent down below. He'll drown. No, if we go into the brick shaft, we have to go in from this level -- and if Jack is going to make it to that taller room, he must leave now."
"Yeah, so, I got a small problem with all this," Jack said tightly. He was gripping the bars and drifting just below the grate. "It's real easy to get turned around down here. I don't even know which way to go from here."
"We're actually pretty close to it, I think," Daniel said. "Peggy, you got something to draw a map on?"
Jack wasn't going to be able to take a map with him, and couldn't read it if he did, but she held up her (now quite sodden) notebook and used her lipstick to draw a quick sketch-map of the hallways as she understood them, with Daniel adding a couple of corrections.
Jack studied it for a minute, biting his lip.
"I know this is going to be terrible for you," Peggy said quietly. "I can't think of another way, though. And we really must be moving now. Every moment we delay, the air spaces in the hallways grow smaller." If there was any air left down there at all. One particularly low ceiling could be fatal at this point.
"Yeah, hang on, just a minute." Jack thrashed around below, and wrestled out of Daniel's slightly-too-small jacket, while alternating handgrips on the grate. "Sousa. You better take this. And, if you two don't mind --" He passed up his shoulder holster after it. "Swimming with this thing is basically hell. I already ditched my shoes."
Peggy clasped her hand briefly over his. Even through the gloves, she could feel that his fingers were like ice. "We will be waiting for you when you come up."
"You better," Jack said. "Sousa, c'mere. I wanna talk to you for a minute."
"You shouldn't delay," Peggy said.
"It'll only take a sec." Jack turned to look at her. Drops of water beaded his lashes; his lips were white. "Peggy, I -- there's a lot of things I wish I could do over."
"Don't waste time on regret," she said. "Do better. I'll see you in a few minutes."
She got up and stepped away before it could turn into a more final goodbye than she was willing to countenance. As she gathered their things -- the board and iron bar, the canvas, the stupid useless paint tin -- she heard Jack say, "So ... Daniel, I'm basically a shit."
"Gee, really?" Daniel said, sliding over to the edge of the hole. "I hadn't noticed."
And then she walked briskly away into the darkness, and let the slap of her feet in the water cover whatever else they had to say.
Compared to the stairwell, it was much easier to dig on the inside walls. Using a combination of the metal bar and the penknife, she'd already gouged out a respectable hole by the time Daniel came stumping out of the dark to join her. He looked pensive and pale. "Boy," he said. "No kidding, it's harder to get around in the dark than with a light."
"You gave Jack your torch?" Peggy guessed, glancing up.
"Figured he needed it more than I did."
"You could have called me --" she began, and then grimaced. "Ah. Except you gave him your radio as well. You know, being submerged may well destroy both of those things."
"I know," Daniel said.
They both tried to raise Jack on Peggy's radio and got no response, so she passed Daniel the iron bar and they got to work.
"These are narrower than I remembered," Daniel said, measuring the span of the ventilation grille with his hand. "I don't think he'll fit through."
"We can enlarge the hole," Peggy said. "Once we get these out, we can use that --" she nodded to the metal bar in Daniel's hands "-- as a crowbar."
"This was good thinking," Daniel said, as chunks of the wall showered down around their legs.
Their progress was certainly faster, but this was an even more uncomfortable and awkward place to dig than the stairwell had been. Daniel, who couldn't kneel as Peggy was doing, had to sit sideways and twist his upper body around. They were also directly under the miniature waterfalls pouring down the wall. Peggy had thought she'd grown inured to being wet, but the feeling of cold water sluicing down her back was deeply unpleasant, and her growing clumsiness worried her.
They tried a couple of times to rig the canvas into some kind of canopy to keep the water off, but it wouldn't stay up, so they ended up sitting on it instead, in the hopes it would cushion them from the cold, hard floor somewhat. Not that it helped much.
"So," Daniel said as he prized out chunks of wall. "You've heard Thompson's Tsuken Island story, right? The uncensored version, I mean. He said you knew."
She'd thought that might be what he wanted to talk to Daniel about. "He told me in Russia."
Daniel paused. Looked at her. "That's what happened there, is it? I knew something did."
This got a slight smile out of her. "Obvious, was it?"
"Well, you went over there going at it like cats and dogs, and when you came back ..." Daniel shrugged. "I don't know, it's not just that you were getting along better, but he was a little less ... him."
"It was one of several things that happened there." She found herself unwilling to think about it.
"Whatever happened, we all owe you a debt of gratitude, since he came back about fifty percent less jerk." Daniel gave her a lopsided smile. "Okay, maybe thirty percent less. I'm being generous here."
"I know," Peggy said, laughing.
Daniel struggled with the wall for another minute or two. "I don't know how to feel about the Okinawa thing," he said finally. "I mean, it's not just that so much. Stuff happens when you're ... there. I know how it is. I guess you do too. It's ... it's a mess. Sometimes you can't tell up from down. People make mistakes, bad judgment calls. But ... the thing he did, the way he handled it, in the end ... it's the same thing he did with you and that Senator, you know?"
"I know." She tore off another bit of wall. Water glittered just below the ventilation grates. The halls must be almost completely flooded by now.
Just keep digging. Do your part and trust Jack to do his.
"The problem is .... I dunno. I like the guy, a lot of the time. I really do. And as much as I hate how he got that promotion, he always was a good agent, and he's been a pretty good boss. But there are people you can trust to have your back, and people who'll kick you in the teeth when you're down, and Thompson ..." Daniel was silent for a moment, wrestling with a plastered-over slat in the wall above the grate. He finally hooked his fingers under it and snapped it with a quick application of the unexpected strength that always startled her, a little, because he never seemed like a person who would be that physically strong. His fingers, she saw, were bleeding. "He's a jerk," Daniel said, in a voice tight with frustration. "He's a jerk, but ..."
"He's our jerk."
"Yes," Daniel sighed, and went back to ripping chunks out of the wall, leaving bloody streaks on the concrete.
It had been much too long. Peggy stood up and stepped back. "Don't be alarmed, Daniel. There's going to be a bit of noise."
"What are you -- oh, wonderful." Daniel covered his ears -- he'd seen her draw her gun.
Peggy fired into the ceiling. The noise was deafening. She paused for a count of three, then fired again, and waited as the echoes died away. Her ears rang.
She had fired twice more at regular intervals when Jack appeared suddenly on the other side of the grate they working on -- surfaced, then started to go under. Peggy thrust her hands through the bars and caught his arm. "Daniel, help me!"
Daniel reached through as well, and they dragged Jack against the grate. "Jack, relax," Peggy told him. "You'll float if you don't struggle."
He drifted for a few moments, coughing and panting, while they held onto him. Then Daniel let go and pulled away, far enough to undo his belt. He snugged one end around the bars and groped down Peggy's arm to Jack's wrist. "Hey, Thompson," he said, tying the other end of the strap around Jack's forearm. "This isn't perfect, but it'll give you something to hang onto, anyway. You with us?"
Jack coughed and blinked. "Never," he said indistinctly, "ever, doing that again."
"Looking on the bright side," Peggy said, "we are making progress on this wall. If I let go of you, can you float?"
His answer was too slurred to make out, but when Peggy cautiously let go, he seemed to be able to relax and float, hanging onto the belt.
There was a tense, grim urgency to their work now. The ceiling was higher in the hangar, or whatever it was, but it was still only on the level of Peggy and Daniel's knees. And, she thought, that wasn't even as much of a limiting factor as Jack's rapidly flagging strength. In a heated pool, she was sure he could tread water for much longer, but the cold was sucking energy and motivation out of him -- as it was them, too.
Water was starting to lap through the ventilation grate, washing over the floor. It had reached their level at last.
Jack stirred suddenly. He'd been drifting quietly on the makeshift tether; now he struggled clumsily to push himself upright in the water, facing them. "This is stupid," he said, his words blurred with cold and exhaustion. "Don't. You need to -- you're not breaking through, it isn't working, you need to work on getting yourselves out. Wasting time, that's all. Time you need."
"Don't make that decision for us, Jack," Daniel said between his teeth. He was working steadily and silently while huddled in his own little aura of misery. Peggy wasn't sure how much pain he was in, between his leg and his hands, but she had the feeling her own discomfort paled in comparison to his.
Jack, wordless, began fumbling with the water-swollen knot of the belt around his wrist. His cold-numbed fingers were too clumsy to undo it.
"No!" Peggy snarled. She reached through the bars to seize his wrist. "You were talking about us giving up on you? Don't you dare give up on us."
"This is my chance to be the hero, okay?" He stared back at her, his face a sharply drawn study in light and shadow, eyes wide and wild. "This is it. My chance to do the right thing. I'm not going to let -- two of the only people I care about, two of the only people who care about me die just to save --"
"Don't you even think about throwing yourself on this grenade," Peggy shot back. "This one's not yours."
And she wanted to say, with a very old, cold anger: It's no great thing to sacrifice yourself, to burn up all at once in a blaze of glory. Any fool can do that. It's harder, so much harder, to go on living. But she couldn't say it; all she could do was hang onto his wrist, afraid that if she let go, he'd let go, and slip away.
"Peggy!" Daniel said. There was a tremendous crack, and when she looked his way, she found he had a corner of the grate dislodged. "Help me here."
"Stay here!" she snapped at Jack, and then, more quietly, "Trust me."
She wasn't sure how much of that got through, but he stayed where he was, drifting in a state of exhaustion too profound to do anything except occasionally kick a little to stay afloat. Daniel struggled with the iron bar, wedged into the corner of the grate he'd pried loose. Peggy went to help him, but he shook his head and nodded at the board she'd found earlier. "See if you can get that in there too."
She wedged it into the crack and they both threw their weight against their respective tools. Brains and brawn, Peggy thought, and she almost laughed, but just then the entire ventilation grate cracked away from the crumbling wall and clattered to the floor. Since Jack was still tied to it, his hand was yanked forward, and he clawed at the edge. Peggy knelt and grasped his hands.
"Wait, wait," Daniel panted. He knocked at the edge of the hole with the iron bar, breaking off pieces, enlarging it. Then he dropped the bar and collapsed to a sitting position beside Peggy. They gripped Jack's arms; he kicked and struggled with the narrow gap, trying to help them, and, finally, eeled through the opening. Peggy and Daniel hauled him onto the floor on top of them, in a wash of water slopping through the gap.
Rather than letting go, Jack wrapped an arm around each of them and simply hung on, his head buried in the space between them. He was shaking, hard tremors wracking him. Slightly muffled, he said into Peggy's shoulder, "You didn't leave."
"No, no we didn't," Daniel said, awkwardly patting him on the back. "Please let go now."
Jack peeled himself off them and tried to stand up. All that happened was that he sprawled on his backside. His legs wouldn't work. He managed to catch himself before he fell backward, propping himself up on arms as stiff as pieces of wood.
Peggy shook out her sore, aching hands -- she'd bled through the gloves in a couple of places -- and then, she couldn't help it. She started laughing.
"What?" Jack said thickly, scowling at her like he thought he was the brunt of the joke. Even Daniel was looking at her as if she'd lost her mind.
Peggy managed to wind herself down, gasping. "Jack," she said. "We got you. We got you."
Jack laughed softly. Daniel smiled, and kicked Jack lightly in the ankle with his good foot, then left it resting there. He stretched until he could snag the edge of the canvas -- now thoroughly sodden -- and dragged it over to push it in Jack's direction. "It's not a blanket, exactly," he said in a faintly apologetic tone.
"Feels pretty good right now," Jack said, wrapping the ragged, wet canvas around his shoulders. "You guys, I -- yeah, no, I got nothin'. Thank you. Thank you."
All Peggy wanted to do was stay there, even though she was sitting in several inches of water. This, she supposed, was probably a warning sign, and she struggled reluctantly to her feet. Looking down at the men, so bedraggled they resembled a pair of wet cats, made her smile, but she managed not to laugh this time. "Do you want to see our possible escape route, Jack?"
"Sure," he said. "Guess so."
Peggy had to help Daniel up, and then it took both of them to get Jack on his feet. Once he was up, she had to steer him to keep him from running into things. Daniel could barely walk, either, though for different reasons -- his limp had grown more severe than she'd ever seen it, and he seemed to be having trouble with his crutch arm. I fear I'm the healthiest among us, she thought, unobtrusively keeping a hand on Jack's arm. I suppose I will simply have to be up to the challenge.
Daniel carried their one remaining, working torch; Peggy brought the tools. None of them could see any reason to come back here. As they left the room, sloshing through the deepening water on the floor, Peggy glanced back and saw, in the back-reflected light of Daniel's torch, that the water was nearly to the top of the ventilation grates -- and therefore to the top of the hangar ceiling. She shuddered, and looked away.
By the time they got to the room with the ladder, Jack had warmed up somewhat and was walking more or less normally, though he was still wrapped up in the canvas. "Huh," was all he said, standing below the blocked-up shaft and looking up at it.
"We have no idea how far up it goes," Peggy said. "Or whether we can access it. That brick tunnel is also a possibility, but we'd have to get through the bricks."
"Huh," Jack said again, and draped the canvas over a rung of the ladder to free his hands to climb. Daniel passed the torch up to him, then the iron bar. Jack braced himself by hooking his leg through the ladder's rungs and then cracked off a chunk of fill with the iron bar, crowbar-style.
The once-dry room was no longer dry. The water was more than ankle deep, and Peggy could feel the unpleasant clammy sensation as it crawled very slowly up her calves. Unable to sit down, Daniel leaned a hip on the ladder, though it meant he had to dodge dislodged pieces of concrete falling down from above.
As much as Peggy disliked admitting it, Jack was better suited to the task than either herself or Daniel. He was stronger and bigger than she was, and better able to balance on the ladder than Daniel, and was making faster progress than either one of them had managed.
In the meantime she leaned against the wall and took the batteries out of Jack's -- formerly Daniel's -- thoroughly sodden torch in the hopes of resurrecting it, only to realize she had nothing to dry them on. Every part of her and everything she owned was soaked through. When she opened her handbag to find out if there was anything even slightly drier inside, she discovered that while she was sitting in the water digging Jack out, her handbag -- sitting next to her on the floor -- had become a small portable lake. She stuffed the batteries in her pocket and tipped the handbag on its side, using her fingers as a dam to hold back the contents while the water poured out.
And all the while her feet were growing chillier. She was starting to have a much more visceral appreciation for what Jack had been going through the last couple of hours. It was a lot more terrifying, or at least more urgent-feeling, when one couldn't get out of the water at all. It was impossible to put anything down without the risk of losing or damaging it. She realized suddenly that she hadn't seen the paint tin in a while. It had probably floated away. In fact, anything useful in the corner where she'd found that and the boards and canvas -- or anywhere else in the upstairs they hadn't gotten to yet -- would be floating around as well, or covered up with water. They were not likely to discover any more useful assets, unless they got lucky and something floated past them.
Up to this point, she'd maintained a level head, but for the first time, a sick rush of panic swept across her. The water was already up to their floor and still rising. They couldn't sit down, couldn't stop moving, and the entire time they could not only watch but feel the rising water: up to their knees, their hips, their waists .... Soon enough, they would have to swim. And they were all three exhausted and cold.
"Daniel, how well do you swim?" she asked, faintly horrified with herself for not having thought of it earlier. Jack looked down from above in some alarm.
"Better than I walk, these days," Daniel said, leaning his hand on his good knee so he could get the weight off his prosthesis. "I've always been pretty good at it. What I don't know is how well I can swim with ... this." With a certain embarrassed hesitation, he tapped a fist on the prosthesis. "I might have to take it off."
Peggy wished she had words to say We're your friends; we don't care but she could tell by his brittle, defiant look that he wasn't in a receptive mood for it. Instead, she gave him a brisk nod and put the marginally-drier batteries back into the torch. By an absolute miracle, it came on, though it was oddly dim and refused to brighten even with determined shaking. "I think I will go have a look at the brick shaft," she said. "Daniel, would you prefer to stay or come?"
"Stay here, I guess," Daniel said. "Spell Jack on the digging."
He didn't even look like he could get up at the moment, let alone up the ladder. She nodded again, and splashed out of the room.
There was a noticeable current in the hallway. Her first thought was that they might follow it and see if it went to something they might escape through, but her excitement died as she realized that the water most likely wasn't flowing to anywhere; it was being pushed in. This was confirmed when she found it a great deal stronger in the corner of the facility where she had found the boards and canvas. There were several more boards and another empty paint tin bobbing about in a cul-de-sac where they'd become trapped. She marked them for future reference and then pushed against the increasingly powerful current and deepening water to the brick shaft and the grate she'd looked through earlier.
This particular grate was narrow and vertical, running from near the floor to Peggy's chest level, and the water was flowing rapidly into the hallway through it in a small cascade, swirling around her legs. It was up to her knees here.
The waterfall no longer thundered into the shaft; wherever the water was coming from -- the river, she expected -- the water level in the facility had now risen high enough that it was coming in from below, rather than above. When she shone her torch into the shaft, black water stretched before her, whorling with strong, swirling currents. There's going to be massive undertow, she thought. Water would be pushing in through the input pipe and spilling out of the shaft through all available apertures, but the strongest outbound current would be through the man-sized passages down below. If they tried to swim in the shaft, they'd have to be very careful not to be caught in downward-flowing currents and sucked into the flooded hallways, to certain death.
She tested the grate and found it rusted and wobbly. Daniel was right: the bricks were old, their mortar crumbling. This definitely predated the Hydra construction. Maybe they'd meant to wall it up completely, if their plans had proceeded as intended. Right now, it was the closest thing to a weak point in the whole place. Assuming it went anywhere useful.
The bars might be loose, but they weren't loose enough to pull out with her bare hands. Peggy went and got a board. She wedged it between two bars much as she and Jack had done at the stairwell, and threw her weight against the end. This was considerably more gratifying. The grate jolted forward at the far edge in a shower of brick and mortar dust. Peggy threw herself against it again, and it came out at the top edge with a loud grinding crunch, trailing rusted-out nails.
"Leave her alone for five minutes and she starts demolishing things," Jack's voice said behind her.
Peggy jumped and dropped the torch, which she'd been holding under her arm while she wrestled with the grate. She dived for it and scooped it out of the water before it hit bottom. Then she turned on her heel and glared at her male co-workers. "The peanut gallery could get over here and help."
Jack grinned and let go of Daniel's elbow; he'd been discreetly stabilizing him. Daniel leaned against the wall. Jack looked a lot better -- he had some color back in his face, and as he slogged in Peggy's direction, he even had a little of his old saunter back.
She held up a hand. "There are some more boards around the corner. Why don't you get one of those? This would go much faster with two rather than one."
Jack looked at the board she was holding. Peggy made it clear from her body language that she had no intention of relinquishing it.
"Does anyone around here remember I'm supposed to be in charge?" Jack asked, but he went.
Daniel visibly steeled himself and limped over, keeping close to the wall. The water was now up to Peggy's thighs, and while it wasn't quite as deep on him, he was clearly having a lot of trouble keeping his feet.
"I take it we aren't getting out the other way?" Peggy asked.
Daniel shook his head. "It's all filled in, as far as we could tell. We dug about as far as Jack could balance on the ladder, and then we hit some kind of metal manhole cover. It doesn't sound hollow on the other side when you hit it."
Peggy tried to swallow back her disappointment. It had only been a possibility; still, she hated the way their options were slowly but surely closing down around them. "It was a good effort," she said. "Give me a hand?"
At his first attempt, he almost fell over, and let go of the board with a hiss of frustration to stabilize himself on his crutch. In a voice bitter with self-loathing, he said, "It can't have escaped your notice that I'm getting pretty useless here."
"Yeah, and it can't have escaped your notice," Jack said, slogging back in with a couple of boards over his shoulder, "that one of us spent the better part of the last couple of hours doing nothing except trying not to drown. There is no 'I' in team. So knock it off." He punctuated the last few words by poking Daniel in the shoulder with a board.
There wasn't room for all three of them crowded at the end of the passage anyway, at least not with enough room to maneuver. Daniel stepped back and held a torch for them, bracing himself against the wall, while Peggy and Jack pried out the grate. It took some struggling on the lower end, which was less badly corroded and therefore had a tighter fit, but eventually the grate came out along with a cascade of crumbling bricks. The grate turned out to be a whole lot heavier than it looked -- solid iron, probably. Peggy and Jack stumbled hastily out of the way as it sank into the water, which by now was nearing waist height.
Peggy leaned forward through the opening. "Torch," she said, holding a hand over her shoulder, and then the brick she was gripping broke off and she stumbled forward. Her foot came down on deep water where she'd been instinctively expecting solid ground, and she fell into it facefirst.
She'd been right about the undertow. She felt it catch her immediately, dragging her down. She kicked but nothing happened; it made no difference. There was an endless shocked instant of helpless terror, and then hands seized her and pulled her out of the water's closing jaws. Her head broke the surface with a startled gasp and a paroxysm of coughing. She clung to the hands on her, a mass of wet hair in her eyes, struggling for air. There was solid floor under her feet, and two worried voices saying her name.
"All right," she gasped through chattering teeth. "I'm all right." She let go of them and shoved her hair out of her eyes with both hands. They released her but continued to hover in a worried kind of way, Daniel braced against the side of the brick shaft and Jack standing with his feet spread apart, water swirling around his waist.
And Peggy realized she couldn't move. Her feet might as well be rooted to the floor. She couldn't stop reliving, over and over, the sensation of stepping onto what she thought was the floor and having it fall away under her feet.
She took a few deep breaths, closed her eyes, and wound her shattered nerves back into her chest like a skein of barbed wire. I fought regiments of Hydra soldiers and Nazis. I walked through villages of the dead. I lived through having my heart torn in two; I survived a grief I thought would kill me. I will not be undone by a little water.
"Peggy," Daniel said softly, touching her arm. "Are you hurt?"
"No," she said, and opened her eyes to see them both looking at her with concern. "How did you pull me out?"
"Sousa, mostly," Jack said. "He went in after you. I held onto him."
Warmth welled up in her. Dear idiot boys. And then there was also Angie to think of, and Jarvis, and Howard. She had a life here. She had people to love. And, as God was her witness, she was not about to lose everything she'd built again, in the wake of the war and Steve's death, to a bunch of Nazis who were probably already dead.
"Thank you, both of you." Something was off about Daniel, but she was still rattled enough that it took her a moment to realize what it was. "Your crutch," she said.
Daniel grimaced. "Yeah. Kinda lost it when I jumped in."
Her handbag was also gone, along with the torch she'd fixed -- pulled into the flooded tunnels below, and irretrievably lost. At least they still had the other torch; it was tucked into a hole where a brick had been pulled out, casting rippling shadows across the walls.
We can do this, she told herself. It doesn't matter what we lose. We are more than our tools.
"There is a very strong current," she said. "We must be careful of that."
Jack gave a sharp, choked laugh.
Peggy took her fear and pushed it down into a small, hard ball in her stomach. "Someone please keep hold of me?" she said, and Jack moved in quickly, only to hesitate when it came to finding a place to actually hold her by. "Oh, do stop. Both of you had your hands all over me a moment ago. Use my jacket if you must."
With Jack holding her by the blazer, she took the torch, checked the wall very carefully this time before trusting her weight to it, and leaned out of the opening.
She'd been right that there was something above them, a gaping round hole in the side of the shaft, some seven or eight feet above the gap they'd made. It looked like there were corroded metal bars across it, similar to the ones they'd just removed. Some ten feet or so above that, her torch beam dimly illuminated some sort of covering over the shaft -- rusted metal, reinforced with boards.
Peggy stepped back so the others could look: she and Daniel held onto Jack, then she and Jack did the same for Daniel, until everyone had had a chance to see.
"Be nice to know where it goes before we get in it," Jack said.
"I know, but I can't see we have a choice at this point. It's the only place to go."
"And if it's another dead end?" Daniel asked.
"Do either of you think it's better to stay here?"
Silence. Then Jack said, "I'll go up and have a look."
"How do you propose to get there?"
The canvas had vanished, but turned out to have snagged on a doorway a few yards down the passageway; it was too heavy, when waterlogged, to go far. "Jack," Peggy said, testing it between her fists, "I don't think this will hold your weight."
"I can climb without it, then."
Because that worked so well the last time, she almost said, but that would have made the problem worse, because she could see what was going on here -- he felt inadequate, and wanted to do something to feel like he was contributing. This was almost certainly what had spurred him to climb up and retrieve the iron bar earlier, which had nearly killed him. "If you fall into the water, you'll drown, Jack."
"This will work," he insisted. "I'm not going to put a whole lot of weight on it. The wall's rough. There's old ironwork sticking out all over the place. This is just to give me a little extra to hold onto. Anyone got something to weight the end of this."
Daniel pulled a brick from the edge of the gap in the wall and hefted it in his hand. "I should probably clock you over the head with this, to stop you from doing what you're about to, but we really do need to know what's up there."
"I'm not going to fall," Jack said testily. He took the brick and tied it into one end of the canvas.
Relenting against her better judgment, Peggy held onto his braces for safety's sake while he leaned out over the swirling water that had nearly claimed her. He cast the canvas upward several times before he actually managed to snag the brick between two bars of the upper grate.
"That is never going to hold," Peggy protested.
"It doesn't have to take much of my weight. It's the wall I'll be climbing."
"If you fall in and drown, Jack, I shall not weep at your funeral. Your epitaph will read, He died while doing something foolish, after his friends warned him not to."
"That'll just put me in good company with the rest of the Thompson men," Jack said lightly. "Flashlight?"
Daniel had it at the moment. "If you drop this, we're all done for," he said, offering it to Jack butt-first like a gun.
"No pressure," Jack retorted, and then discovered that Daniel hadn't let go. "Sousa, I'm not gonna drop it."
"Not intentionally," Daniel said, letting it slip from his fingers. "But I'd feel one heck of a lot better if you tie it to yourself."
They used one of Jack's braces for the purpose, looping it through a wire loop on the torch, designed for hanging it up, and then binding it around his wrist. "There," Jack said, shaking it. "One flashlight, secured."
It was getting hard to stand up against the current, as the water was now above Peggy's waist and rising toward her breasts. She backed off and felt Daniel's hand clasp her shoulder. Raising her own, she touched his fingers lightly as Jack struggled out onto the inner wall of the shaft.
There followed a tense few minutes. Peggy could do nothing but wait, her hand on Daniel's, his warmth against her back. Jack cursed softly, punctuated by an occasional "ow!" and, now and again, an ominous splash as bits of brick wall dropped into the water. Then he called down, "I'm up."
Peggy leaned out, with Daniel gripping her arm -- though she was doing as much to stabilize him as he was to keep her from falling out. Jack was spread-eagled across the wall, grasping the iron grate with one hand and shining the torch around inside with the other.
"Jack, do be careful," she called. "Do you see anything?"
"Looks like it runs flat for a short ways and then there's a ladder, going up. All dry and everything." Jack turned to look down, flashing them a grin. "Looks like we just might have found our --"
The rust-riddled grate he was holding gave way.
He fell, swung for an instant on the canvas, then that gave way -- but it also gave Peggy a moment to get herself braced and allow Daniel to get a secure grip on the waistband of her slacks. As soon as Jack hit the water, she lunged forward and caught the nearest thing in reach, which happened to be his leg. There was a brief, terrifying scramble -- Daniel was nowhere near stable enough to keep the whole chain of them from falling in, but he was strong, and he clung to the brick wall with his other hand for all he was worth, while Peggy backpedaled with all her strength. Jack, thrashing in an attempt to do likewise, accidentally kicked her in the mouth.
They all ended up in a tangle in chest-deep water just inside the tunnel mouth, all three of them wedged into the corner where the brick shaft met the wall. It was outside the main flow of water coming in from the shaft -- though no less deep -- and somewhat easier to maintain balance.
Jack spat out a mouthful of water and coughed. "Still got the flashlight," he said, his voice shaking, holding up his wrist. The beam danced around crazily, sending odd shadows dancing across the walls.
Peggy wiped her face and tasted the tang of blood on her lips. Well, the water would soon wash it away. Carefully she peeled out of the deathgrip they all had on each other. "Small favors," she managed. "May I have it for a moment, Jack?"
Torch in hand, she leaned cautiously out to inspect the damage. Jack's weight had pulled the grate completely free on one side. The ragged remains of the canvas, torn in half, dangled limply from it.
Jack leaned past her to see, half-flattening her against the side of the shaft; she planted her feet and obstinately resisted being moved, but he didn't seem to notice. "Looks like we can get in, huh?" he said. "Just got to get up there. And, really, it's not that hard to climb. If you've climbed a tree, you can do this. Assuming all of us have climbed trees."
"Girls climb trees as well," Peggy said tartly.
Jack grinned down at her. "I bet you were a tomboy."
"I was a well-bred young lady, for your information. Sadly. But I could still climb a tree."
"Not all of us can," Daniel said.
Peggy turned his way, alarmed at the flat note of resignation in his voice. And, really, she'd forgotten, for just that moment, that he'd have more trouble than the rest of them.
Daniel's face was very white in the torch beam. "I can't climb that. I mean, I literally can't. Not possible. I can do ladders, barely. But not that. You guys are going to have to -- go without me."
Peggy closed her eyes briefly. One thing after another ... "Daniel, we will not leave you. Never. We'll find a way."
She was fully prepared to kick Jack in the shin, or points farther north, if he contradicted her, but he surprised her, as he sometimes did. "I think we are, at this point, the very definition of 'all for one and one for all'. So, given that leaving Sousa behind isn't an option, who's got ideas? If we wait long enough, the water will lift us up."
"And if we try to swim, the current will pull us down," Peggy said. They would be swimming soon enough whether they wanted to or not. Already they were starting to float, and in no more than a few minutes they'd have to duck their heads underwater to get through the gap in the side of the shaft.
"I'm not asking you to stay," Daniel began.
What was it with men wanting to throw themselves on grenades? Did they all have this annoying character flaw? "This is not up for discussion, so the faster we make a plan, the faster we can get out of here," Peggy said. "Swimming, I don't think we can fight the current. How can we avoid it?"
"Tie ourselves to something," Jack said. "Or someone can climb up and pull up the others."
Daniel, somewhat reluctantly, joined the conversation. "I don't think we have anything strong enough to support someone's weight. My belt, maybe, but it's not long enough."
"Remember those SSR handbags?" Jack said. "Emergency ropes in every one."
"Wood floats," Peggy said thoughtfully. "I know those boards do. Daniel's right, I think -- we don't have an adequate rope, but suppose we make a rope out of what we do have, Daniel's belt and Jack's braces and whatever else we can find --"
"Braces?" Jack asked.
"Suspenders," Peggy clarified after a moment's hunt through her brain for the American term for that particular item of male clothing. "In any case, we can rope ourselves off to the grate or whatever else we can find, then use the floating boards to aid our swimming efforts. When we've floated high enough, then Jack and I can climb up, Daniel, and lift you up."
"Could work," Daniel admitted.
"We need boards then," Jack pointed out. "And we better hurry, guys."
Even as he said it, the rising water closed off the gap into the shaft completely. It was suddenly even quieter -- there was no sound but water gently lapping and gurgling. The water was now quite high on their chests. Jack held the torch out of it, sending a thousand splinters of reflected light rippling across the walls and ceiling. It was very pretty in a deadly kind of way. Their lives, Peggy thought, were now measured in the narrow and closing gap between the water's glimmering surface and the ceiling of the tunnel.
"Jack and I shall get the boards," Peggy decided. "Daniel, stay here and make a rope for us. Give him your braces, Jack."
Daniel opened his mouth.
"Daniel, if you say another word about how useless you are, I shall remind you repeatedly that you jumped into a lethal flood to save my life."
"And dug through a wall to save mine," Jack said. "This one's on us. Stay."
They left the torch with him; they'd just kill it by having it underwater, and they could swim faster without it. For a little while, anyway, it was a relief to give up on trying to stay upright and just give in to the water's pull. Peggy stroked swiftly, outdistancing Jack, her youthful swim-team days coming back to her. Swimming was "healthful and wholesome" exercise for young ladies (unlike, say, climbing trees), and she'd excelled at it.
She had expected complete darkness, but actually, the cul-de-sac with the floating boards was near enough that there was just enough dim light from the torch around the corner to see, barely. The boards were getting somewhat waterlogged by now and starting to sink, but they were still bobbing around, visible as dark breaks in the water's dim sheen. Experimentally, Peggy tried trusting her weight to one of them. It sank alarmingly under her.
"Like this," Jack said. She looked over at him, squinting in the gloom and unable, for a moment, to make out what she was seeing, until she realized that rather than climbing onto the board, he'd put an arm over it and was effectively floating next to it. "Don't climb on. Just use it to help you stay up. It's not a raft." He must have read something in her silence, because he grinned, a quick flash of white teeth in the dark. "I did serve in the Pacific, you know? Lots of ocean. Drowning. Et cetera. We had man-overboard drills all the time."
"And how many of those men fell overboard after a night of heavy drinking?" Peggy asked archly, corralling two boards.
"Gosh, it's like you know a bunch of soldiers or something."
They herded the boards back to Daniel, who'd tied everything ropelike they had, including his and Jack's holster harnesses and even his shoelaces, into an end-to-end chain. The torch was wedged in a gap in the brick wall above his shoulder. "It's not that strong," he said, giving the rope an experimental tug.
"It doesn't have to be," Peggy said. "We won't be climbing it, just using it to keep us near the edge, out of the main current."
"Me, mostly," Daniel said. "I can't see why you two can't climb up without me."
She wasn't prepared to argue, but she could admit he had a point. With their limited resources, it would be easier for one person to use their makeshift flotation rig than three.
"Gimme," Jack said, holding out a hand. "I'll climb up and tie it off."
Daniel passed him the rope, or ropelike object at least, and Jack took the torch. For a moment he stood and braced himself -- to Peggy's eyes, it was much like when he'd prepared himself to parachute out of the plane over the Belarussian border -- and then he ducked underwater.
Peggy and Daniel were left in darkness that was, once again, not complete, although this time, their watery prison was lit by distorted and wavery light penetrating through the water from inside the shaft. The effect was gentle and lovely. Though maybe that's hypothermia talking, Peggy thought. She'd stopped noticing her cold, wet misery, which was probably bad.
Daniel had stopped trying to stand up in the ever-deepening water and was drifting on one of the boards, occasionally using a hand or an arm to keep himself from floating out of the calm backwater where the shaft met the wall. Watching him do it, Peggy recalled that he'd lost his crutch when he'd rescued her. "You will be able to walk once we're out of the water?" she asked.
"To some extent," Daniel said. His teeth clicked together; his jaw was clenched with cold. "But let's deal with one problem at a time, why don't we?"
Jack resurfaced in the tunnel with a splash. "So I got --" he began, and then the torch went out, leaving them in darkness so complete that it seemed to dig thumbs into Peggy's eyes.
One of the men cursed softly; she wasn't sure which one.
"I was able to dry out the batteries in the other one and make it work again," Peggy said, fending off panic with all the strength she had. The water's rise had not accelerated simply because she couldn't see how deep it was. "Or maybe just taking them out and putting them back in might help."
She heard fumbling sounds, and another curse. "Nope," Jack said. "I think we're doing this in the dark, guys."
"Excellent," Daniel said wryly. "That is exactly what this situation needed."
"It couldn't be helped," Peggy said, to head off an argument before it could brew. "We've dunked it so many times it's a miracle it worked as long as it did. Jack, did you tie off the rope?"
"As securely as possible," Jack said. "The water's so much higher now -- it'll be dangling right above where you come out. And you can swim along the side there, as long as you're careful. Just stay right by the wall."
"Right," Daniel said, and there was an abrupt splash, or rather, the deep-toned sound of water being displaced as a large object submerged.
"Daniel!" Peggy snapped, reaching for him uselessly in the dark.
The darkness and silence felt very complete, suddenly. "Did he just," Jack said.
"He did, yes." She gathered up her nerve. The memory of the water sucking her down was still impossibly, painfully vivid. "I suppose I will see you on the other side of the wall."
Jack laughed shakily. "Feel, you mean."
Peggy gripped her board, filled her lungs, and ducked underwater. The board's buoyancy, even wet, made it hard to submerge herself as deeply as she needed to. She felt her way down the bricks to the opening -- the water had risen so far above it that she was shocked by how deep she had to go.
Jack, or what she assumed was Jack, bumped into her from behind. Startlement clenched a hand around her already aching lungs. She got a grip on herself, aimed an annoyed kick in Jack's direction -- he backed off -- and groped her way one-handed through the opening, clinging to the board with the other.
The moment when she came out the other side was the hardest. She felt it open up around her, that instant's disorientation when the close walls of the opening no longer bounded her. How high up the shaft were they now? Eighteen or twenty feet, at least -- all that water below her, with a constant downward pull. But Jack was right, the current wasn't too strong along the wall. She felt her way up it, in the process brushing something that pulled away -- Daniel? -- and then her head broke the surface and she dug her fingers into the rough, slippery bricks, panting.
"Jack?" Daniel's voice said, very near to her. "Peggy?"
"Peggy," she affirmed. She couldn't free a hand to reach out for him; she didn't dare. Knowing he was there was enough. Had to be enough. "How are you doing?"
"Hanging in there," he said, with a small, tight laugh. She couldn't return it. "I found the, well, what I guess we could call a rope for the sake of argument." There was a little bit of splashing, then some part of him brushed her. "If you feel along here, you can hold onto it."
She couldn't free up a hand to do it. One on the board, one on the wall ... "I'll take your word for it. I think I'm all right as I am."
There was an abrupt splash from not too far away. "Someone say something," Jack said, with a brittle undertone to his voice.
"Here," Daniel said. "Peggy's with me."
"Good to know nobody's drowned yet," Jack remarked. There was some splashing as he swam closer; then he bumped into Peggy, nearly dislodging her from her grip on the wall. She jabbed him aggressively with her board. "Simmer down, Carter, it's me."
"I know it's you," Peggy said between her teeth. "I'd like to remind you that if any of us get knocked into the main current, we're going to die. Let's kindly give each other some personal space."
"You'll have all the space you want," Jack said. "I'm climbing up there. Shove over, you two."
"Climbing in the dark?" Daniel asked, shuffling along the wall from the small splashing noises he made. "Is that really a good idea?"
Peggy took some breaths, unclenched her hand a bit, and followed. She flinched when something brushed her face, then realized it was the "rope", which Daniel had had to release in order to move along. Some bright idea that had been. However, she hadn't anticipated that it would be so easy to stay afloat in the shaft, as long as they didn't get out into the middle.
"I've already done it twice," Jack said. "I know where to step. There are a lot of handholds where bricks have fallen out." He grunted with effort; he wasn't waiting.
Peggy empathized with the urge to get out of the water as quickly as possible --it must be even worse for him than it was for her -- but still, the folly of it ... "And a great many bricks that could still fall out, as well."
"Advice from the tree-climbing expert?" Jack asked between his teeth, his voice now coming from notably higher up.
"Advice from someone who would prefer not to retrieve your drowned body, thanks."
"Jack, don't do anything stupid," Daniel said from a bit farther along the wall. "If we just wait, we'll float up on our own."
There was no answer. Seeing him clinging to the side of the shaft had been nerve-wracking before; it was considerably worse in the dark, when all she had to go by was the little sounds he made as he did it. At one point there was a sharp gasp and a splash -- not, fortunately, a Jack-sized splash. Peggy held her breath. She was pretty sure Daniel was doing likewise. Then Jack said weakly, from a little way above, "Okay, so, there's a few loose bricks. Gotta watch out for that, guys."
"We are not climbing," Peggy said firmly. "We are floating. Because we are not insane."
It was hard, though. She hadn't anticipated how hard it would be. Her muscles cramped agonizingly with the cold. Once the water rose high enough to reach the top, would she even be able to pull herself out? Daniel, beside her -- if he was still beside her -- was ominously quiet.
"Float all you like," Jack said from above, a little of the usual cockiness creeping back into his tone. "I'm up, I'm fine, and I'm out of the water. And happy to give a hand up to anyone who's game for it."
"Peggy, go," Daniel said. He sounded weak; she didn't like that.
She also didn't like the fact that she wasn't entirely sure if she could. She was going to have to let go of the board and release her deathgrip on the wall, and she didn't trust her cold-weakened limbs to keep her from sinking down, down, into the endless water beneath her.
"Jack," she said. Her voice came out raspy and weak to her own ears. She cleared her throat and tried again. "Jack, how close are we? If you lean down, can you reach me?"
She still couldn't bring herself to let go of the wall entirely, but she worked her fingers higher, until her arm was stretched. No other fingers brushed her own.
"You're either too far down or in the wrong place," Jack said. "Ah, God, my kingdom for a flashlight that works."
"Daniel," Peggy said. There was no answer, and her heart clutched, rousing her a little from the fog dragging at her thoughts. We weren't having this much trouble before. Why not? But they'd been moving around, working, keeping busy. This was a one-two punch of inactivity plus the accumulated exhaustion and cold of the last couple of hours catching up with them.
Worry got her moving when nothing else could. She worked her way along the wall until she bumped into Daniel. "Daniel," she said through uncontrollably chattering teeth. She managed to find his arm and feel her way up it, only realizing in retrospect that she'd let go of the board and it had drifted out of reach. "Daniel, say something."
"Awwww, jeez," Daniel said thickly. "Cold's gettin' to us, isn't it?"
"What the hell are you two doing down there?" Jack wanted to know.
"Freezing to death," Peggy said as sharply as she was still capable of. "Daniel, we must get out of here."
"Go," he managed.
Anger was, it turned out, a rather effective heat source all on its own. "We've already established that isn't an option. Daniel, come on."
"I don't like what I'm hearing down there," Jack said, from farther back along the wall; she hadn't realized they'd gotten so far away from him.
"Jack, if I help Daniel get up, can you pull him out?"
"Depends on how high up you are. I can climb down a little, use the rope --" From the sound of things, he was doing that. "You'll have to get back here, though. What are you doing over there?"
"I don't know," Peggy admitted. She thought the current might be moving them around the inside of the shaft. Or maybe it was simply the disorientation of the darkness. It was so terribly hard to think. "Daniel -- Daniel! We have to get to where Jack is. Jack, say something."
"Like this?" Jack asked. "I think I'm far enough down to grab somebody. Hard to say 'til you get here."
Daniel, to her horror, let go of the wall and the board, and started to stroke toward the sound of Jack's voice -- out into the main current. "No!" she cried, catching hold of him and accidentally ducking both of them. She lost her handhold on the wall, and, for a moment, lost track of where she was entirely. Facing the wall? Facing away? She could feel the undertow sucking at her legs. Panic crawled up in her.
"Peggy!" Jack was saying desperately. "Sousa -- Daniel -- for God's sake, someone talk to me --"
"Here," Peggy gasped. "We're here." Daniel clutched at her, and he was the one who pulled her back to the relative safety of the gently curving brick wall. She pushed him ahead of her, chivvying him along the wall toward Jack's voice -- a lifeline in the dark, the only kind they had now.
"'salright, I'll get you," Jack said. "Just hang on. I'll get you. You think you can push him up, Peggy?"
"I will simply have to." He was above her now, from the sound of things, and then the "rope" tickled her face. She caught hold of it gratefully and guided Daniel's hand to it. "Daniel, I am going to try to help you get high enough Jack can reach you, all right? Use this to pull yourself up --"
"Don't like leaving you," he muttered.
"You're not. I'll be right behind you."
She had her hand on his arm, so she felt the muscles bunch. Then he hauled himself out of the water. Peggy tried as best she could to push him up with one arm, digging the fingers of her other hand into the wall in an attempt not to shove herself underwater or away from the wall into the main current. She felt her fingernails bend painfully backwards on the slimy bricks.
"Ah -- gotcha!" Jack said in triumph, and Daniel was lighter, suddenly, as she pushed from below, going up the wall in a quick, clumsy scramble. She did dunk herself then, her head going beneath the cold water, and got a mouthful of it. She came up coughing.
"Peggy," Jack said, somewhere above her head. "Reach up."
She did, but her fingers brushed nothing except empty air and wet bricks. "Keep talking, Jack. Let me know where you are."
"Talking about what? You've all heard my war stories. Well. The better ones." There was an ironic twist on the words.
Now that she no longer had to worry about Daniel, Peggy reached up and fumbled for handholds. She slid her foot up and down the shaft under the water, then gave up and toed off her shoes, first one, then the other. Probably she should've done it a long time ago. Her toes managed to find purchase on the wall. Slowly she crawled out of the water.
"I'm sure we'd all like to hear more about Gam-Gam," Daniel said from somewhere up above. He sounded a little stronger now.
"Shut up, Sousa. Make yourself useful and hold onto me."
She wasn't sure how Jack had managed to climb this. The wall felt terribly unstable, bricks sliding and crumbling under her hands, slipping under her desperately clinging toes. She thought of their "rope" too late, but she wasn't sure if it was to her right or left, and she couldn't spare a hand to find out.
Something brushed the top of her head. Peggy yelped and nearly lost her grip.
"That's you, isn't it?" Jack said. "Peggy, put up a hand. Carter. C'mon."
She did, teetering on the edge of falling as she destabilized herself completely, and then her hand slapped against Jack's forearm and his fingers wrapped around her wrist in a bruising grip just as her feet slipped off the bricks completely. Peggy yelled again. So did Jack. But her fall was aborted with a sharp jerk. She gasped and clutched at the wall with her free hand and her feet.
"Ow!" Jack moaned. "Sousa, if you let go of me, I swear to God --"
"I'm not gonna," Daniel said. Peggy wondered what on Earth he was bracing himself on. He had to be lying down; he'd never have gotten enough purchase otherwise. It was so strange being trapped in her own head in the dark, knowing nothing beyond the touch of her fingers, the evidence of her ears.
She scrambled up the wall, and Jack pulled on her arm -- painfully -- until he could get a somewhat less bruising grip around her torso, and then she tumbled onto a blessedly, shockingly dry tunnel floor, with Daniel and Jack under her.
"We seem to be making a habit of this," Daniel said, laughing weakly.
"I think you dislocated my arm, Carter; what have you been eating lately?"
Peggy swatted him on the nearest part of anybody that she was pretty sure was him rather than Daniel -- his shoulder, probably -- and then she put her head down and hugged them both for a minute. Nobody tried to stop her. After that, collecting herself, she crawled off them and decided to see if she could stand up. She could, but the tunnel wasn't tall enough to stand up properly; she had to crouch.
"What are we in?" she asked, feeling around with her fingers. Brick here too, she was pretty sure. Old brick, crusted with ancient deposits of mud and dried leaves.
"Old drainage tunnel from something? God knows," Jack said. There was some rustling around. He seemed to be up ahead of her in the tunnel. "Nobody get turned around and fall out."
"Bloody ..." she muttered, fading out in mid-epithet. She put a hand down and felt around for Daniel until she found him sitting up against the side of the tunnel. "Daniel, I can give you a shoulder, but the ceiling is rather low. You might have some trouble."
"Forget it," Daniel said grimly. "Nobody's watchin'. I'm gonna crawl."
Jack gave a whoop from up ahead. "Ladder!"
Peggy felt her way after him, keeping pace with Daniel and occasionally bumping into him with her knees. Suddenly she was able to straighten up: there was nothing above her head. Feeling around, she found the iron rungs of a ladder. From the shuddering, Jack was climbing it.
The blackness was still complete. Peering up, she saw nothing; all she managed to do was get some dislodged grit in her eyes as it showered back down in her face.
"Hooray, ladders," Daniel said from somewhere around her knees. "My favorite thing."
"You can climb them, you said?"
"I can," he confirmed. "But I think I'm gonna sit right here until we know it's going somewhere."
"Then I shall sit with you." And she did, leaning her shoulder against his, feeling him shivering in tandem with her.
"You two down there?" Jack called down.
"We are," Peggy called back.
"I think I'm at the top. Or at least as far up as I can get. It's blocked off with -- boards, I guess?" There was a hollow thumping sound, echoing down.
Peggy let her head drop back against the wall. One dead end after another. Just once, couldn't something go their way?
Daniel jerked and raised his head, which had fallen to rest against her shoulder. "Peggy," he said, giving her a little shake. "We're sitting in water."
She'd gotten so used to it that she hadn't even noticed. She felt around and found a growing puddle spreading around them. The water had reached level of the tunnel they were in.
"Then we'd better climb." It took all she had to struggle to her feet. She gave Daniel a hand up, felt him wobble against her and catch himself on the ladder.
"I'm gonna be slow," he said. "I guess it's useless to ask if you want to go ahead."
"Let us assume we had the argument and I won." She gave him a light nudge. "Sooner begun, sooner done."
Daniel sighed and pulled himself up to the first rung with a grunt. Peggy let him get a little way ahead and then stepped up to the first rung herself. Her hand brushed his foot, which was sock-clad; he'd lost his shoes at some point too.
She couldn't see what he was doing, although she was fairly sure he was primarily using his arms and going one rung at a time with his good leg. He was right, it was slow, but her weary, cold-numbed brain was more than happy to go along at his pace, rung by rung. Her stocking-clad feet hurt, but so did the rest of her; it was just one more ache among many. Every so often, dirt sifted down past them as thumps and cracks came from above -- Jack, struggling with whatever had been used to block off the shaft.
Below her, the slosh and gurgle of water let her know the shaft was filling under them. There would be no going back. This was it, their last chance, their only option. They would get out this way, or drown together in the shaft.
What a strange way to die, she thought dazedly. I'm sorry, Steve. I really meant to make your sacrifice mean more than this.
She had to stop when Daniel stopped. Jack made an annoyed sound. "Which one of you is that?" He was out of breath.
"It's Sousa," Daniel said, the words dragged out, it seemed, from a hollow pit of exhaustion. "Peggy's here too. Things were getting a little damp down there."
"Yeah, well, I think I've just about got --" Jack trailed off with an incoherent noise, then there was a great rending crack, and he snapped, "Duck!"
Peggy flattened herself to the ladder. Something glanced off her shoulder. She heard it ricochet off the ladder a few times and splash into the water below.
"Throwing things at us now?" Daniel asked, but Jack didn't say anything, and Peggy raised her head. There was a breeze blowing down the shaft. It was warm.
Jack gave a wordless, triumphant yell. More pieces of wood and clumps of dirt pattered down on them. Peggy covered her head, but couldn't stop trying to look up. She could see, however dimly -- Daniel's dark shape above her, and glimpses of Jack's blond head outlined against a ragged gap a little lighter than the dead blackness that had enveloped them for so long. It was the sky, she realized, lit faintly by the distant glow of cities and towns. There were stars.
"Screw this," Jack muttered. Her narrow window on the sky went dark; more clods of dirt rained down on them. Then the sky was back, and Jack was an outline against it, with a hand stretched down. "I'm up. I'm up, you guys. C'mon."
They came out in some sort of overgrown meadow, beside something Peggy would have taken for an old blocked-off well: half-rotten boards under a heavy layer of fallen leaves and moss. She'd come upon similar things while roaming with her cousins as a child. Jack and Daniel pulled her out; then Daniel collapsed in the grass and tilted his head back, looking up at the sky. The summer night was shockingly warm after the chill of the catacombs that had almost become their tomb. There were trees around, dark bulks against the sky. Somewhere not too far away, Peggy heard a car pass by on an unseen road.
"Where are we?" she asked. "Does anyone know?"
It was Daniel who answered, still with his head tipped back as if he wanted to drink in the night. "We can't have gone too far. We were still in the facility, after all. I doubt we're more than a few hundred yards, at most, from where Jack's car is parked."
"In some direction," Jack said, but he was smiling. Peggy could see him just well enough to tell that he was absolutely filthy, plastered with dirt. No doubt she was an absolute wreck herself.
And they were alive.
"Come," she said, extended a hand down to Daniel. "Let us go find the car."
They drove into Albany, and that was as far as they went. Jack was shaking with exhaustion; Daniel was silent and white-faced, in obvious pain; and for her part, Peggy didn't think she could have driven safely if her life depended on it. All of them were cold, soaked to the bone, and nursing a thousand small hurts.
So they drove to the nicest hotel they could find and rented two rooms with private baths on the SSR's dime.
An hour or so later, Peggy was nestled into a hotel-supplied bathrobe, trying to decide whether exhaustion or hunger was going to win over the other one. She'd taken a long, hot, luxurious bath -- the stinging of her innumerable cuts and scrapes was more than worth it -- and now she was sprawled on the bed, huddled under the wonderfully warm blankets, starving but unable to summon the energy to move. This hotel had telephones in every room -- a luxury that would have impressed her a lot more before moving into Howard Stark's mansion; she was getting spoiled -- and she expected it was possible to have room service sent up. But that would involve moving all the way across the room to the writing-desk where the telephone was.
She had rung up Angie even before bathing, needing to let her friend know she was all right. Angie had answered on the first ring. "Is this Peggy? I hope this is Peggy. SSR making you work nights again?"
"I'm afraid I'm still up in Albany. I won't be home until tomorrow." The words were already out of her mouth when she understood what she'd just said. Home. How strange. She hadn't called anywhere home since before the war. And yet, it felt right.
"Awwww. They better be putting you up somewhere nice, at least."
"Oh, it's nice." And they don't even know about it yet.
Now she lay in a heap on the bed, wishing she had Angie to bring her something to eat so she didn't have to move. In the end, though, it wasn't hunger that got her out of the bed. She wanted to check on the two colleagues that she'd last seen in a similar bedraggled, exhausted state outside her room.
Her clothing was still wet, muddy, and not in the least appealing to put on, so she decided to go out in the corridor in her robe. It would be far from the least indiscreet thing she'd ever done, after all. Cautiously, feeling rather exposed, she poked her head out into the hall and then minced quickly across to the boys' room. She knocked. There was some kind of indistinct reply from inside the room -- Daniel's voice, she thought. Trying the door, she found it unlocked, so she opened it and breezed quickly inside before someone caught her.
There was a strangled "Aargh!" noise from somewhere near the radiator. Peggy looked around in amazement. The boys had completely stripped the room's two beds and made a pile of blankets and duvets in front of the radiator, where Daniel was currently trying to cover as much of himself as possible.
"I thought you were room service," Daniel said, from under a blanket. She couldn't see much more of him than his eyes and some tousled tufts of hair. "Thompson's in the bath. I was, er, not expecting -- Why are you here?"
"Thank you for the warm welcome, Daniel." Even though the room was warm, she was starting to feel a chill creeping up her bare legs. She hesitated only marginally before joining Daniel on the far side of the blanket nest, wrapping a duvet around herself.
"Not that I'm not happy to see you. Really. But." Now that she was somewhat more covered, Daniel risked putting his head out of the blankets. He was, she saw to her relief, wearing a bathrobe too. "You have your own room. I mean, this is why we got two rooms in the first place."
"I'm cold," Peggy blurted -- the first thing that came to mind, which made absolutely no sense. There were blankets in her room, too.
But Daniel hesitated, and then gave her a gentle smile. "Have you eaten?" he asked. "We're having food sent up. We can have them send enough for three. Actually, after Jack and I got done talking to the kitchen, they're probably already sending enough for three."
He had, she noted, taken the telephone down from the writing-desk and moved it across to the blanket nest where it was handily within reach, the cord trailing away. In her present, slightly blurred state of mind, this seemed excellent strategic thinking. "Yes," she said. "Food would be very nice."
They'd just gotten off the phone with the kitchen -- at this point, Peggy thought, they were probably having enough food delivered to feed the entire 107th -- when the washroom door opened and Jack came out in a cloud of steam and a robe of his own. "Did I hear Carter? I thought I heard Carter. You know, Peggy, when you invaded the men's locker room, I thought it was necessity, not choice."
"Oh, hush," Peggy said, burrowing deeper into her duvet. "There is food coming here. At this point I don't believe you could dislodge me with that iron pry-bar of yours."
Jack studied the blanket nest, now more extensively occupied than before. "We're going to need more blankets, aren't we?"
In the interests of not causing a scandal, Peggy pulled the duvet over her head while the room-service employees delivered their food, and vanished again when the concierge brought up extra blankets. After that, they spread out the food on the floor and feasted. There was even a bottle of rather nice wine.
"Oh, Daniel, your hands," Peggy moaned, catching one of them while he wasn't paying attention and spreading the fingers out. His usually dexterous fingers were swollen, bruised, and clotted with dried blood.
"Not just me." He lightly brushed one mangled thumb across a long gouge slashed across the back of her hand. She couldn't even remember how she'd gotten it; she'd lost count of all the parts of her that had been scraped or banged up. "Think there's anything in here we could make bandages out of?"
"We're in a hotel," Jack pointed out. "They have staff. We can have stuff brought to us." He reached for the phone. "What d'you want?"
The SSR's accounting division, Peggy thought, was not going to like them very much.
The kitchen staff brought up a large box of medical supplies they kept on hand for tending staff injuries. (Peggy dived beneath the duvet once again; the men had started finding this hilarious, to her annoyance.) They then spent a little time doctoring each other's hurts. Daniel's hands had to be thoroughly disinfected and bandaged, and Peggy's as well. Jack, it turned out, had scraped himself badly on both sides when they'd dragged him through the wall, and Daniel's makeshift belt solution for stopping him from drowning had bruised his wrist halfway up the forearm. Peggy had a long, lurid bruise and scrape across her back, probably from falling into the brick shaft, and more little bruises and gashes than she thought possible. Toward the end, she noticed that she was starting to lose a certain amount of inhibition. She even produced first one leg, then the other, at least up to the knee, since her shins were as much of a mess as the rest of her.
Throughout the process, Daniel kept his part of the blanket nest wound firmly around his waist, covering his legs. He'd taken off the artificial leg; Peggy had glimpsed it propped to dry beside the radiator, tucked near the back where it was mostly out of sight.
He had made it into the hotel by taking a few steps at a time on his own, but mostly by leaning on her. He seemed to mind that less than using Jack for a human crutch. Once inside the hotel, he seemed to be able to get around by holding onto things in his vicinity: walls, furniture.
"Will it be terribly difficult for you to get a crutch to replace the one you lost?" she asked him.
Daniel shook his head. "Just need to go to the hospital in town and explain things, I guess." He grimaced. "I try not to think about how hard it is to get by without it. I hate ..." He trailed off. Shook his head.
Peggy reached out and found one of his bandaged hands, then felt her way up to his relatively undamaged wrist, and squeezed it lightly. "You lost it saving my life. That's something I will not forget."
"This party is getting maudlin," Jack declared. He refilled their wine glasses, and lifted his. "To narrow escapes."
Daniel sighed, but a slight smile replaced his melancholy look. He cupped his wine glass in both his bandaged hands. "Teamwork."
"Friends," Peggy said quietly, holding hers up to clink it with each of the others.
They were all three winding down rapidly at this point, like the tired springs of an old watch. When her wine glass was empty, Peggy burrowed deeper into the duvet she'd appropriated. Crossing the hall back to her room seemed like far too much effort. Besides, the radiator was very warm against her back.
"I don't think she's leaving," Jack said to Daniel over her head, as her eyes drifted shut.
"You want to try moving her, Thompson? Be my guest."
Peggy cracked an eye open to see Daniel wrapping himself in the duvet off the other bed. "The first person who attempts to remove me from this radiator," she said sleepily, "may lose an arm."
Jack's laugh was interrupted by a jaw-cracking yawn. "This is not going in the official report."
Peggy peeled her eyes open again. "What's the matter, Director Thompson -- debauched sleepovers with SSR employees don't look good on the annual review?"
She had the satisfaction of making him blush a little, and pulled the duvet over her head before he could answer. Then she found it was quite dark underneath, and she couldn't see anyone, so she pulled it down a little.
"Someone should probably go over there and turn out the light," Jack mumbled sleepily, rolling over and finding a pillow.
"I like it on," Peggy said, as sleep pulled her under -- a warm gentle tide, one she had no will to fight. "Let's keep it that way."
No one argued.