The three soldiers ran back through the corridor to the stairs at the end of the hall. Graham and Charley quickly climbed the stairs in the Battery Station until they reached the fifth floor. The smoke was starting to clear, but it was still thick at the top. They exited the station through a narrow door and then ran down a long hallway, past maintenance access hatches to a large grey door.
“What’s in here?” Charley queried, “I never even knew this door existed.”
“It’s not a great place for a storage room. We don’t use it much anymore. But I think that it’s near the back wall of the Brain Room. Come on, open her up so we can see.”
Charley passed his key card through the reader, and the door opened. The emergency lights in the room revealed a dusty, neglected mess. High metal shelving units lined the room’s walls and were covered with years of the Platform’s detritus. Overflowing cardboard boxes sat among old aprons, rusted cooking pots, stacks of paper, and tee-shirts from the facilities’ 20th anniversary party.
“There’s an air duct in here somewhere, I’m sure of it,” Graham said. “Help me pull these shelves away from the walls so we can figure out where it is. We’ve got to hurry. If they blow the Brain Room, the whole West Coast water production operation will be out of commission.”
They crossed the room, picking their way through the piles of long-forgotten junk. They started pulling the shelves out from the wall one by one and groping along the walls. After a few minutes of work, they located the air vent. Graham knelt down next to it, got out the pocket knife his father had given him so many years ago, and began to remove the screws that held the vent cover in place. He made quick work of it and pulled the cover off.
“No flashlight, huh?” Graham asked.
“Nope. I could run back.”
“No time. We’ll just have to do our best in there,” Graham sighed. After spending what seemed like hours bound and gagged in the tiny wardrobe back in the guest quarters, he was not looking forward to climbing into a dark hole barely wide enough for his shoulders.
“Sir, I think that you should go first. That vent looks mighty small. I am going to give it a shot, but I would hate to get stuck in there and then be in your way.”
“I agree, but give me a little room in there. I don’t want to feel you nipping at my heels. If you need to communicate with me, just whisper. I’m sure that I will be able to hear you. I don’t think that the Brain Room is far. At least I hope not.”
Graham then stuck his head into the air vent. He could feel the thick dust on his hands as he pulled the rest of his body into the shaft. The vent was not tall enough for him to crawl on all fours. His ribs hurt like hell. He had to shimmy ahead, pulling himself forward with his elbows. After he had progressed a few feet, he heard Charley climbing into the shaft behind him. No turning back now, he thought.
Graham pulled himself through the pitch darkness a few feet more until he came to a sharp corner in the shaft. He tried to get through on his stomach, but he could not squeeze through. One of his hips was now caught on the corner. His hands began to sweat and his breathing accelerated. “Come on, Graham,” he whispered to himself, “hold it together just this one time.” He then backed up out of the corner, turned on his side, and pulled his torso and then his legs through. “I don’t think that you’re going to make it through this corner,” he said softly to Charley.
“I’ll do my best, Colonel. You push ahead. I’ll catch up, don’t worry.”
Graham could now see a dim light shining into the shaft through the slats of a vent cover at the far end. He crawled forward as quickly as he could. If his calculations were correct, the air shaft ended in a quiet corner of the Brain Room, out of sight from the central console. He did not know what he was going to do when he got into the room; he figured he would devise a plan once he actually got in there.
When he reached the vent cover, he glanced out. He could not see much through the slats, but he could tell that he was looking into the Brain Room. He heard Ian’s voice giving orders to Peggy Lee. Other, muffled sounds were coming from the room – Graham assumed that the soldiers had been gagged. He pushed on the grate, but could not force it free. He punched it a couple of times with his palm, trying not to make too much noise, but it would not give. He did not want to alert Peggy Lee and Ian to his presence. Then, he remembered his pocket knife. He felt its weight in his trouser pocket. He shifted onto his side again and reached down into his pocket. He got out the thick blade and turned back onto his stomach.
Charley whispered from behind, “Sir, I am not sure if I am going to be able to get through here. You might be on your own.”
“Ten-four, Charley,” Graham whispered back, as he began to pry the grate away from the wall. After a few seconds, he had freed one corner. When he attempted to pry open the next corner, however, the thick blade snapped in two. Graham had yanked too hard. About an inch and a half of the blade, including the tip, fell to the ground outside of the ventilation shaft. Graham was left holding the handle, with just about of a third of the blade intact. His heart sank – he knew that his father would have been disappointed to see the knife break in half at the exact moment Graham needed it the most. But that had been a big part of the last years of his father’s life – that disappointment.
His anxiety began to balloon. If he could not get the grate off in front of him, how was he going to get out? Charley was blocking the other end. What if Peggy Lee and Ian detonated the bombs with him trapped in the ventilation shaft. Flames would consume him, and he would not be able to move. He would squirm and wriggle and fight to get away, but he would die in the fiery confines of that tiny metal shaft. The air began to feel very hot, and his hands shook uncontrollably. Bile formed in his throat, and his stomach felt like it was turning inside out. He could taste his dinner – acid and sweetness in his mouth.