Pairing/Characters: David Sinclair, Colby Granger
Spoilers: "Trust Metric," oblique references to "When Worlds Collide"
Summary: God save idiots like my partner.
By the time we’re a few hundred feet up the sloping side of the canyon, Colby’s already ahead of me, hauling himself along like he was made for this. He’s wearing jeans and sneakers, the perks of undercover work. I don’t keep boots in my SUV, and the smooth soles of my office shoes keep slipping on sparse, wet weeds and pulling free of soaked earth with a squelching sound. I push aside a handful of brush and get splattered with rainwater for my trouble.
Damn unseasonable mid-May Los Angeles storm.
My partner is almost out of sight. I try to pick up my pace, but there are only so many ways to handle this terrain without taking a spill. Something like this is a job for Search and Rescue, really. The Bureau’s equivalent, at least; we can’t have civilians chasing down a scumbag like Mike Brassan. I pause for a moment, listening. If he’s doubled back, gone to ground along the little creek bed at the bottom of the canyon, then we’ve lost the trail already.
But Colby’s sure he spotted the man climbing. It’s been a long couple of weeks since I saw that certainty in his face, that eagerness to go. And I don’t have nearly as much experience in outdoor tracking, so I called in for backup and followed him. And now I’ve lost them both.
I don’t want to warn our prey, so instead of shouting I pull myself through more water-logged brush to where the ground opens out, running in a steep ragged curve up towards the heavily clouded skyline.
I relax a little as I see Colby (in shirt sleeves, having wisely left his jacket on my passenger seat) turn and give me a thumbs-up. He points at a cluster of boulders to his left. The sneaking posture he adopts to approach this possible hiding place is wildly exaggerated for my amusement. I unsnap my holster and ease several steps upward, into looser, slicker soil.
It’s hard to find my footing, and when I glance up again, I’m suddenly dizzy.
The sensation could be a minor quake, a tremor, but it doesn’t feel right. It’s something else, something I haven’t. . . . The entire hillside above us is shifting, melting, collapsing. “Colby!” I try to bolt uphill, but the ground is too slick. I almost drop my gun when I fall. “Colby!”
He makes a frantic gesture for quiet–he hasn’t seen what’s happening. I point at the quickening slip above us. “Mudslide! Move!”
Instead of getting out of the path of the slide, Colby just keeps going, headed towards the cluster of rocks and a possibly armed felon. God save idiots like my partner. I keep moving, keep my gun in my hand, stumbling upward as tons of yellow-gray earth gather momentum and come pouring down the slope. There’s a rush of wind, and rain patters against my face. That must be what triggered the slide. I can feel it now, the shiver of the ground under my feet, a rumble too low to really hear.
A figure leaps from behind the boulder, and Colby grapples with him. I bring up my gun, but can’t get a shot, and there’s less time than I’d thought, there’s no time at all, and both figures vanish into a sweeping wall of mud.
In emergency training, they tell you to put your arms around your head if you can’t escape a debris flow or a mudslide. As long as you can survive the flow, you have a chance of making it out alive.
Hard to do when the world has thundered down into blackness and deafening silence, to cold gritty slime that wipes out all other sensations. No breath--no room to breathe, with the mud pouring into my ears, my nose, pressing against my mouth, pinning my arms and legs. I’m moving, I can tell that much by the bumps I hit, but there’s no way to measure time in this sluggish coffin, except by the lightheaded fire of hypoxia burning through my muscles. Don’t breathe. Don’t breathe. Better to suffocate outright than fill sensitive lung tissue with the shit currently trying to rip the skin from my face. Don’t. Breathe.
I slam into something hard. The pain jolts a bubble of air out of me, and silty muck fills my mouth. I gag and cough, and there’s air, too--the coughing blasts through a thin coating of mud, and I taste damp oxygen over the iron on my tongue. One hand is trapped, but the other wiggles when I make an effort. I wrench that hand closer to my face, pawing away the goo plastered over my eyes and nose.
For a minute all I can do is lie here. Breathing without shredding my lungs is a real trick. That muck hurts coming back up, and I’m still short of breath with the weight of all this earth against my diaphragm. I twist my arm to a better angle, and cautiously scratch more mud away from my eyelids. Between the light patter of rain and the wash of tears, my vision starts to clear a little.
I want to shout, want to hear him respond. But I don’t have breath, or any idea where he is. First things first: get out of here, then see if I can find Colby, or call backup.
The image of where all that mud was heading pushes everything out of my head for a moment. The clear open space at the base of the canyon, where my SUV is haphazardly parked, is the obvious place for backup to pull off the road and join our search. It’s also probably impassable at the moment. God, I hope no one was down there.
I can’t even turn my head to check. From what little I can see, I’m pretty sure the slide dumped me against a low shelf of rock or a thoroughly stationary log. I’m effectively buried in the drift it left behind.
The side of the canyon has become a featureless slope of gray under the heavy sky. Trees are bent or missing (and I’m blessed or damned lucky that I didn’t meet one of those on my way down), brush and debris swept away or smoothed over. No landmarks left to steer by. To use as a compass, to find . . .
I can’t see anything breaking the surface.
Nothing that’s moving, anyway. Not within my limited field of vision.
There’s no sound, either. Shouts or sirens would be nice.
I’ve pulled myself out of sticky situations before. Not this literally, I hope, Megan would say if she were here. I’m not thinking about that, though. I’m thinking about getting out of this mud bath.
It’s harder than it sounds. I’m pinned on my side, and it’s hard to dig with just one arm, especially when the sleeve of my jacket is filled with mud. It takes too long to clear enough room that I can lift my head. Longer, to clear my whole torso, and make enough space that I can use my other arm to get a little leverage against the ground.
Something in my hip twinges when I sit up. Surviving a mudslide with my head intact is about all I can ask for; hopefully it’s just in an awkward position, not broken or dislocated. I try not to think about stories I’ve read, about limbs torn off and necks broken. Dealing with that would just be the capper on a very bad day. At least last time Colby’s heart stopped we were on a dry boat at midday, not a battlefield of nature.
My watch is gone. Probably ruined anyway. I count the time by heartbeats as I scoop; every set of hundred that goes by chills me further. I’ve scraped away all the mud I can from my head and ears, but there’s still no sound except the wind. I’m alone on this hillside.
No. Not alone. I won’t think about that.
The last time this team fragmented, Don and I were left to get everything done. That worked out just great, and it is not happening again. I’m not going to let it.
I wriggle my foot out of its temporary grave and ease myself a few feet up the hill, where the mud left shallower deposits. Nothing seems broken. Good. I glance downhill, and see that my conjecture was right. There’s nothing to be seen of my SUV, or any other vehicle that might have been in the area. Just deep, flat mud. I’m going to have to be careful where I step. That’ll be like quicksand.
So, no backup. At least not yet.
It’s up to me, then. I turn to start crawling and am several yards away before I realize that I’m minus both shoes and socks. I’m surprised my pants stayed on. They’re weighted with mud, and in a moment of insight I pause to struggle out of my jacket. It falls to the ground and blends right in, mud on mud. No one will ever find it.
I start crawling again. “Colby!” Calling out chokes me, but he’ll hear that. “Colby, make some noise, huh? I don’t know where you are, man!”
Several minutes, several yards, and I have no idea which way to turn. “Colby!” There’s still no answer. I breathe the wrong way and spend a long minute coughing. Colby, damn you, answer me. Be here. Be all right.
Something brushes my ankle. I stop my reflexive kick just in time. Mud-colored something against more mud–I twist around and reach for whatever it was, and yes. It’s a hand. I wrap my fingers around the cool wrist, and its fingers twitch in response.
“Hang in there, Colby, I’ve got you.” I couldn’t tell you for sure that this is my partner I’m talking to. It could easily be the sick bastard we chased out here. But the fingers curl around mine, tight and quick, and I know who this is, lack of evidence be damned. “I’ll get you out. Hang on, don’t move until I tell you, okay?”
There are still no sirens. For all I know, Don and his new rookie really are at the bottom of the mudslide down there, and nobody knows two FBI agents are stranded on this tiny piece of Los Angeles wilderness. Can’t do anything about that now; I’ll settle for excavating my partner out of his latest mess. “Hang in there, buddy.” At least I’m here this time. At least someone is.
Last summer wasn’t the end. This won’t be, either.
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