There was a shuddering vibration beneath their feet, followed by a loud hum as the ground thrummed to life. Kate felt like she was standing on a paint-can shaker.
"Totally normal," Aaron explained. "That'll go away."
The entire crowd glancing around, shifting curiously and mumbling to each other.
"How long?" Kate asked.
"A few minutes. Give or take."
"Good, because it's making me feel diz—"
There was a resounding boom from the west and the ground shifted violently for several seconds. Kate lost her balance and stumbled, bouncing painfully against the sand. When it stopped there was still a hum, but now it felt like it was off kilter, like the cadence had shifted.
Kate climbed shakily to her feet as other people stood and dusted themselves off. She looked at Aaron, who was leaning over with his arms outstretched, trying to stay up.
"Was that normal?" she asked.
He looked up at her, ashen faced. She knew immediately that something was very, very wrong.
Suddenly, an alarm started blaring through the area. The crowd panicked and fled from the stage. Kate felt herself pressed against a sea of bodies, dragged with the current. Someone caught her hand, and she was suddenly being pulled the opposite direction. She caught glimpses of Aaron, pushing against the crowd and leading her toward the stage.
"Come on," he shouted over his shoulder.
"Where?" she shouted back. "We need to get out of here!"
He ignored her and kept moving, rushing up the stairs. The stage had already been evacuated and cleared, leaving behind only two people: a man in his sixties with a beer belly and suspenders and a woman wearing a prim white dress with long brunette hair. Kate recognized the man: Fred Dallinger, lead engineer on the project. The woman she didn't know.
"What happened?" Aaron asked. He was still shouting to be heard over the alarm.
"One of the regulators blew," Fred shouted back. "Pressure spiked higher than we anticipated."
"Can we release it?"
"Trying," Fred replied. He gestured at Kate. "Who's she?"
"A friend," Aaron said.
Fred nodded. He wiped the sleeve of his plaid shirt across his sweaty brow and tapped frantically on a little tablet. The woman watched, pensive and frowning.
"It shouldn't have spiked," she said to no one in particular.
"Well it did," Fred replied.
"With all of my calculations-"
"Ma'am, with all due respect, I don't care," Fred said. He turned to Aaron. "The remote pressure valves aren't opening. I think when the temperature jumped it might have fried the circuits."
"Then we have to turn it off," Aaron said.
"On it," Fred said.
He tapped furiously on the tablet, and gradually the hum under their feet decreased. But, it didn't stop entirely.
"Valve three," Fred said, frowning. "It isn't shutting off."
"You mean it's still pumping?"
"Yep," Fred said.
"What does that mean?"
"That means we need to get the hell out of here," Fred explained. "It's going to explode."
"No way," Aaron said. "There has to be another option."
The woman in the white dress turned to Aaron. "He's right," she said. "If we can't regulate the pump or release the pressure, then it's going to be critical in just under ten minutes. This area is hazardous."
"We can't abandon this project," Aaron growled. "If this fails today, it'll set us back dozens of years."
"We can't release it from here," Fred argued. "So we run."
"Is there a manual release?"
"Yes," Fred replied. "But the access shaft is locked while the pump is active. We can't get in."
"Then what if...?"
"No 'if's," Fred said. "There's nothing else we can do. We need to get out of here."
Aaron sighed glanced at Kate. "Fine. We need to go."
Kate ignored him, staring off at the salt fields to the West.
"Kate," he reiterated. "We need to go, now."
"I know another way in," she said.
Then she turned and sprinted across the desert. She heard the three screaming, telling her that she was running the wrong direction, but she ignored them. It was a little over two hundred meters to the access hatch to Valve Three.
There was a huge structure of pipes leading to the hatch, but that wasn't where she ran. Instead, she went to an outcropping of rocks thirty meters farther, searching for the hole she'd found several weeks ago.