She heard a radio crackling. "Kate! Kate! Come in, Kate!"
It was Aaron. She'd forgotten she had one clipped on her belt. She clicked it on, still panting. "Get away from here," she said. "Clear the area."
"What in God's name are you doing?" Aaron asked.
"Remember how you showed me the geological map of the natural tunnels that were here?"
"The ones we collapsed," Aaron agreed.
"We only collapsed ones that connected to your reservoir. Not the other ones. A tunnel leads directly to Valve Three."
Kate found the hole she was looking for in the sand.
"It's too risky," Aaron said. "You need to get out of there."
"How much time do I have?"
He ignored her. "Even if you were able to get to the Valve, it's going to be too hot by the time you do. You won't be able to survive—"
"Aaron," she said sharply. He shut up. "How much time do I have?"
A momentary silence, then he said, "Seven minutes."
"All right," she said. "Now get out of here, in case this doesn't work."
Then she tossed the radio into the sand. She heard it crackling; she didn't have enough space in the tunnel for it, and she didn't need it anymore. She slipped her belt off, kept only the flashlight and then climbed headfirst into the tunnel.
It went down at an angle for the first dozen or so feet and then rounded sharply to a drop off. This section opened into the actual tunnel network. She'd gone spelunking with her father when she was young, but it still made her claustrophobic. The ground vibrated beneath her, increasing her feeling of dizziness, but she crawled on.
She'd explored several of these tunnels, though never very deep. The only one she used regularly was the one that connected to the series of manmade tunnels surrounding Valve Three. It breached just under one of the service walkways surrounding the equipment, and she'd used it to surprise and scare her coworkers on occasion.
The only hard part was the twenty meter winding passage that connected the two chambers. It was a tight fit even on the best of days, but with the ground shaking it was even more difficult. She slid into the open hole in the cavern floor and started pulling herself arm-over-arm into the tunnel.
It was easy going at first, but suddenly her light stopped in front of her. The vibrations of the ground had knocked a chunk of sandstone loose, and it was blocking most of her passageway. What had previously been an uncomfortable fit was now a tiny hole blocking her way forward.
She cursed, realizing she didn't have enough time to go back. She was trapped, twenty meters under the ground in a tunnel with nowhere to go. Worse, she was only a few dozen feet short of the walkway.
Maybe she could slide through, but she doubted it. Even with her small frame, it would be an impossible fit.
"Not a lot of alternatives," she muttered to herself, brushing hair out of her face. She slid the flashlight through the opening, rolled onto her side, and started pulling her way through past the rock.
It was painful and uncomfortable, and she was forced to suck in a deep breath each time she tried to move. About halfway she got stuck on her hips. She pulled and felt the rock scraping painfully, but it wouldn't budge. She heard the alarm blaring and felt the heat emanating from the room ahead, but she couldn't move.
Panic set in as she realized she was completely stuck. Trapped, unable to breathe underground. She started gasping, feeling lightheaded. She tried to remember what her father always said when she got scared as a little girl. He always told her: fear can be a powerful tool if you know how to use it.
She bit back the panic and forced herself to relax and focus. She was running out of time. She shifted, rolling her hips, and jerked her way past. She received a nasty scrape on the leg for the effort, but she was free.
She scrambled the rest of the way forward up to the catwalk and grabbed ahold of the metal to pull herself up. She instantly regretted it as the scalding metal scorched her hand. She let out a sharp cry and yanked herself back. She checked her hand and saw a nasty second degree burn on her palm and fingers.