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Paper in Fire

chapter 23.

Troop transport trucks weren't the most comfortable mode of transportation, but eighteen straight hours of travel over rough terrain saw Mustang and his team in Youswell in record time. General Clayton had suggested the squads go in under Colonel Jeffries, but Roy had insisted on leading the retrieval of his missing subordinates himself, and the General, realizing it would be a losing battle, had not argued his position. With the information Kain had provided through his mother, the conspiracy was well on its way to being dismantled. General Raven been one of the conspirators named, and had been taken quietly into custody before Roy's little convoy had even left the compound. It hadn't occurred to Roy until they were well on their way to Youswell that by leading this mop—up operation, the Flame Alchemist would be out of the lime light when everything went public, but frankly, he couldn't have cared less.

The trucks slowed as they neared the town, and a few soldiers were assigned to picket around the transports, under orders not to shoot unless fired upon. With the possibility of enemy soldiers in the area, Mustang wanted to be prepared. He didn't want to leave his men totally unprotected should they come under fire by stray insurgents, but he didn't want his team to accidently gun down any understandably nervous locals either. The troops were soon confronted on the main road a short distance from the town proper by a pair of armed miners — and Kain Fuery. The relief on the young electronics wizard's face upon seeing Mustang and his men was obvious, his smile so wide it looked almost painful on a face pale with worry and exhaustion.

Using a crutch to gain his feet, the young Sergeant hobbled over to greet his commander as Mustang swung out of the lead truck's cab. Havoc and Breda were already shouting orders to their squads, and Mustang once again appreciated the cool competence of his subordinates.

"Sergeant Fuery. Glad to find you relatively healthy." Mustang returned the younger man's salute as Havoc and Breda joined him to greet their friend. "Mrs. Fuery delivered your message in good order. She requests that you contact her at your earliest convenience. What is the current situation?"

"Sir! We believe that we have apprehended all the remaining insurgents in and around the town, but it is difficult to be sure. Their commander is not cooperating, so we don't know the total number of enemy soldiers. We currently have eleven men in custody. The mine they were storing supplies in suffered a major collapse followed by a coal dust explosion, and we have not yet finished rescue operations, so we're not sure how many of them may have been underground at the time."

"It appears that you have the situation under control. Well done Sergeant."

"Thank you, Sir. The miners and their families have been doing a very thorough job of keeping the town secure."

As Kain gave his report, the two sentry miners eyed Mustang and his men with undisguised mistrust. Mustang now turned his attention to them. "It seems that the rebel forces chose the wrong town to occupy. We have two field medics in our ranks. Consider them at your disposal. Where are your casualties?"

"The Inn." One man jerked a thumb over his shoulder, in the general direction of the town. "Could use some of your men down at the mine to help clear rock, too."

"I'll take them down there," Kain volunteered.

The Brigadier General turned his attention to his waiting subordinates. "Second Lieutenant Breda, take a detail into town to secure prisoners. Then set up patrols to sweep the bush for concealed enemies. First Lieutenant Havoc, assemble your squad and follow the Sergeant and I." The two men moved to carry out their orders. "Where is Major Elric, Sergeant?"

"He was in the mine when it collapsed, Sir," Kain said quietly. "We haven't found him yet."

Havoc swore under his breath, and Mustang's body suddenly started to function on automatic, his mind a swirl of negative images and worst case scenarios. Clamping down on cold dread, the Brigadier General forced himself to concentrate on the situation. This was no time to let his personal feelings interfere with his professionalism. It would be too easy to slip into an internal litany of things he should have said and done, self recriminations about time wasted, which would be of help to no one. He let fearfully concerned Roy Mustang fade into the background while the coolly capable Brigadier General took the lead.

The soldiers slowly made their way along an overgrown path down the hill, mindful of Kain's injury, and the young Sergeant brought them up to date. "The collapse was likely caused by Edward himself, from what the other hostages told us. He wanted to cut the rebels off from the weapons they had stockpiled down there. We're not sure what ignited the coal dust afterward, but we heard shots, and that could have done it. The miners tell me it doesn't take much to set the dust off, especially if there's methane mixed in with it. All you really need is a big enough spark."

The group broke through the trees into a dilapidated old mining camp around an arched opening into the side of the hill. Kain lead them to a cluster of miners leaning over a table, fingers tracing a yellowed diagram as they spoke.

"Now that the pocket of afterdamp's taken care of, we're making good time. We've almost reached the crosscut that leads to the refuge where the prisoners were kept." One burley man pointed at the map, picked up a mug and took a drink.

"Make sure your cases are sound before you go any deeper, Raleigh. We don't want to have to dig you out too. Picks and shovels boys. Head in." Halling turned from the men he was organizing as they made their way towards the mine. The whites of his eyes were stark against the blackness of the coal dust covering him from head to toe as he faced the approaching soldiers. "These are your reinforcements Kain?"

The Sergeant nodded. "This is my commanding officer."

"Brigadier General Roy Mustang." The officer offered his hand and it was firmly accepted. "How can we help?"

"Well, unless any of your soldiers have mine rescue experience, they'll have to team up with some of our boys. Right now we're mainly hauling rock out of the way, but we don't want any more coming down, so we're being careful. On top of that, every section we open holds the possibility of armed soldiers and afterdamp, so it's slow going."

"Afterdamp?"

"That's what we call the toxic gases that accumulate in a mine after a fire. We've opened three sections so far, and each one was contaminated. Before we could go on we had to clear them," Halling explained.

"How is that done?" Roy asked.

"Alchemically." Halling's coal blackened face cracked a wry grin. "I'm not even close to State certified, but I can handle basic arrays."

"I think I could be of assistance there, if you'll explain what you need," Roy offered.

"I'd appreciate it," Halling said, rubbing a tired hand across his forehead.

The Brigadier General left Havoc to arrange his squad into townsman—lead teams as Halling pointed out the rescue operation's progress on a yellowed diagram. The map showed a main tunnel complicated by twisting cross cuts. Red chalk marks indicated tunnels still blocked, and the chart sported a depressing number of red outlines. A sudden commotion at the mine entrance interrupted the exchange, and one of the rescue workers that had previously left the table was back.

"We've broken through into the cross cut Halling!" he exclaimed. "There's afterdamp, and this time it looks like there are dead men in there."

"Come on then, Mustang," the mine boss said grimly, grabbing up a large, blocky piece of chalk from the table. "Let's go see what we can do."

"Just a moment, Sergeant," Roy stopped the younger man when he started to follow, and signaled to two soldiers from Havoc's squad. Addressing them, he said, "Have Sergeant Furey show you the way to town. See to it that he gets off his feet and gets some rest. That's an order, Sergeant."

"But Sir!" Furey looked miserable. "I want to know if, if . . ."

"Easy, Sergeant," Mustang said quietly, "The going inside the mine is bound to be rougher than you can navigate on a crutch, and you don't want to injure yourself any further. You need to get off your feet and rest. We'll let you know as soon as we find him. Havoc, you're with me."

Halling lead the way as the group entered the mine and started down. The darkness seemed to eat the light shed by the lanterns they carried, reducing their range of visibility to a few scant feet.

"The side shaft we've just breached is where the women left Ed," Halling told the two military men as they made their way through the tunnel. "My wife told him to get back to the refuge if the tunnel collapsed so the dust wouldn't suffocate him. Hopefully he was able to do that before the dust was ignited."

Reaching the partially open cross shaft, Halling quickly drew a well practiced array on the wall nearest the opening, and touched his fingers to its edge. It glowed to life. Crackling fingers of energy played around the break in the tumbled barrier and forked into the chamber beyond. "Afterdamp is mostly carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen. I'm using this array to split out the oxygen, but its slow going. Too much oxygen is also dangerous, so I have to give it time to diffuse out, otherwise, when we go in, our lanterns will go off like Cretian candles." He explained.

"I have experience controlling the concentration of oxygen," Roy said, activating the array on his gloves. "I can balance the content at twenty—one percent and channel the excess out along the top of the tunnel to keep it away from the lanterns."

Between the two alchemists, the toxic fumes were soon eliminated, and the men were able to widen the gap and enter the tunnel. Much of the shaft was littered with rock and timber from the failed roof supports. Havoc cursed when he stumbled over an obstacle which proved to be neither.

"I've got a body here," he called, a quick examination determining that the sprawled man was indeed dead, horribly burned and broken. What remained of his clothing identified him as one of the enemy soldiers.

The team made four more like discoveries until they were stopped by a heavily damaged doorway in their path. The badly charred wooden access was wrenched aside, revealing a solid stone slab which covered the entire opening.

"What the hell?" one miner exclaimed.

"Major Elric. He's in there." Mustang felt elated and apprehensive all at once.

The rescue workers attacked the even sheet of rock with picks and sledgehammers, finally breaking a small opening. One man thrust an oil lamp through it. The flame dimmed, but didn't go out.

"Looks okay," Halling said. "Get us in there."

Minutes later the rescue team entered the chamber, lamps held high. Light spilled over the rubble strewn floor of the large hollow, revealing four struggling men pinned under stone restraints, and another slumped against a nearby wall, dust blackened braid over one shoulder.

Roy rapidly made his way towards his subordinate and knelt beside him, Havoc close behind.

"Fullmetal."

Red—rimmed golden eyes blinked owlishly in the lamplight. Unfocused, Ed stared up at Roy, face black with coal dust, a crooked smile on his lips.

"What took you so long, lazy bastard?" he croaked.