Words: The Inventor (10b)

Prologue / 1a / 1b / 2a / 2b / 3a / 3b / 4a / 4b / 5a / 5b / 6a / 6b / 7a / 7b / 8a / 8b / 9 / 10a

The story continues below…

A third bang caused the building to shake. Instinctively I braced myself using the frame of the doorway I was standing in.

“Dey’ve found us,” whispered Enell.

“Maybe, maybe not.”

“Eider way, dey’ve been getting closer. What if dey start being less circumspec’?”

“If they’re truly being that brazen, then we’ve already lost,” Ulysses replied, his expression betraying nothing but an ocean of calm.

We stood frozen in our spots for what felt like hours, but can’t have been more than a few minutes. Mao was the first to sound the all clear by brushing between our legs. Was it an action to calm us, or did he just want food? Probably both.

selective focus photography of orange tabby cat
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“He’s a good barometer, that cat,” I said, noticing that we had all visibly relaxed a little. Still no one dared to move for a few more minutes.

“Right,” said Ulysses, breaking the silence that had reasserted itself. “I need a drink.”

“You’re not old enough to…”

“Says who, exactly?” he said, shooting me a challenge with his eyes.

I put my hand up, then remembered the fancy whisky in my bag – but was this a good enough moment to open it? I had a feeling that a member of a Terratan resistance called Ulysses would have a few bottles of something more appropriate stashed away. The thought occurred to me that the whisky in my bag might have been older than he was.

Ulysses slumped down in the seat he was in when I first arrived; his usual seat, I supposed. He leaned down to his left, where I could now see there was a small personal fridge stocked with several small bottles of what I presumed to be beer, which looked homemade. Ulysses pulled on a cupboard just next to it, which caused two almost-empty bottles of rum to fall out. Rum that was twelve years old. At least he was older than that.

He took out two fairly fancy old crystal glasses from the cupboard, and reached for a third. “Commander?”

“Yuh muss’ know my response by now boy.” Enell rolled her eyes and went to the kitchen, returning with a can of ginger beer. She turned to me. “I prefer to keep my senses sharp. You want?”

Jaycee didn’t really drink, either, except on her birthday, when she would really go mad. I went for the most diplomatic answer I could manage. “Rum and ginger is a good combination, you know.”

“It’s why we work so well together,” Ulysses smiled. He poured himself a generous serving and a smaller one for me, which I took. Enell tipped a little of her can into my glass.

“So what’s the transport?” I asked, swirling the liquids around and taking a sip. The first taste of ginger was so strong it made my throat close, making me cough unexpectedly while to my left Ulysses was drinking rum like it were juice. I tried to compose myself.

“We’ve managed to get hold of an Aquatian transport ship. There’s an underground river that–”

“Yes, I know it,” I blurted. Both of them threw me a surprised look.

“How do you know about that?” Enell glared at me with concern.

“From Stephen.” Ulysses answered for me, looking at his empty glass. He left a short, deliberate pause. “The river goes to the City, but most of it is too small to use for transportation. We have something stored there, though. There’s an access point in a house on the outskirts, about ten minutes’ run from here. A ladder takes you down into the river, and you swim for about twenty seconds before there’s a fork slightly upstream. You can do it with a snorkel and a flashlight.”

I thought of Stephen’s technology, and his considerably more epic journey. I wasn’t sure which element of this he would find furthest beneath him – the distance or the suggestion of comparably primitive technology. I reached into my bag, careful not to expose the expensive rum which would get demolished by a fifteen year old in this company. My fingers ran briefly over Jaycee’s knuckledusters, triggering flashes of memory, before I located the phone Stephen had given me. No messages. Sixty percent battery.

“Anyway, like I said, we can’t go down the river very far, so we won’t bother. But we can use it to fly to the City. It’s dangerous, but I cracked their ciphers yesterday. I should be able to convince them we’re friendly with a simple digital conversation.”

apartment apartment building architecture building
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Another bang. The building physically shook, the glass on the window made a loud cracking sound and a huge diagonal fissure appeared in an instant. Lieutenant Mao leapt from nowhere onto my chest, forcing me to hold him. “Let’s get out of here,” Uly conceded, and picked up a shoulder bag. He packed it with a full bottle of rum from the cupboard, the handheld scanner, a jar of honey, three tins of cat food, and Lieutenant Mao, who reluctantly released his claws from my chest.

I made for the door, but Enell corrected me. “Not dat way. Follow me.” Happily. She opened a door to what I thought was a bathroom, but was in fact an old hollowed-out cupboard. It had a fireman’s pole in it.

“You ever used one o’ dese before?”

I shook my head.

“I’ll go first. Do it a floor at a time, or you’ll hurt yourself, understand?”

“Um…”

Another bang. The window exploded in on us as Uly closed most of a panicky Mao inside the bag.

Enell dropped downwards, gripping the pole and sliding down. I looked over the edge. Each floor offered an opportunity to stop, if you stuck your feet and legs out enough to let you.

“I’m right behind you. Just do as she said, you’ll be fine.”

My first drop was slow – I had trouble adjusting my grip so I didn’t hurt my hands or fall too fast. The second one I tried went too fast, and I skipped a floor, landing two down with a bang. I looked down and Enell had already reached the bottom, out of view. “Go, go! Keep going!” Ulysses called from above.

I made it to the bottom mostly unscathed, except for two sore hands. I looked around for Enell; she was standing at an open door which led to the back of the building. She beckoned for me to follow her. Uly dropped immediately behind me and smiled. It was a smile that did well to mask his fear, but I caught a glimpse of it anyway.

Enell looked both ways like she was about to cross a dangerous road. “Stay very close, one step behin’. Okay? Jus’ don’ bump me.”

She walked on at a brisk pace, like she was going to war. She turned her head to check on us occasionally, before increasing her pace steadily, first to a quick jog, where it stayed a while, then again to a sustainably fast run. Her steps made almost no noise – Ulysses’ steps, too, were far quieter than mine. Compared with them, I sounded like a galloping horse.

Enell pointed to a large, white house on the edge of the Outpost. Of course, most of the buildings were covered in white now, but this one was free of snow and ice. A large, imposing black iron fence and gate stood between us and the house, but Enell directed our path away from the gate and around the left-hand side of the perimeter, where we stopped at a piece of fence with two of the bars removed.

“Care now, it’s electrified. Don’t touch de sides,” she said, and slipped through.

Uly squeezed past, ahead of me. I put my first leg through, sidled a little, and brought my second one in – brushing it against the gate. A jolt of electricity surged through me. I let out a gasp – a micro-shriek of horror – but nothing had happened. The fence was just a fence – not so much as a tingle, save for the one I created for myself. Enell and Uly stifled a laugh. “Jus’ testin’ ya. Yuh bes’ work on dat.”

Next time: the conclusion to chapter 10 (it’s a long’un).

xxRaph

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