…and now, the third and final part of chapter 10!
I felt a curious jolt of jealousy for their closeness; that they felt able to make jokes at my expense even in dangerous situations. Their laughter felt like a splash of colour in the harsh monochrome reality we were in. It was safe, even though the noise could have attracted attention. No one came, no shots fired in our direction.
We hurried to the back door, which opened before we got there. Our approach had been observed from within. Lucky for us, the watchers were on our side.
“Enell! Uly! What are you doing here?”
“Our place blew up,” Enell said, deadpan.
“Literally?” said the voice from inside. It came from a man who looked related to her in some way, but had none of her accent.
“Literally,” Ulysses parroted back. “We need to get to the ship. We have to go, now. We’re out of time.”
“I didn’t pick anything up on the Capital Hub. You can’t just stay here a while? Sorry, rude guys,” the new guy turned to me, speaking at a rate that suggested there was no crisis, and everything was fine. Fine enough for manners, anyway. “I’m Artie,” he said, forcefully extending what looked like a delicate hand for a man of his build. It was a hand that might play pianos or paint fine art – not pilot war craft.
“Artie. I’m Katie.”
“Yeah, sorry, Katie, Artie; Artie, Katie… let’s go?” Ulysses asked, although it was less of a question than an order.
“It’s the door on the right,” Artie indicated. Someone else in the room was busying themselves with a computer game of some kind and had barely looked up. “The gear is in the cupboard if you need it.”
“If?” I raised an eyebrow.
“I don’t need it anymore. It’s twenty seconds. Still, take it with you. The cold is quite a shock if you’re in a hurry, and the suits don’t protect you.”
I thought of Stephen’s advanced suit and briefly wished he were here now. I wondered how he was getting on.
“Oh, and someone was here, you know. A man, called himself Leon. Seemed surprised to find us here.”
“Good to know. Did he take anything?”
“Don’t think so. Was wearing that visor and shield from upstairs, but he left them outside when he left. Oh, and he helped himself to our food, but…”
“Give you any trouble?”
“More the other way around.”
“Great. Let’s go gang.”
Enell and I followed Uly through the door and watched as he removed a kind of lid that covered a small cylindrical well in the middle of the room. I recalled feeling the water in Stephen’s lair and shivered in anticipation.
We donned dry suits over our clothes and climbed down one by one into the frigid water below, each of us letting out a complaint of some sort as we submerged ourselves with a frustrating reluctance. The group didn’t linger. I followed Enell and Uly trailed in what was becoming our standard formation. The icy cold felt like a thousand knives stabbing and slicing at my skin as I got up to my shoulders.
“The slower you go, the worse it is,” Artie said, watching me from the top of the pipe.
He made sure we were gone before closing the lid, which cut the light in the tunnel to just that of our torches. I took shallow breaths through my snorkel and after what felt like a very long ten seconds, we swam around a bend in the river. There, what appeared to be a wall of rocks was in fact a complex illusion of light. Enell swam through it and up, and despite my sense of wonder I didn’t pause to question it. We surfaced, and immediately in front of us was an old Aquatian transport vessel, with what looked like a few modifications.
“Leave your suits here. Artie or Klaus will come by to collect them, or whatever,” Uly said, directing us into the ship. He wasn’t even slightly out of breath. I felt myself gasping and rubbing myself down to warm up. Fortunately my clothes on the inside of the dry suit were as dry as a bone.
It was larger inside than it appeared. I’d seen the inside of one before, but this one looked very different. Many of the seats had been removed to allow for more command seating – one of the chairs appeared to be for firing weapons, and one was definitely a pilot’s seat.
“Pretty good, huh?” Uly said proudly, stroking the side of the pilot’s seat.
“How do we get up there?”
By way of response, Enell, who had already positioned herself at the helm, had flicked a switch. Almost silently save for a slight hum, lights and monitors turned themselves on. Screens appeared as overlays on the windows. She glided her hands over her console like a concert pianist might effortlessly play Chopin. Uly watched my awe.
“She’s the only one who can do that. Trained as a combat pilot in the Caribbean ten years ago, top of her class, so to speak.”
A modest amount of light began to stream in from outside, as some sort of hatch had opened above us.
“I wish it were dark. We goin’ to stick out like sore thumbs nah.”
“How long’s the journey?”
“About an hour.”
Before I knew it, we were outside. The daylight was blinding.
I hadn’t noticed the craft take off. I looked at Uly, who simply smiled at me. There was concern behind that smile, though.
We spent most of the time in the clouds. Enell couldn’t rely on the craft’s in-built navigation systems as they tied into the national systems. We’d be spotted more easily, she said. So occasionally we dipped below to navigate by ground, just to check our on-board compasses weren’t lying to us.
About forty minutes in, the window to the right of me turned a lurid shade of bright orange.
Before I had a chance to ask what it was, Uly pulled me out of my seat and started tapping controls that had appeared from my window.
“Shit,” he muttered. “We’ve got to land. Enell, where are we?”
“We can’t land here, it’s the middle of nowhere. How many?”
“Two. Starboard side.”
“I’m taking us higher.”
The craft lurched for the first time since I’d set foot inside it, forcing me to hold on to my seat. We ascended rapidly. As the carpet of clouds fell away beneath us, I noted to myself how I hadn’t seen a sky this blue in months.
“They’re still on us.”
“Hold on to something,” Enell said, turning around and making eye contact with us. I thought back to me even 18 months ago. I was a photographer. This was absurd.
The craft plunged down again, but with every move we made, they checked us.
“Fuck, they’re advanced.”
“This thing’s several months old now,” muttered Enell. “Dey’ll have made a whole heap of improvements in dat time.”
We plummeted through the cloud floor and emerged in the grey world below, facing off against two craft that very obviously had us outmatched.
“What do we do?” I said in my panic.
In answer, the two craft in front of us each released a small missile. One of them exploded just in front of us as Uly sent one back to intercept. The second, however, was sufficiently delayed to make it through the blast.
The glass in front of Enell exploded in a cacophony over which I could still hear her screaming.
Our craft started to fall rapidly. I held myself in my seat, like I was on a terrifying theme park ride without a seat belt.
“We still have one engine…” I heard Uly shout, before I blacked out.