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Happy reading!

Will

Last week’s story fork…

CHOICES:

1. It was time to arrest General Curtis. To have him stand trial and be convicted. Doing so would respect the laws of our community and go some way toward bringing the divergent classes back together. Surely I had allies in the Grays that would rally to my call and help make it happen.

2. It was time to kill General Curtis. A trial would be pointless. He would buy or bully his way to freedom. But taking such extralegal action would go against every law and convention our community held dear.

The group chose #1 and here is how that played out…

 

Chapter 38

The sharp headache came first. The dull thinking came next. The sheen of sweat coating my skin arrived soon after. A few hours had passed and the air was noticeably changing for the worse. It wasn’t debilitating.

Yet.

Each of us had retreated into the silence of our minds. The simple task of breathing slowly was the only focus. And it was getting increasingly difficult to do.

I drew in a slow breath, noticed how it filled my lungs yet didn’t quite satisfy, and then let it out.

From near the top of the pile of rubble leading to the rest of the residence level, a miniature trail of dirt crumbled down. It must’ve been settling into its natural angle of repose.

Then another rivulet of debris tumbled down. It was too steady to be random. A few seconds later, a tiny pink nose with two long curved teeth poked through the dirt. The nose twitched as it sampled the air.

Another few seconds and a rat’s brown head poked through and looked at us. Its beady eyes surveyed each of us in turn.

“A rat!” Martinez said with disgust tinged with fear. She scooted away to the opposite wall of rubble—the one blocking the way to the marketplace.

It crawled out the rest of the way and stopped, regarding us with curiosity. Like it was wondering why we were here. As if our being here was as much our choice as its being here was its choice. And our choice made no sense.

“Disgusting creature,” Martinez said. “If it comes anywhere near me, I’m going to stomp on it.”

“What’s your problem with rats?” Crypto said.

“I don’t have a pinkie toe on my left foot because of a rat. That’s my problem with rats!”

Crypto and I looked at her like she was crazy. Maybe the air was getting to her faster than us.

The rat chittered like it was trying to tell us something.

Martinez flinched like the message was that it was about to kill us and there was nothing we could do to stop it.

I’d seen plenty of strange things of late. But this woman who I’d come to regard as a fearless warrior being scared of a rat was at the top of the list.

“What are talking about?” I asked.

“It happened when I was a baby. My mother had me in a crib and had the left the room. A mangy rat crawled into the bed and bit off my pinkie toe. It took a chunk out of my leg too before my mother heard my cries and returned.”

“So, you only have four toes on your left foot?” Crypto asked.

Martinez nodded, not letting her eyes stray.

He grimaced with disgust. “And people think I’m a deformed cripple. You just hide it better.”

Martinez shot him a scowl. “I’m not a cripple. I can walk just fine.”

Crypto snorted. “I meant emotionally, not physically. I mean, you’re terrified of rats from something that happened before you could even remember anything.”

“I’m not terrified of it!”

The rat shook like a wet dog and dirt went flying.

Martinez sucked in a breath and recoiled at the sudden movement.

Crypto doubled over laughing… until Martinez punched him in the shoulder so hard he fell over. “Owww!” he said as he lay on his side, rubbing his shoulder.

“Cut it out! Both of you!” I said. It was like keeping two children from constantly pestering each other.

I glanced back to the rat and noticed something familiar.

A jet black body with a white patch of scraggly fur on top of its head.

Einstein!

“That’s Einstein! One of Kat’s rats!”

It sounded strange when it came out like that.

Einstein scurried around and disappeared into the tiny tunnel. A few seconds later, he backed out pulling something along with it.

A small tube.

I heard the whooshing air a second later.

He raced down the pile and leaped on top of my leg. He stoop up on his haunches and pawed at the air and squeaked as if to explain everything.

I stroked the little guy’s chest. “I think he’s telling us we are officially rescued. I think he dragged in an air tube.”

Crypto was already scrambling up the pile. He grabbed the tube and felt the end. He sniffed it, held against his palm and then sucked in a breath. A few more breaths and he nodded with a broad smile. “It’s fresh air!”

We took turns with the tube and soon after heard the rumbling sounds of rescue as the blockage was cleared.

The gamble to wait for help had paid off!

Another couple of hours and a dirt-covered face broke through the rubble. “You didn’t think to get out of date with Ekaterina so easy, did you? Ekaterina does not take buried alive rain check.”

Einstein squeaked and raced up the pile to her and sniffed her lips.

She kissed him. “That’s a good boy. The hero deserves tasty reward for dinner tonight.”

“Kat!” I said, still too surprised to say anything more.

“Yes, Mr. Scout. Sit tight, everyone. They’ll have you out in a few minutes.” She disappeared and the sounds of excavation resumed.

Minutes later, we got out and a team of rescuers plied us with water and wet rags to clean off with. A nurse checked each of us in turn.

Kat reappeared carrying a steaming pot with towels covering the handles. She eased the bag from her shoulder and dug out bowls and spoons and soon we were slurping down a scalding savory broth as fast as our burned tongues could manage.

Kat pulled out a clear bottle of something that promised to burn hotter than the soup. Martinez and I had one drink each and passed it on. Crypto guzzled more than a few drinks before Kat snatched it out of his hands. “Easy there. You don’t want to die right after living through such a thing.”

Crypto’s lips pressed into a tight line, but he nodded and returned to his soup.

After I’d eaten enough to feel like my brain and body worked again, I motioned for Kat to come closer so the rescue workers hurrying back and forth wouldn’t hear. “What happened after General Curtis collapsed the tunnel?”

“He and the Grays returned to the elevators and departed. We’ve received word that a bunch of Grays have taken control of the Water and Power level and the Farms level. ”

“Are the elevators still operational?”

She shook her head. “No. The service elevators aren’t working either. Not for the lower levels, at least. I don’t know about higher up.”

I needed to get to the upper levels. Any chance of heading off this growing conflict required it.

But how?

If there was no way to get to the upper levels, there would be no way to get to General Curtis.

I put the bowl to my mouth and slurped in the last of the soup before setting it aside.

Martinez and Crypto were still working on theirs.

I said out loud what each of us were thinking. “With General Curtis controlling movement between the levels, we’re going to have a difficult time fighting back.”

Crypto swiped his arm across his mouth. “He doesn’t control every route between the levels.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

Crypto leveled a cold look at Kat as he held a hand up. “Pass me that rotgut and I’ll tell you a story.”

 

Chapter 39

Crypto knocked back a shockingly large amount of Kat’s booze before stopping for a breath. His face turned red and it looked like he was about to explode. His mouth opened and a huge burp blasted out. The sound echoed down the corridor. The fumes nearly singed my nose hairs. The vapors would’ve ignited if an open flame had been nearby.

The royal burp of all burps finally petered off and he sighed with satisfaction. “Better.”

Martinez had her hand covering her nose and mouth. “Speak for yourself.”

He grinned. “I always do.”

Not this again. I cut in before they resumed their childish feud. “Tell me your story. Do you know of another way to get between the levels?”

Crypto nodded. “Yes.” He glanced around to ensure no one was close enough to hear. Kat was already back to helping care for the workers that were continuing to clear out the tunnel. It wouldn’t be long before they got through to the people trapped in the marketplace.

He leaned in and lowered his voice. “I’m about to reveal something that is a big reason why I am in the position that I am in. A competitive advantage, let’s call it. One that I will surrender for the good of our united cause. But before I do, I need something from you.”

“You already drained half that bottle. What else do you need?” I asked.

“I need your word that you owe me a favor. That when I call in said favor, you will deliver it no matter what.”

I didn’t like the sound of that.

“What if I say no?”

Crypto shrugged. “Then the story goes away and we look for another solution.”

Martinez snorted. “I knew it wouldn’t be long before your true colors shone through.”

Crypto scowled at her. “Look, I’ll fight for the good of the cause, but I’m no martyr. I’ll never go back to the pathetic wretch I once was. Besides, I believe there can be more than one winner in this conflict. And I intend to be one of them.”

“Fine,” I said. “You have my word.”

He extended his hand and we shook on it.

“There is an old forgotten stairwell that connects the original levels. What is now level four, Systems, was originally the uppermost level. What are now the three upper levels—Security, Residence One, and Administration—were built later. The emergency stairwell was long forgotten by the time they were added so it doesn’t extend to them.”

I’d never heard of any such thing.

“How is it that I’ve never heard of this stairwell?”

“Dunno. My guess is that it was never used and so wasn’t maintained. It must’ve been blocked off at some point and eventually forgotten.”

“How did you come to find out about it?” Martinez asked with a skepticism that I shared.

“As you may imagine, I was picked on as a child. And my diminutive size made the idea of fighting back a foolish one. I chose instead to escape. This level is riddled with hiding places if you’re small enough and determined enough to discover them. After having been bloodied on one particularly brutal occasion, I managed to escape, though with my assailants in hot pursuit. I ended up in a sector I’d never visited before.  I managed to lose them by squeezing through a loose wall panel and waiting in darkness until they gave up and left.”

His eyes took on a far away, dreamy cast. “I sat there with my lips busted and bleeding. One eye swollen shut and my ribs aching from a number of well-placed kicks. I’d endured similar treatment before, but this particular episode had gone further than the rest. It was like they wanted to kill me simply because I was different and too weak to fight back. Maybe they would have if I hadn’t escaped.”

His eyes focused and he turned to me. “I didn’t understand it then. I was no threat. I’d done them no wrong. But I came to understand it later. They were simply expressing a simmering rage at the hopeless conditions of their lives. And I was an easy target. As I child, I hated them, but I don’t anymore. I understand them.”

“Must’ve been tough,” I said.

“It was, but I survived. In part due to discovering the stairwell that day.” He refocused on me. Back in the present. Ready to apply his devious mind to our predicament. “I’ve used it to smuggle goods and even people between the levels. It’s been one of my most closely guarded secrets. And I offer it to you and this cause we find ourselves sharing.”

So we had a way to travel between levels beyond the control of General Curtis. The question was what to do with that advantage. The levels we could access from top to bottom were Systems, Infirmary, Recreation, Farms, Residence Two, and Water and Power.

Controlling Water and Power level was an obvious choice, but Curtis had pre-empted that move. The Grays stationed there would be too much for any ragtag group of fighters that I’d be able to assemble.

What else, then?

The Farms level was out for the same reason. The Grays had the manpower and weapons to overwhelm any force we could offer. They’d only lost at the marketplace because they hadn’t expected resistance. That oversight would not be repeated.

What about the Systems level?

It contained the computer systems that controlled the elevators, security doors, each level’s climate control routines. It was the computerized brain that controlled everything.

“Systems,” Crypto and I said at once.

“But we won’t be able to hold it for long,” I said. “Once a coordinated response from the Grays arrives, we’ll have to retreat or be slaughtered.”

Crypto waved the concern away like a bothersome fly. “We won’t have to hold it long. If we can get to the core mainframe, I can insert code that will give us control of the entire community from a digital access pad.”

I nodded in agreement. “And with that kind of leverage, we can force General Curtis to surrender. He’ll be tried and convicted for his involvement in planting the bombs. We can head off a bloody rebellion and begin to bring this community back together.”

Crypto took another drink and blew out a fiery breath. “We’ll see.”

 

Chapter 40

I crouched down and stepped through the hatch. The metal step creaked and shifted beneath my weight. Being off balance and not expecting the metal to move, I stumbled forward, reaching out to catch myself on something. Anything.

But encountered nothing but air.

Crypto yanked back on my shirt as I regained my balance. “Careful there,” he said from a few steps up. He pointed his flashlight over revealing a wide column of empty air that swallowed the light some forty feet below us. “That’s a one way ticket.”

My stomach twisted in my belly as I stared down into the void. I edged away from the abyss and leaned back against the reassuring solidity of the rock wall. I shined my light around to take in the death trap I’d voluntarily entered.

“The safety rails were already gone when I found it. They were probably salvaged when the new levels were built.”

The stairwell itself was a round cylinder with relatively smooth rock walls that appeared to have been created with a massive drill bit. Twelve feet in diameter with a spiral staircase wrapping around an empty column of air in the center. The steps three feet across and bolted into the rock in addition to being connected together on outside edge. The column of nothing in the middle was twice that length and looked ready to swallow a person’s future without a second thought.

We scooted up a few steps to make room for Martinez as she entered behind me.

“Careful coming in,” I said as I offered a supporting hand. “There’s a big drop a few feet in.”

She brushed my hand aside and stepped through to join us. Scanning the vicinity with her own flashlight out, she shook her head with resignation. “I figured we were going to die sooner or later. Looks like it’ll be sooner.” She stood at the inside edge of the step and peered down into the darkness beyond the reach of her light. “How far does that go?”

“Don’t know,” Crypto replied. “Further than I’ve ever wanted to go.”

The step creaked and flexed downward.

Martinez vaulted back to the outer edge along the wall.

Crypto chuckled like falling to her death was a joke. “You’re heavy. I recommend staying away from the edge.”

Martinez reached up passed me and flicked him in the head.

“Ow! What was that for?”

“You don’t tell a woman that she’s heavy. Didn’t your mother teach you anything?”

Crypto shrugged. “No. She died birthing me and I grew up in a coop. At least until I escaped for good.”

“Sorry,” Martinez replied.

“No need. I am who I am today because of the hardships I faced as a child. I’d probably be cleaning toilets or pleasuring the flesh otherwise.”

Martinez cast a dubious glance his way.

“Don’t believe me?”

“I didn’t say anything.”

“Have you ever been to the Recreation level?”

“Yes.”

“I’m not talking about the athletic fields or walking paths. I’m talking about the seedier side of things. Have you ever visited the Red Light sector?”

She shook her head.

“Didn’t think so. You’d be surprised what’s on offer there. A person of my unique stature would be in high demand.”

“That’s messed up.”

Crypto shrugged. “That’s life. People are curious.”

“Can we get moving?” I asked. I hadn’t been to the Red Light sector as far as I could remember. And learning more about it wasn’t high on my list of priorities.

Crypto nodded. “Sure thing. Keep to the outside and watch your step. You don’t want to plant a foot through a crumbling patch of rust. If you didn’t end up taking the quick elevator down, you’d contract tetanus or some other debilitating blood disease.”

“Thanks for the warning,” I said. “Let’s move out.”

Crypto started up the steps, skipping from one to the next, much lighter on his feet that I’d expected.

I shifted the coil of rope and rifle slung over my shoulder so both were settled and comfortable. With a last look to the yawning center, I started up after our nimble-footed guide.

Between all three of us, the stairs creaked and groaned like ghosts disturbed from a long and peaceful slumber. The sounds echoed away in both directions, above and below us.

It didn’t take long before my heart was pounding and sweat beaded and dripped from my brow. I was beat up. Definitely not in the kind of the shape to be doing this.

I hadn’t thought to ask before, but after ten minutes of ascending steps and only passing two levels, I did now. “How much longer?”

“Another ten or fifteen minutes. The levels are spaced around fifty feet apart.”

“Why?” Martinez asked.

“How should I know? Did I build this place? Alright, let’s slow down and stay alert. There’s a tricky bit coming up. A section of rusted steps that take you out if you’re not careful. Only step where I step. Got it?”

“Copy that,” I replied. I didn’t mention that my boots were twice as big as his. Hopefully that wouldn’t be a problem.

Crypto began placing his steps with measured care.

Martinez followed, placing her feet exactly where his had just left.

At least, I assumed that was the case because it required all of my attention and focus to do the same with her footsteps.

Right. Left. Right. Left.

One step after the other.

The physical and mental exertion were taking a toll. My head swam with numb emptiness. A wave of dizziness swept over me and I teetered to the side.

Toward the inside edge of the spiral staircase.

Toward the oblivion that awaited with open arms.

I lurched away from the edge and hit the next step up with the toe of my boot. I swung my arms around to regain my balance, but over compensated and my balance shifted toward the edge.

Beyond the edge.

Beyond the point of recovery.

That was all it took.

A cascading series of failures that would end in tragedy.

Each mistake individually not a problem. But together, one after the other, with each compounding the problem, the end result was almost inevitable.

I fell to the side and yelled as my arms wheeled through empty air.

“Scout!” Martinez shouted as she reached for my hand.

Our fingers touched, the skin sliding in opposite directions, and then the contact broke.

And I tumbled into darkness.

The whistling wind.

The rush of speed.

The clenching in my gut.

The spinning, end over end.

Ended almost as fast as it began.

My shoulder slammed into a stair.

A shockwave whipped through my neck and spine.

The descent jerked to a stop, the coil of thick rope crushing my chest as it arrested my fall.

I lay like a rag doll, pain coursing through my limbs like electric shocks straight from a high voltage socket.

“Don’t move!” Martinez’s voice echoed from far above.

My legs swung back and forth. A pendulum suspended by the rope around my torso and caught on a step a few feet above.

I reached out to the underside of the nearest step.

The stair holding my rope screeched as the metal twisted and dropped.

The rope slid toward the edge.

Inches away.

I timed my swinging and lunged for the nearest step.

The metal above creaked and groaned and the stair broke loose.

The instant of weightlessness as I dropped.

And the agony of torn muscle as my shoulder took the weight of my fall.

My fingers scraped across the rough treads.

Coming loose.

I was too weak to hold on.

I never let go.

I never quit.

But you can fight to the end and still end up dead.

I closed my eyes as my fingers slowly uncurled and the strength faded away.

And again I fell.

“Got you!” Martinez shouted as her hands locked around my wrist like a vice. She yanked me over and I rolled onto the steps below her.

She was beside me an instant later. My head in her lap.

Crypto stood above us both, shining his flashlight down. His eyes wide with surprise.

He was the surprised one?

I laughed but it cut short from the pain.

Martinez stroked my cheek. “You do not have permission to die on me, Sir.”

“Sorry, Corporal.”

The edges of her tight lips dipped into a frown. “Crypto, get the light over here.”

He moved closer.

“Scout, your drain tube,” Martinez said.

“What?” I asked. Considering the ebb and flow of agony sweeping through my body, the drain tube was the least of my worries.

“It doesn’t look good. It’s infected. There’s puss oozing out. We need to get you medical attention. Dr. Tanaka would know what to do.”

“No way,” Crypto said. “If we go to the Infirmary level, we may as well lock ourselves up. We need to stick with the mission. If we succeed with that, we can go anywhere we want.”

Martinez looked up at him with anger flashing in her eyes. “And what if he doesn’t make it that far?”

CHOICES:

1. Continue with the mission.

2. Abort the mission to get medical attention.

What do you think should happen next? Let me know in the comments!