Promised Page 22

Gaia picked her way along the dark path up to her parents’ cottage on Sally Row. Malachai, the most conspicuous of her bodyguards, followed discreetly behind her, and Gaia was impressed with his vigilance.

Entering the cottage, she found it crowded with half a dozen people focused toward the bunk beds, where a child lay on the lower level and a teenage boy lay on the one above. They were connected by a translucent tube, and just as Gaia realized it was a blood transfusion, Myrna crimped off the tube and bent over the lower bunk.

Gaia stayed only long enough to collect her satchel. She took a handful of candles from beneath the sink and a box of matches. Then she slipped out the back door and moved silently through the backyard herb garden, past the laundry line, to the chicken coop, which was black and hulking in the night. Soft clucking noises came from within, and she touched a hand to the wooden wall. She crouched over, seeking in the dark behind the coop for the old, rotted wood that had been piled there when her father had dismantled the last outhouse.

There, deep in the angled, rough, decaying boards, a pale light gleamed. She bent even lower, peering inside, and found a dozen glowing stems of honey mushrooms. She’d never liked the taste, but she’d always loved the mysterious way the stems glowed in the dark. The patch was smaller than she remembered, and she was unwilling to clear it out completely, so she took half of the mushrooms, tugging them gently from the boards and slipping them into her satchel.

She turned to look back at the house’s windows gleaming with candlelight, and watched for Malachai and the excrims. Though they didn’t have the authority to interfere with her, she still wanted to evade them if she could. Moving as silently as possible, she slipped into the neighboring yard. She passed through several more backyards until she reached a narrow track that skirted above Western Sector Three and intersected the path to the water spigot. People were slowly, steadily filling barrels there by the glow of several torches. She dipped lower again, and wound her way through the narrow, dusty roads of Wharfton.

It had been ages since she’d last been out alone in Wharfton at night, but she knew every path and corner. So many times in the past, she’d delivered babies to the south gate at all times of the day or night, and as she passed between the dark, wood and stone buildings, she was home again in yet another way. It was like playing hide and seek in the dark, but alone and with a destination.

If Leon, Angie, and Jack could get into the Enclave, so could she.

She passed below the quad to avoid the activity there, and heard the distant piano from Peg’s Tavern. She passed down the street where Emily had lived with Kyle in Eastern Sector Two, back when they’d sheltered her before her escape to the wasteland, and then she headed farther east toward the fields. The moon came out from a high, thin cloud and dropped enough pale light over the crops to give them a colorless, alien quality.

She looked back to see if anyone was following her and saw figures down the road. Picking up her pace, she hurried along the contour of the hill in parallel with the wall. Faint reflections of moonlight along the upper edges of the irrigation troughs made a great web in the fields. The troughs rose gradually to converge at a series of junctures, and finally met up with a big pipe in the slope below the wall.

Now she had to hope for a clue to how the others had gone in. Angie had been seen near here.

The ground pitched more steeply beneath her feet as she hurried toward where the main pipe met the hillside. She wasn’t exactly sure what she’d been hoping for, but even with a lit candle, she found no gap, no narrow channel she might crawl up.

She set a hand on the cool metal of the pipe, blew out her candle, and headed down the slope several meters to where the pipe opened into the main trough. She crouched down, peering around the edge into the pipe’s interior. The darkness was impenetrable. She lit her candle again and held it forward. The inner surface shone with moisture from where water had run earlier, but what struck her most was how narrow the pipe was, not even a meter across.

They couldn’t have gone inside, she thought. There would hardly be room to crawl.

But what if they did?

Water could come pouring down at any time. Her heart began to pound. She could get trapped in there. She had no way to know exactly where the other end led. She didn’t even know for certain if Leon, Angie, and Jack had gone up the pipe. It seemed impossible.

Her eye caught on something near her foot, just beside the edge of the trough. She leaned to pick it up, and the instant her fingers touched it, she knew what she’d found: Angie’s goggles.

You know you’re going to do it, she thought, and let out a squeak. Just because she was going to go in didn’t mean she wasn’t terrified.

A noise behind her made her turn. Malachai was advancing rapidly along the hillside with three other men. He had the sense not to call out anything that might alert the guards on the wall, but she knew he would never let her disappear into the pipe if he caught her. She had no time to waffle.

She scrambled into the pipe, thrusting the lit candle before her. Pausing only to settle her satchel high on her back by its strap, she crawled deeper into the sloping concrete cylinder.

“Mlass Gaia, come back!” came Malachai’s voice from behind her. Then a grunt.

“I won’t be long,” she called back. “I have to get Leon. Chardo Will is in charge.”

“You’ll never find Leon! Don’t be a fool! You could die in there!”

“I have to try.”

There was another grunting noise behind her.

She kept going faster, finding her rhythm, crawling on her two knees and one free hand. The inner surface of the pipe was a slick beige interrupted only by occasional seams in the concrete where threadlike veins of water gleamed in her candlelight. The air was thin and motionless, so that the wavering heat and smoke of the candle clung around her.

She heard one more bumping noise behind her, distant now, and hurried onward, meter by meter. The narrow space must have been even tighter for Leon and Jack, she realized. She had to go fast. The longer she was in the pipe, the greater were the chances that water would start down the chute toward her, and there’d be no escape.

A faint clicking sounded ahead and she stopped, listening intently. The candle flame burned upright in an unwavering, vibrant yellow. She could hear her breathing, quick and anxious, but nothing more in the close silence. Then another click. Something was happening up ahead. She began scrambling faster, and then she heard the gurgling sound of water. A pocket of cool air moved against her face.

“Wait!” she called. She dropped her candle to use both her hands, crawling in a race, in a blind nightmare of nothingness, terror in her throat. Her satchel slid down, ensnaring her arm, and she stripped it off in alarm. The air grew cooler, and suddenly the pipe began rising more steeply.

She plunged and crawled madly up the pipe, terrified, and a circle of gray appeared far, far ahead.

“Wait!” she called again, screaming.

The trickling noise grew closer. She kept her eyes glued to the gray circle and then she saw something small and black scurrying toward her down the pipe. She raced toward it, hearing a faint rumble of laughter. The mouse ran silently beneath her, a stream of water in its wake, and then Gaia was crawling in cold water.

Chapter 13

old friends

“WAIT!” SHE SCREAMED AGAIN. “Stop the water!”

She scrambled onward through the increasing water flow, panicking. Did nobody hear her? She screamed again. The gray circle before her expanded, grew brighter, and then, as an onslaught of water deluged down the pipe, an opening suddenly burst wide above her and she stood up into a shower of pouring cold water.

She lunged over and clung precariously to the slippery side of the big funnel that contained her. Blinking back water and opening her mouth wide to gulp in a lungful of air, she looked up desperately. Water was rushing loudly out of another pipe above her, into the funnel, and spiraling down into a whirlpool that emptied into the pipe where she’d just been.

She leapt upward to get a finger hold on the top of the funnel and scrabbled her feet against the side. She slung an elbow over the upper edge and hauled herself out. She toppled in a heap to the floor of a waterworks facility, shivering from residual horror. If Malachai had followed her into the pipeline, he would be engulfed in rushing water by now, as doomed as the mouse. If she had been sixty seconds farther back, she would be dead.

She sat upward. The loud room was hung with pipes that could be swiveled into big vats and funnels like the one she’d crawled out of. The area was deserted, but an open doorway shone with light, and she knew whoever had started the water could return at any moment. Above her, a hatchway was open to the night sky. On instinct, she grabbed the rungs bolted into the wall and quickly climbed up through the hatchway to the roof, leaving the crashing noise of the water behind her.

She hugged her arms around herself, struggling to catch her breath and get her bearings. Dark water gurgled in a series of huge, deep holding tanks to her left, and a pump was chugging a spout of splashing water. She could see downhill to the dark fields she had left below the wall. To the right, below the south gate, spread the dark buildings of Wharfton, and even farther, pinpoints of light shone from campfires in New Sylum.

Gaia circled around. The gleaming obelisk rose from the Square of the Bastion, and the towers of the prison and the Bastion stood behind.

And then she looked up. Half the sky was black, but in the cloudless half, the crescent moon hung serenely, its cusps sharp, and brilliant stars shone as close and clear as she’d ever seen them. She searched for Orion, finding low in the southeastern sky the three distinctive stars of his belt, newly risen. Gaia cherished the memory of her parents in those stars, and at the sight of the constellation, gratitude for their love swelled with her joy in being alive.

She brushed the wet hair back from her face and straightened her soaked shirt.

Hey, Mom and Dad, she thought, sending her silent voice out into the night.

She missed them, but they were with her, too. And this felt right.

For the first time in ages, the first time since she’d been elected Matrarc, she was consulting no one and acting independently, as herself. The freedom was unbelievably sweet.

Then a startling thought hit her: the freedom must have felt good to Leon, too. Every time he’d tried to take initiative, whether to go after her missing scouts or to protect her coming into Wharfton, she’d told him no. Even the night before, when he’d argued that it was time to prepare counter-offensives for New Sylum, she’d put him off.

No wonder he went rogue, she thought.

Leon knew the Enclave better than anyone, yet she had dismissed his urgency. That was another mistake she’d made.

Soft, aromatic air stirred in the night, drawing out the moisture from her wet clothes and chilling her skin. She still had to find him. If Angie and Jack weren’t with him, she would deal with locating them next.

She would start with the Jacksons and wing it from there.

Traveling at roof level, Gaia picked her way along the water mains that connected the buildings. The trick was to walk slowly and watch her feet on the tread boards alongside the pipes. At one crossing, a girl in red passed below Gaia, triggering a motion-detector on a streetlamp, and Gaia froze until she was gone. A bat whipped into the light and careened away.

As she neared the street to the bakery, Gaia could see the top of the obelisk illuminated in the Square of the Bastion a few blocks farther uphill. Stealthily, she ducked under a roof laundry line and lowered herself down a ladder to ground level. If anyone saw her and recognized her face, she’d be doomed. Shivering in the darkness, she watched the quiet street. The shop windows of Jacksons’ bakery were lightless, but around the side, a crack of illumination outlined the drawn shutters. Someone must already be up, working. She tapped lightly on the door. An instant later, the crack of light went out. Gaia waited, hearing nothing, and then she tapped again. A click came from the door, and a dark gap opened.

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