Miss Deirdre stepped off the rising escalator on the fifth floor, into the usual vast empty-feeling open space. Window glazing on both sides allowed light to reach every corner, while in front of her the bank of escalators brought personnel up or down from all floors, to this one -- the lowest floor with elevators, being the only means of reaching the building’s egress below ground level.
The floor began filling with people as more and more stepped off escalators, out of elevators from higher floors and off travellators from the other wings. This arena of push-n-shove was known unofficially as the sorting yards – the only way into or out of the seven tower complex of administrative offices of government and its agencies. People were already manoeuvring themselves towards their goal – to stand in file in front of the elevator cabins most likely to take them down to their vehicles or arranged transport on lower floors. Deirdre was a mite too slow to get to the head of her line, and snarled at herself as two others stepped ahead of her. As one with no vehicle pass, she’d have to back space along the queue giving her space to anyone with the blue card.
As she turned her head away from the blue card she’d glimpsed behind her just now – pointless, as she’d have to move back one – someone took her by the elbow and pulled.
“Dammit, I know! I’m stepping back, aren’t I?” She clutched at her buttonless coat and her bag beneath it as she followed the tug.
“Remain calm, Miss D, please. Walk with me,” the man kept hold of her as he walked away from the queues and across to the sky-wall facing sun-down. As they approached the window-wall they became silhouettes, dark and almost shapeless against the yellow orange gold sunlight’s glare.
Deirdre stood facing him, but only as long as it took for her circuits to realise she was damned near blind. She turned side on to the figure in charcoal grey formal wear – anonymous styling, smooth, sharp – but nothing to define him by. She realised her elbow was still in his grip, now gentle; but she knew she’d never get free of it unless he chose to let her.
“What’s the deal, here?” she stared directly into his eyes, looking for the first flicker of auto control. Nothing, only the normal drop of his chin with a sideways tilt as he looked at her.
“I’m Kairon. ‘K’. I’ve been sent to ask you to work with me this evening.” His tone was controlled, but not mechanic. He loosened his grip. “You have skills we need.”
Deirdre’s intake of surprised breath was well controlled. No sound, no sudden movement. She took control of her voice, near to trembling at this chance in front of her. “Skills?”
“You know them, Miss D. No need to discuss them here. Will you help?”
Her mind raced. Here was a double-edged sword – help fellow dissidents to break the city control of its residents, or risk being entrapped by the very system she and others wanted to bring down? She had no way yet of ascertaining on which ‘side’ Mr K was. All she knew was his eyes were normal, as was his voice.
“At this moment, we have four minutes. And you have time for one question. Ask wisely, or we have to assume we’ve chosen poorly.”
Her mind raced. So many questions, so many bad futures… “Where is Ms P?”
“Safe and well, beyond the city’s reach. Good question. Three minutes left.”
Her mind went into overdrive. This Kairon knew she knew of Ms P. That meant he knew about the squaddies. He probably knew she was one of them. Idiot! Of course he knows! How else…
“Two minutes” He took her elbow again. “We can spend them walking. Cabin Q7. Start heading across”. He let go of her, stepped ahead and led the way.
It took two minutes exactly to cross through the queues to get to that for the Q cabins, where K stepped back to allow her to stand in front of him. The queue in front of them was shorter than the others, and the last in the breadth of the foyer. She’d often seen the queue move more quickly – it was always the first to clear and be locked down for the night. She’d guessed it was likely to be the first to open in the mornings, as it was always clear by the time she emerged from her usual L-cabin in the mornings.
The Q-cabin door opened, the security crew stepped out and began scanning the ride passes people offered – a synthetic green card with a glowing green frame in the middle of one side.
Deirdre turned to glance at Kieran, letting him see the corner of her yellow pass. His hand pushed hers back inside her coat, and slipped her a different one. She dropped the yellow pass into the inner pocket of her coat’s lining, and faced front again.
They were side by side at the entrance, and as her card was scanned, the crewman spoke to Kieran.
“I see your travel companion made it today, Mr Kieran, sir. Good evening.”
“Good evening, Miss Darielle. Have a good evening,” said the guard who’d just ‘blipped’ her pass.
She nearly blew it, failing at first to recognise her fake name, but she nodded, said “Thank you”, and stepped past the guard into the cabin, Kieran beside her, guiding her to the left rear corner.
Only seven more people stepped into cabin Q7, built for twenty-four. Darielle and Kieran waited in silence – as did all the passengers – while the cabin dropped to floor Q4 and stopped to disgorge the majority of the people. It stopped one floor at a time – three off at Q3, two at Q2, … stopping at last at the final floor, Q1 – fourteen floors below the surface.
Darielle kept an eye on Kieran; he stood still as the doors slid open. As the guards stepped out, and turned to wait for them to exit, card skimmers at the ready, she realised there was a Q0 level.
To her surprise, “Good luck, sir, ma’am,” one of the guards said, as the doors slid shut.
The cabin began descending, and she watched as Kieran jammed a white pass card into a slot on the console. With a silent jerk, the cabin stopped its descent.
No screeching, no alarums blaring…just a quiet hiss as the system settled. Somehow she knew they were between levels, but in a separate, discrete level – unmarked, unlabelled, unknown.
How did this happen to be here? Why am I here, for fate’s sake?
“Now, we wait,” said Kieran.
She wasn’t at all surprised as she watched him prise loose a small panel in the side wall, and fetch from the cubic space behind it a cellophane wrapped bundle and two glass bottles.
“Grapes and cheeses?” she guessed.
“And water,” he confirmed.
They’d eaten almost everything before they heard sounds from beyond one of the cabin’s walls. Without prompting, she packed away their meal back into the small panel. She kept the water bottles, dropping hers into yet another hidden pocket in her capacious coat.
Mr K had slipped a clip sideways on the back wall, and she wasn’t surprised to see the wall opening outwards. She just hoped she could deal with any more surprises ahead,
“You’ll be fine - more than you know,” Mr. K said, as she slipped down the wall into a deep sleep.
What did he slip mmm…?