by The Mike
First chapter of a steampunk novel, merges the conventions of fantasy and modern dramas.
5am - 6am: One Girl In All The World
She put on her lipstick for the final time. Today was a special occasion and the cherry red stood as an appropriate if predictable symbol for the blood that would flow. But the flow of blood is not always so bad, is it? Without bloodshed, there would be no life. Predators need their meat to sustain themselves. The first time you know a woman can create another human life is when she bleeds. It's the same sign for when she first tries, at least if you do it wrong. And there's that saying about the tree of liberty...
There were not a lot of trees in the Underworld. Lillith glanced at the window, where a brown sky hung over smoggy glass. The Underworld, that was the name they had given these rough-hewn caverns beneath the glowing green grass of windswept Portman Island. Well, they said it was windswept; not much wind down here either. No wind, no rain, no sunlight. Lillith punched the candle closer with her fist, her face flaring pink in the reflected glow.
Lillith had been to the Surface. Lillith had been and Lillith had survived. It left her with a warmth to her hair, like the sunshine that these poor saps never saw. They said one breath of Surface air would kill you, and if it didn't then the Creatures would. The former was not true, though the latter made it difficult to learn exactly how long one might survive up there without being slaughtered by the monstrous, hulking brutes that snarled and drooled and seemed so maddened by their physical afflictions they could not stop rushing headlong into anything in their drunken path. The Creatures tore across the landscape, eating at random and stampeding everything in their path. They existed. She remembered them.
Lillith shook her golden mane and looked once more into the mirror. She was ready and she looked the part of the obligatory attractive distraction who would grease the wheels and facilitate the plan. A femme fatale, she supposed, thinking back on ghastly novels that twisted their predictable plots into springs that squeaked despite being heavily laden with cheese. If that was her role, so be it. She looked the part, and the important thing was the bomb looked viable. Egoes could come later; they had a job to do.
Lillith gathered the bundle under her dress and left her home, not likely to ever see it again. For now she walked the streets, just another would-be mother, mourning the man who would never see his child, mourning the child that might never see the sun.
She was down the street, swimming in the scents of fresh-baked bread and not-so-fresh fish, when her house erupted in flames. Smoke spread across the craggy ceiling of their underground cell. A crowd rushed toward the column of soot and ash. Lillith did not look back.
* * *
“Sixteen yes after the Great Calamity's poisonous aftermath forced the humanity to dwell in the sealed chamber of the Subterrenean Survival Space, the town of Joshua was destroyed by the cowardly bombing of the leading Surface Sickness specialist Doctor White's laboratory."
By the gods, she was beautiful.
"While some heralded the act as a blow for freedom, a crack in the perceived conspiracy to maintain the order and keep the populace trapped in the Underworld by artificially maintaining the Sickness, the official and therefore true story is that it was the first in what will be an extensive campaign to infest the entire network of underground cities with Surface Sickness, and destroy the way of life of the inhabitants of the Allied Islands."
Honestly, it was disgusting how beautiful she was. She paced back and forth in front of her chalkboard, all flowing blue skirts and bouncing red hair. And she breathed - how she breathed between every sentence, sucking in air and swelling her uniform in ways that were surely beyond the naval code.
"Colonel Vox was personally selected by Doctor White as the head of field operations for Portman Island Counter Terrorism, and from intelligence we have intercepted the Colonel believes phase two of that campaign will begin today. You are paying attention, aren't you, Nate?”
Lieutenant Nate Stratigias nodded, having taken in the whole briefing. Well most of it. The important bits, anyway. Certainly he remembered the bits between the talking. His mind threw up many questions, but he knew most of them would earn him little more than a rebuke or possibly a glare, which was something he wasn't hoping for from his superior. He didn't want to make a poor first impression.
“You actually look as if this is new,” the woman said, shaking her head. That cascade of rich red hair tumbled about her shoulders. “Didn’t they teach you anything about Island history in that mission school?”
“Um...” Nate began, mind flashing blank. Great, thanks a lot, mind.
“Do you even know why the flag has thirteen red stripes and a white cross in the blue quadrant?”
“Well there’s thirteen Islands,” Nate suggested, struggling. “And... something to do with unity. Look, I live here, it's not as if I need to know all this. I remember the basics of why the Underworld exists.”
“Government officials are not to call it by that name. The Colonel wanted me to brief you on exactly why our targets are planning to attack us. Anyway, here is his current location,” she continued, moving swiftly on. Her slender finger pointing to a map, blue nail polish shimmering in the Briefing Room’s lanterns. There was a porthole to her side, but dawn had barely broken and precious little light ever got into the bowels of the ship. “When he returns with the information we need, you will join him and the PICT Element for the recovery operation. Understood?”
Nate nodded again then raised his hand. Turning from the chalkboard, his superior swept back a length of hair and sighed. “Yes?”
“Would you like to go to breakfast with me when I get back?”
“The equipment locker is this way,” she replied.
* * *
“Tell me where the bomb is!” Colonel Vox bellowed. He slammed his hands onto the arms of the chair, leaning right into the young man's face. The young man looked back, trembling.
“I-I don't know. I only know they had a plan, that's all, I swear!”
The Colonel's shaded eyes reflected the sheen of sweat on the youth's brow, and Vox pushed himself back off the chair, pacing across the floor. “And how did you know about this plan? Who told you?”
“Heard something. A man and a woman talking. I just... I came here to help you! What've you got me tied to a chair for, they're the ones going to blow up the--”
“You came here with information only known in our highest levels of intelligence,” Vox growled. “So pardon me if I seem a little suspicious about how you obtained it.”
“I didn't do anything!” the young man bit back. His heels clicked against the floor. His legs began to shake. Those darkened glasses just watched him. “I told you, these people were talking in the pub, the one I totally shouldn’t have been in because I’m underage, by a month, and I’m sorry about-”
“Get on with it.”
“Oh, right. They were talking in a dead language they make us learn in school. What more do you want?”
“I want you to think,” Vox replied. “I want you to think very hard, about anything, the tiniest detail, you may have accidentally neglected to mention before.”
Shaking his head, the youth shrugged. “I have no idea. I just-- well, the woman...”
Vox crouched in front of the chair. “What about the woman?”
“She had blonde hair. I mean... you know, like, really golden, yellow almost. I remember thinking how pretty it looked. Not bleached, I mean, this looked like honest to goodness blonde hair. I've not seen anyone down here whose hair hasn't gone as brown as the dirt by that age.”
“You think she's been on the Surface, in the sunlight?”
The young man swallowed. “Oh... oh Nixon, I was within about five feet of her. I w-was breathing near her. Do you think I--?”
“Relax, you're not likely to have caught Surface Sickness with such minimal exposure.”
“How likely is not likely?!”
Colonel Vox reached out, putting a hand on the young man's arm. “If you've told me everything, I promise I will have our doctor look at you. He is an expert. Now, tell me about the woman.”
Gulping again, he spoke with a wavering tone. “Well she... like I said, she was blonde and it caught my eye. I suppose that's how I ended up listening so closely. Not the best secret terrorist agent or whatever, if you think about it. But it never really struck me as suspicious until they mentioned the Door. I would've put her down as being from one of the glass cities, maybe born in Reno or something, until that came up, but I suppose it's hard to get here from there now. It's bloody impossible to get anywhere.”
“Not impossible, clearly.” Colonel Vox reached into the pocket of his green robes and picked out a tiny white object between his fingers. It appeared to be some kind of sea shell, a little round cone the Colonel’s witness-cum-prisoner had seen in books about the sea. Not that he'd ever seen the sea. Not down here, trapped in the Underworld, sealed off from the Surface. For some reason, the man with darkened glasses over his eyes stuck the shell in his ear. After a moment's fiddling, he spoke, to no-one in the room that the young man could see.
“Vance, it's Vox. We're looking for a blonde woman, our informant says she looks natural, so she should stand out in this town.”
“Copy, Vox,” was what the faint buzzing coming out of his ear sounded like.
“H-How does that work?” the young man asked.
Vox threw on his outer cloak, and reached for his informant's restraints, untying them swiftly. “Magic,” Vox sneered.
The Colonel sighed. “... These shells come in pairs, when you talk into one you can hear it in the other, wherever they are. Our quartermaster knows how they work, I just use them to report in.”
“Faster than sending a message by raven,” he replied, rubbing at his wrists. He'd only been strapped down for two minutes and already they chafed. Thank Nixon he was about to get out of here.
Vox nodded, and opened the door.
“Am I free to go then?”
The Colonel turned back, his face unmoved. “No. There's a guard outside, so don't even try it. Once this is over, and we find you had no involvement, then someone will be along to release you.”
“What? But I have school!”
“I'm sure they'll understand,” Vox said. “I'll get the quartermaster to write you a note,” he added, and closed the door. He nodded to the guard and strode smartly past the law office's front desk.
“All done?” asked the officer on duty. Vox made no reply. There was a clatter as he opened the door with his boot, then the trail of footsteps faded as he headed out into the town.
* * *
Glasses chinked in Sharah's hand as she delicately lifted them out of the sink. Beakers and test tubes, some humorously shaped, sloshed around in the soapy water. Normally Doctor White had the lowly technicians do this kind of work, but since the Incident, he hadn't trusted anyone to be present during the experiments but his loyal assistant. And her, of course, but she was hardly a person at all.
“Grnph,” said a baby, wriggling in Sharah's arm as she was held tight to her chest.
“Shh, Izzy, it's not lunch time yet,” Sharah cooed. It was difficult washing with just one hand free, but there was no one to watch the girl this early in the morning, and she couldn't be left lying around on one of the benches. There was no telling what she might put her wriggly little hands in. The laboratory was probably not the best place for an infant, but today was very special. Today Doctor White's prime experiment would be performing its first field test, and they had to be prepared with the correct solutions in case it did not operate according to his plans.
Cyanide, for one.
There was a puff of cool air at her back. She could feel it, rippling along the hem of her skirt, and softly stroking her neck.
“Doctor White,” Sharah said through a smile. “You're early. I haven't prepared the equipment yet, I--”
“Have a baby in your arms,” replied the bald man. “Yes, that must be quite cumbersome when trying to wash my test tubes.”
Sharah turned from the sink, blushing a little. “I couldn't find a baby-sitter Vance would allow on board and Abe's out on field duty. So I was a bit stuck.”
Doctor White nodded, and winked at the young girl who was staring right into his eyes with a pair as blue as his own. "What about Dru?"
Sharah turned back to the beakers.
“Then let me unstick you. I'm sure having little Izrael in my lap while I read this morning's papers will do no harm, and you can finish your work.”
“Doctor, are you sure?” Sharah asked as the baby reached out, grunting. “She can be a handful.”
“I've looked after worse girls, believe me. And first I suppose I should have Dru wake our own little darling.”
“Well, thank you,” she said, handing the baby over. The doctor held her to his shoulder. Izrael's wide eyes scanned all around the room, taking in every gleaming piece of equipment and every scorched workbench. Seeing the sleeping woman shackled to the wall, her chubby little jaw drooped. Her mother smiled. Sharah turned back to her task.
Behind the clatter of glass and the slosh of water, she heard the Doctor's voice as he spoke into a shell clamped to the wall. "Quartermaster, please come to the laboratory. I need you to prepare Black Thirteen."
* * *
Colonel Vox sat on the bar stool. The place was quiet at this time of the morning, but far from empty. What else was there to do in a city that never saw the sun? He let his cloak dangle off his shoulder just that his cross-pistol in his holster was catching the torchlight. The bartender coughed, and not just because he was smoking. He skipped his present customers to approach the newly arrived Colonel.
“Wh-what can I get you, sir?”
“I'm looking for a woman, Willy.”
“Oh, Sharah's finally thrown you out then? Look, don't let it get you down, we all knew she--” Even with Vox's eyes, or whatever they were, hidden behind blackened glasses, Willy could tell this was not a life-preserving course of discussion. “Um, well, what sort of woman are you looking for?”
“A blonde,” Vox stated.
Willy whistled. “Phew, that's rare around these parts. What with the no sun and all. Even the babies aren't blonde so often, I hear. One of the girls upstairs might dye her hair for you if you-- Gahh please I can't breeeeathe.”
There was no break in the hubbub of the bar. They were used to their proprietor receiving this treatment. It would be an odd day if a customer ever tried to sweettalk this odious swill-server, and that was what the Colonel was counting on.
“This is a matter of Island security,” Colonel Vox hissed. “She's been in this town meeting with rogue elements, and this dive is just the place where someone would feel comfortable thinking no one would be sober enough to listen in. I need to know if you have seen her with anyone you recognise.”
Willy nodded as best he could with a gauntlet around his throat. “I saw a girl like that, took a man into a corner. A regular, name of Strach Bailey. I couldn't hear anything they said, I swear."
The Colonel squeezed again.
"But!! But--but it did seem odd to me that she'd want to be so up close with him, of all people. Plus he was sober. Tell the truth I should've called you right away, eh?”
“Yes you should,” Vox replied, and released his grip. “Now give me his address.”
“What about bartender-barfly confidenti...”
Vox just stared. At least, he seemed to be staring. Not being sure only made it more unsettling.
“I'll go get my records. I'm sure he owes me on his tab anyway.”
* * *
Druscilla's hair was red today. It was the kind of detail worth noting, because it could change in a flash of tedium or when a dinner took too long to cook. Abe had once called her impulsive, as if he even knew the meaning of the word, but the ensuing shouting match had convinced him to keep his opinions to himself in the future. Good boy. In Druscilla's hands was the scarlet splashed hood of a white bundle of robes. She was trying to put it on her colleague. It wasn't unusual for her to be dressing her co-worker; her face maintained its smile as a young lady wriggled and fought to get away from the clothes.
“Oh dear, Niki, in another one of your moods today?" At the sound of her nickname, the young woman stared, though she kept her hands defiantly held to her chest. And a name she had, even if the Doctor insisted on a ghastly moniker that was a mere colour and number. "At least you remember your name today. Thank Tricky for small mercies."
“The quality of mercy is not strained,” replied the girl solemly. She hunched, dark hair trailing over her face. She bunched her hands up against her face and trembled in her thin shift.
“Nikana... You need this so our side can see you, remember. We wouldn't want any more accidents. And besides, it's cold up here on the Surface. Look at you, all goose flesh.”
“Doctor White eats geese,” Nikana murmured, looking away. “Sucks their flesh into his mouth.”
“Right, but Doctor White isn't here just now, love. He woke you up and sent you to me. Now let me dress you, and you won't be cold anymore.” She took Nikana's arm. Though Nikana frowned, the young woman allowed herself to be fitted with the robe. “There, isn't that better? You'd look quite a sight walking with the Mech in your underwear, wouldn't you?”
Nikana nodded absently. She ran her hands along the scarlet dashes that lined her collar. Suddenly she whipped up her hood, pulling it tight over her face, and sat on the floor.
Druscilla continued to smile. “Comfy, love? I'll go get your equipment ready. The Colonel is on his way back, and he needs you prepared if we're going to stop these bad men.”
As Druscilla opened the door, Nikana looked up. “And women,” she said, muffled in the hood.
“Hmm?” her colleague asked, looking back. “Oh that's right, the one he's looking for just now is a woman. Such a shame, a pretty lady getting mixed up in such business. Now you sit tight, and remember, no adventures overboard. Doctor White was beside himself the last time that happened, he thought he'd lost you.”
Nikana nodded. She rubbed at her wrists, easing out the aches. As her fingers moved over her skin, those angry red marks evaporated.
The lady with red hair left. Nikana rolled her eyes over to a brass-lined portal. Waves sloshed against it, high on the wall. She was down in the bottom of the ship, and at her height she was technically under the water line.
"There's another bad woman," Nikana said to sound of the waves. She shivered again.
* * *
Here he comes. Colonel Vox marched up the gangplank, his dark boots gleaming wet with the spray. The ship swayed gently on the water as the wind threw a cool mist across the deck. He took in a deep breath of the Surface air, and nodded to Captain. The thin man had been waiting for him, chilly in the morning air in just a blue Navy blazer, its cuffs engulfing his delicate hands.
“Vance, are we ready?”
The Captain let that lack of decorum slide. One did that sort of thing for Colonel Vox. “Your team is assembling now,” replied Captain Milton. “Dru is equipping them, but Nikana has been a little--”
“Again,” the Colonel snorted.
“Since she has a habit of going walkies, Doctor White said we weren't to take any chances with her safety. Druscilla was trying to calm her, but the collar's always there.”
Vox shook his head. “I don't want her with that collar on, she's no use to me. She's like an automaton, I have to control every damn thing when she's like that. It takes too long.”
Vance nodded in agreement, but in reality, there was no such thing as too long as long as she was off his darn ship. The metal clank of feet on a ladder drew his attention, and he turned to the hatch where Druscilla's red hair appeared. She hopped up onto the deck a smile already at her lips. She did not even try to hide the wink thrown in the Colonel's direction. Captain Vance kept his smirk in check; what would Vox do with it, if he even noticed?
“Not a problem, Abe, she's just got dressed and is nice and calm again, ready for the mission.”
Vance looked surprised. “What did you do with her?”
“Nothing, Captain” Dru replied, bouncing with a shrug. “I just talked her around. I've laid out all your kit in the situation room, and Nikana's waiting for you there. The Mech's oiled too, so we're ready when you are.”
“Thank you,” Vox said, scratching at some stubble over his lip.
“Well, if you want to brief them on the way, they’re yours, Colonel,” Vance said, gesturing to the hatch. Three men in grey robes ascended in silence, mere shadows in the early morning fog. Two had hoods round their ears and scarves to their faces, though the Captain knew who they were. He also knew what they were, more's the pity. The third kept his young face out in the sun, letting his eyes adjust to the brightness as he squinted in the direction of Druscilla.
Great, the newest recruit was a lovesick puppy, wasn't he? Give me a real marine, thought the Captain.
The Colonel beckoned them with a finger. “Gear up, Lieutenant. We’ll have to be quick.”
* * *
A woman sat on the edge of the bath tub, brushing her hair. It glittered golden in the warm lamplight, and it raised a smile in the face of the man sitting on the toilet. He was trying to pull on his socks.
“Taking your sweet time,” the woman observed. “I might start to think you don't want to do this, Strach.”
Shaking his head, Strach laughed. “If anyone's jumpy this morning, it must be you. I'm getting ready, cool as you like, and you can't help but think I'm looking to get out.” He leaned forward from his seat, and gripped her arm, ending her strokes. “I might start to think you're looking for an excuse yourself, Lillith.”
“Not in a thousand years,” she hissed.
“And you remember that might be what we're facing down here if we don't act.”
“I know that! They've forced our hand. We know they have an antidote, and once the Door is gone and everyone is infected, we'll have forced theirs. They have to help those people, because they'll be amongst them. And then people might start to ask more questions.”
“The information campaign is picking up speed.”
She smiled, and lifted her arm out of his grip, taking his hand in her warm fingers. “I know. It's how we found you, after all.”
“And you'll always have me,” Strach replied, squeezing. “I won't let you down. It'll hurt, in the short term, but this is my chance to be a big damn hero.”
“Good,” Lillith said. She leaned forward herself, running her brush through his hair. “And that will be how they remember you when we're free. I promise. You'll be the spark that lit the fire.”
* * *
The team assembled a few buildings down from the squat house where Strach Bailey was thought to be. Nikana clanged into place at the end of a line of three men in drab gray robes. They looked like ghosts, mere wisps against the glittering silver of her Mech-frame. A thick body encased her own, and metal boxes and bars caged her limbs. In the centre of the construction was its bejewelled belly, with a pale blue glow that cast its light up into her empty face.
Colonel Vox clasped his hands behind his back, and turned to the group just as the girl fell into line. “Let me remind you, we don't know if any device has been planted already, so we must take Bailey and any associates alive to get a location out of them. Nikana, you will wait at the perimeter. You only need keep them from escaping. The rest of you, with me. We'll sweep the house with a stealth entry, and arrest anyone found inside. Understood?”
“Yes sir!” the men barked. Nikana remained silent.
Colonel Vox took another pace along the line. He turned his shielded eyes into the hood of the leftmost trooper. “Nate, I know this is your first day, and you're itching to get involved, but I want no heroics.”
“Don't know what you mean sir,” came the level reply.
“I mean no diving through a window crossbow blazing and levelling everyone in the room like you seem to keep doing in training. I don't want to dampen your obvious enthusiasm for this work but... you have to hope that things will never become dramatic. You understand? When a mission goes that wrong you are not a big damn hero.”
The hood nodded.
“Good. Now, everyone put their Sanus Shells in, and maintain silence until we reach the house. Move.”
* * *
Captain Vance Milton strode across the deck of the PICT ship Serenity, and gathered his tweed robes around himself, quickly descending the ladder into the control-room. He nodded to Druscilla as she floated in from her equipment locker, heavy boots strangely quiet on the smooth planks of the floor. The Captain rested his hand on a glowing octagonal table in the centre of the floor. It gave a low hum. “Ready, Dru?”
Brushing blue fingernails through her hair to cover the large cream sea shell wrapped around her ear, she nodded.
“The signal will be a little weak with everyone being below the Surface, but now it's time to see how it holds up in field conditions,” she said, pressing little coils of shell into smooth recesses in the table.
Once five were in place, the Captain cleared his throat. “Colonel Vox, do you copy?”
“Copy, Captain,” came the crackling reply.
In the background, clerks in sunlight yellow robes glanced over to the table. One let his huge pile of papers flop out of his arms and as one they swarmed over the records to gather them up. Milton shook his head, while Dru just smiled.
“Seems like my new toy is impressing the residents, Abe,” she said, looking into the beams supporting the deck above. While the unseen voice rang in that dark space, really he would be in the opposite direction, she thought.
“Well let's hope we don't need to use the other one,” Vox replied. “Approaching the house now, and Ni-- Black Thirteen is hanging back at the perimeter. Are we go?”
“Confirmed, Colonel,” the Captain said. “Continue at your discretion.”
“Two and Three, cover the rear exit, wait for my signal. Nate, you're with me.”
* * *
Colonel Vox and his second officer approached the front door of the residence, while two gray ghosts fanned around to its rear with the silence of feathers touching the ground. The pair waited a moment, barely breathing, when there was a click in their ears. Everyone was in position. Time to go.
“Move in,” whispered Colonel Vox. Nate reached up for the door, and found it flapped open into the house.
“Front door's unlocked,” he reported.
“No kidding,” Vox murmured. The Underworld was comprised of small communities, mostly out of necessity since it was so difficult to carve chambers of any considerable size for a large populace, but supplies were in such demand that it certainly didn't have the secure feel of a homely locale. No one would leave their door unlocked. Not if they wanted anything to come back to.
The pair squeezed through the doorway and cast around in the dimness. There was a motion and movement in the light to the rear of the room, and the Colonel brought his cross-pistol to bear.
“Clear,” said number two, standing in front of him. Number three shrugged by his side.
There were just two main rooms, their current location and the one beyond where Two and Three had just entered from. Everything was murky, the lights extinguished and the building only illuminated from the gas lamps and torches hanging in the street outside. Vox raised his hand, palm out, and then pointed to the only door remaining closed. In the corner of this room was another, smaller room, probably the lavatory. As one gray shadow, led by the green robed Vox, smudged together in the mist of dust that always covered the Underworld, the unit moved towards the door.
The Colonel placed his glove on the handle, and turned it. The door swung inwards. A flash of light caught off the mirror. The bath tap dripped. No one was there.
“Dammit!” Vox cursed. “PICT, no one's here, the place is empty.”
Milton sighed. “Copy, Colonel.”
“Bad intel?” Dru asked. “We still have that kid in the law office, we can still question--”
A shining thread caught the Colonel's attention. “Hang on.” He moved over to the sink, and put his hand down on a simple wooden brush. Lifting it to the light coming in from the door, he could see golden hairs entwined around the bristles. The colour ran all the way to the root.
He stepped out of the bathroom. ”We haven't got time to question him. She was here, and now they've gone.” He began to pick up pace, leaving the building. “They're moving on the Door!”
* * *
The Door was silent. The passageways towards the Surface were rarely populated, with only highly qualified and thoroughly vetted private contractor technicians ever traversing the muddy tracks to carry out maintenance. And the military, of course, who silently slid to wherever they pleased. They were like snakes and spiders, rarely seen but always somewhere in the cracks. Colonel Vox had ordered the Door be left in its regular unmonitored state. You couldn't pay a civilian enough to stand so close to the Surface they could see the sunlight, and a military presence would be spotted far off and send the insurgents running. They didn't know that Portman Island Counter Terrorism had found out about their scheme, and Vox and Milton didn't want to scare off what could be a valuable link in the chain of suspects they were slowly reeling in.
Now that their ideal scenario hadn't panned out, PICT's tactical team raced through the service passages that honeycombed the ground beneath Portman Island, towards the Door. A man squatted there in the beautiful light slicing through the cracks in the green wood. So much for maintenance.
His fingers worked delicately, as he sluiced vials into each other and wrapped them tightly in a thick, doughy substance. The taut concentration helped calm his nerves. He lifted an earthenware pot of finely ground dirt and pressed his construction into it, patting it down, covering the little jars in blackness. Then he kicked his foot down into the mud, several times, creating a divot that allowed him to wedge the box against the Door's hinge. Striking a match, he took a step back.
“Do it,” came a hiss from safely around the bend. “Someone's coming.”
“Lillith, I'm about to die here, I think I ought to get a little time to reflect on that.”
“Look, I have to see that this is done, and I have to survive, for all our sakes!” she spat back. “I gave you what you wanted last night, now it's your turn to pay back. Just drop the match, it will take but a second.”
He took a deep breath. In one second, all the world would change. Again. One...
“PICT, put your hands behind your head!”
Damn. Lillith pressed herself into the shadows of a recess of the service tunnel, while four men spread out across the chamber. As they pinned Strach to the spot, she padded along the wall, silently eeking her way back towards the town. Fortunately they had been so focused on Strach and the bomb they hadn't peeked into her off-shooting tunnel.
Strach raised the match, keeping his back to the team. “If you strike me down, I will drop this match, and blow us all out of this hell.”
“Fine,” Colonel Vox said, and fired. There was a clatter. The pot broke, spilling its blackness across the earth.
“No...” Strach breathed. He ducked to the ground, trying to gather the dirt back up against his bomb. “No!”
“It's over, Bailey! Without the packed fertilizer your bomb is nothing more than a firecracker. Now before I shoot you and have to fill out paper work, give yourself up.”
Bailey shuddered, and dropped the match. The glass vials and their wrapping flared and smoked, but nothing came of it. He stepped back from the Door, and Two and Three gripped his arms, putting him in handcuffs.
“HQ this is Vox, we have the male suspect in custody. The Door remains secure.”
“Copy, Vox, good job. The woman?”
“No sign,” he said, looking around. A glance at the floor told him what he needed to know. He pointed to Nate, and then towards the other tunnel in the junction. “But there were two sets of tracks approaching the door and one leading out. She must have led him here but she's gone now. Two and Three are going to bring him in for questioning. The Lieutenant and I will try to track her.”