|Flooded City Scape mural by Blair Urban Art & Design|
The elevator buggy rattled up from wherever it made its previous stop. It was good to know that I wasn’t the only one using the buggies. Though I hadn’t seen anyone since escaping the Tween House.
I glanced up to see the crane-arm and the caboose hanging under it. Knowing Jules and Lilah, and that they were up there directing the elevator buggies, was the best part now about catching a ride.
The crane-arm stuck out from Utilities. Sunlight glinted off the cabling sliding within the latticed arm. The sky above the arm was pale blue with the mist in it that was also rising up between the two buildings. I leaned over the safety rail, the chasm below was deep in shadow. I still hadn’t seen ground level.
The buggy stopped, the door slid aside and I jumped aboard. The buggy rocked and the door didn’t close. Oops. I stepped here, there, then found the place where my weight balanced the floor and allowed the door shut.
The buggy stopped at Level 9 and if I didn’t know better now, it would’ve seemed to be collecting its thoughts, but I waited for the clanging of the hooks against the buggy’s corners. There. The four hooks engaged successively with a smooth sliding sound.
The buggy swung across to Utilities, descended and stopped. I shot out and waved upward with big swings of my arms. I couldn’t stop grinning when the steam whistle hooted. At least somebody appreciated that I was alive.
Staring in through the concrete doorway into the concourse I suddenly felt ravenous, from hunger I don’t think so. More like I felt hollow from wanting excitement to fill me up. Or I felt hollow from fright wanting to see someone I knew. Or plan something familiar. Like be impulsive and jump into the newness?
The doorway was wide enough to take a fly-car, I remembered, but only high enough that I could and would, yes, touch the overhead jamb with the jump that took me diving into a thick wall, not a wall, yes a wall of sound.
Or maybe a forest of sound. I smiled and smiled as I pushed through the murmuring crowd when it was them talking all at once but only people talking when I listened to the ones near me. Kids yelled. Aircon outlets hissed and purred. A thousand feet shuffled. Nearly all of them in the same direction, stopping at times at the flower, clothes, shoe, banner and toy stalls by the concrete pillars and filling the spaces between.
My mouth watered because I smelled food, food and fried food. Yet I remembered what happened last time. And nobody looked friendly. I walked in an empty circle. People nearby wrinkled their noses. The unfortunate smell of my clothes, perhaps.
I barged through the crowd to the safety rail overlooking the fly-car space. Fly-cars whined arriving and taking off. Utility trucks and freighters zoomed in and out with stately grace. Don’t know where I heard those words but they matched the action perfectly.
With difficulty I tore my attention from the sights and sounds. Concentrated on my situation. Maybe people getting on and off their transport, seeing me there, would be reminded of something needed to be fetched? I tried a few different expressions. Hopeful. Fearless. Competent. No one took the slightest bit of notice of me that I could see and I was hungrier by the minute.
I barged back into the crowd, sidled between a couple of stalls and their watchful stall-holders. Walked in behind the nearest concrete post and dug in my bag for a cube of duck bread. Its starchy goodness haha would settle my stomach. I sipped some of my water. Breathed deep. Go at it, fetcher-girl. Maybe walk against the flow this time? Make them notice you that way.
Then I saw a fetcher across the fly-space well. I moved back to the rail, couldn’t help myself staring. A real fetcher. She wore dirty shin-length pants and shirt, of patchy tans and no-colours, just like mine, and a short raggy overskirt of worn denim. She had an earpiece that she constantly talked at out of the side of her mouth. She wasn’t running, so probably she wasn’t on a fetch.
“Hey,” she called, catching sight of me across the well. “Wait there.” She started running around the safety rail toward me. I was on her patch? I turned and ran into the crowd. Zig-zagging through, I threaded between a couple of stalls. It was darker in behind the stalls as there were only a few lantern-style lights hanging from the columns, and only the one entry where the light came in.
I changed direction. My pursuer wouldn’t expect me to double back. The crowd between us helped me stay undiscovered. I arrived on the opposite, eastern side of the concourse still zig-zagging my way between the stall holders and people doing business in the dark corners.
“Gotcha!” A heavy weight thumped into my back and I slammed to the concrete.
The weight sat on my legs, my knees flattened against the pavement. “Ouch! Get off me!”
“Be quiet,” she hissed. “It’s a fair catch.” Out of the side of her mouth she said, “You can all relax. I’ve got her.”
Complaints came out of her earpiece and she addressed them. “She passed you, dipstick. She’s obviously smarter than you are. Go home. Miz Henry squared it with the House. We can have the rest of the day off.”
“You said Miz Henry.” I struggled to get free. “You’re talking about Hen. Where is she? Get off me.”
“Only if you don’t run,” she said, letting me sit up.
“You sound a lot like my brother used to,” I said. “I won’t hurt you if you don’t run, he’d say to my little sister.”
She got the secretly-laughing-can’t-wait-to-tell-you expression on her face I used to practise in the mirror and let me get to my feet. Even dusted me off.
“How old are you?” I asked. “You’re no bigger than me.”
“Hey, you are weird. How about first asking what’s your name? It’s Jacqui by the way. Miz Henry told me yours. Kosi Lionhair. Weird.”
“I’ve got good hearing,” I said. I knew I boasted. “The fetcher complaining at you through your earpiece called you Jack. I think because she thinks you are a boy. And not just her either.”
He frowned, glanced about, then smiled. “Miz Henry set this up. A fetch to fetch a fetcher, she said. She told me what you’re like. She’s got a real sense of smart.”
It was like he warned me not to go on with the Jacqui-is-Jack mystery by trying to convince me that Hen would tell him all about me. Which I didn’t believe she would. He was just trying to distract me.
“Are all fetchers dressed in skirtlets over shin-length pants?” I wanted him to be discomfited out of his superior tone of voice. I didn’t appreciate him calling the other girl a dipstick, whatever he meant about me in comparison.
“Shut up!” he said. He clamped his grubby hand over my mouth.
“Why?” I said against his fingers.
He hissed. “Because it’s not safe for me to be here.” He hooked his arm around my neck. “You gonna scream?”
“You gonna tell me where Hen is?”
“Miz Henry to you!”
“She’s Hen to me!”
“You’re in disguise,” he said. “A fetcher. And I don’t see anyone but a fetcher here, so Miz Henry is Miz Henry. She’s at her house. I’ll take you there. Remember that I’m Jacqui.”
“I know where she lives,” I said, recalling Hen’s code. “N-G-9A.”
“Oh, right. You know how to get there?” he said.
“It can’t be hard when N means north wherever I look. The northern dorm block?”
“Why don’t you take me over there?” He let go of me. He laughed.
There had to be trick involved. The northern arm of the concourse was the only side I hadn’t been yet. I pushed past him.
He followed me, running at my shoulder.
I was guessing of course. The G obviously took the place of the number for the floor level in my address-that-once-was. I ran through the big doorway and straight to the safety rail, thinking to check the numbers of the floor levels on the opposite building.
Jack grabbed me, a big handful of the back of my shirt before I got there. “Too fast. You could’ve gone over. Miz Henry wouldn’t have thanked me, and I would’ve been drummed out of the Fetcher House. Besides which, falling from this height, the water would be as hard as concrete.”
Maybe my mouth hung open and I looked like a dipstick too, because now he laughed all out, even to smacking his knees. “You didn’t know the basements are flooded. Nor that the river is the new ground floor. Where have you been all your life? We’ve been standing in the water all my life.”
“Now you shut up!” I whisper-shouted. “You’re not the only one meant to be hiding.”
He stopped laughing instantly. Good trick. “Sorry. Miz Henry did tell me. Honestly sorry, I mean. Where to now?”
“G for Ground floor. That’s a guess. You said ground floor. You take me. I don’t know anything.”
“Hey, don’t put yourself down. Miz Henry wouldn’t be sponsoring you at the Fetcher House if she didn’t think you and your little sister weren’t …”
I jumped him. “Did you say my little sister?” I screamed. “Du? Du is with Hen?” I hugged him. “Why are we still up here?”
“Hey! Take it easy.” He made like he slicked sweat from his forehead. “Lucky we were outside. No one interested in a couple of Fetchers in a game. Lucky that Fetchers are nearly the only ones using the buggies.”
“And a few House Guards,” I remembered guiltily.
“Unfortunately, I’ve got no credits left. We’ll have to walk.”
“I’ve got some,” I said. “Ninety-six. I … took them before I left. Probably another good excuse for my father to have me hunted.”
He grinned. “Let’s get spending them. Ride because we shouldn’t walk.”