|Antique freight elevator from https://www.flickr.com/photos/dieselducy/6514961339|
Jack’s mystery-making started while I input credits to get a buggy. “Punch in Level 1 for going to the Fetcher House, Kosi. We’ve got to go there first.”
I laughed. “Is this you trying to get used to my name? Is it that unusual?” I teased. “Level 1 or the Fetcher House?” I had my finger hovering.
He frowned. “Yes and yes. You’ll be in my group. I’d better get used to you fast. Both. We’ll need tokens, and the likes of you and me get them at the Fetcher House. The elevator to Ground Level takes off from Level One.”
Oh. “Because it is like a vending machine?” I guessed, trying out some of my learning.
“Human operated, because of all the different things that have to happen to the freight. Some of it goes to the rubbish lighter. Some goes to the recycling centre. Some are grocery orders for the people living on the boats. Parra Seven doesn’t have enough tech, so it’s quicker if a human makes the decisions.”
People living on the boats? I had images in my mind for freighters going from place to place, and boats crossing sea lanes aka ferries and boats, for catching fish aka trawlers. None for people-living-on-boats kind of boats.
The buggy rattled down to the first floor and a voice encouraged us off with a cheery word. “Jacqui and Kosi for the Fetcher House.”
The way inside was filled with a line of khaki-green uniformed soldiers but my mind was on who announced us. “That was L …”
Jack put his arm around my neck, hand over my mouth. “Shh. We don’t normally get crowds down here. Definitely no green-clads.”
That was Lilah’s voice, I had been going to say.
Jack took my hand. He hissed. “Pretend you’re years younger than me.” He tipped a soldier on her elbow. “We’re Fetchers going home to the Fetcher House.”
The line parted. The people being contained inside sagged maybe from tiredness standing up for a while. Who knew how long they’d already been here. They looked unkempt. Hen’s word for un-brushed and unwashed. The space we were in wasn’t a full-sized concourse. There wasn’t a transport well in the centre, I realised. Instead a dark-grey cubical structure with three doors a side squatted in the centre, its doorways guarded by more of the green-clad soldiers.
We trotted into the crowd.
Jack glanced furtively for ways through. I glanced at the soldiers. How many kinds of army were there? Hen never mentioned green-clads. Their prisoners looked at the ground and muttered at each other out of the sides of their mouths. I wouldn’t mind drifting over and hearing what they said.
Jack turned left and dragged me through a squared archway into another even smaller hall. An overflow of people half-filled that area too. Here the green-clads surrounded the unkempt solidly, making a chain of themselves with arms over each other’s shoulders.
by the walls coming closer. Hot inside my clothes. Sweat prickled me. In a minute I would scream. Fight loose. Hen had a lot of solutions for when I was in that panic. I gulped. Hen not here with me now. Give me air. I shut my mouth, breathed deep. One of the things she told me.
Jack repeated his story. “Fetchers going home.” We ducked under and made for a pair of young guards, dressed in washed-out camouflage, standing in front of a wide grey door. “Zee. Bodhi.” Jack nodded. “This is Kosi Lionhair?”
“Miz Bardelote Henry’s older girl?” Zee said like she didn’t want to be overheard either.
Bodhi studied me openly. “Hey there, Fetchers. It’s just about dinner time. What took you so long?”
I nodded. I wasn’t sure what I could say where.
“Could she stay here with you while I get some tokens?” mumbled Jack. “Miz Henry asked to have her to stay overnight until she is processed in tomorrow.”
“I love it. Didn’t I tell you something would turn up?” Zee said at Bodhi with a head gesture towards the crowd. “Incomplete Life Lottery intake. The buzz I’m hearing is that they can’t take off without the full complement. We’re flaunting our licences as a result.” This to Jack and me.
They both wore large colourful badges on their left breast pockets. I had no badge. I put my hand over my pocket. Neither did Jack have a badge.
Zee talked into her BigEar mouthpiece with it almost pressed against her lips.
The door opened enough to let through two adult guard-women whose shirts bore numerous badges. The tallest of two said, “Good work, Zee. You’re with me, taking these children to Miz Henry’s house.”
Jack took my hand again when she said ‘children’ like it was a signal. The second woman took Zee’s place. Zee took a rear position while the first woman walked between me and the green-clads. Jack was on my other side.
It was only five paces to some of the same doors as in the cubical place in the other hall. The woman gestured her head at the green-clad soldier guarding the door and she stepped aside. “Jacqui?” she said.
Jack pressed a button. I squeezed his hand, asking. “Elevator,” he mumbled. I nodded. Had watched numerous film clips of elevators over the years.
Ping. The elevator arrived at Level 1. Its door slid into the wall. We all hustled into a little room. The door slid shut with Zee pressing a similar button on the inside jamb.
“Take any of the green-clads to Ground Level yet?” the woman said.
“Good day to you too, Rokha,” a man said. “No. All safe down there. You expecting to go up again?” He stood in a rear corner, dressed in mid-grey, the same colour as the walls. Well camouflaged, I thought in Hen’s voice to cover that I hadn’t noticed him, a man. My face got hot just the same.
Everyone around me relaxed a bit. “Not today, I think,” Rokha said.
“Wise move. I was intending to stall everything midway,” the man said. “I drive them, girlie,” he said into my blushing face.
I nodded. “Thank you.” The elevator crept down, is the only word for the sensation of progressing in millimetres. The elevator man stared out of what I now saw was a long narrow window by his side. He had a remote in his hand.
“Water is up to the boards,” the man said. “Can the kids manage? Try not to splash down.”
“Not a problem,” Rokha said.
The sensation of stopping and starting stopped. The driver pushed through us and did something to the doors and went back to his place. He’d kinked them inward, and folded them aside. A narrow space had opened up. A cold breeze roiled among us. Everybody had something on them that fluttered. My hair lifted to remind me that I was as strong as a lion.
Rokha went first. Sat down, legs out. Rolled over onto her front. Hung onto one of the doors. Slid down. Thump-clop.
“Water over the boards,” Zee said. She kneeled in front of the doorway. “Jacqui, you’re next. Rokha will catch you.”
Jack disappeared. Thump-clop. Softer that time. From being caught, I assumed. My turn. I sat down. Wanted badly to see where I was going. Looked down. Rokha’s and Jack’s faces. Water as far as I could see, and over the boardwalk they stood on.
“Lie down and roll over, Kosi,” Zee said. She grabbed my wrists when I started to slide. “Good kid. You’ve done some of the tumbles.”
“In the doorway. Hen taught me,” I gasped.
She smiled. “I remember that. Wriggle down easy. When Rokha catches your legs, make yourself into a pole. Miz Bardelote Henry is my hero.”
I hung full length before Rokha grabbed me around my lower legs. I made myself a pole. She let me down easy, hand over hand up my body, and set me on my feet. Hardly any sound.
“You two start,” she said to Jack. Keep to the middle.” She turned to Zee’s legs dangling down.
“Let’s go,” Jack said.
On three sides of us were the tall cliffs of our buildings. The rest was so much sky that I dizzied and stumbled. Splash. Wet to the knee and elbow. At that level, a row of boat-hulls both sides of the walkway stopped me seeing the rest of the water.
“First time I was properly outside I did the same,” Jack said. “Hen’s boat is at the end. I think it’s urgent we get there. We’ll wade. Less splashing.”
We waded, meaning we slid our feet over the boards through the water. We passed eight boats on the right-hand side. All shapes, several sizes. None were as big as my imagined boats. The plank-way was awash.