The women who carried Lydia into the silo came out.
“They were inside for two minutes thirty-four seconds,” Owen said. “It means that they start loading from the bottom.”
“So if we filter back, we’ll end up being loaded last?” Pallas said.
Good idea, Pallas. I had already told Jack we’d make for the top of the silo. No words of course, too many people listening in. It would definitely be better having the EMBers doing it too because then Jack’s and my moves would be less noticeable.
“How will that work, a silo climbing up the elevator cable?” Jack said. “It looks too big. It’ll be wrenched around and crack, or when we get into the thin air it’ll explode …”
One of a bunch of people tacking themselves onto the end of the column heard Jack and laughed. “Don’t worry, young fella. These silos are made for the job.”
“And you’d know?” Jack said. He walked backwards.
The newcomers shuffled behind Airport Security, ignored by them, carrying bags and satchels. “Well, we are the crew. Some of us specialise in silo work. Some of us operate the climber.” The speaker indicated various people as she explained.
One of the climber’s personnel took up the story. “Freight climbers are built with a bunch of large protrusions…” he made a fist to illustrate. “…that fit into corresponding slots in a silo. Once there is lift-off, the climber rises a dozen feet to lock in the fists. The slots are gated and off we go.”
“Opposite to the buggies,” I said.
“I suppose it’s easier to load the freight down at ground level,” Jack said.
“You’re not wrong, and a whole lot cheaper. And,” the woman glanced surreptitiously toward the adults with us, “It allows the … to get on with … the people to …”
One of the others talked right over the top of her, and loud, and with warning glances. “Making the trip up that much more do-able. Economical.” They dropped into a murmur and continued among themselves.
Of course I missed everything important. It allows the something to get on with something the people to something? Cheap is economical. Doing what? Hen, I wish you were here. I nearly let myself whimper. All I could do was listen hard and be prepared for action. I elbowed Jack. “What did you hear?”
Owen gave out only scepticism. “They hope to keep a silo full of captives biddable? And they have got the silo piggy-backing the climber? They’ll bed us all down.” He narrowed his eyes. “I bet they …”
“You’re not wrong, EMBer,” interrupted a nearby green-clad with her hands tied in front. “Sedation it will be.” She had an extreme case of wrinkles, in other words she was old, proud and unaugmented. Or poor. She had had one stripe, a dark place on her uniform where it had been ripped off. The corporal. Now ex. I was right about her stupidity.
“They don’t want anyone rampaging,” the ex-corporal said. “The damned data-waver is enough to stampede even the steadiest of crowds and that is what this crowd is not.”
Pallas swallowed. “It is?” she said faintly.
Didn’t sound good to me, the bit where I could hardly hear Pallas because she was so worried and or scared. “So what’s a data-waver and what’s scary about it?” I said.
“Pallas is an EMBer,” Jack said. “They don’t get scared.”
Owen cleared his throat to get Pallas’s attention.
I had to agree with Lydia. Pallas and Owen knew something the rest of us didn’t. “How come no one has come screaming and fighting from the silo yet? If there’s a really bad thing happening in there?” I said.
“I bet everybody is so tired due to two sleepless nights they’re all falling onto the bunks and asleep in three seconds,” Owen said.
“What, because I’m the youngest person here I have to be soothed?” I said.
Owen glared at me. When he had my attention he glanced here and there. At Pallas. At Bene. Even at Jack. And at a fidgety crewmember. Like he said I’m soothing everyone else through you. Like, yeah, putting me off? But I nodded.
So barely I thought he wouldn’t notice. But he turned off the heat. Looked elsewhere.
Okay, Kosi Lionhair. It wasn’t like Owen soothed me. It looked to me that he smoothed a way to whatever had to happen. I thrust my fingers up through my hair to fluff it out. Woe betide him, if the EMBers didn’t tell Jack and me what was what. When it was safe.
The helpful green-clad prisoner said, “You want to know why I filtered back?”
Nobody offered up a want-to-know. I took my cue from Owen.
The prisoner-person laughed. “I asked myself why a bunch of EMBers would get the same treatment as the rank-and-file?” She shook her head in seeming amazement. “It must be, I came to the conclusion, that these EMBers are undercover?” She waited. “And I’m Marti?”
None of us volunteered our names or responded to anything else.
“Move along, woman,” said a security guard.
Marti moved along but was not to be silenced. “So I said to myself … something is going on other than getting this intake to Lotor. They’re never heard of or seen again, right? Can’t see EMBers signing up for that. Can you, dearie?” She addressed herself to Bene. “Your partner is in the hold, what do you feel about that now?”
Bene, I snuck a glance, looked forbidding. Like, don’t mess with me, old woman.
Marti laughed. “I figured that I’d stick with you lot, if you don’t mind, to be sure I get back. With my goodies?” She stopped and we still shuffled forward.
Hissing, Bene closed the gap in our rank. She pushed Marti onward.
“That was a compliment,” Marti said. “You EMBers are very good at what you do.”
Owen scratched his eyebrow nearest the woman. From behind his hand, he mouthed silent letters toward Jack and me. S, P, Y.
Really? I was supposed to believe that? Well duh. It just confirmed that Pallas and Owen were also here for a reason other than getting caught up in a Life Lottery intake being sent to Lotor. What about Jack and me? We were still only collateral damage? Or perhaps they’d been going to hand us over to Bene and Lydia to …?
Just in time I stopped myself shrugging. No idea. And there was the additional mystery of Marti. Was she sent along the minute her captain clapped eyes on the EMBers in the intake? I tried to think back but there was too much happening.
Now we quarter-turned into a single file and Marti was quicker on her feet than anyone else. Our rank transformed into Pallas, Owen, Jack, me, Bene and Marti. We shuffled into the silo through the single door, the crew at the end.
We filed straight onto a central platform. I had to attend to where I put my feet. A horizontal bar appeared at waist level. The platform started to rise and there was the bar to hold onto. Just like the buggies, again. The crew were let off in couples and threes at intervals. I didn’t see where they went. The spy stayed with us.
Around the walls medi-crews in white were busy on stepped walkways adjacent to rows of stretcher-like bunks fastened in a spiralling pattern to the silo’s inner wall. People in white lay on the bunks. The whole intake was already bedded down?
There were dozens of medi-crews, and they always stood in such a way that they hid what they were doing. I craned my head around to count the spirals. Twelve.
The platform stopped. We’d reached the top of its track. Of the half circle of bunks in front of us, three were occupied with people making themselves comfortable. People were undressing and putting on white sleep-suits. Only three vacant bunks remained.
“This is where we’ll miss Lydia,” Pallas said. “Jack, you’re with Owen. Kosi, you’re with me. Bene …” She shrugged. “You’re with … er …”
“No no no,” said a medical attendant. “The girl will have to bunk a couple of tiers down with Ms Marti Fenland. Weight distribution is a serious art.”
“Weight distribution is that finely tuned?” I said, walking down the spiral with her and the spy.
“It’s actually a mass-to-length ratio we’re working with.”
Scientific gobbledygook. I put it out of my mind. We’d stopped and the spy lay down on the outer two-thirds of the bunk, claiming her place.
“You two together equal an average middle-height,” the medical attendant said. “Here’s your sleep-suit.” She handed me a paper overall. She keyed some data into her pager. “Put your outdoor clothes in the locker beneath the bed.”
The coverall’s flimsy consistency and lack of waste vents were a worry. And where were the toilets, for that matter?
Beyond the last bunk, an irising door was set in a wall that overarched the bunks in the last half-loop of the spiral. I swept my arm up and down the wall beside me. It seemed vertical. That wall definitely arched.
“The Command Module will be through that door,” my bunkmate said. “Don’t get caught in the open if you want to live.”
She’d changed while I looked around. Lay there like she wasn’t going to move. “Hurry up,” she said. “I don’t want you to be noticed. Drawing attention to us and seen as trouble. Probably they’ll give us both a double dose of whatever is coming. Better be half-conscious than dead, I always say.”
I stepped into the coverall with my clothes still on and pulled it up over me. Arms into the sleeves. Closed the front with a zipper. The only space in the bunk was in the upper quadrant near the wall. I wasn’t that small. I climbed over Ms Marti and wriggled until she gave me more space.
“Close your eyes,” she said. “Pretend you’ve already had the go-to-sleeper. Maybe they’ll pass us by.”
“Close my eyes? No way!”
She kinked her neck, stared at me until I closed my eyes.
Peered through my lashes, of course. My head was higher along the bunk than hers and so I had a good line of sight. She pursed her lips and sucked her cheeks like she generated spit, palmed her mouth and then swallowed.
A dry capsule, I’ll bet. Then, quick as a magician, she whipped out a thick blank mask and smoothed it over her face. She contoured the spongy fabric into her eye hollows, around her nose and into her half-open mouth. She settled.
I counted. When nothing happened for three hundred and sixty beats, a wave of tiredness washed over me.