"Jack, I really don't like this," Govinda said as she crouched beside the tiny opening. "You just said it yourself, the woman is SITM. She's in charge of tech maintenance for station information grids. Why wouldn't she -- why couldn?t she -- be watching all the routes?"
"She's SITM all right," Hsieh said, "but she isn't SIOS, she's SIDA." He shrugged slightly at the baffled faces around him. "Station Information Overview Security and Station Information Data Analysis." She's just mech. She's in charge of fixing glitches in ops and program grids, but that's it. All the SI people have basic SI training, but we're hoping she's not thinking big picture right now."
Govinda nodded very slowly, then looked at Jack again. "So, next step is guns and am- " she started to say before Jack put his finger to her lips and shook his head. She subsided.
"Hsieh's got point. Just follow him," Jack said. "Ready?"
Hsieh nodded. "Yeah. Give me some room." He swept his eyes across the party, stopping briefly at Govinda and shaking his head slightly.
"May be a little hard on your look, 'Vinda, especially your knees," Jack interpreted.
Govinda made the universal "whatever" face back at him before Hsieh continued. He'd moved his gun holster to fit along his spine, and strapped his torch between his right wrist and elbow, leaving his hands free.
"Alright. It's small in there, really small. It's also going to be dark, even with the torch. We've got a little ways to go, and there are a couple of corners to get past. Just do as I do, OK? Ms Pol, let's put you behind me, then Meg. Ms Moss -"
"Lynda," she said firmly.
"Lynda, right. Lynda, you follow Meg, Lem, you're behind her. Harkness, you're determined to bring up to the rear?"
"I never miss a chance," Jack said.
Meg rolled her eyes. Hsieh might have done the same thing, but he'd already started to crawl through the opening.
"It's...a little -- shit. A little, uhm, difficult to..twist the right way..."
The big man moved his shoulders like a contortionist as he spoke, even as he rolled over on his side, and snaked his hands over his head. After a few bumps and minute movements, he drew his legs in after him.
"This is going to be attractive," Govinda said. She hiked her skirt up and tucked her head in to duplicate Hsieh's entry stance, but not before reaching back with one hand to grab at her business shoes. She stuffed them into her waistband, saying something about ruined nylons under her breath. Lynda was thankful she hadn't found any heels to go with the slacks. Her trainers were going to be a lot more useful.
Meg, still cradling her clipboard, scooted closer to the opening, then clucked in exasperation. "Well this is useless. Can't figure out why I brought it."
Jack looked at the board with a rueful smile and took it from her. He tucked it inside the hole, saying, "You can't take it with you, but we don't want to leave it around, either. No point in attracting attention to this section of wall."
He gestured expansively toward the opening; Meg sighed and headed in after the others. Once again, Lynda tried to watch the entry maneuver. She couldn't see it; the dark seemed to swallow Meg, almost as if a hand had pulled her from the light. Lynda shook her head; do not, do not, lose your nerve she told herself. You are here because you want to be and you will not let this get to you.
"Ma'am?" Lem touched her shoulder lightly from behind, and Lynda stifled a cry. "Your turn, ma'am."
She nodded, working hard to regulate her breathing. She bowed her head and levered her shoulders through the gap. Almost immediately her head collided with the interior wall opposite the hole. She tried to back up, realizing that she hadn't turned on her side, and gasped in pain as her spine hit the sharp edge of the entry.
She panted a little in shock and trembled, unsure of how to move.
"Put your head and chest lower to the floor, ma'am. That'll get you out past the wall. Just back out and give it another try," Lem said patiently.
"Yeah, right, sorry," Lynda replied. After retreating sufficiently, she shifted to lie on her left side and jack-knifed herself around the corner. She was able this time to twist her torso and move herself further into the tunnel. Once fully inside, she performed an awkward roll back over, until she could balance on her forearms and knees.
The floor was some sort of pebbled metal; when she put her right hand out to gauge how far she was from Meg, she found the walls were the same texture. She hadn't expected it to be warm, and she hadn't expected the air to smell so sharp. Her throat caught momentarily at the steel and ozone breeze that whispered past her.
"Is this the electrical system?" She was surprised at how the tunnel swallowed her voice. There was no echo, and no answer.
The passageway was barely more than a crawl space, not even a meter high and about the same in width. She felt her hair brush the top of the tunnel. Her shoulders scraped both of its sides, one after the other, as she moved. How on earth did Hsieh do it?
She shuffled forward on elbows and knees, wondering why the tunnel could be so dark when Hsieh's torch was on, when light should still be spilling in from the outer corridor. Then she realized that Jack had dragged the wall panel behind him as he entered, and somehow maneuvered it back into place, effectively camouflaging their trail, plunging them further into blackness.
Claustrophobia came roaring from the ancient halls of her sleep into her waking mind. She froze.
(Darkness moved over the face of the water which covered her and she was not. No breath, no wave to drown her, nothing. No thing moved. Nothing and then something, and there was an answer to the dark -- )
"Keep coming," she heard Hsieh say from somewhere up ahead. The darkness in her mind receded, and she inched forward again, focusing all of her attention on his voice. He moved, and the torchlight moved with him, revealing the confused silhouettes of all those in front of her.
Lem ignited her torch. The beam was weak, and shifted constantly with her movements. Shadows moved again as Jack brought up to the rear.
"Lynda, that's me you're crawling up."
She'd kept moving, not realizing that Meg had stopped, and had plowed into Meg's rear end. "Sorry," she whispered, embarrassed. Meg grunted forgiveness, then went on. Lynda followed, carefully.
Time was irrelevant in the tunnel. Their passage was marked less by the torch light than by the whicker and rusk of cloth against cloth and rough floor, by the rhythm of their breathing. The air slowed, barely moved now, and the electric tang dried her throat as it made her gorge rise. She couldn't shift position comfortably as she struggled forward. The walls on either side of her were a constant inert restraint. Eventually her knees hurt, her shoulders ached almost as badly as her head, from their enforced compression, and from the tension.
The first corner was a left turn and she was grateful at the slight relief it provided her muscles. The second one, some indeterminate distance further on, was almost impossible. By that point, the passage had angled down. So had the ceiling. When Lynda realized that she was even more constricted, it was all she could do to keep from screaming, feeling as if she'd been enclosed, head down, in a metal straight-jacket.
Get angry, she told herself even as panicky tears started in her eyes. Anger's better than this. It didn't work as it had before. She tried to imagine herself keeping the fear in check, but it moved inside her as if it were alive. A moving beast, slouching and pacing through the halls of her mind, in her blood. She didn't hear her own tiny whimper. Neither did anyone else.
She reached for the sounds of breathing around her, reached for Meg's foot, but lightly, so that Meg didn't feel her hand, or her terror. The touch steadied her just enough to keep the scream behind her teeth.
Finally, blessedly, it ended.
"OK, it's up there." Hsieh's voice was tight, and she knew his throat was as dry and sandy as hers. Everyone tried to quicken their pace. Lynda realized the air was moving faster again, and smelled differently. She strained to see in the uncertain torchlight. The passage was no larger, but it only went forward for a few meters, before opening onto another space. That was palely lit, and as she peeked around those in front of her, Lynda thought it looked like they could stand up in wherever the light came from.
Their crawl space abruptly gave way, and Lynda almost fell over, at a loss without the walls bracketing her. In a moment, Meg and Govinda scrambled to their feet, and helped her do the same. She staggered up, in turn reaching down to help Lem and Jack out and up.
"Mind yourselves," Hsieh said, in a tone that brooked no argument. Lynda looked around and understood. She shivered.
The six of them stood on a small metal ledge, enclosed by a safety rail. The ledge appeared about three meters wide, and extended out about two meters, into what was a much larger vertical shaft. Lynda edged around the other to reach the rail. She looked up, but at first could see little more than the barest hint of similar ledges in the misty half light provided by tubes of blue and green luminescent gas. The ledges broke the shaft walls up further than she could see, some directly above the one on which they stood, others marking openings at different points around the circumference.
When her eyes adjusted further, she gasped. Everyone did, except Hsieh.
The shaft was enormous, perhaps 120 meters across. The air here was cold, and it rushed past them, down into the dim reaches below. Lynda suddenly remembered Jack's talk of hull breaches.
The sough of the wind played descant to the station's bass thrum, once again inescapable, and fed here by its own reverberations.
"We're in the lymph system," Hsieh said quietly. In the cavernous space, his voice had re-acquired an echo, sliding through the wind and rebounding from the station noise.
"Come again?" Govinda looked confused.
"It's what I call it," the security chief explained. "Look, as big as this shaft is, if you got to the other side and drilled through that wall over there? You'd find Game Station's main shaft. That's a quarter of a kilometer wide at mid-point, although you might not realize it, because it's not empty like this. It houses the atmosphere control units and delivery system, grav generators, pretty much all of the water and reclamation mech, most of the electricals, the comm and grid wiring, everything that goes into making the place operative.
"It's what makes -- made -- the station live, in a way, all of that. It's the heart. The blood and heart of the place." Hsieh looked sweetly shy for a moment, then uncomfortable, as he let the fanciful imagery slip out. Poetry wasn't part of his training, Lynda thought. "The big shaft holds the station's circulatory system, but -- "
" -- but every body needs a lymphatic system," Jack finished. His head hadn't stopped swiveling as he deciphered and measured his new surroundings. "Most people don?t even think about theirs. But it's not the rest of Game Station that needs the lymph system. It's Security. Am I right?"
"Yeah." Hsieh didn't seem surprised at Jack's comment. "Anyone Security Nine or above eventually gets briefed on it, but there weren't many of us even...even before. Now? I think I'm the only one left," He was silent for a second, then continued. "This station is old. It's more than two centuries old. It existed before it was Game Station, as some sort of propaganda factory."
"Satellite Five," Lynda nodded.
"Yeah, that's the name. How'd you know?"
(If you spent as much time on your other downloads as you do on history, honey, you'd be at the top of your class, he'd said, looking frustrated. Your mother...she's absolutely brilliant and I'm so glad you're like her. He'd stopped there, that mix of anger and helpless love all over his face. But I can't protect both of you. I'm not big enough. You've got to stand on your own. Before she could shout at him, in her 15-year-old bravado, she'd seen the tears, and he saw her see them. He'd shut off her grid screen and they'd sat together in the dark. She'd put her head on his shoulder, he'd put an arm around hers. They didn't fight anymore about her grades, not that night.)
"I learned it," she said.
"Right." The security man looked at her quizzically. "Anyhow, according to the briefing, this was probably the original infrastructure conduit system. But as Game Station grew, the shaft got too small to handle life support. The new shaft was constructed and this was redundant. The systems got moved over, the bridgework -- these ledges originally lead to bridges so that you could reach all the systems for upkeep -- got removed. I think there were plans at some point to develop the space into luxury apartments or such, but it never happened. Other things took precedence, other issues came up. Administrations changed. People forgot."
"How the hell can you forget something like this?" Govinda breathed. Lynda could tell she'd been trying to leash her own slouching beast.
"I dunno, the briefing didn't go into that," he admitted.
"It's like he said," Lynda said, distantly, her attention on the gusting emptiness beyond the rail. "Other things came up. Administrations changed.
"The Doctor happened," she finished, her voice so low it almost blended with the station's groan and thrum.
Almost. Jack's head snapped in her direction. She answered his eyes with her own challenge. Prove me wrong was the message. Jack looked elsewhere.
Hsieh hadn't noticed; he was just nodding his approval at her agreement with him. "SecPol people must have paid attention, and decided it could be useful."
"But why?" Lynda asked. She looked down, then up, and fought a wave of dizziness by clamping both hands tightly on the rail.
"The world is a hard and dangerous place, sweetheart," Jack said, thoughtfully. "There are always people who collect secrets, who know they'll come in handy some time. And Security -- any security -- deals in secrets, even if it's not pleasant. It's the only way to stay on top when the long knives come out between factions. In this case, station politics, if I don't miss my guess. Every possible advantage in war."
"Too right," Hsieh agreed, his distaste for it clear.
Jack fell silent. It was also clear Jack had survived his own internecine battles somewhere. Hsieh said nothing more. Lynda looked at Lem, who seemed gob-smacked at her surroundings. Must not be a Nine or above, she thought.
"So where to from here?" Meg asked.
"We've got to get back to the apartment, first." Jack said. "My gun's still there, and so's the piece Anders' incompetent buddy dropped in the corridor; Davitch went out and retrieved it after we got you into bed, Lynda." He grimaced. "I should have brought them along when we headed for the cafeteria, but I didn't. I was an idiot. And we need them. So, we go back, but we can't go in the front door, because that floor obviously has some connection with 80, and I don't want to risk running into any more of her people."
"But how do we get down there? I'm not seeing any elevators, " Meg pressed. "After all this, you're not going to tell us we have to go back into the tunnel?"
"No," Hsieh said. "We head directly down."
He pointed past her head, to the left of the tunnel opening and out past the ledge itself. Everyone looked. Next to their shelf Lynda saw something that looked like a conveyer belt of dull ridged metal guided up and down, parallel to the shaft wall, by a two-sided vertical rail assembly. There were flanges every three meters or so, comfortably big enough for one person to stand on. Someone wanting to ride it would slide between the end of the safety rail and the wall, then take one very wide step onto a flange that would go up, or down, depending on its orientation.
"Oh." Meg looked old. "Belt lift."
Belt lifts were the most basic vertical transport possible, used by construction workers or building cleaners. This one might last have been used when the shaft was decommissioned. Lynda could see no webbing or handles.
"How do you hold on?" she asked Hsieh.
"There are straps underneath each step. The person on the step below hangs on until he gets to the next level, steps off easy-peasy," he told her.
She looked again, and saw what he was talking about. They looked sturdy enough, but they required riders to stretch their hands over their heads to reach them.
Jack sidled past Meg, who had edged back toward the passage, and took a close look at the mechanism. "You sure this will work?"
"Not sure of anything," Hsieh said. "But it's supposed to."
"That thing's dangerous," Meg said.
"No problem," Lem spoke up. She hauled a coil of thin rope from some pocket of her utility belt. It didn't look strong, but Lem looked confident. "All we need's this and some clamps."
"Clamps?" Govinda looked unhappy.
"Sure," Lem said. "Run the rope through the clamps, tighten them down and you can attach the rope to anything. We anchor one end to this rail. I'll go down first, attach the other end to the railing below. We hook everyone up to a second rope that we attach to the trawl line, and can haul back up once they step off. See how it works, is you hold the strap, but if anything happens, no matter where on the belt, you're connected to the line by the belt, and it'll hold you 'til we get to you." She looked pleased with her presentation.
Govinda looked dubious. "You know your business. Just tell me what to do and I'll do it." she looked over the rail. "The belt only goes down two levels."
"Yeah, but there's supposed to be a three-man cab system two levels down. I'm pretty sure it goes down about 100 levels further. It's not as fast as regular lifts, but it'll do the trick," Hsieh said. "Then I think we have to hit another belt, and there may be an interior ladder system for the last 50 or so levels. Everything's pretty jury rigged."
"That's obvious," Govinda said. "What happens when we hit Floor 56?"
"Should be passages that run in back of all the game suites, including your Big Brother apartment, " Hsieh said. "We get in and out that way."
"Once we pick up the guns, we head in another direction," Jack said. "Hsieh, you ready to tell us where this possible cache is?"
The big man nodded. "Floor 300. That's the only one we can get to -- there were two others, but one's by the bay, in vacuum. I can't recall where the second one is without access to the briefing files. Which I don't have. And Harkness, I'm telling you again, I don't know what we'll find there. I never checked any of the caches out, I was just told they were there. This one may be empty. It may have stuff we can't use."
"And it may have just what we're looking for," Jack said, clapping the taller man on the back. "Alright. We're heading down. Once we get there...If the cab only takes three at a time, we'll have to split up for the next stage. It'll take longer, but it can't be helped."
Meg put her hand to the wall. Very carefully, she sank to her knees. "I'll stay here."
"You can't," Jack said. "We need you."
"I'll stay here," she repeated. "I'll keep watch here. I'll make sure no one comes out of that tunnel, I'll do that. But I can't. Harkness...I can't."
"Woman, you faced Daleks." Jack said, crouching down to talk to the floor manager. "You can do this."
Meg shook her head. "I can't. If you'd told me about this, I wouldn't have- "
"You wouldn't have what?" His voice hardened. "You wouldn't have come? That's a pretty good reason not to have told you. And right now you don't have a choice. I'm not asking you."
"I can't!" Her face was ugly with fear. "I can't! I won't! You can't make me!" She shoved back harder against the shaft wall, "I'll fall!"
"No you won't," Jack said, grabbing her shoulders. "You'll get on, you'll hang on tight, you'll keep your eyes on the wall, and --"
"And what, Captain," she snarled, knocking his hands away, "you promise I'll be alright? You promise? Like you promised the fucking bullets would work?"
"Meg!" Govinda looked stricken. "Not fair! Christ...come on, calm down!"
"Why?" And Meg began to weep.
"Harkness?" Hsieh gestured at Lem, who caught Jack's eye and patted the tool belt pocket from which she'd fished Roderick's shot.
"No." Jack sounded harsh, and weary, and ashamed.
Lynda moved past the others toward him. He held up a hand, which she looked at for a moment before grasping. She hauled him upright without a word. Meg didn't move, and her weeping was almost silent. The wind sighed and the station beat around them.
"Meg?" Lynda didn't bend down to talk to the older woman. She just started stroking her hair, not quite certain why. "If...if I get on the flange with you, if we hold tight, and go down that way, could you do it?"
"Now wait a minute," Hsieh began, but she rounded on him: "No, those flanges look big enough to hold two people if they're small. We're small. We could do it, I'm sure of it."
He didn't say anything to that, just turned and took three steps over to where he could physically check the lift flanges.
"She's right," he admitted reluctantly. "The two of them are small enough."
"You'd do that? You'd hold on and keep me safe?" Meg looked up, and her eyes were wary but hopeful. Now Lynda knelt beside her. Like Jack, she put her hands on the other woman's shoulders. Then, impulsively, she drew Meg to her in a hug.
"I won't promise anything, can't really, yeah?" she said, into Meg's ear. "But I'll do the best I can. And you won't be alone."
"I know I'm being crazy," Meg started. She stopped, and began again. "It's just so far down. This is like my nightmares. When I was a little girl, my nightmares were about falling. I can't stand being anywhere high." Then she laughed. "You'd never believe what I have to take every time I get in a shuttle to get here. Talk about downers to get me up." The laughter became a squeaky and hysterical giggle.
Lynda didn't know what to say to that, so she just repeated, "You won't be alone."
Meg swallowed convulsively, eating the last of her laughter. She nodded at Lynda and gently detached from the hug, obviously not trusting herself to speak, then stood up.
Jack wasn't looking at the floor manager, and she wouldn't look at him. But: "Meg, I'm sorry."
"Whatever." Meg breathed deep. "Not your fault, Harkness."
"No, it isn't. But I'm still sorry," he said.
Meg wiped her nose on the back of her hand. "You'd be better off without me, you know." She only sounded half-convinced of that, and she mustered a brief, crooked grin.
"I don't think so," he said, answering with his own beautiful smile. When it flickered off, it was as if one of the torches had gone out. He keyed a code on his wrist comm, waited until it signaled that someone was on the other end.
"Jack! Thank god! I was wondering when you were going to check in!" Davitch's voice was thin and far away over the comm, but Lynda watched Govinda's shoulders relax as she heard it.
"Yeah, it took a little longer than I expected. How are things up there?"
"Fine. We've got some cots set up here and a few of the old folks are sleeping. I set up a team to wash up after dinner, and that seems to be working out. If we keep doing things, we...well, it's working."
"Any more declamations or declarations from our friends on 80?"
"Nary a word."
"Good. Look, we're on our way to pick up those items we left back at the house, and then we're off to our next stop. Once we've gotten to that stop, I'll check in with you again."
"Fine. Uhm, one thing, Jack. Can I speak with 'Vinda?"
Jack turned and looked at Govinda, one eyebrow arching over his returning smile. "I think we can manage that. But keep it short, love-birds." He undid his comm and handed it to her.
"Stuff it, Harkness," the programmer said. Even in the shadows, scarlet showed under the buttered rum of her cheeks. "Davitch?"
"Keeping out of trouble?"
"When have I ever done that?"
"True. Well, take care of yourself, right?"
"I'll see you soon."
"Absolutely. Absolutely. 'Vinda?"
"You take care, too. I, uh, I need you. To do that. OK?"
"Right," Govinda's smile chased back and forth across her face. Jack looked proprietary, like a proud father, but he tapped his wrist, then signaled her to wrap it up. "Harkness is riding herd on us. Be a good lad and kick him when we get back?"
"Oh. Oh, yes. I'll do that."
Govinda laughed, and handed the comm back to the Captain.
Meanwhile, the security team had been busy. Lem had rigged the long rope and clamps, after cutting off a shorter length. She found a final set of clamps, one with a slide mechanism, from another pocket -- how had the woman been able to crawl through the tunnel, Lynda wondered, amazed -- and attached them to the short rope. She then attached it to the longer trawl line, and picked up the end of the trawl, coiling it over her shoulder.
With the impromptu safety harness in hand, she turned to Hsieh. "Let's get this started, sir." He maneuvered around her, to a small metal box tucked underneath the end of the safety rail. It had a red button, a green button and a small switch, north for up and south for down.
Jack inclined his head. Lem yoked the short rope, now attached to the trawl line, around her waist. She fastened it tight and tugged at it, testing the slide clamp's give on the trawl line. Apparently it moved to her satisfaction, because she stepped out with no advance warning onto the nearest belt flange.
"Start it up," she said, cool as ice. Lynda tried out Lem's expression in her head, then forgot it, as the belt gave a cough and chatter. Hsieh had turned it on. It jerked, and Lem's hands flew to the overhead strap. The belt moved extremely slowly, for which Lynda was grateful. It would give each of them plenty of time to step off and out of the rope harness.
As Lem descended, she played out the trawl line off her shoulder. Jack held Govinda back as she tried to follow the security woman down with her eyes, but watched carefully himself. He put one hand out, as if to guide her down in some fashion, and didn't seem to notice himself doing it.
"Alright, I'm past the first ledge," Lem called up, her voice bouncing and doubling itself in the shaft. "I'm coming up on the second one. It's big....and I see the lift cab."
Hsieh looked over, and seemed satisfied with her progress. A few seconds later, the belt jerked slightly as Lem stepped off. The soft hiss of the unwinding trawl line continued momentarily, then stopped with a metallic jingle, apparently as Lem snapped it taut and clamped it to the lower ledge's railing.
"Do you need me to come back up?" she called out again.
"No. Stay down there and be ready to get everyone out of harness," Jack said.
"Fine. I'm out of the harness; you can pull it up."
"My turn," Govinda said, looking determined. "Good thing I love adventure." Once Hsieh helped her put the harness rope on, she waited for the next flange and stepped out onto it, perhaps not quite as calmly as Lem, and grabbed the overhead strap. "Next floor, lingerie."
Meg was visibly tense, and growing more so. Lynda turned to her and said, "I couldn't get over how calm you were in the tunnels. I almost thought I was going to go mad for awhile there."
"Close never bothered me. I trained as an electrician before I moved up to Studio, and we were always crawling about like lizards in conduits," Meg answered, watching as Govinda disappeared from sight. Hsieh brought the harness rope and beckoned to the two of them. Lynda reached for Meg's hand.
"You're going to do just fine," she told the red-head. "Here, let's get this thing around us -- thanks, Hsieh -- just settle it in around our waists. Now you hold on to the strap, and I'll hang onto it, too, and we'll be down before you know it."
Meg looked almost sick with fear, but she pressed her lips together, and stared at the harness. "How do we get on?"
"Look, I'll stop the thing," Hsieh offered. "You can step out onto the flange, and I'll only start it once you're settled."
Both Lynda and Meg nodded. Keeping one hand around Meg's waist, Lynda got the two of them over to the break between the shaft and the safety rail. The security man was as good as his word, and the belt shuddered to a stop with the flange not more than one step away.
"We're going to have to step out at the same time," Lynda told Meg, who had started holding back. "We have to be simultaneous."
"Fine. Fine. Simultaneous," Meg whispered. But having screwed her courage to some internal sticking point, she moved too fast. She stepped out onto the flange, dragging Lynda forward in an uncontrolled stumble behind her. Lynda flung a hand out, trying to catch her balance. Instead, the movement threw the both of them out from the ledge, and off the flange.
The harness caught Lynda, painfully, and she dangled in space just below the ledge. But before it caught her, it raked up, over Meg's torso, over her upraised arms. She slid out of the loop almost gracefully, like a diver in reverse.
For some reason, she was silent as she fell. Lynda watched her eyes until they faded into the abyss.
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