Chapter 15

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Chapter fifteen

Toby

Toby’s reaction would have been exactly the same, had he been able to stop and absorb the spectacle of Exdis and the purple-black towers of the Ice Palace in the distance. He could not for two reasons.

Firstly, the Cerberites brought him through the tunnels and out into Exdis under cover of night. Minos had made his judgment and the Cerberites were not going to waste time with niceties. They had their job to do, and do it they would. Toby had been marched down the seemingly bottomless spiral staircase (where, despite his frequent stumbling in the darkness, he did not pay any attention to the irregularly spaced shallow steps), and along the tunnel.

Secondly, long before they brought him out into the open air they had replaced the tight black sacking over his head. So even if the cold, damned dawn had been breaking as it was when Fulgar, Sarah and David followed him down the next day, Toby would not have seen it. He should have been glad. He was close to madness as it was.

Toby Mann ran the gamut of emotions in his first day in this world. He knew that something had happened, and whatever that something was, it was probably very bad. Young Mr. Mann was not academically successful, but he had a fox’s cunning for self-preservation. He had felt the wrongness of this world right from the beginning, in those first moments after the pod had apparently done not very much. He knew from the outset that he was in big trouble.

When Ronson’s clock had finished its childish count-down to zero, the atmosphere in the pod had changed. The change was subtle, but Toby’s animal instincts tuned in to it in some deep, pit-of-the-stomach way; the way a short-wave radio latches onto a distant signal, coalescing a voice from the background static. Toby was torn. Did he listen to that voice, try to hear what it was telling him, or did he bull-charge into this and hope for the best?

Almost as soon as the choice had presented itself, the decision was made. He had a reputation to uphold.

It was bad enough that David might have tricked him, embarrassed him in front of the girl he felt only barely worthy of as it was. That alone switched on his belligerent side, made an incautious response more likely. But inside, that primal self-preserving part of his being knew there was much more to it than just a clever trick. This was something worthy of real fear. That was what paralysed his rational mind, what ultimately made it impossible for him not to stick his head out of the hatch and deal with whatever he found there.

Toby Mann did not show fear.

He did not.

So he had hauled himself up a second time and peeped out at the tree-filled world above. He hadn’t heard the Cerberites’ approach or seen the hands that grabbed him. One moment he’d been was wondering how he was going to face those two back in the pod knowing what he was beginning to know, and the next he was kicking at thin air and being hauled upwards by some vast unseen force.

His captors did not say a word. Nor did he. They ran with speed and grace through the forest, dragging Toby between them. They moved so quickly that he could make no meaningful attempt at running with them, so he just hung between them, limp and hoping, scuffing his size-nines through the leaf litter. He hoped that if Sarah and David were poking their heads out of the pod they would take the time to notice which way he was being dragged.

They stopped at the edge of the forest. Dawn was just breaking but through the hood all he could see was a vague grey light. The hood, however, was not tied so tightly around his neck that he could not see the bottom quarter or so of his captors. Leather-clad legs with bone feet bolted to the bottom. Bone feet with six toes.

The gears of his mind slipped a little and took one small retreating step away from reality.

The figure on his left made a low growling, rattling sound. That was when the lights went out. He felt the swift accurate blow to the back of his neck and that was all.

The next thing he was aware of was being in a very dark place, but with all the attendant aches and pains of full consciousness. He was sitting against a wall in total darkness. His knees were drawn up almost to his chin, with his head resting on them. His feet seemed to be pressed against something, preventing them from slipping forwards.

‘What the hell is this?’ he whispered.

He reached out tentatively and felt a wall in front of him. He ran his hand along the wall until it turned a corner and continued along his side and behind him. His other hand found much the same. There was no door, no window, no obvious means of escape. With a growing sense of disbelief, he reached up and found the roof of this room, this box, was barely a foot above him.

‘Hey!’ He banged his fist on the wall of the box ‘Hey! Let me out of here!’

There was no reply He pressed his ear to the wall and listened. Somewhere, either very distant, or made to sound that way by the thickness of the box, a bell was chiming. Deep, sonorous chimes.

‘Oy! I know you can hear me. Just let me out of this damn box!’

And to his surprise someone did. The lid lifted and two very small, old men peered in.

He was in a vast chamber, with a ceiling so high he could barely make it out in the deep gloom. He stood, slowly, uncoiling his aching back and looked down at the two men. They looked back at him.

‘Who are you?’ he said.

‘We’re nobody,’ one of them said. ‘Your time has come. Please follow us.’

Toby was so surprised that he clambered out of the box and followed the two men along the side of the chamber towards a high door. They led him into Minos’s courtroom, just as they would lead David, Sarah and Fulgar a day later.

‘Please,’ one of them said, ‘take your position in the gallery.’ He indicated the spiral staircase that led up to the plaintiff’s cage.

‘Why?’

‘It is the way.’

‘What way? What the hell are you talking about?’

‘Please, just climb the steps. The court is about to start.’

‘Forget it. I’m not some dog you can order about.’

‘No, you’re human.’

‘What’s going on here? Where am I?’

‘We are not permitted to discuss the case with the prisoner. Please, the judge is waiting.’

‘Well he can just bloody wait then, can’t he?’ He turned towards the polished black stone and shouted: ‘Oy! Judge! I’m a bit busy right now. Keep your wig on and I’ll get to you in a mo.’

The little men cringed.

‘You are only making trouble for yourself,’ one said (by now, Toby had stopped caring which was which).

‘You’re only making trouble for yourself,’ Toby said in a whining parody of the old man’s voice. ‘Go on, get out of here. I’ll ask El-Judgo.’

The men both shrugged and walked back out of the court. Prisoners were not their problem. Minos could look after himself.

‘Oy, Judge Fudge! We need to talk!’

There was no movement from the great black rock. He was quite alone in the court room. He looked around. The two jury tables were empty and the huge oil lamp above did not light enough of the corners of the room to see whether anyone was watching him.

What he felt right now was more annoyance than fear.

He looked up at the cage high above him and had an idea.

Quickly he ran up the spiral staircase and surveyed the view from the top. He was almost directly on a level with the top of the black rock. If he was right, and the judge was going to be sitting up there, he could get a really good shot with a big ball of phlegmy gob at the wrinkly old codger’s head. If not, he could always aim at whoever was going to be sitting below him at the two tables.

What anger remained did not withstand the shock of what came next. The jury seemed human, but when the judge emerged all the hydraulic pressure of his anger, the pressure that had kept him upright, drained away. He slumped to the floor of the cage and came as near to bursting into tears as he had in over ten years. It was not the sheer size of the judge (Toby’s Dad was a big guy – not quite this big, but big enough); it was the tail. A thick-as-your-leg mass of scaly, twitching muscle. Toby watched that tail as it twitched in rhythmic counterpoint to the judge’s proclamations.

He could not hear what the judge was saying. His mind whirred and babbled, scrambling for something to give meaning to what was going on, but there was no meaning. He got the impression that he was being accused of something, but he had not the slightest idea what it was.

‘Just stop, OK?’ he managed when the judge paused for him to answer some question he had not heard. ‘I don’t know who you think I am, or why I’m here, but I’m not who you think. Please, just let me out of here. I’m sorry, OK? Just let me go home.’

He heard some more of the deep sonorous proclamations of the judge, then his sentence. Something about deportation, but to where he could not imagine. The pillar on which he now sat began to descend and that was when he really did begin to cry.

In the room at the top of the spiral staircase his hands were manacled behind his back by Abaddon. It was then that he finally began to believe, really understand, that this was real.

In the dimly-lit room at the top of the spiral staircase he caught the first head-to-toe glimpse of his captors. Two Cerberite guards came to take him away, and the sight of those emotionless visor-faces with skulls at the back turned his knees to jelly and his guts to water. He sobbed and pleaded so much on his way down the pit that his robot guards replaced the hood over his head. That was why he never saw Dis until it was too late.

The guards walked him through the settlements of Exdis without a word. He was compliant, knowing that his chances of escape were virtually nil (especially as he had no idea where he could escape to, even if he could shake off his captors), but clinging to the dim hope that some chance might present itself.

That chance did present itself, but not in quite the way he had expected.

They had walked the rain-sodden streets for over an hour, as near as Toby could tell, when a voice approached them from the left. At first it was lifted and borne away by the increasing wind. It was the voice of a child, underpinned by the slap-slap of bare feet in the mud.

‘Please, sir! Prisoner want to buy some food? Got fruit, potatoes, little meat. Prisoner hungry?’

Toby was snapped out of his thoughts. He struggled against his captors and much to his surprise they came to a stop. Feet splashed through the puddles towards them. His hood was removed and in the pale dawn light he saw a ragged figure draped in bags and belts running towards them.

‘Yes, prisoner want food?’

Toby was suspicious, but he nodded. The guards did not seem concerned: they looked neither at the street vendor nor at their prisoner.

‘What you want?’ the urchin said.

Toby shrugged and blew a droplet of rain from his nose.

‘How about apples? Yes, apples. Here. I got apples. A little money? Help me out no end, a little money. Spare any?’ All the while the child fiddled in his bags, digging for something.

‘Unchain him, eh guards? Can’t eat his last meal with no hands can he? You want him healthy, eh? Healthy for the hunt? Got to feed him up. And a little change, did I mention that? Bit of money, help me out?’ All the while fiddling, constantly on the move.

The guards did indeed unshackle him.

What happened next happened so fast that it was only later that Toby really pieced it all together and believed it had happened at all. The urchin drew something out of his bag – rotten fruit or meat, or something with an ability to obscure a highly polished visor – and thrust it into the non-face of the guard nearest to him. In the same move he grabbed Toby’s arms and wrenched him forward with a force Toby would not have believed possible from such a little runt.

‘Run! Run mister and don’t turn round. Go on, get out of here.’

And Toby did. He heard a strangled cry from behind him, but the urchin had done a good enough job of distracting the guards that he got clear. Why, he had no idea. No one had ever bothered to give him anything without being made to before, but as his old man was wont to say, if someone gives you a horse, don’t wait around to count its teeth. So he did as he was told and ran.

A little way from the commotion that he and his guardian angel had caused, he passed a small group of similarly waif-like youngsters. They were huddled in a doorway, laughing silently and clapping with joy, pointing back at the child who was even now being annihilated by the Cerberites.

Toby ran on, blindly, for that was all he could do. He was in a world he had never seen, and even if he had, nothing in his own world could have helped him now. He ran down deserted streets, dodged down side alleys, over midden piles and collapsed houses, never looking back. He didn’t need to look back. He heard the rattling cry of his captors and he knew this was his only chance. Get caught again and he would probably never even make it to deportation. Wherever he ended up, he’d go there in a body bag.

There was a large building up ahead. He’d watched enough gangster films to know that you couldn’t outrun anyone in the open. The only chance was to get into a building big enough to get lost in. So he made for it and hoped.

There was a guard at the main door, so he ran on along the side of the building. The guard paid him no attention. Around the back he stopped and listened. The metallic wail of the machines was distant, but not distant enough. He had to get indoors and hidden.

With no obvious entrance on this side of the building Toby turned his attention to the windows. Although they were covered with wire mesh secured by iron bars, years of bad weather and neglect had rusted the bolts that held the bars in place. He selected a suitably weakened grill and began to dig the tips of his fingers under its edge. Now that the initial adrenaline rush of the escape was waning, the old heaviness he had felt as they trudged through the mud began to descend.

Why, oh why, did you not just listen?

The grill was not going to give up easily. He glanced along the wall at the other windows, but figured he had probably selected the best one already. No point wasting time looking for an easier entry point. He’d made his choice, and it was just going to have to work.

For once in your sorry, useless life, would it have been so hard to listen?

He got the tip of his finger under the rusty edge of the iron bar that held the grille and began to wriggle it in.

They told you not to mess with the machine. They told you it was dangerous, but no, you had to go and do it, didn’t you? You had to be top dog, cock of the rock: you have to win every pissing competition even when no one else is playing. And look where it got you. Now you’re in deep shit, and Sarah’s out there somewhere too. If…

His heart quickened. He stopped working on the grill and just stared at it as if he had never seen anything so fascinating in all his life. His mind struggled to bring the thought back before it slipped beyond reach. If… If…

If… if they waited.

The sound of the machines was closer now, but still his hands were frozen where they were.

What if they didn’t wait? They were still in the pod, both of them, when you got taken. They were safe. What if they just went on home, forgot about you? Told everyone you’d got bored and sloped off like the misfit loser you are? It’d be hours, days maybe, before anyone came looking. Not like you haven’t gone AWOL before, is it?

With tears beginning to sting his eyes again, he rammed his fingers under the grill and began to lever off the bar that held it to the sill. The rattling cry of the machines echoed off the buildings behind him.

‘You want that?’ a voice beside him said. Toby looked down at a small ragged child standing by his side, watching him intently.

‘What? This?’ Toby indicated the bar.

‘Sure.’

‘No, I don’t want it.’ He finally managed to pull it free and handed it to the child, who examined it like a newly unearthed treasure. The child was one of those who had been huddled in the doorway, laughing. Or maybe they all just looked the same.

He began to bend the grill upwards.

‘Gimme a hand, will you?’ Toby said.

‘Why?’

‘I’m in a hurry!’

The child just stood looking at him and said nothing.

‘You were back there, weren’t you?’ Toby said. ‘When that other kid got caught by those… things?’

The child shrugged.

‘Why did he do that?’ The grille was gradually beginning to yield. He could hear the rattling cry of the guards again. They seemed to be circling the building.

‘Summat to do.’ The child tugged at Toby’s trousers. ‘Boring here.’

‘Tell him thanks.’

‘He’s dead.’

‘Well, thanks anyway.’

Toby wrenched the grill off and smashed the glass beyond. The machines were closer now, one on each side of him but still out of sight. Not really caring if he got cut to shreds on the broken glass, he vaulted over the sill and into the cavernous room beyond.

He ran. Blindly again, he ran through the building. He could hear children now, hundreds, thousands of them. The building must have been some kind of nursery.

Why the hell did you pick this one numb-nuts? What, you think you can hide out among a bunch of rug-rats? That it?

He saw stairs.

Yes, get up high. You can see them coming. Gain the advantage of fighting an opponent below you if it comes to it.

He took the stairs two at a time, up and up and up, until he reached a blank wall. It was quieter up here. The sounds of the children were far below him now, but through an open vent in the roof he could hear a commotion in the street. The machines must be trying to get in. He pushed on a door and when it yielded easily he slipped into the darkened room. It was hot, thick with a stinging, metallic smell, but his light-adjusted eyes could not make out what it contained. He felt along the wall, more in hope than expectation, for a light switch. Astonishingly, he found one. He flicked it, but nothing happened.

Someone coughed.

‘Hey!’ he called. ‘Who’s there?’

There was a shuffling in the distance and a light flared. The match was put to the wick of a lamp and light flooded down the long room.

‘What you doing here? Satyris don’t allow men in here,’ a voice from behind the lamp said. ‘Go on, git, afore I call the guards!’

Toby never replied. In the glow of the lamp he saw row after row of narrow cot beds along the sides of the room. On each lay a heap swathed in dark blankets. In the beds nearest him he could see women – some no more than girls by the size of them – each chained around the neck to the head of the metal cot.

‘What…’ was all he managed.

Each of the girls lay on her back, the tell-tale bump of advanced pregnancy tenting the blankets.

That was when he ran again, ran for the final time. He clattered down the stairs and along the lower corridor, barely hearing the noise of the children now.

They’ll come. They’ll come and they’ll find you.

Whatever he had stumbled into, he was better off outside, away from this hot damp hell. Better off with the machines and whatever plan they had for him. He was trapped, lost, alone.

They’ll come back for you. And if they don’t, what did you expect? What did you really expect?

He threw himself out of the window he had so recently broken and sprawled into the mud of the alley. With a final backward glance at the building, he picked himself up and staggered out into the growing morning light.

He called the Cerberite guard at the far end of the building and the guard turned its blank eyeless face towards him.

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