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From Inside the Flap
Prologue: Coming up for Air
It was like coming up for air, coming up from a long way under. Everything was grey. Muted. Muffled.
The senses saw and smelt, felt and heard nothing.
Shapes were not even blurs. Sounds, not even echoes. Everything was static. Grey, raw static.
Time had no meaning. It did not just stand still. Past, and future were forgotten, not known, never learnt. There was only present, now-time. Moments immovable, immutable. This could be an iota, a fraction of an event. Or it could be living through forever. There was no discernable difference.
And then a rush. A feeling of streaking headlong towards a definite point in space, in time, in something.
The greyness congealed and stratified. Tides and lines and currents streamed. Suggestions of shapes. Suggestions of space and form. Of solidity. Of pauses between the noise.
From somewhere far, far below came a welling, a pushing. It seemed to catch him in the small of the back and in his lungs and throat. Dragging him, thrusting him, forcing him upward.
And then Adnan was breaking the surface.
A snatched, choking breath.
Eyes open wide. Head thrust backward. Mouth open, a silent scream straining for air. Rasping.
From elsewhere a bland voice said, "Brain grey dropping. Alpha stabilizing."
"Heart rate sixty, climbing... good." Different voices.
"Blood pressure one forty over eighty. Stabilizing."
"I think we've got him."
"Can he talk?"
"He'll be in shock. We need to get him stabilized. It may mean a controlled coma."
"For how long?"
"A few days. Maybe."
A sudden dazzle. A torch beam shone in one eye, then the other. Eyelids pulled down, just a slight intensity to the overall numbness. A grunt. Muted approval.
"Will he talk?"
"I need to know."
"I don't know."
"What are the probabilities?"
Irritation. "I don't know. Ask Karadie. My job was just to get him to where he is now."
"Beyond is down to Karadie, time, and patience. My concern is merely that he doesn't go backwards." There was heavy sarcasm on the 'merely'.
And then the tone of the voices changed. "Heart rate one eighty, still climbing." "Blood pressure one ninety over forty. We're losing him."
In amongst the spiraling pressure Adnan registered nothing that was said. Neither did he feel the syringe plunged into his arm. But he felt the effects, the rush slowing to a drift, his mind's eye meandering down polished steel shafts and brushed metal conduits. The grey swirled and eddied. His heartbeat pulsed all around him, a reassuring presence where before it had been a drum to march at double time to; a march he could never quite keep up with.
The only sound in the tent was the rhythmic wheeze and cough of the ventilator as it sucked air from the city outside through a mesh of filters and then belched it in. They were assured that it removed all harmful elements but the air still smelt of fetid spices, petroleum fumes, and hot sand. There were some odors that could not simply be processed out. It seeped through the tent fabric. Goddamnit, De Schrada thought, it's in the tent fabric. It's under my fingernails. It's everywhere.
He looked at Adnan stretched out, under an enormous transparent plastic blister. Sporadically his toes would twitch. His fingers flexed. His mouth opened a sliver, like a new moon, with each breath.
De Schrada did not believe the readouts of the life support system connected to Adnan, a web of leads and wires. He chose not to trust the tickertape of green pulses that strobed across the screens showing stable heart rate, brain activity, blood pressure and a myriad of other life signs he barely understood. He put his trust in each small push back of the head, each reach for breath. That showed him that the product of a year of planning was still with them, hanging by a thread.
"You look like a father."
De Schrada looked at Karadie, not understanding.
"The look of a father staring at their new-born baby."
"Is that how you see me?"
"Is that how you see yourself."
"I'm not doing this for me."
"No man ever did."
Karadie motioned towards a packet of cigarettes in the top pocket of his coveralls. De Schrada's eyes indicated outside.
Night had fallen, but there was still heat in the air. From the outside the tent looked inconspicuous. A fruit seller had been set up in business in front, thick fabric drapes forming a double door arrangement sheltering boxes of oranges and limes and bananas, making it appear at first glance that the tent was merely storage. It was Karadie's idea. De Schrada was happy as long as that was how it appeared not just on a first glance but on a second and third glance as well. Patrols were infrequent but only, he suspected, because informers were common.
"We're safe," Karadie said as he pushed his way past the fruit seller, plantains in each hand, shouting the price into the hubbub. "If the Party find us it is because somebody wants us found."
De Schrada lumbered to keep up. A short man, he had adopted a beard many years before to suggest greater seniority than had been the case. But now the beard was speckled grey, his back had arched, and the stick he'd adopted was functional, not affectation. "Many people know. Perhaps too many," he said, deliberately vague for the benefit of anybody eavesdropping.
"We've been over this. Contingencies. We had no idea what it would take."
"Better planning would mean that we would not have to make contingencies."
Karadie laughed gently, shouldering his way into the crowd. "There's never such a thing as perfect planning. And contingencies will always need to be there, even if you never need them."
They were not walking anywhere, they were just walking. They passed a man selling monkeys in cages. Karadie continued gently, "I'm teaching you to suck eggs, I know. But only because you're talking like a father again. You worry too much. If we were known..."
"If our plans were known then they would wait for this moment. They could be all over us and we would not know."
"We had no idea what state he would be in when we brought him out. It's not as though it went to plan. There could have been a hundred complications. It's a miracle this stage has gone as smoothly as it has. The team we put together was the smallest we could have realistically had and still managed. At such short notice, as well."
A fire-eater was performing for coins. The crowd pushed back leaving a circle of sand around the bare-chested man holding the plastic bottle, nobody wanting to come too close.
"We've been through it before. You've been through it with me, explained exactly the same things," Karadie told him. "What will you do if, when we return, he is gone and there is a line of Party guards waiting for you?"
De Schrada was silent.
Karadie answered for him. "You will start again. You will look for another..."
"There is no 'another'," de Schrada butted in. He knew Karadie wanted to say 'Domedweller' but they had to be careful not to be careless with their words.
"...and I will help you. And we will succeed."
De Schrada paid for a leg of chicken, vermilion with spices. They both knew the fat and chili would soon be stuck to his beard but they both knew he didn't care. Behind the griddle sat cages of live poultry, squawking and stretching their wings against the constraining wooden slats, tomorrow's titbits. "No, my dear Karadie. I would have to kill you. Because how would I know that it was not you who had given me up?"
A moment's wide-eyed shock passed quickly before Karadie slapped the old man on the back. "Now you're talking like your old self."
They walked for another hour through the kasbahs and bazaars, past men begging for change and men carrying boxes bigger than themselves. Spices, cloth, fruit. The rubric on the side of one revealed that it had at one point contained a hundred router servers. Karadie found himself wondering who could possibly need a hundred router servers and how the box had ended up here. The man carried it effortlessly, or so it seemed, on a shoulder. The idea that the box could still contain router servers never once entered Karadie's head. Ideas like that were preposterous in this city. But far less preposterous than the notion that a living being had been led from the Dome.
Every so often they would turn and pretend to gaze at wares, trousers hanging from wire hangers, greying bananas, monkeys tied in pairs by their feet with their necks broken. But what they were really doing was studying the crowd in case they were being followed, making careful mental note of anybody who seemed to have stopped to do the same. Of eyes they caught which then looked away. One hundred and sixty centimeters, red-brown ex-Guard jacket, boots. Heavy set, headdress, hand massaging face, bushy eyebrows. Thin-faced woman, quick features, dressed in black. Each time the faces and shirts and boots were different. Karadie had learnt to look especially at the boots. Jackets and scarves, glasses and even facial hair could be changed. But rarely boots. Boots were always a giveaway.
"Have you ever tried to leave?"
"Leave? You mean leave the city?"
"No. Don't ask me why because I don't know if I could explain. When you live your life in one place it's hard to move on."
"Only the last twenty years. You know what lies beyond those mountains."
"It feels like forever."
A pair of eyes flashed at them in the crowd and were lost again in an instant. Karadie waited for the danger, real or imagined, to pass. "What you mean is that your war is here. Some people move away; others try to change the place itself."
De Schrada laughed, low and deliberate. "You think you know the reasons already without listening to the answers."
"Sometimes I think I know you better than you do yourself. And then other times I'm left wondering who the hell you are. I have a theory. You want to hear it?"
"How do I know until I hear it?"
"Your focus has been on..." -- De Schrada raised an eyebrow, not so much a warning, but out of interest in how Karadie would euphemistically describe the current situation -- "...this phase of events. Your investment, I mean your emotional investment, not just time and energy, has been on getting your goods out unharmed. Your planning, your strategy has been up to this moment. Up to here and now. And here and now are, well, here and now. I don't know whether you're really sure what happens next."
Somewhere not too far away tinny music was being played loudly on a radio. Flutes and drums, tablas, and small, shrill cymbals. It reminded Karadie of his childhood. No specific time or incident, just the all-enveloping warmth of childhood memories.
"I know you think you know. I know you think you're sure. But are you?"
Candles in holders made of old tins were strung out over the entrance of a tent. Inside, dimly lit, a family sat around an oil-lamp pulling rice to their mouths. It struck Karadie that, by rights, the family should look miserable, but they looked anything but; if you have never seen riches then you can never feel poor. The candlelight caught de Schrada's smile. He said nothing.
Blood Moon Publishing is an imprint of Double Dragon Publishing