Sandy opened her eyes, her head throbbing. She was lying on the ground somewhere. A young guy with a chiseled, just-shaven face looked down at her, concern streaming off of him in waves.
“Whoa,” she managed. Her voice caught. She reached towards her throat; it scratched.
“Oh!” the guy fumbled for his canteen nearby. “You want water?” He unscrewed the top and placed the bottle in her hands. “Here.”
Sandy glanced from side to side at the dim ceiling lights above him. Were they in a cave again? Her head would not stop throbbing. The cold metal of the canteen tingled her fingers. She felt it slip, unable to grip it.
“Oh, here,” the guy said, angling it back into her palm. With the other arm he lifted her slowly up into a sitting position.
She felt his arm under her, lifting her up, and she felt like a cradled child. Blood flowed back into her fingertips, as she shakily clenched the canteen and brought it to her lips. She watched him out of the corner of her eye as she drank. He watched her back. He was really cute.
She lowered the bottle slowly, feeling tiny drops of water still perched on her lips. “Umm….” She licked them off. “Where…”
“Oh, your friends are, uh, mostly okay. You can maybe go say hi, when you’re feeling better.”
“…am I…” she finished.
“Oh, uh, you’re in our barracks. Makeshift barracks. More like a cave, but yeah. It’s safe in here. We’re waiting it out before Klammath attacks us.”
"Klammath?" Her mind swirled as she tried to recall where she’d been last. Weren’t they in Klammath? Why would Klammath attack itself? Or wait, hadn’t they just left Klammath and made it to Portsby? Why would Klammath attack Portsby? “…us?” was what finally came out. Did her question even make sense? She felt dumb.
“Yeah,” Cute guy didn’t miss a beat. “They’re uh, counter-attacking. We were attacking them, but now they’re attacking us. Not us, here, but us back in the bad part. So we’re uh, we’re on our way back to defend.” He glanced at Sandy, dazed and confused. “Back to the bad part. That’s where we’re heading. That's where we're from. You know the bad part?”
Of course she knew the fucking bad part. She had just driven hundreds of miles to get out of the fucking bad part. She had padded through miles of caves to escape it, and now they were heading the fuck back? All she could do was stare forward and wince a little.
“I guess if you’re from Portsby you might not have heard of it,” he went on, “We’ve heard of you, but I guess it makes sense if you haven’t heard of us. We haven’t heard much though, we mainly just talk about how you guys are supposed to have trees in rows, but that’s about it. It’s probably dumb to you. What’s funny is I didn’t really see any trees while we were there. I was kinda surprised by that…” He trailed off, suddenly aware he was babbling. “Um,” he ran his hand through his hair. “How are you… feeling?”
Sandy practiced opening and closing her eyes. Now that she was sitting up, the things around her were coming into focus. She saw a few Diggers scattered around on the floor, but none that she recognized – oh shit, where was Kaemi? “I…” She looked back at the young guy, who just seemed to be watching her. God, he was cute. “…feel…” She couldn’t think of the right word to finish her sentence.
“AHEM!” A pudgy little man in shorts waddled into view. He struck a bold pose, hands akimbo, and prepared to speak as everyone turned to face him. “Gentlemen! Visitors! It appears that Klammath’s counterattack is in full force. They’ve taken out two of our practice centers and they’re on a warpath towards home. Of course we still have a third of our forces left to defend it, but it’s not going to be enough for what’s coming.”
“I think I speak for all of us when I say, ‘fuck what’s coming’ sir!’ barked one soldier.
“Name and I.D!” P.P. shouted, fairly certain of who this might be.
“Jorge Barks, sir. Zero five one six, sir.”
“Alright, one six, that’s enough from you. You think you know what’s coming? Well you don’t! You pea brains haven’t heard the latest, you haven’t heard anything trapped up in this little bunker, have you? Well we’re not just going back to defend against Klammath!” The group stirred, Diggers included. “Those Klammathian little shits have nothing on us! But they’ve attacked the EIU!” There was a deafening silence. "The Outsiders!" There was an audible outcry. P.P. smiled and plundered on. “In their overeager style per usual, Klammath has attacked some of the EIU drones at the factory site, violating the Perot Treaty. We believe the EIU may be planning a retaliatory attack. God knows they don’t know the difference between us and Klammath. So we're on orders to get back to base immediately.” Everyone looked around. P.P. looked squarely at Barks. “We don’t know what happens next. We don’t know what is coming.” He stood there, feeling the dim light shine off his sweaty head. He felt appropriately satisfied by the stunned faces staring back at him. He took one swipe at his head with the towel in his hand, and turned back towards his quarters. “We'll find somewhere to drop off our visitors along the way. Be ready to move at 1800.”
Williams looked at the girl. She turned to him. “My friends are there,” she said, her voice shaking. “They’re there, at the factory.”
Dirth and Barb stared up at the monitors.
“What do you mean, Outside?” Barb pressed on. “I mean, what’s so special about this shit? It looks like my fucking TV set at home.”
Dirth cocked his head at her, a hint of disapproval in his eyes. “Where did you learn to swear like that?”
“I’ll give you one guess,” Barb said drily.
Dirth thought back to the creaking man at the tenement – Barb’s father. He wondered how much of who she'd become had come from that man. He thought of her best friend, Sandy – the image of the two of them entering awkwardly together. He thought of the icy look in Sandy’s eyes when Barb had said she was staying. He could hazard a few guesses at where she'd learned to swear, actually. “I’m beat,” he teased. “Were you born with it?”
Barb laughed, a welcome relief. “Good guess.” She traced her fingers along the wall of monitors. “I’m serious though, what screams ‘Outside’ about a bunch of screens?”
“Look at the cables,” he explained.
Barb peeked behind and saw nothing.
“Exactly,” Dirth answered. All they have are these transmitter boxes – big ones too. Big ones like these are only used for spheric.”
“And spheric is…”
“Highly enriched data. And with this many boxes –“ he counted twelve, “this is at least ten zettabytes worth of it.”
“Worth of what? Data of what?”
Dirth traced his hands behind one of the boxes and pulled out a half-inch sized data card. “I don’t know. But with this transmitter card, we might be able to find out.”
“OK… Mr. Action Star, what are we going to do with that? I mean, newsflash, you live in a cave!”
Without any warning, Dirth turned and pulled her close to him. “Shh…”
Just then, the sound of boots, or stiff-heeled shoes, approached the door. Dirth and Barb stood frozen in place. For a brief moment, Barb breathed Dirth in. He smelled like hay, and moss, mixed together. Dirth, too, became distinctly aware of Barb’s head tucked under his chin. He was glad for her.
“Open 79.” The door slid open in front of them. A young boy, about sixteen, stood in the entrance. He had dirty chestnut colored hair and creamy translucent skin. He was clean cut, smart looking. Dirth noticed his eyes locked on Barb.
“Hi,” the boy finally said. “I’m Jimmy.”