It was eerily quiet in the facility, and cold. The boy had guided them through a maze of doors and tunnels and now the three were moving quickly down another tunnel, diligently hugging its walls and sidestepping along in silence. Barb couldn’t tell if she was even breathing. With the slender gray suit he was wearing, the boy was hard to track as he slipped in and out of the shadows. Well, 'Jimmy.' She should call him by his name. Jimmy turned sharply down a dim, narrow side corridor – Barb moved faster not to lose him. Dirth trailed close behind her. She hardly knew either of them, but somehow she felt safe cushioned between these two men.
After a few hundred feet, Jimmy lowered into a squat, motioned with his finger for them to keep quiet, and pulled a small device out of his pocket. He waved it in front of a small lens on the wall near the floor – one Barb never would’ve noticed on her own – and the panel it was mounted on slid two feet back into the wall to reveal a small crawl space. The space looked weirdly manicured, with smooth gray tile flooring and thinly tracked fluorescent lighting – like it was meant for dignitaries to crawl through or something. Jimmy made eye contact with them, nodded for them to follow, and then knelt down and disappeared inside.
Barb turned to look at Dirth. It was hard to make out his full expression, but she could tell what he was saying with his eyes – he was saying that they should go with him, that they should trust this boy who had just fallen from the sky. She bit her lip, took one last look at Dirth, and got down onto her knees. She'd still have to duck a bit to get in. With one deep breath, she lowered her head and shuffled forward. Once she was in the crawlspace, Barb was overcome with brightness. A faint hum in the floor pulsated through her hands. She began to feel claustrophobic too – something she hadn’t felt in years. The last time she'd felt this way was when she was five or six and Connor had locked her inside a storage chest. The memory was so strong that she still carried the fear from it with her everywhere. She hadn't told Sandy, but she’d even been nervous about visiting the Digger hideout, and that was a gigantic cave. This crawlspace was on a whole other level.
The air felt so pristine it could cut your lungs. She felt the back of her head and the flat of her butt dragging along the top of the space as she crawled. Disconcerting. She tried to keep her breathing even and steady.
Suddenly Jimmy came to a full stop in front of her. He seemed to be trying to turn. There was a shout and a loud bang – the wall panel behind her hissed and slid shut. Shit, what was that? She couldn’t even turn around to look. Fuck. Dirth. Had he even made it in? She'd been so distracted by her claustrophobia, she hadn't…
She grabbed Jimmy’s back shoe, desperate, and whispered, “What the fuck!”
“Wait!” Jimmy whispered harshly back at her. He didn’t kick her hand off his foot though, which would’ve been a perfectly normal reaction.
They waited. Barb felt her palms sticking to the chill sterile tile, baby beads of sweat gluing her to the ground. The loud bang from before still reverberated through her eardrums.
“Copy that,” Jimmy said quietly.
“What?” Barb whispered impatiently.
“Okay, thanks,” he said again. Before Barb could translate his sounds into words or her thoughts into sentences, Jimmy's feet started moving forward away from her, towards a sharp turn up ahead of them. He was leaving here.
As blocky waves of sound crested over her, she could still hear his voice, muffled as though it was coming through a wall.
“Hey, I can’t hear you…” she called after him. She shuffled a few feet forward. “Hey, wait, I can’t hear you,” she tried again. Her vision started getting blocky too. What was going on? Was she about to black out? Just as a gray halo began descending on her vision, Barb lunged forward and grabbed a hold of Jimmy’s ankle. “I said, Hey!”
“I can’t hear what the fuck you’re saying, but we’re not leaving Dirth! Okay? Now what the fuck is going on!?” Hearing her own voice fill the void was a shock to her, but somehow also calming. She was there. And he was there. They were both still there.
Jimmy reached his hand back to find hers. It was cool to the touch, like a skipping stone. "Stay calm."
It was weird to be told that by someone with their ass in her face.
"It's gonna be okay," he said.
Barb swallowed. “Sure.” How the hell could he know that? was all she could think. “Fine. I just… what’s going on?”
His hand broke from hers, presumably to start crawling again. “I'm not sure what that was. And I don’t know what happened to your friend. I’m really sorry, but we can’t go back. Whoever’s back there doesn't know how to get in here, at least not yet, and we need to take advantage of that while we can. My first priority is getting you out of here, and we'll need to move really fast for the next five minutes for that to happen. I'll do my best to answer everything afterwards. But I just need you to… trust me.”
Barb grabbed the sleeve of his arm and hoisted herself forward, jamming the front half of her body into his space. “Well I don’t.”
Jimmy could feel the heat in her breath, the mistrust in her voice. This wasn’t quite going according to plan. Adams’ voice came through the comm again. “Dude, are you listening to me?”
“Yeah,” Jimmy answered, “I’m here.” He held Barb's confused stare a moment longer and then started to crawl. He just had to hope that Barb would follow him, if for no other reason than sheer fear of what lay behind them. As Adams went back to feeding him updates, Jimmy couldn’t help tuning him out, listening hard for the shuffle of her knees from behind him. Finally, faintly, he heard it. She was following him.
“…so it’s basically game over for them. There’s a burn order out. I don’t know who wants them burned, but this is definitely nonstandard stuff…”
“Wait, what?” Jimmy held his hand up to his comm.
“Ya, they’re toast, man. We got a tip – some anonymous infodump with their entire life histories and everything. Apparently they're both a 'threat.' We’re trying to source where it came from, but we think it might’ve come from Inside. Like Pureside, man! Like freaking Pure –”
“Who’s toast, Adams? Who?”
Crackly static, then, “Hey, dude, chill out. What’s the big deal? And where are you? There’s a really loud echo…”
“It doesn’t matter right now, I’ll explain everything later.”
“Okay… but sooner rather than later, dude, Lisa was asking about you earlier. You promise a girl some Nutri’s, she stays up waiting.”
Jimmy shook his head in frustration. “Who, Adams?”
“ags, Saggy, panties in a bunch much? Them, their families, who else? But MB Charlie's stuck behind all this red tape right now, and the drones can't get around in the space cause of the SDZ, so we think we lost the guy and the girl. Right now we're on orders to track down their families. And Deeptha's leading it. Can you believe that? Deeptha? I scored higher than her in –"
"OK Adams, and?" Jimmy urged.
"What? agatha. And, when we track em, we're gonna bring em in, ask em a bunch a questions, and then… toast.”
“Okay,” Jimmy said, as calmly as he could. As calmly as one could when hearing the worst of one's fears. It suddenly occurred to him that Barb was probably listening intently to everything he was saying. He cleared his throat. “So what's the status on the three color? You have location?” Jimmy held his breath as he hoped Adams had enough neurons to translate ‘three color’ into Dirth.
“Three color?” Adams paused ponderingly. After an eternity, “You mean, the dude?”
“Yeah,” Jimmy said, relieved he wouldn't have to spell it out for him. “You have coordinates?”
“Umm, let me check…” Jimmy waited. Then, “Nope, still got nothing. But this shit’s super fresh, Saggy, it could change fast. Why'd you call him a three color –”
“Copy that," Jimmy interrupted. "Thanks.” He thought of something else that had been on his mind. “Look Adams, I’ve gotta shut down comm soon, but can you check one more thing for me?”
“Sure, then will you bring me my Nutris, agatha christ.” Jimmy winced a little, embarrassed at how vulgar Outsiders were. What if Barb was religious? He heard that was a big thing here.
“Is MB Davis at the Tower?”
“Just check, Adams, is MB Davis around?”
He listened closely for the sound of Adams sliding his chair back for a look. “Nope. Not here.”
“Okay. Thanks man, I owe you one.”
“Yah, look, I dunno what you’re up to, but I swear to agatha… if you don’t bring me my Nutris!!”
Jimmy couldn’t help smiling. “Yeah. I got it. Alright, I’m going dark. Catch you later.”
“Sooner, Saggy, sooner.”
“Right, sooner.” With that, Jimmy reached up and put his comm into standby. There wasn’t much power left, and they would need every last drop of it once they got out of this crawlspace. He pulled the comm out of his ear and stuffed it into his chest pocket.
“You done?” Barb’s caustic tone brought him back to reality.
“Yeah. Sorry.” He crawled forward, unsure what he was apologizing for. He had just saved her life, maybe even Dirth’s. He frowned. Their families though… what could he do for them? He thought back to what Adams had said about burn orders being out. This was serious, far more serious than Jimmy had bargained for. MB Davis missing, an anonymous tip, the EIU on a manhunt for two Pures for no reason… what in the world was going on?
As his mind raced, the shuffle of their crawling reached a steady pace. Tshhh tshh tshh against the tile. They were almost out. And what would happen to them then?