P.P. snapped the elastic band around his waist to give it a satisfying slap. The Drill was over. Any minute now Barks and Pieta would tumble into the locker room like they always did, laughing and telling jokes. P.P. ran his twisted terrycloth towel across his fingers – it was noticeably light on sweat today. He thought of Williams, away on his mission, one less set of digits toeing the Line. P.P. had a soft spot for that one – it was too bad then, that the kid probably wasn't coming back.
The chirp of a baby’s cry interrupted his thoughts. Williams’ girlfriend, Sandy, stood in the doorway. She wasn’t smiling.
“P.P., sir,” she began.
“General.” He coughed and puffed up his chest. “General P.P.”
“General P.P.” Sandy recited respectfully. She knew how to play by the rules when she needed to. “It’s been a day since seven four left – still no word from him?”
“Missions from the Puritan House are not open to civilian discussion.” P.P. felt the ball in his throat rise and a gelled tendril of hair slip down onto his forehead. He hated getting mussed, and by women especially.
“Is he going to be OK?”
P.P. felt his face swell. He hated people who needed placating, and he especially despised having to do any of the placating himself.
“This room is for soldiers!” he barked. “Soldiers only, you hear? Now get out!” A shower of spit rained down on them both.
At that moment, Barks and Pieta tumbled in, laughing like they always did, but catching themselves in the doorway. They had never heard P.P. call them soldiers before.
Sandy caught a glance at Barks, who seemed to know exactly why she was there. He averted her gaze. Sandy smoothed a fold of cloth over the baby’s hooded face, and walked out.
In the hall, Sandy waited to hear the laughter resume as more men piled into the locker room. She was so out of place. How did she end up here like this? Holding a baby that wasn’t hers. Waiting for a guy she barely knew. To be what? Her boyfriend? A father? A… soldier?
The baby shuddered in her arms. He had been having a lot of spasms recently. Sandy couldn’t tell what was causing them – hunger, cold, pain… discomfort, loneliness… the distinct awareness of not having a mother… She closed her eyes and let her head rock back towards the ceiling. She had to do something. But what could she do?
Barb and Jimmy sat in the front seats of the glider.
“You sure you know how to drive this thing?” Barb smirked. Jimmy smiled back. There was an unacknowledged relief in actually having found it – of finding something where they expected it, and when they expected it, for once. Of being out of the tunnels and in a safe space where they could sit up, with room above their heads and the ability to speak louder than a whisper. Barb's hand suddenly reached over and found a place on top of his, where he gripped one of the glider controls. “Thanks, Jimmy.”
“Yeah, no problem.” The phrase fell awkwardly out of his mouth – it sounded distinctly uncool coming from him. He never said, ‘No problem.’ Before he could say anything else idiotic, his comm – now connected to the glider’s power – buzzed on. He moved his hand out from under Barb’s to answer it.
“Saggy?” Adams’ voice came through desperately.
“Yeah,” Jimmy replied. He cleared his throat, his neck warm.
“Sagging motherlord, Jimmy, where the eff have you been?”
“Little busy, ran into some trouble, a lot to catch you up on –"
“A lot to catch me up on? Where have you been, dude? Have you heard any of the news?!”
Jimmy and Barb exchanged glances.
Adams went on. “There’s a Pure out here man, he’s in the EIU – and I think it’s your guy! Word is he’s something like a 4-3 or a 2-2 – wasn’t your guy something like that?”
Barb’s gasp was so sharp she thought she might have cut herself. “Dirth?” All her old feelings came rushing in. Sandy, Kaemi, Dirth, her Dad, Connor... God, what had she been doing?
She looked up and realized that Jimmy was watching her intently. His eyes seemed to know something she could not say. Awkward, playful Jimmy was gone. “Yeah, that’s our guy,” he answered. “What do you need us to do?”
They both heard Adams take a deep breath in. “I dunno, Saggy. I’m stuck in a med bed. Chung’s here, but –"
“Chung’s there?” Jimmy burst out, “Adams, what did I say about keeping this – ”
“It’s a total shitshow here, man,” Adams continued on, “I’m being watched like a hawk cause they think I helped MB Davis. The only reason I could even call you was cause all the vids are down. Security’s been breached.”
“Security’s been breached?” Jimmy said the words, but wasn’t sure what they meant. “What are you talking about?”
“I mean, yeah, it's been breached! How else could a Pure get over here? And into the EIU? People are saying he came through Glide somehow. They think maybe there’s a portal in the EIU somewhere, a link –”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Jimmy said slowly. In his mind he started to retrace his steps, starting from his panicked search for Dirth and Barb, to their desperate run through the corridors, to the moment they lost Dirth in the crawlspace. He even thought back to the showroom, where they’d seen the scientist, his lookalike aunt, with the animals. At any point along the way, had he seen something that might be a Glide portal? For a moment he wondered if Dirth was really who he said he was.
“Sure it doesn't make sense, but it’s possible, right?” Adams went on. “Look, right before comms went down, Lisa said she decrypted the cog backup MB Davis brought in – the one that belonged to the head conglomerator at Box Office. Lis says…" He paused. "She says she’s got proof that Box Office caused the collapse. I mean, it could be huge. And if someone on the Outside who’s not even in the EIU can get over there, there’s gotta be more ways back and forth than we think. And we know there was an SDZ – ”
Barb and Jimmy weren’t listening. A man in a gray jumpsuit had come into the transit bay, and he was looking straight at them.
The man’s face, sharp and shrunken, with a hooked nose, turned a whiskered gray as he peered in at them. He looked like a bad, bad man.
“Oh my God,” Barb breathed. “What do we do?”
“You!” the man shouted, thrusting one pointed finger up at them as if to jab their eyes out with it. “You’re the intruders!” With the other hand on his hip, the pointed finger turned into a fist. “Get out of the glider! Get out, get out, get – ”
Before the bad man could finish his tirade, Jimmy blasted the glider engine on and the sheer force of it knocked the man back against the wall. “No!” the man began to shout, struggling to regain his balance. Barb watched as he dragged himself along the floor to a panel on the wall.
“What’s he doing?” she cried.
“He’s blocking the hatch from opening.” Jimmy said evenly. “Adams, you still on?”
“Yeah,” Adams replied right away, “What’s going on?”
“There’s a man in the transit bay – looks like an Outsider. He’s blocking the hatch from opening.” The man was hobbling towards a bin along the far wall of the bay. Jimmy was fairly certain he knew what was in the bin. “Can you drive this thing?” For a second Barb thought Jimmy was talking to her, but his eyes were focused solely on the man. He kept talking to Adams as he unbuckled.
“I can’t drive it from here,” Adams replied, “I could try to patch Lisa in, but she cut out a few minutes ago. I don’t know where she is… Could you stall? Could you buy us some time?”
Jimmy was already swinging himself out of the glider. Before Barb could say a word, he had shut the glass door behind him. “You’ll be safe in here,” were the words he mouthed to her before dropping out of view. Barb screamed. The shrunken man was stalking towards him with a rifle, or something that looked like a rifle. Jimmy’s hands were up. In the next second, Barb saw the rifle discharge – a big purple orb shot out the front and narrowly missed Jimmy as he dived to the side.
“Saggy?” Adams’ voice came over the comm.
“Uh, he’s busy,” was all Barb could manage. She saw Jimmy bend low and run charging towards the man, as the freakish weapon swung round to meet him.
“Hi. This is Chungrae.” The voice on the comm had changed.
“Okay, umm I’m Barb,” she stammered as she watched her Spacenaut merge into a tangled mess with the bad man.
“OK Barb, stay calm,” came the voice. “Adams is gone – he went to try and find Lisa so they can get you guys out of there.”
“OK?” Barb's voice pitched high like a firework at its zenith. “I mean, we need help, like now! There’s a psychopath out there with a gun that shoots purple things and Jimmy is with him and I think he’s gonna die, I mean –“
“Hey,” came Chungrae's voice. “Hey! Barb?”
“Remember what I said, OK? You gotta stay calm. As long as you stay in the glider, you’ll be safe. OK?”
“Okay,” she stammered.
“Stay calm. I’m gonna teach you how to work the glider.”
“Work the glider?” Barb felt her palms start to sweat. Even after all the running and crawling and everything they’d been through, her damn mini-skirt felt the most inconvenient now. Just the idea of hopping over the console to switch seats made her panic.
“Yeah. Saguto’s out there to buy us time, but as soon as he hits that panel, the roof of the bay’s gonna open and we gotta be ready to fly when that happens, even if Adams and Lisa aren’t plugged in. OK?”
“Wait, but what about Jimmy? I’m not gonna leave him – ”
“He’s fine, he’ll be fine. He’s trained, and he said the guy’s an Outsider, so there are codes we can’t break. Violence against others was abolished a long time ago –
“Yeah, okay but that ‘Outsider’ just tried to shoot him with a purple thing, and I’m telling you he looks like a really bad –"
“It’s OK – the purple orb gun is called a Fritz – it just freezes him in place. It’s like the technology used for Glide, but – ” Chung cut himself off – now was not the time to try explaining things to a Pure. “It basically doesn’t do any cognitive damage, so it’s fine.”
“Oh great – ”
“Look, we’re running out of time. The whole reason Jimmy went Inside in the first place was to save you, so that’s what we’re gonna do. I need you to jump into the driver's seat, grab the control stick and find the small toggle on the bottom of it…”
Barb gave one last panicked look at Jimmy – he had the man pinned against a wall but the man was fighting back, hard. They were near the panel. Before she knew what she was doing, Barb had her mini-skirt off and had hopped into the driver’s seat.
“Okay I found the toggle… do I press it?”
“No!” Chung paused to make sure she hadn’t done it. “Not yet. The toggle’s what forces more air out the bottom of the craft so it shoots you up. The stick helps you steer. Since you’re going straight up, you do NOT want to move the stick, okay? If you move the stick, you could kill them both. And yourself." She thought of the cuts on her wrist. "OK?”
“Okay,” she stammered.
“OK. Right now, you’re probably locked in hover. You need to release the lock right before you press the toggle.”
“It’s probably on your left. Looks kinda like, a… uh…” Chungrae paused as he struggled to think back to what the Pures might still drive. “A parking brake! Like, on a car?” He tried not to be too proud of himself. “You just have to pull it!”
At that moment a single deafening pulse through the air pierced Barb’s hearing. She looked at Jimmy – he was now the one pinned against the wall, but his right foot was firmly stamped into the panel. He had hit it. On one leg, he still fought the shrunken man – she couldn’t tell who was winning.
Barb had expected the roof to open with the loud sounds of a rattling garage door, but there it was: the roof was silently and perfectly open. She saw stars in the navy blue sky.
“It’s open, go!” came Chung’s command.
She caught Jimmy’s eyes as the shrunken man worked his hands up towards his neck. She saw in his eyes everything he wanted to say to her. She cried out as she pulled the hover lock up with her left hand and pressed the toggle with her right. The glider shot twenty feet straight up in the air.
“Ah!” she screamed in shock.
“Did you do it?” came Chung’s voice. “You gotta hold it down, Barb. Hold down the toggle!”
Barb realized how it worked now. If she held down the toggle, she would shoot up out of that transit bay, and maybe never see Jimmy again. She looked at him down there, fighting for her – the boy who came all the way across the Line to save her.
“I…” came her voice, soft and alien. “I can’t.” The pressure from her finger lightened.
At that moment the glider tickled forward, like it had suddenly become inhabited. A computerized woman’s voice emanated from the controls, “Remote activation initiated.” Before Barb could cry no, the glider shot up through the roof and into the black expanse.