Authors: Jane Higgins
We were back at HQ where Jeitan had taken us the day before. The big dining hall echoed with chatter and the scrape of chairs, its windows steamed up by a bitter brew of coffee. So, phase one of our plan – get back to HQ – turned out to be surprisingly easy. Phase two – actually finding useful intel – was quite likely impossible. I looked at my porridge and wondered what Sol was eating.
Sol was eating. That kid was skinny. I hoped they thought him prize enough to feed him.
At the back of the room, Commander Vega stood up and rapped on a table and everyone shut up. He waited for absolute hush, then said, ‘Thank you. As you heard at the Crossing last night, our first foray has gone to plan.’ He held up a hand to quiet the cheering. ‘It’s a beginning only. We hold strategic posts that we will use to bring the city to the negotiating table. However. The mutiny of their armed forces that has given us this chance poses problems for us. It will take time to organize talks with a credible city command. In the meantime, our plan must be to hold the posts we have taken. Do not assume this will be easy. City forces are fragmented but they still have more weapons, more ammunition, more fuel, and more vehicles than we do. At present, they appear to lack an organized command structure. That will not last. Overconfidence is an enemy – watch for it. Your
squad leaders have your orders.’
I was looking at Fyffe to see how much of that she had understood when the chair opposite me banged down. Coly, the knife-boy, leaned across the table and stared at me like he couldn’t quite place me. I could just about see the cogs ticking round in his head. I waited, thought about trying to distract him with a hot coffee in the face, decided that wasn’t such a good idea and waited some more. Eventually the little cogs in his brain clicked and his mouth opened. ‘You’re in deep shit.’
Yeah, surprise me. ‘You were in a knife fight with a girl,’ I said.
‘She started it.’
‘You stay away from her.’
I got up to move away but he was round the table and in my face before I’d taken a step. ‘D’you get it? Stay. Away.’ He was a head shorter than me, but a whole lot more solid. Something was burning inside him that I wasn’t keen to stir up. I turned away but he grabbed my arm and sent my tray crashing to the ground.
About a hundred and fifty heads turned in our direction. Just what I needed. Jeitan came storming over. ‘You are asking to be sent back to Gilgate. What’s going on?’
Coly looked smug. ‘I’m reporting a transgression.’
Jeitan’s eyebrows shot up. He glanced over to where Vega was talking – arguing, in fact, if you looked
closely – with the man who’d stood on the other side of the old guy who’d given the speech the night before. ‘Report to me,’ said Jeitan. ‘I’ll decide if it goes further.’
Smug turned to sullen, but Coly pressed on. ‘Him and a Maker. I saw them. Together. I saw him touch her. Last night.’
‘ That was me, so appalled my voice cracked.
‘You saw what, exactly?’ said Jeitan.
‘I’m not saying here,’ said Coly. ‘I’ll say in a hearing.’
Jeitan swore. ‘You want to call a Pathmaker to a hearing?’
A sharp nod from Coly.
‘You’d better be sure about this.’
‘This is mad!’ I said.
They ignored me. ‘He touched her. She’s unclean,’ said Coly. ‘She danced unclean at the Crossing.’ That fire of his was burning bright and ugly. Breakfast turned sour in my stomach.
Jeitan chewed his lip and looked at me with even more loathing than before. ‘I’ll talk to Commander Vega. You,’ to me. ‘Clean this up – and hurry. There’s work to do.’
Fyffe had gone pale and was staring at us, but there was no chance to explain. A girl had arrived at Jeitan’s elbow and was waiting for him to finish. When he turned to her she asked could she take the Gilgate girl, and he sent them both off with a dismissive wave of his hand.
Fyffe and I were on our own, two Citysiders among a horde of Breken. A slip from either of us would send us both crashing and burning. We were going to try and meet at the next meal, but weren’t even sure if we’d have mealtimes in common. Fyffe had this crazy confidence that we’d be ‘looked after.’ It scared the shit out of me.
CommSec was Communications Security –
anything from ordering supplies that kept the squads in boots and bread to high-security memos winging their way between bridges, not that I was supposed to see any of those.
The ogre/expert at the center of all this was Sub-commander Tasia Levkova: from a distance, a sweet old granny with a limp and a walking stick; up close, sharp and hard as knives and nails together.
‘Jeitan.’ She tossed a document onto her desk as we came in. ‘Good, I wanted to see you. I want a word.’ She eyed me. ‘Who’s this?’
‘Commander Vega found him.’ Jeitan pointed me towards the far end of the room. ‘Go sit.’
While he gave Levkova the info, such as it was, on me, I wandered around. We were upstairs, in a high-ceilinged room with tall, dusty windows that rattled in
the wind. From that vantage point I could see down to the river. The shantytown, with its jigsaw of iron roofing lapped the hill where this old school was perched and ran west, up the river towards Curswall district. Further upriver, and away south down the other side of this hill, lay the remains of the original Southside. My guess: the shantytown marked a kind of blast radius – our army had flattened everything near the bridge, and maybe done it more than once. But people had come back, as people do, and now their washing flapped on lines strung between their shacks, and smoke from their cooking fires settled in a dirty haze above them.
Sol was out there somewhere, in a shack, or an attic or a basement. And here were we, in the middle of the enemy camp, Fyffe madly confident and me not at all. I wondered if they’d got fed up with him because he couldn’t understand Breken. Thinking what they might do scared me sick. They didn’t need much to keep him quiet – a number puzzle, a bowl of noodles, a book about animals from the old wild places or with pictures of star fields and planets from the space telescopes. Not much. A friendly face. A familiar face.
Behind me a strip light hung low over a couple of trestle tables spread with piles of paper. Against one wall were four of the oldest computers I’d ever seen. I tapped the keyboard of one of them and the monitor lit up. Something pinged the back of my head. I spun round – Grandma
Levkova was giving me the full flinty-eyed treatment and aiming another pen at me. ‘
Don’t. Touch. Anything!
I stuck my hands in my pockets and wandered on, but my heart was beating fast. Would traffickers send progress reports to HQ? If trafficking was part of the overall Breken strategy, they just might. Maybe I’d come to the right place after all. Maybe it was all here at my fingertips – who the traffickers were, where they kept their captives, timetables for transporting them south, all that. I just had to get at it before Sol was gone beyond reach, and before Fyffe threw herself on the greed of the enemy.
Levkova crooked a finger at me. ‘You. What’s your name?’
She raised an eyebrow, and Jeitan said, ‘That’s all I got out of him too.’
‘Well, Nik,’ she went behind her desk and opened a door to a cupboard-sized, windowless room. I could see a small table in there, an old-style light bulb swinging from the ceiling and stacks of paper on the table and the floor. ‘We’ve got quite a backlog, as you can see, and you’re going to look at all of it. Understood?’
My heart sank. I needed to be on the computers, not stuck in a cupboard processing old files.
‘Starting now,’ she said. ‘Leave him with me.’ When Jeitan looked doubtful she said, ‘I know. It’s risky. First
sign of trouble, he’s out. But it’s also urgent. We make do with what we’ve got. Check in this afternoon and I’ll give you a report for Sim.’ She glanced at me. ‘For Commander Vega, I should say.’ Jeitan nodded. ‘And don’t look so aggrieved, lad,’ she said to him. ‘Your time will come. Anyone can charge off over the river to fight. Sim needs a deputy here who’s loyal and level-headed. That’s you. Be honored.’
He looked like he didn’t want to be honored, he wanted to be fighting, but he said, ‘Yes, ma’am,’ gave his text-book salute and left.
‘Now.’ Levkova shooed me into the cramped little space behind her desk; it smelled of mice and mold. She stood over me with her beetle-bright eyes and said, ‘How’s your memory?’
Pretty damn near perfect is how my memory is, but I wasn’t telling her that. She said, ‘I’m not going to write down a list of instructions. Let’s try you remembering some and we’ll see how we go.’
She rattled off a bunch of letter and word combinations and showed me some places in documents where they appeared. ‘Find those. Mark them. Bring them to me. That’s all.’
I leafed through a pile of documents and found lines and lines of gibberish. Intercepted comms from our side of the river – that was my guess. My job was sifting, searching, marking. Levkova’s job with what I found
was much more fun. Code-breaking.
I looked up to see her hesitating in the doorway.
‘Is there more?’ I asked, hoping she was about to let me use the computers.
‘One thing more. You will not talk about what you’re doing here to anyone beyond myself and Jeitan. And Commander Vega, of course.’ She gave me a tight smile that struggled onto her face from places unknown and looked like it was anxious to struggle away again. ‘Should you be tempted, just remember Jeitan can find you, and your young lady, much more unpleasant work to do than this. Is that clear?’
I nodded and made an effort to look at her and not past her to the room beyond. None of this paper was getting me near to finding Sol. I needed to get at those computers.
By the time I went downstairs
that night to eat, I had a measly nothing to report to Fyffe except the tantalizing possibility that the computers at CommSec might store the information we needed. ‘Well, you’ve done better than me,’ she said. ‘The infirmary’s got two wards with about twenty people crammed into each one, but there aren’t enough beds. Some people must have come from the fighting; they’ve got gunshot wounds and burns. There’s a clinic for everyone else, whether it’s fever or broken bones. And there’s a medicine room, but most of the shelves are empty. They’ve put me on cleaning. I wish I understood more Breken; my eavesdropping is hopeless.’
We were walking in the grounds away from prying ears, looking for somewhere to shelter out of the rain. We found an empty doorway and watched the gray evening creep across the compound: lights came on,
people hurried about, doors were slammed and curtains pulled shut as the rain got heavier. Dismal. It had rained all afternoon – long enough for us to discover that all the roofs leaked and so did our boots, that the bricks of peat they used for fires were contaminated with other stuff and wouldn’t burn hot or for long, and that although we’d wrapped up in everything we had, it wasn’t enough. We were cold.
Fyffe said, ‘It’s Sunday, isn’t it? It seems like forever since last Sunday. D’you remember last Sunday?’
‘A woman came into the infirmary this afternoon with a little kid with a broken wrist and the doctor was so careful and gentle about setting it and I thought, how could you do that? How could you take such care with this child here and plant a bomb in a school over there!’ She sniffed and wiped her arm across her face but the tears kept coming. ‘I wish … I wish that Lou …’
I put an arm around her and she buried her face in my shoulder and cried, and I had no words to help. Fy was always the one with the comforting words.
She was quiet after a while, then stood back and dabbed at my shoulder. ‘Sorry.’
‘Don’t be. I want him back too. He’d have talked his way into this place and out of it again with all the intel he needed and people falling over themselves to help him out.’
‘Except he didn’t have Breken, the way you do.’
‘No, I guess not.’
‘You don’t like that, do you?’ I shrugged and she said, ‘I’m not about to accuse you of being in league with the enemy, you know.’
‘I know it’s stupid, but I can’t help thinking how Jono would spin all kinds of conspiracy theories out of it.’
She almost smiled. ‘Yeah. But he’s away over the bridge. I hope they’re safe. I wonder what they think we’re doing.’ She took a deep breath. ‘What are we doing? Do we stay here or go down into the township?’
‘Stay, I think. Let me see if I can get on the computers in CommSec.’
‘There’s always my plan.’
‘Your plan? Oh, you mean your turn-yourself-in-and-get-us-both-shot plan? Can you just hold off on that for a day or two? Give me a chance to break into the computers. Tomorrow. I’ll do it tomorrow.’
Problem was CommSec was never empty. Levkova seemed to live there. Jeitan came and went, keeping half an eye on me and thinking I was slow as a skiddy on ‘shine. Which I was – because why should I help the hostiles break into our comms? I didn’t want to finish working on them before I’d had a chance at the computers.
In the room beyond my cupboard, Levkova ran the place with steely precision. The old computers and their
printers whirred and clicked and taunted me from a distance. People came, sorted stuff and were dispatched. If there were crises they were also sorted, I guess, though Levkova never raised her voice and I think no one else dared to.
Monday, there was a power cut. Levkova had warned me. ‘Monday to Thursday this week, power will be down from fourteen hundred to seventeen hundred hours.’ The place emptied but that was no use to me because the computers were dead for the duration. I stayed in my cupboard and sat on the floor in the dark; Levkova thought I was asleep and left me to it. For three hours I ran the texts I’d been working on across my mind’s eye, looking at them again and again. I was looking for a key that would let me in. I played with algorithms, with old-style encryption devices, and with anything I could manage without a computer. I knew I was probably dreaming – city forces were unlikely to use anything so simple. But Levkova didn’t seem to be using a computer, and I wondered if the city was in such chaos that its army had resorted to primitive forms of communication. I hoped so. I wanted to crack these codes in case someone somewhere was saying something about Sol. Surely by now the army would be looking for him? I guessed and guessed again. At one stage I thought I’d found some words that tallied with bridge names, but they led me nowhere. You need luck when you don’t have anything solid to work with, and I
had no luck at all that afternoon.