I follow in silence, no longer sure I wish to walk by his side.
All this feels wrong. This man is a stranger. An imposter, not the Holy One I took him for. Most bizarre of all, he claims the Abba Fathers are above ground, hunting for us. Like we are criminals. Like I am a criminal. Me, Thall of the Desert Sisterhood, a criminal.
My head hurts. It tells me I should not be following him in the dark, that I should stop and grope my way back to the hatch, even if I risk getting lost down here without light. The Abbas will understand that I am not like him, that he practically forced me to go with him. That I am innocent.
Except that I am not innocent.
I followed my ‘angel’ willingly from the burning star, and put up only the mildest of protests when he told me to open the hatch. Fiver didn’t force me to become like him, a fugitive in these dark, glittering rooms hidden deep beneath the desert. Like the whole of my life, this is a path that I have chosen, albeit a new path …
And now I must continue or fail the test of my own integrity.
If a Sister has no integrity, the Abbas have a saying, then she has nothing. Poverty, chastity, integrity, those are the three qualities a Sister must embrace as she enters a life of service. And the greatest of the three is chastity. A Sister chooses to be chaste as the dawn, the Abbas say, for only then may the glorious light of the Maker shine in her.
What did my stranger say before?
One of the Desert Sisterhood, those who are singled out to follow the Way of Solitude …
I frown, turning over the words in my mind, and the truth strikes me with the force of a blow.
I did not choose to become a Desert Sister.
The Way was chosen for me.
But this man, this stranger clad in gold like a holy angel from the scriptures …
Him, I chose.
I trekked across the desert at night for him, risked wolves for him, risked the punishment of my masters for entering the Forbidden Region, risked possible death and exile – and I knew it. I did not walk out blindly into the dark, but went with my senses newly alert, my whole body on fire with excitement, as though I had heard his call and responded instinctively.
Fiver stops too, and turns his light beam back in my direction, seeking out my face. ‘Thall? What is it?’
He studies me, unsure. ‘Shall we go on, then?’
I am tense though, full of energy. Like a desert thunderstorm about to happen, that vivid shining before the first cloud breaks.
‘Good. We must be nearly at the elevator.’
‘If it works, yes.’ He waits for me to catch up, then we walk on, shoulder to shoulder this time. His light beam sweeps the space ahead. The floor seems dirtier here, cluttered with fallen tiles and shadowy, long-abandoned objects, the dust of many years silted up against the walls. ‘It depends on whether all the solar access points are covered in sand now. But I doubt that. Most solar plants in desert regions install at least one high receiver, to guard against storms and the like.’
I say nothing, for I have no idea what he means.
He glances at me. ‘Sorry. I keep forgetting this world is low tech.’
‘Your words have no meaning for me.’
‘Beyond this place,’ he says slowly, seeming to pick his words carefully, ‘up in the heavens – ’
‘Where you come from?’
‘Yes, where I come from.’ He shoots me a brief smile. ‘Up there, beyond the skies you know, beyond your moon, there are other places. Other worlds, I mean.’
I feel numb. ‘Other worlds?’
‘Other worlds, other peoples. Only nothing like Dar-Kol.’ He pauses, watching me almost anxiously. We have stopped walking again. ‘Places where people do not worship the Maker. Or wear robes and live in the desert all their damn lives. Places where people like you and me have air-conditioning, and take long baths, and eat spicy kooraka with riceballs, and live in cities with other people.’
‘Vast dwelling areas where millions of people live together.’
I cannot seem to catch my breath. ‘Millions?’
‘You know this number?’
‘Millions are the grains of sands in the Maker’s world, just as the number of souls in His hand,’ I whisper, quoting from scripture.
‘Of course, it’s not all like that.’ He grimaces, and I catch true pain in his face. A grief-memory, deep as a desert well. ‘Not since I was a kid, anyway. Many of the biggest cities are gone now. And the people who lived in them are dead.’
‘Yeah, so am I.’
I put a hand on his golden arm. His sleeve is smooth under my fingers, his muscles and bone hard beneath. ‘You lost your mother in one of those … cities.’
Fiver does not move. But his eyes flicker. ‘Yes,’ he agrees. ‘How did you know that?’
‘I felt it.’
He stares at me silently.
‘I shall pray for her soul,’ I tell him.
His mouth jerks, an almost ugly thing. ‘Told you, I don’t do ‘ship. Anyway, we’re here.’
I look down at the ground, confused.
‘No.’ He shines the light beam high on the silvery-grey wall. ‘Here.’
There’s another dusty plaque on the wall. Again with the unknown lettering. And below it, two black doors without any handle, apparently sealed against us.
‘At the elevator. Okay, we need to go down two levels to MedTech. See?’ Then he laughs, without any humour. ‘No, of course you don’t. You can’t read it. I might as well be talking to myself.’
I say nothing, watching him.
From somewhere behind us, there is a deep, dull clank. The sound is ominous. It echoes along the corridors, bouncing off the walls with terrible meaning.
We turn and stare into the dark.
‘The hatch,’ he says softly, close to my ear. ‘They’ve found it. And us too, if we don’t leave this level right now. They’ll have instruments with them. Heat sensors, maybe. Perhaps an underground drone.’
If Fiver is to be believed, my masters are here.
The thought fills me with fear, which shocks me. I have never feared my masters. Never. The Abbas are my guides, my mentors. They illuminate the Path for me. How can I fear them?
And yet I do.
‘Okay, come on.’ He turns to the black doors, and waves his hand across the wall. Nothing happens. He mutters something incomprehensible under his breath, then rubs the wall with his sleeve. Afterwards he shines the torch on his arm, revealing a rough, dirty patch just below his elbow. ‘Oh, perfect.’
‘Wait, I hear something else,’ I whisper, looking back along the corridor.
‘I don’t know.’ My ears, used to the long silences of a desert night, have picked some kind of anomaly out of the nothingness. An odd, shuffling noise a long way off. ‘Just … something.’
‘Something. Well, that’s useful.’ He lowers the light beam towards the floor, so it is less likely to be seen from a distance. ‘You know, I really hate it when people are not specific about impending threats.’
‘Forgive me, I don’t understand.’
‘Forget it.’ Again, Fiver waves a hand slowly back and forth across the wall, like signalling someone a long way off in the desert. His voice is rough with impatience. ‘Work, damn you.’
To my astonishment, a yellow light glows on the wall.
‘Yes,’ he hisses.
The doors slide open to reveal a tiny, brightly lit room walled with what appears to be highly reflective metal.
‘Right, this is us,’ he says hoarsely, and shoves me hard in the back, pushing me inside the shiny room.
I barely have time to blink, covering my eyes against the light, when he jumps in after me and the doors slide shut again.
He peers at another dusty wall panel. ‘Judging by this schematic, our level is Minus Four. So Level Minus Six should be right for MedTech.’
He waves a hand across the bottom section of the panel.
The room jerks, knocking us into each other.
‘Steady,’ he says, grabbing at me.
Through the rough material of my robe, I feel the molten head of the retread bang against my thigh, and recoil instinctively.
That vile thing!
Then I forget the retread. My stomach drops as the wall lights flicker violently and the floor seems to plummet suddenly hundreds of feet, taking us with it.
Fiver half-grins at my expression, his smut-covered face lit up by the flickering lights, teeth showing, almost wolflike so close up.
‘Let’s hope these old elevators were rated Alpha for sound efficiency,’ he says. ‘Otherwise we just gave away our position to the enemy.’