Chapter 17: What Spires are Those?

"Keep your hand up— up at eye-level," Gan prompted again, urgently, as Rall's wrist wavered; the deactivators themselves weighed little enough, but the strain of keeping them high enough was more than any of them had bargained for. Gan had traded his own device gratefully enough with Blake after only a few minutes of fumbling one-handed through the sub-basement — these haphazard passages past blocks and between girders had never been meant for a man his size — but the young Newpie had been carrying the second deactivator without complaint since they'd plunged through the first hidden door, and Gan suspected Rall's arm was aching more than he was prepared to admit.

And he'd already had the long flight to cope with. For the two from the Liberator, the weary time spent strapped into their seats under conditions of almost total white-out had been a matter of endless tedium rather than physical fatigue, but for the pilot it had involved both skill and the constant buffeting of concentration. Rall had contributed little enough to the inevitable speculation along the way as to what they would find at their destination, and the few remarks that he'd supplied across the flyer's comm-system had been clipped with evident strain. It hadn't stopped Blake trying to put together some kind of plan, with or without their young ally's participation — but even with the information that Dar had been able to give them, it had been a fairly fruitless exercise, and Blake, Gan thought, had been as aware of that as anyone.

Under any other circumstances, the other man would have been quick to take Rall's place up front and allow him a brief respite, even for only ten minutes. But it had been clear to both Blake and Gan from the start that for anyone other than a skilled pilot to take over under these conditions was out of the question. The storm had swept the little craft onwards and upwards, sending a hail of particles rattling against the canopy from outside and a faint seeping haze within that was enough to ensure they all remained masked-up. Distance had reeled away underneath them, measureless to the naked eye, and all the while Rall had held them on a steady, constant course, his hands gripping white on the controls as if he could force the flyer to move faster by will-power alone. Gan had been able only to wait and to watch, conscious of Blake's coiled frustration at his side.

The Ghost clearly had access to some kind of flyer of his own — undercover, given the Federation's restrictions on private craft — and there had been talk of trying to locate where this was kept, especially as the storm began visibly to ease off around them; but the sheer scale of the Garnier Complex, glimpsed for the first time through shifting veils of sand, and the rocky terrain of the valley had made the total impossibility of that task all too apparent. Without a word, Rall had instead set them gently down amid an eddy of grains on a flat patch of ground between the nearest ribs of rock, easing the craft slowly forward to conceal it from casual view. There had been a long moment of silence, broken only by the sifting of dust against the hull in the dying ebb of the wind. Then Rall, moving deliberately, had unclipped the buckle of his seat harness and let his head fall forward across the yoke of the flyer in an unguarded gesture of exhaustion.

Gan, at least, would have given anything by that point just to be back on solid earth. Simply to release his harness and stretch to his full height as the noise of the engine finally died had been little short of bliss. He'd begun automatically to pull off the breath-mask as well, ready to stow it back under the seat where he'd found it, until Blake had motioned sharply to caution him to keep it.

It went against all the training he'd ever had: typical Alpha arrogance, to strip safety equipment from a vehicle for personal use, without a thought for the next crew, when they still had their own breathers from the Liberator suits. But Blake's instinct had been right. They'd had a hard scramble of it up the edge of the outcrops to the lightly-guarded side entrance mentioned in Dar's directions, but with the three of them in Federation-issue breath-masks and Rall in uniform, they'd had very little trouble gaining admission.

"Not bad — for two ex-penal-colony convicts and a wanted man." Blake, stripping off his mask and wiping his face in the anonymity of a public viewing lounge afterwards, had been split between relief and scorn. "If that's the finest the Federation can muster, then the whole system's more ripe for rebellion than I'd thought."

Rall had flushed, peeling the wrapper from a ration bar Gan had passed him. He bit into it, at first with reluctance and then ravenously.

"It's an entertainment complex"—his mouth was full and he had to swallow—"not a high-security vault. It's not as if we were trying to break into Residence-1 on Earth—"

"It's not as if Federation security is what we're really worried about, anyway," Gan had pointed out, glancing round. But the screen on the wall was showing a relentlessly upbeat vidcast on underwater agriculture on Outer Gal, and the rows of hard vinyl seating were empty save for themselves. He'd opened a ration bar of his own, savouring the flat, inoffensive texture with something like nostalgia for the certainties of the old days, back on Earth.

"The Federation won't bother us in here so long as we keep a low profile," Blake had agreed. "But we've been warned that the Ghost has tricks in store for uninvited visitors... and by all accounts, he's got a nasty sense of humour."

Living down here was more than enough to warp anybody's sense of humour, Gan told himself now, edging sidelong in Rall's wake towards a narrow crack between a vertical strut and the wall of a massive coolant tank. According to the stencilled codes he'd glimpsed on the latter, revealed in flashes of Blake's belt-light deployed cautiously up ahead, there was more than enough high-pressure coolant in there to flash-freeze them all in seconds, if the sweating steel gave way. Given the condition of other sections of the route, it was a less than comforting idea to find crossing your mind. And if the spectacle of a trio of ice-bound corpses happened to have crossed — and appealed to — the mind of the Ghost, this could easily be the site of one of those anti-intruder traps that Dar had referred to in such unappealing detail.

For a moment he thought he heard an ominous creak from the side of the tank, and the roof above seemed to close in on them. They could die here, in the bowels of the Garnier Complex, and their bones lie undiscovered for years... Despite the chill of the passage, Gan felt a cold sweat across his shoulders.

An instant later, as the sound came again, he knew it for what it was, and caught hold of Rall's arm, clamping his wrist. "Your hand — keep it up! The deactivator—"

There was an exclamation from Blake, in front. And then all three of them stood halted in the silent dark, almost unconsciously staring up at that tiny, subliminal buzz flashing out again and again in the override codes that were all that was keeping them alive.

He'd heard it before, Gan realised with an unpleasant jolt. How many times had the little transmitters gone off already before they'd noticed? How long since had they crossed without knowing it into pathways that the Ghost claimed for his own, with only blind obedience to Dar's orders standing between their ignorance and sudden hideous death?

Dar hadn't been able to tell them what traps to expect, or how many. He'd given them the deactivators — programmed to the code with which Erik had entrusted him — and the adamant warning to keep them at all times above the trip-beams.

"At the level of your eyes — or higher. Else you'll turn round at some point and find yourself with a broken neck, or half a leg missing, or burning to death in a mirror-field..."

"Or something lingering, with boiling oil in it," Blake had put in, obscurely; one of those Alpha-references that he and Avon would toss back and forth, Gan thought, but it hadn't been funny, and Blake had sobered quickly. "Sorry... We'll remember."

"See that you do." Dar's tone had been short. "Or we won't speak again... I've given you the key to Erik's domain. But once he knows you're there, it will be a duel of wits; and that sort of duel, my friend, doesn't permit of mistakes."

The remembered words took on a new emphasis down here in the crushing dark, and Gan shivered, feeling the tremor in Rall's wrist echo his own.

They'd had little enough problem in gaining access to the sub-basement in the first place: everyone else the three of them had met in the grey, carpet-lined passages of the upper levels had been heading upwards to some big livecast event that was scheduled to start, whether as staff, as technical assistance, or just as would-be hangers-on. The concealed entrance had been just where Dar's directions said it would be, masked behind a pierced screen in a maintenance tunnel below the main newsroom, and Blake had kept watch while first Gan and then Rall slipped through, deactivators powered and at the ready, and held — even then — scrupulously high.

Beyond that... had been a bewildering maze of random spaces within the buttressing levels below. Vertical supports like rocket-gantries, wedged in places so close together that Gan had had to turn back from first one, then another blind alley because he could not pass his shoulders in between; a damp, gritty passage along the top of some great structural beam, with unknown black depths spilling away on either side, and another with crude radiation shielding hammered in place across one wall against the working hum of some plant beyond, where every step stirred an imagined tingle of ionised air at the nape of his neck.

Throughout it all — even in the minutes while he and Blake had traded places, fumbling the deactivator across from one raised hand to the other as if relaying some symbol of office — they'd kept those same transmitters adamantly held aloft, projecting the master codes within a shielding downward cone. If any trip beams had glanced invisibly across their path, then those false assurances had sent them back into suspended animation, guarding against the next unwarranted intruder.

Gan's skin crawled now to think how close they might already have come to death without even knowing it. And the boy's arm was shaking within his grasp, not in that momentary cold shudder but with dragging strain... He slid his own hand up, enclosing Rall's tight-clenched fist, and wrapped his fingers round the smooth casing of the deactivator unit, prising free that rigid grip. "Here. Let me take another turn at that — my eye-level's higher than yours—"

Making a rough joke of it, to save the younger man's pride; he got a brief chuckle out of Blake at least. Rall yielded up the task with a little sob of breath that might have been relief, and a lack of protest that — even on their brief acquaintance so far — spoke volumes, and Blake led off again, slipping cautiously through the narrow place up ahead and pausing on the far side for the others to catch up. Gan squeezed through with gritted teeth and took a moment to catch his breath. The transmitter in his hand was no longer pulsing.

"Well, now we know," Blake said, wiping sweat and dust from his forehead in an unconscious gesture. His gaze had followed Gan's, back to that deathtrap passage beyond the crack. "The next question is how long it will take the Ghost to work out that this isn't Dar Ogar dropping in for a friendly call... and just what he's likely to do about it."

"He knows," Rall said, his voice rising. "I've seen three cameras already — oh, he knows. And he's got Cris—"

A distant rumbling crash from somewhere behind them cut him short. The silence that followed was broken by shouts, and gunfire.

"That settles it," Blake said grimly as the echoes died. "Rall's right; we need to move, and move fast. The Federation know we're here."

The troopers on their trail must have walked straight into the first trap, Gan realised, following as fast as he dared in the others' wake. But once they'd realised the futility of trying to clear debris with hand weapons, it wouldn't take them long to bring in reinforcements, and heavy equipment. The Ghost's defences could hold off interlopers in twos and threes; traps and concealment wouldn't be proof against a full-scale assault. Unless the presiding genius of the Operation had some plan up his sleeve, the most closely guarded secret on Newparis was going to be blown wide open — whether the Federation suspected it or not.

Blake had come down to this planet in the hopes of getting the Ghost's advice, back in what seemed already a distant past. It was beginning to look as if all they would achieve was the final destruction of that brilliant mind at the hands of their common enemy... Shaken by that momentary sense of besieged identity with a man who — minutes earlier — had been trying to kill him, Gan found himself envying Rall his passionate young certainty. Just whose side right now, he wondered, were they effectively on?

But the others were getting dangerously far ahead; Dar had been equally adamant against getting split up. Gan called out, saw the flash of Rall's pale face look back, and increased his pace.

~o~

He never knew, in the confusion that followed, whether it was he or Blake who had lowered his guard — whether it was that past instant of unwanted empathy, or his own clumsy haste, or even some accident of the creaking walls that brought down disaster. All he knew was Rall's cry of warning and Blake turning, too late, to fling himself to one side as the girder sagged and fell relentlessly... slowly, too slowly for any kind of trap — or was that only his racing perception, as time seemed to halt for a moment, outstretched just beyond his reach—?

And then his own desperate leap connected, every ounce of his weight and power launched forward to deflect the menace aside, and the jolt of it almost wrenched his shoulder apart. Rust showered, blinding him, and something creaked in the roof above. Hands dragged at his body, hauling dead weight...

Blake sat up somewhere beside him, coughing hard. Gan's own breath seemed to be trapped somewhere high in his ribs; he rolled over, gasped, and found himself half-smothered in choking dust. Rall's Newparis training had him masked already, pulling up the breather from around his neck, and Gan followed suit. Filtered air had never tasted so good.

Ahead of them a great span of crumpled metal was wedged across the passageway, barely a hand's-breadth from Blake's ashen face. And above it, where the wall had cracked away, rough boulder-like hunks of rubble formed a barrier over which a fine grit was still sifting down. There was no way on.

Gan glanced back, instinctively, remembering the Federation on their heels. He could hear no sound of pursuit for the moment, but he doubted that would last for long. Specks whirled in the air around them as he shone his belt-light first up, then down, where a dark crack showed beneath the creaking girder.

"We're trapped." Blake had pulled on his own mask, breathing thickly, and his voice came over the comm circuit. "Unless—"

He tried his teleport bracelet again, and Gan did the same without much hope. Even if the ship had by some miracle been there, their signals clearly weren't getting through.

"We've got to go on." Rall had looked from one to the other without comprehension as the two of them fumbled at studded bands beneath their sleeves. His voice rose again. "One more level and we should drop down straight into the Ghost's hideaway — we've got to get through somehow before it's too late! He knows we're coming, he could be doing anything down there—"

He kept the girl's name from his lips with an obvious effort, but the anguish in his eyes spoke it all too clearly.

"We'll have to go back... find another way round..." Gan stooped to pick up Dar's map plaque from where Blake had dropped it — this place was a maze, but they could at least dodge round the Federation; he didn't know what odds they had of finding another route down through Erik's guarded defences — and stepped back hastily as Rall flung himself full-length on the floor with one of the deactivators in his hand. "Here, look out! What are you—"

"Don't be a fool, man— you can't—" Blake caught hold of the young pilot's arm in the same instant, before he could jack-knife himself down into that unknown black space beneath the barrier.

Rall twisted away and freed himself with a jerk, slim body already half-engulfed in the gap. Blue eyes blazed up above the curved Federation mask. "You can't, Roj Blake — but I can!"

Blake began to argue; cut himself off with an almost visible effort.

"All right. I'm not your commanding officer: I can't order you to take the risk... and I can't stop you trying." He was feeling quickly through the surface kit in the pockets of his parka. "But at least take a line in with you so that there's some chance of rescue if it's blocked further in... or if it shifts."

He'd found the reel of tensile cord at last, and held it out towards Rall. The boy, who'd been on the point of working his shoulders through the narrow space remaining, gave him a wary look. After a long moment, he wriggled back out and sat up, taking the end of the cord from Blake and tying it in a series of loops around body and shoulders to spread the strain.

A minute later, he had slipped once more feet-first into that crack and had disappeared entirely, with no more than a wordless nod of farewell before the fair head had ducked down resolutely upon his breast and vanished in its turn into the dark, leaving only a pair of lingering twisting arms to struggle slowly from view. It was uncomfortably akin to the progress of a conveyor into the jaws of the recycling plant, and only the laboured jerking of the reel in Blake's hands could give that image the lie.

Gan could hear the rapid gasps of the young man's breathing over the comm circuit, and once a stifled exclamation as something shifted and the girder jerked downwards with a groan. Blake's grip tightened convulsively on the cord, taking up the slack, and the light weight on the far end yielded to the pull; but Rall cried out sharply in protest or alarm, and Gan caught hold of Blake's arm, afraid they might make matters worse. There was an endless instant of settling metal and frozen waiting.

Then the line stirred cautiously once more into life, and Gan loosened his unthinking clutch with a mutter of apology.

"I think I'm through — but the end's blocked," Rall's voice said at last in Gan's ear. "Don't do anything... I'm going to try—"

Rubble slid with a rattle, and the inward hiss of breath might have come from any of them. Gan himself could not have said for sure.

"I'm out!" This time there was no mistaking the note of jubilation. "The air's clear, and the fall's not so bad on this side — if you could move a few of those really big chunks, you might be able to get the whole lot down."

He took a breath. The line went slack abruptly in Blake's hands. "I've studied the map... I'm going on. If we don't meet again — thank you. To both of you. And if you get the chance, do what you can... for Cris."

And the transmission broke off to silence with a flat finality that meant he had switched off, lowered his mask, and cut himself out of the circuit.

Gan had flung himself down on his front in his turn to try to catch some glimpse of Rall through the gap; but he could see nothing at all, not even the flicker of a receding belt-light. Only the snaking empty end of the cord, as Blake wound it in hand over fist.

"The fool." Blake sounded almost helpless, staring down at it. "The reckless young idiot — if it were Avon, I'd know what to think, but—"

"Avon would never have taken that risk," Gan said stolidly; and maybe that was doing the cold-blooded tech an injustice, but anything was better than that look of bitter responsibility above Blake's mask. He rolled over onto one elbow, looking up. "And if Jenna had gone"—he managed a grin in his voice—"she'd have made sure she went off with the map."

Blake's gaze met his own, but the bleak look had, mercifully, softened into the rueful ghost of a smile. The corners of his eyes creased.

"She would, wouldn't she?" He took the map plaque from Gan as the bigger man scrambled to his feet, studying it with a sigh. "Chivalrous young idiot..."

But it was said under his breath as he stowed the reel of line back into his pocket.

Somewhere up above, much closer now, there came the roar of explosives and the echo of shouted orders. Gan's fists clenched instinctively down by his sides. They had to get out of this dead end — and there was no way through that nightmare crack for a man his size, or for Blake either. He turned. "Blake, do you—"

"I'll need your strength," Blake interrupted sharply. "Come on!"

He'd laid hands on one of the upper wall fragments almost beyond his reach, and was pulling at it fiercely, dislodging a further shower of grit across the rest. Confused, Gan reached over him, wrenching at rubble with all the practised weight of his shoulders. The shifting pile threatened to engulf him to his knees, but a faint breeze stirred the clouds of dust. It was coming from beyond the tunnel roof. "What are we—"

Blake was already tugging at the next chunk, urging stones to topple. "We're going after him, of course!"