I’m no climber, Colonel. As I followed Arthur Cane down that rope and into the sleek-sided gorge, I could only be thankful that transport piloting requires a certain amount of mechanical knowledge. And a certain amount of parts-hauling.
I’m stronger than what I look, is what I’m saying.
Still, I’d barely dropped down from the ledge before my arms were aching, annoyed with the sudden demand that they support my body weight. Couldn’t blame them, really.
“I don’t see how this is safer than the ladder,” I said, hoping that David was faring better than I was. Not least because he was descending above me, and getting knocked to my death by a musician would be a terrible way to go.
Though I probably should have been more worried about Ford.
“It’s secure,” Cane responded. “And in a second…”
He trailed off, leaving me to hope that in a second a bunch of eagles would rise from the abyss to carry me away.
That’s a reference to an old story, Colonel.
It wasn’t eagles, but it was close enough. I could make out Cane’s silhouette below me, his arm grasping at the wall. You could not have paid me to hold on to the rope with one hand, but he was nimble as an acrobat. Might as well have bought a ticket to the circus.
The rope shuddered, and I almost yelled at him to stop flailing around. But then something gave a loud clunk! and before I could yell at him for that instead, a staircase rolled straight out of the wall, nudging the rope aside.
A full-on staircase. Tucked into the wall. It was dark, but it wasn’t that dark; you’d have thought we would have felt cracks or mechanisms. Something.
I had to let myself down a few more knots to reach it, but still. A staircase. In the wall.
“I thought you said it was a long way down,” I said.
Cane brushed the back of his hand across his mouth, then pointed down the stairs. “It is.”
“How did you know that was there?” I asked, as David and Ford eased onto the steps behind me.
“Found one on the other side.”
I narrowed my eyes at him, though the expression was wasted in the darkness. Not sure he’d respond to it, anyway. “You just found it. A random button placed halfway down the wall that magically provided a route into the cavern.”
He tugged a water bottle out of his pack, guzzled a long drink, then slid the bottle back in its place. “Yup.”
I expected him to elaborate further, but he didn’t. More fool me. He hitched his pack up and started down the steps, leaving the rope dangling over the side. Just in case, I guess.
I’ve never much wondered about the truth of Arthur Cane, or where he came from. He helped the Alliance; that was enough for me. What did I care that he’d betrayed the Hub? They’re the bad guys. Enough said.
Now, I’m starting to wonder.
Cane kept one hand on the wall as he made his way down the steps, so I followed suit. The cavern ledges closed in above us, and it got darker. Thus far, the station’s been pretty kind about keeping things lit, if dimly. Guess it doesn’t really want anyone down here.
Cane, of course, turned on a flashlight. Because of course he did.
We got down a few steps in silence before a sound echoed up out of the cavern. It was a sound I’d cringed through before, in triage units and the odd battlefield I found myself skirting across—a stomach-curdling, heart-rending cry of pain.
Bertram. The kid was alive.
I heard David let out a breath behind me, Ford a curse, and I think we’d have started running if we hadn’t been forced to pace ourselves to Cane’s deliberate steps. He didn’t hurry, and it didn’t matter that my brain knew he was right not to, that a single misstep in the dark would mean broken bones for us—and maybe the end of Bertram.
But Bertram’s cries continued, agonizing in the darkness, and my brain was running a mad panic by the time the magic staircase deposited us on the floor of the cavern. The minute Ford stepped off the steps, they rolled right back into the side of the cavern with a loud, rusty creak.
I don’t believe in ghosts. I don’t.
I don’t know how Bertram could have survived that fall. Cane went straight for him—if anyone had a full surgical unit packed into his back pocket, it’d be him—but he was already shaking his head as he crouched down. Bertie’d gone quiet again, and I figured that wasn’t a good sign.
“We lucky enough to get stranded with a doctor?” Cane asked. “I can splint the broken bones, but there’ll be internal bleeding.”
I opened my mouth to say no, but Ford jumped in before I could speak. “Sandy’s an orthopedic surgeon. They were heading out to a post at the new hospital in Second City when the attack happened.”
I raised my eyebrows, surprised that Ford actually knew that much about someone who wasn’t in his entourage. Unless Sandy was in his entourage and I just hadn’t noticed. It’s possible that I hadn’t been doing the best noticing.
“I can go get them,” I said.
“Not alone.” Ford was frowning at me, and I genuinely couldn’t tell if it was because he was worried for my safety or worried I might try to pull one over on them. True, I wasn’t loving the proximity to Bertram’s pained groaning, but I served in the Alliance. I’m no stranger to injury.
Cane got to his feet. “I don’t know how to activate the stairs from down here.”
As if in answer—no, I’ll go out on a limb here, Colonel; it was absolutely in answer to his statement—a second staircase rolled out of the wall. Only this one came out on the opposite side. It didn’t lead back to our little camp, but up to the corrugated door we’d noticed across the chasm.
“I don’t believe in ghosts,” I muttered.
I had a feeling it wouldn’t be the last time I said it, either.