Friday, March 24, 2006
the child, part 3, chapter 23 - 'up and out'
Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, completely exposed in this empty corridor. And with the door opening, they were about to be caught! Starr nudged the prisoner behind her and drew her sword as quietly as she could. And prayed. Oh, she prayed!
'What the' curse 'do you think you're doing?' came a thunderous voice from beyond the door. 'Sneaking off from the job?'
The door shuddered and arrested, open only a few inches.
'I ain't sneaking!' came a second voice. 'Thought we was supposed to be searching all the levels.'
'Idiot. Don't you never listen? The major says we're gonna start at the bottom and work up. Flush 'em out, see?'
The door remained rebelliously partly open. 'Huh. Be smarter, seems like, to start at the top and flush 'em down to the bottom.'
'Yeah, well... you ain't no major!'
'And anyway,' the second voice went on, 'there was squads being dropped off on some of them other levels up there as we was passing. Why not here?'
'Cause them was the levels the spy ratted out that his friends was on, moron. Ain't supposed to be no one here.'
'Hmph. Well, if I was the major, we'd search it anyway!'
'If you was the major, I'd be a rat's...' A loud voice interrupted then, bellowing out something that sounded like, 'Slackers!'
The first voice cursed heartily. 'See? Now you done got me in trouble to boot!' There followed a sound that might have been a scuffle. In the midst of it, the door suddenly slammed shut. And there was silence.
Starr and the prisoner stood for a long moment, stunned, before she at length slid the sword back into its sheath. 'Well. They're gone.'
'Think it's safe to get back on the stairs now?'
'Let's listen.' Each glued an ear to the door briefly, then looked at each other and nodded. Easing the door back open, they stepped out into the quiet stairway and began again their ascent.
We dodged another one, thought the prisoner to himself. But how many times, he wondered, could their luck manage to hold out? And for that matter, how come their luck was holding out, when Mitch's hadn't?
He pictured again the last glimpse he'd had of the big guy, all buried under that vicious, murderous mob. And he shuddered. Poor guy!
Wait - poor Mitch? He was actually feeling sorry for Mitch? After all the cursed things Mitch had done to him? How could he ever possibly feel even an ounce of pity for that lousy... Why, he oughta be celebrating the scum's downfall instead!
But he wasn't. He genuinely felt bad for the guy. But why? Why would he feel that? What had changed?
Mitch had changed, that's what. He had become... The prisoner struggled to put it into thought. Mitch had become... a man, capable of, of really loving someone. Of loving so deeply that he could - man! That he could lay down his life for someone.
That was it, wasn't it? Mitch loved Starr so much, it didn't matter what happened to him as long as she was safe. Laying down his life...
The prisoner shuddered again and cringed away from the thought. He didn't want to think about this any further. Because from that last thought immediately sprang up two more thoughts, and he didn't want to deal with either of them. The one thought was: laying down his life - that's what they said the Master had done, even for him.
And the other thought was: if someone like Mitch could change, then maybe...
He wanted to slam his hands over his ears to block out the rest of the thought.
...maybe he could too?
Gritting his teeth, he shook his head hard to disperse those thoughts. Nobody could change! he growled under his breath.
Starr was leading the way on up the stairs. Funny how, now that it was no longer life-and-death for them to find a door immediately - now they saw doors aplenty. A new one popped up at regular intervals as they hurried up the stairs. And as they reached each door, the prisoner noticed that Starr slowed down and stared hard at it before frowning and moving on.
'What are you doing?' he asked at last.
'Be nice if these things had labels,' she said, mostly to herself.
Huh? 'You mean we're lost?' he hissed.
'I mean...' she sighed. 'I mean I'm pretty sure Forest kept track of how many levels down it was when we first got in here. But I didn't. And even if I had, I have no idea how many doors we passed coming back up. Especially...'
Yeah, especially since she'd been blind for the very first part of the journey. Man. 'Looks like we gotta peek through one of the doors then,' he suggested. 'Figure out where we are.'
'Well that's the problem,' Starr replied. 'I thought of that. But every time we reach a new door, all I get is a very strong No.'
The prisoner's steps slowed as he tried to figure out what that was supposed to mean. All she got was a very strong No? 'What the' curse 'are you talking about?' he asked. And then, to his surprise, he found himself adding, 'Sorry,' for having cursed.
'I mean,' said Starr, 'that every time we come up on a door, I pray and ask the Master if I should stop and look through that door. And each time, I get, No - keep moving.'
There was a new door on the next landing they were just now approaching, and the prisoner pointed at it. 'You mean to tell me that a voice is telling you whether or not you should stick your head through that door and look around?' Skeptical didn't even begin to describe his tone and his look just then.
'Actually, yes,' she replied. And she stopped as usual. And then her eyes popped wide. 'C'mon!' she said urgently, making a grab for his arm.
'What?' he said, jerking his arm back out of her grasp.
'That was the strongest yet! We need to get out of here now. Come on!' And she all but ran up the stairs and round the next corner.
Grumbling out a few choice curses, the prisoner deliberately sauntered along after her. What was her big flaming hurry anywa...
And then he ran for it too. The door was opening!
Muffling an oath - or some other noise - the prisoner dove up the stairs and out of sight round the next corner. He clutched his chains to himself with one hand as he landed, throwing the other hand over his mouth to hush his panicked breathing, hoping he wouldn't be heard. If only his heart wasn't pounding so loudly!
Starr was standing on the steps just above where he had landed. Standing? Why was she just standing? Shouldn't she be running? Shouldn't they both be? After all, who would be opening the door below but guards - and they were either gonna be heading down the stairs or up, right? Down would be fine, but what if it was up? Why wasn't Starr running?
And for that matter, why wasn't he?
But then she looked at him. And without a word, she answered the questions he hadn't asked aloud. She answered by cupping a hand round her ear.
Fine, we're listening! he scowled back in return.
'...didn't do nothing wrong!' came a voice, loud and clear.
'Yeah?' said a second voice, mockingly. 'Then you don't got nothing to worry about, eh?'
'Yeah,' added a third. 'You just tell it to the major. He'll be so happy, why, I'm sure he'll pin a medal on you!'
Raucous laughter then, not quite as loud or as clear, pierced by the first voice again: 'I ain't lying! Look, he was there this morning. Answered roll call like usual, and then we chained him to his work station same as we always do. No way he coulda just disappeared!'
The voices were definitely fading with distance now. 'Then where the' curse 'is he?' came the second voice. And after that, quickly, the words became too indistinct to make out, and then too soft to even hear.
And now Starr and the prisoner were alone once more.
Slowly the prisoner uncovered his mouth and drew a long breath. Dodged another one! he thought. And then he stared up at Starr, his eyes seriously freaked out. 'You knew that door was gonna open, and then you knew that they wasn't gonna come our way! How the' curse 'do you do that?'
But Starr was busily muttering to herself. 'He. They said he. He answered roll call; he disappeared. Hmm...' Rapidly ticking off her fingers, she added, 'Walker gave us five names, and only two of those were men. They couldn't have meant Logan, because he was a long way downstairs, so we surely passed his level doors and doors ago. So this,' and she pointed in the direction of the most recent door, 'must have been Rob's level. Well, Stephen's...' Turning to the prisoner, she sparkled, 'Isn't the Master great how he works things out? Now I know where we are and how much further we have to go!' Grabbing his hand, she helped him to his feet. 'Won't be long now,' she promised.
But what the prisoner was thinking about as he trailed her up the stairs was, Hey - did she say Rob?
It wasn't much further at all. Almost before they knew it, they were standing before a door with Starr nodding. 'This is it. This is the ground floor.'
And likely crawling with guards, the prisoner thought darkly. Starr, without any hesitation, reached for the door to open it. Only to find her companion blocking her. 'You're nuts, right?' he said.
'I'm hearing to hurry,' she replied.
'You and your voices!' he began to protest. Only to find that, somehow, she had reached past him - or through him? - and now had the door open.
And the place was empty. Off to the left were the corridors with all the cells, just like downstairs (but a lot cleaner). In front of them was an large area with a door on the far side. 'The Day Room,' Starr pointed out - and then wondered that she remembered. And well over to the right, yet another door. She recognized it as well, but from very recently. 'That's how we got in, and that's how we'll get out.'
'We go out that door?'
'Yes. It opens straight outside.'
His frown deepened. 'Then why isn't it guarded? How can you be sure this isn't a trap?'
A good question. But almost immediately a moot one. For the door to the Day Room suddenly began to open, and both Starr and the prisoner instantly took off running for the outside door.
'Hey!' came a cry from behind them. Which only made them run all the faster, although it did occur to the prisoner to wonder why the voice behind them sounded more female than male.
Starr reached the door first and burst through it, the prisoner right on her heels. Ugh! The sunlight all but blinded them. Three days in the deepest dungeon had accustomed Starr's eyes to near-darkness - how much more so the prisoner's eyes after a lifetime down there? Still they stumbled on, instinctively holding their arms out before them, squinting severely.
Now, that voice came from in front of them. But who could it be? Through the dazzle of sunlight, Starr could barely make out the outline of a human shape before them. The arms looked like sticks, waving them forward. 'Quickly, dear,' said the voice.
Oh! 'I know that voice!' Starr cried with delight and plunged onward, blindly trusting as she ran straight for his arms.
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