Five paces by five. Halogen strip lights, solid concrete walls. The seam of the door was all but invisible and resisted scrutiny, no matter how many times Emma let her fingers trace the walls. It was of no use: she was trapped.
Over an hour had passed since King had left her in this makeshift prison. The adrenaline had long since faded, replaced by a numb disbelief that grew only more jaded with each passing second. Emma was cold, shivery. Her throat was dry but she could not bring herself to drink.
She paced the length of the room once more, fingers tapping against the wall. Five paces. Turn. Another five. With each step, the knot between her shoulders hardened.
It was during her third trip around the room that two things happened.
First, there was an answering tap-tap-tap to her fingers against the wall.
Second, the door swung inwards.
In moments of panic, the body moves ahead of the mind. Emma was only just registering her scream by the time her knees had bent and sprung her backwards, flat against the furthest wall, open palms against the concrete.
For a moment she thought it was King coming through the door. The similarity was there: the height, the smooth movements, the dark hair. Then Emma noticed the clothes—dark jeans and a black t-shirt, canvas trainers, unzipped hoody—and the boy’s eyes, a flat green that revealed nothing. He looked roughly her age but his expression was impossibly composed.
He let the door close behind him. Looked her over, hands deep in his pockets, shoulders slouched insouciantly. When he said nothing, Emma stepped away from the wall, straightening self-consciously.
“Hi,” she said.
He didn’t reply. Chose instead to glance around the room with proprietary disdain. Emma studied his profile: he had a long, thin nose and high cheekbones, dark hair swept back off his forehead, too long. A narrow chin just like Lilith’s, but on a boy it didn’t look quite right.
Not to mention he seemed to be mute. “Hello?”
His eyes returned to hers, the corner of his mouth curled up in the tiniest of smirks.
“Please,” he said, gesturing to the cots. Posh voice; definitely Lower Halls. “Have a seat.”
She didn’t budge. “Did King send you?”
He sighed, sauntered over to one of the cots and sat down, the thin mattress flattening under his weight. “No. It’s just you and me, Ginger.”
A shrug. “It’s either that or Shorty, and Shorty doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.”
Emma sat on the opposite cot, scowling. “My hair isn’t ginger.”
“I see: you prefer Shorty.”
“I have a name, you know,” she snapped.
He quirked an eyebrow. “Oh?”
“It’s Emma. Emma Walker.” By the way he nodded, Emma could tell he’d already known. “So are you going to tell me yours?”
“You didn’t ask.”
“Your name! What is it?” Irritation got the best of her. “Didn’t your parents teach you any manners?”
His amused expression vanished. “I have no parents.”
“Oh.” Emma’s voice was small. “I’m sorry.”
He ignored her, leaned forward, hands on his knees. “I’m not sure how King mistook you for Lilith. You look nothing alike. When the report came in that he’d rescued the wrong girl, I assumed—”
“So you’re one of them?” Of course he was: how could she have let his age and clothes mislead her? Age and clothes, that’s all it had taken for her to drop her guard. She might as well have a sign saying ‘gullible’ plastered to her forehead.
“That depends on who you mean by ‘them’,” he replied. “I did, however, come to rescue you.”
Rescue. Right. This boy against the battle-hardened DEI. Emma let the disbelief creep into her face, but he didn’t notice—or chose to ignore her.
He stood, walked back over to the door. Pressed his thumb against the wall. The locks snicked back, the door swung open. He took a single use glow stick out of his pocket and snapped it between his fingers, shaking the contents together.
“I have another four,” he said. “Should be enough to get us out of these tunnels and into the Upper Halls. I’ll get you to the chutes, from there you’re on your own.”
He was serious. Emma was still on her cot, staring at the black tunnel outside. The darkness breathed with a life of its own, the glow stick woefully inadequate in comparison.
He shook the glow stick a final time, put one foot outside the door. “You coming? These things don’t last forever.”
They were on their last glow stick when they came to the dead end. The dimming light revealed a smooth concrete wall and nothing else. Emma turned, looked back the way they’d come. The last turning was several minutes of hard walking away, and the glow stick wouldn’t last that long—already it was dimming, the circle of light at their feet shrinking with every breath.
“Here,” the boy said, handing the glow stick over as he stepped forward to examine the wall.
“Do you even know what you’re doing?”
He was indignant. “Of course.” But there was a note of uncertainty in his voice.
The glow stick sputtered, faded. Emma shook it briskly. The light flared for a moment, casting long shadows on the boy’s shoulders, on the folds of his jeans, and then died out without so much as a whisper.
“Great,” Emma muttered. She blinked hard, waiting for her eyes to adjust to the darkness. Then realised they already had. The darkness pressed in on her eyes, her nose, her mouth. Goosebumps shivered down her spine. Emma shook the glow stick again, but nothing happened. “Where did you get these, Chinatown?”
His voice floated back to her. “As a matter of fact, yes.”
She stepped forward, hand outstretched. The wall was further than expected, cold to the touch. Emma let her fingers trace the wall. Jerked her hand away when her fingers brushed his.
“Move,” he said, feeling the wall.
“What are you looking for?”
The soft scrape of his hand against the wall, then a very faint click—so faint, Emma might not have heard it had she not been holding her breath. A long crack opened in the wall, widened, light pouring into the tunnel as the concrete slid open soundlessly to reveal an exit.
They stepped out into an alleyway. No guards, no controls: just a narrow corridor that smelled of refuse and rusted metal. Thick pipes criss-crossed the ceiling, and the walls and floor were all tinged the same weary shade of green. They were back underground, in the Upper Halls. When Emma turned around, the wall behind her was once again smooth and unmarked.
“Come on,” the boy said, striding to the mouth of the alley. They ducked through several narrow passageways before arriving at a larger corridor—one of the Upper Hall main throughways. Emma shrank back against the wall, watched the passing people with growing unease. There were illegals here, people having children without permission, eking out a miserable, cramped life with no government support. If they discovered she had a citizenchip they’d tear her body apart to find it.
“Come on,” the boy said again, sliding into the crowds. His pace was casual but his eyes flicked back and forth, taking in every detail. Emma shivered by his side, took every brush with a stranger as a personal affront. Body mods were popular: glowing eyes, studded skin, prosthetic limbs with the circuitry exposed. The air was hot, cloying, poorly recycled. Makeshift stalls lined the corridor, and behind them were bars, strip clubs, greasy food joints serving an unappealing green mush.
The mess and the stench reminded Emma of the massacre she’d narrowly escaped. The vampires would have a field day here, tearing through the packed crowds. She’d never felt so clean, or so lucky.
“Quick!” His fingers closed around her wrist, pulled her to one side just as a stream of policemen turned onto the corridor, the sirens on their electric motorbikes blaring. The police didn’t slow down, expecting the crowds to disperse before them. Soon they rounded another corner and were gone.
The boy resumed walking. Emma followed, rubbing her wrist. “What was that about?”
“News of the theatre attack has leaked. They’re headed for the border.”
“How do you know?”
He only gave her a look, led her over off the main corridor to a flight of metal-tipped stairs. No one set of stairs connected all twelve underground levels together, but each hall—Upper, Middle and Lower—had a local stairwell, connecting their own levels. They were at the very top of the Upper Hall stairwell, and, three levels down, Emma would be able to jump onto public transport to make her way home. A confusing system at the best of times, but too few ventured outside their halls for it to matter.
“You still haven’t told me your name,” Emma said, holding the banister as she walked down the stairs.
He nodded at her hand. “I wouldn’t do that.”
Her palm was flaked with rust and paint. Emma blushed, wiped her hand on her jeans. “Well?”
He relented. “Liam.”
“Liam. Nice to meet you.” They were one level down now, two more to go. No one else on the stairs paid them any attention. “So tell me, Liam, why did you rescue me?”
He shrugged. “Does it matter?”
“You could have made a better plan.” She lowered her voice. “One that didn’t involve traipsing through Upper Halls.”
“It’s the least-monitored route.”
“The DEI will know the moment I get home.” The thought made her stomach churn: who knew how much trouble she would be in for escaping?
He was unconcerned. “It’s more comfortable than that prison cell.”
The conversation was going nowhere. Emma pushed back the irritation, stood aside to let a heavily pregnant woman pass. Her eyes couldn’t help but linger on that curved belly and the woman’s red, chaffed hands. Was that baby illegal? Did the woman have a permit?
Only one more flight of stairs left. There were signs pointing downwards: the closest chute was number 9. It would drop her off not too far from home; she could make the rest of the way back on foot. Easy.
“You know, most people would be grateful,” Liam said. The ghost of a smirk hovered on his lips.
“That’s right: thank you,” Emma huffed. “Thanks for saving me, despite not telling me who you really are, why you’re saving me, or whether your plan has any merit. Maybe we should place bets on how quickly I’ll be back in prison again.”
She exited the stairwell ahead of him. The corridor she emerged onto was just as noisy and busy as the one before. Throngs of people were in every corner. Fast food stalls and electronics shops vied for attention, neon signs flashing. FOR SALE, the signs screamed, followed by indecipherable angular characters.
Liam stepped up beside her. “Welcome to Chinatown.”