Chapter 21

The journalist stared into the camera, eyes hidden behind dark glasses, his lips a flat line that gave nothing away. It’s about the theatre. Emma’s finger hovered over the mute button. How did he know that she was involved?

“Emma?” The crackle of the speakers added a sinister overtone to his voice. “Can we talk?”

He had to be a DEI agent, here to arrest her. It hadn’t taken them long to find her; if anything, Emma was surprised they hadn’t come sooner.

“Emma? Are you still there?”

“Let him in.”

Emma looked over her shoulder, startled. Ms Gray was in the hallway, her hair tied up once more in an elegant bun. She was slipping on her shoes—black patent pumps with a rounded toe—calm and cold, as if her neatened appearance was a mask behind which she could hide. Or maybe it was the other way around, and her earlier dishevelled state had been an act to get past Emma’s defences.

“Emma?”

She turned back to the screen. “I’m here. Just a minute.” Emma hit the mute button, turned back to Ms Gray. “I’m only telling you this because, despite everything you’ve said, I believe you care for Lilith. No mother wouldn’t care for her child.” A deep breath, then: “The DEI are involved in what happened at the theatre, and they want Lilith for something. I think this guy is an agent . . . and that he’s here to arrest me.”

If she was looking for a reaction, Emma was sorely disappointed. Ms Gray only looked at the screen. “We’ll see about that.”

The part of her that had been hoping for some form of reassurance baulked, but Emma had no choice. She reached slowly for the unlock button. This could be it: arrest, imprisonment, loss of her citizenchip. But she couldn’t live in hiding, not when her best friend was risking her life above ground. For Lilith, Emma thought, and opened the door.

The journalist was taller in person than she’d expected. Taller, but not intimidating. He was skinny, awkward, stiff-limbed as if not quite certain of his balance. He stepped into the house, nodded a hello without taking off his dark glasses or wide-rimmed hat, his appearance cartoonish. He looked nothing like King, had none of that hard-edged determination. And his clothes were wrong for a DEI, too.

“Would you like a drink?” Emma said uneasily when the journalist did not immediately arrest her. The dark glasses put her off; she could not see the expression in his eyes, could not tell where he was looking.

“Water would be great.” Soft-spoken, with a gentle twang that told Emma he, like her, was a Middle Haller.

Ms Gray took charge, all sleek professionalism. “Why don’t we speak in the kitchen?” She led the way, had already poured out a glass by the time the journalist stood on the threshold. Waved a hand at the table. “Please, sit.”

Emma sat down with her back to the wall, but the journalist hesitated. “I’d like to speak to Emma alone.” He still hadn’t taken off his hat or glasses, seemed to have no intention of doing so.

But Ms Gray , unfazed, only smiled. The expression was so gracious it was impossible not to charmed; even Emma found it difficult to hold onto her previous anger. Ms Gray took the journalist by the elbow and steered him to the table, directly opposite Emma. “Don’t mind me,” she said, setting the glass down before him. “I wouldn’t dream of interrupting your little chat with Emma.” Her hand lingered on his forearm. “In fact, I was just asking her about the theatre myself. You don’t mind me staying, do you?”

“Oh, no, no, it’s fine.” The fingers of his right hand drummed against the tabletop as if typing. His left hand lay quite still, numbed by Ms Gray’s touch. This close, Emma could just about see through his dark lenses. His pupils flickered side to side nervously.

“Wonderful.” Another smile again, gentle and sincere. For the first time Emma could see where Lilith had gotten the knack for lying, although years of experience meant that Ms Gray was far more convincing than Lilith could ever hope to be.

Ms Gray’s eyes flicked up to hers and narrowed slightly. Emma took the cue and coughed, bringing the journalist’s attention back to her as Ms Gray stepped back and leant against a kitchen counter, out of the journalist’s line of sight.

“So you wanted to speak to me?”

It took a moment for the journalist to refocus. “Ah. Yes.” He cleared his throat. “As I said, I run a blog called Down the Chute. My name’s Mike. You may have heard of me . . . No? Well, never mind.” He laced his fingers together, cleared his throat again. “I report on all the stuff the government would rather keep secret.” A smile, now, very thin and eerie. “Just picking at the flaws in the system.”

Emma barely concealed a flicker of irritation. He was one of the conspiracy theorists, of the kind that plagued the internet with misinformed, badly constructed arguments. She had little patient for sensationalist news—if it could even be called news.

“So what did you want to speak to me about?”

Mike adjusted his glasses. From the way his eyes flicked back and forth, he was reading. “I’ve been writing a transport piece on chute fare evaders and how Upper Hallers can easily infiltrate lower levels. It’s a serious security breach: imagine, those without citizenchips just strolling down whenever they feel like it. It comes hardly as a surprise that break-ins and thefts are twice as likely to happen around chute entrances.”

“That statistic is meaningless,” Emma interrupted. “Break-ins are going to occur more often in areas where there’s an easy getaway. You’ve no way to prove that it’s an Upper Haller committing the crime.”

“I’ve been tracking the travel routes of fare evaders,” the journalist continued, as if she hadn’t spoken. “Flagging the anomalies, looking for patterns. And your name came up this morning. Chute 9. Ring any bells?”

Emma went cold. She glanced at Ms Gray, but the woman’s flat expression did nothing to reassure her.

Mike touched his glasses again, adjusting whatever screen he was looking at. “You touched out on this level,” he said, “but there was no record of you touching in.”

“You got that information illegally,” Emma said, nervous. “The privacy acts—”

“So you don’t deny it?”

“I’m not a fare evader,” Emma replied. “I paid for my fare in cash, and forgot that I didn’t need to touch out.”

“In cash?”

“It’s archaic, not illegal.” Or so Emma hoped. If Liam had lied to her . . . .

“Either way, I don’t really care,” Mike said, dismissive. “I’m not writing that piece anymore, not when there’s a bigger story out there. The theatre,” he added, once again flipping through screens on his glasses. “I ran checks. You’re the only one who went above ground this morning who has come back. The only traceable one, anyway. If you hadn’t touched out, I wouldn’t have found you.”

He pulled his glasses down for the first time. His eyes were small, bloodshot, the blue pupils fixed on Emma. “You bought two tickets to the theatre; I know you were there. Tell me what you saw. Give me the exclusive, and I’ll make you look like a hero.”

His proposition was entirely unexpected. “A hero?”

“Hero, heroine—same thing. We both know the government’s up to something. Tell me your story, and I’ll make you so famous they won’t be able to touch you. Or your friend, the one you went with.”

He pushed his glasses back up. “Who was the other ticket for, anyway?”

The question was too casual not to be a trap. Before Emma could respond, Ms Gray stepped forward. “I really don’t think it’s a good idea to continue this conversation anymore, do you, Mike?”

He half-turned to face her. “But . . . I’m just getting started.”

“And you’ve confessed to breaking privacy laws, bribing the transport police, hacking the border control database and possibly Emma’s personal banking details to trace her payment to the theatre.” She smiled, hip against the kitchen table, looking down at Mike. “I hope for your sake you didn’t leave any trails that could lead back to you.” She placed a hand on his shoulder, leaned down. “If you so much as mention Emma on your blog, I’m taking you down.”

Mike stiffened. “And you are?”

“Dr Arlene Gray, department of future plans.”

Mike’s face, the strip of cheek visible beneath his glasses, paled.

“We’ve read Down the Chute,” Ms—no, Dr—Gray continued, her smile growing colder. “And we’ve been very concerned about the content.” It was an unmistakeable threat, but one Emma couldn’t fathom.

In either case, Dr Gray was protecting her. If she was this protective of Lilith, Emma could not help but feel newfound respect for her. Even if Emma did not agree with Dr Gray’s methods, this love—this protection—was something she understood.

“Are you going to get a gag order?” Mike asked, shrinking in his seat, thin arms pulled tight against his body.

Dr Gray smiled. “Oh, we don’t need those.”

Mike was shaken. He stood, twisted his hands together. “Can I . . . Can I just use the bathroom?”

Emma took pity on him. “It’s upstairs,” she said, before Dr Gray could reply. “First door on the left.”

He ducked his head, left the room hastily. The moment he was gone, Dr Gray turned to Emma. Every trace of mirth had been wiped from her expression, leaving behind only a cold shell.

“How are the DEI involved? Has Lilith’s father kidnapped her?” She stepped closer, eyes narrowed. “No need to look surprised: wherever he is, the DEI are not far behind.”

So Emma’s instincts had been right: Precision Horizons was far more than a technology company. No doubt it was a covert research and development company, supplying the government with weapons.

“He was there,” Emma admitted, and then proceeded to tell Dr Gray the whole story, carefully leaving out all mention of Liam. For some reason, she didn’t want to share that one secret, preferred to keep the memory of his scent close.

“I went through Chinatown to the chute.” She shrugged, nodded at Mike’s empty chair. “You know the rest.”

They were interrupted by the sound of raised voices, coming from upstairs. They hurried out of the kitchen to find Mike on the right side of the landing, shifting his weight awkwardly. Emma’s mother was blocking his path.

“Tell me: who are you?” Emma’s mother demanded, clutching her dressing gown closed. “What are you doing in my house?”

“It’s alright, Ruth,” Dr Gray called. “He’s a colleague. He’s just leaving now. Go back to bed, I’ll be up with you in a minute.”

Mike nodded, slipped past Emma’s mother and hurried down the stairs. He held a hand up at Emma in an awkward goodbye.

“Not a word,” Dr Gray warned, waving him towards the door.

“Oh, don’t worry. I promise.” His voice carried down the hallway to where Emma was standing at the foot of the stairs. “I won’t say one bad word about Emma.”

His tone was wrong, too compliant and calm. Emma stared, watched Dr Gray lock the front door behind Mike. When he’d left the kitchen he’d looked shaken, but now she could not help but feel that he had gotten what he’d come for. Yet he’d promised not to say a bad word about her—

About her.

Emma’s heart stopped. He’d been standing on the wrong side of the landing. The bathroom was on the left. The only room on the right was her bedroom. She raced up the stairs, taking them two at a time. She hadn’t heard the toilet flush, or the water run. How long had he been upstairs unsupervised?

She slid to a halt on the threshold of her bedroom. Everything was in its place. Everything, except . . . 

Emma walked to her desk. “Computer?” The screen lit up. “Back to last screen.”

It opened her emails. The word theatre was in the search box. And one email was open: a confirmation she’d sent for the theatre tickets. The name in the recipient line was Lilith Gray. It wouldn’t take Mike long to put the pieces together.

8 responses to “Chapter 21”

  1. Toran says:

    Do I really have to wait a week?

  2. WA_side says:

    Wow, this could be a bombshell for the Greys once it hits the screen.

    But who will he target?

    Minor error: “The part of her had been hoping for some” – maybe missing a “that”?

  3. Pete says:

    This is one of the best stories I have had a pleasure to read. I love the whole universe you have created. That includes all your other stories, so it is undersandable that I was heartbroken when all of a sudden you stopped writing. I had occasionally checked the site hoping for continuation of “Between Wolds” and I read all your updates in the mean time. I was elated when today I checked and saw that you began posting stories again. I read up to here in one sitting and I love the new version. The in depth look into the world and characters is blowing me away. Please keep up the great work. I’m on my way to start reading “Belonging”

    • A.M. Harte says:

      Thank you Pete, it really warms me to hear you say so.

      I really wasn’t happy with Between Worlds, and I think the reason was because Above Ground was so incomplete. I’m glad you’re enjoying the new version and solemly promise that, when I get round to it, I will finish Between Worlds!