The stormwater pipe sloped gradually upward. The air grew still and humid, and stank of oil, mud, and rotting leaves. Despite the chilly temperature, sweat dripped from Pel’s brow and into his eyes.
The pipe’s rough concrete jarred his knees. His jeans provided almost no padding. But with only three feet of clearance, especially with that bulky bag on his back, he couldn’t move any other way. The cement scraped his palms, but pushing with his forearms banged the elbows. He pulled his flannel sleeves forward to cover his hands, providing some protection at the expense of dexterity.
He heard rapid breathing behind him. Sounded like Waylee. He stopped and turned.
Charles halted, a grimace on his face. Further back, Waylee’s lips trembled.
“Waylee,” he whispered, “are you okay, love?”
“I… can’t see… back here.” Tears glistened at the corners of her eyes.
“Take my data glasses.” He activated the low light vision app and passed it back to her via Charles. Trouble was, low light seriously hogged the battery. “And pull your sleeves up to protect your hands.”
“Thanks, Pel.” She sniffled.
The slope leveled off. Muddy, dank-smelling water pooled on the bottom. The pipe continued in the same direction. He kept crawling.
The flashlight revealed an opening in the distance. A maintenance tunnel? They’d be able to walk then.
Pel heard something approaching, a pattering noise. He swiveled the light. Two orbs stared back at him in the semi-dark. He focused the beam on them, revealing a huge rat with long, bacteria-coated incisors.
The flashlight dropped. He rose up, and smacked his head against the top of the pipe. Pain shot down his spine. “God—”
“What is it?” Charles said.
Pel fumbled for the flashlight, teeth gritted. It was still on and just at his knees. He swung it around, searching for the rat.
There it is. The rat turned and scurried off ahead of them. He hoped it wouldn’t return with reinforcements.
Pel explored his aching head with his fingers. It felt damp, but maybe from moisture or sweat, not blood. His fingertips didn’t look red. “Just me being stupid,” he told Charles. Best to keep the rat a secret.
He resumed crawling. Definitely an opening ahead. He hurried forward and reached an intersection. Unfortunately, with a cross pipe that was smaller, not larger.
Rungs headed up to a manhole cover. At least he could stand and stretch.
Pel let the others enter. They crowded together in the vertical space, their clothes and hands coated with grime.
Waylee looked up. “Can we get out here?”
“No, too close. Still in the factory district.”
“I can check.” She pulled her comlink out of a pocket, even though she had his data glasses on, which were easy to command. She opened the navigation program and peered at the screen. “No signals.”
“Wouldn’t think so,” he said. “Which is good, that means no one can see us.”
“So we keep going straight?” Charles said. “I mean, we’re not gonna go down those little pipes, are we?”
A joke rose toward Pel’s tongue, but his exhaustion smothered it. “Can I have the tire iron?” he asked Waylee.
Rat defense in hand, he knelt, took a breath, and crawled into the pipe’s continuation. He pushed himself, crawling as fast as he could, knees banging against the concrete.
After a few minutes, Charles squeaked, “Wait!”
Pel turned. Charles and Waylee were far behind. Oops. He waited for them to catch up, then resumed at a slower pace.
How did Homeland find us? Maybe someone turned them in. But who? Not Waylee, obviously. Not Dingo or M-pat – they did the dirty work, setting off the EMP and knocking out the guards. And they both had records. Kiyoko? She let herself get captured. But she wouldn’t turn in her own sister, that just wasn’t in her.
That left Shakti, as improbable as it seemed. “Waylee?”
“Do you think Shakti could have turned us in?”
She coughed. “Are you fucking kidding me? We might as well ask if you did it. Just get us out of here. Please?”
She was right. One thing at a time. “It wasn’t me, obviously, or we’d have stayed at the house and got caught.”
“Just shut up.”
“Shakti’s no snitch,” Charles said quietly behind him.
How would you know? He decided not to pursue it, though.