Over the course of the day Persistent Smith and the Hand explored their new home inside the ducting. Smith slid from floor to floor down the slopes and elbowed up the ramps. The layout wasn’t what he expected. He’d imagined each floor would be self-contained but he discovered servo-operated doors that closed or opened sections of ducting to redirect airflow within and between floors.
The Hand peered round a corner and pulled back. ‘All clear.’
Those doors meant the tunnels kept changing. In fact there were two sets of ducts, one for warm air rising, the other for cold air descending. The doors routed the air streams, shunting the columns of air to where they were needed. That was a problem, for what had been a right turn on the way down might be a straight tunnel on the way back. Easy to spot when they were open, the doors were nearly invisible when closed. Smith resorted to rapping on sets of panels until he found the one that moved.
The constantly reconfiguring maze was disconcerting but Smith decided he liked it. It was a pattern that changed and he was inside it.
The Hand waited for Smith at the next corner.
‘Are you sure it’s safe?’ Smith said.
‘Absotively posolutely’ the Hand replied. ‘Follow me.’
‘Not so loud,’ Smith whispered. ‘Pygmy head hunters live in these tunnels. They’ve been tracking us for days.’
The Hand looked at him in open-mouthed dismay, peered cautiously over Smith’s shoulder, then snaked between his legs and looked down through a vent into a room of office workers. ‘What about the prisoners?’
‘There’s nothing we can do for them.’
Once again an opening had closed. It would have been useful to make a map or mark the doors. If only he had not dropped the pencil. Smith rapped on the panels, searching for the one that moved.
‘Hurry!’ the Hand said. ‘The guards have heard us.’
Smith looked down through a vent and saw a puzzled face, a hand reaching for the telephone.
One of the panels moved. He pushed it and found an up-ramp.
‘Come on,’ Smith wormed through and pushed the flap shut with his feet. ‘If we can make it to the next floor we’ll be safe.’
At the top of the ramp he rested. Smith was a big fellow, a fact not helped by his preferred diet of crisps, biscuits, chocolate and fruit juice. Crawling through tunnels little wider than himself was hard work. He drank from his water bottle, squeezed the packet of bourbon biscuits, then decided to eat the crisps. Crushed by his own body weight the contents were reduced to crumbles. Tipping them into his mouth, Smith chewed, swallowed and drank more water.
Even the Hand seemed tired. ‘What now?’
‘Good question. Food is running out, water is low, and the pencil is M.I.A.’
‘Tim found the car,’ the Hand helpfully reminded Smith. ‘Jarglebaum told Koponen.’
Which meant there was no need to stay here. It had been a Good Mission with Good Exploring but now it was over.
Except he didn’t want to leave. Here he was, all on his own, with nobody to tell him it when to eat, sleep, or brush his teeth. Who else could say they’d spent a night hiding in an air conditioning system? And he’d met Heidi. As he recalled his conversation with her, Smith looked down at the Hand and felt oddly foolish. He’d like to see her again.
‘What’s up?’ the Hand said.
A few things still puzzled him. Why would anyone hire someone to look for a car when they already knew where it was? Who was the girl they were looking for? What had either to do with the ship and the harvest? Why were they looking for a cat? There was no clear pattern but there had to be one somewhere underneath. That was what was really interesting.
‘We’ll stay one more night,’ he told the Hand. ‘Listen in at the morning meeting and discover more stuff.’
He’d be quieter this time. Nothing would break, no pencils would go Missing in Action. This evening he’d get more food from the machine. In his secret heart he hoped Heidi would be working late again.
To be continued…