Streams of sunlight from dark clouds illuminated desolate glass spires. Once they had been called sky scrapers, but that was before the Uprising.
“Lash sails!” bellowed the captain.
Up the mast sprang Tellos.
“Oars out!” the captain bellowed again. Below the oarsmen set to work, starting a rhythmic chant to keep pace. They drew close to the Isle of the Underground.
“Tellos! Meriamne! Petris!” The captain’s rough voice shouted again. “To me once you’ve done your duty!”
Tellos bound the topsail in place, testing the leather strap. It would hold. All his knots did. Down the rigging now to report to the captain. Meriamne beat him. The girl was like a spider, able to get anywhere on the ship. Only reason they kept her on board. Not that Tellos minded.
He stood next to the spindly young woman and tried to be taller than her. He failed.
Petris joined them, breathing heavily.
The captain looked them over. “You three. You’re the ones that might actually make it back. You know what we’re here for. We’ll drop you off at the pier.” He cast a hand starboard, pointing out a long cement structure. “We’ll cast off until you give the signal. Each of you gets one flare. Don’t waste it. If you’re not back in three days, we’ll consider it hopeless. Don’t waste any time. Got it?”
Meriamne and Tellos nodded.
Petris ventured, “Captain. I don’t know if I’ll be able to interface with any underground. No one’s tried for a long time.”
The captain shot him a glare. “You’re the best we’ve got. Deal with it.” He turned his back and paced down the deck. “Oars up!”
Wooden and aluminum oars dripped water as Gospel Truth glided toward the crumbling finger of artificial land that jutted into the waters. The men stared with wonder at the edifices that rose before them. They’d seen the old cities before, of course. They’d looted Charleston, for what it was worth. Few came here, though. Few came to what had once been New York.
The three young sailors grabbed their tools. Tellos coiled his strong, supple cables around his shoulder. Meriamne plucked a sack from the deck and slung it across her back. Petris ran below to retrieve his uplink glove.
Two bare-chested men leaped from the ship as it drew close to the pier. They caught cables and pulled the ship in as best they could, anchoring it. Some sailors lowered a gangplank. Tellos marched over, trying not to let his sealegs show. Petris attempted the same. Meriamne strode past them, facing the dark buildings before her. “Come,” she spoke. “We must hurry if we’re to capture one.”
Behind them, Gospel Truth shoved off and back out into the relatively safe waters. They were alone.
The girl led the way. “Do you want to be the bait, Tellos, or should I?”
“Wait, what?” Tellos jogged ahead to catch up to Meriamne. “Bait?”
“It’ll be the fastest way to catch an underground, if they still act the way they used to. Unless Petris really wants to head to the tunnels and try to catch one there.” She glanced back toward the young man.
“Like hell,” he puffed.
“What I thought. He can’t be bait, since he’ll have to interface. That leaves you or me.” She never slackened her pace through the entire conversation.
Finally, the end of the pier. The city crouched over them. Desolate warehouses yawned at the trio. Seagulls called to one another. The air cooled the skin. The setting sun cast golden light over the proceedings.
Meriamne halted. “We need to decide now before we step onto pavement. I’m willing to serve as bait, but that means you need to get Petris onto the underground as it passes by so he can establish a hardlink.”
Tellos wrinkled his nose. Why was Gospel Truth the only ship to break through the blockade? He wasn’t trained for this. “Fine. I’ll be bait. You’ll be better at getting Petris on board. If I die, I won’t be happy with you.”
Meriamne shrugged. “If I die you won’t be happy either.”
“We need to find a good position.” Tellos started moving forward again, but as they’d been told to: lightly, with uneven rhythm. They had to be careful; now they were on their quarry’s hunting ground. The other two copied his style and spread out. It would be no good if they presented a group target.
Into the shadows of the ancient city they went. After several blocks, they found yellow poles forming some kind of standing stones about fifteen feet high. They’d seen this kind of thing in ancient cities before, of course, at larger intersections of roads. Tellos threw his coil over one overhanging pole and made a harness for himself. Meanwhile, Meriamne hefted Petris atop another overhanging pole across the intersection. They gave Tellos a thumbs up. Meriamne winked at him. Tellos returned both the thumbs up and the wink.
Tellos meandered across the intersection, pausing every few steps, evening out his pace to a normal if slow walk. He approached the entrance to an old building and entered into it. He waited a few minutes and then retraced his steps. The gulls continued to call overhead. Tellos waited. He listened. The gulls fell silent.
The earth shook. Cracks burst in the pavement. Chunks of asphalt went flying. The beast had arrived. The underground, the subway, attacked.
Tellos didn’t stop to look. He ran. Behind him, the underground shrieked and gave chase. Its wheels ground at the pavement, sending up clouds of acrid smoke. Electric light shone on Tellos as he dashed under the yellow pole that held Meriamne and Petris.
Electric light wasn’t natural. Tellos fled from it. Behind him, the mouth of the underground opened, revealing a motor that ground like teeth.
The underground raced after him, its long body still escaping from the hole in the asphalt. Meriamne and Petris dropped down to its back. “Find a port!” shrieked the girl. Petris scrambled to obey, trying to pry open an access port as Meriamne held him steady on the back of the trembling beast.
Tellos sprinted until his cables grew taut. He let his inertia take and swing him up and away, just to the side of the rushing beast. Somehow, as he flew past he saw a human arm coming from the side of the great machine. The arm caught him around the waist, dragged him into the beast, and threw him to the floor of the underground. The wind was knocked out of him. Through the ringing in his ears, a gruff voice accosted him. “This be my underground, and you be trying’ to steal her!”