I couldn’t see Marv in the dark but her breath on my face and her forearm pressed against my windpipe suggested she was quite close. The prick in my thigh was also a strong hint.
“Trust me,” I whispered, “penetrating your gay ass is not my idea of a good time.”
The reason I was keeping my voice down was partly because she was crushing my larynx, but also because I didn’t want to alert Schneed that something was up any more than Marv did. As soon as the cat was out of the bag there was bound to be a fight of some kind, and you know who would end up getting killed? No, not me this time. All signs pointed to Schneed.
Why him? Because once Schneed got taken out, I’d be left in a maze deep underground with no way out and only Baby Jane for company. That’s the kind of thinking you need to stay ahead of a vindictive universe.
Schneed had to stay alive to lead me out of here. After that, I didn’t care what shenanigans went on.
“I really don’t know why I can see what you look like. It’s probably because I’m a Visitor.”
“A Visitor...” She was surprised. “Then why were you locked up in that cell?”
If they hadn’t told her about me then I could safely assume no one had expected me to be tagging along on this excursion. She had no idea who I was or what I’d been accused of, which suited me fine. I suppose when you’re running a fascist military city state, you don’t tell your agents more than they need to know.
“The Queen sent me. Do you really think I was put in the next cell by accident?”
I could sense her hesitation. “What’s your mission?”
“Same as your mission,” I said.
“I don’t need anyone’s help killing the Ocean Man.”
“Did you just tell me your mission? You never tell anyone the mission. What kind of assassin goes around blabbing about who their target is? I can see why they sent me now.”
“No, you said you had the same mission. I was only…”
“And what if I’d been bluffing? Obviously I wasn’t, otherwise I would have told Schneed your real identity, which I didn’t, so I must be on your side. But still, you can’t be so free and easy with information.”
The arm pressing against my neck pushed harder.
“I know that,” she growled at me. “I only said it because I knew you were on our side. Because of what you said, about not telling Schneed.” She sounded rattled, more concerned about her reputation as a top-notch assassin than me being one of the enemy.
“Well, be more careful. If you slip up and they figure out who you are, I won’t be able to save you. I’ll be too busy putting Plan B into action, using my special Visitor powers to rid us of the Ocean Man menace. Obviously I can’t tell you the details because I’m a professional, not a blabbermouth.”
Marv may have been an excellent spy and, for all I knew, a sure-shot killer, but she wasn’t prepared for a master of Colin-Fu. Ocean Man may well have been a lovely chap doing his best to make the world a better place. Not any of my concern. If convincing Marv I was going to help her murder some poor bloke would help me get out of this rat-infested pit, I’d happily tell her I was Carlos the Jackal and available for hire.
“I don’t need saving and nothing will go wrong,” Marv snarled in my ear, trying reassert her dominance, or something. “I will do my job. Don’t get in my way, Visitor.”
“Well, don’t get in my way, then.”
“I don’t intend to.”
It was turning into a bit of a playground squabble and Schneed was probably not very far away.
“Hey, let’s not bicker. I don’t want you to fail, I’m just the backup. Thousands of lives are on the line, that’s what we have to remember, right? We can’t allow them to carry out their plan under any circumstances.”
“Yes. Of course.” The pressure on my throat eased.
She was buying it. And so she should, what I was saying was true. The only real way to convince people to believe in you is sincerity. Once you can fake that, you’re in.
“As long as the Queen’s gay ass is on you, no one will suspect your true intentions.”
“Why do you keep mispronouncing it like that? Are you trying to be funny?”
“Who me? Not at all. I don’t even know what a gay ass is. Never even come across a gay ass before.” I stifled a snigger.
“A geas is a spell.” She spoke through gritted teeth, it sounded like. “It envelops my true form so I can walk among men, be one of them, do you even understand what it is we do for them?”
“Not really. What’s the point of locking them up in the same cells so they can keep escaping?”
“Because we understand men. We understand their needs. They have to have something to struggle against, a cause. We let them plan their little revolutions, let them feel like they’re doing something useful with their time, and then we pull them out before they can do any real damage.”
“So you let them think they’re going to change everything but really you’re just keeping them busy and out of the way. Wow, that’s so… condescending.”
“Whatever you call it, it’s worked fine until now. They have their meetings and plan their attacks and then end up in the dungeon. And then do it all again. Only, now they have this new leader. A man who might actually hurt someone if I don’t stop him.”
There was a glimmer of light up ahead. We both tensed and peered into the distance.
“Over here,” called out Schneed. “Come.”
Marv released me and hurried to join Schneed. She’d decided not to kill me for the time being.
I followed, not wanting to be left behind. Schneed was kneeling down next to what looked like an oil lamp.
“Here,” said Schneed. He handed me a strip of dried meat. He was kneeling by a small alcove which was packed with supplies. I ate the meat. The first rule of Survival Club, don’t ask what you’re eating. It’s a great way of making yourself unable to eat anything else.
He also had a canteen of water which he passed around. Once he’d taken everything out and put it into a bag, he rolled a rock back over the opening. You would never know there was a hiding spot there, and he’d found it in the dark.
“Good, good. Everything’s going to plan.” Schneed held up the lamp which lit up the tunnel far better than the candle had. I felt like I was in familiar surroundings, but then I guess when you’ve seen one horribly claustrophobic tunnel, you’ve seen them all.
We continued walking, now in much better shape. I asked how long it would take for us to get wherever we were going, but I only got vague answers. The one thing I could tell was that we weren’t heading for the surface. Everything sloped downwards.
At times, the tunnel closed in on us, barely wide enough for one person to squeeze through. Other times we were suddenly thrust into a cavern so vast the walls and ceilings were beyond the reach of our lamp. Several hours passed and the jerky and water were almost gone.
“From here,” said Schneed, “we must be quiet. We will pass the outskirts of Ratopolis.”
We were in a small chamber with several tunnels leading off it. It looked like every other chamber we’d been in.
“What’s Ratopolis?” I asked, mainly because I was bored. “Is it like a big nest?”
“It is a city, said to be grander than anything on the surface. “
“A real city? With buildings and stuff?”
“Yes, a terrible place. It’s full of rats.”
More hours passed and no rats were spotted. Schneed still seemed to know where he was going and Marv had ignored me since our little discussion so things were looking good. They had probably discovered we’d escaped by now, but since they knew Marv was on the case, they were unlikely to send anyone after us.
While the threat of being caught didn’t worry me (they’d have to find us first—good luck with that) I still wasn’t sure Schneed could lead us out of here. He had found the stash, suggesting he knew this place, but that had been hours ago and since then we’d been wandering in the gloom, occasionally taking a left or a right. The constant tang of sulphur in the air didn’t make things any more pleasant, either.
“Is it much further?” I asked for the umpteenth time like a child in the backseat.
“Shh, we’re right close to the rat city. Keep it quiet or—” Schneed tilted his head, listening. Then he grabbed the knob on the side of the lamp and turned it off.
“Did you hear that?” whispered Schneed in the darkness.
I turned my head to one side and concentrated. I couldn’t hear anything at first, but then I heard a distant chittering.
A light appeared up ahead. I ducked down, like that would make a difference. The glow was coming from an intersection ahead of us. It got brighter as the light moved closer to our tunnel. The chittering got louder.
There was nowhere for us to hide. We were in a long straight section with the nearest side-tunnel well behind us. It was so dark that if the source of the light wasn’t too strong there was a chance they might not see us. Or they might go straight across our tunnel and continue on without looking around. But if they decided to come this way, we had nowhere to go.
I held my breath, which only made the breaths of the other two more audible. They were crouched beside me.
“Who is it?” whispered Marv.
“Rats, got to be,” replied Schneed.
“Do we fight?” Marv didn’t seem keen. She was a trained soldier so for her to be freaking out wasn’t a good sign.
“We wait. Hope they don’t see us.”
We waited as the light got brighter. Three figures, each carrying a flaming torch, walked into our tunnel and stopped, waving the torches about.
They were clearly rats, at least in the shape of their heads. They were wearing armour so it was hard to tell what kind of bodies they had, but their tails suggested rat-like. They walked upright and reminded me a lot of the Mouse King, except they were not old and frail. These guys worked out. They also carried swords.
“Where is he, the little shit,” complained one of them in a whiney voice.
“Shut up,” said another. “We keep going until we find him.”
“But I’m hungry. I swear, if it wasn’t for the King, I’d stick the little shit with a rusty blade and leave him here.”
“No you wouldn’t. Just do as you’re told and don’t make so much noise. If he hears us, he’ll only run off.”
The three of them argued a little longer in their shrill voices and then headed into the opposing tunnel.
We waited and then let out our breaths as one.
“Phew,” said Schneed. “I think they’re looking for someone.”
The man was a genius.
“What if there’s more of them?” asked Marv. “More search parties.”
“It’s to be expected, but they ain’t looking for us, so as long as we stay alert and keep quiet, we should be okay.” He struck a light with his tinder-box and relit the lamp. I felt oddly conspicuous in its glow.
After that, we moved in silence, listening carefully. A couple of times we heard distant chitter and stopped to see if it was coming closer. If it was, we quickly moved in the opposite direction and then found an alternate route. We were completely reliant on Schneed knowing the way.
Hours passed but thirst and hunger didn’t seem so important with the constant threat of discovery hanging over us. Eventually we reached a tunnel that seemed smaller and less well made.
“Finally,” said Schneed, sounding relieved even though he’d given no indication of worry while we travelled. “We should be fine from here. The rats don’t like coming this way, think it’s haunted. Stupid rats.” He chuckled to himself. I immediately braced myself for a ghost attack.
None came but probably because they could see I was ready for them. Schneed found another stash of gear, with more jerky and water and a new lamp filled with oil. With a bright light to show us the way once again, we set off on what I hoped was the last leg of our journey.
More twists and turns followed but no encounter with rat-men. We came to a large cavern with rubble piled up against the walls like there’d been a cave in. There were numerous tunnel entrances but Schneed led us to a steep incline of scree and scrambled up it.
It was a tricky climb and I slid down a couple of times before making it to the ledge at the summit. There was a large opening that Schneed hurried through and I could sense his excitement. I followed to find myself at the foot of a stairway carved into the rock wall. Schneed and Marv were already near the top, the light from the lamp fading with them. I stumbled and tripped after them.
In front of me was a large encampment of tents and shacks spread out in all directions, with small fires dotted about the place. Bearded faces peered out at us from makeshift doorways and windows. They were gaunt and dirty. It looked like a shanty town built by homeless men. They didn’t seem dangerous, just tired and hungry.
“We’re here,” said Schneed like we’d found El Dorado. “Welcome to Boys Town.”
“And what we got here, then?” said a familiar Australian voice.
A tall, blond man with a scruffy beard came walking out of the largest shack. He appeared to be wearing sunglasses.
“Ocean Man, Ocean Man,” the men began chanting.
Sonny took off his sunglasses. “Well, well, well, look what the cat dragged in. Colin, isn’t it?”
Sonny was their saviour? He was going to lead the revolution? A twat who wore sunglasses inside a fucking cave?
Marv stood just behind me, eyeing up her target. I stepped out of her way.