Through Fire – Snippet 32

I was in a sort of atrium, and walked from it and around the bottom floor. I found Francois and the source of a great deal of the blood smell in the kitchen. At least I presumed it was Francois. Someone had decapitated him and the head was missing. There was the stump of bloody neck, but no head anywhere in sight.

I started to turn away when I heard gagging from the left, from an area that I presumed had been a breakfast room.

The burner was in my hand and I put it back in my pocket. The person gagging was Corin. I looked over the counter at where he was. Adelie, too, was missing her head, and a coating of black blood spread over the floor.

Mailys came in, walking cautiously.

“I asked you to wait outside,” I said.

“There didn’t seem to be any danger,” Mailys said.

Corin didn’t say anything. He’d taken off running, and presently I heard him retching. I didn’t hear anything else, except that distant sound. A sound too faint and distant, I was sure, for any normal person to hear.

“There’s someone in the wall,” Mailys said. “That way.”

“In the wall?” It was what I’d heard also, but I didn’t know how Mailys knew it.

“I can’t find Tieri,” Corin’s thickened voice sounded from the entrance to the kitchen. “I mean,” he said and hiccupped. “I can’t find her body.”

I remembered instructions that Simon had given me, once when we were visiting someone on Liberte Seacity, and he must have been somewhat worried about the situation. It must have been at the back of his mind. He’d told me all upper class houses in the seacity had a safe room, disguised as a plain wall, so that occupants could be kept from riot or robbery.

I thought the Duforts’ secret… laboratory? It had been rather a grand form of that, but– “Where is their safe room?” I asked Corin.

He had come close and now looked utterly astonished. “Their what?”

“Their safe room,” I said. “There’s someone crying behind a wall.” I walked down a hallway and patted the wall at the end. “This wall.”

“How do you know there’s someone behind the wall?” Corin said.

“Don’t be more of a fool than you can help,” Mailys snapped.

“Oh,” he said, as though this explained everything. “I don’t know where their safe room is. Yes, they probably have one. But if they had time to put Tieri in it, why not themselves?”

“Perhaps they were defending?” Mailys said.

Corin looked doubtful. He shook his head. “They never told me where it was,” he said. “Or how to open it. Or even that they had a safe room.”

Mailys made a sound of impatience as she felt along the wall. She pulled down a tapestry that hung artistically on it and threw it carelessly behind her. Then she ran her fingers down the wall, slowly.

The crying coming from behind it had that sound of despair that comes when a child has been crying for a long time and has despaired of rescue.

I looked at what Mailys was doing. She cast me a glance over her shoulder. “I can’t feel the joining,” she said. “But I can feel a difference of temperature here,” she ran her hand along a line.

She seemed to be looking to me for confirmation, and I went over and felt the difference of temperature too, in a thin crack, something that even the best, tightest joining of a secret door couldn’t prevent. It felt warmer, which made sense. I hoped they had ventilation in the secret room, or the person inside would be running out of air soon. Meanwhile I made a note that Mailys could hear very faint sounds from within a wall, sounds that normal humans — or at least Corin — couldn’t, and that she could feel the subtle differences of temperature at a secret door joining. The indications were that Mailys might be faster, smarter, stronger.

I tabled it for discussion later, and said, “Corin! How old is Tieri? Can she help us get her out?”

“She’s five years old,” he said. “And I don’t know. She… I babysat for them.”

I nodded. I’d felt the joining all around. The entire end of the hallway was a door, the seam around the edge where wall met wall. Mailys was frantically feeling along the length of the wall for a hint of a genlock; an opening, a bump, anything that could activate the door.

I thought that she had that part covered, and also that if I were putting an opening mechanism for a secret door somewhere, I wouldn’t put it on the door itself. So I started looking around, at the walls at right angles to it. Nothing caught my carefully scanning eyes. I turned to the ceiling, which was covered in an elaborate decorative pattern of small plaster roses. I scanned more carefully along the two feet or so of the ceiling. One of the roses seemed somewhat lopsided. I reached up to it and felt it. Yes. There was some sort of mechanism there. Again, the temperature was different from those of the plaster roses about it. And the difference, visually as well as temperature, was probably something that no normal human being could sense. I felt carefully along the leaf that was slightly fatter than the others and tried for the give to see if it moved at all. It did, wiggling in my hand. I felt one way up and then down the other, looking for a way to slide it.

I met with more resistance as I pushed it left than right, so I let it slide right.

There was a sound like two slabs of dimatough rubbing on each other, and suddenly we were looking into a small, spare room. In the middle of it stood a little blond girl, clutching a kitten and crying.

She shrieked when the door slid up, then said, “Corin!” and ran to him. He took her and the kitten struggling in her grasp in his arms, and stood up.

And I remembered the decapitated bodies in the kitchen, and said “Corin, take Tieri upstairs. Make sure she’s all right.” I met his eyes and tried to convey the idea that under no circumstances should the child be allowed in the kitchen. Mercifully, he seemed to get it. He said, “Yes, Tieri. Let’s go up to your room and get you more practical clothes. We might have to run. And who is this kitten? Have I met him?”

As their voices went away, I turned to Mailys, “Can you help? Is there some way we can dispose of the bodies and make this house secure?”

She looked at me for a long moment, her eyes wide and doubtful, and I thought she was going to tell me I’d lost my mind, but then she shrugged, and started towards the back. “There is usually a small backyard, perhaps large enough for a grave, if we can find something to dig with.”

There was a small backyard, peaceful in the moonlight. It was as though the intruders had come in through the front door and perpetrated their outrages in the house, without ever coming back here.

A neat little lawn filled most of the back, surrounded by roses, which bloomed with a heady fragrance in the warm air, and there was a pond gurgling in a corner of the garden. And there was a shed, in which we found various implements which left me staring at them in bewilderment.

Look, I understand shovels and picks. We had them in Eden too. But the various mechanical devices left me staring. It is obvious that on Eden and on Earth even mechanics have taken completely different routes to accomplish the same purpose.

I think it is because on Earth they had room for bigger machinery. For instance, I’d not seen a big excavator until I’d come to Earth. On Eden, the task of digging, even such a huge hole as needed for a housing compound for a large family was achieved by having many tiny robots dig in coordination, according to pre-programmed parameters.

On Earth they had backhoes and excavators. And in the shed at the back of the townhouse’s garden, we found versions of those backhoes and excavators, automated and controlled by remote. Though all the landscape looked mature to me, clearly someone had done some serious planting and Earth moving around here.

Mailys looked at the machinery with pursed lips, and tried out the remotes, then turned to me, “If you help me bring the bodies out, I’ll take care of disposal while you clean the floor and secure the front door.”

“Do you think we’ll be safe here even if I secure the front door?” I asked. There was something to her pinched expression I couldn’t quite read.

She nodded.

“But if people are going around looting–”

She shook her head. “It wasn’t like that. There is a list…” she pursed her lips.

I felt like the hair was trying to stand up at the back of my neck. There was a something she wasn’t saying.