Rebecca swore she had not heard Jason correctly. "I'm sorry, what?"
"Seat belts," said Nick. As if there was any chance they weren't already wearing them. He floored it and at the last moment, as he entered the bridge, veered upwards and over the edge.
It would be foolish to think the cops had not considered the possibility an anti-grav vehicle would jump off the bridge and simply fly across the chasm that separated the City from the surrounding valley. The two larger police cruisers hovering above the road block turned to follow them.
But Rebecca doubted they had even considered they would actually enter the Purge. Who would?! Nick dropped down and the background roar of water grew to an all encompassing thunder. Rebecca gripped her door handle as they dropped, and then Nick levelled out. How close were they to the waters surface? Rebecca dared not look over the edge to check.
The police cruisers had slowed, warier than Nick to approach the churning vortex below. A flash of blue streaked past her, easily visible in the deepening darkness. Two more whizzed past close.
"Great, now they're shooting at us!" Nick growled. He swerved.
"You should've got a vehicle with a roof, hun," said Steph.
"It's a convertible..." Nick mashed a button on his dash and the roof began to hum as it closed over.
Rebecca glanced behind them. Evidentially someone had decided it was safe to send a cruiser down towards the Purge because one surged after them, sirens blaring, lights flashing blue and red atop its massive hood. The huge vehicle, the size of a small truck and coated in inch thick NIASteel armour, was still fast.
Jason leaned out his window, ignoring the energy bullets that zinged past. The cruiser's sirens faltered and the vehicle dipped down, listing towards the surface of the Purge. Even with the NIASteel armour the surging vortex would rip it apart.
"Jason, no!" Rebecca activated her own Control. The cruiser shuddered. Rebecca felt another tug within the vehicle's powerful systems; Jason trying to send it down into the vortex. He had attacked the anti-gravs, trashing them so the heavy vehicle was struggling to stay aloft. She ignored those and sent full power to the cruiser's thrusters. It surged upwards, cleared the City's edge, and smashed into the street and skidded into the nearest building. That was still better than into the Purge - the armour would protect it from even that heavy crash.
Jason was glaring at her, his jaw set in a hard line. Then his attention flitted to something outside. He sucked in a breath and his eyebrows drew together. "No, not again."
Behind them another vehicle sailed off the cross bridge’s edge and down towards them. At first it was only visible by its headlights but as it drew closer it's hull gleamed white.
"Distract her," Jason snapped at her. He pulled out his handheld computer and activated it. "Let's hope she keeps away from my nanites this time."
"Jason, where's our ride?" Nick said nervously. The Pegasus had begun to vibrate.
"What do you think I'm doing?!" Jason slapped the handheld and it came to life. "Conrad! Where the hell is the Leviathan?"
Rebecca turned her attention to Valerie's Peacekeeper. Perhaps she could attack the steering again. But this time, Valerie's attention snapped away from the Pegasus in an instant and halted Rebecca’s attack. The presence that blocked her was steady and strong; not the same as she had encountered stopping Jason's erratic attack on the cruiser. It felt as if Valerie simply waited, and when Rebecca reached out to control the steering she calmly pulled it away from her.
"Jason... I could use some help..."
"Just keep her busy!"
The handheld computer squawked. "Right ahead of you, Jason. Just hold your present course."
"Present course happens to be right into the waterfalls, in case you were wondering,” Nick muttered.
“Pull a little to the left,” the voice on the computer advised.
The curtain of water before them was dimly lit by the reflected lights of the City. The beast that parted it was like a void in the glistening surface. First there was just the wall of water, then suddenly a circular mass perhaps as wide as three police cruisers side by side poked through.
"Woah!" Nick had already been veering to the left, but he swerved harder in fright, even though he was well clear of the monster.
It passed to their right, slipping past, a long black cylinder that creaked and groaned as the weight of falling water lifted from its hull. It was some sort of ship. But no running lights gave further definition to its surface. Save for the sudden, brief flash of blue energy that spat from somewhere near its tip and slapped into the corner of Valerie’s Peacekeeper.
The Peacekeeper dipped downwards and cleared the majority of the blast, but so sudden was the manoeuvre that Valerie didn't have enough space to pull up. Not before she hit the surface of the Purge. The churning water was illuminated briefly in the Peacekeeper's headlights. And then the Peacekeeper plunged beneath the surface. It was snatched sideways, the light streaking sideways as the current took hold, and in less than a second this too disappeared.
"Okay, how do I get into that thing?" Nick asked. "Jason!"
Jason stared out the window at the Peacekeeper's last location, as if Valerie might miraculously reappear should he stop looking.
"What? Oh, there should be... Conrad, open the dock. Before that other big cop vehicle thing starts taking pot shots at us again."
“It’s a 2058 standard issue Cruiser..." Nick muttered.
On top of the cylinder a hatch cracked open. This was lit by stark white lights. It was like the beast was opening its mouth and inviting them inside.
Nick floored it, darting upwards and through the hatch into the small docking bay.
Jason led them off the Pegasus, out of the small docking bay and through a door with a high threshold and a wheel operated opening mechanism at its centre. Through a short, tight corridor, and then down a ladder. They wound up in a small room with blinking and humming equipment packed tightly on every wall, dimly lit. This had to be the bridge of the massive ship. A darker skinned young man with short cropped hair was on the far side of the room, hunched over a faintly glowing dome riveted to the control panel. "Conrad, get us out of here!"
"Working on it, Jason," Conrad said, turning around briefly. "I've got to make the plunge just right, otherwise the currents are going to tear us apart."
Jason drew in a breath and leaned back against one of the consoles, shoulders tensed.
"Wait," Rebecca said. "Currents? You mean we're really going through the..."
"That's what I told you, sweetheart," said Jason. "We can't take the Leviathan over the edges of your valley, the glaciers are too high, and even if we could? If anyone in your City saw Leviathan the whole place would have a fit. It's hard to miss."
"So we're going through the Purge?! But it just goes to nothing..."
"It goes somewhere alright, along with all your trash." Jason glanced back up at Conrad and shifted his weight. "And we should get out of here real soon. They might not have Peacekeepers, but I'm sure those bigger police vehicles..."
"Cruisers,” Nick said, barely loud enough for Rebecca to hear.
"... have still got some decent weapons..."
"Got it!" Conrad exclaimed. "Hang on."
Leaving no time for anyone to actually hang on to anything, Conrad plunged the ship beneath the surface of the Purge.
The Leviathan jerked hard to the right, flinging them all against the consoles. The hull began to vibrate and shudder about them, and a roar like the biggest storm that had ever pounded Rebecca's apartment windows took hold. Nick grabbed her by the shoulder, steadying her.
"You sure you've got control of this thing, Conrad?" Jason shouted over the roar around them.
"Who's driving?!" Conrad snapped back.
"It didn't do this before!"
"That's cause we were going against the current, now we're with it... I can't control our speed..."
"Relax, Jason. I've got her through worse."
Rebecca pressed back against Nick. The creaks and groans of the hull were getting worse. The Purge was going to rip them apart! Why had she followed these guys?!
And then the roar let up and the vibration stopped. An expanse of relative silence was left, punctuated only by the hum of equipment and clicks and creaks of the settling hull.
"And the good thing about careening through that passage at breakneck speeds," said Conrad, turning around and letting out a pent up breath. "Is that it's over real quick. Although, I would recommend we get Sarah to give the hull a go over when we get home. I know we put the Leviathan through the water a lot... but not like that."
"Don't worry,” said Jason. “I’m not planning on taking her through the Purge again."
"So, what now?" Nick asked. He still had his hand on Rebecca's shoulder. She wasn’t sure if he could feel her shaking. "Where are we? Down below?"
"Yeah. But we still need to move. I don't like hanging around in one spot for too long."
"No problem," Conrad nodded. "I can take us through the night, bring us home by morning."
Jason nodded, chewing his lip. "Can you do a scan for Peacekeepers?"
Conrad frowned. "Sure, I'm easy, I'll do whatever you want. Any reason? Peacekeepers don't usually hang around the Purge's outlet."
"You want to look for Valerie?" Rebecca asked. She could still see the seemingly tiny Peacekeeper being snatched away by the massive current of the Purge. Sure, Valerie had chased them; she was part of the reason that she'd had to leave the City. But Rebecca wasn’t sure she’d deserved to be destroyed so violently.
Jason looked at her hard and folded his arms. But he said nothing.
"Valerie?" Conrad frowned. "Wait, that Valerie? The one you keep talking about? I thought she was long gone."
Jason looked at the floor. "Yeah, that Valerie. Seems she was up in the City. She went into the Purge just before we did. If she got through..."
Conrad was shaking his head. "Look, I know I played that cool, but if I had to be honest? The Leviathan barely made it through. She's basically a big old pressure vessel; she's made for the water. But I still nearly clipped the walls a couple times. I don't care what mod she activated, a Peacekeeper would not make it through."
"Just do the scan," Jason snapped. "If she's gone, great. But I'd still like to check."
Conrad shrugged. “Hey, it's fine. If it'll put your mind at rest."
"Probably not." Jason turned to the rest of them. "There's no point you hanging around up here; you'll only distract Conrad. I'll show you the rest of the ship."
Jason led them down a narrow corridor that opened at the rear of the bridge and stretched down the length of the ship. About ten meters along it Jason stopped in front of the first large metal door on the right. "There's bunks and sleeping quarters down the right. Take you're pick; no one else is on board. Mess is on the left..." He turned his back on them and opened that first door, stepped through it and slammed it behind him.
Rebecca raised an eyebrow. So much for a tour.
"We'll figure it out," said Nick to the closed door.
The door creaked open again and Nick looked up innocently at the ceiling.
"And you can give me that back," Jason said, ignoring him. "You won't need it down here. Conrad won't want you messing with the Leviathan. Neither do I."
"Oh." It took Rebecca a second to realise he meant the Control. She still had it on her hand. She slipped it off and handed it back to him.
"Thanks." The door slammed behind him again.
"Jeesh, what a weirdo," said Nick. He took a half step back, as if he expected the door to open again. When it didn't, he shrugged. "So, is anybody hungry?"
"I've been poking through computer systems for the last two days and I've barely slept," said Steph, rubbing at the corner of her eye. "Yes I could use something to eat."
"Of course, after that," Nick said with a smirk, "if you want to keep me company later..."
Steph gave Nick a firm poke in the chest. "You can get your down damn bunk."
Nick just grinned. "What about you, Bec. Are you hungry?"
She should have been. Rebecca hadn't eaten since breakfast. And yet she had no appetite. Her thoughts were a whirl. Here she was in a giant tin can hurtling away from the only home she'd ever known, to a place she didn't believe existed. What she needed was someone to talk to and that someone should have been Nick.
But he seemed a lot happier around Steph. Why hadn't he told her about her? Sure, there had been the whole thing about her being part of the resistance. But it still bothered Rebecca that Nick hadn't even thought to introduce them. Surely he could have made something up about how they met, what she did?
"I'm not really hungry," she finally said. "Maybe I'll try and sleep."
"Okay, night,” Nick gave Rebecca a quick squeeze and then headed in the direction of the mess with Steph in tow.
Rebecca paused in the metal corridor, suddenly alone with only the creaks and groans of the hull and the hum of the engines. She didn't want to go to sleep either. She glanced at Jason's closed door, but quickly dismissed that thought from her head. He obviously didn't wish to talk to anyone. Instead, she headed back to the bridge.
Conrad was focused on the controls. He had the lights dimmed; he was only illuminated by the faint glow of the equipment around him.
"Am I going to distract you if I hang out here?"
Conrad glanced over his shoulder at the sound of her voice, then shot her a big grin. "No, of course not. I could drive this thing with my eyes closed. And I've been all by myself in this tin can for the last couple of days, and just Jason before that, so I could use the company."
Rebecca slid up beside him. "I am a little curious about how this works. Do you run this whole ship by yourself?" One thing that would easily allow her to take her mind off her life spiralling steadily out of control was the chance to figure out how the ship operated.
Conrad nodded. "Yup. I'm a Controller."
Rebecca felt a smile tugging at her lips. "Yeah? Well, at least it's not just me."
"Well, there's Jason."
"... but he's kind of intense, yeah?"
"That's one word for it."
Conrad shrugged. "He's a great guy, really. He just gets a little bit stressed out. This mission has been a big deal for him."
Rebecca rolled her eyes to the ceiling and huffed. She'd about had enough. "The mission? I'm not even sure what this mission is. Except for 'acquiring' me. What does Jason want me for? I mean, yeah, I'm a Controller, which is great, but so are you it seems, and him..." She shrugged palms up towards the ceiling.
Conrad nodded and smiled faintly at her. "He's not really a fountain of information is he? Yeah, I know."
"So can you tell me?"
"Maybe. He wants your help to rescue a friend of his. She's important, or so Jason says. Says she had something to do with developing the Control. And, you know, someone like that on our side..."
"Yeah, he told me all that, but why me?"
Conrad just shrugged. "Like I said, he doesn't give out a lot of detail. And he’s been tight lipped on this one, even for him. Look, as far as I know he's convinced you're the only one who can help him, but I couldn't tell you why. You'd have to ask him yourself."
"Hey, he'll be more likely to tell you than me. You're the one he needs the help from anyway. But don't worry, he won’t let anything bad happen to you.”
"Nothing worse than getting dragged out of my life?"
Conrad gave her a crooked smile. "Nah, it'd be nothing worse than that. I think he's just quiet on it because, well, he's been trying to get her for a long time. It’s been about ten years or something. I think they may have been close. But it was before I got here. And hey, if I was trying to get someone I cared about out of some machine for that long I'd be tired of telling people about it too."
"She's in some machine, some experiment..." Conrad shook his head. "I haven't been game to ask him any more detail on that either. I don't need to know and he doesn't need to talk about it."
Rebecca shifted her weight. Well, perhaps she could forgive Jason for being so blunt. Maybe not for dragging her out of the City. Or tossing her into a stolen car. One thing she was sure of, she'd make sure she got more information out of him once she got the chance.
"So, this ship..." she said. She glanced down at Conrad's hand. "If you're a Controller, how come you don't need one of those glove devices?"
Conrad grinned at her again. He did that a lot. Rebecca couldn't help thinking it was a nice grin. "Not a glove, no. But everyone needs a device. This is mine." Conrad patted the domed device bolted in front of him to the console. "Well, it's the one for the Leviathan. It's hardwired in. I used to use one of the gloves, but then that kept getting pinched when some of our other Controllers wanted to use it. But it's too important to have the Leviathan under a Control at all times, so Sarah, our engineer, fitted this for me. The ship can still be run without a Controller, but it takes a lot more people. And I prefer to do it myself. People tend to... fiddle with things."
"Yeah, Jason mentioned you wouldn't like me doing that. So I guess I can't count on you letting me drive?"
"Sorry, nope. No one controls the Leviathan but me. But..." Conrad passed his hand over his domed Control and an image flickered up on the thin glass panel screen in front of him. "I can show you what she looks like."
A green hued schematic appeared on the screen. It showed a long bullet shaped ship. It's hull was smooth, with only a bit of a hump on its top, and a short section of exposed deck. It's behind tapered back.
"This is a submarine..."
Conrad grinned at her again. "Hey, what do you know? You City folk aren't so stupid. Yeah. Well, sort of. Heavily modified and patched back together. I think the resistance must've picked up the hull years ago, but I have no idea how old it is." Then he frowned. "You guys aren't making new dedicated submersible machines or something, are you? Because if they sent some to the System's Controllers that might make things difficult for us."
"No, we don't. Not that I know of anyway. It's old world stuff. I've only ever seen one in some kids’ picture book Dad used to read to me." She smiled faintly.
"Good. Because it would be a little embarrassing if Leviathan got herself caught."
Rebecca glanced at the scale on the schematic displayed in front of them. "This thing is huge. I would think it'd be easy to catch."
Conrad grinned, shaking his head. "You'd think. But no. One, she's got the best pilot in all of below. And two, we've got a very basic protection system, kind of like that protection bracelet Jason gave you..." He pointed to her wrist.
Rebecca shifted the device around her wrist. She'd almost forgotten it was there.
"Unfortunately the bigger the machine the bigger the protection equipment needed. So between that and her thick hull we can only slow them down. And then they've got to contend with me. And three, Leviathan's a thick hulled pressure vessel and a hell of a lot more manoeuvrable than you'd think. I know the passages and underwater caverns and waterways down below pretty well. If we ever get ourselves in trouble, or the System's Controllers are following us, I take her down underwater and lose them. Sometimes they'll try and follow us, but we either lose them or they get destroyed. They're usually not game enough to follow us somewhere dangerous. But hey, when you're running for your life you’re much more likely to go somewhere you haven't been and pray for the best. You're already dead if you get caught, or worse. So far we've been safe. But I've had a couple of close scrapes. But that Purge..." He shook his head. "I hope Jason never wants me to take us through that thing again."
Rebecca was struggling to make sense of that last one. "But wouldn't that mean you'd need to be close to water?"
"Sorry, I forgot, you're from the City - all that land and only a few large rivers and of course the Purge." He wasn't saying it as if it were some inherent fault of hers, just a statement. "There's a lot more water down below. All those missing bits of earth left a lot of holes."
Rebecca remembered Jason's half chewed apple. Somehow, that first time it hadn’t really sunk in. Well, at that time she had thought Jason was crazy. ”Whole chunks of the planet? They’re just…”
"Gone," Conrad finished for her, when she trailed off, "completely gone. And all the water fills the holes. There's a lot of holes. And what's left is either hard rock, which just gets the heck mined out of it, and maybe a bit of farmland on some of the higher spires. Of course, most of those get commandeered by the System. Gotta feed the City and everyone else working for it." He glanced at her. "Sorry. Not your fault. You were just born there."
"They don't tell us any of this." And then that old doubt crept back. "Assuming it's true."
Conrad laughed. "You want to see if first, huh?"
Rebecca shrugged. "It doesn't quite make sense. We shouldn't still be here, none of us, if we'd done all that."
"Well, tell you what. When it's light tomorrow and we're somewhere relatively safe go up on deck and see what you can see. It's hard to argue with that."
Rebecca nodded. "Man, I just don't understand any of this... I mean I do, but..."
"Bit heavy, huh?" Conrad smiled at her. "Maybe you want to talk about something simpler. You're an engineer, right?"
Conrad fiddled with his Control, and the schematic onscreen changed. "I can't leave the bridge, but why don't I walk you through some of the engines and other systems on this baby?"
Despite her discomfort with the entire fiasco that had befallen her over the last few days, Rebecca couldn't help but grin back at him. Hell, his laid back attitude was catching. "Sure. I'd love that."
His cabin on the Leviathan was one of the few places where Jason could easily find refuge in sleep. The steady thrum of the engines, even the creaks and groans of the hull, could usually lull him into a relatively peaceful slumber. The thick hull between him and anything that might try to get in at him made him feel safe.
But tonight he was still staring at the dark metal ceiling long after he'd lain down. It was hours since they'd safely made it through the Purge. There was no immediate threat. Even the fear that had eaten at his gut when they'd first come through - that somehow Valerie Chase too had survived the plunge - had dissipated. Conrad hadn’t found signs she had survived. He’d either have told him by now, or there would’ve been the nauseating movement of the ship that announced they were running for their lives. They'd trashed plenty Peacekeepers that had followed them into water passes and caverns. Valerie's would be no different.
It was a long time coming, but she was finally out of his life for good. She had to be.
And this was part of the reason he was still awake. As well as Valerie being out of his life, he finally had found Rebecca. It had taken him a good few years to even locate her in the first place. Now she was on the Leviathan, heading back to Refuge with him. He was closer to fulfilling the goal he had worked on for the last ten years. He could not mess things up now.
No, he would not be sleeping tonight.
With a sigh, Jason swung his legs over the edge of the small bed and turned on a dim lamp. His cabin was not large. But it had a small desk, a chair, the bed crammed into the corner, and about four meters square of floor space. Most importantly, it had a door. At least he could be alone if he wanted.
Over the back of the chair, Jason had slung his well-worn coat. He pulled this towards him now and riffled through the pockets. He quickly found what he was looking for, safely contained in one of the sealable inner pockets.
Jason clutched the photograph he had shown Rebecca on their first meeting. Revealing it to her then had been a mistake. She hadn't recognised the woman it showed; if she had, it would have made things so much easier.
Jason studied the photo in the dim lighting, as if he might learn something new from the familiar, tattered image. It was only after staring at it for a long moment that, with a sigh, he touched two fingers to his lips and then brushed the fingers gently against the picture's surface.
"I'm coming for you soon, sweetheart."