The Wake-Up Call


Chapter 40: Six

The emergency sirens in the background trailed away just as Hetch did dodging through the narrow gaps between the roadway support struts. The bland greyness of the tall columns was good sturdy guides to a still dazed bombing witness. His hands brushed over the rough, pitted mass produced concrete poles while his artificial arm twitched from a malfunctioning prosthetic micro piston.

The thundering traffic way above his head continued along its endless route of 24-hour deliveries. Everything imaginable that could be shipped together with those which were illegal to were on their way to some remote point within the network of gigantic cities. The columns gave a faint feeling of vibration through Hetch's trembling fingertips. There was always that constant nagging background noise like a dull toothache, something that managed to rattle around the skull unless blanked out by some potent mixture of alcohol and tiredness. Everywhere in the city, once the manic turbulence of day-to-day activity had died down he could the underlying synthetic heartbeat. Hetch would sometimes sit awake all night and dread that damn persistent noise. It was a dripping tap. It was the tick of time passing him by. The feelings of an aimless life without purpose or reason were regular visitors to his nightmarish thoughts. He remembered that desire for excitement, now he desired peace, somewhere to rest and recover.

The layers of the city were vast in both scale and diversity. Each built on previous generations of cost-cutting architecture and corporate economy. People lived in the gaps between factories: they were an afterthought, the flesh and bone mortar sticking the fabric of the city together.

The semi-derelict buildings ahead of him were vast. A thousand different windows greeted his eyes. The pollution from decades combined with discarded junk piled up down here. It was the gutter beneath the gutter above. Discoloured water dripped down through the gaps between cracks. The multitude of colours from every conceivable toxic material decorated the environment. He wondered how much radiation surrounded him and how much longer it was safe to continue this concealed route under the city. The leaking barrel littering the deserted walkways and crumbling stairs made process slow and hazardous. It would have been so easy to slip down a gap and disappear never to be seen again. There were urban myths about mutated dogs and hellish visions that prowled this layer always hunting for some fresh prey. But these were the stories from drunks and narcs smashed out of their skulls on polluted gear.

There it was again, a movement of debris and a cloud of dust. Hetch wasn't in the mood to stop and investigate. He was determined to find the next up ramp or stairs and rejoin the rest of society in their daily struggle. People meant crowds and crowds would mean a steady supply of transport, something he could hitch a free ride by climbing the side when it slowed to take a tight corner.

Something landed behind him by his feet. The sound was solid like rock. No doubt some local street punks were trying to test him, seeing how much nerve he had, whether he would run at the first sign of trouble. The imitation wolf cries and improvised drums convinced him to keep walking quickly enough to reach safety before some ambush could be planned. His eyes kept fixed on the path ahead. The volumes of irregular obstacles were difficult and more than once he cut an ankle or leg on sharp metal junk. It was hard to tell if he was being herded into a choke point where the attack could take place or whether he was in control and choosing the best escape route. A wave of concrete dust rained down on him as a transporter above him struck a slip road demolishing a small-automated signal post. He had to hold it together even if his surroundings were fixed on doing otherwise. His foot slipped on loose debris sending an unknown metal object spinning along the path and down a wide crack before him.

The cries from his pursuers continued as well as an occasional makeshift crossbow bolt round. The heavy alloy spike, crudely fashioned into a weapon struck Hetch's back and glanced off. It could only be a matter of time before the attackers aim improved or Hetch's luck ran out.

The spilt cargo from the transport container began to leak out and find its natural way down from the roadways above. Nearby passengers and drivers ran from their vehicles as the toxic material began to react with the air. The gases and age-old warning symbols covering the truck proved to be a strong incentive to flee from harm's way. The well-practised contingency plan of simply driving round or over the leaking hazards came into place. The profits on the deliveries were knife-edge deep and the often-volatile contents meant transporters never stopped unless a troop roadblock jumped up ahead. The sounds from hundreds of different traffic horns overtook the fake wolf cries around Hetch.

Before him was a wide gap leading straight down into inky blackness. Hetch stood at the edge and measured the distance again and again in his mind.

Above him the sound of a spreading transport pile up drifted downwards. Metal tore on metal as another speeding transport pod crashed into the one in front.

Another improvised metal bolt struck the ground beside him. Turning quickly he spotted the outlines of three, four, five figures appearing from the ground through concealed drainage covers or from wrecked buildings. It was difficult to make out who they were because the dull half-light, debris and toxic waterfall blocked most of his view. It couldn't be. They looked like little kids; wild untamed animals cast out by society and forced to survive down here.

Hetch's arm gave another glitch and thumb and first finger jerked back and forth. The piston was leaking and before long the internal mechanics would totally fail. The deadly looking group moved closer. Hetch stepped back and ran towards the gap. His foot slipped near the edge and his body turned downwards. His head struck the opposite side as his hands absorbed most of the impact. Blood trickled down his forehead and into his eyes. The pain in his fingers was immense. His body swung back and forth for an agonising few seconds. Hanging on for life he tried to pull himself up but his body was too heavy. The damaged arm barely functioned enough to keep the fingers shut. The piston leaked more with each fresh attempt to climb back up. His feet scrambled against the emptiness underneath the walkway. Soon his own weight would overcome his strength and gravity would consume Hetch.

Putting his chin on the edge in an attempt to spread the weight from his body he watched as a small pair of feet approached at eye level. The dust-covered boots were connected to a scruffy looking kid. The kid stared down without emotion. Hetch saw his reflection in the black pupils of the kid. The eyes were cold like empty rivet holes in a discarded metal water tank.

Blood drained from Hetch's face as his mind focused on his familiar features.

"Seven?" screamed Hetch.