Chapter 1

Two things are happening to me at the same time, neither of which I like or I’m used to. 

         One is a sense of relief.

         The other is the claustrophobic grip of chaos.

         Combined they leave me rooted to the spot, giving me a detached sense that I’m more alive than I’ve ever been in my sixteen years on this planet.  I’ve lived in Urban Worlds with digital credits and corrupt Systems, where embracing hopeoften costs you your life. 

         It’s been one Community Home after another, before I ended up in the Holding Centre, kidnapped to Ilse’s Dome.  I wish it were different, but since my parents died, standing somewhere that is not surrounded by institutional walls has become a place of my imagination. 

         Somebody shouts my name.

         Ned

         But I don’t really hear it.

         It’s more a distant echo, like an aftershock that I don’t have to pay attention to if I don’t want to.  

         And I don’t want to as I’m more interested in the warmth from the sun, which heats my skin in a way I had completely forgotten. 

         I glance left, Spencer is dragging a large smooth boulder across the top of the Hatch, which is being forced hard from underneath by the guards that chased us.  He’s straining with the weight of the rock as blood leaks across his forearm and runs onto the sand faster than he seems worried about.  Diego is struggling to walk the soft sides of the sand dune, which encases us from all sides.  His weight and short legs aren’t built for this doughy, moving terrain. Kuro and Chantal have made it to the top and are looking down, pleading for me to move, so I guess it’s them who are echoing my name, but really they are only adding to this strange emotional charge that is pumping through my veins.  

         Rasa tugs at my arm, while she shouts some kind of instruction at Spencer.  

         I want to tell her that I never thought we’d make it out.  

         So my plan is both a victory but also a defeat.

         I’m flat out of ideas and I just want to stand here and enjoy the tangerine sun and warm breeze, which continues to tickle my face. 

         ‘NED,’ she screams.  ‘WE HAVE TO MOVE.  MOVE.’

         Even through her pained face, she looks as beautiful as she did the day I first saw her sitting on the steel bench waiting in line to be hung.  She’s different from the rest of us.  There’s a mental strength I recognise and admire, but she’s tougher than me in many ways.

         And I’m tough.

         I’ve had to be.

         I know that much about myself.

         ‘WHAT’S WRONG?  COME ON!’

         ‘There’s nothing’s wrong with me,’ I say.  

         It comes out calm and contained, and it zaps the panic straight out of her.  

         She nods and I can see she is thinking again. 

         I look towards Diego and she knows immediately what to do.  She ploughs up the side of the sand dune and grabs his arm and begins to drag him forward. I step across to Spencer and help him position the boulder, inspecting his arm before I guide him to the top of the dune.  

         At first, I think he’s been shot, but it looks more that he’s ripped open the skin as he careered down the alloy conduit pipe from heart of the Dome into the industrial core below.  

         Once at the top, I have to count that we’re all present.  

                  One.

                           Two.

                                    Three.

                                             Four.

                                                      Five.

                                                               Six, which includes myself.

         It’s stupid, I know, and I’m pointing at each of us as I’m doing it, taking in the new surroundings at the same time.  

         Rocks and sand dunes in every direction, all under the deepest tangerine glow of the like I’ve never seen before.

         It’s beautiful.

         And dangerous.

         Dangerous, because it’s open ground and we have nowhere to hide.  

         Kuro hears it first, but I’m reading his mind as he cocks his head and looks straight ahead.

         ‘Assault Buggies,’ he shouts.  ‘Lots of them,’ he adds. 

         ‘Ned,’ Chantal says, pointing behind me.  

         I turn to see the start of a mountain range, which I’d somehow missed through the heat haze of what I think is the dying light. I’m not sure what skills I really possess for this life, especially compared to the others in our Pod, but I do have a knack for calculating distances.  

         We are two and a quarter kilometres from being out of the open. 

         Diego has already started to run towards the cover of the rocks, and it triggers us all into a sprint for freedom.

         Chantal and Kuro soon overtake him, powering on. 

         Rasa and Spencer pass him next and although I’m at the rear, I suddenly digest Diego’s fear at being last.

         Left behind.

         To die.

         Picked off, as the weakling of the pack – another Denouncedcaught running away; to be hung at the next session.   

         Nothing could be further from the truth, but struggling to climb out of the sand dune has taken its toll on his strength and he was never built for running.  I wasn’t either, but Ilse’s Military Camp has taught me some new skills and honed all our fitnesses to a different level.

         ‘Concentrate on yourself and don’t think about the others or what’s behind you,’ I say.

         ‘They’re close … I can hear them,’ Diego pants out.

         ‘Close is still not caught.’

         I could run faster, but I match his stride, then up the pace after a couple of seconds.

         It works.  

         Chantal and Kuro are pulling further and further away, but we’re now matching Spencer and Rasa’s pace.  

         I have another worry suddenly hit me.  

         Spencer’s trailing blood.  

         His gash must be deeper than both of us realised and you wouldn’t need dogs or special equipment to track us.  Anyone could follow this trail, and it wouldn’t matter if it were pitch black with a storm howling around them.  For some reason it makes me ignore my own advice and I glance back, wishing I hadn’t.  

         Three guards are stood at the top of the sand dune from which we’ve just run from.

         The guard at the front takes aim, but even I know he can’t hit us from there with his handgun.  

         He fires anyway, more out of frustration than hope.  

         A blue electric arc webs out and dies within seconds, far behind me.  What worries me more is they don’t appear concerned about making chase.  Then I see why.  The Assault Buggies we heard have appeared on the horizon.  

         Six of them in total.  

         They are the same as the ones that transported us around the Dome, but different, too.  Instead of the grey and white camouflage, these are two-toned sand colour with splashes of black.  They are bigger, too, and no doubt quicker, and they seem to merge into the background, disappearing at times into the heat haze.  

         These ones are built for war and that’s what Pod Fifteen has just become.  

         Ilse’s Number One enemy.  

         The frontline of resistance.  

         We’ve escaped the City of Hope.  We weren’t supposed to, but we did.  We beat them. And the guards who came out of the Hatch aren’t chasing, because they know they don’t have to.  They’ve worked it out, like I have, that although we are in this vast open space, our chances of making the next kilometres before the Buggies catch us are next to …well…

         Zero.

         ‘NED!’ Rasa screams.

         I realise I’ve stopped running.  

         But it’s okay, because Diego doesn’t know he’s just given me an idea.  

         ‘GO RIGHT!’ I scream at the top of my voice. ‘GO RIGHT!’ 

         I start running diagonal to the mountain range. It looks suicidal.  Like I’ve made the Assault Team’s job half as easy again. Diego trusts me enough to do the same. Kuro and Chantal have almost reached the start of the mountainous section so they keep going straight, but Rasa pulls Spencer right, and the four of us are running into what looks a certain disaster when it happens.

         The drivers of the six Buggies had veered right to cut us off and are now slowed by the soft sand that I recognised from the dune by the silky glow it gives off in this dying light.  Their vehicles are designed for this topography, but the soft terrain has taken the sting out of their speed and their wheels are spinning on every third turn.  

         Sapping energy.

         I don’t have to tell the others to turn left and head the way we had originally intended.  

         It’s done in an unconscious synchronised movement. 

         The temporary flood of hope gives Diego another gear and we gain on Spencer and Rasa.  Chantal begins to frantically wave at me.  She must have spotted another danger, I think.  Another Assault Crew on our tail.  Maybe an Airborne Crew, as I search the sky around me.  

         But I’m sure I’ve just glimpsed a smile on her fear stricken face.  

         I run on, wondering.  

         Spencer’s dripping blood marking our way.

         Diego and I reach the edge of the change in terrain. It’s gone from medium soft to hard sand to treacherously sharp rocks in less than four strides.  I pause to catch my breath and my bearings.  Rasa is pulling Spencer through a rocked path and I can now see what Chantal was pointing at.  There’s an entrance to a cave.  Or more a man-made entrance to what looks like a Mine.  Attached to the outside wall is a sign with a giant wave, like we’re at a beach and the seaside is close.  

         It doesn’t make sense and Rasa clocks it too and gives me a look to say: what now?

         The six pursuit Buggies have one driver and four armed soldiers each.  

         That’s five per Buggy.  

         Thirty highly trained and armed men against six of us. 

         I glance hard up.  

         The rocks get bigger and sharper and steeper as my eyes search for a path to the summit.  The Buggies can’t be driven up a mountain.  It means we’d all be on foot, so maybe we’d have a chance, but beyond another half-kilometre it’s like we’d need ropes and special shoes and those hooks that professional climbers use.  It maybe wouldn’t matter even if we had all that equipment, because none of us are trained that way, and Diego is never going to make a sheer rock face with or without special tools.  

         I won’t either.

         The Assault Buggies slow and the Teams leap from their seats and fan out in a hard-drilled formation, assault rifles held high across their chests.  

         We’ve fallen within shooting range, but they haven’t raised their guns.  

         Yet.  

         We have nowhere to go and are cornered.  But it’s more than that, I think.  Ilse wants us alive.  She knows how we escaped, but she wants to know how we came to the conclusions we did, or more to the point – how I did.

         If I can deny her that pleasure for a fraction longer then I’ll take whatever the Mine has to offer.

         I nod on that we should enter, and we scramble up.

         Chantal and Kuro duck inside first.  

         I’m expecting pitch black beyond the first few metres, but instead a flickering grey light seeps from deep inside.  

         I help Diego over the last of the rocks and watch Spencer and Rasa duck into the entrance.  

         I’m about to step inside when I deliberately turn and snatch a glimpse at the setting sun.  

         I’ve spent far too much of my short life in grey empty worlds and I’m about to enter another.

         I wonder if this one will be my final destination.


Chapter 2

 

The temperature changes immediately from hot and sticky to cold and damp.  

         Kuro and Chantal forge ahead, leading the way. 

         Rasa lets Diego step in front of her and I’m behind Spencer at the back.  

         I see that he’s losing even more blood and he’s starting to struggle with his footing as his energy and focus drain from him. The adrenaline he had is no longer enough.

         I don’t know what to do or say.

         We run on.

         The uneven ceiling dips in places with pointed, lethal edges, and myself and Spencer are taller enough for it to be deadly if we’re not careful. Thankfully, the floor is even but it’s covered in a light silvery dust that is leaving a tell-tale footprint.  

         We come to another fork in what I’m sensing is a mature Mine with a labyrinth of interconnected tunnels.  We’d be lost if it wasn’t for the strange light that continually reflects off the right side of the wall face.  It’s both glossy and wet, and I can’t work out where it’s coming from, or if it’s just a luminous glow within the make-up of the rock itself. It’s like nature’s perpetual torch and it’s guiding our way, which means it is guiding the Assault Guards, too. 

         And I’m sure they are gaining.

         Their footsteps were light and distant only moments ago, but they’re becoming heavier and faster.  It sounds like all thirty of them have entered the Mine, and I know from experience it’s easier and faster to chase than it is to lead.

         Plus our footprints are mini ghosts ultimately leading them to us.

         I think we should take the risk at the next fork and not follow the rock’s natural light when Kuro skids to a sudden halt, Chantal snatching out her hand and pulling him back by the arm, like she’s stopped him falling.  

         Diego slows to a stop and takes a worried look in my direction.  I can’t see what it is that’s stopped them, but the expression on their faces is enough to let me know it’s not in our favour.

         I sprint past Spencer and catch up with Rasa, crouching under a lower part of the roof and then skidding to a stop next to Kuro in an oval shaped space that is much wider than the tunnel we’ve run through. 

         ‘We’re trapped,’ Kuro pants out.

         He’s trying not to sound worried.  

         But he is and he should be.  

         The tunnel floor has vanished, collapsed in on itself.  

         I’m staring into blackness and I can’t make out the bottom other than I can hear the heavy gush of rushing water.  

         The sign outside now makes sense.

         So do the damp walls.

         I check the jump to the other side.  It’s five metres, dead.  Over sixteen feet in one long leap.  Chantal and Kuro could probably make it with a good run, fuelled by the fear and adrenaline which is screaming through their veins.  Rasa has that ability to make herself light.  So I can see her scissoring through the air and gracefully landing on the other side with space to spare – no sweat. 

         I’ve no chance.  

         Neither has Diego.  

         We’ll fall like bags of stones.  

         Spencer is close to passing out, but he might give it a go – or then again, he might not.  He’s been in the System for long enough to believe he can perhaps play the odds. Hope that his charm and good looks get him by.  Maybe they will, maybe they won’t – his luck, like ours, all dried up.

         ‘What shall we do?’ Chantal says, all breathy and scared.

         Five pairs of eyes stare back at me.  

         Wild and glaring.  

         Expectant and worried.  

         I wish I had the answer, but what I’m really thinking is have we reached that point when it’s each of us for ourselves. I can see Rasa is debating the same thought.  She knows we have come to a defining moment when we are all on our own once more.  It’s like being in Court when you’re fending for yourself, but without your Lawyer.  Not that the System Lawyers were any good.  I almost smile, because this is better than being in Court, because in Court you don’t really have a choice, but here we do. 

         You can jump.

         Or you can wait to see what Ilse has in store for you.

         The choice is down to us as individuals when I’m hit with a new thought.

         I’m no longer Head of Pod Fifteen.

         I’ve retired my post.

         I’m Ned 5-7-9-0-1-2-3.

         An Orphan.

         Alone to make my own decisions.  

         First and foremost – someone who has to look after himself.

         ‘I’m sorry, Chantal,’ I say.

         ‘It’s not your fault the floor has vanished,’ she says, all innocent.

         I don’t have the heart to tell her that’s not what I meant as five of the Assault Team come to a stop, guns raised in our direction.  

         It the first time I see Rasa still has her handgun.  

         I recall Spencer dropping his when he ran out of electronic bullets and scampered up the ladder to the open Hatch that led into the sand dune.  Kuro did the same.  I dropped mine after I emptied all my bullets into Marcellus and killed him.  I don’t recall Chantal dropping her gun or even having one, but she must have lost it at some point because she doesn’t have one now. 

         Rasa raises her hand and points the handgun between the Assault Soldiers who have fanned out into the oval space.  

         They don’t look too concerned by her weapon, more interested in how close we are to the edge of the drop.  I step across to Rasa and pull her hand down.  I’m not sure how many bullets she has left.  Half a magazine at most, but being antagonistic in this tight space isn’t going to help anyone – especially us.  

         And there’s a dark side to me which thinks she may want to keep one of those bullets for herself. 

         Or even me. 

         It’s another choice, if I think about it.  

         Not a great one, but it’s still a choice.

         Suddenly, the soldiers at the front part and Ilse steps through the middle.  She’s smiling and looking calm, and she always has that way of appearing immaculate and unhurried no matter where she is.  It’s probably her skill, like I can judge distances.  She’s dressed all in black, but she’s wearing a desert camouflaged jacket, unzipped, her hands in the pockets.  I notice she is wearing a green armband as are the other soldiers. 

         I’m sure it means something, but I don’t know what. 

         Ilse wasn’t in one of the Assault Buggies, but a lot has happened in my mind since we spotted them so perhaps she was, or perhaps there’s an Airborne Crew after all and they dropped her off, which is why she looks all at ease.

         She takes another step forward.

         It has the emotional effect of edging us closer to the drop as we match her stride.  

         She smiles again, her tongue touching the tip of her lips, lizard like.

         Red is the colour I hate the most in the world. 

         More than grey, and I hate the colour grey.  

         But even I’m smart enough to know she hasn’t ordered them to shoot us on stun, because she’s scared we’ll topple into the abyss and she’ll lose us forever.

         She hates me, I can see it in her eyes; smell it on her breath.

         It’s mutual.

         But she wants us all alive for this crazy experiment that’s being carried out at the Dome, one I don’t fully understand, or even care to try and work out any more.

         I glance behind me and debate the drop.  I wish I could see the end point, because I would know how far I was going to fall.  But I can hear the water and it’s louder than I first imagined, so I’m guessing the stop point is under thirty metres.

         A long way.

         Or not?

         I’m Ned Hunter, not Ned 5-7-9-0-1-2-3.

         And I’m innocent of being a Denounced.

         And I shouldn’t be here.

         Bad luck at being on the wrong side of a corrupt System is all it is and I don’t see why I have to bow to her tune any more.

         ‘Do you remember our conversation, Ned?’ Ilse says.

         ‘Thegravitasone, or the gravity one, I say, looking back at the drop behind me.’

         She smiles, cold and reptilian, the tip of her tongue flicking once again between her teeth.  

         ‘You’re in a unique position, Ned.  You can rise above the original purpose we had set for you.’

         ‘Those Hunter Packs were meant to kill us.’

         ‘I always secretly knew you would survive our test and you even exceeded my expectations by escaping.  I can help you now – officially.  You can be someone, Ned.  Someone special in our World.  You may even be smart enough to rise to the very top.  Be the cream of the cream.  The top one percent of the one percent.  It’s for those privileged few who have what you have – true gravitas. It’s a gift, Ned that you shouldn’t overlook.  Join our World and choose to be someone.  Remember, your World called you a Denouncedand wanted to hang you.  You have the chance for revenge.  Think about that.  It’s empowering.’

         I’ve heard her speech before, but the others haven’t.  

         Confusion creases their faces.  

         Am I with them, or against them?  

         Ilse takes another step forward.  

         It’s subtle, more a shuffle, but it brings the soldiers with her.  

         Another one of those and they might be able to rush us, but I’m not thinking of that any more, or the fact that I was always innocent of being a Denounced, because my concentration has switched to Diego.  He struggled the most with being in the Training Camp and I know he’d rather die than go back.  He’s staring into the dark pit and listening to the water below with an intensity I’ve never seen before, and he might as well have Rasa’s gun pointed to his head, because he’s going to pull the trigger by the look in his eyes.  

         And deep, deep inside of me there’s something which I admire about what he’s thinking, because he’s making a decision for himself.  

         It might not be everyone’s choice – but it’s his choice.

         Then I see it coming

         And he jumps.

         Chantal screams, ‘DIEGOOO.’

         Time and space fold-in on themselves in a vacuum of panic.

         Kuro leaps next, followed by Rasa.

         Spencer does what Spencer does and walks forward hands up, ready to take his chances and I don’t know why I do it, but I grab the back of his collar and yank him into the hole.  

         The look of sheer shock on his face as he passes me and falls backwards into the darkness is comical.

         ‘I can’t swim,’ Chantal screams as soldiers rush us.

         I grab her in a bear-hug as a solider clutches at my shirt, but it’s not enough to make a difference.

         Then we’re falling, together.

         Backwards.

         Chantal is screaming.

         And I’m wondering if we’ll hit the water first or the rocks.

         Or does it really matter?

         I doubt any of us will survive the drop, anyway.


Chapter 3

We’re falling.

         Falling.

         Spiralling backwards. 

         Chantal’s screams cannon off the cavernous walls. 

         Air rushes past us. 

         It’s all part of the chaos and I can feel the hangman’s rope grip my throat as I’m waiting to hit the bottom.  

         Then ice cold water envelopes me and Chantal’s screams stop in an instant.  

         The shock grips at my heart and I’m decelerating, but being pulled downwards at the same time.  It’s then the current yanks me sideways.  I’m being sucked to another place I don’t want to go and it’s all black, and I haven’t got long before I’ll need to breathe.  And I don’t think Chantal is dead either, because she’s gripping me harder than belies her size and she’s suddenly kicking against the current. I shift my arms, hooking one tighter around her back, as I free the other and swim and kick up.  

         She does the same and we break the surface, the pair of us gasping for air.

         ‘I can’t swim … I can’t swim … don’t let me go,’ she screams. ‘I can’t swim.’

         I pull her tighter towards me, but it’s too dark to even see the terror in her face.  Not that I want my own fears reflected back. 

         ‘Rasa … Anyone …’ I call out.

         My voice echoes off the walls and dies into the gush of water that swirls around us.

         We’re picking up speed again.

         ‘Ned …’ bounces back at me.  

         I think it’s Kuro, but I’m not sure over the escalating roar of the water.

         I go to call out but I’m yanked under the surface, and I’m lucky to catch a lung full of breath in time.  It’s like my feet have been grabbed by a giant and his tug is vindictive.  Chantal pulls herself closer, like she’s trying to climb inside of me.  We’re moving at speed, but we’re not being sucked down any more, more across.  I lift my arm and my instinct is right.  We’ve been sucked into a tunnel and the roof is above us.  Our danger now is not the water, but a sharp rock piercing our skulls. 

         We continue to be swirled along and I’m pushing at the tunnel roof in intermittent slots so I don’t get knocked unconscious. 

         It’s then I know this is our end.  

         If this tunnel is hundreds of metres long, we are going to drown.

         There’s nothing myself or Chantal can do.  We’re going to die in a dark place and float in the depths of this mountain for an eternity.

         Forever, thought of as a Denounced.

         The ache in the top of my lungs starts to burn and it will soon force me to breathe.  I know enough to understand that my reflexive need for air is the thing that will kill me.  

         As I breathe my lungs will fill with water. 

         Chantal has started to fight against my grip. Not at me directly, but against her desire to breathe. 

         Her lungs are smaller than mine, so her need has arrived.

         Our pains are building.

         Building.

         I’m bursting and I know it’s all over as I put my hand up expecting more hard rock, but it breaks the surface, so I kick and push and my lungs open and air instead of water floods through my body.

         Chantal screams and pants, and her hot breath is all that I can feel until my eyes slowly adjust to the grey shimmering light that still reflects off the right side of the rock wall.  

         Luminous.

         I look up and can’t see the roof.  The walls are sheer on all four sides and there’s no way out, and we’re picking up speed again, the current determining our lives. 

         Chantal’s grip is locked on and if we die, we’re going to die in each other’s arms.  

         My eyes adjust some more and I can make out Diego and Spencer, and I think Kuro is holding Rasa afloat.  

         If I’m right, then she’s badly hurt or dead already.

         The first of us to go.

         I always thought she’d be the last or survive us all.

         ‘Ned … Ned …’ Chantal splutters out.

         I can see what she’s trying to articulate. Ahead, the water is being sucked at speed into another tunnel.  The funnelling action is giving us a turbo boost we don’t need or want.

         We have a problem.  

         Same scenario.  

         If the tunnel is a few metres long we’ll be okay, but if it's hundreds or more.  

         We’re dead.  

         And where does it end?

         And how many tunnels can we take?

         ‘Ned … there … there … look,’ Chantal says.

         There’s a small ledge that water is washing over and running off.  It’s not much, but it’s better than the unknown of what’s ahead.  I’m not sure I have the strength to swim across, or not with Chantal attached to me.  

         The water is gaining speed by the second.  

         Chantal’s panic is vibrating through me and taking what strength I have left.  She knows if we stay locked together we both could die and if she lets me go then I have a chance.  

         And I know I have this thing in me to let her go. 

         Survival.

         That instinct to simply pull her off and let her work it out for herself.  

         We all have, I think.  

         The System made us like that.  

         And if I was a Taylor or a Suki type, I would have done it by now, but I don’t want to be like them.  It’s not that I’m a hero, it’s just I’m different that way. I didn’t want to kill Marcellus either, but I did.  I had to. 

         To survive.  

         But this is a different choice, like jumping into the hole of water, and not killing the Hunter Pack.

         We’re trapped in the pit.

         It’s all choice.

         You pick your life.

         So, I kick and paddle with my free arm and Chantal uses her arms to try and propel us forward and it’s working, or some.  I keep kicking and water fills my lungs as I bob under the surface, and it’s then I get it.

         ‘Hold your breath,’ I shout at Chantal.

         She does.

         And we dive down, or more let the water do its thing.  

         I catch the current and then push out towards where I think the ledge will be.  We surface and it’s partly done what I had hoped and taken us wider of the pending entrance.  We paddle and kick, and it’s Diego’s hand that grabs Chantal’s and he pulls us forward. I smash my knee into a hidden rock. Pain crashes through me and makes me see white, but there’re enough rough edges of the ledge for me to hold on to and let the moment pass.  

         Chantal scrambles up and out of the water.  

         Diego leans across and helps me sit on the rocky ledge.  

         Spencer is already out and sat against the rocks, blood still seeping from his arm.  He’s looking at Rasa lying on her back, water running across her legs.  

         Kuro looks half dead from exhaustion.  

         I shuffle across to Rasa.  

         She’s not breathing.

         ‘The first tunnel was too long for her,’ Kuro says.

         I start to push at the top of her chest.  A string of water leaks from the corner of her mouth.  I push harder.  Willing her to breathe, and I’m sure I’m shouting Come on Rasa …Come on Rasa,but the noise of the water is drowning out my thoughts.

         ‘You need to give her mouth-to-mouth,’ Spencer shouts.

         It takes a beat for me to understand what he means, but he’s right.  I’ve never done it before, but I’ve seen footage of it.  So I shuffle round and pry open her mouth with my fingers when she coughs water into my face, twisting to her side, spewing more fluid from her lungs.

         ‘If anyone gives me mouth-to-mouth, it’ll be the last thing they ever do,’ she coughs out.

         ‘You’ve got no chance from me,’ Diego says.

         Spencer starts to laugh, followed by Diego.  

         It’s the first joke I think he’s ever cracked. And it’s more funny coming from him, because he and Rasa have never really repaired their relationship, and I sit back and smile to myself as I check on Chantal.  

         We’re all here.  

         Breathing and bruised and cut – but alive.

         Pod Fifteen as one.

         ‘You nearly killed me,’ Rasa barks at Kuro, as she sits up.

         ‘What do you mean, I tried to pull you up.’

         ‘You nearly drowned me, pushing up to get air. I should throw you back in.’

         ‘I pulled you through the tunnel,’ Kuro says. 

         His voice is all high pitched and defensive.

         ‘Always ungrateful,’ Diego says.  He turns to Kuro.  ‘Maybe, you should have let her drown,’ he continues, the playfulness suddenly gone from his voice.

         ‘We’ve got bigger things to worry about,’ I say, standing, inspecting my swelling knee, before looking at the shimmering wall between us and what I think is another tunnel above.

         ‘It’s tough, but it’s doable,’ Spencer says, following my thoughts.

         ‘Doable or not, it’s the only choice,’ Kuro adds. ‘Unless we want to play the holding our breath game.’

         Chantal is helping Rasa to her feet and Kuro has moved to the other side of Diego – I guess, for protection.  

         I realise, I still have the goggles I took from the Hunter Pack around my neck.  I pull them off and remove the strap, tipping the water from the glass. The strap is made of thick strong elasticated material.  I step across to Spencer and use the strap as a torque.  It was a technique we learnt in the Training Camp.  

         I pull it tight across his arm.  

         He whinges, but the blood finally stops.  

         Spencer doesn’t thank me.  

         Not that I thought he would.  

         I pulled him down here, after all. 

         ‘Can you do it?’ I ask Diego, but really I’m asking myself, because I’m not sure I can.  Swollen knee or not.

         ‘I’m never going back to that place, Ned. Ever!’

         I smile.  

         My father used to say that you could never defeat someone who won’t give up and that’s really our only weapon.  

         We keep going, or we die.

         ‘The first part is easy,’ I say.  ‘But I don’t know how we manage the last third.  And the wall is wet, so it’s going to be slippery. If we fall, we should hit the water so that’s a good thing, but then there’s the current.  Any other ideas?’ 

         ‘We should swim to that point there and then climb up,’ Chantal says.

         I see what she’s saying as Kuro cuts in front of me to take a better look.  The ledge we’re on juts out enough to stop the current for two or three metres, and then the tunnel wall beyond has more natural foot holds and protruding rocks to use for our ascent.  I’ve been slow to see that the darker the rock, the dryer it is and, therefore, easier to climb.  

         ‘She’s right,’ Kuro says.  ‘If we start at that small ridge and work straight up keeping to the right side of that seam formation, we could do it.  The only issue is the water this side isn’t deep so if one of us falls we’ll smash into the rocks below the water line.  This side is more slippery but if we do fall we won’t hit the rocks, just catch the current.  Which risk do we want, Ned?’

         I glance across at Spencer.

         ‘How’s the arm?’

         He shrugs, not looking at me.

         ‘We take our chance on the drier side.  Who wants to go first?’

         ‘I will,’ Rasa says.

         I watch her wade out on the ledge of rocks, which means Chantal doesn’t have to worry about swimming to that point.  Rasa looks up and gathers her concentration, before reaching up to start her ascent.

         ‘Memorise her path,’ I say, sitting down as I watch her carefully make her route.

         ‘Ned,’ Diego says, pointing into the water.

         I turn and see the soldier who tried to grab me from falling float by face down.  Behind him is another member of the Assault Team.  We watch them drift by and then get sucked into the tunnel at speed. Nobody says anything and I’m not sure Rasa even noticed.  I glance back at Spencer and I can see he’s gone from relieved at being alive to being resentful at being pulled into this tunnel.  

         I don’t know whether I like it or not, but keeping Spencer from surrendering means that I’m still the Head of Pod Fifteen.

         For now, anyway.