I’m not even sure how to begin describing the scene that lay before us as the Cartographer opened the door to the room where Adella, Rothery, and several others were being kept. I can say that the smell is what hit me first. The worst thing I’d ever smelled up to that point had been bodies burning in a derailed train car during the war. This was far worse, a lingering smell of decay and filth.
I spotted Adella sitting on the far wall. While she was obviously malnourished, she wasn’t horrifically so. It was more the look in her eyes that frightened me. Gone was the enlightened, inquisitive spark I’d seen in the young journalism student I’d traveled with all those years ago. In its place was a vacant stare, bordering on feral. I scanned the room and saw the same look in the eyes of the others. And judging from the fact that several bodies lay on the floor, I’d say that they were one provocation away from ripping each other apart.
“There she is, Miss Sinclaire,” the Cartrographer said, pointing to Adella. “The woman you came looking for. Or is it? Take a look around. See those bodies laying on the ground? That one there, he was a captive, just like them. And he was killed by them, based on the suspicion that he’d taken a single bite out of someone else’s food ration. This is what happens when people are pushed enough. In the end, we are just base animals.
“Well, almost. Your friend Adella…she never broke. Never lifted a finger. I know because I watched. She won’t admit that, though. She’s taken on the responsibility along with the others, but her hands are rather clean. Metaphorically speaking. Physically, they’re quite filthy.”
I whirled around on him and grabbed him by the neck, forcing him back against the wall. His men hefted their weapons but he stopped them.
“Now, Miss Sinclaire, let us try to remain civil. I’ve brought you here for a reason. I’m planning to let you, and Doctor Trenum, leave along with your companion.”
“And what’s the catch?”
“A choice. You can take a look around, take in what you see, and decide whether anyone in this room is worth saving. If not, just walk away, along with Miss Villanova here. Or, you can let us have Miss Villanova, and take Miss Chatelaine.”
I looked over at Villanova. She was staring at me fit to kill. It was any easy choice. This woman had been dogging me since Docryville, trying to put a bullet through my skull. It was an opportunity to both get rid of her, and save Adella.
“No,” I said.
“No? No what?”
“I don’t accept either set of terms. They’re stacked, you see. Meant to re-enforce whatever twisted world view you’re trying to illustrate here. You don’t think I know what you’re doing, with this little experiment? It’s all very misanthropic, but I’m not biting. I leave them to rot, it shows how quickly our faith in people can crumble. If I trade one person who’s a problem for me for another I’m trying to save, then I’m just an opportunist.”
“And if you resist, then you’re a fool. What will it be?”
I looked at Veronica, then at Arufina. Anything I chose, I was choosing for everyone. There was no debate about that. But then, the three of us had chosen to come here on our own.
Time to face the consequences.
“Foolishness suits me just fine.”
I brought my knee up, driving it into his stomach and knocking the breath out of him. He folded over and I threw his limp body toward his men, who had all idiotically bunched together in the entry way. They fell back, giving me enough time to pop one of the sleeping pills and toss it into the entryway.
“Veronica, back up from there,” I said as the smoke filled the entryway. I pulled my dagger and turned to Arufina. “Easy big girl. I’m just going to cut you free.”
“You are a fool, if you think this changes anything. I still plan to kill you.”
“Then do it after we get out of here. For now, grab a couple of those guns and get ready to fight. Or are you willing to just leave these people behind?”
She looked at the room. “Poor wretches. Why should I give a damn what happens to them?”
“Because you’re the kind of person who would track a world famous spy half way across the world to make her answer for the death of your friend. You want justice for Osyn? Help me get these people out of here.”
My saying the name of the girl I killed struck a chord with her. I could see it in her face, a temporary moment of surprise. I think that letting her know that I hadn’t forgotten Osyn’s name helped temper whatever rage was inside of her.
“Alright then. I’ll help.”
“Pixie, are you sure about this?” Veronica asked. She’d picked up a gun and was holding it on the entrance. From up the stairs I could hear voices.
“I’m trained for subterfuge, and no offense, Ronnie, but I’ve seen you shoot. Arufina is a trained gun-fighter, and we’re about to fight an army of the same. Yeah. We need her.”
“Do you have any more of those annoying things?” Arufina asked as she found the keys to her shackles and unlocked herself. I supposed she meant my sleep bombs.
“Use it wisely, then,” she said, then proceeded to undo the gun belts of the five unconscious Cartographers. She handed one to Veronica and another to me, then slid the others over her shoulders like bandoliers, and checked each of the four guns. I reloaded my gun, holstered it, and turned to the captives.
They had long since stood up and gathered in the center of the room. In front of them stood Adella.
“Alright, people, listen up,” I said. “We’re going to get you all out of here…”
“But where are we going to go?” one of them asked.
“I don’t know. Back to your homes.”
The man who asked the question started sobbing. I thought about going on with trying to rally them, took one look at the others, and knew it wouldn’t do any good. The only thing to do know was to focus on fighting our way out of there and worry about these people then. I turned my attention to Adella.
“Adella,” I said, and she flinched at the name, then looked up at me. “Adella, do you remember me?”