The Tale Of Jon Handshaker, Chapter Five

The Tale Of Jon Handshaker

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Chapter Five

Rats In The Tunnels

Mercifully, Billy was silent as they headed down the black tunnel. Jon 0n-The-Run didn’t know what he he would say if the boy were to ask a question. All he wanted now was to get away from the Home before it came down, and filled the basement and nearby tunnels with fire and smoke. If he was right, there should be plenty of crossings and wider places where they could stop later to think their way through more carefully.

The air didn’t seem so bad, though the smell of sewage was strong. There must be some ventilation, Jon thought. Obviously people were still using the sewers in spite of the law.

After a very short way, Jon noticed that the wall on one side had changed. It was brick now and it had been something different. Looking more carefully, he saw where the brick had been plated over with lead sheeting, held in place with iron bands, now heavily corroded. To keep the rats out? Or the boys in. It didn’t work either way. At any rate, they were at the edge of the cellars now, he considered. He was lucky the iron bands had been so rotten, or he might never have been able to get through the wall.

They continued on through the tunnel, ducking low every dozen steps for the frequent support arches. Masses of mud and trash stuck to the walls and supports showed where the water level rose to after strong rains. The walkway was dry now, Jon was relieved to see. The lower level where the water ran looked to be only half full, though he really couldn't tell without probing the bottom. Something he hoped never to have to do. With a crude oath, he brushed old cobwebs from his face.

After just a few minutes they came to the first crossing. It was narrower but higher than the one they were in, with only a hand-wide ledge on one side to walk on. The water pooled in it looked deeper, though there was really no way to tell. Jon was glad that the tunnel they were on had a wide, dry walkway. His left foot still squished nastily at every step. Jon didn’t want to think about what he had stepped in, after breaking through the wall. He was just lucky the drop had only been a step deep. If it had been like this one he might have ended up waist deep, or with a broken leg.

Jumping the narrow stream at the crossing, the boys continued in the direction they had been going. Billy coughed and hacked, and Jon said in a strained voice, "We’ll stop in a few minutes for a drink." His own throat was raw and painful. Billy had probably got more smoke than he had, back in the cellar. Billy didn’t reply, and Jon was a little surprised at how game he was turning out to be. He had never thought to bring anyone else out with him when he finally ran. The other boys always seemed too rotten and weak of spirit.

This tunnel went mostly straight, but their vision was limited to the small patch of light left by their lamps. No other tunnels crossed their path for many minutes, which Jon thought strange. He hadn't seen any rats yet either, which also seemed strange. Maybe they smelled the smoke? All he had been able to discover in the library records about the defunct sewers suggested they ran everywhere, crisscrossing under the original city. The answers should be in his bag, once they found a place to stop. Jon still worried about smoke filling the tunnels, and he wanted to get a few passages away to ensure good air. The smoke followed them as they walked, making their eyes water and throats hurt.

The nature of the tunnel changed suddenly. It began to weave back and forth, with unexpected wider or narrower places. "An old creek bottom, walled over when they built the City," he explained to Billy, who just nodded. Jon was getting a little worried about Billy, as he continued without speaking. In shock, he thought. When eventually another wide stream joined the one they were on, Jon stopped on the broader ledge, settled down on his haunches to rest.

They sat against the wall, enjoying the relatively clear air that came down the new branch of the tunnels. They soon moved further up into it to get out of the smoke-filled tunnel they had been on. The air currents seemed to be keeping this one pure. Jon laughed shortly and broke off coughing. Billy looked at him in question, and he said, "Clear air, just sewer gas here." Billy grinned, and Jon felt a little relieved. Still has some go in him.

Opening his bag he took out the bottle of wine first, regretting that he didn’t have any water. Wine isn’t good for thirst. He grimaced when he saw the cork, flush with the top of the bottle. Have to push it in, not pull it out. To his surprise, Billy reached over and took the bottle from him. Drawing something out of his pocket with a theatrical flourish, he proceeded to pull the cork. Jon stared, mouth hanging open. A corkscrew!

Billy took a long swallow, then a second before passing the bottle on to Jon. He looked quite pleased with himself. “It was hanging on a hook on the wine rack. Thought you might need it, Coal Boy.”

“I liked you better when you weren't talking,” Jon replied, taking a big swallow himself. He decided to overlook the crack for now, his opinion of Billy had gone up considerably with this display of bravado.

"You know any way to get us out of here?" Billy asked. His voice rose sharply at the end, and Jon thought his show of confidence was paper thin. He decided it was time to pull his own surprise out of the bag.

Opening his lunch sack Jon took out a flat, cloth-wrapped bundle. Carefully unfolding the cloth he reverently removed what was concealed inside. Billy gasped when he recognized it.

"A Book! Where did you get it?" he asked in a shocked tone.

Jon held it up in the flickering lamplight and pointed to the emblem bright on the front. Billy squeaked. The King’s seal. The same stylized flower that the Son had been found clutching in death. A white chrysanthemum. It seemed to glow brighter than the lamplight could account for. Jon looked down at his breast, where the spare outline of the same symbol was embroidered on his apron, as it was on all of the Lamb’s clothing.

"The Library. I got the Librarian drunk and snuck in the King's private room," Jon said, as if it were nothing.

"But...," Billy sputtered. "The magic defenses. The lasers. You could have been cut to sausage!" Everyone knew that the palace was defended with "magic," lasers and other devices ready to cut down intruders. No one but the king’s servants, born to service for four thousand years, had access to most of the palace.

"Kings blood, must be good for something," Jon said, and shrugged. "Have to take some risks if I want to escape. Take a look here." He pointed at the front of the Book. The title was still as new, after all those years.

'History of the Landing on New Gondwanaland, with the Founding of the Capitol City, and Notes on the Progress of the Terraforming Project' it read in bold characters. Jon fingered the edge and the book popped open smartly. Billy jumped. He had probably never handled an actual object of magic before, at least since his testing.

Jon looked over the face of the book, wondering just where to begin. He had handled a few examples like this in his schooling, but each had it's own quirks. Some answered to voice, some to touch, some only erratically after the millennia since they were made. He gently pressed his thumb down on the lower right corner and waited. It would take the Book a few moments to recognize him, if it even would. A sting, then... Yes! The pages came to life. This book must be set to open for any of the King's Blood. Hopefully it's answers would be straightforward, not cryptic.

The Master of Studies had told his class that some books were secretive, encrypted, he had said was the correct word. Those Books might give strange replies, confusing or totally false. The boys were only allowed to handle the more mundane books, the official histories and philosophies texts. Even those could be tricky, offering obscure answers or nothing at all, depending on the exact wording of the question, the identity of the questioner, or perhaps only the whim of the Book.

"Made on Father Mars," Billy said softly, in wonderment, and he stretched out a finger to caress the edge of the Book.

"Earth, actually," Jon said. Billy jerked his finger back as if burnt, his eyes round circles of shock. Jon pointed to a small circle of mottled blue and green on the cover. "It would be a red and white ball if it were from Mars," he explained.

"Aren't you afraid of the curse?" Billy asked. He seemed to have overcome his own fear, for he reached out to the book again. Jon let him take it. Billy examined the Earth symbol closely. "What are you going to do with it?"

Jon took it back as he considered his answers. He finally decided to tell something of the truth. "You know, I'm from the Reservation Lands. My mother was selected, the first ever from there." Billy’s expression showed that he hadn’t known Jon was from the most outcast of outcasts. Even the Sewage Haulers Caste stood higher than Reservation Lands people. "With my father the King and my mother from the Reservation Lands, I don't know whether the Mars or Earth curse would do anything to me. Maybe both, maybe neither. I don't see as I had much choice. I needed a way out. You know! Anyway, I see you aren't afraid of the curse either.”

Billy grinned. "My mom's a back street whore, and I was raised down dockside. No King ever touched my mom. I figure my daddy must be one of the Lambs. They, ah, we come down all the time to the houses. Nobody ever thought anything special about me till I got big all the sudden last year, then the Bounders caught me for testing. They paid my mom the reward and here I am. I guess no Earth curse cares anything about me. Or Mars either." Billy looked angry now, as he thought of the injustice of fate. Jon had grown up knowing.

Jon stuck out his hand, and Billy took it. They gave three strong shakes and fell back laughing. Jon felt suddenly relieved. This boy wasn't at all a useless skinny, as he had supposed. A dockside boy would be tough. Maybe an ally. Or even a friend.

Jon turned to the other question. "I'm hoping this Book will have records and maps of the sewers. They were built when the city was, and the Books are updated sometimes. At least the Books in the Home were. If we're lucky. I was going to use the Book today after finishing the coal, and try to find the maps, then sneak it back into the Library. The Librarian loves his wine. You know, even he can’t get into the King’s private library without a pass. I figured it was safe enough unless the King himself suddenly decided to make a visit."

Billy gave a low whistle. "I'd never try it," he said in open admiration. "You have the King’s own Blood, but the lasers would catch me sure, two generations away. Those lasers were set up to catch the Bandit Kings, quarter-bloods like me." He thought for a minute. "You know what a Bandit King would pay for a Mother Earth Book like this? If we can get it down river to the Free Cities, we could live like the kings too."

Jon smiled inwardly at the sudden we. He was sure that wasn't possible though, and proceeded to explain the why to Billy. "I don't think we can," he said. "All the Books and anything with the Seal can be traced, with, ah, magic."

Jon knew that it wasn't magic, but some kind of technology. He wasn't all that sure of the difference himself, and certainly couldn't explain it, when the Masters themselves had so much trouble. Most people thought anything that worked of itself, all of the old machines from the early days, or even older from Earth or Mars, as magic. Even things the Masters admitted might seem to be magic, had a non-magical basis, even if nobody knew now how they worked. Jon wasn't so sure, some of the women from the Reservation Lands, old witches people called them, could do some pretty amazing things without any old machines to help.

Jon spoke, this time to the Book. "Active session, start, oral mode, authorized user." He said the obscure phrases, with the archaic accent required by those Books that obeyed voice commands. He pressed his thumb again to the small square in the corner of the open Book, and hoped it would accept him. Some Books worked for anyone, some only for the King's close blood. Billy looked on with unfeigned fascination.

After the briefest pause, almost unnoticeable, the Book replied.

Accepted.

Jon and Billy took a deep breath in unison. The book spoke clearly, more clearly than any Book he had ever heard, in the unmistakable tones used by all ancient machines. The Masters said that this was deliberate, the makers had wanted it to be clear when a machine was speaking, and when a living human.

"Display a map of the City."

The Book hesitated. Clarify.

Jon thought for a few seconds. 'Clarify' meant to give the Book more narrow instructions. "Display a current map of the City of Olympus on Gondwana." He knew there was another city named Olympus, on Mars. There had been, thousands of years ago when the ship flew.

No current maps available.

"Display the most recent map of Olympus on Gondwana.

The Books face came alive. Jon was relieved that he had success so quickly. Sometimes the Home Books required hours of patient questioning to get a useful response. Probably the King hadn't wanted to make his own Books so difficult to use, and had kept them straightforward. It was still unnerving to be conversing with an object of legend, and he hoped to keep it as short as possible. He looked over the map and was relieved to see that it was a simple diagram type, not a view from space or a 3-D projection.

Jon used the controls on the edges of the face to pan back and forth across the city. It was difficult to understand what most of it showed, much had changed since this map had been made. Jon had trouble finding any points he knew.

"Center on the King's palace."

The view shifted and Jon got his bearings. He found the Lamb's House without much difficulty now, the main streets hadn't changed much in the old parts of the City. "Superimpose in blue the underground sewer system."

The whole map became a maze of thicker and thinner blue lines, covering much of the detail of the map. Jon was perplexed. The whole city would cave in if that much of it was underlain by passages like the one he was in. He wasn't sure how to proceed.

Billy piped in, "Tell it to show the ones big enough to walk in, and leave out the little ones." Jon gave him a look, and did as told. Most of the lines disappeared and the city came back into view. It now showed a neat grid of blue lines underlying the main streets, and some that wove back and forth like the one they were now in. He wondered what all the other lines were for, sewer connections to houses and so forth, of course, but there seemed to be too many even for that to account for them all.

Taking a long gulp of wine to smooth his rough throat, Jon considered what to ask next.

"Tell it to show us where we are now."

"Indicate current position," Jon said.

Clarify.

"Display on the map a point indicating the current position of this User," Jon said.

Unknown.

Jon sighed and said to Billy, "It was a good idea." Billy's eyes narrowed and he took a long sip from the bottle. He seemed to take this as a challenge. Jon tried to decide just where they were on the map. He thought he had the right spot, but the map showed that there should have been more crossing tunnels than only the one they had met to reach this spot. Some of the angles didn't seem quite right either, reducing his confidence in his conclusions.

They continued questioning the Book, with decreasing success. The books answers began to take longer and longer to come, and seemed to be less and less useful. Jon suspected that the Book's encryption was becoming active. Soon they wouldn't be able to trust anything it said. Billy continued passing questions through Jon. He had not yet had the classes dealing with archaic machines and the precise language needed to make them work. To the boys surprise, the Book spoke first, without having been asked a question.

All users must present identification. Place your thumb on the identification plate for access.

Jon and Billy exchanged glances, and Jon repeated the process as he had done before, pressing his thumb on the lower right corner of the Book. He was nervous now, these ancient machines had ways of protecting themselves against those who were not supposed to be using them. But there wasn't even the slight prick of the DNA test this time.

All users must present identification.

Jon thought he understood now. The Book could hear everything they were saying and it had figured out the Billy was feeding him questions. He pointed a finger at Billy, who jumped slightly and rocked back against the brick wall. He closed his eyes and put his hands out. Jon set the Book in them.

Billy looked over the face of the Book carefully for a time, then gathering his courage, pressed his thumb down on the square as he had seen Jon do. A small cry escaped him when the machine drew his blood for the test, but he kept his finger firmly down. Jon thought his normally dark face looked quite pallid in the flickering lamp light. Not his usual cocky self. These ancient machines were dangerous. Everyone had heard the stories. The King paid a high bounty for any old machine discovered, and most people were happy enough to get rid of them as quickly as possible. It was a measure of their desperation that they were willing to try a machine that was obviously already suspicious of them.

The Book took a very long time considering whatever it had gotten from Billy. Jon finally put out one of the lamps to save oil. Billy set the Book down between them, looking exhausted. Slowly he closed his eyes, and Jon realized that he was asleep sitting up. Jon slumped down too. Having only wine to drink wasn't helping, but he wanted to be awake when the Book made it's decision. Making a thin pillow from his lunch bag, he lowered Billy down onto the tunnel floor. Jon forced himself to stay up. He could sleep after Billy woke.

Turning the wick on the remaining lamp down to its lowest point, Jon finally leaned back against the tunnel wall to wait and think. The dark was oppressive in these dank and stinking tunnels. Jon was feeling the weight of cold necessity on his shoulders. He would have to tell Billy about what he had seen above. He was sure all or most of his brothers and the Masters were dead.

What he didn't know was the why. He guessed that the Son had been assassinated by the King's enemies. Most likely this was the starting round of a new revolution. The other question was who. It could be the Bandit Kings from the Free Cities, but he didn't think so. It didn't seem possible that they could mount such an attack so far from their bases. Assassination yes, but the armed and armored men he had seen blocking the gate to the Home, no.

It must be a faction of the Blood Nobles then. But one willing to give up the advantages they got from King, to forgo the infusions of Royal Blood into their families every generation. Soon, in two generations or three, they would be little different from the common people, losing the long life and health and everything else that came from the King. Every Blood family in the Middle Kingdom had Jon's half sisters married to their sons. The King's sons of course had a different fate. They were a potential threat to the Blood Families and to the King. That was the real reason for the Lambs, Jon knew. Too useful to kill at birth, too dangerous to be allowed freedom.

Jon sighed. He looked down at the open Book and saw that it was still working away. The hands of a stylized clock turned in the center of the Book's face. Sighing again, Jon lay down with his head next to the Book, with his rolled-up apron for a pillow. He thought that he would be able to wake if the Book spoke. What could it be thinking of for such a long time, he wondered muzzily as he drifted off to sleep.

***The remaining chapters have been temporarily taken off line. Please be patient.***

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