The holo snapped off suddenly and darkness hit the small room like a bomb. Thatcher spoke urgently. "We'd better move fast. The ENC'll be here in minutes. Get your assigned buddy and we'll go."
They formed pairs, silent and well-disciplined. Thatcher led them down a spiral staircase. Below were equipment rooms, storage bins, racks of crystal memory, graphic holo processors and local node controllers, dimly lit by a series of old-fashioned orange tubes along the ceiling. At the end of a short corridor a door marked with warning signs and an impressive magnetic lock indicated an emergency override inspection corridor. Thatcher produced a small device and within seconds the lock snapped.
Overhead the sound of the door opening and the thump of rapid footsteps told them the ENC had arrived. The door slid up, and two by two Thatcher shoved the group through, counting them off as he did so. When only he and Peter were left they exchanged glances. "Larin?" Thatcher asked in a quick whisper.
Peter looked around. Overhead voices were querying the system. "I don't know," he whispered. He ran a few steps back the way they had come. Larin was sitting on the floor at the foot of the steps holding her ankle. When she saw Peter she tried to stand, but her foot twisted out from under her. Peter grabbed her and hauled her forcibly along, limping badly.
The voices grew louder, then fainter; apparently some of the ENC had gone outside, but footsteps overhead moved toward the spiral stair. Peter hauled Larin through the door, and Thatcher pressed the close patch. It slid into place, and he went to work with his device once more.
"I've changed the program a little," he said. "It'll take them some time to get through. Meantime they should conclude we went outside. Come on."
He led them down an ancient and poorly maintained inspection crawlway. Bare dirt spilled through the rough patches where the laser drill had slipped its settings. A thin trickle of groundwater flowed down the center. Thatcher put one of Larin's arms over his shoulders; Peter took the other. They moved swiftly down the tunnel, which curved gently to the left. Along the upper third of the left hand wall was a set of six thick conduit pipes for old fiber optic trunk lines. Niches set every few hundred meters housed disused repeater stations.
"Wait," Peter said. He was gasping for breath.
Larin said, "I twisted it on the stair," she said. "I can't walk. Leave me here."
"No," Peter said sharply. His voice softened. "Not only does your voice lack conviction, Larin, but we are not leaving anyone. Thatcher, what were these conduits for?"
Thatcher consulted a small palm screen. "Primary instruction routes from Chicago for Decatur Node."
"Could we interrupt service?" Peter suggested.
Thatcher smiled. "Perhaps we could. Data still flows through here." They moved on to the next repeated niche and examined the housing. "Well, well, look here."
They looked where he was pointing with his light. "What is it?" Larin asked.
"Rat scat," Thatcher said.
"Our friend the rat may be just what we need. See how they've gnawed at the corners of the housing here? A minute structural failure could result from such damage, thusly. There, that should do it. Let's go."
"I didn't see anything," Larin said.
Thatcher pointed at his palm screen. It was dead. "This was linked by induction. Nothing's moving through there now. Our ENC friends back there will be busy for a while."
They moved off. The others were far ahead, waiting at an intersection. Thatcher indicated a right turn, and they moved on. Thatcher's screen lit again in the new tunnel, and he consulted it from time to time, making turns when necessary. Finally they stopped.
"We're under a subnode northeast of Springfield. We can't make good time like this, but it's relatively safe. The ENC cops back at Decatur have apparently given up on the emergency door, but CP will send a probe down into the tunnel to find that break we made." Thatcher looked closely at the walls and ceiling. "I'd say the time has come to go topside. I'm moving intuitively here, but now it's time to do something surprising. Let's go."
He opened a hatch. Inside was a small equipment bay. Holo charts flickered in realtime along a monitor wall. The group moved through the room and up another spiral stair. Again the door opened.
Light snow was falling outside.
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All text © 1986 Rob Swiggart. "Portal : A Dataspace Retrieval" is available courtesy of the Author's Guild Backprint Programme. ISBN: 0595197841All programming and software © 2002 Salim Fadhley. Released under the GPL. Code available on request.
Updated: Sun Apr 14 2002
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