Only the windows themselves were still visible, and they were distinguishable only as rectangles of navy blue set into a pitch-black background. Seated with his back to the huge furnace, his hands tied tightly behind him, Jarvis shifted slightly to ease his muscles.
The figure standing over him stirred in response. "Relax," Axel's voice came quietly. "It won't be much longer."
"I'm sure," Jarvis murmured. "You realize, of course, that the police aren't going to just let all of us fly merrily out of here. And if that cyanide hits me, it'll be you who gets charged with murder."
Axel chuckled. "You don't know Omega very well. He'll get us out of here, all right. Don't worry about that."
"Don't underestimate Tirrell," Jarvis warned. Under cover of the conversation, he carefully probed the edge of the furnace's metal plate sheathing with his fingers, searching for another place where the coating of rust was thick enough to abrade rope. Omega was smart, all right, but the pressure was making him careless, and he hadn't bothered to check the metal before sitting Jarvis here. Finding a new spot, the scientist resumed his stealthy rubbing. "And my other comment still stands: you're the one holding those bowls over my head, not Omega. He didn't give you this job because he likes you—he did it because he thinks that dragging you in as deep as he is will insure your loyalty to him."
"A lot he knows about loyalty." Axel shifted position again and Jarvis tensed involuntarily. The two small bowls floating rim to rim directly over his head held enough sodium cyanide powder in the space between them to kill him ten times over... and the only thing holding it up there was Axel's teekay, transmitted through a single finger touching each bowl. A slight distraction, a flash of light or whiff of tear gas, and it would literally be all over. "Let me tell you a little secret," Axel continued, lowering his voice still further. "As soon as we're all set up in Omega's secret hideaway, I'm going to get rid of him. I don't think he's telling the truth about making us into priests, and I don't want to wait until Transition to find out for sure."
"You aren't going to live even that long." There was a slight jerk in the rope binding his wrists as one more of the fibers broke. Jarvis strained carefully at what was left. Not quite enough. "If you know Omega as well as you say, you must know he won't just wait for you to act against him."
"You let me worry about that, okay? Now shut up," he added as, across the room, Martel began speaking. "I want to hear this."
It was not, as Jarvis had feared, the order to move out, but merely another in Martel's series of speculations as to what the police were doing. The relative silence suited Jarvis just fine, though. Leaning hard into the rusty metal, he put as much power into his efforts as he could without making any noise... and with a suddenness that jammed his wrists painfully against the edge, the rope finally broke.
Quickly, hardly daring to believe he'd done it, he worked his hands free from the loops around them. Then, moving carefully lest the sound of rustling cloth alert his guard, he rolled over onto his hands and knees and began to crawl, heading for the back side of the furnace. The first three meters were the hardest, as he waited with nerves on end for the shouts that would mean his discovery. But even to his own hyperalert ears he made no sound, and as he continued on, his fears gradually diminished. By the time he halted, half the circumference of the furnace and an eternity later, his heartbeat was no longer the loudest sound in the room. Leaning back against the furnace, his shirt soaked with sweat, he swiped at his forehead with a trembling hand and took his first deep breath in hours. For the moment, at least, he was free.
But even with darkness to hide him, such freedom would only last a little while past the discovery of his escape unless he could get out of the building. The doors, he knew, were out; any that weren't barricaded against the police would undoubtedly have preteens guarding them. The windows weren't designed for easy egress, and opening them made enough noise to wake the dead, anyway. But there was one more possible escape route... one that Martel might not have thought to block.
Jarvis's memory was far from eidetic, but he'd had ample time to study the room's layout through the long afternoon. Slipping his shoes off, he took his bearings from the windows and set off in what he hoped was the proper direction, feeling carefully for obstacles with hands and toes. Ten paces later he found what he was looking for: one of the ladders leading to the network of catwalks high above. With a silent plea to the metal not to squeak, he started up.
His luck held all the way up the ladder and perhaps four steps along the catwalk itself. But his fifth step brought his weight down on what was apparently a rust-weakened section of the grating, and with a loud snap that seemed to reverberate forever one of the heavy wires broke under his foot.
He froze, and on the floor below the quiet conversations abruptly ceased. "What was that?" one of the kids whispered nervously—and the words were barely out when Axel's bellow split the air. "Grack! Omega—he got away!"
"Damn you, Axel—no, hold it, damn it, everyone just stay where you are for a minute. Jarvis, you can't get away—we've got the doors blocked and we'll tear your head off if you try for one of the windows. Give yourself up right now or I guarantee the consequences will be very, very painful."
Under cover of Martel's voice, Jarvis had made it another six steps along the catwalk. Now, as silence again settled onto the room, he paused, hardly daring to breathe. Clearly, no one below had yet realized where the original noise had come from, and he had no intention of giving them unnecessary hints. Pitch darkness or not, once they figured out he was on one of the catwalks they could have him in thirty seconds flat. Squinting into the darkness, he tried unsuccessfully to see how far ahead the next intersecting catwalk was, the one he needed to get on.
"All right, Jarvis, have it your way," Martel snarled suddenly. "Axel, Brody, Royce—go to the east end of the room and start working your way west. Cover every square centimeter of floor and wall and make sure he hasn't climbed onto any of the machinery."
Jarvis had made it to the intersection and onto the proper catwalk by the time Martel finished talking—but he knew his time was nearly up. The mere mention of climbing was bound to bring this aerial walkway to mind, and the minute Martel remembered it he would certainly reach the proper conclusion. Quickly, Jarvis unfastened his belt and took it off, coiling it as tightly as he could. Giving it enough loft to clear the other catwalks, he tossed it as far as he could toward the west wall.
"Aha!" Martel shouted triumphantly. "The cat—"
And with a clatter the belt hit the floor.
The flurry of activity at that end of the building was all Jarvis could have hoped for, and he didn't hesitate. Abandoning all efforts at stealth, he ran at full speed along the heavy wire mesh, his hands merely brushing the low guard rails. Distances were impossible to judge in the gloom, but he tried to form an estimate by counting his steps... and two earlier than he'd expected the door loomed suddenly ahead and he slammed full tilt into it. Beneath him Martel bellowed. Ignoring the stabbing pains in his cheek and right kneecap, the scientist fumbled the door open and staggered into the tiny control room, slamming the door behind him. The pale square of a small outside window gave him direction, and he crossed the room in four quick steps, hands searching the wall for the emergency exit he knew would be there.
For a long second Jarvis stood perfectly still, his mind doing a slow tumble as all his hopes unraveled like an old sweater. The kids would be on him in seconds; far too short a time for him to try squeezing out through that tiny window, or even to sneak back out onto the catwalk. Not that the latter would help him, anyway. Blind or not, they would have him back in their control soon no matter what he did.
And, almost too late, the answer hit him.
He banged the same kneecap a second time in getting to the long control board spanning the room's right-hand side, and he broke a fingernail against the rim of one of the meters set into it as he desperately threw every switch and spun every dial he could find. Most of the equipment had presumably been disconnected or shut down at the machines themselves... but Martel had mentioned both a generator and battery bank. If the connections were still intact—
He was halfway down the board and someone outside was fumbling for the doorknob when he found the right section of the board. Without warning, two floodlights blazed on, lighting up the main room with a brilliance that seemed devastating after the blackness. Jarvis squeezed his eyes shut reflexively and got two more switches before he was abruptly yanked off his feet. He got just a glimpse of Axel's face at one of the control room's inside windows, his face distorted almost beyond recognition by fear and hatred, before being slammed hard against the door. Below, on the floor, Martel was screaming something incomprehensible as he pointed up at the floodlights. There was the sound of breaking glass and one of them abruptly went out—
And with a slap Jarvis heard all the way inside the control room, everyone below suddenly slammed face downward onto the concrete floor. Axel spun around, releasing Jarvis from his teekay hold, and an instant later was flying past the catwalks in a desperate attempt to reach the west windows. But he'd barely covered ten meters before his body seemed to slam into an invisible barrier, and he was plucked from midair to land roughly on the floor beside the furnace. An instant later the outside door was blown in off its hinges and the room began to fill up with police and righthands.
It wasn't until Jarvis walked back onto the catwalk that he saw that Axel was lying facedown in the spilled cyanide powder he'd been holding so recently over Jarvis's head. Lying with unnatural stillness...