Relic Trilogy: Mouse
This is the first book in the Renegades Rising Quartet.
Coming Late 2022
Excerpt: Unproofed / Unedited
Deep-level three was harder for Mouse to blend into. The lights above the housing were brighter. Bright enough she’d squinted against the glare when she had first crawled through the ductwork to this level.
She’d taken the time to let her eyes adjust and to watch the people from the vent she hid behind. This was the highest level she had been to so far.
She had a mission, to get to Mr. P’s shop where she could trade sparklies that were found on the level where she lived. She had memorized a list of who wanted what and had her own little bit of trade goods to trade for yarn for her Nana. This time even Tully, her best friend, had an order.
But first she had to get to Mr. P’s and that meant she had to blend in. She would need to take a bath and change clothing. The clothing here was a lighter fabric than what was issued on Deep-level six.
Then she would have to mimic the attitude of the people who moved by. They didn’t move as if they expected an attack at any time. Nor did they move like predators waiting to pounce.
Instead, they all moved with heads thrown back and walked down the middle of the sidewalk as if they didn’t have a care in the world.
Most importantly, she needed to avoid the interest of the sharp-eyed men on some corners who checked papers. She’d watched them stop a younger dirtier boy and ask for papers. He handed one of them a little book. The men examined it and then handed it back. She had no idea what would happen if the men on the corner didn’t like the papers. The bulges on their sides could be weapons.
People from Deep-level six had no papers unless they earned enough to buy a set. That would get them to Deep-level five. She had no idea what papers on this level looked like, so she couldn’t fake them. Since she couldn’t read, she’d have no way of knowing if stolen papers might work for her.
Mouse also had no idea what the sign right by the vent said. She held up the little slip of paper that her Nana had written out for her. ‘Main’ and compared it to the sign. ‘Outer way’. They didn’t match.
She wasn’t sure if the people on this level could read. The only people who she knew who could read were her Nana and Forrest, the doctor’s apprentice. Mouse’s mom might have been able to, but she’d thought it was a waste of time to teach Mouse.
She could hear her Mama’s voice, “We need to teach her things that will help her get ahead here. Not on some fancy level we don’t live on and will never see.”
Water gurgled to her left. She backtracked to an intersection and went left this time. The grate opened up in front of a fountain.
The houses around it were painted different bright colors and had large windows. Some of the houses had clothing strung up on lines behind them. The breeze from the large air vents from the top rippled the clothing.
She continued around the level to grates with views of the different streets, building a mental map of the level. She finally found a street name that matched her paper.
Tonight when the lights went off, she would bathe in the fountain, borrow some clothing, and make her way to the street she had identified.
Later that night, things were going as planned. The bath was quick and uninterrupted, the clothing had fit passingly well, and the street had a building with a door with the number she was looking for. When she opened the door, a bell jingled. Even though the sound was friendly, it sent a shiver down her back. It was so different from the way trades were made on her level. She’d been to Mr. P’s shop when he had been on Deep-level four. The sound reminded her of the differences between the levels.
She walked up to the counter and saw skeins of yarn in a basket on one side. The yarn looked brighter and softer than any she had seen. She glanced around the shop and realized that all of his wares were better than what had been in his shop a level below. Worry pooled in her gut. Would the sparklies she brought be able to purchase the things she needed to take back?
A thump, a pained gasp, and a curse from behind the curtain on the other side of the counter drew her attention. The sounds were as familiar to her as breathing. Mr. P was being mugged. Should she help him? The door was just a step away. It wasn’t wise to make enemies. But if she left, she had no other contact on this floor. She’d be left approaching other shop owners and hoping they’d be willing to trade. That was very risky.
She tiptoed over and saw two men on the floor. One man on his back and the other man kneeling above him. The bald man on top punched down, causing a crunch and a whimper.
“Tell me where you got them,” the man on top growled.
They shifted enough for Mouse to get a glimpse of the man on the bottom. It was Mr. P, and he was in trouble.
If she was going to help, it would have to be fast and brutal. Her stomach quailed. The man on top was at least twice as big and she was. And his muscles bulged as he shook poor Mr. P.
She could still run, but she had no other contact on this level. It could take months to figure out another vendor to approach. And even then, they might decide to turn her in for a reward instead of trading.
Mouse saw the bat by the door and grabbed it. She stood behind the bald man and, using all the strength in her arms and stomach, smashed the bat into the back of his head.
He slumped forward and to the right.
She leaned forward and checked his pulse. His heart beat strong and steady. His head hadn’t split open, but the red mark said he would have a big bruise. He was out cold.
Mr. P. had his eyes closed and his hands up trying to protect his head. After a moment he opened his eyes. His expression cleared to one of shock. “Mouse?”
“Mr. P., you okay?” she asked. She glanced around hoping the bald man didn’t have a partner. In deep-level six, the bully boys didn’t always go in pairs, but if they did the second would lay in wait nearby.
He took a shaky breath. “He was trying to rob me.”
Mouse rolled the bigger man fully off of Mr. P.
From the front she realized he had on some kind of uniform. He was clean shaven and very large and muscular. He wasn’t some kind of lone, street thug. Could he be in a gang? She knew from experience that men like this didn’t take kindly to being knocked out.
“What are we going to do with him?”
Mr P. shook his head. “Better if you don’t know.”
He ushered her out from the back. “Do you have a list?”
She rattled off the list of things that people wanted. He nodded and seemed to consider for a moment.
“To thank you, I’ll give you the list you had for free and some of the yarn you’ve been eyeing.”
Shock coursed through her. “Why would you do that?”
He seemed to consider his words very carefully. “I’m moving. They are becoming more persistent.”
She wanted to ask who was, but his closed expression stopped her questions in her throat.
She cleared her throat. “I can come to wherever you go.”
A look of amusement and affection crossed his face. “I am going to go to deep-level one.”
She goggled at him. Could people down here make it up that far?
“If you get up there you can look me up. It will be harder to blend in up there.” He grinned at her and handed her a card.
She took it and the bag he handed her with everything she had hoped to purchase. She knew she hadn’t had enough sparklies to buy it all.
“And Mouse, be careful. There’s something going on that you do not want to be in the middle of.”
“What do you mean?” Mr. P had been kind to her.
He pressed his lips together and glanced down. “Because I owe you for…” He waved his hand towards the back of the shop. He glanced around and leaned in. “The company is looking for ways to get the sparklies. They want to own them all.”
Confusion fluttered in her head. Every now and again a company man came down looking for sparklies. No one on Deep-level six was interested in talking to strangers. The only way to own them all was if everyone in Deep-level six and the Hole were to move.
He examined her face and gave a small sad smile. He ruffled her hair. “Look me up if you need me.”
She nodded and left the shop before he could say any other unexpected things.
The sound of a can being kicked, snapped her back to reality. She needed to get to the grate and start making her way back down to her level. The night air felt wrong suddenly. It was now too quiet. There were always little sounds. The vermin that lived around the edges, the murmurs from within houses. But here and now it was as still and silent as she had ever heard it. And then the faintest sound caught her attention. The lightest tread of a foot behind her.
Had the man in the shop had a partner?
A shiver crawled up her back. She was being followed. Followed by someone who made a living following others. Tully was like that. He’d shown her the tricks that he used to progress with almost no noise.
If she could put enough distance between the person following her and herself, and get the timing right, she could get into the grate before they figured out she was gone.
She went around the corner and then ran a few paces forward. She did it again and again, until she hoped she had enough of a lead.
She knew there was a grate around the corner. She took out her tool kit and pulled out the tool that took out the screws of a grate with silent efficiency.
She went around and then dove for the cover.
Three seconds later she had three of the four screws out and the fourth loosened enough to pivot the grate cover. She slipped inside and silently replaced the grate.
She inverted the tool and replaced the screws going the wrong way from the back of the cover, so the grate would appear solidly on.
Usually, she would just wait here and watch to see who was following her. Maybe it was the darkness or the silence or Mr. P’s odd warning. Whatever it was, her guts warned her that she wanted to be away from the grate.
She slipped back and to the side. It wasn’t likely, but whoever was following her might shine a light into the grate. She fell back enough to go around a corner. The entrance was no longer visible from where she sat.
She had just settled herself to listen, when a bright white light pierced the darkness on the duct work. It moved around as if looking for her inside of the duct. If she hadn’t been so paranoid, she would have been caught.
The chills on her back multiplied.
Someone knew she used the ductwork.