They stood in the half-light of the central chamber, hundreds of them, shuffling about in confusion as if they had all simultaneously woken from sleepwalking. Each of their faces slowly shifted from an empty fury towards something more human; some fearful, others upset or even appearing disgusted, looking down at their hands as if to question what they had been about to do.
Kirya had her back against Tranton's, while the other Bruckin soldiers huddled in tight formation around them, the throng of filthy, bloodied workers surrounding them on all sides.
Not workers, she told herself.
She wondered if that would be the last of the pervasive lies that she'd told herself for years, whether she had finally rid herself of her illusions and constructions. It had all been laid bare: her father's inherent weakness, her mother's true face, her family's long and dirty history, the truth of their paradise valley.
"Do you understand what I'm saying?" asked Tranton, speaking loudly to be heard above the ambient, cumulative scuffing of rough heels. "We are not here to hurt you. We know a way out."
"We have to get back to the surface," Kirya said quietly into his ear. "Tarn needs our help."
"There's a couple hundred of these friendly faces between us and our way out of here," Tranton said, "and I don't need to remind you that a minute ago they were all trying to kill us."
There was movement within the swarm of prisoner, as a lone figure pushed through the crowd. He reached the small circle in which Kirya and the others huddled and stopped, standing at the edge, looking each of them up and down, his face creased with anxiety and fear, his lips trembling. He was young, perhaps a little younger than she was.
"Fifty-one," he said.
Kirya and Tranton looked at each other. Tranton shrugged.
"What does that mean?" Kirya asked, smiling and keeping her movements small and slow. "Is that number important?"
The boy pointed away from them and repeated the number.
"I don't understand," Kirya said.
"Fifty-one!" he said, louder this time.
The man next to him, older, more haggard, though it was impossible to guess at his real age, raised his arm and pointed in the same direction, towards the tunnel that led back towards the access chamber to the surface. "Fifty-one," the older man repeated.
One-by-one, then all together, the prisoners began repeating the number, chanting it over and over, until it filled the chamber with reverberant echo that drilled into Kirya's brain.
"Fifty-one!" she shouted, as loud as she could. A silence fell across the chamber, leaving only the constant pulsating of the energy beams as they arced off down the various side tunnels. "What does it mean?"
"Fifty-one," the younger boy said again, smiling a little, looking awkward as he did so, as if it wasn't an expression to which he was accustomed. "Our friend. Fifty-one. Your friend."
A slow realisation began to make itself known to Kirya. She closed her eyes tight, holding them closed for several seconds, attempting to process what she was hearing.
"Kirya," she heard Tranton say, "call me crazy, but I think they're talking about Tarn."
"Fifty-one," the boy said. "Comes back. Friend to me." He placed his hands on his chest. "Fifty." He tapped his chest several times and repeated the number.
"Fifty," Kirya repeated, eliciting a broad grin from the boy.
The older man pointed at himself. "Four hundred and six."
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The Mechanical Crown (complete novel!)Fantasy
An explorer, a princess, a slave and a sword. A belief that the world can be better. The Mechanical Crown is an epic adventure full of intrigue, mystery and romance. When Tranton Seldon becomes the first to cross the mountains in hundreds of years...