The Rogue World, Page 2Matthew J. Kirby
“You don’t need to worry.”
“No. I’m way ahead of you, and that’s why we need Grendel. I need to figure out this connection before I do anything else.”
Luke nodded. “Sounds like we’re on the same page, then.”
“Same page,” Eleanor said.
“Okay.” Luke turned to Consuelo’s controls. “So the professor trusts this Grendel person?”
Eleanor rose to leave the cockpit. “I don’t think so, no.”
Luke twisted to look at her with a raised eyebrow, but said nothing, and Eleanor left.
Back in the cabin, she flopped into the seat next to Finn and let out a sigh. “Have you ever been to Mumbai?”
He opened his eyes and swung his head slowly toward her. “My dad went there for research after the earthquake. But he didn’t take us with him.”
Eleanor tried to read his expression and the tone of his voice, to see if he had any regrets about leaving his dad and brother behind. “Are you okay?” she finally asked.
He looked up at the ceiling of the cabin. “That is a weird question.”
“Sorry, I just—”
“No, it’s fine. It’s not you. I was about to say that yes, I’m okay. But then I stopped to think about the Freeze, and the Concentrators, and my dad and Julian, and I realized how screwed up everything is. So . . . no, I’m not okay. Are you?”
“No,” Eleanor said. “Not when you put it like that.”
“We can put it another way if you want.”
“Things could be worse.”
Eleanor laughed. “You’re right. That would be worse.”
But she stopped laughing when she remembered the shriek in her mind, the power of the command that had ordered all the Concentrators in-line. She still had no idea where it had come from, or what it was, and she dreaded facing it again.
ELEANOR REMEMBERED A LITTLE BIT ABOUT THE PANVEL Earthquake from her science class. As the Freeze had turned much of the earth’s water into glaciers, the sea level had fallen, and the water table around Mumbai had fallen with it. The area was already prone to earthquakes, but the loss of groundwater destabilized the fault lines even further.
Eleanor had seen images of the aftermath on the news. Several of Mumbai’s skyscrapers had simply toppled. Over three hundred thousand people had died, and even though Mumbai was a city of almost twenty million, it still hadn’t recovered from the devastation. It was fortunate that Asia didn’t have the same refugee crisis facing South America and Africa, or the loss of life might have been even greater.
“What about the G.E.T. presence in the city?” Betty asked. “Will it be hard to avoid them?”
“The G.E.T. has less influence in Mumbai than in other parts of the world,” Dr. Von Albrecht said. “Even after the earthquake, when the G.E.T. offered to help with the reconstruction efforts, the people of Mumbai resisted. Mumbaikars take care of each other. I think that’s one reason Grendel lives there.”
“That’s one good thing, at least,” Uncle Jack said.
“I wouldn’t count on good things,” Finn said.
Eleanor appreciated Uncle Jack’s optimism, but agreed with Finn. Going forward, they couldn’t take anything for granted or make any assumptions about the G.E.T. They had done that in Peru, which had led to the death of their guide, Amaru. Eleanor’s memories of him brought pangs of sadness and guilt, and renewed the promise she had made to him: to make the world safe for his wife and son.
A few hours later, Luke called back from the cockpit that they would be landing soon. Everyone settled in, and Eleanor watched out the window as the plane descended through a thick cloud of smog that reminded her of the one that covered Mexico City. The plane flew over a long stretch of beach that reached into the distance on both sides. Even from hundreds of feet in the air, Eleanor could see the crowds of swimmers and sunbathers, little flecks of color against the sand, which meant it was still warm enough here to enjoy the water.
She almost couldn’t imagine that. And she still found it jarring to remember once again that most people on the earth were unaware of the Concentrators and the rogue world. There were people out there who could actually enjoy swimming.
A few moments later, Luke touched Consuelo down and then taxied the plane to a private part of the airfield, where they disembarked. From there, they made their way to the main terminal and sat outside near the taxis, where Dr. Von Albrecht used the airport Wi-Fi to attempt contact with Grendel.
“They have always replied quickly,” the professor said quietly, staring at his laptop.
“When was the last time you heard from him?” Luke asked.
“Who says it’s a him?” Betty asked.
“Four months ago,” Dr. Von Albrecht said.
Travelers hurried in and out of the terminal. The air around Eleanor felt humid and warm, the sunlight somehow heavy. She noticed businesspeople in suits, families traveling with children and grandparents, everyone moving about as if making their flight on time was the only thing they had to worry about.
“Where are they all going?” she asked.
“Other parts of India,” Dr. Von Albrecht said. “Countries in Africa or Asia. This part of the world has seen less disruption from the Freeze than you’re probably accustomed to.”
“Unless you count earthquakes,” Finn said.
The professor’s laptop pinged. “Ah, Grendel replied.”
Eleanor leaned toward him. “And?”
“Good news.” Dr. Von Albrecht scanned the screen. “There are no promises, but we have a meeting scheduled. Two hours from now, in the middle of a place called the Five Gardens in the Parsi Colony.”
“Parsi Colony?” Uncle Jack asked.
Dr. Von Albrecht closed his laptop. “Yes. But I don’t know where that is.”
So, Eleanor thought, we are about to venture into a completely unknown city to meet with a stranger who goes by a code name. The image of the gunshot wound in Amaru’s stomach suddenly forced its way into her mind. “Maybe this isn’t a good idea,” she said.
“What do you mean?” Uncle Jack asked.
“I mean, we don’t know who this Grendel is,” Eleanor said. “What if this is some kind of trap?”
“That is highly unlikely,” Dr. Von Albrecht said.
“But not impossible.” Eleanor turned to Luke. He had been there when Amaru died. He had been the one to pull the trigger. “We thought we could trust Amaru, too.”
Luke bowed his head a moment, and his voice softened. “I hear you. I do. But I think this is different—”
He sighed. “Grendel is already a known enemy of the G.E.T. So we at least know he—or she—isn’t working for Watkins.”
“That makes sense to me,” Finn said. “And can you think of any other way to find out what you need to know?”
Eleanor wiped at the sweat that had risen on her brow in the warm Indian air. She had no answer for Finn. She didn’t like it, but if she didn’t gain a better understanding of who and what she was, she wouldn’t be able to do what she needed to do. And if they couldn’t stop the Concentrators, they were all dead anyway.
“Fine,” she said. “But I don’t like this.”
“How are we going to get there?” Betty asked. “Last time I checked, we’re low on funds.”
“I have some money,” Uncle Jack said. “I pulled it out before the G.E.T. brought me to Egypt.”
“Hopefully it’s enough,” Luke said. “I’ve got enough credit to take care of fuel for Consuelo, but we’ll need cash for everything else.”
They hailed a couple of black-and-yellow taxis, and after agreeing on a price in dollars, they left the airport and set off through the city of Mumbai. Eleanor ended up in a cab with Uncle Jack and Finn, while Betty and Luke went with the professor in the second car.
At first, Eleanor saw no signs of the earthquake, but then she realized she was looking at the city in the wrong way. She was looking for rubble, or vacant spaces where buildings had once stood. But instead, everywhere she looked, she saw new construction. New buildings, new offices, new apartments, rising high and narrow, a honeycomb of concrete and glass. And none of it, to Eleanor’s relief, with a G.E.T. logo. Their taxis took a busy highway that seemed to cut through the middle of the city, but from that thoroughfare Eleanor could see side streets thick with pedestrians and hawkers selling their goods from carts along the sidewalks. Their cab shared the road with more cars than it seemed the highway could fit, and they moved at a crawl.
Some distance on, over the tops of some low buildings to the right, Eleanor could see a development of high-rise skyscrapers going up, clad in scaffolding, crawling with construction workers.
“What’s that?” she asked their driver, a young man who appeared to be in his twenties.
“That used to be Dharavi,” he said. “Very poor. Very crowded. You would call it a slum.”
“What happened to it?” Eleanor asked.
“The earthquake.” He paused. “The buildings in there were no good. Everything was destroyed. Two hundred thousand died, just in Dharavi.”
“And now?” Uncle Jack asked.
“No longer a slum,” he said, his tone flat. “Rich Americans and Europeans are buying apartments instead.”
Eleanor looked again at the high-rises, built on the terrible misfortune of others. That didn’t seem right to her. And yet some would probably say that Mumbai was recovering, finding a way to turn the tragedy around, to keep growing. None of that would matter if they didn’t stop the rogue world.
“The Parsi Colony is much better,” their driver said. “They never constructed tall buildings there. The earthquake wasn’t as bad for them, and they took in many people from the city.”
“Who are the Parsis?” Finn asked.
“They were Persians,” their driver said. “They came to India, oh, a thousand years ago. Now they are Indian, but they are also still Parsis.”
The buildings to either side of the street suddenly fell away, and they drove onto an elevated road over a wide, circular park, with palm trees and playgrounds. Eleanor smelled coffee in the air, and not long after that, they left the busy highway and turned to the left, into a part of the city that felt very different from what Eleanor had seen so far.
There were more trees, and more space, and no hawkers selling from carts on the sidewalks. The streets lay in shade, and the buildings, though tidy, appeared older, but Eleanor preferred their charm and character to the sleek and soulless new construction they had passed. She saw balconies and colonnades, gardens and arches, and noticed some of the buildings bore a motif she hadn’t seen before, that of a bearded man standing between two feathered wings.
“This is Parsi Colony,” their driver said, and he ambled them through the neighborhood until they reached a large area of green. They drove in a wide circle around open spaces of grass, numerous trees, and playground equipment, with people out strolling, jogging, and just sitting in the shade. “And this is the Five Gardens.”
He turned the car inward, and eventually they reached the hub of the parks, a green space in the middle of the others with a large fountain. Uncle Jack paid both drivers, and after the cabs had pulled away Eleanor looked around for someone who seemed like they might be Grendel. But how would they know?
“What do we do now?” Luke asked.
Dr. Von Albrecht marched toward the fountain. “We wait here. Grendel will come to us.”
They followed him to the center of the park and they sat down. The muggy air smelled of vegetation and flowers, spices, and something rotten. After a few moments had passed listening to the fountain bubble behind her, Eleanor grew warm, warmer than she had felt outdoors in a long time. While she enjoyed not worrying about layers of clothing, she wasn’t used to the tropical heat raising sweat from her skin.
She watched a young couple walk by with an infant girl in a stroller. They looked at Eleanor and her companions with open curiosity, but their stares did not feel rude. The other people around them in the park wore a wide range of clothing, including robes, jeans, turbans, and other head coverings. A small cow even wandered by, unconcerned with anything going on around it, and Dr. Von Albrecht pointed out that cows were sacred to Hindus, and thus the animals were allowed to go where they pleased in the city.
“No sign of the G.E.T.,” Betty whispered. “At least we have that going for us.”
“Let’s hope that lasts,” Luke said.
“I still don’t quite understand what exactly the G.E.T. wants,” Uncle Jack said.
Eleanor noticed a woman sitting on a bench nearby, wearing a long turquoise blouse with embroidery around the neck and hem, loose white pants, and sandals.
“What the G.E.T. wants is the end of the world,” Finn said.
“No, it doesn’t,” Eleanor said. “Watkins thinks the only way to beat the Freeze is to conserve all the energy we can, so that a small number of people can survive. He wants to save the planet. A piece of it, anyway. He’s just willing to sacrifice most of us to do it.”
“Are you sure that’s what he wants?”
The question had come from the woman in the turquoise blouse seated nearby.
Eleanor looked at her again, more closely this time. A thick braid held her graying black hair over her shoulder, and she appeared to be approaching middle age.
“Grendel?” the professor asked.
The woman smiled. “Partly.”
“Partly?” Eleanor asked.
The woman rose to her feet. “Grendel isn’t a single person. Grendel is the thief in the night, and Grendel could be anyone. We’re a collective. Follow me.” She turned away from them and set off on foot through the park.
Uncle Jack looked at Eleanor, and she gave him a reluctant nod. If they didn’t plan on trusting Grendel, they shouldn’t have come. So they all followed after her, in and out of the shade of the trees, a light breeze through the fronds and branches.
Several blocks away, down wide and pleasant streets, they reached a building in one of the older styles they had seen. It seemed made of stone, or concrete, with wooden balconies and columns, rising three stories above the road. Flowers and plants grew from planters hanging outside its windows.
Partly-Grendel led them to a locked front door of iron bars, which she opened for them, and they entered through a small, tiled foyer into a courtyard at the center of the building. Large rosebushes grew in a few raised beds, softening the air with their perfume. Overhead, each floor opened onto the courtyard from a columned walkway, with dark wooden staircases climbing between them. Silken curtains billowed from doorways, and sunlight angled down upon them. Eleanor would have believed they had somehow stepped back in time, were it not for the satellite dishes and antennae she then noticed jutting out from the roof.
“In here,” the woman said, and led them into a small apartment on the ground floor that smelled of cinnamon and cloves.
Simple but elegant furniture filled the living room, and ornate woven rugs covered an old and creaking wooden floor. Eleanor took a seat in a soft, upholstered sofa, nudging aside a few decorative silk pillows. Uncle Jack sat next to her, with Finn. Betty, Luke, and Dr. Von Albrecht took armchairs nearby. The woman sat on a wooden stool against the wall, a hallway next to her down which Eleanor glimpsed the kitchen.
“Your message surprised me,” the woman said to the professor.
“We appreciate you meeting with us,” Dr. Von Albrecht said. “But I am even less sure of who you are now than I was before.”
“It is a necessary precaution,” the woman said. “But you may call me Badri if you wish.”
Eleanor wondered if that was her real name, or simply something she had chosen in that moment.
“Who are your companions?” Badri asked.
Dr. Von Albrecht introduced the
m all, giving their real names. Badri nodded toward each of them in turn, her expression placid and unreadable. An overhead ceiling fan stirred the air, cooling Eleanor down a bit, even as it dried out her eyes.
“It is hard not to notice,” Badri said, leaning forward, “that your party bears a certain resemblance to a band of terrorists the G.E.T. wants apprehended. There’s even a substantial reward involved.”
Eleanor couldn’t tell if that was a threat. Her fear of betrayal clamped her mouth shut and chilled the middle of her back. Badri looked at her with a fraction of a smile.
“Your face is so morose you could advertise flu medication,” she said.
Eleanor said nothing.
“If you’re thinking of turning us in,” Dr. Von Albrecht said, “I would remind you that the G.E.T. wants you apprehended as well.”
“Me?” Badri laughed. “Who am I but an old Parsi woman? No, Watkins wants Grendel, and we’ve already established that Grendel is no one. But not to worry. I have no plans of turning you in.”
“Thank you for that,” Uncle Jack said, with a subtle sarcasm that Eleanor heard clearly.
“But you did take a risk in coming to me,” Badri said. “Why?”
Luke folded his arms. “It was our only option.”
“Option for what?” the woman asked.
“How deeply have you hacked into the G.E.T.’s files?” Dr. Von Albrecht asked.
Badri shook her head. “You first. What does the G.E.T. want with you? And why have you come to me?”
They had nothing to lose, and it didn’t seem to Eleanor that they had a reason to keep anything from her. “Do you know about the Concentrators?” she asked.
Badri nodded. “The Trees of Life.”
Eleanor nodded back. “That’s what Watkins calls them. Do you know what they do?”
“They gather telluric energy,” Badri said. “From the earth.”
“And they convert it into dark energy. Do you know what Concentrators do with that dark energy?”
“They send it to the shadow.” Badri flicked a glance toward the ceiling. “Up there.”
“That’s right.” Badri already knew more than most everyone on the planet, and for some reason, this comforted Eleanor and gave her confidence. “I’ve been shutting the Concentrators down. That’s why Watkins wants to capture us.”