CHAPTER 2

"Nella."

A name scratched with frozen fingers on a crumbling wall blindly, in darkness. A farewell message, half mystery, half symbolic. A sad attempt to give a name to a nameless corpse lying huddled in the damp corner of an empty building. Once the sun illumined the dim spot that simple name would mark the place where a young girl finally found the freedom she so craved.

So why did it still hurt?

The blonde head framed by damp curls suddenly jerked upwards, lungs spasmed by the remembrance they still needed air to fill them and a sluggish pulse continued sending life preserving blood to cramped limbs.

It was the sun that was hurting, a bright fierce light glaring off bare concrete surfaces, cascading down through shattered shapes. The girl sat up.

Her clothes were damp and smelly but the harsh night was over and she was still alive. Shading her pale blue eyes a moment she gathered her thoughts and the details of her surroundings.

She was in a narrow slot of a room between topless walls of hollowed breeze blocks, stuffed with a bedding of hardy ferns and fragrant buddleia. She remembered crawling over and along barriers to her progress through the impenetrable dark, seeking a means to distance herself from the searching lights that clawed at her, determined to drag her back. Then her strength gave out and she tumbled into one of the dark rectangles built for who knows what purpose many years ago and there she had lain, awaiting the embrace of eternal darkness.

Thirst made her stand and weakness brought her back to her knees. Where was her holdall? In a panic she riffled among the moist greenery, so luminous now in the sunlight, and spotted the telltale plastic covering, pink with flowers and bunny rabbits cavorting among them. She was fourteen but clung to an earlier, fun age, the better to hold onto happier memories of more innocent childhood.

A bottle of sparkling water sloshed in her hand and she sipped on it tentatively for it was very cold, hurting her lips and tongue unkindly as it assuaged the rawness within her. The effect was magical.

Ignoring the headache that was her only companion, the girl resumed her footing, clinging to dusty walls and slippery growths to balance herself. The holdall seemed strangely light as she shouldered it. A brief glance down at the corner where she had scrawled her name, Nella smiled faintly at the equally faint childish lettering few would have been able to recognise. Not that any other lost soul was likely to venture into this crazy patchwork of sunlight and darkness on the edge of nowhere. Then she abandoned it, moving forward with purposeful strides along the narrow dirty corridor and into the full warmth of the sun.

Vapour steamed off her damp clothing, her hair resumed its natural springiness, and she felt almost right with this new world, so silent, so empty, yet she knew somewhere within there prowled people and creatures unknown. Others who had turned their back on the City.

Was there danger? A vast canyon between hollow buildings dared her to pass along its length. Rubble and detritus of days gone by troubled her footing but she persevered for she had faced death twice already.

She knew if she did not find somebody to help her, those selfsame people who had carved a hole in the bulwark of the City and thereby granted her freedom, then she would simply starve. A sudden thought and a pause in movement. Perhaps those who had preceded her were already dead themselves and she would come across their dry shrivelled bodies hunched in damp corners too. A sound, the first she had heard since sun up, scotched this theory. It had been a voice, a human voice echoing somewhere among the towering heights and Nella quickly surveyed the empty holes where windows once gleamed.

The sense of being the hunted seized her again. Images of stalking Enforcers creeping among the alleyways from different directions, weaving a web to entrap and subdue and crush her delicate butterfly flight of freedom. She was in the open. A glance around for concealment options revealed a shattered doorway of peculiar red wood that beckoned her so she made a feeble run for it.

A sharp crack came from somewhere above and to her utter surprise a coloured splatter blossomed in front of her. She halted, looked up but saw nothing. An attempt to bypass the sticky mess resulted in a volley of projectiles tracing an arc around where she stood, forcing her back, so she darted for a narrow pass between high walls.

This seemed a brief respite and Nella reflected dizzily on what had just happened. Someone was shooting at her, not with bullets from a gun, but some kind of explosive pellets that clung to whatever they hit and gave off noxious fumes. Peering around the corner and up, she caught the vaguest glimpse of a silhouette projected against a cloudy sky and then it was gone. No amount of staring would lure it back.

A crunching sound from behind her made her whirl. The footpath was empty but it turned a sharp corner and anything could have been hidden beyond, waiting to pounce if she dared to go that way. Nella felt trapped.

"Why are you doing this to me!" she cried hoarsely in a high pitched voice. "I thought we could be friends!"

A coil of rope tangled around her suddenly and she was lifted off her feet. Scuffing against the rough wall Nella bounced and twisted as she was carried higher until suddenly thrown by her own momentum through an upper storey window. There she lay, terrified by the experience she had gone through and astonished at the way the rope seemed to have a life of its own as it untangled from her body and slithered away like a snake.

She was back in darkness again and it took a while to adjust to the absence of direct sunlight. The sound of footsteps from the floor above and an unsympathetic laugh caught her affrighted ears. A weapon, she wished she had a weapon to defend herself from these evil sprites. Only a rusted metal bar came to her aid. Heavy and unwieldy, it stained her small sweat-damp hand, but imbued her with a desperate courage. She would not beg for her life, not again. She would meet whatever fate awaited her in whatever shape it took. She would not flinch.

Instead, when the footsteps scuttered above her head, making rapidly towards the stairway at the far end of the starkly empty room, the metal rod clattered to the stone floor and she fainted dead away.

"Poor mite was starving," someone said kindly, a female voice.

"That's what being fattened in the City does for yer," a less kindly voice responded. "A bit o' deprivation and the whole system collapses in a heap."

Nella kept her eyes closed, imagining herself that heap upon a hard floor, not willing to relinquish the role, for starving she was. No amount of courage could be sustained on an empty stomach and she felt her bid for freedom betrayed by greasy chip visions and cream puff dreams. It was one of the ways the City controlled, creating an unbreakable dependence upon its luxury and resource. Much, she realised, as the boy had described.

This agreeing of ideas encouraged her so she swayed up onto her knees, a crumpled heap no more, but a free spirit in a world of random, unexpected happenings.

"My name is Nella," she said to the two shadowy forms framed by bright rectangles of sunlight some yards away. The boy skipped off the sill he had been poised upon and gathered ropes around him like friendly coiling snakes.

"Spider," he introduced himself simply and halted two paces closer to the swaying girl. "You really need something to eat don't yer? Sugar's all gone from your system. Have this," and he tossed a heavy meat and grain wedge wrapped in paper at her. The object, moist and fragrant, bounced against a knee and settled before her surprised gaze. Tentatively she fingered the greasy paper wrapping, peeled some off and pinched a corner from the pink mass. It tasted divine, redolent with spicy fat. She devoured the remainder in mouthfuls and searched for her bottled water to help it down.

"Don't worry, there's more of that, and water too, so chomp and guzzle to your little heart's content," the unknown girl said merrily. It was then Nella noticed she held what looked like a fat high powered rifle balanced across her thighs as she sat on another sill farther away.

"You... shot... at me!" Nella accused between swallows.

"Didn't want you running into that building," was the unadorned explanation.

"Oh."

Spider moved a little closer.

"Sorry about the rough treatment but you were an ace away from being taken by the donkeys, an' no telling what they might have made of yer," he said and held up a cluster of ropy loops.

"Spider..." she replied, thinking out loud, for there came to her an image of a human spider with webbing and climbing abilities beyond the ordinary. It seemed to be its own explanation. The boy was a human spider indeed and the ropes were his web to snag and snare and entangle.

"That's ma name."

Yes, Nella thought, but more than a name, an essence, an embodied spirit of what the boy represented, the quality he brought to every moment of his life. He seemed about sixteen, thin for his age, and with straggly brown hair streaked with blond. His eyes were very dark, yet sharp and beady, like a spider, ever watchful of prey.

She looked at the other one who though she projected a kinder demeanour, was somehow more aloof. Distant contact seemed her preferred mode of communication. Long range, like the weapon in her hand.

The eyes of this girl were harder even than the jewel-like gaze of Spider, as if behind that crystal stare memories of a harsh past drove deeper feelings of love and happiness underground to keep them safe. It was a feeling Nella could relate to.

"You smell," the girl simply said in response to Nella's searching gaze and then she laughed a sparkling laugh that lightened everyone's spirits.

"Do you think Spider, that Mother Old might want to speak to this one, touch her, even let her handle the Cube?"

Nella glanced over at the boy to see his response. He still held the friendly expression inspired by the laughter.

"Only after a wash," he said and smirked.

"Right you are."

With a smooth, lithe gesture, the gun wielding girl changed her position and moved into the shadow between windows. Her eyes glowed an extraordinary golden colour as she fixed her stare on the still crouching newcomer but the effect was lost when she stepped across a large swathe of sunlight.

Nella could see her properly now and to her surprise her first thought was how beautiful she looked and how cat-like were her movements. Long silky hair cascaded down her back, dark but with a reddish tint that glowed in the sun. Her clothing was a complex patchwork of denim and soft cotton in subdued colours, with buttons and pockets, partly concealed by the paraphernalia of warfare. Straps and belts wove tightly around her athletic frame, packed with ammunition for the strange weapon she carried with such assurance.

She stood now, feet apart, in the sunshine, as if warming herself like a sleepy cat, with the gun balanced on one hip.

"We got a place for you, to wash I mean," she explained in a throaty voice that suggested she was used to being listened to. "Not private I warrant, but'll do the trick. Only thing is, you gotta jump for it." She indicated a balcony opening onto a wide vista of ghostly buildings.

Nella got up slowly, stretched her limbs, and with holdall dragging behind her she went to the concrete barrier with its cracks and exposed metal rods. She looked back.

"Quite safe," the girl assured her.

Nella peered tentatively over the edge and was met by the extraordinary sight of what appeared a good sized swimming pool shimmering with none-too-clear water, but water for all that.

"You want me to...?" and she pointed downwards.

"Look upon it as a test of resolve," was the merciless reply.

"But... but why can't I just walk down there and climb in?"

"No way up, no way down. Stairs long gone 'cept a few between floors. Spider can get us up if we go that way, but if you only want to go down, there's your exit."

Looking again at the quivering liquid, Nella realised just how high up they were, that she had been hauled up from ground level by the ropes of that boy by sheer strength alone. It took her breath away. As did what they were asking her to do next. She looked back again and gasped. They had disappeared silently into the shadows.

A part of her wanted to think that was so cool but now she was alone stuck in an abandoned tower block with her only exit a funfair water extravaganza.

"I put some soap in it," came a teasing voice from above and Nella gave a resigned sigh. She looked again and thought she could detect flecks of foam. Her mouth was dry and she reached for her water bottle. It was empty and in a moment of frustration she threw the empty vessel out the window with a curse.

"Can't hang around all day," came the goading voice. "Narly, make her jump."

There had been a third person present, Nella realised, so far unseen. This made her back away from the balcony to avoid being thrown by some assailant. A quick moving shadow darted across the floor at her and before she could defend herself something landed on her shoulders.

"Help! Get it off me," she cried and twisted and turned until she fell headlong off the balcony as her attacker jumped clear.

Narly had done as her mistress requested and licked a dark paw in satisfaction.

To be continued...