Kaleem was getting the hang of the controls on the transporter. Going up and down was reasonably easy. He was steering it well enough that it only threatened to hit the walls now and then. Thinking what to do next was the hardest. He had only the vaguest idea of where he was going. But he wasn’t getting away from Ninety. And even if he did manage to find his way home, what would he do about him?
Best not to think. Best just to keep going.
A sharp bend appeared in front of him. He turned the transporter into it just that second too late. Its anti-crash sensors picked up the solid rock and the transporter swerved so violently that Kaleem was flung over the side.
He managed to hold on.
The vehicle carried on, though nothing held it in a straight line. The sensors just bounced it off each side of the passageway, sending the pod whirling round in every direction.
Kaleem gritted his teeth. His voice commands were having no effect and the steering sensors did not respond to his hand signals. The pod crashed into the wall almost making him lose his grip. He’d got to get back in, he’d just got to. He pulled himself up, but he could just not get enough strength to pull himself back into the transporter.
Suddenly though he found himself wedged between the machine and the rock wall. The pod stopped moving. The rock was taking his weight. He made a desperate effort to pull himself into the vessel. Then he was back in the seat.
He tried to get the thing back under control. It was still using its sensors to stop it crashing into the walls. He could not seem to get it to go in a particular direction any more.
‘Come on, come on,’ he muttered. ‘Go straight.’
The machine continued to twirl around. Ninety’s pod was coming up behind him in a straight line.
‘Override sensors,’ he whispered half hoping the machine would disobey him.
The pod shot forward.
‘Reactivate sensors,’ shouted Kaleem.
The machine slowed a little but not enough. It crashed into the wall and started to head to the wall opposite. The sensor then kicked in and picked up the hard rock of the wall, and the pod began to drift away from it. It tilted upwards.
No, thought Kaleem. It’ll tip me up. ‘Forward,’ he shouted.
Too late again. The transporter flipped right over and he found himself hanging on to the sides, his feet dangling towards the ground. It was only a few seconds, but he almost lost his grip again.
The transporter righted itself. Ninety was right behind him now. Kaleem’s legs were still outside the pod. He kicked Ninety’s transporter away and got himself back properly into his own. As he fell into the seating area, the transporter smashed again into the rock wall, but this time at full speed. It bounced off and then jerked along.
‘Power reduced,’ said the machine. ‘Sensors deactivated.’
Now he was going to have to be careful. He would have to steer it properly.
‘Come on, come on,’ Kaleem urged. ‘Forward.’
The transporter pod seemed to have no energy left. It jerked and stuttered, limping along almost lifelessly. Ninety was gaining on him again. His transporter was gliding effortlessly towards Kaleem’s. As Kaleem tried to speed up, Ninety slowed down until his pod gently tapped Kaleem’s.
‘Come on, Five-Six,’ said Ninety. ‘Give me the book. There’s no way you can get away now. Give me the book and you can just get on your way. No one will hurt you.’
Kaleem held his breath. No way was the Hidden Information crowd going to get their hands on the Babel book. He could still feel the shape of it pressing into his chest. He resisted the urge to touch it for fear that he would give away its presence to the peddler.
He didn’t know how or why, but suddenly something happened inside him. He found some strength from somewhere and leant over towards Ninety’s transporter and pushed it as hard as he could.
‘Speed forward,’ he shouted towards the other transporter’s audio command centre. Ninety’s pod set off at full sped away from Kaleem, back in the direction they had just come.
Kaleem’s own pod seemed to get some momentum from the reaction against the other pod and started at least going in a straight line. It started to pick up speed.
‘Come on, you can do it,’ muttered Kaleem.
The pod began to act a bit more normally. Kaleem was now able to control it better again and successfully swung it round a sudden curve in the passage.
He noticed a rock slightly out of place. Surely an exit? If he was quick, he could get through it before Ninety found it. Of course Ninety would know exactly what had happened and would soon follow him, but at least he would stand a more equal chance with them both on foot. Perhaps he could get over to Pierre’s. Anyway, once above ground they were both criminals, but Ninety was the bigger one with all that Kaleem could tell about him.
He parked the transporter and made his way through the open rock door as quickly as he could. There was a stairway behind it, so, thankfully, it did go up to the surface. His heart thumped as he made his way to the top. It seemed to take an age and he became breathless. The suddenly he was there. He was facing another rock door. This one was firmly closed though. He felt for the catch which would release the lock. It was not immediately obvious, but then that was part of the point of the rock doors. This would be stupid - to get this far and then be re-caught by Ninety.
Keep clam, he thought. Focus. He carefully ran his hands over every part of the surface and the surround of the door. At last something gave way in his hand. The rock door sprang open. Just in time. He heard the engine of the other transporter approaching.
He made his way through the door and closed it behind him. He’d have to hurry. Ninety would be bound to know how to undo the lock. Kaleem looked around, trying to work out where he was. Cool air, so he was probably outside. Odd shapes waving in a breeze. Trees. Then he realised where he was. He was at the corner of the park. Not too far from home. A little further to Pierre’s, but it would be safer there than home at the moment, though goodness knows how he’d explain why he was out.
He started to jog. If only he could make it before Ninety caught up. He was in with a chance. Thank goodness he’d kept up the fitness regime.
Half a kilometre, three hundred metres one hundred. He was getting there, though he could hear running behind him. Best not look round, he might trip and fall.
The running sound behind him turned to a drone.
It wasn’t Ninety. It was a droid guard.
Kaleem felt the hard steel hand on his arm. No! After he’d been so careful. Now he wished he hadn’t bothered going out. Boring, stuck in the apartment was not that bad after all. How was he going to get out of this one?
‘Explain why you are out of your living quarters,’ said the droid, pulling Kaleem round so that they had eye contact.
Kaleem saw Ninety just coming through the rock door. The Information peddler froze.
‘I was kidnapped by a Hidden Information peddler,’ said Kaleem. ‘I’ve just got away. Look there he is.’
The droid swung round, releasing its grip on Kaleem’s arm. It started relaying some sort of electronic message, and Kaleem smiled to himself as he watched this droid and three others glide rapidly over to Ninety. Ninety went to run, but the droids had him in seconds.
Kaleem walked the few metres to the entrance to the cave apartment. He let himself in and then carefully hid the book under some clothes in a drawer in his room.
‘Urgent message,’ said the dataserve.
‘Relay, then,’ said Kaleem. He could do without this. He’d had enough adventures for one day.