Time: Several weeks after the end of Beside a Black Tarn
Leopold checked the time on his comm again and squinted at the street map in front of him. Fifteen minutes until he was due to meet his fathers for lunch, and he was on the wrong side of the merchant blocks. While this wasn’t a life or death situation, it was annoying. He’d been distracted, scurrying from one interesting shop to the next, without paying attention to direction as he scrambled to avoid the clumsy, inattentive human feet crowding the walkways.
The thought of having to work his way back through those crowds was even more annoying.
Maximillian crawled partway out of the backpack to peer with his neon pink head over Leopold’s shoulder, singing, “Shaaaaaaaa-aaaaaaxxx.”
“Yes, we’re going soon,” Leopold told his millipede. “I need to find a good route. Or we’ll be quite late.”
Nicodemus peeked over his other shoulder with a squeak, his little rat whiskers tickling Leopold’s face. He still wasn’t certain if Papa Ness would be angry about his pet rat coming along for the shopping excursion, but Nic seemed to be enjoying himself.
“Everyone back in,” Leopold scolded. “Someone might want to steal you. Thieves everywhere here.”
He flipped through the holographic street map schematics, ignoring the irony of that statement since he was a trained thief and one of his fathers was a master thief extraordinaire. The little bit of rustling behind him told him both rat and millipede had taken his advice. Maximillian was sentient in certain ways and understood more than should’ve been possible, and Nicodemus? Leopold didn’t know much about rats but he didn’t think they were supposed to be quite that smart. He suspected human experimentation. Considering his own genesis, it seemed likely.
In a sudden rush of pink legs, Maximillian swarmed back out of the backpack, singing an agitated scale in his high-pitched voice. About to scold, Leopold stopped when he realized arthropod legs and head were waving at the upper left corner of the map. What’s this, then? He tapped on the little icon with his paw. The tiny picture of perhaps a wire or a resistor was almost too small to see, but the icon brought up an overlay, one that had Leopold’s little heart pounding with excitement.
The underground infrastructure of Amnesia’s spaceport lay before him, all the access ways, tunnels and tubing delivering services to the merchants, hoteliers, and residents.
“A much better way. Back inside, Maximillian. And thanks for pointing.”
Leopold took a moment to memorize his route, then took off on all fours. The best non-sewer related access appeared to be in a teashop three doors down from the map kiosk. It had an old-fashioned door with a handle, forcing Leopold to wait until someone taller opened it, but the shop did steady business and he didn’t wait long.
Inside, he dashed for the employee’s only back room, ignoring the calls of “Hey, you can’t go back there!” and “What the hell was that?” that chased him through the dividing curtains. The ventilation access was behind a stack of boxes, which was stupid. Blocking a ventilation shaft had to be some sort of violation. Of something. He nosed the precarious pile of boxes aside just enough to squeeze behind them. Only one fell off the top, though he didn’t stop to check its condition.
Human footsteps had entered the back room now, three sets, the humans talking loudly and stomping around. He didn’t have much time. At least the stomping and yelling covered up the sound of his mag wrench and he had the vent screen’s bolts off inside thirty seconds. He thought Papa Shax would have been proud.
The vent shaft was just a hair too small, so he took off his backpack, shooed Maximillian and Nicodemus into the opening ahead of him, and slipped in after them with his backpack held in front. The darkness, punctuated here and there with light from other access panels, was no hardship. All three of them were night adapted creatures, Nicodemus most of all with his huge black eyes. The spacer rat ran along the ceiling on his suction cup pads to stay out of the way, while Leopold scuttled along the dusty shaft. Maximillian prudently crawled atop the pack so he could ride and not have his little legs stepped on.
Every turn in the map was burned into Leopold’s memory. Left, right, right again, center at the three-way junction. Some portions of the ventilation systems were cleaner than others, all hooked into the solar heating and cooling units shared by merchant blocks. The part of the system behind the spice shop made him sneeze. The part behind one of the brothels gave him a headache from all the oils, perfumes and pheromones. It occurred to him that some of these vent accesses afforded opportunities to steal a number of fun things, but his demon father always said to be careful about stealing when they were on Amnesia.
They dealt with a number of the merchants here on a regular basis, and merchants talked to each other.
One more turn and he was at the access screen to The Pine Nut’s kitchen where he discovered the flaw in his plan. Easy enough to get into the vent system. Not so easy to get out. The holes in the screen were too small to fit his mag wrench through and there didn’t seem to be a release on the inside. Why would there be? People didn’t regularly trap themselves in the ventilation.
Nothing for it. He gathered Nicodemus and Maximillian back into his pack, hugged the pack to his chest, rolled into a ball of spikes and slammed into the screen. On the third hit, the screen’s mesh broke and he was able to squeeze through. Carefully, he eased away from the vent, taking in his surroundings. Unfortunately, dinner service had begun. The kitchen was a madhouse.
He thought he could hug the wall and escape notice. No such luck. One of the chefs spotted him just as she lifted a huge ladle of soup from a pot. The chef screamed. The ladle flew. Leopold curled around his backpack to let his spines take the brunt of the hot liquid splattering everywhere. Then he took the backpack’s top strap in his mouth and ran through legs of panicking kitchen staff to the soft light of the dining room.
With staff still in pursuit, he spotted his fathers at a cozy table in the corner and dashed under chairs and tablecloths to get to them.
Papa Shax glanced over his menu and patted the chair with the booster seat beside him. “You’re a bit late, my dear. Come sit.”
The staff in pursuit screeched to an abrupt and confounded halt as Leopold climbed onto the chair between his fathers.
With his forehead wrinkled in annoyance, Papa Shax turned to the frozen tableau of staff. “My son will have a melon juice, please. And a menu.”
Given direction, the collection of staff scrambled away and Papa Shax returned to his menu. “Glad you’re safe. I am hoping you’ll tell me why you’re covered in dust and chicken consommé.”