Ferrell crouched huddled at at the rear corner of the vehicle’s hold while the carter loaded the last crates of fruit into the cool darkness. The hold was nearly full, and the carter shoved at the crates near the door to make space, jamming Ferrell abruptly between the chill metal wall of the hold and a large box of what smelled like oranges, twisting his ankle sharply. Ferrell stifled a yelp as tears leapt from his eyes, but the sound was covered by the scrape of the crates and the whinnying of the horses picketed out in the Grammar Courtyard.
To judge by his relieved cursing, the carter had finished his work. All was quiet for a moment until the hatch of the vehicle’s hold slammed shut, pitching Ferrell into a darkness shot through with a few pin-thin shafts of dusty light and making his heart clench with fear. It was too late to turn back now … and the price of turning back would be worse than the cost of seeing it through. Ferrell hunkered down and nervously ate a loose orange as he waited for the cityman to return and take him away from Midhurst forever.
After what seemed like hours Ferrell felt the vehicle shift slightly. Suddenly a vast mechanical roar coughed into life beyond the front wall of the hold he was jammed against, and the vehicle tipped and slopped about slightly like a canoe on choppy waters. The roar raised in pitch as if in triumph, its bassy throb reverberating in the hold, and the vehicle became steady before beginning to move. Fingers jammed in his ears, Ferrell felt a wash of elation and fear – he’d done it. He had escaped.
Not long afterwards, Ferrell felt the gliding motion of the vehicle slow to a halt. The machine’s roar stopped abruptly, and Ferrell’s ears rang with a high note as the vehicle settled downward with a gassy groaning noise. He’d thought it would take longer to get to the city than this – it was nearly thirty miles by the old roads, the merchants said. He decided the machine must travel far faster than the tractors the Landed used, and prepared to wait for his opportunity to slip away.
The hatch opened, and Ferrell heard the quiet grunts and puffs as someone lifted crates out of the hold. Within a few minutes light was flooding in and falling against the hold wall right next to where his feet were hidden by a crate. The sounds stopped, and Ferrell waited.
“Come on, kid, get out,” said a deep voice. The cityman! Ferrell stayed still.
“I have a schedule to keep, you know, and I think you’ll find the ride a lot more comfortable up front.” The cityman sounded amused. “I know you’re there, kid – the Gasbag has cameras. Magic eyes, y’know, so I can see if the carters try to lift my stuff. Not often I get left with something extra instead of something less.” Laughter.
“You’ll not take me back, sir? You’ll not take me back there?” asked Ferrell, still huddled away in his corner.
“What, and have the Rurals hang me for trying to steal a Saved child?” The cityman chuckled. “If I’d not wanted to carry you, I’d have got you out before I left. Now come on out of there. You’re planning to live in the big city, you better get used to facing shit you’re scared of.”
Ferrell shuffled forward on his behind and peered around the crates; the cityman was sat in the hatchway, smoking a small pipe. Ferrell carefully scrambled toward the hatchway, squeezed past the cityman’s leather-clad shoulders and stepped out onto the cracked blackstone of the old road. He turned to face the cityman, who was grinning around his pipe. The stranger held out a set of goggles much like his own.
“Come on, kid. We’re past the estate borders, but it’s another twenty miles before we get to New Southsea. Now help me get these crates back in the hold, and we’ll consider your ride paid for, OK?”
[ Crikey. A few weeks out of the routine, and my confidence has ebbed considerably. Need to get back into practice; this is a poor showing for about five hours of frustration. But hey – back in the saddle, right? ]