Part seven (and finale) in the Brangxi serial. A table of contents for the series.
The balloon of the Brangxi's airship loomed over the canted ceiling's of the row houses on Parliament Square. Terrance hid in the shadows and was glad they had moored the airship close to the ground where the Brangxi airmen couldn't see over the nearby buildings. A laborer, coal dust staining his cheeks, passed the alley holding a certificate. It promised an all expense paid vacation to the wilds of the Brangxi home world, even providing raw gold to the man's employer to excuse the winner from work for a month. A month. Bile rose in Terrance's throat as he remembered the men flailing as they fell from the airship.
Terrance leaned out of the alley, pulling at the sleeve of the man's overcoat. The man pulled his arm out of Terrance's grasp.
"You mustn't go," said Terrance.
The man wrinkled the certificate as he backpedaled away from the alley. Terrance attempted to swipe the certificate out of his hands. He felt guilty. All the papers -- even the Manchester Observer -- printed these "sweepstakes" into their papers. He had to help these people. Unthinking, they believed whatever they read.
Terrance had missed the certificate and the man stepped away from him. From the square, a Brangxi airman jogged forward. Terrance shrugged. The laborer would have to learn to think critically without his help. He ran through the alley, hearing the airman's footsteps chasing. He ducked into the next street and slid into a door alcove. The door opened and he fell backwards watching as a woman pushed the door shut again. He stood to look through the window in the door, but she pushed him away and when he opened his mouth, she said, "Shhh. He's passing the doorway now."
Terrance waited. Behind the heavy door, the room was silent except for his breaths.
"Okay, it's clear now."
Terrance looked at her thin lips, pinched. "But --"
"You must go. Before he returns."
Terrance had many questions. A bell tolled from the depths of the townhouse. "Why did you save me?"
She touched the watch -- Chester's watch -- on his wrist. "Now go. They mustn't find you here."
Terrance fled into another alley and thought of Chester's last words to him about a bookstore in Greenwich. He'd been preoccupied, thinking that he could solve the problem with a single story. He could have, if all the editors hadn't become corrupt just as Chester had accused. Terrance turned a corner and crashed into a Brangxi's midsection.
"Welcome," said Xebla. "It was rude of you to leave us."
The crash had knocked the wind out of him and she waited while he recovered his breath. "You said I could escape. Helped me."
She licked her lips. "I changed my mind. I missed you."
Terrance blushed. "But, my people." He backed away watching her arms. He was still too close, she could lunge and catch him.
"Oh that." She flicked her hair to fall over her shoulder. "Rakxi's plan. Not mine."
Terrance didn't trust her words, he believed she feigned her desire. In that moment it clicked. Everything was a subterfuge. Yet, before he could worry about this idea he had to concentrate on Xebla. He was a mouse to her, amusing in his struggles. He had to distract her, and attempt to find a way to escape. Perhaps, the truth would surprise her. "You're afraid, aren't you. Afraid we'll ally with with the Graklii."
Xebla's smile faded.
Footsteps approached from behind her. The new editor at the Manchester Observer. "Look, my prodigal reporter."
Another step gave him enough distance. Terrance sprinted back into the alley, away from them. He heard their footsteps and as he approached another street, two white horses pulling a carriage blocked his way. Terrance rolled under the carriage and grasped one of the beams of the undercarriage to lift himself off the gravel and braced his feet against the struts holding the rear axle. The carriage moved quickly and Xebla's boots dropped further and further behind as the carriage rumbled away.
Dust-ridden, Terrance had made the rest of the way across town on foot and it was late in the day as he arrived at the bookseller in Greenwich. A man, a full head of graying hair that needed a trim, turned over the open sign in the window. Terrance pulled at the door knob, but it was locked. The man pointed at the word 'closed' as the sign swung. Terrance lifted up his hand with the watch on it. A pause and then the man unlocked the door.
"How do you know Chester?"
Terrance looked over shoulders, afraid that the Brangxi had followed him somehow. "Can we talk inside?"
The man led Terrance into a back room where books piled up on the tables and floors. Two narrow chairs stood in a corner and the man handed Terrance a cup of tea. "Your story?"
Terrance told the bookseller how he'd snuck away on the airship and ended up with the Graklii and then tried to return home but was captured and that was when he met Chester. He even told the man about trying to publish his revelations, and how the editor blocked his publication.
"The editor wore a mask?"
Terrance nodded. "Underneath I saw an inhumane creature with no nose."
"They are allies of the Brangxi. Infiltrators of the government and newspapers."
"What do we do?" asked Terrance.
The man stood up and opened a scarred door. "Join us in the resistance." A stairway led down into the ground.
Terrance thought of himself as an observer. Not a doer. Had always believed that his way to fame -- and he wanted fame -- would be through the pen. He thought back over his adventures. He'd survived, he was here. He swallowed. It was time to do something for his country.