I career downwards maybe ten feet or more and it occurs to me, hilariously, that I am sick to death of falling.
I hit the ground with a thud and see that I’m on earth, that I’ve tumbled in down through the roof.
I’m expecting a struggle for death, a fight, maybe even something like an endless dungeon or a maze. Instead, I’m in a home.
Dirt floors, a dusty table made of some dark rock, thin slips of fabric draped all over the walls. From the ceiling, twirling contraptions like miniature windmills hang. More rocks for a fire, strange, cylindrical tubes of sand. Frosted windows glowing with light, though I don’t know how, and as far as I can tell, there’s no door to get back to the surface.
This is it. Now. No time to waste. I grab the nearest thing I see — some kind of long, stick-tool with a metallic bulb on the end — and make a dash for it, into an adjoining room, which seems to be a bedroom of sorts.
I paste myself against the wall, hidden from view, and fall into silence just as there’s a scuffle and a plonk. Jo-lo has landed, mid-rant.
‘You see for yourself, prisoner lady, now you’ll know – ’
His voice drops away when he realises I’m not there. I’m nowhere to be found.
I can hear his tiny footsteps as he paces, careful and slow. Up towards the kitchen-ish area, along the walls, past the windows.
‘I smell you,’ he says. ‘I know you still here. I find you any second now.’
He inches closer towards the place where I’m standing and I spring and lunge, driving the rod down onto his arm, then into his chest.
The gun flies away, smacking to the ground, and he stumbles backwards, gasping.
I’m breathing hard, holding the stick, ready to strike again. But he scampers away, one hand clutching his chest, tears streaming.
I feel horrible, but I tell myself that this is what it takes. I scoop up the gun, holstering it firmly, and point the rod at him as if it’s a glinting sword.
‘Get up,’ I say in my most grown-up voice, an echo of my long-ago father’s. ‘No more of this nonsense, Jo-lo. Do you understand? I’m not your prisoner. If you’ve heard these stories about me, like you claim to, then you know I could kill you in an instant. So, if you don’t want to die, stop messing around and answer my questions.’
He huddles in the corner and glares at me as if I’ve spoiled his fun. Which I suppose I have, in a way.
‘Where’s your family?’ I ask again. ‘I know you don’t live here alone. Where is everybody? Who or what is in charge here?’
Like Kroma, he has fallen frustratingly silent. I wiggle the rod. ‘Hello? Speak up.’
He swallows, wipes his tears away furiously. ‘Gone,’ he spits.
‘Dead, turned to dust. Or taken away prisoner.’
‘The Americans. Long time ago, during war. They took them all. My fa-fa, too. He was vegetation farmer.’
‘And your mother?’ I ask after a moment.
He shrugs. His face darkens as he looks right up at me and then his head sinks onto his knees.
Dead or captured, I figure.
I close my eyes and sit down next to him. ‘And there’s no one else? No one else here, even people you don’t know?’
He shakes his head, his eyes welling again with tears. ‘I explore whole planet. Not very big. I go walking in the sand, I find other boxes and doors, go walking under the ground. Look in other homes, tunnels. I see no one. Nobody here. Everybody gone but me.’
‘Why not you?’ I ask. ‘How come they didn’t take you?’
‘Hiding,’ he says. He points to the chute through which we’ve just fallen. ‘Hole in wall in door shaft. I crawl inside. I have blanket, cover myself. Very still.’
I don’t quite believe him. They would’ve found him on the scans, even through the sand and rock. He’s either not telling the truth yet again or it’s possible they just got lazy in their search. Or realised too late that they’d missed him and couldn’t be bothered going back.
‘How have you survived? There’s nothing here, Jo-lo. Do you eat? Food? Hibernate? Are you self-sufficient, self-regulating somehow?’
He looks up, his eyes red, lips pressed together. He shuffles and hugs his knees tighter, but there’s a kind of fire in his gaze now, a desperation to speak. He’s hopeful, I notice. He wants a friend.
‘I find something,’ he says. ‘Not too far away.’ And suddenly, he stands up. Leaps up, actually.
‘You come,’ he says eventually. ‘I show you.’