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«The Black Lung Captain», Chris Wooding

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One

An Escape — 'Orphans Don't Fight Back' — Pinn Flounders — Destination: Up

Darian Frey was a man who understood the value of a tactical retreat. It was a gambler's instinct, a keen appreciation of the odds that told him when to take a risk and when to bail out. There was no shame in running as if your heels were on fire when the situation called for it. In Frey's opinion, the only difference between a hero and a coward was the ability to do basic maths.

Malvery was to his left, huffing and puffing through the undergrowth. Alcoholic, overweight and out of shape. Pinn, who was no fitter but a good deal dimmer, ran alongside. Behind them was an outraged horde armed with rifles, pistols and clubs, baying for their blood.

The maths on this one were easy.

A volley of gunfire cut through the forest. Bullets clipped leaves, chipped trees and whined away into the night. Frey swore and ducked his head. He hunched his shoulders, trying to make himself small. More bullets followed, smacking into earth and stone and wood all around them.

Pinn whooped. 'Stupid yokels! Can't shoot worth a damn!' His stumpy legs pumped beneath him like those of an enthusiastic terrier.

Frey didn't share Pinn's excitement. He was sick with a grey fear, waiting for the moment when one of those bullets found flesh, the hard punch of lead in his back. If he was especially unlucky, he might get blinded by a tree branch or break his leg first. Running through a forest in the dark was no one's idea of fun.

He clutched his prize to his chest: a small wooden lockbox, jingling with ducats. Not enough to be worth dying for. Not even worth a medium-sized flesh wound. But he wasn't giving it up now. It was a matter of principle.

'Told you robbing an orphanage was a bad idea,' said Malvery.

'No, it was Crake who said that,' Frey said through gritted teeth. 'That's why he wouldn't come. You thought it was a good idea. In fact, your exact words were: "Orphans don't fight back."'

'Well, they don't,' said the doctor defensively. 'It's the rest of the village you've got to watch out for.'

Frey's reply was cut off as the ground disappeared from under his feet. Suddenly they were tumbling and sliding in a tangle, slithering through cold mud. Frey flailed for purchase as the forest rolled and spun before his eyes. The three of them crashed through a fringe of bracken and bushes, and ended up in a heap on the other side.

Frey extricated himself gingerly from his companions, wincing as a multitude of bumps and scratches announced themselves. The lockbox had bruised his ribs in the fall, but he'd kept hold of it somehow. He looked back at the moonlit slope. It was smaller and shallower than it had seemed while they were falling down it.

Malvery got up and made a half-hearted attempt at wiping the mud off his pullover. He adjusted his round, green-lensed glasses, which had miraculously stayed on his nose.

'Anyway, I've reconsidered my position,' he said, continuing his train of thought as if there had been no interruption. 'I've come to believe that stealing from a bunch of defenceless orphans could be seen as a bit of a low point in our careers.'

Frey tugged at Pinn, who lay groaning on the ground. He'd been on the bottom of the heap, and his chubby face was plastered in muck. 'I'm an orphan!' Frey protested as he struggled with Pinn's weight. 'Who were they collecting for, if not me?'

Malvery smoothed his bushy white moustache and followed Frey's gaze up the slope. The forest was brightening with torchlight as the infuriated mob approached. 'You should tell them that,' he said. 'Might sweeten their disposition a little.'

'Pinn, will you get up?' Frey cried, dragging the pilot to his feet.

Even with the moon overhead, it was hard to see obstacles while they were running. They fended off branches that poked and lashed at their faces. They slipped and cursed and cracked their elbows against tree trunks. It had rained recently, and the ground alternately sucked at their boots or slid treacherously beneath them.

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