He stared at the lock again, frustrated, panic numbing his mind. Think think! he told himself. The longer he spent trying to get it open the more likely they were to spot him. Not only the Delkori either; there were people down there who'd sell him out for just one extra ration. "They made us slaves," Salla had said. "They made us slaves but we don't have to be their slaves up here, Tais." She'd tapped her head with one stubby, grimy finger. "Up here you can be free - you remember that. You never stop thinking now. Never lose hope. You wait and be ready and when you see your chance I want you to take it. I sure as hell will. Your body is their slave Tais, don't let your mind be a slave too."
He closed his eyes, hanging suspended. He breathed the way Salla had taught him, an exercise to rise above the pain of beatings and humiliation, to put himself elsewhere.
For Salla, he thought, feeling tears well up hot in his eyes. I'm doing this for you. You never got to see but I'll see. I'll see the Outside, and smell it and live it and I'll never forget!
He opened his eyes again.
The lock stared back at him implacably, even smugly it seemed to him, and he felt another sudden rush of anger and misery. It was hopeless. He should climb down now before anyone noticed, get back to his work before he was missed.
No, not hopeless! I've got to try harder or I'll always have to live with knowing I couldn't do it. I'll be thinking back to now and wishing I'd tried.
Maybe he couldn't get around the lock, but perhaps there was another way. He switched his attention to the other side of the door, standing on tiptoe to get a better angle. Then he saw it, the flaking rust, not on the lock, but on the mechanism that held the lock in place, just a flicker of it out of the corner of his eye as he stretched. He'd never have seen it had he not been looking down from above.
He reached up, stretching again to get a better purchase until his shoulders were screaming and his calf muscles cramping, but he ignored them, breathing slowly, concentrating all his remaining energy in his fingers, in feeling around and flaking away the rust.
Rust fell in red dust, wet with his blood. The nail of his index finger on his right hand came clean away and left him gasping, struggling to hold himself up and biting his tongue against a yell of anger and pain.
He breathed in, closed his eyes. Salla help me. Wherever you are, help me now. You always said you would; you said you'd be with me. You said you'd never leave.
Tais didn't know what happened next. Whether he'd worked enough of the rust away or whether Salla had come from wherever spirit went in death. He thought he felt something, smelt too the scent of her old leather coat. The one she wrapped around me when my ma died, and hid me till I was old enough to work. She saved me that once. Is she saving me again?
Salla, who'd kept his illegal birth a secret, helped his mother and then helped him, been a parent to him, mother and father both and shared her ration though it was barely enough for one. Salla, who'd been his hope, who'd been laughing with him just a moment before the cave-in that had crushed her utterly in front of his eyes. The last he'd seen her she'd been laughing; that was something, even if he'd lost everything else that day, her laugh, her last gift to him.
Whatever had happened the door swung open and he was staring at it in disbelief one moment and through it the next, closing it softly behind him.