We’re all sitting in a rattling tin-can shut-tell. Every shoulder humped and tense. No-one dares breathe ’case we flick off the tiniest phlegm of sound. Cos what we speak in New Babel can kill us these days.  There’s a plague on us. Bad one.

Me and him sat side by side, muscles aching from the beats we just took but still flexing, preparing for the next lot. They won’t be far away. We both touch our dogtags. I think of her.

Muffled sound from a woman further down the carriage. She quickly splats out her damp squib sob. Eyes all along had already cut to her and the little pig-tailed squeak leaning on her knee. Her kid, I guess. No one wants to hear sobby mommy’s grizzling. Cos this Gibber plague I mentioned is carried by a word. The Word. No-one knows what The Word is. Could be just a lick of the tongue. The slightest cuss. But once it gets yer, yer ain’t got a chance. All the horror and fear in yer head, every scream and all its echoes, eats yer from the inside out. Ain’t pretty.

Even in all this there’s a joke, and it’s on me. Until yesterday I had no worries about this ‘Gibber’ plague. Cos I’m a Grunt, and hadn’t a word in me head or a rhyme on me tongue. Like I said, that was yesterday. Now I got every word in the world in me. Every single one. How’s that for spitting luck? 

A slouched, sulky raggamuff in a hoodie nudges the pig-tailed squeak. Her bro. Sobby pitch’s kid too, I guess. I gotta hoodie. But it ain’t a pretty one like sulky’s. It’s skanky. Like me. Even a spider’s set up home in it. But what yer expect of a Grunt?

Not like me natter sitting next to me. He’s done up in a sleek black suit. Like a coffin. But he’s hiding the cuffs, woven fancy with extraordinary words. Can’t let on he’s a Poet. His caramel eyes stay perfectly still while they crackle left, right and centre. There’s a knack to that trick alright. But then he’s Kimiel, the Poets’ Silvertongue. He’s got tricks aplenty. He’s also got reason to be alert and crackly.

Unlikely natters, me and him. Long story as to how we ended up here. I don’t even know the start of it meself. Certainly don’t know the end. But right now, we got what’s known as real and present danger. Not just Gibber popping out the gobs of any random in this shut-tell. But Mortlangue’s Eavesdroppers and Censors – not to mention the Underword tribes – who all want our scalps. Cos they think the Poets are the terrorists who brought down this plague on New Babel. As for me, they think I’m the dumbdog of the most notorious terrorist of all, The Nameless. Froked up or…

‘What…!’ shrieks in me lughole ‘… yer day-dreaming about at a time like this, cabbage? Those Speechies look a bit lively. And gobby with it.’ It’s Hood, spider that lives in me… hood. Yeah, I got tricksy with that name, didn’t I? Hood’s me one true natter in all this world. He’s always got me back. Like now. Shift eyes to the danger.

Read on in Chapter Two: Banter

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