Tunnels 02 deeper, p.1
"And I listened, and I heard
Hammers beating, night and day,
In the palace newly reared,
Beating it to dust and clay:
Other hammers, muffled hammers,
Silent hammers of decay."
—Ralph Hodgson (1871 – 1962)
From The Hammers
With a hiss and a clunk, the doors whisked shut, depositing the woman by the bus stop. Apparently indifferent to the whipping wind and the pelting rain, she stood watching as the vehicle rumbled into motion again, grinding the gears as it wound its way laboriously down the hill. Only when it finally vanished from sight behind the briar hedges did she turn to gaze at the grassy slopes that rose on either side of the road. Through the downpour they seemed to fade into the washed-out gray of the sky itself, so that it was difficult to tell where the one started and the other finished.
Clutching her coat tightly at the neck, she set off, stepping over the pools of rainwater in the crumbling asphalt at the edge of the road. Although the place was deserted, there was a watchfulness about her as she scanned the road ahead and occasionally glanced back over her shoulder. There was nothing particularly furtive about this — any young woman in a similarly isolated spot might have taken the same care.
Her appearance offered little clue as to who she was. The wind constantly flurried her brown hair across her wide-jawed face, obscuring her features in an ever-shifting veil, and her clothing was unremarkable. If anyone had happened by, they would most likely have taken her to be a local, perhaps on her way home to her family.
The truth couldn't have been more different.
She was Sarah Jerome, an escaped Colonist who was on the run for her life.
Walking a little farther along, she suddenly strode up the verge and hurled herself through a parting in the briar hedge-row. She alighted in a small hollow on the other side and, keeping low, spun around so she had a clear view of the road. Here she remained for a full five minutes, listening and watching and animal-alert. But other than the beat of the rain and the bluster of the wind in her ears, there was nothing.
She was truly alone.
She knotted a scarf over her head, then scrambled from the hollow. Moving quickly away from the road, she crossed the field before her in the lee of a loose stone wall. Then she climbed a steep incline, maintaining a fast pace as she reached the crest of the hill. Here, silhouetted against the sky, Sarah knew she was exposed and wasted no time in continuing down the other side, into the valley that opened out before her.
All around, the wind, channeled by the contours, was driving the rain into confused, twisting vortices, like diminutive hurricanes. And through this, something jarred, something registered in the corner of her eye. She froze, turning to catch a brief glimpse of the pale form.
A chill shot down her spine.
The movement didn't belong to the sway of the heathers or the beat of the grasses… It had a different rhythm to it.
She fixed her eyes on the spot until she saw what it was. There, on the valley side, a young lamb came fully into view, prancing a chaotic gambol between the tussocks of fescue. As she watched, it suddenly bolted behind a copse of stunted trees, as if frightened. Sarah's nerves jangled. What had driven it away? Was there somebody else close by — another human being? Sarah tensed, then relaxed as she saw the lamb emerge into the open once again, this time escorted by its mother, who chewed vacantly as the youngster began to nuzzle her flank.
It was a false alarm, but there was little hint of relief, or of amusement, in Sarah's face. Her eyes didn't stay on the lamb as it began to scamper around again, its fleece fresh as virgin cotton wool, in marked contrast to its mother's coarse, mud-streaked coat. There was no room for such diversions in Sarah's life, not now, not ever. She was already checking the opposite side of the valley, scouting it for anything that didn't fit.
Then she was off again, picking her way through the Celtic stillness of the lush green vegetation and over the smooth slabs of stone, until she came to a stream nestled in the crook of the valley. Without a moment's hesitation, she strode straight into the crystal clear waters, altering her course to that of the stream and sometimes using the moss-covered rocks as stepping stones when they afforded her a faster means through it.
As the level of the water rose, threatening to seep in over the tops of her shoes, she hopped back onto the bank, which was carpeted with a springy green pad of sheep-cropped grass. Still she maintained the same unrelenting pace and, before long, a rusted wire fence came into view, then the raised farm track that she knew ran behind it.
She spotted what she'd come for: Where the farm track intersected the stream there stood a crude stone bridge, its sides crumbling and badly in need of repair. Her course beside the stream was taking her straight toward it, and she broke into a trot in her haste to get there. Within minutes she had arrived at her destination.
Ducking under the bridge, she paused to wipe the moisture from her eyes. Then she crossed to the other side, where she held completely still as she studied the horizon. The evening was drawing in and the rose-tinged glow of newly lit streetlamps was just beginning to filter through a screen of oak trees, which hid all but the tip of the church steeple in the distant village.
She returned to a point halfway along the underside of the bridge, stooping as her hair snagged on the rough stone above. She located an irregular block of granite, which was slightly proud of the surface. With both hands, she began to pry it free. It was the size and weight of several house bricks, and she grunted with the effort as she bent to place it on the ground by her feet.
Straightening up, she peered into the void, then inserted her arm all the way to her shoulder and groped around inside. Her face pressed against the stonework, she found a chain, which she tried to pull down on. It was stuck fast. Tug as she might, she couldn’t move it. She swore and, taking a deep breath, braced herself for another attempt. This time it gave.
For a second, nothing happened as she continued to pull one-handed on the chain. Then she heard a sound like distant thunder emanating from deep within the bridge.
Before her, hitherto invisible joints broke open with a spray of mortar dust and dried lichen, and an uneven, door-sized hole opened before her as a section of the wall lifted back, then up. After a final thud that made the whole bridge quake, all was silent again except for the gurgle of the stream and the patter of rain.
Stepping into the gloomy interior, she took a small key-ring flashlight from her coat pocket and switched it on. The dim circle of light revealed she was in a chamber some fifty feet square, with a ceiling that was sufficiently high to allow her to stand upright. She glanced around, registering the dust motes as they drifted lazily through the air, and the cobwebs, as thick as rotted tapestries, which festooned the tops of the walls.
It had been built by Sarah's great-great-grandfather in the year before he'd taken his family underground for a new life in the Colony. A master stonemason by trade, he'd drawn on all his skills to conceal the chamber within the crumbling and dilapidated bridge, intentionally choosing a site miles from anywhere on the seldom-used farm track. And as to why exactly he'd gone to all this trouble, neither of Sarah's parents had been able to provide any answers. But whatever its original purpose, this was one of the very few places she felt truly safe. Nobody, she believed, would ever find her here. She pulled off her scarf and shook her hair free.
Her feet on the grit-covered floor broke the tomblike silence as she moved to a narrow stone she
"Let there be light," she said softly. She reached out and simultaneously tugged off both the sheaths to expose a pair of luminescent orbs, which were held in place on top of each prong by flaking red iron claws.
From these glass spheres no larger than nectarines, an eerie green light burst forth with such intensity that Sarah was forced to shield her eyes. It was as if their energy had been building and building under the leather covers and they now reveled in their newfound freedom. She brushed one of the spheres with her fingertips, feeling its ice-cold surface and shuddering slightly, as if its touch conferred some sort of connection with the hidden city where such orbs were commonplace.
The pain and suffering she had endured under this very light.
She dropped her hand to the top of the shelf, sifting through the thick layer of silt covering it.
Just as she'd hoped, her hand closed on a small polyethylene bag. She smiled, snatching it up and shaking it to remove the grime. The bag was sealed with a knot, which she quickly unpicked with her cold fingers. Removing the neatly folded piece of paper from inside, she lifted it to her nose to sniff at it. It was damp and fusty. The message must have been there for several months.
She kicked herself for not coming sooner. But she rarely allowed herself to check at fewer than six-month intervals, as this "dead mailbox" procedure held its dangers for all concerned. These were the only times that she came into contact, indirect as it was, with anyone from her former life. There was always a risk, however small, that the courier could have been shadowed as he'd broken out of the Colony and emerged on the surface in Highfield. She also couldn't ignore the possibility that he might have been spotted on the journey up from London itself. Nothing could be taken for granted. The enemy was patient, sublimely patient, and calculating, and Sarah knew they would never cease in their efforts to capture and kill her. She had to beat them at their own game.
She glanced at her watch. She always varied her routes to and from the bridge, and she hadn't allowed much time for the cross-country hike to the neighboring village where she would catch the bus for the journey home. She should have been on her way, but her craving for news of her family was just too great. This piece of paper was her only connection with her mother, brother, and two sons — it was like a lifeline.
She had to know what was in it.
She smelled the note again.
It was as if there was a distinctive and unwelcome smell to the paper, rising above the mingled odors of mold and mildew in the dank chamber. It was sharp and unpleasant — it was the reek of bad news.
With a mounting sense of dread, she stared deep into the light of the nearest orb, fidgeting with the piece of paper while she fought the urge to read it. Then, appalled with herself for being so weak, she grimaced and opened it up. Standing before the stone shelf, she examined it under the green-tinged illumination.
She frowned. The first surprise was that the message wasn't in her brother's hand. The childish writing was unfamiliar to her. Tam always wrote the notes. Her premonition had been right — she knew at once that something was amiss. She flipped the page over and scanned to the end to check the signature. "Joe Waites," she spoke aloud, feeling more and more uneasy. That wasn't right; Joe occasionally acted as the courier, but the message should have been from Tam.
She bit her lip in trepidation and began to read, darting through the first lines.
"Oh, no!" she gasped, shaking her head.
She read the first side of the letter again, unable to accept what was there, telling herself that she must have misunderstood it, that it had to be some sort of mistake. But it was as clear as day; the simplistically formed words left no room for confusion. And she had no reason to doubt what it was saying — these messages were the one thing she relied on, a constant in her shifting and restless life. They gave her a reason to go on.
"No, not Tam… not Tam! " she howled.
As surely as if she had been struck, she sagged against the stone shelf, leaning heavily on it to support herself.
She took a deep, tremulous breath and forced herself to turn over the letter and read the rest, shaking her head vehemently and mumbling, "No, no, no, no… it can't be…"
As if the first page hadn't been bad enough, what was on the reverse was just too much for her to take in. With a whimper, she pushed away from the shelf and into the center of the chamber. Swaying on her feet and hugging herself, she raised her head to look unseeingly at the ceiling.
All of a sudden she had to get out. She tore through the doorway in a frantic haste. Leaving the bridge behind her, she didn't stop. As she stumbled blindly by the side of the stream, the darkness was gathering rapidly and the rain was still falling in a persistent drizzle. Not knowing or caring where she was going, she slid and slipped over the wet grass.
She hadn't gone very far when she blundered straight off the bank and into the stream, landing with a splash. She lowered to her knees, the clear waters closing around her waist. But her grief was so all-consuming, she didn't feel their icy chill. Her head swiveled on her shoulders as if she was gripped by the most intense agony.
She did something she hadn't done since the day she'd escaped Topsoil, the day she'd abandoned her two young children and husband. She began to cry, a few tears at first, and then she was unable to control herself and they gushed down her cheeks in floods, as if a dam had been broken.
She wept and wept until there was nothing left. Her face was set in a mask of stone-cold anger as she rose slowly to her feet, bracing herself against the surging flow of the stream. Her dripping hands tightened into fists and she threw them at the sky as she screamed a the top of her lungs, the raw, primeval sound rolling through the empty valley.
"No school tomorrow, then!" Will shouted to Chester as the Miners' Train bore them away from the Colony, hurtling deeper into the bowels of the earth.
They erupted into hysterical laughter, but this was short-lived and they soon fell silent, happy just to be reunited. As the steam engine hammered along the rails, they didn't move from the bed of the massive, open-topped train car where Will had discovered Chester hiding under a tarpaulin.
After several minutes, Will drew his legs up in front of him and rubbed his knee, which still hurt from the rather haphazard landing on the train some miles back. Noticing this, Chester shot him a questioning look, to which Will gave his friend the thumbs-up and nodded enthusiastically.
"How did you get here?" Chester shouted, trying to make himself heard over the din of the train.
"Cal and me," Will yelled back, pointing over his shoulder to indicate the front of the train, where he'd left his brother. Then Will waved upward to the tunnel roof flashing over them, "…jumped… Imago helped us."
"Imago helped us!" Will repeated.
"Imago? What's that?" Chester shouted even louder, cupping his hand over his ear.
"Doesn't matter," Will mouthed, shaking his head slowly and wishing that they could both lip-read. He gave his friend a grin and shouted, "Just brilliant you're OK!"
He wanted to give Chester the impression there was nothing to be worried about, although his mind was clouded with concern for the future. He wondered if his friend was even aware that they were headed for the Deeps, a place the people of the Colony spoke of with dread.
Will swiveled his head around to peer at the end panel behind him. From what he'd seen so far, the train and each of the freight cars it was pulling were on a scale several times larger than anything he'd ever encountered on the surface. He wasn't looking forward to the journey back to where his brother was waiting. Getting here had been no mean feat: Will knew that even the smallest misjudgment might have meant that he'd have slipped onto the track below and most probably been mashed by the giant wheels that ground and sparked on the thick rails. The thought alone was t
"Ready to go?" he shouted to Chester.
His friend nodded and rose uncertainly to his feet. Clinging to the end of the car, he braced himself against the incessant seesawing as the train wove around several bends in the tunnel.
He was dressed in the short coat and thick pants that were the usual garb in the Colony, but as the coat flapped open, Will was dismayed by what he saw.
Chester had been nicknamed Chester Drawers at school for his imposing physique, but, looking at him now, he seemed to have wasted away. His face was gaunter and his body had lost much of its bulk. Incredible as it seemed to Will right then, his formerly hefty friend now appeared to be almost frail. Will labored under no illusions as to how appalling the conditions in the Hold were. It wasn't long after he and Chester had first stumbled onto the subterranean world that they'd been caught by a Colonist policeman and thrust into one of the dark, airless prison cells. But Will had only been held there for about a fortnight — Chester had suffered a considerably longer ordeal. Months of it.
Will caught himself staring at his friend and quickly averted his eyes. He was racked with guilt, knowing that he was to blame for everything Chester had endured. He, and only he, had been responsible for dragging Chester into all this, driven by his impulsiveness and his single-minded determination to find his missing father.
Chester said something, but Will didn't catch a word of it, studying his friend under the illumination cast by the light orb in his hand as he tried to read his thoughts. Every exposed inch of Chester's face was pasted with a layer of filth from the sulfurous smoke constantly streaming past them. It was so thick that it looked like one big smudge broken only by the whites of his eyes.
From what little Will could see, Chester certainly wasn't a picture of health. In among the dirt mask were raised purple blotches, some with a hint of redness where the skin appeared to be broken. His hair, grown so long it was beginning to curl at the ends, was greasy and stuck to the sides of his head. And from the way Chester was looking back at him, Will assumed that his own appearance was equally shocking.