Freefall, p.1
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       Freefall, p.1
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           Roderick Gordon




  In order to arrive at what you are not

  You must go through the way in which you are not.

  And what you do not know is the only thing you know

  And what you own is what you do not own

  And where you are is where you are not.

  from East Coker, Four Quartets

  T. S. Eliot (1888 – 1965)

  Just passing through, ’till we reach the next stage.

  But just to where, well it’s all been arranged.

  Just passing through but the break must be made.

  Should we move on or stay safely away?

  from From Safety to Where …?

  Joy Division (1976 – 1980)



  Title Page


















































  Bonus Material

  The Origins of the Colony

  Sneak Preview

  About the Author



  PART 1



  “HERRRRRPH,” Chester Rawls groaned softly to himself. His mouth was so dry it was a few moments before he could actually speak. “Aw, Mum, leave off, will you,” he finally managed to say, but not unpleasantly.

  He felt a tickling at his ankle, just like his mother would do when he’d failed to react to his bleeping alarm clock and haul himself out of bed. And he knew that there would be no respite from the tickling until he threw back the blankets and began to get himself ready for school.

  “Please, Mum, just another five minutes?” he pleaded, his eyes still shut tight.

  He felt so snug that he just wanted to lie there for as long as he could, savoring every second. In truth, he would often pretend that he hadn’t heard the alarm, because he knew his mother would eventually come in to make sure he was up. He treasured the moments when he’d open his eyes and she’d be sitting there, perched on the end of his bed. He loved her breeziness and her smile, as bright as the morning sun. And she was this way every single morning, no matter how early the hour. “I’m a morning person!” she would proclaim cheerfully. “But your grumpy old dad, it takes several cups of coffee before himself.” Then she’d imitate a mean face and push her shoulders forward and make growling noises like a wounded bear, and Chester would do the same and they’d both laugh.

  Chester grinned at the thought, but then his sense of smell kicked in with a vengeance, wiping the smile from his face.

  “Eww, Mum, what’s that? It’s gross!” he gasped, unable to explain the stench to himself. As if someone had turned off the TV, the image of his mother was gone. He immediately became very anxious and opened his eyes.


  “What?” he murmured. It lay all around him, impenetrable and unbroken. Then he caught something out of the corner of his eye — a faint glow. Why’s it so dark in here? he asked himself. Although he couldn’t see even the smallest thing to confirm that he was in his bedroom, his mind was working overtime to convince him that he really was there. Is that sunlight coming from the window? And that smell … has something boiled over on the stove downstairs? What’s going on?

  The odor was intense. It was sulfurous, but at the same time there was something just beneath it … the sour tang of decay. The combination filled his nostrils and made his gorge rise. He tried to lift his head to look around. He couldn’t — it was held by something — and, for that matter, so were his arms and legs; his whole body felt as if it was stuck fast. His first thought was that he was paralyzed. He didn’t cry out, but took several quick breaths to try to quell his terror. He told himself he hadn’t lost any sense of feeling, even in his extremities, so he probably wasn’t paralyzed. He was further encouraged that he was able to wriggle his fingers and toes, albeit only very slightly. It seemed as though he was lodged in something firm and unyielding.

  The tickling at his ankle came again, as if his phantom mother was still there, and her tenuous image flickered back into his mind’s eye again.

  “Mum?” he said uncertainly.

  The tickling stopped, and he heard a low and mournful sound. It didn’t sound quite human.

  “Who’s that? Who’s there?” he challenged the darkness.

  What came was quite unmistakably a meow.

  “Bartleby?” he yelled. “Is that you, Bartleby?”

  As he uttered the cat’s name, the events at the Pore flooded back to him in a vivid rush. He gasped as he remembered how he, Will, Cal, and Elliott, with a huge hole behind them called the Pore, had been trapped by Limiters. “Oh God,” he whimpered. They’d been facing almost certain death at the hands of the Styx soldiers. It was like a scene in a bad dream, one that refused to dim even after waking. And it all felt so fresh to him, as if it had happened only minutes ago.

  More memories came back.

  “Oh God!” he murmured, recalling the moment when Rebecca, the Styx girl who had been implanted in Will’s family, revealed that all along she’d had an identical twin. He remembered these twins mocking Will so mercilessly, taking such cruel pleasure in disclosing their plans to wipe out swaths of Topsoilers using the deadly virus, Dominion. Telling Will to give himself up. And then Cal, Will’s baby brother, stepping out into the open, wailing that he wanted to go home.

  The hail of bullets that had cut the boy down …

  Cal was dead.

  Chester shuddered, but forced himself to recall what had happened next. The image of his friend, Will, came back to him — he and Chester were reaching out their hands to each other, and Elliott was shouting, and they were all linked together by a rope. Chester knew at that instant that there was still hope … but why? Why was there hope? … He couldn’t remember. They had been caught in a desperate situation, with no way out. Chester’s mind was so muddled it took him several seconds to order his thoughts.

  Yes! That was it! Elliott was going to try to take them down the inside of the Pore…. There was still time…. They were going to escape.

  But it had all gone so very wrong.

  Chester squeezed his eyes shut as if his retinas still burned with the fiery flashes and the searing whiteness of the explosions when they’d been bombarded by the Styx Division’s mighty guns. He relived the feeling of the ground quaking beneath him. And then another memory resurfaced — the hazy image of Will being flung into the air right over his head …

  And over the edge of the Pore.

  Chester recalled his blind panic as he and Elliott had tried to stop themselves from being dragged over by the combined weight of the brothers’ bodies. But it had been in vain; they were all bound toge
ther; and the next thing he knew they were hurtling, all four of them, into the dark vacuum of the Pore.

  … the sensation of the rushing, unceasing wind, which snatched away his breath … flashes of red light … incredibly intense heat … but now …

  … but now …

  … now he was supposed to be dead. So what was this? Where … where was he? Again came a meow, and Chester felt warm breath on his face.

  “Bartleby, that is you, isn’t it?” he asked falteringly.

  The animal’s huge domed head, barely visible in the darkness, was inches away from him. Of course, it had to be Bartleby. Chester was forgetting that the cat had leapt after his felled master, Cal, and gone over the side at the same time as the rest of them … and here he was now.

  A damp tongue rasped against Chester’s cheek.

  “Geddoff!” he bawled. “Stop it!”

  Bartleby licked him even more vigorously, clearly delighted to be getting a reaction. “Get away from me, you stupid cat!” Chester shouted in growing alarm. It wasn’t just that he was powerless to stop the animal; Bartleby’s tongue was as abrasive as a sheet of sandpaper, and being licked by him was actually quite painful. Renewing his efforts to free himself, Chester struggled furiously, all the time hollering at the top of his lungs.

  The shouting did not deter the animal in the slightest, and Chester was left with no recourse but to hiss and spit as savagely as he could. It eventually worked, and Bartleby backed off.

  Then there was just silence and darkness again.

  He tried to call out to Elliott and then to Will, although he didn’t know if either had survived the fall. He had the most horrible feeling in the pit of his stomach that he might be the only one left alive, other than the cat, of course. That almost made it worse — the idea that it was just him alone with the giant slobbering animal.

  A suggestion struck him like a cricket ball to the head: By some miracle had he landed in the very bottom of the Pore? He remembered what Elliott had told them — that not only was the opening a mile across, it was so deep that only one man, so the story went, had managed to climb back out of it. As much as the invisible substance he was stuck in would allow him, Chester trembled uncontrollably. He was in his worst nightmare.

  He was buried alive!

  Jammed in some kind of body-shaped shallow grave, stranded in the guts of the earth … How was he ever going to get out of the Pore and back up to the surface again? He was farther down now even than the Deeps — and he’d thought that had been bad enough. The prospect of returning home to his parents and to his nice predictable life was growing ever more distant.

  “Please, I just want to go home,” he gabbled to himself and, beset by alternating waves of claustrophobia and dread, he broke out into a cold sweat.

  But as he lay there, a small voice in his head told him he couldn’t just give in to his fear. He stopped gabbling. He knew he had to liberate himself from whatever held him like quick-setting cement and find the others. They might need his help.

  By a process of tensing and relaxing and squirming, it took him ten minutes to partially work his head loose and gain a measure of free movement in one shoulder. Then, as he contracted the muscles in his arms, there was a disgusting sucking sound, and one of them was suddenly released from the spongy, clinging material.

  “Yes!” he cried. Although the movement of his arm was limited, he took a moment to feel his face and chest with his hand. He came across the straps of his backpack and undid both buckles, thinking it might help him in his bid for freedom. Then, as he concentrated on freeing the rest of his body, heaving and grunting, he became hotter and hotter with the exertion from these micromovements. It was as if he was breaking free from a mold. Nevertheless, it slowly seemed to be working.

  Many miles above Chester, at the top of the Pore, the old Styx stood peering into it while water fell in a constant drizzle around him, and somewhere in the distance packs of dogs howled.

  Although his face was deeply lined, and his hair flecked with silver, age had not brought frailty to this man. His tall, thin body was stretched as tightly as a bow under the long leather coat buttoned up to his neck. And, as the light caught them, his small eyes glittered like two beads of highly polished jet. A sense of power emanated from his whole being; it seemed to pervade the darkness around him and hold it in his thrall.

  As he gestured with his hand, another man stepped up beside him, so that the pair of them stood shoulder to shoulder on the very edge of the void. This second person bore an uncanny resemblance to the old man, although his face was as yet unlined, and his hair so black and tightly raked back that it could easily have been mistaken for a skullcap.

  These men, members of a secret race called the Styx, were investigating an incident that had taken place a short time before. An incident in which the old Styx had lost his twin granddaughters, who had been swept over the edge of the void.

  Although he knew there was little chance that either of the girls was still alive, the old Styx’s face revealed no trace of sorrow or anguish at their loss. He fired orders in a staccato bark.

  There was a renewed flurry of activity as the Limiters around the Pore obeyed him. These soldiers, a specialized detachment that trained in the Deeps and undertook clandestine operations on the surface, wore dun-colored fatigues — heavy jackets and bulky pants — despite the high temperatures prevalent at that depth in the earth. Their lean faces were impassive and intent as some of their number used the light-gathering scopes mounted on their rifles to probe the depths of the Pore while others lowered luminescent orbs on cables to check the upper reaches. It was unlikely that the twins had managed to stop themselves from plummeting to their deaths, but the old Styx had to make certain.

  “Anything?” he barked in his own tongue, a nasal and rasping language. The word echoed around the Pore and carried up the slope behind him, where other soldiers, with their usual efficiency, were already dismantling the large field guns that had caused so much destruction in the very spot he now stood.

  “They’ve obviously perished,” the old Styx said quietly to his young assistant, then immediately shouted orders at full volume again. “Concentrate all your efforts on finding the phials!” He was counting on the fact that one or both of the twins had had time to unhook the small glass vessels hung around their necks before they were taken over the edge. “We need those phials!”

  His uncompromising gaze fell on the Limiters who were crawling around him as they combed every inch of the ground. They were painstakingly checking under each piece of shattered rock and sifting through the churned-up dirt, which still smoldered from the residue of the explosive in the shells that had struck there. Every so often this residue ignited and small flames would rekindle and sprout from the ground, then vanish just as soon.

  Shouts of warning rose up, and several Limiters threw themselves back as a strip of land farther along the Pore broke away with a low rumble. Tons of rock and soil, which had been loosened from the shelling, detached and slid into the abyss. Regardless of this close call, the soldiers simply picked themselves up and resumed their duties, apparently unruffled by the event.

  The old Styx turned to contemplate the darkness at the top of the slope.

  “No question that it was her,” his young assistant said, as he, too, looked up the slope. “It was Sarah Jerome who took the twins over with her.”

  “Who else could it have been?” the old Styx snapped, shaking his head. “And what’s remarkable is that she managed it even though she was mortally wounded.” He turned to his young assistant. “We were playing with fire when we set her against her sons and, put bluntly, we got our fingers burned. Nothing is ever straightforward when it comes — came — to that Burrows child.” The boy was no more likely to have survived the drop than his twin granddaughters. He fell silent with a frown, drawing a long breath before he spoke again. “But tell me — how did Sarah Jerome make it down here? Who was responsible for the area?” He thrust a fing
er at the upper slopes. “I want them to answer to me.”

  His young assistant bowed his head to acknowledge the order, then left.

  Another figure immediately appeared in his place. It was so distorted and hunched it was difficult to tell at first glance whether it was actually human. From beneath a shawl stiff with filth, a pair of gnarled hands twitched their way out into the light. With birdlike movements, the hands lifted up the shawl to reveal a head horribly deformed with bulbous growths, so numerous that in places they seemed to grow one upon the other. Limp tufts of dank hair framed a face in which two perfectly white eyes were set. Devoid of irises or pupils, they swiveled about as though they were able to see.

  “Condolences, ‘n’ that, on the loss of …,” the figure wheezed, trailing off in a respectful silence.

  “Thank you, Cox,” the old Styx responded, now speaking in English. “Every man is the architect of his own fortune, and unfortunate things happen.”

  In a sudden movement, Cox swiped at the string of lacteal saliva dangling from his blackened lips with the back of his wrist, smearing it across his gray skin. He held his spindly arm in midair, then, with a jerk, raised it farther up his face and tapped the melon-sized growth on his forehead with a clawlike finger.

  “At least yer girls did for Will Burrows and that sow Elliott,” he said. “But yer still going to purge the rest of the Deeps for the last renegades, ain’t yer?”

  “Every last one, using the information you gave us,” the old Styx said, then shot him a knowing look. “Anyway, Cox, why do you ask?”

  “No reason,” the shapeless lump replied, quick as a flash.

  “Oh, but I think there is…. You’re worried because Drake has thus far eluded us. And you know that sooner or later he’ll come after you, to settle the score.”

  “‘E will, and I’ll be ready for ‘im,” Cox proclaimed confidently, but a snaking blue vein throbbing under one of his eyes told otherwise. “Drake could throw a spanner —”

  The old Styx held up a hand to silence him as his young assistant double-timed it back with three Limiters in tow. The trio of soldiers formed a row and stood rigidly to attention, their eyes set straight before them and their long rifles at their sides. Two of them were youthful subalterns, the third an officer, a grizzled veteran of many years’ service.

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