Tunnels 02 deeper, p.12
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       Tunnels 02 - Deeper, p.12
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           Roderick Gordon

  "You've seen me at Will's house."

  Sarah shook her head again, then froze. There was something familiar about the child. Sarah realized she must have been passing herself off as Will's sister. But how?

  "The knife," Rebecca urged, "put it down."

  "No," Sarah tried to say, but it came out as a groan.

  "We have so much in common. We have a common interest. You should hear what I have to say."

  "There's nothing to say!" Sarah cried, finding her voice again.

  "Tell her, Joe," the Styx girl said, half turning.

  Someone stepped from the wall. It was the man who had written the note, Joe Waites, one of her brother Tam's gang. Joe had been like family to her and her brother, a loyal friend who would have followed Tam to the ends of the earth.

  "Go on," Rebecca commanded him. "Tell her."

  "Sarah, it's me," Joe Waites said. "Joe Waites," he added hastily, as she didn't show any sign that she recognized him. He inched forward, his trembling palms turned to her and his voice cracking with hysteria as he delivered a tumble of words. "Oh, Sarah," he pleaded, "please… please put it down… put the knife down… do it for your son's sake… for Cal's sake… Your must've seen my message… It's true, it's the God's own…"

  Sarah pressed the blade deeper into the flesh over her jugular and he stopped dead on the spot, his hands still raised, his fingers spread out, his whole body shaking violently. "No, no, don't, don't, don't… Listen to her… you have to. Rebecca can help."

  "Nobody's going to make a move on you, Sarah. You have my word," the girl said calmly. "At least hear me out." She raised her shoulders in a small shrug, setting her head at an angle. "But you go ahead if you want to… cut your throat… I can't do anything to stop you." She let out a long sigh. "It would be such a waste, such a stupid, tragic waste. And don't you want to save Cal? He needs you."

  Turning one way, then the other, gasping for breath like the cornered animal she was, Sarah's wide eyes stared at Joe Waites, blinking uncomprehendingly at the old man's unmistakable face under its tight-fitting skullcap, a lone tooth protruding from its top jaw.

  "Joe?" she whispered hoarsely at him, with the quiet resignation of someone who was ready to die.

  She twisted the blade deeper into her throat. Joe Waites flapped his arms frantically and cried out as the first drops of blood trickled down the paleness of her neck.

  "Sarah, please!" he screamed. "Don't! Don't! DON'T!"

  12

  Will had volunteered to take first watch so the others could get some more rest. He tried to write in his journal but found it difficult to concentrate and, after a while, put it to one side. He paced around the table, listening to Chester's steady snoring, and then resolved to use the time to explore the house more thoroughly. Besides, he was dying to try out his new lantern. He proudly hooked it over his shirt pocket as his brother had shown him, and adjusted the intensity of the beam. With a last look at his sleeping comrades, he quietly left the library.

  His first stop was the room on the opposite side of the hall, which he and Cal had only investigated briefly on their earlier excursion. He tiptoed through the dust and, nudging the door open, he went in.

  It had the same dimensions as the library but was completely devoid of furniture or shelves. He walked around the edge of the room, peering down at the deep skirting where there were small strips of a lime-green paper, which had obviously once adorned the walls.

  He went over to the shuttered windows, fighting the impulse to open them, and instead strolled around the floor several more times, the spotlight beam slashing through the darkness before him. Seeing nothing of interest, he was just on his way out when something caught his eye. He hadn't noticed it before, when all he and Cal had were the luminescent orbs, but now, with his brighter light, it was difficult to miss.

  Scratched into the wall by the door, at about head height, were the following words:

  I STAKE THIS HOUSE AS MY FIND. SIGNED DR. ROGER BURROWS

  Then, following a day with a number next to it that meant nothing to Will, was:

  P.S. WARNING — LEAD ON WALLS HIGH RADIOACTIVITY OUTSIDE?!

  In wonder, Will reached out and ran his hand over some of the words, which reflected his light as if they had been gouged into metal.

  "Dad! Dad's been here!" he began to shout. He was so elated that he forgot they had all been trying to be quiet. "My dad has been here!"

  Chester and Cal, both wakened by his shouting, came tearing into the hallway.

  "Will? What is it, Will?" Chester cried from the doorway, concerned for his friend.

  "Look at that! He's been here!" Will was babbling, overcome with excitement.

  They began to read the inscription, but Cal didn't seem to be impressed, almost immediately slouching against the wall. He yawned, rubbing the sleep from his eyes.

  "I wonder how long ago he did that," Will said.

  "Incredible!" Chester exclaimed as he finished reading the message. "That's just wild!" He grinned widely at Will, sharing his friend's euphoria. But then a suggestion of a frown wrinkled his brow. "So do you think they were his footprints in the library?"

  "Bet they were," Will said breathlessly. "But isn't it just too weird? Talk about a coincidence — we chose exactly the same route as him."

  "Like father, like son." Chester gave Will a pat on the back.

  "But he's not his father," said a resentful voice from the shadows behind Chester. Cal was shaking his head. "Not his real father," he said disagreeably. "And he didn't even have the guts to tell you that, did he, Will?"

  Will didn't react, not allowing his brother to take away from the moment. "Well, we cant' hang around this area for long, if Dad's right about the radioactivity" — he carefully emphasized the word without looking at Cal — "and the walls are all coated with lead. I think he was right — feel here." He touched the surface of the wall under the message, and Chester did likewise. "Must act as a shielding."

  "Yeah, feels cold, like lead, all right. So I suppose the rest of the house must be the same," Chester agreed, glancing around the room.

  "That's obvious. I told you the air's bad in the Deeps, you dolts," Cal said contemptuously and stamped his way back through the dust, leaving the two of them standing there.

  "Just when I'm beginning to think he's not such a brat," Chester grumbled, shaking his head, "he goes and ruins everything."

  "Just ignore it," Will said.

  "He may look like you, but that's as far as it goes," Chester fumed. He was irked by the younger boy's behavior. "The little midget only cares about one person, and that's himself! And I know what his game is, always trying to wind me up… He eats with his mouth wide open just to…" Chester stopped in midflow as he noticed the faraway look on his friend's face. Will wasn't listening; he stared at the writing on the wall, totally absorbed by thoughts of his father.

  The boys spent the next twenty-four hours taking it easy, sometimes sleeping on the library table, sometimes roving through the large house. As Will looked around the other rooms, it made him uncomfortable to think the Styx had once lived here, even though it had been a long time ago. However, despite his searching, he didn't find any further evidence of his father and was becoming impatient to get going again — fired up by the notion that Dr. Burrows might still be in the area and desperate to catch up with him. With every hour, Will grew more restless, until he could bear it no longer. He rallied Chester and Cal together, telling them to pack their things, and then left the library to wait out in the hallway.

  "I don't know what it is, but there's something about this place," Will said as Chester joined him by the front door. Will had opened it a fraction, and they were shining the focused beams of their lanterns at the dismal forms of the squat huts as they waited for Cal. After his outburst about Will's father, he'd been moody and uncommunicative, and both Will and Chester had largely left him to his own devices.

  "It makes me feel… feel kind of uneasy," Will continued.
"It's all those little huts out there and the thought that the Styx made the Coprolites live in them, like slaves. I bet they were treated so badly."

  "The Styx are the worst type of scum," Chester said, then hissed sharply through his teeth and shook his head. "No, Will, I don't like it here, either. It's strange that…" he pondered.

  "What?"

  "Well, it's just that this building's been empty for years, maybe centuries, until your dad broke in. Just locked up, like nobody's dared to put a foot in it."

  "Yes, that's right," Will said thoughtfully.

  "Do you think people stay away because things were once so awful here?" Chester asked him.

  "Well, the bats are definitely carnivorous — I saw them attacking an injured one — but I don't think they're too much of a danger," Will replied.

  "Huh?" Chester said apprehensively, his face draining. "We're made of meat."

  "Yeah, but I would guess they're more interested in the insects," Will began. "Or animals that can't fight back." He shook his head. "You're right — I'm sure it isn't just the bats that have kept people away from this place," he agreed.

  As Will had been talking, Cal had stomped sullenly through the dust, thrown down his rucksack and sat himself on top of it.

  "Yeah, the bats," he butted in sulkily. "How are we going to get past them?"

  "There's no sign of them at the moment," Will said.

  "Wonderful," Cal snarled. "So you don't have a plan at all."

  Will responded evenly, refusing to be ruffled by his brother's criticism. "Right, then: This time we dim our lights, we don't make any noise, or shout — got that, Cal? And, as a precaution, I've got some firecrackers ready if they do come. Should scare off the freaky things." Will tugged open the side pocket of his pack, in which there were a couple of Roman candles left over from the batch he'd set off in the Eternal City.

  "That's it? That's the plan?" Cal demanded aggressively.

  "Yes," Will said, still trying to keep his cool.

  "Foolproof!" Cal grunted.

  Will gave him a look that could kill and warily pulled the door farther open.

  Cal and Chester both edged out, with Will bringing up the rear, a pair of firecrackers in one hand and a lighter poised in the other. Every so often they heard the screeches of the bats, but they came from far enough away not to cause any real alarm. The boys moved silently and quickly, using the minimum of light to show them the way. In the shadows around their feet the tiny scuttlings and scrabblings tested the limits of their resolve, their imaginations running riot with thoughts of what was there.

  They had left the gateway behind them and then backtracked a good distance down the main tunnel when Cal stopped and pointed at a side passage. True to form, he had wandered ahead by himself, and now did not say anything as he continued to point.

  "Is the midget trying to tell us something?" Chester asked Will sarcastically as they approached the resentful boy. Will stepped closer, until his face was inches from Cal's.

  "For goodness' sake, grow up, will you? We're all in this together."

  "A sign," Cal merely said.

  "From heaven?" Chester asked.

  Unspeaking, Cal moved aside to allow them to see a wooden post that rose a few feet from the ground. It was ebony-black, with the surface cracked as if it had been badly charred, and at the top it had a curved arrow pointing into the passage. They hadn't spotted it on the way down because it was tucked just inside the mouth of the passage.

  "I reckon this could be a good way to get through to the Great Plain," Cal told Will, studiously avoiding Chester's belligerent glare.

  "But why would we want to go there?" Will asked him. "What's so special about it?"

  "It's probably where your dad went next," Cal replied.

  "Then we follow it," Will said, and turned away from his brother, entering the passage without a further word.

  * * * * *

  Their journey through the passage was relatively easy — it was quite sizable, and its floor level, but the heat grew stronger with every step. Following Chester's and Cal's example, Will had removed his jacket, but he still felt the sweat soaking his back under his rucksack.

  "We are going in the right direction, aren't we?" he said to Cal, who for once was not straying ahead of them.

  "I hope so, don't you?" the boy replied insolently, then spat on the ground.

  The change was immediate. There was a flash of illumination, far brighter than the glow issuing from the lanterns all three boys had hooked on their shirt pockets. It was as if all the faces of the rocks, and even the very ground itself, were radiating a clean yellow light. And it wasn't just limited to where they stood, but surging in pulses along the passage in both directions and illuminating everything as surely as if a switch had been flicked on, lighting the way for them.

  They were stunned.

  "I don't like this, Will," Chester gibbered.

  Will pulled his jacket from where it was draped over the top of his rucksack and rummaged in it for his gloves.

  "What are you doing?" Cal asked.

  "Just a hunch," Will replied, stooping to pick up a brightly glowing rock the size of a golf ball. He closed his gloved hand over it, the creamy efflorescence shining through the gaps between his fingers. Then, balancing the rock on his open palm, he examined it carefully.

  "Look at this," he said. "See that it's covered with a growth of some sort, like lichen?" Then he spat on it.

  "Will?" Chester exclaimed.

  The rock shone even more brightly. Will's mind was working overtime. "It feels warm. So moisture activates whatever this organism is — possibly bacteria — and it gives off light. Except for the stuff you find in some oceans, I've never heard of anything quite like this." He spat again, but this time on the wall of the passage.

  Sure enough, where spots of his saliva had landed, the wall glowed that much more fiercely, as if luminous paint had been flicked at it.

  "C'mon already, Will!" Chester said urgently, his voice low with fear. "It could be dangerous!"

  Will ignored him. "You can see what water does to it. It's like a seed that's dormant… until it gets wet." He turned to the other two boys. "Better not get any on your skin — wouldn't like to think what it might do to it. Might suck up all the moisture…"

  "Thank you, Professor Smarty-Pants. Now let's get out of here ASAP, shall we?" Chester said, exasperated.

  "Yep, I'm done," Will agreed, tossing the rock aside.

  * * * * *

  The rest of the journey was uneventful, and it was many hours of monotonous trudging before they left the passage and came out into what at first Will took to be another cavern. But as they moved forward, it soon became apparent that the space was something altogether different from any of those they'd been in before.

  "Hold up, Will! I think I can see lights," Cal said.

  "Where?" Chester asked.

  "There… and more over there. See them?"

  Both Will and Chester peered into the seemingly unbroken blackness.

  To catch sight of them, they had to look just off center — attempting to view the lights directly blotted the dimly blinking specks from view.

  In silence, they turned their heads slowly from one side to the other as they took in the tiny points, which were spaced at random intervals across the horizon. The lights seemed so far away and vague as to be gently pulsing and shifting through a haze of colors, similar to stars on a warm summer's night.

  "This'll be the Great Plain," Cal announced all of a sudden.

  Will took an involuntary step backward. It had begun to sink in that the expanse ahead was truly vast. It was daunting: The darkness made his mind play tricks on him, so he couldn't tell if the lights were in the extreme distance or, indeed, much closer by.

  Together, the boys edged forward. Even Cal, who had spent his life in the immense caverns of the Colony, had never before encountered anything with dimensions like this. Although the roof remained at a relatively constan
t height, fifty feet or so from the floor, the rest — a yawning, endless gap — wasn't visible even with their lanterns set to full beam. It stretched before them, a slice of continuous blackness unbroken by a single pillar, stalagmite, or stalactite. And, most remarkably, gentle gusts of air wafted around, cooling them down a degree or two.

  "It does look massive!" Chester put into words what Will was thinking.

  "Yeah, goes on forever," Cal rejoined indifferently.

  Chester turned on him. "What do you mean, forever? How big is it, really?"

  "About a hundred miles across," Cal answered flatly. Then he strode off, leaving the other two standing side by side.

  "A hundred miles!" Will repeated.

  Chester suddenly blew his top. "Why doesn't your brother just tell us everything he knows? This place doesn't go on 'forever.' He's such a jerk! He either exaggerates everything or never gives us the whole story." With the sourest of expressions, he leaned his head to one side and then the other as he mimicked Cal. "This is Crevice City… blah, blah… her is the Great Plain… blahbiddy-blah…" he spat, his words clipped through his anger. "You know, Will, I keep getting the feeling that he's holding things back just so he can get one up on me."

  "On us," Will said. "But can you believe this place? Mind-blowing." Will was doing his best to change the subject and knock Chester off a course, which, it was clear, would eventually lead to a violent collision with his brother.

  "Yeah, it's sure blown my mind," Chester replied sarcastically and began to probe the darkness with his lantern, as if trying to prove Cal was wrong.

  But it did seem as though the space stretched on forever. Will immediately began to theorize about how it could have been formed. "If you had pressure against tow loosely bonded strata from… from a tectonic movement," he said, overlaying one hand on the other to demonstrate it to Chester, "then it could be possible for one to just ride up over the other." He arched the top hand. "And, bingo, you could get this sort of feature. Like wood grain splitting when it gets damp."

 
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