Tunnels 01 tunnels, p.12
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       Tunnels 01 - Tunnels, p.12

           Roderick Gordon
 

  "Here, let me see it," Rebecca said, her hand snaking toward the box. Will took a step back, holding the sphere in one hand while he shook open the letter with the other. Rebecca withdrew her hand and sat back down, watching her brother's face carefully as he leaned on the counter by the sink and began to read the letter aloud. It was from University College's physics department.

  Dear Roger,

  It was wonderful to hear from you again after all these years — it brought back warm memories of our time together at college. It was also good to catch up on your news — Steph and I would love to visit when convenient.

  As regards the item, I apologize for taking so long to respond, but I wanted to be sure I had collated the results from all concerned. The upshot is that we are well and truly stumped.

  As you specified, we did not breach or penetrate the glass casing of the sphere, so all our tests were noninvasive in nature.

  On the matter of the radioactivity, no harmful emissions registered when it was tested — so at least I can put your mind at rest on that one.

  A metallurgist carried out an MS on a microscopic shaving from the base of the metal cage, and he agreed with your view that it's Georgian. He thinks the cage is made out of pinchbeck, which is an alloy of copper and zinc invented by Christopher Pinchbeck (1670 – 1732). It was used as a substitute for gold and only produced for a short while. Apparently, the formula for this alloy was lost when the inventor's son, Edward, died. He also told me that genuine examples of this material are scarce, and it's hard to find an expert who can give an unequivocal identification. Unfortunately, I haven't yet been able to get the cage carbon dated to confirm its precise age — maybe next time?

  What is particularly interesting is that an x-ray revealed a small, free-floating particle in the center of the sphere itself that does not alter its position even after rigorous agitation — this is puzzling, to say the least. Moreover, from a physical inspection, we agree with you that the sphere appears to be filled with two distinct liquid factions of differing densities. The turbulence you noted in these factions does not correspond to temperature variations, internal or external, but is unquestionably photoreactive — it only seems to be affected by a lack of light!

  Here's the rub: The crew over in the chemistry department have never seen anything like it before. I had a fight on my hands to get it back from — they were dying to crack the thing open in controlled conditions and run a full analysis. They tried spectroscopy when the sphere was at its brightest (at maximum excitation its emissions are in the visible spectrum — in layman's terms, not far off daylight, with a level of UV within acceptable safety parameters, and the "liquids" appeared to be predominately helium — and silver-based. We can't make any more progress on this until you allow us to open it.

  One hypothesis is that the solid particulate at the center may be acting as a catalyst for a reaction that is triggered by the absence of light. We can't confirm how, at this juncture, or come up with any comparable reactions that would occur over such a long period of time, assuming the sphere really does date from the Georgian era. Remember, helium was not discovered until 1895 — this is at odds with our estimate for the date of the metal casing.

  In short, what we have here is a conundrum. We would all very much welcome a visit from you for a multifaculty meeting so that we can schedule a program for further analysis of the item. It may even be useful for some of our team to drop into Highfield for a quick investigation into the background.

  I look forward to hearing from you.

  With kindest regards,

  Tom

  Professor Thomas Dee

  Will put the letter on the table and met Rebecca's stare. He examined the sphere for a moment, then went over to the light switch and, shutting the door to the kitchen, flicked off the lights. They both watched as the sphere grew in brightness from a dim greenish luminescence to something that indeed approached daylight, all in a matter of seconds.

  "Wow," he said in wonder. "And they're right, it doesn't even feel hot."

  "You knew about this, didn't you? I can read you as easily as a comic book," Rebecca said, staring fixedly at Will's face, which was lit by the strange glow.

  Will didn't respond as he turned on the lights but left the door shut. They watched as the sphere dulled again. "You know how you said no one was doing anything about finding Dad?" he said eventually.

  "So?"

  Chester and I came across something of his and we've been… making our own inquiries."

  "I knew it!" she said loudly. "What have you found out?"

  "Shh," Will hissed, glancing at the closed door. "Keep it down. I'm certainly not going to bother Mum with any of this. Last thing I want to do is get her hopes up. Agreed?"

  "Agreed," Rebecca said.

  "We found a book Dad was keeping notes in — a sort of journal," Will said slowly.

  "Yes, and…?"

  As they sat at the kitchen table, Will recounted what he had read in the journal and also their encounter with the strange pallid men outside the Clarke's shop.

  He stopped short of telling her about the tunnel under the house. To him, that was just a little secret.

  17

  It was a week later when Will and Chester finally made the breakthrough. Dehydrated from the heat at the work face, and with muscles that were cramped and fatigued by the relentless cycle of digging and tipping, they were on the verge of wrapping up for the day when Will's pickax struck a large block of stone and it tipped backward. A pitch-black opening yawned before them.

  Their eyes locked onto the hole, which exhaled a damp and musty breeze into their tired and dirty faces. Chester's instincts screamed at him to back away, as if he were about to be sucked into the opening. Neither of them said a word; there were no great cheers or exultations as they gazed into the impenetrable darkness, with the dead calm of the earth all around them. It was Chester who broke the spell.

  "I suppose I'd better be getting home, then."

  Will turned and looked at him with incredulity, then spotted the flicker of a smirk on Chester's face. Filled with an immense sense of relief and accomplishment, Will couldn't help but erupt into a peal of hysterical laughter. He picked up a clod of dirt and hurled it at his grinning friend, who ducked, a low chuckle coming from beneath his yellow hard hat.

  "You… you…" Will said, searching for an appropriate word.

  "Yeah, what?" Chester beamed. "Come on, then, let's have a look-see," he said, leaning into the gap next to Will.

  Will shone his flashlight through the opening. "It's a cavern… Can't make out much in there… Must be pretty big, I think I can see some stalactites and stalagmites." Then he stopped. "Listen!"

  "What is it?" whispered Chester.

  "Water, I think. I can hear water dripping." He turned to Chester.

  "You're kidding," Chester said, his face clouding with concern.

  "No, I'm not. Could be a Neolithic stream…"

  "Here, let me see," said Chester, taking the flashlight from Will.

  Tantalizing as it was, they decided against any further excavation there and then. They would résumé the following day when they were fresh and better prepared. Chester went home; he was tired but quietly elated that their work had borne fruit. It was true that they were both badly in need of sleep, and Will was even, unusually, considering taking a bath as he swung the shelves back into position. He did the usual sweep-up and made his way lethargically upstairs to his room.

  As he passed Rebecca's door, she called out to him. Will grimaced and held as still as a statue.

  "Will, I know you're out there."

  Will sighed and pushed open her door. Rebecca was lying on her bed, where she'd been reading a book.

  "What's up? asked Will, glancing around her room. He never ceased to be amazed at how infuriatingly clean and tidy she kept it.

  "Mum said she needs to discuss something with us."

  "When?"

  "As soon as you came in, she
said."

  "Great, what now?"

  Mrs. Burrows was in her usual position as they entered the living room. Slumped to one side in her armchair like a deflated mannequin, she raised her head dozily as Rebecca coughed to get her attention.

  "Ah, good," she said, pushing herself into a more normal sitting position and, in the process, knocking a couple of remote controls onto the floor. "Oh, drat!" she exclaimed.

  Will and Rebecca sat down on the sofa while Mrs. Burrows rummaged feverishly through the mound of videotapes a the base of her chair. Eventually coming up with both remotes, her hair hanging forward in straggles and her face flushed from the effort, she positioned them very precisely on the arm of her chair again. Then she cleared her throat and began.

  "I think it's time we faced the possibility that your father isn't coming back, which means we have to make some rather crucial decisions." She paused and glanced at the television. A model in a spangled evening dress was revealing a large letter V on the game-show wall, where several other letters were already revealed. Mrs. Burrows muttered, "The Invisible Man," under her breath as she turned back to Will and Rebecca. "Your father's salary was stopped a few weeks ago and, as Rebecca tells me, we are already running on empty."

  Will turned to Rebecca, who simply nodded in agreement, and their mother continued. "All the savings are gone and what with the mortgage and all the other expenses, we're going to have to cut our cloth…"

  "Cut our cloth?" asked Rebecca.

  "'Fraid so," their mother said distantly. "There won't be anything coming in for a while, so we're going to have to downscale — sell whatever we can, including the house."

  "What?" Rebecca said.

  "And you'll have to take care of it. I'm not going to be around for a while. I've been advised to spend a little time in a… well… sort of hospital, somewhere I can rest and get myself back on form."

  At this, Will raised his eyebrows, wondering just what "form" his mother could be referring to. She had been set in her current form for as long as he could remember.

  His mother went on. "So while I'm gone you two will have to go and stay with your Auntie Jean. She's agreed to look after you."

  Will and Rebecca glanced at each other. An avalanche of images fell through Will's mind: the housing projects where Auntie Jean lived, its public spaces crammed with garbage bags and disposable diapers, and its grafittied elevators reeking of urine. The streets filled with burned-out cars and the endlessly screaming motorcycles of the gangs and small-time drug dealers. The sorry groups of drunks who sat on the benches, squabbling ineffectually among themselves as they downed their brown-bagged "Trampagne." "No way!" he suddenly blurted out as if waking from a nightmare, making Rebecca jump and his mother sit bolt upright, once again knocking the remotes off the arm of her chair.

  "Drat!" she said again, craning her neck to see where they had fallen.

  "I'm not going to live there. I couldn't stand it, not for a second. What about school? What about my friends?" Will said.

  "What friends?" Mrs. Burrows replied spitefully.

  "You can't really expect us to go there, Mum. It's awful, it smells, the place is a pigsty," Rebecca piped up.

  "And Auntie Jean smells," Will added.

  "Well, there's nothing I can do about that. I have to get some rest; the doctor said I'm very stressed, so there's no debate. We've got to sell the house, and you're just going to have to stay with Jean until—"

  "Until what? You get a job or something?" Will put in sharply.

  Mrs. Burrows glared at him. "This is not good for me. The doctor said I should avoid confrontation. This conversation is over," she snapped suddenly, and turned on her side again.

  Back out in the hall, Will sat on the bottom step of the stairs, numb, while Rebecca stood with her arms folded, leaning against the wall.

  "Well, that's an end to it all," she said. "At least I'm going away next week—"

  "No, no, no… not now!" Will bellowed at her, holding up his hand. "Not with all this going on!"

  "Yeah, maybe you're right," she said, shaking her head. Then they both lapsed into silence.

  After a moment, Will stood up decisively. "But I know what I have to do."

  "What?"

  "Take a bath."

  "You need one," Rebecca said, watching him climb wearily up the stairs.

  18

  "Matches."

  "Check."

  "Candles."

  "Check."

  "Swiss Army knife."

  "Check."

  "Spare flashlight."

  "Check."

  "Balls of string."

  "Check."

  "Chalk and rope."

  "Yep."

  "Compass."

  "Umm… yep."

  "Extra batteries for the helmet lights."

  "Check."

  "Camera and notebook."

  "Check, check."

  "Pencils."

  "Check."

  "Water and sandwiches."

  "Ch— planning a long stay, are we?" Chester asked as he looked at the absurdly large packet wrapped in aluminum foil. They were carrying out a last-minute equipment check down in the Burrowses' cellar, using a list Will had made at school earlier that day during his home ec class. After ticking them off, they stowed each item in their backpacks. When they were finished, Will closed the flap on his and shrugged it onto his back.

  "OK, let's do it," he said with a look of sheer determination on his face as he reached for his trusty shovel.

  Will drew back the shelves and, once both he and Chester were inside, pulled them shut again and secured them by means of a makeshift latch he'd rigged up. Then Will squeezed past Chester to lead the way, moving swiftly ahead on all fours.

  "Hey, wait for me," Chester called after him, quite taken aback by his friend's enthusiasm.

  At the work face, they dislodged the remaining blocks of stone, which fell away into the darkness and landed with dull splashes. Chester was about to speak when Will preempted him.

  "I know, I know, you think we're about to be swept away in a flood of raw sewage or something." Will peered through the enlarged opening. "I can see where the rocks fell — they're sticking up out of the water. It can only be about ankle deep."

  With that, he turned around and started to climb backward through the hole. He paused on the brink to grin at Chester, then ducked out of sight, leaving his friend dumbfounded for an instant, until Chester heard Will's feet land in the water with a loud splash.

  There was a drop of about six feet. "Hey, pretty cool," Will said as Chester scrambled through after him. Will's voice echoed eerily around the cavern, which was approximately ten feet in height and at least thirty feet long, as far as they could make out, crescent shaped, with much of the floor submerged. They had entered near one end, and so were only able to see as far as the curve of the wall allowed.

  Stepping out of the water, they shone their flashlights around for a few seconds, but when the beams came to rest on the side of the cavern nearest to them they were both immediately transfixed. Will held his flashlight steady on the intricate rows of stalactites and stalagmites, all of varying sizes, from the width of pencils to much larger ones as think as the trunks of young trees. The stalactites speared down as their counterparts reached up, some meeting to form columns, and the ground was covered with overlapping swells of the encrusted calcite.

  "It's a grotto," Will said quietly, reaching out to feel the surface of an almost translucent milky white column. "Isn't it just beautiful? Looks like icing on a cake or something."

  "I think it looks more like frozen snot," Chester said in a whisper, also touching a small column, as if he didn't believe what he was seeing. He drew back his hand and rubbed his fingers together with an expression of distaste.

  Will laughed, ramming the heel of his hand against a stalactite with a soft thud. "Hard to believe it's actually rock, isn't it?"

  "And the whole place is made of it," Chester said, turni
ng to look farther along the wall. He shivered from the chill air and scrunched up his nose. The whole chamber smelled dank and stale — not very pleasant at all. But to Will it was the sweet smell of success. He'd always dreamed of finding something important, but this grotto surpassed his wildest expectations. So strong was his exhilaration. Will almost felt intoxicated.

  "Yes!" he said, triumphantly punching the air. At that instant, standing there in the grotto, he was the great adventurer he'd always dreamed of being, like Howard Carter in Tutankhamen's burial chamber. He whipped his head this way and that, trying to take in everything at once.

  "You know, it probably took thousands of years for all this to grow…" Will was babbling as he took a step backward, stopping short as his foot snagged on something. He bent down to see what it was; a small object protruded from the flowstone. Dark and flaking; its color had seeping into the pale whiteness around it. He tried to work it free, but his fingers slipped off. It was stuck solid.

  "Shine your light on this, Chester. It feels like a rusty bolt or something. But it can't be."

  "Uh… you might want to look at this…," Chester replied, his voice a little shaky.

  At the center of the grotto, in the deepest part of the clouded pool that lay there, stood the remains of a massive machine of some description. The boys' flashlights revealed ranks of large red-brown cogwheels that were still held together within what remained of a shattered cast-iron frame so tall that in places the stalactites growing from the rock ceiling above touched it. It was as if a locomotive had been mercilessly disemboweled and then left there to die.

  "What the heck is it?" Chester asked as Will stood silently beside him, examining the scene.

  "Beats me," Will answered. "And there are bits of metal all over the place. Look!"

  He was shining his flashlight around the margins of the water, following them as far as he could into the deepest reaches of the cavern. Will's first thought had been that the banks were streaked with minerals or something similar, but on closer inspection he discovered they were littered with more bolts like the one he'd just found, all with chunky hexagonal heads. In addition to these, there were spindles and countless pieces of jagged cast-iron shrapnel. The red oxide from these intermingled with darker, inky streaks, which, from their appearance, Will took to be oil spills.

 
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