Tunnels 01 tunnels, p.15
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       Tunnels 01 - Tunnels, p.15

           Roderick Gordon

  "Now what have we here?" he said, opening their backpacks and emptying the contents onto the counter. He picked up the foil-wrapped sandwiches Will had prepared and, not bothering to open them, merely sniffed at them. "Ah, swine," he said with a flicker of a smile. And from the way he briefly licked his lips and slid it to one side, Will knew he'd seen the last of his packed lunch.

  Then the First Officer turned his attention to the other items, working his way through them methodically. He lingered on the compass but was more taken by the Swiss Army knife, levering out each of its blades in turn and squeezing the little scissors with his thick fingers before he finally put it down. Casually rolling one of the balls of string on the countertop with one hand, he used the other to flick open open the dog-eared geological map that had been in Will's bag, giving it a cursory inspection. Finally, he leaned over and smelled the map, wrinkling his face with a look of distaste, before moving on to the camera.

  "Hmmm," he muttered thoughtfully, turning it in his banana-like fingers to consider it from several angles.

  "That's mine," Will said.

  The First Officer completely ignored him and, putting down the camera, picked up a pen and dipped it in an inkwell set into the counter. With the pen poised over a page of the open ledger, he cleared his throat.

  "NAME!" he bellowed, throwing a glance in Chester's direction.

  "It's er, Chester… Chester Rawls," the boy stammered.

  The First Officer wrote in the ledger. The scratching of he nib on the page was the only sound in the room, and Will suddenly felt helpless, as if the entry in the ledger was setting in motion an irreversible process, the workings of which were quite beyond his understanding.

  "AND YOU?" he snapped at Will.

  "He told me my father was here," Will said, bravely stabbing his finger in the direction of the Second Officer. "Where is he? I want to see him now!"

  The First Officer looked across at his colleague and then back to Will. "You won't be seeing anyone unless you do as you are told." He shot another glance at the Second Officer and frowned with barely disguised disapproval. The Second Officer averted his gaze and shifted uneasily from foot to foot.


  "Will Burrows," Will answered slowly.

  The First Officer picked up the scroll and consulted it again. "That is not the name I have here," he said, shaking his head and then fixing Will with his steely eyes.

  "I don't care what it says. I know my own name."

  There was a deafening silence as the First Officer continued to stare at Will. Then he abruptly slammed the ledger shut with a loud slap, causing a cloud of dust to billow up from the counter's surface.

  "GET THEM TO THE HOLD!" he barked apoplectically.

  They were dragged to their feet and, just as they were being pushed roughly through a large oak door at the end of the reception area, they heard another long hiss followed by a dull clunk as a further message arrived in the pipe system.

  The connecting corridor of the Hold was about fifteen feet long and dimly lit by a single globe at the far end, beneath which stood a small wooden desk and chair. A blank wall ran along the right-hand side, and on the wall opposite were four dull iron doors set deep into solid brick surrounds. The boys were pushed along to the farthest door, on which the number four was marked in Roman numerals.

  The Second Officer opened it with his keys and it swung back silently on its well-greased hinges. He stepped aside. Looking at the boys, he inclined his head toward the cell and as they hovered uncertainly on the threshold, he lost patience and shoved them in with his large hands, slamming the door behind them.

  Inside the cell, the clang of he door reverberated sickeningly off the walls, and their stomachs turned as the key twisted in the lock. They tried to make out the details of the dark and dank cell by feeling their way around, Chester managing to send a bucket clattering over as he went. They discovered there was a three-foot-wide, lead-covered ledge along the length of the wall that directly faced the door, and, without a word to each other, both sat down on it. They felt its rough surface, cold and clammy, under their palms as their eyes gradually adjusted to the only source of light in the cell, the meager illumination that filtered through an observation hatch in the door. Finally Chester broke the silence with a loud sniff.

  "Oh, man, what is that smell?"

  "I'm not sure," said Will as he, too, sniffed. "Puke? Sweat? Then he sniffed again and pronounced, with the air of a connoisseur, "Carbolic acid and…" Sniffing once more, he added, "Is that sulfur?"

  "Huh?" his friend muttered.

  "No, cabbage! Boiled cabbage!"

  "I don't care what it is, it stinks," Chester said, making a face. "This place is just gross." He turned to look at his friend in the gloom. "How are we going to get out of here, Will?"

  Will drew his knees up under his chin and rested his feet on the edge of the ledge. He scratched his calf but said nothing. He was quietly furious with himself, and didn't want his friend to pick up any sense of what he was feeling. Maybe Chester, with his cautious approach and his frequent warnings, had been right all along. He clenched his teeth and balled his fists in the darkness. Stupid, stupid, stupid! They had blundered in like a couple of amateurs. He'd allowed himself to get totally carried away. And how was he ever going to find his father now?

  "I've got the most awful feeling about all this," Chester continued, now looking desolately at the floor. "We're never going to see home again, are we?"

  "Look, don't you worry. We found a way in here, and we're dead straight going to find a way out again," Will said confidently, in an effort to reassure his friend, while he himself couldn't have felt more uncomfortable about their current predicament.

  Neither of them felt much like talking after that, and the room was filled with the sound of the ever-present thrumming and the erratic scuttling of unseen insects.

  * * * * *

  Will woke with a start, catching his breath as if coming up for air. He was surprised to find he had actually dozed off in a half-sitting position on the lead sill. How long had he slept? He looked blearily around the shadowy gloom. Chester was standing with his back pressed against the wall, staring wide-eyed at the cell door. Will could almost feel fear emanating from him. He automatically followed Chester's gaze to the observation hatch: Framed in the opening was the leering face of the Second Officer, but owing to the size of his head only his eyes and nose were visible.

  Hearing the keys jingle in the lock, Will watched as the man's eyes narrowed, and then the door swung open to reveal the officer silhouetted in the doorway, like a monstrous cartoon illustration.

  "YOU!" he shouted to Will. "OUT, NOW!"

  "Why? What for?"

  "MOVE IT!" the officer barked.

  "Will?" Chester said anxiously.

  "Don't worry, Chester, it'll be all right," Will said weakly as he stood up, his legs cramped and stiff from the damp. He stretched them as he walked awkwardly out of the cell and into the corridor. Then, unrequested, he began to make his way to the main door of the Hold.

  "Stand still!" snapped the Second Officer as he locked the door again. Then, grabbing Will's arm in a painful grip, he steered him out of the Hold and down a succession of bleak corridors, their footfalls echoing emptily around the flaking whitewashed walls and bare stone floors. Eventually, they turned a corner into a narrow stairwell that led into a short, dead-ended passage. It smelled damp and earthy, like an old cellar.

  A bright light issued from an open door about halfway down. A sense of dread was growing in the pit of Will's stomach as they approached the doorway, and sure enough, he was pushed into the well-lit room by his escort and brought to an abrupt halt. Dazzled by the brightness, Will squinted as he peered around him.

  The room was bare except for a bizarre chair and a metal table, behind which two tall figures were standing, their thin bodies bent over so that their heads were almost touching as they talked quietly in urgent, conspiratorial whispers. Will str
ained to catch what they were saying, but it didn't seem to be in any language he recognized, punctuated as it was by an alarming series of the most peculiar high-pitched, scratchy noises. Try as he might, he couldn't make out a single word; it was completely unintelligible to him.

  So, with his arm still held tight in the officer's crushing grip, Will stood and waited, his stomach knotting with nervous tension as his eyes became accustomed to the brightness. From time to time the strange men glanced fleetingly at him, but Will didn't dare utter a word in the presence of this new and sinister authority.

  They were dressed identically, with pristine, stark white collars at their necks. These were so large that they draped over the shoulders of their stiff, full-length leather coats, which creaked as the men gesticulated to each other. The skin of their gaunt faces, the color of new putty, only served to emphasize their jet-black eyes. Their hair, shaved high at the temples, was oiled back against their scalps so that they looked as though they were wearing shiny skullcaps.

  Quite unexpectedly, they stopped what they were doing and turned to face Will.

  "These gentlemen are the Styx," said the Second Officer behind him, "and you will answer their questions."

  "Chair," said the Styx on the right, his black eyes staring unwaveringly at Will.

  He pointed with a long-fingered hand at the strange chair that stood between the table and Will. Overcome by a sense of foreboding, Will didn't protest as the officer sat him down. From the back of the chair rose an adjustable metal bar with two padded clamps at the top to hold the occupant's head firmly in place. The officer adjusted the height of the bar, then tightened the clamps, pressing them hard against Will's temples. He tried to turn his head to look at the officer, but the restraints held him fast. While the officer continued to secure him, Will realized he had absolutely no choice but to face the Styx, who were poised behind the table like avaricious priests.

  The officer stooped. Out of the corner of his eye Will saw him pull something from underneath the chair, then heard the old leather straps creak and the large buckles rattle as each of his wrists was strapped to the corresponding thigh.

  "What's this for?" Will dared to ask.

  "Your own protection," the officer said as, crouching down, he proceeded to loop further straps around Will's legs, just below the knees, fastening them to the legs of the chair. Both of Will's ankles were then secured in a similar fashion, the officer pulling the bindings so taut that they bit mercilessly and made Will writhe with discomfort. He noticed with some dismay that this appeared to amuse the Styx. Finally a strap some four inches thick was drawn tightly across his chest and arms and fastened behind the back of the chair. The officer then stood at attention until one of the Styx nodded mutely to him and he left the room, closing the door behind him.

  Alone with them, Will watched in terrified silence, transfixed like an animal caught in car headlights, as one of the Styx produced and odd-looking lamp and placed it in the center of the table. It had a solid base and a short curved arm topped with a shallow conical shade. This held what appeared to be a dark purple bulb; it reminded Will of an old sunlamp he'd seen in his father's museum. A small black box with dials and switches was placed next to it, and the lamp was plugged into this by means of a twisted brown cable. The Styx's pale finger jabbed at a switch, and the box began to hum gently to itself.

  One Styx stepped back from the table as the other continued to lean over the lamp, manipulating the controls behind the shade. With a loud click, the bulb flared a dim orange for an instant, then appeared to go out again.

  "Going to take my picture?" Will asked in a weak attempt at humor, trying to steady the tremor in his voice. Ignoring him, the Styx turned a dial on the black box, as if he were tuning a radio.

  Alarmingly, an uncomfortable pressure began to build up behind Will's eyes. He opened his mouth in a silent yawn, trying to relieve this strange tension in his temples, when the room began to darken, as if the device was literally sucking all the light from it. Thinking he was going blind, Will blinked several times and opened his eyes as wide as he could. With the greatest difficulty he could just make out the two Styx silhouetted by the dim light reflecting off the wall behind them.

  He became aware of an incessant pulsing drone, but for the life of him he couldn't pinpoint where it was coming from. As it grew more intense, his head began to feel decidedly strange, as if every bone and sinew were vibrating. It was like a plane flying too low overhead. The resonance seemed to form into a spiked ball of energy in the very center of his head. Now he really began to panic, but, not being able to move a muscle, he could do nothing to resist.

  As the Styx manipulated the dials, the ball appeared to shift, slowly sinking through his body into his chest and then circling his heart, causing him to catch his breath and cough involuntarily. Then it was moving in and out of his body, sometimes coming to a rest and hovering a little distance behind him. It was as if a living thing were homing in and searching for something. It shifted again, and now floated half in and half out of his body, at the nape of his neck.

  "What's going on?" Will asked, trying to summon up some bravado, but there was no response from the ever-darkening figures. "You're not scaring me with all this, you know."

  They remained silent.

  Will closed his eyes for a second, but when he reopened them, he found he couldn't even distinguish the outlines of the Styx in the total darkness that now confronted him. He began struggling against his bonds.

  "Does the absence of light unsettle you?" asked the Styx on the left.

  "No, why should it?"

  "What is your name?" The words cut into Will's head like a knife out of the darkness.

  "I told you, it's Will. Will Burrows."

  "Your real name!" Again the voice caused Will to wince with pain — it was as if each word were setting off electric shocks in his temples.

  "I don't know what you mean," he answered through gritted teeth.

  The ball of energy began to edge into the center of his skull, the humming growing more intense now, the throbbing pulse enveloping him in a thick blanket of pressure.

  "Are you with the man called Burrows?"

  Will's head was swimming, waves of pain rippling through him. His feet and hands were tingling with intense pins and needles. This horrible sensation was slowly enveloping his whole body.

  "He's my dad!" he shouted.

  "What is your purpose here?" The precise, clipped voice was closer now.

  "What have you done to him?" Will said in a choked voice, swallowing back the rush of saliva flooding into his mouth. He felt like at any moment he was going to be sick.

  "Where is your mother?" The measured but insistent voice now seemed to be emanating from the ball inside his head. It was as though both Styx had entered his cranium and were searching feverishly through his mind, like burglars ransacking drawers and cupboards for valuable items.

  "What is your purpose?" they demanded again.

  And Will again tried to struggle against his bonds, but realized he could no longer feel his body. In fact, it felt as if he had been reduced to nothing but a floating head, cast adrift into a fog of darkness, and he couldn't fathom which way was up or down anymore.

  "NAME? PURPOSE?" The questions came thick and fast as Will felt all his remaining energy seep out of him. Then the incessant voice became fainter, as if Will were moving away from it. From a great distance, words were being shouted after him, and each word, when it finally arrived, set off small pinpricks of light at the edge of his vision, which swam and jittered until the darkness before him was filled with a boiling sea of white dots so bright and so intense that his eyes ached. The entire time, the scratchy whispers swept around him, and the room spun and pitched. Another deep wave of nausea overwhelmed him, and a burning sensation filled his head to the bursting point. White, white, blinding white, cramming into his head until it felt as if it were going to explode.

  "I'm going to be sick… please…
I'm going to be… I feel faint… please," and the light of the white space seared into him and he felt himself growing smaller and smaller, until he was a tiny fleck in the huge white emptiness. Then the light began to recede, and the burning sensation grew less and less, until everything was black and silent, as if the universe itself had gone out.

  He came to as the Second Officer, supporting him under one arm, turned the key in the cell door. He was shaky and weak. Vomit was streaked down the front of his clothes, and his mouth was dry with an acrid metallic taste that made him gag. His head was pounding with pain, and as he tried to look up it was as though part of his vision were missing. He couldn’t stop himself from groaning as the door was pulled open.

  "Not so cocky now, eh?" the officer said, letting go of Will's arm. He tried to walk, but his legs were like jelly. "Not after your first taste of the Dark Light," the officer sneered.

  After a couple of steps, Will's legs gave way and he fell heavily onto his knees. Chester dashed over to him, panic-stricken at his friend's condition.

  "Will, Will, what have they done to you?" Chester was frantic as he helped him over to the ledge. "You've been gone for hours."

  "Just tired…," Will managed to mumble as he slumped down on the ledge and rolled up in a ball, grateful for the coolness of the lead lining against his aching head. He shut his eyes… he just wanted to sleep… but his head was still spinning, and waves of nausea were breaking over him.

  "YOU!" the officer bellowed. Chester jumped up from beside Will and turned to the officer, who beckoned to him with a thick forefinger.

  "Your turn."

  Chester looked down at Will, who now lay unconscious."

  "Oh, no."

  "NOW!" the officer ordered. "Don't make me ask you again."

  Chester reluctantly came out into the corridor. After locking the door, the officer took him by the arm and marched him off.

  "What's a Dark Light?" Chester said, his eyes glazed with fear.

  "Just questions." The officer smiled. "Nothing to worry about."

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