Tunnels 02 deeper, p.20
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       Tunnels 02 - Deeper, p.20

           Roderick Gordon
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  He rubbed his chin as if to buy time before giving an answer. "It's not my place to know such things… but I'd wager it has to do with what's going on Topsoil…"

  "No, I'm headed the other way," she said, tipping her head to indicate the Deeps.

  "So you're not involved with the operation in London?" Joseph blurted out, then clamped his mouth shut, clearing regretting that he'd said it. "I don't want to get into disfavor with—" he tried to add hastily before Sarah cut him short.

  "No, I'm not part of that. And don't worry, anything you say is safe with me."

  "It's not good around here at the moment," Joseph said in a low voice. "People have been disappearing."

  As this was nothing particularly new in the Colony, Sarah didn't make any comment, and Joseph also remained silent, as if he was still embarrassed by his indiscretion.

  "So, are you coming back?" he asked finally. "After it's done?"

  "Yes, the White Necks say I'll be allowed to stay in the Colony when I've seen something through for them." She pushed a crumb from the corner of her mouth, glanced wistfully at the door, and sighed. "Even if you do manage to escape them — to get Topsoil — part of you can never leave. They trap you with everything you hold dear, everything you love, your family… I found that out," she said, her voice thickening with remorse, "far too late."

  Joseph heaved himself to his feet, taking the plate from her. "It's never too late," he mumbled as his hulking form made toward the door.

  * * * * *

  In the ensuing days, Sarah was ordered to rest and build up her strength. Finally, just when she thought she would go stir-crazy from the inactivity, she was summoned to another room by someone other than Joseph. He was dressed almost identically but was smaller and older, his scalp completely bald and his movements excruciatingly slow as he led the way down the corridor.

  He peered back at Sarah, arching his fluffy white eyebrows apologetically. "Me joints," he explained. "The damp's got into them."

  "Happens to the best of us," she replied.

  He showed her into a sizable room where there was a long table in the center and a series of low cupboards around all the walls. The old man shuffled off without a word, leaving her wondering why she had been brought there. There were two high-backed chairs on opposite sides of the table, and she went over to the nearest of them and stood behind it. Looking around the room, her eyes lingered on a small shrine in the corner where a beaten metal cross about a foot and a half tall was positioned between two flickering candles. Before it a copy of the Book of Catastrophes lay open.

  Her eyes lit upon something on top of the table. A large sheet of paper with colored patches was spread open, occupying much of its surface. Glancing over her shoulder, she checked the door, at a loss to know what she was supposed to be doing. Then she gave in to her curiosity and, stepping closer, leaned over the sheet.

  She found it was a map. She stared at the top left-hand corner, spotting two minute parallel lines, meticulously cross-hatched, which, after about an inch, culminated in an area with a series of infinitesimally small rectangles by them. By these was the inscription, THE MINERS' STATION, and some symbols which were unfamiliar to her. Then she moved on, noting another inscription that read THE STYGIAN RIVER by the side of a meandering dark blue line.

  She began to move away from the corner, scanning the rest of the map, which encompassed a huge light brown area with many connected blobs, some shaded with such different colors as darker browns, oranges, and an array of reds ranging from crimson to deep burgundy. In fact, these colors looked to her exactly like blood in various states of clotting. She decided to see if she could find out what they represented.

  Choosing one of the areas at random, she leaned even nearer to examine it. It was bright scarlet and roughly rectangular, with a tiny jet-black skull, a death's-head, superimposed over it. She was trying to decipher the legend next to it when there was a sound from close by. The faintest release of a breath.

  She immediately looked up.

  She recoiled, blundering into the chair and trying not to cry out.

  On the other side of the table was a Styx soldier, dressed in the distinctive gray-green fatigues of the Division. He seemed incredibly tall and, with his hands linked in front of him, stood little more than three feet away, scrutinizing her silently. She had absolutely no idea how long he'd been there.

  As she raised her eyes, she saw that the lapel of his long coat had a row of short cotton threads protruding from it — they were of many different colors, reds, purples, blues, and greens among them. Like the medals they gave Topsoil, these were decorations for acts of bravery, and he had so many she couldn't count them. She raised her eyes farther.

  His black hair was raked back into a tightly bound ponytail. But when her gaze fell on his face, it was all she could do not to take another step away. It was a fearful sight. There was a huge scar, not dissimilar to a cauliflower in both its color and texture, down one side of his face. It engulfed a third of his forehead, extending over his left eye, which was misshapen to the extent that it looked as though it had been rotated ninety degrees on its axis. The scar blossomed out as it spread over his cheek and down to where his jaw hinged. His mouth and the already impossibly thin Styx lips were also stretched wide by the scar, so that his teeth were exposed to the gums and almost as far back as his molars.

  It was the stuff of nightmares.

  She quickly sought out his unaffected eye, trying not to focus on the damaged, weeping one, which showed blood red tissues above and below it, laced with a network of blue capillaries. It was like an incomplete anatomical investigation, as if some mad coroner had quit halfway through a dissection of his face.

  "I see you started without me," the soldier said. His words were breathy through his distorted mouth, his voice quiet but commanding. "Do you know what the map shows?" he asked.

  She hesitated, then leaned over the document once more, gratefully lowering her eyes to it. "The Deeps," she answered.

  He gave a nod. "I noticed you'd located the Miners' Station. Good. Tell me…" His hand was poised over the drawing of the railway track, and she saw that several of his fingers were completely missing, while others were little more than stumps. He waved this butchered appendage over the rest of the map. "…did you know that all of this existed?"

  "The Miners' Station, yes, but, no, not all this," she answered, truthfully. "But I've heard stories about the Interior… many stories."

  "Ah, the stories." He grinned fleetingly. The effect was disarming, the glistening margin around his teeth rippling like a lazy sine wave, then straightening out again. He sat down, indicating that she should do likewise. "My job is to ensure you can operate in the Great Plain and its environs. By the time we are finished" — his dark pupils swept toward the items at the very end of the table — "you will be fully versed in our equipment and our weapons, and trained to operate within our strictures. Understood?"

  "Yes, sir," she answered, addressing him now as befitted his military manner. He seemed pleased by this.

  "We know you are capable — you must be, to have evaded us for as long as you did."

  She nodded.

  "Your sole objective will be to track down and disable — by any means necessary — the rebel."

  The air hung heavy as she stared into his terribly disfigured face. "You mean Will Burrows?"

  "Yes, Seth Jerome," he said succinctly. He mopped his weeping eye with the back of his hand, and then snapped his fingers awkwardly, using what remained of his thumb and index finger.

  "What…?" She heard a clicking on the stone floor behind her and whipped her head around. A shadow flitted through the doorway.

  It was the Hunter, the giant cat that had come to her aid on the surface. Pausing to look around, it briefly sampled the air, and in the blink of an eye it had capered over to Sarah's side and was rubbing itself affectionately against her leg, with such vigor that her chair was pushed sideways.

  "You!
she exclaimed. She was both astonished and delighted to see the creature again. She'd assumed that the Styx had had it killed back up in the excavation. Indeed, quite the opposite was apparent: It was a very different animal beside her now, compared to the sorry specimen she'd seen Topsoil.

  She could tell from the way it carried itself as it scampered off to sniff at something in the corner of the room that they'd been making sure it was well fed. Its appearance was considerably improved, and the festering would on its shoulder had been tended to. A lint pad was bound to its shoulder by a copious amount of gray bandaging trussed around its chest. As it was also sporting a brand new leather collar — not something generally found on these animals — Sarah instantly assumed it had been in the care of the Styx rather than Colonists.

  "His name is Bartleby. We thought he might be put to good use," the Styx said.

  "Bartleby," Sarah repeated, then glanced across the table at the battle-scarred soldier for an explanation.

  "Naturally the animal will be eager to find his old master — your son — employing his keen sense of smell," the man told her.

  "Ah yes." She nodded. "How very true." It would be invaluable to have a Hunter when she was tracking in the Deeps, and the fact that it was Cal's scent trail would be incentive indeed.

  She smiled back at the man, and then called out, "Bartleby, here!" He obediently returned to her side and sat down, watching her as he waited for another command. She kneaded the scabrous expanse of the cat's wide, flat head. "So that's your name, is it… Bartleby? " He blinked his saucer-sized eyes at her, a loud purr rumbling from his throat as he shifted from forepaw to forepaw. "You and me together, we'll get Cal back, won't we, Bartleby?"

  The smile vanished from her face. "And we'll flush out a big rat in the bargain."

  * * * * *

  Outside in the rose garden of Humphrey House, several pigeons alighted by the bird table, where the cook regularly left slices of stale bread and other scraps from the kitchen. Distracted from the magazine spread before her, Mrs. Burrows looked up and tried her best to focus on the birds with her red, swollen eyes.

  "Blast it! I can't see a bloomin' thing, let alone read!" she grumbled, squinting first through one eye and then the other. "This filthy, filthy virus!"

  Television news bulletins had begun to pop up a week ago, reporting a mysterious viral outbreak that seemed, as far as anyone could tell, to have originated in London and was now sweeping like wildfire through the rest of the British Isles. It had even reached as far afield as the United States and the Far East. Experts said that although the disease, a sort of mega-conjunctivitis, was short-lived, lasting four or five days at most in the average person, the rate at which it had spread was a serious cause for alarm. The media constantly referred to it as an "Ultra Bug," because it had the unique attribute that its transmission appeared to be both air- and water-borne. A world-beating combination, apparently, for the virus that wants to go places.

  According to some experts, even if the government made up its mind to manufacture a vaccine, the process from full identification of a new virus to production of sufficient vaccine for the entire population of England could take many months, if not years.

  But the scientific intricacies were of no concern to Mrs. Burrows — it was the sheer inconvenience that made her fume. Dropping her spoon in her cereal bowl, she started rubbing her eyes once again.

  She had been perfectly all right the evening before, but, roused by the morning bell outside her room, she'd woken into a living horror show. She was instantly aware of the painful drying of her sinuses and her ulcerated tongue and throat. But all this paled into insignificance as she'd tried to open her eyes and found they were so heavily gummed together that it was impossible to do so. It was only after bathing them with copious amounts of warm water from the hand basin in her room, accompanied by language that would have made a sailor blush, that she'd managed to pry apart her eyelids even a fraction. Despite all the washing, they still felt as though they had a crust over them that could only be removed by scraping it off.

  Now, as she sat at the table, she let out a mournful groan. The persistent rubbing only seemed to be making matters worse. With tears streaming down her face, she scooped up a generous helping of cornflakes and, with one bloodshot eye, tried once again to read the copy of TV Guide on the table beside her. It was the latest issue, just delivered that morning, which she'd purloined from the dayroom before anyone else had had an opportunity to get their hands on it. But it was no good; she was hard-pressed to make out the titles at the tops of the pages, let alone the smaller print of the program listings below.

  "What a stinking, filthy bug!" she complained again loudly. The dining room was uncannily quiet for this time of the morning; on any normal day, even the first sitting for breakfast would have had a healthy turnout.

  Grinding her teeth with frustration, she folded her napkin and used an edge to carefully mop each weeping eye. After a series of deep mooing noises as she tried unsuccessfully to ease her sinuses, she blew her nose noisily into the napkin. Then, blinking rapidly, she attempted once more to focus on the magazine pages.

  "It's no good, I can't see a sodding thing. Feels like I've got grit in them!" she said, pushing her cereal bowl away from her.

  With her eyes closed, she leaned back in her chair and reached for her cup of tea. She put it to her lips and took a sip, then spluttered loudly, blowing it out in a fine mist over the tabletop . It was stone-cold.

  "Urgh! Disgusting!" she shrieked. "The service in this place is deplorable." She slammed the cup down on its saucer. "Whole place has come to a standstill," she complained to nobody in particular, knowing full well that most of the staff hadn't shown up for work. "Anyone would think there was a war on."

  "There is," came a distinguished voice.

  Mrs. Burrows hiked up one puffy eyelid to see who had spoken. At his table, a man in a tweed jacket, perhaps in his mid-fifties, was dunking a finger of buttered toast into his boiled egg with small, deliberate movements. Like her, he seemed to prefer his own company, as he had chosen to sit at the small table in the adjacent window bay. The room was completely deserted except for her and this other diner. It had certainly been a strange couple of days, a skeleton staff with inflamed and seeping eyes doing their best to tend to the patients, who mostly confined themselves to their rooms.

  "Hmm," the man said, and nodded as if agreeing with himself.

  "Sorry?"

  "I said there is a war on," he declared, munching on his piece of egg-dipped toast. From what Mrs. Burrows could see, he had only been mildly affected by the virus.

  "What makes you say that?" Mrs. Burrows asked belligerently, immediately regretting that she'd said anything at all. She ducked her head down, praying that he'd leave her alone and just concentrate on his egg yolk. She wasn't going to be that lucky.

  "And we're on the losing side," he continued, chewing. "We're under constant attack from viruses. It could be all over for us before you have time to say Ring-around-the-rosies."

  "Whatever are you talking about?" Mrs. Burrows muttered, unable to help herself. "What rubbish!"

  "On the contrary," he said with a frown. "With the planet so overpopulated, we've got the optimum situation for viruses to mutate into something really lethal, and in double-quick time, too. An ideal breeding ground."

  Mrs. Burrows contemplated making a break for the door. She wasn't going to hang around to hear this old fruitcake's prattle, and besides, she'd all but lost her appetite. The upside to this mystery pandemic was that it was very unlikely there would be any activities organized for the day, so she could get in some serious television viewing with little or no opposition to her choice of show. Even if she couldn’t see much, at least she could listen to it.

  "We're all suffering from this rather nasty eye infection at the moment, but it wouldn't take much for it to shuffle a couple of genes and turn into a killer." The man picked up a salt shaker and shook it over his egg. "Mark my
words, one day something really nasty will appear on the horizon, and it'll cut us all down, like a scythe through corn," he announced, delicately dabbing the corners of his eyes with his handkerchief. "Then we'll go the way of the dinosaurs. And all this" — he swept his hand expansively around the room — "and all of us, will be a rather short and rather insignificant chapter in the history of the world."

  "How very cheery. Sounds like some naff science fiction story," Mrs. Burrows said sneeringly as she rose to her feet and began to grope her way from table to table, headed for the hallway.

  "It's a disagreeable but very likely scenario for our eventual demise," he replied.

  This last pronouncement really got Mrs. Burrows's goat. It was bad enough that her eyes were killing her without having to listen to this claptrap. "Oh yes, so we're all doomed, are we? And how would you know?" she said scornfully. "What are you, anyway, a failed writer or something?"

  "No, actually, I'm a doctor. When I'm not in here, I work at St. Edmund's — it's a hospital — you might have heard of it?"

  "Oh," Mrs. Burrows mumbled, pausing in her flight and turning to where the man was sitting.

  "Seeing — so to speak — as you also seem to be something of an expert, I wish I could share your faith that there's nothing to be worried about."

  Feeling more than a little humbled, Mrs. Burrows remained standing where she was.

  "And try not to touch your peepers, my dear — it'll only make them worse," the man said curtly, swiveling his head to watch as two pigeons engaged in a tug-of-war over a bacon rind at the foot of the bird table.

  22

  For a couple of miles all that could be heard was the crunch of their feet in the dust. It was hard going for Will and Chester, trudging along with their silent captors, who yanked them roughly to their feet if either of them happened to stumble and fall. And on several occasions, the boys had been pushed and struck viciously to make them pick up the pace.

 
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