Tunnels 01 tunnels, p.21
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       Tunnels 01 - Tunnels, p.21

           Roderick Gordon

  "The surface of the earth is beset by creatures in a constant state of war with one another. Millions perish on either side, and there is no limit to the brutality of their malice. Their nations fall and rise, only to fall again. The vast forests have been laid low by them, and the pastures defiled with their poison." All around him Will heard mumbled words of agreement. The preacher Styx leaned forward, grasping the edge of the pulpit with his pale fingers.

  "Their gluttony is matched only by their appetites for death, affliction, terror, and banishment of every living thing. And, despite their iniquities, they aspire to rise to the firmament… but, mark this, the excessive weight of their very sins will weigh them down." There was a pause as his black eyes scanned the flock and, raising his left arm above his head, a long, bony index finger pointing upward, he continued.

  "Nothing remains on the soil or in the great oceans that shall not be hunted, disturbed, or despoiled. To the living things slain in droves, these defilers are both the sepulcher and the means of transition."

  "And when the judgment comes" — he lowered his arm now and pointed forebodingly at members of the congregation through the hazy atmosphere — "and mark these words, it will… then they will be hurled into the abyss and forever lost to the Lord… and on that day, the truthful, the righteous, we of the true way, will once again return to reclaim the surface, to begin again, to build the new dominion… the new Jerusalem. For this is the teaching and the knowledge of our forefathers, passed down to us through the ages by the Book of Catastrophes."

  A hush filled the hall, absolute and unbroken by a single cough or shuffle. Then the preacher spoke again, in a calmer, almost conversational tone.

  "So let it be known, so let it be understood." He bowed his head.

  Will thought he glimpsed Mr. Jerome seated in the pews, but couldn’t be sure because he was so completely hemmed in.

  Then, without warning, the whole congregation joined in with the Styx's monotone: "The earth is the Lord's, and the followers thereof, the earth and all that dwell therein. We give our eternal gratitude to our Savior, Sir Gabriel, and the Founding Fathers for their shepherdship and for the flowing together into one another, as all that happens in God's earth is also on the highest level, the Kingdom of God."

  There was a moment's pause, and the Styx spoke again. "As above, so below."

  The voices of the congregation boomed amens as the Styx took a step back, and Will lost sight of him. He swung around to Cal to ask him a question, but there was no time as the congregation immediately started to file toward the doorway, leaving the hall as swiftly as it had collected. The boys were swept along in the tide of people until they found themselves back on the street, where they stood watching them depart in all directions.

  "I don't get this 'As below, so above' stuff," Will told Cal in a low voice. "I thought everybody hated Topsoilers."

  "Above isn't Topsoil," Cal replied, so loudly and in such a petulant tone that several burly men in earshot turned to regard Will with snarls of disgust. He winced — he was beginning to wonder if having a younger brother was all it was cut out to be.

  "But how often do you have to do that — go to church?" Will ventured when he had recovered sufficiently from Cal's last response.

  "Once a day," Cal said. "You go to church Topsoil, too, don't you?"

  "Our family didn't."

  "How strange," Cal said, looking shiftily around to check that no one could overhear him. "Load of drivel, anyway," he sneered under his breath. "C'mon, we're going to see Tam. He'll be at the tavern in Low Holborn."

  As they reached the end of the street and turned off it, a flock of white starlings spiraled above them and swung into a barrel roll toward the area of the cavern where the boys were now heading. Appearing from nowhere, Barleby joined them, flicking his tail and wobbling his bottom jaw at the sight of the birds, and giving a rather sweet and plaintive mew that was totally at odds with his appearance.

  "Come on, you crazy beast, you'll never catch them," Cal said as the animal sauntered past, his head held high as he hankered after the birds.

  As the boys walked, they passed hovels and small workshops: a smithy where the blacksmith, an old man, backlit by the blaze from his furnace, hammered relentlessly on an anvil, and places with names like Geo. Blueskin Cartwrights and Erasmus Chemicals. Of particular fascination to Will was a dark, oily-looking yard full of carriages and broken machinery.

  "Shouldn't we really be getting back?" Will asked, stopping to peer through the wrought-iron railings at the strange contraptions.

  "No, Father won't be home for a while yet," Cal said. "Hurry up, we should get a move on."

  As they progressed toward what Will assumed was the center of the cavern, he couldn't stop himself from looking all around at the amazing sights and the packed houses, huddled together in seemingly endless rows. Until now he hadn't fully appreciated just how huge this place was. And looking up he saw a shimmering haze, a shifting, living thing that hung like a cloud above the chaos of rooftops, fed by the collective glow of the light of all the orbs below.

  For a moment, it reminded Will of Highfield during the summer doldrums, except that where there should have been sky and sunlight, there were only glimpses of an immense stone canopy. Cal quickened his pace as they passed Colonists who, from their lingering glances, evidently knew who Will was. A number crossed the road to avoid him, muttering under their breath, and others stopped where they stood, glowering at him. A few even spat in his direction.

  Will was more than a little distressed by this.

  "Why are they doing that?" he asked quietly, falling back behind his brother.

  "Ignore them," Cal replied confidently.

  "It's like they hate me or something."

  "It's always the same with outsiders."

  "But…," Will began.

  "Look, really, don’t worry about it. It'll pass, you'll see. It's because you're new and, don't forget, they all know who your mother is," Cal said. "They won't do anything to you." All of a sudden, he drew to a halt and turned to Will. "But through here keep your head down and keep moving. Understand? Don't stop for anything."

  Will didn't know what Cal was talking about until he saw the entrance by the other boy's side: It was a passage barely more than shoulder-width. Cal slipped in, with Will reluctantly following behind. It was dark and claustrophobic, and the sulfurous stench of old sewage hung in the air. Their feet splashed through unseen puddles of unidentifiable liquids. He was careful not to touch the walls, which were running with a dark, greasy slime.

  Will was grateful they finally emerged into the dim light, but then he gasped as he beheld a scene that was straight out of Victorian London. Buildings loomed on either side of the narrow alleyway, slanting inward at such precarious angles that their upper stories almost met. They were timber-framed and in a terrible state of disrepair. Most of their windows were either broken or boarded up.

  Although he couldn't tell where they originated, Will heard the sound of voices and cries and laughter coming from all around. There were odd snatches of music, as if scales were being played on a strangled zither. Somewhere a baby was wailing persistently and dogs were barking. As they strode quickly past the badly deteriorated facades, Will caught whiffs of charcoal and tobacco smoke and, through the open doorways, glimpsed people huddled at tables. Men is shirtsleeves hung out of windows, staring at the ground listlessly as they smoked their pipes. There was an open channel in the middle of the alley, down which a sluggish trickle of sewage ran through vegetable waste and other filth and detritus. Will nearly blundered into it, but stepped sharply to the edge of the alleyway to avoid it.

  "No! Watch yourself!" Cal warned quickly. "Keep away from the sides!"

  As they hurried along Will hardly let himself blink as he feasted his eyes on everything he saw around him. He was murmuring, "Just fantastic," over and over again to himself, living history, when his attention was caught by something else. There were people in t
he narrow passageways that branched off on either side. Mysterious shadowy outlines were stirring within them, and he heard hushed voices, snatches of hysterical muttering, and even, at one point, the far-off sound of someone screaming in agony.

  From one of these passageways a dark figure lurched. It was a man with a black shawl over his head, which he hoisted up to reveal his gnarled face. It was covered with a sickly layer of sweat, and his skin was the color of old bone. He grabbed at Will's arm with his hand, his rheumy yellow eyes looking deep into the startled boy's.

  "Ah, what is it you're after, my sweet thing?" he wheezed asthmatically, his lopsided smile revealing a row of jagged brown stumps for teeth. Bartleby snarled as Cal hurriedly pushed himself between Will and the man, yanking Will from the man's grasp and not letting go of him through several twists and turns of the alley until at last they were out and back onto a well-lit street again. Will breathed a sigh of relief.

  "What was that place?"

  "The rookeries. It's where the paupers live. And you only saw the outskirts — you really wouldn't want to find yourself in the middle of it," Cal said, dashing ahead so quickly that Will had to work to keep up. He was still feeling the aftereffects of the ordeal in the Hold; his chest ached and his legs were leaden. But he wasn't about to let Cal see any weakness, and forced himself on.

  While the cat bounded ahead into the distance, Will doggedly followed Cal's lead as he leaped over the larger pools of water and skirted around the occasional gushing downpour. Falling from the shadows of the cavern roof above, these torrents seemed to spring from nowhere, like upturned geysers.

  They wound their way through a series of broad streets jam-packed with narrow terraced houses until, in the distance, Will spotted the lights of a tavern at the apex of a sharp corner where two roads met. People thronged outside it in various states of intoxication, laughing raucously and shouting, and from somewhere a woman's voice was singing shrilly. As he got closer, Will could make out the painted sign, The Buttock & File, with a picture of the weirdest-looking locomotive he had ever seen, which had, it appeared, an archetypal devil as its driver, scarlet-skinned and replete with horns, trident, and arrow-tipped tail.

  The frontage and even the windows of the tavern were painted black and covered in a film of gray soot. People were so tightly packed in that they were overflowing onto the sidewalk outside. To a man, they were drinking from dented pewter tankards, while a number smoke either long clay pipes or turnip-shaped objects, which Will didn't recognize but which reeked of chronically soiled diapers.

  As he stuck close behind Cal, they passed a top-hatted man standing at a small folding table. He was calling, "Find the painted lady? Find the painted lady!" to a couple of interested onlookers as he deftly cut a pack of cards using only a single hand. "My good sir," the man proclaimed as one of the onlookers stepped up and slapped a coin down on the green baize of the table. The cards were dealt, and Will was sorry not to see the outcome of the game, but there was absolutely no way he was going to become separated from his brother as they pushed deeper into the midst of the throng. Surrounded by all these people he felt very vulnerable, and was just debating whether he could persuade Cal to take him home when a friendly voice boomed out.

  "Cal! Bring Wil over here!"

  There was an immediate lull in the chatter around them, and in the silence all heads turned toward Will. Uncle Tam emerged from a group of people and extravagantly waved over the two boys. The faces in the crowd outside the tavern were varied: curious, grinning, blank — but for the most part sneering with unbridled hostility. Tam seemed not the slightest bit bothered by this. He threw his thick arms around the boys' shouders and turned his head to face the crowd, staring back at them in mute defiance.

  The cacophony continued inside the tavern, only serving to make the yawning silence outside, and the rising tension that accompanied it, even more intense. This horrible hush filled Will's ears, crashing and swelling and drowning everything out.

  Then an earsplitting belch, the longest and loudest Will had ever heard, ripped from someone in the crowd. As the last echoes rang back from the neighborhood buildings, the spell was broken, and the whole crowd exploded into peals of harsh laughter, intermingled with cheers and the random wolf whistle.

  It wasn't long before all this merriment subsided and people settled down again, the chatter resuming as a small man was widely congratulated and patted on the back so forcibly that he had to cover his drink with his hand to prevent it from slopping onto the pavement.

  Still acutely self-conscious, Will kept his head bowed. He couldn't help noticing when Bartleby, stretched out under the bench where the men sat, jerked suddenly, as if some parasite or other had bitten him. Doubling up, the cat began to lick his nether regions with a hind leg pointing heavenward, looking remarkably like a badly plucked turkey.

  "Now that you've met the great unwashed," Uncle Tam said, his eyes briefly flicking back over the crowd, "let me introduce you to royalty, the crème de la crème. This is Joe Waites," he said, maneuvering Will face to face with a wizened old man. His head was topped with a tightly fitting skullcap that seemed to compress the upper half of his face, making his eyes bulge out and hoisting his cheeks up into an involuntary grin. A solitary tooth protruded from his top jaw like an ivory tusk. He proffered his hand to Will, who shook it reluctantly, somewhat surprised to find it warm and dry.

  "And this" — Tam inclined his head to a dapper man sporting a tawdry checkered three-piece suit and black-rimmed glasses — "is Jesse Shingles." The man bowed gracefully and then chuckled, raising his thick eyebrows.

  "And, not least, the one and only Imago Freebone." A man with long, dank hair plaited into a biker's ponytail shot out a mittened hand, his voluminous leather coat flapping open to reveal his immense deep-chested barrel of a body. Will was so intimidated by the sheer mass of the man, he almost took a step back.

  "Deeply pleased to meet such a hallowed legend, we being such 'umble personages," Imago said, bending his bulk forward and tugging a nonexistent forelock with his other hand.

  "Uh… hello," Will said, uncertain what to make of him.

  "Knock it off," Tam warned with a grimace.

  Imago straightened up, offering his hand again, and in a normal voice said, "Will, very good to meet you." Will shook it again. "I shouldn't tease," Imago added earnestly. "We all know what you've been through, only too well." His eyes were warm and sympathetic as he continued to clasp Will's hand between both of his, finally releasing it with a comforting squeeze. "I've had the pleasure of the Dark Light myself several times, courtesy of our dear friends," he said.

  "Yeah, gives you the most god-awful heartburn," Jesse Shingles said with a smirk.

  Will was more than a little daunted by Uncle Tam's associates and their strange appearances, but, looking around, it struck him that they weren't that different from most of the revelers outside the tavern.

  "I got you both a quart of New London," Tam handed the two tankards to the boys. "Go easy on it, Will, you won't have tasted anything like that before."

  "Why? What's in it?" Will asked, eyeing with suspicion the grayish liquid with a thin froth on top.

  "Ya don't wanta know, my boy, really, ya don't," Tam said, and his friends laughed; Joe Waites made peculiar noises, while Imago threw back his head and gave an extravagant but completely silent laugh, his great shoulders heaving violently. Under the bench, Bartleby grunted and noisily licked his chops.

  "So you've been to your first service," Uncle Tam asked. "What did you make of it?"

  "It was, um… interesting," Will said noncommittally.

  "Not after years of it, it ain't," Tam said. "Still, it keeps the White Necks at bay." He took a deep swig from his tankard, then straightened his back and let out a contented sigh. "Yep, if I had a florin for every 'As above, so bloody below' I've said, I'd be a rich man today."

  "'As yesterday, so tomorrow,'" Joe Waites said in a weary, nasal voice, mimicking a Styx preacher
. "'So sayeth the Book of Catastrophes.'" He gave a huge exaggerated yawn, which afforded Will a rather unsettling view of his pink gums and the sad, lone tooth.

  "And if you've heard one catastrophe, you've heard them all." Imago nudged Will in the ribs.

  "Amen," chorused Jesse Shingles and Joe Waites, knocking their tankards together and laughing. "Amen to that!"

  "Now, now, it brings comfort to them that don't have minds of their own," Tam said.

  Will looked out of the corner of his eye at Cal and saw that he was joining in and laughing with the rest of them. This puzzled Will; at times his brother appeared to be filled with a religious zeal, but at others he didn't stint at showing a total lack of respect, even a contempt, for it.

  "So, Will, what do you miss most about life up top?" Jesse Shingles suddenly asked, jerking his thumb toward the rock roof above their heads. Will looked uncertain and was about to say something when the little man went on. "I'd miss the fish and chips, not that I've ever tasted them." He winked conspiratorially at Imago.

  "That's enough of that." Tam's brow creased with concern as he cast his eyes over the people milling around them. "Not the time or the place."

  Cal had been happily sipping his drink but noticed Will was being a little reticent with his. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and turned to his brother, gesticulating toward his so-far-untouched tankard. "Go on, try it!"

  Will tentatively took a mouthful of the chalky fluid and held it in his mouth for a moment before gulping it down.

  "Well?" Cal inquired.

  Will ran his tongue around his lips. "Not bad," he said. Then it bit. His eyes widened and watered as his throat began to burn. He spluttered, trying vainly to stifle the coughing fit that followed. Uncle Tam and Cal grinned. "I'm not old enough to drink this stuff," Will gasped, putting the tankard back on the table.

  "Who's to stop you? Whole different set of rules down here. As long as you stay within the law, pull your weight, and attend their services, nobody minds if you let off a little steam. It's nobody's business, anyway," Tam said, slapping him gently on the back.

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