Tunnels 01 tunnels, p.24
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       Tunnels 01 - Tunnels, p.24

           Roderick Gordon
 

  "One hole down. Now the rest of you get a move on," the scar man said, lounging back against the wall behind him as he took out a pipe and began to clean its bowl with a pocketknife.

  Will stabbed away blindly at the tightly compacted sediment around the object wedged in the hole, until most of it had been removed. He couldn't tell what it was, but when he jabbed at the obstruction itself, it felt spongy, as if it were waterlogged timber. As he drove his heel down in an attempt to loosen it, there was a sudden whoosh as it dislodged, and the surface beneath his feet literally gave way. There was nothing he could do, he was in free fall, water sluicing down around him with a cascade of gravel and slurry. His body banged against the sides of the borehole, his hair and face drenched and covered in grit.

  He twitched like a marionette as the rope broke his fall. In less than a second, he'd gathered his wits; he guessed he'd dropped almost twenty feet, but he had no idea what lay below him in the blackness.

  Now's my chance. It occurred to him in a flash.

  He desperately groped under his oilskins, in his pants pockets, his hand closing on the penknife.

  …to escape…

  He peered below him into the absolute darkness of the unknown, calculating the odds, the rope tensing as the others began to pull.

  …and Dad's down here… somewhere… The idea blinked through his mind as brightly as a neon sign.

  …down here, down here, down here… it repeated, flashing on and off with the irksome buzz of an electrical discharge.

  …water, I can hear water…

  "CLIMB THE ROPE, BOY!" he heard the scar man bellowing from somewhere above. "CLIMB THE ROPE!"

  Will's mind raced as he tried to catch the sounds below him; faint splashes and the gurgle of moving water were just audible over the pendulum creaks of the thick rope that bit into his waist, his lifeline back to the Colony above.

  …but how deep is it?

  There was water below, that much was certain, but he didn't know if it was sufficient to cushion his fall. He flicked open the blade and pressed it against the rope, poised to cut it.

  Yes… no?

  If the water wasn't deep enough, he'd be jumping to his death in this godforsaken, lonely place. He pictured jagged shards of rock, razor-sharp and deadly, like a line drawing from a comic book… the next frame was his lifeless body, impaled and broken as his blood pumped out of him, mingling with the darkness.

  But he felt rash and daring. He drew the blade against the rope, and the first braid of fibers separated beneath it.

  A daring escape! flashed in his mind, even brighter that before, like a byline from some Hollywood adventure. The words were proud and brave, but then the image of Chester's face, laughing and happy, reared up, shattering it into a million fragments. Will shivered from the cold, his body drenched and plastered with mud.

  The muted hollering of the scar man once again drifted from above, as vague and confused as a yodeler down a drainpipe, wrenching Will from his thoughts. He knew he should start to do it. Then he sighed, and all the courage and bravado were gone. In their place was the cold certainty that if not now, there'd be another opportunity to escape later, and he would take it next time.

  He tucked away the penknife, twisted himself upright, and began the laborious climb back to the others.

  * * * * *

  Seven long hours later he'd lost count of how many boreholes they'd cleared as they progressed farther and farther into the tunnel. Finally glancing at his pocket watch under the light of the lantern, the scar man told them they were finished for the day. They trudged back toward the stepladder, and Will set off alone for the journey home, his hands and back aching horribly.

  As he climbed out of the trench and made his way slowly along the road, he spotted a couple of Colonists outside a building with a pair of large garage-type doors. They were surrounded by banks of stacked crates.

  As one of the men stepped back from the gathering, Will heard a high-pitched laugh. Then he saw something that made him blink and rub his eyes. A man in a puce-pink blazer and straw boater pranced in the middle of the group.

  "Can't be! No! It is! It's Mr. Clarke, junior!" he said aloud, without meaning to.

  "What?" came a voice from behind. It was one of the boys who had been working with Will in the tunnel. "You know him?"

  "Yes! But… but… what in the world is he doing here?" Will was dumbfounded as he thought of the Clarke's shop on Main Street

  and struggled with the displaced apparition of Mr. Clarke junior down here, still cavorting within the circle of stocky Colonists. As he watched, Will saw that he was picking things from the boxes with little theatrical flourishes and displaying them to his audience, sweeping them along his sleeve like a crooked watch salesman before placing them delicately on a trestle table. Then the other shoe dropped.

  "Don't tell me he's selling fruit!" Will said.

  "And vegetables." The boy looked curiously at Will. "The Clarkes have been trading with us for as long as—"

  "My God, what's that? " Will interrupted him, pointing at an outlandish figure that had stepped into view from the shadow of a towering stack of fruit boxes. Apparently ignored, it stood outside the huddle of Colonists and inspected a pineapple as if it were a rare artifact while the exchange continued with the gesticulating Mr. Clarke junior.

  The boy followed Will's finger to the stationary figure, which appeared to be human, with arms and legs, but was swathed in some kind of bloated diver's suit, which was a dull bone color. It was bulbous, like a caricature of a fat man, and the head and face were completely obscured by a hoodlike extension. Its large goggles glinted as they caught the light of a street lamp. It looked like a man-shaped slug, or, rather, a slug-shaped man.

  "Don't you know anything?" The boy laughed with undisguised scorn at Will's ignorance. "Its only a Coprolite."

  Will frowned. "Oh, right, a Coprolite."

  "From down there," the boy said, flicking his eyes toward the ground as he walked away. Will lingered behind for a moment to watch the strange being — it moved so slowly it reminded Will of the leeches that inhabited the sludge at the bottom of the school fish tank. It was an improbable scene, the pink-jacketed Mr. Clarke junior peddling his wares to the crowd while the Coprolite examined a pineapple, both deep in the bowels of the earth.

  He was deliberating whether to go over to talk to Mr. Clarke junior when he spotted two policemen at the edge of the crowd. He left quickly and went on his way, nagged by a question that elbowed all other thoughts aside. If the Clarkes knew about the Colony, then how many others in Highfield were leading double lives?

  * * * * *

  As the weeks passed, Will was assigned to further work details in other parts of the Colony. It gave him an insight into the functionings of this subterranean culture, and he was determined to document as much of it as he could in his journal. The Styx were at the very top of the pecking order and a law unto themselves, and next came a small governing elite of Colonists, to which Mr. Jerome was privileged to belong. Will hand no idea what he or these Governors actually did, and, on detailed questioning, it appeared that Cal didn't, either. Then there were the ordinary Colonists and finally an underbelly of unfortunates, who either could not work or refused to do so, and they were left to rot in ghettos, the largest of which was the Rookeries.

  Every afternoon, after Will had swabbed the dirt and sweat off himself using the basic facilities in the so-called bathroom of the Jerome house, Cal would watch as he sat on his bed and jotted down meticulous notes, adding the occasional sketch where he felt it was warranted. Perhaps it would be of children working at one of the garage dumps. It was quite a scene; these tiny Colonists, little more than toddlers, so adept at scavenging the huge mounds of litter and taking so much care to sort everything into hoppers for processing.

  "Nothing goes to waste," Cal had told him. "I should know, I used to do it!"

  Or it might be a picture of the stark fortress in the farthermost corner
of the South Cavern where the Styx lived, which had a huge iron stockade enclosing it. This drawing had been by far the greatest challenge for Will because he hadn't had an opportunity to get very close. With sentries patrolling the neighboring streets, it wouldn't do to be caught showing too much interest in it.

  Cal was at a loss to understand why Will took such great pains to write in his journal. He persistently badgered Will, asking him what the point of it all was. Will had replied that it was something his father had taught him to do whenever they found anything during their excavations.

  And there it was again, his father. Dr. Burrows was still his father as far as he was concerned, and Mr. Jerome, even if he was Will's real father — though he still wasn't wholly convinced of that — came a poor second in Will's estimation. And his deranged Topsoil mother, and his sister, Rebecca, still felt like family. Yet he felt such affection for Cal, Uncle Tam, and Grandma Macaulay that sometimes his loyalties churned in his head with the ferocity of a stoppered tornado.

  As he put the finishing touches on a sketch of a Colony house, his mind wandered and he began to daydream again about his father's journey into the Deeps. Will was eager to discover what lay down there and knew that one day soon he would follow. However, every time he tried to imagine what the future might hold for him, he was brought back to bitter reality with a bump, to the plight of his friend Chester, still confined in that abysmal Hold.

  Will stopped drawing and rubbed the peeling calluses on the palms of his hands together.

  "Sore?" Cal asked.

  "Not as bad as they were," Will replied. His mind flashed back to the work detail earlier that day: clearing stone channels in advance of draining a huge communal cesspit. He shuddered. It had been the worst task he'd been designated so far. With aching arms he resumed his notes, but then his concentration was broken by the urgent wailing of a siren, the hollow and eerie sound filling the entire house. Will stood up, trying to pinpoint where it was coming from.

  "Black Wind!" Cal jumped off the bed and rushed over to close the window. Will joined him and saw people in the street below running pell-mell in all directions, until it was completely deserted. Cal pointed excitedly, then drew back his hand, looking at the hairs rising on his forearm from the rapid buildup of static in the air.

  "Here it comes!" He tugged at his brother's sleeve. "I love this."

  But nothing seemed to be happening. The siren's haunting wail continued as Will, not knowing what to look for, scanned the empty street for anything out of the ordinary.

  "There! There!" Cal shouted, peering farther down into the cavern. Will followed his gaze, trying to make out just what it was, but it seemed as though something was wrong with his vision. It was as if his eyes weren't focusing properly.

  Then he saw why.

  A solid cloud billowed up the street like ink diffusing through water, rolling and churning and obscuring everything in its wake. As Will looked down form the window he could see the streetlights bravely trying to burn even more brightly as the sooty fog almost blotted them out. It was as if nocturnal waves were closing over the submerged lights of a doomed ocean liner.

  "What is it?" Will asked, enthralled. He pressed his nose against the windowpane to get a better view of the dark fog spreading quickly along the rest of the street.

  "It's a sort of backwash from the Interior," Cal told him. "It's called a Levant Wind. It rises from the lower Deeps — a bit like a burp." He giggled.

  "Is it dangerous?"

  "No, just dust and stuff, but people think it's bad luck to breathe it. They say it carries germules." He laughed and then adopted a mock Styx monotone. "Pernicious to those that it encounters, it sears the flesh." He giggled again. "It's great, though, isn't it?"

  Will stared, transfixed. As the street below was obliterated from view, the window turned black, and he felt an uncomfortable pressure in his ears. His flesh seemed to be buzzing and all his hairs were standing on end. For several minutes, the dark cloud billowed by, filling their bedroom with the smell of burned ozone and a deadening silence. Eventually it began to thin out, the street lamps flickering through the swirling dust like the sun breaking through clouds, and then it was gone, leaving just a few diffuse gray smudges hanging n the air, as if the scene had been swept by a watercolorist's brush.

  "Now watch this?"

  "Sparklers?" Will asked, not believing what he was seeing.

  "It's a static storm. They always follow a Levant," Cal said, quivering with sheer excitement. "They give you one heck of a belt if you get in the way."

  Will watched in astounded silence as a host of fireballs spun out of the dispersing clouds all along the street. Some were the size of tennis balls, while others were as large as beach balls, all fizzing fiercely as bright sparks sprayed from their edges, as if a gang of delinquent pinwheels had gone on a flaming rampage.

  The two boys stood mesmerized as, right in front of them, a fireball as large as a melon, its vibrant light illuminating their young faces and reflecting in their wide eyes, abruptly went into a downward spiral, around and around, casting off sparks as it plummeted toward the ground, shrinking to the size of an egg. As it hovered just above the cobblestones, the dying fireball seemed to flicker that much more intensely before, in the blink of an eye, it sputtered out.

  Will and Cal were unable to tear themselves away from where it had been, the traces of its last seconds still imprinted on their retinas in little ecstatic tracks, like optical pins and needles.

  27

  Far below the streets and houses of the Colony, a lone figure stirred.

  The wind had been a gentle breeze at first but rapidly built to a terrifying gale that spat grit in his face with all the ferocity of a sandstorm. He'd wound his spare shirt around his face and mouth as it grew even more intense, threatening to knock him off his feet. And the dust had been so dense and impenetrable that he hadn't been able to see his hands in front of him.

  There was nothing else to do but wait until it passed. He'd dropped to the ground and curled up into a ball, his eyes clogged and burning with the fine black dust. There he had remained, the wailing howl blasting out his thoughts until, frail from hunger, he fell into a half-sleeping, half-waking torpor.

  Sometime later, he shuddered awake and, not knowing how long he'd been curled up on the floor of the tunnel, lifted his head for a tentative look around. The strange darkness of the wind had gone, save for a few lingering clouds. Coughing and spitting, he sat up and shook the dust from his clothes. With a stained handkerchief he wiped his watering eyes and cleaned his spectacles.

  Then, on all fours, Dr. Burrows crawled around, scrabbling about in the dry grit, using the light of a luminescent orb to find the little pile of organic matter that he'd gathered for kindling before the dust storm had hit. Eventually locating it, he picked out something that resembled a curling fern leaf. He squinted at it curiously — he had no idea what it was. Like everything in the last five miles of tunnel, it was as dry and crisp as old parchment.

  He was becoming increasingly worried about his supply of water. As he'd boarded the Miners' Train, the Colonists had thoughtfully provided him with a full canteen, a satchel of dried vegetables of some type, some meat strips, and a packet of salt. He could ration the food, but the problem was definitely the water; he hadn't been able to find a fresh source from which to replenish his canteen for two whole days now, and he was running perilously low.

  Having rearranged the kindling, he began to knock two chunks of flint together until a spark leaped into it and a tiny flickering flame took hold. With his head resting on the grit floor, he gently blew on the flame and fanned it with his hand, nurturing it until the fire caught, bathing him in its glow. Then he squatted down next to his open journal, sweeping the layer of dust from the pages, and resumed his drawing.

  What a find! A circle of regular stones, each the size of a door, with strange symbols cut into their faces. Carved letters collided with abstract forms — he didn't recognize
these characters from all his years of study. They were unlike any hieroglyphs he'd ever seen before. His mind raced as he dreamed of the people who had made them, who had lived far below the surface of the earth, quite possibly for thousands of years, yet had the sophistication to build this subterranean monument.

  Thinking he heard a noise, he suddenly stopped drawing and sat bolt upright. Controlling his breathing, he held completely still, his heart pounding in his chest, as he peered into the darkness beyond the fire's illumination. But there was nothing, just the all-pervading silence that had been his companion since the start of his journey.

  "Getting jumpy, old man," he said, relaxing again. He was reassured by the sound of his own voice in the confines of the rock passage. "It's just your stomach as usual, you stupid old fool," he said, and laughed out loud.

  He unwound the shirt from around his mouth and nose. His face was cut and bruised, his hair was matted, and a straggly beard hung from his chin. His clothes were filthy and torn in places. He looked like an insane hermit. As the fire crackled, he picked up his journal and concentrated on the circle of stones once again.

  "This is truly exceptional — a miniature Stonehenge. What an incredible discovery!" he exclaimed, completely forgetting for the moment how hungry and thirsty he was. His face animated and happy, he continued with his sketching.

  Then he put down his journal and pencil and sat unmoving for a few seconds as a faraway look crept into his eyes. He got to his feet and, taking the light orb in his hand, backed away from the fire until he was outside the stone circle. He began to stroll slowly around it. As he did so, he held the orb to the side of his face like a microphone. He pursed his lips and dropped his voice a tone or two in an attempt to mimic a television interviewer.

  "And tell me, Professor Burrows, newly appointed Dean of Subterranean Studies, what does the Nobel Prize mean to you?"

  Now walking more quickly around the circle, a jaunty spring in his step, his voice reverted to its normal tone and he moved the light orb to the other side of his face. He adopted a slightly surprised manner with pantomime hesitancy.

 
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