Tunnels 01 tunnels, p.25
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       Tunnels 01 - Tunnels, p.25

           Roderick Gordon
 

  "Oh, I… I… I must say… it was truly a great honor and, at first, I felt that I was not worthy to follow in the footsteps of those great men and women—" At that very moment his toe caught against a piece of rock, and he swore blindly as he stumbled for a few paces. Regaining his poise, he began to walk again, simultaneously continuing with his response. "— the footsteps of those great men and women, that exalted list of winners who preceded me."

  He swung the orb back to the other side of his face. "But, Professor, the contributions you have made to so many fields — medicine, physics, chemistry, biology, geology, and, above all, archaeology — are inestimable. You are considered to be one of the greatest living scholars on the planet. Did you ever think it would come to this, the day you began the tunnel in your cellar?"

  Dr. Burrows gave a melodramatic "ahem" as the orb changed sides again. "Well, I knew that there was more for me… much more than my career in the museum back in…"

  Dr. Burrows's voice trailed off as he ground to a halt. He pocketed the orb, plunging himself into the shadows cast by the stones as he thought of his family and wondered how they were getting along without him. Shaking his bedraggled head, he slowly shuffled back into the circle and slumped down by his journal, staring blankly into the flickering flames, which grew more blurred as he watched them. Finally he removed his spectacles and rubbed the moisture from his eyes with the heels of his hands.

  "I have to do this," he said to himself as he put his spectacles back on and once again took up his pencil. "I have to."

  The firelight radiated out from between the stones in the circle, projecting shifting spokes of gentle light onto the floor and walls of the passage. In the center of this wheel, totally absorbed, the cross-legged figure grumbled quietly as he rubbed out a mistake in his journal.

  He didn't have a thought for anyone in the world at that moment; he was a man so obsessed that nothing else mattered, nothing at all.

  28

  As a fire sputtered in the hearth, Mr. Jerome reclined in one of the wingback armchairs, reading his newspaper. From time to time, the heavily waxed pages flopped waywardly, and he flicked his wrists reflexively to straighten them up again. Will couldn't make out a single headline from his vantage point at the table; the blocky newsprint bled into the paper to such an extent that it looked as though a swarm of ants had dipped their feet in black ink and then stampeded across the pages.

  Cal played another card and waited expectantly for his brother's response, but Will was finding it impossible to keep his concentration on the game. It was the first time he'd been in the same room with Mr. Jerome without being on the receiving end of hostile glances or a resentful silence. This is itself represented a landmark in their relationship.

  There was a sudden crash as the front door was flung open, and all three looked up.

  "Cal, Will!" Uncle Tam bellowed as he blundered in from the hallway, shattering the scene of apparent domestic bliss. He straightened himself up when he saw Mr. Jerome staring daggers at him from his chair.

  "Oh, sorry, I…"

  "I thought we had an understanding," Mr. Jerome growled as he rose and folded the paper under his arm. "You said you wouldn't come here… when I'm at home." He walked stiffly past Tam without so much as a glance.

  Uncle Tam made a face and sat down next to Will. With a conspiratorial wave of his hand, he indicated to the boys to come closer. He waited until Mr. Jerome's footsteps had receded into the distance before he spoke.

  "The time has arrived," Tam whispered, extracting a dented metal canister from inside his coat. He flipped off the cap from one end, and they watched as he slid out a tattered map and laid it over their cards on the tabletop, smoothing out the corners so that it lay flat. Then he turned to Will.

  "Chester is to be Banished tomorrow evening," he said.

  "Oh, God." Will sat up as if he'd been shocked with an electric current. "That's too sudden, isn't it?"

  "I only just found out — it's planned for six," Tam said. "There'll be quite a crowd. The Styx like to make a spectacle out of these things. They believe a sacrifice is good for the soul."

  He turned back to the map, humming softly as he searched the complex of grid lines, until finally his finger came to rest on a tiny dark square. Then he looked up at Will as if he'd just remembered something.

  "You know, it's not a difficult thing… to get you out, alone. But Chester, too, that's a very different kettle of fish. It's taken a lot more thought, but" — he paused, and Will and Cal stared into his eyes — "I think I might have cracked it. There's only one way you escape to the Topsoil now… and that's through the Eternal City."

  Will heard Cal gasp, but as much as he wanted to ask his uncle about this place, it didn't seem appropriate as Tam went on. He proceeded to talk Will through the escape plan, tracing the route on the map as the boys listened raptly, absorbing every detail. The tunnels had names like Watling Street

  , The Great North, and Bishopswood. Will interrupted his uncle only once, with a suggestion that, after some considerable thought, Tam incorporated into the plan. Although on the exterior he was composed and businesslike, Will felt excitement and fear building in the pit of his stomach.

  "The problem with this," Tam said with a sigh, "is the unknowns, the variables, that I can't help you with. If you hit any snags when you're out there, you'll just have to play it by ear… do the best you can." At this point, Will noticed that some of the sparkle had gone out of Tam's eyes — he didn't look his normal confident self.

  Tam ran through the whole plan from beginning to end once again and, when he'd finished, he fished something out of his pocket and passed it over to Will. "Here's a copy of the directions once you're outside the Colony. If they catch up with you, heaven forbid, eat the damn thing."

  Will unfolded it carefully. It was a piece of cloth the size of a handkerchief when completely opened. The surface was covered with a mass of infinitesimally small lines in brown ink, like an unruly maze, each representing a different tunnel. Although Will's route was clearly marked in a light red ink, Tam quickly took him through it.

  Tam watched as Will refolded the cloth map and then spoke in a low voice. "This has to go like clockwork. You'd put all your kin in the very worst danger if the Styx thought for one second I'd had a hand in this… and it wouldn't just end with me; Cal, your grandmother, and your father would all be in the firing line." He grasped Will's forearm tightly across the table and squeezed it to emphasize the gravity of his warning. "Another thing: When you're Topsoil, you and Chester are going to have to disappear. I haven't had time to arrange anything, so—"

  "What about Sarah?" Will blurted as the idea occurred to him, although her name still felt a little odd on his lips. "My real mother? Couldn't she help me?"

  A suggestion of a smile dropped into place on Tam's face. "I wondered when you'd think of that," he said. The smile disappeared, and he spoke as if choosing his words carefully. "If my sister is still alive — and nobody knows that for sure — she'll be well and truly hidden." He glanced down at the palm of his hand as he rubbed it with the thumb from the other. "One plus one can sometimes add up to zero."

  "What do you mean?"

  "Well, if by some miracle you did happen to find her, you might lead the Styx her way. Then both of you would end up feeding the worms." He raised his head again and shook it just once as he fixed Will with a thoughtful stare. "No, I'm sorry, but you're on your own. You're going to have to run hard and long, for all our sakes, not just yours. Mark my words, if the Styx get you in their clutches, they will make you spill your guts, sooner or later, and that would endanger us all," he said ominously.

  "Then we'd have to get out, too, wouldn't we, Uncle Tam?" Cal volunteered, his voice full of bravado.

  "You've got to be kidding!" Tam turned sharply on him. "We wouldn't stand a chance. We wouldn't even see them coming."

  "But…," began Cal.

  "Look, this isn't some game, Caleb. If you cross them once t
oo often, you won't be around long enough to regret it. Before you know it, you'll be dancing Old Nick's Jig." He paused. "You know what that is?" Tam didn't wait for an answer. "It's a lovely little number. Your arms are stitched behind your back" — he shifted uncomfortably in his seat — "with copper thread, your eyelids are stripped off, and you're dropped in the darkest chamber you can imagine, full of Red Hots."

  "Red whats? " Will asked.

  Tam shuddered and, ignoring Will's question, went on. "How long do you think you'd last? How many days of knocking into the wall in the pitch-black, dust burning into your ruined eyes, before you collapsed from exhaustion? Feeling the first bites on your skin as they start to feed? I wouldn't wish that on my worst…" He didn't finish the sentence.

  The two boys swallowed hard, but then Tam's expression brightened up again. "Enough of that," he said. "You've still got that light, haven't you?"

  Still stunned by what he'd just heard, Will looked at him blankly. He pulled himself together and nodded.

  "Good," Tam said as he took out a small cloth bundle from his coat pocket and put it on the table in front of Will. "And these might come in handy."

  Will touched the bundle tentatively.

  "Well, go on, have a look."

  Will untied the corners. Inside, there were four knobbly brown-black stones the size of marbles.

  "Node stones!" Cal said.

  "Yes. They're rarer than slug's boots." Tam smiled. "They're described in the old books, but nobody 'cept me and my boys has ever seen one before, Imago found this lot."

  "What do they do?" Will asked, looking at the strange stones.

  "Down here, it's not like you're going to beat a Colonist or, worse still, a Styx in a straight fight. The only weapons you have are light and flight," Tam said. "If you get in a tight corner, just crack one of these things open. Chuck it against something hard and keep your eyes shut — it'll give a burst of the brightest light you can imagine. I hope these are still good," he said, weighing one in his hand. He looked at Will. "So you think you're up to this?"

  Will nodded.

  "Right," the big man said.

  "Thanks, Uncle Tam. I can't tell you how…," Will said falteringly.

  "No need, my boy." Tam ruffled his hair. He looked down at the table and didn't speak for a few seconds. It was totally unexpected; silence and Uncle Tam didn't go together. Will had never before seen him like this, this gregarious and massive man. He could only think that he was upset and trying to hide it. But when Tam raised his head, the broad smile was there and his voice rumbled as it always did.

  "I saw all this coming… it was bound to happen sooner or later. The Macaulays are loyal, and we will fight for those we love and believe in, no matter what the price. You would've tried to do something to save Chester, and gone after your father, whether I'd helped you or not."

  Will nodded, feeling his eyes fill with tears.

  "Thought as much!" Tam boomed. Like your mother… like Sarah… a Macaulay through and through!" He grabbed Will firmly by his shoulders. "My head knows you have to go, but my heart says otherwise." He squeezed Will and sighed. "Pity is… we could have had some times down here, the three of us. Some high times indeed."

  * * * * *

  Will, Cal, and Tam talked well into the early hours, and when he finally got to bed, Will hardly slept a wink.

  Early in the morning, before there was a stir in the house, Will packed his bag and tucked the cloth map Uncle Tam had given him into the top of his boot. He checked that the node stones and light orb were in his pockets, then went over to Cal and shook him awake.

  "I'm off," Will said in a low voice as his brother's eyes flickered open. Cal sat up, scratching his head.

  "Thanks for everything, Cal," Will whispered, "and say good-bye to Granny for me, won't you?"

  "Course I will," his brother replied, then frowned. "You know I'd give anything to come, too."

  "I know, I know… but you heard what Tam said: I have a better chance by myself. Anyway, your family is here," he said finally, and turned to the door.

  Will tiptoed down the stairs. He felt exhilarated to be on the move again, but this was tempered by an unexpected pang of sadness that he was leaving. Of course, he could stay here, somewhere where he actually belonged, if he chose, rather than venturing out into the unknown and risking it all. It would be so easy just to go back to bed. As he reached the hallway, he could hear Bartleby snoring somewhere in the shadows. It was a comforting sound, the sound of home. He would never hear that sound again if he went now. He stood by the front door and hesitated. No! How could he ever live with himself if he chose to leave Chester to the Styx? He would rather die trying to free him. He took a deep breath and, glancing behind him into the still house, slipped the heavy catch on the door. He opened it, stepped over the threshold, and then closed it gently behind him. He was out.

  He knew he had a considerable distance to cover, so he walked quickly, his bag thumping a rhythm on his back. It took him a little under forty minutes to reach the building at the edge of the cavern that Tam had described. There was no mistaking it as, unlike most structures in the Colony, it had a tiled rather than a stone roof.

  He was now on the road that led to the Skull Gate. Tam had said that he had to keep his wits about him because the Styx changed sentries at random intervals, and there was no way of knowing whether one was just about to appear around the corner.

  Leaving the road, Will climbed over a gate and sprinted through the yard that lay in front of the building, a ramshackle farm property. He heard a pig-like grunting coming from one of the outlying buildings and spotted some chickens penned up in another area. They were spindly and malnourished but had perfectly white feathers.

  He entered the building with the tiled roof and saw the old timber beams leaning against the wall just as Tam had described. As he crept in under them, something moved toward him.

  "What—"

  It was Tam. He immediately silenced Will by putting a finger to his lips. Will could hardly contain his surprise. He looked at Tam questioningly, but the man's face was grim and unsmiling.

  There was hardly enough room for both of them under the beams, and Tam squatted awkwardly as he slid a massive paving slab along the wall. Then he leaned in toward Will.

  "Good luck," he whispered in his ear, and literally pushed him into the jagged opening. Then the slab grated shut behind Will, and he was on his own.

  In the pitch-darkness he fumbled in his pocket for the light orb, to which he'd already attached a length of thick string. He knotted this around his neck, leaving his hands free. At first, he moved along the passage with ease, but then, after about thirty feet, it pinched down to a crawlway. The roof of the tunnel was so low that he ended up on his hands and knees. The passage angled upward, and as he heaved himself painfully over jagged plates of broken rock, his backpack kept snagging on the roof.

  He caught sight of a movement in front of him and froze on the spot. With some trepidation he lifted the light orb to see what it was. He held his breath as something white flashed across the passage and then landed with a soft thump no more than five feet ahead of him. It was an eyeless rat the size of a well-fed kitten, with snowy fur and whiskers that oscillated like butterfly wings. It stood up on its hind legs, its muzzle twitching and its large, glistening incisors in full view. It showed absolutely no sign that it was afraid of him.

  Will found a stone on the tunnel floor and threw it as hard as he could. It missed, glancing off the wall next to the animal, which didn't even flinch. Will's indignation that a mere rat was holding him up welled over, and he lunged toward the animal with a growl. In a single effortless bound it leaped at him, landing smack on his shoulder, and for a split second neither boy nor rat moved. Will felt its whiskers, as delicate as eyelashes, brush his cheek. He shook his shoulders frantically and it launched itself off, springing once on the back of Will's leg as it sped away in the opposite direction.

  Will spat a few cho
ice curses at the retreating rodent, then took a deep breath to steady his nerves before setting off again.

  He crawled for what seemed like hours, his hands becoming cut and tender from the razor-sharp shards strewn across the floor. Much to his relief, the passage increased in height, and he was almost able to stand up again. Now that he could move at full speed, he became almost euphoric, and felt an irrepressible urge to sing as he negotiated the bends in the tunnel. But he thought better of it when it occurred to him that the sentries at the Skull Gate probably weren't very far from his current position and might somehow be able to hear him.

  Eventually he reached the end of the passage, which was cloaked with several layers of stiff sacking, dirtied up to camouflage them against the stone. He brushed them aside and drew his breath as he saw that the tunnel had come out just under the roof of a cavern, and that there was nearly a one-hundred foot drop to the road below. He was proud that he'd gotten this far, past the Skull Gate, but he felt certain that this couldn't be right. He was at such a dizzying height that he immediately assumed he must be in the wrong place. Then Tam's words came back to him: "It'll look impossible, but take it slowly. Cal managed it with me when he was much younger, so you can do it."

  He leaned over to scan the array of ledges and nooks in the rock wall below him. Then he cautiously clambered out over the edge of the tunnel lip and began the descent, checking and rechecking each skaking hand- and foothold before he made the next move.

  He'd climbed no more than twenty feet when he heard a noise below. A desolate groan. He held still and listened, his heart thudding in his ears. It came again. He had one foot on a small ridge with the other dangling in midair, while his hands gripped an outcrop of rock at chest height. He slowly twisted his head and peered down over his shoulder.

 
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