Tunnels 01 tunnels, p.26
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       Tunnels 01 - Tunnels, p.26

           Roderick Gordon
 

  Swinging a lantern, a man was strolling in the direction of the Skull Gate with two emaciated cows a couple of paces in front of him. He shouted something at them as he drove them along, completely unaware of Will's presence above him.

  Will was totally exposed, by there was nothing he could do. He held absolutely still, praying that the man wouldn't stop and look up. Then just the thing Will was dreading happened: The man came to an abrupt halt.

  Oh, no, this is it!

  With his bird's eye view, Will could clearly make out the man's shiny white scalp as he took something out of a shoulder bagg. It was a clay pipe with a long stem, which he loaded with tobacco from a pouch and lit, puffing out little clouds of smoke. Will heard him say something to the cows, and then he started on his way again.

  Will breathed a silent sigh of relief and, checking that the coast was clear, quickly finished the descent, crisscrossing from ledge to ledge until he was safely back on the ground. Then he dashed as fast as he could along the road, on either side of which were fields of impossibly proportioned mushrooms, their bulbous, ovoid caps standing on thick stalks. He now recognized these as pennybuns and, as he went, the motion of his light bobbing around his neck threw a multitude of their shifting shadows over the cavern walls behind them.

  Will slowed his pace as he developed a painful stitch in his side. He took a series of deep breaths to try to ease it, then forced himself to speed up again, aware that every second counted if he was going to reach Chester in time. Cavern after cavern fell behind him, the fields of pennybuns eventually gave way to black carpets of lichen, and he was relieved when he spotted the first of the lampposts and the hazy outline of a building in the distance. He was getting closer. Suddenly, he found himself at a huge stone archway hewn into the rock. He went through it, into the main body of the Quarter. Soon the dwellings were crowding the sides of the road, and he was becoming more and more nervous. Although nobody seemed to be around, he kept the sound from his boots to a minimum by running on his toes. He was terrified that someone was going to appear from one of the houses and spot him. Then he saw what he'd been looking for. It was the first of the side tunnels that Tam had mentioned.

  "You're going to take the backstreets." He remembered his uncle's words. "It's safer there."

  "Left, left, right." As he went, Will repeated the sequence Tam had drummed into him.

  The tunnels were just wide enough for a coach to pass through them. "Go quickly through these," Tam had said. "If you bump into anyone, just brass it out, like you're supposed to be there."

  But there was no sign of anyone as Will ran with all his might, his bag crashing on his back at every step. By the time he reemerged in the main cavern, he was sweating and out of breath. He recognized the squat outline of the police station between the two taller structures on either side, and slowed to a walk to give himself a chance to cool off.

  "Made it this far," he muttered to himself. The plan had seemed feasible when Tam had described it, but now he was wondering if he'd made a dreadful mistake. "You haven't got time to think," Tam had said, pointing a finger at him to emphasize his words. "If you hesitate, the momentum will be lost — the whole thing will go cockeyed."

  Will wiped the sweat from his forehead and steeled himself for the next stage.

  As he drew nearer, the sight of the police station's entrance brought back memories of the first time he and Chester had been dragged up its steps and the grueling interrogations that had followed. It all came flooding back, and he tried to put the thoughts out of his mind as he slipped into the shadows by the side of the building and heaved off his backpack. He dug out his camera, checking it quickly before he put it into his pocket. Then he hid his backpack and headed for the steps. As he climbed them, he took a deep breath, then pushed through the doors.

  The Second Officer was reclining in a chair with his feet on the counter. His eyes swiveled to regard the newcomer, his movements dull, as if he'd been dozing. It took him almost a second to recognize who was standing before him, and then a confounded expression crept over his face.

  "Well, well, well, Jerome. What in the world are you doing back here?"

  "I've come to see my friend," Will replied, praying that his voice didn't crack. He felt as if he were edging out on the branch of a tree, and the farther he went, the thinner and more precarious the branch became. If he lost his balance now, the fall could be fatal.

  "So who let you come back here?" the Second Officer said suspiciously.

  "Who d'you think?" Will tried to smile calmly.

  The Second Officer pondered for a moment, looking him up and down. "Well, I suppose… if they let you through the Skull Gate, it must be all right," he reasoned aloud as he lumbered slowly to his feet.

  "They told me I could see him," Will said, "one last time."

  "So you know it is to be tonight?" the Second Officer said with the suggestion of a smile. Will nodded and saw that this had dispelled any doubts in the man's mind. At once the officer's manner was transformed.

  "Didn't walk the whole way, did you?" he asked. A friendly, generous smile creased his face like a gash in a pig's belly. Will hadn't seen this side of him before, and it made it all the more difficult for him to do what he had to.

  "Yes, I had an early start."

  "No wonder you look hot. Better come with me, then," the Second Officer said as he lifted up the flap at the end of the counter and came through, rattling his keys. "I hear you're fitting in well," he added. "Knew you would… the moment I first laid eyes on you. 'Deep down he's one of us,' I told the First Officer. 'Looks the part,' I said to him."

  They went through the old oak door into the gloom of the Hold. The familiar smell gave Will the creeps as the Second Officer swung back the cell door and ushered him in. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust, then he saw him: Chester was sitting in the corner on the ledge, his legs drawn up under his chin. His friend didn't react immediately but stared emptily at Will. Then, with a flash of recognition and sheer disbelief, he was on his feet.

  "Will?" he said, his jaw dropping. "Will! I can't believe it?"

  "Hi, Chester," Will said, trying to keep the excitement from his voice. He was elated to see him again, but at the same time his whole body was shaking with adrenaline.

  "Have you come to get me out, Will? Can I leave now?"

  "Uh… not quite." Will half turned, aware that the Second Officer was just behind him and could hear every word.

  The Second Officer coughed self-consciously. "I have to lock you in, Jerome. Hope you understand — it's the regulations," he said as he shut the door and turned the key.

  "What is it, Will?" Chester asked, sensing that something was wrong. "Is it bad news?" He took a step away from Will.

  "You all right?" Will replied, too preoccupied to answer his friend as he listened to the Second Officer leave the Hold through the oak door and close it firmly. Then he took Chester into the corner of the cell and they huddled together while Will explained what they had to do.

  Minutes later came the sound that Will was dreading: The Second Officer was walking back into the Hold toward them. "Time, gentlemen," he said. He turned the key and opened the door, and Will made his way out slowly.

  "Bye, Chester," he said.

  As the Second Officer began to close the door, Will put his hand on the man's arm.

  "Just a second, I think I left something in there," he said.

  "What's that?" the man asked.

  The Second Officer was looking directly at him as Wil brought his hand out of his pocket. He saw that the little red light was on: The camera was ready. Thrusting it at the man, Will clicked the shutter.

  The flash caught the policeman full in the face. He howled and dropped his keys, clapping his hands over his eyes as he sank to the floor. The flash had been so bright compared with the sublime glow of the light orbs that even Will and Chester, who had both shielded themselves from it, felt the aftershock of its brilliance.

  "Sorry,
" Will said to the groaning man.

  Chester was standing motionless in the cell, a stupefied look on his face.

  "Get a move on, Chester!" Will shouted as he leaned in and yanked him past the Second Officer, who was starting to fumble his way to the wall, still moaning horribly.

  As they entered the reception area, Will happened to glance over the counter.

  "My shovel!" he exclaimed as he ducked underneath and grabbed it from against the wall. Will was on his way back when he saw the Second Officer stagger out from the Hold. The man snatched blindly at Chester, and before Will knew what was happening he had gotten hold of him around the neck.

  Chester let out a strangled yelp and tried to wrestle free.

  Will didn't stop to think. He swung the shovel. With a bone-crunching clang, it connected with the Second Officer's forehead, and he crumpled to the floor with a whimper.

  Chester wasn't so slow off the mark this time. He was right behind Will as they bolted out of the station, pausing just long enough for Will to retrieve his backpack before they both turned down the stretch of road that Chester had spent so many hours watching from his cell. Then they veered off down a side tunnel.

  "Is this the right way?" Chester said, breathing heavily and coughing.

  Will didn't answer but kept on running until they reached the end of the tunnel.

  There they were, just as Tam had described them, three partially demolished houses on the perimeter of a circular cavern as large as an amphitheater. The rich, loamy surface was springy underfoot as they tramped over it, and the air reeked of old manure. The walls of the cavern caught Will's attention. What at first he'd taken to be clusters of stalagmites were, in fact, petrified tree trunks, some broken halfway down and others twisted around each other. These fossilized remains stood like a carved stone forest in the shadows.

  Will felt increasingly uneasy, as if something unwholesome and threatening was radiating from between the ancient trees. He was relieved when they reached the middle house and pushed through the front door, which opened crookedly on a single hinge.

  "Through the hall, straight ahead…"

  Chester shouldered the door shut behind them as Will entered the kitchen. It was roomier than the one in the Jerome house. As they crossed the tiled floor, a thick carpet of dust was stirred into life. It whipped up into a miniature storm, and in the glow of the light orb every movement they made left a trace in the airborne motes.

  "Locate the wall tile with the painted cross."

  Will found it and pushed. A small hatch clicked open under his hand. Inside was a handle. He twisted it to the right, and a whole section of the tiled wall opened outward — it was a cleverly disguised door. Behind was an antechamber with boxes stacked on either side and a further door set into its far wall. But this was no ordinary door — it was made of heavy iron studded with rivets, and there was a handle by its side to crank it open.

  "It's airtight — keps the germules out."

  There was an inspection porthole at head height, but no light was visible through the clouded glass.

  "Get going on that while I find the breathing apparatus," Will ordered Chester, pointing at the crank. His friend leaned on the handle, and there was a loud hiss as the thick rubber seal at the base of the door lifted from the ground. Will found the masks Tam had said would be left there, old canvas hoods with black rubber pipes attached to cylinders. They resembled some sort of ancient diving equipment.

  Then, from the dark outside, Will heard a plaintive mew. He knew what it was even before he'd turned around.

  "Bartleby!" The cat scampered in through the hallway. His paws scratched scrabbling excitedly in the dust, he went straight to the secret door, shoving his muzzle into the gap and sniffing inquisitively.

  "What is that? " Chester was so flabbergasted by the vision of the oversized cat that he let go of the crank handle. It spun freely as the door trundled down on its runners and slammed shut. Bartleby leaped back.

  "For heavens sake, Chester, just get that door open!" Will shouted.

  Chester nodded and began again.

  "Need a hand?" Cal asked, moving into view.

  "No! Not you, too! What the heck are you doing here?" Will gasped.

  "Coming with you," Cal replied, taken aback by his brother's reaction.

  Chester stopped turning the crank and glanced rapidly from one brother to the other and back again. "He looks just like you!"

  Will had reached a point at which the whole situation had taken on an insanity all its own, a random and hopeless insanity. Tam's plan was falling apart before his very eyes, and he had the most awful feeling that they were all going to be caught. He had to get things back on track… somehow… and quickly.

  "FOR GOODNESS' SAKE, GET THAT DOOR OPEN, WILL YOU!" he bawled at the top of his voice, and Chester meekly resumed the cranking. The door was now a foot and a half off the ground, and Bartleby stuck his head under for an exploratory look, dropped low, and then slid through the opening, disappearing from sight altogether.

  "Tam doesn't know you're here, does he?" Will grabbed his brother by his coat collar.

  "Of course not. I decided it was time to go Topsoil, like you and Mother."

  "You're not coming," Will snarled through gritted teeth. Then, as he saw the hurt in his brother's face, he let go of his coat and softened his voice. "Really, you can't… Uncle Tam would kill you for being here. Go home right—" Will never finished the sentence. Both he and Cal had smelled the strong pulses of ammonia rippling through the air.

  "The alarm!" Cal said, with panic-stricken eyes.

  They heard a commotion outside, some shouting, and then the crash of breaking glass. They ran to the kitchen window and peered through the cracked panes.

  "Styx!" Cal gasped.

  Will estimated there were at least thirty of them drawn up in a semicircle in front of the house, and those were just the ones he could see from his limited vantage point. How many there were in total, he shuddered to think. He ducked down and shot a glance at Chester, who was frenziedly cranking the door, the opening now high enough for them to get through.

  Will looked at his brother and knew there was only one thing to do. He couldn't leave him at the mercy of the Styx.

  "Go on! Get under the door," he whispered urgently.

  Cal's face lit up and he started to thank Will, who shoved the breathing apparatus into his hands and propelled him toward the door.

  As Cal slithered through the gap, Will turned back to the window to see the Styx advancing on the house. That was enough — he launched himself at the door, frantically shouting at Chester to grab a mask and follow him. As he heard the front door to the house smash open, he knew there was just enough time for them both to get away.

  Then one of those terrible things happened.

  One of those events that, afterward, you replay in your mind over and over again… but you know, deep down, there was nothing you could have done.

  That was when they heard it.

  A voice they both knew.

  29

  "Same old Will," she said, rooting them to the spot.

  Will was halfway under the door, his hand gripping Chester's forearm, ready to pull him in, when he glanced at the kitchen entrance and froze.

  A young girl walked into the room, two Styx flanking her.

  "Rebecca?" Will gasped, and shook his head as if his eyes were deceiving him.

  "Rebecca!" he said again, incredulously.

  "Where are we going, then?" she said coolly. The two Styx edged forward a fraction, but she held up her hand and they halted.

  Was this some trick? She was wearing their clothes, their uniform — the black coat with the stark white shirt. And her jet-black hair was different — it was raked back tightly over her head.

  "What are you…" was all Will managed to say before words failed him.

  She'd been captured. That must be it. Brainwashed, or held hostage.

  "Why do we keep doing these things?
" She sighed theatrically, raising one eyebrow. She looked relaxed and in control. Something wasn't right here: something jarred.

  No

  She was one of them.

  "You're…" he gasped.

  Rebecca laughed. "Quick, isn't he?"

  Behind her, more Styx were entering the kitchen. Will's mind reeled, his memories playing back at breakneck speed as he tried to reconcile Rebecca, his sister, with this Styx girl before him. Were there signs, any clues he'd missed?

  "How?" he cried.

  Reveling in his confusion, Rebecca spoke. "It's really very simple. I was placed in your family when I was two. It's the way with us… to rub shoulders with the Heathen… It's the training for the elite."

  She took a step forward.

  "Don't!" Will said, his mind starting to work again, and his hand surreptitiously reaching inside his coat pocket. "I can't believe it!"

  "Hard to accept, isn't it? I was put there to keep an eye on you — and, if we were lucky, flush your mother into the open… your real mother."

  "It's not true."

  "It doesn't matter what you believe," she replied curtly. "My job had run its course, so here I am, back home again. No more role-playing."

  "No!" Will stuttered as he closed his hand around the little cloth package that Tam had given him.

  "Come on, it's over," Rebecca said impatiently. With a barely perceptible nod of her head, the Styx on either side of her lurched forward, but Will was ready. He slung the node stone across the kitchen with all his might. It soared between the two advancing Styx and struck the dirty white tiles, breaking into a tiny snowstorm of fragments.

  Everything stopped.

  For a split second, Will thought nothing was going to happen, that it wasn't going to work. He heard Rebecca laugh, a dry, mocking laugh.

  Then there was a whooshing sound, as if air was being sucked from the room. Each tiny splinter, as it sprinkled to the ground, flared with a dazzling incandescence, loosing beams that blasted the room like a million searchlights. These were so intense that everything was shot through with an unbearable, searing whiteness.

  It didn't seem to bother Rebecca in the slightest. With the light ablaze around her, she stood out like some dark angel, her arms folded in her characteristic pose as she clucked with disapproval.

 
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