Tunnels 01 tunnels, p.28
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       Tunnels 01 - Tunnels, p.28

           Roderick Gordon
 
He crossed over to the side of the escarpment and examined the cavern wall more closely. It was covered in a wild growth of tendrils, dark and glistening with moisture. It was algae of some kind, made up of many trailing shoots and thickly layered, like ivy on an old wall. As he held up the palm of his hand, he could feel the warmth radiating from it and, yes, he could see that there was indeed a dim glow coming from the edges of the curled leaves.

  "Bioluminescence," he said aloud.

  "Mmmmmph?" came the vague response from under Cal's canvas hood, which was twitching absurdly from side to side as he kept watch for the Styx Division.

  As he continued down the incline, Will switched his attention back to the cavern, focusing on the most wondrous sight of all, the city itself. Even from this distance his eyes hungrily took in the archways, impossible terraces, and curving stone stairways sweeping up into stone balconies. Columns, Doric and Corinthian, sprang up to support dizzying galleries and walkways. His intense excitement was tinged with a sadness that Chester wasn't seeing all this with him as he should rightly have been. And as for Will's father, it would have blown his mind! It was just too much for him to absorb all at once. In every direction Will looked there were the most fantastic structures: collosseums and ancient domed cathedrals in beautifully crafted stone.

  Then, as he came to the bottom of the escarpment, the smell hit him. It had been deceptively gentle at first, like old pond water, but with each step they'd descended, the more pungent it had become. It was rancid, catching in Will's throat like a mouthful of bile. He cupped a hand over his nose and mouth and looked at Cal in desperation.

  "This is just gross!" he said, gagging on the stench. "No wonder you need to wear one of those things!"

  "I know," Cal said flatly, his expression hidden by the breathing mask as he pointed to the gully by the foot of the escarpment. "Come over here."

  "What for?" Will asked as he joined his brother. He was astonished to see him thrust his hands into the molasses-like slurry that lay stagnating there. Cal lifted out two handfuls of the black algae and rubbed it over his mask and his clothes. Then he grabbed Bartleby by the scruff of the neck. The cat let out a low howl and tried to get away, but Cal streaked him from head to tail. As the filth dripped over his naked skin, Bartleby arched his back and trembled, looking at his master balefully.

  "But the stink is worse that ever now! What the heck are you doing?" Will demanded, thinking his brother had taken leave of his senses.

  "The Division uses stalker dogs — bloodhounds — around here. Any whiff of Colony on us and we're as good as dead. This slime will help cover our scent," he said, scooping up fresh handfuls of the brackish vegetation. "Your turn." Will braced himself as Cal doused the fetid weed over his hair, chest, and shoulders and then down each of his legs.

  "How can you smell anything over this?" Will asked irately, looking at the oily patches on his clothes. The reek was overpowering. "Those dogs must have some sense of smell!" It was all he could do to stop himself from being sick.

  "Oh, they do," Cal said as he shook his hands to rid them of the tendrils, then wiped them on his jacket. "We need to get out of sight."

  Crossing one by one, they passed swiftly over a stretch of boggy ground and into the city. They went under a tall stone arch with two malevolent gargoyle faces glaring down contemptuously at them, and then into an alley with high walls on either side. The dimensions of the buildings, the gaping windows, arches, and doorways, were huge, as if they'd been built for incredibly tall beings. At Cal's suggestion, they slipped through one of these openings, at the base of a square tower.

  Now out of the green light, Will needed his orb to study the map. As he pulled it out from under his coat, it illuminated the room, a stone chamber with a high ceiling and several inches of water on the floor. Bartleby scampered into one corner and, finding a heap of something rotten, he investigated it briefly before lifting a leg over it.

  "Hey," Cal said abruptly. "Just look at the walls."

  They saw skulls — row upon row of carved death's heads covered the walls, all with toothy grins and hollow, shadowy eyes. As Will moved the orb, the shadows shifted and the skulls appeared to be turning to face them.

  "My dad would've loved this. I bet this was a—"

  "It's grisly," Cal interrupted, shivering.

  "These people were pretty spooky, weren't they?" Will said, unable to suppress a wide grin.

  "The ancestors of the Styx."

  "What?" Will looked at him questioningly.

  "Their forebears. People believe a group escaped from this city at the time of the Plague."

  "Where to?"

  "Topsoil," Cal replied. "They formed some sort of secret society there. It's said that the Styx gave Sir Gabriel the idea for the Colony."

  Will didn't have the chance to question Cal any further because suddenly Bartleby's ears pricked up and his unblinking eyes fixed on the doorway. Although neither of the boys had heard anything, Cal became agitated.

  "Come on, quick, check the map, Will."

  They left the chamber, cautiously picking their way through the ancient streets. It gave Will an opportunity to inspect the buildings at close range. Everywhere around them the stone was decorated with carvings and inscriptions. And he saw the decay; the masonry was crumbling and fractured. It cried out with abandonment and neglect. Yet the buildings still sat proudly in all their magnificence — they had an aura of immense power to them. Power, and something else — an ancient and decadent menace. Will was relieved that the city's inhabitants weren't still in residence.

  As they jogged down lanes of ancient stone, their boots scattered the murky water on the ground and churned up the algae, leaving faintly glowing blotches in their wake like luminous stepping stones. Bartleby was agitated by the water and pranced through it with the precision of a performing pony, trying not to splash himself.

  Crossing a narrow stone bridge, Will stopped briefly and looked over the eroded marble balustrade at the slow-moving river below. Slick and greasy, it snaked lazily through the city, crossed here and there with other small bridges, its waters lapping turgidly against the massive sections of masonry that formed its banks. On these, classical statues stood watch like water sentinels; old men with wavy hair and impossibly long beards, and women in flowing gowns, held out shells and orbs — or just the broken stumps of their arms — toward the water, as if offering up sacrifices to gods that no longer existed.

  They came to a large square surrounded by towering buildings but held back from entering it, taking refuge behind a low parapet.

  "What is that?" Will whispered. In the middle of the square was a raised platform supported by an array of thick columns. On top of the platform were human forms: chalky statues in twisted postures of frozen agony, some with their features obliterated and others with limbs missing. Rusting chains wound around the contorted figures and the posts next to them. It looked like a sculpture of some long-forgotten atrocity.

  "The Prisoners' Platform. That's where they were punished."

  "Gruesome statues," Will said, unable to take his eyes off it.

  "They're not statues, they're real people. Tam said the bodies have been calcified."

  "No!" Will said, staring even more intently at the figures and wishing he had time to document the scene.

  "Shhhh," Cal warned. He grabbed Bartleby and pulled him to his chest. The cat kicked out, but Cal wouldn't let go.

  Will looked at him inquiringly.

  "Get down," Cal whispered. Ducking behind the parapet, he cupped his hand over the cat's eyes and clasped the animal even more tightly.

  As he followed suit, Will caught sight of them. At the far end of the square, as silent as ghosts, four figures appeared to float on the surface of the waterlogged ground. They wore breathing masks over their mouths, and goggles with large, circular eyepieces, making them appear like nightmarish man-insects. Will could tell from their outlines that they were Styx. They wore leather skullcaps and long coats. No
t the lustrous black ones Will had seen in the Colony; these were matte, and camouflaged with streaky green and gray blocks of dark and light hues.

  With easy military efficiency, they were advancing in a line, as one controlled an immense dog straining on a leash. Vapor was blowing from the muzzle of the inconceivably large and ferocious animal — it was unlike any dog Will had ever seen before.

  The boys cowered behind the parapet, acutely aware that they had nowhere to run if the Styx came their way. The hoarse panting and snorting of the dog was growing louder — Will and Cal looked at each other, both thinking that at any moment the Styx would appear from around the edge of the parapet. They angled their heads, straining to catch the least sound of the Styx approaching, but there was only the hushed gurgle of running water and the unbroken patter of cavern rain.

  Will's and Cal's eyes met. All the signs were that the Styx had gone, but what should they do? Had the patrol moved on or was it lying in ambush for them? They waited and, after what seemed like an age, Will tapped his brother on the arm and pointed upward, indicating he was going to take a look.

  Cal shook his head violently, his eyes flaring with alarm behind the half-fogged glass; they pleaded with Will to stay put. But Will ignored him and raised his head a fraction over the parapet. The Styx had vanished. He gave the thumbs-up, and Cal rose slowly to see for himself. Satisfied the patrol had moved on, Cal let go of Bartleby and he sprang away, shaking himself down and then glowering resentfully at both of them.

  They skirted cautiously around the side of the square and chose a lane in the opposite direction from the one they assumed the Styx had taken. Will was feeling increasingly tired, and it was getting harder for him to catch his breath. His lungs were rattling like an asthmatic's, and a dull ache gripped his chest and rib cage. He summoned up all his energy, and they darted from shadow to shadow until the buildings ran out and the cavern wall was in front of them. They ran alongside it for several minutes until they came to a huge stone staircase cut into the rock.

  "That was too close by half," Will panted, glancing behind them.

  "You can say that again," Cal agreed, then peered at the staircase. "Is this the one?"

  "I think so." Will shrugged. At that point, he didn’t much care; he just wanted to put as much distance between them and the Styx as possible.

  The base of the stairs was badly damaged by a massive pillar that had crashed down and shattered it, and at first the boys were forced to clamber up several broken sections. Once they had reached the steps, it wasn't much better; they were slick with black weed, and the boys nearly lost their footing more than once.

  They climbed higher and higher up the stairway and, forgetting for the moment how ill he felt, Will stopped to take in the view from above. Through the haze, he caught sight of a building topped with a huge dome.

  "That's the spitting image of St. Paul's Cathedral in London," he puffed, getting his breath back as he peered at the magnificent domed roof in the distance. "I'd love to have a closer look," he added.

  "You've got to be kidding," Cal replied sharply.

  As they continued, the stairs eventually disappeared into a jagged arch in the rock wall. Will turned for a last glance at the emerald strangeness of the Eternal City, but as he did so he slipped from the edge of the step, tottering forward onto the one below. For a heartbeat he faced the sheer drop in front of him and cried out, thinking he was about to plunge down it. He clutched frantically at the black tendrils covering the wall. Handful after handful broke off, then he finally managed to get a grip and steady himself again.

  "Hey, are you all right?" Cal said, now at his side. When Will didn't answer him, he became increasingly concerned. "What's the matter?"

  "I… I just feel so dizzy," Will admitted in a wheezing voice. He was panting in small, shallow breaths — it was as if he were breathing through a clogged straw. He climbed a few steps but came to a standstill again as he broke out into a racking cough. He thought the coughing fit was never going to stop. Doubled over, Will hacked away and then spat. He clutched his forehead, soaked with rain and clammy with an unhealthily cold sweat, and knew there was no way he could hide it from his brother any longer.

  "I need to rest," he said hoarsely, using Cal for support as the coughing subsided.

  "Not now," Cal said urgently, "and not here," Grabbing Will's arm, he helped him through the archway and into the gloomy stairway beyond.

  31

  There is a point at which the body is spent, when the muscles and sinews have nothing left to give, when all that remains is a person's mettle, his sheer single-mindedness.

  Will had reached that point. His body felt drained and worthless, but still he slogged on, driven by the responsibility he felt toward his brother and his duty to get him to safety. At the same time, gnawing away at him was the unbearable guilt that he'd let Chester down, let him fall into the Colonists' hands for a second time.

  I'm useless, completely useless. The words ran in a loop through Will's mind, over and over again. But neither he nor his brother spoke as they climbed, grinding their way up the never-ending spiral staircase. At the very limits of his endurance, Will pushed himself on, step after painful step, flight after flight, his thighs burning as much as his lungs. Slipping and sliding on water-drenched stone treads and the stringy weeds that clung to them, he fought to suppress the dread realization that they still had far to go.

  "I’d like to stop now," he heard Cal pant.

  "Can't… don't think… I'd ever… get going… again," Will grunted in time with his plodding steps.

  The excruciating hours crawled by, until he had lost track of how long they'd been climbing, and nothing in the world existed or mattered to him except the grueling notion that he had to take the next step, and the next, and so on… and just when Will thought he'd reached his limits and that he couldn't go any farther, he felt the faintest of breezes on his face. He knew instinctively it was untainted air. He stopped and sucked at the freshness, hoping to lift the leaden weight from his chest and relieve the interminable rattle in his lungs.

  "Don't need it," he said, pointing at Cal's mask. Cal removed it from his head and tucked it in his belt, the sweat running down his face in rivulets and his eyes rimmed with red.

  "Phew," he exhaled. "Hot under that thing."

  They resumed the climb, and it wasn't long before the steps ended and they entered a sequence of narrow passages. Every so often they were forced to scramble up rusted iron ladders, their hands turning orange as they tested each precarious rung.

  Eventually they reached a steeply angled shaft no more than three feet wide. They hauled themselves up its pockmarked surface using the thick, knotted rope they discovered hanging there (Cal was certain his uncle Tam had rigged it up). Hand over hand they went, their feet finding purchase in the shallow cracks and fault lines as they climbed. The incline became steeper, and they had a heck of a job to scrabble over the remaining stretch of slime-covered stone, but despite losing their footing a few times, they finally reached the top, hauling themselves up into a circular chamber. Here there was a small vent in the floor. Leaning into it, Will could see the remnants of an iron grating, long since rusted away.

  "What's down there?" Cal panted.

  "Nothing, can't see a darn thing," Will said despondently, squatting down to rest on his haunches. He brushed the sweat from his face with a raw hand. "I suppose we do what Tam said. We climb down."

  Cal looked behind and then to his brother, nodding. For several minutes neither of them made a move, immobilized with fatigue.

  "Well, we can't stay here forever," Will sighed and swung his legs into the vent and, with his back pressed against one side and feet hard against the other, he began to see himself down.

  "What about the cat?" Will shouted after he had gone a short distance. "Is Bartleby going to be able to cope with this?"

  "Don't worry about him," Cal said with a smile. "Anything we can do—"

  Will never h
eard the rest of Cal's sentence. He slipped. The sides of the vent shot by, and he landed with a large splash — he was submerged in an icy coldness. He thrashed out with this arms, then his feet found the bottom, and he stood up and blew out a mouthful of freezing liquid. He found he was chest-deep in water, and after he'd wiped it out of his eyes and pushed back his hair, he looked around. He couldn't be certain, but there seemed to be a dim light in the distance.

  He heard Cal's frantic shouts from above. "Will! Will! Are you all right?"

  "Just had a quick dip!" Will shouted, laughing weakly. "Stay there, I'm going to check something out." His exhaustion and discomfort were ignored for the moment as he stared at the faint glow, trying to make out the vaguest detail of what lay ahead.

  Soaked to the skin, he clambered out of the pool and, stooping under the low roof, crept slowly toward the light. After a couple of hundred yards, he could clearly see the circular mouth of the tunnel and, with his heart racing, he sped toward it. Dropping more than three feet off a ledge he'd failed to notice, he landed roughly, finding himself under a jetty of some kind. Through a forest of heavy wooden stanchions, draped with weeds, he could see the dappled reflections of light on water.

  Gravel crunched underfoot as he walked into the open. He felt the invigorating chill of the wind on his face. He breathed deeply, drawing the fresh air into his aching lungs. It was such sweetness. Slowly he took stock of the surroundings.

  Night. Lights reflected off a river in front of him. It was a wide river. A two tiered pleasure boat chugged past — bright flashes of color pulsed from its two decks as indistinct dance music throbbed over the water. Then he saw the bridges on either side of him and, in the distance, the floodlit dome of St. Paul's. The St. Paul's he knew. A red double-decker bus crossed the bridge closest to him. This wasn't any old river. He sat down on the bank with surprise and relief.

  It was the Thames.

  He lay back on the bank and closed his eyes, listening to the droning hubbub of traffic. He tried to remember the names of the bridges, but he didn't really care — he'd gotten out, he'd escaped, and nothing else mattered. He'd made it. He was home. Back in his own world.

 
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