Tunnels 01 tunnels, p.29
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       Tunnels 01 - Tunnels, p.29

           Roderick Gordon
 

  "The sky," Cal said with awe in his voice. "So that's what it's like." Will opened his eyes to see his brother craning his neck this way and that as he stared at the stray wisps of cloud caught in the amber radiation of the streetlights. Although Cal was sopping from his immersion in the pool, he was smiling broadly, but then he wrinkled up his nose. "Phew, what's that?" he asked loudly.

  "What do you mean?" Will said.

  "All those smells!"

  Will propped himself up on one elbow and sniffed. "What smells?"

  "Food… all sorts of food… and…" Cal grimaced. "sewage — lots of it — and chemicals…"

  As Will sniffed the air, thinking again how fresh it was, it occurred to him that he hadn't once considered what they were going to do next. Where were they going to go? He'd been so intent on escaping, he hadn't given anything beyond it a second thought. He stood up and examined his sodden, filthy Colonists' clothes and those of his brother, and the unfeasibly large cat that was now nosing around the bank like a pig searching for truffles. A brisk winter wind was picking up, and he shivered violently, his teeth starting to chatter. It struck him that neither his brother nor Bartleby had experienced the relative extremes of Topsoil weather in their sheltered, subterranean lives. He had to get them moving. And quickly. But he didn't have any money on him — not a penny.

  "We're going to have to walk home."

  "Fine," Cal replied unquestioningly, his head back as he stared at the stars, losing himself in the canopy of the sky. "At last I've seen them," he whispered to himself.

  A helicopter drifted across the horizon.

  "Why's that one moving?" he asked.

  Will felt too tired to explain. "They do that," he said flatly.

  They set off, keeping close to the bank so as not to be noticed, and almost immediately came upon a set of steps leading up to the walkway above. It was next to a bridge. Will knew then where they were — it was Blackfriars Bridge.

  A gate blocked the top of the steps, so they hastily clambered over the broad wall beside it to reach the walkway. Dripping water on the pavement and freezing in the night air, they looked around them. Will was seized by the dreadful thought that even here the Styx might have spies watching out for them. After seeing one of the Clarke brothers in the Colony, he felt that he couldn't trust anybody, and he regarded the few people in the immediate area with mounting suspicion. But nobody was close., with the exception of a young couple walking hand in hand. They strolled past, so involved with each other that they didn't seem to pay the boys or their huge cat the least bit of attention.

  With Will taking the lead, they climbed the steps to the bridge itself. Arriving at the top, Will saw that the IMAX cinema was to their right. He immediately knew they didn't want to be on that side of the river. To him, London was a mosaic of place, each familiar to him from the museum visits with his father or school expeditions. The rest, the interconnecting areas, were a complete mystery to him. There was only one thing to do: trust in his sense of direction and try to head north.

  As they turned left and quickly traversed the bridge, Will spotted a sign to King's Cross and knew instantly that they were heading the right way. Traffic passed them as they arrived at the end of the bridge, and Will paused to look at Cal and the cat under the glow of a streetlight. Talk about three suspicious-looking lost souls — they stuck out a mile. Although it was dark, Will was painfully aware that a pair of young boys soaked to the skin and wandering the streets of London at this late hour, with or without a giant cat, were likely to attract attention, and the last thing he needed now was to be picked up by the police. He made an attempt at concocting a story, rehearsing it in his mind, just in case it happened.

  'ello, 'ello, 'ello, the pair of fictitious policemen said. What 'ave we 'ere, then?

  Uh… just out walking the… the… Will's imagined response came to a faltering stop. No, that wouldn't do, he had to be better prepared than that. He started again: Good evening, officers. We're just taking the neighbor's pet for a walk.

  The first policeman leaned in to peer curiously at Bartleby, his eyes narrowing as he grimaced in open distaste. Looks dangerous to me, son. Shouldn't it be on a leash?

  What is it, exactly? the second imaginary policeman chimed in.

  It's a…, Will began. What could he say? Ah yes… It's very rare… a very rare hybrid, a cross between a dog and a cat called a… a Dat, Will informed them helpfully.

  Or is it a Cog, perhaps? the second policeman suggested drily, the glint in his eye telling Will he wasn't buying a word of it.

  Whatever it is, it's bloody ugly, his partner said.

  Shhh! You'll hurt his feelings. Suddenly, Will realized he was wasting his time with all of this. The reality was that the policemen would simply ask for their names and addresses, then radio in to double-check them. And they'd probably be found out even if they tried to give false ones. So that would be it. They'd be taken back to the station and held there. Will suspected he was probably wanted for abducting Chester, or something equally ridiculous, and would likely as not end up in a juvenile detention center. As for Cal, he would be a real conundrum — of course, there wouldn't be a record of him anywhere, no Topsoil identity whatsoever. No, they'd have to avoid the police at all costs.

  Perversely, as he contemplated the future, there was a part of him that almost wanted them to be stopped. It would remove the dreadful burden that at the moment lay squarely on his shoulders; he glanced at the cowed figure of his brother. Cal was a stranger, a freak in this cold and inhospitable place, and Will had no idea how he was going to protect him.

  But Will knew if he turned himself in to the authorities and tried to get them to investigate the Colony — that's if they believed a runaway teenager in the first place — he could be risking countless lives, his family's lives. Who knew how it would end? He shuddered at the thought of the Discovery, as Grandma Macaulay had called it, and tried to imagine her being led out into the daylight after her long subterranean life. He couldn't do that to her — couldn't even bear the thought of it. It was too big a decision for him to take alone, and he felt so terribly alone and isolated.

  He pulled his damp jacket around himself and hustled Cal and Bartleby down into the underpass at the end of the bridge.

  "It reeks of pee down here," his brother commeted. "Do all Topsoilers mark their territories?" He turned to Will inquiringly.

  "Uh, no… not usually. But this is London."

  As they emerged from the underpass and back onto the pavement, Cal seemed confused by the traffic, looking this way and that. Coming to the main road, they stopped at the curb. Will gripped his brother's sleeve with one hand and the cat's hairless scruff with the other. Crossing when there was a lull, they made it to the traffic island. He could see people peering curiously at them from passing cars, and a white van slowed down almost to a halt right beside them, the driver talking excitedly into his cell phone. To Will's relief, it sped off again. They crossed the remaining two lanes and, after a short distance, Will steered them into a dimly lit side street. His brother stood with one hand on the brick wall beside him — he looked completely disoriented, like a blind man in unfamiliar surroundings.

  "Foul air!" he said vehemently.

  "It's only car fumes," Will replied as he untied the thick string from his light orb and fashioned a slipknot leash for the cat, who didn't seem to mind one bit.

  "It smells wrong. It must be against the laws," Cal said with complete conviction.

  "Fraid not," Will answered as he led them down the street. He would have to stay off the main roads and keep to the backstreets as far as possible, even though it would make their journey even more difficult and circuitous.

  And so the long march north began. On their way out of central London they only saw a single police car, but Will was able to usher them around a corner in the nick of time.

  "Are they like Styx?" Cal asked.

  "Not quite," Will replied.

  With the cat on o
ne side and Cal twitching nervously on the other, they trudged along. From time to time his brother would stop dead in his tracks, as if invisible doors were being slammed in his face.

  "What is it?" Will asked on one of these occasions when his brother refused to move.

  "It's like… anger… and fear," Cal said in a strained voice as he glanced nervously up at the windows over a storefront. "It's so strong. I don't like it."

  "I can't see anything," Will said as he failed to make out what was troubling his brother. They were just ordinary windows, a sliver of light showing between the curtains in one of them. "It's nothing, you're imagining it."

  "No, I'm not. I can smell it," Cal said emphatically, "and it's getting stronger. I want to go."

  After several miles of tortuous ducking and diving, they came to the brow of a hill, at the bottom of which was a busy main road with six lanes of speeding traffic.

  "I recognize this — it's not far now. Maybe a couple of miles, that's all," Will said with relief.

  "I'm not going near it. I can't — not with that stench. It'll kill us," Cal said, backing away from Will.

  "C'mon, don't be stupid," Will said. He was just too tired for any nonsense, and his frustration now turned to anger. "We're so close."

  "No," Cal said, digging in his heels. "I'm staying right here!"

  Will tried to pull the boy's arm, but he yanked it away. Will had been fighting his exhaustion for miles and was still struggling to breathe; he didn't need this. All of a sudden, it became too much for him. He thought he was actually going to break down and cry. It just wasn't fair. He pictured the house and his welcoming clean bed. All he wanted to do was lie down and sleep. Even as he was walking, his body kept going loose, as if he were dropping through a hole into a place where everything was so comforting and warm. Then he would yank himself out of it, back to wakefulness, and urge himself on again.

  "Fine!" Will spat. "Suit yourself!" He set off down the hill, tugging Bartleby by the leash.

  As he reached the road, Will heard his brother's voice over the din of the traffic.

  "Will!" he yelled. "Wait for me! I'm sorry!"

  Cal came hurtling down the hill — Will could see that he was genuinely terrified. He kept jerking his head to look around him, as if he were about to be attacked by some imagined assassin.

  They crossed the road at the lights, but Cal insisted on pressing his hand over his mouth until they were a good distance from it. "I can't take this," he said glumly. "I liked the idea of cars when I was in the Colony… but the brochures didn't say anything about the way they smell."

  * * * * *

  "Got a light?"

  Startled by the voice, they whirled around. They'd stopped for a minute's rest and, as if he had appeared from nowhere, a man was standing very close behind them, a lopsided grin on his face. He wasn't terribly tall, but he was well dressed in a tightly fitting dark blue suit and a shirt and tie. He had long black hair, which he kept stroking back at the temples and tucking behind his ears, as if it was bothering him. "Left mine at home," he continued, his voice deep and rich.

  "Don't smoke, sorry," Will replied, quickly edging away. There was something forced and sleazy in the man's smile, and alarm bells were ringing in Will's head.

  "You boys all right? You look beat. I've got a place you can warm up. Not far from here," the man said ingratiatingly. "Bring your doggy, too, of course." He held out a hand toward Cal, and Will saw that the fingers were stained with nicotine and the fingernails were black with filth.

  "Can we really?" Cal said, returning the man's smile.

  "No… very kind of you, but…," Will interrupted, glaring at his brother but failing to get his attention. The man took a step toward Cal and addressed him, completely ignoring Will, as if he wasn't there.

  "Something hot to eat, too?" he offered.

  Cal was at the point of replying when Will spoke.

  "Must go, our parents are waiting just around the corner. Come on, Cal," he said, a note of urgency creeping into his voice. Cal looked perplexedly at Will, who shook his head, frowning. Realizing that something wasn't quite right, Cal fell into step beside his brother.

  "Shame. Maybe next time?" the man said, his eyes still locked on Cal. He made no move to follow them, but pulled a lighter from his jacket pocket and lit a cigarette. "Be seeing you!" he called after them.

  "Don't you look back," Will hissed through his teeth as he walked rapidly away with Cal in tow. "Don't you dare look back."

  * * * * *

  An hour later they entered Highfield. Will avoided Main Street

  in case he was recognized, taking the back alleys and side roads until they turned onto Broadlands Avenue

  .

  There it was. The house, completely dark, with a real estate agent's sign in the front yard. Will led them around the side and under the carport into the back garden. He kicked over a brick where the spare back-door key had always been hidden and muttered a muted prayer of thanks when he saw it was still there. He unlocked the door, and they took a few wary paces into the dark hallway.

  "Colonists!" Cal said right away, recoiling as he continued to sniff the air. "They've been here… and not long ago."

  "For heaven's sake." It merely smelled a little fusty and unoccupied to Will, but he couldn't be bothered to argue. Not wanting to alert the neighbors, he left the lights off and used his orb to check each room, while Cal remained in the hall, his senses working overtime.

  "There's nothing… no one here at all. Satisfied?" Will said as he returned downstairs. With some consternation, his brother edged farther into the house with Bartleby at his heels, and Will shut and locked the door behind them. He shepherded them into the living room and, making sure the curtains were tightly closed, turned on the television. Then he went into the kitchen.

  The fridge was completely bare except for a tub of margarine and an old tomato, which was green and shrunken. For a moment, Will stared uncomprehendingly at the bare shelves. To him this was unprecedented, confirming just how far things had gone. He sighed as he shut the door and spotted a scrap of lined paper taped to it. It was in Rebecca's precise hand; one of her shopping lists.

  Rebecca! The fury suddenly rose in him. The thought of that imposter masquerading as his sister for all those years made him rigid with anger. She had changed everything. Now he couldn't even think back to the comfortable and predictable life he'd been leading before his father went missing, because she had been there, watching and spying. Her very presence tainted all his memories. Hers was the worst kind of betrayal — she was a Judas sent by the Styx.

  "Evil!" he shouted, tearing off the list, crumpling it up, and slinging it to the floor.

  AS it came to rest on the pristine linoleum that Rebecca had mopped week in and week out with mind-numbing regularity, Will looked at the stopped clock on the wall and sighed. He shuffled over to the sink and filled glasses with water for himself and Cal, and a bowl for Bartleby, then returned to the living room. Cal and the cat were already curled up asleep on the sofa. Cal with his head resting drowsily on his arm. He could see that they were both shivering, so he grabbed a couple of blankets from the beds upstairs and draped them over their slumbering forms. The house didn't have its central heating on and it was cold, but not that cold. He'd been right in thinking that they just weren’t used to these lower temperatures, and made a mental note to sort out some warm clothes for them in the morning.

  Will drank the water quickly and climbed into his mother's chair, wrapping himself in her afghan. His eyes barely registered the death-defying snowboarding stunts on the television as he curled up, precisely as his mother had done for so many years, and fell into the deepest of sleeps.

  32

  Tam stood silent and defiant. He was determined not to show any sign of his trepidation as he and Mr. Jerome faced the long table, their hands clenched behind their backs as if standing at attention.

  Behind the table of highly polished oak sat the Panoply. The
se were the most senior and powerful members of the Styx Council. At either end of the table sat a few high-ranking Colonists: representatives from the Board of the Governors, men that Mr. Jerome had known all his life, men that were his friends. He quaked with shame as he felt the disgrace wash over him, and he couldn't bring himself to look at them. He'd never thought it would come to this.

  Tam was less intimidated; he'd been carpeted before and always managed to get off by the skin of his teeth. Although these allegations were serious, he knew his alibi had passed their scrutiny. Imago and his men had made sure of that. Tam watched as the Crawfly conferred with a fellow Styx and then leaned back to speak to the Styx child who stood half hidden behind the high back of his chair.l Now that was irregular. Their children were usually kept well out of sight and far away from the Colony; the newborn were never seen, while the older offspring, it was said, were closeted away with their with their masters in the rarefied atmosphere of the private schools. He'd never heard of them accompanying their elders in public, let alone being present at meetings such as these.

  Tam's thoughts were interrupted as a scratchy outburst of intense debate ran back and forth through the Panoply. Whispers rippled from one end to the other as skinny hands communicated in a series of harsh gestures. Tam glanced quickly at Mr. Jerome, whose head hung low. He was quietly mumbling a prayer as sweat coursed from his temples. His face was puffy and his skin an unhealthy pink. All this was taking its toll on him.

  The commotion abruptly ceased amid nods and staccato words of agreement, and the Styx settled back in their seats, a chilling silence descending over the room. Tam readied himself. A pronouncement was about to be delivered.

  "Mr. Jerome," the Styx to the left of the Crawfly intoned. "After due consideration and a full and proper investigation" — he fixed his beady pupils on the quivering man — "we will allow you to step down."

 
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