Tunnels 02 deeper, p.3
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       Tunnels 02 - Deeper, p.3

           Roderick Gordon

  A light steam rose from the freight bed, then was immediately whisked away in the slipstream. Will had noticed how it was growing appreciably warmer as the train rocketed on its way. This was barely perceptible at first, but more recently the temperature had soared alarmingly.

  After a while all three of them loosened their shirts and took off their boots and socks. The air was so fierce and dry that they took turns clambering onto the tops of the undamaged fruit crates in an effort to catch a little more of the breeze. Will wondered if this was how it was going to be from now on. Would the Deeps be unbearably hot, like blasts from an open furnace door? It was as though they were on the main line to hell itself.

  His thoughts were soon interrupted as the brakes squealed with such intensity that the boys were forced to cover their ears. The train slowed, then jerked to a complete halt. Several minutes later, from somewhere up ahead, they heard a clanking, and then the resounding crash of metal upon rock. Will quickly pulled himself up to peek over the top and see what was going on.

  It was useless — farther down the tunnel there was a dull red glow, but everything else was masked by lazy shrouds of smoke. Chester and Cal joined Will, craning their necks to see over the tops of the cars. With the engine ticking over, the noise level had now fallen off to almost nothing, and every sound they made, every cough or shuffle of a boot, seemed so remote and tiny. Although it was an opportunity for them to talk, they just glanced at each other, none of them really knowing what to say. In the end, Chester was the first to speak up.

  "See anything?" he asked

  "You look better!" Will said to him. His friend was moving with more confidence and had hoisted himself up next to Will without any difficulty at all.

  "I was just hungry," Chester muttered dismissively, pressing the palm of his hand against an ear as if he was trying to relieve the pressure in it from the unfamiliar quietness.

  There was a shout, a man's deep voice booming from somewhere ahead, and they all froze. It was a salient reminder that they weren't alone on the train. There was, of course, a conductor — possibly accompanied by an assistant driver, as Imago had warned them — and a further Colonist in the guard's car at the rear. These men knew Chester was on board and it would be their job to send him on his way when they arrived at the Miners' Station, but Cal and Will were stowaways and most probably had prices on their heads. They couldn't be discovered, not at any cost.

  The boys exchanged nervous glances, and then Cal pulled himself higher up on the end of the car.

  "Can't see a thing," he said.

  "I'll try over here," Will suggested, and, passing hand over hand, he moved himself to the corner of the car to try to get a better vantage point. Here he squinted down the side of the train, but he couldn't make out anything more through the smoke and darkness. He returned to where the two other boys were perched. "Do you think they're doing a search?" he asked Cal, who merely shrugged and looked anxiously behind them.

  Without the slipstream to cool them, the heat was almost unbearable. "Man, it's sweltering," Chester whispered, blowing through his lips.

  "That's the least of our problems," Will murmured back.

  Then the engine juddered to life again, lurching forward in a series of fits and starts until it was once more under way. The boys remained where they were, hanging doggedly on to the side of the high car, and were soon resubmerged in the thrashing tumult of noise and the soot-heavy smoke.

  Deciding they'd had enough, they jumped down and returned to their blind, although they continued to keep watch from over the tops of the crates. It was Will who spotted the reason why the train had stopped.

  "There!" he shouted, pointing as the train chugged along. Two huge iron doors were opened back against the tunnel walls. They all stood up to see.

  "Storm gates!" Cal yelled at him. "They'll be shut again after us. You'll see."

  Before he'd finished speaking, the brakes squealed and the train began to decelerate. It came to another juddering halt. There was a pause, then they heard the cranking noise again, this time from behind them. It culminated in a percussive thud that made their teeth rattle together and the whole tunnel quake as if there had been a small explosion.

  "Told you, didn't I?" Cal declared smugly in the lull. "They're storm gates."

  "But what are they for?" Chester asked him.

  "To stop the full force of the Levant Wind from reaching the Colony."

  Chester looked at him blankly.

  "You know, the windstorms blowing up from the Interior," Cal answered, adding, "kind of obvious, isn't it?" He rolled his eyes as if he thought Chester's question was absurd.

  "He probably hasn't seen one yet," Will intervened quickly. "Chester, it's like a thick dust that blows up from where we're going, from the Deeps."

  "Oh, right," his friend replied, and turned away.

  Will couldn't help but notice the look of irritation that flickered across his face.

  * * * * *

  As the train began to move at speed again, the boys resumed their positions among the crates. Over the next twelve hours, they went through many more sets of these storm gates. Each time, they kept on the lookout in case one of the Colonists got it into his mind to come back and check on Chester. But no one came, and after each interruption the boys settled back into their routines of eating and sleeping. Aware that sometime soon they would reach the end of the line, Will began to get ready. On top of all the loose light orbs he'd already squirreled away in the two rucksacks, he packed in as much fruit as he could. He had no idea where or when they'd find food once they were in the Deeps, and was determined they'd take all they could with them.

  He'd been in a deep sleep when he was rudely awoken by the sound of a clanging bell. In a state of groggy confusion, his first thought was that it was his alarm clock waking him to get ready for school. He automatically groped over to where his bedside table should have been, but instead of the alarm clock, his fingertips encountered the grit-covered floor of the freight bed. The mechanical urgency of the bell hammered him fully awake, and he jumped to his feet, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. The first thing he saw was Cal frantically putting on his socks and boots as Chester watched him bemusedly. The harsh ringing kept going, echoing off the walls and down the tunnel behind them.

  "C'mon, you two!" Cal bawled at the top of his lungs.

  "Why?" Chester mouthed to Will, who could see the haunted look on his friend's face.

  "This is it! Get ready!" Cal said, securing the flap on his backpack.

  Chester looked at him questioningly.

  "We've got to bail out!" the younger boy yelled at him, gesturing at the front of the train. "Before the station."


  On a train very different from the one carrying her two sons, Sarah was on her way to London. She didn't allow herself to sleep, but for much of the time feigned it, half closing her eyes in order to avoid any contact with the other passengers. The car became increasingly crowded as the train made frequent stops on the final stretch. She felt distinctly uneasy. A man with a mangy beard had boarded at the last of these stops, a wretch in a tartan overcoat, clutching a motley collection of plastic bags.

  She had to be careful. They sometimes passed themselves off as tramps and down-and-outs. All the hollow-cheeked countenance of the average Styx required was several months' growth of facial hair and a generous pasting of filth and it became indistinguishable from those poor unfortunates that can be found in the corners of any city.

  It was a clever ruse, allowing them to man surveillance posts around the busier train stations for days on end, monitoring the passengers passing through. Sarah had lost count of how many times she'd seen vagrants loitering in doorways, and how, from under matted hair, their glassy eyes would probe her with all-seeing black pupils.

  But was this tramp one of them? She watched his reflection in the windows as he produced a can of beer from a grubby shopping bag. He popped it open and began to drink, slopping a good meas
ure of it down his beard. She caught him looking directly at her, and she didn't like his eyes — they were jet-black, and he squinted as if he wasn't quite used to day-light. All ominous signs. But she didn't move to another seat on the train. The last thing she wanted was to draw attention to herself.

  So she gritted her teeth and sat still until the train finally drew into St. Pancras station. She was among the first passengers to disembark and, once through the turnstile, she strolled unhurriedly over to where the kiosks were located. She kept her head bowed to avoid the security cameras dotted around the place, holding a handkerchief to her face when she thought she might be in range of any of them. She stopped and hovered by a shop window, observing the tramp as he crossed the main concourse.

  If he was a Styx, or even one of their agents, far better she remain in a crowd. She weighed her options for escape. She was debating whether she should jump on an outgoing train when, just a few feet away from her, he stopped to fumble with his bags. Then, swearing incoherently at a man who happened to brush against him, he started toward the main doors of the station in a stumbling gait, his arms outstretched as if he were pushing an invisible shopping cart with a bum wheel. He left through the main entrance of the station.

  By now Sarah was almost certain he was a genuine tramp, and she was eager to be on her way. She picked a direction at random, headed off through the crowd, and then slipped out of the station by a side exit.

  Outside, the weather was fine and the London streets were full. Just the way she liked it. It was better to have a healthy throng of people milling around her — safety in numbers. The Styx were less likely to pull anything in front of multiple witnesses.

  She set off at a fair pace, heading north toward Highfield. The rumble of the busy traffic seemed to coalesce into a single continuous beat, which was conducted through the pavement to the soles of her feet, until she could almost feel it resonating in the pit of her stomach. Strangely enough, it put her at ease. It was a comforting and constant vibration, as if the city itself were alive.

  She looked at the new buildings as she went, turning her head away whenever she spotted one of the many security cameras mounted on them. She was astounded by how much had changed even since her first time in London. What was it, almost twelve years ago?

  It is said that time heals. But that depends on what has happened since.

  For so long, Sarah's life had been a featureless and forlorn plain: She felt she hadn't been really alive. Her flight from the Colony was still painfully vivid in her mind.

  Walking the Topsoil city streets now, she found that she couldn’t stem the rush of memories as they flooded back. She began to relive the crushing self-doubt that she'd escaped from one nightmare only to be cast into another, into this alien land where the glare of the sunlight was agonizing and everything was so unfamiliar. Worst of all, she'd been torn apart by the guilt at leaving her children, her two sons, behind.

  But I had no choice. I had to go…

  Her baby, barely a week old, had developed a fever, a horrible, consuming fever that racked the tiny thing with violent shivering fits as it succumbed to the illness. Even now, Sarah could hear its interminable crying and remember how she and her husband had felt so helpless. They'd pleaded with the doctor for some medicine, but he said he didn't have anything he could five them from his black valise. She'd become hysterical, but the doctor merely shook his head dourly, avoiding her eyes. She knew what that shake of his head meant. She knew the truth. In the Colony, medicines such as antibiotics were in permanent short supply. The little that had been stockpiled was for the sole use of the ruling classes, the Styx and maybe a very select band of elite within the Board of Governors.

  There had been another alternative: She'd suggested buying some penicillin on the black market and wanted to ask her brother, Tam, to get hold of some for her. But Sarah's husband was adamant. "I cannot condone such actions" were his words as he stared bleakly at the hapless infant that was growing weaker with every hour. Then he had blathered on about his position in the community and how it was their duty to uphold its values. None of this mattered one jot to Sarah; she just wanted her baby to be well again.

  There was nothing else to do but continually swab the shining red face of the howling infant in an attempt to lower its temperature, and pray. Over the next twenty-four hours, the baby's crying quieted to pathetic little gasps, as if it was all it could do to breathe. It was useless trying to feed it; it made no effort to draw milk. The baby was slipping away from her and there was nothing, absolutely nothing, she could do.

  She thought she might go mad.

  She went into fits of barely suppressed fury and, backing away from the crib into a corner of the room, she would try to hurt herself by frenziedly scratching at her forearms, biting her tongue lest she cry out and disturb the semiconscious child. At other times, she slumped to the floor, overcome by such a deep despair that she prayed she might also die with her child.

  In the final hour, its pale little eyes became glazed and listless. Then, sitting by the crib in the darkened room, Sarah had been roused from her desolation by a sound. It was like a tiny whisper, as if someone were trying to remind her of something. She leaned over the cot. She knew instinctively that she'd heard the final breath leak from the baby's dry lips. It was still. It was over. She'd lifted the child's tiny arm and let it fall back against the mattress. It was like touching some exquisitely made doll.

  But she didn't cry then. Her eyes were dry and resolute. At that very instant, any loyalty she had felt for the Colony, her husband, and the society in which she'd lived her whole life evaporated. And in that instant, she saw everything so clearly, as if a spotlight had been switched on in her head. She knew what she must do, with such conviction that nothing was going to get in her way. She must spare her other two children from the same fate, whatever the cost.

  That same evening, as the body of the dead baby, the child that had no name, lay cooling in its cot, she had thrown a few things into a shoulder bag and grabbed her two sons. While her husband was out making arrangements for the funeral, she left the house with both her boys, heading toward one of the escape routes her brother had once described to her.

  As if the Styx knew her every move, it had very quickly gone wrong and become a game of cat and mouse. While she'd struggled through the warren of ventilation tunnels, they were never far behind. She recalled how she'd stopped for a moment to catch her breath. Leaning against the wall, she cowered in the darkness with a child held under each arm. In her heart of hearts, she knew she had no choice but to leave one of them behind. She wasn't going to make it not with both of them. She recalled her tortured decision at the time.

  But shortly afterward, a Colonist, one of her own people, had stumbled across her. In the frantic tussle that ensued, she had fought the man off, stunning him with a wild blow. Her arm had been badly hurt in the struggle, and there was no question about it anymore.

  She knew what she had to do.

  She left Cal behind. He was barely a year old. She'd gently laid the twitching bundle between two rocks on the grit floor of the tunnel. Etched indelibly into her memory was the image of the child's cocoonlike swaddling, smeared with her own blood. And the noise he was making, the gurgling. She knew it wouldn't be long before he was discovered and returned to her husband, and that he would care for him. A scant consolation. She had resumed her flight with the other son and, more by luck than skill, had somehow eluded the Styx and broken out onto the surface.

  In the small hours of the morning, they had walked down Highfield's Main Street

  , her son on the pavement beside her, a toddler still unsteady on his legs. He was her eldest child and he was called Seth. He was nearly three years old. He had turned this way and that as he gaped at the strange surroundings with wide, frightened eyes.

  She had no money, nowhere to go, and before long the realization hit her that it was going to be a struggle to look after even the one child.

  Hearing people in the distance, she led Seth away from the main thoroughfare and down several streets until she spied a church. Seeking refuge in its overgrown graveyard, mother and son sat on a mossy grave, smelling the night air for the very first time in their lives and looking with awe at the sodium-soaked sky above. Sarah just wanted to shut her eyes for a few minutes, but she feared if she rested for too long, she might not ever get up again. With her head spinning, she summoned all her remaining strength and got to her feet with the aim of finding some food, some water, somewhere they could hide.

  She had tried to explain to her son what she intended to do, how soon she'd be back, but he just wanted to come with her. Poor little confused Seth. The expression on his face, the pure, heartrending incomprehension, was all she could bear as she hastily walked away from him. He clung to the railings around the most commanding tomb in the graveyard, which, strangely enough, had two small stone figures at its apex wielding a pickax and a shovel. Seth called out to her as she went, but she couldn’t turn to look back, her every instinct raking at her, telling her not to go.

  She left the churchyard, heading she knew not where, all the while fighting the dizziness that, with each step, made her feel as though she was walking on rolling pins.

  Sarah didn't remember much after that.

  She'd regained consciousness as something prodded her awake. When she opened her eyes, the light was unbearable. It was so blindingly bright, she could barely make out the face of the concerned woman who stood over her, asking her what was wrong. Sarah found she'd passed out between two parked cars. Shielding her eyes with her hands, she pulled herself to her feet and ran.

  She'd eventually found her way back to Seth, but stopped as she saw figures milling around him, dressed in black. Her first thought had been that they were Styx, but then, through her watering eyes, she had been able to read the word POLICE on the car. She'd slunk away.

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