Tunnels 02 deeper, p.30
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       Tunnels 02 - Deeper, p.30
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           Roderick Gordon

  He closed and opened his eyes, trying to make out something, anything, but there was nothing. Even the blackest night up on the surface had some tiny trace of light, but not down here — this darkness was absolute. And it played tricks on you, giving you hope. False hope.

  He moved along the wall, feeling its now all-too-familiar roughness with his fingers, inching forward until he became impatient and tried to move too quickly. His foot snagged against some obstacle and he pitched forward, tumbling down an incline. He came to rest with his face against the loose surface of the ground, breathing hard.

  If he allowed himself to think for too long about his situation… Here he was, more than five miles below the surface of the earth, alone and frightened and hopelessly lost.

  Every new second in this oblivion was as vital and terrifying as the last, and it seemed to him that millions of these seconds now stretched out behind him. He'd been separated from Drake and the others for what he estimated was at least a day. It could very well have been longer. In truth, he hadn't a clue how long he'd been in these endless tunnels, but if his parched throat was anything to go by, then it had to be at least twenty-four hours. The only thing he was certain of was that he'd never been so horribly thirsty before, not in his whole life.

  He got up and reached for the wall. His outstretched fingers encountered nothing but warm air. He immediately pictured himself on the brink of a huge precipice and was beset by a wave of vertigo. He took another reluctant step. The floor didn't feel level to him, but he couldn't even be sure of this anymore. He'd reached a point where he was struggling to tell whether the ground was banked or whether it was he who was at an angle. He was beginning to distrust even his remaining senses.

  His vertigo became worse, and he felt sick. He tried to regain his balance by raising his arms. After a few moments of holding his position, like some lopsided scarecrow, he began to feel a little more confident. He took a few tentative steps, but there was still no sign of the wall. He shouted, listening to the echoes.

  He had fallen into a larger space — that much he could tell from the reverberations — perhaps he was at the junction of several tunnels. He tried desperately to contain his rising panic, his shallow, hissed breaths and his heartbeat thumping in his ears in mismatched tempos. Relentless waves of dread swept through his body and he shivered uncontrollably, not sure whether he was hot or cold.

  How had it come to this? The question knocked fitfully around his head, like a moth in a killing jar.

  He summoned all his courage and took another step. Still no wall. He clapped his hands together and listened to the sound reverberating. The report proved conclusively that he was indeed in something with larger dimensions than just a tunnel — he just hoped it didn't mean there was a chasm waiting for him in the darkness. His head swam again. Where are the walls? I've even lost the walls!

  A fury rose up in him, and he bit his teeth together so hard they creaked. Clenching his fists, he made an inhuman noise, somewhere between a growl and a scream, but sounding like neither. He tried to order his feelings, finding that he couldn't stifle the anger and self-contempt.

  Idiot! IDIOT! IDIOT!

  It was as though the gruff voice in his head had won the day, pushing aside any hope that he was going to get through this. He was a fool and deserved to die. He started to blame the others, particularly Chester and Elliott, shouting obscenities at the, at the hushed walls that must have been around him, wanting so much to hurt something, to inflict pain. There, in the anonymity of the blackness, he started to thump himself, striking the tops of his thighs with his fists. Then he punched himself on the side of the head, the pain producing a certain stinging clarity, which brought him to his senses.

  NO, I AM BETTER THAN THIS! I must keep going. He sank down onto his knees and crawled, probing in front of him with his fingertips for any gap, any void, checking and rechecking that he wasn't about to plunge blindly into a crevasse. He touched up against something. The wall! With a sigh of relief, he stood up slowly and, hugging it, began the tedious slow-stepping again.

  30

  Over the next few hours, the Miners' Train went through several more sets of the storm gates Rebecca had referred to.

  The first warning Sarah had that they were coming to their destination was a clanging bell, followed by the loud wailing of the train's whistle. The train began to apply its brakes and screeched to a final halt. The side doors of the carriage were heaved back on their rollers, and there was the Miners' Station, lights burning wanly in its windows.

  "All change," Rebecca announced, with a suggestion of a smile. As Sarah leaped down from the carriage and stretched her stiff legs, she saw that a delegation of Styx was hurriedly making its way over.

  Clutching her satchel, Rebecca told Sarah to remain by the train and went over to meet the delegation. There were at least a dozen of them, walking with such haste that they raised a cloud of dust in their wake. Sarah recognized one among their number — the old Styx who had accompanied her in the carriage the day she had returned to the Colony.

  Sarah's old habits kicked in and she made use of the time to make a mental note of the number and location of the personnel on the ground. She would need to know the lay of the land if the opportunity to escape presented itself.

  Other than the various Limiters dotted around the place, there was a troop of soldiers from the Styx Division, immediately distinguishable due to the green camouflage of their uniforms. But why would they be down here? she wondered. They were a very long way from home. She estimated that the troop numbered about forty, and around half of them were attending to their weapons, which included mortars and several large caliber guns. The remainder of the soldiers were mounted on horses and seemed about to leave. Horses! In the Deeps?

  She turned her attention to the layout of the cavern, scanning the gantries and walkways overhead. She tried to identify ways in or out of the cavern, but soon gave this up — it was impossible to pick out much in the gloomy darkness that cloaked the perimeter.

  Already beginning to perspire heavily inside the Limiters' fatigues, she realized how much hotter it was down here. As she drew the dry air into her lungs, everything smelled burnt to her, scorched. The environment was so new and unfamiliar, but she was confident she could acclimatize, just as she'd done when she'd gone Topsoil.

  She picked up a movement to the right of the station buildings. She could just about make out six or seven men who were standing still in an untidy line, partially hidden by stacks of crates. She guessed these were Colonists from their civilian clothing. To a man, their heads were bowed as a Limiter stood guard, his rifle trained on them. Sarah found this rather unnecessary, since their hands and feet were shackled together with heavy chains. They weren't about to go anywhere.

  Sarah could only think that they must have been Banished. Nevertheless, it was highly unusual for such a sizable group of men to be exiled simultaneously, unless there had been some sort of organized revolt that the Styx had quashed. She was just beginning to wonder whether she was going to be thrown in with these prisoners, when she heard Rebecca's voice.

  The Styx girl was showing the Topsoil newspapers to the old Styx, who was nodding imperiously as the delegation stood by. Sarah began to think that all this interest in the headlines — presumably about the Topsoiler disease — had to amount to more than just the Styx's surveillance of current affairs up there. Particularly in light of Joseph's slip of the tongue back in the Garrison about a major operation in London. Yes, there was more to this than she had first thought.

  The newspapers were passed to the rest of the party and, as the meeting went on, the old Styx seemed to be doing all the talking, in their scratchy and indecipherable language. Then Sarah caught Rebecca's voice.

  "Yes!" the girl exclaimed quite distinctly and full of youthful glee, raising her forearm inn a victorious gesture. Then the old Styx turned to another in the party, who opened a small valise and handed Rebecca something from it. She careful
ly held it up before her as the entourage looked on.

  They all fell silent. Sarah couldn't see precisely what was there, but from the way it glinted briefly in the light, it appeared that Rebecca was looking at two small objects made of a glasslike material.

  Rebecca and the old Styx exchanged a significant glance. Then the meeting came to an abrupt end as the old Styx issued an order and, flanked by the rest of the delegation, swept away in the direction of the station buildings.

  Rebecca swiveled at the hips to face the lone Styx standing guard over the shackled prisoners. She gave him a sign, spreading the fingers of her hand as if she was shooing someone away. The guard immediately barked at the prisoners, and they began to shamble off, heading toward a far corner of the cavern.

  Sarah watched as Rebecca strolled back toward her, holding the two objects aloft.

  "What's their story?" Sarah asked her, indicating the prisoners, now barely visible as they moved into shadow.

  "Oh, nothing…" Rebecca said, then added a little vaguely, as if distracted, "we don't need any more guinea pigs, not now."

  "And I see the Division has brought some pretty heavy duty hardware with them," Sarah ventured, as a couple of the mounted troops towed away the first of the guns.

  But Rebecca wasn't interested in Sarah's questions. Flicking her hair back, she raised the objects to head height.

  "For this is Dominion," Rebecca intoned in a low voice. "And Dominion will ensure that justice is returned to the righteous, and the upright in heart will follow it."

  Sarah saw that the objects were two small phials filled with a clear fluid, and that their tops were sealed with wax. They both had thin cords attached to them, so that Rebecca could let them dangle from her hands.

  "Something important?" Sarah inquired.

  Rebecca was distant, her eyes glazed with a kind of dreamy euphoria as she contemplated the phials.

  "Something to do with the Ultra Bug in the newspapers?" Sarah ventured further.

  The smallest glimmer of a smile played on the Styx girl's lips.

  "Could be," she teased. "Our prayers are about to be answered."

  "So you're going to use another germ against the Topsoilers?"

  "Not just another germ. We were only warming up with the Ultra Bug, as they chose to call it. This" — she shook the phials — "is the real McCoy, as they say." Rebecca beamed.

  Before Sarah could respond, the Styx girl had whirled around and was striding away.

  Sarah didn't know what to think. She had no love for Topsoilers, but it didn't take a great leap of the imagination to figure out that the Styx were brewing up something terrible for them. She knew that the Styx wouldn't think twice before spreading death and destruction if it meant achieving their aims. But she wasn't going to let any of this distract her — there was only one thing she had to do and that was catch up with Will Burrows. She was going to find out if he was to blame for Tam's death. It was family business, and she couldn't let anything get in the way of it.

  "We're up. Get moving," one of the Limiters snapped at Sarah's back, making her start. It was the first time any of them had spoken a word directly to her.

  "Um… did… did you say we?" she stammered, taking a step away from the four Limiters. As she did so, she heard a scrabbling by her feet and looked down.

  "Bartleby!"

  The cat had appeared from nowhere. Twitching his whiskers, he gave a low, uncertain meow, then lowered his muzzle to the ground and sniffed deeply, several times. He pulled up his broad head sharply, his nose coated with the fine black dust that seemed to be everywhere. He obviously didn't like the dust because he rubbed his face with his paw, making loud snuffling noises. All of a sudden he gave an enormous sneeze.

  "Bless you," Sarah said before she could stop herself. She was delighted to have him back. It was as though she now had the company of an old friend on her quest — somebody she could trust.

  "Get going!" another of the Limiters scowled, jabbing his thin finger toward the far area of the chamber beyond the stationary engine, which was puffing out copious clouds of steam. "Now!"

  Sarah hesitated for a moment, the dead eyes of the four soldiers on her. Then she nodded and took a reluctant step in the direction they had indicated. Well… if you sell your soul to the devil… she thought wryly. She had chosen her path, and she had to stick to it.

  So, with the shadowy figures following behind, Sarah resigned herself to her lot and began to walk more briskly, the cat at her heels.

  Besides, what alternative did she have, with these ghouls breathing down her neck?

  31

  The hours passed. Will's forehead and the small of his back were sopping with a sticky sweat, from both the heat around him and the unrelenting waves of fear that he fought so hard to stave off. His throat was parched; he could feel the dust sticking to his tongue but couldn't summon up enough saliva to wet it.

  The dizziness returned, and he was forced to stop as the floor yawned under his feet. He sagged against the wall, opening and closing his mouth like a drowning man, mumbling to himself. With an immense effort, he straightened up and rubbed his eyes hard with his knuckles, the pressure bringing vague bursts of brilliance that helped to ease his nerves. But it was only a brief respite. The darkness immediately flooded back.

  Then, as he'd done so many times before, he squatted down and began to check the contents of his pants pockets. It was an exercise in pure futility, a ritual that would achieve nothing, because he knew by heart precisely what was contained in them — though he kept praying he'd missed something he could use, however insignificant.

  First he tugged out his handkerchief and spread it flat on the ground before him. Then he took out the other items and laid them by touch on the cloth square. He arranged his pocketknife, a pencil stub, a button, a piece of string, and some other useless oddments, and, lastly, the dead flashlight. There in the dark, he handled each item, feeling it with his fingertips as if by some miracle it might suddenly prove to be his salvation. He gave a short, disappointed laugh.

  This was ridiculous.

  What did he think he was doing?

  Nevertheless he gave his pockets a last check, just in case he'd missed anything. They were inevitably empty, except for some dust and grit. He hissed with disappointment, then girded himself for the final part of the ritual. He picked up the flashlight, cradling it in both hands.

  Please, please, please!

  He slid the switch.

  Absolutely nothing. Not even a suggestion, not even a glimmer of light.

  No!

  It had failed him again. He wanted to hurt it, to make it suffer just as he was suffering. He wanted it to feel pain.

  With a rush of anger, he drew his arm back to throw the useless object, then sighed and stopped himself. He couldn’t bring himself to do it. He growled with frustration and stuffed the light back into his pocket. Then he bundled the remaining items together in his handkerchief and replaced them as well.

  Why, oh why, didn't I just take one of the light orbs? I could have so easily.

  It would have been such a small thing to have done, and yet it would have made a world of difference to him right now. He began to think about his jacket. If only he'd had the sense to keep it on. He pictured where he'd left it, draped over the top of his rucksack. His lantern had been clipped to it, and in its pockets had been another flashlight and a box of matches, not to mention several orbs.

  If only… if only…

  Those simple objects would have been so vitally important to him now.

  "YOU STUPID FOOL!" he began to yell, urging himself on in a rasping croak and cursing the blackness all around him, calling it every name under the sun. Then he fell silent, imagining he could see something creeping slowly across his field of vision. Was that a light, a flicker of light to his right?

  What? No, there, yes, in the distance, a glow, yes, a light, a way out? Yes!

  His heart racing, he moved toward it, only to trip o
n the uneven surface and fall once again. Standing up quickly, he searched for it, peering frantically into the velvety blackness.

  It's gone. Where was it?

  The light, if there ever had been one, was no longer there.

  How long can I go on like this? How long before I… He felt his legs tremble as his breath deserted him.

  "I'm too young to die," he said aloud, realizing for the first time in his life what those words really meant. He felt as if he'd been winded. He began to sob. He had to rest, and dropped to his knees. Then he bent forward, feeling the grit beneath his palms. This isn't right. I don't deserve this.

  He tried to swallow, but his throat was so dry and swollen that he couldn't. He bent even farther forward until his forehead rested against the sharp grit. Were his eyes open or closed? There was no difference; small spots of colored light, swirling reticulations, massed together into smears, dancing before him, confusing him. But he knew it wasn't real.

  He stayed in that position, panting, his head against the ground, and for some reason a vision of his Topsoil mother reared up before him. It was so crystal clear that, for an instant, he felt as if he'd been transported somewhere else. Mrs. Burrows was reclining in front of a television in a sun-filled room. The vision wavered and was replaced by the image of his father in a very different place, somewhere deep in the earth, wandering carelessly along and whistling through his teeth in that high-pitched way he always did.

  Next he saw Rebecca, as he'd seen her a thousand times before. She was in the kitchen, preparing dinner for the whole family — a task she'd do every night — a sort of constant in his life that seemed to be present in even his earliest memories.

  As if a film had jumped its sprockets, he saw her smiling evilly while she paraded herself in the black-and-white uniform of the Styx.

  Witch! Treacherous, lying witch! She had betrayed him, betrayed his family. This was all her fault.

 
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