Tunnels 01 tunnels, p.31
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       Tunnels 01 - Tunnels, p.31

           Roderick Gordon
 

  "Nearly there," the officer said over Chester's shoulder, and Chester knew that he had no alternative but to cooperate. There were going to be no miraculous reprieves, no timely escapes.

  He was dragging his heels so much that he was barely moving at all when the Second Officer gave him such a hefty shove that he was knocked clean off his feet and sent flying through the doorway into the light. Skidding over the stone floor on his front, he came to a rest and lay there, a little stunned.

  The light was all around him, and he was blinking rapidly in its harsh glare. He heard the door slam and, from a rustle of papers, he knew at once there was someone else in the room. He immediately imagined who it — or they — would be: two tall Styx, most likely looming behind a table, just as there'd been during the Dark Light sessions.

  "Stand up," ordered a reedy, nasal voice.

  Chester did so, and slowly raised his eyes to the source. He couldn’t have been more astonished by the sight that greeted him.

  It was a single Styx, and he was wizened and small, his thinning gray hair pulled back at the temples and his face crisscrossed with so many lines and wrinkles that he looked like a bleached raisin. Hunched sharply over a tall desk with a slanted top, he resembled an ancient schoolmaster.

  Chester was completely disarmed by this apparition with the sheer light all around it. This was not what he'd been expecting at all. He was beginning to feel relieved, telling himself that perhaps things were going to turn out better than he'd thought after all, when his eyes met those of the old Styx.

  They were the coldest, darkest eyes Chester had ever seen. They were like two bottomless wells that drew him toward them and by some unnatural and unwholesome power pulled him down into their voids. Chester felt a chill descend over him as if the temperature had plummeted in the room, and he shivered violently.

  The old Styx dropped his eyes to the desk, and Chester swayed unsteadily on his feet, as if he'd been abruptly released from something that had had him in its relentless grip. He let out his breath in a rush, unconscious until now that he'd been holding it in. Then the Styx began to read in a measured tone.

  "You have been found guilty," he said, "under Order Forty-two, Edicts Eighteen, Twenty-four, Forty-two…"

  The numbers went on, but it meant nothing to Chester until the Styx paused and, very matter-of-factly, said the word sentence. Chester really began to listen at this point.

  "The prisoner will be taken from this place and conveyed by train to the Interior, and there be Banished, relinquished to the forces of nature.. So be it," the old Styx finished, clapping his hands and holding them pressed hard together, as if he were wringing something out. Then he slowly raised his head from his papers and said, "May the Lord have mercy on your soul."

  "What… what do you mean?" Chester asked, reeling under the Styx's icy gaze and the implications of what he'd just heard.

  Without needing to consult the papers before him, the Styx simply reiterated the punishment and then fell silent again. Chester grappled with the questions that were racing through his head, moving his lips but emitting no sound at all.

  "Yes?" the old Styx asked, in such a way that suggested he'd been in this situation many times before and found it thoroughly tiresome to have to converse with the lowly prisoner before him.

  "What… what does that mean?" Chester eventually got out.

  The Styx stared at Chester for several seconds and, with total impassivity, said, "Banished. You will be escorted as far as the Miners' Station, many fathoms down, and then left to do as you will."

  "Taken deeper into the earth?"

  The Styx nodded. "We have no need for your kind in the Colony. You attempted to escape, and the Panoply takes a dim view of that. You are not worthy of service here." He clapped his hands together again. "Banished."

  Chester suddenly felt the immense weight of all the millions of tons of dirt and rock above, as if they were pressing directly down on him, squeezing out his lifeblood. He staggered backward.

  "But I've done nothing. I'm not guilty of anything," he cried., holding out his hands and pleading with the emotionless little man. He felt as if he were being buried alive and that he would never again see home, or the blue sky, or his family… everything he loved and yearned for. The hope he had clung to ever since he'd been captured and locked up in that dark room gushed out of him like air from a burst balloon.

  He was doomed.

  This hateful little man didn't give a hoot about him… Chester saw that in the Styx's impassive face and in his frightful eyes — reptilian, inhuman eyes. And Chester knew that there was absolutely no point in trying to persuade him, or beg for his life. These people were savage and merciless, and they had arbitrarily condemned him to the most awful fate: an even deeper grave.

  "But why?" Chester asked, tears wetting his face as he wept openly.

  "Because it is the law," the old Styx answered. "Because I am sitting here, and you are standing there." He smiled without the remotest trace of any warmth.

  "But—" Chester objected with a howl.

  "Officer, take him back to the Hold," the old Styx said, gathering up his papers with his arthritic fingers, and Chester heard the door creak open behind him.

  33

  Will was thrown forward as a fist landed squarely in the middle of his back. Staggering drunkenly for a few steps, he rebounded off the handrail and turned slowly around to face his assailant.

  "Speed?" he said, recognizing the school bully's scowling face.

  "Where've you sprung from, Snowdrop? Thought you'd snuffed it. People said you were dead or something."

  Will didn't reply. He was deep in the insulated cocoon of the unwell; he felt as though he were looking at the world from behind a frosted sheet of glass. It was all Will could do to stand there, his body quivering as Speed pushed his snarling face just inches in front of his. Out of the corner of his eye, Will glimpsed Bloggsy closing in on Cal a little farther down the sloping path.

  They had been on their way to the subway station, and right now a fight was the last thing Will wanted.

  "So where's Fat Boy?" Speed crooned, the moisture on his breath clouding in the cold air. "Bit different without your bodyguard, ain't it, dipstick?"

  "Oi, Speed, check this out, it's Mini Me!" Bloggsy said, looking from Cal to Will and back again. "What's in the bag, gimp?"

  At Will's insistence, Cal had been carrying their dirty Colonists' clothes in one of Dr. Burrows's old expedition duffel bags.

  "Payback time," Speed shouted and simultaneously jabbed a fist in Will's stomach. Winded, Will slumped to his knees and then toppled over, curling up with his arms wrapped protectively around his head as he hit the ground.

  "This is too easy," Speed crowed, and kicked Will in the back several times.

  Bloggsy was making ludicrous whooping noises and crouching in a mock kung-fu-fighting stance as he prodded two fingers at Cal's sunglasses. "Prepare to meet your maker," he said, his other arm drawn back and ready to throw a punch.

  Everything happened too quickly for Will after that. There was a streak of purple and brown lightning as Bartleby landed smack in the middle of Bloggsy's shoulders. The impact knocked the boy away from Cal and sent him tumbling untidily down the slope, the cat still latched onto his back. As Bloggsy came to rest facedown on the ground, he was writhing and trying to use his elbows to beat off the flurry of pearl white canines and barbaric-looking claws, all the while letting out the most awful high-pitched cries and screaming for someone to help.

  "No," Will shouted weakly. "Enough!"

  "Stop it, Bart!" Cal yelled.

  The cat, still on top of Bloggsy, spun his head around to look at Cal, who shouted another command.

  "Sic 'im!" Cal pointed at Speed, who had remained standing over Will through all this, not believing what he was seeing. Speed's jaw dropped, and a look of sheer horror crept over his face. Bartleby fixed his eyes on the new quarry through the bizarre pink sunglasses, the Tibetan hat now sli
ghtly askew on his head. With a loud hiss, he bounded back up the slope toward the startled bully.

  "Call it off! Call it off!" Speed shrieked as he started to run up the path as if his life depended on it — which it did. In the blink of an eye, the cat had caught up with him. Sometimes at his side, sometimes blocking his way, Bartleby circled around him like a playful whirlwind, attacking his ankles and slashing at his thighs though his school pants, lacerating his skin. The terrified boy stumbled and tottered in a spasmodic, comic dance as he frantically tried to escape, his feet sliding hopelessly on the pavement.

  "I'm sorry, Will, I'm sorry! Just get it off me! Please!" Speed was gibbering, his pants reduced to tatters.

  With a look from Will, Cal stuck two fingers into his mouth and whistled. The cat stopped instantly and allowed Speed to run away. Not once did he turn to look back.

  Will glanced past Cal to the bottom of the slope, where Bloggsy had picked himself up and was half running, half falling in his haste to make an escape.

  "I think we've seen the last of them," Cal said with a laugh.

  "Yes," Will agreed faintly as he slowly got to his feet. Wave upon wave of the fever ebbed through him, and he felt as if he was going to pass out again. He could quite happily have lain back down, opened his coat to the cold, and gone to sleep right there and then on the icy sidewalk. The only way Will could get down the remaining stretch of the slope was with Cal supporting him, but they eventually made it to the bottom and into the subway station.

  "So even Topsoilers like to go underground," he said, looking at the dirty old station, long overdue for renovation. His manner was instantly transformed; he seemed genuinely at ease for the first time since they had emerged onto the banks of the Thames — relieved that there was a tunnel around him rather than open sky.

  "Not really," Will said listlessly as he started to feed change into the ticket machine while Bartleby slavered over a lichenlike patch of freshly deposited chewing gum on the tiled floor. Will's shaking fingers fumbled with the coins, then he stopped and leaned against the machine. "It's no use," he gasped. Cal took the change from him and, as Will told him what to do, he finished paying for the tickets.

  Down on the platform, it wasn't long before a train arrived. Once aboard, neither boy spoke. As the southbound train gained speed, Cal watched the cables rippling along the tunnel sides and played with his ticket. Licking his paws, Bartleby was propped on his haunches in the seat next to Cal. There weren't many people in the car, but Cal was aware that they were attracting some pretty curious glances.

  Opposite Cal and Bartleby, Will was sitting slumped against the side of the car, soothed by the chill glass on his temple as his head lolled against the window. Between stops, he drifted in and out of a fitful sleep, and during a period of wakefulness saw that a pair of old women had taken the seats across the aisle from them. Snatches of their conversation drifted into his consciousness and mixed with the platform announcements like voices in a confused dream.

  "Just look at him… disgraceful… feet all over the seats… MIND THE GAP… funny-looking child… LONDON UNDERGROUND APOLOGIZES…"

  Will forced his eyes open and looked at the two women. He realized immediately that it was Bartleby who was the cause of their apparent distress. The one who was doing all the talking had purple-rinsed hair and wore translucent white-framed bifocals that rested crookedly on her poppy red nose.

  "Shhh! They'll hear you," her companion whispered, eyeing Cal. She either had badly dyed hair or was wearing a wig that had seen better days. They both held identical shopping bags on their laps, as if they were some form of defense against the miscreants sitting opposite them.

  "Nonsense! Bet they don't speak a word of English. Probably got here on the back of a truck. I mean, look at the state of their clothes. And that one — he don't look too bright to me. He's probably on drugs or something." Will felt their rheumy eyes linger on him.

  "Send them all back, I say."

  "Yes, yes," the old ladies said in unison, and with a mutual nod of agreement fell to discussing, in morbid detail, the ill health of a friend. Cal glowered furiously at them while they gabbled away, now apparently too preoccupied to pay further attention to anyone else. The train came to a stop, and as the old ladies were getting up from their seats Cal lifted the ear flap of Bartleby's Tibetan hat and whispered something into his ear. Bartleby suddenly reared up and hissed in their faces so forcefully that Will was shocked from is feverish stupor.

  "Well, I never!" the red-nosed woman cried out, dropping her shopping bag. While she retrieved it, her companion bustled and pushed her from behind, trying to hurry her up.

  In a flap, both women stuggled off the train, shrieking.

  "Horrid urchins!" the red-nosed lady huffed from the platform. "You blasted animals!" she screamed through the doors as they slid shut.

  The train moved out, and Bartleby kept his eyes fixed demonically on the flustered twosome as they stood on the platform, still puffing with indignation.

  His curiosity getting the better of him, Will leaned over to his brother.

  "Tell me… what did you say to Bartleby?" he asked.

  "Oh, nothing much," Cal replied innocently, smiling proudly at his cat before he turned to look out the window again.

  * * * * *

  Will was dreading the last half-mile to the housing projects. He staggered along like a sleepwalker, resting whenever it became too much for him.

  When they finally reached the apartment building, the elevator was out of order. Will peered into the grafitti-strafed grayness with quiet desperation. That was the last straw. He sighed and, steeling himself for the climb, stumbled toward the squalid stairwell. After a stop on each landing to allow him to catch his breath, they eventually reached the right floor and made their way through the obstacle course of discarded garbage bags.

  There was no response when Cal rang the bell, so he had resorted to hammering on the door with his fist when Auntie Jean suddenly opened it. She clearly hadn't been up for long — she looked as tired and crumpled as the moth-eaten overcoat she'd evidently been asleep in.

  "What is it?" she said indistinctly, rubbing the nape of her neck and yawning. "I didn't order nothing, and I don't buy nothing from salesmen."

  "Auntie Jean, it's me… Will," he said; the blood drained from his head and the image of his aunt blanched, as if all the colors had been washed out of it.

  "Will," she said vaguely, and cut another yawn short as it sank in. "Will!" She lifted her head and eyed him disbelievingly. "Thought you'd gone missing." She peered at Cal and Bartleby, adding, "Who's this?"

  "Uh… cousin…," Will gasped as the floor began to tip and sway, and he was forced to take a step forward to steady himself against the doorjamb. He was aware of the cold sweat trickling from his scalp. "…south… from down south."

  "Cousin? Didn't know you—"

  "Dad's," Will said huskily.

  She surveyed Cal and Bartleby with suspicion and not a little distaste. "Your 'orrid sister was 'ere, you know." She glanced past Will. "Is she wiv you?"

  "She…," Will began to say in a shaky voice.

  "Cos the little brat owes me money. Should've seen what she did to my—"

  "She's not my sister, she's a vile… scheming… evil… she's a…" With that, Will keeled over in a dead faint before a very surprised Auntie Jean.

  * * * * *

  Cal stood at the window of the darkened room. He peered down at the streets below, with their dotted lines of amber lampposts and sweeping cones of car headlights. Then, with foreboding, he slowly raised his head and looked up at the moon, its shining silver spread out against the icy sky. Not for the first time he struggled to grasp, to comprehend, the vast space that yawned before him, the likes of which he'd never before seen in his life. He gripped the windowsill, barely able to control the mounting sense of dread. The soles of his feet clenched involuntarily and almost ached with vertigo.

  On hearing his brother moan, C
al tore his eyes from the window and went to sit by the shivering form that was stretched out on the bed with just a sheet over it.

  "How's 'e doing, then?" Cal heard Auntie Jean's anxious voice as she appeared in the doorway.

  "He's a little better today. I think he's cooling down a bit," Cal said as he doused a washcloth in a bowl of water clunking with ice cubes and dabbed it to Will's forehead.

  "Do you want to get someone in to see 'im?" Auntie Jean asked. "'E's been like this for a long time."

  "No," Cal said firmly. "He said he didn't want that."

  "Don't blame 'im, don't blame 'im at all. I've never 'ad no time for quacks — or them shrinks, neither, for that matter. Once your in their clutches, there's no telling what—" She stopped short as Bartleby, who had been curled up asleep in the corner, woke with a protracted yawn, then ambled over and started to lap at the water in the bowl.

  "Stop that, you stupid cat!" Cal said, pushing him away.

  "'E's just thirsty," Auntie Jean said, then assumed the most preposterous baby voice. "Poor puss, are you a liccle firsty?" She took hold of the astounded animal by the scruff of his neck and began to lead him toward the door. "You come with Mummy for a treat."

  * * * * *

  A lava flow moves portentously in the distance, its heat so fierce on Will's exposed skin that he can hardly bear it. Silhouetted by the vertical wall of streaming crimson behind him, Dr. Burrows frantically indicates something sprouting out of a massive slab of granite. He shouts excitedly, as he always does when he makes a discovery, but Will isn't able to catch the words due to the deafening white noise intercut with the cacophonous babble of many voices, as if someone is randomly scanning the airwaves on a damaged radio.

  The scene shifts into close-up. Dr. Burrows is using a magnifying glass to examine a thin stalk with a bulbous tip that rises a foot and a half or so out of the solid rock. Will sees his father's lips moving, but can only understand brief snatches of what he is saying.

 
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