Tunnels 01 tunnels, p.32
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       Tunnels 01 - Tunnels, p.32

           Roderick Gordon
 

  "… a plant… literally digests rock… silicon-based… reacts to stim— … observe…"

  The image cuts to extreme close-up. Between two fingers, Dr. Burrows plucks the gray stalk from the rock. Will feels uneasy as he sees it writhe in his father's hand and shoot out two needlelike leaves that entwine around his fingers.

  "…gripping me like iron… feisty little…," Dr. Burrows says, frowning.

  There are no more words, they are replaced by laughter, but his father seems to be screaming as he tries to shake the thing off, its leaves piercing his hand and threading straight through the flesh of his pam and wrist and carrying on up his forearm, the skin bruising, bruising and bursting open and becoming smeared with blood as they twist, interweaving in a snakelike waltz. They cut tighter and tighter into his forearm, like two possessed wires. Will tries to reach out to his father, to help him as he battles hopelessly against this horrific attack, as he fights his own arm.

  "No, no… Dad… Dad!"

  * * * * *

  "It's all right, Will, it's all right," came his brother's voice from a long way away.

  The lava flow was gone. In its place was a shaded lamp, and he could feel the soothing coolness of the washcloth Cal was pressing against his forehead. He sat up with a start.

  "It's Dad! What happened to Dad?" he cried, and looked around wildly, unsure of where he was.

  "You're all right," Cal said. "You were dreaming."

  Will slumped back against the pillows, realizing he was lying in bed in a narrow room.

  "I saw him. It was all so clear and real," Will said, his voice breaking. He couldn't stem the flood of tears that suddenly filled his eyes. "It was Dad. He was in trouble."

  "It was just a nightmare." Cal spoke softly, averting his eyes from his brother, who was now sobbing silently.

  "We're at Auntie Jean's, aren't we?" Will said, pulling himself together as he saw the floral wallpaper.

  "Yes, we've been here for nearly three days."

  "Huh?" Will tried to sit up again, but it was too much for him; he rested his head back against the pillow once more. "I feel so weak."

  "Don't worry, everything's fine. Your aunt's been great. Taken quite a shine to Bart, too."

  * * * * *

  Over the ensuing days, Cal nursed Will back to health with bowls of soup or baked beans on toast and seemingly endless cups of oversugared tea. Auntie Jean's sole contribution to his convalescence was to perch at the foot of his bed and burble on incessantly about the "old days", though Will was so exhausted he fell asleep before she could bore him senseless.

  When Will finally felt strong enough to stand, he tested his legs by trying to walk up and down the length of the small bedroom. As he hobbled around with some difficulty, he noticed something lying discarded behind a box of old magazines.

  He stooped down and picked up two objects. Shards of broken glass dropped to the floor. He recognized the pair of buckled silver frames right away. They were the ones Rebecca had kept on her bedside table. Looking at the photograph of his parents, and then the one of himself, he slumped back onto the bed, breathing heavily. He was distraught. He felt as though someone had stuck a knife into him and was very slowly twisting it. But what did he expect from her? Rebecca wasn't his sister, and never had been. He remained on the bed for some time, staring blankly at the wall.

  A little later he got to his feet again and staggered down the hall into the kitchen. Dirty plates sat in the sink, and the garbage bin was overflowing with empty cans and torn microwave-ready food boxes. It was a scene of such carnage that he barely registered the plastic tops of the faucet, melted and brown, and the flame-blackened tiles behind them. He grimaced and turned back into the hall, where he heard Auntie Jean's gruff voice. Its tones were vaguely comforting, reminding him of the holidays when she would come to visit, chatting to his mother for hours on end.

  He stood outside the door and listened as Auntie Jean's knitting needles rattled away furiously while she spoke.

  "Dr. bloomin' Burrows… soon as I laid eyes on 'im, I warned my sister… I did, you know… you don't want to be getting 'itched to some overeducated layabout… I mean, I ask you, what good's a man who grubs around in 'oles in the ground when there's bills to pay?"

  Will peered around the corner as Auntie Jean's needles stopped their metronomic clicking and she took a sip from a tumbler. The cat was looking adoringly at Auntie Jean, who looked back at him with an affectionate, almost loving, smile. Will had never seen this side of her before — he knew he should say something to announce his presence, but somehow he couldn't bring himself to break the moment.

  "I tell you, it's nice to 'ave you 'ere. I mean, after my little Sophie passed on… she was a dog and I know you don't much like them… but at least she was there for me… that's more than you can say for any man I met."

  She held up her knitting in front of her, a garishly colored pair of pants, which Bartleby sniffed curiously. "Nearly done. In just a mo' you can try 'em on for size, my lovely." She leaned over and tickled Bartleby under the chin. He lifted his head and, closing his eyes, began to purr with the amplitude of a small engine.

  Will turned to make his way back to the bedroom and was resting against the wall in the hallway when there was a crash behind him. Cal was standing just inside the front door, two bags of dropped shopping spilling open in front of him. He had a scarf wrapped around his mouth and was wearing Mrs. Burrows's sunglasses. He looked like the Invisible Man.

  "I can't take much more of this," he said, squatting down to retrieve the groceries. Bartleby padded out from the living room, followed by Auntie Jean, a cigarette perched on her lip. The cat was wearing his newly knitted pants and mohair cardigan, both a strident mix of blues and reds, topped off with a multicolored balaclava from which his scabby ears stuck comically. Bartleby looked like the survivor of an explosion in a Salvation Army shop.

  Cal glanced at the outlandish creature before him, taking in the shocking display of colors, but didn't comment. He appeared to be in the depths of despondency. "This place is full of hate — you can smell it everywhere." He shook his head slowly.

  "Oh, it is that, love," Auntie Jean said quietly. "Always 'as been."

  "Topsoil isn't what I expected," Cal said. He thought for a moment. "And I can't go home… can I?"

  Will stared back as he searched for something to say to console his brother, some form of words to quell the boy's anxiety, but he was unable to utter a word.

  Auntie Jean cleared her throat, bringing the moment to an end.

  "Suppose this means you're all going?"

  As she stood there in her scruffy old coat, Will saw for the first time how very vulnerable and frail she seemed.

  "I think we are," he admitted.

  "Righto," she said hollowly. She put her hand on Bartleby's neck, tenderly caressing the loose flaps of his skin with her thumb. "You know you're all welcome 'ere — anytime you want." Her voice became choked, and she turned quickly away from them. "And do bring kitty back wiv you." She shuffled into the kitchen, where they could hear her trying to stifle her sobs as she rattled a bottle against glass.

  * * * * *

  Over the next few days, they planned and planned. Will felt himself growing stronger as he recovered from the illness, his lungs clearing and his breathing returning to normal. They went on shopping expeditions: an army surplus shop yielded gas masks, climbing rope, and a water bottle for each of them; they bought some olf flash camera units in a pawnshop; and, since it was the week after Guy Fawkes's night, several large boxes of remaindered fireworks for the local deli. Will wanted to make sure they were ready for any eventuality, and anything that gave off a bright light might come in useful. They stocked up on food, choosing lightweight but high-energy provisions so as not to weigh themselves down. After the kindness his aunt had shown them, Will felt bad that he was dipping into her grocery money to pay for it all, but he didn’t have any alternative.

  They waited until lunchti
me to leave Highfield. They donned their now-clean Colonists' clothes and said their good-byes to Auntie Jean, who gave Bartleby a tearful cuddle; then they took the bus into central London and walked the rest of the way to the river entrance.

  34

  Cal was still pressing a handkerchief to his face and muttering about the "foul gases" as they left Blackfriars Bridge and took the steps down to the Embankment. Everything looked so different in the daylight that for a moment Will had doubts they were even in the right place. With people bustling all around them on the walkway, it all seemed so fanciful to suppose that somewhere below them was an abandoned and primitive London, and that the three of them were going to go back down there.

  But they were in the right place, and it was only a short walk to the entrance of that strange other world. They stood by the gate and peered down, watching the brown water lapping lazily below.

  "Looks deep," Cal remarked. "Why's it like that?"

  "Duh!" Will groaned, thumping his palm against his forehead. "The tide! I didn't think of the tide. We'll just have to wait for it to go out."

  "How long will that be?"

  Will shrugged, checking his watch. "I don't know. Could be hours."

  There was no alternative but to kill time by pacing the backstreets around the Tate Modern and return to the bank every so often to check the water, trying not to attract too much attention in the process. By lunchtime they could see the gravel breaking through.

  Will decided they couldn't hang around any longer. "OK, all systems go!" he announced.

  They were in full view of many passersby on their lunch breaks, but hardly anyone took any notice of the motley-looking trio, eccentrically dressed and laden with backpacks, as they clambered over the wall and onto the stone steps. Then an old man in a woolly hat and matching scarf spotted them and began to shout, "Ruddy kids!" wagging his fist furiously at them. One or two people gathered around to see what the fuss was all about, but they quickly lost interest and moved on. This seemd to dampen the old man's outrage, and he, too, shuffled off, muttering loudly to himself.

  At the bottom of the steps, the water splashed up around the boys' legs as they galloped with all their might along the partially submerged foreshore, only letting up when they were out of sight under the jetty. Without any hesitation, Cal and Barleby clambered into the mouth of the drainage tunnel.

  Will paused for a moment before following. He took a last lingering look at the pale gray sky through the gaps in the planking and inhaled deeply, savoring his last breaths of fresh air.

  Now that he'd recovered his strength, he felt like a completely different person — he was prepared for whatever lay ahead. As if the fever had purged him of any doubts or weaknesses, he was feeling the resigned assurance of the seasoned adventurer. But as he lowered his eyes to the slow-moving river, he experienced the deepest pang of loss and melancholy, aware that he might never see this place again. Of course, he didn't have to go through with it, he could stay here if he chose, but he knew it would never be the same as before. Too much had changed, things that could never be undone.

  "Come on," he said, shaking himself from his thoughts and entering the tunnel, where Cal was waiting for him, impatient to get going. With a single glance, Will could read conflicting emotions in his brother's face: Although the anxiety was plain to see, there was also a hint of something else, a deep sense of relief brought about by the promise of an imminent return to the underworld. It was his home, after all.

  Although the circumstances had forced his hand, Will reflected on what a terrible mistake it had been to bring Cal with him to the surface. Cal would need time to adjust to Topsoil life — and that was one luxury they didn't have. Like it or not, Will's destiny lay in rescuing Chester and finding his father. And Cal's destiny was inextricably bound to his.

  It irked Will that he'd lost so many days to the fever — he had no idea if he was too late to save Chester. Had he already been exiled to the Deeps or come to some unimaginable end at the hands of the Styx? Whatever the truth might be, he had to find out. He had to go on believing Chester was still alive; he had to go back. He could never live with that hanging over him.

  They found the vertical shaft, and Will reluctantly lowered himself into the pool of freezing water below it. Cal climbed onto Will's shoulders so he could reach the shaft, then shimmied up it, trailing a rope behind him. When his brother was safely at the top, Will knotted the other end of the rope around Bartleby's chest, and Cal began to hoist him up. This proved to be completely unnecessary because, once in the vent, the animal used his sinewy legs to scrabble up with startling agility. Then the rope was dropped for Will, who hauled himself into the shadows above. Once there, Will jumped up and down to shake off the water and warm himself.

  Then they slid down the convex ramp on the seats of their pants, landing with a thump on the ledge that marked the beginning of the rough stairs. Before proceeding, they carefully removed Bartleby's knitted clothes and left them on a high ledge — they couldn't afford to carry any dead weight now. Will didn't really have any idea what he was going to do once they were back in the Colony, but he knew he had to be completely practical… he had to be like Tam.

  The boys put on their army surplus gas masks, looked at each other for a moment, nodded an acknowledgment, and with Cal leading the way they began the long descent.

  * * * * *

  The going was arduous at first, the stairs hazardous from the constantly seeping water and, farther down, the carpet of black algae. With Cal taking the lead, Will found he had very little recollection of their previous passage through, realizing that this must have been because the mysterious illness had already gotten a hold on him by then.

  In what seemed like no time at all, they had arrived at the opening to the cavern wall of the Eternal City.

  "What the heck is this? " Cal exclaimed the moment they walked out onto the top of the huge flight of steps, their eyes quickly sweeping down its dark course. Something was very wrong. Approximately a hundred feet below, the steps vanished from view.

  "That's what I believe they call a real pea souper," Will said quietly, his glass eyepieces glinting with the pale green glow.

  From their vantage point high above the city, they looked out on what appeared to be the undulating surface of a huge opaline lake. The thickest of fogs covered the entire scene, suffused by an eerie light, as if it were one immense radioactive cloud. It was very daunting to think that the vast extent of the huge city lay obscured beneath this opaque blanket. Will automatically scrabbled in his pockets for the compass.

  "This is going to make life a little difficult," he remarked, frowning behind his mask.

  "Why?" Cal retorted. His eyes crinkled behind his eyepieces as a broad smile spread across his face. "They won't be able to see us in all that, will they?"

  But Will's demeanor remained grim. "True, but we won't see them, either."

  Cal held Bartleby still while Will tied a rope leash around his neck. They couldn't risk him wandering off under these conditions.

  "You'd better hold on to my backpack so you don't get lost. And whatever you do, don't let go of that cat," Will urged his brother as they took their first steps in the fog, descending slowly into it, like deep-sea divers sinking beneath the waves. Their visibility was immediately reduced to no more than a foot and a half — they couldn't even see their boots, making it necessary to feel for the edge of each step before venturing to the next.

  Thankfully they reached the bottom of the stairway without incident, and at the start of the mud flats they repeated the black-weed ritual, wiping the stinking goo all over each other, this time to mask the Topsoil smells of London.

  Traversing the edge of the marshland, they eventually bumped into the city wall and followed it around. If anything, the visibility was getting even worse, and it took them forever to find a way in.

  "An archway," Will whispered, stopping so abruptly that his brother nearly fell over him. The ancient structur
e briefly solidified before them, and then the fog closed up, obscuring it again.

  "Oh, good," Cal replied without an ounce of enthusiasm.

  Once inside the city walls, they had to grope their way through the streets, practically walking on top of each other so that they wouldn't become separated in the impossible conditions. The fog was almost tangible, sucking and rolling like sheets in the wind, sometimes parting to allow them the briefest glimpse of a section of wall, a stretch of water-sodden ground, or the glistening cobbles underfoot. The squelch of their boots on the black algae and their labored breathing through their masks sounded unnervingly loud to them. The way the fog was twisting and playing with their senses made everything feel so intimate and yet, a the same time, so removed.

  Cal grabbed Will's arm, and they stood stock-still. They were beginning to notice other noises all around them that weren't of their making. At first vague and indistinct, these sounds were growing louder. As they listened, Will could have sworn he caught a scratchy whispering, so close that he flinched. He pulled Cal back a couple of steps, convinced that they'd stumbled headlong into the Styx Division. However, Cal swore he hadn't heard anything at all, and after a while they nervously resumed their journey.

  Then from the distance came the bloodcurdling baying of a dog — there was no question about it this time. Cal tightened his grip on Bartleby's leash as the cat raised his head high, his ears pricking up. Although neither boy said anything to the other, they were both thinking the same thing: The need for them to get through the city as rapidly as they could had become all the more pressing.

  Creeping along, their hearts were pounding as Will referred to Tam's map and repeatedly checked his compass with his shaking hands in an attempt to fix their position. In truth, the visibility was so poor he had only the roughest idea where they were. For all he knew, they could be wandering in circles. They seemed to be making no headway at all, and Will was at his wits' end. What a great leader he was turning out to be!

 
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