Tunnels 02 deeper, p.35
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       Tunnels 02 - Deeper, p.35

           Roderick Gordon

  Will wasn't really thinking by the end of his second causeway crossing. He followed Elliott mechanically, plodding over the stretch of sand until they came to the edge of the jungle.

  "Stop here," she ordered and, under the glow of her lantern, began kicking around, searching for something in the discolored sand packed at the gnarled roots of the succulents.

  "Where is it?" she said to herself, moving farther into the undergrowth. "Aha!" she exclaimed, diving down. She unsheathed her knife and used it to trim off the gray foliage of a small rosette-shaped plant, until all that was left was its ragged heart. She continued to cut away at this, reducing it to what looked like some sort of nut. She carefully peeled that, shedding chunks of its woody coat. Then she began to work on the kernel, which was about the size of an almond, slicing it into strips. She sniffed at it before holding her palm out to Will.

  "Chew on it," she said, and then sucked a strand herself off the knife blade. "Don't swallow. Just chew slowly."

  He nodded dubiously, grinding the fibrous strips between his incisors. They released a sharp sourness that made him stick out his tongue.

  She watched, pushing another strand into her mouth with a grimy finger.

  "Tastes disgusting," he said.

  "Give it a moment — it'll help."

  She was right. As he chewed, a coldness spread through his body. It was a pleasurable sensation in the midst of the unremitting heat and humidity, and with it came a surge of energy that blew away the leadenness from his limbs. He felt renewed, strong... he felt ready for anything.

  "What is this?" he asked, straightening his shoulders, his inquisitiveness returning with a vengeance. "Caffeine?" The only sensation he could compare it with was when his sister had made coffee back home and he'd tried a cup. "Caffeine?" he repeated, his voice jittery.

  "Something like that," Elliott replied with a careless smile. "Come on, let's go."

  He now found he could easily keep pace with Elliott as they steamed ahead. Moving with the fleetness of two cats, they traversed the sandy foreshore and then climbed the shingle incline that would take them to the wall of the cavern and the lava tubes.

  Will lost all track of time. They reached the base in what seemed like a matter of minutes, although he knew it must have taken considerably longer. It was as if he'd been outside his own body, an onlooker watching someone else sweat and heave for breath at the exertion of traveling so phenomenally fast.

  Elliott climbed the rope and he followed. Once they were both inside the base, she tore around like a whirlwind, sorting the various items they were going to take with them. It was as if she'd planned for this very event and knew precisely what to do.

  In the main room, which Will had only seen once before, she yanked equipment from wall hooks and swept all manner of things from shelves in the old metal lockers. In seconds flat, the floor was a jumble of discarded items, which she kicked at impatiently when they got in the way. She placed the equipment they were going to take just inside the doorway. Unbidden, Will began to stow it inside a pair of sizable rucksacks and two large bags with drawstring openings.

  Elliott suddenly fell silent. Will looked up from where he was kneeling. She was out of sight, behind one of the bunk beds, where she'd been yanking equipment out of Drake's locker. Whatever was in her hands, she carried it in such a way that Will could sense her reverence.

  "Drake's spare headset," she announced. Stopping before him, she held out her hands and offered it to him.

  Will regarded the leathery cap with its milky eyepiece and the cables trailing down to a small, flat, rectangular box, which swung gently in the air.

  "Huh?" he said, frowning.

  She didn't respond but held it farther toward him.

  "For me?" he asked as he took it. "Really?"

  She nodded.

  "Where did Drake get these things?" he said, examining the headset.

  "He made them. That was what he did in the Colony... The scientists took him in."

  "What do you mean, took him in? " Will asked quickly.

  "He was a Topsoiler, just like you."

  "I know — he told me," Will said.

  "The Styx grabbed him. Every so often they go to the surface to snatch people with the skills they need."

  "No kidding," Will breathed in disbelief. "So what were Drake's skills? Was he in the army of something? Like a commando?"

  "He was a visual optics engineer," Elliott said, pronouncing the words carefully as if she was trying her tongue on an unfamiliar language. "He made these, too." She put her hand to the scope on the weapon hanging from her shoulder.

  "No kidding," Will said, weighing the handset in his hands. He recalled Elliott once mentioning that the Styx had abducted someone with the ability to develop devices that allowed them to see through the darkness. But Drake? Images of him flashed through Will's head: the scarred, lean man who inspired such respect next to stereotypical geeks wearing white lab coats with pocket protectors.

  "I really thought he'd been some sort of soldier," Will mumbled, shaking his head. "And that he'd gotten himself Banished from the Colony, like you."

  "I wasn't Banished!"

  Elliott responded with such passion that Will could only manage an apologetic grunt.

  "As for Drake... the Styx made him work on these. You know what I mean?"

  Will was hesitant in his reply. "They tortured him?"

  She nodded. "Until he did what they wanted. They'd haul him down here to the Deeps to field-test the devices, but the day came when he saw his chance and made a break for it. They must have thought they'd gotten all they could from him, because they didn't come looking."

  "That's so boss," Will said. "So he was a scientist, a researcher... a bit like my dad."

  Elliott made a face as if she had no idea what Will was talking about and had nothing more to add. She returned to the locker, where she continued to empty out its contents, every so often lobbing the odd item onto the bed.

  With bated breath, Will carefully put on the headset. Adjusting the strap so it was tight across his forehead, he made sure the lens was correctly positioned over his eye, testing it by hinging it up and down. As he tucked the rectangular box into a pocket, he realized how incredibly uneasy it made him to wear the contraption. He felt that the wasn't worthy of it.

  Maybe at the beginning, when he had first met Drake and wondered at the curious device, there would have been a thrill about wearing it, but not now. It had grown, in Will's mind, into an emblem of Drake's mastery of this underworld, a symbol of the man's standing, like a crown. It spoke of Drake's willingness to go up against the Styx and his supremacy over the motley pack of renegades who roamed the Deeps — and, in Will's estimation, Drake was set apart from these. He was the epitome of all that Will would like to become: tough, practical, and answerable to no one.

  Elliott gathered up some further equipment and brought it over to the packs. Dropping it, she passed Will without so much as a glance and disappeared into the corridor. She was back a few moments later with a box of stove guns.

  "Pack these and then we're out of here."

  Will placed the guns in the backpacks, which, together with the other bags, he ferried over to the entrance of the base. He tied the end of the rope around the whole cargo and managed to lower it to the tunnel floor. He didn't relish the prospect of hauling it all across the causeway and back to the island — it weighed a ton, and he suspected he'd be the one to bear the greater portion of it.

  As he stood by the top of the rope, he noticed that Elliott was walking slowly from room to room. Was she checking to make sure she hadn't forgotten anything or just having a last look, suspecting she'd never see the place again?

  "OK, let's go," she said as she joined him by the entrance.

  She slid down the rope, and as soon as they were both at the bottom he untied the packs and bags. As he straightened up, he noticed she appeared to be reading a roll of material.

  "What's that?" he said.
  She snapped at him to be quiet. When she'd finished she looked across at him.

  Will just stared back.

  "The message is about Drake... it was pinned to the rope," she replied. "It's from another renegade."

  "But... but I only just let the... I didn't see anyone," Will stammered, scanning the shadows, terrified that they were going to be ambushed by the likes of that creepy Tom Cox.

  "No, you wouldn't have, and anyway, this is from someone we know — a friend. We need to get a move on," she said. From one of the bags, she whipped out the biggest charge Will had seen so far. She anchored the gunmetal-gray canister, the size of a large can of paint, to the rock wall under where the rope hung, then she backed toward the opposite side of the tunnel, feeding out an almost invisible trip wire behind her. Will didn't have to ask: Elliott was setting a powerful explosive in case anyone came looking for the base — so powerful that the whole place would be buried under tons of rubble.

  She tested her handiwork, plucking the tautly stretched wire, which gave a threatening twang. After pulling out the pin to arm it, she returned to Will.

  "So what now? Do we take this with us?" he asked, pointing at the bags.

  "Forget it."

  "We're not going to the island?"

  "Change of plan," she said, her eyes flashing with a fierce determination. He knew then that she had something else in mind, and that they weren't going back to join Chester and Cal.

  "Oh," Will said as it sank in.

  "We've got to get to the other side of the plain, and quick." She looked furtively up and down the tunnel, sniffing several times.

  "Why?" Will asked, to which she held up her hand, silencing him.

  He heard it, too. A low whine. Even as he listened, the whining grew louder and louder until it became a howl. He felt the gentle breeze on his face and saw it tug at the ends of Elliott's shemagh.

  "A Levant," she said, then exclaimed, "the wind's coming: Just our luck!"

  Will reeled on his feet as if about to collapse at the thought of facing it, exposed, in the Deeps. Elliott eyed him with concern, then ferreted around in her pocket and offered some more of the root. He took several pieces and chewed on them grimly, tasting the sourness as it spread over his tongue.

  "Better?" she asked.

  He nodded in acknowledgment, seeing in her eyes not the concern of a friend, but something cold and detached, a clinical professionalism. She needed someone to assist her; she didn't really care about him.

  "Try the headset," she ordered as he continued to chew.

  He nodded, flipping down the eyepiece, then fumbling for the switch on the box in his pocket. There was a faint tone — it began to build, reaching a high pitch and then descending in octaves to a lower sound, so barely audible that he couldn't tell if he was hearing it or just feeling it through his cranium.

  "Shut your left eye — just use the one behind the lens," Elliott directed him.

  He did as she said, blinking his left eye shut, but could see nothing at all through his right eye, the lens tightly pressed to it. Just as he was beginning to think the device might be faulty, dim points started to swirl, as if ocean waters were being stirred to reveal an eerie phosphorescence beneath their depths. From an initial amber, it rapidly transformed into a brighter yellow, until it almost hurt. Everything was intensely visible, as if bathed in stark sunlight. He looked around, at his dirt-ingrained hands, at Elliott securing the shemagh over her face, at the wisps of blurry darkness rolling toward them.

  "Have you been in a Black Wind before?" Elliott asked.

  "Not in one," he said, remembering when he and Cal had watched the clouds from behind closed windows in the Colony. Cal's words came back to him: The boy had mimicked a nasal Styx voice: "...pernicious to those that it encounters, it sears the flesh."

  Will quickly looked at Elliott. "Aren't they, like, poisonous?

  "No." She snorted derisively. "It's only dust, garden-variety dust, blown up from the Interior. You shouldn't believe anything the White Necks tell you."

  "I don't," Will replied indignantly.

  She hefted up her rifle and turned toward the Great Plain. "Let's roll."

  He followed behind her, his heart yammering against his rib cage from both the effects of the strange root and anticipation. The X-ray-like vision that the headset gave him, cutting through the darkness like an invisible searchlight, lifted his spirits.

  As soon as Will emerged from the water on the other side of the sump, he saw that the landscape was already laced with feathery tendrils of darkness. The spumelike clouds would soon blot out everything. Drake's night-vision device would be of no help whatsoever in these conditions.

  "These storms are really thick — won't we get lost?" he asked Elliott as the blackness bled toward them.

  "Not a chance," she said dismissively, passing a length of rope around her wrist, knotting it , then giving him the other end to tie around his waist. "Where this goes, you go," she said. "But if you feel me tug twice, you stop dead. Got that?"

  "Righto," he replied, feeling a bit removed from the whole situation.

  They moved fleetly, sinking into the inkiness so that he couldn't see her even though she was only a few feet in front of him. The smokelike fog clogged his nostrils and coated his face in a fine, dry dust. Several times he was forced to clutch at his nose to stifle a sneeze, and his left eye, unprotected by the night-vision device, was clotted and watering.

  He felt two tugs and halted immediately, crouching low while he scanned around alertly. Elliott slipped out of the mist and kneeled down, signaling with a finger pressed to her lips that he should remain silent.

  She leaned into him until the shemagh over her mouth brushed his ear. "Listen," she whispered through it.

  He heard the faraway howling of a dog. Then... a horrible scream.

  A man's scream.

  Of the most acute agony.

  Elliott's head was inclined to one side, and her eyes — the only part of her that he could see — told him nothing.

  "We must hurry."

  Horrible prolonged wails of suffering wafted backward and forward as if channeled between the palls of smoke, which sometimes cleared to give them a fleeting view of the ground or made strange, shifting corridors down which they moved.

  Louder and louder the cries came, accompanying the low howls of dogs, as if some grisly opera of perdition were being sung.

  The ground began to rise under Will's feet and his boot crunched on a pink crystal — a desert rose. They were climbing the slope of the large amphitheater-like clearing where Drake and Elliott had first sneaked up on him and Chester. The same place he had witnessed the horrific slaughter of renegades and Coprolites by the Limiters.

  There was a high keening — more animal than human — immediately followed by a sudden, soul-searing scream. Will couldn't pinpoint from which direction it had come — it was as if it had hit the stone roof above and was falling and scattering in a rain of noise all around him. The combination of that noise, which made his stomach churn with fear, and the memory of the Styx's murderous actions made him want to fall to the loose surface of the slope and wrap his arms over his head. But he couldn't; the rope between him and Elliott was uncompromising, urging him on, drawing him toward something he knew he didn't want to see.

  She tugged twice and he stood still.

  She was at his side before he knew it. She waved him forward with a slow gesture of her hand, ending it with a patting motion. He nodded, understanding: She wanted him to advance cautiously, keeping as low as possible.

  As they crawled, she kept stopping without warning. He bumped his head against her boots several times. But she never stopped for long. Will assumed she was listening to check for anyone close by.

  The Black Wind seemed to be abating. Little stretches of the slope opened before them, fuzzy scenes of the moonscape surface. Will's night-vision device occasionally blanked and then became a static snowstorm before it reset. These
blips only lasted for fractions of a second, but they brought back memories of the times his mother — his adoptive mother, as he had to keep reminding himself — flew into a rage because her beloved TV was on the fritz. Will shook his head — those days were so easy and carefree, and so ridiculously inconsequential.

  The appalling screaming rose again from somewhere up ahead. They could hear it so much more clearly now. Elliott froze and looked back at him over her shoulder, her eyes furtive and terrified. Her fear was infectious — he felt it wash through him like a cold wave.

  Why had they come here? What was it? What was wrong?

  He was confused by Elliott's reaction. If the massacre he'd witnessed here before, with Chester, was being repeated, then it wouldn't have warranted such a response. She'd kept cool on that occasion, disturbing as the incident had been.

  They continued to crawl on their bellies, arm over arm, across the gypsum, inching up the incline until the wind blew harder on their faces and whipped up tiny dust devils around them.

  The carbon pall of the Black Wind was retreating.

  They came to the rim of the crater.

  Elliott's rifle was already up.

  She said something, muffled and indistinct under the layers of cloth covering her mouth. She pulled back the shemagh, pressing her cheek hard into the stock of the rifle. She was shaking, the barrel of the gun quivering unsteadily. Why? What was wrong?

  Everything was happening too fast.

  The lens over his eye crackled with static again, like a machine blink, and then he focused on the scene. There were lights on tripod stands, randomly arranged, and a decent number of figures, too far away for him to make out in any detail. A haze of dust clouds drifted in the intervening distance, like random curtains sweeping across his view, sometimes drawing apart to reveal the scene, sometimes closing to obscure it.

  He moved across to Elliott, coiling the rope that connected them as he went.

  "What is it?" he whispered, close to her ear.

  "I think... I think it's Drake," she answered.

  "So he's alive?" he gasped.

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