Tunnels 01 tunnels, p.35
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       Tunnels 01 - Tunnels, p.35

           Roderick Gordon
 

  "Shredded rhizomes."

  "Shredded what? " Will said with alarm. "I hope you know what you're doing."

  "I'm the son of an apothecary. I was taught to dress a wound when I was not much older than you are."

  Will relaxed again.

  "You don't need to worry, Will… it's been a while since I lost a patient," Imago said, looking askance at him.

  "Huh?" A little slow on the uptake, Will stared at him with alarm.

  "Only joking," Imago said, ruffling Will's hair and chuckling. But despite Imago's attempt to lighten the mood, Will could read the intense sadness in the man's eyes as he continued to tend to Will's shoulder. "There's an antiseptic in this poultice. It'll stop the bleeding and deaden the nerves," Imago said as he reached into another pouch and pulled out a gray roll of material, which he began to unwind. He bound this expertly around Will's shoulder and arm and, tying the ends securely in a bow, stood back to admire his handiwork.

  "How's that feel?"

  "Better," Will lied. "Thanks."

  "You'll need to change the dressing every once in a while — you should take some of this with you."

  "What do you mean, with me? Where are we going?" Will asked, but Imago shook his head.

  "All in good time. You've lost a lot of blood and need to get some fluids in you. And we should all try to eat something." Imago glanced across at the slumped form of Cal. "Come on. Get yourself over here, boy."

  Cal obediently heaved himself to his feet and wandered over as Imago sat his bulk down, his legs stretched out in front of him, and began to produce numerous dull metal canisters from his leather satchel. He unscrewed the lid of the first one and proffered it at Will, who regarded the sloppy gray slabs of fungi with unconcealed revulsion. "I hope you don't mind," Will said, "but we brought our own."

  Imago didn't seem to mind at all. He simply resealed his canister and waited expectantly as Will unloaded the food from his backpack. Imago fell upon it with evident relish, sucking noisily on slices of honey-roasted ham, which he held delicately in his dirty fingers. As if trying to make the experience last forever, he rolled the meat noisily around in his mouth with his tongue before chewing it. And when he did finally swallow, he half closed his eyes and let out huge, blissful sighs.

  In contrast, Cal hardly touched a thing, picking unenthusiastically — before withdrawing again to the other side of the chamber. Will didn't have much of an appetite, either, particularly after witnessing Imago's performance. He pulled out a can of Coke and had just started sipping it when he suddenly thought about the jade green pendant that Tam had given him. He found it in his jacket and took it out to examine its dull surface. It was still smeared with Tam's blood, which had congealed within the three indentations carved into one of its faces. He stared at it and ran his thumb across it lightly. He was certain he'd seen the same three-pronged symbol somewhere before. Then he remembered. It had been on the milestone in the Labyrinth.

  * * * * *

  While Imago was working his way through a bar of plain chocolate, savoring each mouthful, Cal spoke from the other side of the chamber, his voice flat and listless.

  "I want to go home. I don't care anymore."

  Imago choked, spitting out a hail of half-chewed chocolate globs. He spun his head around to face Cal, his horsetail braid whipping into the air. "And what about the Styx?"

  "I'll talk to them, I'll make them listen to me," Cal replied feebly.

  "They'll listen, all right, while they're cutting out your liver or hacking you limb from limb!" Imago rebuked him. "You little idiot, d'you think Tam gave his life just so you could chuck yours away?"

  "I… no…" Cal was blinking with fright as Imago continued to shout.

  Still holding the pendant tightly, Will pressed it to his forehead, covering his face with his hand. He just wanted everyone to shut up; he didn't need any of this. He wanted it all to stop, if only for a moment.

  "You selfish, stupid… what are you going to do, get your father or Granny Macaulay to hide you… and risk their lives, too? This is going to be bad enough as it is!" Imago was yelling.

  "I just thought—"

  "No, you didn't!" Imago cut him off. "You can never go back, d'you understand? Get that into your thick head!" Casting the rest of the chocolate bar aside, he strode to the opposite side of the chamber.

  "But I…" Cal started to say.

  "Get some sleep!" Imago growled, his face rigid with anger. He wrapped his coat tightly around him and, using his satchel as a pillow, he lay down on his side with his face to the wall.

  * * * * *

  There they remained for the better part of the next day, alternately eating and sleeping with hardly a word passing between them. After all the horror and excitement of the past twenty-four hours, Will welcomed the opportunity to recuperate, and spent much of the time in a heavy, dreamless sleep. He was eventually woken by Imago's voice, and lethargically opened one eye to see what was going on.

  "Come over here and give me a hand, will you, Cal?"

  Cal quickly jumped up and joined Imago, who was kneeling by the center of the chamber.

  "It weighs a ton." Imago grinned.

  As they slid aside the metal circle in the ground, it was patently obvious Imago could have managed by himself and that this was his way of patching things up with Cal. Will opened his other eye and flexed his arm. His shoulder was stiff, but his injuries didn't hurt nearly as much as they had.

  Cal and Imago were now lying full-length on the ground, peering down into the circular opening as Imago played his light into it. Will crawled over to see what they were looking at. There was a well a good three feet across and then a murky darkness below it.

  "I can see something shining," Cal said.

  "Yes, railway tracks," Imago replied.

  "The Miners' Train," Will realized as he saw the two parallel lines of polished iron glinting in the pitch-blackness.

  They pulled back from the hole and sat around it, waiting eagerly for Imago to speak.

  "I'm going to be blunt, because we don’t have much time," he said. "You have two choices. Either we lie low up here for a while and then I get you Topsoil again, or—"

  "No, not there," said Cal right away.

  "I'm not saying it's going to be easy to get you there," Imago admitted. "Not with three of us."

  "No way! I couldn't take it!" Cal raised his voice until he was almost shouting.

  "Don't be so hasty," Imago warned. "If we did make it Topsoil, at least you could try to lose yourselves somewhere the Styx can't find you. Maybe."

  "No," repeated Cal with absolute conviction.

  Imago was now looking directly at Will. "You should be aware…" He clammed up, as if what he was about to say was so terrible that he didn't quite know how to put it. "Tam thinks" — he quickly corrected himself with a grimace — "thought that the Styx girl who passed herself off as your Topsoiler sister" — he coughed uneasily and wiped his mouth — "is the Crawfly's daughter. So Tam just killed her father back there in the City."

  "Rebecca's father?" Will asked in a nonplussed voice.

  "Oh, great," Cal croaked.

  "Why's that important? What does—" Will managed, before Imago cut him short.

  "The Styx don't leave be. They will pursue you, anywhere you go. Anyone who gives you shelter — Topsoil, in the Colony, or even in the Deeps — is in danger, too. You know they have people all over the surface." Imago scratched his belly and frowned. "But if Tam was right, it means that as bad as your situation was before, it's worse now. You're in the very greatest danger. You are marked now."

  Will tried to absorb what he'd just been told, shaking his head at the unfairness, the injustice of it all.

  "So you're saying that if I go Topsoil, I'm on the run. And if I went to Auntie Jean's, then…"

  "She's dead." Imago shifted uneasily where he sat on the dusty rock floor. "That's the way it is."

  "But what are you going to do, Imago?" Will asked, finding
it impossible to grasp the situation he was in.

  "I can't go back to the Colony, that's for sure. But don't you worry 'bout me; it's you two that need sorting out."

  "But what should I do?" Will asked, glancing over at Cal, who was staring at the opening in the floor, and then back to Imago, who just shrugged unhelpfully, leaving Will feeling even worse. He was at a total loss. It was as though he were playing a game where you were only told the rules after you made a mistake. "Well, I suppose there's nothing Topsoil for me, anyway. Not now," he mumbled, bowing his head. "And my dad's down here… somewhere."

  Imago pulled over his satchel and rummaged inside it, fishing out something wrapped in an old piece of burlap, which he passed to Will.

  "What's this?" Will muttered, folding back the cloth. With so many thoughts racing through his head, he was in a state of confusion, and it took him several seconds to appreciate just what he'd been given.

  It was a flattened and solid glob of paper, which easily fit into his fist. With torn and irregular edges, it had evidently been immersed in water and then left to dry, the pieces clumped together in a crude papier-mâché. He glanced inquiringly at Imago, who offered no comment, so he began to pick away at the outer layers, much as one might peel the desiccated leaves from an ancient onion. As he scratched at their furred edges with a fingernail, it didn't take him long to separate the pieces of paper. Then he laid them out to inspect them more closely under his light.

  "No! I don't believe it! This is my dad's writing!" Will said with surprise and delight as he recognized Dr. Burrows's characteristic scrawl on a number of the fragments. They were mud-stained and the blue ink had run, making very little of it legible, but he was still able to decipher some of what was written.

  "'I will resume,' " Will recited from one fragment, quickly moving on to the others and scrutinizing each of them in turn. "No, this piece is too smudged," he mumbled. "Nothing here, either," he continued, and "I don't know… some odd words… doesn't make any sense… but… ah, this says 'Day 15' !" He continued to scour several more fragments until he stopped with a jerk. "This piece," he exclaimed excitedly, holding the particular scrap up to the light, "mentions me!" He glanced across at Imago, a slight waver in his voice. "'If my son, Will, had,' it says!" With a puzzled expression, he flicked it over to check the reverse side but found it was blank. "But what did Dad mean? What didn't I do? What was I meant to do?" Will again looked to Imago for help.

  "Search me," the man said.

  Will's face lit up. "Whatever he was saying, he's still thinking about me. He hasn't forgotten me. Maybe he always hoped that somehow or other I'd try to follow after him, to find him." He was nodding vigorously as the notion built to a crescendo in his head. "Yes, that's it… that must be it!"

  Something else occurred to him at that moment, deflecting his thoughts. "Imago, this has to be from my dad's journal. Where did you get it?" Will was immediately imagining the worst. "Is he all right?"

  Imago rubbed his chin comtemplatively. "Don't know. Like Tam told you, he took a one-way on the Miners' Train." Sticking a thumb in the direction of the hole in the floor, he went on. "Your father's down there somewhere, in the Deeps. Probably."

  "Yes, but where did you get this?" Will demanded impatiently, closing his hand over the scraps of paper and holding them up in his palm.

  "'Bout a week after your dad arrived in the Colony, he was wandering around on the outskirts of the Rookeries and was attacked." Imago's voice became slightly incredulous at this point. "If the story's to be believed, he was stopping people and asking them things. Round these parts they don't take kindly to anyone, least of all Topsoilers, nosing about, and he got a good kicking. By all accounts, he just lay there, didn't even try to put up a fight. Probably saved his life."

  "Dad," Will said with tears welling in his eyes as he pictured the scene. "Poor old Dad."

  "Well, it can't have been too bad. He walked away from it." Imago rubbed his hands together, and his tone changed, becoming more businesslike. "But that's neither here nor there. You need to tell me what you want to do. We can't stick around here forever." He looked pointedly at each boy in turn. "Will? Cal?"

  They were both silent for a while, until Will spoke up.

  "Chester!" He couldn't believe that with everything else that had been going on, he'd completely forgotten about his friend. "Whatever you say, I've got to go back for him," he said resolutely. "I owe it to him."

  "Chester will be all right," Imago said.

  "How can you know that?" Will immediately shot back at him.

  Imago simply smiled.

  "So where is he?" Will asked. "Is he really all right?"

  "Trust me," Imago said cryptically.

  Will looked into his eyes and saw the man was in earnest. He felt a huge sense of relief, as if a crushing weight had been lifted from his shoulders. He told himself that if anyone could save his friend, then it would be Imago. He drew a long breath and lifted his head. "Well, in that case, the Deeps it is."

  "And I'm going with you," Cal put in quickly.

  "You're both absolutely sure about this?" Imago asked, looking hard at Will. "It's like hell down there. You'd be better off Topsoil; at least you'd know the lay of the land."

  Will shook his head. "My dad is all I have left."

  "Well, if that's what you want." Imago's voice was low and somber.

  "There's nothing for us Topsoil, not now," Will replied with a glance at his brother.

  "Okeydokey, it'd decided, then," Imago said, checking his watch. "Now try to get some shut-eye. You're going to need all your strength."

  But none of them could sleep, and Imago and Cal ended up talking about Tam. Imago was regaling the younger boy with stories of his uncle's exploits, even chuckling at times, and Cal couldn't help but join in with him. Imago was clearly drawing comfort from reminiscing about the stunts he, Tam, and his sister had pulled in their youth, when they had run rings around the Styx.

  "Tam and Sarah were as bad as each other, I can tell you. Pair of wildcats." Imago smiled sadly.

  "Tell Will about the cane toads," Cal said, egging him on.

  "Oh dear God, yes…" Imago laughed, recalling the incident. "It was your mother's idea, you know. We caught a barrel load of the things over in the Rookeries — the sickos there raise them in their basements." Imago raised his eyebrows. "Sarah and Tam took the toads to a church and let them out just before the service got underway. You should have seen it… a hundred of the slimy little beggars hopping all over the place… people jumping and shrieking, and you could hardly hear the preacher for all the croaking… burup, burup, burup." The rotund man rocked with silent laughter, then his brow furrowed and he was unable to continue.

  With all the talk about his real mother, Will had been trying his hardest to listen, but he was too tired and preoccupied. The seriousness of his situation was still foremost in his mind, and his thoughts were heavy with apprehension about what he'd just committed himself to. A journey into the unknown. Was he really up to it? Was he doing the right thing, for himself and his brother?

  He broke from his introspection as he heard Cal suddenly interrupt Imago, who had just started on another tale. "Do you think Tam might have made it?" Cal asked. "You know… escaped?"

  Imago looked away from him quickly and began drawing absently in the dust with his finger, clearly at a loss for words. And in the silence that ensued, intense sorrow flooded Cal's face again.

  "I can't believe he's gone. He was everything to me."

  "He fought them all his life," Imago said, his voice distant and strained. "He was no saint, that's for sure, but he gave us something — hope — and that made it bearable for us." He paused, his eyes fixed on some distant point beyond Cal's head. "With the Crawfly dead there'll be purges… and a crackdown the likes of which hasn't been seen for years." He picked up a cave pearl and examined it. "But I wouldn't go back to the Colony even if I could. I suppose we're all homeless now," Imago said as he flicked t
he pearl into the air with his thumb and, with absolute precision, it fell into the dead center of the well.

  37

  "Please!" Chester whimpered inside the clammy hood, which stuck to his face and neck with his cold sweat. After they had dragged him from his cell and down the corridor to the front of the police station, they had pushed something over his head and bound his wrists. Then they'd left him standing there, enveloped in stifling darkness, with muffled sounds coming from all around.

  "Please!" Chester shouted in sheer desperation.

  "Shut up, will you!" snapped a gruff voice just inches behind his ear.

  "What's happening?" Chester begged.

  "You're going on a little journey, my son, a little journey," said the same voice.

  "But I haven't done anything! Please!"

  He heard boots grinding on a stone floor as he was pushed from behind. He stumbled and fell to his knees, unable to rise up again with his hands tied behind his back.

  "Get up!"

  He was hauled to his feet and stood swaying, his legs like jelly. He'd known that this moment was looming, that his days were numbered, but he'd had no way of finding out what it would be like when it did come. Nobody would speak to him in the Hold, not that he made much of an effort to ask them, so petrified was he of provoking any further retribution from the Second Officer and his fellow wardens.

  So Chester had lived as a condemned man who could only guess at the form of his eventual demise. He'd clung on to every precious second he had left, trying not to let them go, and dying a little inside as one after another they slipped away. Now the only thing he could find solace from was the knowledge that he had a train journey before him — so at least he had some time left. But then what? What were the Deeps like? What would happen to him there?

  "Move it!"

  He shambled forward a few paces, unsure of his footing and unable to see a thing. He bumped into something hard, and the sound around him seemed to change. Echoes. Shouts, but from a distance, from a larger space.

 

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