Tunnels 01 tunnels, p.36
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       Tunnels 01 - Tunnels, p.36

           Roderick Gordon
 
Suddenly, there came the clamor of many voices.

  Oh, no!

  He knew without a shred of doubt exactly where he was — he was outside the police station. And what he was hearing was the baying of a large crowd. If he'd been frightened before, it was worse now. A crowd. The jeering and catcalls grew louder, and he felt himself being lifted under each arm and hoisted along. He was on the main street; he could feel the irregular surface of the cobbles when his feet were allowed to touch the ground.

  "I haven't done anything! I want to go home!"

  He was panting hard, struggling with his own saliva and tears, it sucked into his mouth with every inhalation.

  "Help me! Someone!" His voice was so anguished and distorted that it was almost unrecognizable to him.

  Still the crazed shouts came from all around.

  "TOPSOIL FILTH!"

  "STRING 'IM UP!"

  One repeated shout with many voices took form. It went over and over again.

  "FILTH! FILTH! FILTH!"

  They were shouting at him — so many people were shouting at him! His stomach churned with the stark realization. He couldn't see them, and that made it worse. He was so terrified he thought he was going to be sick.

  "FILTH! FILTH! FILTH!"

  "Please… please stop… help me! Please… please help me… please." He was hyperventilating and crying at the same time — he couldn't help it.

  "FILTH! FILTH! FILTH!"

  I'm going to die! I'm going to die! I'm going to die!

  The single thought pulsed through his head, a counterpoint to the repeated chant of the crowd. They were so close to him now — close enough that he could smell their collective stench and the foul reek of their collective hatred.

  "FILTH! FILTH! FILTH!"

  HE felt as if he were in the bottom of a well, with a vortex of noises and shouts and vicious laughter swirling around him. He couldn't take it anymore. He had to do something. He had to escape!

  In blind terror he tried to break free, struggling and twisting his body, convulsing against his captors. But the huge hands only gripped him even more savagely, and the rabble's cries and laughter reached fever pitch at this new spectacle. Exhausted and realizing it was futile, he moaned, "No… no… no… no…"

  A sickly, intimate voice came to him from so close that he felt the speaker's lips brush his ear. "C'mon now, Chester, pull yourself together! You don't want to disappoint all these good ladies and gentlemen, do you?" Chester realized it was the Second Officer. He must have been relishing every second of this.

  "Let them have a look at you!" said someone else. "Let them see you for what you are!"

  Chester felt numb… bereft… I can't believe this. I can't believe this.

  For a moment it was as if all the jeering and chanting and catcalls had stopped. As if he were in the eye of the storm, as if time itself had stopped. Then hands took hold of his ankles and legs, guiding them onto a step of some kind.

  What now? He was heaved onto a bench and shoved hard against its back, in a sitting position.

  "Take him away!" someone barked. The crowd cheered, and there were rapturous yelps and wolf whistles.

  Whatever he had been put on lurched forward. He thought he heard the plunging of horses' hooves. A carriage? Yes, a carriage!

  "Don't make me go! This isn't right!" he implored them.

  He began to gibber, his words making no sense.

  "You're going to get exactly what you deserve, my boy!" said a voice to his right, in an almost confidential tone. It was the Second Officer again.

  "And it's too good for you," came another he didn’t recognize from his left.

  Chester was now shaking uncontrollably.

  This is it, then! Oh God! Oh God! This is it!

  He thought of his home, and the memories of watching television on so many Saturday mornings popped into his head. Happy and cherished moments of normality with his mother in the kitchen cooking breakfast, the smell of food in the air, and his father calling from upstairs to see if it was ready yet. It was like another time, another century.

  I will never, ever see them again. They're gone… it's all gone… finished… forever!

  His head sank to his chest. He went limp as the stone-cold realization that it was all over spread through his whole body.

  I am FINISHED.

  From the soles of his feet to the top of his head he was filled with a crushing hopelessness. As if he'd been paralyzed, his breath slowly left his lips, pulling with it an involuntary animal sound, a half whine, half moan. An awful, dread-filled sound of resignation, of abandonment.

  For what seemed like an eternity, he didn’t breathe at all, his mouth gaping, closing, opening, like that of a stranded fish. His empty lungs burned from the lack of air until finally his whole body jerked. He sucked in a painful breath through the clogged wave of the hood. Forcing his head up, he let go a final cry of utter and final despair.

  "WWWWWWIIIIIILLLLLL!"

  * * * * *

  Will was surprised to find he'd dozed off again. He awoke, disoriented and with no idea how long he'd actually been asleep, as a dull, far-off vibration roused him. He couldn't pinpoint what it was, and in any case the cold, hard reality of the choice to go into the Deeps came flooding back to him. It was as if he'd awoken into a nightmare.

  He was Imago crouching by the well, inclining his head toward the sound, listening. Then they all heard it plainly; the distant rumbling grew louder with every second until it began to reverberate around the chamber. At Imago's direction, Will and Cal shimmied over to the opening in the floor and readied themselves. As they both sat with their legs dangling from the edge, beside them Imago was leaning his head and shoulders into the well, hanging down as far as he could.

  "Slows around the corner!" they heard him shout, and the noise grew more and more intense, until the whole chamber was vibrating around them. "Here she comes. Bang on time!" He pulled himself out, still watching the tracks below as he kneeled between the boys.

  "You're sure this is what you want?" he asked them.

  The boys looked at each other and nodded.

  "We're sure," Will said. "But Chester…?"

  "I told you, don't worry 'bout him," Imago said with a dismissive smile.

  The chamber was shaking now with the sound of the approaching train, as if a thousand drums were beating in their heads.

  "Do exactly as I say — this has to be timed to perfection — so when I say jump, you jump!" Imago told them.

  The chamber filled with the acrid taint of sulfur. Then, as the roar of the engine reached a crescendo, a jet of soot shot up through the opening like a black geyser. It caught Imago square in the face, spraying him with smut and making him squint. They all coughed as the thick, pungent smoke flooded the Cauldron, engulfing them.

  "READY… READY…," Imago screamed, pitching the backpacks into the darkness below them. "CAL, JUMP!"

  For a split second Cal hesitated, and Imago suddenly pushed him. He dropped into the well, howling with surprise.

  "GO, WILL!" Imago screamed again, and Will tipped himself off the edge.

  The sides flashed past, and then he was out and tumbling into a vortex of noise, smoke, and darkness, his arms and legs flailing. His breath was knocked from him as he landed with a jarring crunch, and a pure white light burst around him, one he couldn't even begin to understand. Points of illumination seemed to be leaping over him like errant stars and, for the briefest of moments, he really wondered if he'd died.

  He lay still, listening to the percussive beat of the engine somewhere up ahead and the juddering rhythm of the wheels as the train picked up speed. He felt the wind on his face and watched the long wisps of smoke pass above him. No, this wasn't some industrial heaven; he was alive!

  He resolved not to move for a moment while he mentally checked himself over, making sure he didn't have any broken bones to add to his already burgeoning list of injuries. Incredibly, other than a few additional grazes, everything seemed
to be intact and in working order.

  He lay there. If this wasn't death, what was the bright, fluxing light he still saw all around him, like a miniature aurora? He pulled himself up onto one elbow.

  Countless light orbs the size of large marbles were rolling around the gritty floor of the car, colliding and rebounding off one another in random paths. Some became trapped in the runnels in the floor and would dim slightly as they touched, until they became unseated and scampered off on their ways again, flaring into brilliance once more.

  Then Will looked behind him and found the remains of the crate and the straw packing. It all became clear. His fall had been broken by a box of light orbs, which had smashed open when he landed on it. Thanking his luck, he felt like cheering, but instead helped himself to several handfuls of the lights, stuffing them into his pockets.

  He got to his feet, bracing himself against the motion of the train. Although foul-smelling smoke streamed thickly around him, the loose orbs lit up the car to such effect that he was able to see it in detail. It was massive. It must have been nearly a hundred feet long and half that in width, much larger and more substantial than any train he'd ever seen Topsoil. It was constructed from slablike plates of iron, crudely welded together. The side panels were battered and rusted away, and their tops worn and buckled, as if the car had seen eons of hard use.

  He dropped down again and, his knees grinding in the grit on the floor, the movement of the car buffeting him around, he went in search of Cal. He came across several other crates made from the same thin wood as the one he'd landed on, and then, near the front of the car, he spotted Cal's boot propped up on another line of boxes.

  "Cal, Cal!" he shouted, crawling frantically toward him. In the midst of a mass of splintered wood, his brother was lying still, too still. His jacket was splattered with a wet darkness, and Will could see there was something wrong with his face.

  Fearing the worst, Will shouted even louder. Not wanting to knock against Cal in case he was badly hurt, he clambered rapidly across the top of the crates alongside him. Dreading what he was about to see, he slowly held a light orb up to Cal's head. It didn't look good. His face and hair were slick with a red pulp.

  Will reached out gingerly and was touching the watery redness on his brother's face when he noticed the broken green forms scattered around him. And there were seeds stuck to Cal's forehead. Will drew back his hand and tasted his fingers. It was watermelon! At Cal's side was another damaged crate. As Will shoved it away to make more room, tangerines, pears, and apples spilled out. His brother had evidently had a soft landing, smashing into crates of fruit.

  "Thank goodness," Will repeated as he shook Cal gently by the shoulders, trying to stir his limp form. But his head flopped lifelessly from side to side. Not knowing what else to do, Will took his brother's wrist to check his pulse.

  "Get off me, will you!" Cal yanked his arm away from Will as he sluggishly opened his eyes and moaned self-pityingly. "My head hurts," he complained, rubbing his forehead tenderly. He brought up his other arm and glanced bemusedly at the banana in his hand. Then he caught the fragrant smell of the lush fruit all around him and look uncomprehendingly at Will.

  "What happened?" he shouted over the din of the train.

  "Lucky duck, you fell in the restaurant car!" Will chuckled.

  "Huh?"

  "Doesn't matter. Try to sit up," Will suggested.

  "In a minute." Cal was groggy but otherwise appeared to be unharmed, except for a few cuts and bruises and a liberal dousing of melon juice, so Will crawled back over the crates and began to investigate. He knew he should be retrieving their backpacks from the cars in front of them, but there was no hurry. Imago had said it would be a long trip and, anyway, his curiosity was getting the better of him.

  "I'm going to…" he shouted over at Cal.

  "What?" Cal cupped a hand to his ear.

  "Explore," Will motioned.

  "OK!" Cal yelled back.

  Will scrambled through the weird sea of light orbs at the rear of the car and pulled himself up on the end panel. He peered down at the coupling in between the cars and the polished sheen of the well-used rails shooting hypnotically underneath. Then he looked across to the next car, only a few feet away and, without stopping to think, hoisted himself over the edge. With the motion of the train it was awkward, but he managed to reach across and straddle both end panels, then had no option but to jump.

  He dropped into the next car and rolled uncontrollably over the floor until he came to rest against a pile of canvas sacks. There was nothing much of note here except for some more crates halfway down, so he crawled to the back of the section and got to his feet again. He tried to see to the very end of the train, but the combination of smoke and darkness made this impossible.

  "How many are there?" Will shouted to himself as he went to clamber over the end wall. As he repeated the process over successive cars, he finally got the hang of it and found he could hop over and steady himself before he went tumbling. He was consumed with a burning curiosity to find the end of the train but at the same time wary about what he might come across there. He'd been warned by Imago that it was more than likely there'd be a Colonist in the guard's carriage, so he had to play it carefully.

  He'd dropped over the edge of the fourth car and was just crawling across a loose tarpaulin when something stirred beside him.

  "What the—" Terrified he'd been caught, Will drove his heel into the shadows as hard as he could. Off balance, the kick wasn't as effective as he'd hoped, but he definitely struck something under the tarpaulin. He readied himself to strike again.

  "Leave me alone!" a voice complained weakly, and the tarpaulin flew back to reveal a hunched form in the corner. Will immediately held up his light orb.

  "Hey!" the voice squeaked, trying to shield its face from the illumination.

  He blinked at Will, tearstains etched through the film of grime and coal smut on his cheeks. There was a pause and a gasp of recognition, and his face split into the broadest grin imaginable. It was a tired face, and had lost much of its healthy chubbiness, but it was unmistakable.

  "Hi, Chester," Will said, slumping down next to his old friend.

  "Will?" Chester cried, not quite believing what he was seeing; then, at the top of his lungs, he cried out again. "Will!"

  "Didn’t think I'd let you go by yourself, did you?" Will shouted back. Will realized now what Imago had had in mind. He knew Chester was to be Banished, sent to the Deeps on this very train. The sly old rogue had known all along.

  It was impossible to talk with all the noise from the speeding engine up ahead, but Will was content just to be reunited with Chester. Will grinned the widest of grins, luxuriating in a wave of relief that his friend was safe. He leaned back against the end panel of the car and shut his eyes, filled with the most intense feeling of elation that, finally, from the throes of the nightmarish situation he'd found himself in, something good had emerged, something had turned out right. Chester was safe! That meant the world to him.

  And to top it all, he was being borne toward his father, on the greatest adventure of his life, on a journey into undiscovered lands. In his mind, Dr. Burrows was the only part of his past life he could cling to. Will was determined that he would find him, wherever he was. And then everything would be all right again. They'd all be all right: he, Chester, and Cal, all together, with his father. This notion shone in his thoughts like the brightest of beacons.

  All of a sudden, the future didn't seem so daunting.

  Will opened his eyes and leaned toward Chester's ear: "No school tomorrow, then!" he shouted.

  They both burst into helpless laughter, which was drowned out by the train as it continued to gather speed, spewing dark smoke behind it, carrying them away from the Colony, away from Highfield, and away from everything they knew, accelerating into the very heart of the earth.

  Epilogue

  The gentle heat of the sun filtered down on a beautiful day early in the
New Year, so balmy it could have been spring. Unobstructed by tall buildings, the perfect blue canvas of the sky was marred only by the specks of gulls falling and rising on thermals in the distance. If it hadn't been for the occasional intrusion of traffic swerving past on the canal-side road, one might have imagined it was somewhere on the coast, perhaps a sleepy fishing village.

  But this was London, and the wooden tables outside the pub were beginning to fill up as the lure of the fine weather became too tempting. Three dark-suited men with the anemic faces of office workers swaggered out through the doors and sat down with their drinks. Leaning over the table, each tried to outdo the other as they talked too loudly and laughed raucously, like squabbling crows. Next to them was a very different group, college students in jeans and faded T-shirts who hardly made any noise at all. The were almost whispering to one another as they supped their beers and rolled the occasional cigarette.

  Alone on a wooden bench in the shade of the building, Reggie sipped his pint, his fourth that lunchtime. He felt slightly woozy, but since he had nothing planned for the afternoon, he'd decided to indulge himself. He took a handful of whitebait from the bowl beside him and munched on the little fish thoughtfully.

  "Hiya, Reggie," one of the barmaids said, her arms full of precariously stacked glasses as she collected the empties.

  "Hi there," he replied hesitantly, never very good at remembering any of the bar staff's names.

  She smiled pleasantly at him, then pushed open the door with her hip as she headed back inside. Reggie had been turning up on and off for years, but he had recently become a firm regular, dropping in nearly every day for his favorites, a bowl of whitebait or cod and chips.

  He was a quiet man who kept to himself. Other than the fact that he was overgenerous with his tips, what made him stand out from the run-of-the-mill customers was his appearance. He had the most striking white hair. Sometimes he wore it like an aging biker, braided into a bleached snake down his back, but on other occasions it ran wild, fluffed up like a newly shampooed poodle. He was never without his heavily tinted sunglasses, whatever the weather, and his clothes were arcane and old-fashioned, as if he had borrowed them from a theatrical costumer. Given his eccentric appearance, the bar staff came to the conclusion that he must be an out-of-work musician, a retired actor, or even an undiscovered artist, of which there were many in the area.

 

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