Tunnels 02 deeper, p.38
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       Tunnels 02 - Deeper, p.38
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           Roderick Gordon

  Elliott removed the Anomalocaris from the flames and put it on the ground. Then she peeled back one of the segments on its underbelly with the tip of her knife and began to carve up its carcass. "It's ready," she announced.

  "Oh, great," Will said hollowly.

  Nonetheless, when the food had been divided up, Will capitulated. Putting aside his journal, he began to eat his share, reluctantly at first, but then devouring it hungrily. He even agreed with Chester that the Anomalocaris was pretty similar to lobster. The devil's toenails were a different matter altogether, and the boys grimaced as they valiantly attempted to chew them.

  "Hmmm. Interesting," Will commented as he finished his mouthful, pondering the thought that he was one of very few people alive who'd feasted on extinct animals. The image of him eating a dodo burger suddenly popped into his head, and he smiled uncomfortably.

  "Yeah, really cool barbecue," Chester laughed, stretching out his legs. "It's sort of like being back home again."

  Will nodded in response.

  The invigorating gusts of wind, the crackles of the dying fire mingling with the crash of waves, and the taste of seafood in their mouths — all this made Chester and Will experience the deepest pangs of homesickness. These elements invoked other, carefree times back on the surface — it could have been a vacation outing or a beach party late one summer's evening (and although Will's family rarely went on such outings — not together, anyway — he was still moved by the notion).

  But the more Will and Chester tried to pretend to themselves it was like home, the more they realized that it was no such thing, and that they were in a strange and dangerous place in which it was touch and go whether they made it through the next day. Trying to suppress these feelings, they made small talk, but the conversation soon petered out, and each fell to his own thoughts, eating the meal in silence.

  Elliott had taken her food with her to the water's edge, and periodically raised her rifle to scour the distant beaches.

  "Uh-oh," Cal said, and Will and Chester turned to look as she rose to her feet, letting her food slide from her lap. She held very still, her rifle fixed on something.

  "Time to go!" she called over to them, her eye still glued to the scope.

  "Did you see something?" Will asked.

  "Yes, I caught a flash... I thought we'd have more time before they reached the beaches... It's probably an advance patrol."

  Chester swallowed his mouthful in a noisy gulp.

  38

  "You crazy, crazy animal!" Sarah cried as she skied through the succulent plants, Bartleby pulling as he'd never pulled before. No doubt about it, he was hot on the scent trail of the boys — that was the good news. The bad news was that he was becoming more and more wild and unmanageable, and once or twice Sarah had thought that he was actually going to turn on and attack her.

  "Slow down!" she shouted.

  With a sharp snap, the leash went slack, and she lost her balance and fell flat on her back. The lantern slipped from her hand, spinning away and rebounding off the plants in its path, clicking up to its highest setting as it did so. Blinding rays of light strafed the tall trees behind her, intermittent flashes that would be visible for miles around. If she'd wanted to announce her presence, she couldn't have done a better job.

  She was winded and couldn't move for a few long seconds. Then she crawled rapidly to where the lantern had come to rest and threw herself over it to hide its light. She lay on it, panting and cursing blindly. Talk about rank amateurism!

  Still covering the lantern with her body, she switched it down again before turning her attention to the remains of the leather leash wound around her hand. The end where it had snapped was ragged and torn, and, as she inspected it more closely, she saw teeth marks — Bartleby had been having a quick chew at it when she hadn't been looking. The crafty so-and-so! If she hadn't been so infuriated with herself, she might even have admired his guile.

  The last glimpse she'd had of him was of his hindquarters, his back legs spinning in a blur and his large paws throwing up foliage as he tore off into the darkness.

  "That infernal cat!" she said to herself, calling him every name under the sun. He'd cover quite some distance at the speed he was going, and she'd only be kidding herself if she thought there was some way to get him back. She'd lost her only means of finding Will and Cal. "Infernal cat," she said again, more despondently this time. Her only option now was to stick to the foreshore in the hope that it might still lead her to her quarry.

  She picked herself up and broke into a trot, praying that Will hadn't peeled off in a totally different direction from the one Bartleby had been tracking. If he'd chosen a new route through the dense wall of foliage to her left, she didn't have a blind chance of finding him.

  Half an hour later the sound of waves was supplanted by that of rushing water. She remembered what she'd seen on the map: some sort of crossing to an island. She cut down toward the sea, and the sound intensified.

  She was almost at the causeway when, from out of nowhere, a shape materialized directly in her path. She nearly jumped out of her skin. It was a man. By now she was on the open beach, with no cover for some distance around her — she had no idea where he'd sprung from. In a fumbling panic, she swung the rifle from her shoulder, nearly dropping it altogether in the process.

  She heard a harsh nasal laugh and stood absolutely still, the rifle held defensively across her body. He was too close for her to raise it up, anyway.

  "Lost something?" he said in a contemptuous voice. He took a step toward her, and she lifted the lantern a little. In its dim glow she could make out the rugged face with its shadowed eye sockets.

  A Limiter.

  "Careless, very careless," he said, and thrust a rope roughly into her hand. It had a loop on it.

  She shook with fear, not knowing what to expect next. It had been different on the train when Rebecca was with her. Out here, she didn't relish the idea of being alone with these monsters — particularly if she'd done something to displease them. In these dark wilds, they were a law unto themselves. The thought raced through her mind that handing her the rope might be a prelude to them hanging her. Was this some kind of game they were playing? Maybe they were going to execute her because they considered her incompetent, a liability. And she couldn't really blame them — she'd gotten everything wrong so far.

  But her fear was unfounded. Bartleby edged into view from behind the Limiter's legs, the other end of the rope tied tightly around his neck and secured by a slipknot. The cat's whole deportment was hangdog, his tail tucked between his legs. Sarah didn't know if the Limiter had given him a beating, but the animal had clearly had the living daylights scared out of him somehow. Bartleby couldn't have been more different; as Sarah pulled him toward her, he came without the slightest resistance.

  "We're taking it from here." Another voice came from immediately behind her. She wheeled around to face a row of shadowy forms: the other three soldiers of the Limiter patrol. Although she hadn't seen hide nor hair of them for at least half a day, of course they must have been tailing her the whole time. She understood now why they had such a reputation for stealth; they really did move like phantoms. And she'd thought she was good.

  Sarah cleared her throat. "No," she began meekly as she glanced in the direction of the splashing water where the causeway began. She held her gaze there, not wanting to meet the dead, staring eyes of the Limiter before her. "I'll take the Hunter on the trail... over to the island... to..."

  "No need for that," said the single Limiter who was blocking her way, in a horribly quiet voice that was far more unsettling than a barked order. She could sense his anger that she'd dared to disagree with him. He moved his head sharply to the side and back again — it was a gesture of violence, a foretaste of what might follow if she continued to oppose him. "You've done enough already," he sneered.

  "But Rebecca said..." Sarah began, aware that this might be the last thing she ever said.

  "Leave it t
o us," one of the Limiters growled from behind, and gripped her upper arm so painfully that she wanted to pull away. But she didn't, and she refused to turn to look at him. All four were standing very close to her now. One of them brushed her other arm, and she could feel their breath on the back of her neck. She was scared witless. A vivid picture swam into her mind, of them slicing her throat and leaving her where she fell.

  "All right," she managed to whisper, and the hand crushing her arm eased its vise slightly. She lowered her head, already hating herself for not standing up to them. But better to go along with these savage men, she reasoned, than be executed on the spot. If they captured Will alive, she might yet get the chance to find out the truth about Tam's death. Rebecca had promised Sarah that she'd be able to execute Will herself — at least that meant she'd have some time to interrogate him.

  "Go upcoast. The renegades might have some other means off the island," a Limiter hissed into her ear. The hand on her arm gave her a sudden push, and she stumbled a few paces. In the seconds she took to right herself, they had completely vanished. She was alone with just the breeze on her face and the most crushing sense of failure and shame. She'd come all the way only to be pulled off the chase. But she would have been a fool to resist Limiters. A dead fool.

  She picked her way slowly along the foreshore, telling herself not to stop as she passed the causeway. But she did allow herself the briefest glance back. Although there was no sign of her Styx patrol, surely one of them was holding back to ensure that she obeyed their orders. She no alternative but to go where they'd said, which she knew was a total waste of time. Will was on the island — holed up in a dead end with no way out — and she'd been so very, very close.

  "Move it!" she snapped at Bartleby. "This is all your fault!"

  She tugged hard on the rope. He followed obediently, but pointed his head toward the causeway, whimpering. He knew as well as she did that they were going in the completely wrong direction.

  39

  In a cavernous area, the suggestion of a track. A narrow strip just discernible through the rock field. It could have been naturally formed... Dr. Burrows wasn't sure.

  He looked more closely and... there!... yes!... he saw the broad flagstones, laid end to end. He used the tip of his boot to scuff away the gravel and expose the gaps between them, which occurred at regular intervals. No question, then, it definitely wasn't a natural feature... and as he progressed farther along, a small flight of steps came into view. He mounted them and stopped. Noting that the path continued into the distance, he began to scrutinize the area, and discovered there were squared-off stones standing proud of the ground on both sides.

  "Yes! These have been fashioned!" he mumbled to himself. And then he saw they were arranged in lines. He leaned forward to examine them. No, not in lines, they were arranged into squares.

  "Rectilinear structures!" Dr. Burrows exclaimed, his excitement growing. "They're ruins!" Unhooking his blue-handled geological hammer from his belt, he stepped from the track, peering wildly around at the ground by his feet as he went.

  "Foundations?" He bent to feel the regular blocks, brushing off pebbles and using the tip of his hammer to heave aside chunks of loose rubble from around them. He nodded in response to his own question, a smile crinkling his dirt-stained face.

  "No doubt about it, these are foundations." He straightened up and saw more rectangles, the shapes receding into the darkness. "Was this once a settlement? " But as he looked even farther afield, he began to appreciate the scale of what he'd stumbled upon. "No, it was bigger than that! More like a town!"

  Replacing his geological hammer on his belt, he mopped his brow. The heat was stultifying in here, and the sound of trickling water came from close by. Long ribbons of steam laced the air, slowly drifting past each other like party streamers in slow motion. A pair of small bats flitted by, disrupting the ribbons with the rapid beat of their wings.

  The huge dust mite clacked gently as it waited for him like a well-trained dog back on the path. It had followed him for the last mile as he'd made his way along. While Dr. Burrows enjoyed the companionship, he didn't delude himself as to the creature's motives. It was plainly after more of his food.

  The breakthrough that he could read the ancient language of the people who had once inhabited these parts had ignited his passion for further knowledge about them. Now, if only he could find some artifacts that would enable him to formulate a picture of how they lived. He was nosing around in the foundations, searching for anything that might help him, when a call resonated through the still heat of the cavern. A strident, low screech that echoed from the walls.

  A rushing sound, something like a whoomf, followed. It came from somewhere above him.

  The dust mite was immediately as still as a statue.

  "What the...?" Dr. Burrows looked up but was unable to spot the source of the sounds. It was only then that he realized he couldn't see any roof to the cavern. It was as though he was standing in the bottom of a massive crevasse. He'd been so preoccupied with the discovery of the ruins that he hadn't taken the time to inspect the surroundings.

  He slowly moved his light orb so that it was poised above his head. In the gloom he could just make out the sheer stretches of the crevasse sides, gently undulating vertical folds of stone with the texture of a Cadbury's Flake, rising up to darkness. The color wasn't that dissimilar, either, only the rock was a lighter hue of brown. Deprived for so long of his beloved chocolate bar and the daily fixes that were such a part of his life back in Highfield, his mind began to wander and his mouth water. This craving reminded him how phenomenally hungry he was — the supplies the Coprolites had provided were hardly very appetizing or, indeed, very filling.

  The rushing sound came again, dispelling any thoughts of food. This time it was closer and louder. He felt the huge volume of displaced air on his face — it was something big, all right. He whipped back his hand with the orb and, cupping it in his palm, huddled down low.

  His stomach knotting with fear, he fought the impulse to run, remaining motionless among the rocks. He was in open ground, with nowhere close that would offer cover — a horribly exposed position. He glanced over at the dust mite. It was holding so still that it took him a while to locate it. He told himself that this had to be a defensive behavior — the creature was attempting to conceal itself. Therefore, he reasoned, whatever was circling over them was to be feared. If a monstrously large dust mite, the size of an adolescent elephant and protected by an armored coat, had cause for alarm, then he had to be a prime target. A nice, soft, fleshy human grub, ripe for the picking.

  Whoomf!

  A huge shadow swooped back and forth.

  Closer and closer it came — circling like a hawk, describing increasingly tighter rotations.

  He knew he couldn't stay where he was. At that instant, the giant mite moved again, scuttling rapidly off where the path continued. Dr. Burrows hesitated a moment and then bolted after it, stumbling over the foundations and the rough ground. He was barking his shins against the rocks and sliding and tripping on obstacles as he fled blindly, but he did not fall.

  Whoomf!

  It was almost on top of him. He stifled a cry, flinging his arms protectively around his head as he ran. What in the world was it? Some winged predator? Coming in for the kill like a bird of prey?

  He couldn't believe how fast the dust mite was moving, propelling itself along on its six legs. He could hardly see it up ahead, and if it hadn't been for the vague track, he was sure he would have lost his way altogether. But where were the path and the dust mite heading?

  Whoomf! Whoomf!

  "Gah!" he screamed, and dropped to the ground. A draft of warm air from the beat of shadowy wings caught his face. It was close! Now on all fours, he frantically twisted his head around for a glimpse of his hunter. He was certain it was wheeling in a circle not far above him and would be swooping down any second now to make the kill.

  Would this be it? Snatched from th
e ground by some subterranean flying beast?

  His imagination running riot with thoughts of what the creature could be, he sped off again, crawling like a madman. He had to find a hiding place and darn quick.

  Head down, he cannoned straight into something hard. He dropped onto his stomach, half stunned, and tried to see what he'd come up against. He was still on the path, so he guessed it was where the dust mite had gone. He'd reached the cavern wall — and before him was a carved entrance in the face of the rock with a clearly defined lintel perhaps fifty or so feet above.

  He cried out with relief, daring to let himself think that he'd found a safe haven. He began to crawl again, keeping close to the ground, scraping his knees and calves and knocking his knuckles raw on rubble as he went. He didn't stop until he realized he hadn't heard the sound for several seconds. All was calm and still. Was he safe?

  He sank down onto the ground and curled up in a ball, unable to suppress a severe fit of the shakes. To top it off, he got a serious case of the hiccups, each one making his body spasm as it came. After a few minutes he stretched out and, still hiccupping, rolled onto his side. He drew several deep and tremulous breaths as he slowly relaxed his rigid fingers from around the light orb in his hand.

  He cleared his throat and mumbled. "Yes, yes, yes, hic! ", ashamed of his post-traumatic panic attack, then sat up to look around. He was in an enclosed area with two rows of large columns on either side of him, all carved from the same brownish stone of the cavern outside. His eyes opened in astonishment.

  "What the hic? "

  * * * * *

  Elliott was leading the boys inland. In places the undergrowth was so thick she had to use her machete to cut a way through. Following her in single file, the boys helped each other by making sure that the rubbery branches of the tall succulent plants and the lower fronds of the trees didn't swing back into the face of the person behind. It was airless, and the boys were soon dripping with perspiration and missing the open spaces and light winds of the beach.

 
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