Tunnels 02 deeper, p.4
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       Tunnels 02 - Deeper, p.4
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           Roderick Gordon

  Since that day, she had tried to tell herself a million times that it had been for the best, that she'd been in no condition to care for a young child, let alone go on the run from the Styx with one in tow. But that did nothing to dispel the image of the small boy's tear-filled eyes as he reached out a tiny hand and called for her over and over and over again as she'd slipped into the night.

  The tiny hand wavering in the light of the streetlamps, reaching for her…

  * * * * *

  Something hurt recoiled in her head, like a badly injured animal rolling itself into a ball.

  Her thoughts were so vivid that, as a passerby on the pavement threw a glance at her, she wondered if she'd been talking out loud.

  "Pull yourself together," she urged herself. She had to stay focused. She shook her head to dispel the image of the little face from her mind. Anyway, it was so long ago now and, like the buildings around her, everything had changed, changed irreparably. If the message for he in the dead mailbox was true — something she couldn’t yet bring herself to believe — then Seth had become Will.

  He had become someone else altogether.

  After several miles, Sarah came to a busy street, with shops and a brick-built monolith of a supermarket. She grumbled beneath her breath as she was forced to stop at a crosswalk in the midst of a small crowd, waiting for the lights to change. She was uncomfortable, and huddled tightly inside her coat. Then, with a beeping, the green man lit up and she crossed the road, forging ahead of the people burdened by their shopping bags.

  It began to rain, and people scurried for cover or back to their cars, leaving the streets less busy. Sarah carried on, unnoticed. She heard Tam's voice, as clearly as if he was walking beside her.

  "See, but don't be seen."

  It was something he had taught her. As young children, in brazen disregard of their parents' instructions, they had often sneaked out of the house. Disguising themselves by donning rags and wiping burnt cork on their faces, they had taken their lives in their hands and gone deep into one of the roughest, most dangerous places you could find in the whole of the Colony — the Rookeries. Even now she could picture Tam as he was then, his grinning, youthful visage streaked with black and his eyes shining with excitement as the two of them hared away after yet another close scrape. She missed him so much.

  She was pulled once more from her thoughts. A loud exchange in a language she couldn't understand had caught her attention. Several shops down, two workmen were leaving a café, its steamy windows illuminated by the striplights inside. She made a beeline for it.

  She ordered a big cup of coffee, paid for it at the counter, then took it over to a table by the window. Sipping the thin, tasteless liquid, she slipped the creased note from her pocket and slowly reread the artless handwriting. She still couldn't bring herself to accept what it said. How could Tam be dead? How could that be? As bad as things were in this Topsoil world, she'd always been able to draw small comfort from the knowledge that her brother was still alive and well in the Colony. It was like a flickering candle at the end of an incredibly long tunnel, the hope that one day she might see him again. And now even that had been taken away from her; now he was dead.

  She flipped over the note and read the other side, then read the entire letter again, shaking her head.

  The note must be wrong; Joe Waites must have been mistaken when he wrote it. How could her own son, Seth, her firstborn, who was once her pride and joy, have betrayed Tam to the Styx? Her own flesh and blood had effectively murdered her brother. And if it really was true, how could Seth have been corrupted like that? What could have driven him to do it? There was equally shocking news in the final paragraph. She read the lines over and over again, about how Seth had abducted her youngest son, forcing Cal to go with him.

  "No," she said out loud, shaking her head, refusing to accept that Seth was responsible. And there it was again: Her son was Seth, and not Will, and he couldn't be capable of any of this. Perhaps someone had tampered with the note. Perhaps someone knew about the dead mailbox. But how, and why? None of it made any sense.

  She realized her hands were trembling. She rested them hard against the table, crumpling the letter in her palms. Then she cleared a small circle in the condensation on the inside of the café window and peered through. It was still too early, too light, so she decided to bide her time a while longer, drawing with the corner of a paper napkin in some coffee slopped on the scratched red melamine of the tabletop. As the coffee evaporated, she simply stared down at her front, as if she'd fallen into a trance. When, several moments later, she came to with a small start, she noticed a button on her coat hanging by a thread. She tugged at it and it came away in her hand. Without thinking, she dropped it into her empty cup and then just gazed blankly at the steamed-up windows, at the vague shapes of people hurrying by.

  Finally the owner ambled over, giving the empty tables a casual swipe with his grimy dishcloth and straightening the chairs on the way. He stopped by the window and joined Sarah in looking out, then, in an offhand tone, asked if he could get her anything else. Without acknowledging him, she simply got up and made straight for the door. Angered, he snatched up her empty coffee cup and spotted the discarded button sitting in the bottom of it.

  That did it. She wasn't a regular, and she'd hogged his table, spending next to nothing.

  "Ch…!' he started to yell, but only managed the first letters of "Cheapskate" before the word shriveled on his lips.

  He'd happened to glance down at the tabletop. He blinked and shifted his head, as if the light were playing tricks on his eyes. There, staring back at him from the red melamine, was a surprisingly accomplished image.

  It was a face, some five inches square and built up from layer upon layer of dried-out coffee, as if it had been painted with tempera. But it wasn't the artistry that stopped him cold, it was the fact that the face had its mouth wrenched open in a jaw-breaking rictus of a scream. He blinked again; it was so unnerving that for several seconds he didn't move, simply stared at the image. He found it impossible to associate the quiet, mousy woman who had just left his café with this shocking portrayal of anguish. Quickly he covered it with his dishcloth as he set about wiping it away.

  Back out on the street, Sarah tried not to walk too quickly. Before she entered Highfield, she broke her journey to book a room in a bed-and-breakfast. There were several on the same street, but she chose one, a shabby Victorian terraced house, at random. That is how she had to be if she wanted to survive.

  Never the same twice.

  Never twice the same.

  If she fell into any sort of routine or pattern, the Styx would be on her in a flash.

  Giving a false name and address, she paid cash in advance for a single night. She took her key from the manager, a wrinkled old man, and on the way to her room checked the location of the fire escape. Just in case. Once in her room, she locked the door, wedging a chair under the handle. Then she pulled the sun-faded curtains closed and perched on the end of the bed while she attempted to gather her thoughts.

  She opened the Highfield Bugle, a newspaper she'd taken from the reception desk. As she always did, she took out a pen and went straight to the classifieds, circling the advertisements for short-term employment that might suit her. Then she flicked her way back through the rest of the paper, perusing the articles without much interest. But one item caught her eye:

  THE BEAST OF

  HIGHFIELD?

  By T.K. Martin, Staff Reporter

  Another sighting of the mysterious doglike animal took place in Highfield Common over the weekend. Mrs. Croft-Hardinage of the Clockdown Houses was out walking her basset hound, Goldy, on Saturday evening when she spotted the beast in the lower branches of a tree.

  "It was chewing the head off something I thought was a children's plush toy until I realized it was a rabbit and saw the blood everywhere," she told the Bugle. "It was huge with horrible eyes and nasty-looking teeth. When it noticed me, it just spat ou
t the head, and I could have sworn it was looking straight at me."

  Reports of the animal are confused, some describing it as a jaguar or puma, similar to the sightings of a large cat at Bodmin Moor, which began in the eighties, while others say it is more doglike in appearance. Kenneth Wood, recently supervised a search after a local man claimed that the beast made off with his miniature poodle, tearing the leash from his hands. Other residents from the Highfield area have reported that their dogs have gone missing in recent months.

  The mystery continues…

  With aggressive jabs, Sarah began to doodle in the margin by the article. Although she was only using an old ballpoint, before long she had drawn an intricately detailed picture of a moonlit cemetery, not that different from the one in Highfield where she had taken refuge when she'd first escaped to the surface. But there the similarity ended, as she sketched a large, blank headstone in the foreground. She stared at it for a while before, using his Topsoiler name, she eventually wrote:

  Will Burrows?

  Sarah frowned. The anger welling up inside her from her brother's death was so powerful, she felt as if she were being swept along on a wave. And when she arrived wherever it was taking her, she needed someone to blame. Of course, at the root of it there were the Styx, but now she allowed herself to think the unthinkable: If it really was true about Seth, then he was going to pay, and pay dearly.

  Still staring at the sketch, she tensed her hand and the pen snapped, sending slivers of clear plastic shooting over the hotel bed.

  6

  With grim faces, the boys clung to the side of the railroad car, the tunnel wall flashing past them in a terrifying blur even though the train was decelerating as it negotiated a sharp bend.

  They had already thrown the backpacks out, and Chester had been the last to hoist himself over the side and join the other two. He let his feet scrabble down until they found a ledge, then held on for all he was worth. Will was just about to shout to the other two boys when his brother beat him to the punch.

  "JUMP!" Cal yelled, and let loose a howl as he thrust himself off. Will watched as he vanished into the darkness.

  Will had no option but to follow his brother. He gritted his teeth and then pushed himself off, twisting around as he did so. For a split second he seemed to hang in the wind. Then he landed on his feet with a bone-jarring jolt and pitched forward into a helter-skelter sprint, running at a crazy speed with his arms outspread as he tried to keep his balance.

  Everything was a confusion of acrid smoke as the enormous wheels ground just feet away from him. But he was going impossibly fast and had hardly covered any distance when his own feet tripped him up. He went flying, falling first onto one knee, and the next instant flipping onto his chest. He skid along, his body plowing up dust in its wake. Coming to a halt, he slowly rolled over onto his back and then sat up, coughing out a mouthful of dirt. The huge train wheels continued to trundle past, and he thanked his lucky stars that he hadn't fallen under them. He pulled a light orb from his pocket and began to look for any sign of the others.

  After a while he heard a loud groaning coming from farther up the track. As he watched, Chester emerged from the smoke-ridden darkness, crawling on all fours. He raised his head like an ill-tempered tortoise and, spying Will, sped up.

  "All right?" Will shouted at him.

  "Oh, just brilliant!" Chester shouted as he plunked himself next to Will.

  Will shrugged, rubbing the leg that had taken all the impact of his fall.

  "Cal?" Chester asked.

  "Dunno. Better wait for him here." Will couldn’t tell if Chester had heard him, but his friend didn't seem inclined to go and look for the boy, anyway.

  Some minutes later, as the train continued its relentless passage past them, Will's brother emerged through the smoky gloom with a rucksack on each shoulder, strolling jauntily, as if he didn't have a care in the world. He squatted next to Will.

  "I got the bags. You all in one piece?" he yelled. There was a large scrape on his forehead, and little droplets of blood were collecting and running down the bridge of his nose.

  Will nodded and looked past Cal. "Get down! The guard's car!" he warned, pulling his brother close to him.

  Tucked into the tunnel wall, they watched the light looming toward them. It was streaming from the windows of the guard's train car, forming broad rectangles on the walls as it went. It shot past them, blasting them with a split second of illumination. As the train sped into the tunnel ahead and the light receded, growing smaller and smaller until there was nothing of it still visible, Will had an overpowering sense of finality.

  In the unaccustomed silence, he got up and stretched his legs. He'd grown so used to the rocking of the train that it was a novelty to be back on terra firma again.

  Will sniffed and was just about to say something to the other two boys when the train whistle blew in the distance.

  "What does that mean?" he said eventually.

  "It's coming up to the station," Cal answered, his eyes still on the darkness where they had last seen the train.

  "How do you know that?" Chester asked him.

  "My… our uncle told me."

  "Your uncle? Can he help us? Where is he?" Chester fired the questions at Cal in rapid succession, his face filled with anticipation at the thought that there might be someone who could come to their rescue.

  "No," Cal snapped, frowning at Chester.

  "Why not? I don't understand—"

  "No, Chester," Will interjected, shaking his head urgently. His friend could tell he needed to keep his mouth buttoned.

  Will turned to his brother. "So what happens now? They'll find out Chester's gone when they unload the train. What then?"

  "Then nothing." Cal shrugged. "Job done. They'll just think he's bailed out. They know he won't survive for long on his own… After all, he's only a Topsoiler." He laughed humorlessly and kept on talking, as if Chester weren't there. "They won't send a search party or anything."

  "How can you be so sure about that?" Will quizzed his brother. "Wouldn't they assume he'd head straight back to the Colony again?"

  "Nice idea, and even if he did happen to make it all the way — on foot — the Blackheads would just pick him off as soon as he showed up," Cal said.

  "Blackheads?" Chester asked.

  "Styx — that's one of the names the Colonists call them behind their backs," Will explained.

  "Oh, right," Chester said. "Well, anyway, I'm never going back to that foul place again. Not on your life!" he added firmly to Cal.

  Cal didn't respond, instead putting on his backpack as Will picked up the other one by its straps, testing its weight. It was heavy, stuffed to the brim with their equipment and the extra food and light orbs. He lifted it onto his back, wincing as the strap dug into his injured shoulder. The poultice Imago had applied to the wound had done wonders, but any pressure was still incredibly painful. Will tried to adjust the rucksack so that most of the weight was on his good shoulder, and they set off.

  Before long, Cal sped onward at a fast trot, leaving Will and Chester to watch his bobbing silhouette advance into the murky gloom. The two of them strolled between the enormous metal girders of the train tracks. There was so much they wanted to say to each other, but now that they were alone, it was as if neither knew where to begin. Finally Will cleared his throat.

  "We've got some catching up to do," he said awkwardly. "Stuff happened — crazy stuff — while you were in the Hold."

  Will began to speak about his family, his biological family, whom he had met for the first time in the Colony, and what life had been like with them. Then he recounted how he and Uncle Tam had planned Chester's escape. "It was awful when it went wrong. I just couldn't believe it when I saw Rebecca was with the St—"

  "That little brat!" Chester exploded. "Didn't you ever think there was something seriously wrong with her? All those years you were growing up together?"

  "Well, I thought she was a bit strange, but th
en I thought all sisters were like that," Will said.

  "A bit strange?" Chester repeated. "She's a certifiable nut-case. You must have known she wasn't your real sister."

  "No, how could I? I… I didn’t even know I was adopted or where I'd come from."

  "Don't you remember when your parents first brought you home?" Chester said, sounding a little amazed.

  "No," Will replied thoughtfully. "I would have been about four, I suppose. Do you remember much from when you were that old?

  Chester made a noise as if he wasn't wholly convinced, but Will went on with the chain of events. Trudging along beside him, Chester listened intently. Will finally came to the discussion with Imago, when he and Cal had had to decide whether they were going to return Topsoil or travel down into the Deeps.

  Chester nodded.

  "And that's how we came to be on the Miners' Train with you," Will finished, reaching the end of the story.

  "Well, I'm glad you did." His friend smiled.

  "I couldn't leave you behind," Will said. "I had to make sure you were OK. That's the least I—

  Will's voice broke. He was attempting to articulate his emotions, his remorse, for everything Chester had been put through.

  "They beat me, you know," Chester said abruptly.

  "Huh?"

  "After they caught me again," he said, so quietly that Will could hardly hear him. "They threw me back in the Hold and whacked me with clubs… tons of times," he continued. "Rebecca would come to watch."

  "Oh, no," Will mumbled.

  They were both silent for a few paces as they picked their way over the massive railroad ties.

  "Did they hurt you badly?" Will eventually asked, dreading the answer.

  Chester didn't reply right away. "They were really angry with us… with you mostly. They were shouting about you a lot as they hit me, saying you'd made them look like fools." Chester cleared his throat weakly and swallowed. His speech became confused. "It was… I … they…" He took in a sharp breath. "The beatings never went that far, and all I could think was that there was something much worse in store for me." He paused as he wiped his nose. "Then this old Styx sentenced me to Banishment, which was even more frightening. I was so scared, I completely fell apart." Chester's gaze dropped to the ground, as if he'd done something to be ashamed of.

 
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