Tunnels 02 deeper, p.46
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       Tunnels 02 - Deeper, p.46

           Roderick Gordon

  "Keep it together, Will," she rebuked him.

  "Oh, I'm together all right," he came back at her, breaking into a fresh peal of laughter. "Against all odds."

  "OK, to the Pore!" she announced. "Then the Wetlands."

  "Where we'll be home and dry?" Will asked with a chuckle.


  "Is that you, Will?" Sarah moaned as she felt someone gripping her wrist. Then she remembered that he, Cal, and the others had long gone, just as she'd urged them to do.

  She opened her eyes to darkness and the most excruciating agony she'd ever experienced in her life.

  Every single pain and ache, every single toothache and headache and discomfort that comes during a lifetime, all accumulated together into a single moment of unendurable agony: This was how it felt. A thousand times worse even than childbirth.

  She cried out, battling to stay conscious. Her eyes remained open despite the fact that she couldn't see who was there. She didn't know how long she'd been out for — it was as if she'd pushed her way between a pair of heavy curtains and something ineluctable was pulling her back through them so they could draw together again. It was the most tremendous struggle, because the pain was forcing her back behind the curtains, a place so tranquil and warm and welcoming. It was all she could do to resist the temptation to go there. But she wasn't going to allow herself that final bow, and with each labored breath she fought against it.

  The grip on her wrist tightened, and as she heard the rasping sound of the Styx language, her heart fell. A light appeared somewhere in the very periphery of her vision, and there were more Styx voices as she saw shadowy forms flitting around her.

  "Limiter," she said, recognizing the camouflage on the arm that was now checking over her body.

  In confirmation, a harsh voice snapped at her.

  "Stand up!"

  "I can't," she said, forcing herself to focus in the dim light.

  There were four Limiters there. She'd been found by a patrol. Two of them hauled her to her feet. She felt the crippling pain in her hip and screamed — it reverberated through the tunnel, but it was as though someone else was crying out. She came close to losing consciousness again, the curtains parting a little to allow her through.

  The Limiters forced her to walk, suspended between them. The pain was unbearable. She felt her hip grinding, fractured bone upon fractured bone, and nearly blacked out. Sweat trickled down her forehead and into her eyes, making her blink, making her close her eyes.

  She was dying and she knew it.

  But she wasn't going to die yet.

  As long as she was breathing there was still a chance she could help Will and Cal.

  * * * * *

  Drake slipped through the tunnel as fleetly as the winds that swept around him. He paused every so often to search the path for any sign that it had been used recently. The constant gale ensured the sand and grit didn't lie undisturbed for long, so he knew he was unlikely to be confused by any old tracks along the way.

  Without stopping, he touched the tip of his shoulder, which had been clipped by a bullet. It was only a flesh wound — he'd had worse. He dropped his hand to the knife at his hip, and then to the pad of stove guns on his thigh. He felt distinctly vulnerable without his rifle and rucksack full of munitions, which he'd lost back at the entrance to the Bunker. And his hearing was slightly impaired from the blast of the stove mortar, an unremitting whistling present in his ears.

  Still, all that was a small price to pay for getting out with his life. It had been a close call — the closest yet — and it didn't make sense to him. The Limiters had him cold, and yet they'd held back. It was as if they wanted him alive — but that wasn't their modus operandi at all. After the mortar had caused mayhem among the droves of approaching Styx, he had taken advantage of the chaos and the whirling dust to duck back into the Bunker.

  From then on it was child's play. He could navigate the complex with his eyes shut, although Elliott's explosions had blocked several of the fastest routes through. And there were numerous patrols of Limiters, many with stalkers, to contend with. For a while he laid low in a dugout he'd prepared for this very eventuality. He was fortunate that the dogs were hampered by the aftermath of Elliott's handiwork; the fumes and dust still carried in the air made it impossible for them to pick up his scent trail.

  He used a drainage duct to exit the Bunker, but even when he was back on the Great Plain he found he wasn't out of the woods yet. To shake off the mounted troop of Styx and the packs of stalkers snapping at his heels, he'd had to lay some false tracks. He'd used every trick in the book to finally elude them.

  Now, as the sound of the wind joined with the whistling in his ears, he squatted down to study the ground. He was concerned that he hadn't found anything yet. Elliott could be taking one of several routes, but this was the most likely.

  He got up and continued for another hundred feet until he came across what he'd been looking for.

  "Here we are," he announced, evaluating the impressions in the dust. They were fresh footprints, and it was easy enough for him to tell to whom they belonged.

  "Chester, and... and this must be Will! So he made it!" he said, with a shake of his head and a tight smile, relieved. He reached his hand over to the left, tracing around another print, and then lowered himself down onto his chest to assess the profile in more detail.

  "Cal — your leg's acting up, isn't it?" he muttered, seeing the unevenness of one of the boy's footprints.

  Another set of tracks caught his eye in the dust next to Cal's.

  "Stalker?" he posed aloud, wondering if there was any evidence of a struggle, and maybe even traces of blood, in the area. He crawled closer to scrutinize the prints.

  "No, this is no dog, this is feline. This must be a Hunter."

  Mulling over what this could mean, he stood up and searched a wider area. "Elliott, where are you?" he was saying to himself as he attempted to locate her prints, knowing it would be more difficult due to the manner in which she moved.

  A quick search yielded nothing, and he decided he couldn't afford to spend any longer checking. Every second meant that Elliott and the boys would be that much farther away. He set off again along the tunnel.

  Several hundred feet farther on, he squatted down to inspect the ground again, then cried out.

  "Ow! Dang it!"

  He felt the Parchers burn his hand and saw the faint glow they were beginning to emit. He immediately wiped his hand on his pants to remove the bacteria before they sucked the moisture from his skin and flared fully into life. A moment too late and the reaction would have been as painful as if his hand had been immersed in acid. He'd witnessed enough stalkers yelping and bucking in agony, their noses shining as brightly as a tail light on a Topsoil bicycle, to know how it went.

  But he'd removed the bacteria in time and, aware that Elliott wouldn't have used them unless she'd thought it absolutely necessary, he began to run.

  That was when he heard a massive explosion from somewhere up ahead.

  "That sounds suspiciously like my Sharps munitions store going off," he said to himself.

  There followed a deep rumbling that could have been mistaken for rolling thunder, although it lasted for considerably longer than any Topsoil storm. The wind in the tunnel faltered, then reversed direction.

  If he had been moving rapidly before, he now flew through the tunnel, terrified he was going to be too late.


  "Got something?" Chester asked Elliott as they studied the horizon through their rifle scopes.

  "Yes... activity to the left," she confirmed. "Do you see them?"

  "No," Chester admitted. "Nothing."

  "There are two Limiters, maybe a third," Elliott said.

  They'd already had several sightings of Styx along the way, and each time had been forced to change direction. This had been the pattern since they'd emerged into a goliath space with odd-looking, dough-shaped rock formations scattered throughout it — menhirs, Will
had called them.

  "We'd better make ourselves scarce," Elliott said. Although the Limiters were a considerable distance away, she and Chester kept low and used the menhirs for cover as they strode back to where Will and Cal were waiting.

  "What's up?" Will asked.

  "More of them," Chester replied curtly, keeping his eyes averted.

  "Doesn't look promising," Elliott said, shaking her head. "We can't go the way I wanted, so we're going to cut down the slope closer to the Pore, and then... then on to..."

  She hesitated as the distant sound of a howl carried through the arid air, followed by barking.

  Bartleby let out a small meow, and his ears pricked up like radar dishes as he spun his whole body around to where the noises were coming from.

  "They've got the stalkers in here," Elliott said. "Come on."

  They kept on the move, filled with a sense of urgency, but Will and the others found they weren't as panicky as they might have been. For one thing, the soldiers were far enough off that it didn't feel as if they posed an immediate threat. But more significantly, the fight with the Limiter had had a profound effect on each of them. Elliott's words of reassurance to Cal back at the Sharps resonated within all three boys; it was as though they had been partially anesthetized from the constant fear and dread that they'd been living with. Elliott was right — the experience, horrible as it was, had toughened them up.

  And they'd found out their opponents weren't the invincible warriors they had once thought. The could be beaten. Besides, the boys had Elliott on their side. As they tramped down the slope, Will dreamingly began to imagine her as some new kind of superhero. The incredible exploding girl, he mused, with fingers of dynamite and nitroglycerine for blood. He chuckled to himself. She always rose to the occasion with something up her sleeve to help them out of a tight corner. Long may it continue, he thought.

  So it came as a surprise when, after another stop to reconnoiter the horizon, Elliott grew increasingly agitated. She was always so calm and collected that her behavior began to infect the boys, setting them on edge. She was seeing Limiters everywhere.

  "This isn't good. We've got to head even farther down," she told them, making a brisk quarter turn and lifting her rifle to her shoulder for a final check before setting off on the new course.

  Will didn't grasp the importance of this change in direction until they eventually came upon the Pore itself.

  Water drizzled down on them in sporadic, wind-tossed showers, as Will gazed into the seemingly infinite cavity.

  He whistled in astonishment.

  "That's one humongous hole!" he exclaimed, immediately going to the brink and peering down.

  His vertigo affecting him, Cal maintained a wide margin between himself and the edge of the enormous drop.

  Will was examining the curvature of the Pore through his headset. "Man, this is big. Really big."

  "Yes," Elliott said. "You could say that."

  "Can't even see to the other side," Chester muttered to no one in particular.

  "It's about a mile at its widest," Elliott said, taking a swig of water. "And who knows how deep it is? Nobody who's ever fallen in has come back to tell the story — except, a long time ago, they say a man hauled himself out of it."

  "I heard about him. Abraham someone," Will said, recalling that Tam had talked about him.

  "Many people thought he was a fraud," Elliott went on. "Either that or his brains were cooked by fever." She stared deep into the Pore. "But there's a heap of old legends about some sort of" — she hesitated, as if what she was about to say was ludicrous — "sort of place below."

  "What do you mean?" Will asked, quickly turning to her. He had to know more, regardless of how Chester might react. "What place?"

  "Oh, here we go again with his twenty questions," murmured Chester, right on cue. Will ignored him.

  "They say there's another world, but Drake thought it was a load of old codswallop," she said, screwing on the top of her canteen.

  As they passed around the edge of the Pore, there were no further signs of any more Limiters. Within a few minutes of fast marching, Will noticed the outline of some sort of regular structure. Through his lens it became clear that it wasn't a building but a massive arch.

  Although crumbled and eroded, the arch had an icon on its keystone that he recognized. Carved into it were three divergent lines: the same symbol that was on the jade pendant Uncle Tam had given him just before his final showdown with the Styx Division in the Eternal City.

  While pondering this coincidence, Will was distracted by the peculiar sight of papers strewn all over the ground on the far side of the arch. Chester and Elliott had already picked up a few of these pages and were examining them.

  "What's all this?" Will asked as he joined them.

  Chester put some pages in his hand without comment.

  One glance was all it took.

  "Dad!" Will exclaimed. "My Dad!"

  A number of the sheets contained pictures of stones, on which were painstakingly drafted sketches of strange and complex symbols. Densely penciled notes filled the other pages. The unmistakable handwriting of his father littered the margins.

  Will scanned the ground, pushing through the loose pages with his boot. He found a rather ratty pair of brown wool socks knotted together, with large holes in the toes, and then, bizarrely, a Mickey Mouse toothbrush, well used from the looks of it.

  "I wondered where that had gone!" Will smiled, pushing against the grimy and worn bristles with his thumb. "Silly old Dad... he took my toothbrush with him!"

  But any cheerfulness evaporated as he came across the blue-and-purple-marbled cover of a notebook. It was clear then where all the pages he come from. He snatched it up and studied the label stuck of the front, a bookplate with a bespectacled owl at the side and Ex Libras printed in swirly copperplate lettering across the top.

  "Journal Three... Dr. Roger Burrows," Will read aloud

  He dashed back to the arch. Passing under it, he didn't pause as he moved out onto the platform, immediately spotting a weather-worn flight of stone steps that led off from it. Reaching the last one, he stooped to peer below. He couldn't see anything. But as he raised his eyes, blinking as the rain fell on his face, something caught his attention.

  Straight in front of him was his father's blue-handled geological hammer, its tip lodged in the rock. He leaned over to retrieve it. It came loose after several tugs, and he regarded it for a few seconds before renewing his efforts to try to see farther down the walls of the Pore. Even through the lens of the headset, he saw nothing there.

  Deep in thought, he rejoined the others.

  "What happened here?" he said, his voice brittle with apprehension.

  Elliott and Chester were silent — neither of them able to give him an answer.

  "My dad...?" Will said to Chester.

  Chester looked into the space between them, his face expressionless and his lips tightly clamped as if he was disinclined to say anything.

  "He's probably all right," Elliott said. "If we keep going, we might..."

  "Yes, we might catch up with him," Will completed her sentence, grabbing at the suggestion to give himself some comfort. "I bet he just left these things behind by accident... dropped them... He's a bit forgetful sometimes... His mind churned with explanations for his father's absence as he looked back at the arch. "But... not... careless," he added slowly. "I mean... it's not as if his rucksack's here, or..."

  A terrified yelp from Cal yanked him from his thoughts. The boy had been lounging against a sizable boulder a little way back from the edge of the Pore, and leaped up as if he'd been stung by a bee.

  "It moved! I swear the stinking rock moved!" he shouted.

  The rock had moved, and it was still moving. Like some miracle, it had risen up on jointed legs and was rotating. As it came to a stop, they all saw the huge, vacillating antennae. The machinelike mouthparts gave a single clack.

  "Ohmygosh!" Chester shrieked.

  "Oh, do shut up!" Elliott rebuked him. "It's only a cave cow."

  The boys watched as the insect — Dr. Burrows gargantuan "dust mite" and one-time traveling companion — clacked again, and then trundled cautiously forward. Bartleby scampered around its circumference, venturing forward to sniff at it and then retreating back again, as if he didn't quite know what to make of the creature.

  "Shoot it!" Chester exhorted Elliott as he shielded himself behind her, petrified. "Kill it! It's horrific!"

  "It's only a baby," Elliott said, quite unconcerned as she went up to it and slapped its thick exoskeleton with a dull thud. "They're harmless. They graze on algae, not meat. You don't need to be..."

  Something speared on the cave cow's mouthparts silenced her. Patting the insect again, she leaned forward to retrieve it.

  It was Dr. Burrows's backpack, badly torn and turned inside out.

  Will approached her slowly and took it from her.

  His eyes said it all.

  "So this thing... this cave cow... you say it's harmless, but could it have hurt my father?"

  "Not a chance. Even the adults wouldn't harm a hair on your head, unless one of them sat on you by accident. I told you, they don't eat flesh." She put her hand over Will's as he continued to clutch the rucksack, and pulled the bag toward her face so she could sniff at the ruined canvas. "Thought so... it had food in it. That's what the cow was after."

  Will wasn't reassured as he glanced repeatedly between the stationary cave cow and the arch. His brow creased with concern.

  It didn't look good and everyone knew it.

  "Sorry, Will, but we can't hang around," Elliott said. "The sooner we get clear of here, the better."

  "No, you're right," he agreed.

  As Elliott, Chester, and Cal set off again, Will rushed around, gathering up as many of the pages as he could and stuffing them inside his jacket. Then, fearing he might be left behind, he ran to catch up with the others, the Mickey Mouse toothbrush clasped firmly in his hand.

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