‘Shhh,’ a voice whispered close to David’s ear. ‘I’m going to let you go. Don’t make a sound.’
David struggled as the grip around him loosened a little. Not enough that he could struggle free, but at least he could breathe again.
‘Keep quiet. You’ll be safe if you stay quiet. OK?’ David nodded frantically.
The hands released him, and he scurried like a smacked dog across the floor until he came to a wall. He sat, pressed against the damp brickwork of the underground hideaway with his knees drawn up to his chin and his arms wrapped tightly around his legs. It was pitch black, stale and hot as a sauna. He heard Sarah scamper through the rubble towards him. Someone struck a match and a yellow light fizzed and spluttered in the darkness.
‘You’re safe for now, but keep very quiet. They’ll still be looking for you,’ whispered a man standing at the foot of the steep stairs. Flies buzzed angrily around the harsh light of the match. David could not see his face.
‘Who are you?’ he said.
The other figure pressed the spluttering match to a wick in an old can and a wavering light filled the tiny room.
The woman with the lamp crouched down and examined David and Sarah but did not answer the question. The makeshift oil lamp cast a pale glow over her lined and dirty face, her eyes narrow against the light.
The man and woman who had grabbed them from the clutches of the machines above looked at each other. Almost imperceptibly she nodded once.
‘I’m Namir,’ said the man by the stairs. ‘This is Seyyal. We’ve been looking for you since you crossed the plain.’
He sat down on the bottom step. The shadow of his wild hair danced on the wall behind him as he swatted flies away from his face.
‘Are you with them?’ Sarah said. ‘The… whatever they are out there?’
‘Cerber what?’ David said.
‘Those things up there. Cerberite drones, sent here to find you. They got another one this morning.’
‘That’s Toby!’ Sarah said. ‘He’s here?’
‘Shh. Quietly,’ the man said.
Sarah shuffled forwards. ‘Where is he?’ she whispered.
‘So he was with you?’ Namir replied. Again that look passed between him and Seyyal. ‘Why don’t you tell us who you are?’
‘I’m David. This is Sarah.’
Namir raised his eyebrows in a questioning gesture.
‘That’s all I’m telling you until we know what’s going on here. What do you mean you’ve been looking for us?’
‘The Cerberites came across the Mormo Plain a few hours ago,’ Seyyal said. ‘We’d hoped to get to you before they did but, as you’ve seen, Mormo’s a strange place to get across. We knew they’d bring anyone they captured this way, so we waited.’ She placed the oil lamp on the floor. By now David’s eyes had begun to adjust to the low light. He examined their captors (they might have been ‘rescuers’, but right now he and Sarah were trapped, and he had a strong feeling that it was not by accident).
The man sitting on the steps wore a long pale tunic down to his knees. It was caked in dried mud and dust. Trousers of the same material hung loosely around his ankles just above homemade sandals. David eyed the dagger tucked into his leather belt.
‘Most likely they’re still holding your friend up there somewhere,’ Seyyal continued, indicated the town above them with a backward nod. ‘They’d want to take all of you up to the mountains at the same time if they could. As long as they’re still looking for you, my guess is that he’ll be around somewhere.’
‘But why? What do they want with us?’ David said.
‘Three in one day would be a very valuable catch,’ Seyyal said.
‘Outlanders. Humans from beyond Mormo. Very few cross the plain now, and looking like you do, they’d want to get you into the mountains as quickly as possible.’
‘What about the other two… one? The twins.’
‘Callett and Splenetti,’ Seyyal said. ‘They weren’t trying to catch you. They were just curious.’
‘Who are they?’
‘They run Orbis, or what’s left of it. While you’re with us, you won’t run into them again. It’s the drones you need to worry about.’
‘Can we…’ Sarah was cut off suddenly as Namir stood and cocked his ear to the door at the top of the stairs.
‘They’re coming. We need to move.’ There was a very faint rattling sound above them. David shivered despite the stifling heat in their underground shelter. He stood up and began pacing the tiny room.
Seyyal was already moving bricks and lumps of concrete from the corner of the room, revealing a sheet of dented and rusting iron. She pulled a chain welded to its corner and it clanged to the floor. The murky depths of a sloping tunnel beyond quickly swallowed up the flickering light of the oil lamp.
‘Follow me.’ Seyyal said, and slithered into the tunnel.
David and Sarah looked at each other.
‘It’s us or the Cerberites. You’ve got about ten seconds to decide,’ Namir said. It was not much of a choice.
David allowed Sarah’s feet to disappear downwards into the black hole before taking a deep breath and clambering in behind her.
There was a loud bang from the room above. He backed out of the tunnel to see Namir clambering up to the hatch they had been dragged through, around the edge of which appeared six thin fingers. Namir grabbed the iron ring attached to its underside and yanked the door shut again. Three of the fingers did not make it out in time and their tips tumbled down the steps. Namir rammed a piece of wood through the ring and wedged it into the wall.
‘Throw me that bar! This won’t hold them for long,’ Namir shouted.
David saw a long metal bar propped against the cellar wall. He grabbed it and ran back to the stairs as Namir struggled against the force trying to open the hatch.
‘Quick. Pass it up. I can’t hold them!’
David climbed as far up the stairs as he could and handed the bar to Namir. While Namir frantically struggled to wedge it through the ring to secure the hatch, David grabbed hold of the rusting frame to hold it down. The hatch was wrenched upwards and the temporary wooden bar snapped. Through the gap a three-fingered hand reached in. David’s whole body was jerked up and down as the Cerberite above fought to get at them. As the machine’s bony hand withdrew to get a better angle of attack, Namir rammed the metal bar into the wall. Fingers scraped and tore at the hatch, desperate to get a grip.
‘That should slow them down. They’ll smash through it soon enough, but we’ve got a head start. Now, go!’
David ran to the tunnel in the corner and scrambled down after Sarah.
The faint glow of light from the oil lamp was extinguished and Namir crawled into the tunnel behind him.
Blackness enveloped them. The only sound was the muffled breath of the four fugitives and the heavy pounding, like sledge-hammers on a ship’s hull, as the Cerberites continued their relentless assault on the barred door. The floor of the tunnel sloped downwards quite steeply, but it was still an effort to haul himself along, caterpillar-like, through the tiny space to catch up with Sarah. There was barely sufficient room to move his arms to keep himself going, and certainly not enough to turn around. For now, forwards was the only way he could go.
His breathing grew faster. His mouth was dry, his touch and hearing super-charged, scrambling for every minute sensory input. The weight of the buildings above seemed to press down on the tiny crawl space. Claustrophobia began to strangle his mind. He could hear Sarah’s breathing become fast and shallow too as she struggled forward, unseen just inches in front of him now. Every grain of rubble, every scratch and pick-mark in the tunnel felt huge and sharp, more real and solid than anything he had ever felt before.
A crash came from the room behind them, followed by a muffled rattling sound as a Cerberite drone entered the underground hiding place.
‘Don’t worry, they can’t follow us along here,’ Namir whispered.
By now the air was becoming stale. David blinked dust from his eyes, but open or closed, he could see nothing but the dancing pin-pricks of light inside his eyes. He crawled on. If he stopped now, he was finished.
At last, the faintest of yellowy glows began to appear at the end of the narrow shaft, glimpsed occasionally through the regular movement of the two bodies ahead. Suddenly they came to a stop. Seyyal’s voice hissed back along the tunnel.
‘Wait here,’ and she was gone, wriggling stealthily towards the light.
They waited. This stillness was even worse. David kept his eyes fixed on the little light he could see past Sarah’s silhouette. His shoulders, narrow though they were, touched the tunnel walls on either side. By lifting his head just slightly he could feel the solid, rough ceiling; millions of tons of rock and steel above him, with nothing to keep it from crushing them and burying them alive but the skill, or desperation, of whoever had hewn this escape tunnel out of the solid earth.
A few more seconds and panic would have swallowed him, making him lose control of the urge to scream and fight his way out, to feel space around his limbs again, fresh air in his nostrils, and something, anything, to stimulate his starving senses once more. The two or three minutes they had spent down there felt like weeks. He could feel a scream beginning to build in his mouth, then Seyyal’s voice saved him.
‘OK, come on.’
There was no finesse in the way either he or Sarah scrambled towards the light, a mad dash to freedom, neither caring what would greet them when they emerged. David plopped down onto a damp brick floor just as Sarah was getting to her feet.
The sudden feeling of space made David laugh out loud. The sound echoed along the tunnel. There was light too, cast by oil torches attached to the walls by twisted rusty brackets, extending into the distance in both directions. David looked from one to another of his companions.
‘OK, so where are we now?’ Sarah said. Her voice sounded dull and small in the tunnel.
Seyyal smiled. ‘We’re safe. That’s all you need to know right now.’
‘Like hell it is,’ she said. ‘Last thing we knew for sure we were at the university, in Ronson’s lab. Next thing–’
‘Sarah…’ David whispered.
‘No, I’m sick of this. Just what the hell is going on here?’
‘You were in a lab?’ Namir said. ‘In Dis?’
‘The Dis Robotics Labs. Where the Cerberites came from.’
‘No! We were in England…’ Sarah said.
‘England?’ Seyyal’s eyes widened in surprise. ‘You escaped?’
‘What do you mean, ‘escaped’? We just live there. We were looking at a machine in Ronson’s lab, and suddenly we found ourselves in a forest. We crossed that stupid plain and came into the town. We just want to find Toby and get out of here.’
Namir studied them for a moment. ‘What kind of machine?’
Sarah looked sheepish. ‘Professor Ronson’s been working on… He made a… a machine.’
‘A machine,’ Seyyal repeated.
‘Yes. So?’ David said.
‘A machine that came through time?’
‘We think so, yes,’ David said.
‘Then we’ve got to find your friend before they take him to Minos. Everyone in Levantium’s going to be looking for you now.’
‘What are you talking about? Minos? Levantium?’
‘We’ll explain later. We’ve got to get you somewhere safe, then we can look for your friend.’
David looked doubtful. Sarah was about to say something too when Namir cut her off.
‘You’re going to have to trust us,’ he said. ‘You can stay with us, or you can go back to the Cerberites. If they think you’re just ordinary migrants, they’ll toy with you for a while then kill you. If they find out who you really are, it’ll be even worse. OK? Now let’s go before they pick up the trail.’
Without another word, Namir set off along the tunnel. Seyyal gestured for them to follow. With no chance of escape right now, David and Sarah fell in line. Seyyal paused for a moment then followed.
They were in what appeared to be a huge storm drain, though it was now completely dry. The apex of the circular tunnel was well above their heads. Other pipes that joined from the sides here and there had been roughly bricked up and most of the ladders leading up to man-hole covers were missing. Occasional squeaks and screams came from the blocked side passages as rats fought their own battles for survival in their dark and secret world within.
Sarah touched David’s hand, and he managed a weak smile in return. They walked on.
Suddenly four sets of footsteps became three as Sarah stopped. She peered up a side tunnel where the bricks had crumbled away.
‘What?’ Seyyal had caught Sarah up and she too strained to see anything in the darkness of the bricked-up passageway.
‘There’s something up there. Like eyes,’ Sarah said.
‘Nothing now. You must be seeing things. Don’t worry, we’ll be out of here soon.’ Seyyal smiled and touched Sarah’s shoulder reassuringly. She jogged the few paces back to Namir, and the march continued.
David and Sarah fell in again behind their guides, but held back a little further this time. Namir and Seyyal were talking in whispers, their words lost in the hard silence.
‘I did see something,’ Sarah whispered. ‘I think it was the wolf.’
‘From the forest? It couldn’t get down here.’ David stole a glance behind them. The tunnel was empty, but he had a creepy sensation of being watched in the flickering lamplight.
‘I’m going to find out if they know anything,’ Sarah said. She jogged off, leaving David alone.
At once a wave of cold air flowed along the passage from behind them, as if the earth itself had sighed. A rat scurried across the floor and disappeared over the bricks into a side shaft. David stopped and turned. Goosebumps chilled his arms and his spine tingled.
There was no sign of movement, no sound, but something was very wrong. In the far distance, where the sides of the straight tunnel appeared to meet, a black hole was growing. The oil torches were being extinguished. The darkness was still a long way off, but it was coming closer.
A torch two hundred feet back down the passage began to gutter, its flame growing dimmer by the second. It did not, in fact, go out – the flame did not burn any smaller than it had before, but the light diminished. The flame was turning from orange to azure at its edges, its core fading through blue to black. A shimmer of heat and smoke continued to rise from the fire, but in less than ten seconds the flame itself had become invisible.
The others had stopped now and Namir ran back to David.
The next lamp began to dim. The darkness marched inexorably towards them along the tunnel, that black, depthless hole growing larger and larger.
‘Cerberites,’ Namir hissed. ‘One must have got in through another entrance. They’re a long way behind us, but they’re coming.’
They began to run. The tunnel behind them had now been almost completely swallowed up by the encroaching darkness. Even the torches nearest them were beginning to fade, their orange flames now filled with a core of black fire, swelling to smother the light.
A rattling sigh rippled along the tunnel. The Cerberite drone knew they were there, and was advancing fast. Seyyal, at the head of their ragged column, urged them forward.
The darkness was beginning to overtake them as David noticed Namir looking carefully at the walls of the tunnel, searching for something. Suddenly he stopped, calling Seyyal and Sarah back.
‘This is it.’ Namir pointed at one of the bricked-up side passages. He began to kick at the bricks until a hole appeared. Seyyal joined him, tearing away at the blockage. A roughly dug passage lead upwards from the main sewer.
‘A bit more of a scramble,’ Namir said, ‘but we’ll be out of here very soon.’
He hauled himself up into the opening and began to crawl up the shaft into the blackness. Sarah followed, with David pushing in behind her. It was only when David had scrambled some way into the tunnel that he heard Seyyal follow him. The rattle of the drone was close now, and getting closer. No light followed them from the main tunnel as they scrambled upwards in total darkness, slipping on loose stones and earth, scraping elbows and knees in their panic to escape.
The tunnel was not as narrow as the one they had escaped down, but it was steeper, and the going was hard. A furry body thrust past David’s arm and he cried out as panic again began to probe the edges of his mind. Then the rat was gone, vanishing as quickly as it had come into a wide crack in the wall.
Several long minutes later they came to a stop. Namir hammered on something metal at the head of the tunnel.
There was a shuffling sound above them. A chink of light appeared ahead and gradually grew wider as a metal hatch slid clear of the entrance. Hands came into the tunnel and hauled Namir out into the light. He reached down and began to help the others out.
They stood in a dimly lit room shaking dirt from their clothes as a dozen ragged and miserable people watched them in silence.
The screaming rattle of the Cerberite blasted out through the tunnel entrance as an old man slammed the metal hatch and fastened it closed.