While David had been in the Cordis Cana, Toby, Sarah and Limivo had broken the surface and arrived in the court. It was empty. Not even the servants scurried around the echoing chambers, and there was no sign of Abaddon as they crept past the holding cell at the top of the long staircase.
Sarah led the way towards the front door, keeping close to the walls, expecting at any moment to be over-run by guards.
They were not.
They reached the door and Toby quietly turned the handle. Outside was quiet. No Cerberites; nothing. It was impossible to tell what time of day it was, or how long they had been underground.
They stepped out and slipped along the wall. Toby scanned the path that ran to the mountain’s edge.
Behind them, the door clicked closed. Quiet, unobtrusive, and final. They were out here now and there was no turning back.
‘Why’s there no one here?’ Sarah whispered. ‘There were drones here when we came up.’
‘Someone’s here,’ Toby said. ‘He just closed the door.’
‘He’s got a point,’ Limivo said. ‘They could have caught us any time since we came out of the tunnels. They’re here; I can feel them. But they’re not moving.’
‘I don’t know, and I don’t want to wait around to find out. Come on, let’s get into town.’
Without waiting to see if this was a trap or if they really were just being allowed to leave, all three of them moved across the open muddy summit and towards the winding path that would take them down to the valley floor.
Some hours earlier, Namir had made this same journey. He too had seen no further evidence of the platoon of Cerberites that had been making their way into the mountains the previous day. Once in the court he had been approached by Abaddon and asked to visit Minos in his private chambers. There, he had been gently interrogated for information. Since this was not a trial, and since he and Seyyal were well known as bounty-hunters Namir had told the judge he was carrying a message for Seyyal who was waiting in Orbis. He said nothing of his theory that the escaped prisoners would be trying to get back through the mountains. He thought he had played his hand just right.
As he languished in a cell awaiting Minos’s permission to continue, a messenger was sent down the mountain to Seyyal. What came back with this messenger secured Namir’s release, and, some time just before dawn he was taken from his cell and led to the top of the path.
Namir began his descent with as much haste as the slippery ground would allow. If he had known what was waiting for him in below, he might not have been in such a hurry. He would also have cursed Fulgar for not catching up with the three fugitives before they made it into the mountains. For, unknown to either of them, Fulgar was herding the three most valuable people in this desolate world into a fatal trap.
Two thousand feet underground, David had a problem. There was no light either behind or in front of him in the tunnel. He might be half way to the exit, he might be an eighth of the way, he may barely have even started. In the thick darkness he had slowed his pace, afraid that at any moment he might run right into the end of the tunnel… or worse. He was now walking with one hand on the wall beside him and one stretched out ahead, and he might as well have been walking on a treadmill. He knew that if he didn’t make it back to the Aabas Gate soon, he might as well stop this attempt at escape and just lie down and die. His friends would be gone.
What then? Run after them? He might risk his life to get back to the pod, but when he got there the only thing waiting for him would be the endless black poplars and the…
His breath caught in his throat and he stopped.
After all this, he would be walking straight into the first hunter they had encountered on their trip into this strange world. A big ironic circle, his short life in Levantium ending exactly as it had begun, in the penetrating stare of that pure white wolf. An animal no one seemed to acknowledge, but one which for him was now so real that he could almost feel it, stalking him down here in this dark and hellish pit.
This slow walking might be the safest way to go, but it was getting him nowhere fast. The only thing it was doing was giving him time to think, and in this dark hole that was the last thing he needed.
Against Tithonus’s advice, he began to run.
A breath of wind rippled down the passage, cooling his face and stinging his eyes with the fine particles of ancient dust that it carried. His spirits soared. Was he reaching the exit already? Was this cold fresh air blowing in from some unseen hole through which he could escape?
He ran harder. The wind picked up to a steady flow, rippling his hair and making it more difficult to snatch breaths. He pushed on, flailing his arm out in front of him to avoid crashing into anything (Cerberites) in the darkness. With every step the wind grew stronger, causing him to stoop a little now to fight its oncoming force.
The gale came steady and hard now, making forward movement more and more difficult with each step. His lungs burned with the effort, his heart pounded in his chest and ears. The lack of oxygen made his head swim and he tripped. A few clumsy steps forward and he lost his footing altogether.
The wind stopped instantly. Silence filled the void, so still and deep that it seemed to hiss in his ears after the howling gale. David crouched on all fours, gasping for breath.
He stood, adjusted the blanket around his neck and began to walk as quickly as he could along the tunnel. The breeze accompanied him. Panic gripped him again, making him feel hot and sick. He broke into a run again, fighting against the strengthening wind.
The harder he ran, the harder the wind blew, until his forward energy was all but cancelled out by it.
He fell to the ground, tears of rage stinging his eyes, his scream of frustration immediately absorbed by the contemptuous silence of the tunnel. The wind had stopped once more, and all was peaceful. Had Tithonus tricked him onto entering this haunted passageway? How could he possibly make any progress if this phantom wind brought him to a stop every time he tried to move?
The rage quickly gave way to self pity. He was too far in now to have any chance of going back to Minos’s palace and down the mountains the way his friends had gone. Wasn’t he?
He looked back. Of course, he could see nothing, but the very action of turning his head also turned his attention to the alternative. Maybe he could get back. Tithonus must know how to open the door that led to the foot of the spiral staircase. And there was the exit Fulgar had (supposedly) used; the one that led into Dis. Even that would be better than being trapped in this dark silence.
He stood and walked a few paces back towards Tithonus’s cave. Almost immediately he came to a narrow wall, a thin divide of stone between two passageways.
‘Two?’ David said aloud. ‘I never noticed…’
It was a choice based on nothing more than chance.
He had walked barely ten paces when he came to another dividing wall. Two passages again.
Ten more paces; two more passages.
This was impossible. He would have noticed all these junctions before. They simply hadn’t been here. It was as if the whole tunnel had fractured behind him, branching every few yards into more and more options, each indistinguishable from the next. In another quarter of a mile these passages would number in the hundreds. And he only had to make one wrong choice and he was lost.
He stood in the pitch darkness and tried to think.
So, going back was not an option. But was going forwards? The wind was not going to allow him to leave either. Was he doomed to stay here forever, like Tithonus? Would he ever see home again?
The image of his father swam into view in the blackness around him. His father, who had inspired his love of maths, and who had introduced him to Michael Ronson and all that that entailed. His father was joined by his mother and sister, as clear as a photograph, as real as he himself was. Although they didn’t know it, they were waiting for him to return. Just as he was trapped in this darkness, they too had been trapped in a Planck moment of time the instant Toby had operated the pod. David had to escape: he had to let them escape.
He began to walk slowly along the corridor away from the maze of dividing passages, keeping the familiar image of his parents and his little sister in his mind to block out the icy darkness.
He just had to walk slowly. No hurry. Faith.
A warmth filled him. He was calm, knowing that somewhere out there, just beyond a flimsy curtain of chance was a safe, familiar world. He just had to find it.
The panic had gone. He walked on, glad that his parents were with him, even if only in his memories. If he never got out of here, he would not be alone. No one, no black tunnel, not even the ice of Malebolge could ever take away what he had stored in his mind. It was his, and his alone.
It was Sarah’s voice he heard in the darkness.
‘David… come home….’
A voice, still and calm, speaking from within him, enveloping him. It was the voice of his childhood friend, the once and future love of his life with the little scar above her eyebrow that spoke of so much shared and so much to come. It was the voice that spoke to him in the still of the night when all things were possible; the voice of his secret Beatrice.
A rush of warm air encircled him. Suddenly his feet were no longer scuffing through the earth. Under him, he felt a strength lifting him free, carrying him forward, the gentle rhythmic undulation of an animal beneath him. He reached down and stroked the mane of the wolf as it bore him on, running like the wind itself, carrying him back to those who filled his world with meaning.
He was going home.
* * *
He had no idea how long it took him to get to the exit. As the very faintest of lights grew in the distance, the wolf faded away once more, leaving him running along the tunnel alone. The wind had gone too, and he found himself back in just another disused sewer pipe beneath Orbis.
The ragged circle of light grew in the distance until he found himself at the junction of one of the bricked-up side-tunnels they had seen when Seyyal had led them towards the Council chamber. The aperture was too small to crawl through but the wall was poorly built. A few kicks and a little digging soon enlarged the hole enough for him to scramble through into the lamp-lit main tunnel beyond.
A final glance down the sewer from which he had emerged confirmed something of his location. This, he was sure, was the tunnel in which Sarah had seen the wolf watching them as they passed. Had the animal been waiting all this time for him to escape from Tithonus’s chamber? Waiting for the moment he needed help the most, when he was most alone and frightened?
Recognising this passage, David also recognised something else.
When Namir had snatched them from the ruins of the shopping complex and bundled them down into this drain, they had been very close to the centre of Orbis. They had scrambled through one escape tunnel, then walked for a long time down the much larger pipes, then up through another tunnel to the Council. Yet when they had finally emerged into the daylight outside the Council chamber, surely they were still very close to the centre. It had not taken long for Fulgar to walk them to the Dimeninx Fountains, which were right in the heart of the town.
Part of him wanted to believe that Seyyal had deliberately disorientated them, though for what purpose he could not imagine. The other part of him, now more familiar with the way this world worked, feared something even worse than mere deception.
Was he caught in another maze down here; one which looked like a series of straight lines, but which was in fact far larger than its equivalent run on the surface?
He needed to be out of this hole. He needed to see the sky, breathe fresh air, know exactly where he was. But he could risk popping up into the surface world only once. If he got it wrong, came up too close to the centre and was seen by the Cerberites, he was finished.
Standing in this vaguely familiar tunnel, he had two choices. Forwards in what might be the direction of the Council, or back towards the unknown?
With no time to consider the options, and no evidence on which to base his choice, he chose backwards. It was based on nothing more than a feeling. A feeling that somewhere up there, Sarah was waiting for him.
He ran, chased along the tunnel by echoes of his own footsteps and the vast, tremulous shadows thrown by the oil lamps. He ran until his chest felt as if it were gripped in a vise and his vision began to blur.
He had to know; had to see if he had made any progress towards escape. His need for certainty outweighed his fear of being caught by the Cerberites now.
An old service ladder to his left was still attached to the brick by rusting brackets. He pulled on it a few times to check if it would hold his weight. Satisfied that even if it didn’t, he would not have far to fall, he scrambled upwards to the manhole cover above.
With a mighty shove that almost detached the ladder from the wall, the iron cover shifted enough to allow through a trickle of light and dust. Another heave dislodged it so that he could slide it to one side and push his head up into the fresh air above.
He was near the edge of Orbis. All the houses were low and small and through the heaps of rubble he could just make out the flat nothingness of Mormo, peeping and hiding tantalisingly in the hazy distance. He hauled himself out of the hole.
The street was deserted.
The Aabas Gate would not be hard to find. All he had to do was to get to the edge of town and keep moving parallel to the plain. Eventually this strange circular town would bring him to the gate. Leaving the manhole cover open, he jogged off in the direction of the smaller, more derelict houses that bordered Mormo.
He had been moving for barely two minutes when the limp pennants of the gate came into view. Way off in the distance he could just see the ragged outline of the forest, but the plain was empty. The streets were silent and still there was no sign of his friends.
He would have to take an almighty risk.
‘Hey!’ he called. It was barely more than speaking volume, but in the silence it felt dangerously loud. There was no reply. He scanned the ground for any sign of footprints, the buildings for any sign that they had recently been occupied. There was nothing.
‘Hey!’ he called again, more loudly this time.
There was still no reply.
Along the street to his left he saw a pile of four bricks, exactly as he had left them days earlier when he and Sarah had first arrived. The peeling and charred signs stared down at him from the old shop-fronts; rubble and broken roof-trusses lay where they had fallen decades earlier in the cataclysm that had stopped the world in its tracks; the war that had stopped time and left this place to decay with imperceptible slowness as the days and years rolled by with no one left to mark their passage.
Orbis was a scarred fossil, a place of utter extinction. And his friends, his only link with life, were nowhere to be seen.
He walked one block closer to the gate and quickly found the house they had sheltered in after their escape from the predators out on the plain. If they were waiting for him at all, had maybe not heard his calls, it would be here in the one house Sarah knew David would look.
Her footprints were still in the dust, the small flecks of green paint she had dislodged from the wall still marking the place where she had sat. He stepped into the house and crouched by those little markers of her presence. There were no other footprints, no sign that anyone had been here since they had left.
Had they not made it out through the court? Or had they been so relieved to get back to the edge of Orbis that their momentum had simply carried them straight out of the gate and across the plain? Were they back in Ronson’s lab, even now cooking up some story to explain his absence? Had time restarted back in his own world, and to everyone there time in this world had stopped, to stay stopped for ever?
David reached out across these terrifying possibilities and touched the marks Sarah had left in the dust. Like Armstrong’s footprints in the Sea of Tranquility, he could imagine these prints would remain unaltered by wind or weather for ever.
Sarah had been here once, but she was not here now.