Abigail watched her father work from the door way. He hadn’t noticed she was there. There wasn’t anything out of the ordinary about that. Every so often she glanced warily at the shaggy figures that stood against the wall, disappearing off into the shadows. She worried about them, being confined in as small a space as her father’s workshop, a small, ramshackle building tacked onto the side of their house. It had taken a long time to get the wood from above ground to build the workshop, but there wasn’t enough room in the small two bedroom stone house, set back into an alcove, into the wall, like the rest of the residences of New London.
She could see by the flickering light of the lantern on her father’s worktable that he was repairing what looked like a leg. She waited for a moment longer, and then cleared her throat with a gentle cough. The wrench her father had been holding fell from his fingers with a curse and clattered on the floor. He bent to pick it up with a grunt then spun toward her.
“What do you want?” he growled from underneath facial hair that always reminded her of the wolves. Why wolves? Why did he build them? And who would want them anyway? It was a very strange thing to make. Airships. Now that was a useful thing, but that would be impossible here, underground, even though the arched ceilings were very, very tall. Sometimes she thought that the fireflies that were used as lighting down here looked like twinkling stars. The ones that escaped in clouds every so often from the thin glass tubes they were trapped in that ran along the walls, and floated lazily in a hazy blur up near the stone rafters. Sometimes she would go out and sit on the fountain in one of the centre courts – the one in the shape of a giant octopus – and just look up at the false stars, imagining they were the real stars in the night sky.
She had never seen the real night sky. She had been born down here in New London. When the Romans invaded London above ground, what people down here referred to as Old London, they gave the citizens a choice: if you stay above, you risk enslavement to the Romans, or worse. Or, the only other option – go underground and rebuild, living like moles in a burrow – except one that they were unable to get out of. The city was a catacomb of tunnels that opened up into large cavernous spaces where people lived – the houses were built of stone, like growths coming out of the walls. Abigail lived in Zone 5, of the 7 underground living areas, connected to each other by a rabbit warren of tunnels. There were four entrances to the underground – each sealed by a giant airlock, and each airlock was guarded by men in strange clothes – bright red jackets and vivid yellow trousers.
Every so often outsiders were allowed to come down and visit, escorted by the guards – and they were allowed to leave again – as long as they left London, or Londinium as the Romans called it.
She shrank back from the ferocity in her father’s voice, as he bent to pick up the dropped wrench, and had forgotten what she was going to say in the first place. He stood, glaring at her. “What? What is it? Can’t you see I’m busy?”
She stood staring at him. “I can’t…I can’t remember.” She knew it was something important, but whatever it was had suddenly fled her mind. He shook his head angrily at her. “Look at you,” he said without actually looking at her and instead turning back to his work. “Look at you standing there shaking like a leaf! I’ve told you there’s nothing to be afraid of with my wolves. Nothing. They’re all powered down, and there’s a safety switch.”
She gained a shred of confidence, enough to ask the question that had always niggled at her, ever since she was younger. But she was afraid to ask her father, afraid that he would think her stupid for asking such a ridiculous question. It was simple enough at the outset anyway. “Why?”
Her father turned to look at her over his shoulder, his face written with incredulity. “Why? Why what? Perhaps why are you bothering me with such silly, inane questions when you can clearly see I’m busy repairing this leg?”
“Why wolves? Why do you build wolves? Of all the things to build, and keep building. You’ve been making them for at least a year. Why not something useful like…” she floundered, searching for the right word. Guns? Clocks? They had no huge relevance down here. Time was a strange thing when there was no sun or moon to mark the passage of it, or so she was told, but the old people – the ones who used to live above ground before they were shoved down here, like a problem shoved under a carpet corner. If it can’t be seen…
Mechanical wings? She couldn’t find a suitable replacement that wouldn’t sound just as ridiculous for someone to be building underground – the airships. “Like…” she repeated, realizing she sounded as stupid as she thought her father believed her to be anyway.
He turned back to his work, pulling a magnifying glass on a small arm in front of him as he looked down at the minuscule gears and cogs that made up the joints of the leg. “I make them because there is a demand for them.”
A demand? Who could need giant fur covered masses of metal and twisted wire and cables? With teeth.
She asked the question aloud. “A demand? Who needs wolves?”
Her father sighed heavily, irritation tinged with anger. “Lots of people. Guard dogs, for security for their homes and…other people…” he trailed off.
He was being evasive. She had seen a strange man come to the house the other week. The minute he’d knocked on the door her father had whisked him away to his workshop. Curious, she’d followed at a safe distance. The encounter was heated. She heard snatches of their conversation in raised voices. Money. Malfunctions. Safety. Lethal. She had watched as the stranger had unbuttoned his shirt, spreading it open and exposing his chest. On it was a tattoo. Abigail thought it looked like a key.
Her father had shaken his head as if that meant nothing to him. The man pushed up a sleeve revealing five black rings encompassing his forearm. More tattoos. What did that mean?
Her father had smiled then and taken the man over, showing him how the wolf functioned. It was chained to the wall. When her father had reached behind the beasts shoulders it juddered and came to life, snapping a jaw-full of razor sharp metal teeth. The visitor nodded appreciatively and clapped a hand on her father’s shoulder. They shook hands and Abigail saw the man give her father a thick bundle of bills.
She knew she shouldn’t say anything, but the words slipped out of her anyway. She was horrified as they left her lips, not able to believe she was saying this, knowing it would get her into trouble. Big trouble. “Other people like the man with the tattoos?”
Her father spun round, this time dropping the wrench again, but of his own accord, not because she had given him a fright. “You saw that? You were spying on me?”
Abigail felt herself take another step backwards, out of the doorway again and onto the hard floor of the main courtyard, but she stopped herself, willed her feet not to turn and flee. She lifted her chin defiantly. “No, not spying, just…curious. What were those tattoos that man had? The rings on his arm and the key on his chest.”
Anise’s father’s normally pale face – everyone underground was pale, almost sickly looking, as if all life had been permanently bleached out of them – flushed a dark purple. “Nothing that a girl like you should know about. He was a bad man, that’s what those tattoos meant.”
She grabbed the dangling thread he had given her and ran with it.
“So what were you doing making a deal with a bad man?”
His florid face shook with anger. “What was I doing? What was I doing? I was putting food on the table for you and your mother, that’s what! It’s how I make my living.”
“Selling monsters to bad people,” Abigail finished with finality, standing up to her father for the first time in…forever.
“How dare you!” he shouted, and took a step forward. He stooped, picked up the wrench and advanced – and then Abigail’s courage fled her and she turned and ran. She knew her father had a short temper…why do this to him? Why work him up so? She knew, or at least didn’t think, he would actually try and hurt her, but she ran anyway, afraid of the level of his fury. She ran past her daydreaming haunt, the octopus fountain, and down one of the tunnels that lead to the closest airlock. She jumped up and grabbed at a rusty ladder rung, one of four ladders that clung to the sides of the walls that were damp and growing mold, unlike the rest of the underground city. The walls here got wet with rain and wind when the airlocks opened on an unfavourable day. Otherwise the air underground was fine – a perfect temperature – re-circulated through a ventilation system Abigail thought was as complex as the maze of tunnels down here – tunnels she knew every square inch of.
What she didn’t know was why she was climbing up the ladder. Above her was darkness so black, she thought her eyes were playing tricks on her. The airlock was closed, of course. It wasn’t a visitor’s day. But she pulled herself up the slick rungs of the ladder anyway, testing the air with her hand as she neared the darkness, to saver her smacking her heard on the metal airlock cover. Eventually her hand hit it, and she pounded on it. She didn’t know why she was, or what she was going to say to the guard when it opened.
And suddenly she did. She knew that she wanted out. But she needed to do something first, something that would give the guard a good reason to let her out. She was already half way back down the ladder when the airlock swung open, showering her with a brilliant light from the sky - even though that light was overcast it was a drastic change from the dark and gloom of the tunnels and caverns. She dropped her head so the man wouldn’t see her face. She didn’t want him to know who she was until she returned a second time, so her reason for being there would be more genuine. She ran back down the tunnel, her thin shoes echoing hollowly against the curved walls, bouncing back the sound, making it louder than it was. She poked her head around the open doorway to her father’s workshop. He wasn’t there. Most likely gone inside to rail at her mother about their disobedient daughter.
The plan unfolded before her in all its horrifying simplicity. Her heart thundered against her ribs, and she was sure it was magnified a thousand fold down here, bouncing off the cold stone walls just as loudly as her shoes had. She moved almost gingerly across the floor, as if afraid she’d wake one of the beasts. But she didn’t have to worry about it. They were silent and still, as if eternally sleeping, though they were standing and not lying down. Each was tied to the wall with thick heavy chain. She unclipped one from the wall and was about to reach between the shoulders and turn the switch on that she had seen her father do when demonstrating to the stranger, when memories of her nightmare flooded back to her.
She stood alone. Entirely alone in the gloom of New London. All of the residents were gone – disappeared or dead she wasn’t sure, and not really sure she could think straight enough to really care. Her mother and father were gone too – the house eerily empty and silent.
Outside her house was the man. The stranger from her father’s meeting. He lay on the ground, his head twisted at an unnatural angle. Even more unnatural was the rest of him – torn to ribbons – bright red streaks of red lashing across his torso, and there was a dark stain on the ground near his head.
Before she had even glanced back at the workshop she knew what she would see. The door was almost off its hinges, and what remained was splintered into shards. Her dream-self filled with dread even as she picked her way to the cracked-open door, walking high up on the balls of her feet, as if it would help, as if it would make her stealthier.
The lantern was out on her father’s worktable, and she realized that it had fallen and shattered, scattering shards of glass across the ground, and a puddle of oil had snaked its way across the table and was dripping rhythmically onto the floor with an almost reassuring patter, like a soft heartbeat. But even in the darkness she knew her worst fear had been realized. The wolves were gone.
She snapped back to reality at the sound of a door slamming shut. It was a fear she was about to make a reality. Except it would be due to her own hands, not whoever had let them loose in her nightmare.
She moved again to the switch between the shoulder blade and her fingers stopped a millimetre above when she remembered the remote control. It was something she had seen her father show the man with the tattoos. A device that could turn the wolves on or off, and command them. She glanced around, thankful that in her waking life, the lantern was still flickering happily away. She spotted a handful of remotes on the table. She grabbed one and realized it was labelled with a number 3. And then she looked at the wolf she had unchained, and her hand felt around its neck, searching for the collar. She found it and rotated it, bringing the tag around to the back of its neck. The label read 13. Lucky number, she thought with a grim laugh. She searched the stack of slim boxes with dials on the front until she found the right one with a large 13 painted on it in white, a small wire radiated from the top of it. She heard another door slam loudly, this one she recognized as the front door. She had to hurry. She rushed out of the door, and nearly collided with her father.
She elbowed past him and ran a few more steps, so she was safely away from him, but more importantly at a safe distance from the wolf – enough to give her a running start.
Her father blustered at her – his face had paled again, but at the sight of her redness began to creep back in. “What are you doing?”
“I think you should get back inside father.” If you know what’s best for you she added silently, but was nowhere near brave enough to say it out loud. She said a quick prayer before twisting the dial to the right, to the small notch that read ‘on’. “Now!” she screamed before turning and flying away, her feet pounding heavily. She nearly bashed her shoulder on a stray octopus arm as she flew past the fountain once more. She heard a scream from her father, followed by another loud slam of the door and she breathed a sigh of relief that he was safe. She tried to ignore the other thought that crowded in afterwards: at least for now.
She couldn’t see the wolf move, but she could hear it – the scrabble of the metal claws on the stone floor, gouging it. She reached the bottom of the ladder and jumped, grabbing as high a rung as she could manage and pulled herself upward. Sweat streamed down her face and stung her eyes. She heard a grating growl, the sound of gears and cogs moving against each other. She couldn’t stop to wipe her eyes and kept climbing until she reached the top, and she hit her head with a dull thunk against the airlock door.
She pounded as hard as she could against it and rust flaked down and landed in her hair, and staining her blouse. It seemed like an eternity before the loud wailing squeak of metal signalled the door opening slowly and a huge circle of light appeared above her, expanding like an eclipse. A man with a beard twisted into strange shapes, his moustache pointed appeared at the edge.
Before he even spoke she took her chance and threw herself up and out of the hole, landing heavily on dry scratchy yellowed grass. She had her story at her lips, but it didn’t go as smoothly as she planned, her words coming in short gasps. “Help!” she panted. “There’s wolves loose down there,” she breathed as she climbed to her feet, chest heaving.
She saw the man’s eyes grow large, and mutter “wolves?” in a tone that Abigail was sure he didn’t believe her. She pointed downwards. The wolf was now at the bottom of the entry shaft, snarls drifting out and up and she stumbled backwards away from the hole, away from her home, the only one she had ever known. Suddenly the sky seemed way too big – everything seemed too open. Her heart jumped into her throat. The upside wasn’t comforting like the confines of the ceiling, the gentle sloping curves that made up the different Zones where the people lived. But she gathered her courage and drew herself in, made herself stronger. Her father could never call her weak or afraid or scared again. She wasn’t a child any more. She was sixteen now, after all. Sixteen and for the very first time in her life she looked around and didn’t see walls or tunnels or stone. She was free. And then she ran, calling back over her shoulder as if she needed to give the airlock guard any more explanation: “It’s not safe!”
She ran heedlessly, until she realized she had no idea where she was running to. Except that she did. She just didn’t know where that was. She passed a man with golden skin and a severe face moving with purpose. He wore strange clothes, layers of beige and brown. He looked like a mud puddle, and Abigail almost didn’t see him in the greyness of the sky and the buildings.
“Excuse me,” she asked. He turned narrow eyes full of accusation toward her. “Do you know where Cassius Augustinius lives?” she pronounced his name incorrectly, she gathered by the twist of the man’s lips . He pointed down the street, and gave directions in Italian. She had no idea what he had said, but followed the direction of where he had pointed. As she walked she realized each house had a plaque on the outside labelled with the person’s name. She knew what she was looking for now. She just had to keep walking until she recognized her aunt’s tattoo – the one that signified that she belonged to Augustinius as a servant. She was an up- Londoner because she had agreed to go into servitude to the Romans instead of gaining freedom underground. She glanced at the plaques that glinted dully in the semi-light of the London day. She noticed that most buildings had grand columns on either side of the doors that looked new, and incongruous with the rest of the building. An addition that the Romans had made to the English architecture when they had overthrown the English where Napoleon had failed.
Abigail noticed with wariness that most of the doorways were occupied by armed guards, sentinels standing stock still holding spears that were double the size of them.
She had been walking for a while without success. With trepidation she climbed the stairs of a house. “Cassius Augustinius” she asked. The guard pointed with his spear down and then turned it sharply pointing left. She nodded thanks and continued, turning at the next street. It was the first house on the corner. She climbed the steps and was greeted with a man dressed identically to the first.
“I’m here to see my aunt. She’s a servant to Cassius Aug-”
The man glanced down at her and then resumed his stony stare across the street at nothing in particular.
Abigail took it to mean she could knock on the door. She did so. Momentarily the door opened and she was greeted with the spitting image of her mother, except a version that was twenty pounds heavier with a mole under her right eye and her dark hair was parted on the opposite side. The woman’s storm-cloud blue eyes widened. “Abigail? What on earth are you doing here?”
“I…left. Something happened back there. I needed to get out.”
Her aunt lunged towards her through the door, grabbing her roughly by the shoulders. “You’re here alone? What happened? Where is your mother?” after a moment’s pause she added, “and your father?”
“They’re still there.” Her eyes fell to her shoes, which were worn with a hole in the top of the right one, her toe peeking through. She continued before her aunt could ask the follow up. “I don’t know how they are.”
Her aunt’s eyes narrowed. Abigail suddenly burst into tears. The enormity of what she had done, the simple action of undoing a chain and turning a dial, dawned on her. Her shoulders shook, and she tried to speak. It came out in bits and pieces. She hoped it sounded convincing. “Father…wolves…escaped.” Her aunt suddenly gathered her up in her arms, crushing Abigail to her chest. “Oh you poor, sweet thing!”
Abigail had to suppress a laugh. Sweet! But that was what her aunt thought, what she saw when she came below to visit her sister. The Abigail her aunt saw on her visits was a false one, forced to play the nice, subservient, quiet girl – at threats from her father, threats that Abigail had learned early on would be carried out, once her aunt had returned above.
“Come in, come in,” her aunt ushered her through the door like a chick under a wing.
Abigail glanced around at the palatial surroundings. The floors were marble, polished so she could see her reflection as if looking in a mirror. She looked sickly, pale. Of course living in New London did that to everyone, but up above, it somehow looked worse.
A ruby carpeted staircase swept upwards. Abigail had never seen anything like it. They didn’t have stairs where she came from. She started to see why her aunt had decided to stay, even if staying meant working under a Roman. Her aunt could go outside, could breathe fresh air, and not the stale recycled air pushed around by large fans underneath. She could see the sky. For that alone Abigail would have risked slavery. My parents were crazy to flee below! She thought with sudden spite. It was the law that anyone who decided to go underground could never again come up to the surface. It’s what they gave up for their freedom.
It was unfair and selfish of her parents - of all the parents down below – subjecting their children to a life underground, when they have no choice in the matter, no ability to decide for themselves whether they wanted a life like that. Her fists clenched in a sudden rush of hatred for both her parents, and suddenly her behaviour made sense.
All the arguments, all the obstinance, all the anger at everything her parents said, even if it was innocuous as asking her to do the dishes. Her parents had imprisoned her, through no fault of her own.