They followed the stairs down four flights before they reached a door marked by a sign which read ‘Sewer Maintenance level 1’. It led on, away from the direction they had just come, and the street outside. Kiri gave it a push and with a creak it inched open, revealing a discoloured, dimly lit concrete tunnel, several metres high.
The smell that had permeated the air in the upstairs corridor was thick and rancid here. Each breath tasted stale as if the air had been sealed down there for centuries.
Lights were built into the wall along a strip, a couple of metres above their heads, but only the first few bulbs seemed to be functioning. Near the door, where Kiri and Ben entered, they could see relatively well but further on ahead of them the corridor quickly turned to darkness.
‘Well, looks like we made it in,’ Ben said. ‘So what are we looking for, this shadow or Mark’s phone?’
The pursuit of the mysterious presence, deeper into the underbelly of the city had taken over Kiri’s thoughts to such an extent that she had forgotten the reason they were there. Now as she took in the dimensions of this huge underground tunnel she was reminded of the urgency in finding the phone.
Without the phone, Kiri could see no way to solve the puzzle that had steadily ensnared her. She hoped, once they found the phone, that it would somehow explain where Mark was or how to contact him but quite how she was not certain.
At the very least it should contain photos of the documents with the address of the facility in Cyness. If nothing else she could go there herself to investigate.
The walls and floor of the tunnel were formed from giant concrete panels. Some liquid must have once seeped through, as there were discoloured patches in places where residue had dried.
‘Any idea how we get underneath Lutton Park?’ Kiri said, artfully ignoring Ben’s question, as she felt sure that finding the Shadow and the phone were somehow entwined.
‘Nope but it must be somewhere in that direction,’ he said pointing ahead and slightly to the right indicating an imaginary point in the distance.
‘You sure?’ Kiri said sceptically as she slowly realised the potential size of the subterranean labyrinth they were dealing with.
‘Mhm yeah,’ Ben said nodding his head confidently, ‘Yeah, the sewers should follow the streets above ground more or less. It shouldn’t be too far.’
There was no other option in any case so Kiri nodded in agreement. Her earlier vision of the city as a giant machine returned to her. She pictured the scale of the sewer system needed to service the numerous inhabitants of the city. It made her feel slightly sick.
She had a rough idea of where they were in relation to the street above but with the various twists and turns they had taken she couldn’t be sure. The direction Ben had pointed seemed more or less right from memory.
They both stared ahead into the darkness ahead of them.
‘Can you see anything?’ Ben asked.
‘No. You?’ Kiri
‘The sensors will turn the lights on once we get closer,’ Ben sounded worried and Kiri shared his unease.
She had never seen any reason to fear the dark before, if anything when the lights went out it normally felt like a warm blanket wrapping her for the night but down there in the cold, concrete tunnels with no idea what was out there it started to take on monstrous dimensions.
The darkness seemed to suck all those corners of her mind that she normally managed to quiet. The half-formed voices that whispered babble in idle moments, the half-memories of nightmares she had dreamt.
As Ben had predicted the lights did come on as they approached, each one flickering hesitantly as they walked along the gloomy corridor. It felt as if the place had been sleeping for centuries as the strip lighting sleepily buzzed into life, slowly growing brighter.
‘Do you think they might catch us down here?’ Kiri whispered to Ben, walking close to him in the centre of the walkway, keen to avoid brushing the wall.
’Who are ‘they’?” asked Ben.
For a moment Kiri was about to reply before she realised that she had no idea who ‘they’ were. For her entire life she had never known anything but ‘us’. There were major, and middle-agers and younger kids but everyone was on the same side. There was never anyone else.
This new idea had been slowly building up but she found it hard to put a finger on exactly what she meant by ‘them’. She felt for instance that ‘they’ were after Mark, that ‘they’ were covering up the truth, that ‘they’ were controlling the city but how or why remained a mystery.
‘Whoever it was that found Mark,’ she replied after a few moments, taking Ben’s hand as she did so.
They walked on in silence for a few minutes, their nostrils gradually acclimatising to the smell of the place. Above the electrical hum coming from the walls and the occasional mechanical clunking of distant pipework they started to discern a far-off rumbling sound, steady and low.
After following the course of the tunnel another few hundred metres they finally came to a T-junction with two similar corridors extending off to the left and right.
‘That way?’ Ben said, pointing to the right, which took them roughly in the direction he had indicated before.
‘Why not,’ Kiri replied, not wanting to mention that the right hand tunnel was undeniably the direction that the rumbling was coming from.
They proceeded as before but now the tunnel started to take on a humid atmosphere. The air felt wet where before it had seemed fusty. Although any moisture in the air must have been carrying untold germs and bacteria Kiri strangely found it refreshing.
The rumbling seemed to grow louder with every step and now it seemed clear that they must be approaching a waterway of some sort. The reverberating echoes from the concrete walls made it impossible to tell how far off it was. For all either of them knew it could be a broken sewer pipe round the next corner or a giant dam several miles away.
The corridor narrowed as they progressed and the lighting became sparser, with strips appearing only every few metres. After no more than three hundred metres the way turned sharply to the left and beyond that corner the lights refused to turn on.
Leaving Ben at the corner Kiri walked ahead about fifteen metres until she was completely surrounded by darkness.
‘Kiri,’ Ben called worriedly. ‘You still there? I cant see anything.’
‘Yes, I’m still here,’ she replied, pleased to hear his reassuring voice behind her. Turning round she could see his silhouette, stark against the light thrown from the end of the tunnel. ‘I think we might be close to something along here.’
Having turned the corner the rumbling had at once got both louder and clearer. She could now tell that there was some kind of opening not too far ahead of them. From the sound of it they were approaching a giant cavern or underground space that had a great deal of water flowing through it.
Turning back, away from the light, her eyes started to adjust to the darkness and she felt a fine mist on her face. Her minds eye pictured a great river flowing through a grotto of stalactites and stalagmites. The image enticed her and she was drawn to see it in reality.
‘Close to what?’ Ben shouted uncertainly. ‘Can you see anything there?’
‘No, come on, it can’t be far,’ Kiri replied.
Clumsily Ben followed her until she was able to grasp his hand. She could feel him grip tight to her as they walked on into complete darkness. Neither of them could see anything but the hypnotic sound of the water pulled them onward.
After the first few steps they quickly found their pace and were soon walking as fast if not faster than they had with the lights on. There was no doubt they were approaching some large space and, despite the fact that they could not see so much as a pin prick of light, Kiri was sure that once they entered it they would be able to see again.
She could feel Ben pulling back but her excitement to see whatever cavern lay ahead goaded Kiri to stride faster. So it was that they were fairly marching along when something smashed into Kiri’s chest with the force of a bus, knocking the wind out of her and sending her crashing to the ground.
‘Watch out!’ a disembodied voice seemed to follow minutes after the impact as Kiri’s brain raced to catch up.
‘Umgphg,’ she moaned. ‘Ben?’
‘I’m here, Kiri are you ok where are you?’
Kiri was feeling around on the floor to lift herself up when a searing red light cut up the darkness to her left.
Standing over her she made out the shape of a figure, swathed in rags and holding a flame that lit up the corridor around them. Ben was hanging back to her right and in front of her she could see the reason for the forceful warning.
No more than a metre ahead lay the end of the corridor and although the light of the flame quickly dissipated beyond that Kiri was still able see that they were closer than they had thought to the cavern.
The corridor they were in entered high up in the wall of the cavern and while the cavern floor below was out of sight it was clear that if she had carried on another two steps Kiri would have fallen to a certain death several hundred feet below.
‘Damn,’ Ben’s face was a painting of fear.
Having recovered her bearings, Kiri’s attention now focussed on the figure standing beside them. Its face was obscured by the rags and it clutched a wooden staff in one hand, evidently the object that had floored Kiri moments earlier.
‘You don’t want to go down there,’ the figure said, pulling back its hood to reveal the rather grubby face of a girl who looked about the same age as Kiri. ‘It’s a long way down.’
With a grimace Kiri struggled to her feet.
‘Thanks… I guess,’ Kiri said, rubbing her chest where a bruise was already swelling. ‘Who are you?’
‘Oh no one, I guess,’ the girl said vaguely.
This answer, combined with the girl’s smug grin, instantly irritated Kiri.
‘But you have got a name?’ Kiri asked.
‘Yeah sure,’ the girl replied, stalling for time. ‘You can call me Meg.’
Kiri didn’t trust her. Something about her tone suggested she was hiding something.
‘Uhh ok Meg, it was you we saw up above? You live down here?’
‘Maybe, what you doing in the below-grounds? This is off-limits down here’
‘I could ask you the same,’ Kiri said. Standing to her full height she was about an inch taller than Meg.
‘I live here,’ Meg said proudly.
‘What down here? No-one lives down here,’ Kiri said surprised at this girl’s gall, to lie so blatantly.
‘Well, I do,’ Meg said defiantly.
‘What all on your own?’ Kiri asked.
‘No course not, there’s a few of us … but… the catchers… they’ve been getting stronger… learning our steps…’
Meg trailed off despondently and a sad look passed across her face as she gazed down at the ground. Kiri didn’t know what to make of this performance. For whatever reason this girl had decided to save her and she should be thankful for that but at the same time this story was too much to believe.
Kiri was about to ask another question when the flare in Meg’s hand started to sputter and fade.
‘Quick, take my hand,’ Meg said. ‘I can’t afford to light another one and anyway I know the way.’
Before Kiri could ask how Meg thought she knew where they needed to go the light flickered out completely and she felt Meg tug her back down the corridor away from the edge.
Meg’s hand was soft and small, not unlike that of a child. From her muddied, swarthy face Kiri had somehow expected her hands to be rough but her touch was quite gentle, even if she did pull Kiri along briskly.
Kiri held Meg’s hand with her left and had managed to grab Ben with her right, forming a human chain with Kiri in the middle. Her grip meant she had to walk semi-sideways to avoid twisting her arm too much.
‘So where is it you think we need to go?’ Kiri asked after they had walked about a hundred metres back the way they had come.
‘Not where but what,’ Meg’s voice echoed back.
‘What do you…’ For the second time in a matter of minutes, Kiri was at a loss for words.
‘Don’t worry,’ Meg’s hand tensed and she tugged a little harder.
They soon emerged from the darkened section of corridor back into the light. Here the corridor was wide enough for them to walk side by side instead of single file and though they could now see each other clearly they continued holding hands.
Meg led them back the way they had come for some distance before stopping at a doorway that Kiri had somehow missed when they passed that way earlier. Pushing the doorway open, Meg revealed the entrance to a much narrower tunnel and led the way, reverting to single file.
The corridor twisted and turned but Meg appeared to know the way like the back of her hand. She led them on via a series of doors, tunnels and stairways until they exited into a medium sized room with a bare concrete floor and half-opened cardboard boxes lining the walls.
The door through which they entered was the only entrance or exit to the room and the place looked like it had once been used as a warehouse or storage room, though it was clear that it had not served any productive purpose in years.
‘Is this it?’ Kiri asked, disappointed that Meg had led them to this dead end.
Meg shook her head.
’We can wait here a little
‘For these others you live with?’ Kiri asked sarcastically.
‘I don’t know,’ Meg sighed, the girl looked as though she was about to cry. ‘Luana and Ras got away but then I lost them.’
Kiri suddenly had the impression that Meg was telling the truth after all and a creeping sense of unease overtook her.
‘Why don’t you live above ground like the rest of us?’ Ben piped up for the first time since their encounter.
‘We used to,’ Meg spoke in a hushed voice as if suddenly afraid the walls themselves were listening in. ‘but I can’t go back now.’
‘Of course you can,’ Ben cried. ‘If we can get in here then you can get back.’
‘No, not any more, since we have the map,’ Meg said.
‘What map is that?’ Kiri asked.
‘I’m not just going to show you that am I,’ Meg said, a worried, uncertain look fleeting across her eyes. ‘Its caused enough problems already.’
‘Us? Who else is there?’ Kiri demanded.
At this Meg seemed about to break down into tears.
‘I don’t know, I don’t know, Ras and Luanda were the last two. That’s it now.’
‘Come on, if you can help me find my friend’s phone we can help you look for your friends, they must be down here somewhere, but it is very important we find the phone. It belonged… it belongs to a friend of ours and we need to get it back.’
‘I can’t, I can’t help you,’ Meg sobbed.
‘Please take us to the phone and I promise we’ll do what we can to help you find your friends and get back above ground,’ Kiri had raised her voice for fear that this chance to get the phone, to find Mark, might slip out of her hands.
Reaching inside her ragged layers of clothing Meg sobbed louder and produced a small hard object.