Out of this world
…and the advice is to remain indoors and await further instructions. Government sources state that there is, as yet, no credible claim for responsibility. What is clear is that there has been a massive breakdown of communication into and out of London, with mobile phone networks down, satellite systems malfunctioning, and land lines dead. We understand that the prime minister will be delivering a statement at 6:00 p.m. But as of now, far from becoming clearer, the situation seems to be descending…(broadcast ends here)
— BBC TV Newsflash, 5:35 p.m. GMT, July 28, 2019
To begin with, Jack was disappointed. They walked along the dried canal bed, their torch lights flashing here and there like reflections from long forgotten water, and on the old towpaths he made out at least a dozen box structures obviously used as temporary shelters by tramps. Smashed booze bottles littered the ground, bags of refuse lay split open by rats or other carrion creatures, and he saw many broken items from the world above. He had believed that they were leaving the world he knew, but it appeared they had merely entered its underside.
But then Jenna called out from where she had stalked ahead with Rosemary, and the excitement kicked back in: “Oh, this is not a nice way to go.”
They caught up with her and all trained their torches in the same place. There was a skeleton propped against the side of the dry canal. It still wore the faded remnants of clothing, but the bones had been picked clean, and in places there were what looked like teeth marks. One leg was gone below the knee, and both arms were missing.
“Gross!” Emily said. Jack thought briefly of leading her away, but he would not patronise her like that. They were all seeing this together.
“Some bones over there,” Sparky said, pointing with his torch. Jack saw a few loose bones scattered across the ground, splintered and chewed. “Let’s just hope he or she was dead before the dogs got to them.”
Lucy-Anne walked on quickly, turning her torch from the body and marching ahead into the tunnel. She paused after twenty yards, and Jack could see her shoulders rising and falling as she panted.
“Lucy-Anne?” he asked.
“I’m fine!” But she did not turn around, and when she heard their footsteps she went on alone.
Beyond the skeleton-as though death could be a barrier, or a border-they found very few signs of human interference. Their bobbing torch beams picked out stalactites hanging from the arched ceiling, and in several places water dripped in unavoidable waterfalls. Emily giggled as she ran through and got soaked, but Jack could not help wondering at the water’s origin. He hoped for a ruptured water main, not a foul drain.
It was cold, down in this place never touched by sunlight or heat. There was a very slight breeze coming from ahead, and without that Jack guessed the tunnel would have stank. Every few seconds someone’s torch beam would illuminate the edge of the dried canal, reminding him of where they were and how strange this was. But though it was dark, and unsettling, and the air went from musty to fresh in a breath, there was a palpable sense of excitement. Jack felt enthused, and he could sense the others experiencing their own versions of the same anticipation. Their fast breathing echoed, torch lights bobbed erratically, and a loaded silence had fallen over them. The air felt as if it was about to break.
Jack became fascinated with the ceiling, aiming his torch up there for long periods between brief glances at the uneven ground before him. In places it looked like a cave, with uneven rocky protrusions, stalactites made of some unidentifiable, creamy material, and dark cracks into which even his torch could not delve. Elsewhere he could see the rough concrete that sealed the canal beneath the ground. Perhaps it was an intentional covering-over, or maybe it had been hidden away bit by bit, buildings constructed to span and then smother the old waterway.
“Jack!” Sparky called. Jack paused and looked at where his friend was shining his torch. Just before Jack’s feet was a hole in the canal’s old bed, several feet wide and at least six deep. Its bottom was a mucky mess, the small pools of stagnant water reflecting only a sick, slick light back up at them. It stank. He’d almost walked into it.
“That would have been a good start,” Jack muttered.
“You’d have smelled worse than usual, that’s for sure.” Sparky passed him by with a grin and stepped neatly around the hole.
Jack took more care after that. There was plenty to wonder at, but there was also his own safety to consider, and that had to come first. For two years he had been petrified about leaving Emily on her own. He’d had nightmares about drowning, feeling the darkness of deep water sucking him down, and all the while Emily was alone on a vast pebble beach far away, hands reaching in an impossible attempt to save him, her brother, until the last time he was pulled under, when he saw the shadows gathering at the beach’s extremes…watching…waiting to make sure Jack was not about to surface again, before slicking across the beach towards his abandoned sister.
“You okay, Ems?” It was the name he’d used when she was very young, and she usually did not like hearing it. Their parents had used it all the time.
His sister glanced back and smiled, and he saw that she was more than okay. She was
Lucy-Anne and Rosemary maintained the lead. Jack’s girlfriend walked apart from the older woman, but Jack knew her well. She was trying to hide her fascination in case Rosemary saw it as a weakness. Lucy-Anne hated being beholden to anyone, and now they were all in the hands of this woman whom none of them knew.
They walked for half an hour. There was little chit-chat, but plenty of nervous energy. Jack wondered about Rosemary’s friend Philippe, and how he saw routes and byways hidden to everyone else. What must that be like? How did he manage understanding such secrets? Jack found the world of the Irregulars both intriguing and disturbing, and whenever he tried to put himself in their place, he became afraid. His life had changed enough since Doomsday. He could only imagine what London’s few, amazing survivors must have gone through.
The buried canal ended abruptly. Rosemary and Lucy-Anne came to a halt, standing side by side and shining their torches at a blank concrete wall. There was graffiti carved into the concrete, incongruous in such surroundings and more disquieting because of that. ‘We’ve come heer to hyde.’ The mis-spellings made the pronouncements even more otherworldly.
“Who wrote that?” Jenna asked.
“It looks very old,” Rosemary said. “To be honest, it’s the first time I’ve seen it. I came from the other way, remember?”
“Can’t you see?” Rosemary said, a hint of humour in her voice that Jack didn’t like. She was supposed to be leading them, not testing them. But then, she
Jack and the others shone their torches around, looking for where their path might continue. The combined lights lit up the whole end of the tunnel, revealing little but wall, ground, concrete ceiling, and the old, crumbling tow paths on either side.
“No,” Sparky said. “I don’t see.” He spun around and played his torch behind them, his action instantly making Jack nervous.
“Down there,” Emily said. “Look! It looks like a wave of mud, but it’s fresh.” She aimed her torch at the base of the graffitied wall, revealing a drift of canal-bed mud resting against the concrete. It looked unremarkable to Jack; just another hump in the old canal’s uneven floor.
“Good eyes,” Rosemary said.
“SuperGirl,” Emily said matter-of-factly, and everyone laughed.
Their spirits raised, the others stood back while Sparky and Emily scooped away handfuls of loose dirt, slowly revealing a dark opening at the base of the wall. It was small-barely large enough to crawl through-but Rosemary assured them it was the way to go.
“If I can do it at my age,” she said, “all of us can.”
“So you hid it on your way through?” Jack asked. “Buried it?”
“Yes. Ruined my nails.” The old woman smiled, but in torchlight it looked grotesque.
Rosemary frowned, and Jenna and Lucy-Anne aimed their torches at her face. Jack held back a laugh; it was like an interrogation in some crappy movie.
Cringing against the light, Rosemary turned away. “It’s a secret,” she said. “This way, this route, no one knows about it. No one but Philippe and me, and now you.”
The torches lowered, giving light to Sparky and Emily once more.
“Tell me about it,” Lucy-Anne said, and Rosemary looked at Jack’s girlfriend, her eyes sad and heavy with the terrible things they had seen.
“We trust you,” Jack said, surprising himself. Lucy-Anne glanced at him, eyebrows raised. “We do. We trust you. You lead us in, and we’ll help however we can.”
Rosemary smiled. “Thank you,” she said. “All of you. But sometimes…” She drifted off and stared at the concrete wall.
“Sometimes what?” Sparky said, panting. He stood, face grimy and hands filthy from the dirt.
Rosemary sighed. “Sometimes, I think we’ve passed the point of no return.”
Rosemary went first. Sparky offered, but she insisted, waving away objections and borrowing Sparky’s torch. Maybe Jack’s statement of trust had given her strength, or perhaps it made her want to prove herself more.
Lucy-Anne felt a begrudging admiration for the old woman. But trust? Not yet.
“Only a few feet,” Rosemary said. They watched her crawl into the narrow crack at the base of the wall, pulling with her elbows and pushing with her booted feet, and the light she carried threw back curious shadows, as though there was something down there with her.
“I’m through,” Rosemary called. Her voice was muffled, and came from miles away.
Sparky went next. In his enthusiasm he banged his head on the concrete, cursing and touching his scalp to check for blood. Lucy-Anne giggled, but only briefly, because no one accompanied her.
Jenna went after Sparky, then Emily, pushing the camera bag before her.
“You okay?” Jack asked. They were alone here now, with only the muffled sound of their friends chatting with Rosemary. Lucy-Anne could not quite tell in what way their voices had changed.
“I’m fine. Just…you know.”
“Bit scary, yeah?”
They stared at each other, knowing that perhaps now there should be a kiss or a hug, or at least something more than this.
“You next,” she said, to break the silence more than anything. Jack smiled and nodded, reaching out towards her and barely managing to touch her hand with his.
She watched him crawl into the hole and, alone at last, she closed her eyes and gave way to a sob that had been building in her throat.
She could remember a dream she’d had weeks ago, when dogs were attacking her in the dark, biting her, eating her, even as she tried to fight them off. The body they’d seen…that had been like a trigger, throwing the dream back at her. She knew it was stupid. She knew they’d say she was a fool. But for a while back there, she’d been terrified.
At least now they were moving on.
She turned around slowly and shone the torch back the way they had come. Its beam did not reach very far.
The gap was much narrower than she’d expected, so much so that she could not even raise her head without bashing it as Sparky had done. So she stared at the gravelly ground beneath her, pushing with her feet and crawling through on her elbows. It was only as light fell upon her that she realised she was through.
Sparky helped her to stand, playfully brushing dust and dirt from her clothes. “Welcome to the Mines of Moria!” he said, in the gruffest voice he could manage.
Lucy-Anne looked around. “Bloody hell!”
“I think it’s an old church basement,” Rosemary said.
The room was twenty steps across and thirty long, supported at regular intervals by thick stone columns. There seemed to be nothing stored down here, and it had the feel of being long-abandoned; dust had drifted against the base of walls, and in one corner an impressive array of spider webs formed grubby curtains. They shone their torches around, searching but not finding a way up into whatever building had once stood, or still stood above them.
“Maybe over there,” Jenna said. She walked toward one corner, kicking through the layered dust at her feet. She looked up at the ceiling, then back at the group, nodding. “Must have been closed in ages ago.”
Lucy-Anne saw the discoloured ceiling above where Jenna stood. The evidence of a blocked in staircase, perhaps, or the remains of where a hatch had once led down to this place.
“Why’d you think it’s a church?” Jack asked.
“Over there,” Rosemary said. “In the end wall. That’s the way we have to go. You’ll see.”
Her heart stuttered, missing a beat and taking her breath away when it restarted. Her arms and chest went cold. A sound returned from her dream, as fresh and alive as if she were dreaming it again now: another growl, and a low, throaty bark.
They were all frozen. The sudden stillness would have been comical, were it not for the other growls now answering the first.
“Oh, no,” Rosemary groaned. And she sounded her age for the first time since Lucy-Anne had met her.
Emily dashed over to her brother’s side. He glanced at Lucy-Anne, but she could not even blink.
“What?” Jack whispered. He stepped closer to Rosemary, and the others all turned to look at the old woman. Their eyes were wide in the darkness, glittering with strange yellow light. “Rosemary,
“Dogs,” Lucy-Anne whispered.
“Yes,” Rosemary said. “I met them on the way out, but they were much further back, just beneath the Exclusion Zone.”
“And?” Jack asked.
“They’re wild, Jack. From London. There are packs in there, big packs.”
“We’ve heard about them,” Jenna said. All of them had drawn close, subconsciously shielding Emily from whatever danger approached.
“Some of them went down beneath the city,” Rosemary said. “The Tube, tunnels, sewers. Dog, and…”
“Other things,” Jenna finished for her.
Rosemary nodded. Lucy-Anne knew what “other things” meant, because they’d had a series of reports left in the drops close to Camp Truth a few months before. Much could be put down to hearsay and exaggeration, they’d agreed, but it also seemed likely that some of what they read was true. Alligators, snakes, poisonous frogs, deadly spiders, and even a pride of lions, all of them escaped from various zoos and private collections in and around London following Doomsday.
“I dreamed this,” she whispered, and she was aware of Jack’s torch shifting as he turned to look at her.
Another growl came, much closer than before, and there seemed to be cunning there, and purpose.
Jack stepped in front of Emily, a four inch folding knife in his hand. Jenna also shielded the girl, and Sparky already had a knife in each hand, torch tucked in his back pocket.
“How many were there?” Jack asked the old woman.
“Five,” Lucy-Anne said.
“Yes,” Rosemary said, surprised. “But I think I broke one of their legs.”
“Four’s still enough,” Sparky said. “Shit.
“Would you still have come?” Rosemary asked.
“Yes!” Sparky and Jack spoke at the same time, and the woman looked down at her feet.
— and when she looked again, the growl was real.
The first dog emerged from the tunnel into the large basement, dodging their torch beams, darting from column to column as it came for them.