Ten years ago Rab learned the secret of the planet he calls home - and lost the young girl he'd vowed to protect; traded for a sweater and a pair of boots. Since then he's wandered the barren surface searching for her. Now he must guide others back to his deserted village, certain the journey will tell him nothing he doesn't already know - he is wrong.
"There's always a sense of mystery in Lafferty Webb's work, a mystery that seems to be conveyed between the lines rather than in them. This sense of mystery gives an extra dimension to everything she writes. The plot has some lovely, imaginative developments, and the ending left me keen to read the last book in the series when it comes out." Danielle de Valera
"Another winning book for fans of well done sci fi/fantasy novels."
The Dilettante Bookworm
"Gripped from the beginning"
DnS Media Book Reviews
"5 out of 5 stars"
A Bookworm’s Reviews
"Readers will be drawn into the story from the very first page."
Diane Riggins - author of the Blood and Water series, and the Fur and Fang series
"... creative and engrossing ... death, treachery and lies are all interwoven brilliantly into the story. "
Jemma Telford - Reviewer
"It hit a lot of the right notes for me in terms of description, character development, world-building - and the twist at the end was great! ... 4 stars"
Toni L.H. Boughton - author of Wolf Running
"Like all good speculative fiction, Web has placed very human characters into a world very different from the one we are familiar with..." Daan Spijer - thinking-allowed.com.au
"My God this story is good. Subtle, sinister, and absolutely gut-wrenching and engaging. It's like falling in love with a whirlwind. ... It's beautifully and subtly constructed, deftly, devastatingly executed. The world and characters are intensely visual, the themes intense and constant, the weave of the story flawless. Absolutely remarkable reading."
Anneque Malchien – author of the Hannibal du Noir - Vampire Hunter series
"… you are in for an absorbing, thoughtful and enjoyable piece of speculative fiction. Like Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife, the novel works back and forwards in time complicating the relationships of characters, and posing the question of whether the past (and thus the future) can be changed."
Helen Richardson, NSW Writers Centre Newsbite 28 November 2011
and from other readers
"A beautiful book. Strange and mysterious."
"I was surprised by how emotional I felt by the end. I really felt for the characters. I don’t know whether it’s worth four or five stars but I’m going with five because I don’t experience that feeling often."
"... an evocative, intense and dense book... This is no 45 minute jaunt in a blue box, but a book that demands that the reader work to unpack the story, the connections and implications."
RAB headed through the gate into the underground city, barely aware of the near empty packs hanging limply from each shoulder. He would stay only a few days — long enough to rest and restock his supplies, maybe find a new pair of boots, before he set out once again. There was time. Lately it seemed that snow time was taking just that little bit longer to come and leaving just that little bit sooner. Intuitively, he should find that a good thing. Instinctively, he couldn’t. Little about this planet inspired trust.
It was easy going through the dark and narrow upper tunnel, all just second nature to him now. Each bend, each irregularity in the floor had simply become part of him. Reaching out, Rab’s hand went immediately to the lock on the heavy metal door. He turned the key, heard the lock tumble, then, depressing the handle, shouldered it open. The air inside ‘the house’ felt warm against his face. In the middle of the far wall, a small fire was burning in the large hearth.
Somehow she always knew the very day he’d come walking back down the tunnel.
The fire lent him just enough light to see. Having spent weeks top-side, his eyes weren’t adjusted to the dark. If the old overstuffed chair had still been there, he might have stayed and warmed himself in front of Cloud’s fire a while before facing the inevitable below, but the chair had disappeared long ago— no doubt scavenged by some resourceful tunnel-dweller during one of Rab’s forays on the surface. It would have been no mean feat to manoeuvre something that size down the lower tunnel. All that was left in the room now was a battered container, looking lonely in the far corner of the room.
Rab dropped his packs and began shrugging off his heavy coat as he made his way across the room towards the container. Bits of wadded-up paper fell to the floor as he walked. He stooped to collect each one. On reaching the container, he found it almost empty. No surprise. Hardly anyone ventured outside anymore; why waste a precious fuel on the off-chance someone might take it in their head to go top-side? One by one, Rab tossed the loosely wadded balls of the fine insulating paper into the container. They’d be there waiting for him when he came back up in a couple of days. No one would take them in the meantime.
Thrusting a hand into the pocket of his coat, he rummaged around until he found the small draw-string bag, which he transferred to the pocket of his trousers, then dumped his heavy coat on the floor beside the container. No one would take that, either. The rare person who visited ‘the house’ knew he’d be needing it again, too, and would leave both his coat and the paper alone. He had learned very quickly that these tunnel-dwellers weren’t prone to steal. It was more than he could say for his own kind: the Top-siders. In the ten snow times, ten years, he’d been living on and off among the tunnel-dwellers, Rab had never heard of or seen a single incident of theft or assault, nor had he ever had even the slightest inkling that anything improper might be going on quietly beneath the surface. That is, aside from the callous handling of returned captives, a matter which seemed entirely outside the accepted rules of underground conduct. At first, Rab had felt morally compelled to challenge the city administrators whenever some unsuspecting tunnel-dweller was duped into accepting a returned captive as their child; now he didn’t even notice when it happened.
Retrieving his packs, Rab stamped out the fire. Before starting down the lower tunnel towards the city, he dropped the keys he’d used to open the gate and the big, heavy door into one of the packs and then slung both over his shoulder. The keys clanked against the jumble of rocks at the bottom of the pack. Knowing he wouldn’t have to look at those keys again for a couple of days was always a great relief; they were too sad and galling a reminder of Sunny. Ten years dead now and still he couldn’t shake her. She’d set his path — left him with those keys, an impossible challenge, and the blood he couldn’t wash off his hands. If all were fair in this world she should be rotting in hell right now, not resting with her task complete and her dead flesh mummifying on cold bones, inside the carcass of that wrecked spaceship out in a dry river bed. But nothing was fair in this world. Not one damn thing. If it were, Gift would never have been taken from him. It didn’t seem a lot to ask under the circumstances.
The shimmerers lit Rab’s way down the lower tunnel. They always seemed happy to see him back. It was imagination, of course. The tiny little beasts that lined the walls of the tunnel didn’t glow any brighter for him than they did for anyone else. But after each cold and miserable stint top-side, it was comforting to believe there’d be some sort of welcome waiting on his return. Cloud would be pleased to see him — too pleased. She was starting to become a genuine problem. Someday she might just wear him down, convince him to stay. She deserved better.
Rab passed through the end of the lower tunnel onto Main Street and continued into Market Square, glancing, as was his habit, up at the light-peppered ceiling overhead. Just like it had seemed in the tunnel, for one instant, the brightworms there appeared to flash more intently to greet him. Usually he didn’t pay much attention to the vendors assembled in the Square. Today he did; he was on the lookout for that new pair of boots. It didn’t look hopeful, but he gave each stall a thorough inspection as he passed. Seemed there were fewer goods each time he made his way back to the underground city. A scarcity of pots here. A sparser selection of cloth there. Less variety in the kind of foods available for barter and the baskets and metal trays that held it all just looked that little less full.
They were going down and it was a surprise that it had actually taken this long.
Every now and then a vendor or customer nodded to Rab and he briefly inclined his head in reply. No one bothered to ask about his forays top-side anymore. They were accustomed to his coming and going and, if he came back alone — as he had so far — then there was nothing to ask about, nothing they needed or wanted to know.
He stopped at Lilly’s pots and pans stall out of a sense of obligation. Pots and pans were of no use to him top-side and he left the matter of stocking the space he lived in while underground entirely up to Fin.
Lilly Benson was something of a fragile woman. She managed the day to day well enough, but there wasn’t a tunnel-dweller in the city who’d say she was wholly sane. Harmless? Yes. Predictable? No. Sunny had known exactly what she was doing when she’d declared that Cloud was Lilly Benson’s lost girl. If there’s a problem, fix it; if there’s one looming, forestall it. Good old Sunny! She’d forestalled Lilly’s total collapse, all right. And Cloud had gone on to keep a close eye on the poor woman so that most of the time no one was concerned about her little oddities. And because she was a pots and pans vendor, the tunnel-dwellers were more than happy to trade for her wares, though none were keen to engage her in a protracted conversation. She tended to wander off topic.
Lilly quickly spotted Rab picking over the bits and pieces at the far end of her stall and hurried his way.
“Half trade today, Rab,” she said, pouncing as she usually did on anyone who seemed even remotely interested in her wares.
“I just walked in from the surface, Lilly, and I’ll be leaving again very soon. Can’t use them top-side,” Rab replied, replacing the battered pan back onto the top of the precariously stacked pile.
Lilly’s face went blank, light grey eyes and down-turned mouth frozen for a moment in time.
“Oh, yes, top-side.” Whatever it was that had stalled inside Lilly’s head stirred again. “I keep forgetting.”
She certainly did.
“Did you bring back anything I can use?”
Rab thought about the worthless stones weighing down his pack. If only!
He shook his head and smiled. Not everyone put in the effort to summon up a smile for Lilly. But then the woman could exhaust even the most patient person; Rab didn’t have to contend with her that often.
Lilly’s grey eyes began to dance, shifting focus from a spot somewhere over Rab’s left shoulder to the farthest end of the Square, then back again to Rab.
“You don’t know where my daughter is, do you? I haven’t seen her since this morning.”
Rab had lost count of the number of days since he’d last seen Lilly’s daughter. Lilly had already forgotten what he’d told her just moments ago.
“Sorry,” Rab said nevertheless. “Maybe she’s down in the field.”
“Oh,” Lilly said thoughtfully, then brightened. “Everything’s half trade today, Rab. Just pick anything you want.”
“Nothing today, thanks, Lilly,” Rab said, then, with a shake of hishead, took his leave.
The remaining stalls looked equally unpromising, so Rab left the market, empty-handed, and turned into Braham Street.
A little extra flicker. The shimmerers there saying hello. When he came on a tunnel-dweller heading in the opposite direction, Rab offered a little smile and received the same in return. He was in the residential sector where that kind of courtesy was more or less expected.
If he could have brought the tunnel-dweller’s name to mind, he’d have said ‘good afternoon’, although perhaps to this tunnel-dweller it wasn’t afternoon at all. Having just come down from top-side, Rab knew the time of day and season but those who lived in the permanent semi-light of the world below tended to set their own personal calendar for work and rest.
The fire wasn’t burning inside John Braham’s space. Like his granddaughter, Sunny, old Braham had been dead and gone these last ten years. Still Rab always thought of the space as Braham’s, though he owned it now — or rather he shared it with Stitch and Fin. He could have moved into Sunny’s space instead but he could never bring himself to go there. He didn’t have a clue what it looked like, who had taken possession of it and what, if any, of her possessions they might have found there.
Well, at least Cloud hadn’t wasted any fuel lighting and warming his space. It wasn’t necessary; Rab was used to a more bitter cold than this and could purloin enough warmth from the space next door. His neighbour was a quiet, solitary man who divided his time between labouring in the ’shroom field and sleeping in front of his fire. Barely a word ever passed between them.
Something seemed a little off inside but, without the glow of the fire, Rab couldn’t immediately identify what it was. His eyes hadn’t fully adjusted to the diminished light underground.
He stepped across the floor and, despite its progressive thinning over the years, registered the soft carpeting underfoot. That wasn’t what had changed. He gave a mental shrug, headed for the niche in the left wall and threw the two packs through the opening into his own personal space. Stitch and Fin each had a space of their own. It was sheer opulence considering where they had come from.
“Heard you were back.”
Rab nearly jumped out of his skin. He was simply too weary to call up blindsight, though thank God it had finally returned. During his first months down in these caves, it had abandoned him completely. Only after frequent forays top-side had he been able to coax it back.
He turned around and was dismayed to see something draped over her left arm. The last time a woman had stood in his doorway bearing gifts, it hadn’t worked out too well. There had been one long unbreakable string attached. Looking up, he caught the shadow of a frown cross Cloud’s pretty face. She’d been on her hands and knees in the ’shroom fields again. Her dark hair that this morning must have been tied up neatly on top of her head was hanging in tangled knots about her shoulders and there were smudges of dirt on her face.
“My mother doesn’t like it when you call me that.”
Rab casually lifted an eyebrow.
He knew. She knew he knew. Lilly Benson was not Cloud’s mother.
“Pardon me.” Rab dipped his head in mock apology. “Hello, Abby.”
“Better,” she said with a small smile and stepped into his space.
“May I come in?”
“You just did.”
“Funny! Here,” she said, extending her arm. “I made this for Stitch. Waste of time making you any more sweaters.”
“Have to agree, considering what I really need is boots.”
Rab slipped the sweater off her arm. Just the touch of it was enough to remind him why Cloud’s hands were invariably swollen and raw. The weave was coarse and it felt scratchy; nothing that wasn’t expected considering Cloud’s dwindling supply of thread. The threader farm wasn’t producing as much thread as it once did and there’d been some speculation that overcrowding among the population of the fragile weaver insects might be at the heart of the decline. The dim lighting couldn’t conceal that the sweater Cloud had made was the most colourful of her creations to date. Though she’d tried to disguise it by frequently swapping the red, yellow, pink, green, and purple threads, there was no getting away from the fact that the garment was the gaudiest piece of wearing apparel Rab had ever come across.
Though ostensibly she was a reweaver, Cloud’s real talent lay in horticulture. Damn good luck for the city. Cloud, or Abby as everyone else in the city called her, had been brought back from more than a decade of captivity with the Top-siders at the very time the city’s mushroom crop was failing. Rab had been the first to notice the disease. Cloud soon saw it and had proposed a radical solution — the sacrifice of the diseased portion of the crop in order to salvage the rest. It had been a stroke of genius that led to a modified strain of ’shroom much smaller than any they had ever seen before but one that was highly resistant to disease. Rab often wondered what the young girl’s fate might have been had her gamble not paid off. But she’d saved the crop and secured herself a privileged place among the tunnel-dwellers as a result.
Rab glanced up to find Cloud looking down at his worn and tattered boots.
“I’ll look around,” she said, turning her eyes back to his face.
“I can’t pay you,” he reminded her.
She sighed — once and loudly — then began a slow study of his space. Her gaze settled on Sunny’s rusted gun, lying in its usual place in the far corner of the room. For a second Rab thought she was going to ask for it. Why not? Maybe she could have it melted down? It had long been out of bullets and although Rab had once lugged the useless thing out and back through the wasteland on the pretext of its value as a deterrent, it just hadn’t been worth the effort.
Her glance slipped away without asking for it. Maybe melting it down wasn’t worth the effort, either.
“Got any more of this?” she enquired, gently scuffing the pile of the old carpet in front of her with the toe of one shoe.
Rab pointed towards the niche that served, off and on, as his room.
“There’s a threadbare one back there.”
Cloud pushed past him and peered through the narrow opening.
“Done,” she said and, turning around, began to wander here and there about the outer room, inspecting every nook and cranny along the way.
“Just that carpet. And only after you get me those boots.”
“Of course.” She stopped beside the cold hearth. “Your table is all busted-up,” she said.
Rab glanced towards the table — or rather towards the spot where the table should be. So that’s what was different. The table was missing. He shrugged when he spied the splintered wood haphazardly stacked by the hearth.
“Fin must have busted it up for fire wood.”
“That’s the way it goes,” Cloud replied over her shoulder. “Don’t suppose you found us a new supply while you were otherwise wasting your time up there?”
Rab shook his head. Once he’d been able to pay his dues underground by occasionally locating a cache of untapped fuel or stumbling on an exploitable stand of clean wild mushrooms. It seemed those days were gone.
“You going back up?” Cloud asked, turning around.
Even from a distance, Rab could detect that familiar old expression in those deep brown eyes of hers. Aside from Gift, she was the only person to regard him both warmly and critically at the same time. In the long ago, perhaps there had been occasions when his mother had cause to look at him the same way and he had simply forgotten.
“Couple of days.”
Numbering among Cloud’s many other talents was the irritating ability to make Rab feel miserably guilty, although he was never really sure what he had done to earn her disappointment. His search for Gift had begun when she was hardly more than a kid; it had had nothing to do with her then and, as Rab saw it, had nothing to do with her now.
“When will you give up, Rab?” Cloud asked at last. “What difference do you think finding her would make now? She was born a Top-sider. Let her be a Top-sider.”
Rab shook his head. “Not that kind of Top-sider.”
Cloud stiffened. “I spent more than ten years of my life with Top-siders who were probably pretty much like them, Rab. You do what you have to do to survive.”
Had he heard right? Had she really said that?
“What?” Rab flung Stitch’s new sweater to the floor. “Steal young city girls because too many of your own die in childbirth?”
Cloud’s right shoulder lifted slightly. “If that’s what it takes,” she replied evenly.
Striding forwards, he grabbed a hold of her arms a little more roughly than he’d intended.
“You can say that because you were rescued, Cloud. What if you hadn’t been rescued and brought back here?” he said, loosening his hold a little. “What if you’d been forced to spend your life as a breeder and nothing more?”
“Well, I wasn’t,” Cloud countered defiantly. “Gift was … is. And that’s all there is to it.”
“Fair trade? Is that what you’re telling me?”
“Why not? We steal their fuel and their food, don’t we?”
“What are you talking about?” Rab demanded irritably.
“Every time we find a new source of fuel or food top-side, we don’t ask for it or trade for it. We just take it. That’s theft, isn’t it?”
Rab had never really looked on his scavenging quite that way before.
“But nothing! Top-side is their space. Down here is ours.”
Cloud shouldn’t have had to remind him of that. Fin, Stitch, Gift and him, they had been born Top-siders. Maybe the life of a village Top-sider was just that tiny bit easier than the life of a nomadic Top-sider. Maybe it wasn’t. There was such a minor difference in the degree of deprivation, hardship and despair, what did it really matter? Rab, born Top-sider, was now living city-dweller. Cloud, born city-dweller, had lived a good part of her young life Top-sider. The two of them — they were kind of mirror images. Cloud came at life from one side, he from the other.
Rab let go of her arms.
“Not easy to have your sympathies split down the middle, is it, Cloud?”
“No. I’m sorry,” she said and quickly swiped the side of her face with a shoulder, smudging dirt. “And you’re right, of course. It’s not quite the same. Stealing children and stealing food and fuel. It’s just that … oh, Rab,” she stamped her foot in a gesture that almost made Rab laugh, “you make me so mad. Sooner or later you have to stop searching. She’s gone now. I know you promised her. But how long do you think a promise like that has to last?”
For a long silent while Rab just stood there looking down at her. He didn’t feel like laughing anymore.
“You came back,” he said at length.
“Yeah, I did, didn’t I? And at the back of your mind you still have that niggling little suspicion that I’m hiding something, don’t you?”
“I—” Rab began.
“There’s only one thing I’m hiding,” she snapped, cutting him off, “and you and I both know what that is. But I’m sure you’ll agree it’s a secret best kept. Some are, you know.”
Cloud’s little fit of temper struck a raw nerve.
“Or maybe you’d like me to come clean on absolutely everything and tell Lilly the truth,” she said. “Because I swear that’s the only thing I’ve ever kept from anyone. I don’t know one damn thing about those Top-siders who took your precious Gift. I don’t know where they came from or where they were going. If I did, I’d tell you. It would stop this useless traipsing around, wouldn’t it? Save you from ending up dead out there some day. But they weren’t my Top-siders just like they weren’t yours.”
At that less then subtle reminder of their common past, she gave him a shove and struck off towards the entrance to his space. As she passed by Stitch’s discarded sweater, she stooped and gathered it up. At the opening she stopped, swung around and flung the sweater right into Rab’s upraised hand.
She never missed.
“I’ll keep an eye out for those boots,” she said, leaving Rab, sweater dangling from one hand, looking at an empty doorway.
RAB was too spent after Cloud left to consider much else but sleep. After all, that’s what he’d come back to the tunnels to do — rest and restock his supplies before heading top-side again. But when Rab ventured back into his own small space, he discovered that all his bedding was gone. When old John Braham had lived here, there’d been an abundance of soft cushions scattered all about the floor. Now there were only a few. Rab dragged a couple inside the inner niche and fashioned himself a bed that was, in comparison to what he was used to, absolute luxury. Tossing his ruined boots aside, he collapsed, clothes and all, into the inviting softness. When Stitch had been small, Rab used to have the boy walk gently up and down his back to loosen the knots in his aching muscles. But Stitch had grown so big, the boy would break his spine now. In fact, Stitch was bigger than him nowadays and all Rab could put it down to was the magic of living underground in the warmth with the prospect of a solid meal every day, although the absence of day light had heightened the boy’s natural fairness and, if possible, sapped more of the colour from his already light blue eyes. Even Fin had filled out a little although there remained a certain hollowness and angularity about his face that spoke of those formative years spent on the surface.
Vaguely, Rab wondered where Stitch was now. Trailing after Fin most likely. And God only knew where Fin was. Both brothers seemed to have adapted to tunnel life better than Rab had anticipated, better than he ever would. Born surface, Rab dearly hoped that, when the time came, he’d be lucky enough to die surface. If he kept tramping top-side after Gift much longer, that day might not be too far off.
Was he truly so obsessed with finding her as Cloud believed? Likely so. And the odds were that, after all these years, Gift had probably forgotten him.
With the nagging pain in his lower back threatening to keep him awake, Rab struggled onto his side and faced the inner wall, where the light that filtered in from Braham Street failed to reach. Semi-light. Semi-dark. Didn’t matter. Rab could usually sleep in either, but his argument with Cloud threatened to snatch away from him the one thing he’d been craving these last few days. Cloud was right about a lot of things. She’d been right about how to avert a complete annihilation of the ’shroom crop. She’d been right when she claimed that by reweaving old thread, they could produce more clothing. And, all right, she was right that he’d become hopelessly obsessed. She was way off the mark when it came to the promise he’d made though. The real promise he’d made to Gift had been fulfilled long ago. If you have to make a choice about who to save, she’d said, then choose Stitch. And although maybe it hadn’t been a conscious decision to save Stitch, by stumbling on Sunny and having her bring them to the relative safety of her city, he had done exactly that. He really hadn’t had any other option, not with the boy’s leg so badly broken. Stitch still walked with a bit of a limp, but not much really. There were things he could not do, like descend into the valley with the rest of the youngsters to collect oil for the city from the dwindling seep, or harvest too long in the ’shroom field, but without Sunny Stitch would have died up there on the surface. It was a fate that was probably still lying in wait for him. What were the odds he wouldn’t slip and fall up there sooner or later?
No, the promises he was so obstinately holding onto were the ones he’d made to Sunny and to himself after the young woman had died. Died! Not an entirely accurate description of how Sunny had met her maker. Though she was quickly heading in that direction anyway. All he had done was hurry the process along — just as she’d asked him to do. And so, to the accompaniment of a sharp and terrible sound that still haunted him, the last of the bullets for Sunny’s gun was spent, leaving him with only the dead for company in the wreckage of the crashed spaceship and the pledge he’d made to protect not only its location, but the truth behind the legend he’d left his own dying village to pursue. Unbearable promise number one. And, yes, by consciously agreeing to guard Sunny’s secret he’d brought that one tumbling down on himself.
Unbearable promise number two had come of its own accord — the second he found Gift gone from the place where they had left her, safe Sunny had vowed and lied, waiting for their return. To this day, he was never sure just how complicit Sunny had been in the young girl’s abduction. There were days when he was convinced that Sunny really had bartered Gift for a sweater, a set of gloves and a second-hand pair of boots. There were days when he couldn’t conceive that even Sunny could have, at her core, been so cold-heartedly cruel. To his dying day the woman seemed destined to remain an enigma. Maybe Gift, when he found her, would have the answer. Maybe when he found Gift, having the answer wouldn’t matter anymore.
At the sound of laughter, Rab turned and caught a glimpse of someone moving around in the space outside his small niche. The brothers were back. One of them was laughing. Fin? Unlikely. Probably Stitch. Rab rolled back to face the unlit wall, sleep finally seeping, warm and calm, through the channels of his weary mind. He’d kept his promise to Gift. He was keeping his promise to Sunny. Maybe two out of three was enough.
Rab could hear the brothers talking quietly when he woke up. Rising stiffly, he stumbled to the narrow opening of his niche.
Stitch stopped talking and looked over at him. Fin glanced his way, nodded briefly, but kept on eating.
What was that he had in his hand? Dinner or breakfast?
Rab couldn’t decide. Just how long had he slept?
“Breakfast,” Stitch said.
Was the kid a mind-reader?
“Do you want some?”
Rab shook his head. He’d grown accustomed to one good meal a day and it wasn’t time yet.
“Find any wood this time?” Fin asked before stuffing his mouth again.
“Not this time,” Rab replied, obliged to hold onto the edge of the doorway for support.
The rock felt warm to the touch. Rab glanced towards the hearth and found a fire glowing. It was only a small fire and the pile of busted-up wood from the table looked hardly diminished at all.
“Any ’shrooms?” Stitch reached towards the old bowl that was balanced on his knees.
Neither brother had asked about Gift. They hadn’t for a long time.
When Rab stepped away from the doorway, Stitch shied the last of the cushions in his direction.
“Then I’m guessing you didn’t bring me anything, either.”
“Guess again,” Rab said, folding himself awkwardly into the low seat. “They’re still in my pack.”
Stitch bounded up from the floor and, without invitation, made straight for Rab’s niche. When he stepped back through the doorway he was carrying one of the packs as though it contained precious cargo. He didn’t bother to avail himself of a cushion, just dropped to the floor and cautiously upended the contents of the pack onto the thinning pile of the carpet. The ring of keys came tumbling out with the rest.
This rock-gathering had become something of a ritual and literally a pain in Rab’s neck. He’d thought Stitch would grow out of the fascination, which had actually begun not long after they had left their village, when Stitch was just a little kid. But no. Each time Rab left the city, he went charged with another promise to bring back more rocks. And each time he came back, Stitch was just as anxious to discover what Rab had brought him. There was little hope now of having the lad’s enthusiasm wane. Though the carrying had quickly grown old, Rab didn’t mind the foraging. It gave him an excuse to look for one particular type of stone. Although he hadn’t managed to find it yet, some day he would and that elusive little chunk of blue rock, like the one he kept inside the small draw-string bag in his coat pocket, might just lead him to Gift. For now though, for Stitch’s sake, he’d continue to carry back those useless lumps of stone and count himself lucky that the lad had found a healthy diversion, although a bit of an unlikely one considering he lived, day in day out, surrounded by rock. Rab had given up arguing the point once Stitch informed him that the rocks top-side were different. They were. But lately the rocks he came upon during his forays were all starting to look the same and Rab was having a hard time finding anything even mildly unusual to add to Stitch’s collection.
“Abby brought you a sweater,” Rab said. “Did you find it?”
“Who me?” Stitch asked, glancing up from his sorting. “I thought that was yours.”
He understood how things stood between Rab and young Abby.
“Yours,” Rab said, reaching out, a little stiffly, to retrieve the discarded article. The stretch nearly dumped him out of his seat. Holding the garment up from the shoulders, he gave Stitch a quick study.
Could the boy really have grown so much in a couple of weeks? “Looks a good fit.”
“Always is,” Fin said, getting up lithely from the floor.
Rab felt a pang of jealousy. Had he ever been that young and agile? His fruitless treks top-side had made an old man of him before his time. Fin wasn’t really all that much younger than him; it just seemed that way.
“How long are you staying?” Fin asked.
He’d disappeared into the smallest of the alcoves, where Rab heard water running.
The same old question every time. First from Cloud. Then from Fin. Stitch never asked.
“Couple of days.”
Same old answer.
“Then you won’t be interested in helping out on the carts,” Fin said, stepping out from the alcove.
When he wasn’t off somewhere doing God knew what in the farthest reaches of the tunnels, Fin worked down in the mushroom field maintaining the tracks and carts. He was pretty good with his hands and Stitch was beginning to show the same promise. Well, at least the boys had proved their worth to the tunnel-dwellers even if Rab hadn’t. Ironic really considering, when all was said and done, Rab was the most valuable asset they had. They just didn’t know it and never would as long as Rab kept his promise to Sunny.
Rab glanced down at his worn and battered hands. All right, maybe he could coax those bent fingers into helping Fin out some. Maybe Fin would cut him a little bit of slack if he did.
“This afternoon,” he said, looking up. “How’s that?”
Fin seemed genuinely surprised, faltering before he replied.
“Good.” He turned to Stitch, “Will you stop messing around with those rocks?” then stepped athletically over his abandoned seat. “Swear to God you’d rather play with them than eat.”
When Stitch looked up, Rab lobbed him Abby’s new sweater.
“She’ll be mad at you if you don’t wear it,” he said.
Actually she’d be mad at him, insisting he’d forgotten to give it to Stitch.
“Hurry up,” Fin snapped from the doorway. “Just bring it with you,” he called over his shoulder.
His old sweater was half over his head as Stitch hurried back to Rab and the bowl he’d left abandoned on the floor by Rab’s feet.
“Sure you don’t want it?” he mumbled, nodding at the bowl.
When Rab shook his head, Stitch snatched the last of the food and, with his new sweater tucked under an arm, bolted for the doorway.
“See you this afternoon,” he said.
At least that’s what Rab thought he’d said. It was a bit hard to tell since he was jamming crumbling bits of food into his mouth as he spoke.
The boy disappeared in a flurry of feet, crumbs, and a shout to Fin to ‘wait up’.
There hadn’t been a word of complaint about the outrageous colour of the sweater. Stitch, like anyone else would have been, was pleased to have it.
Rab picked up the bowl Stitch had left on the floor, sniffed at the remnants lying in the bottom, just a few scraps, but enough to tell him it was Sunny’s own recipe for ’shroom loaf. Beat him how or when Fin had figured out how she’d made it.
For a moment Rab debated how he was going to get back onto his feet with the bowl still in his hand. In the end, he placed it on top of Stitch’s seat, rolled onto his knees and pushed up from the ground with his hands. When he bent to retrieve the bowl, he almost toppled over. How the hell could he keep this up? Take on another trek? A couple of days from now, he knew the question would be gone from his mind. It always was.
Sort his stinking clothes? Wash them? Find something lying around the place to barter with down in Market Square for a new supply of food? The latter didn’t look at all hopeful, the former just an agonising chore. As he went to dump Stitch’s bowl in the little alcove, he settled on a wander down to the library. A morning wasted among old books wasn’t going to gear him up; it would clear his mind though, and right at that moment a clear mind was exactly what Rab felt he needed most.
He’d change into new clothes first. It was a bit of a surprise that neither Stitch nor Fin had said anything. Or maybe his clothes always stunk that bad. On his way back to his niche, Rab collected his pack and the keys Stitch had left on the floor.
No sooner had he stepped onto Braham Street than Rab had a change of mind. After so much solitude, what he really craved was the communion of people, specifically someone who wouldn’t shout at him or challenge him or dart off within a few minutes of seeing him. The library was widely regarded by most tunnel-dwellers as redundant; there would be no company for him in that cold place where even the shimmerers failed to thrive. The someone who came to mind was Ruby. Of all the tunnel-dwellers, Ruby had been the one to accept him unreservedly. Perhaps it was a matter of conditioning and a higher tolerance born out of years caring for returned captives. So Ruby it had to be. When he came to the intersection of Braham and Main streets, Rab kept going straight into the opposite tunnel. There were a number of minor functionary passageways that branched off from that main tunnel: one led to the hospital; another to the library; others Rad had never bothered to investigate, but the council chamber itself opened directly onto the main tunnel. Rab had never been invited behind its large and very heavily panelled door. When he came to the chamber, he wasn’t too surprised to discover a thick somewhat threadbare carpet now hanging from the frame where the big old door had once been suspended. He’d often wondered how long it would take before that substantial bit of tinder was consigned to fire.
Reaching the end of the minor passageway he had taken, he found the door there still intact. Considering what lay behind, it would likely be the last to go. Opening the door, he spotted Ruby right where he had expected her to be, perched on the same rickety old chair behind the same rickety old desk, looking for all the world as though she hadn’t budged from the spot in front of the hospital’s brightly blazing hearth since he’d left. At first, he thought Ruby was alone until he spied a bundle of something lying on top of one of the beds near the door and realised it was a small person. Not one of Ruby’s usual break, sprain or cough victims but something else.
He jerked his head, indicating the bed, as he continued on towards Ruby behind her big old rickety desk.
“The Pigeon Brothers brought her in last week,” Ruby said by way of greeting.
The Pigeon Brothers! Three words that, whenever mentioned, were sure to set Rab’s blood boiling. From the disparate look of them, Rab doubted the pair were actually brothers and of course their name wasn’t really Pigeon. That was just a title old John Braham had dropped on them long before Rab had ever encountered the repulsive duo. Something to do with homing pigeons, Ruby had once explained, although she couldn’t tell Rab exactly what a homing pigeon was and Rab had never been interested enough to find out. On the day he’d found Gift missing, Rab, in his naiveté, had believed it would be a simple matter to enlist those two bounty hunters in the search for her. He needed someone who knew all about the nomadic Top-siders. Where they went. What routes they took to get there. How long they stayed. For that kind of expertise there were none better than those bounty hunters.
Rab hadn’t counted on the price the Pigeon Brothers would demand though. He had little to offer them and they could easily find more affluent victims to bleed. No deal had ever been struck although Rab suspected that, deal or no deal, the pair kept an eye out for Gift just the same, reasoning that when push came to shove, he’d find the bounty somehow. Well, he couldn’t. But let the brothers think what they wanted. All he had to know was where to find her; the rest he could do for himself.
Rab bypassed Ruby and walked directly to the small recess where she stored patched and repatched linen, some of the more robust medicines, and a small cabinet full of dust-covered reading glasses. He glanced overhead, towards the barely visible hole in the roof there. The battered, rusting old chain was hanging down; hard to see way up there in the gloom unless you knew what you were looking for. The chain hanging down like that meant the bounty hunters hadn’t departed the city yet. They’d draw it top-side again once they left and drop it through the small jagged hole in the roof of the recess when they returned, an alert for Ruby that they required access to the city again. Once Ruby had neglected to monitor the comings and goings of the chain until it was almost too late to rescue a couple of bounty hunters who had been left up on the plateau. Confused by cold and hunger, they hadn’t thought to attempt to bust the lock on the city gates and at least gain access to the upper tunnel where pounding on the inner door might have eventually raised someone. Ruby monitored the chain every day now.
“You could have asked me if they are still here instead of making yourself at home in my hospital,” she said.
Satisfied, Rab wandered back to Ruby and propped himself on the edge of the desk, about to enquire about Gift, when Ruby shook her frizzy head, anticipating his question.
“They didn’t see her,” she lifted a shoulder, “well, anyone around her age anyway and I can’t get a thing out of that one.” She gestured towards the crumpled-up bunch of bone, skin and sheeting in the bed. “I think she’s a true-breed,” Ruby part whispered, part mouthed.
It never ceased to amaze him how even Ruby, with the years she had spent patching up these returned captives and sending them on their way towards mostly productive lives in the city, never understood that, to a Top-sider, being a Top-sider was not a matter of shame.
Rab glanced slyly back towards the bed. The girl was curled up, fetal-like, knees to chest. Beneath a loosely hacked mop of matted brown hair, her face was all cheek bones and big round eyes that stared but didn’t seem to see him. Yes, she had the look of Top-sider about her for sure. Ruby was probably right.
“She doesn’t look too good,” Rab observed quietly.
“Isn’t,” Ruby admitted, just as guardedly. “She won’t make it. That’s why I agreed to take her.”
With the passing of Sunny and old John Braham, it had fallen to Ruby to step forward and fill the void. No one else in the city was prepared to have any lengthy dealings with the Pigeon Brothers and since Ruby was invariably charged with the initial care of the returned captives down in the hospital, it was the logical decision.
“You paid the bounty for a girl you knew from the start was Top-sider?”
One of Ruby’s eyes began to twitch. “Now I wouldn’t go saying that I knew from the start she was Top-sider.”
No, Rab wouldn’t go saying that. Ruby could get into a whole lot of trouble for that kind of mistake.
“I had to have a good look at her first. Decide if she was too young.”
Sure she did.
Briefly, Rab glanced back at the bed. In the last ten years, not a single girl had gone missing from the city, not since old Braham had erected that old heavy door at the base of the upper tunnel. The bundle of bone and rag in the bed looked hardly any bigger than Gift had been the last time he’d seen her. But top-side kids were commonly undersized and there was no telling how old this one might be.
“No one came to consider her?” he asked, turning back to Ruby.
Ruby shrugged. “Prue did. Wouldn’t have her.”
Rab struggled to put a face to the name. Then it came to him. Prue. Pots and pans Prue, Lilly Benson’s strongest competition.
Sunny, with her inimitable talent for contorting the truth, would have had Prue bundling the girl out the door in no time, happy in the misbegotten belief the girl was hers … for a while anyway … until the kid up and died on her.
“She probably isn’t one of us,” Ruby was saying, “but even a poor miserable thing like that deserves to die in comfort, instead of up there … ” she waved a hand in the general direction of the ceiling, “ … out in the cold with those surface-roaming animals.”
Surface-roaming animals who might just have loved her, Rab thought. God, he was growing soft. Or perhaps Cloud’s latest tirade was getting to him. Village Top-siders loved their children. Why couldn’t nomadic Top-siders? Maybe they even loved the stolen ones. He didn’t share that notion with Ruby. She had a good heart and all in all, did a better job than Sunny. An honest one. Well, mostly.
“How long?” Rab asked although he wasn’t sure he really wanted to know.
“Tomorrow. Day after. Hard to say.”
He didn’t need to ask anything more; Ruby would sit right there in that chair until the very last breath left the little girl’s body. It was Ruby’s way. And at the end, she’d probably be holding the little girl’s hand. She really did have a good heart.
“If you want,” Rab said after another quick glance towards the bed, “I can stay here in the hospital tonight. Give you the chance for some rest.”
Why not? The hospital had the best, very likely the only real, beds in the city. And after Sunny, well he could watch the young girl die without even blinking an eye. Just like Ruby. Didn’t mean they didn’t care.
“No need unless …” Ruby faltered, “… unless you want to.”
“All the same to me,” Rab said with a shrug. “Just thought I could be useful.”
At least he could show that he could be for a change.
“Got to wonder, haven’t you,” Rab said thoughtfully after a moment, “how big a part Sunny might have played in some of the later disappearances from this place?”
“She never did such a thing,” Ruby snapped. A florid crimson wave that began at her neck surged upward until it reached her cheeks and the exposed tips of her ears. “Sunny was well respected here and if you’re half as smart as you think you are, you won’t go around say—”
Ruby’s tirade ceased midword with her mouth left hanging open.
Rab was about to ask what was wrong, but was interrupted by a great clatter and bang as the door to the hospital hit the inside wall. Ruby jumped to her feet; Rab slipped off the desk; and someone was leaning, hanging off the door, half-in, half-out of the room.
Rab knew the name of the man hanging there, but again just couldn’t put the name to the face for the moment. The big man was breathing hard and his face was flushed. From a distance it looked as though he was trembling and, if Rab hadn’t known better, covered from knee to shoulder in grey ’shroom dust.
“Max!” Ruby called as she shot around the side of her desk. “What in heaven’s name is wrong? Are you hurt?”
That was it. Max Something-or-other. Worked with Fin down on the tracks sometimes.
Rab made to help Ruby get the injured Max into one of the beds, but stopped when the man began violently shaking his head.
“Not me! Not me!” Max had finally caught enough breath to speak. “There’s been a terrible accident. Down in the mushroom field,” he wheezed. “One of the carts has tipped over. There’s people trapped.”
Rab shot a glance over at Ruby, who was pushing the frizzy fuzz that passed as hair back from her face.
Down in the mushroom field!
“Who’s hurt? How many?” Ruby cried as she belted back past the bed containing the motionless girl to retrieve her medicine bag.
“Don’t know. I was hauling, right up front, when I felt this awful kind of wrench, then heard an almighty crash and someone started yelling that the middle cart had overturned and I should start running and get you fast.”
Rab wasn’t about to wait for an invitation. He shoved Max aside and pitched himself down the passageway, speeding towards Grocer’s Alley and the offshoot tunnel that would take him directly into the ’shroom field.
As he ran, he was vaguely aware of two sets of feet pounding the hard ground behind him. Max and Ruby were right on his tail. Rab didn’t spare a thought for the delicate shimmerers every time he bounced off a wall because he’d taken a turn too sharply.
By the time he reached Market Square, Rab was absolutely convinced it was Fin who was lying injured in the mammoth cave down below. He shot through the Square, heedless of vendors, carts, and customers, knowing but not caring that he’d left a couple of tunnel-dwellers on the ground in his wake. Faces blurred in front of him. Shouts followed behind. He made it to Grocer’s Alley, still at speed, and if it hadn’t been for Max anxiously calling him back, he’d have continued on at the same breakneck pace down that lane.
“Can’t go that way.”
Rab swung around to find Max pulled up, bent over crookedly at the waist, gasping for breath. Behind him, Ruby’s face was vibrant red. She was listing sideways, hand clutched to one hip, with the big medicine bag firmly clasped in the other.
“The tunnel’s full of mushrooms,” Max panted noisily. “We’ll step all over them. Got to go—”
“Through ‘the house’,” Rab finished for him impatiently and, without waiting for confirmation, raced off ahead of his two companions towards the tunnel that meandered upward to ‘the house’.
At all costs, spare the crop!
Rab was accustomed to the falls and rises and the insensitivity of the top-side world. His companions were used to the more reliable and gentler nature of the world below. While he took the twists, turns, and bumps of the tunnel easily, he could sense Max and Ruby falling behind. If it hadn’t been for the shimmerers lighting their way, one or other of them would likely have taken a tumble in their frantic uphill dash towards ‘the house’.
As he’d expected, the fire hadn’t been lit in that upper space. Max and Ruby — they could see better than he could in the dark, so as loathe as he was to do it, Rab drew up. Though blindsight allowed him to sense the location of the ancillary tunnel, to the left side of the hearth, lacking light, he was more likely to stumble into the hearth than find the entrance. The seconds wasted waiting for Max and Ruby at least afforded him the opportunity to snatch a few deep breaths. Like Ruby, he had a stitch developing in his side. Max, having already run the distance from the ’shroom field to the hospital, had to be relying wholly on nervous energy. He was a big man and if he was obliged to speak, he usually did it in a mutter, and when walking, tended to do so at a leisurely pace. There was nothing leisurely about his pace now; as he shot by in the dark, Rab plainly felt a gust of wind on his face. Ruby came hard on his heels and Rab fell in behind. Once they started down the narrow and seldom used ancillary tunnel towards the ’shroom field, there’d be shimmerers to light the way, but it was too cool up in ‘the house’ proper for the lovely little beasts to thrive.
Rab listened intently for each and every one of Ruby’s footfalls, following as best he could directly behind her, and made the ancillary tunnel without incident. The walls were too close, the floor too irregular and rock-jammed to allow them to do anything but walk carefully in single file. Last time he’d been down this tunnel, Gift had been with him. The tunnel had been in poor condition even then, but he didn’t remember having to work quite so hard to squeeze past every jagged obstacle in his way or, for that matter, that there had been quite so many rock falls. Maybe it was he, not the tunnel, that had been in better condition. He hoped to hell there was a gang at work clearing the main tunnel because if they had to get an injured Fin up this way, he didn’t see how they were going to do it.
Ahead of him, Ruby was having a rough time of it. She wasn’t a young woman, good enough for her years, Rab supposed, but clearly pretty well spent.
How much farther was it? God, why couldn’t he remember? Couldn’t be far. Just couldn’t be. And then suddenly, it wasn’t. Over the top of Max’s large head, in the glow of the shimmerers, Rab could make out the blunt end of the tunnel. They’d have a scramble to the bottom, he recalled. Not too bad a scramble but enough to challenge Ruby. When they reached a stretch of rubble-free ground, just shy of the exit, Rab slipped the medicine bag off Ruby’s shoulder. She glanced back briefly, but never said a word. Very likely she couldn’t even if she’d wanted to. In the light from the shimmerers, Rab had seen in her face what her faltering gait had already hinted at. Ruby was tapping the limits of her strength. Thank God it wasn’t too far now, yet each step still seemed agonisingly slow.
Max emerged first and took the scree beneath the tunnel exit at a trot. Ruby held back, allowing Rab to tackle the loose slope at high speed. If his feet hit the ground at all, Rab wasn’t aware of it. All that registered was a constant pinging sound as he sent small rocks, grit, and dust in a cascade ahead of him down the hill and Ruby’s voice calling frantically to him from above.
Was she kidding?
He simply didn’t have the time or the patience. Fin was down there! Halfway down the hill, Rab shot past Max. He guessed Ruby was making a more cautious descent. He didn’t look back to find out. The floor of the massive basin ahead of him was deserted of workers. There were crops aplenty though and, although it pained him to do it, Rab slowed down as much as he dared and threaded a watchful path through the densely planted field heading for the track that would bring him to the service tunnel in the opposite wall of the basin. The track was his best and only clear route forwards. To sustain the city, every feasible patch of ground had to be given over to cultivation and so the ’shroom fields extended right up to the very edge of the track and almost to the entrance of the tunnel itself. Long before he reached the tunnel, Rab could hear shouts and yells and a persistent droning kind of sound much like the wind sometimes had when it sang to him top-side. No wind here, just a haunting draught of whispers breathed from the mouth of every cropper who had gathered at the far end of the track.
Rab pushed, shoved, and shouldered his way through towards the front of the crowd. Every time the medicine bag became snagged, Rab was obliged to wrench it free. He ignored the occasional protests, ducked whenever an errant elbow wheeled too close. These tunnel-dwellers hardly knew him; there’d be no reasoning with them to let him pass. He just hoped they’d make a clearer path for Ruby; otherwise, he couldn’t see how she could drive a way through the impasse of emotionally-charged croppers. He had the medicine bag, but Ruby had the skill and Rab feared there was little he could do without her.
Breaking through the front rank of onlookers, Rab finally got his first real look at the accident. It hadn’t been some small maintenance cart that had overturned, but one of the larger transfer carts. Since they ran the carts in tandem, three at a time, the toppling of the middle cart had tipped the trailing cart onto its side. This last cart was blocking much of the entrance to the tunnel where, some distance in, the middle cart lay upside-down. Rab couldn’t make out much about the condition of the first cart but it must have toppled, too, because just as Max had claimed, there were ’shrooms spread everywhere. In some places the pile was as high as Rab’s shoulder, in others, just a scattering of ’shrooms littered the floor. As Rab had hoped, there was a gang of croppers working furiously to gather the fallen load. But there were too few of them to make much of an impact and the business of gathering up the ’shrooms and getting them to safe ground was an infuriately slow process. Most of the croppers were scooping the fallen ’shrooms up in handfuls; others had stripped off their outer shirts and were using them like baskets. There simply wasn’t enough room for more croppers to work, not without trampling a good part of the harvest underfoot. When one of the precariously stacked piles of salvaged ’shrooms threatened to tumble, a cropper jumped forwards from the mob of bystanders and began to try to right it. The well-intentioned gesture just made matters worse and the destabilised pile collapsed. They were getting nowhere.
Rab rushed forwards, a little too heedlessly perhaps. One of the croppers yelled at him. Rab didn’t bother to reply, but kept on leaping up and over the mound upon mound of ’shrooms. He crawled onto the top of the trailing cart, the side of it really, and that allowed him to make better time and at least spare the ’shrooms that had spilled from it. Ahead he could see clearly now where the middle cart had come off the track. It lay wedged between the track and one side of the tunnel wall. The back end of it appeared to be sitting higher off the ground than the front, suggesting that the front end had crumpled completely. Had the cart tipped the other direction, it would have been an inconvenience to right, but all in all, a minor incident. The track ran hard against the side of the tunnel there; the cart couldn’t have rolled right over and there’d have been minimal spillage and no one on that side of the cart to be trapped beneath it.
Rab hesitated, torn between waiting for Ruby and jumping down off the trailing cart into the heart of the trouble. He looked back and spotted her squeezing through the front of the crowd. Rab raised his arm and dangled the medicine bag, hoping to attract her attention. He had no idea what had become of Max. Ruby must have seen him, because immediately she began running towards him. No one yelled at Ruby as she wove a crooked path through the delicate wreckage. In fact, one of the croppers, on catching sight of her, immediately stopped his gathering and rushed for her. When the cropper, just another nameless soul to Rab, glanced away from Ruby and noticed the medicine bag hanging limply from Rab’s hand, he began to shout.
“Clear the way! Clear the way! Ruby’s here. You there,” he bellowed, rough handling a cropper who was bent to his haunches and blocking Ruby’s path. “Move aside.”
Rab hurried to the back of the trailing cart again, dropped to his belly and waited for the cropper to get Ruby to him through the scattered ’shrooms. As soon as she reached the back end of the cart, Rab reached down, caught hold of her outstretched arms and began to pull. The cropper’s big hands circled Ruby’s waist and together they lifted her onto the side of the cart. Once Rab had Ruby onto her feet, he looked back and found the cropper gone.
With Ruby in tow, Rab headed to the front of the cart again. He was desperate to sight the people trapped beneath the middle cart, but there were workers in the way. Those directly below him were frantically gathering ’shrooms, adding them, handfuls at a time, into unstable piles as close to the entrance to the tunnel as possible. A small patch of ground had been cleared to one side of the overturned cart, where a couple of croppers were lying flat on their bellies. The other croppers, those collecting up the ’shrooms, were obliged to jump repeatedly over their outstretched legs to make any headway with the ’shrooms that had spilled between the two carts. Beneath the intermittent shouts from the croppers gathering the ’shrooms and the constant drone bleeding from the onlookers behind him, Rab thought he could hear someone, one of those croppers who was lying on the ground, softly talking, but kind of on and off, as though they were waiting for a reply in between.
Good! That was good!
It meant that Fin and whoever else was trapped beneath that cart with him were probably responding. Rab’s hopes began to rise. Everything was going to be all right. Sure, they’d lost part of the crop and, by the look of it, at least one of the big carts, maybe all three of them. It wasn’t the first time these tunnel-dwellers had faced that kind of hardship. It wouldn’t be the last. Max had panicked — of course, why wouldn’t he? Rab would have panicked, too.
But then Rab recognised one of the croppers lying on the ground towards the back end of the cart — almost at the same moment he spotted a patch of colour extending out from under the crumpled front end. The cropper was a dust-covered Fin — and the patch of colour, the gaudiest Rab had ever seen.
It wasn’t Fin beneath that cart; it was Stitch!
Still the ’shroom-gathering croppers continued to shout the occasional order. When the rescuer lying beside Fin rose from the ground and leaned against the cart, there was an ominous-sounding screech. Just one. Behind Rab, the onlookers continued to shuffle their feet and spread the meagre but dire news. Inside his chest, Rab’s heart continued to beat. But Rab was only vaguely aware of any of it until Ruby started shaking him by the shoulder.
“Get down there. Find out what’s happening.” She gave him a shove to get him moving. “Better I stay up here out of the way until I’m needed.”
Yes. Why had he hesitated? He had to get down to Stitch.
The patch of cleared ground was barely wide enough for Fin and the other cropper, but if he jumped well, Rab might manage to land clear of the spilled ’shrooms and Fin’s head. So he swung the medicine bag back into Ruby’s hand and leapt, landing hard against the shoulder of the standing cropper and just shy of Fin’s head.
Startled, Fin shot up from the ground, arms raised, clearly prepared to go for someone’s throat. When he saw it was Rab, Fin grasped his shoulder instead and dragged him down to the ground.
“I can’t get to them,” he said, breath hurried, ragged. “Abby’s directly under the cart. See?” He pointed. “She’s been talking to me but Stitch hasn’t said a word.”
“Abby’s trapped, too?”
“Rab? That you?”
Cloud’s voice — strong and steady.
Rab lowered his head to the ground and tried to peer underneath the overturned cart, but saw nothing.
“It’s me, Cloud. How can we get you both out? Can you tell us?”
“Move the mushrooms first,” she snapped out of the darkness, “and I can get myself out. That’s what I’ve been trying to tell them but no one’s listening.”
“They’re doing it, Cloud,” Rab explained, glancing up and back at Fin who was trying to wipe the dirt, sweat, and mushroom dust from his eyes with the tail of his shirt.
“What about Stitch?” Rab called.
It took Cloud a moment to answer but at last her voice sounded from beneath the cart. “He can wait too.”
Rab stood up and, peering around the side of the cart, located Stitch’s gaudily clothed arm lying motionless among the mushrooms. No one could get close enough to reach it.
Dropping back down to his knees, he called again to Cloud. “He’s pinned.”
If he couldn’t see her, then maybe she couldn’t see Stitch.
“I know,” she replied. “When the cart began to fall, I dove under it, but Stitch tried to stop it. I called to him to let it go, but there wasn’t time.”
“All right, Cloud, just be patient. They should have enough ’shrooms cleared soon.”
Rab got to his feet and looked around.
The croppers were moving as fast they could but being essentially ineffective. They had to think of something else — some other way to clear more of the spillage and clear it faster. Some way to use the track.
“It’s no use,” Fin said, catching Rab with his eyes trained on a partly visible section of ruined track. “When the cart tipped, its wheels caught under the track and wrenched this side of it out of the ground all the way back past the trailing cart.”
“But we could get a cart up to where it’s wrecked, right?”
Fin shook his head. “Yes, but it won’t help. The croppers will still have to carry each load from the tunnel to the cart. It won’t save us any time.”
“Having them stack it into those piles isn’t working, Fin. They’re too unstable.”
“Don’t you think I know that?” Fin shrieked.
“What if we brought one of the big carts right up to the tunnel?” Ruby shouted. She was lying on her belly on top of the trailing cart, head dangling over the side.
“But the track is ruined, Ruby,” Rab called up to her. “That’s what Fin just—”
“Forget the track,” Ruby snapped. “Bring the cart up by itself. Lift it off the track and carry it.” She pointed around the side of the trailing cart, towards the crowd of bystanders behind them. “There’s enough of them to do it.”
Rab glanced back at Fin, seeking confirmation. He had no idea about the weight of one of those big wood and metal carts and, if he was remembering correctly, the nearest undamaged cart was still some distance back in the ’shroom field.
“It’s possible,” Fin said. “We wouldn’t have to lift it all the way. We could roll it until we got to the damaged section of track. But we’d still need to clear an area right beside the tunnel. And a free path through this part of the field to carry the cart.”
“Then let’s do it. You get a place cleared and I’ll get that cart up to it somehow.”
Rab leapt and more through fortune than skill, landed clear of the spilled ’shrooms, with his feet wedged between two of the boards that formed the side of the trailing cart and Ruby’s hand reaching down to steady him.
Rab trained his eyes on the back of the cropper who was sweating and straining in front of him. Of all the croppers Rab had enlisted, he’d been the most sceptical, swearing blind that twenty people couldn’t lift and carry a field cart. Thirty could have accomplished the task just that bit easier and faster, but twenty was all there was room for, ten either side of the cart. Nothing happened fast enough for Rab. It seemed to take forever to uncouple the closest of the big transport carts from the one behind it. And all the while they were doing that, Rab and the remaining croppers were emptying the load, tossing it into the field on either side of the track where, later, it could be regathered. They were badly bruising the crop; Rab could see that, and it must have sorely pained these tunnel-dwellers to do that. But none complained, not even the cropper who’d sworn blind, and kept swearing it, that they’d never even manage to lift the cart off the track.
When someone shouted ‘Abby’, Rab’s immediate thought was that another incident had occurred up at the accident site. He looked up quickly, realised that the shout hadn’t come from there at all but from the opposite tunnel, the one leading from ‘the house’ to the huge domed cavern of the ’shroom field. A woman appeared at the mouth of the tunnel and, during the short time he was watching, another two emerged from the tunnel behind her. Rab guessed the woman at the front was Lilly Benson. Word travelled fast in the tunnel city. Just before he lowered his head again, he saw Lilly stumble. She must have rolled all the way down because the next time Rab looked up, she was at the bottom of the slope, on her feet again and running for the track. The two women were chasing after her, shouting for her to pull up. They were making better time than Lilly and managed to overtake her before she reached Rab’s cart. The last Rab saw of her, she was still some way down on the track, being held back by the two women who each had a grip on her arms. The women couldn’t stop her ear-piercing screaming though. Rab and the croppers just worked on, ignoring her.
Once the ’shrooms were cleared, the nineteen croppers and Rab set about rolling the cart up to the ruined section of track. That was the easy part; the heavy draught harnesses were already in place and the croppers had rolled these carts backwards and forwards so many times through the tunnel, it was second nature. The crowd of bystanders, depleted to the number of Rab’s workers, had been moved off by Fin or maybe Ruby to a small patch of crop-free ground on the other side of the tunnel entrance. Now they just had to lift.
And they did — although it nearly broke twenty backs to do it. Rab’s position was near the middle, but all in all it probably didn’t make a lot of difference where he was stationed. The croppers in front, behind, and on the other side were all bearing a load heavier than anything they had ever borne before. But the hardest part of all was to move forwards when the mass of the cart wanted to drive them into the ground. With each staggering step, Rab tried not to think about the fact that the same amount of weight was now resting on top of Stitch. Maybe Cloud as well. She’d said she was all right, but Cloud would say anything to save the cursed crop.
One more step forwards and the entrance to the tunnel grew a little closer. Another step and it would be closer still. Rab couldn’t see much for the sweat pouring into his eyes and the broad back of the cropper in front of him, but every now and then he caught a glimpse of the large team frantically working to one side of the tunnel entrance. During one of those brief glimpses, he’d seen Ruby down on her knees as well. It was her; he could tell from that distinctive fuzzy head of hair.
The groans from his fellow lifters and the crunch, crunch, crunch of their heavy boots against unforgiving ground weren’t enough to mask the sound of the bystanders’ persistent whispering “They won’t make it.”
They’d make it!
Rab wouldn’t accept anything less.
Sometimes he heard Fin bellowing out commands, ordering someone from his team this way, another that.
Maybe Rab hadn’t ever got to know Fin as well as he could have — or should have — but he knew enough to know that Fin’s team would make it, too, and have a place cleared for them before they got there with the cart. Fin wouldn’t accept anything less, either — not where Stitch was concerned. It seemed such a long time ago now, when the four of them had recklessly ventured inside the old ruined factory by the river — Fin, Stitch, Gift and him. Fin had risked his life to save Stitch that day. No matter that the lad had fallen from the old catwalk and broken his leg anyway. It had still been Fin who had rushed forwards to try to abort the fall. And Fin wouldn’t let a simple thing like half a harvest’s worth of scattered ’shrooms beat him now.
Almost there. One more step. Another. Soon it would all be over. They’d have the path between the overturned carts and the tunnel wall cleared enough for a team of croppers to squeeze through and right the middle cart. Cloud would get herself out. Sure, she’d be fine just like she had said. And Stitch? Well, maybe he’d broken an arm. That gaudily clad arm certainly looked bent wrong way round. But that would be the worst of it. Stitch and his broken bones! Ruby could fix it. She’d fixed his leg and now Stitch could walk almost as well as everyone else. She’d fix his arm until it worked nearly as well as everyone else’s, too. Worst that could happen was Stitch would lose the use of one arm. He could still get by that way. Fin would see to it that he did.
Rab’s mind was racing as he staggered closer, ever closer, to the cleared patch of ground near the tunnel entrance. The thoughts were all that kept him moving. God knew what kept the croppers ahead and behind him moving, but move they did and soon the clearing was maybe forty hard-won steps away, now thirty, twenty, a meagre ten until at last there were no more steps that needed to be wrenched from muscles that were threatening to tear, bones that were threatening to snap, and twenty hearts ready to burst.
Around the shoulder of the cropper in front of him, Rab saw Fin rush to grab hold of the front end of the cart. When the cart began to swing, Rab nearly lost his footing. That’s all this crowd of tunnel-dwellers needed … another body trapped beneath another one of their carts. Shuffle. Shuffle. The cart edged to the right as Fin called instructions on exactly where the cart needed to be positioned.
“Here! Here!” Fin shouted. “Stop! Feet clear now! And drop!”
The tail end of his shout was lost to a tremendous thud as the cart hit the ground, showering dust over the boots of the croppers who two and sometimes three at a time, crumpled down beside it.
Rab’s muscles burned and spasmed. The cropper in front of him toppled right into his lap, while Rab tumbled into the lap of the cropper behind him. From somewhere he heard a cheer. The disbelieving bystanders? Fin’s own exhausted team? Who the hell cared! Rab couldn’t believe it either, and he was too exhausted to take a moment to marvel at what they had managed to accomplish. But the job wasn’t over. They’d barely scratched its surface. All they’d managed to do was possibly save most of the harvest. They’d made no progress at all in righting the overturned cart or in freeing Cloud and Stitch.
By the time Rab had recovered enough to stagger to his feet, Fin’s team had made a good start on loading the gathered ’shrooms into the cart. One by one, Rab’s team rose to join them. But Fin was nowhere in sight and, Rab realised, a good number of his team were missing. He couldn’t find Ruby, either, then realised they’d have left most of the croppers loading the ’shrooms while the rest began making their way to the overturned cart.
Rab was relieved not to have to scramble over the lopsided trailing cart again; the way was clear now for him to get between it and the wall of the tunnel. Two people could walk abreast there now. It would make getting an injured Stitch out of the tunnel a relatively easy task — once the cart was lifted off him — and that posed another problem. How were they going to lift the cart and hold it there long enough for someone to crawl underneath and drag Stitch out? Well, they’d done the impossible once. It was time to do it again.
Rab found Fin, belly-down on the floor, at just about the same spot as before, only this time his face was turned sideways into the dirt and his arms, up to the elbows, had disappeared underneath the tipped-up end of the cart. He started to inch backwards — not exactly easily, but it was clear that whatever he was dragging with him was trying to help. Fin’s wrists appeared — his hands — then someone else’s hands. There was no mistaking whose — Cloud’s. When Fin had her dragged out to the waist, he let go and Cloud hauled herself the rest of the way out from under the cart. Rab darted forwards and got her onto her feet; when Ruby pushed him away, Rab turned his attention to Fin. The boy was already up and running towards the crumpled front end of the cart.
Rab’s gaze flicked from Fin’s back to a filthy Cloud, who was dusting herself off and animatedly protesting Ruby’s ministrations.
She caught Rab’s eye and nodded; his signal to chase after Fin.
The croppers were already in position by the time Fin arrived with Rab close on his heels. If there’d been some sort of plan devised, Rab had missed it.
Fin called once loudly to Stitch; no reply came back to break the silence.
When Rab stepped up, about to take up a position, Fin raised a hand to stop him.
“You’ve done enough lifting. You could drop it.”
Reluctantly, Rab conceded that the young man was probably right. He stepped back and no sooner had he found a place to stand, out of the way, although still close enough to help drag Stitch free if he was needed, than Cloud and Ruby hurried up to join him.
His hand went out automatically and clasped Cloud’s. Either his muscles were still spasming or she was trembling; perhaps both. Beside her, Ruby dropped to the floor and set to rummaging about in her medicine bag.
“On the count of three,” Fin called. “One.”
Cloud leaned her head into Rab’s shoulder.
He dipped his head to hers.
There was a unified groan from the croppers — then a kind of squeal — and slowly the cart began to move. Someone’s foot slipped and, for a moment, Rab thought they were going to lose control of the lift, but the cropper managed to right himself and still bear his share of the weight. Higher and higher it rose until Rab could finally see Stitch’s body, part of it anyway because most of him was buried beneath ’shrooms. Rab and Cloud rushed forwards and, together with the remainder of the croppers, those that weren’t holding up the cart, began to frantically drag Stitch free. ’Shrooms fell and rolled to either side of him and the moment they had his feet clear, Rab called for Fin and his team to drop the cart. Sure it would wreck the ’shrooms lying in the drop zone but the first priority now was Stitch, who hadn’t spoken a word or twitched, even in the slightest, one muscle.
As one, Fin and his team dropped the cart. It crashed loudly to the floor of the tunnel with a horrendous noise and a billow of ’shroom dust that must have sent the bystanders outside the tunnel into another panic.
Ruby shoved Rab aside, though Cloud was still left on the ground, kneeling by Stitch’s head. Reluctantly Rab made way for Fin; he was the boy’s true family after all. Rab pressed himself hard up against the wall of the tunnel. It was strange to be feeling nothing. It seemed he’d suddenly become an observer, who was looking down on this frenzied scene from somewhere far, far away. Just a watcher with no part to play, no stake in the outcome. Someone who, when it was all over, would simply walk away, unmoved by whatever transpired.
Fin had a hold of Stitch’s arm, the one that wasn’t all unnaturally twisted up and bent. Cloud was holding his head and Ruby was using some sort of scissor-like thing to cut away at the boy’s new sweater. The area where Ruby was cutting was a uniform kind of red now, its once gaudy colour masked entirely in blood. It was that large and awful red stain that finally settled Rab’s mind. There was no need to rush now. Whatever urgency there had been had passed.
Cloud glanced up at him and he looked down into her dirt-smeared face. She’d said Stitch could wait and she’d been right. There was no saving him; she’d known it all along. The girl was tough, tougher than Rab could ever be. She’d saved as much of the crop as she could and Rab didn’t doubt for one moment that if it had been her instead of Stitch pinned so badly beneath the crumbled end of the cart, she’d have wanted it exactly the same way.
When she shook her head at him, slowly, so very very slowly, Rab turned and walked away. This was tunnel-dweller business now and he’d forfeited any place as a tunnel-dweller a long time ago. And now, too, his pledge to Gift, the thread that kept drawing him back to the tunnels over and over again, was broken. Stitch was dead.
Rab had a recollection that he might have passed Lilly Benson on the tracks on his way back to his empty space on Braham Street. He wasn’t really sure. In fact, he wasn’t really sure how he’d got there at all. He must have scrambled back through the tunnel, come down from ‘the house’. If anyone along the way had tried to stop him and ask about the accident, Rab simply couldn’t remember.
Had it been a cowardly thing to do? To leave Fin, Cloud and the others to clean up the mess? Fin wouldn’t have wanted him there. And the croppers knew better than he did how to set the ’shroom field back to rights; they didn’t need his interference. And Cloud? Yes, what about Cloud? Whether she liked it or not, Ruby would have dragged her off to the hospital, where Rab would have only got in the way. Rab had only ever had one significant contribution to make to these tunnel-dwellers: to keep his mouth shut. And now he could add to his worth a little bit of brute force when it was needed. The former would never be recognised; the latter soon forgotten.
SHAUNE Lafferty Webb was born in Brisbane, Australia. Her father was an amateur astronomer and her eldest brother, an avid science fiction reader, so perhaps it was inevitable that she developed an early enthusiasm for writing speculative fiction.
After obtaining a degree in geology from the University of Queensland, Shaune subsequently worked in geochemical laboratories, exploration companies, and, while living in the United States, at a multinational scientific institute involved in exploration beneath the ocean floors.
Her short stories have appeared in AntipodeanSF, The Nautilus Engine, Blue Crow Magazine, and The Vandal and her novels, ‘Bus Stop on a Strange Loop’ and ‘Balanced in An Angel’s Eye’, were released in 2011 and 2012, respectively.
Shaune lives in Brisbane with her husband, a research scientist, and a pair of wayward canine companions.
For more information visit Shaune's author page.
Book 2 of The Safe Harbour Chronicle
The moral rights of Shaune Lafferty Webb to be identified as the author of this work have been asserted.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without written permission of the publisher.
Copyright 2017 Hague Publishing
Cover: Faithless by Jade Zivanovic http://www.steampowerstudio.com.au/
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