A children's book for grown-ups by Jon Evans

September 29, 2007

71. Water

A long time later - they did not know how long, but Patch was sure at least a day had passed - Patch and White were no nearer to escape. Their surroundings had begun to feel like a cage. A huge cage, one so big that thirty humans could have stood in it shoulder to shoulder, but a cage nonetheless, and an inescapable one.

At least the trains kept passing and shedding their light. Sometimes they came frequently, sometimes there were long pauses between, but they never stopped. At least the cockroaches did not attempt to swarm the squirrels and eat them alive. But Patch knew if he and White did not find a way out, they would feed the insects soon enough; they would die of hunger. The curtain of water that dripped slowly down the sheer cliff was potable, if dirty and metallic, but both the mold and the cockroaches were sickeningly inedible, and there was nothing else here alive.

The walls were too slippery to climb; all they could do was tear useless streaks in the mold with their claws. Patch, thinking back to the horse that had carried him across the Center Kingdom, made a bizarre mental leap from that to the idea of building a hill of dead cockroaches up to the top of the sheer cliff, to the source of the water - but after he stomped and skewered a few dozen roaches dead, they all began to avoid him.

"They learn," White said wonderingly, as the cockroaches began to keep away from Patch instead of seeking him; a shifting island opened in their sea wherever he walked.

"They don't learn. They're insects."

"Then how do they know you're trying to kill them? They were talking, I saw it when you started killing them, they were waving their antennae at one another, it moved through them like a wave."

Patch looked at the cockroaches all around him, shimmering dimly as they retreated the light of a passing train, so tightly packed they looked like a single dark organism. The notion that they could actually think, that their squirming mass hid some kind of utterly unfathomable intelligence, unnerved him deeply. "No. It's just scent. They can smell dead cockroaches on me, that's all. That wave was just the scent moving through the air."

"It didn't move like that," White said doubtfully.

"It doesn't matter. It won't work. We can't kill enough of them."

"There was never enough of them, Patch, don't you see how high that cliff is? It's taller than a bush!"

Patch sighed. He didn't really have any idea of how many roaches he would have had to kill, or how high he would have had to pile them, but he suspected White did, and that she was right. He gave up and retreated to the wall as the latest train disappeared into the distance.

"It's useless," he said quietly. "There's no way out. Silver is probably dead by now. And we'll die here. This is our time, our time and place."


"Yes. It has to be yes. We've looked everywhere."

They were silent for a time.

Then White said, "What about those hollow mushroom-things?"

"We already looked. There's nothing in them but water and scum."

"Right. But what's under the water?"

"Under? It - they're just pools. They don't go anywhere."

"How do you know? They're right up against the wall."

He thought. "You're right. Let's go see."

The white, flat-topped mushroom-things were easily three times the height of a squirrel. Rusting metal branches protruded from their tops, bent like an arm, and disappeared into the walls. They were made of a slippery and bone-hard substance, and Patch wondered uneasily if they might actually be the bones of some gargantuan beast. Two were unbroken and mold-free; two others were laced with moldy cracks. These cracks made decent claw-holds, but it was still difficult to scramble up the overhanging curve to the top - especially since the top was merely a narrow rim around an deep elliptical basin. Patch could use his bushy tail as a counterbalance to his bodyweight, but White's half-severed tail wasn't near as effective, and she very nearly ended her climb by tumbling into the basin.

Once she had righted herself, she and Patch looked down into the shadowed hollow at the heart of the mushroom-thing, at the fetid scum-covered pool at its base. It was a long way down, and the steep sides of the basin were smooth and uncracked.

"I think the water's moving a little," White said softly. "See? If it is, there must be a passage to other water."

Patch squinted. Amid the shadows and flickering train-light he couldn't tell if the dead cockroaches floating in the pool were really moving a little or if it was just a trick of the eye.

"If I go down there, I don't think I can jump back out," White said nervously.

"I don't think I can either."

The train disappeared. They balanced on the rim of the basin in darkness.

"There's no other way," White said. "There's nothing else."


Without another word, she took a deep breath and jumped. Patch gasped. She landed in the pool with something between a splash and a squelch, and groaned with revulsion.

"What's down there?" Patch asked anxiously.

"It's disgusting." He heard water swirl. "But there's a tunnel! A tunnel full of water! We can swim out!"

"Is there any air in the tunnel?"

"No," she admitted.

Patch hesitated. This was madness. But so was staying.

"I know," White said. "We'll probably drown before we find air, I know. But Patch, it's a chance, it's a way out. I don't want to die here. I don't want this to be my place. I don't want the cockroaches to eat me and my bones to turn to mold."

"Neither do I."

"Then let's try."

Patch answered by stepping into space, and sliding down the basin walls to White and the pool. They were pressed right up against one another, there was barely enough room for them both. The scum and dead cockroaches were disgusting - but the water beneath felt clean and cool.

"You go first," Patch said. "You're smaller. If I get stuck, maybe you can get out."

"I don't want to get out without you."

"You go first."

"All right."

Patch swallowed. He was fairly certain they were both about to die. At least his demise wouldn't be totally useless; at least his death would release Talis the fox from his terrible oath. "You're a good friend, White daughter of Streak."

"You're a good friend, Patch son of Silver."

They breathed deeply, trying to fill their lungs with as much air as possible. Then White dived into the narrow tunnel full of water that led away from the pool, and Patch drew in what he expected was his final breath and followed. The tunnel was so narrow that his body scraped against its metal on all sides.

The tunnel bent and curved and descended through crazy zigzags and corkscrews. Patch half-paddled, half-clawed at its sides, propelling himself as fast as he could. His lungs began to ache, then to burn. The tunnel began to rise; then it narrowed, dented inwards on one side by some long-ago impact, and White was just small enough to squeeze past the dent, but Patch was not.

Patch scrabbled with all his leaking strength to push himself through, but his claws rattled off the metal without gaining purchase. The mound of the dent was rough and scraping against his chest, the other side of the tunnel was smooth and unyielding against his back. His lungs were bursting. There was no way through. He opened his eyes. His vision began to blur, and an expanding darkness began to grow around the edges. It occurred to Patch, distantly, as if was someone else who was dying, that this gray metal tunnel was the last thing he would ever see.

Gray metal tunnel?

How could he see that? How could he see anything at all? There was light, light from below, coming from somewhere beneath him. Patch used the last of his strength to scrabble backwards, revealing a series of small tears in the dented metal. Light flowed in through those little openings; and water fell out. Without really thinking, Patch put his mouth to the largest such aperture.

There was air beyond that rip in the tunnel's metal surface. He could breathe.

Life and hope returned to Patch in the space of that single breath. Maybe he was trapped, but at least he wasn't drowning. He stayed where he was for some time, until he was breathing easily once again; then he filled his lungs one last time and pushed onwards. He had enough strength now to force his way smoothly past the dent, and further up the tunnel. Suddenly he was rising through the water, floating fast like a bubble, up into a larger tunnel, and then a larger one yet.

His head broke through water into air. He was in a huge, shifting pool of some kind ... no, a surging river, one that ran through a tunnel big enough for a crawling human. The tunnel descended steeply, and the river carried him along faster than a squirrel could run. But there was air, and that was the important thing. It even smelled clean. This was fresh rainwater, not sewer sludge.

There was faint light from somewhere, just enough to see motion, and Patch heard a distant thunderclap. They were near the surface. And there was something moving in the water there, something alive. White? No - a rat. Patch tensed, but the rat paid him no attention, it was panicked, swimming desperately just to stay alive in the powerful current that carried both of them careening around corners, through whitewater rapids, and into thicker and thicker darkness, until once again Patch was blind - and then, without any warning, he was flung out into air, he was falling, he was splashing into a churning pool of deep water.

When he surfaced he heard something through his waterlogged ears. He heard White cry out desperately: "Patch, where are you? You can't be dead! No, Patch, come on, you can't be dead, please don't be dead!"

"Over here!" he shouted, but he was breathless, and the roar of the waterfall that had ejected him into this pool swallowed his words. He took a deep breath and swam for her voice. He could see the water shimmering darkly around him, there was light here from somewhere, and soon he could see White's pale form as she stood on the edge of the water and shouted for him. It wasn't easy to reach her, the water seemed to be pulling him down and away from its edge, but he took strength from new hope.

"I'm here," he said, as finally he dragged himself exhausted from the water, and White shrieked with relief.

"You're alive!" she shouted, nuzzling him frantically.

"I'm alive. You're alive. We're both alive."

They did not speak for some time.

Then Patch said, wistfully, "Poor Talis."

After a moment White began to laugh, and Patch joined in, and both of their whole bodies shook with desperate laughter until they collapsed to the stony ground, so overcome by the joy of survival they were unable to stand.


Anonymous Stephen Tiano said...

Jon, it just gets better and better. Surely you can interest a publisher in this. Even after reading the story online I would want a physical book for a story this captivating.

September 30, 2007 at 9:06 PM  
Anonymous Rakie said...


sorry, mad about not being able to comment on chapters from work any more. :D Groovy chapter here tho, poor squirrels having to swim through a scum-toilet! blargh. Hee, and poor talis, he must be having a fit. Bless. :D

October 1, 2007 at 10:45 AM  
Anonymous kza said...

yes! a published book -with fantastical illustrations

October 1, 2007 at 10:54 AM  
Anonymous briangc said...

A toilet? Is that what they went through?

I was having a hard time picturing the enclosure they were trapped in...

October 1, 2007 at 11:44 AM  
Blogger Jon said...

It was indeed a toilet (and the enclosure, a long-abandoned bathroom.)

October 1, 2007 at 11:04 PM  

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Jon Evans is the award-winning author of the thrillers Invisible Armies, Dark Places (aka Trail of the Dead), and The Blood Price. See his web site rezendi.com.

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