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

October 1, 2007

72. Underwest

The light was very faint and Patch could just make out the outlines of this new space: a narrow platform along the edge of what seemed to be a long, narrow pond, beneath a high arched ceiling made of cracked concrete. A seemingly endless torrent of rainwater kept pouring in from a gaping hole at one narrow end of the chamber, but the pond's water level was rising only very slowly. Patch supposed water was also flowing out of the pond. He hoped they wouldn't have to find out how. He never wanted to go into an underwater tunnel again. But as they prowled up and down the curving concrete walls of this chamber, they found them everywhere cracked but nowhere broken.

"No way out, again," White said, "but this is a better place."

"Wait," Patch said, thinking of how he had escaped the tunnel. "We can see. Where's the light coming from?"

"The waterfall. It's coming in with the water."

Patch considered. "Water can carry light?"

"How else is it getting in?"

"Let's swim over and look."

It wasn't easy. Water fell from the roof into the pond in a mighty torrent, and a powerful current then sucked it along the pool and downwards. The first time Patch jumped in, the waterfall shoved him away immediately, and then it was like something in the water was grabbing him and pulling him, and he had to swim hard just to get back to the edge of the pond and out.

"Careful," White said.

"I'm fine," Patch said, panting. "I have an idea."

He recovered his breath. Then he backed up along the little ledge that ran along the long side of the pond, and said, "Get behind me."

White warily did so. Patch took a deep breath. Then he ran forward towards the waterfall as the pond's narrow end, accelerated to maximum speed, and jumped as hard as he could through the falling water. The waterfall slammed him downwards like a falling tree, as he passed through - but he did pass through, and the water behind was remarkably calm.

There was a hole in the very corner of the room, where water-worn concrete had cracked and crumbled away; a hole from which a little bit of light seeped; a hole that was the entrance to a tunnel, steep and narrow and uneven, but navigable. Patch climbed into the entrance of that tunnel and bellowed as loudly as he could: "Come!"

A moment later, a drenched ball of white fur flew through the waterfall like a diving hawk, and White scrambled up next to him. They climbed excitedly, accompanied by a faint but constant wind. The light grew as they ascended. Finally they stepped out into a space so vast that for a moment Patch actually thought they were outside.

It was like a ravine as high as a tall tree and as wide as a human highway - but this ravine was covered by a stone roof. Daylight glowed through square openings as big as automobiles spaced regularly along the length of the ceiling. Metal grids were inset in these squares, standing between the ravine and the open air, and the light through these grids illuminated the ravine as the full moon shines on the night.

On the ground before Patch and White, a dozen metal rails ran down the middle of the ravine, shining girders that continued unbroken as far as the eye could see in both directions. These rails were set in wooden planks that lay crosswise beneath them, which in turn lay on a wide and dense field of pebbles that occupied all the ravine except for the narrow strips of dirt on either side. The steep walls were made of heaped stone and crumbling dirt, but something about them, their straightness and regularity, implied they were the work of human hands.

The air smelled of rain, and rats, and humans; but its dominating feature was the scent of scorched metal. After a moment Patch understood why. He had seen rails like these before, the other time he had ventured into the underworld, just before he had been bitten by Snout. These were train rails. And that little light in that great distance - that growing, oncoming light - that was probably a train.

"Careful!" he shouted to White. "It's coming! Get back in the tunnel!"

She twitched and scampered back to the dark hole. He joined her.

"You didn't have to shout," she said reprovingly, "it's very far away -"

But Patch didn't hear what she said after that: the noise of the train suddenly swelled and became deafening, and the earth itself began to tremble and quake, and then the was thundering past them, an iron colossus of unthinkable ferocity, its blurred edge only a few tail-lengths away. The slipstream tugged at their fur like a wind from a terrible storm, raised clouds of dirt and sent smaller pebbles hurtling through the air. The sound was immense, painful, as if the air itself was being torn in two.

"Light of the moon," White whispered, wide-eyed, when it was gone. "That makes death machines seem like mice."

Patch peeked out into the ravine. No trains were visible in either direction. He walked out onto the pebbled field, avoiding the still-hot rails, and looked around. Should they follow the ravine, or investigate the caves and passages that pockmarked its sides? Was there any chance that Silver was still alive? It didn't seem likely. But it was possible.

"I can't leave her," he said to White. "Not while there's a chance."

"I know."

He looked up at the metal meshes that stood between them and the daylit sky. He wished desperately that they could be on the other side of the ceiling. There were trees there. And a bird, standing on the mesh. He squinted. A robin?

"Hello!" Patch cried out in Bird.

The robin leapt up and fluttered away - but it circled around, settled back to the metal grid, peered suspiciously down, and said, "Hello? Who's there?"

"I am Patch son of Silver, of the Seeker clan, of the Treetops tribe, of the Center Kingdom," Patch said. "Who are you that asks?"

"My name is Fila."

"Where are you?"

"I'm standing on a metal grate," the robin said, perplexed by the question.

"No, I mean, what kingdom are you in?"

"Kingdom? Didn't you hear me? I'm a robin. Kingdoms are for groundlings."

"But the groundlings around you, what kingdom are they in?"

The robin paused to think. "I'm not completely sure. But I think I heard once that they call this the Western Kingdom."

It flew away. Patch considered. That wasn't so bad. He remembered seeing the Western Kingdom when he had hung in Karmerruk's claws; a narrow green strip along the western edge of this island, less than half a day's journey through the mountains from the Center Kingdom.

"We have to find food," White said. "I'm hungry."

"I'm starving." Now that death no longer seemed imminent, for the first time since they had entered the Kingdom Beneath, his stomach was growling its needs.

"If we dig maybe we can find worms."

Patch frowned. He shared Twitch's opinion of worms: they weren't really food. "I smell humans. There's usually good food somewhere around them."

"But they're dangerous!"

"You mean compared to everything else we've seen down here?"

White hesitated. "Good point."

Patch led the way across the ravine and up the other side, towards the most pungent human-smells. They followed human footprints up to where the dirt became concrete, and into a human-sized passageway. The air here smelled fresh and clean, other than the powerful human-smells that made it obvious this was a human drey, and a lingering smell of Rat. That last scent made Patch uneasy, but he supposed it was pervasive throughout the Kingdom Beneath, and there was some chance that this was a path to the surface. He kept going.

They picked their way past inexplicable piles of human debris, none of it edible, until the passage suddenly ended. Vertical metal pipes crosshatched by flat bars ran a long way up one of the concrete walls until they reached a disc of solid metal set in the roof. A tiny arc of daylight was visible at the edge of that disc, like the thinnest of moons, and Patch eyed the vertical rails - but he couldn't climb them, no squirrel could. The crossbars were too far apart, the metal too smooth and slippery.

"I thought you said there'd be food," White said, disappointed.

"There should be."

Patch looked around. There were several bags of pale wrinkled plastic, like white versions of the garbage bags where he and Wriggler had fed in the Hidden Kingdom. He approached one, clawed it open, thrust his nose inside, and sniffed. But there were no food-smells, nothing inside but strange human fabrics. He withdrew, started towards another bag, and froze. He heard scuffing noises. Something big was coming up the passage towards them. A human.

"Get ready to run," he said softly to White. "Don't worry, they're big but they're slow, they'll never catch us."

He looked up. The human was looming in the passageway. He tensed, ready to dash between or around its meaty legs when it came nearer.

But it did not come nearer. The human, a male, squatted down like a squirrel, and looked at Patch and White with oddly bright and inquisitive eyes for a few breaths. Then it said to them, in heavily accented but understandable Mammal: "Eat food?"

White gasped with amazement. Patch only twitched with surprise; he had after all met an animal-speaking human before. He wondered for a moment if this was the same one, but no - it was just as filthy as the other, but its smell was noticeably different, and it was younger.

"Eat food?" the human repeated, very gently.

"Eat food," Patch tentatively agreed.

The human reached into the strange fabrics it wore in place of fur, pulled out a heaping handful of brown oblong pebble-like things, and dropped them on the ground. Patch hesitated: he wanted food, but he wasn't willing to come that close to the human. As if reading his mind, the human stood and slowly backed away until it was almost entirely concealed by the shadows.

"I don't like this," White said.

"I think it's safe. I met another human like this once before." Patch took a breath. "Watch me, and shout if something happens."

He approached slowly, and began to nibble at a pebble-thing. The outer skin was like bark, but there was a nut inside. Patch tested it, then gobbled it down eagerly. It was hard and crunchy but incredibly tasty.

"It's good!" he exclaimed. "Come on!"

White joined him, and they ate, at first keeping one eye on the human, then dispensing with caution and devoting all their attention to ripping open the shells and devouring the delicious nuts within. Patch ate until he felt his stomach bulging out against his skin.

When they had eaten their fill the human approached them again, slowly. Patch and White stood their ground, watching it carefully, still mistrustful but no longer fearful. It squatted to the ground close enough that it could have reached out and touched them - but it seemed to know that they would flee if it tried. It simply watched them, its head cocked inquisitively, like a squirrel trying to match its surroundings against a page from its memory book.

"Good food?" it asked.

Patch replied, "Good food."

The human bared its fangs, and Patch and White took a few steps back.

"No hurt!" the human assured them, closing its mouth. "No hurt, no hurt!"

The squirrels looked at one another.

"I think it's harmless," White said. "It smells harmless."

Patch nodded. He wondered if maybe the human could help find silver. But no, probably not: even if they could communicate their quest, which he doubted, it was much too big and clumsy to travel through most of the underworld tunnels.

"Patch, look!" White hissed. "Behind it! Rats!"

Patch looked, and leapt to his feet. She was right. Rats were coming down the passage from the ravine, half a dozen of them. They looked strong and moved fast. He looked around quickly. There were a few tiny holes in one of the concrete walls that looked big enough for rats to squeeze through, but there was no way out for a squirrel, not without going through the rats. The human had tricked them, they were boxed in. He tensed for battle.


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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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