[Author's note - Many thanks to M. J. and P. J. A.
Croft for extensively correcting my Latin. I
also apologize to the ghost of Karl Edward
Wagner for nicking his idea. He will know
which one I mean.]
Wenn du lange in einen Abgrund blickst, blickt der Abgrund auch in dich hinein
And the fifth angel sounded, and I saw a star fall from heaven unto the earth: and to him was given the key of the bottomless pit. And he opened the bottomless pit; and there arose a smoke out of the pit, as the smoke of a great furnace; and the sun and the air were darkened by reason of the smoke of the pit. And there came out of the smoke locusts upon the earth: and unto them was given power, as the scorpions of the earth have power. And it was commanded them that they should not hurt the grass of the earth, neither any green thing, neither any tree; but only those men which have not the seal of God in their foreheads. And to them it was given that they should not kill them, but that they should be tormented five months: and their torment was as the torment of a scorpion, when he striketh a man. And in those days shall men seek death, and shall not find it; and shall desire to die, and death shall flee from them. And the shapes of the locusts were like unto horses prepared unto battle; and on their heads were as it were crowns like gold, and their faces were as the faces of men. And they had hair as the hair of women, and their teeth were as the teeth of lions. And they had breastplates, as it were breastplates of iron; and the sound of their wings was as the sound of chariots of many horses running to battle. And they had tails like unto scorpions, and there were stings in their tails: and their power was to hurt men five months. And they had a king over them, which is the angel of the bottomless pit, whose name in the Hebrew tongue is Abaddon, but in the Greek tongue hath his name Apollyon.
But now, in this
So he went on, and Apollyon met him. Now the monster was hideous to behold: he was clothed with scales like a fish, and they are his pride; he had wings like a dragon, and feet like a bear, and out of his belly came fire and smoke; and his mouth was as the mouth of a lion.
John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress
Here at last. Small for an ex-Imperial Capital. Buildings, Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Greek, Byzantine, Romanesque, Romanov, Roman - piled up in no particular order. For all the Gzel Czaer Matias Corvinus is a ‘majestic palimpsest of three thousand years of European history’ (quote from ‘Let’s Go Vzeng Na’ 2008) it is a very small one.
Looking east across the
square - Gzel is the word for square, no idea how pronounced - can see the
palace of the Empress Elisabeth of
Behind where the Zil taxi dropped me off is the Orthodox cathedral, notable for having a Catholic campanile. Easy to see where the Orthodox saints have been excised from the campanile and replaced with Catholic ones. The same process seems to have happened in reverse on the cathedral façade. The city has been swapped back and forth between Cath. and Orth. for the last thousand years, not forgetting a short sojourn under the Mongols. The saints on the upper stages of the façade famously only survived the Mongol conquest because Ogedei Khan was unable to find a stepladder. Guidebook says façade originally covered in gold leaf before Vzeng Na’s glorious forty years under Communism, but cathedral still an imposing building.
Opposite the cathedral, with minarets deliberately built to be a cubit taller, is the Ottoman mosque, abutting a northerly section of the Bey’s wall. To be honest, mosque is mostly minaret. Ottomans did not have much time to build it in before the Hungarian reconquista, but wanted to make their point. Hungarians wanted to make their point too - tops of minarets are flat where the roofs have been remodelled to make them shorter than the cathedral again.
To the left, looking from the cathedral, an archway inlaid with cut and painted tile leads through the Beglerbeg’s wall into the Garden Citadel. Archway v. ornate, but has stone gateposts big and squat and ugly enough to support vault doors of Federal Reserve Bank, not to mention ominous holes in the arabesques overhead that evil head-destroying substances might be poured through.
Air is an enticing reek of strange foods, peculiar and ill-advised automobile fuels, and exotically poorly maintained sewers. Cars are nearly all Czaer 2000’s, products of Vzeng Na’s one and only car factory, bizarre copies of Isetta bubblecars. Driving one a point of national pride, it seems. Only a very few of the most important businessmen, pimps and gunrunners seem to drive Lexi and Mercedes, and there seems to be little middle ground.
Across the Gzel, in what was
Ran down steps and waved. Heel fell off shoe on period cobbles, went arse over tit into fire hydrant, which still has pointy Communist stars on it just where it kisses the forehead.
Saw pointy Communist stars for some minutes.
Ivan a nuclear-powered dreamboat. Shows me a picture of his wife, who is of course gorgeous, the cow. He carries a gun, a dinky little Russian thing which he says is better than James Bond’s Walther PPK. He says the bullets from it go through steel plate.
As day was warm, suggested we sit outside on pavement. He objected as only pimps sit on pavement, with their bitches apparently. Quite excited at thought of being his bitch, so insisted. Smiled at old gentlemen passing by. They all smiled back, but their wives reined them in and scowled at me. Man with a big smart jacket and two girlfriends wandered past and said something obviously rude to Ivan. Ivan in hysterics by the time the sun set. Getting along fine, it seems, and always a good idea to know the local police chief, biblically even.
Na, says Ivan, is and always
has been arranged totally around its central tourist attraction. In the very earliest days the Greeks, and
maybe even the Persians, built temples here to gods of their respective
underworlds. Here, he says, is the site
of the world’s only recorded temple to Angra Mainyu. Not sure who Angra Mainyu is, but smile and
nod politely. The Romans, says Ivan,
were also obsessed with the site, the Emperor Heliogabalus making a pilgrimage
here, and the Emperor Trajan conquering all the land between here and the
mountains just so he could dedicate a temple.
The site was as important to the Greeks as
There is even reputed to be an old proto-Celtic stone circle round the place. It wasn't just the religious and artistic life of the area, Ivan says, that was dictated by what was revered here, but also the local economy, from the very earliest times - in Roman days, it was considered a prime source of fertilizer from the thousands of bats which used to live inside the entrance, and the locals were known as ‘vespertiliani’ or ‘bat people’, as many of them lived down in the dark among the chiroptera, in little crazy wood-and-raffia villages clinging to the rock. Tacitus complains that ‘these people seem to think Caesar cannot tax them, as they live not on the Earth, but in it’. Since time immemorial, all the sewers of all the surrounding districts have fed into the mouth, and it should, Ivan admits, smell appalling, but it swallows the stench, just as it swallows light, and sound. (Knew this from the guidebook - if you yell into it, you get no echo back, apparently.) (Just checked another, scarier guidebook, which says you sometimes do get an echo, but not in your own voice, because it’s Satan mimicking you from the Pits of Tartarus and trying to draw you down to Hell, etc., etc. Prefer first old wive’s tale, less scary). The town grew in the nineteenth century purely because of this incredible ability to absorb sewage; other cities on the plains around it had to construct huge and elaborate systems for poo disposal. Na, says Ivan, still has, even today, not one single sewage farm. ‘If the devil’s down there’, Ivan grins, ‘we’re all crapping on his head daily’.
Ivan knows about the group of Americans in town who believe it goes right down to the Mohovoric Discontinuity. He says the Soviets believed that in the 1950’s, and had their own Mohole project here. He says their equipment is still visible down there if you squint through binoculars. The Russians, he says, were not successful (looks v. satisfied when he says this).
“Where does Oracle Smoke come from?” I say.
He shrugs. “They make it somewhere, I imagine.”
“You mean you’ve never seen it?”
He nods. “I have. It is carried into Smoke houses in glass bottles, wrapped around with cooking foil. Coke bottles, so I hear, are especially favoured. The bottle is heated, inside the foil to stop it cracking, and the family gathers round. As the flame gets hotter the Smoke rises from the bottle and fills the room. It is more addictive, I imagine, than heroin, sex or chocolate. Our narcotics officers have orders to wear respirators. I have lost more than one man to the Smoke who did not.”
“Was that boy on Oracle Smoke?” I ask. Ivan shakes his head. Oracle Smoke, he says, sucks the life out of a user almost overnight. “There is no soul any longer”, he says. “The skin tightens, because the addict fails to eat. The eyes steal back into the head. Besides”, he adds, “Smoke users don’t speak that intelligibly. They talk in strings of gibberish. Some believe what they say predicts the future.”
“And does it?”
“It predicts their own future. They die within a month, invariably.”
Ivan says he’ll show me the Museum tomorrow. I asked him if it worried him, living on the edge of what the Greeks and Romans thought was the entrance to Hell. He laughs and says he spent the first ten years of his life in Hell. He explains - until he was eleven, rock and roll music was forbidden in Vzeng Na, with the exception, it seems, of Pat Boone, as the local party chairman had all the Boonester’s records. Ivan launched into an impromptu solo of Ain’t That A Shame, and his fellow customers in the café responded by throwing litter and good-natured abuse at him.
“You see”, he says with a wink, “the police chief is the only man who can get away with Pat Boone karaoke in this town.”
Morning. Hotel room was cold. Modern 'duvet' technology has not yet penetrated this far east. Bed was made up with a gazillion blankets, each as thin as tissue paper and each wound round the mattress so tight I could scarcely breathe when I first got in.
Breakfast a thing they called ‘compôte’, and I called ‘a bunch of very old pears swimming in some very horrid syrup’. There were also boiled sweets, a bit like Pez or Lovehearts. There was something described as coffee. The boiled sweets, being virtually raw sugar, weren’t bad. I found they dissolved in ‘coffee’. Maybe they were supposed to.
Went for an early morning stroll around the metropolis. Doesn’t smell quite so bad in the early morning when nobody’s been for a shit yet. Eveywhere government restoration teams are prising up poor-quality Soviet tarmac to reveal gorgeous mediaeval cobblestones beneath. Govt. seems acutely conscious of the fact that tourism is the only reliable way to draw investment into Na.
(In the cold, the sewers actually steam. You can tell which buildings people have taken a dump in. Maybe getting obsessive on this point.)
At one end of
Ran into one of the
Americans. He’s a big black man called
He explains that the machine is really little more than a giant crane. “The hole’s been dug already”, he says, “we just need brave men to fill it.” He slams his fist to his chest to indicate he’s a brave man. Either that or a Klingon warrior.
I ask the A team what he’s
going to wreck with his wrecking ball. I
don’t even get a smile then. He just
grunts 'If I’m Unlucky, Myself', and carries on with his checking. I shrug and stand back and take photos. The whole thing looks more like a naval
cable-layer than a crane - after all, it is supposed to dangle things down, not
lift them up. All the lifting it has to
do is the two yards over the Beglerbeg’s Wall.
After that, it’s downhill all the way.
I notice that the wrecking ball looks to be made mostly of carbon
fibre. I ask
I ask him where
Say goodbye to
I get to the Museum of the Pit an hour early, wanting to poke around on my own before getting steered around by Ivan. He looks like a steerer. The Museum is entered via the arch in the Beglerbeg’s Wall, and is, even today, the only way for ordinary members of the public to get through to see the sights. The Beglerbeg probably put the wall up himself for that express purpose, and charged admission. Even in 1500, Early Renaissance peasants would have paid to stand and boggle. The Beglerbeg wasn’t daft.
The Museum of the Pit was bombed by both the Russians and the Germans in WW2, and half of it’s been rebuilt all postmodern. It looks horrid, like a handsome face with some really bad corrective burn surgery. The old half of it was once a public bath, perched right there on the edge where all the stinky water could easily be gotten rid of. Supposedly, it’s also built on the site of a genuine old Roman balnea. “In a building on this spot” (says the all-knowing Let’s Go Guide) “Heliogabalus himself might have stewed in his own juices whilst gazing out into a majestic mile of nothingness”.
At a loss to imagine how a
mile of nothingness can look majestic, but walked in and paid the entrance fee
to a minge-faced old babushkye. The rooms inside are yellow with years of fag
smoke, and there are star shapes in the smoke where old Communist insignia have
been removed. In the anteroom, there are
models of what stood on this site in 200 BC, 200 AD, 1200, 1500, 1700, 1945, and
1962, all crafted with elaborate care and as much love as went into the saints’
faces on the cathedral. There are no
English translations on the cases - unthinkable! - and I’m forced to fall back
on an English guidebook which is an entertainment in itself, as it appears to
have been translated from Maem Na or Russian into Mongol, Swahili and finally
English using some sort of online crapulence engine. In the 200 Before Jesus, we are told, there
was already being one church to Hades on this locality, and a Soothsayer like
the Soothsayer on
The 1945 diorama of the Museum shows much the same drab grey streets I’ve already been out in, Nazi banners hanging from some of the buildings being torn down by victorious Soviet soldiers triumphantly raising the hammer-and-sickle on top of the catholic campanile. Defeated Nazis, still fighting a desperate rearguard, are exiting to stage left behind a huge tank half the size of the Museum building itself. Asked an old buffer standing by the door in a commissionaire’s outfit whether the tank was out of scale, and he said no, the Germans had had very big tanks, he had seen them as a child. One of the very big ones, he said, was still rusting in a square very near where it appeared on the diorama. It had weighed over 200 tonnes, and been called a ‘Mouse’. He finds this outrageously funny and laughs like he has a punctured lung. “I have a punctured lung”, he explains proudly, “although I am seventy-five.”
The 1965 exhibit, meanwhile,
shows an enormous structure, pillarbox-red all over, occupying exactly the same
“They tried to go down”, says the old man in weirdly accented Russian, “to the Discontinuity.”
“The Mohovoric Discontinuity”, I nodded.
“Exactly that discontinuity, yes.”
“What did they think they would find there?”
“What did the Americans think they would find”, said the old man, “when they went to the Moon?” He makes a sign on his chest. Not sure whether it is a cross or not. “A bad thing, a bad thing, to go down there.” He points at the Soviet stars on the model machine. “After they went down there, their empire fell. Heliogabalus”, he says, indicating the Roman exhibit, “his empire fell. Alexander”, he says, jabbing a finger at the Greek exhibit, “his empire fell.”
“Alexander’s empire”, says I, “was founded after he came here. The Soviet empire fell twenty years after they came here. And Heliogabalus’s empire fell two hundred years after he came here. Surely the lesson here is that empires fall.”
“Their empire fell”, warns the old man, still wagging his finger in my face.
“It’s a beautiful display”, I say. “It must have taken many people a very long time.”
“I built it”, says the old man, swelling so much with pride I think he’ll bust his buttons. “I built it all, myself.”
I was amazed. (Am not easily amazed). “How long did it take?”
He shrugged. “I am a very old man”, he said.
The old man’s name, as far as I can make it out, is Gviong - native Vaemna, short build, axeblade face, eyes like knifewounds in pork fat, the works. Says his family gave themselves all German names during the Great Patriotic War - his German name was Georg - but as soon as the wars were over, they went back to the names they were baptised with. (As if any self-respecting Gestapo officer wouldn’t have known a Vaemna at a hundred yards). The Vaemna were put into slave labour in the war, on the Germans’ pet projects. If the war hadn’t ended when it had, they’d probably have been exterminated along with the Jews and gypsies.
He shows me his arms proudly;
no tattoos. He’s inviting me to be
impressed by this. “I finished the war
as a water carrier for the Leibstandarte”,
he says. “I was too clever to go into
the camps.” This says just about all you
need to know about the Vaemna. They are
survivors, not moralists. Surrounded by
“One year later”, he grins, “I was running errands for Zhukov.”
Beyond the anteroom, the Museum is full of glass cabinets containing stuff that has been excavated. Some of these are the actual stuff, some replicas, as the Soviets and Nazis took most of the originals, and they are only now beginning to be tracked down. Circa 50% of the exhibits are votive tablets (most broken). Chucked into the deep over the millennia, they are chipped into expensive marble in Classical Latin, scratched into half-baked clay in dog-Latin, glazed into Samian terra cotta in aristocratic Greek. The very oldest are scratched into aurochs scapulae in scripts philologists are still trying to decipher. Some of the earliest look like they should be in our own alphabet, but this is deceptive, as they’re some of the first surviving examples of the Phoenician character set. People have been writing prayers to their gods, things they wuld like to happen, letters to Santa or Satan, and lobbing them down into the dark here since before the time of Jesus. Archaeologists have only been hauling them back up, by comparison, since the time of Schliemann.
The newer tablets in the collection are made of porcelain, tourist trinkets from the nineteenth century, saying things like ‘God bless this house and all the little children’ in Romanian. The really modern ones are plastic or titanium, designed to survive the journey all the way down to, uh, whatever is at the bottom. Some of the titanium exhibits are written in Japanese, Hindi or Arabic.
Besides the tablets, there
are more valuable items of swag.
Scythian gold tinkets from a thousand years before the birth of Christ,
sesterces, denarii, drachmas, minissimi, Byzantine necklaces made of amber that
found its way to
Persians? I do a double-take on this one. We are, after all, a long way from
As for the replica exhibits, a highly imaginative and doubtless totally fanciful set of shelves details every single pagan idol that existed in the kingdom of the Danubian Ostrogoths, idols “sent down to join the Devil in the dark” when the Ostrogoth king converted. “The largest of these”, the plaque on the Pagan Idols cabinet proclaims, “was over two men high, sat on three legs, and possessed two heads which looked both back to the past and forward to the future, and a fire that burned eternally in its belly.” A likeness of the Ostrogoth idol has been produced for the museum by what looks like Vzeng Na Mixed Infants, who have tried to depict its barbarous splendour in bacofoil and papier maché. Looked like large-headed pig with big willy. (Willy, on closer examination, was third leg.) “This dreadful graven image”, said the cabinet plaque grandly, “has never been recovered.”
In the 1500’s, meanwhile, when the Turks took the town, all the golden crucifixes in its churches were melted down and cast into verses from the Quran in a faience lattice, which were then thrown into the pit “to send the word of God even down to Eblis”. When the Christians recovered the city a century later, the newly-appointed Bishop fired consecrated silver arrows down into the deep to wound the Devil, who the Christians of the town were convinced had been coaxed closer to the surface by Islamic evangelism.
But one thing the Christians, Moslems and Zoroastrians all seem to have been convinced of is this - the Devil is down there, somewhere. The Big D’s face jokingly rendered in the bathhouse murals all round the Museum walls - a grinning Satan, an imperious Eblis, a dark and terrible Hades carrying off a not entirely unhappy-looking Proserpina. The whole room recognizably a bathhouse - marble shelves round the walls used to be seats, a large depression in the floor where most of the larger cabinets stand is decorated with a delapidated mosaic of mermaids and tritons and obviously used to be the bath itself. (The mosaic is bomb-damaged at one end & has been repaired with what I found when I prised one loose with my toe to be little cubes of plastic not even the same colour as the original ceramic).
And at the other end of the room is the Picture Window.
The Window stretches from floor to ceiling, and from wall to wall. Its lintel is spanned by an RSJ thick enough to hold up a viaduct, just so bathers and museumgoers alike can have an uninterrupted oggle at what lies beyond.
The bathhouse walls must project over the edge. View goes straight, straight down. How far? Nobody knows. Radar does not return from down there. They say this could be because of scatter from the walls, or radar-absorbent muck (or magma!) at pit bottom. But the locals all know better. They know it goes down forever. Things dropped down it make no sound. Explosive shells fired down it do explode, but at wildly differing depths, implying that they are detonating on the abyss walls rather than on its bottom. Certainly the vent twists and turns as it descends, and spelunkers have so far explored only the first mile. The walls are difficult to climb, overhanging and slimy with bat guano. Aid climbing is necessary, and you have to make your own holes to put protection in; there are hardly any cracks in which to shove a nut or piton. The rock is metamorphic, volcanic rock that was tough to start with and has since been squeezed and fused in the Earth’s guts until it is hard as iron, smooth as glass.
There have been scientific attempts to explain the pit. Thales of Miletus, an Ancient Greek flat earth philosopher, believed it had originally been one of the entrances by which the sun rose each day from the underworld, and that it had simply dried up like an old channel of the river Euphrates when the Sun changed its course and began rising in the East. Nazi scientists believed it to be a possible entrance to the alien kingdoms they knew existed inside the hollow Earth (or, since their leaders cherished an idea that the Earth was hollow but that we were living on the inside, outside it). Soviet and German scientists alike theorized that, if not to the actual inside of the Earth, it might reach at least to the Mohovoric Discontinuity, the boundary layer between the Earth’s crust and its mantle. US scientists wasted millions trying to bore a hole down to the Discontinuity in the States in the 60’s. Here it seems Soviet scientists hoped they might be lucky enough to have found a ready-bored hole in their own back yard. Ufologists believe, in fact, that the pit is an abandoned alien Mohole project built by aliens for whatever purposes aliens build Mohole projects.
Christian ‘scientists’ all around the world still believe, of course, that this is the hole made by Satan when he fell through the Earth from Heaven into Hell.
Certainly, it looks like you’d be motoring some before you hit pit bottom. Birds’ nests and bat colonies streak the walls with guano as far down as the eye can see, and undoubtedly further. Green grass tufts and the occasional tree cling to rocky prominences nearer to the sunlight. As you look further down, the grass grows yellow and eventually peters out altogether, replaced by deep-reaching tree roots, dead white ivy and and shelf fungus feeding off the walls. Some of the streaks round the rim, as most of the city’s sewage and waste water still drains into this one sink, must be human guano. It doesn’t smell from this side of the window, but am not sure it doesn’t stink beyond it, whatever Ivan says.
The official geologist’s term for the rock is abyssite. It is described by my Guide as a ‘schist rich in cryptocrystalline quartz’, which tells me little apart from the fact that I like the sound of the phrase ‘cryptocrystalline quartz’. Although identifiably a schist, it appears nowhere else on Earth in this precise chemical composition; hence it has its own name. One single slender column of abyssite strikes up from somewhere far beneath like a Stone Age spearhead. On top of this uncertain foundation, someone, many years ago, has chosen to build a church; how, I’m not sure. We’re talking about mediaeval engineering here, after all. The church is dedicated, controversially, to Abaddon, the creature mentioned in Revelation as the Angel of the Bottomless Pit. Detractors of the church point to the fact that only four angels, Raphael, Michael, Gabriel and Uriel, are officially mentioned in the O.T., and that this angel from Revelation might be a fallen one resident in Hell.
Then: “Don’t look into the abyss”, comes a voice from behind me, “or the abyss will look back into you.”
“You didn’t make that up”, I laugh. “That was Nietzsche.”
“Everyone in this city knows that quote”, says Ivan. “They say Nietzsche was holidaying in Na when he came up with it.” He is in uniform, and what a lot of silver buttons his uniform has on it too. Makes you just want to unbutton them all. He’s wearing a military-style beret - not on his head, but clipped to his shoulder epaulette. The cap badge is stylized enough to look like a heraldic bird, but I realize it isn’t. The wings are more like the wings of an insect, there are four legs, and the head of the creature looks human. He notices I’m looking at it.
“And the shapes of the locusts were like unto horses prepared unto battle; and on their heads were as it were crowns like gold, and their faces were as the faces of men”, explains Ivan.
“And they had a king over them, which is the angel of the bottomless pit”, I say back.
He taps the cap badge. “This has been the symbol of our city for over a thousand years”, he says. “Possibly even longer. Maybe over two thousand.”
I find this hard to believe. “Ivan, the Book of Revelation was written around 100 AD.”
He frowns. “Yes, and that’s the funny thing, you see. This shape, this image, appears on commemorative medals and votive tablets struck here well before the birth of Plato.” Then he grins. “Maybe it wasn’t our artists who took their inspiration from John, eh? Maybe John just wrote down a description of the devil based on the testimony of one of our own people who had seen him.”
“The Angel of the Bottomless Pit isn’t the Devil, Ivan.”
Ivan shrugs. “Lucifer was an angel, once.”
He steered me round the museum as expected. Gviong, the old commissionaire, winked at me as he did so. It transpires the paternal side of Ivan’s family are Russian, not Vaemna, as I might have guessed from the name. His mother’s family, meanwhile, are ethnic Poles, as are many of the shopkeepers and petit bourgeoisie of Na. “The Vaemna don’t breed with outsiders”, he says, and he’s looking at Gviong as he says it. I get the feeling this may be a sore point. Maybe Ivan has attempted to breed with a Vaemna in the past.
For Ivan, whose father was a
KGB officer, the story behind the cabinets is different. The Russian troops in the dioramas are
defending the motherland against Nazi aggression. When the Soviet era ended, he says,
“Does ‘we’ include the Vaemna?” I say, and he replies that over fifty percent of Vzeng Na’s population are now ethnic slavs - Poles, Russians, Byelorussians, Kashubians, Ukrainians, and so forth - which strictly is not an answer, but which, in another equally important sense, is. The Pan-Slavist Party has been in power in Vzeng Na since 1996, apparently. So it seems the Vaemna are, even now they have their independence, not in charge of their destiny.
Then Ivan steers me politely to the mysterious-looking cage at one corner of the room, which looks as if it might contain a dangerous animal. This is a new addition to the Museum; it cuts across the lines of mosaic on the floor. The cage is the only thing allowed to break the line of the big picture window as it crosses the room. A commissionaire dressed like Gviong is standing by it, almost like a sentry. This cage is evidently important. It is made of wrought iron, formed into fantastical art deco designs, and it’s a good few seconds before I realize it’s an elevator cage. The machinery for the elevator vanishes up into the roof. This was doubtless the lift assembly for some swank Na apartment before it was appropriated en bloc; above the lintel of the cage door is a quotation in what appears to be Italian.
“’Abandon hope, all ye who enter here’”, translates Ivan before I ask, and sweeps the steel louvres open before the commissionaire has time to. I am acutely, almost uncomfortably aware that Ivan is the local police chief. The museum staff may be terrified with dignity, but they are clearly terrified of him.
The elevator is very small. It has cagework sides through which little fingers can easily protrude and get chopped away. There is nothing to hold on to inside it.
Ivan slams the louvres shut and presses one of only two buttons on the control panel - a big red one marked, in Russian, BOTTOM. The lift jolts and grinds alarmingly, and sprocket teeth whirr above me in the darkness, finger-hungry. Then the cage begins a sedate and altogether quite pleasant descent into the floor, where I see not dark but daylight rising round my ankles.
“The Museum is built out from the edge”, says Ivan. “On iron girders. Look.”
Massive riveted nineteenth century buttresses project out from the cliff. It appears they are holding up the floor I had been standing on. If I’d known, I wouldn’t have walked so close to the window. Underneath them is twenty or thirty metres of fresh air. Underneath that, a narrow shelf projecting from the abyssal wall, looking knifeblade-thin next to the vast gulfs of nothing crowding in on it on either side. Remember thinking - if the cable snaps and we fall, will we hit it? Or will we fall further?
Like the webbing of a finger, the shelf connects the thin shard of abyssite that the Church of the Angel is perched on with the chasm walls. At this shallow depth, there is grass, manky and yellow, growing on it; even a tree, to which someone has fixed a portable ultraviolet light to help it grow bigger. The shelf is actually quite broad as we come closer - wide enough, even, for people to stand up on and move about. There are tents, quite large ones, women with no make-up, men with beards. One of them is grumpily sweeping away a clutter of plastic votive tablets, turning them over the edge of the cliff with a broom.
“Archaeologists”, explains Ivan. “They cannot understand that this place is a work in progress. They think only of unearthing yesterday, and complain when today rains down on them constantly.”
I notice the archaeologists were all wearing hard hats. I ask whether people still threw votive tablets down here. Ivan nods.
“I found a tablet asking both God and the Devil to kill me once”, he says. He shrugs and smiles, but this time his heart isn’t in it.
We are at the level of the grass, now, and still descending. Here, in the middle of all these archaeologists, someone has dug a small square pit exactly the size of our elevator, into which we disappear like a coffin being decorously lowered into an open grave. The inside of the grave has steep spade-cut sides and electric light.
“The Pit has formed here over centuries”, says Ivan. “All around the Abyss, people throw things in, but in places like this, where there are ledges near the top, the things collected. Sometimes the braver, poorer people who feared divine retribution less than hunger would wait until dark and climb in after them. People who did such things were considered anathema, like grave robbers or Indian untouchables. Even Vaemna”, he said, as if this was the crowning insult, “do not talk to such people.” I notices he says do not talk instead of did not.
“And so we have the Museum of the Pit. Archaeologists are obsessed with this location. Western archaeologists in particular pay big money to be allowed down here. But nothing ever leaves the site. Things either remain here or stay in the Museum, and only replicas tour exhibitions abroad. Nothing that enters the Pit leaves it”, he said, “apart from archaeologists, geologists and tourists.”
Archaeologists must obtain state permits, it seems. The Pit referred to in the Museum’s title is not the yawning chasm we are standing on the edges of, but this tiny excavation, only perhaps four metres deep.
The surface level, under the grass, is immediately gruesome. A skeletal head stares out at us from under a hairline of turf. There are femurs, jawbones, ribcages. One of the ribcages, in what I am sure is a piece of pure theatre on the part of the Museum staff, is wearing an Iron Cross.
“It is believed this layer of topsoil was added in the 1940’s after the Soviets slaughtered three hundred SS prisoners here”, says Ivan. I express my revulsion. He reminds me that the next level down consists of Russian and Polish bones, executed with Nazi bullets.
“The Nazis were trying to get to the centre of the world”, I say. Ivan laughs. “To meet up with their master, Satan”, he says. (Dante’s Inferno, I am reminded, is a popular school textbook in Na, along with Virgil’s Aeneid, Goethe’s Faust and Beckford’s Vathek. Their children must sleep really well at night).
Beneath the Nazi and Soviet skulls is a layer of shattered porcelain - “votive tablets”, says Ivan dismissively - and then a clearly visible layer of black soot containing three perfectly formed cannonballs. “The Magyars take the town from the Turks”, he says. “A lot of the town was burned.” Underneath the cannonballs and ashes, a layer of fine ash. “The poorer Turks scatter the ashes of their dead into the Pit”, says Ivan. Then still more soot and cannonballs. “The Turks”, announces Ivan, “take the town from the Magyars.”
The Turks and Magyars both
seem to have taken the town twice, though in the deeper layers they don’t fire
cannonballs any more. There follows
several feet of porcelain of decidedly poorer quality. “Mediaeval”, says Ivan. Finally, more bones, some of them with
clearly human teethmarks in them. Ivan
sucks in his breath seriously. “The
Mongol Khan Ogedei”, he says, “conquers
“Some says their descendants live down here still.”
Still further down, past
pottery-shard gravel of steadily decreasing quality, shading from porcelain
into actual earthenware, the omnipresent cross motifs on coins, plaques or
rotting bits of fabric become ‘T’ shapes.
“Worshippers of Thor and Pyerun”, says Ivan. “Back this far, the area is still not
entirely Christian.” The quality of the
earthenware begins to improve. Crosses
reappear, though they are probably better described as swastikas. “The Roman period”, Ivan explains. Down here the quality of the goods thrown
into the Pit is better than at virtually any time since. Gold and silver glitter among the litter,
among gladii and spathae, denarii and oboli.
There is an abundance of statues of Isis, Egyptian goddess of the
underworld, popular with the Romans with their mix-n’-match approach to
worship. And then, suddenly, the
We have reached pit bottom.
“Does it stop here?” I say.
Ivan shrugs. “Excavations continue”, he says.
He presses the green button for the lift to rise.
After the Museum, Ivan suggested food, but apologized for not being able to deliver it until the evening due to “work commitments”. Asked “if it would be acceptable to dine at the Hilton”. Have driven past the Hilton on the way in from the airport. Very big, built on the edge of town beyond the tangle of ancient architecture in the city centre. Lots of glass and steel, very swish. Wondered naïvely how it was that a policeman could afford to eat at that sort of place. Wondered even more naïvely and not a little hypocritically whether Ivan’s beautiful wife had been informed he was dining with another rather less beautiful woman.
Of course, said yes.
Spent the rest of the day
queueing in the Interior Ministry, trying to get permission to leave the
elevator cage in the Museum of the Pit and wander around taking photos actually
inside the mouth of the Abyss. National Geographic have done this
successfully in the past, though I find out from talking to a backpacker in the
queue next to me that this was only via smuggling one of their cameramen into
an archaeological team. Get shunted
round three separate ‘departments’ (this involving queueing in front of various
different windows in the same office, often to see the same people) and am
given three tickets of different colours.
Get the colour of my ticket wrong at least once and stand in the parking
fines queue, much to everyone else’s annoyance.
Queueing is even more of a way of life with these people than it is in
Spend the rest of my afternoon shopping for clothes. Haven’t got much good stuff with me that Ivan’s not seen me in already. Shameless.
Ivan has a policeman pick me up from the hotel at nine, in a police car. Very nice, but cannot help feeling like a prostitute being pulled in off the street. Policeman says nothing to me all the the way there, doesn’t open the door for me like a taxi driver or a chauffeur, but smiles and waves at me as he pulls away, and is good enough not to leer. The Hilton is swank, as is only to be expected; full of smart suits conversing in German, English and Russian, tucking into fillet steaks and Caesar salads. There appears to be not a single Eastern European dish on the menu.
I have the monkfish (how far does the nearest monkfish have to travel to get here?). I also insist on paying for it myself (all right, insist on expensing it). Ivan pays for it anyway while I’m in the toilet. He knows the waitresses by name, though he doesn’t flirt with them. He listens attentively whilst I talk about myself - Roedean, degree in Modern languages, early desire to be a spy, hence the reason for learning Russian, never recruited at Oxford, hence the reason for currently being a journalist. Not married, no children, one cat fed most of the time by my neighbour, who he must be convinced by now is his actual owner.
Whilst Ivan laughs at my jokes, he doesn’t laugh uproariously, which is good, because I know they’re not that funny.
His own life story is Dr.
Zhivago stuff. Grandaddy was a KGB
lieutenant who slept with a local Polish shop girl to produce Daddy. As Grandaddy was already married to the
daughter of his local party chief back home in
Ivan, unlike his father, was savvy enough to become an officer in the local police; thus, when the Russians left and the KGB became a dwindling memory, he still kept his job. “My father works as a security guard in a bank”, he adds cheerily. “But I make sure he gets a big package of vodka and salmon once a month”, he cackles, as if to prove he is not, after all, a monster. (I note, however, that Ivan sends his father fish, rather than teaching him how to; he is the sort of man who likes to keep others dependent on him).
Ivan insists on driving me back to the centre of town in his big police car. It is a Zil. “When I was a boy, I always wanted to drive one of these cars”, he says. “Now my junior lieutenants make fun of me for not driving a BMW.” I laugh. We both laugh. We are drunk. He is perhaps too drunk to drive. What, I wonder in my naïveté, if he gets arrested?
He drops me off just outside the the hotel, nice as pie, but as luck would have it, what do you know, he just happens to have the keys to a flat in town, a safe house, used by the police to observe drug traffickers. He is going there to sleep off the booze. He does not want to drive the twenty kilometres home in his condition. I laugh. He laughs. He suggests we go up there together and have a coffee, maybe a little nightcap, who knows?
End up sleeping with Ivan. He is a considerate lover, not half as drunk, surprise surprise, as he appeared to be. He also does not wait till I’m pretending to be asleep and then pretend not to know I’m pretending and slip quietly out of bed into his uniform and leave to drive home to his family. When he leaves, he leaves at daybreak, plants a kiss in the middle of my forehead, and orders a bouquet of flowers sent to my hotel to be there when I arrive.
Walk up the stairs to my room feeling dirty. Shower several times. Cry.
Slept in till twelve. Spent the rest of the day in the company of the Information Minister, Yaebing Dudayev. This man is Ivan’s diametric opposite, a man who, I am reliably informed, changed his name from Yuri after the Russians moved out. Before being Information Minister, he was a fishmonger. He is a greasy little man with huge windowpanes of glasses and eyes like sushi behind them. He spends an afternoon droning about the highly specialized nature of Vzeng Na’s import/export trades from behind a moustache you could mop floors with. He has many graphs to show me. I suspect that he is showing them to me only in order to proudly demonstrate the fact that he has learned to use his new Western-designed spreadsheet program.
I ask him about Vzeng Na’s illegal export trades. This throws him. He shrugs his shoulders and admits that, yes, incredible as it may seem, people do break the law in Vzeng Na. Under Communism, of course, if was almost obligatory to use illegal channels in order to trade at all. He shifts about nervously in his chair as he says this, and spends a great deal of time inspecting his fingers. I am left under no illusion that Mr. Dudayev is anything other than a born-again black marketeer.
Then, just for fun, I ask him about Oracle Smoke. His eyes swell like poaching eggs. He asks me why I’m interested in such things. I tell him that if Oracle Smoke is an export, it surely falls under his remit, legal or illegal. He says Oracle Smoke is not exported. I say I don’t believe him. He says it cannot be exported. “It is not that sort of product”, he says. He reminds me that if I were a decent human being and a serious journalist I would not be interested in such things. He draws my attention back to his graph of projected bat guano exports against electronics imports, 2011-12.
Yes, you heard me right. Bat guano. They still run two or three big mechanical scoops down into the dark at what he describes as ‘decent and sustainable intervals’, which I take to mean infrequently enough for the bats to cover the abyss walls with crap in the intervening period. In the old days, it seems, people only used to harvest the bird guano from higher up in the Abyss, but the old lodes are now exhausted, and the advent of modern technology now means that the deeper, more mammalian deposits can be worked. It is, says the Minister, illegal to harm a bat in Na, through centuries-old legislation. Ever the investigative journo, I ask if this means the population of Na are at significantly higher risk of catching rabies. He denies this vehemently. Rabies is caught, he insists, by either (a) being bitten by bats, which the people of Na are less likely to have happen to them as they are, as previously discussed, prohibited from bat-molestation, or (b) inhalation of bat faeces. He pounds the table with his tiny fist. “And do I look like I breathe bat shit to you? Well do I? Do I?”
Took my leave of the Information Minister and made my way back to the hotel. Whilst walking back across the square, a street urchin taps me up for money. Specifically, American dollars.
“But I’m not American”, I say. “I’m British.”
“British dollars”, he says, grinning. His face is very thin. He has probably not eaten for some time. But his clothes are bright and new, Nike and Adidas and Le Coq Sportif. He seems able to afford clothes, if not food.
Then I turn around and find the other kid who is attempting, while the first kid distracts me, to rob my purse from my handbag. I grab him by the nose with thumb and forefinger. He makes an amusing noise like an elephant trying to vomit through a gasmask. When I let him go, he runs.
I turn back to the first boy. He grins again, as if it is unthinkable he might have done wrong.
“You’re the boy I saw the day before yesterday”, I realize out loud. “Outside Starbucks.”
He stops suddenly at the word ‘Starbucks’, as if he realizes who he is talking to - and, unquestionably, what I am to him now is ‘the lady who was sitting next to the police chief’.
He frowns, bends, and actually tugs his forelock, and apologizes furiously in Russian. And scuttles away, across the big bright square, like a spider caught in the middle of a room when the lights go on.
Back at the hotel I spent half an hour trying to explain to the desk clerk what I meant by ‘fax machine’ and ‘internet’. Eventually located an internet café, Ezhu Happy Netsurfing-Ngaëar, and managed to plug my laptop into the wall and upload several days’ worth of story.
Went to bed early and watched what passes for local TV, an appalling Vaemna-language sitcom about three old men all trying to sexually harass the same young dolly bird living in their apartment block. Tonight, it seems, Bimaen the Butcher - distinguished from the other two male characters by the fact that he always, always, always wears a butcher’s apron, even in the bath - was able to cop a feel of her left tit, but got his penis caught in a revolving door for his trouble. Expect to see it on Sky One soon.
Went to sleep with the window
open, perhaps a perilous thing to do this close to
Dreamed I was falling into a deep, deep pit.
Above me, the moon stares down the pit, illuminating the walls, which are too far away for me to touch. I have no idea how quickly I’m falling.
I hit the bed and wake up with a jolt.
Almost as if it’s with the voice of another person, I hear myself scream. The wind is blowing in through the open window, making the curtains dance about like creepy scooby doo ghosts. Outside, the town is a huddle of silent roofs, a jumble of schist and slate.
And I can still hear it, out there. Not my voice, but another human one. Screaming.
Probably a domestic or a schizophrenic or an alcoholic, I imagine to myself. But I get to my feet and go to the window anyway. I could drag a few lines of copy out of it, after all. Crappy Eastern European republic fails to care for its loonies shock.
But the voice is not shouting
“You bastard what time do you call this”, or “I’ll fight the fuggin lot o’yer”,
or even “I am Napoleon, do you hear me?
First Emperor of
No, what it’s shouting - in, I presume, Russian and Vaemna, though I can’t understand the Vaemna - is “Help me, for the love of God.” It is, I realize, as I lean out of the window, shouting very loud, loud enough to wake me, and I can sleep my way through a transatlantic flight in Economy class. And yet no lights are going on, no police sirens are sounding, no-one is coming to the poor bastard’s aid. If I squint down into the dark against the streetlights, I can see a trio of figures dragging one, smaller figure across a constellation of cobbles. He is yelling and shouting and his captors are not even trying to silence him. But nobody is doing anything, though all the world must hear.
They are dragging him down the Aeveny Gabyzaï, which is a dead end street, connecting only with the Museum and the expanse of empty wall at the east end of Victory Square, which connects only with...
No. They wouldn’t.
It transpires they would. As they walk, I notice one of the three is not helping with the manhandling and the dragging, but is instead trundling along a sort of little handcart, almost like a wheelbarrow with a solid platform on top of it. This on its own is making a noise like a steamroller on the cobblestones. Its wheels must be solid wood. I wonder what purpose this little geegaw might serve, and then they come to a stop in the square, and I realize.
I think of shouting out, but this man - this boy, I realize, from the high pitch of his yelling - has been shouting out there for the last ten minutes, and no-one has so much as twitched a net curtain. The only thing quick enough to stop what is going to happen would be a rifle bullet, and I have no such thing.
The three silent figures push their barrow to a halt right next to the wall. They are all wearing hats, for some peculiar reason, and some sort of smart jacket - almost as if they dress for this sort of occasion. Their captive continues to scream. They drag him onto the top of the barrow, yelling at him in Russian and Vaemna. The Russian is too fast and guttural for me to understand.
Two of them have to jump up onto the barrow in order to get him to stand upright, whilst the third holds it firmly by the handles, stopping all three of them from getting dumped down into the street. There is a little bit more struggling, and then a final bout of screaming high pitched enough to surely test even prepubescent vocal cords, and as they hoist him over the capstones so his head is hanging over absolutely nothing, the moon catches his face like a searchlight and I realize why his screams are so familiar.
It’s the boy from outside
Starbuck’s. The boy from
Then they grunt and give one final heave, and the moonlight shows him fluttering down into the dark like a ghost.
Their task finished, the three figures dust themselves down, straighten their clothing, crack their knuckles (audibly, even at this distance), and trundle their cart away unconcernedly across the square, brilliantly picked out in bright moonshine.
I close the curtain and sit back on the bed. I still don’t shut the window. After that, vampires are nothing.
In any case, now back to my
ongoing project for the Thursday travel pullout. Made the mistake of returning directly to Na
Travel piece is now turning into investigative journalism. One of the local papers, Gaziëta Gabyzaï, which translates as The Abysmal Gazette, is printed in both Russian and Vaemna-language editions. Picked up the Russian edition, read it cover to cover, and found no record of any murder having been committed in the last two days. Two days ago, I saw the boy being thrown into the pit from my hotel window. Attempted to ring Ivan on his mobile, but received no reply. Remonstrated with myself for having failed to report a murder I’d seen happen with my own eyes. Why didn’t I report it? Apart from the fact I wasn’t sure, in the morning, whether or not I’d been dreaming, I have no idea.
Decided to report the murder now. Or, at the very least, to walk out to the break in the Beglerbeg’s Wall and assure myself I hadn’t been dreaming. Crossed the main square in front of the cathedral, walked in front of Starbuck’s, and saw Ivan sitting there on the turd-brown sofa with a blonde bit who certainly wasn’t his wife. They were talking in English, she with an American accent. Had no idea Ivan even spoke English. She had a dictaphone out on the table and was scribbling away notes absent-mindedly in shorthand whilst hanging adoringly on his every word.
A pimp passed Ivan on the pavement, flanked by bitches. He said something rapid to Ivan in Vaemna. Ivan laughed manfully. The pimp smirked and moved off. My Vaemna must be getting better. I think I had a pretty good idea what they had been saying to each other. I turned, unseen by any of them, and found myself looking at my own reflection in Starbuck’s shop front.
I hurried on. The American deep-down-dangling machine was growing steadily, and had moved closer to the Beglerbeg’s Wall. It had KOMATSU written ostentatiously all over it. Like two Komatsu executives buggering each other, it now rested on four sturdy yellow legs.
There was nothing by the wall. What, after all, would there have been? Blood? A signed confession written by the three who dumped the boy over?
Maybe it had all been a dream.
Halfway along the wall, though, I saw something passing strange. A man with a completely unnecessary torch strapped to a hardly more necessary construction helmet strapped to his head, dressed dapperly in a plastic sack saying FISONS with armholes cut out for his head and arms, was standing arguing with a city policeman. I couldn’t help noticing that the man appeared to be tied to a lamp post.
“Why not?” said the man in English. I felt the familiar sinking in my stomach all English people feel on realizing an idiot encountered abroad is also English. The Englander had a partner in crime who was dressed as quietly as he was, and whose grasp of haute couture even ran to air cylinders and flippers.
“Is danger”, explained the policeman. “Very big danger.” He held his hands out wide to illustrate how big the danger was. For the record, it was about three feet wide.
The man turned and pointed at the big fuck-off American crane. “You see that? Why are they allowed to go down there?”
The policeman shrugged. “They have permission.”
“And I haven’t got permission.”
“I know if you have permission or you not have permission. You not have permission.”
“Look, one of our friends may be hurt down there. Maybe even dead.”
At this point, Air Cylinder Man tugs his associate’s shoulder. “Look, Pete, maybe this isn’t the time.” It certainly isn’t. The police monkey’s hand is crawling over his left buttock behind him towards his gun, which is one of the little Russian ones that can punch a hole through steel. And the policeman can’t understand a word they’re saying now. They’ve lost it and started talking far too fast. He is also a small man – most Vaemna are – and both of them are much, much, bigger than he is. He is scared.
I interpose myself.
“Excuse me, officer”, I say, in perfect Russian. “These are two colleagues of mine. They are concerned a friend of theirs might be lost and hurt in the abyss.”
Captain Head Torch is hurt at being interrupted. “Barisef –”, he says, in Russian so dreadful it really shouldn’t be spoken by a human being.
“Shut up”, I say, in perfect
English. “He will shoot you. You are not
The inspector’s hand eases on his left buttock, and comes round in front of him again. He looks me up and down slowly.
“You have White Russian accent”, he accuses. I cringe. I hadn’t realized it was starting to rub off.
“I was born and bred in
He nods slowly. Then, he holds up a finger, to indicate he is about to say something important.
“Where people go when they die”, he says, “they stay, whether that place is a good place or a bad. It is not the job of your friend to bring people back.” He makes that little religious sign in the air, the one I’ve seen Gviong make, the one that may be the sign of the cross, and then again might not.
“You may go about your business”, he says. “Legal business”, he clarifies darkly, and departs.
“You can untie yourself from that lamp post now”, I say. To do him credit, Captain Head Torch finds this amusing.
“It’s a belay point”, he says.
“It’s a lamp post”, I say.
“We weren’t lying about our
friend”, says Air
“Entering the Abyss without a permit”, I say, “is illegal. And what was he doing in there on his own, anyway?”
Pete shrugs. “He’s that sort of guy.”
“A tosser”, clarifies Air
“We’ve come here all this way
“Can’t do anything in our
company”, says Air
“He’s an experienced caver”,
says Pete. “Happier underneath
“The caves in
“He’s been a mile down before
and come back up”, says Pete. “We’ve
been down Sarawak Chamber in
“Course”, adds Air Cylinder Man, “you have to climb a mile up a mountain before you get to down the mile. So you might as well have just stayed put, really, for all the buggering about.”
“This guy who went down the Abyss”, I say, “is over five feet in height and weighs more than seven stone, I take it.”
Pete nods. “Try six foot six and fifteen stone.”
“In that case, I haven’t seen him.”
Take Pete and Air Cylinder Man under my wing and off the street. Passers-by point and laugh and giggle and find them amusing, but obviously know they’re cavers rather than some sort of new wave of gay fashion. Cavers are common animals around here. Caving is illegal - the city authorities protect the sanctity of the Pit with an almost superstitious reverence - but it’s usually only possible for the police to arrest spelunkers after they’ve penetrated the hallowed chasm and are on the way back up, and even then all they can really do is fine them. Cavers gather round the Abyss like jackals round a carcass, waiting for the beat coppers to be otherwise occupied giving directions to tourists, before wrapping a rope round the nearest streetlight, cycle stand or traffic bollard, hopping over the Beglerbeg’s Wall and abseiling down into the void. It’s more usual for them to do their dirty in the hours of darkness, though. These guys must be genuinely worried.
Take them into the
Xotel-Restavran Vugromaen in Victory Parade.
‘Vugromaen’ means ‘The Three Romes’, an old slavic church expression
It transpires Pete is a
Business Process Reengineering Consultant, whatever that may be, and his friend
It is obvious Pete and Vern - and their missing friend, Sean - have been dreaming of this trip since they dug their first hole at the seaside with a bucket and spade and sat in it. “Course, you realize, it’s the challenge”, says Pete between quaffing.
“This thing must be twice as
deep, shit, maybe three, four times as deep, as anything I’ve ever done”, he
says. “Counting Wilhelmina Tranter at
“And in the caves in
“And the guano”, says Pete with relish, “the guano adds a challenge.”
“It changes to bat guano a few hundred metres down”, says Vern, obviously excited.
“Gosh”, I say, hoping I sound adequately impressed.
Pete and Vern seem to pay the sort of attention to inanimate chasms in the ground that most men do to women. Under the current circumstances, I find their total lack of attention to me refreshing, and buy them more drinks. They buy me more drinks. I learn a great deal about clints and grikes. You should always, it seems, take air cylinders of the more modern round-ended type down caves, as the older square-ended ones can catch in a cave roof and drown you. You should always climb rope ladders sideways-on.
Leave the Xotel-Restavran Vugromaen drunk and singing rude songs about swallow holes. Glad to have run into idiots from my home country. Pass a pimp in the street (probably the same pimp, still sporting a moll on each shoulder). Offer him fifteen hundred Minim for his bookends in heavily Belarus-accented Russian. He does not understand.
The Troglodytes are still going down the pit. They say the edges of the pit are quite well-patrolled, even after dark, and the top ten or twenty metres are crumbly with a thin coating of earth (and also, in place, human sewage) so it would be difficult, not to mention dangerous, to take that route. They say they have found another. I’ve already asked them if they’re going down the town sewer system. They say they aren’t.
It is still daylight. I still have time for a shower and a few minutes’ scribbling; the feature isn’t finished, maybe I can add a subsection on how to cave effectively in Na. I’m halfway back to the hotel when I remember my original reason for being out here.
The police station is on the
other side of the square. It’s a big,
squat, solid building that seems to have taken the last few hundred years of
cowboys and Indians and Commies and Aryans in its stride. It has a line of shiny POLISIC cars parked up
outside it. These cars are the very
And the car at the end of the line is even slower. The big Zil. The police commissioner is in. Maybe the woman at Starbuck’s had more self-respect than some people I could mention.
Someone taps me on the shoulder. I turn.
“Very poor, pretty lady”, says someone from the level of my shoulder. “Need dollars. Dollars will go up against Sterling Yen and Euro by close of play today.”
I look down. A face stares up at me. It looks like an ordinary face that has had the head sucked out of it. The skin is stretched taut over a cage of bone. The skin is also that of a seventy-year-old man, and this is odd, because I’m almost certainly looking at a thirteen-year-old boy.
I stare. I stare shamelessly. I stare not just because this is the first Oracle Smoke victim I’ve seen. I stare because I saw this boy fall a mile (two miles, three miles, four?) to his death only a few days ago.
“I’m sorry”, I say. “I’m English.”
The boy shrugs. “English dollars. And to him shall be given a sword, and he shall go forth conquering, and to conquer.”
I feel something pull at my other arm. I turn and notice I no longer have a handbag. Instead, I have a leather strap looped redundantly round my arm, and a boy even shorter than the one at my right elbow is absconding with the bag. Far too late, I move to yell. Realizing yelling will do nothing - they are already away and running - I move to run after them, and run into a stationary police officer, a kindly old gent of 50 or 60, watching them go with a look of unconcern. He holds up a hand to stop me.
“No further, if you value your neck”, he says, pointing at the inch-long sliver of sharpened steel the younger boy is carrying. “That went through your handbag strap with very little trouble, I believe. They are only very small, but they will kill you.” He pulls out a whistle and blows it. The boys continue running. “See? They are unafraid even of my whistle.”
Suddenly I’m not quite so sure I want police assistance. “I don’t want to cause trouble for them. They’re only stealing for food.”
He grins and shakes his head all-knowingly. “They don’t steal for food or shelter. They steal only for the Smoke, and they will steal for it until they starve.” He spits out the whistle and pulls out a gun. “This is my little boy gun”, he assures me. “7.62 millimetres only. It will hardly hurt a sparrow.”
He fires a warning shot to one side of the boys. It zings off distant cobblestones. They continue running. He fires again. One of them drops to the ground, blood jetting from his leg. But the other, the boy who went down the pit, is still running free. He even stops to grab my bag off his downed friend's body.
And it is the body. The dead body. A terrific amount of blood has come out of it for so short a time and so small a frame. The boy probably died of shock.
“Alas”, says the policeman, “God sees every sparrow that falls.” He makes that peculiar Vaemna religious symbol, and tucks his gun away. He jerks a thumb across the square to where a big black Merc has suddenly moved off from the kerb, its motorized mirrored windows closing.
“The mafia, they make a living robbing Smoke couriers. Once they break the chain of supply, the addicts must steal money to pay to get their Smoke bottles back. Otherwise the addicts would have no interest in you. You do not come in a bottle, and are not wrapped in aluminium foil.”
This puzzles me. “You mean the mafia don’t produce the Smoke.”
He shakes his head.
“Then who does?”
He smiles, and shrugs. Then, he walks off, ambling slowly along the cobbles at policeman speed, smiling at the beautiful morning.
Luckily, I didn’t have my
passport in my wallet, or any credit cards.
I have been travelling in
I did not visit the police station to report the death. Several passing tourists took snapshots of the body. I exchanged addresses with one of them and offered him money for negatives. A journalist must do these things.
Got back to the hotel again to find more flowers in reception. Suspect Ivan has definitely been blown out by his American floozie. Cannot criticize however as am personally below even floozie status.
Birds preen after getting a shock. I read magazines. Strolled out to the foreign language bookstall and scored several out-of-date copies of Cosmo, Bella (The Magazine For Today’s Independent Woman), and Vogue. Did not escape even then; discovered seven new ways to please my man. (Also bought FHM, as it was in English - discovered seven new ways to Make My Woman Want It). Penned an extensive piece on the evils of living in a corrupt police state. Drank too much.
During the afternoon, visited
the state of Na’s second most imposing tourist attraction, the Paerca Episcopa
Maercus Andréëvici, a former gravel pit on the outskirts of town where trees
have been planted and it is possible to hire bicycles and ride them for up to
several kilometres without passing the same tree twice. The Vzeng Na Ministry of Tourism are
obscenely proud of it. It is named after
one of Na’s great national heroes, Bishop Maercus Andréëvici, who is
historically lauded for having the common sense to retreat in good order from
the Tartars at the Battle of Mohi, abandoning his feudal overlord Bela (King of
Hungary, not the Magazine for Today’s Independent Woman) to his fate. This allowed him to ally himself, later, with
the Ottoman armies of Beyazid I and free the lands of the
Returned to the hotel having
put down many, many pages of pure evil grossly misrepresenting the Vzeng Na
Ministry of Tourism as Cthulhu-worshipping paedophiles in the back of my
taxi. Picked up a message from the
Troglodytes in reception. It appears I
strategically forgot a promise to have dinner with them in the Zum Abgrund, a
German-themed jolly beer-drinking thigh-slapping panzer-driving venue across
Went there. What the hell. Was glad to see them. Got drunker. Sang more rude songs about limestone formations. Tights come down, apparently. They were sitting in an unobtrusive corner attracting rude stares from tourists and resigned sighs from locals, surrounded by coils of rope, nuts, karabiners, pitons and descenders. They confided to me in whispers that they were planning a caving expedition that very night.
“Really?” I said, flickering my eyelashes, wide-eyed.
They still will not divulge their secret route down into the Abyss, though, even when I accuse them point blank of planning to use the government’s deep bat guano shovel. They seem not to know of any such shovel, and its existence makes them pause for thought.
But in the end, they don’t like the idea. “We’d have seen it parked up on the pit edge”, says Pete. “It would only get parked up there when they were going to trawl for guano, yes? So while they’re still in this intermediate period where they wait for the bats to poop enough for it to be worth their scraping it off the walls, the shovel’ll be in storage in town somewhere. No way down there.”
“So which way are you going down?”
Pete taps his nose with great care, as if he might miss it if he doesn’t. “None of your beeswax.”
“It is my beeswax. Because I’m going with you.”
This startled the pair of them.
“Um. We work alone”, says Pete.
“Alone apart from each other”, clarifies Vern.
“I’ve been climbing before”, I say. “Climbing can’t be too different from caving. And I, which is to say, my employer’s expenses department, will pay you handsomely for the privilege.”
“Aha”, says Pete. “Money, huh.”
“Not sex, then”, says Vern hopefully.
“Sex is where I draw the line”, I say firmly (with you, at least, I add to myself, glancing at the muscle definition on the insides of Pete’s thighs).
“Rats”, says Vern.
“This isn’t like ordinary
caving”, says Pete. “It’s a lot longer
and a lot more treacherous. It’s like
“I’ve been up the Old Man of Hoy”, I lie. This appears to impress them. They butt heads together and whisper at length, then break apart for further information.
“Aided or unaided?” says Pete.
“What’d’you take me for, some sort of shandy-diluting fairy?”
They huddle again.
“All right”, says Pete. “Pending successful financial negotiations, you’re in.”
Ten minutes before closing time, we’re inside the Museum of the Pit again. I have paid good money to goggle at Hellenic Imperial Votive Tablet Number 59,993, once again.
The place is full of backpackers, much more so than normal. Why is it full of them? Because Pete and Vernon have been hanging around outside it for the past hour offering vacillating hippies wads of worthless Vzeng Na currency to pay their way into the exhibition, claiming they no longer need the money as they’re leaving town and can’t change it. The backpackers are lumbering around like moonmen among glass cases filled with delicate exhibits, and the museum commissionaires, unused to such volumes of visitors - particularly visitors who insist on wearing hundred-pound Bergens at all times - scurry around anxiously, trying to discreetly stand behind the bigger and more dangerous-looking individuals.
Meanwhile, we - who have quite small rucksacks, by comparison - have finally entered the Museum ourselves, and are skulking unobtrusively behind the Vzeng Na Mixed Infants’ bacofoil recreation of the pagan idol.
“D’you think they’ve recognized us?” says Pete to me furtively.
“Almost certainly”, I say. “But I think they think they’ve other things to worry about.” Gviong, for one, has already thrown me a flummoxed stare of recognition, even in this woolly hat and outsize Gore-Tex parka I’m inhabiting as a temporary disguise. I find the fact that he recognized me so quickly both sweet and flattering.
“Is it behind us yet?”
Pete throws a nervous glance back over his shoulder. “Just about.”
“And you’re sure it’s unlocked.”
He ums and ahs. “Er, you might need to push it a bit.”
This isn’t encouraging, but in the event it (it is, in fact, a cleaning cupboard) opens with only the merest of shoulder barges, and as I barge, some pimply Oxbridge twot on the other side of the room just happens to loudly inform his travelling companions that “Nietzsche is only Schopenhauer reinvented, yah?”, masking the noise.
Inside, it is dark and there are cleaning materials. Luckily, far too many cleaning materials - huge numbers of cardboard boxes which we promptly hide behind. It smells very unclean for a cleaning cupboard. Our rucksacks are unpacked rapidly to reveal caving and burgling equipment. No air cylinders, though. Vern has been pressured into leaving them behind.
“There is”, asserts Pete, “a dead rat in here somewhere.”
“Dead rats”, I say, “are not what I’m bothered about. I can live in here with a dead rat till closing time.”
“Well”, says Vern ominously, “what do we do to pass the time?”
“If one green bottle”, says Pete, “falls, however accidentally, off one wall, you are for it, Vernon Hollingsworth.”
In the event we pass the time by being bored stiff in a cupboard, though this is alleviated by the thrill of being bored stiff in a cupboard we’re not supposed to be in. For many hours, there is the sound of shuffling feet and voices saying “Doch Nietzche ist nur Schopenhauer in neuen Kleidern, das weißt jeder.”
Then, finally, there is silence. The Museum has finally closed for the day.
“What if the cleaners come round?” whispers Vern.
“This is a former communist country”, I reply. “If the cleaners are in evidence first thing in the morning, which they are, they will not come round again in the evening. By the smell of things, we were lucky they came round in the morning.” And as neither Pete nor Vern seems willing to do so, I sneak out from behind the pile of pine fresh windowcleaner, push open the cupboard door a fraction, and poke my nose out into the bathhouse.
Leaf litter of fallen Wrigleys wrappers. A collage of Nike prints. Rows and rows and rows of silent votive tablets lying in state in cases, saying things like MAKE ME RICH and KILL MY ENEMY.
“Why are you so interested in going down there anyway?” hisses Vern.
“Put it this way - if you saw someone fall a mile to certain death, and then ran into them to talk to only a day later, wouldn’t you be curious?”
This is no answer, of course, but it shuts him up. The room is empty. The door to the elevator cage in the corner is unlocked (actually has no lock).
“The elevator shaft is open once it leaves the Museum”, I tell Pete. “Girderwork. A thin man could climb through it.”
He nods, opens the outer and inner elevator doors, and examines their locking mechanisms.
“I think the door on the elevator itself locks solid once the car is moving”, he says. He turns his attention to the louvre door. “And this has to be locked shut before the car will move.” He pulls a wad of chewing gum out of his cheek and squishes it into the door lock. “Now it thinks it has a bolt inside it.” He reaches through the lift cage and pushes the BOTTOM button, having to snatch his hand back quickly as the lift jolts into motion and begins to motor downward. “Et voilà.”
And even he, a man I supposed ought to be comfortable dangling at dizzy heights, took a good long look into the gulf beneath his feet, and took a good deep breath to steady himself.
Then, he swung himself into space above the drop, clambered down among the cantilevers as if walking downstairs, unlooped a coil of rope from round his shoulder, and began securing it around a handy girder. Vern followed him down like a big Helly Hansen’d spider.
This part of the descent was not so bad - began to think the whole thing might be a cinch, like going down a big climbing frame. After all, people who go to, say, Stanage, go there with intent to deliberately target the most difficult parts of the face. These guys just wanted to get to the bottom.
Erm. Didn’t they?
We were soon standing at the base of the cagework, on the actual face of the saddle at the foot of the actual pinnacle that had the actual Church of the Angel on its summit. Above us I could see the actual single-arch stone footbridge built by yer actual Matthias Corvinus after two unsuccessful tries which both fell into the void during construction. He finally used an unnamed English cathedral mason who constructed a marble arch so close to being flat that a marble placed anywhere on it took over ten seconds to roll off. But roll it did, from any point on the surface, the whole bridge being as precisely cut and planned as any of the onyx statues of saints that flanked it on both sides of the gulf, nailing down the weight. Even the Mongols were impressed by the bridge, and let it stand while churches galore burned around it. Today the bridge is helped to stand by lengths of steel cable pinned through its masonry, which is cheating in my view.
But we were standing a good twenty or thirty metres beneath it . Looking up at it. From underneath.
Nearby, tents full of archaeologists dozed in the dark. From one of the nearer tents, a ratbag voice said: “Those fucking museum faggots are using the fucking elevator after hours.”
“Fuckers”, came a voice back.
We made our way to the edge of the gulf, difficult in the dark, and Pete began casting about for places to put his nuts with a head torch. There were cries of “TURN THAT FUCKIN TORCH OFF” and “FOR CHRIST’S SAKE, MAN, CAN’T YOU PEE STRAIGHT WITHOUT A LIGHT?” Eventually, Pete and Vern belayed the line to the base of the elevator shaft, which bent and whined alarmingly, but held. The rock was not good for climbing, but slimy and covered in patches of crumbling earth - not even one solid piece of cliff in places, but collections of frost-split gravel held together only by grass and soil. And the light was bad (for ‘bad’, read ‘nonexistent’). If I looked up and stared into the dark a little while, I could just about make out a pool of stars far above. Basically, Pete led the climb, Vern removed our protection all good-neighbourly behind us, and I scrabbled down between them making maximum use of the rope. I slipped two or three times; luckily, Pete’s nuts and bolts held. I tried to cover up my lack of experience by swearing at the slime and dark, and on this occasion at least they seemed to buy it. No idea whether they’ll buy it next time.
And so eventually, after what must be hour upon hour of scrambling, we finally arrive at the bottom of something.
It is not the bottom of the pit - that it cannot be. We’ve probably only gone around a hundred metres, an incredible distance for a novice climber like me who’s never been up anything more challenging than thirty feet of V Diff. But compared to the massive wound in the earth beneath us, it's a papercut. It is a shelf we're standing on, though, solid flattish ground, temporary respite whole handspans across. Room to stretch legs, maybe even lie flat to sleep. Pete says that we don’t need to sleep yet, but that we’ll do well to remember spots like this.
It also stinks to high heaven.
“Switch off your torches a minute”, says Pete. “And don’t put your weight on owt you haven’t felt out first. And what’s that FUCKING SMELL?”
As our eyes became accustomed to the gloom - it can take this long for the cones in the human eye to reach maximum sensitivity, as any astronomer lying on his back on a hillside squinting through a cardboard tube will tell you - the outlines of the underworld became more visible. Long black and white streaks of human and avian waste striped the rocks, some fresh enough to raise trails of steam. They streak down, down, down, converging, coalescing, until they sink into what is unmistakeably -
“A lake of shit”, says Vern; and he’s not wrong.
“It’s not marked on any maps”, complains Pete. He stares out into the dark. “Maybe it’s an optical illusion.”
“None of the maps are official anyway”, scoffs Vern.
“It must be yards across...”
“Tens of yards.” Vern seems to be trying to poke around it with what looks like a tentpole, which he must have taken from his rucksack. “It’s huge...”
“It has to be”, I say. “It contains all the accumulated bum waste of
the entire city of
“It can’t be a natural formation”, says Pete.
“It isn’t. It’s had two thousand years to form, like a pothole forms at the base of a waterfall.” I pause for dramatic effect. “A waterfall of poo.”
“I name this lake”, says
Pete, “Lake Vladimir Pootin, on the grounds that it contains almost as much
shit as he does. And I claim it”, he
Vern salutes. They perform an impromptu duet of Rule Britannia.
“Is there a way round it?” I say. And as I say it, I’m looking up at the arc of darkness obscuring the stars and thinking, what part of the city is above us right now?
“Think so”, says Vern from somewhere out there. I can see his headtorch bobbing. “Not bivouacking here, that’s for certain.”
Ah. So it was a tent pole.
“Do you often bivouac in caves?” I say.
“Frequently, in some of the really deep ones”, says Pete. “It can take days to get in and out.”
I look up again. “This is directly under the part of the edge
that backs on to
He grins. “Someone should tell the Americans. They’re going to be dipping their balls in the shit.”
I look down. “How deep do you think this pool is?”
He shrugs. “Can’t tell. Might be able to guess in daylight. Waterfall plunge pools are usually a metre or three at least. Why?”
“Do you think it could cushion the fall of someone dropping right from the top up there?”
He stares at the steaming cwm of ordure.
“I don’t know”, he says, shrugging. “Why? Did somebody?”
I name our
new body of ‘water’
“Maybe they were embarrassed”, says Vern as we finally rejoin him. “Maybe they didn’t want anyone to know they had a lake of cack down here.”
And at one end of the lake, there is a waterfall, though I’m loath to go up close and feel the spray on my face. It looks more like a sort of anaemic mudslide, and must ooze from the mouths of Lord alone knows how many civic sewage outlets far above. At the inward end of the lake, there is another waterfall, going down into depths which we prudently decide not to abseil down.
“I don’t think it would be a good idea to stay here longer than strictly necessary”, says Pete, and I agree. I’ve no desire to step on a discarded AIDS-infected heroin syringe or jagged fragment of Oracle Smoke bottle.
Suddenly, we hear Vern’s voice call from near the exit waterfall.
“What is it?”
“Footprints!” he yells back. “I’ve found fucking footprints!”
There is someone down here who isn’t us.
To detract from the general drama, it seems they also have a penchant for Reebok trainers.
There is more than one set of footprints, and they, or their feet at any rate, are all human. They come down to the lake, then leave it. Sometimes they are dragging heavy objects as they do so.
“Scavengers”, says Pete. “Like the people who live on
“They must know a way back up to the surface”, says Vern, then seems to think about this a minute and goes very quiet. Somehow the thought of human beings who live down here all the time seems far, far worse than the idea of people who just commute here daily.
Some of the footprints have shoes; some are barefoot. Some appear to be wearing odd shoes, one manufacturer’s logo on the left foot, another on the right. There is at least one odd pairing that appears on two separate pairs of feet so that if the owners of these feet pooled their shoes, they’d have two matching pairs between them.
“Why do they come here?” says Vern.
Pete shrugs. “Everything that gets chucked down the sewers ends up here. It’s a shit-shark’s Aladdin’s Cave.”
Pete and Vern begin following the footprints off into the dark to see where they end up. I am growing uneasy about this.
“I just don’t want to come up against these guys after dark”, I say.
Pete shrugs. But he doesn’t argue, which basically means he feels the same way as I do, but doesn’t want to admit it, because he’s a big strong tough hairy man.
The footprints, we discover, lead away from the lake and along a broad ledge, joining many other prints, leading not up but down. A small car could be driven down the path they walk along, were it not for Vern’s next discovery.
“Steps!” he yells incredulously. “The damn thing’s cut into steps!”
A Devil’s Staircase, spiralling round and round the Abyssal wall into the depths. The steps are there, all right. And what’s more, they’re worn with the pressure of many, many feet.
“The opposite of Jacob’s Ladder”, says Pete.
Vern doesn’t think it’s the Devil’s Staircase.
“Satan’s Escalator”, he says. “Have you ever noticed how the shops on the High Street always have escalators to take you in, but only stairs to take you out?”
Not far along the Devil’s
Escalator, there’s a small waterfall which I call
At this point Vern suddenly supports himself with one hand on the waterfall wall and goes into a coughing fit so bad I expect to see bits of lung coming up. Pete v. concerned. Vern says he thinks it’s just hay fever. Makes a joke that there couldn’t be much pollen down here. Pete says it’s no joke, as there isn’t pollen but there are zillions upon squillions of bats, and the amount of airborne batshit in some caves can be v. high. This is normally fine, but can be v. dangerous if bats are infected e.g. with rabies. Vern goes white as a bleached sheet and stops coughing forthwith, bless him. Have a feeling he is now trying to breathe as little as humanly possible.
Who cut the steps? We have no idea. We’re certainly not about to try and find out till we’ve had a good night’s sleep. So we roll out big comfy waterproof sleeping bags and get on with the snoring and the lying recumbent. I thought this sort of thing only happened when pimply little adolescents played Dungeons and Dragons, but we actually do post watches and I really, really do see the necessity for them.
I can’t sleep during my allotted sleeping time for excitement, so I doze off during my watch. I wake up suddenly in the middle of the night. Out there in the dark, something is screaming. Maybe it’s an owl. I tell myself it’s an owl.
I’ve roped myself to the cliff so I don’t roll over in my sleep and fail to wake up from a falling dream. Penned these notes while I was on watch. Took my helmet off and put it down on a rock nearby so I could write by its light. Remember hearing from a friend who was in the army that a torch held in front of your body is the only point a sniper can see to shoot at in the dark. That may be why the police hold torches high up and reversed in the hand.
Hopefully, we will all wake up in the morning.
We all woke up in the morning. It is raining, and it seems we’ve made our base camp (summit camp?) at precisely the wrong part of the face. For most of its length, the Devil’s Escalator is shielded from above by a more or less continuous overhang. In the dark, we chose the only part of it that wasn’t covered. When we woke up, nesting birds were looking back at us on either side, perfectly dry, with puzzled expressions on their beaks.
The overhang is evidently the
reason why the Escalator is invisible from ground level - why
I walk up to the lake, and am impressed, though unamazed, at the extent to which it steams. Maybe that also masks it from overhead view.
The sides of the lake are very slippery, and I can only marvel at the lucky escape we had last night in not ending up in it. In consistency, it is like brown Ready-Brek, or the sort of sucking quicksand I’ve seen in far too many bad 50’s movies. Anyone falling in would certainly not come out again, I tell myself.
And then, a peculiar thing happens. I see a particularly big piece of garbage drop into the soup from above, an entire electric oven, a thing that would not normally float. I’ve heard bored kids sometimes sneak over the Beglerbeg’s Wall and chunk things down into the dark - fluorescent tubes and gas cannisters, mainly - just to watch them explode. It doesn’t explode - it’s an oven - but it does burst apart like an egg hit by a jackhammer, and sinks beneath the surface.
Then, incredibly, it comes back up again - even the big metal parts that shouldn’t float. It bobs, mostly, back up to the surface and drifts serenely back towards the shore, in bits.
Then I notice the bubbles rising and popping in the centre of the lake, unleashing great choking sulphurous farty clouds when they burst and shower poo around themselves like some sort of purulent hand grenade. This is not a lake of water, but a lake of poo, and decomposition is taking place down there underneath the surface, and decomposition means heat. The temperature down there in the centre might be that of bathwater, maybe even hotter. Maybe boiling hot. Perhaps the old bathhouse far above is not so weirdly situated. Maybe the bathhouse owners somehow managed to pump hot water up from here into its boilers. And sure enough, in one corner of the lake, I find a set of muck-encrusted pipes. Municipal sewage outflow, or private Victorian hot water inlet? No way to know.
So whatever solid objects fall into the lake, the lake gives up. Good news for scavengers hunting the shore for useful discarded items. Maybe even for human beings falling into the pool from far above, if they don’t get smashed by the impact or boiled alive by the lake waters...
The boy could have fallen down this far and survived. And been nudged gently ashore, even unconscious, by the current.
So, following that undeniable logic, if we carry on following the Devil’s Escalator down, we are about to run into the people he next ran into.
The Escalator, though cut directly from the stone of the cliff, has steps of rock of a completely different colour. Possibly, suggests Pete, this is because it was the Devil’s own job to shape the native stuff. The path is also shored up with this material where it needs to be. And whilst I’m taking the steps two at a time, I suddenly realize where I’ve seen it.
“This was mined outside town”, I say. “There’s an old set of quarries. Turned into a country park now. It’s the same stone, I’d swear it.”
“Must have been cut a long time ago, then”, says Vern, drawing my attention to a graffito on one of the squat rock pillars that support the overhang at points where the road has had to be physically battered through the abyssite. On top of the marks of a thousand chisels, there is something scratched into the stone in the Roman alphabet. I write down the lettering exactly.
“It says ‘Cave’”, says Vern.
“Maybe it’s the same word in English and Vaemna”, shrugs Pete.
“It’s Latin”, I say. “There’s a man buried under this pillar. Quite an important man, a Centurion, I think. And ‘Cave’, I add, means ‘Beware’.”
Pete refuses to believe this. “You aren’t telling me Romans built this thing.”
“No”, says I, “I’m telling you Romans repaired it.”
“But it’s still in use.”
“So is the A2. Romans built that too.”
“What’s the rest of it mean?”
We also, it has to be said, pass parts of the path which have been repaired with more modern materials - poured concrete, iron girders, metal brackets - although the Romans had concrete, they seldom put steel reinforcement in it. “This stuff looks more recent”, says Vern. Duh.
And then, directly underneath us in the dark, Pete catches sight of more of the same.
“Uh - what the hell is that?”
It’s only because he’s enough of an idiot to stroll along unconcernedly right next to the edge that he sees it first. When we do look down - I have to crouch down to get that close to the drop - it’s absolutely impossible to miss. After all, it spans the Abyss from side to side.
It’s a mass of rust,
obviously, after so many years. But its
original night-black paintjob is still obstinately refusing to reflect light -
presumably the original builders painted it that colour to blend it in with the
black hole of the abyss beneath it, probably to fend off air attacks. At its centre, I can still see the attachment
points for the cable windings. Lord alone
knows how they got it into place. It
resembles a single span of the
So why, in a time of severe tank shortage, did they build it?
“I know what it is”, I say, not without a touch of smugness.
“A Greco-Roman centrifuge”, says Vern.
“An ancient Mongol planetarium”, counters Pete.
“A big old Nazi gantry crane”, I say. “Built to explore the Abyss. It must be capable of hauling a hundred tonnes or more.”
“What”, says Pete, “like the one the Americans have got in the square upstairs?”
“And like the model of the one the Soviets built in the Museum.” This, of course, explains where the Soviets got the idea, and the motivation - if superior German researchers wanted to build a thing so badly, the Russians would have to build one of their own just to see what the Nazis had been up to. “They copied what the Krauts had done before them. Probably even used German scientists to build it.”
“German crane scientists”, sniggers Pete.
“A crane to dangle stuff down a mile or more”, I say, “is a difficult thing to build. I don’t even know that anyone ever has built one. Not as difficult to build as an atom bomb or rocket, maybe, but hardly easy. And they just left it down here to rust.”
Pete shrugs. “If you believe the Museum dioramas, they left in a bit of a rush.”
“But why didn’t they blow it up? If Hitler and Goebbels and so on were crazy enough to think this was so all-fired important, why did they leave it for the Russians to find?”
“Maybe they got to the inner world”, grins Vern. “Maybe they found out there’s nothing there.”
“Or maybe”, says Pete, “they found something down there so bad, they wanted the Russians to find it after them.”
This is most unlike him. I tell him so.
“Just a thought”, he says.
“Er”, says Vern. “There’s something moving down there.”
I squint. There is indeed movement, down there in the thicket of metal triangles. Whether it’s human, I can’t tell. But something was moving, and has now hastily withdrawn into the scaffolding, which means only one thing: We’ve been seen.
Pete nods. “Well, we always suspected that, didn’t we?” He points across the gulf at the opposite cliff. I squint to follow his finger.
“Looks like someone else saw the thing before we did, too.”
It’s a rope, attached to the cliff by bolts and pitons, bright red nylon against the grey rock.
“Sean's rope”, he says. “Worked his way right down that face to put it there.”
I ask why we didn’t see any ropes on the way down to the Escalator.
“Probably climbed that bit freestyle”, says Pete. “Nutter.” But when he says ‘Nutter’, he says it in the same way as anyone normal might say, ‘What a guy!’
So it’s settled, then. We’re going down to take a look at the Nazi gantry crane, no matter how many drug-addled lunatics might be hiding in it.
It doesn’t take long to make our way down to the crane, though at one point we have to detour round a rusting Nazi half-track abandoned on the path, its machine gun still pointed up towards the pit head at maximum elevation. There is no ammunition left in the machine gun. Possibly this is the reason why it’s still attached to the vehicle. But what was it doing down here in the first place? What can have been down here that required the use of armoured vehicles for protection?
I sit down on a rock a long way away to get a stone out of my boot while Pete and Vern walk down to one of the concrete piers that support the gantry. I warn Vern and Pete that the hopheaded nutjobs, whoever they are, might have guns or knives or pit bull terriers and such. Pete nods, but states confidently that the accurate range of a pistol is only about forty or fifty yards. He reckons we’ll know a junkie is about to shoot at us before we get that close to him.
Pete, it transpires, hasn’t met that many junkies.
He walks out onto the broad flat walkway where the crane joins the cliff. His boots crunch on the muck. The structure is deserted. At one end, a rusted iron manhole lies on the concrete like a bad penny. The hole it covers lies open, and the wind is making a noise on it like the blowing of a flute.
He edges closer to the gantry. Nothing moves.
“Whoever was here”, he says, “I think they’ve gone now.”
The note blown by the wind on the manhole changes, drops suddenly.
“PETE!” I yell.
They’re in the manhole.
A single smacked-up opium fiend pops out, and, with a “THIS DAY SHALL YOU BE WITH ME IN PARADISE!”, hits Pete with an accurate burst from what looks remarkably like a submachinegun. All three slugs hit him dead in the chest. He topples back, off the edge to which he was walking so close like a twat, and falls on the back of his head onto the rusted iron crap of the gantry. There is a sound like a heavyweight boxer punching a melon.
Then he slides off the gantry and down, leaving a red trail like a slug, and is gone. So easy. Live human, dead human.
Vern is suddenly nowhere to be seen.
Having looked for Vern in vain, the controlled substance user in the manhole turns around, preparing to do me too. “I am not going to hurt you”, he says unconvincingly, whilst continuing to point the gun right at the middle of my head. However, when he pulls the trigger, there’s only an unimpressive CHING sound. He appears to have some difficulty figuring out how to clear the jam from the breech, and while he’s holding the gun upside down and squinting up its barrel I hit him square in the eye with the only weapon I have, a nasty sharp shard of abyssite I’ve just prised out of my boot heel. It hits so hard that I see blood. He should scream like a baby. Instead, he shuts one eye, works the jam loose, waves the gun in my general direction, and fires (inaccurately, as he’s firing with only one eye). Rock chips spray me from all sides as his near misses carve up the cliff.
And then, he’s stopped firing, and is rolling on the ground struggling with something much bigger and heftier than he is. Vern, who had dropped down behind the concrete pier out of sight, suspended over the abyss by his fingertips, has squirmed back up over the edge and taken him from behind. The junkie fights like an anaemic demon, but is so pale and wasted that Vern can simply lift him up, turn him round till he’s hanging over the edge, and drop him. He doesn’t even scream or paw the walls as he falls, but instead makes a “WOOOO!” noise, like a kid on a roller coaster.
Vern stares down into the abyss for a long, long time.
“He’s still going down”, he says.
I rush over suddenly to the manhole cover and kick it back over the hole, several times before it settles. Then I sit on it. Hoping it’s bulletproof.
“What do we now?” I say.
Vern has no answer. He seems as stunned as I am. To cap it all, the Oracle Smoker - I presume he was an Oracle Smoker - meanly kept hold of the submachinegun when he fell over the cliff.
“There may be more of them about”, I say; and as if on cue, the cliff to my right suddenly stars as something zings into it at high speed.
“How did they get up there?” says Vern.
They are shooting at us with a pistol - about three or four people and one pistol, from much higher up the Abyss. Direly aimed bullets PING and PAZANG off the rock and concrete all around us. Occasionally they miss the gantry structure altogether. But they’re coming down the Escalator, and if their one peashooter doesn’t explode in the face of the man who’s firing it by the time they get to point blank range, we’re goulash.
“Must be an easier way down the cliff”, I say. “We must have missed it in the dark.”
“Yes”, says Vern. “We must have.”
“We can’t go up any more”, I say, frighteningly rational.
“We’ll have to go down”, deduces Vern (in whom the instinct to go down, after all, is strong).
I look at the rusty iron ladders disappearing into the gantry framework.
“We can go sideways”, I say.
“We’ll be trapped in there”, protests Vern. “Besides, we don’t know how many of them might be in there. That might be where they live.”
They’ve stopped shooting at us from above now, clear evidence that even a mind crazed by Oracle Smoke can still figure out how many bullets there are left in a magazine. But they’re still on their way down. And they don’t just have a gun with them. More ironmongery is flickering in the dim light. Knives. Bigger things than knives. Axes, maybe, or shovels, or meat cleavers.
“What are they shooting at us for?” says Vern, now they’ve stopped shooting. “We haven’t done anything to them.”
This, I have to admit, is a good point. Then I remember what the old policeman said about Oracle Smokers - that they don’t have any interest in anything but Oracle Smoke.
“Oh my god”, I say. “It’s down here, isn’t it. This is where it comes from.”
“We’d better get inside”, says Vern pragmatically, hurrying over to one of the rusted ladders. “Don’t hold on to it too hard, unless you want hepatitis. And only put your feet on the edges of the rungs.”
There’s nobody down inside the gantry, which is a big dark tunnel of rust dappled with triangular patches of light. Within it are walkways running the length of the structure, platforms, engine mountings, a telephone handset bolted to a girder. As I climb down, I can’t see a single junked-up cokehead down here.
What I can do, however, is smell them. The whole of the inside of the gantry stinks like an unwashed lavatory. In fact, when I take my hand off the wet sticky rung of the ladder and smell it, I realize that it is an unwashed lavatory. Not only has someone gone to the toilet down here, they’ve also gone to the trouble of smearing their shit around the walls, floors, rungs, everything.
My feet crunch on something as I step off the ladder. Vern switches on his head torch, shines it down. Glass glints back at us from the dark. Glass, and silver foil. “It was glass that was crunching underfoot up top”, I observe. “These are the remains of Smoke bottles.” I explain about Smoke bottles. Vern appears to be trying to get an international number on the bakelite telephone attached to one of the gantry supports.
“No electric”, he says.
“No kidding”, I say.
We move out of the gantry and
into the concrete pier, where fingermarks are clearly visible by
head-torch-light in the shitsmears on the wall.
Smears of shit, and of blood. The
entire floor, it seems, is just one big potty to these people. Stepping through the room is like stepping
through a faecal minefield.
Our dead Nazi is sitting in a little office inside the pier, where, from the position of his body, he appears to have blown the top of his own head off with a gun he is no longer holding (possibly the one the hopheads are now using on us?). We have to push and kick our way into the little side room he’s sitting in, as it seems to have been deliberately blocked off, the door nailed to the frame. A makeshift sign on the door says DANGER - HAZARD TO HEALTH in Russian, but we only notice this after we kick our way in. It has too much bum juice smeared all over it to be properly legible.
“He’s SS”, says Vern. “Important SS. A Captain. “See the pips on the left hand side of his collar? And on the right hand side of his collar - normally, there’d be some sort of unit designation here. SS runes, a death’s head, some other Nazi shit. But instead, there’s this.” He holds the disintegrating cloth up for inspection. The symbol on it looks like a swastika drawn with two sets of lines, as if drawn by a bad kid writing with two pens in the same hand to get his lines done quicker.
“That’s a way of disguising his unit”, says Vern. “Of confusing anyone looking for the officer who gave him his orders. It also means that he was a concentration camp attendant.”
“So they did use forced labour here.”
“Looks like it.”
There is not much meat on him by now; rats seem to have gnawed his clothes apart to get the meat off the skeleton. Thankfully, I can’t see any teethmarks in the bone that look human. The bullet has not only passed through his head, but zinged and ricocheted back and forth off the concrete all around the chamber, smashing a picture of the Führer on one wall, and putting a hole clean through Mein Kampf, Goethe’s Faust, and the Bible, all of which are sitting back to back on a bookshelf, flanked by a pair of rather natty Nazi bookends in the shape of Indomitable Eagles Of Destiny. A gas mask lies on the floor next to him. Why he’s committed suicide, I have no idea. Since he shot himself, the room also appears to have been vandalized by Soviets. A lurid red five-pointed star has been splashed across one wall, and RED ARMY TROOPS SHALL NEVER DIE over the opposite one.
In the next chamber on is a dead Red Army soldier. He’s also sitting at an escritoire, in uniform, a pile of papers neatly stacked in front of him. On his desktop he even has a steam-powered Soviet computer of some antiquity, with a screen the size of a postage stamp. He, too, has been shot in the head. There’s a little round hole in one side of his skull, and a big ugly hole in the other. He has actually been shot through one eye of his gasmask, which he is still wearing. There is glass inside his skull. It rattles when I touch it. His gun is also missing.
“Maybe someone else shot him”, hopes Vern.
“I get the feeling”, I say, “that he shot himself.”
The gasmask he is wearing is also useless. It seems to have been cut through at the front, where the rubber tube leaves the mask on its way to the filter cannister on his back. There is no sign of the knife that did this either.
Apart from him, the room is an ordinary, if very smelly, office, with a rank of filing cabinets lining one wall; I pull one out, and it’s still full of folders. Stars, hammers and sickles are stamped on every page, using even more unnecessary red ink than my old maths teacher.
“What does it say?” says Vern.
“Not sure...just tons of graphs...this block graph’s labelled ‘Potential Productive Output’...x/y plots of production versus time, production against workforce....uh, workforce goes down over time. Seems to peak in 1945, stays high through the early 1950’s, goes downhill sharply after 1953...which, er, will be about the time of the end of the gulag system.”
“They were making something down here”, says Vern. “Something that killed the people who made it. Something only prison labour was fit to make.”
Behind us, from close outside the metal door, a voice is saying, “In the year 2011 and seven months, from the sky shall come the Great King of Terror.”
“Before and afterwards, war reigns happily” echoes another voice from up above the manhole.
I rummage further through the drawers. “Some of these are in German. Look like production figures too, for the manufacture of something they just call Omega-Stoff.”
“You speak German as well as Russian?”
“I figured it’d be useful in business if I couldn’t get to be a spy.” He finds this funny, which is odd, because it’s true. Hey, we all have our dreams.
“What’s Omega-Stoff mean?”
“Erm. ‘Omega Stuff’.”
“Maybe it was some sort of fuel or explosive. All this was built by a Nazi army, after all.”
Behind us, voices outside the fragile-seeming metal doors are, and I am not kidding, informing us that the weather will be fine tomorrow until lunchtime, when a light drizzle will blow in from the direction of the Pripyet Marshes. It will, they say, be cold.
“I think we’d better go in further, Pen.” Vern is watching the violently vibrating doors with an expression of deep disquiet. “Maybe there’ll be something back there we can fight them with.”
I pull out a fistful of folders. “OK.”
We bar the next door on the inside. It disturbs me that, down here, someone felt the need to put a bar on it. The door is also huge, the size of a bank vault, inches thick. The other side of the wall it’s set in, in the light of my head torch, is plastered with signs in Russian which appear to make no sense. WARNING. AIRTIGHT SEAL. YOU ARE LEAVING THE SECURE AREA. RESPIRATORS MUST BE WORN. Beyond the Airtight Seal - which I assume is the door - the walls are still concrete, though we must be inside the cliff by now. But the chamber beyond is huge. The ceiling rests on steel pillars bolted together with pins a man’s wrist thick, and I-beams that reach from wall to wall. The air in here is like soup, full of airborne shit. I have to cough, but quietly, so hard that my brains nearly explode out of my ears.
The room is also filled with machinery, arranged neatly in lines, still arranged neatly in lines despite the fact that it’s covered with muck and human excrement, probably because the machinery is too heavy to be disarranged. It’s quite obvious what sort of machinery it is. There are hoists for lifting heavy objects and lowering them onto the lines, bins for storing continuously consumed components, conveyor belts that span the length of the room.
“It’s a production line”,
said Vern. “An underground factory. They were building them all over
The factory lines seem to have been making more than one thing, in fact - huge, fluted metal tubes big enough around for a tall midget to stand up inside them, flat-riveted metal sheets that look like they belong on aircraft, man-high things like drainpipes with crosshairs and triggers, and a number of things whose purpose is totally unmistakable.
The hulls of these things alone are the height of a man, and the turret above adds almost that again. The turret runs almost the entire length of the hull. Their tracks are thick as building bricks. Their guns - those that have guns - seem big enough to fire truck axles out of. But despite all this sheer brutal size, they’re an inch wider than they really should be on all sides with a thick rind of rust. Down here, entombed in concrete, they have become useless. (They must be. Otherwise a junkie would be firing one of them at us).
“What the hell are those?” says Vern, hugely impressed.
“Mice”, I giggle. “The rest, I have no idea.”
Vern does. “Desperation weapons”, he says. “Those small tubes, they were called ‘Panzerfaust’” - he pronounces it ‘Pansyforced’, which has got to be Freudian in some way - “cheap anti-tank weapons. And those aviation parts over there look like bits of a Bochem Natter. Cheap piloted rocket so dangerous they really should have gone the whole hog and just called it a kamikaze. Weapons they produced towards the end of the war, when they were beginning to realize they were beaten. The big tanks, too.” He hangs his head guiltily. “My Dad had all nine million editions of The World At War, plus the handsome binders.”
“German weapons, then”, I say.
He discreetly points out the fact that I’m standing in front of a six foot Teutonic cross printed onto a rocket wing.
“Looks like the Russians left this part alone”, he says. “Almost as if they weren’t really interested.”
There are also offices, canteens, storage bays, and what look like air conditioning facilities. A red line wide enough for two men to walk it abreast has been painted on the floor, along with exhortatory expressions like STAY RIGHT!, STAY LEFT!, and OFF THE LINE MEANS DEATH!
We stay on the line.
There is also glass and silver foil everywhere, and a smell of burnt petrol.
“They’re in here”, I say. “With us.”
We pass a cabinet of gasmasks, staring eyelessly at us like racks of Killing Fields skulls.
“If there’s something so dangerous down here”, I say, “maybe we ought to take advantage of these.”
Vern looks at them distrustfully. “If they’re old fire respirators, they might have asbestos in the filters. Give yourself lung cancer, breathing through them.”
Despite this, I run my hand along the masks until I find one, at the very end of the bottom row, that I reckon might fit my face. The masks are helpfully sorted into sizes. They are of German manufacture, though someone has also stencilled instructions on each one in Russian, and the GRÖßE categories on the mask cabinet in German script are accompanied by equivalent ones in Cyrillic. They do not look quite like normal gas masks - the bit round the nose, and the filter cannister at the belt, both seem longer and more complicated.
My mask seems a fairly good fit, though I give myself a coughing fit from the dust (hopefully not the asbestos dust) when I put it on, and imagine all sorts of unseen terrors homing in on the ruckus I’m making as I do so. Some of the SS troopers must have had small heads, no doubt to house those tiny Nazi minds they were out of. I hang my mask around my neck, and buckle the filter round my waist. Immediately, I feel safer. Not.
The Soviets, it seems, planted a skeleton staff down here (literally in at least one case, haha). One of the canteens has a red border round it, and bunk beds at the far end. A Portakabin, which at a guess contained the office staff, sits next to the canteen. As usual, there are no guns.
But by far the most interesting thing we find is at the very end of the chamber, recessed into the wall and big enough to drive a tank into. We know this because someone already has done.
“It’s an elevator”, says Vern.
“An elevator that can lift two hundred tonnes?” I step, gingerly, onto the platform. It sways giddily under my weight, but not too much - after all, the pressure of my foot is not going to push a heavy tank sitting on a metal plate big enough to hold up a heavy tank very far. Far, far up above me, steel cables which must be strong enough to bind Satan himself sigh wistfully. If they snap....
“It’s not going to break”, says Vern. “It hasn’t broken under two hundred tonnes in sixty years, it’s not going to break under two hundred and one.”
Chagrined that he’s implying I weigh a tonne, I step out onto the platform.
“A lift shaft”, I confirm. “Going up.”
Vern, meanwhile, can’t resist poking his head torch over the edges of the platform and peering into the depths. “And down”, he says. He looks up again. “We could climb this.”
“Yes, and we could also find the bloody stairs.”
We find the bloody stairs, as I suspected, at the end of one of the ever-present red lines. But there’s an olfactory warning as to how safe they are - they stink of shit.
“They come this way too.”
Vern nods. “Maybe the lift shaft might be safer.”
These words are made even truer by a sudden clanging from the stairwell above.
“They’re up above us.” Vern dives out incautiously into the stairwell, squinting upward. “Two or three. At least.”
“Might have realized they can’t get in the front entrance”, I say. “Might be the same lot.” But at the same time, in my heart of hearts, I know this is all a lie, and that we are being outflanked, and are already outgunned and outnumbered. How many weed-loaded junkheads can one clandestine underground facility support?
But they don’t need to be supported. They don’t need to eat or sleep, and breathing and shitting are just things their body can’t kick the habit of doing. They don’t come down here to live. They come down here to die.
Just at that moment, we hear the sound of our carefully constructed blockade breaking far behind us.
“We could hide”, says Vern. “Somewhere off the red line, in the dormitories or in among the machinery.”
“These people know this place. We don’t. And I don’t think they care a great deal about sticking to the red lines.” I ponder this a minute. “I hate to say it, but there’s one direction they won’t be expecting us to go in.” I nod at the stairwell, going down.
Vern looks doubtful. I sweeten the deal. “We’d only need to go down a little, then wait until they come past. They’re bound to go into the factory room looking for us. Then we’d come back up and run up to the surface.”
He considers it, then nods. “Switch off your helmet light.”
I know it needs to be done - the head torches make us stand out like a priapism patient in a nudist colony - but it’s still scary. When the light dies, the dark is awful, all-enveloping.
“THEY’VE SWITCHED OFF THEIR TORCHES”, hisses a voice above us, much closer than I thought.
It’s only after a few seconds that I realize the enemy have their own lights as well, smaller, crapper torches, spiralling down the stairwell from above. Much, much more than two or three. But in the dim light, I tell myself, we will be able to see them coming and slink about invisible in the dark.
As soon as I move to go lower on the staircase, I bang my knee on the steel balustrade, and it hurts like hell, and I can’t yell out to relieve it. My feet crunch and squelch softly on the shitsmeared steps, and no matter how slowly and carefully I move, I can’t stop it sounding like I’ve got double-sided sellotape on my soles. But the enemy are even noisier, and we manage to move relatively silently against the relative cacophany they’re making. And when they come to the entrance to the machine hall, they move on into the room just like they were supposed to. But what they weren’t supposed to do was leave a man behind to guard the stairwell. A man with a gun.
The gun looks like a hunting rifle, a tiny little one, hardly designed to kill people. But I’m fairly sure it would smart some if it shot me. And therein lies the crux of the problem we non-junkies have in dealing with junkies - junkies may be being ridden by the heroin hag, but they’re not (necessarily) stupid. Instead, whatever intelligence they had prior to getting junked up is sharpened, bent solely to the purpose of getting hold of junk. Or, of course, of protecting what supply of junk they already possess.
“What the hell do we do now?” hisses Vern. He hisses too loudly. The hophead hears. He pricks up his ears. He takes a couple of steps further down the stairwell. We, on the other hand, can’t move. He’ll surely hear us if we do.
Then someone falls over a big clangorous pile of something in the big room upstairs, and we scuttle down a few steps, maybe just a little too loudly, as our junkie stiffens and listens again on the stairwell before taking another two steps closer. Someone else makes a racket in the big room, and we edge down a little further. Again, our junkie hears us and edges lower.
We are now coming close to the doorway on the next storey down. And through the doorway, we can see light.
The door is another of the massive steel ones, designed to be airtight, hanging open on a set of hinges big enough to be bridge supports. It is actually swinging open in the breeze - there is a breeze - though it must weigh at least a tonne. To leave such a massive object free to travel is surely to invite disaster. But to the people who live down here, the only conceivable disaster is a failure to get their next hit of Smoke. Having their arms, legs or head crunched off in a one-tonne door is, it seems, nothing by comparison.
There is the usual crop of warnings round the door - DO NOT GO FURTHER THAN THIS POINT, BREATHING EQUIPMENT IS MANDATORY, DANGER OF HELL AND DEATH, etc. Beyond the door, as I said earlier, we can see firelight.
It is surely beyond the end of foolhardy to light campfires underground. These people haven’t just lit one, but a hundred. The chamber on this level, I notice as we creep lower, is just as large, just as chock full of widgetry.
But the widgetry is different, somehow. Line upon line of cylindrical metal tanks, each the length of a petrol tanker. Each one bolted to the floor. Each fed by a complex mystery of pipes and valves, snaking out along the floor, rising to form metal arbours over the walkways between the tanks.
On the walkways, people are living. Not clustered around the campfires, huddled close to the heat, but laid out as good as dead on the cold metal, staring raptly at nothing, at things no-one without a head full of Smoke can see. The fires, I realize with a cold shudder, are not to warm people, but to warm Smoke bottles. Makeshift wire tripods are propped up over the flames with an ingenuity born of complete and utter devotion to purpose. Bottles of every size, colour and configuration are arranged neatly round the floor, even the empty ones positioned with the same reverence as religious icons.
Wait a minute.
I shut my eyes, reopen them, and see the empty bottles still there, each one lovingly pre-wrapped in silver foil pressed around its outline like a tailormade dress around a bride. And the full bottles, too, though I’ve never technically seen either an empty bottle or a full before. But I can tell these are full, because they are as black as asps and gleam like venom.
There are so many full bottles that they stretch up the steps that lead up to our door out of the chamber. Some of them are close enough to touch. Between the empty bottles and the full on the floor downstairs, meanwhile, there is a tap, almost as if Oracle Smoke were a thing that came out of the walls like water or electricity. And that tap is coming right out of the end of the nearest and biggest of the tanks. The tanks that have skulls and crossbones on them. Skulls and crossbones, the Roman characters SAMAROBRIN, the Cyrillic characters Самаробрын, the Greek letter Omega.
“Oracle Smoke”, I realize, too late, out loud, “isn’t a drug. It’s a weapon.”
Vern nods. “Imagine what you could do to your enemies if you shelled one of their cities with the stuff.” He thinks a moment. “I’ll bet the shells those heavy tanks upstairs are built to fire are hollow.”
We’ve been sitting gawping into the sub-basement too long. The junkie at the top of the stairs has clumped down another couple of steps before we hear him coming.
“You are going to kill me”, he says, and shoots Vern. Vern crumples, but then, as the boy - he can only be around thirteen or fourteen - jerks the bolt back to load a new round from the magazine, shoots out a desperate hand and grabs the kid’s arm with a hand I know to be capable of hauling a fifteen stone man six feet up a rock face by its fingertips. I swear I hear bones crack. Then Vern sweeps the kid sideways over the balustrade as if he were a doll (which he virtually is; the Smoke has left him no musculature except what he needs to stand up straight and wander from bottle to bottle).
The kid falls. The gun clatters to the floor on our side of the bars. Ha! Luckily, though its barrel is pointing straight at me as it clangs down on its butt on the steps, it does not go off.
The single shot it did fire, however, has been heard. In the firelit blackness below us, bodies that looked dead are stirring. On the stairs above us, feet are clanging downwards. Vern, meanwhile, has collapsed against the balustrade, leaking red stuff. Decidedly useless and immobile.
“Samarobrin shall spread the breadth of the Northern Pole”, murmurs a voice from below.
“The well-dressed executive will be wearing tweed this winter”, assures another. I hear a knifeblade click out of a handle and lock.
“Is that what they call it?” says Vern. “Samarobrin?”
“It’s Nostradamus”, I say back. “From his prediction of the end of the world. They talk in shitty prophecies, remember. He probably read it in a book.”
“He said it in English, Pen.” And it’s only then that I realize he’s right.
Now that really does put the frighteners on. And now that they’ve identified a threat to their nest, the Smokers are swarming up towards us with a vengeance, like a nest of big sick-looking termites, some of them collecting shards of spent bottle held like knives, oblivious to the fact that what will slash our throats will also sever their fingers. Oblivious to all things but the need to protect their precious Smoke.
And suddenly, I see our way out of this. Quickly, I reach forward and snatch up a bottle of the black junk.
I nearly drop it - what I’m not expecting is for it to feel so cold, as if something more frigid than a politician’s heart is rolling around inside it. And when I look into it, into the glass, the smoke or dust or gas inside it really does seem to coil and roil like some sort of infernal eel.
It’s also letting loose tiny puffs of black smoke from out of its stopper, round the carefully-made wax seal at its neck. Puffs of smoke that seem to go out of their way to seek out the bare flesh on my arms. I quickly develop second thoughts about having picked up the thing.
But it has the desired effect.
They all, to a junkie, go silent. An indeterminate number of angels could be heard tapdancing on a dropping pinhead. It is as if I’m the villain in the scene in the bad movie where the bad guy threatens to shoot the baby/child/dog/cat/girlfriend if the hero doesn’t drop his gun.
As I have said before, these are not stupid people. These are perfectly intelligent and rational people whose rationality has been entirely perverted to the aim of acquiring Oracle Smoke. And I’m holding a bottle of the stuff which I could break at any time.
The goons on the stairs are equally impressed with the gravity of the situation. They stand down, holding (it transpires) a motley collection of firearms ranging from fowling pieces that look like they were made for Czar Nicholas to full-on military hardware. We pass them on the stairs at kissing distance as I dangle the bottle over the bannisters. I have to support Vern with my other arm. We don’t attempt to bring the rifle. It wouldn’t be much use in any case. Half the artillery these people have looks set to blow up in the face of anyone fool enough to fire it.
We make it up to the machinery level, but they’re still following near enough behind us to twang my knicker elastic. It’s at this point that Vern refuses to be lugged any further. He’s breathing like a fat Yankee nudist climbing Everest. And Vern, I know, enjoys a spot of fell running when he’s not caving. He probably has twice the number of red blood cells of any normal man.
“Come on!” I yell, nearly dropping my bottle in the process, which would surely kill us both. But he ain’t budging.
“Go on without me”, he says; and of course, I can’t. I look up and the number of flights above seems interminable. If I stay down here with him, I am going to die. Unless I stay down here with him, on the other hand, he is going to die.
That makes both of us dead, then.
Then, suddenly, with more energy than I’d thought he still had in him, he snaps out, grabs the bottle from my hands, twists round, and dashes it on the stairwell behind him.
He turns back, and his face is spattered with some substance like black living mercury. As I watch, one of the droplets slithers uphill against gravity into his nostril.
“RUN!” he yells.
An almost living cloud of glass and gas and dust and droplets fills the air. A religious moan of lamentation comes from the crowd behind us. The front rank of stoners drops to the steps, searching on hands and knees, trying to literally lick up the spilled junk.
“Only one thousand shall be saved”, intones one.
“We foresee the development of high-bandwidth Eastern European optical infrastructures progressing at an ever faster pace following deregulation of markets in fledgeling EU member states”, mumbles another.
I cast a look back at Vern. He is, surely, already dead, and worse than dead. I run.
Nobody runs after me. A continuous stream of jabbering prophecy
chatters excited out of the dark behind me, and I swear that after a while, at
least one of the voices, yelling “
But up above, far up above, beyond stairway after stairway after stairway, is a glint of daylight.
It might be the false daylight of a fluorescent tube, but it’s something to aim for. I can force myself to push for it despite the fact that my lungs are searing and my leg muscles are tying themselves into crochet and my pulse is hammering like a steam locomotive in my brain.
And it is daylight. Genuine live daylight, coming in through a grille in the concrete ceiling scarcely larger than a microchip. Fading, bluing daylight creeping towards dusk, and distinguishable as such from any cheap fluorescent imitation. And if I could leap up ten feet in the air and bite through steel with my teeth, I’d be through it in half a jiffy. But as it is, caked in my own sweat at the top of the final staircase, up here in the twilight with real rain dripping through that tiny matrix of fading evening sky above me, and the smell of the outside air and freedom soft and cool on my face and certain death closing on me from below, I think this looks very much like the End Of The Line.
The top of the stairwell is blocked off. It obviously once opened into somewhere - there are doorways, many doorways, which someone has painstakingly bricked up. This is why there was no glass and shit on the upper storeys. No-one ever comes up here. This way doesn’t go anywhere any more. When the Russians abandoned their underground venom-manufacture complex, they bricked it up and concreted it over, and probably ploughed the ground with salt for good measure. Whoever lives or works up top probably doesn’t even know what lies beneath them.
I can hear the enemy gasping and wheezing as they lope up the stairs towards me, out of condition due to their Smoke habit. But however unfit they might be, they can and will cut me to pieces. It’s only a matter of seconds now.
Then I realize suddenly that the distance from me to the grille in the roof does not have to be ten feet. Not if I stand on the balustrade before I jump.
The drawback to this is that both grille and balustrade are positioned above perhaps one hundred metres of vertical space. Right in the middle of the stairwell, in the case of the grille. If I miss it, I fall; and if I fall, I die.
But any danger of death is better than death as an absolute certainty. I hop up onto the rail and waddle out towards the grille like an overstuffed budgerigar. I sit there for a second or two, testing my weight distribution, plucking up courage. And jump.
My hands hit the grille. My small and puny fingers pass through it and hold on; the bars are heavy enough to hold my weight. But what do I do now? I’m dangling forty storeys above pit bottom. And the grille is an iron manhole cover set into concrete. And it opens, if it opens at all, upward. I can feel rain on my face now. I could cry.
But I am not giving up. I will die before I give up.
After all, the difference between the two options is only measured in seconds right now. There’ll be time enough for me to make my peace with God on the way down.
I jerk my entire body, punching it upwards against the grille. Beautifully, miraculously, the grille moves, lifting out of the concrete slightly. I jerk harder. This time it comes out completely. I jerk again, and this time, twist as I do so. Nearly, but not quite. The grille drops back into its hole, back to where it started.
I hold on again for another couple of seconds, summoning up everything I have, and spasm upwards, and yell like a karateka.
And the grille catches on the edge of the hole. And holds. And I see four thin slivers of daylight round its edges.
I twist further, making the slivers bigger, big enough to writhe a finger through. Then I cautiously unstick the fingers of one hand, and slap them onto the concrete up above. Then I follow them with the other hand, and finally I’m hauling myself up out of the manhole onto a tiny square of rain-sodden cement at the bottom of a brick shaft lined with drainpipes and sash windows. Steam hisses from drain covers all around me. Somewhere, I hear a toilet flushing. I’m in a light well sunk into some big old building. A building with flush toilets. Smoke houses, I imagine, do not usually have functioning flush toilets. Smoke users are not the sort to go in for domestic plumbing.
I can still hear them down below, issuing threats and dire predictions in the dark. But they cannot come up here. They can’t go where I can. The drug has destroyed their bodies too efficiently.
Idly, I push the metal cover back over the abyss, and get to my feet, just as a lady in an unconvincing blonde wig pulls down one of the nearest windows and asks me what I think I’m doing in the British Consulate in very poor Russian indeed.
“It is simply not possible that such a weapon could have remained undiscovered by our security forces”, says the head of the security forces. Ivan (for it is he) looks thoroughly ill at ease sitting in a huge floral print armchair with a cup of bone china tea on his lap and a slobbery labrador at his left elbow. Ivan being treated with the utmost hospitality, but a sort of hospitality thoroughly un-Russian, making him look like a vodyanoi out of water.
In his best dress uniform,
with every silver button, star and eagle polished, Ivan is also heavily
overdressed. Her Majesty’s consul to the
“Well”, announces Sir Reginald, “we do have a problem there, I’m afraid.” He goes on to say that he fully appreciates how much of Vzeng Na’s GNP is dependent on tourism, people flying in to look at the big hole in the ground and so forth. Her Majesty’s government, he says, have no wish to inflict damage on the Vzeng Na economy by issuing, for example, an official advice against travelling to Na. But the safety of British citizens also has to be considered. As Her Majesty’s representative in Na, not only has he to receive assurances that no danger of weapons of mass unpleasantness exist under his and Ivan’s feet, but his own staff have to see that it does not.
Ivan fidgets with his cap badge and replies that he cannot prove that a thing does not exist. At this point, I posit loudly that Ivan has just conclusively proved his own brain doesn’t to my full satisfaction. Ivan shoots me a look of crocodilian coldness, then claims not to have understood my Russian.
There are five of us in the room, the best room in the British Consulate, a place my social-climbing grandmother would have called a drawing room, and which Sir Reginald slummingly refers to as ‘the back parlour’. The floral curtains match the chintz on the armchairs. Despite this, everything manages in some bizarre impossible manner to clash with everything else. The flowers on the chintz curtains are red, green and orange. The wallpaper is blue and pink. The carpeting can only be described as Battenburg.
Seated round the fire - a
roaring log fire, very jolly, technically illegal inside Na city limits - are
Sir Reginald, Ivan, and myself, having a cosy fireside chat, along with a young
man who remains standing behind Ivan and who has been introduced only as “Mr.
Keogh, our technical advisor”, and Lady Washburton, without whom the presence
of Sir Reginald would be inconceivable.
I am recovering well from my terrible ordeal (in actual fact, the worst
physical damage I’ve sustained is skinned knees and blisters). Sir Reg., though, is of the opinion that I’ve
also suffered untold invisible trauma to my psyche, and has been trying to
convince me to undergo counselling ever since.
Said counselling, however, seems to involve being flown back to
No, Sir Reginald does not want me in his back parlour, so to speak, and for this reason I am determined to stay lodged in there like a bad piece of sweetcorn.
Sir Reginald asks if it would be possible for an armed police detachment to be sent down into the caves or catacombs or whatever they might be to ensure no risk to human life remains. And whether it would be possible for this detachment to be accompanied by Embassy staff. Ivan clearly does not like this one little bit, and points out that all that is known so far of these so-called drug caverns is derived from the story of one excitable, possibly sex-maniac woman with an overactive imagination, who might in any case have inhaled drugs whilst on an illegal visit to the Abyss. Ivan claims never to have heard of Oracle Smoke. He denies ever having discussed it with me.
Sir Reginald looks at Ivan for a very long time.
Then, still in his carpet slippers, he gets up out of his floral armchair, and walks over to a small window in one corner of the room. The window is covered by a curtain. Sir Reginald opens the curtain, then opens the window, then climbs out of the window and beckons for Ivan to do the same.
Sir Reginald is standing in the centre of a light well sunk into the Consulate building. In the centre of that light well is a metal grating, and on top of that grating is what looks like the engine block of a Czaer 2000.
Patiently, and with some difficulty, Sir Reginald shuffles the engine block aside into a corner. Then, standing on the opposite side of the grating from Ivan, and looking him straight in the eye, he lifts the lid and flourishes a hallmarked silver teaspoon, which he must have palmed before he went out the window. Then, still looking Ivan dead in the eye, he drops the spoon carefully down into the dark, and theatrically cups his hand to his ear to listen for any impact.
There is no impact...
...until there is an almighty BANG. Ivan, myself, and even Sir Reginald himself, jump.
“Spoons being fairly aerodynamic”, muses Sir Reginald, “I imagine that to have been the sound of a spoon hitting the bottom of something over five hundred metres deep at an appreciable percentage of the speed of sound.” He peers into the darkness worriedly. “I shouldn’t really have done that. It might play havoc with the foundations.”
He replaces the grating, and looks up at Ivan again.
“Sewers”, he says, “and cesspits, and wine cellars, even subways, don’t tend to be five hundred metres deep.”
“Perhaps”, says Ivan stolidly, “it is a mineshaft.”
“Perhaps”, says Sir Reginald. “But mining what?”
Somehow, this shuts Ivan up.
“We will supply members of
our Embassy staff”, says Sir Reginald, “as observers.” He nods across the room at Mr. Keogh, who I
already know speaks execrable Russian, and whose only talent seems to be
possession of (a) buttocks fit to crack walnuts, and (b) if the bulge in his
breast pocket isn’t the world’s biggest mobile phone, a gun. “If, as Miss Simpson claims, this Oracle
Smoke is any sort of military hardware”, continues Sir Reg., “Mr. Keogh is well
qualified to recognize it. Her Majesty’s
government can recommend his services. He
has many years’ experience of working with the IAEA in
“You are very interested in old Soviet military hardware”, notes Ivan. “I remember that it was the British who first discovered the German nerve gases sarin and soman, yes? And that you later developed them further to produce newer and still more exciting substances.”
Sir Reginald nods. “V-agents”, he says.
“VX”, says Ivan.
“VX was one of ours, I believe, yes.”
Ivan nods back. “You are the world’s experts in poison gases, I believe. Is Mr. Keogh one of your poison gas experts, I wonder?”
Sir Reginald shakes his head
and sips his tea. “Well, I certainly
wish, Captain Gushin, that we were as expert as everyone seems to think. If Miss Simpson’s story is to be believed, it
would seem that there were people sixty
years ago who could knock our poison-making skills into a cocked hat. And if those people existed here once, we can
only assume a second, third and fourth generation of them might exist today, in
“Just like you defended
Sir Reginald nods, smiles,
and sips his tea. “Quite right.
“But I’ve got to go down”, I say.
He blinks like a startled toad. “Why ever would you want to do that?”
“Because if I don’t, you’ll discover some sort of new nerve poison down there, come to an agreement with the Vzeng Na government to keep quiet about it, and synthesize it yourselves; and no-one will breathe a word, and the world will never know until you actually use it.”
Sir Reginald blinks again; more this time, I think, like one of those big carnivorous toads that squirts blood at its enemies out of its eyeballs. It is a look of blood he gives me. I reckon I’ve hit the toad on the head.
Then he becomes the kindly old vicar again, rather than the shifty serial non-executive director with share options in fifteen Eastern European oil, nuclear and defence companies that I know him to be.
“Well, really, this is most untrusting”, he says. “All I can do is assure you Her Majesty’s Government really aren’t like that any more. What would the editor of your paper say? I went to school with him, you know.”
“I’ve already mailed my story to five newspapers”, I say. “The enclosure I’ve mailed is encrypted. Only I have the key. Whoever bids highest gets the key.”
He nods sagely. “As I say, I went to school with him. Frightful little tick. We all thought he was homosexual.”
“He is homosexual. He lives quite openly with a gay restauranteur called Jeremy.”
This nonplusses Sir Reginald badly enough for him to pour scalding hot tea into his lap. He screeches in pain and yells for water. Servants (did I mention the servants? They’re always there in the background, but one doesn’t notice them, dahling) scurry in and scuttle for taps and buckets. Lady Washburton actually titters behind her hand and winks at me. Even Ivan’s glacial composure breaks for a moment, and he grins daftly for a split second before realizing he has a reputation to maintain as the sinister secret police captain.
Sir Reginald’s groin is eventually mopped down with cold water by a nice young Vaemna maid. He seems to enjoy the mopping process rather too much for Lady Washburton’s liking, and she sends the girl back out to disinfect her dishcloth. Sir Reginald’s groin bacteria are going nowhere near Lady Washburton’s best silver, oh no. After all, the silver gets put in her mouth.
Sir Reginald agrees to allow me, even in my traumatized condition, on a “fact-finding expedition” into the abyss depths, to which Ivan also agrees to contribute two police officers. Ivan also agrees, warily, to the inclusion of Mr. Keogh the International Atomic Energy Agency Expert, who has MoD written all over him more clearly than a quadropheniac’s knuckles. Keogh makes me nervous. He is as perfectly formed as an Action Man. I wonder if he has a completely smooth, hairless plastic crotch.
I ask if the police officers will be armed. Ivan reminds me that all Vzeng Na police officers are armed. I ask if they’ll be armed with military weapons. Ivan replies that a few heroin addicts and the odd spelunker who has lost his way (and possibly mind) are hardly likely to present a military threat. He asks me whether we located the missing caver, the man called Sean, on our visit. I reply that we didn’t. Ivan nods sagely and announces that this is obviously the explanation. Mad from hunger, possibly even dosed with illegal opiate painkillers self-administered to kill the pain of an injury sustained in a fall, this man failed to recognize his companions in the dark and attacked them, perhaps with a sharp climbing piton or a heavy rock. We, meanwhile, bewildered by the sheer ferocity of the attack, and possibly tired and confused in our turn, mistook the repeated and determined assaults of this one man for an entire horde of narcotic addicts.
Then he sits back in his chair, hands clasped round his knee, evidently hugely pleased with himself. I suggest to him that he do the worst thing I can possibly think of in Russian.
“Hardly”, he says. “My mother was a very ugly lady.”
I am now resident in the British Consulate. Sir Reginald has sent minions out to obtain my things and check me out of the Novotel. This means they probably found the Pauline Réage bondage novel hidden in the back of my suitcase, but they probably don’t read English in any case. Half of them might not even read the Roman alphabet - Na’s Russian population are as cosmopolitan as they are educated.
My room in the Consulate is obviously the emergency Tourist Who Cut Off His Head By Accident room. It seems not to have been redecorated since the 1930’s, and has a carpet which is worn right down to the matting next to the shaving mirror. Also, the bed has a protruding spring, sharp as a bacon slicer and just as pleasant to sit on.
Worst of all, it looks out on the light well at the bottom of which is the Nazi Abyss.
Luckily, the Czaer 2000 engine has been replaced over the grating with a larger 1 litre model. In fact, the grating itself looks newer, as if Sir Reg. has had a new cover put in. One which locks. But it’s still there. And there’s still that horrid giddy feeling that my bed, being close by the window which is close by the grating, is still sitting vertically above five hundred metres of twisty turny staircase lightly frosted with glass and blood and human excrement.
Five hundred metres. That means, potentially, another hundred storeys underneath the ones we know about, containing what? Ordnance factories full of weapons no Allied historian ever heard of, storage facilities full of enough Oracle Smoke to drown a city in, never mind poison it? Why did they need to dig down that deep? Surely that deep down, you’re not digging through rock, but magma.
The room has a TV, communist-era, which doubles as a heating radiator when it’s turned on. A polite note in English and Russian on the wall behind it enjoins guests not to put anything flammable, or indeed meltable, on top of it. The wallpaper is the colour of dirty marzipan. It was probably a recognizable shade of something once, but is now a uniform nicotine.
It is in Na. in
The police siren is blaring around, and around, and around, almost as if it’s circling the building. Maybe the coppers are chasing someone who has his steering lock stuck full on. Although deafening, it’s hypnotic. It could send a body to sleep -
I’m falling down a rabbit hole. There are bits of furniture, heroin syringes, tinkly broken glassware and an entire suit of cards flying with me. Some of the cards are animated, with tiny arms and legs and arms, yelling at me that this is all my fault, shaking their little pink fists.
Then I open my eyes with a start and see a Czaer 2000 engine block flying up past my window.
The building shudders. I must have been woken by a loud bang, but I can hardly remember it.
I sit up in bed and see the same Czaer 2000 lump flying downwards. I wait for a very, very long time. Then there is a second almighty bang, as of a Czaer 2000 engine lump hitting the bottom of a five hundred metre deep shaft at an appreciable portion of the speed of sound.
That will definitely not be good for the foundations.
I open the windowsash and lean out. The concrete bottom of the light well has disappeared. I am looking five hundred metres down a vertical shaft. Down in the dark, deep beneath, I can see tiny neon wasps of what might be tracer fire.
Three metres directly beneath me, on the other hand, gawping out of the back parlour window, I can see Sir Reginald’s bald head. He appears to be wearing purple floral pyjamas. He looks up, and sees me. He is furious.
“Little sod’s trying to sweep it all under the carpet before we get down there”, he says indignantly. He brings his right arm into view. He’s holding a pistol and slotting a magazine into the handle. Then he disappears.
What I think at this point is: I’m not missing this. Besides, Vern might still be down there.
I grab my notebook from under my pillow and struggle into my day clothes.
Sir Reginald is dressed to kill - or at least, has a gun. I know nothing about guns, but it is a big, nasty-looking gun that looks like it would make big nasty holes in people. The rest of his ensemble is less deadly - sturdy hiking boots, socks rolled over his corduroys, and the inevitable Barbour. Tom Keogh, meanwhile, seems to have produced an automatic weapon - a Kalashnikov, complete with folding stock and nightsight.
I ask if he smuggled the gun in in a diplomatic bag. He shakes his head and says, no, he just bought it off the black market once he got here, it’s easier and cheaper. He doesn’t smile. He doesn’t seem to find the irony of the situation amusing.
We are in what I suppose Sir
Reginald would refer to as the embassy’s Front Parlour. The police siren is still circling the
building. It does not appear to be
chasing anything. Possibly it was only
there in the first place to distract us from a gunbattle happening five hundred
yards beneath us. Sir Reg. is on the
phone - his mobile phone, as our land line has predictably and inexplicably
malfunctioned - to both his masters in the
Tom Keogh also just happens to have an impressive collection of caving and mountaineering gear, which he’s laying out on the front parlour floor and securing to the wall next to the street - i.e., the wall in the house furthest from the Abyss - with an industrial bolt gun. He also has helmets, head torches, and climbing boots, but I have my own helmet, boots, etc. in any case. Right now he’s telling me there’s no way he can let me go down into the Little Abyss, as it seems to be a combat zone right now. I tell him he can either give me a harness and a descender, or I’ll try to swarm down the rope by hand. He looks at me critically for a very long time, then nods, shrugs, and chucks me a harness and descender.
I ask him what the plan is. He says it’s “to go down and assess the situation.” He lowers his voice and says Sir Reginald thinks he’s coming too. This, he says, is unlikely. Sir Reginald’s mission function, he says, is to stay on the other end of the phone up here and keep us alive by making sure whoever is remotely friendly down there doesn’t think we’re unfriendly and attempt to neutralize our threat. He explains that, by neutralize our threat, he means shoot us. I ask him what he thinks is going on down there. He says he thinks the local police have probably attempted to “pre-empt the situation. They were probably going to plug the shaft a hundred yards down with concrete and prevent further access”, he says. “Looks like the junkies are a little more resistant to non-military weapons than the police chief thinks.”
I think it sounds like rifle and submachinegun fire coming from the well, and tell him so. He agrees, with one addendum; he thinks it’s two sets of rifle and submachinegun fire. Right now, both the junkies and Ivan’s policemen have got out the heavy iron. “Very heavy iron”, he clarifies. “I think what blew the top off the stairwell was probably an RPG launcher. The bad guys used it, probably. Anyone using a weapon like that in a confined space has to be assisting their normal mental processes with chemistry.”
I ask him how it is that junkies can be using military weapons. He ignores me. Instead, he looks up and nods at four armed men who have just entered the room, also carrying Kalashnikovs, though ones not quite nice as his. Their suppliers don’t seem to have been able to run to folding stocks. They appear to be dressed for some sort of fetish party. Respirators are hanging from around their necks on straps, and they are wearing a great deal of black plastic.
“More friends from the International Atomic Energy Agency?” I ask. Tom Keogh doesn’t reply. Instead, he looks me up and down concernedly. “I’m afraid that no matter how much you stamp your tiny feet, we just don’t have an NBC suit in your size. Or indeed any spare NBC suits.”
“It’s all right. I have my own gasmask.” He stares at me oddly. “And mine”, I add, “is designed to stop Oracle Smoke, unlike yours.”
He absorbs this.
“Okay”, he says finally. “You can go first, then.”
In the event, he goes first, which is very nice of him.
I had thought we were going to abseil down like James Bond ninjas into the middle of a big scary explody firefight. Thankfully, Mr. Keogh doesn’t seem to be insane. He waits for a very, very long time indeed before thinking about dangling any part of himself down into the deep.
The first thing he and the others do, in fact, is remove the carpet from one of the upstairs rooms, and drape it over the entrance to the Abyss, closing off any holes with duct tape and rags, blanking out any light from above. “Be like running in banging a big gong yelling ‘DINNERTIME’ otherwise”, he observes.
Every few minutes afterwards, Mr. Keogh ropes himself up with a climbing helmet on and creeps and crawls all mousy-quiet up to the edge of the abyss and peers down carefully through night vision goggles into the dark.
A long, long time after all sound of gunfire has stopped way below us, he crawls back out from under the carpet and gives a thumbs-up to his team. He seems to think something over a minute, then turns to me and asks - in a whisper, as if he’s expecting someone to be listening - “Did you see any NBC suits down there?”
I shake my head.
“Thank Christ for that. Out of the fucking monkey suits, guys. We’ll only be needing the masks.”
There is a general chorus of relief.
“Keep those chemical sniffers turned on, though.” He puts a hand on my shoulder. “Stay very, very close to me. Hold on to my shoulder strap, put your hands and feet where I say, and don’t move if I don’t tell you to.”
“I’m not hanging on to you like some sort of blind woman.”
“That’s exactly what you’re going to be doing. We don’t have any spare night vision goggles.”
Going down a rope you can’t see the end of, in the dark, five hundred metres above a very hard landing, in a confined space where people have been firing guns, is scarier than scary. I slow them down to an appalling extent. Tom Keogh has to keep reaching up and grabbing my ankle to get me to go down further. He has to have been hanging on one hand for most of the way down. And then, after we’ve abseiled down what seems like half the way to the Earth’s core and finally alighted on a merciful thin sliver of steel and concrete sturdy enough to stand on and I get to stand rigidly in the same position and ‘rest’ for a handful of seconds to get my breath back, they clip in another length of rope and start the same process all over again.
Whenever we find a place to stand, I freeze like a mannequin - that is to say, I freeze after the first time, when I assumed I was standing all safe and cosy on the stairwell that used to be down here, and Tom Keogh hissed at me Not To Move, You Stupid Bitch, and then unclipped his own night vision goggles and clipped them on to me for a moment. The world was green inside them, as if seen through the bottom of a beer bottle, squaddie vision. There is no staircase down here any longer. The force of the RPG explosion, and possibly also of Sir Reginald’s experiments with teaspoons, has torn the fragile structure clean out of the walls all around us, leaving only twisted stumps of steel and concrete joists, like blackened, rotten teeth. The metal of the staircase was probably rusted to hell anyway - the grenade only gave it that little extra push.
Keogh’s men are very, very quiet. They are not IAEA men, and they have done this sort of thing many, many times before. I, on the other hand, have done it a grand total of once, and cannot see the surface I am jumping down like a moonman, paying the rope through my descender as I do so. I feel like a traction engine acting as the pace car to a starting line of Ferraris. My descender feels cold in my fingers as I go down. As I stand cramped on the second ledge down next to Tom Keogh, I brush against his descender for a second, and it’s so hot I have to snatch my hand away.
We have to go through this whole ghastly process four times before we get to anything solid enough to risk standing on for more than a matter of seconds.
For the first time in a long time, I can see a dim, almost imperceptible light below, the right height and width to be a doorway. The light is yellow and low-powered, like the ambient glow from a torch not pointed in our direction.
I hear a few soft THUMPs in the dark, like a cat coughing furballs. I hear a soft shuffling, as of a lady in a long skirt flouncing down a hallway. The light in the doorway crazes as if the torch that casts it has been knocked off balance.
“It should be safe for us to go down now.” A hand feeds a rope into my descender.
“What about the Smokers? There might be Smokers.”
“There were seven.”
There were actually more than seven, it transpires; more cat-coughing from the dark, and a series of THUDs which I am sickeningly certain are bodies hitting the floor. Tom Keogh’s hand tugs at my ankle. Gingerly, I set off down the rope. Nobody shoots me as I descend. Eventually, I feel my feet touch terra firma. Concrete. Solid concrete.
I slump down against the wall, exhausted, relishing the chance to bend my legs.
“Hang on”, says Keogh from somewhere out in the dark. “This one isn’t a Smoker.”
“How do you know?” says another low voice.
“I’ll lay a bet Smokers don’t often wear police uniforms.”
I’ve got a horrible, awful feeling about this.
“Does it smell like it’s gone for a shit in its pants?” I say.
There is a pause for sniffing, and then someone answers, “Er - yeah. Very much so, actually.”
“Then it’s a Smoker and a policeman. Probably inhaled Smoke fumes. Oracle Smoke addicts you that fast.”
“Jesus, so that’s
why there were two sources of tracer
fire”, says a disbelieving voice,
and then: “GET THOSE BLOODY
There is a sound of muffled fumbling and tugging, and not a little discreet swearing. The modest hubbub dies down slowly. There is the sound of someone shooting a Smoker somewhere out in the dark.
Then a shot rings out around all four walls of the chamber. I see it as well as hear it, careering around the room like a light sabre. A tracer round.
“WHO GOES THERE?” yells someone. Unfortunately, he yells it in Russian, so nobody can hear that he’s coherent.
“Kill him”, says Keogh, his voice hissing through his respirator.
“He’s not a Smoker”, I say. “Smokers don’t ask you Who Goes There, they tell you Elvis, Saddam Hussein and Lord God Almighty will be going there tomorrow.”
“You want me to kill him, Cap?” hisses a voice back.
I pounce victoriously. “Aha, so you’re a Captain, are you?”
“Nice one, Corporal. Can you see him?”
“Up the end, Cap, on his own. Sat behind a big pile of metal sheeting. Probably thinks he can’t be seen. He’s putting a gasmask back over his mouth.”
“Kill him”, says Keogh. “He may be friendly, but if he keeps firing the mob downstairs’ll know we’re coming.”
This is too much. I stand up.
“SIT DOWN!” rasps Keogh.
“Мйстер Полицейский!” I yell out. “WE’RE FRIENDLY! COME OUT AND PUT YOUR GUN DOWN!”
There is an ominous pause.
“He’s getting up, Cap”, comes Jimmy’s voice.
“Good”, says Keogh - and then: “Kill him.”
“For FUCK’S SAKE -“
A cat coughs twice in the dark.
“I will NOT sit down. That encryption key I was talking about is also in the keeping of a friend of mine, and she will be emailing it to every single one of the papers who have the story if (a) I do not come back from this trip alive, or (b) you do not stop shooting our friends and allies. And I can see that laser dot you’ve just moved on to my chest, thank you so very much.”
Keogh absorbs this.
“All right”, he says. “We won’t shoot anyone else wearing a mask unless they shoot first. Agreed?”
I still can’t see shit (though I can smell it right enough, all over every smearable surface). I find a torch on the floor and switch it on.
I am surrounded by bodies.
All of them have been shot. Some of them have also been finished off with a knife around the throat. I don’t recall having heard any ricochets.
“SWITCH that BLOODY TORCH off -“
“There was a torch on up here before. That means the ones downstairs will still be expecting a torch up here now.”
“Er...yes. Yes, good point.”
There appears to have been a firefight between policemen still wearing their anti-Smoke masks and policemen happily breathing Smoke. There is more glass glistering around the bodies here than I remember...
“They used Smoke bottles as bombs”, I say. “Lobbed them into the middle of Ivan’s police. A few of them were too daft to be wearing their masks, perhaps, or too slow to put them on in time. They turned on the others.”
I search the dead men’s faces with my torch. None of them is Ivan. But then again, I never expected them to be. Ivan would send someone else down here to do his dirty work.
Keogh’s team are working their way through the machinery chamber. There seems to be nobody else in here, or at least, nobody we can see.
“If they can use this stuff like a hand grenade”, says Keogh, who is poking through shards of bottle with his boot, “I’m surprised they don’t break out and use it to take over the town.”
“I don’t think you appreciate how difficult wasting Smoke in that way would be for them. I think it would have been like throwing your own children at the enemy. Take your foot out of that. You might touch your boot later.”
He’s incredulous. “It isn’t that poisonous, is it?”
The outer offices have been stormed through by Ivan’s men, but are empty - in the case of the filing cabinets, even more empty than before. All the files and papers have vanished, leaving only the bodies and the graffiti.
And then there’s only a manhole and a steel door between us and the outside world. One of Keogh’s men sticks his head up through the manhole and pronounces it safe up top. Cautiously, watching each other’s backs, they emerge and spread out.
“All clean this way.”
But a third voice, sounding puzzled, says instead:
“Is this a Smoke bottle?”
“DON’T TOUCH IT”. I actually yell this. When I get myself back together, I go on to say: “And don’t go anywhere near it either.”
Then I move up to the manhole, stand directly underneath it, and yell:
“OKAY, GUSHIN. YOU CAN COME OUT NOW. UNLESS YOU HAVE A THING ABOUT WATCHING OTHER MEN.”
There is a long, long pause. Then there’s a distant answering yell, echoing round the Abyss:
“BUT THEY LOOK SO ADORABLE IN THEIR NBC GEAR.”
Luckily for Ivan’s health, this exchange is taking place in Russian. But Keogh, at least, seems to be understanding some of it.
I keep Ivan talking. “THAT NBC GEAR’S KEPT THEM ALL ALIVE SO FAR. THOSE SHITE SOVIET-ISSUE MASKS YOUR MEN ARE WEARING KILLED HALF OF THEM STONE DEAD. OR RATHER, FORCED YOU TO KILL HALF OF THEM STONE DEAD.”
"SADLY I AM FORCED TO ADMIT THIS. THEY WERE GOOD MEN, PENELOPE."
I poke my head up, cautiously, from the manhole, and take a look around. Nothing but stone, steel and concrete in all directions.
"WELL, NOW THEY'RE GOOD CORPSES. ARE YOU COMING OUT WHERE WE CAN SEE YOU OR NOT?"
In answer, a number of figures detach themselves from the rock walls uphill and downhill of us.
"Good work", says Keogh. "That won't be all of them, of course."
I hadn't even thought of that. But of course that would be how Ivan would think, and fight. Dirty. I climb out of the hole and squat on the concrete. A kaleidoscope of stars stares down a hundred-metre-deep rock tube at me.
One of the figures cups its hand to its mouth and yells downhill at us in Ivan's voice. "DON'T GO NEAR THE SMOKE BOTTLE."
"WHY NOT?" yells Keogh.
"IT'S GOT A SOVIET ARMY ANTIPERSONNEL MINE BURIED UNDERNEATH IT."
"I KNOW", I yell. "I KNEW IT HAD TO BE YOU, GUSHIN. SMOKERS DON'T USE A BOTTLE OF JUNK AS BAIT, NOR DO THEY LEAVE THEM LYING AROUND."
"AND NO REAL HUMAN WOULD GO ANYWHERE NEAR ONE. CONGRATULATIONS. YOU HAVE PROVED BRITISH PEOPLE ARE REAL HUMANS."
He comes down the slope
towards us, holding an AKM as if he's used one all his life. He probably has. All this stuff about Daddy being the only
ex-KGB man in the family was probably all lies.
Ivan was probably the last beardless youth saluting the Soviets through
the border crossing when they left for
"Ought to shoot him now", says Keogh, "if I didn't know he still had a few men up there in the rocks that I can't see, I would do." I’d applaud Keogh’s willingness to shoot Ivan if I didn’t know he’d been drawing a bead on me too just now.
The men that we can see number seven, but they're policemen - too young, too old, too fat, or too skinny to cause Mr. Keogh's men any trouble. Keogh's men look like they only recently evolved into men. They could probably deal with Ivan's tired old coppers without even needing to fire a shot, if they got close enough.
But those tired old coppers were also clever enough to set a trap that would have taken half of Keogh's men out if I hadn't warned them. I'm not so sure.
"I take it you were going to tell us about the mine", I say in Russian.
"Of course", says Ivan in English, grinning. "At first, we could not easily see who you were, you understand. You came down the stairwell underneath the Consulate, yes?"
I nod. Ivan calls his men around and gets to talking soldier and policeman stuff with Tom Keogh. Luckily neither speaks the other's language perfectly, so I catch all of the conversation as a lot of it needs to go through me. Ivan's men came down during daylight, secured the bridge - 'Мост' is the Russian word he uses for the German gantry crane, and this means bridge - and then moved on into the tank and rocket factory. All that went well, until they went down to the lower levels, "where", Ivan admits, "there appears to have unfortunately been a contamination of my personnel by some variety of toxin.”
Keogh interrupts at this point.
"So", he says, "she was telling the truth, then."
Ivan's face squirms into several expressions at once.
"It would seem so", he says. "I apologize", he says to me with the briefest of nods.
Keogh and Ivan agree to "have another stab" (Keogh's words) at the tanker chamber. I realize with sudden clarity that this is a jolly-hockey-sticks way of saying they are going to go downstairs and kill everybody. I should feel appalled at this, but I really can't work myself up to it.
They leave seven men - mostly Ivan's - on the Bridge upstairs, and send the others back into the factory chambers. I am told to stay put on the Bridge pier together with one of Keogh's troopers, and for once I don't feel like disobeying. If Vern's still alive down there, thin as a rake, eating nothing and scooping up piss from the deck whenever he needs to drink, I've no desire to watch one of Keogh's australopithecines disembowel him. The real Vern saved my life, and is as dead as he is dignified.
I'm actually really tired. I stretch out on the concrete and try to sleep, but it's too damn cold and wet. Down here, even in the big Abyss proper, there's always water dripping down onto your head from somewhere.
I resign myself to getting no sleep, and work on the very notes you are now reading for a while by the light of a card torch - a Christmas present, it fits into a wallet and provides enough light to ruin your eyes by. My australopithecine tells me it'll get seen by Oracle Smokers. I shrug and recommend that he shoot me. Luckily he doesn't.
After a while, I become aware that things are happening around me. The disposition of our troops on the Bridge pier is changing subtly. Two of them are still on guard uphill and down - the downhill road from the Bridge pier looks just as untechnological as its uphill counterpart, and winds around overhangs and spurs until it vanishes from sight in the blue dark far beneath. Two of them are making holes in the top of the pier with an Hilti gun, almost as if they intend to begin rappelling downwards. A fifth man, meanwhile, appears to have found a welding kit from somewhere, and is hard at work on the steel door at the head of the Bridge pier, fusing it strongly shut. A sixth man is cleaning a long hunting knife on the Bridge girders, dangling his feet over the drop. A seventh is communicating with somebody or other on a field radio. An eighth -
At that moment I suddenly also realize that the eight (or nine, or ten) or so troopers I can currently see are all Ivan's men. What has happened to Keogh's man?
The last time I saw him, he was sitting inside the Bridge girders, sheltering from the drizzle. Clouds had come over the sun, just before sunrise. The sky up above is still just a dim blue circle, but my dark-accustomed eyes are beginning to be able to take in my surroundings without torchlight.
I cross to the edge of the Bridge pier, trying not to appear too urgent. I look down. The body of Keogh's man is lying down there on top of the girders, a dark, sharp line ringing his throat from jawjoint to jawjoint. A dark liquid seems to have leaked out of him onto the iron.
I look up and see Ivan's man, still cleaning a dark liquid off his knife - with a handkerchief now, he's wiped off most of the thick stuff on the Bridge steel. He nods at me and smiles. He's wearing a hat, a peaked cap, the sort of big daft dinnerplate hat Eastern European military officers tend to favour. He's also now wearing Keogh's man's night vision goggles, and looks very much the gay fashion icon.
And then I remember I've seen hats like that before, not only during the day stalking around menacingly looking for opportunities to get bribed, not only during rush hour directing traffic, but also in a dark square in the wee small hours, on the heads of men dragging something screaming across the cobbles, towards a wall...
"You", I say - in English, forgetting myself. "It was you who threw that kid down the cliff." And I call him a rude name in Russian.
He shakes his head and tells me his anus is open only to outgoing traffic.
I suddenly realize what it is the two men with the bolt gun are fixing into the concrete over by the manhole cover. There are three of these things, and they are roughly oblong, mounted on four sturdy steel legs. From above, their shapes curve inwards like a canteen. On the inward-curving face is stencilled, in the Roman alphabet:
FRONT TOWARD ENEMY
Why these guys are using American rather than Russian hardware, I have no idea - maybe American hardware actually works. I may be a mere sweet slip of a girl who seldom if ever reads Commando War Picture Library, but I've been an assistant understudy to a war correspondent, and I know what a Claymore mine is. It works in one direction only, against people rather than armoured targets, like a giant shotgun shell. And the faces of fall three of these Claymores are pointing inward, towards the pier - towards, in fact, the manhole cover, which now that the downstairs door is being welded shut is the only remaining exit from the Bridge.
I take a step down onto the Bridge girders, next to the knife cleaner. Next to the body of Keogh's man. After they've set the Claymores in place, they set about covering them with greatcoats and uniform tunics, disguising them from whoever might emerge from the manhole, and then retire a few steps back up and down the Devil's Escalator, trailing detonator wires behind them, before concealing themselves behind rock outcrops sturdy enough to take blast damage.
I walk backwards, gingerly, on the rusted surface. It feels as safe as a giant engineering project made of gingerbread. The knife-cleaning guy looks up at me, leers again, and runs the blade of his knife over his tongue, as if stropping it on a leather to sharpen it rather than cleaning it. His tongue begins to bleed, and must be bleeding heavily for me to see it in the dark. He grins at me round a mouthful of blood.
"Your repertoire is stale and unoriginal", I say. But I say it in English, as I don't want him to kill me just yet.
But he's in no hurry to kill me - after all, he knows I'm backing away towards a blank rock wall set into a solid concrete pier with no internal rooms or chambers, no doorways and no hidey holes.
He is so confident of his ability to deal with me, in fact, that he puts down his gun, very carefully, and draws his nice clean knife, seeming quite prepared to get it dirty all over again.
But I know a thing he does not know.
Keeping my eye on the nice gent with the knife, I move to the side of the Bridge, and begin working my way, as careful as if climbing through a house of cards, hand over hand over foot down the metal, being careful to keep at least seven points of contact between me and my climbing surface at all times. The man upstairs seems to find this hugely amusing, standing staring down at me with knife in hand, knowing I have to come up some time. All he has to do is wait. But he also knows that if he doesn't want to wait, he'll have to brachiate down all this rusted crapulence after me.
The metal is a nightmare to hold on to - huge chunks of it just come away in my hand, and I take to giving each rung a good tug and twist, hard enough to give me hepatitis, to take off the swarf before I put my weight on it. My hands are bleeding before long.
But I can see it now. The thing that he doesn't know is down here, though he must be blind if he can't see it, or at least infer its existence from what he can see from where he is. I reach a hand out to touch it, and am safe. Or at least safer.
I give it a tug. It holds. I ease my weight down onto it, very gradually. It continues to hold.
I work my way down it, into the dark. I have no idea where it leads to. All of a sudden, the man up top realizes what is happening, and panics. He begins yelling to his companions in Vaemna, then in Russian (presumably becoming aware that half of them can't understand him in Vaemna). He's telling them to shoot, shoot, shoot the British bitch. But they can't shoot me, because half of them have the body of the bridge between me and them, and the other half can't see me in any case. I can't see me, for Christ's sake. But I don't know how far down Sean's climbing rope will let me go before it peters out - just about to where Sean stopped climbing and started falling, I imagine. I will probably feel the end of the line before I see it, and if I'm hanging in space next to a sheer rock wall without any handholds, what then?
Shots begin raining down out of the dark - luckily, wildly inaccurate ones. I can see just how inaccurate because they're obliging enough to use tracer bullets. The worst that could happen seems to be that the sound of the shots might cause some sort of freak rockslide. The one man who can see where I am perfectly - i.e., who is wearing a pair of stolen night vision goggles - is standing on the other side of a thousand-tonne climbing frame, and therefore irrelevant.
After a little while, the rope bends over what must be an overhang, nearly trapping my fingers against the face. Only a little further down, I find a ledge beneath my feet. I’m safe. I realize I’ve just climbed a terrifying distance - gosh, maybe as much as twenty whole metres - down a sheer rock face without a safety harness. My granny would disapprove.
Shortly after this, they cut the rope and send it down after me. But I expected that, of course. What I didn’t expect is that they’d tie a filing cabinet to the upstairs end of it. I hear nuts and bolts ripping out of the cliff below me, and if I’d still had hold of the rope, I’d have gone down with them. I hear something big, heavy and metallic bouncing down interminable depths beneath. But I hear no enormous BOOM as it hits bottom. No matter how long I wait.
Maybe there’s a lake down there. Or some big pool of volcanic mud. Maybe the pit’s not bottomless after all. There has to be a rational explanation, right?
But down there on my own in the dark, I know that all of that is just wishful thinking, just as I was certain that the trees rattling around in the wind and the dark outside my parents’ house when I was a kid were a vampire’s long sharp fingernails tapping against my window.
It’s still blacker than Hell’s own coal-hole down here. But maybe once the sun rises a bit higher I’ll be able to see a way to climb down. Down because I’m hoping the Devil's Escalator might continue downhill from the Bridge – might, I try to convince myself, be only a ten-foot pitch away.
Or maybe I’m sitting on the
only three- by two-foot ledge in an expanse of sheer cliff the height of Half
...And while my mind is still working through the late nights, I have a dream....
I dream I am a drowned woman, feet tangled in the anchor chain of some enormous filing cabinet-shaped ship that sank while I was trying to swim away from the wreck, and I have been pulled down into a dark crevice between continents, an Abyss, a subduction zone where one landmass is being sucked under, rocks and fossils and all, into the dark and the murk and the globigerina. And then, all of a sudden, something new enters my universe. Something brash and noisy. A bright bauble dangling on a length of silvery cable snaking down from far, far above. There are floats spaced out along this cable like parasites feeding on a larger life form, and the larger life form is a big steely ball with glowing glaring eyes brighter than the lures of deep-sea anglers, staring out white light into the dark, not the soft blue dusk of the Abyss that I'm used to.
And trapped inside the thing's glassy eyeballs is a
man, another parasite, imprisoned in its pupils like one of the marine
crustaceans that feed on a
Weird. My dreams are not normally this spaced out.
It's a bathysphere, of course, not any sort of sea creature. I know better than to be fooled so easily.
When the sun rises up so high it stabs down into the Abyss and allows folk down here to see, I nearly laugh myself off the ledge.
Climbing ropes are built to hold the weight of a falling person, after all; and the Nazi filing cabinet is still hanging on the end of Sean’s rope, held securely by a climbing anchor that is doing its job and then some. It’s no more than twenty feet below me. And underneath it is a man with a beard and a hard hat, looking up. He must be attached to the cliff by either glue or telekinesis, because he’s certainly standing on nothing.
He stares at the filing cabinet. Then he stares at me.
“I prefer you to your mate”, he says.
“Stop looking up her drawers”, I answer. “What’s the matter, you never seen a girl take her filing system climbing with her before?”
“I’m not even going to ask”, he says. He’s carrying on a conversation with me without apparent concern that he’s holding on to a sheer rock wall by his fingertips.
“You’ll be Sean, I take it.”
This fazes him even more than the filing cabinet. “You have the advantage over me.”
“You’re very famous in subterranean circles. My name’s Penny Simpson. I came down with Vern and Pete. Looking for you.”
He nods. “I saw bits of Pete over by the lich gate.”
He nods. “That’s what I call it. Ain’t that what you call the gate to a cemetery?”
“I’m sorry. You said ‘lich gate’. And then you said ‘cemetery’.”
He’s up to the filing cabinet now – climbs like a gecko. Right now, he’s holding on to the abyssite with one hand whilst trying to undo the policemen’s knots with the other.
“Waste my bloody climbing rope”, I hear him mutter.
He looks up as the cabinet begins to shift in its bonds. “Vern?” he says.
I shake my head. “Dead. The Oracle Smokers got him.”
“The Oracle Smokers those really thin scratters with guns up by that big iron cantilever?” I nod. He nods back. “They took a pot shot at me.” He frowns. “I clipped a krab on to the girders up there, and I reckon I abseiled down faster than poor old Pete fell. I nearly had me a drysuit that wasn’t quite so dry in the arse region. Ah, there we go –“ He loosens the last knot, and, leaving the rope still in his hand, the cabinet lurches and plunges to its doom. I hear it progressing from rock to rock down the Abyss, on its way to the world’s core.
“I’m not sure I can get down from here”, I say.
He nods, detaching and re-attaching nuts from and to cracks on the face as he does so. “That’s a descender on your belt, innit? Clip it onto this.” He hands me the uphill end of the filing cabinet tether. “There’s a ledge you can play five-a-side football on only a couple of seconds’ drop down from here.”
“I’d prefer to abseil rather than drop if you don’t mind.”
“You’d only a break a few legs if you did drop. It’s a cissy distance.”
Then, having made sure of his aids, he disappears down the rock again with the downhill end of the rope – and I do mean disappears. There must be an overhang immediately below. What is most worrying is the fact that he hasn’t bothered to clip himself on to the rope.
“COME ON”, yells a voice I can’t see. “I’VE BELAYED THE ROPE TO SOMETHING FAR TOO HEAVY FOR ITS OWN GOOD.”
Like a skinny kid forced into a swimming pool on a cold day by a cruel scoutmistress, I lower myself from the ledge by inches, taking my weight on both hands; then I shift to one hand and try my weight on the first nut. It doesn’t budge. I put my weight on the rope and start to work my way downwards.
The ledge down below is huge by Abyss standards – it must be the size of a squash court. Its full extent is only dimly visible in the light coming down from above.
“You can switch on your head torch”, says Sean. “There’s no line of sight down here from the cantilever. The scrotes tried dropping rocks on me from time to time, but they just bounce off the overhang. The ledge’s just about protected from falling crap. See how the votive garbage only collects round the sides of it? I don’t ever sit in those bits.”
I switch on my head torch. It is true. This is probably the only reason why the ledge still exists – otherwise, chunks of Na garbage motoring down from above at man-killing speed would have chiselled it flush to the face centuries ago.
“Careful how you tread”, he says. “The floor’s almost all bat guano.”
There are little tiny button mushrooms everywhere. Even down here, where the sun never comes, there is life, though probably not life Beatrix Potter would care to illustrate wearing trousers and a waistcoat. There is also a buzz of insects, and heat like that of an oven. The smell is diabolical. The rock walls all around us resemble sea cliffs hung with mussels, and I only realize after a few seconds that they are actually crawling with bats.
“Don’t handle them”, says Sean, which he of course really needed to say, as otherwise I’d have been all over them. “Rabies.”
Despite Pete’s and Ivan’s earlier conversations on this subject, I hadn’t thought of rabies. Vampires, yes. Rabies, no.
But the most remarkable fact about the ledge is the ornamental wrought iron railing going all the way around it.
“They brought it down from somewhere else, of course”, says Sean. “These, though, they made with local materials.” He strides into the middle of what he’s talking about, and taps one with a thumb.
These are gravestones. Many gravestones, arranged in rows – rows of modern ones hung with iron crosses and Soviet army helmets, and rows of older ones, undecorated. Maybe they were decorated once. Maybe some grave robber stole what hung on them.
The older gravestones are stones, crudely hacked-up lumps of abyssite into which inscriptions have been scored in dog Latin. The Soviet stones, as befits a worker state, are pieces of construction iron that have been welded – curiously enough, welded into the shapes of crosses. Comrade Stalin would never have approved. Whatever Sean says, the Nazi stones, at least, look like they weren’t made here – they’re marble, nothing but the best for the Waffen SS. The First Reich came here, then the Third. The Second seems to have missed out.
“They can’t be buried very deep”, I say.
He shrugs. “Might be.
I look down into the shit, and frown at what I see.
“Yeah”, says Sean. “Footprints.”
“They come down this far?”
“No. They don’t.” He nods his head torch at the end of the ledge furthest out in the Abyss. It illuminates something unpleasant.
Being very careful on the slick surface, I walk out amid the graves to the end of the yard. There, planted in the earth like a new crop, like a subterranean John Barleycorn, someone has left a man.
At least, I think it’s a man. Oracle Smokers are so thin it’s hard to tell the difference. His-or-her body is splayed out on two long shafts thrust into the dirt – shafts made out of smaller lengths of something roped together. At their upper ends, the shafts terminate in crude rusty iron spearpoints. At their bases, they are set into heavy square lumps of lead, presumably to balance the spears and make them fly better. The frame made by the two makeshift spears is flimsy and insubstantial, and someone’s had a very tough job driving in the nails to crucify him.
They didn’t just stop at crucifying him, though - someone also seems to have removed his arms and legs. Whether he died before or after crucifixion is unclear - he’s not so much been made into an amputee as a Boneless Man, his legs and arms filleted neatly of humerus, tibia, fibia, femur, radius and ulna. He’s been attached to the cross by pegs driven through the mummified flaps of skin and muscle that are all that remain of his extremities. His hands and forearms are wrapped sardonically round his neck like fox furs, in case he catches a chill.
But the spears holding him up there aren’t made of wood. I wonder what they are made of, thinking at first it must be carbon fibre or plastic. Then I mentally subtract forty or fifty years of immersion in an atmosphere of sewer urine, fungal spores, and bat guano, and finally I realize what I’m looking at. I realize now just why the man had to be de-boned like a chicken. He’s been crucified on a frame made from the long bones of his own arms and legs.
“Why’d’you reckon anyone would want to do that?” says Sean clinically.
“Wood is really scarce down here”, I shrug back. I notice that, as a final marvellous conceit, the man’s fingerbones have been used as the pegs that fix him to the cross. They’ve had to actually sew his flesh to the frame in places before hammering the nails in. The nails evidently wouldn’t take the weight.
“I know it’s weird to say this, but I think these are someone’s attempt to make a Roman legionnaire’s javelin out of bone.”
Nod. “I think so too. The lead weights.”
“But it doesn’t make sense. Why would Oracle Smokers want to do this to one of their own people?”
“You ain’t got the point. They didn’t. This wasn’t done by them.”
And then it does make sense. The Smokers stay in the manufacturing facility up above, even when attacked, when they could just as easily retreat to the lower levels. Why do they do this? Because there’s something down here that’s worse. There’s more than one lost tribe of humankind down here, and we’ve just crossed a line into someone else’s territory.
“The footprints”, I say. “None of them wear shoes.”
“Think you better count the toes on those footprints”, he says.
I count. I don’t believe. I recount, and get the same result.
“These little piggies”, he says, “are never going to go wee-wee-wee-wee all the way home.”
There are several different sets of prints, all of different sizes. Each one is deficient in the piggy department.
The gravestones are carefully tended. Each one has been painstakingly kept clean from the constant rain of guano. In front of each stone is a dull grey pile of pebbles, like a cairn. Each pebble looks polished, as if by a gemcutter. I don’t disturb the pebbles. Neither has Sean. I think we've both come to the independent conclusion that this would be a bad idea.
“Been waiting around for a couple of days,”, he says. “Imagined Pete and Vern might have showed up by now. Did wonder why. Now I know. Suspected it, obviously - someone took a shot at me, so I thought they might have got shot at too. I reckoned if I waited around down here for long enough, whoever it was who had the guns and the bad attitude would get bored and go home. Besides, it’s interesting down here.”
“What have you been living on?”
He jerks his head torch at a lightweight pack clipped to the rock above me. “I have an inexhaustible supply of Mars bars.”
“How many is inexhaustible?”
“At least three. I had one about a day ago by my watch.” He shows me his watch proudly. It’s luminous.
“It’s a genuine radium watch”, he says. “Little match girls used to get radiation sickness painting the figures onto these suckers. They used to lick their brushes to stiffen them and hey presto, oral cancer. That’s why I never, ever put the watch in my mouth.”
I try hard to change the subject. “What have you been waiting around down here for?”
He pokes a toe at the footprints. “Been waiting for them to turn up. Wanted to know what they looked like.”
“Well, pardon me for not sharing your enthusiasm.” I nod at the crucifix. “You want to spend Easter like that?”
He shakes his head. “I set all my ropes up so you need to climb up to get to them, so only I can use them. There’s a pathway people seem to use around this place, probably cut by the Romans. But it goes down in a spiral, and I can get from level to level of it faster than any enemy can chase me, up or down.”
“What if the enemy can climb as fast as you can?”
“Ain’t no cave man can climb faster than me.”
“Sean, these people, these things, live here. If they can’t climb, they die at an early age. And they’ve been dying at an early age for hundreds of years, maybe even thousands. I wouldn’t be surprised if they could run up walls like spiders by now.”
This does make him look up at the walls above his head a trifle nervously; but it doesn’t bother him overmuch. He frowns and claps me on the shoulder. “You ain’t seen the best yet. You’re in for a real treat.”
When he says there’s a path carved into the Abyss even this far down, his definition of the word ‘path’ leaves a lot to be desired. This isn’t the three-abreast thoroughfare cut, shored and blasted into the rock high up above. This is what the Romans’ engineering projects look like when the Germans don’t lovingly repair them.
Parts of the Roman road still survive – the occasional forlorn mason-cut step or archway, hanging in air, connecting with nothing. These islands of classical civilization are connected by paths worn deep into the rock by heaven knows how many years of feet (and Lord alone knows how many toes per foot), meandering up over great stone blocks and under overhangs, taking detours up and down twenty or thirty feet, necessitating climbs and scrambles that would stop anyone having undesensitized fear centres in their five-toed tracks. But of course, for me, by now, it’s a doddle. Somehow, I even seem to like it down here now, as if I’m becoming part of the environment. I feel almost like singing a happy Climbing Down Into Hell song.
And then we come upon Sean’s idea of the Best Thing. If anything, it proves that he doesn’t get out much.
It’s a pipe – an indisputably Twentieth-Century one, rooted in undeniable Twentieth-Century concrete. It's too rusty to be a Twenty-First Century pipe, but made of steel, and serviceable. It’s also, when I rap on its outside, full. And thrumming softly as something passes through it. Up or down, I’ve no idea, but I’d guess at up. People don’t normally pump stuff down into the ground...
“What’s in it, you think?” says Sean. “Geothermal energy? Oil? Natural gas?”
This is a very old pipe. As I turn my head and headtorch upwards, I can see an emergency valve some way up it. There are letters on the valve. Something-Or-Other-SGEFAHR. The ‘SGEFAHR means ‘Danger of Something-Or-Other’. I get the feeling the Something-Or-Other isn’t likely to be pleasant.
And the pipe is still in operation. A tribute to Nazi engineering.
Maybe, though, I think to myself, I got the direction of flow right the first time.
“There was once supposed to be another temple in Na”, I say, "which no archaeologist has ever found. An old Greek temple, or rather, a temple known to the Greeks, where priestesses – Oracles – were said to foretell the future. Do you know how ancient Greek oracles were supposed to work?”
He shakes his head torch. The beam dances about wildly.
“Well, the Oracle at
Sean frowns under his helmet. “But you said no-one ever found the temple.”
I nod. “And what if the reason why the archaeologists never found the temple is because they didn’t go deep enough? What if the temple is down here?”
“Gosh”, he says.
Then we hear three explosions loud enough to send rock splinters tumbling off the walls far above.
I look up. There is a cloud of smoke and dust billowing around what looks to me like the factory limb of the Bridge. It’s as clearly visible as things ever get down here, between me and the morning sun.
“Claymores”, I say.
“Pardon?” says Sean.
“Someone just died up there.”
“Good guys or bad guys?”
“Bit of both.”
I look at the pathway leading upwards. Well, parts of it lead upwards.
“Does this still go all the way to the Bridge?”
He shrugs. “Far as I know.”
“Then I’m going up it. You may want to stay down here forever, I don’t.”
He looks doubtful. “Have to turn off your torch. They’ll shoot at the light.”
“Well, it’s a choice between climbing up that in the dark – “ I wave a hand up at the Abyss wall – “or walking up this. And I know which one I’m doing. Until I get close to the Bridge, at least. Then maybe I can try climbing past it.” Though I know, of course, that I can’t. The walls are sheer, and Sean is right, I’ll have to do it in the dark, because Ivan will leave a man on guard, who will shoot me. If he sees me.
No, I’m hoping I can shame Sean into coming with me and leading the climb – but I don’t hold too much hope out for this, as by the look of his hairdo, he has very little shame.
He shakes his head. “You won’t have to walk up the path all the way to the Bridge. There’s another set of openings further down. Saw them about a day ago. It was all lit up, there were tracer bullets flying around up there like fireflies. Happened a few hours back too.”
“Why haven’t you tried to get out that way, then?”
He repeats himself, slowly. “There were tracer bullets flying around up there.”
“Will you come up that way with me if I threaten to ridicule your masculinity?”
He looks at his feet, illuminating them as he does so with his head torch, and makes noises of disgruntlement, but I know I have him trapped.
It takes some time to get up to the place where Sean says there are openings in the rock. Since the Bridge is vertically above us, the openings (if they’re actually there) do indeed look promisingly like the sub-basement levels of the Nazi factory complex.
And there are people here. Mostly dead people. In places, also, people who are mostly dead, who’d probably benefit from a coup de grace which neither I nor Sean are prepared to give them.
“National Autoroute Number One into Na”, whispers a voice from the dark mournfully, “will be blocked from 0800 hours onwards during the months of September and October due to essential road widening.”
“In the year 2087”, sighs another voice, “Nhamo Pongo will be the first Zimbabwean to set foot on Uranus.”
Occasionally, sniper fire – sometimes tracer, sometimes not – stabs down from the dark, but always a long, long way away from us. What the people upstairs think they’re shooting at, I have no idea. Maybe they’re just trying to chip the rocks into interesting shapes. Like a camera flash going off at random intervals in a darkened room, the gunfire gives a tantalizing outline of gigantic iron doors set in concrete, with rivets that look the size of beachballs. With Soviet armies rolling ever closer up at the mouth of the Abyss, fortified gateways should surely be expected at the upper end of the SS stronghold, not the lower. But these gates are clearly not designed to throw off attacks from above.
Despite this, however, someone has left them open. A last malicious act by the departing Russians, maybe.
The corpses on the ground are ninety per cent Oracle Smoker, looking not much deader than they did in life. However, one man, lying full length on the path, is one of Keogh’s. Based on the fact that he no longer has most of his face, he would seem to have been shot in the back of the head.
And close up ahead, I can hear movement (or it may be way, way ahead, or even right round the Abyss behind us. The rock walls bend sound like a whispering gallery). A series of scrapes and shuffles, and then a clearly identifiable KLIKKLIK.
“Someone moving”, says Sean, very softly. “Someone with a gun.”
“I think I know who that is”, I mutter.
This someone is moving around very noisily; he’s having great difficulty negotiating rocks and obstacles he can’t see, and he also hasn’t spent a week squatting down here in the dark living on Mars bars and magic mushrooms. Sean, on the other hand, has. By now, he can probably see things in the dark that other men can only dream of.
“There’s two of them”, he says. “One up high, big guy, uniform with lots of shiny buttons, on the rocks above the doors. Carrying some sort of AK. And one down below, pressed close in against the wall. Also carrying an AK, but one with a folding stock, and he’s wearing boots and a climbing harness. Both got gasmasks just like you. Neither of them actually wearing them, though.”
“Ivan and Keogh”, I say.
I explain, very quietly, that the municipal authorities of Na do not, for some reason, approve of foreigners exploring their big hole in the ground, quite possibly because it's full of homicidal addicts to a substance worse than PCP-cut heroin. And possibly because those same municipal authorities keep the civic peace by chucking in kids who misbehave. I explain that there might well be, as well as said homicidal opium fiends, armed and unfriendly policemen out there in the dark. I explain how the British consulate has also expressed a purely scientific interest in the toxic substance emanating from the Abyss tunnels, and that they have sent a group of armed MoD monkeys to locate and bring back samples. I theorize that the MoD monkeys are now in battle with the Na police.
Sean absorbs this, then nods sagely.
"Figured it had to be summat like that."
“Are either of them wearing sort of big heavy goggles?”
But I knew they had no night vision specs already. If they could see to shoot in the dark, Ivan would have given me fresh holes to bleed through by now, and Keogh would probably have shot Sean as a troublesome threat to his mission objectives.
“Can we get through the gateway without going past them?”
Sean shrugs nonchalantly. I take this as a yes.
“Let’s go.” They can kill each other to their heart’s content.
The gateway is littered with bodies. It is also very dark. As Keogh and Ivan have probably just come through here, though, I imagine (no, hope and pray) that there aren’t any Oracle Smokers left inside. There are footprints coming in and out aplenty, however, dotted across the spoor of a number of tracked vehicles that came this way a long time ago, leaving marks like big bold brushstrokes laid on by a lunatic in a work of art that is purposely meaningless.
About ten yards in, we turn on our hats, and I satisfy myself that what I’d thought I’d find is here.
Just as I thought.
A forest of gigantic pipes, disappearing into floor and ceiling like steel sequoias. Thrumming gently from some weird subterranean power source still operating after all these years. Pumping something upward from the depths, many storeys upward. At first, it all looks like a colonnaded hall from the depths of Tolkien’s Moria or Piranesi’s Carceri; the only source of light, apart from the pathetic candles of our headgear, are Smoker bonfires, some of them nothing but lit puddles of meths and petrol made up in water potholes, giving the pipes the appearance of classical columns, the rust of rock. The whole of Hell.
There’s no-one alive in here. No-one I can see. I pick up an Avtomat Kalashnikova off another of Keogh’s men I find in the hallway (shot, again, in the back). I pull off the dead man’s NBC mask and hand it to Sean. He shakes his head.
“You misunderstand me”, I say. “You wear it, or I shoot you. You don’t know this stuff like I do.”
He shrugs and puts it on, and I put mine on, and we walk into the place like deep sea divers, seeing the world through two tiny circles of glass. Through the circles, the world looks like an oil refinery piled on top of a chemical works. Half the machinery is clearly both disused and unusable. Despite the fact that the pumps seem to be operating, there is no power in the light fittings, as a moment’s flicking back and forth with a thumb reveals. Anything burnable has long since gone into one of the myriad bonfires dotted round the floor and stairwells. The walls are covered with thick streaks of black soot in which bizarre hieroglyphics announcing the end of the world in a variety of cruel and unusual ways abound. My nostrils tell me this is Smoker territory.
Part of the wall at the far end seems to have collapsed, and people are protruding from the rubble. I shine my head around, and there is molten aluminium smeared all over the pipework. This, I suspect, is the work of Sir Reginald’s Kzaer 2000. We must be at pit bottom here, after all, though I doubt it would be possible to reach the stairwell now. The entrance must be blocked by a thousand tonnes of garbage. My memory informs me that there’s still a lift shaft, though, even if there isn’t a stairwell any longer. And when we check it out, there are – joy of joys – climbing ropes already bolted to its walls. Keogh’s men must have come down this way. And nobody shoots at me even when I stick my illuminated head into the shaft.
“It’s safe”, I say.
“Huh”, disagrees Sean.
Without bothering with the rope, he locates a few slight indents in the wall with his fingertips, chins and chews himself free of his gasmask, and starts climbing.
“Hey! Your mask! Your BASTARD MASK!”
“OK SO FAR”, he yells happily, ignoring me.
“DON’T YELL”, I yell. But I already know Ivan’s policemen have welded the doors shut upstairs, and Keogh and Ivan seem to have gone down through the whole complex shooting everything that moves, so there really is unlikely to be anyone in here who can hear us. Isn’t there?
I take a last look back at the pump room. The firelight behind a hundred vertically rising pipes tigerstripes the wall with creeping shadows. I take hold of the rope, and go up it.
Sean is already a long way ahead, pronouncing each level safe with a cheery thumbs-up back to me as he goes. But only three levels after we start climbing, all I can make out above, instead of the blank black oblongs of lift entrances, is bare raw concrete stretching as far as Sean’s light will carry.
I should have expected
this. For the Nazis to have completely
honeycombed the rock with factory halls and pumping stations to a depth of over
one hundred metres, the complex would have needed to have been as big as the
“You’re going to get tired”, says Sean. “Must be ten storeys of sheer concrete up there at least. It’s roped and bolted, but there’s not much room to stop and rest as you’re going.”
I look up. “I can make it.”
He looks dubious. “If you fall –“
“It’ll be quick.”
My arms ache. My legs, which I’ve been working harder to take the pain from my arms, also ache. I have rope burn over every soft and tender surface on my body.
I switched my headtorch off half an hour ago. I’ve grown so used to the shape of the space I’m shinning my way up through that I can find my way by feel. Besides, my mystic third eye bobbing up and down in the dark made an ideal target for a sniper, and silly me, I haven’t yet been able to shake my paranoid fear that there might still be people who don’t like me left alive in the dark above.
At first I think I’ll be able to rest my legs by perching on the steel reinforcing bands that lap the shaft every ten yards or so. But I find out very quickly that I have to hold on to something to steady myself, and that something can’t be the climbing rope, which stretches and pulls out from the vertical, leaving me dangling in space, having to hold on even harder. The best I can manage to get a minute’s rest is to hook the insides of my wrists around the counterweight cables, which are nests of frayed wire and leave impressions of themselves in my flesh. It has to be the wrists I hold on with. I can’t risk injuring the insides of my palms. I wouldn’t be able to grip the rope and climb.
Sean helps as much as he can, of course – he says he’s already reached the next level up, which seems unimaginably distant, and keeps on disappearing into the darkness up above to check that everything’s still safe ahead. But he always comes back down, clambering down balance weights and cables, sometimes lending me an arm to steady myself.
It seems like we’ve been climbing for hours. I say so.
“About an hour” he agrees, sotto voce. “You’re just too slow.” He pats me on the head and disappears up the wall again. By this time, even he is having to take breaks. “Not too far now.” He first said not too far now a long, long time ago.
Then, suddenly, I hear him say disbelievingly:
“Shit. It really is not too far now.”
I can hardly believe the effrontery. “BASTARD! YOU NEVER DID GET TO THE TOP!”
“No, it really is not too far away now. I can actually see it.”
Bastard. Mind you, if he hadn’t been lying to me comprehensively since we started climbing, I wouldn’t have made it this far.
“How long have we really been climbing?”
“About three hours.”
And then, almost immediately (bastard!) he’s reached the top and installed himself there, and is crowing down to me.
“Not too far. You can do it easily. If you don’t fall or anything.”
But then I hear a discreet whispering from above Sean, and think twice about the wisdom of having yelled BASTARD at him at the top of my voice. It’s conversation I can hear rather than prognostication, so I’ve a fair idea who it is doing the whispering. After all, I’ve counted two of Keogh’s men dead on the ground, and seen another man wiping his knife clean of the blood of a third. And the claymore mine up above must have dealt with the fourth.
Then I hear a noise I can’t quite put my finger on. A noise like a violin being bowed by a madman on cattle tranquilizers, accompanied by tinny tinkles like the high strings on a piano snapping.
Someone’s sawing through the cable that holds the lift platform up above my head. The platform that’s big enough to lift a two hundred tonne tank. That already has a two hundred tonne tank on it.
“I know.” I start hauling myself upward on muscles I thought I couldn’t force anything more out of, but which now seem oddly cooperative. Blisters sear my fingers, but it still seems I’m only inching up the rope. The rope is now jerking about like the alarm line that leads from a spider’s web to a spider. If this rope goes all the way up the shaft to the top, whoever’s doing the sawing will certainly know I’m here if they didn’t already, and redouble their efforts on the basis of that information.
So it doesn’t matter if I yell now. “HOW – MUCH – FURTHER – “
“Not - far -” The rope suddenly goes taut in my fists, and I’m climbing up it as it travels up the shaft of its own accord. It’s difficult to stay on it at first. It’s moving up in short, rapid jerks, as if being pulled first through one hand, then the other, of someone stronger than any man has a right to be. Up above I can only hear Sean gasping for breath, not shouting encouragement any longer. I can also hear the sound of something very, very large shifting in the shaft above, as a single silvery cable snaps and hurtles downwards frighteningly close to my left ear, whiplash-fast.
There is light way up there now. Someone has switched a torch on. The outline of the lift platform, an oblong of silvery luminescence the size of a postage stamp, is visible – and underneath it, my rope, feeding up over the lip of a black aperture in the shaft, over the boot of someone standing in that aperture. Someone who is heaving at the line like Saint Andrew bringing in his catch.
Only another few metres now –
Then the platform lurches and starts to move.
I suppose it’s too much to ask that the lift have some sort of functioning safety brake.
It drops down like a steel press, which I suppose is exactly what it is. I shut my eyes, and my neck nearly snaps with the acceleration as someone yanks me upwards and sideways with a last heroic effort, and I’m suddenly rolling on a glass-and-faeces-covered surface as the fastest tank in the world hurtles past me at a hundred miles an hour.
It is a good two or three seconds before I can remember to breathe again.
While I’m still trying out my first breath, I’m stopped in mid-gasp by a bolt of fire shooting up the elevator. The walls shake so hard that cracks shudder up them as if they were windscreen glass. A sheet of flame shoots across the roof, then vanishes as if it were a tablecloth whipped away by a magician, to be replaced by a puff of soot that rains down on us like wedding confetti.
Almost immediately, there’s a second, not quite so loud bang from the top of the elevator shaft. This is more alarming, as it isn’t expected. There is screaming, and a man plummets past the elevator entrance, trailing smoke.
“D’you think the tank had live ammunition in it?”
Sean looks at me patiently. “The tank weighed two hundred tons and was travelling at a couple of hundred miles an hour on top of a platform that weighed at least as much as it did. It didn’t need to have live ammunition in it.”
I roll over and stick my head incautiously into the lift shaft, looking upwards. “Why did the top of the shaft explode?”
Sean squints up the shaft after me. “When they were sawing the cables, they forgot that every elevator everywhere in the world has a set of balance weights attached. Big job like that’ll have more than one set of weights, I reckon. They probably sawed through most of the counterweight cables but overlooked one attached to something light and fluffy that only weighed ten tonnes or so. When the big weight goes down, the small weight attached to it goes up, at the same speed...”
“Ten tonnes, travelling as fast as a tank falling down a lift shaft. No wonder he screamed.”
“Yeah. Bound to have stung a bit.” He pulls himself to his feet. “Let’s have a look round. They might have Mars bars.”
“They built this place sixty years ago, and they were Nazis.”
He nods confidently. “Nazi mars bars. Made with dead Jews. Bite through the creamy Jewy caramel into thick thick chocolate.” He casts his head to right and left. “Looks like a ruddy school bursar’s office.”
It is an office all right, though a very old one. There is also living accommodation of a
cramped sort at one end - people were expected to eat and sleep down here, as
well as working. There are
“What are they?” says Sean.
“They're Enigma machines; a
whole bank of them. I saw one at
This was a communications centre. A secure communications centre. But why here, a hundred metres underground?
The telephone lines in this
room have names, not numbers. One of
them is labelled
Despite the fact that this telephone room seems to be a secure area, one wall of it is glass. Very thick glass, with a manufacturer's hallmark on one corner. Possibly bulletproof. Beyond the glass is a small, cube-shaped room only just big enough to contain one metal chair with leather cuff restraints attached to its legs and arms. I half expect to see steel wok-like headgear suspended over the head of the seat with wires trailing from it, but this isn't an electric chair. The chair also has a large microphone sprouting from the floor in front of it. And behind the chair, also projecting from the floor, is a steel tube terminating in what looks like an oversized showerhead. It's not just the wall I'm looking through that's glass - all four sides of the cube are. One of the offices I'm looking into through those other glass sides is full of recording equipment - banks of ancient tape drives with spools the size of dinnerplates.
"The bastards. The sick bastards."
Sean raps on the glass. "Thick glass. Soundproof, probably. Looks like a radio broadcast booth. For sending messages out to the troops, probably."
"Soundproof I can understand." I draw a fingernail down the edge of the windowpane. "Airtight I can't. It's an execution chamber. They put people in there, and something came out of that big power shower over there. And I'm pretty sure I know what that something was."
He frowns and ransacks his imagination. "Cyanide?"
"No. Put yourself in the position of the
Reich. They've been pushed back from
He still hasn't got it. He carries on staring blankly.
"Oracle Smoke causes the Smoker to babble predictions of the future", I say. "Whether they were accurate or not, no SS commander would have cared by that stage. The Germans were clutching at straws. Giant two hundred ton tanks that sank into whatever ground they drove over. Suicide rockets."
I stare into the cubicle. There are scratches all around the wrist cuffs on the chair, like the scratches found on the coffin lids of people buried alive. "They used prisoners, I imagine. Jews. Vaemna. Russian POW's. Or gypsies."
I turn round and see Sean has left the comms room and is pacing the length of the wall in the main office. When he reaches the end of it, he starts working his way left from room to room at a right angle to the main wall, shoving furniture aside as if searching for something.
"What are you looking for?"
"Windows", he says.
"We're underground", I say gently, suspecting he might be going cage happy. "There are no windows."
He raps on the plaster hard with his knuckles. "Thirty paces. This wall should back on to the Abyss."
"Maybe there aren't any windows. What use would windows be to us anyway?"
"You were on the face downhill from the gantry yesterday. You must've seen it."
"The Americans' crane. They've been dangling it down into the Abyss for two days now. Didn't go very far down, I thought. Maybe they're doing some sort of speed trial."
And I suddenly remember my dream of last night. The bathysphere stamped with the American flag. The man inside it, looking out in wonder at an underwater world. I kick myself.
"I did see it", I say. "But I thought I was asleep at the time."
Sean has discovered a toilet door. He has to kick it open and dislodge a bad-smelling Nazi occupant who's blown out his brains with his trousers down, but the all-important thing is that the toilet has a window. Or at least a fanlight, which Sean proceeds to smash into a window large enough to squirm through using a snapped-off table leg.
I notice that the corpse on the carpet is exceedingly well-dressed, sporting official SS underwear. Sean wriggles through the hole in the wall, and I'm now holding a conversation with his arse. It makes just about as much sense as his head.
"Anything out there?"
"Hmph", says Sean's arse expressively. "There's no crane capsule. But I think there's light up at the Abyss mouth, and from where the crane comes down too."
"And that means?"
"They're still up there. Your municipal authorities haven't shut them down."
That doesn't sound like Ivan, and I say so.
"Ivan's still downstairs playing Murder In The Dark with your Mr. Keogh. He's not himself right now. Besides", Sean adds, "the crane's on live TV. National Geographic. Worldwide coverage."
I begin to see Sean's plan. "They wouldn't dare shoot at the Americans' balls while those balls are dangling from a crane and sending back live footage."
He leans further into the Abyss. "Precisely." He's fumbling with the straps on his climbing helmet. "Help me get this bastard off."
He doesn't answer, but rips off the head torch and begins flicking it on and off slowly, pointing it up toward the Abyss mouth. Someone shoots at him. A rifle bullet ricochets off the rock a comfortable number of yards away. He carries on flashing the torch, but retreats back into the window, leaving only hand and torch outside in the dark.
Someone carries on shooting at him. After a while they get frustrated with the lack of progress from the single shots and switch to automatic fire. Flinty splinters occasionally bounce in through the window, but nothing nits Sean. After several minutes of pebble-dashing the cliff with wildly inaccurate fire, the sniper runs out either of ammunition or of motivation, and the gun falls silent. Sean carries on flashing, whilst making sure all his vital areas are still well inside the window.
"Get back over to the elevator", he says. "See if you can find any other ways up or down. If you can, see if you can find a way to block them. Now I'm doing this, I'm signalling our position to the bad guys as well as the good ones. And we'll need rope. Rope and something curvy and solid." He points back into the office, where there's a wooden hatstand. "That'll do."
I'm not really sure why he needs to hang his coat up at this juncture. But I show willing.
The stairwell is too full of mangled stairs at this depth for anyone to actually be able to climb up it. The grenade explosion in the upper storeys brought down what looks like a hundred or so flights of steel steps, and they all ended up down here. The way up is a mess of mangled iron and powdered plaster, with hardly a passage through big enough for a mouse, or at the very most a medium-sized badger. I am larger than a badger.
The elevator, meanwhile, has been swept weirdly clean of ropes, cables, balance weights, everything - it's now nothing more than a long concrete box leading upward. Nobody, I reckon, is coming at us up or down via either of those routes.
But there must, I reason, be a smaller elevator. Nobody is going to use a lift platform which might itself weigh a hundred tonnes to shift an office desk. And sure enough, I find a desk-sized elevator, tucked away behind a wooden door in the main office. I can lever open the safety doors inside with a paperknife, and there's a shaft beyond which I suspect to have a lift in it up above me somewhere - it must be up above me as, at the moment, I can only see counterweight cables. I ponder how to block it. I wonder whether to block it; I’m not entirely certain whether Sean’s cunning plan is going to work, principally because I don’t yet know what it is. And if the plan doesn’t work, we’re trapped on this storey.
Or rather, I am. Sean’s almost as happy climbing up a cliff face as he is walking along a floor.
As I’m leaning into the dark pondering my options, a voice calls out from below:
“Is that you, Penelope?”
I don’t see any point in lying, so I reply:
“The others in your party are all dead. You may as well give up.”
“Hmm, give myself up and die, not give myself up and not die. You’ve a tenuous grasp of logic on you, Ivan.”
There is a pause. And then he says:
“If you give yourself up to me now, I can promise it’ll be quick. But I can’t answer for my men up higher if you try to climb up past them. Some of them are...unpleasant.”
I think about this a second, and follow it to its logical conclusion. “You’d really like me to drop you down a rope, wouldn’t you, Ivan.”
A much longer pause this time. “I can get up any time I like.”
“There’s a break in the Roman road between there and here, isn’t there? Sometime in the last two thousand years, there was a landslip or a rockfall and the road fell away from the cliff. Or is Tom Keogh still alive out there? Did you not manage to finish him off? Are you scared to go back out the gates?”
This time the pause is very, very long.
“I am going to kill you, Miss Simpson. I will take great pleasure in it.”
“Come up here and say that. How long have you people been hiding your guilty little secret? Two thousand years? Three thousand? Longer?”
“If it were your children who were affected by the Smoke, perhaps you would feel differently.”
“How did it start? Was it the bat people who got it first, in the time of the Greeks and Romans, and started affecting others?”
“The Abyss”, says Ivan, “was once a patch of water meadow in a field, a part of a Vaemna’s land he could not use. This is what our earliest stories tell us. That part of the field was low, and water would always collect there, yet it always seemed to drain away, even after the heaviest rain, and even while nearby rivers were still flooded. The Vaemna, wisely, left the meadow alone, and told his wife and family to do likewise. But then, one day, the earth shook, and the water level in that corner of the field rose. Black water was bubbling from the ground.
“The Vaemna told his wife and sons not to drink from it. But the next day, while he was out in the forest hunting with his sons, his wife, realizing it was further to a nearby spring than to the black water in the field, and having a good deal of washing to do, thought: “It’s only washing water. It will not matter.” And she brought in several buckets of the black water, which smoked foully, and set to washing her husband’s clothes in it.
“When the Vaemna and his sons came home from the hunt, they found nothing left of the woman but a washing bucket, and a trail of suds leading from their croft to the water’s edge, where her clothes and shoes were floating in the mire.
“The Vaemna put up a fence around the mire. A month passed, and then there was another night when the earth shook, and the fences collapsed inward into a great hole in the ground. The Vaemna, not to be outdone, built another fence. But the earth shook again, devouring the second fence, and by now the hole in the earth filled half the Vaemna’s homestead, and he could not see the bottom of it.
“The Vaemna, in desperation, sold his land for cattle and moved. The man who bought the land from him was a greedy Slav, and rubbed his hands in glee to think that he had made profit from a neighbour who’d had no other option but to sell. Several nights passed, and then the earth shook again. The new owner of the land stayed indoors all night, fearing to set foot outside his door, fearing that the monsters and devils Slavs believe in were fighting round his house.
“When he finally opened his door, he found out all the land around him had collapsed, and his hut was marooned on the pillar of rock where the Church of the Angel now stands. None of his fellow Slavs would help him to cross the Abyss to escape; they were afraid his bad fortune would transfer to them. He survived another year and a day, living off chunks of food thrown across the chasm by his neighbours. When he finally began to die, he began to babble predictions, yelling out how the world was going to end, sometimes in strange languages no-one in the area knew. Travellers who went near the place were often similarly affected, and many of the farmers living nearby talked of selling their own land and moving. But the chasm grew no larger, and somehow they could never work up the courage to leave the district. Even the original farmer, the man who sold his land for cattle, was later seen running, blind mad, towards the edge of the precipice, yelling prophecies as he hurled himself into the depths. He’d bought land seven days’ ride away from the Abyss, but still it drew him back.
“We Vaemna have been unable to move away since then. We are, as the Germans said, a weak, inferior race. We have stayed here, no matter how low our status, no matter how miniscule our gene pool becomes, like a child holding to its mother’s skirts. But we have been the same people for over two thousand years, and like the Israelites, we remember. We have a language and a spoken history stretching back since before the Romans. We remember when Celts were on our western border.
“The Abyss calls us. It draws in our children, our mothers, our fathers, and once it has one of our loved ones, our concept of civilization demands that we cannot leave them to die down in the dark alone. We keep them safe down in the tunnels, and we send them food - often we need to put food into their mouths, and massage their jaws and throats to make them chew and swallow. And we tolerate the monstrosities they perpetrate when they occasionally find their way back up into the world above. Do you know there is not one single heroin or cocaine addict in Na? The needle holds no fascination for us. We already live with it every day.”
“I’m still not going to lower you a rope, Ivan.”
“The Abyss has you too. You know it. Have you not noticed how you keep on returning to it, despite the fact that it has almost killed you several times? We prevent people from going down into it for a reason.”
“What about the Americans? You’re letting the Americans into it.”
“We made them satisfy us that their crane capsule was airtight. We cited firedamp to them, and volcanic gases. We did not want to be responsible for their deaths. Our civic leaders, and our real leaders, talked the matter over at great length. But we imagine the Smoke to be a toxin, and no matter how potent any toxin might be, surely it cannot penetrate an airtight vehicle. We may behave like creatures of the Dark Ages, but we do have twenty-first century educations. And we are as interested in the contents of the Pit as any man. Possibly more.”
“Your real leaders? Who might they be?”
“I”, says Ivan, not without a twinge of solemn pride, “am the one hundred and fifty-first priest of
“They are all the
“So...that really means you run the city, doesn’t it.”
“Yes. It really means I run the city.”
“Can’t run a city from the bottom of a lift shaft, though.”
“That is why it is vitally important that I return to the surface with immediacy.”
“What’s the matter, Ivan? Worried you might start to breathe in some of the stuff yourself? I saw you earlier on in the lower levels. You weren’t wearing your gasmask.”
I pause a moment to think.
He also pauses before answering.
“I think you know where the
And it's just about then, when I'm about to learn the location of Ivan's inner sanctum, when someone stuffs a submachinegun into the lift shaft next to my ear and unloads it downward. Ricochets swarm back up the shaft at me like neon wasps, and I have to jerk back into the office to avoid getting new holes made in my skull to let the demons out. I have to jerk back Sean too, and his submachinegun, which is still going off as he falls backward. A line of bullets punctuates both the carpet and the ceiling. For several scary seconds, mobile lead is everywhere. Light fittings shatter.
Sean finally manages to release his trigger finger. He sits up on the carpet, looking hugely hurt.
"Whaddyou do that for?"
I look at him in disbelief.
"He was lining you up for a shot", he says. "Didn't you figure that out?"
"There's only him down there, Sean."
"He'll have a radio. Only has to walk outside and call up his friends upstairs. Then they ball up a block of Semtex round a climbing rope, stick a time fuse in it, and dangle it down the precise number of storeys their leader tells them." He scrawms up to the edge of the shaft and stares down into total blackness. Ivan has wisely turned off his torch. "We don't do any more talking", he announces. "Particularly talking with torches strapped to our heads", he adds darkly.
"As long as you don't do any more shooting at concrete ceilings at arm's length with a gun you can't aim properly."
He looks sheepish, and lays the gun down gingerly on a desktop, like a drunk putting down a beer glass very, very carefully for fear of spilling it.
"I came to tell you", he says. "They're flashing back."
It's still pitch black upstairs - it's up there by my watch. But then again, I can't remember resetting my watch from Greenwich Mean to Eastern European Time. The watch is my only remaining link with the world on the surface, and even it isn't reliable. As far as everything down here is concerned, it might as well be 1945. As far as everyone down here is concerned, it might still be the Dark Ages.
...But it's true. Up there, close on half a mile above us, a bright white light is winking on and off. On-on-on...on...on...on...on-on-on...on-on-on....
"They obviously haven't much grasp of Morse Code", I say. "They're just flashing our own SOS back at us."
Sean looks on the bright side. "Maybe they're in trouble too."
I find a secluded office and scribble down more notes by torchlight in very tiny shorthand. There is plenty of paper available, though much of it has more swastikas, lightning flashes and helmeted tarts riding wingèd steeds than I'd ideally prefer.
Sean, meanwhile, continues leaning out of the window and flashing his implement. Occasionally someone takes a shot at him. Once, someone actually chucks down a hand grenade, though they don't seem too well up on working out distances and accelerations. I hear a big bang and a squillion little impacts pebbledashing the Abyss walls, then Sean asking if That's The Best They Can Do at the top of his voice, and going on to inquire if they Call Themselves Men. These people's willingness to chuck explosives down a pit they're sitting halfway up the sides of seems to know no bounds.
Eventually, Sean rushes in, smacking the walls around him to feel his way.
"THEY'RE COMING DOWN!" he yells. "GET READY!"
I've already seen the Americans' bathysphere, although the last time I saw it I was under the impression I was dreaming. It's still hard to believe it's not being lowered from the stern of some ship moored a thousand feet above us, and that I can't just push myself out of the window and swim to it.
Sean still has his own torch switched on, and is flashing it in a regular on-on-on...on...on...on pattern, trying to make final adjustments to his length of line and bit of hatstand as he does so. He's wound rope around the wood, making the whole thing stronger-looking, less brittle. It now resembles some obscure part of the rigging on an old sailing ship, but it's quite obvious what he intends to use it for. It's a grappling hook, with which he's going to try to lassoo the American crane capsule. He pays out a few metres of rope and tries to swing it, but there isn't room to swing the premature foetus of a kitten. It's looking like he'll have to simply chuck the hook and hope it hits home.
I really don't know how he's made himself so sure that the Americans are coming down to rescue us. All I can see are lights. Bright white lights, carbon arcs or halogens, not the nicotine yellow of some tired old tungsten filament. Something is bearing down on us from above, and it is lit up like an angel at the Annunciation. At least five or six dazzlingly bright beams, each one moving independently like the eyes of a chameleon, stab out into the dark in all directions. As the machine descends closer, I can see that each searchlight has its own individual TV camera, filming directly down its beam.
The bathysphere - I'll have to stop calling it that, we're not underwater - is big, the size of a camper van, connected to its main cable by a bizarre macramé of levers, stays and shock absorbers. One end of it is all window, two huge bug eyes goggling out into the gloom. Around the windows, a battery of television cameras and other, weirder devices assist the naked eye in figuring out what's down here, looking like barbels on a deep sea fish (we are not underwater). The sphere has skids so that it can be entered and exited via a single hatch on the port side, where there's a small railed platform dotted with what are almost certainly anchor points for attaching caving and climbing gear. A rack of pressurised cylinders is stored along its dorsal surface - oxygen, maybe? - and there are further tanks and pods and equipment cages ringing the sphere's upper surface.
But one thing is
certain. It has a big Yankee flag
sprayed down one side of it, underneath which someone has added
Besides being so big, the machine is also smaller than I'd like, as it is a very long way away. Sean is going to have his work cut out hurling his makeshift grappling hook that far.
Luckily, he doesn't have to. There is already a man standing on the platform by the capsule's hatch. He is manning something big, squat and powerful that looks remarkably like a cross between a demi-culverin and a whaling harpoon, the muzzle of which is swinging round to point directly at our makeshift window. He appears to be aiming his culverin-harpoon at us.
"Sean - he's going to -"
But Sean's already down under the level of the window as the gun booms and something flicks out between capsule and cliff like a striking snake, punching into the abyssite with a shock I can feel through the concrete I'm now pressed flat against.
"Christ", says Sean from his new position hunched up under the windowledge. "Big one, that."
"D'you think the city cops have got to the Americans?"
"Dunno. Maybe. Maybe they're just as interested in narcotics that foretell the future as the Nazis were."
I sit up next to him in the dark. "What do we do now?"
"Er. Did you block the other elevator?"
"Thankfully not. Even though someone told me to."
I hear a sound like a ruler twanging on a desktop - the sound of something being pulled taut. Then, I hear grunting, swearing and the unmistakable noise of karabiners being clipped onto lines and harnesses.
"They're tooling up to cross over to the window", I say.
"Time for a discouraging sweeping burst through the window", says Sean. "I had a gun." He goes to get it, crawling across the carpet.
"You can't shoot for toffee", I point out. "They probably can. And you'll be blinded by their lights. They won't. And they'll be using night vision goggles."
"AHOY THERE", calls a voice from outside. Light plays across the toilet door through the jagged hole of the window. "PERMISSION TO COME ABOARD?"
"It's a trick", I say.
"We're not at sea", agrees Sean. "Just trying to disorientate us."
"ANYONE IN THERE,
FOLKS?" says the voice again. It
doesn't sound like a voice trained for military command at
And besides, I know the voice.
I sit up straight. Light shines in my face, blinding me.
Wilson the friendly American, wearing a caving suit made of enough aluminium insulation to equip a Gemini astronaut, is hanging around outside our window, hooked up to a line slung between the capsule and the cliff. His line is attached, at our end, to a rocket propelled grappling iron I can only assume he has just fired into the cliff from the capsule.
"Er - hello", I say. "We, er, thought you might be someone else."
"You were maybe waiting to be rescued by someone more classically handsome? I can always go, if you prefer."
"Ah, no, my mistake, we were expecting you, no-one else, definitely. Can we come aboard? Now would be good."
Sean, meanwhile, has already
swarmed past both me and John onto the wire, and is halfway to the capsule
already. Noticing the fact that he still
has a submachinegun slung over his shoulder,
"Did anyone, erm, shoot at you on the way down, while we're on the subject?"
He scratches his head. Well, actually..."No - though the Na branch of the Man's been trying to shut us down for close on two days now. Making all kinds of threats. Even sent out traffic cops to tell us the crane jib was illegally parked. You know there's been a rain of car parts in the cathedral district?"
I nod. "Czaer 2000, at a guess?"
He eyes me with deep suspicion. "You know your rains of car parts. Over the rope to the capsule, don't move around too sudden, she's only rated to carry two."
I make my way hand-over-hand down the line to the crane capsule. By now, climbing is almost as second nature to me as it is to Sean, though I'm holding on with a fireman's grip to ease my aching hands. In the sterile white light on the capsule platform, I can see my palms are leopard-spotted with blood blisters.
I suddenly realize I've just brachiated maybe a hundred feet out over a bottomless chasm without even thinking about being frightened.
What for want of a better word I call the capsule pilot, Craig, the unfriendly American, scowls at us in greeting. He's sitting at a control console, trying to appear busy, although how hard can it be to control a hunk of junk dangling on the end of a crane cable? He seems to be doing stuff with the capsule's various TV cameras, whose footage is displayed on a bank of VDUs above him.
"Another body", he
I lean in close without being invited. "Yes, I think that one's name was Jim. Headshot from behind, by the look of it."
He looks up at me, mortified.
"I think we'd better be leaving now", I say. "Don't you?"
"Afraid we can't do that", says Wilson. "Got one more passenger to pick up." He moves across the capsule, very carefully, and points down into the dark. Way below, almost vertically beneath us, a single white light is blinking on-on-on...on...on...on....
“Uh”, I say, and then “Erm.”
“It would not be a good idea to pick that man up”, says Sean, with an uncharacteristic verbosity born of self-preservation. I nod my head in agreement.
“We picked you up”, says Wilson accusingly.
Yes, I want to say. But we’re nice.
But we’re already downward bound; Craig the Unpleasant American has operated the controls (which appear to consist of a switch marked DOWN in one direction and UP in the other). The light is coming closer.
“Is this thing bulletproof?” I ask Wilson.
“He hasn’t got a gun”, says Craig. He taps the image on one of his TV sets. And it’s Ivan. Standing without mask or officer’s hat, waving a flaming bundle of rags in the air for all he’s worth. The rags are wrapped round something long, white and knobbly that isn’t burning.
“He doesn’t have a gun right now”, I concede. “But he does seem to have a human thighbone.”
This fazes them, particularly as it’s plain to see, now that they’re looking for it, that it’s true.
“Plenty of bones lying around loose down there”, comments Sean.
"There's a shelf of rock just about underneath us", says Craig. "Might be able to manoeuvre over to it."
It transpires there's actually more than one control for the crane - there are also two big dials marked TRACK and ROTATE, which Craig is now juggling with. Nothing seems to be happening despite his juggling, but I remind myself that the motors that move the crane are way above us, on the end of close on a kilometre of cable.
Eventually, there is a gentle sensation of motion, as of a giant hand swinging us inexorably around in the direction of the cliff.
"PULL BACK! YOU'VE OVERCOOKED IT!" Craig pulls back. The cliff recedes, to be replaced by another cliff in the other window. Craig twiddles his dials frantically. The capsule begins to rock violently from side to side.
"H-have we h-hit something?"
Craig shakes his head. "I've screwed up and put an oscillation in the cable. Hang on." He flicks a switch marked DAMPER. The rocking subsides. He flicks the DAMPER off again. "Puts a counter-oscillation in to flatten the wave", he explains impenetrably.
I suddenly realize with horrible certainty that I am becoming seasick underground.
Ivan is now clearly visible underneath us, still waving his flaming bone, still sans gasmask. Wilson clips himself onto the cabin walls and eases himself out of the hatch. I notice that the National Geographic team have already broken their promise to the Na government to carry out all their exploration from inside an airtight capsule.
Ivan, however, doesn't look Smoked, despite having breathed the atmosphere down here. If anything, he looks cheerful, particularly when he catches sight of me. He's standing on another concrete ledge at the base of the massive doors that give entry to the Nazi citadel. As the capsule's front skids hit the concrete, he runs over to a pile of rags by the doors, extracts his officer's cap and AKM, and scurries back to our vehicle. He even winks at me as he clambers over the rail. I have to stop Sean from pulling the cocking lever back on the submachinegun he doesn't know how to use. A missed shot would almost certainly kill us all in here with all these oxygen cylinders, and Ivan's AKM is still slung safely over his shoulder.
"And when I think that I tried to stop your first test yesterday", he grins to Craig and Wilson. "I am grateful and sorry at the same time."
"Where's Tom Keogh?" I ask.
"I have not seen him for some time", he says - probably truthfully, as this encompasses Ivan having shot Keogh and dumped his body into the deep.
"I am looking forward to getting back behind my desk", says Ivan, with a meaningful stare at me.
And there's nothing I can do. I can't shoot him, unless I shoot both the Americans too, and dump their bodies; I'd be tried for murder. Ivan isn't going to shoot us with his gun on the way up out of the Abyss - why should he? As police chief he can have us shot any time he likes. He's only carrying that AKM to remind us of the fact that he doesn't need to use it. The irritating Cheshire Cat grin on his face says all of that. I haven't time to explain to Craig and Wilson exactly how many ways Ivan is a low-down cocksucking dog on our way up, because I'd need space to draw diagrams, and possibly also an overhead projector. And they wouldn't believe me anyway.
And the whole way up, the little rat is smiling at me in a way that damn near forces me to grab Sean's gun, shoot him and swing for it anyway.
"It was your clever idea of signalling SOS that gave me the idea, Penelope", he says. "I thought, if someone will come to pick up her, they will pick me up as well." And we're rising up fast now as the cable shortens and the winch has less weight to reel in, and daylight is greying the abyssite around us. After two days underground, the dimness is blinding.
"I don't suppose anyone would care to tell us what's been going on down below before we surface?" says Craig nonchalantly.
"I intend to make a full report as soon as I get back to my department", assures Ivan. "Until then, I must point out to you", he says to Sean, as proximity to the world above builds his confidence, "that carrying automatic weapons is illegal in Vzeng Na."
"That so", says Sean. And I'm still amazed he doesn't shoot him.
Instead, there is a sudden jolt, as of someone tripping the safety circuit in a lift between floors. I look down, and see Craig's hand on the UP/DOWN switch.
"Anyone shooting anyone is not going anywhere", says Craig prissily. " If a gun goes off in here it could snap a cable, break that airtight seal you're so fond of, Captain, or cause an explosion. You will please both hand over your weapons to my colleague." He taps a box bolted to the ceiling behind his head. "I may also remind you that you're both on live television."
"I will be only too glad to do so", says Ivan, theatrically handing his AKM to Wilson butt-first, after removing the magazine. Sourly, Sean also surrenders his SMG.
Craig flicks the UP/DOWN switch to UP again (and surely both Ivan and Sean knew they could have done that without his help?).
And then there's a sound so loud I think the cable must be breaking.
All around the top of the Abyss, the edge is lined with people, Vaemna and foreigners alike, pressed dangerously close to balcony rails, windows, the low wall round the Gzel Lziofang, and even, in places, the edge of the gulf itself. Cheering as if we were a Soviet army arriving in triumph in 1945, or a Soviet army leaving in disgrace in 1992.
The tourists, I reckon, are cheering because they've been told, and believe, that a bunch of stranded cavers have been rescued by the philanthropic Americans. Craig and Wilson are beaming like returning astronauts, evidently sure of the same thing. But I know why the Vaemna are cheering, and there are far more Vaemna in that crowd than there are foreigners. Every time Ivan shows his face at the windows, the crowd roars louder. Ivan wasn't getting delusional down in the tunnels. He is their High Priest, their hierarch, maybe even their pharaoh. And he has been cast down into the awful Pit, and has returned alive.
But surely he can’t have us shot here and now, in front of so many people.
And then I see the number of Na police uniforms clustered round the crane jib, and begin to doubt very much whether we’ll leave Victory Square alive.
The crane capsule swings round like a morningstar as the jib tracks left, returning us back over the Beglerbeg’s Wall out of harm’s way. Craig flicks the switch to DOWN and the crane begins to unwind that final ten feet down onto the cobbles, which we hit with an inevitable CLANG.
Wilson throws the capsule open. The crowds close in. The Polisic are plastered across the front of them, appearing to be holding them back, protecting us. But every single one of those officers is armed, some of them to levels that go far beyond crowd control.
Wilson steps down into the square, standing at the bottom of the ladder ready to help me down like a perfect gentleman. Making sure I’m the first down into the line of fire. For a moment, I wonder whether Wilson is actually in league with the Vaemna. Then Sean comes down the ladder, and then Ivan. As Ivan steps out of the capsule, the crowd shrieks fit to bust eardrums, and still Craig and Wilson have their fists in the air like champion boxers, thinking that all this is for them.
Ivan walks out into the middle of the crowd, and there are people in it holding out flowers and begging him in Russian to kiss their children, for Christ’s sake, and the line of policemen is having difficulty holding them back.
Then one of the policemen, in perhaps a slightly shabbier and more bloodstained uniform than the others, walks forward, raises his gun, and shoots Ivan in the head. The crowd noise drops like the tide before a tsunami, then flows back with a vengeance, this time in the form of women screaming. Men screaming.
The policeman stands there, watching Ivan crumple, and I notice his policeman’s uniform has a neat and perfectly circular little hole just over where his heart should be. The hole is blackened, as if by powder burns. Underneath the hole, however, I can see his nipple. I notice that the nails of the policeman’s hands are snapped to the quick, as if he’s just clawed his way out of an early grave.
“That”, says the policeman in Tom Keogh’s voice, “is for my men.”
He turns the pistol round towards his own head.
“This”, he says, “is for your men.”
And then he adds, with immense satisfaction:
“All your men.”
It is debatable whether or not he shoots himself before Ivan’s police cronies do. Certainly, he has more than one bullet in him before he hits the ground, his body moving this way and that, failing to fall in a neat and predictable manner as the slugs rip into it. One of the policemen near him also collapses, hit by poorly aimed fire. Everyone around Keogh and Ivan takes a cautious step backward, including me.
Then the police holster and shoulder their weapons, and run in towards Ivan as if sufficient speed and diligence will cure the hole in his head. They fall around him like beneficent vultures, protecting the corpse with their lives. I don’t know. Maybe it needs to be saved for burial in some weird Vaemna manner.
I lean over to Craig and whisper in his ear:
“Now would be a good time to leave for the nearest American embassy.”
He thinks about this for a microsecond, then nods; and we begin to edge our way out cautiously through the crowd.
The room is bright and well-lit. Facing the speaker in the auditorium are the cameras of around fifteen international TV networks, as many as could be convinced to attend. The more cameras there are, the more chance there is that one of them will be filming the speaker’s killer if someone tries to assassinate him.
“The, ah, vent is certainly deep, deeper than was originally imagined”, says the speaker, pointing with a British MoD laser gunsight - a souvenir of several journeys into the Abyss - at an enormous Powerpoint display projected on a whiteboard the size of a galleon’s mainsail. What he means by ‘deeper than was originally imagined’, of course, is deeper than he originally imagined. “Its total depth still remains to be ascertained. However, it is certainly more than a kilometre - indeed, at this depth, the vent has still scarcely narrowed.”
The speaker is Craig Van Vreden, the Unfriendly American, pointedly wearing his very best suit without a tie, the modern power dresser's way of indicating the very highest status, of saying Look, see, I can get away with this. He is visibly annoyed as he delivers his presentation to a packed lecture theatre full of the world’s scientific press; annoyed because, however astounding the discoveries dredged up from the deep have been, they have still proved his own preconceptions to be wrong. Scientists are such arseholes.
“It was originally thought (I originally thought) the Na Abyss was a former lava tube, formerly filled with superheated gas”, says Craig. “As the lava dried, it left a hollow vent of considerable depth.” He gazes at his obviously meticulously-prepared lava tube slide wistfully. “Unfortunately, this is not so. Expeditions down to up to eight hundred metres in the vent have been unable to confirm a wall composition that would corroborate the lava tube hypothesis.” (<CLICK> the slide changes to the same beautifully labelled lava tube diagram, this time with a big crude red cross drawn through it, and the single word NO.)
“Either the Abyss, then, is a feature formed in the abyssite by some sort of erosion, or it has always been here, and is not a feature of erosion at all.” (<CLICK> a mediaeval woodcut of the sun rising up through the ground in the vicinity of Na, observed by happy smiling peasants.) “The greater part of the man-made structures in what we have come to call the Totalitarian Layer -“ (<CLICK> a capsule’s-eye view of the Nazi and Soviet crane and Smoke facilities, taken from around half a kilometre down) “- have been explored extensively in several well-documented expeditions. However, there are further structures, in particular a set of ramps and galleries cut into the Abyss walls, going even further down than the German and Russian work. These appear to be, both from the way in which they were made and from graffiti cut into the rocks around them, Roman. Timber boards which seem to have been used to form moulds for some of the gallery pillars have been found by the lower entrance to the Totalitarian Complex here. The pillars, unusually, are made of concrete. Samples of the timbers used to shape them have been carbon-dated to around 200 AD. Only Roman architects were known to use concrete to make buildings at any time before the nineteenth century. Vertical samples of the floor surface inside the galleries indicate large, square-cut surface stones laid on a bed of finer gravel - exactly the pattern used by Roman road builders. There are even purpose-built wheel ruts for short-axled cart traffic, and stepping stones for pedestrians to cross the thoroughfare. The gallery arches are semicircular in section, a Roman development, and -“ here his voice drops as he records another major Roman development - “bodies discovered in a gulley seven hundred metres down seem to be those of dead Roman slaves. DNA samples taken from all the bodies present indicate that most of them were of Slavic extraction, with ten per cent Vaemna, five per cent German, and four per cent Finno-Ugrian and Turkic, just about the proportions to be expected from Roman slave populations of the time and area. The slaves were, uh, probably worked to death, then had their bodies thrown into the gulley when they were of no more use. The gulley also seems to have been used as a latrine.
“As vernacular Greek graffiti has also been discovered in this area, we have christened it the Classical Layer. Someone went to great lengths to build a road down here, much of which has disintegrated over the centuries, and we have not actually yet reached the end of that road. This is the reason for our fifth trip down into the Abyss, which we’ll be undertaking today.”
He takes his glasses off to massage his temples as he takes questions from the floor. I realize with some surprise that he has lost a good deal of his hair. I myself have been picking grey hairs out of my comb for some weeks now. Big frown lines are starting to spread out from the headwaters of my eyes like river deltas. I’m certain I didn’t have them six months back. We have all been living in the same cheap hotel, in the same four adjoining rooms in the same cheap hotel, since May. Three major British and American newspapers have been hiring cheap Russian mafia bodyguards to stand meaningfully in the hotel hallways to prevent incensed Vaemna from lynching us. All our food is flown in in hampers from Fortnum & Mason’s. (And the bodyguards have to be Russian, or at least Byelorussian; the local mob can’t be trusted. One of our earlier guards has already been shot.)
We really shouldn’t be staying here. The head has been cut off Ivan’s security apparatus, but I suspect two more heads will spring up to replace every one that’s pollarded. The Vaemna have lost their pharaoh, and they will surely be revenged. But try as I might, I can’t make it through the departure gate at the airport. Somehow I have to know what it is that’s at the end of the Romans’ road, why an entire legion and scores of slaves were employed (and, er, murdered) to build it.
Question from the floor (young pimply gentleman in a very smart suit, probably hasn’t been working for his rag for long, anxious to make a good impression):
“Is it true that the British government sent Special Forces troops to Vzeng Na to acquire samples of a German nerve gas found in the Totalitarian Complex?”
Craig locks gazes with me before replying. “Uh, we certainly didn’t see any British Special Forces when we were down there. If you’re talking about Captain Thomas Keogh, then, yes, I believe it’s a known fact that he was a member of the British SAS, but he’s now believed to have been acting alone - he was a keen caver, by all accounts, and he was on leave from his unit, his regiment, at the time. The gun he shot Captain Gushin with was the personal sidearm of a Na policeman who Captain Keogh seems to have earlier murdered. He certainly seems to have had some British military equipment on him, night vision goggles and such, but he could quite easily have just borrowed it from his barracks without permission.”
They always ask that question, and that is the stock paragraph we have for it. Next question, from an older, crustier journo (you can tell the older ones, they grow larger on hotel food and the colours of their suits grow drabber. And they always say isn’t it true, not is it.):
“Isn’t it true that Na police troops were involved in massacring homeless people in the tunnels that join the Abyss to the city?”
Craig frowns. “We saw no evidence of any massacre, which is understandable, as we didn’t actually enter the tunnels. We do, however, understand the Na police to have been involved in operations against heroin addicts and sex traffickers who were holed up down there. We don’t believe Captain Keogh has been linked with this. It is our opinion that whatever could have incited Captain Keogh to shoot Captain Gushin must have been a tragic misunderstanding. Possibly Captain Keogh had been participating in an illegal caving expedition - all caving expeditions into the Abyss that don’t have the Na government’s permission are illegal - and was mistaken for a heroin trafficker by the Na police. Maybe one or more of his friends was shot, and Captain Keogh was exacting his idea of revenge. But I’d like to stress that this is just speculation on our part.”
This second journalist isn’t
stopping there, however. “Is it, in your
opinion, a coincidence that four other
British Special Forces servicemen died in the same week? Two missing presumed drowned in a training
"I can certainly tell you it's possible. I can tell you Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy are possible too. But if you want to know whether it's definitely true, I think you really need to be talking to someone from the British government."
The journo doesn't even flinch. "Like, for example, Sir Reginald Washburton, in whose consulate Miss Simpson over there spent at least one night just before Mr. Keogh murdered Captain Gushin?"
Craig doesn't even flinch back. This paragraph is pre-prepared too. "Miss Simpson had been attacked by drug addicts while on a caving expedition. The two men she was accompanying had also been attacked, shot, and killed. She went to the Consulate because she was afraid she might be also be killed." All, in fact, perfectly true, apart from an entire infernal horde of devils and details.
The face of the old journo, who I realize with distaste works for a rival rag to my own, collapses into a mass of scowl wrinkles like a sea anemone poked with a stick. Then some science pundit in a brown suit sticks up a hand and, finally, we get asked where we're going.
"Down", smiles Craig, to general chuckles. The ice finally gets broken. "We intend to use Mr. Lifty to the full extent of its operating envelope of two kilometres. If the hole goes down that deep, the mere fact that it does will be interesting enough."
"What if the road goes down further?" says Mr. Lary Journo.
"We will set down a team to explore further on foot equipped with protective clothing and breathing apparatus if conditions allow."
"Surely", pipes up one audience member, "the Ancient Romans couldn't have built a road into a cave system they were unable to breathe in." Aha, bright lad. But you didn't know what we need the protective gear to protect ourselves against. It ain't firedamp, that's for certain. And Craig doesn't answer that one, despite how well prepared he is.
"How many people will go down in the foot party?"
"Six", says Craig. "Wilson here, Miss Simpson, Mr. Bogdanovich -" he indicates Sean, who's sitting slumped in a chair as if he'd rather die than stay above ground a moment longer - "and three veterans of scientific caving expeditions in the Bahamas, Borneo and Russia. May I introduce Mr. and Mrs. Wayne Dougal, and Mr. Oleg Bilibin."
There are grinning bows and patters of polite applause. I push open the fire exit and wander out into the first floor of the lobby, staring through reconstituted marble balustrades at a knot of people cluttering up the chequerboard pattern of the Hilton's lobby tiling. This is the other press conference. Down there I recognize Tom Keogh's widow, Vernon Hallam's daughter, an earnest young gentleman from Greenpeace, a trio of sinister-looking Scientologists in matching grey suits, and the Lost Subterranean Fastness of Shambhala Correspondent of the National Inquirer. I also recognize two gentlemen sitting nonchalantly drinking lemonade at the bar, wearing well-made lounge suits, carrying on a conversation that I am sure involves the prostitutes in Kabul. Both of them notice me and wave. I retreat back behind the balustrade. I'm not quite ready for that level of confrontation yet.
"We have no interest in the Abyss. We have been down there already."
Lounge Suit Number 1 has a Russian accent and a silk handkerchief tucked into his top pocket. Rather carelessly for a spy's hanky, it has his initials on it in Cyrillic.
"We haven't been down into the Abyss, but we believe our Russian allies when they say we do not need to go down there." Lounge Suit Number 2 has a Massachussetts drawl and a tartan handkerchief in green and orange. Hides the bogeys, I imagine.
"You're prepared to take the Russians' word on this", says Craig in disbelief. This may not be a good move. After all, the Russians are just about all that has been keeping us, including Craig, alive till now.
We are in the cellar of a Romanian restaurant popular with tourists for the fact that it is called DRACULAS and features waitresses with uplift bras and fake plastic vampire fangs. The wine is actually Bulgarian, not Romanian, and most of what's on the menu is Hungarian, as few people have heard of sarmale, but everyone has heard of goulash, even when spelt with a 'gh'. As the restaurant is popular with tourists, it is not popular with Vaemna, which is no doubt the reason for us being here. However, I notice that a lot of diners at the tables all around us are behaving themselves to what, for tourists, seems an unnatural degree. At least one of them is wearing an earpiece. I also do not recall having seen this restaurant in the past; and in the street where it is, I should remember having walked past it several times before.
"We have seen a good deal of intelligence material passed to us by our Russian allies", says Lounge Suit Number 2. "It has convinced us we do not want to go into the Abyss. We would like you not to go into the Abyss too."
Lounge Suit Number 2 sniffs, looks up at Number 1, and nods. Number 1 gets to his feet, walks across the room, and (entirely unremarked by the waiters, which surprises me not at all) lifts two carriage clocks from either side of a big stone fireplace.
He sets the two clocks down on the table in front of us, reaches round the back of them, and winds them both to the same time. He's certainly not winding them up, as they both have QUARTZ MOVEMENT written on the back of their casings in very tiny letters.
"How good is your eyesight?" he says to me.
"Pretty good", I answer.
He nods, gets up with one clock, and walks it off to the other end of the room, setting it down on the table facing me.
"When the second hand on your clock reaches the number twelve again, take a look at my clock."
I nod, and watch the hand obediently. When it passes the minute, I look up. The second hand on the other clock is still at 59.
"So this clock loses one second every minute. Not so good for a clock I bought in town this morning, yes?"
"So what? It's only a second." I realize this is moronic as soon as I say it. One second a minute is one hour every three days. Is six days every year.
"Bad Vaemna workmanship", says Craig dismissively.
Lounge Suit Number 1 gets up, walks back up the room, sets the clock back down next to the first one, winds both to the same time again.
"Now watch", he says.
I watch. The two second hands keep pace right round to the moment they cross the minute marker.
"And that means?"
Lounge Suit 1 casts a glance up the room. "It means there is something different about that end of the room."
Craig snorts derisively. "It means you've got yourself a magnet and some sleight of hand."
Lounge Suit 1 looks hugely offended. Lounge Suit 2, on the other hand, nods. "Yes, it would be possible for us to fool you. Given the resources at our disposal, it would even be easy. But now I've placed the seed in your mind, being scientists, you will make little experiments of your own, and I'm convinced you will convince yourself. Unless, of course, you're capable of fooling yourself, and I've met a few of those in my time, of course."
Craig stares at the clocks. "What are you suggesting? That one end of this room is travelling close to the speed of light, and the other isn't?"
"I'm suggesting nothing", says Suit Number 1, "apart from the fact that that end of the room is closer to the Abyss."
"How pronounced is the effect at the Abyss edge?" says Wilson, who already appears to be sold on the idea.
"Not much larger. About three seconds per minute. That also seems to be the case right down to two point two kilometres in, which is the lowest point for which reliable readings exist."
"No-one's ever gone down deeper than two kilometres", says Craig quickly.
"No-one that you know about", says Suit Number 1.
Wilson, and everyone else at the table - me, Sean, Craig, Bilibin, and the two Australians, Dougal and Dougal - stares in disbelief. Disbelief, and indignation - this is like someone tapping Neil Armstrong on the shoulder before he gets into Apollo 11 and saying, 'Ah, by the way, Armstrong, it's like this - the CIA have been on the Moon secretly since 1862."
"How deep did you
Suit Number 1 clears his throat embarrassedly. "Ah, this is not entirely certain, as the debriefing was of necessity somewhat haphazard. Let us say three kilometres."
"That's impossible! What was the temperature down there?"
"Was the atmosphere breathable?"
"You do know there are one thousand metres in a kilometre, don't you?"
Suit 2 waves away the torrent of questions exasperatedly. "Enough please! We have a transcript of the debriefing. It will answer every question that can be answered. More complex answers we do not have."
Lounge Suit 1 reaches down under the table, and I hear briefcase-unclipping noises. He slides out a sheaf of papers, very gently, as if removing the innards of a bomb.
"These papers", he says, "will not leave this room. I am authorized to allow you to read them, one person at a time, one page at a time. I am also authorized, if you attempt to take any of them away from me, to shoot you."
"Read them to us",
Lounge Suit 1 looks narrowly
"Thought so", said
"The restaurant is an international fixture", says Suit Number 1. "It can be packed into trucks and moved from country to country at a moment's notice. It is often essential to be able to provide a meeting location that is both credible and completely safe."
I blink and stare at the departing diners. "You move the whole building?"
Suit Number 1 smiles indulgently. "No. Just the interior décor and staff."
He does have good reason for needing them read to him as, of course, they're in Russian. Suit Number 1 clears his throat. "Ah, first of all it is important to realize the circumstances. This is the transcript of a conversation with a dying man. He was the only surviving member of an eight-man team sent down into the Abyss from what we call the Devil's Distillery, what I suppose you would call the lower gate of the Totalitarian Complex."
I nod. "We saw APC tracks in the Hall of Pipes. Would that have been them?"
"It may well have
been. No-one has been down there since
that time. Our team travelled in a
specially made light reconnaissance vehicle adapted from a BTR-60 military APC,
hand welded out of aluminium, made airtight, and powered by an ingenious and
highly dangerous self-contained peroxide motor.
Even its engine, you see, was designed not to need air to breathe. The vehicle was armed with a single
turret-mounted twelve point seven millimetre machine gun. The crew were young, fit men, and three of
them, the officers, possessed academicians' degrees in technical subjects. Two had fought in
"I think you mean
'gunned down demonstrators in
"Then we see this - 'HAVE ENCOUNTERED MAN MADE OBSTACLE EXTENDS 10 METRES UP, 20 DOWN; INVESTIGATING.' An engineer at Tupolev later designed a camera mounted on a small balloon which was used to take photographs of this 'obstacle'. Many of them came out quite well." He produces a matt blow-up of a fuzzy obstacle, looking like a cross between a cathedral buttress and a caddis-fly larva, slicing down across the road.
“It can’t be man-made. There can't be people living down that deep", says the Australian woman, Jeanette Dougal. Luckily, Jeanette has not discovered either fashion or hairstyling, or she'd be better looking than me. "There's simply not enough food to supply them."
"There is if there's a constant supply of cavers", says Sean, without any apparent sarcasm, which only makes it worse.
"Mrs. Dougal is correct", says Oleg Bilibin, a painfully thin, middle-aged academic who seems to sustain himself purely on the weight of his own crapulence, as I haven't yet seen him eat or drink. "There is insufficient biomass at that depth. No energy source. No sunlight."
"I know Mrs. Dougal is correct", says Craig. "And six months ago, I would have agreed with her. But the fact is that, as well as being correct, she's wrong, because there are people down there, because we have the holes they left in other people to prove it."
"At least, they were
down there in 1962", corrects
Bilibin thinks about this and nods, trapped by logic.
"In any case”, continues Suit 1, “whoever built the obstacle, they knew enough about the engineering of iron to allow them use metal pieces to hold a wall together. If it were only built out of stone compressing stone like a Classical temple or basilica, I am told that a structure like this would fall apart immediately. Of course, iron reinforced structures would rust away in time too. We believe in fact that they already rusted on several previous occasions. I am referring here to the 'gulfs' the team passed in messages nine, ten and eleven."
"Precisely. The fact that the makers of this obstacle had a source of iron, and knew how to reinforce structures with it, is after all certain. Look at the number of sharp iron or steel blades that stick out of it. Iron, steel, and, by the reflections from the camera flash, glass. Anyone attempting to climb around the obstacle using only their hands would be losing fingers very quickly."
"So how'd'they get round it?" says Sean.
Lounge Suit 1 returns his
attention to the document. "The,
ah, next message is as follows. 'OBSTACLE
POSSIBLY DESIGNED TO DEFEND AGAINST ARMED AGGRESSION. DISCOVERED NUMBER OF MP44 CARTRIDGE CASES,
"Last seen with his hands spread wide in peaceful intent with his own fingerbones hammered through them, was he?" says Sean.
"Ah, the next message reads 'DANILOV AND PONOMARENKO OVERDUE 3 HOURS NOW. HAVE DECIDED TO FOLLOW WITH NON-PEACEFUL INTENT.' That is Lieutenant Yezhov, one of the three men left behind by Captain Danilov."
"Smart man", says Sean. "What's next?"
"Then there are no messages for the next five hours. Gerasimov, the single man left on guard with the APC above them, reports in message fifteen that he has seen phosphor flares going off in the deep below him, almost all the flares that Danilov's party carried."
"The MP44 cartridges were left by someone spinning round in a circle firing blind", says Sean.
"Someone too scared and heavily surrounded to aim", I add.
Suit Number 1 clears his throat and continues. But he's visibly sweating, and breathing with some difficulty.
"The next message was very short, and the light used to flash it very dim. It says only, 'THEY FEAR THE LIGHT. THEY ARE NOT MEN ANY LONGER. THEY HAVE LIVED DOWN HERE A LONG TIME. THE GATE THROUGH THE BASTION WAS LOCKED WHEN WE RETURNED' -"
("Surprise surprise", says Sean under his breath.)
"- WE ARE TRYING TO FORCE IT. HAVE NO GRENADES LEFT. AM ONLY FLASHING MESSAGE AS THE LIGHT KEEPS THEM AWAY. DO NOT THINK ANY ONE WILL SEE IT. THEY FEAR THE LIGHT. TELL MY WIFE', and there it ends."
"So Gerasimov was the only man who survived", says Craig.
Suit Number 1 shakes his head. "Gerasimov died when person or persons unknown to us fired or stabbed or projected this into his neck." He opens the sheaf of papers to another blow-up of a grainy black and white photo of what looks like a slender icicle.
"It is hollow", says Suit Number 1. "At its centre, we believe it to have contained around ten milligrams of Samarobrin emulsion - Oracle Smoke. I suspect Corporal Gerasimov died very quickly."
"What is Samarobrin - uh, Oracle Smoke?" I ask.
Suit Number 1 shrugs his shoulders. "We have no idea. Being neither truly solid, nor liquid, nor a gas, but an emulsion, it defies most attempts to study it in situ, and it is not portable; it breaks down into carbon dioxide, water, methane, and complex organic compounds such as mercaptans if it is carried away from its natural environment. Even if carried in a sealed container."
"Alkanes and mercaptans", grins Craig. "Fart gas. Almost as if someone has a sense of humour."
But one of us, at least, has not lost track of one final detail.
"So, who was the guy who
"Gerasimov was found dead by the APC by a rescue team several hours later. His sidearm was still in his hand, and all around him was a little ragged circle of nine millimetre Stetchkin bullets." Suit Number 1 cannot deny himself a grim Russian smile. "However, forty-five minutes later, a single trooper, attracted by the lights of the rescuers, was also recovered. Sergeant Portnoy was missing all but two of his fingers and one of his thumbs. He had had to climb around the bastion. His battledress was full of the little glass vessels that had punctured Corporal Gerasimov, which luckily for him had not penetrated his skin. He had lost his signalling light, his backpack, his helmet, and a lot of blood. Debriefing him was difficult, requiring great effort both from him and from his interrogators, and may have hastened his death."
"What did he die
"Inattention on our part, I fear. Whilst he was being driven from the debriefing to the military hospital here in Na, he kicked the doors of the ambulance open, ran three streets to the Beglerbeg's Wall, scrambled over it, and hurled himself into the gulf. In his debriefing", Suit Number 1 licks his lips, "he speaks of 'The City' and 'The Temple' and 'Men Who Are Not Men'. And - and he repeats this phrase a number of times - 'the dark, it has as many eyes as a peacock'."
I read down the page where Suit Number 1's finger is resting. "'I have been in their City. I have seen their - " I find the next phrase difficult only because it is so unexpected - "aquamarine idols. I have seen my comrades crucified, still alive...I shot one through the head, to kill him, to put him out of his misery. They hate the light. They hate the light and fear it, because it is good, and they are only evil. They live down there amid stinking pools and bubbling geysers of that foul poison...they speak no language known to man. They are not Russians, they are not Romans, they are not Germans. They are not human any longer.'"
“Still want to go down?” says Suit Number 2.
“Hang on”, says
Suit Number 1 nods
sadly. “But you are not remembering that
as well as helicopters and spetsnaz, the
“General Vlasov was a Christian, and had enemies in the Politburo, and such a fiasco had to be blamed on someone. However, if anyone suggested that the General had failed due to incompetence, that person could be challenged to do the General’s job any better. And nobody, of course, knew for sure whether the job Vlasov had failed at could actually be done. So instead, the General’s enemies claimed that he had been foolishly chasing subterranean enemies that did not exist, that there was nothing in the Abyss but stupid Christian and Jewish superstition, things not right for good Communists to concern themselves with. General Vlasov was stripped of his rank, and no Soviet expedition ever went down into the pit again.”
"So you're suggesting we should turn tail and run from a sad race of underground mutants whose main weakness we already know", concludes Craig.
This appears to nonplus the suits. Suit 2 looks at Suit 1. Suit 1 shrugs and nods.
"Well - yes", says Suit 2.
"No fear", Craig says. "Their weakness is light, right? So we take a big old box of road flares with us, maybe a portable generator, a bunch of halogen floodlights...oh, and guns. Lots and lots of guns. Guns with infrared sights."
"What if they don't show up on infrared?" says Sean.
"You've been watching too many movies", says Craig. "Everyone shows up on infrared."
Sean counts on his fingers. "Count Dracula, the Id Monster, H R Giger's Alien, Star Vampires from unknown Kadath - that's four, do I need to go on?"
"Sean, none of those people exist."
"There is no smoke without fire."
"So", says Suit Number 2 to Craig, twiddling his thumbs, looking intently at the floor. "We cannot dissuade you. You are fixed in this course of action."
"Absolutely", says Craig.
"It is not entirely unexpected", says Suit Number 1 with unconcealed distaste. "Previous survivors of expeditions into the Abyss have become disturbed if removed from it. It is a form of mental illness."
"I'll say", says Sean, sticking two empty bottles of Pilsner up his nose.
"Well", says Suit 2, licking his lips, mountainously embarrassed, "since you're dead set on going...would you mind taking some recording gear down there for us?"
Both suits seem genuinely surprised when the whole room erupts in laughter.
"So that's the 'Obstacle'."
It has taken five whole days
to get this far down. Sean is almost
literally hopping with frustration. We
have been using arrays of scaffolding winched down over two kilometres to cross
gaps he could have scampered over in seconds.
The US and Russian militaries, it would seem, will not be happy until it
is possible to propel themselves to the bottom of the Abyss on motorized
wheelchairs. Up behind us, pioneer teams
are manning each scaffold over the gulf, each silvery bridge having its own non-air-breathing
generator and a total of eight quartz halogen searchlights to make the dark
down here as bright as a midsummer day in southern
And now that all this gear, all this materiel, is down here, that tiny little hole in a tiny little wall doesn't seem so menacing at all, more of an anticlimax. More pathetic. In fact, I'm beginning to feel sorry for the poor things, however murderous they might be, that lie beyond it.
Well, actually, it's quite a big wall. Far too high to climb. And impossible to dynamite - the suits were right. It's built a long, long way out from the face, almost certainly held together by iron pinning. To blow it would be to send the whole construction tumbling down into the deep, obstacle, path and all, necessitating another day of waiting as more scaffolding is brought down from above.
So it's a good thing the gate, a solid mass of rust, is hanging open on its hinges. There is what looks like a key mechanism, but the key it would take would surely outweigh a man. Whoever these people are, they believe in engineering in a prodigious safety margin.
We have a proper manned base camp behind and above us, with generators and enough fuel to keep the floodlights blazing into the dark till Christmas - and it's only January now. We have not just one, but a caravan of dinky little tracked vehicles with US ARMY badly painted over on their sides, plus a whole A-Team of enthusiastic young military drones in flak jackets and respirators (mostly American, with two or three token Russian observers). I've no idea how the Americans managed to swing getting a group of US troops into a former Soviet satellite nation on the White Russian border. Most likely the Russians were asked to provide the manpower and couldn't afford it.
Sean, sitting on a rock, eyes the men in masks with an unsettled expression.
"Kilo for your
thoughts", I say. The Kilo is the
Na currency, an oddity in European history which is actually not that odd. After all,
"I don't want to be around when one of those guys gets a whiff of Oracle Smoke and opens up on the others", says Sean.
"I know what you mean. After all, they're likely to be better shots than the Na police."
Craig and Wilson, possibly out of some deep-seated American thing in their psyche, have taken a big-eyed trip round Uncle Sam's military sweetshop with Suit 1 and Suit 2, and are solemnly standing over by the nearest scaffolding bridge discussing muzzle velocities and cavitation with one of the gasmasked troopers. Both Craig and Wilson are toting what I am sure have proper names like AR-15 and M16 and M2HB, but can also be perfectly adequately described by the catch-all term Fucking Great Guns. Not content with the industry standard Fucking Great Gun product, however, they have also attached a prodigious number of accessories to their pieces - night sights, flash hiders, and for all I know, extra ergonomic triggers for that squeezy feeling. Whatever part they can bolt a bit to has had a bit bolted to it. I shudder to think how much the weapons must now weigh. They seem not to have noticed that the army guy they're talking to is hefting a rifle considerably smaller than Craig's pistol.
Craig is, officially, our Leader. Being the official head of the Komatsu Vortox project, and being, more importantly, an American, he has been put in charge of the expedition. However, we've been issued copious documentation by the Americans regarding who is in charge of what, and Craig's actual remit seems to fall into the 'Jack Shit' category. American (and token Russian) military personnel will be responsible for getting us into the Abyss and back, defending us against 'external aggression' (I note that internal aggression seems to be OK), planning our route, feeding, clothing and watering us, etc., etc., etc. Craig has authority to decide which pretty rocks to look at under a microscope every time the military machine says we can stop and break out the scientific mumbo-jumbo.
The Dougals, Wayne and
Jeanette, and the Russian, Bilibin, are fussing with their backpacks. Jeanette Dougal has refused the offer of a
weapon from the military, whilst
Apart from the AKM, Bilibin
seems to be filling the rest of his rucksack with meticulously-packed bars of
Russian chocolate (a good choice,
Almost everyone coughing heavily since our arrival; many feeling under the weather, despite the fact that down here, there is no weather. Air quality v. bad, maybe due to the bats. Many people wearing the precautionary SARS masks issued by the paramedics. This seems to stop the coughing.
Wayne and Jeanette, amusingly, are unused to caving in the cold, and are already shivering, but are stoically refusing to complain. Maybe they think they’ll somehow grow accustomed to the cold and become like us Northern Hemispheric folk. They seem not to have realized that us Northern Hemispheric folk have all packed thermal underwear. It must also help that, unlike the tanned and muscular Greg and Jeanette, I have a solid supply of painstakingly built-up body fat. Sean, to be fair, does actually seem to thrive on cold. He seems to have evolved to live underground. I feel that if we actually get to meet any light-shunning denizens of the netherworld, Sean will be able to play a vital part in communicating with them. It is quite possible they may make him their king.
Knew it would be an anticlimax.
Progress down into the Abyss has been swift and, sad to relate, merciless.
These things, these people, do show up on infrared, and are vulnerable to gunfire. A great deal of gunfire. The poor things - I shouldn't say poor things, as they were attempting to climb around the face upwards and downwards of us and get behind us for an attack - showed up on the soldiers' scopes before they had chance to get within glass needling distance. The soldiers opened up without issuing any sort of warning. We didn't recover any bodies - everything fell into the Abyss. What we did see was roughly human-shaped. But they must have been terrific climbers to be able to move up a face silently at that sort of speed. Even Sean is impressed. He says he's sorry now he didn't bring a weapon, and I agree with him.
The Americans are very good at killing things. They keep an area around us bathed with floodlights at all times, and shoot dead anything coming even remotely close to us. We have all been told to stay in the vehicles for our own safety, and I can see why. Anything manshaped and moving that pops up in our escorts' sights stops a bullet. We complained at first, then saw the folly of complaining and simply hunkered down in the wagons with our eyes shut and our hands over our ears, singing la-la-la-I'm-not-listening to our consciences. The leader of our convoy, a wet-behind-the-ears Hitlerjung named, I kid you not, Nelson Nilsson, says we'll "interact more productively with the local fauna if we can first demonstrate a position of strength."
Every now and again, Nilsson's caravan of carnage stops in order for the "scientist guys" to get out to collect mineral samples and take photos of interesting minerals. Nobody seems to have told Nilsson that Sean and myself aren't Scientific Types - grunts keep handing us eyeglasses, UV torches and rock hammers, and asking us if we're going to need the spectrometer or the microtome. Sean, however, has enough local underground knowledge to have already pointed out to Craig and Wilson that the rock they were examining was fluorite rather than benitoite, a statement immediately concurred with by Wayne and Jeanette.
The road is still patchy and, in places, nonexistent. The vehicles we've been loaned, however, include one which trundles along at the front and has been brought along solely to span gaps with a variety of folding, extending and interlocking bridge sections concealed in its innards. Unfortunately, because we only have one of the vehicles, Captain Nilsson is faced with the decision of whether to continue without requesting extra scaffolding from further uproad to ensure a safe escape route. He decides to press on regardless, leaving gaps in the road behind us which, if we lose the bridging vehicle, we'll be unable to return over.
A while ago, while Nilsson’s engineers were still struggling across one of the voids in the road, Craig called me over to a spot on the wall where his scientific team had been conducting an experiment. They have some sort of weird Dyno-Rod device plugged into the rock; it looks like they’re drilling into it. Or rather, they’re not right now, because they’re busy taking their own equipment apart and examining it in microscopic detail.
“Take a look at this”, says Craig. He hands me a chart. The chart shows a wiggly line labelled dt climbing from a flat plane to a spiky peak. I don’t even attempt to feign understanding.
“That”, says Craig, pointing at the long flexible metal cylinder his men are currently picking to pieces, “was designed to measure the passage of time at various depths of a drill hole sunk into the Abyss wall. There’s a separate atom decay clock built into an IC every inch along the bit, and a master clock in the drill’s power train.”
“Did it work?” I say.
“I don’t know”, he says. “I hope not.”
“dt represents the change in the rate time elapses as measured locally. The left side of the chart is the powertrain, effectively zero centimetres into the face. The right hand side goes up to one metre deep.”
The chart appears to show that time is moving logarithmically faster the further the drill travels into the Abyss wall, except for one particular - the one metre measurement is missing.
I draw Craig’s attention to it.
“The drill bit shattered at one metre”, he says. “Puffed into dust. When we pulled it out, it just wasn’t there any more.”
“If you extrapolate the line...”
"And if you believe the bullshit", reproves Wayne Dougal.
“And if you believe the bullshit, at that point it would have been recording time elapsing at one hundred thousand times normal speed. Particularly considering that the powertrain end of the drill was still moving at normal speed, it's hardly surprising it broke.”
Craig stares at the chart in open dismay. “They've tested this equipment operationally. I've seen the QA assessments. Limestone, granite, chalk, you name it.”
“Kryptonite?” says Sean innocently.
Craig throws him a dirty look.
We shoot only two of the night creatures in the next hour; they seem to be getting more cautious, approaching only to the limits of our outriders' nightsights. One of the grunts who bags one swears blind that it stared at him out of the dark with "big eyes, like a cat's." One of the things actually screams, quite an eerie scream, a man's scream but too high for a man, like an operatic castrato: "EHEU! EHEU! ADIUVA ME!"
"What sort of language is that?" says a soldier in the comforting dark of our APC.
"It isn't Russian", says Bilibin.
"Vaemna, maybe", says Craig.
There certainly should be corpses this time; both bodies fell onto the road. We heard the thumps. But by the time we get there, there is no body to be found.
What we do find, however, is perhaps even more interesting.
When we get to the location,
I find a lone
"What are they?" he says. And it's actually Nilsson, behind me, who says, "I think I can answer that."
I look at the objects. They look like a field of washing blown onto some fenceposts. I take a guess from the rust of the iron some are made of that they are very, very old, but that is the limit of my knowledge. "You can?"
"Aquilae", says Nilsson. "Aigles Impériales. We're made to study ancient warfare in cadet school. I made it a specialist subject. It was the reason why I was included on this project, actually. Those, ma'am, are, left to right - an ancient Roman aquila - literally, 'an eagle', a sort of battle flag. Flanking it you can see two legionary standards, not quite the same as aquilae, though sometimes people assume they are. See those letters S P Q R? They stand for senatus populusque romanus, 'The Senate and People of Rome'. Next to it is a standard from the later - probably the eastern - empire, called a labarum. Look at the chi-rho design at the head of it - a design from a Greek-speaking people who worshipped Christ. Next to that is something I don't recognize...nor the next one, but I'm certain the lettering is Arabic...next to that is what looks like a battle flag of the Austrian Habsburgs, with the double eagle...and next to that we come full circle. An eagle standard of Napoleon's army, intended to mimic a Roman aquila, and another from the Nazis...that one has both the eagle and the swastika, same as the Roman one."
"Some people have no imagination."
"It's quite rare to see a German SS standard captured. Normally they were kept safe well behind the lines of battle. This would probably be worth quite a lot of money to, ah -"
"Very sick people?"
"I'm sure you're right",
says Nilsson diplomatically. He walks
forward and rubs a layer of dirt off the thing.
A plaque underneath the eagly-swastiky stuff says
"It's local", I
The metal of the Nazi standard is still shiny and bright. Next to it, the metal pole of a Soviet hammer-and-sickle banner is lizard-skinned with rust.
"And it's hardly been corroded", says Nilsson, almost reverently. Why does this worry me? "As new as the day it was cast", he adds.
"That's because it's made of aluminium", points out Sean, "whereas the Russian one is made of steel."
"But what are they doing down here?" says Bilibin.
"Trophies", I say. "Skulls mounted on sticks. The sort of things primitive tribesmen put up to say STAY AWAY."
"Some trophies!" says Nilsson. "A Roman legion numbered between five and six thousand soldiers. A Napoleonic regiment was even larger."
"Nevertheless", I say, "they got their hands on these somehow." Though I suspect the local SS detachment probably slaughtered their own officers as soon as the Russians got close to the walls, then chucked their battle standard in the Abyss. It's the way the Vaemna do things.
We take our leave of the standards, though Nilsson orders them photographed and organizes a team to excavate them for removal back up to the surface. The Museum of the Pit will shortly have ten new exhibits.
Towering around us on all
sides, the Abyss is all terrifying sublimity.
Giant spires of abyssite tower priapically out of the dark, geologically
inexplicable; where necessary, the road detours around them, and occasionally
burrows through them. If anything, it is
difficult to escape the conclusion that the diameter of the vent is getting wider
rather than constricting, and
After another hour, Sean suddenly stands stock-still in the way of an oncoming APC, almost causing it to lose control and go over the edge. He's oblivious, staring up at something far above.
I look up from where I am on the next APC - I can't see anything.
"OKAY - I GIVE IN. WHAT IS IT?"
"Sunset", says Sean, pointing. And it is indeed a beautiful sunset, what little I can see of it - a rosy red dot in the roof shining down like a sniper scope laser.
"You nearly put one of my vehicles over a cliff because you stopped to look at a sunset?" yells a sergeant.
Sean looks up, straight into the man's eyes, and holds up his left wrist and the watch fastened to it.
"It's been sunset for three hours."
"I don't know, I think the light from above is being bent and reddened in some way." This is Craig.
"A relativistic effect?" This is Bilibin. Mister Logical.
"It's too soon to say right now. But telescope observation of the sky above the shaft certainly seems to show a pronounced shift towards the red end of the spectrum, compared with observation of the walls around it."
"It couldn't be a normal sunset that's just lasting a long time." This is Nilsson, sounding worried. We're talking sotto voce half in and half out of the back of an APC, but sound carries in the deep like a whisper in a cathedral gallery, and Nilsson's men are hanging around as close as is humanly practicable without him being able to accuse them of blatant earwigging. After all, the convoy's been stopped for hours now just so Craig can spend time looking up at the sky.
Craig shakes his head. "No."
"Because the sun's gone down and come up three times upstairs since I started observing. And the light colour up there doesn't seem to change despite that."
Nilsson's eyes pop out of his head. "In eight hours? That's impossible."
Following Sean's revelation
on the sunset, we've made camp. The camp
has been officially dubbed
"Nevertheless", says Craig, "that seems to be the case."
"Such as what?" says Nilsson. "What sort of event?"
"I think we all know", says Bilibin, "exactly what sort of event Mr. Jones is talking about."
"Brighter than the sun itself", repeats Jeanette Dougal.
"And the dust scooped up into the stratosphere from a nuclear explosion would create the most spectacular sunsets", says Bilibin. "They might last for days, maybe even years."
"It couldn't be a nuclear explosion", says Nilsson. "Not that many, not all at once, around the same city."
"Why not?" says Craig. "Most missiles these days have MIRV warheads - multiple payloads detonating all round the target, each one a few hundred kilotons or so. All you need is for a few of them to fall to the ground and fail to detonate, then maybe get tripped by bomb disposal teams and BANG, you get your apocalypse spaced out at intervals."
There is much discussion on this point, all of it pointless as we have no way of observing what is actually going on way up above us, but in the end, Nilsson’s less alarmist argument wins the day and we continue on our way down. The Dougals wanted to send a couple of troopers back to check on current events on the surface, but Nilsson overrules them. Not sure whether I disagree with him or not. Jeanette Dougal is that most common Australian thing, an Aussie who can beat the poms hollow at a game they invented, in this case whingeing.
A little while later, Sean sidles up to me as I’m picking my way across scree.
“Been checking the sunrise again”, he says. “Sun’s not set for an hour.”
“That’s encouraging”, I say. “Let’s hope it goes for the full twenty-four.”
“Or even the full forty-eight”, he says, almost under his breath. “The sky’s been red all this time. The sun’s been setting for over an hour. First time speeds up, then it slows down. Weird shit.” He throws a conspiratorial glance over at the other expedition members. “Of course, they know too. They’ve been looking up just like I have. They just won’t admit it.”
They do, indeed, look worried. Bilibin is glancing upwards so often he’s nearly lost his footing and tumbled into the Pit at least once.
“Why, then,” I say, “are we whispering?”
“I have no idea. Of course, you realize all this means some clever clever person is going to have to rewrite the laws of physics.”
“Or it could just mean the sky is red because there’s a city on fire up there.”
“So it could”, he admits in a whisper, sighs out a long breath, and sidles away.
And only an hour after that, we come on the Black Smoker.
It blocks the road, belching out smog like a perpetual oil fire; as we approach unwisely to within billowing distance of it, it feels like a fire, a cold one, more a pillar of flame than a pillar of smoke. I tell this to Bilibin, and he replies that a Moslem man once told him that Allah made dzhin from a black smokeless fire, after the making of angels and before the creation of people. I presume that by dzhin, he means genies. I don't know. Maybe he means gin, though what Allah would be doing moonshining, I have no idea.
What the Black Smoker is putting out may look like smoke, may look like fire, but is in fact pure Oracle Smoke, writhing and suppurating out of a crack in the rock that resembles nothing so much as a human wound. Fascinated, I climb out of the APC in my NBC gear and walk closer to it than I would ever have believed I would.
"It's coming straight out of the rock", says Craig in disbelief.. "It's not a made thing at all. It comes out of the ground."
One of the few Russian soldiers mutters something which I do not translate to Craig. What he says is "out of Hell." Again, I'm not sure whether I disagree with him or not.
What we all do agree on, however, is that the Black Smoker is a thing we can do without having in our lungs, air intakes, rifle magazines, and sandwiches, and Nilsson decides to send the vehicles through it one at a time, though he has the two rear cars reverse to a point where they can see, by dint of the curvature of the Abyss wall, what's on the other side of the Smoke plume and warn us of an ambush. The preparations we go through to make each vehicle safe and airtight are baroque; I can't help feeling any self-respecting VX molecule would have already snuck into our respirators by the time the last hatch is dogged and the overpressure dial cranked up to the max.
But all the same, inside that vanguard vehicle as it trundles through the murk, there is still an indefinable sense of something black and wrong and horrible whispering over our hull, probing, searching for a way in through all that steel and plastic.
And then we're through. I can tell we're through, because the hull sounds normal, feels warmer, feels one constant temperature against my back rather than a writhing succession of temperature gradients that feels as if I'm being explored by an octopus. Still, we sit for a very long time and wait while the crew squint through various viewports and peiriscopes and examine instruments. Eventually, they, and the crews of the other vehicles positioned further round the Abyss, pronounce the top hatch safe to open. Even so, it's opened by a man in NBC gear, and with the rest of us huddled at the other end of the compartment in gasmasks.
Eventually, after they've doused the outside of our hull with some Russian attachment designed for cleaning down chemical weapons trucks, they announce that we can, gingerly and in great fear, remove our gasmasks. Jeanette Dougal doesn't remove hers even then, but waits until everyone else has removed theirs and not displayed any ill effects for several minutes.
"The Black Smoke won't kill us just yet." To do him credit, Nilsson has accompanied us in the guinea pig car, and now we're through and clean, he waves the others through likewise.
"I'll grow old down here", agrees Sean.
"I already have grown old down here", I mutter.
My watch says it should be sundown; our little dot of sky seems to think it's .
We seem to have come to a place where faulting has shunted the entire Abyss sideways, leaving overhangs deep enough for a squillion bats to hang in perfect dryness, though there are no bats; we are too deep for bats. There are also wide, flat ledges large enough to march a Napoleonic regiment down in open formation. The overhangs either have luminous bacteria or, more worryingly, luminous rocks on their undersides, glowing like the mouths of some bizarre bioluminescent sea creature. Of course, the light the organisms and/or radioactive compounds give out is not nearly enough to see by; only enough to find disturbing.
Speaking of Napoleonic regiments, it is here we find the hats. French shakos, Roman casca, Herman Gelmets. Rusty spiky Turkish headgear made to be rammed into your adversary of choice. This would provide a fascinating fashion parade of military modes through the ages suitable for all ages, were it not for the fact that each hat still contains the head of the original wearer.
"These will prove", says Craig, "to be the skulls of those who failed to take this place." This seems an odd thing to say, although I am not quite sure why.
one", says Nilsson, tapping a Napoleonic bearskin, "will be the pride
Then Bilibin gets in on the fact and points across the Abyss towards a patch of glowing blackness on the opposing wall. "This will prove to be bioluminescence, very rare in terrestrial organisms, but exactly the same wavelength as is seen in many marine fauna. We will find it is the same chemical."
This is beginning to disturb me. "Oh, will we."
The second APC is
now coming on through the Smoker. The
ground underfoot is sandy, but greasy - not thick sand, probably carried down
by a number of small waterfalls that punctuate the cliff. Our APC's tracks can cope with it
easily. Our boots find it more
But there is a smell...an undefinable odour...what is that?
"Phew! I'll remember that stink as long as I live", I remark to Sean.
"You'll live a long life", replies Sean mournfully, "and bear many children."
Shit. Even I'm starting to do it now.
"Someone will please make a statement that isn't phrased as a future prediction", I say, through gritted teeth.
"Pardon?" says Jeanette Dougal.
"You'll find what you just said is a future prediction in itself", says Sean, exhaling wearily and sitting down in the sand, his back to a comfy rock, his rifle at his feet, as if giving in And I know full well why. All the masks and hatches, all the carefully made precautions and diligently followed procedures, were not enough. Finally, the poison has found a way through rubber, steel, plastic and skin into our brains. If it wasn't there already.
And the only reason why I know exactly what it is that's making the sand greasy underfoot is that I already know exactly what it's going to do to us. I try to force myself to make statements rather than prophecies, but it is difficult.
But there's no point any more in warning anybody, when they know full well what is going to happen to us. To almost all of us. Sean is already nodding knowingly.
Nilsson turns to me, blinking heavily as if drunk.
"I will", he says, "shortly know what the hell you are talking about."
We were fools to think we could avoid the stuff simply by driving through it in a steel shell. It's more subtle than that, and more tenacious. It must be in the air like airborne batshit, in the greasy sand like corpse-rot, in the water like blotter LSD, burning through our every defence like -
I see the match, a primitive firelighter as long as a man's arm - I'll later find it to be made of dried bat-wings, phosphor, and human fat - strike a hundred yards away...
"Greek Fire", I say softly.
The entire shelf under our feet surges like a living carpet of fire. It's moving towards us through the muck, sending up a shower of sand like a cruising sea beast coursing just below the surface towards a swimmer.
One of the troopers turns towards me, indolently.
"Don't bother running", I say. "You die anyway."
He nods, and the flame takes him down like a crash test dummy. He doesn't even bother to unsling his rifle.
I, on the other hand, am up and running. I have a future. Sean has a future, but it is different from mine. He sits with his back to his rock, and the fire divides around him, and he sits watching the soldiers, those soldiers from the second APC who haven't yet been affected by the Smoke, screaming, dying, and burning, trying frantically to fan out the flames, which I already know is pointless, as the flames contain their own oxygen supply. Jeanette Dougal is running too, as far as the first APC, which she dives inside and dogs the hatch of. Her husband, who also appears not to have been affected by the Smoke as, if he had been, he'd have known this to be pointless, follows shortly after and hammers on the hatch, which she doesn't open, and the flames take him. Nilsson shrugs, eats his service revolver, and decorates the Abyss wall with his grey matter.
Craig just stands and burns, looking at his combusting hands sadly.
The soldiers who have come through on the second APC have panicked, of course, firing in all directions at the enemy, bits of the landscape that look like the enemy, and maybe even just plain bits of the landscape. Since they’re shooting inside a set of solid stone walls surrounding them on all sides, they seem to be losing some men to ricochets of their own gunfire.
And of course, the enemy open up with firearms of their own. How daft were we to think they'd just thrown away all those lovely Stetchkins and Schmeissers from 1943 and 1962, thinking they were the white man's magic. No, they kept all of them, and learned to use them with admirable effectiveness. Bizarrely, I see rows of crackling gunbarrels standing in line facing our men on the APC's. Weapons at shoulder height, the other side's heavy artillery fire till their magazines are exhausted; then - I am certain, even though I can only see the muzzle flashes alone, that this is what is happening - they kneel down and reload as their second rank rise, walk forward and fire. Give a submachinegun to a man who last fired a Napoleonic musket, and this is the use he'll make of it.
The thing is, it actually works. Whether these men can aim their pieces straight or not, there's no escaping the sheer volume of fire a line of troops twenty guns wide can put out. Lead is splashing through our lines like rainwater, and like rainwater, it finds every nook and cranny, going between flak jackets and helmets, through viewports, past lucky beltbuckles and Bibles.
In point of fact, I can’t see any actual enemy bodies out there beyond the flames, though that’s no guarantee there aren’t any. The fire is blinding my eyes to everything that isn’t it, both when I’m using my own unassisted peepers and when I pull down my night vision goggles. I know this to be the case before I pull down the goggles, but I pull them down anyway and take a peek just for the sake of causality.
The enemy knew the fire would blind us in the infra-red, of course; and night vision is our only main advantage over them. They have eyes that can see dimly in almost total darkness, it is true, but our heat-sensitive eyes were able to read writing in a lead box buried underground. Now they can see nothing. And at the edges of the fire, now I’m safe from being burned alive, I can see those enemy eyes, like dinnerplates, suggestive of creatures of massive size behind them, though I know full well the bodies we’ve accounted for were hardly taller than children. Eyes that reflect the firelight like those of a dog or cat or shark. Behind those eyes, I know, will prove to be heads whose brains have struggled to keep pace with the cuckoo growth of their sight organs, have lost advanced capacity for speech, abstract reasoning, and moral philosophy, in the mad rush to cram in more visual cortex.
As they’re going to catch me - where am I going to run to? - I allow myself to be caught. As they also know I’m going to be caught, the whole affair is fairly amicable on both sides, and they simply assign me a token troglodyte guard, a tiny man only as high as my shoulder, who I nevertheless know, even though I can’t yet see him, to have muscles capable of smashing a man’s femur with a single blow. I know this because I’ve seen him do it, in the future, to scoop out the delicious marrowbone. I am almost perversely pleased to hear him coughing heartily. Evidently he isn’t any more immune to the bad air down here than we hom saps are.
The forward APC, of course, was still the bridging car, and thanks to Nilsson’s enlightened decision to also use it as the guinea pig wagon, the troops on the other side of the Smoker now can’t drive back in retreat. They’ll panic, of course - those of them who don’t succumb to the Smoke and start turning on their comrades - in the next few hours, and try to rig up some way of getting back up to the upper levels using climbing gear, true grit, and Providence. Those of them who don’t try this will wait in vain for their comrades to return with reinforcements before their power supplies dwindle to nothing and their ammunition is exhausted and the subterranean race close in for the coup de grace. Those who go up the cliff, meanwhile, will be picked off by scampering clambering natives who know the rock far better than the soldiers and fear headtorches far less than they do halogen searchlights. Those few who actually do win through to the Base Camp far above will then be confronted by the uncomfortable fact that both the skilled operators of the Vortox crane are now missing presumed dead in the dark below. I have no idea how many other qualified operators exist in the Mr. Lifty project, but Craig and Wilson had enough trouble coaxing the damn thing to haul loads of up to ten tonnes up and down the Abyss on the end of a thousand-metre cable, and they were the best Vortox jockeys the project had; their understudies will not be able to extract every survivor out of danger before they succumb to either Oracle Smoke, troglo attack or a tragic supercrane accident.
And before long, the flames are dying and the air smells both acrid as a tannery and delicious as a carvery. There are a few sporadic bursts of gunfire still going on at the upstairs end of the shelf, but down where we are there are only live bodies standing quiet and dead ones steaming gently. The meat harvesters among the troglodytes are already scampering forth to recycle the corpses. Everything will be used. Hair will be woven into rope, skin cured into fabric and parchment, the long bones in the arms and legs drained of marrow, then snapped and wound round with catgut to make compound bows capable of hurling a glass or bone arrow a hundred yards. The catgut will not come from cats.
Various different body parts are of use in medicine - the pineal gland, for exampe, is extracted and mashed for feeding to boys who will become labourers or warriors. It will make them big and strong. If the prisoner is still clinging to life, they will be inverted and their throat slit in proper halal fashion to drain them of blood, which will then be stirred for several days to prevent it coagulating, after which it can then be cut into solid cubes of a highly lean black pudding.
The edible body organs, like the pudding, will be dried and smoked. Subcutaneous fat is carefully harvested and used for many purposes; as tallow, as axle grease, as cubes of fat which make yummy treats for children. Teeth are one of the hardest parts of the body, and are fashioned into hand tools when iron is not available. Urine and bile are carefully collected and passed to the simple-makers, who use them to concoct medicines and explosives. The simple-makers also pride themselves on being able to tan a man's hide with his own urine. Hair and fingernails are important sources of ammonia.
How do I know all this? I have seen it all happen in the future, just as I know where they are taking me. They will also bring Jeanette Dougal, kicking and screaming and hogtied, once they light a fire under her APC and smoke her out by making the metal intolerably hot. This is a method they developed many years ago for use on Nazi armoured cars; they have rolled these incredibly heavy items (albeit downhill all the way) right down the long road that snakes its tortuous way through fortification after fortification under the great overhang that protects the City. Armoured cars, APC's, and Roman siege engines stand in rusting rows in a great main square that is barely the size of a basketball court but, down here, seems big as a Roman forum.
The City is square in section, with a castellated fortress tower at each corner, and a single gate made, on closer inspection, of the shells of two Volkswagen field cars hammered flat and hung on hinges Around its walls, which are only partly there to protect against surface dwellers, are a ditch and dyke, the dyke-top bristling with antipersonnel devices of splintered human bone.. The ditch has been cut, single-mindedly, into rock, rather than dug in earth. This far into the earth, there is no earth. A modicum of rotten human flesh - it has to be human, as human bacteria will not fester on batflesh - is kept aside for the use of castellans to daub on the bone splinters, which are cut with tiny grooves to trap meat particles. Anyone stumbling on the splinters in the dark and receiving a minor wound will be nursing a gangrenous one before the unseen sun next comes around far above.
The walls are twice the height of those on a Roman citadel, and there are no windows in them. Within the city, a redoubt with walls twice the height of the exterior ones provides refuge to the entire city's population in times of unpleasantness. Lights of human tallow burn permanently on its inside walls; these terrible people live in terrible fear, and I sympathize with that fear, as I know what its object is.
It's through that immense, tiny square that I'm now being taken, through an avenue of silent, pragmatic warriors holding weapons made from bits of human being, up toward that redoubt which doubles as keep, court and church. Maybe 'acropolis' is the best description, though it isn't truly appropriate - 'bathopolis', maybe. It's an ugly, utilitarian building with nothing of the Classical or Corinthian in it. A precipice of steps leads up to its entrance like the killing stairs on the sides of Mayan pyramids. The entrance is a corbelled arch, too primitive even for the use of keystones, large enough for only one human being to pass abreast. And there is one human being sitting in it, in a chair made of other people. The figure is too small and frail, and too old, for it to be likely to be male, and I already know, in any case, that it isn't. Her hands are wrapped around the cnemial arches on the ends of her chair-arms tightly, tight enough to stop Death pulling her off her throne. Her hands are so pale and thin that the bones her chair is made of seem more colourful; having a minimum size fixed by the dimensions of the carpals and metacarpals inside them, they seem absurdly large on the ends of her sticklike arms, which emerge in turn from a Red Army uniform that was made to house a woman my size.
She is an old girl, and has grown older down here. She does not waste energy by moving a muscle - after all, she doesn't seem to have any. It's a weird conversation. We both know what we're going to say, but we have to remember to say it so it's there to be remembered as having been said.
"Quam diu morata es", she says in Latin. You took your bloody time getting here.
"Me elegisti ex aliis omnibus", I reply, hoping my Latin is correct. I don't ask why she chose me from all the others, because I already know. I've heard her reply. But she has to make it anyway.
She nods, so stiffly that I'm sure her spine must suffer. "Te elegi, quod intellexi te electam iri." I chose you, because I knew you were the one who would be chosen. And how weird is that. The weirdest thing of all is that I understand it perfectly.
" Cum eis qui ultimum impetum fecerunt degressa es." You came down with the last group of attackers.
She nods again. "Servi." I remember 'Servus' being the Roman word for 'Slav'. I also remembe that it's exactly the same as the Roman word for 'slave'. The Russians, then. "Pauci tam longe degrediuntur. Servi ultimi erant; Germani penultimi, ante quos Galli." Not many come down this deep. The Slavs, they were the last, the Germans the last but one. Before them were the Gauls."
"Id ducis eorum nomen erat. Dux Germaniorum habebatur alius Antichristus esse ei similis!" That was their leader's name. It was thought the Germans' leader was a second antichrist in his image! The old girl snorts rhythmically like a cat about to cough up furballs, or like a mating hedgehog, but is of course only laughing. "Tam longe errabant." How wrong they were.
"Et ante Napoléon?" And before Napoléon?
" Illyrii, tum Turci, tum Seres, tum iterum Servi, tum Ostrogothi, tum patres patriae nostrae illustrissimae." Illyrians, then Turks, then Chinese, then Slavs again, then Ostrogoths, then the fathers of our illustrious country.
" Num Romani sunt?" Romans? They're Romans?
" In initio." Originally.
" Illine hanc urbem aedificaverunt?" And they built this city?
She smiles. " Urbem meliorem fecerunt." They improved the city. She sighs without appearing to breathe, as if her vocal cords are an Aeolian harp the wind has just passed through.
"Servan' es?" Are you a Slav?
"Eram", she corrects. I was.
And then, opening her mouth and licking her lips as if forcing her tongue to try out an old phrase again: "Krasnaya Armiya." The Red Army.
She smiles. The smile quivers like a drawn bow. "Serzhant. Nunc tu
The smile collapses. "Eram", says the ancient Russian again, laconically; and then she is no more.
They have taken good care of their ruler; her former uniform is plumped up with rags that are probably all that remains of the battledresses of her comrades, and more particularly of the luckless all-male Nazi adventurers who preceded them. The effect is of military green robes with a field grey lining, though much of the field grey is bloodstained. The stink is terrible. Down here there are evidently few laundries, and fewer bug exterminators.
I turn round to face the crowd. It is a crowd of eyes. At some point in the past, there must have been a mutation among the undergrounders which favoured gigantic, soulful eyes like polished tourmalines. However, adaptive radiation alone could not have accounted for this genotype's complete domination of the city's population in so short a time. I smell selective breeding. Also, speaking of breeding, despite the large population of the city, and despite the fact that I'd guess large numbers of these creatures to be female, I have not seen a single one who's pregnant. But as I fully understand what these people mean when they say 'queen', this does not surprise me. Social insects, and even mammals such as the mole rat (the naked mole rat, I remind myself) follow a similar model, whose prerequisites are for the species to be isolated, have a high individual birth rate, and have limited food resources. Human beings confined down the Abyss fit two of these criteria already, and are only a mutation away from fulfilling the third. One female in a group of hymenoptera, or ants, or termites, or naked mole rats, will give out pheromones that stop the other females breeding (and if this sounds ridiculous, ladies, consider how much breeding you got to do whenever you went round with your good-looking girlfriend as her Fat Mate). The 'queen' female then becomes a brood cow, a gigantic sedentary thing who is little more than a foetus factory. The other females, freed of the necessity to breed, become more effective food gatherers.
All well and good, but whatever happened to the people down here went a step further. Maybe their own 'queen' caste grew soft through the tiny size of their gene pool and lost the ability to become fertile themselves. New blood would have been needed; but only enough new blood to provide one queen at a time. Two queens in one hive cannot be tolerated.
But now, even after the old queen's death, there are still two queens. The women of the tribe can smell it, and there can only be one outcome. The crowd seem expectant, but are really only behaving the way cannibal decorum dictates. They know what is coming just as I do.
They bring her forward in a cage of skin and bone. She is saying the Lord's Prayer to herself over and over and over, still having not been infected with the Smoke, or she'd not feel such apprehension. I feel sorry for her - it might just as easily have been her as I. But electio reginae ultima est, the queen's decision is final.
It was pretty final for the queen, at any rate.
She's probably expecting to see more bug-eyed monster people, and instead sees me. This calms her down, but we all know it's just the calm before the storm.
"Y-you", she says, and it takes her a little while to shape that single word. "You're out there."
I nod. "And you're in there."
It takes her a little while longer to get her head around this. "They didn't kill you. They didn't put you in a cage."
"No", I acknowledge. "They didn't."
"You're one of them!"
"I have always been one of them, and always will be."
"TRAITOR!" She stabs a finger at me, accusing, through the bars. No-one tries to hold her back. They know exactly how far a prisoner in a cage can reach by now. They know she can't hurt anybody.
"I can't be a traitor to my own people."
"But you're one of us", she sobs, collapsing to her knees inside the cage, hugging the bars. "One of us, one of us, one of us -"
Presently she stops feeling sorry for herself and looks up at me.
"What are they going to do with me? Why am I in this cage? Why haven't they killed me like they killed the others?"
"A travelling salesman", I say, "once drove by a farm. The farmer was in his field in front of his farmhouse, leaning on a shovel, a cornstalk in his mouth. Also in the field was a pig, but the darnedest thing about this pig was that it had three wooden legs.
"The salesman couldn't believe his eyes, so much so that he turned around and drove on back for a second look. Sure enough, a pig with legs of the wooden variety, three of. He pulled up next to where the farmer was leaning on his shovel, wound down the window and yelled: 'Hey! Your pig has wooden legs!'..."
And she's backing away into the cage now, shaking her head. Could be she knows the punchline, which will just about plumb spoil everything.
"The farmer pulled the cornstalk out of his mouth and said: "That there pig, mister, when thieves was about to break into my homestead and slaughter my wife and children, set up such a grunting and a wailing and a hollering that I heard the thieves and went for my gun in time."
She's looking me straight in the eye, but still shaking her head like she's willing me to stop. Gathering around her cage as it sits on four solid stakes hammered into the flags of the square are the simple-makers, stirring pots of noissome dark substances that roil and bubble, but do not give off heat, but cold.
"'Couple of years later', said the farmer, 'my house caught fire, and that there pig ran into the house, scampered upstairs and rode out with my youngest son, the apple of my eye, on his back'."
She has sunk down to her knees again inside the cage, eyes full of tears. The simple-makers are close around her now, wafting censers bubbling with the Black Stuff underneath her feet. They are not doing this out of cruelty, rather out of concern that the woman is lacking an important sense that they themselves possess. There is a sense of relaxed certainty about knowing one's future, after all - knowing when one will conceive, give birth, sicken, die.
"And the travelling salesman said to the farmer, 'But how does that explain how the pig has three wooden legs?' And the farmer says to the travelling salesman -'"
She nods, going along with the punchline, but polite enough not to say it out loud.
"' - Well, a pig like that, you don't eat him all at once.'"
And at just that precise moment, the Oracle Smoke takes hold, and she starts to scream. Well, anybody would, after seeing a future like that.
Behind me, the huge-eyed handmaidens of the monarch are stripping off the manky, louse-infested finery of the dead Queen, preparing to transfer it to my own shoulders. And I feel like screaming too, for I will die piece by piece over a timespan far more exquisite than hers.
Alive, I sweep down the stairs I've known all my lifetime, not missing a single step, glad I don't yet have the rheumatoid arthritis, hip displacia, and senile diabetes that I know I'll have in later years. Things are in a state, and there is much to do.
There is not much time before he comes.
“Who is he?”
“I dunno. Some old weird guy, actually lives down there. Quite a few cavers report him, now the Abyss is more open to tourists. He lives down beyond the Wire Curtain and the DANGER NO CAVING BEYOND THIS POINT signs.”
“Does everyone take notice of those?”
Hugh Waldrop shrugged. “I’ve no way of knowing. Sometimes you meet a spelunker in one of the cafés round the Gzel Matias Corvinus and he tells you he’s going to make a dash down through the Curtain to the deep caves, and you never hear of him again. The Abyss has a...reputation. It’s said the Soviets and Nazis sent caving expeditions into it, soldiers and geologists, which never came back. And there was that joint US-Russian expedition ten years ago. The one they said was probably wiped out by a rockfall. They sent four more expeditions in there since to recover bodies, you know. Some of them found nothing, some of them didn’t come back at all, and from one of them they only got back the team leader, Christensen, who was babbling like a crazy guy and had the blood type of three of his team geologists all over him and an empty magazine in his gun.”
“Gun???” The young man almost dropped his coffee cup.
“Well”, said Waldrop, spreading his hands expansively, “it was an American expedition.”
Outside the streets were bloated with the biotech
boom. Gigantic limousines built on the
Boys and girls were walking past the windows in GENE GENIE sweatshirts, each one with their own genome laserprinted on it in miniature. The gene pairings were so small no biological eye could possibly read them, but the shirts were all the rage.
Seeing the young man’s attention focussed on the street, Waldrop mistakenly assumed it was fixed on the contents of the sweaters rather than the garments themselves. “They may look big”, he said, “but it’s all silicone. Actually not silicone these days , but a sort of plastic a Ukrainian company invented - you know, the sort of plastic that retains a memory of the last shape it had before moulding? Only this stuff can have up to about ten memory levels - double A, double B, double C, double D, you get the idea. The pimps and porno directors love it. Tit size to order. Mammary Plastic, they call it.”
The young man was appalled. “They’re all whores? They look barely older than schoolgirls!”
“They are schoolgirls. Welcome to the Carpathians.”
The other man returned his expression to his espresso. “The Abyss. Why do they have a wire fence down there? What are they trying to stop?”
Waldrop frowned. “Well, they actually call it a Suicide Fence, but for it to stop any determined suicide the jumper would have to start his journey no more than ten metres or so above the wire. Any higher and the fence itself would cut him to ribbons. That or he’d just tear a hole in it. Black Cavers do just that - get hold of a couple of leather briefcases filled with bricks, link them with a security chain wrapped round the handle, and drop them down like grapeshot. Bites a damn great hole in the fence, and then the caver climbs down.”
“Why do they call them Black Cavers?”
“Because if you go more than a kilometre down, it’s illegal. Because, they say, it’d be well nigh impossible for the cave rescue teams to fish you out.”
“And you think this man, this Stylite, might be able to tell me where I need to go?”
“Stylite isn’t his name. And it's nothing to do with his effect on the In Crowd either. It's from the Greek word stylos."
“I know”, said the young man with smile that was almost pained, as if he were apologizing for his knowledge. “Stylos means column. Stylite is an old Christian word for one of the more extreme forms of hermit. They were called Stylites because they lived on the top of columns and did the whole locust and honey thing.”
“An extreme hermit.”
“A sort of snowboarding hermit, yes”, smiled the young man.
“Well, it would seem this guy’s some sort of extreme hermit to the max. He lives somewhere out on a flat stretch of cliff called the Glass Waterfall about half a mile down from ground. And he really does live in one of those old hermits’ cells cut into the rock. It seems the Abyss was once quite a popular place for hermits to settle in the Dark and Middle Ages, before the Turks and Mongols cleared the area of holy men with big beards. It was thought that since the Abyss was plainly the area of the Earth that Satan fell through into Hell, a devout man could show just how devout he was by living down the Abyss as close to Satan as he could.”
“A sort of holy test-your-strength machine.”
“It was considered the deeper you lived while keeping
your vows, the more full of the love of God you were. The Stylite’s cell is actually one thought to
have once been occupied by an Orthodox saint, Vladimir Nyctophagus. The name means ‘Bat Eater’.
“But our Stylite isn’t a holy man.”
Waldrop shrugged. “Not as far as we know, but he does claim to be able to foretell the future. Told a climber last year exactly when and where he was going to fall. The guy was able to warn Na Cave Rescue, who took this, weirdly enough, extremely seriously and, when he didn’t check in the next day, went straight to the spot he got injured in and picked him up. Some climbers leave messages on the rock now in french chalk, and the Stylite answers them. Rarely speaks face to face.” He tapped the blurry still photograph on the table. “But I think he’ll speak to you.”
The young man frowned. “Why?”
"Because you're his reason for being on his column."
"Down his hole, surely, rather than on his column. He's a sort of stylite-in-reverse."
Waldrop ignored this and dished out another photograph from his wallet. “This is the face of one Sean Bogdanovich - not an extreme hermit, but an extreme caver. Our Sean vanished down the Na Abyss five years back as a member of the Nilsson expedition we were just discussing, the one that was wiped out by a rockfall. It was thought no-one from the expedition survived. But here’s the thing; take a look at these two photos side by side.” He put them side by side. One was of a wild, long-haired man with madly staring eyes, looking up at the camera from a position hanging on to a cliff by his fingernails, and the other was of a hermit.
“Have you ever spelunked before?” said Waldrop.
“That’s a bit of a personal question.”
Waldrop looked at the young man sourly.
“Erm, yes, I’ve been down caves. I was given the opportunity to do it in the army.”
“Well, these caves are different. They’re big enough for it to be more properly called mountaineering. Ever done any of that?”
“Yes, a little.”
“Good. We began to suspect that this man, this Stylite, might have been Sean Bogdanovich some time ago. As I said, you’re possibly the only man with any chance of telling us what might have happened to his expedition, largely due to the postscript to that letter you’ve been given. It’s just possible, if you show him the letter, that it might shock him out of his state of mind, make him realize who and where he is.”
The young man’s puzzlement mounted. He stirred his spoon in the dregs of his coffee. “Why exactly are Intelligence taking such an interest in what happened to a foreign civilian caving expedition?”
Waldrop looked into the young man’s eyes with an expression of perfect ironclad honesty. “Because we’re British. And because British Intelligence takes an interest in the fall of every Cockney Sparrow.”
The young man refused to meet Waldrop’s earnest gaze, and instead examined the grounds in his coffee cup minutely and disconsolately. Waldrop hoped he wasn’t seeing the future in them.
A car blared past, pulling a float which bore an animatronic fibreglass likeness of the Socialist candidate for the Presidency of the Russian Federation, beating the Nationalist candidate to death with a hammer and sickle in one hand and the Nationalist’s own blue-and-white cross in the other. The diorama was artfully constructed to recycle the Nationalist candidate's blood in the manner of a garden water feature. The young man watched without apparent comprehension.
"First election Na's had since readmitting themselves to the Evil Empire", said Waldrop. "It's a toss-up whether the Trotskyite or the Czarist revival guy will win."
The young man shuddered. "Things like this make me glad the cold war's over", he said.
"Ah, you're one of those naïve fools, are you?
You know how many nuclear missiles the Russians have nowadays? Remember, Gorbachev offered Bush the chance
The young man frowned. "But nobody's stopping us sitting here talking. And people cross the borders freely to visit the West. There's no collectivization. There's no KGB."
Waldrop stirred his latte with a biscotto finger. "Well hoop-de-doop and dickory dock, bend over and take my big fat cock. They've taken away all the things about their empire that made it incapable of defeating us. And we helped them do it. I honestly have difficulty believing we could ever have been so stupid."
The biscotto broke.
Waldrop swore in Russian.
"Same thing in
"I believe", said the young man, "that human beings are better than that."
Waldrop stared out of the window through the backwards STARBUCKS sign.
"You know", he said, "I think you're wrong; but I hope you're right. I really do."
The rope was taut, so much so that it was singing in the wind like a harpstring. The young man glanced up at the belay point nervously. Taut ropes frayed on the rock if they draped over it. He knew little about mountaineering, but he knew that much. But he didn't appear to have snagged the cliff with the line at any point above him. This was good. He'd have to place his next anchor carefully. It would change the geometry of the rope.
At least he had the bolting drill at his belt. On this rock surface, there were no cracks to insert a nut or piton into. A man had to make his own holes before he could fill them.
"You're doing fine. Al you have to do is carry on in the same vein for another hundred metres."
All very well for you to say, Waldrop, but I've only done ten so far.
The Glass Waterfall was a smear of polished metamorphic rock that lay between two laps of the Devil's Staircase, smooth as mercury, hard enough to turn a tungsten carbide drillbit. Virtually unclimbable.
And yet, somehow, someone without access to any climbing aids at all lives in the centre of it. How?
Feeling like a Victorian deep sea diver descending into the realm of the merpeople, the young man descended to the next taped interval on the rope, then carefully drilled another hole into the face - even hanging on the drillbit with all his weight, the drill only went in slowly - placed and tightened a bolt with exquisite care, clipped a karabiner onto the bolt, clipped the karabiner onto the line.
"You're passing over the edge now - there's a bit of a swell in the face, you look like a drowning man going into a wave trough, haha, only kidding about the drowning. Don't be surprised if you lose communication, this area of the face is a bit of a radio dead spot -"
And Waldrop's voice cut out. Looking up, he was now entirely certain that he'd placed the bolt wrong. The line was now snagging the cliff. He should have bolted the overhang at its apex. He was relying on the rope alone, after all, not even trying to climb the cliff, which was impossible. The rope was under a constant stress of seventy-odd kilograms, and it went without saying that he couldn't afford for it to break.
Still, it couldn't be helped now. He'd dug his grave and he had to lie in it -
"Hey, you! Stop making holes in my cliff!"
He nearly lost his grip on the rope and fell off the face. His descender would have held him, but it might have tested his bolts to destruction.
He looked sideways. Somehow, almost within touching distance of him, a long, thin sliver of human being was clinging to ripples in the rock, covered by a mop of shaggy black hair. Neither rope nor Batman climbing suckers appeared to be in evidence.
"Don't worry", it said, winking. "You don't fall."
The young man could think of nothing to say. It briefly ran through his mind that, although the Browning was still in his backpack, the bolting gun at his belt might make a serviceable weapon.
"Easy enough for you to say, Oh, Mercy Me, I'm Just Making A Few Holes In The Rock To Plant Me Climbing Aids, Guvnor, So As I Don't Fall And All", continued the bearded spiderman, "but what you've got to remember is, this is only the first time. What happens next time, and next time, and the time after that? Pretty soon the whole of this originally pristine natural face starts looking like a bed of nails. Bolt pollution!" He wagged an admonitory finger, which almost caused him to lose his grip on the face. "Whoops!" He scrabbled at the rock, appearing to lose his grip again. "Whoops!" he said again, grinning winningly at the young man, and then suddenly frowned, clinging to the face like a human slug, and said, "At this point you stop thinking it's funny."
"I never thought it was funny", said the young man.
"It's all right", said the climber, though the young man hadn't asked whether it was. "I don't fall - at least, not till the first time ever, but that's not for years yet." He cast a glance over his shoulder and mock-winced. "Hooooeee, that's a long way down."
"You'll be the Stylite, I take it."
"There are some as calls me by that name, young master."
Like many climbers, the supposed Stylite was an outstanding physical specimen in some respects, a sorry wreck of a man in others. The strength he was using to adhere himself to the face was almost superhuman, but his skin was a mass of scrapes, sores and infections, and grin though he might, he had a smile like a Roman mosaic, pearly white but with many pieces missing. He was wearing a pair of faded lycra climbing bottoms that had once been striped like a tiger, and what the young man couldn 't rationalize as anything other than a World War 2 SS tunic with the sleeves ripped off and a HAVE A NICE DAY badge stuck over the death's heads and/or swastikas at the collar. Also, the source of the smell the young man had been wondering about for some minutes had now been definitely cleared up.
"I have a message -" began the young man.
"I know you have a message."
The young man was exasperated. "It's not a message for you, but I've been told you might be able to explain it."
"Might be, might be. Depends on how much truth you can take, don't it?" The Stylite suddenly, somehow, turned himself diametrically upside-down on the face and scuttled away downward like a lycra spider. "Come into my parlour." He looked back up over his shoulder. "The look on your face! You can only do that on this bit here, the cliff slopes outward, any other place and no man alive'd be able to hold on. I'm giving away trade secrets here, I hope you understand." He turned right-side-up again and raised himself up off the face indignantly like a sunning crocodile. "What's the matter, slowcoach? Ahhh, you'd better put yourself one or two more of them cissy pegs in and shimmy on down your rope. What difference will it make? I've seen the future, and it's bolted. Twenty years from now, this cliff looks like a Meccano model of itself, I'm telling you." He scrawmed on down the face like a lizard running down a paving slab. "There's three more overhangs to go, over the third one and slightly to the left, you can't miss it. I'll put the kettle on."
"Yes", said the Stylite. "I know her."
The cell was remarkably roomy. It seemed St. Vladimir, a former cathedral mason, had chiselled it out himself using tools begged and stolen from former colleagues on the surface far above, while dangling in a leather harness suspended from a wooden crane the vespertiliani had used to mine bat poo. It had taken over two years for the hermit to chip out his cell.
The Stylite was full of such information. Certainly, the walls around the young man seemed to bear the marks of chisels. The ledge in the rock was wide enough for one man to lie full length - "more luxurious than many hotel beds", the Stylite had quipped. It also sloped, thoughtfully, from side to side to prevent a hermit sent evil dreams by Satan from tossing himself out of bed to his death. There was just enough room in the alcove for two men to squat abreast in extreme discomfort. The young man's knees were hurting. Outside the alcove, the world was all vertical. There were cavities for storing minor personal possessions, filled with all manner of unmentionable junk - Nazi desk ornaments, Soviet soldiers' Great Patriotic War memorabilia, a massive Seventies digital watch, its red wire numerals dead and dark. And most importantly, a single large alcove, apparently chiselled in some haste after the main chamber had been made, in front of which two knee-holes had been worn into the sleeping shelf.
"Don't know what he kept in there", said the Stylite, stirring what were definitely teabags, Tetley's teabags, in a Trangia pan of boiling water, "but I use it for keeping tea in. It was important to him, whatever it was."
"Not the altar cross of St. Justinian's, by any
chance?" fished Percival. "The
largest and most valuable piece of ecclesiastical jewellery in Na, which the
Turks searched for for seven days without success, putting over a hundred monks
to the torture to find? It was always
The Stylite looked shifty. "Religious iconography. Probably a whole bunch of pictures of geezers being nailed to stuff by other geezers. Whatever it was, it's gone now. He must have took it with him."
"I never said that", said the Stylite. He tapped a tin disc sitting on a store shelf. It had red stars on it, sickles, hammers, and a great deal of writing in Soviet. He flipped it open. "My watch", he said proudly. "A Russian watch. A medal from World War 2. It doesn't work, of course. It's Russian. Mind you, it wouldn't work anyway, not even if it was Swiss."
"Your point being?"
"There's less time down here", said the Stylite, seeming to wonder at his own words. "The deeper you go, the less there is. If you go deep down enough, well, there might not be any time at all."
The young man looked doubtful. "Where do you get the tea?" he said, changing the subject.
"Oh", said the Stylite, removing the brewed bags with a pair of silver tongs that sported swastikas on the sides, "people bring me things."
"Who brought you these things?"
"A man who wanted to know if he would die if he attempted the overhang below the Totalitarian Complex. I told him he would. And he did, of course."
"How did he die?"
"Ah, a hero's death. He didn't place any bolts, and his nuts came loose. Terrible thing when your nuts come loose."
"So it's not so bad a thing to place bolts after all."
"No, placing bolts makes you a terrible bad man. More likely to live to a ripe old age, but it's quality of life we care about, not quantity. After all, it's what you say when you take your cat to the vet's to avoid having to carry on paying all those bills to keep the poor old bugger alive." He stopped in mid-flow to deliver a great cough like a Kzaer 2000 starting. A massive gobbet of phlegm filled the palm of his hand, and he looked at it like a surgeon performing a diagnosis before gobbling it back down again without apparent concern.
“You should get someone to look at that cough”, said Percival.
“No need”, said the Stylite. “Everyone coughs down here.”
"You're English", observed the young man. "Is your name Sean Bogdanovich?"
The Stylite nodded. "Yes, you do ask me that., don't you. It was, once. Names mean less down here. Down here your value is measured by what you can supply. Down here I'm the man who can tell you if you're going to survive tomorrow's caving trip or not."
"You can tell the future?"
"Does it matter if I can or can't?" He passed a mug of steaming brown stuff, which smelled surprisingly good, to the young man. "Most people come back from most trips anyway. You think this place is dangerous? You should try cave diving. Back when cave diving started, the death rate was one per three cavers, per trip."
"What's the death rate in the Abyss below the three-kilometre line?" said the young man.
The Stylite shrugged and grinned stupidly. "Aha, I'm afraid you have me there. It's been holding steady at about forty-eight per fifty cavers per trip for the last five years."
"Implying two survivors?" said the young man. "If you're one, Sean, who's the other?"
"You and I both know the answer to that one, I imagine", said the Stylite. "She sent you a message, I think. I already know what's in the message, but if you don't read it out I won't be able to remember it, so..." he shrugged. "You may as well read it."
"So if I don't read it", said the young man perspicaciously, "you'll not be able to remember it, and I'll have changed the future."
"Ah", grinned the Stylite, "but you are going to read it."
"I might....and I might not."
"You're going to", said the Stylite. "You know you are."
With a hurt look at the hermit, the young man tugged a sky-blue rectangle of Basildon Bond out of a side pocket of his rucksack, unfolded it and began to read. The Stylite settled back against the wall of his habitat, sighing luxuriantly, clasping his arms behind his head.
"From: Penelope Simpson", the young man began, "To: Sir Reginald Washburton, OBE. It's in memo format, you see."
"Ah, yes, very meticulous", said the Stylite. "That's our Pen."
"It then gives a date of last month, and continues "Dear Sir Reginald; we apologize for this somewhat baroque means of communication. We urgently require that you recruit an army chaplain by the name of Percival. Percival is his last name. We do not know his first. We know that he is an Army Chaplain currently attached to the Grenadier Guards. He will come here because he must, and he must come here because he will. We have seen it and you cannot prevent it. You must send him down the Abyss to us. We are unable to descend further, but he will go where we cannot.
"Please inform our family that we are dead. This is the kindest explanation. Certainly we will not be returning either to them, or to you. In contrast to the Russians' and Americans' recent unprovoked aggression of our people, Lieutenant Percival will proceed unarmed and, we promise, unharmed. He is absolutely necessary to our further purpose. Without him, everything fails.
"I trust you are all well, and we wish you a Merry Christmas, though I regret this letter will not reach you before Easter, Yours sincerely, HM Penny Simpson, Queen of the Nether Regions 2006-2031."
The Stylite let out a brief guffaw. "Queen of the Nether Regions. I do like that. Well, I suppose she is now."
"There were also many rather densely-written pages of notes", said the young man, "which I can read to you if you want to hear them. The notes suggested that you survived the expedition of 2011. It took a little while for us to link them with you, of course, but ..."
"I haven't advertised my continued existence", said the Stylite. "I don't need to, you see. I don't return home, I die down here. I bear no grudges."
"The whole message was transmitted by hot air
balloon", said the young man.
"A Montgolfier balloon of the simplest sort, a skin bag held over
an open fire. The letter was attached to
it. It landed in the Gzel gzaraeye Tanku
"German", corrected the Stylite severely. "It's a German tank."
"Mea culpa. And the streetsweeper who found it recognized the address - it was addressed in Russian - and took it to the British Consulate. Who forwarded a request to my unit that I be dispatched to Na immediately. The, ah, balloon", he said, wrinkling his nose up with distaste, "was made of human skin. The skin of one Jeanette Dougal, in fact. A member of the 2011 US-Russian expedition. Believed to have been taken from beneath the left buttock. It had a small and readily authenticated tattoo of His Holiness the Pope."
Bogdanovich nodded. "With the legend 'YOU NO WANTA CONTRACEPZIONE, I SIT ON YOU FACE.' I remember." He sighed wearily. "And that one I really do remember from the past. She'd show it to anyone once she was drunk. And you", he said, indicating the young man, "are Lieutenant Percival."
"That's not difficult to guess", said the young man defensively.
"She sounds very certain that it's you she needs. Help me, Obi Wan Kenobi. You're my only hope. What makes you think you'll survive ten yards into monster territory when only one woman has so far?"
"She knows my name", said the young man. "She seems to know a great deal about me. I was curious."
"She may even know how delicious your left buttock is going to taste fried in batshit", pointed out the Stylite. "She is not a majorly sane lady."
"Have you seen her?" said the young man anxiously.
"No", said the Stylite. "But I send her messages." He pulled back a curtain made of the Flag of the Na Republic to reveal a number of aluminium cylinders. "Waterproof luminous spray paint. Cavers bring me it. I usually use it to mark spots where men have died before them. Like roadsigns on a dangerous bend."
"Only where men have died before them?" said Percival.
The Stylite shrugged guiltily. "Okay, and where they will die after. Sometimes even where they're going to die themselves. But I don't tell them that unless they ask straight out."
"The man who died the other day", said Percival. "He asked straight out, and you told him, and he went anyway, and died."
"Who knows why?" shrugged the Stylite. "Maybe he figured he couldn't change fate. Maybe he didn't really believe me. Maybe he was happy to go out on a roll doing what he enjoyed doing best, rather than of some minor pneumonic infection on a piss-stinking bed in a geriatric ward fifty years from now."
Percival stared out of the cell into the cylindrical deep below him.
"Yeah", he said finally. "Maybe there's some truth in that."
"So you've been given this letter that tells you your presence has been urgently requested four kilometres below the earth's surface by a homicidal maniac, and your CO has suggested you might go, so here you are", said the Stylite eventually.
"I was given a choice", said Percival. "I could have refused."
"Do you know what this lady's people do to", the Stylite chose his words carefully, "anybody?"
Percival nodded. "I've seen photos."
"Don't show those photos to the public, I'll bet, do they?"
Percival shook his head. "I had no idea the military were even involved down here. That there were actually things down here that could stop an armoured convoy."
The Stylite did not reply with his usual sarcasm. "The Road is the first thing to beware
of", he said. "It was constructed, I believe, for this reason. Those who decorate this place ensure that,
however vilely unpleasant it may be, those who enter it come to acquire a false impression that it is like home." His accent went West. "Shucks,
there's a road down here, we can drive right on down." It came back East again, as far as
Percival absorbed this. He sipped his tea - black, sweet, and contained in half a Coca-Cola tin shaped round with window putty - gratefully.
"So, if you think there's something bigger than the both of us down there, why haven't you gone looking for it?"
The Stylite shrugged. "I can't. This place has hold of me, padre. Maybe men who've been living down here too long can't penetrate further into it. Maybe the Black Smoke is its...immune system. You know about the Black Smoke?"
Percival nodded as the hermit pinned out the teabags he had just used on a pulley-driven clothes line to dry. Percival saw no evidence of actual clothes drying on the line, or indeed of any clothes in the cell whatsoever other than those the Stylite was currently wearing.
"The Black Smoke", said Percival, "is the main reason why the Americans, British and Russians fear this place. It does not submit to analysis. They tried to set up a secure facility to study it in the Totalitarian Complex, with the highest levels of sterility our biological people use...the place was five or six levels deep, with only one door in each level -"
"I know", said Bogdanovich. "I saw them build it. I knew what they were up to. Don't forget, they were only trying to do what the Soviets and the Nazis did before them."
"And like the Soviets and Nazis, they
failed", said Percival, shuddering.
"The test samples...escaped. The research staff went mad.
The Stylite nodded. "I could have told you that. I've seen it change direction to attack a victim."
"Well, in any case, they've invented a new level of sterility to deal with it. All laboratory activities are now automated, total telemetric control. The scientists work from a bunker just outside Na city limits that communicates with the lab via shortwave radio. The military are terrified by their own lab experiments. Fascinated too, but definitely terrified. And they've sewn the press up tight."
The Stylite nodded. Lice were crawling visibly in his beard. "But they don't need to sew the caving community up tight, because if anyone goes down below two kilometres, believe me, they don't come back alive." He sighed and settled back against the cell wall. "Actually, that's not totally true; and I suppose saying none of them come back alive only serves to attract more idiots. And I was an idiot once", he said, patting his chest in disbelief, as if the thought he might once have been an idiot simply didn't bear contemplation nowadays.
Then, he looked back up at Percival again.
"So they offered you a choice, then. Very decent of them."
"It was very strange", said the young man, blinking. "My wife had just died, you see, quite unpleasantly, in a car crash. I had to watch her die, very painfully, over the course of about eight hours. I had my hand bones crushed by her holding my hand without having the accompanying pleasure of watching her give birth like most men have. We'd only been married a year. I was having, ah, some difficulty reconciling it with my profession, imagining how God could allow such things to happen and so forth, and then this...It was like a new door opening just as another one shut."
"Or like an ugly girl appearing on the rebound when you'd split with a good-looking one", warned the Stylite darkly. "A very, very ugly girl", he added.
Percival frowned. "She's actually quite pretty in her pictures, I think."
"Not her. Not Penelope. The Abyss, I mean. That fish-stinking cuntal crack in the flesh of Mother Earth that goes straight down to Hell. You know, the further a man goes down, the holier he has to be? How holy do you think you are, Percival?"
The young man examined his fingernails. He needed to. The Abyss had already splintered several of them.
"Not holier-than-thou, at any rate", he said, and smiled.
So you're going anyway? Despite all you know about the mortality rate down there?
Percival adjusted the straps of the rucksack on his
shoulders. He'd picked up a sunburn in
Good show, that man. I wish I had balls that big, I really do.
A piece of the Stylite's handiwork gleamed like a galaxy on a wicked tangle of overhangs above him. There must be a depth, he imagined, beyond which luminous paint would cease to work, as all it did was store and redistribute daylight.
We're sending you down on your own, only the one man this time. We believe we have a transceiver now that can lock on to you down to three kilometres depth, we've been working on it for some time. And further down than that you have those dinky little diskettes, just dictate into the machine, pop out the diskette and, well, you know what to do with them -
On the other hand, maybe the Stylite's paint was the old, evil radium-type paint that caused cancer of the mouth. It had probably been bought in the Former Soviet Union, after all, where spivs sidled up to anyone vaguely wild-eyed and Middle Eastern at street corners and offered to sell them Red Mercury. The road surface, rough-cut blocks pointing out of the road in all directions, crunched under his feet, more like a natural growth of crystals than a highway suffering from two thousand years of neglect.
We'll be tracking you as far down as we can do, don't have any fears on that score. What's important to remember is that you're the first person who's actually been invited down...and that may make a difference. Sorry, must make a difference.
He stopped, realizing he was standing at the one-kilometre post, which glowed with an evil radium light that would last a thousand years. None of the Enemy in the pit beneath had yet seen fit to disturb it. On all four faces of the post it said clearly, in English, Russian and Vaemna, that the post marked the one-kilometre line and that progress beyond it was both highly dangerous and illegal. On the rock behind it, someone had already sprayed HOOZE AFRAID OF THE BIG BAD WULF in what looked like English, Russian and Vaemna.
Percival stopped just short of the pillar.
"I, Gavin Percival", he muttered, "am afraid of the Big Bad Wulf."
Then, slowly and deliberately, he took a step on down the Roman road.
"Good luck", hissed a voice from the rocks above him. "I don't know how this ends, for you."
Percival looked up. "Thanks." But he didn't take another step yet.
"How come the other people in Penny Simpson's notes became violent, aggressive, and murderous, and you didn't?"
The dark above his head appeared to consider. "I dunno. Perhaps because it took longer to affect me. Maybe my mind had time to adjust. But consider this - I may be putting you through the same process as if I'd banged your brains out with a boulder on first seeing you. It's just a question of timescale - because in my opinion, I am certainly sending you to your death."
Percival did not find this altogether reassuring. "Thanks."
"Don't mention it. And please remember, Percival...may I call you Percy?"
"You may not."
"The Black Queen is murderous, Percy. She is aggressive, she is violent. Do not ever foolishly consider her to be anything other than what she is."
The dark fell silent. The radio communicator buzzed in Percival's top pocket. He tore it out, without seeming to think about it, and threw it sideways into the pit. The gravel growled softly beneath his boots, and hordes of bats watched from beneath the overhangs like rows of upside-down operagoers. A long, long way above, a tiny pie of sky glowed an impossible, brilliant blue. Occasionally, a spraypainted graffito in English and what Percival imagined might be broken Russian lit the blackness - "TWO DEATHS HERE!", "CAREFUL, CRUMBLING ROCK!", or sometimes just a very large "!".
After a little while, he came to an area where even the Stylite's messages fell silent. There was not supposed to be any torchlight down here - her people don't need artificial light, the Stylite had said - but there were two yellow flames guttering ahead and below in the blackness. A welcome, maybe - or a lure? Continuing to pick out his own way with a hand torch, Percival pushed ahead, negotiating drops and rises in the route with care, but not taking excessive notice of the blackness to either side of him. "The Enemy", the Stylite had said, "will be out there in the dark at all times, waiting for any command, any excuse to close in and feast upon your pasty white flesh. There is absolutely nothing you can do about this. Live with it."
He came up, abruptly, to the two yellow flames, which were flickering on top of two crude candles. The candles, in turn, were fastened to the heads of stakes made of some material he thought it better not to scrutinize further. The candles stank like the inside of an oven after a Sunday roast, and were burning a smoky, livid yellow. Between them, on the grime and gravel, a carpet had been laid out - a beautiful, purple carpet of a quality surely intended to be hung rather than stood on. The carpet stretched out further than his light.
"It's a welcome", said the dark above him.
"Are you still there?" said Percival, amazed that the hermit seemed to have been able to climb silently in the pitch dark as rapidly as he could walk.
"Evidently", hissed the dark.
"I'd expect red", said Percival, "for a welcome."
"Well, this is purple", said the Stylite. "For a royal welcome." The carpet was, on a second examination, not exactly purple, but a deep mottled maroon that brought to mind dried blood. Tyrian purple, maybe, that hugely expensive dye of the ancient world, each litre of which was squeezed from the sepia of a million molluscs.
Or actual dried blood, obviously.
"In Euripides' Agamemnon", said Percival, "it's treading on a purple carpet which is Agamemnon's downfall. The ancient Greek gods punish him for his wicked pride. The people down here might be descended from Greeks. Maybe it's a test."
"It's a Persian carpet", said the hermit. "Not a Greek one. The language you can see along its borders is Persian. That name by your left foot, I am reliably informed, is 'Rustem', a great Persian hero. He's the guy below you to the right, fighting the big ugly white dude. I've seen the carpet before, being beaten out in their city square. Old war loot from many years ago, no more. Persian armies passed this way before, before the Greeks and Romans. And other armies passed before the Persians did -"
"You've been down as far as the City?"
"Once or twice. It's not an experience I care to repeat. I was lucky to pass through their scouts without being taken. I discussed the carpet at great length in correspondence with Her Infernal Majesty. It relates the exploits of the line of Zal. I'm not sure whether Zal really existed, or whether the Persians simply invented him. Certainly he was helped to power by a big white bird, which sounds highly dodgy from a standpoint of historical accuracy."
"Surely it would have faded by now, if it was that old."
"To get faded, it would have to see sunlight. And it's not seen the sun for a very, very long time."
"But the pictures -" Percival swept the feeble torch beam over bearded giants, flame-feathered birds, turbanned swordsmen - "this can’t be a carpet from a Moslem country, it's full of...idols."
"This is a carpet", said the cliff, "from what was shortly to become a Moslem country. And now I really must go, as the troglos are on their way. You're on your own now."
They're on their way.
Not wanting to tread on a two thousand year old heirloom, but not wanting to appear impolite, Percival gingerly edged out onto the weave and walked as softly as any kung fu master on any rice paper to its end. The gravel hardly whispered. He resumed his downward journey.
The Stylite had been right. Everyone did cough down here. Percival felt his eyes streaming and his mucous membranes wanting to turn themselves inside out.
At times, Simpson's journal had warned, there would be gaps in the rock, and he had been supplied with enough aid climbing gear to rappel down the walls of Hell to deal with this. The first of these he came to, however, had been helpfully bridged by driving three posts, made of what looked like steel leaf suspension springs, into the road surface on either side. Around these had been looped lengths of what (for want of more accurate descriptions that didn't disturb him deeply) he chose to call rope. This stretched three meagre strands of stuff across the void; one to tread on, two to hold on to on either side.
Not entirely trusting the bridge, he debated using the Bosch drill at his belt to punch a bolt into the wall and clamber across the gap, bypassing the bridge entirely. He decided against it. After all, if the means to cross had been provided, common courtesy dictated he should use them.
He wobbled out onto the first bridge, clinging on to the side ropes for dear life - and toppled over sideways immediately like a felled tree.
The strain of staying on the line nearly ripped his right arm from its socket. Items of minor importance - a St. Christopher's medal his mother had given him, a penknife, a pencil - slid from his pack's side pockets and fell into the dark, and he heard them rustling off cliffs beneath...far, far beneath. His right arm was tiring on the side rope. It was only a matter of time before he joined his possessions, and no matter how hard he hauled on the lines, they refused to let him back up to an upright position. The pack, unbelievably heavy, was bending his spine sideways like a bow.
Could the bridge be a booby trap? Would the troglodytes send a message halfway across the world to a man just to assassinate him for their own amusement?
No. There had to be a proper way to do this. He was just doing it wrong.
Gripping the standing rope using his feet as both sides of a pincer, he shifted his weight back onto it, bending his knees deeply, arriving back where he'd come from in a squat, the ropes coming back to the centre obediently.
So the side wires were just for guidance. The centre rope was where the weight went and had to stay. Carefully, treading on ricepaper for the second time that day, he eased himself inch by inch across the bridge, and arrived, soaking wet with with sweat and gasping, at the other side. Luckily, he'd been able to keep hold of the torch, which he had stupidly held in his hand when he’d started out across the chasm. He secured it to his pack with a length of bungee cord and infinite care, and continued.
There were three more bridges like this. By the time he'd negotiated them all, the common courtesy of his hosts in leaving him ways to cross the gaps in the road had left him with his heart pounding in his chest and his inner clothes soaked in perspiration; and then he came to the Black Smoker, in the place where Simpson's journal had said it would be, boiling evil from the rock. As he approached it, it seemed to boil towards him; he took several hasty steps backwards. The bulk of it was tumbling over the cliff, as if it was heavier than air; the Stylite had told him not to trust this. Sometimes it falls, sometimes it rises.
Watching the way the Smoke was blowing with obsessive-compulsive caution, he selected a part of the cliff that seemed easily climbable and set to it. Before long, he was fifteen feet up above the road surface, still warily watching the direction of the Smoke. As luck would have it, there was a crack vertically above the Smoke vent (but not a crack, as far as he could see, that was itself venting Smoke).
As cautiously as if milking venom from a serpent, he reached across to feel the crack for size, select a nut of the right shape, slide the nut into the crack, clip a karabiner onto the nut, slide a rope through the karabiner....
He looked down, and was both appalled and astonished. The Smoke cloud had bubbled out onto the road surface where he had begun his climb only seconds earlier, almost as if it were casting about for his scent, covering the flagstones like a murky black carpet.
Grimly, he smiled to himself, tested the anchor he'd placed with first one hand and then two, then swung out clean over the top of the vent, letting go of the rope and hurtling down the fifteen feet on the other side, rolling as he hit the gravel, congratulating himself on his cleverness half a second before braining himself on an armoured personnel carrier he hadn’t expected to be there and knocking his own lights out.
When he woke up, he had no idea how long he'd been unconscious. The Black Smoke was still bubbling out of the cliff, and seemed to have made no attempt to approach closer. But of course, if it had already approached him while he was under...but he reassured himself that he felt no different.
He upbraided himself for not having remembered the APC would be there from Penny Simpson's journal. True to the journal, the broad, open ledge up from which he was now heaving himself was indeed considerably wider than the normal road surface. It was also set about with more than just the one APC, and with spaces where other APC's had been before being rolled or driven away into the dark. The APC's all seemed to be variants of M113's, American-made, designed for maximum survivability on a nuclear battlefield. They were burnt out. Of their crews there was no sign.
The torch, contrary to any reasonable expectation, was
still working. He felt a momentary surge
of pride that it had been made in
Unfortunately, the downside of the torch working was that it allowed him to see things.
All around him in a wide, ragged circle, the eyes of the inhabitants of the underworld shone like a million moons - apart, of course, from the fact that moons did not normally come in pairs. A million Martian moons, maybe. They were on the surface of the ledge around him, peering over the edge of the cliff beneath it, crawling in phalanx down the cliff above it. As they scuttled closer, the forms behind the eyes became dimly visible - alarmingly smaller than expected, the heads almost entirely occupied by eye. The eyes came no closer than the edge of the dim circle of torchlight, and now that they were closer, rather than being wide full moons, they were closed crescent slits.
Suddenly realizing that the torch was causing them pain, he lowered it, and immediately regretted his kindness. They came on in a surge of crackling gravel, moving several loping steps closer.
They're not monstrosities, said his good side. They're people just like you are, equally beloved of God.
But his pragmatic side added, No, they really are monstrosities. And just because God loves them doesn't mean you have to agree with him.
They closed in around him, but did not attack. The impression was not one of a raiding party, but an escort - although he could see that, at the back of the crowd, many of them were carrying what were surely weapons. They had been suspecting he might bring weapons of his own, and indeed, Waldrop had insisted that he bring the HP-35, though he'd slung it surreptitiously over the cliff fifteen minutes ago. How could thirteen bullets defend him against an onrush of a hundred of the creatures, when Armalites and hand grenades hadn't protected forty men five years before?
He walked with them down the path, keeping the beam of his torch low to the ground. The monstrosities followed, their faces illuminated from underneath by his torchlight, like children's faces telling Hallowe'en stories.
The city was immense, all the more so because it was so unexpected. He had, of course, known it existed - Simpson's notes had described it, and the Dornier drone had photographed it in detail six months ago, and Pentagon tacticians had gone over its weak points exhaustively - but nothing could prepare a man for finding a city where no city should be.
It had been constructed by a people who knew space was
at a premium. Like the inhabitants of
cities in similar environments -
He realized suddenly that he could see the activity going on in the streets around him. How could this be? The city's lucifuge inhabitants surely didn't need to hang tallow candles like lanterns on every street corner to be able to see. Had this (albeit dim) light show been put on solely for his benefit? And if so, why was every street illuminated?
Certainly, his escort were not allowing him to walk down any street he chose. Rather, he was being guided down a wide avenue, big enough for several people to walk abreast. The avenue was lined with armoured fighting vehicles from the past three millennia - US Army, Red Army, Waffen SS, Achaemenid - and led up to the precipitous steps of what could only be Penelope Simpson's Bathopolis. And in the tiny, V-arched crack at the head of the steps, the only light from the inside of the building was blocked by a golden throne, and a figure was occupying that throne.
The steps were covered by a purple carpet, larger than the first and considerably more splendid. Percival made a point of treading on it on his way up to the Royal Presence, grinding the faces of ancient Persian kings into the abyssite.
She had grown fat; this probably spoke of success, down here. As a young woman, she had been pretty. As an older woman, she had not aged like a fine wine. Rather, she appeared to have grown like a cancer. Her belly was a swollen, pregnant mass, on top of which huge breasts were piled like pillows. Her face was now framed in fat, her arms and legs massive, her hair grown long enough to provide a bed for her where she sat. Her coiffure also looked to be crawling with much the same minute parasites as the Stylite's beard, though all about her Troglodytes fussed and fretted, combing the night crawlers from her fringe, scrubbing blood and afterbirth from the insides of her thighs, tracing out new lines of kohl and henna all over her as if she were a work of performance art in progress. There was no expression visible in the mass of baroque curlicues her maids-in-waiting had made of her face, which was lit from behind in any case. Percival felt that, under the circumstances, shining torchlight in her eyes might be interpreted as an attack. And she still had not yet moved at all. She might be a dead, rotting corpse still being blindly worshipped by the troglodytes for all he knew.
"Your Majesty", he said, thinking this the correct manner of address, and bowed.
A voice issued from the dark where the Queen's voice
ought to be. "
"It pleases the Queen of the Underworld to greet her servant", echoed a heavily-accented voice from the left hand side of the throne.
"Latinam loquor", said Percival huffily. "I took Classics at university. But being English, the Queen also understands English. What is the reason for me being here?"
There was a pause while the voice from the left interpreted - entirely unnecessarily, Percival was certain. Then the throne spoke again, creakily, croakily, like a gearbox being pushed into a gear that had not been used for a very long time. It sounded, however, amused.
"I remember English", it said in English. "A language busy with small words, overburdened with ways for describing genitalia, incapable of inflection and bereft of a proper subjunctive. A simplified di