Underground

Short story

“Wakey-wakey! Rise and shine!” Angel gently shook the waking Sleeper.

“Wha– where am I?”

“Easy does it, my friend. You’re a Guard now. You’re going to help me look after the Sleepers. Bit of a long story.”

“A what? Who – I can’t see!”

“One thing at a time. Your eyes will adjust to the dark soon enough.” Angel looked him over. “You’re not in bad shape, considering. What do you remember?”

“I... I remember cold. Cold. Everywhere, frozen. Ice... and snow... we had to... get away? Into tunnels. Underground. That’s all.”

“Not bad – more than most. Well, I’ll tell it like it is, get it over quickly.” Angel helped him up.

“...and I remember going to sleep. All of us, going to sleep. Sorry, that makes no sense.”

“Ah, but it does, it does...”

“It does?”

“Right. As far as I understand it, you, me, and all the other Sleepers” – he gestured broadly behind them, at rank upon rank of dusty coffin-shaped crates, dim lumps in the gloom – “were the last ones left after something happened, something to do with cold, and snow, and ice: a big freeze. We were put to sleep down here, to wait it out. Two of us at a time are to keep watch. We aren’t expected to last – a small sacrifice for the greater good, I suppose – when one of us wears out, another is awoken to take his place: we are Guards. We guard the Sleepers. Congratulations.”

“So– I’m– you’re–”

“Take your time. We’ve plenty of it.”

“How do you know this? Do you remember?”

“Me? Goodness, no! I heard this from Paul, he heard it from Bayswater, and she heard it from Farringdon. I guess it’s been pieced together and passed down from Guard to Guard over the years. I think it’s been quite a long time.”

“How long?”

“Long. There’s at least five hundred boxes open, like the one you just crawled out of. Before Paul... passed on, we’d been together for– I don’t know how long, but I was a lot younger and fitter when I awoke. I don’t move so fast these days.”

“So... where are we? You said ‘down here’... tunnels...?”

“Not sure, really. Yes, lots of tunnels. I daren’t explore too far. Whoever built them, built them to last. And there are caverns, like this one, connected up by tunnels with metal rails running along them.”

“And here? What’s this place?”

“It’s called ‘Bank’. Don’t know, but it was clearly a big deal to the Builders. Probably religious, you know, a shrine of some kind. We think they had gods and made these caverns to worship them. So when things got bad, we took shelter here.”

“I don’t remember anything like that. It’s hazy... just ice everywhere... I don’t even– I don’t even know my own name!”

“Now that’s normal. None of us did. Don’t worry. You’ve done well to remember what you have.”

“You mentioned others... Paul... Bayswater...”

“Yes, Guards before my time, apart from old Paul, who, er... fell. Not very long ago.”

“Fell?”

“This place is falling apart. It was well made but it’s been so long. There’s flooding in some of the tunnels where there wasn’t before, and some have collapsed; great holes open up without warning. Paul used to wander about a bit. Too much. And so now you’re here.”

“I see... look, I’m- I’m sorry for your loss.”

“Don’t worry. Like I said, it’s a dangerous place. I suppose we’d better give you a name, eh?”

“But my name is... it’s... oh! This ‘box’ I’ve been sleeping in, maybe it has my name on it? Can you see?”

“Just a smooth metal box. No markings at all, not on any of them. Only a square button and a round button. Square button does nothing. Round button opens it, and out you pop not a moment older than when you went to sleep. Clever stuff. Anyway – a name!”

“But– well, alright.”

“All these caverns have names. We’ve not figured out what they mean, really, they don’t seem to make much sense, but they were clearly important to the Builders. We’ve found bits of old maps here and there, with the names of each cavern connected up by the tunnels. When you get to a cavern, the name is there in big letters, all over the place. So we take them as ours.”

“And – Bayswater – Farringdon –”

“Yes, names from the map. Paul was ‘St. Paul’s’. One of the stranger ones. Oh – and how rude of me – I’m ‘Angel’. How do you do?”

“Very well, thank–”

“Now, a name. I’ve got a good one for you. Green Park. Sounds like a nice place. Apparently Bayswater went there once, but it wasn’t green: filthy and dank like everywhere else. The usual mould on the walls, giving off enough light to see by. Are your eyes adjusting yet?”

“Green – Green Park... my eyes? Well now you mention it I can see a little – is that you?”

“Yes that’s me, watch it, yes, I’m right here. Green! Nice to meet you, Green.”

“Er, nice to meet you too, Angel. Look, I don’t mean to be rude, but what are we supposed to be doing here? Can we get out? Maybe we can get some help – from outside?”

“A man of action you are then! Sorry, no, there’s no-one to help. I don’t think it’s quite sunk in yet has it? You, me, the Sleepers, that’s all there is. We’ve been here for longer than the life of hundreds of Guards, and no-one has come to help. And none of us have found a tunnel leading anywhere except to more caverns. We just wait - wait and Guard. That’s what we do.”

“Wait and... but... surely we should check, see for ourselves? How do you know the tunnels go nowhere?”

“You’ve just woken up, you’re new... it’s too dangerous. I told you what happened to Paul.”

“You didn’t, really. Tell me about him. You said he used to wander about. Maybe he found something?”

“Found something... well, maybe he did and maybe he didn’t.”

“What’s that supposed to mean? What did – or didn’t – he find?”

“Alright, alright... He used to go off on his own, while I kept watch here. Not long ago, he came back, said he’d seen something – light – a bright light. Far down one of the tunnels.”

“What kind of light? Why didn’t you say!” Green sat up, quickly, excited. “Did you see it, too?”

“No, I mean- look. Calm down. You’ve only just woken up.”

“Tell me!” Green shook Angel by the shoulders.

“Let go – settle down! I’ll tell you. I should have known better than to go. Paul was old. Old and clever. He was a lot older than me, he’d travelled, and I was feeling... ‘experimental’... is that a crime?”

“A crime?”

“Just something he used to say. ‘It’s not a crime is it?’ – he used to say all sorts of odd things. I went along with him, and I saw the light too. Far off at the end of one of the tunnels. I’ll tell you now, I’m not ashamed, but it scared me. He wanted to look closer, I said no – we should talk about it first – he said I was always too cautious – I said one of us had to show some responsibility, we have a job to do – and he said what if it’s a way out – I wouldn’t listen to him. I wanted to come back and he wanted to go on.”

“So what happened? Did he come back?”

“I – well – I mean we – look, we had a bit of a fight. There it is. I’ve said it now.”

“A fight? But–”

“A fight, and he slipped, he fell, I didn’t mean anything by it, I just pushed, and I know he was an old man, but he just fell and I couldn’t catch him. I didn’t mean to!”

Green sat back in silence as the echo of Angel’s voice faded. After a while Green spoke again.

“I see. I’m not going to judge you, what did or didn’t happen. It can’t be helped now.”

“I didn’t mean to...”

“I know, you said. Look, all the same, Angel... I think we should go and take a look. Maybe he was onto something?”

“But we shouldn’t! We’re here to Guard the Sleepers! We mustn’t–”

“How do you know? You don’t. You only know what’s been passed down from Guard to Guard. And the last Guard before me saw that light and wanted to go further. And you– I don’t know, but it seems to me–”

“It seems to you, does it? You’ve only just woken up!”

“Yes, but maybe that’s why we should? You said it yourself: you’ve been here, a Guard, for a long time, a very long time, perhaps you’ve just got a bit...”

“A bit what?”

“Maybe you’re just too used to it, here. Maybe it needs a fresh perspective. I think we should go and see what’s there.”

As Angel sat back thoughtfully, Green leaned forward, his voice persuasive.

“Come on. Let’s check it out. We owe it to the other Sleepers, and – we owe it to Paul, don’t we?”

“To Paul... Yes. Yes, I suppose you’re right. Alright.”

“It’s settled then – let’s go! How do we get there?”

“Take it easy. One of the Guards – before Farringdon’s time, even – built a contraption, a ‘jigger’ Paul used to call it – it lets us get around the tunnels. It’s just over there down the hall, mounted on the rails. Here, take my hand, I’ll show you.”


“What’s it do?”

“Here – do you feel this big handle? You stand one side, I stand the other side. We move it up and down between us; when I’m up, you’re down, and when you’re down, I’m up. Then the wheels start to move, and off we go down the rails. When we want to stop, I pull this lever. Ready?”


“Green, do you see it? Should be up there. Round the bend?”

“Yes... yes! Definitely lighter. Come on!”

“Are you sure you want to – maybe I’ll wait here...”

“No, we’re both going, together. It’s important, I think. Come on, Angel. It’s not far, now.”

“Alright, Green. Let’s be careful.”

“Just round this bend, then, I can see quite clearly – oh!”

“What is it?”

“The tunnel – it’s collapsed – it’s open! Come on, take my hand, up here – there’s wind too – light, wind, and what’s that sound?”

“I hear it – it sounds like – well, but it can’t be – ”

“I’m out! Oh it’s wonderful, Angel, look! Look at this!”

“I... Green, I can’t see. It’s too bright. My eyes... I’m used to the dark. I can’t see! But I can feel the wind, I can feel a warmth on my skin, and I can hear... tell me what it is? What can you see, Green?”

“It’s water. Lots of it! As far as I can see. Angel, we’re outside! Water – rolling up a sandy beach, just up here. The old rails just run down into it! Over there – trees! Tall, green trees, all up against the shore. And – Angel – it’s a glorious, warm, sunny day. The sun! Blue sky! No ice, no snow. Can’t you see?”

“My old eyes... too long in the dark. I can’t see anything... but I feel it, I hear it. It’s nothing like... nothing I’ve felt since... it feels... it’s like... opening a door into summer. Green, you know what we have to do?”

“What is it, Angel?”

“Green, we have to wake them. The Sleepers. This must be it. What we’ve been waiting for all this time. There’s a whole world out here. Whatever was here before, the ice, the cold – it’s long gone now. Time to wake them up, bring them here, into the sunlight.”

“Then let’s go, Angel – let’s wake them up!”