by Stephen Embleton
“Another five minutes, so get some rest while you can, Josh.”
The only other sound in the pitch-blackness came as he folded his arms and nestled his numb fingers into his armpits. He could feel his bones, his entire skeleton, infused with the cold of the concrete, as he lay flattened, taut with anticipation, and eyes staring up at nothingness.
He pivoted his head, hearing the crunch of his hair against his scalp. He noticed his shoulder blades, spine, both bony protrusions of his hips, lean calves, and heels all making contact. The ache in his right shoulder had begun to subside. He imagined the blue black bruising turning yellow now.
The black tunnel emitted a vague odour of grease, leaving his sense of hearing and touch his only comfort. In the frigid still air, he couldn’t even smell his urine-stained pants. Now mostly dry, he had relieved himself as the previous freight train had barreled past them fifteen minutes earlier, the hydrogen gases engulfing him in a storm of lights, howling wind, and his urine.
After taking to licking the moisture from the walls after the hydrogen-fuelled train had passed, Uncle Rob had said that they would get to the main water source soon. He didn’t understand dehydration but he understood the headache and now the chemical smell he knew was lurking as soon as they began walking again.
“Tell me about the trains, Uncle.”
He heard the older man take a deep breath, “Freighters.”
“They come from where you work.”
“Yes, Josh. Richards Bay harbour.”
“Dad says you’re an engineer there. That’s how we got in here.”
“Mmmm.” The sound of the man’s body shifting. “The longest freighter is more than four kilometres long.”
“I walk two kilometres to school.”
“If you walk to school and back, that’s how long they can be.”
He tried to imagine that.
“They are run by computers and there are no people on board. They are quiet except for the friction on the tracks and the hiss of the gas. They don’t have a single source of power, like most trains, at the head, dragging the tail behind. Rather they have distributed cryo-compressed hydrogen power units pushing, pulling its weight on the single track, in a single width tunnel.”
“They know we are here. Every time.”
“They try their best to kill us.”
“They’re programmed to.”
“Because we are in its domain.”
“We shouldn’t be here.”
“We have to.”
“It’s the only way for us to get out.”
“Yes. You understand.”
He didn’t understand why they had to run. He didn’t understand why they had to leave their home. He didn’t understand why they had to be here, without his father, in the dark, in the ice cold.
“When will we go back to the surface?”
“I told you. When we get to the end. It’s not safe on the surface. Their drones struck far into central South Africa, even up to Botswana. The bombs won’t get us down here. It’s the safest underground.”
“But not with the freighters.”
“We can beat the freighters.”
He wasn’t so sure about that.
“How long is it till the end?”
“Around one hundred and eighty-six days.”
His uncle sighed. “Nine thousand three hundred kilometres.”
He didn’t understand that.
“How many times to school and back is that?”
“Two thousand three hundred and twenty-five times.”
He closed his eyes as he tried to think about it. He tried to go through his times tables. But he didn’t know two-thousand-times anything.
“Six and a half years of walking to school and back,” said his uncle.
“I would be in grade ten by then.”
After a moment, Uncle Rob said, “Remember the map I drew you?”
He opened his eyes to the blackness of the tunnel.
A week after his father had left, Uncle Rob had grabbed a piece of newsprint. He had tried to concentrate on the rushed pen lines his uncle had started drawing over words like ‘Maputo Harbour Attack’, ‘150km Radius’, ‘Driven Back’. ‘Indian Ocean War’. ‘Retreat’. ‘Madagascar Stronghold’. Big red letters next to big black letters.
Uncle Rob’s pen had torn through parts of the fragile paper as he had scratched an outline and finally pointed at the resulting shape on the muddle of words. He recognised it from his classroom wall.
“Yes. We are here,” his uncle had said pointing over the word ‘Invaders.'”We’re in Richards Bay.”
The man had then drawn a single line, starting out straight, and then, at certain points near the top of Africa, angling to the left and right and stopping at the top left.
“We have to get into the tunnel and -”
“At your work?”
“Yes, the tunnel at my work. And we have to walk along here,” he had traced his finger along as he had continued, “through Joburg.”
“Where Grandpa is.”
“Yes,” he had noticed Uncle Rob take a deep breath.
“Will we -”
“No, we won’t see him,” Uncle Rob had raised his voice, “we will keep going. We will go along here for a long time. There will be water along the way.”
“And something to eat?”
They both looked up as the rumbling rattled the apartment’s windows.
“The tanks,” he had whispered.
“We will go through twenty other countries,” his uncle had continued.
“Don’t worry about that now.”
“I know seven African countries: Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Angola. Democratic Republic of the Congo and Republic of the Congo are to get together. But Central African Republic is very easy.”
“Eight. South Africa.”
“Where is this?” He had pointed at the end of the line.
“Morocco. We come out at the port of Casablanca.”
“Is that the end?”
“We will only know when we get there.”
“And if it’s not?”
“We will go under the sea to America.”
He had looked across at the edge of the newspaper. There was no map drawn there.
“When will we know we are there?”
“When you see the sun at the end of the tunnel. That will be the end.”
“What’s above us now, on the surface?”
His uncle thought for a moment.
“It was one and a half thousand K’s from Richards Bay to Victoria Falls,” he mumbled to himself. “At four K’s an hour for twelve hours, walking an average of fifty K’s a day. Six hundred kilometres from Richards Bay to Johannesburg. Twelve days. A thousand kilometres from Joburg to Vic Falls, twenty days.”
“Thirty days in a month.”
“We should be there in two days. We will hear the pounding water from the falls from a day away.”
“The tunnel won’t be quiet?”
“No. We will feel it all around us.”
“Like the freighters.”
He tried to imagine the falls, the water from the river, catching the sunlight. He tried to imagine the sun. All he saw was black.
“Who built the tunnel, Uncle Rob?”
“For a machine?”
“For people. For people to put their things on a machine, trains, to get goods from place to place. These subterranean freight tunnels go across the whole continent and even under the sea to America.”
“Like subways in New York?”
“Industrial versions of subways that run permanently with freighters.”
“But if they are for people’s stuff, why do they want to kill us?”
“They have to have a clear path. Early on, people used the tunnels to cross the borders and to transport illegal goods. So they implemented the gases underground, on the freighters, and security along the tunnel’s surface. They use radar to detect from far away if there is something in their way then they will need to brake before they hit it. If something’s in their way then they need to brake before they hit it. If they detect a body – an animal -”
“They need to get rid of it. The infrared activates the gas system when they get closer up. The force of the freighters pushes most of the oxygen out of the way, while it pumps out hydrogen. It’s not poisonous; it’s just that we need oxygen.”
“We have to hold our breath for a long time.”
“I can hold my breath for two minutes.”
“You’re so good. The longest freighter is ten kilometres long. They travel up to three hundred kilometres per hour. So it takes a ten kilometre-long freighter two minutes to pass us.”
“Are there any longer ones?”
“I don’t know. The military is capable of anything right now. And the worse the war gets, the more people will try the tunnels. Either they will shut the freighters down or they will die on the tracks. The military won’t allow the freighters to stop. It’s bringing supplies.”
“Yes, more bombs. Our bombs.”
“Today is a North day.”
Now he knew that if they forgot, and prepared for the wrong direction, they could die. The power of the freighters displacing the air in the narrow tunnel as it approached, pounding past them, and pulling away from them, could suck them off the floor at speeds their bodies would never survive. Each day, the freighters traveled in the opposite direction, along the single line, single tunnel.
“It’s so dark.”
“They’re hydrogen-powered, so there’s no electricity down here, no front lights on the freighters. The only lights onboard are the dim ones you see when they approach, for monitoring and inspecting flaws or mechanical issues remotely.”
“What time does your watch say, Uncle Rob?”
The whole tunnel seemed to light up a pale blue as the man turned on the light on his digital watch. For the first time in a few days he could see the thick pipe running along the top of the tunnel. His uncle had explained about the power from the surface wind-farms being converted into hydrogen and transported throughout the continent inside the tunnels – a never-ending source for the freighters.
“How far to the next loop?”
“The station at Vic Falls.”
“Those are the ones at every two hundred kilometres?”
“Yes. Crossing or passing loops as long as the longest train. They double the line for other freighters to pass trains being loaded or off loaded at these smaller stations. It’s also where the major ventilation systems, and hydro filtration systems are, draining the water vapour back up to the topside settlements for the people and crops.”
“You said it’s like an oasis.”
“For the people there, yes. Hopefully they are still safe. There’s no direct access to the surface for us to get out.”
“Don’t we want to get out there?”
“No. We have to go further. There’s only emergency technical support at those stations. Every five hundred K’s is a major station. We will try to get more food there, and keep moving.”
A cool wave of air moved over his face. They both took a sharp breath, listening.
“Are you in the gutter, my boy?”
He shifted his weight onto his left side and into the narrow groove, trying to dig deeper into the impenetrable concrete drainage. A slow trickle of ice-cold water passed between his fingers, numbing them even more.
He heard his uncle’s feet inches away from his head, both bodies aimed at the next onslaught. His arm and part of his chest now slotted in, he checked the hold by bracing his hand, elbow and shoulder against the sides. It would have to do. He relaxed.
“Are you angry with my father?”
There was no answer for a while.
“Your father,” he paused, “and you, lost a good woman to the war. He was angry. I was angry for a while. Your father wanted revenge. He wanted to hurt. I understand that.”
“But what you said to him before he left?”
“I was frustrated that he wanted to do that. Knowing the risks. Knowing that he might not come back. To you.”
“You tried to stop him.”
“Yes. I tried. But your father is a passionate man. A strong-willed man.”
“Is he a good man?”
“But you are not happy about him going to war and killing.”
“I am not happy about him leaving us. Leaving you.”
“Don’t you want me around?”
“I do, boy. But I want you and him with me.”
“I don’t understand some of the things you spoke about.”
“You will, one day.”
He thought back to the day they had arrived at his uncle’s apartment in Richards Bay, after a slow four-hour drive from their broken home in Ponta-do-Ouro, near the Mozambican border. His father had cried along the way, banging the steering wheel. His eardrums had shuddered when his father had shouted and screamed at nothing. They had formed the steady exodus driving south along the battered roads; the military vehicles going north.
“We have nothing, brother. I have nothing.”
“You have your son!”
“I can afford to die more than I can afford to live.”
“We are not soldiers, umfowethu! You are not trained to go to war, to pick up a gun and shoot someone. Forget shooting someone, you are not trained to avoid being shot,” he had pleaded. “We are normal people caught up in a war.”
He had stood at the apartment window overlooking the harbour in the distance while the two men argued.
“Normal? Brother, you could take all the ‘normal’ people, put them on a continent, feed them, drug them, entertain them and that is as far as their usefulness would go. The average person is a fucking useless waste of space. Consume. Shit. Fuck. That’s it. What else are they here for? We can have cows and domestic livestock do what they do. While the rest of us take the human race forward. Evolve. Progress. Contribute. Science and development was not made possible by the sheep sitting behind a screen watching the geniuses dazzle them. No. We can take them now, recycle them and the world wouldn’t know better.”
It was a clear day, but the air over the aircraft carriers and battleships was dirty, brown and heavy in the winter air.
“People died and the people who would have given a shit about them are gone too. Their neighbours, if they survived, would give as much of a shit as a cheeseburger passing through their digestive system. Eat. Drink. Game. Have a drag on a bong. Zone out. See the world as a haze of psychedelia because that’s what they need to cope with the bore and drudge of their lives. If that’s life to you then here’s a bullet. You are here just to consume. Be a statistic or get up and fight.”
“And you will die.”
“Then I die for my land. For my son. For her. Our first wave pushed them off our land and back into the sea. I’m going to be part of the second wave, fighting them back to where they came from.”
He watched as three fighter jets whizzed from right to left of his view, three hazy white trails hanging for a few moments in the blue sky before dissipating.
“Are you still sad, Uncle Rob?”
“I am sad. But I also understand your father. This journey has given me time to think.”
“What do you think?”
“I think that if people would lose their family, loved ones, close friends, that they would then be truly liberated. And then, they would be able to be, do, and act without any concern for themselves. I’m not talking about a selfish journey. I’m talking about a selfless journey. One where, should you choose, you could go into a country ravished by a disease, just to serve and help. You could drop everything and help the world.”
“Like you, Uncle Rob, helping me.”
“Mmm. I would do anything for you and my brother. There’re no excuses – there are none anyway. We just think that these people in our lives stop us and give us a reason not to do good in the world. Because most of the world are sitting behind a desk not contributing – being a cog isn’t contributing. It’s just making the machine bigger. I’m not saying you should wish that your loved ones die. I’m saying live like they aren’t stopping you from being a better person. Look at someone who has lost everything.”
“Sort of. Give them time: either they’ll blow their brains out, fade into a shadow of their former selves, or they will take the world on, head on because what’s the worst that can happen? It has already happened to them. And dying is no longer something they worry about because that will be a relief when it comes.”
“Will father come back?”
“I don’t know.”
“No, she won’t.”
“Mom was lying on the floor. My head was sore and I couldn’t feel my right arm.” He wriggled his free, bruised shoulder. “I tried to remember the first aid we learned in class. I don’t think I did it right.”
“Your mom was already dead from the blast, my boy.”
“Yes, but I don’t think I did it right.”
“It’s not your fault your mother died. The bomb did it. They did it. Not you.”
They waited in silence.
A moment later he could feel the vibration of the solid concrete. It was coming.
He could now hear the air passing over his exposed ear. His body shuddered at the cold breeze.
“It’s all going to be okay, Joshua.”
He realised he was giving off a low hum on each outbreath.
“Relax and start your breathe-ups.”
He tried to steady his breathing but his cold muscles began shivering uncontrollably.
“Like diving underwater,” his uncle whispered.
“I can hold my breath for two minutes.”
“Yes you can, Josh.”
The icy air burned his nostrils as he took in a long deep breath.
“Breathe it in until your chest wants to burst, and hold it for fifteen seconds.”
He tried but his body shook it out.
“Try again. Just breathe normally until you relax.”
“What about the gas?”
“Focus on breathing. Don’t worry about the gas or the freighter. As soon as it passes you know the gas rises straight up to the ceiling and the air will come rushing in behind the freighter again.”
He could hear it now – metal on metal. At that moment he felt his eardrums pushing in, dulling any noise around him.
“Pop your ears while you can, Josh.”
With his free hand, he pinched his nose and gently compressed air in his nasal passages.
Only one ear cleared.
He tried again but his hand slipped. Warm snot slimed his fingers. He wiped it off and decided to brace himself with everything he had.
“Breathe,” his uncle said above the growing rumble.
The air around them was now a steady wind.
“In ten seconds you must listen to me and do what I do.”
He waited, breathing deep gulps of air.
He copied his uncle as he heard him take deep breaths and quick hissing exhales. He counted out the five and then knew he had to hold the final one.
This was it.
He gulped and held the last, chest-bursting breath.
And that’s when the storm hit them.
He felt the force press down on him, squeezing some of the air out of his nose. His muscles tightened around him, holding the concrete.
He didn’t have any urine left in him so he wasn’t worried about wetting himself this time.
The noise blasted out any sounds he might have been making. He knew his uncle was still there with him.
He let out some air to alleviate the pressure hurting his chest. The downward press began to subside and he knew this was the most crucial part, when the freighter began sucking; pulling you up from the ground.
He wished he could just let out his air and breathe.
He felt his free leg jolt off the ground and his body tightened. His uncle was heavier than he was, but they had to keep every muscle ready for any blast or pull from all directions. Anything to unsettle you.
His eyes were shut tight but he began to notice bursts of light in his peripheral vision. He couldn’t tell if the dizziness engulfing him was from the freighter or his own body trying to stay alive.
There was a burst of light and colour to his right. He opened his eyes with fright only to have dust sting them shut. Tears scratched ice-cold across his face.
Another burst of light.
“Uncle Rob?” he shouted.
“Just a little bit longer, Josh,” his uncle hissed through clenched teeth.
He held onto the remaining air he had left. He could feel the train pulling at him. It wasn’t going to be long now.
His body began to tingle. He could feel his fingertips gripped onto the concrete.
Another bright light, this time he could feel the warmth.
“Uncle Rob?” he shouted again, letting out his last bit of air. His body relaxed. “I think I can see the sun.”
“No, Josh. There is no sun.”
“I can see it.”
“Don’t let go!” his uncle screamed in the darkness.
About the Writer:
Stephen was born and lives in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. His background is Graphic Design, Creative Direction and Film. He completed the first draft of a Science Fiction novel in 2011 (Soul Searching) and his first short story published in 2015/16 in the “Imagine Africa 500” speculative fiction anthology, followed by more in the “Beneath This Skin” 2016 Edition of Aké Review, and “The Short Story is Dead, Long Live the Short Story! Vol.2”. He is a charter member of the African Speculative Fiction Society and its Nommo Awards initiative.