Harbinger

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A stream of filth flowed through the tunnel, down a central, lowered channel, while Tarn walked barefoot along a slimy, raised area at the side, his flimsy shoes having perished with the final jet of steam that pushed him out of the pipe network. The stench was unbearable, even compared to the smells of the machine rooms and the pipes - those he had been used to, while this was a sliding, noxious mass of effluent the like of which he had never imagined, filing the air with dense fumes. Tarn couldn't fathom where it was coming from - was it being produced by a single, enormous creature hidden somewhere in the tunnels?

He'd followed the flow downstream, in the hope of it leading to a way out, or at least a higher level, away from the sludge. All the while he could hear muffled sounds from above, drifting down through the grates, of voices and footsteps and shouts and laughter, drifting down through the grates. They were close but still so far from his reach and he had no way of discerning whether they were real or tricks of the echoing flow of the sewage.

The tunnel led to a brick wall, the stream disappearing through a small, low hole at its base. There was no further to go, other than for the rats which swam contentedly in the stream and disappeared through the gap. He leaned back against the wall, beginning to consider that he may have escaped the machine rooms only to become trapped in a new and unfamiliar prison, now without friends like Fiffdee or even the familiar patterns of sleep, work and punishment.

The steam pipe that he'd only recently emerged from called back to him. He felt an urge to crawl inside and find his way in the darkness back to the machine rooms. He'd pop out of the hatch at the other end, say sorry and get back to work. Everything would be normal again, and he'd be back in time to get some rest in his sleeping hole. The other boy that slept in his area would be worried if nobody was there to look after it while he worked. Tarn felt a pang of anxiety, suddenly worried that he'd been selfish in leaving the other workers behind.

Then he raised his gaze to the grates, where light still poured in from above, casting spotlights on the floor at intervals along the tunnel. Going back was not an option; physically or mentally. He reminded himself that he didn't want to go back: higher was his destination. He had to keep going up. His expectation had been that simply rising above the ceiling of the machine rooms would reveal all the answers but he'd found only more questions.

Up, up, up, then.

Retracing his steps, this time he focused on the wall and the grates, eyeing for any way of ascending. The ceiling of the tunnel was high and arched, making it impossible for him to clamber up the brickwork. Junctions split the tunnel off at right angles, the other sections all looking identical to each other. Examining the wall around one of the junctions more closely, he noticed a small metal plaque fixed to a brick with a simple drawing engraved upon it. He didn't recognise most of the symbols and shapes but he knew what an arrow meant and followed its direction. Now that he knew what to look for, he noticed that each junction had a different design of plaque, sometimes more than one, with arrows pointing in various directions.

After following the signs aimlessly and without any real comprehension, he came upon a drawing which comprised two parallel lines connected by shorter lines. It was the first plaque he'd seen with a recognisable illustration: clearly it represented a ladder.

Taking the turning with increased enthusiasm, he scoured the walls on both sides for anything which could be of use. Finally, in a dark alcove nestled between two of the illuminated ceiling grates he discovered a wall recess which concealed an old, wooden ladder, itself leading up to a barred hatch, through which he could see more light, occasionally dimming as shadows passed by. Grinning with excitement, he took hold of the rungs and clambered up, cautious of the slippery, slightly rotten and disintegrating wood. Reaching the top, he came upon the bars, thick and cold and defiant, with narrow gaps barely wide enough to fit his hand through. They were part of a hatch which covered the top of the ladder, preventing him from going any further. He pushed at the bars and they revealed some movement but refused to budge. Squinting against the glare of the light he could see the latch on the outside, with a bolted lock passed through it.

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