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“Yes, Philippe. Though he's hardly a friend.” Rosemary smiled sadly. “London's not an easy place for friendships right now, I'm sad to say. I do have some, but…well, there's so much paranoia.”

“So how do you know you can trust him?” Sparky asked.

“I think I'm a good judge of character.” Rosemary looked around at the five of them, saving her smile for Emily. Then she pointed away from the viaduct and along an overgrown path that seemed to lead into darkness. “We're going there.”

Jack's friends glanced around for a beat, meeting each other's eyes as though waiting for a decision to be made. It was Emily who started after the old woman, glancing back at them all with eyebrow raised.

Sparky started singing. “We're off to see the Wizard-

“If you sing any more,” Jenna said, “I will kill you in your sleep.”

“The wonderful Wizard of Oz.” Sparky even started skipping.

They followed Rosemary, placing themselves completely in her hands. It was the riskiest thing any of them had done since coming together after Doomsday, but Jack knew it was the right thing, as well. They had all been aware that one day, the time for action would arrive.

Very soon, Jack had the real sense that they were travelling just beyond the veil of reality before which most people lived their lives. Rosemary led them through places that seemed forgotten, cast aside or ignored, and sometimes they could hear, and even see the world going on around them. It was like a route leading back from what the world had become towards what it might have been before, though he knew that at the end of this route lay something else entirely: London as it was now; the Toxic City.

The path from the viaduct led between the rear gardens of two rows of abandoned houses. Many of the structures seemed unsafe and close to collapse, and one or two had already taken the first tumble into ruin. One long spread of buildings on their right had been burnt out, roof joists blackened and exposed to the sky. Few windows remained. Gardens were overgrown, and here and there Jack caught sight of children's playthings clogged with bramble and grass, dulled primary colours showing through the green foliage. He wondered why so many houses had been abandoned at once.

The path stopped against a blank brick wall, a tall boundary construction that seemed to close off the garden space between the two terraces. Rosemary waited for them there, then started down a set of steps almost completely overgrown with brambles. She descended silently. At the bottom, surrounded by banks of undergrowth and overshadowed by the high wall, they huddled together before a boarded area at the base of the barrier.

“Old canal route,” Rosemary said. “It was drained and decommissioned when they built these houses, over a hundred years ago. It's dark in here. You might want to get your torches out.”

“How far does it go?” Jenna asked, amazed.

“This goes out to the edge of town. From there, we go underground almost all the way into the Exclusion Zone.”

“Underground how?” Jack asked. While everyone else was taking torches from their rucksacks, he stared at the timber boarding, one rotten corner of it recently detached.

“You'd be surprised,” Rosemary said. “There are plenty of places beneath the surface of things.” She grabbed the corner of a plywood sheet and tugged, popping it from a couple of loose nails and resting it back against the board beside it. “People have been building in this country for thousands of years. Much of what's underground is unmapped, uncharted, and forgotten. Philippe has the talent to find it, which is something new. I suspect he knows of places that haven't been seen, or trodden by human feet, for many centuries. Canals, underground rivers, storage basements, tunnels, subterranean hiding places, cave networks, roads built over and blocked off.”

“Looks spooky,” Lucy-Anne said, but Jack could hear the excitement in her voice at the prospect.

“Oh, it's bound to be haunted,” Emily said. She had picked the camera from her rucksack, not her torch.

They all stood there for a moment longer, and Jack looked up at the narrow spread of blue sky above them. The sun was behind the brick wall, and he could barely feel the summer heat down here. But he was ready. Darkness, shadows, and secret ways beckoned, but beyond that, the revelations he had been craving for two years.

And his mother. The picture was in his pocket, her stern, beautiful face waiting for him whenever he needed a look. He and Emily had mentioned their father only in whispers, afraid of what their mother's expression might mean.

“I'll go in last,” Emily said. “I really need to get this.” She stood back with her camera, and Rosemary led them away from daylight and into the night.

Chapter Five

Out of this world

…and the advice is to remain indoors and await further instructions. Government sources state that there is, as yet, no credible claim for responsibility. What is clear is that there has been a massive breakdown of communication into and out of London, with mobile phone networks down, satellite systems malfunctioning, and land lines dead. We understand that the prime minister will be delivering a statement at 6:00 p.m. But as of now, far from becoming clearer, the situation seems to be descending…(broadcast ends here)

— BBC TV Newsflash, 5:35 p.m. GMT, July 28, 2019

To begin with, Jack was disappointed. They walked along the dried canal bed, their torch lights flashing here and there like reflections from long forgotten water, and on the old towpaths he made out at least a dozen box structures obviously used as temporary shelters by tramps. Smashed booze bottles littered the ground, bags of refuse lay split open by rats or other carrion creatures, and he saw many broken items from the world above. He had believed that they were leaving the world he knew, but it appeared they had merely entered its underside.

But then Jenna called out from where she had stalked ahead with Rosemary, and the excitement kicked back in: “Oh, this is not a nice way to go.”

They caught up with her and all trained their torches in the same place. There was a skeleton propped against the side of the dry canal. It still wore the faded remnants of clothing, but the bones had been picked clean, and in places there were what looked like teeth marks. One leg was gone below the knee, and both arms were missing.

“Gross!” Emily said. Jack thought briefly of leading her away, but he would not patronise her like that. They were all seeing this together.

“Some bones over there,” Sparky said, pointing with his torch. Jack saw a few loose bones scattered across the ground, splintered and chewed. “Let's just hope he or she was dead before the dogs got to them.”

Lucy-Anne walked on quickly, turning her torch from the body and marching ahead into the tunnel. She paused after twenty yards, and Jack could see her shoulders rising and falling as she panted.

“Lucy-Anne?” he asked.

“I'm fine!” But she did not turn around, and when she heard their footsteps she went on alone.

Beyond the skeleton-as though death could be a barrier, or a border-they found very few signs of human interference. Their bobbing torch beams picked out stalactites hanging from the arched ceiling, and in several places water dripped in unavoidable waterfalls. Emily giggled as she ran through and got soaked, but Jack could not help wondering at the water's origin. He hoped for a ruptured water main, not a foul drain.

It was cold, down in this place never touched by sunlight or heat. There was a very slight breeze coming from ahead, and without that Jack guessed the tunnel would have stank. Every few seconds someone's torch beam would illuminate the edge of the dried canal, reminding him of where they were and how strange this was. But though it was dark, and unsettling, and the air went from musty to fresh in a breath, there was a palpable sense of excitement. Jack felt enthused, and he could sense the others experiencing their own versions of the same anticipation. Their fast breathing echoed, torch lights bobbed erratically, and a loaded silence had fallen over them. The air felt as if it was about to break.