As promised many moons ago, here’s the opening chapter to Fogbound – Enjoy.
Tendrils of toxic red fog swirled and clawed at Simmons’ clothing as he stepped over yet another dead body.
Sir Pelham Simmons, wrapped in his bulky fog-gear, adjusted the rifle strap on his shoulder and felt the relief in his aching muscles. His dark greatcoat, freshly waxed and waterproofed, ran with streams of water that coalesced as individual beads met their neighbours from the persistent rain.
The acrid smell of the early morning air was thick in his nostrils, too thick. He coughed, reaching to tap the filter that provided his tight-fitting fog mask with something to breathe that wouldn’t leave him coughing up blood. No change. He thumped it for the second time and tasted the fresh, life-giving air enter his throat.
The rest of his clothing hugged his body where it attached to the thick woollen coat’s sleeves and neck. It was deadly Fogside for the unprepared as shown by the three fresh corpses he’d passed.
Simmons stopped, kneeling to inspect the fog’s latest victim, and saw the telltale signs he expected. Blood pooled around the woman’s head. Her face, streaked with bright red tears that flowed in rivers from her eyes, nose and mouth. With a grunt, he rolled the body over with his boot. It slumped into an undignified recline against the hard rubble.
A chill ran down his spine. He’d seen plenty of Bleeders before, but this was just a young girl, she couldn’t be much older than thirteen. She wore a filthy grey dress, stained at the front from her bloodied face. Bright red burn marks covered her exposed skin; she’d been out in the fog for some time. What the hell was this girl doing walking around outside the city alone?
He leant towards a silver chain that was half hidden below the girl’s neckline but stopped. Another scuffling footfall reached his ears, no mistake this time. His hand moved to his belted greatcoat and unclipped the Webley service revolver. Spinning, he brought the gun to bear.
A dark figure stumbled through the swirling waist-deep red sea grasping towards him. Two shots exploded in the darkness, the muzzle flash briefly illuminating ruined flesh and protruding bone as the creature slumped to the ground with a wet popping sound.
“Rotters, damn,” he said through clenched teeth.
He had to make it back to the city walls, those things travelled in packs, and the noise from the gunshots would draw more of them. Regaining his feet, he ignored the young girl’s body. A sigh escaped his dry lips, but there was nothing he could do for her now. Now he had to get to the Whitechapel Gate, to safety.
It was less than half a mile, but the terrain comprised rubble and the remains of collapsed buildings, and the scorched and shattered cobbles didn’t make it any easier. Simmons quickened his step, not trusting himself to run in the early morning darkness. If he tripped, that could be the end for him.
He strained to pick up any sound that might indicate pursuit, but the bulky clothing and fog mask, great for keeping the toxic fog away from his skin, also impeded his hearing.
His breathing was laboured and sounded like a blacksmith’s bellows. He kept moving but turned to check behind, through the two misted, circular windows of his fog mask.
He stopped, dropping to one knee and sank into the swirling eddies of fog that flowed around him. The revolver he kept aimed back the way from which he’d approached. His breathing finally under control, he waited and listened.
There it was, a slow moan of something that had once been human, answered a moment later by another. Simmons paused, but it sounded a way off, it had probably found its friend in a heap near the girl. A sharp crack of splintering bone cut through the dense fog, Simmons shuddered.
He stood and resumed, picking his way through the rubble towards the city as quickly as he was able. He didn’t want to hear any more; he had trouble enough sleeping as it was.
The imposing facade of the Whitechapel Gate rose majestically from the thick fog ahead. It had been a long night, and his feet ached like hell. He couldn’t wait to return to his lodgings and get out of the protective clothing he needed for his travels Fogside. A relaxing soak in a hot bath and then sleep would be an ideal end to this nights work.
Though he hadn’t found the man he was looking for, the net was closing in. He’d received eyewitness accounts of his target, a man called Maddox, amongst the Red Hand. They were one of the four main gangs that conducted their business in the flooded streets south of the river. He needed to speak to the boatmen that plied their trade, transporting folk across the deeper sections, and see what more he could learn, but that would wait.
He pressed the button on the intercom beside the imposing black gate and waited. It was wide enough for a carriage to pass through and rose over fifteen feet into the walls outer skin. A disembodied and groggy voice issued from the metal grille.
Simmons reached into a large pocket in his greatcoat and pulled out a sheaf of yellowed parchment. As he presented it to the lens, there was a flickering glow and crackle of energy. An Arc-lamp exploded into brilliant light illuminating the darkness.
“Hold them closer,” the voice crackled. Then a few seconds later, “Name and business?”
Simmons’ voice was muffled and distorted through the fog mask, “Simmons, and none of yours.”
“What was that?”
With a sigh, Simmons prodded his gloved finger at the red wax seal at the bottom of the paper. “My name is Simmons, and my business is none of your concern. Now open the damned gate.”
“Registered bounty hunter eh?” There was a short pause, “Your paperwork seems in order. Stand clear of the lens.”
Simmons took a step back. The bright blue-white of the Arc-lamp burst through the grasping fingers of fog. The lens swivelled, surveying the area outside the gate, probing for danger.
A series of solid clunks rang out as several huge bolts released. Metal grated on metal as the segmented black iron door retreated up into the outer wall revealing a tunnel into the city.
Simmons ducked under the doorway and into the corridor that led to the inner gate. The barrel of his rifle clipped the retreating door in his haste to get through, and he flicked his shoulder adjusting it back into place with practised ease.
Simmons walked the twenty feet to the midpoint of the tunnel. As he arrived there, the dim lighting changed from green to red. He didn’t need the guard’s warning to halt; he’d been through this drill many times before. An electrical hum and the rushing of air greeted him as turbine fans roared into action. The remaining tendrils of the encroaching fog blew out to rejoin the red sea outside.
He had already turned through a half circle with his arms out before the intercom crackled.
“Turn around, arms-”
“I know the drill,” Simmons replied to the empty corridor. He completed his rotation facing inwards once more. He slackened the fog mask as the clanking of the outer door signalled the sealing of the passage behind him.
While making his way towards the inner door, he loosened the straps on his greatcoat to free his fog mask. It released with a loud sucking sound revealing a mass of sweat-damp grey hair plastered to his head. Angry red marks around the edge of his face showed where the tight-fitting seal had been rubbing for hours.
Simmons was in his mid-fifties but still fit. His narrow face sported the thick moustache and mutton chops always popular with military men. His skin was darker than that commonly seen in the Capital. The deeply creased, almost leather-like texture, a result of his many years in the colonies under a much harsher sun.
The far door clanked up in a mirror image of the one through which he had entered. It revealed a short cobbled street that was the start of the Outer City proper. A guard-post, set off to the left-hand side, was the only structure in sight and a single dark uniformed figure lounged with his booted feet on the desk.
Simmons noted the man’s black woollen uniform collar open at the neck. It appeared that even the Black Guard let standards slip on the graveyard shift. If an officer caught the young man in that state of dress, his reprimand would be both sharp and severe. Though at this ungodly hour, it was unlikely even the most officious of the Black Guards upper brass would be pulling any surprise inspections. They were more likely to be sleeping off an evening of debauchery and a skinful of whisky, cigars or something a little stronger.
Simmons thrust his papers up to the grilled window in front of the trooper who waved him through with barely a glance. Simmons folded them and pushed them back into his coat pocket as he crossed into the outskirts of the city of London, home once again.
Bazalgette coughed up a lungful of putrid water, gagging at the stench that permeated his nasal passages. Shadows danced across the arched brickwork above him as he lay on the raised walkway that edged the sewage tunnel. His Arc-Lamp rolled across the ground where he had dropped it when he slipped.
He coughed again, and spat out a mixed mouthful of water and mucus, his throat burning from the greasy muck. At least it hadn’t followed him into the slow flowing stream of effluent. That could have been quite the shocking experience.
He barked something that was half laugh and half snort at his unintentional witticism as he pulled himself up to sit on the ledge, his back pressed hard into the brick wall. He arched his back, feeling muscles crack and pop, and rolled his shoulders feeling the tension and a burning ache running down the left side of his spine.
Reaching over, he steadied the Arc-Lamp and the shifting shadows resolved under the intense glare of his prized invention. He was delighted with the volume and intensity of light it produced, and from such a small battery unit. The untold hours of design, build and re-design had been well worth the effort and late nights.
The whole device was the size of a couple of house bricks and fitted into a leather satchel. Bazalgette was proud of the power output of his lamp. It was significantly better than anything else available in the city, perhaps even in the rest of the Empire.
The steady gurgle of the meandering sewage water reminded him of a slow-moving stream, and it took him back to pleasant visits to the countryside. That was if you could ignore the god-awful stench of the place.
Water dripped from him in a steady stream, and he shivered. Running his hand through his damp beard and hair, he squeezed the majority of the liquid out to run down his soaked clothing.
Despite the condition he found himself in today, Bazalgette loved the sewers. Part of it was family pride. His grandfather was the one responsible for designing the immense network of tunnels that ran under the sprawling metropolis that was London. That wasn’t the only reason, the sewers were works of art. Even now over thirty years since their inception, they were a marvel of form as well as function. The sheer beauty and vibrant colours of the ornamental brickwork lining them was staggering, especially when you considered that no-one was ever likely to see the artistry, time and effort invested in their production. Nathaniel looked up admiring the vaulted ceiling of the massive node he stood within. Perfect curves of red and yellow brick melted into brass ornamentation and dividers. No wonder they’re called Cathedrals.
He eyes returned to his pack, which he had removed a few moments before his unscheduled bath. Lucky it was only a few feet deep here, some of the channels much deeper when full especially when approaching high tide.
He pulled his pocket watch from his waistcoat, and though damp, it still seemed to be working. It read just after Eight in the evening, time to be getting back before the regular curfew. Taking his notebook and favourite mechanical pencil from the pack, he completed his drawing of the cathedral and its location on his latest map.
His efforts to re-map the entire underground sewerage system was progressing well, but he feared it might take almost as long as it had to build the damned things. Almost all of the original plans were destroyed or lost during the War, but he was determined to be the one who should complete the meticulous job of exploration and measurement. He would follow in his Grandfathers footsteps, even though the sewers now held greater dangers than they ever had previously.
He double checked the map, working out his best route to retrace his steps. The sewers were a maze of similar looking tunnels and junctions, and he was running short on time. If he was caught in the Outer-City after the curfew, then he could expect all sorts of trouble from the Black Guard. They were not known for their leniency, and he’d heard the tales of people disappearing after being detained, never to be seen again.
It took slightly less than fifteen minutes to retrace his steps to the side tunnel into the main high sewer. From there he could find a ladder to street level and be homeward bound well before the curfew at nine. As he approached, he heard a high pitched shrieking, followed by a skittering noise approaching.
Rats, but what kind?
The sewers were full of rats, most of them the typical grey or brown variety, that lived there in their thousands. They didn’t worry him; the problem came from the blood rats. They were a larger variety, ranging from twice the size of their cousins to some reportedly the size of a medium dog, and they were vicious, bloodthirsty brutes.
On their own, or in small numbers, even they weren’t too much of a threat, they could give you a nasty bite, and they carried disease in the form of the taint. But if they swarmed, then they could strip a body of its flesh in a few minutes. They were like urban piranha, and not to be trifled with. The best course of action was to keep out of their way, retreat to high ground, or hope they had recently fed on something else.
Nathaniel decided discretion over valour was the suitable response and retreated the way he had come to a small junction with an upward sloping tunnel just large enough for him to gain access. He’d mapped this part of the system and knew the tunnel connected to a more extensive section via a small ladder. That should keep any of the rats at bay regardless of size.
The shrill sound of squealing was approaching as he made his way up the inclined tunnel. Despite the trickle of water making the surface slippery, his rubber-soled boots gripped on the shallow grooves on the floor designed for just this type of ascent.
A few seconds later he saw the ladder and pulled himself up onto the rusted rungs praying they were still reliable enough to support his weight.
There was a creak, and large orange flakes of metal fell where his gloved hands gripped the narrow rungs, but they held. He pulled himself up onto a ledge six feet above the smaller tunnel and at the end of a more extensive section which formed an overspill into the narrow incline below.
The squealing, scratching and pattering of a lot of small feet made their way through the shallow puddles in the lower tunnel, and he turned the dial on the battery pack. The bright light of his Arc-Lamp faded rapidly leaving just a bright after-image burnt onto his sight.
Turning the lamp off had been a reaction to tales from workers in the sewers that sometimes rats would investigate light. He had no empirical evidence that it would make any difference, but better safe than sorry.
He sat in the absolute darkness with just the phantom image of the Arc-Lamp filament in his eyes bright for an instant then cooling through yellow and orange as he blinked it away.
As he sat on the ledge, the sound of the swarm passed by below, a few stragglers must have made their way into the narrow tunnel as there was the sound of scuffling for a minute, but the main body of the swarm had passed.
He heard nothing else that would indicate a reason for the rats to behave as they had, but he gave it another couple of minutes. As his internal count reached 120, he reached down to the battery pack and turned the dial to bring the Arc-Lamp back to life.
There was a crackle and hum as a bright blue-white spark coursed its way up the length of the handheld lamp, the whole device glowing with a much softer light than previously. He could see the arcs forming and sparking along the length of the enclosed filament like tiny raging lightning storms. He waited, straining to hear any other sounds from below, but the profound silence was broken only by the heavy thumping in his chest and the lapping of water as it crested the main channel and slurped over the edge of the narrow overflow.
Nathaniel descended the ladder and made his way back down the overflow to the central tunnel below. Everything had returned to the calm, peaceful silence to which he was accustomed. Broken only by the occasional gurgles and splashes of water, he turned and made his way back towards the high sewer.
The main sewer was like black glass, thirty feet across and not a ripple in sight. Walkways lined either edge and held a series of parallel supporting pillars in the main flow their reflections in the low light seeming to dive deep into the depths.
Seeing nothing here to cause alarm, he dialled the Arc-Lamp back to full intensity. The blue-white light cut through the blackness, shadows from the pillars like fingers grasping out for the receding safety of the darkness beyond.
At the edge of his circle of light, he glimpsed colour between the brickwork and the dark mirrored surface of the water. A floating mass of red weed had somehow made its way into the main channel and had wrapped around a solitary pillar halting its flow.
Making his way along the walkway towards the cluster of red tentacles, he noticed as he got closer that the weed was brighter in colour on the far side where it encroached onto the walkway on the opposite bank. There was a slow pulsing from some of those strands that were a deeper red; the others looked grey and withered by comparison. Focusing the ArcLight on the brighter strands, he saw them entangled with themselves and also covering several small grey and white lumps.
He realised the grisly remains were fur and bleached bones; the lifeblood leached from the creatures that had stumbled too close to the Red Weed. Nathaniel knew the details released by the government about the plant. It clogged the Thames, and grew wild out beyond the protective city walls. It had been seeded by the Martians during their invasion and then fed a vile cocktail slurry of blood from both animals and captured Humans. Now it grew rampant, especially near water, and drained any living thing of its life essence, blood, sap – it was all the same to the red weed – just sustenance.
A shiver ran down his spine, this time it wasn’t the cold. He’d had enough for today and wanted to get home in one piece now. He would investigate how the Red Weed had managed to get into the High Sewer tomorrow when he’d come back prepared to do battle – with fire.