The railway cutting was now in front of us. Trying to show how brave I was (not) feeling, I went first and dropped down over the edge. I landed softly enough in the thick undergrowth that had grown along the brickwork. I turned back up and Ellis passed me her backpack. She lowered herself over the edge.
‘Ouch!’ she hissed painfully as she landed. ‘I think I’ve just twisted my ankle.’ I looked down to see that she had landed on a broken brick. I put my arm around her shoulder and we staggered onto the track ballast. Ellis sat down and looked at her ankle.
‘It’s really sore,’ she said. ‘I don’t think it’s broken but my ankle doesn’t feel quite right.’ She looked sad again. ‘I’m sorry.’ I sat down next to her and wanted to put my arm around her shoulder but didn’t know whether I should.
‘Don’t say sorry,’ I said. ‘It’s not your fault.’
‘But I’m going to slow us both down,’ said Ellis disappointedly. ‘It’ll take forever to get there now.’
‘We’ll be fine,’ I said even though I knew she was right. ‘If your shortcut works then we’ll find Vinnie before you know it.’ I stood up. ‘Come on, we’d better get going.’ I leaned down and helped Ellis get to her feet.
The tunnel entrance loomed dark and dangerous ahead of us. There was absolutely no way I wanted to go in there but it was too late now. We were here and Ellis needed first aid. I really wanted to find Vinnie now and every second we waited felt like a second too long. I put my arm around Ellis and tried to support her as best I could. We set off into the darkness.
It is amazing how quickly the black of a tunnel can swallow a person and we were only a few steps before it was almost impossible to see where we were going. I kept looking back at the entrance so that I could gauge how far we had gone but it looked like were getting nowhere. Ellis struggled along beside me, limping painfully but bravely not making a noise. It was so dark and so frightening in the tunnel that we were both afraid to speak.
We shuffled forward slowly and it was then that I knew were being followed. To begin with, I thought I heard something slip on the ballast back by the entrance. Ellis felt me getting tense.
‘What’s the matter?’ she hissed in my ear.
‘There’s something following us,’ I hissed back. ‘I just heard it slip.’
‘We’d better hurry then,’ said Ellis and began to limp faster.
Ellis and I started to move a bit faster but it was hard work. Whatever was behind us seemed to be keeping up and I was starting to get really worried. I tightened my grip around Ellis’s shoulder and pulled her along the tunnel. Though I could hear the pain in her breathing she didn’t complain. We struggled on for a couple more minutes and then I could hear the sound of feet scrabbling on the ballast and whatever it was behind us started to run. This was hopeless. Ellis was going as fast she could but that wasn’t fast enough. Whatever was behind seemed to be gaining on us rapidly.
‘Ellis,’ I whispered. ‘We need to get out this tunnel.’ She nodded.
‘But how? Tunnels only have one way in and one way out.’
‘Yes and no,’ I said. ‘I once did a school project on Victorian engineering. Tunnels like this would have a series of ventilation shafts dotted along their length. If we can find an entrance to one then we might be able to get out of here.’
We both started to feel our way along the filthy brick wall of the tunnel, hoping to find a ladder or a doorway. This slowed us down and meant that our pursuers started to gain rapidly on us. My hand found a row of pipes attached horizontally to the wall.
‘Quick,’ I whispered. ‘We’ve got to follow the pipes.’
Decades of grime and dirt and dust made the pipes filthy to the touch but I kept my hand on them and let them lead us deeper into the darkness. As we moved along I could feel the pipes change direction slightly as the wall of the tunnel curved its way deeper into the hillside. It was hard going with one hand on the pipes and the other hand dragging the limping Ellis behind me. I could hear she was really suffering now.
‘I can’t keep going,’ she said between gritted teeth. My ankle is killing me. You go and find the shaft and come back for me later if you can.’
‘No way!’ I said. ‘I’m not leaving you to be eaten alive in a dark dirty tunnel. You saved my life once, now I’m going to save yours.’ I pulled her harder. ‘Now come on.’
As we followed the curve of the tunnel the unmistakable howling of another viro swarm now joined the sound of the scrabbling feet behind us. Ellis started crying with the pain as she pushed herself to run faster and faster. This is hopeless, I thought. Why couldn’t I have woken up a viro like everyone else? Why did I have to survive? I started to get a pain in my side.
‘Stitch,’ I gasped. ‘I’ve got a stitch.’
‘Keep going!’ she screamed. ‘There must be something up ahead of us.’
‘There is,’ said a voice behind us. ‘It’s just up here on the left.’ I half-turned and to my amazement saw two identical-looking children run past us. They disappeared from view and then I heard the sound of someone climbing a metal ladder followed by a clang.
‘Quick,’ said the voice. ‘Get up the ladder before they get hold of us.’
I pushed Ellis in front of me and she started to climb.
‘Too slowly,’ said the voice beside me. ‘She’s climbing too slowly.’ I put my shoulders beneath Ellis’s feet and started to boost her up the ladder. Up above her was a shaft of light and someone was leaning down to help pull her up. With a heave of my shoulder I launched Ellis up through the hole above us. I followed and then the voice behind and we all tumbled into a small circular room. The boy who had been leaning down to help Ellis slammed the metal hatch down over the hole and slid the thick-looking bolt across.
‘That should hold them for a while,’ he said with a sooty smile.