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Network Status Update: Uncertain Peril

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Lucy almost fell asleep on the bus that first morning, gazing blearily out at the pre-dawn streets. She was already cursing her past self for applying for a morning shift job, and the only thing keeping her awake was a visualization exercise she’d devised for herself the previous night. The exercise involved a lot of deep, calming breaths (yawns), and a detailed mental picture of the sheer bliss she’d experience when she was earning enough money to move out of a six-person hovel in Zone Five. TFL paid well for tunnel inspectors, it turned out. Weirdly well. 

When she arrived at Waterloo, one of the men from her last TFL interview was waiting outside with a plastic bag and a clipboard. His name was Mr. Ahmad, and he seemed like the kind of person who made miniature models in his spare time. He was also, apparently, a morning person. 

‘Good morning!’ he said cheerily, handing her the plastic bag. ‘Looking forward to your first day?’

‘Um, yes,' she agreed, desperately hoping that she came across as a competent adult who was filled with vim and vigour for a morning of splashing through tunnels in the dark. 

Inside the plastic bag was a TFL uniform jumper, a yellow reflective vest, a clipboard, a torch, and small unlabeled spray bottle. She pulled on the clothes and followed as Mr. Ahmad led her through the still-sleeping station..

‘We’ll be inspecting about four hundred feet of the Bakerloo Line today,’ he said. ‘There’s a map in your clipboard, but you don’t need to worry too much about getting lost. You won’t be sent anywhere complicated for the first six months or so, and we always an alert if the tunnels shift.’

‘Shift?’ asked Lucy, alarmed. ‘Like a landslide?’

‘Not exactly. But that reminds me, you’ll need this as well.’ He pulled out a little plastic device with a screen like an old-fashioned digital watch.

‘Is that a pedometer?’

Mr. Ahmad chuckled. ‘Make me feel old, why don’t you! It’s a pager. Gives you updates when you’re down in the tunnels.’

Lucy pushed the On button and glowing green text began to scroll across the screen: “Do not trust the advertisements for dating sites on Central Line trains. They create unrealistic expectations.

Lucy glanced up in confusion but Mr. Ahmad was busy unlocking a nondescript metal door.

When she looked back down at the pager, the scrolling text read: “AVOID THE VOID.

‘You had the health and safety training at your induction seminar, right?’ asked Mr. Ahmad, leading her downstairs. She nodded. ‘Great! Well, you’ll know all about proper helmet procedure, then. Never go into a tunnel without one. Same goes for your torch and your bottle.’

In her haze of sleeplessness and first-day nerves, Lucy had forgotten about the little plastic spray bottle. She’d tucked it into the front pocket of her yellow vest, along with the torch. ‘Why do I need the bottle?’

‘Just procedure,’ he said, and stopped outside a rusty service hatch in the wall. Beside it was a row of white hardhats with the TFL sign printed on the forehead. Lucy pulled one on, mourning the demise of her carefully gelled hair, and watched as Mr. Ahmad cranked open the service hatch. It swung open with an echoing clang, revealing a chasm of darkness behind. The weak strip-lighting from the service corridor illuminated a few feet into the darkness, reflecting off the tracks.

They were going into the tunnels.

 

*

 

NETWORK STATUS UPDATE: Bees in the trap.

 

*

[1/2] Some say the Tube map forms a mystic sigil that will one day summon a fearsome kraken from the depths of time itself.

[2/2] That’s not true. But if you 3D-print an accurate model of the tunnels, it makes an excellent marble run.

 

*

 

Underground, the darkness kept reminding her body that it should still be asleep. It was also a lot warmer down here than she’d expected; a clammy kind of warmth, like a greenhouse but without the pleasant smells.

They spent two hours poring over clumps of wires and incomprehensible wall signs (“XL78 to FT Nrth,” read one, unhelpfully) before Mr. Ahmad stopped in front of a patch of brick wall and said, ‘All right, time for some bingo!’

Lucy blinked at him. ‘Um, yes?’

‘Just my little joke. Come on, get your clipboard and turn to page six.’

Holding her torch in her mouth, Lucy obeyed. Page six turned out to be a grid labeled Structural Condition. It did indeed look like a bingo card, with a list of options like “dry rot,” “wall refurbishment needed,” “electrical fault,” and, confusingly, “worms,” “call for #boats,” and the letter V.

Mr. Ahmad pressed a hand against the tunnel wall, which made a quiet grinding sound. ‘Hear that? Bricks are loose. Can’t have that if a train goes by, it might cave in.’ Holding his torch in one hand, he gave the wall a hard shove, and a couple of bricks began to push through to the other side. Was there even meant to be another side, down here? Wasn't it all just... earth? 

Some more bricks fell to the floor with a thud, on both sides of the wall. ‘Stay sharp, I think I know what — ’ he began to say, but was cut off by something pale bursting out of the hole.

Lucy heard herself scream as she rocketed back, falling hard on the wet ground. Her torch hit something metallic and went dead, so the only light came from the flailing beam Mr. Ahmad’s torch, which was shaking crazily as he rolled around on the floor, clutching something. Lucy caught sight of what looked like thin white limbs and the dome of a head before the air was pierced by a blood-curdling shriek, and Mr. Ahmad managed to right himself.

He still had his torch in one hand, and in the other he was holding a plastic squeeze bottle at arm’s length like it was bug spray. There was a person sprawled on the ground nearby, almost naked and cowering away from him. Its face looked wrinkled and filthy, and when Mr. Ahmad shook the spray bottle, it snarled.

‘Alright, mate,’ he said. ‘You can’t sleep here. Get down to one of the service tunnels or we’ll have to come back for you.’

Lucy scrambled to her feet, breathing hard. Now the immediacy had terror had worn off, she felt almost sorry for the thing — the man — on the floor. He looked absolutely awful, grey-faced and skeletal, but with a kind of maggoty softness that couldn’t possibly be healthy.

‘Should I, should I call the police?’ she asked. ‘Can we call the police from down here?’ Mr. Ahmad had a radio, but she didn’t.

‘No, this chap shouldn’t be any trouble. Should you?’ he added pointedly, glaring at the grey, slender figure as it picked itself up off the floor. It nodded and slunk away, pulling its skinny legs and arms back through the hole in the wall.

‘What was that?’

‘That,’ said Mr. Ahmad, ‘is why you always bring your spray bottle.’ He bent down and picked up Lucy’s clipboard, handing it over with a friendly pat on the shoulder. The pages were smeared with mud, but not too wet. ‘I think it’s time for a tea break, don’t you?’

Lucy nodded shakily, and began to follow him back along the tunnel.

‘At your induction training, did they give you the speech about unsolvable problems?

Lucy nodded again. ‘They said you can’t fix most of the problems with the Tube, just patch them up temporarily. It’s too old, and there’s too much history on top.’ It had almost seemed poetic, at the time. It also explained why there were so many closures all the damn time. 

‘Well, that bloke back there was one of the unsolvable problems. Bit of an excitement for your first day, but now you know what to do next time. Just spray ‘em with your bottle, and you’ll be fine. Got your bingo card handy?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Alright, put a cross over the square that’s just a letter V. Want to have a guess what it stands for?’

Up ahead, Lucy could see the light of the door where they’d first entered the tunnel. A beacon of sanity, on the other side of which she would be able to find a cup of tea and a sandwich. And hopefully some phone reception so she could text someone about her quite frankly terrifying morning.

She thought back to the man in the wall, clammy and pale. When he snarled, she'd seen a glimpse of long grey teeth poking out from his slimy gums. ‘Not actual vampires, though,’ she said, laughing nervously. ‘The V stands for something else, right?’

‘The V is there because it can get a bit weird to actually have “vampires” written on an official TFL form, Lucy. But that’s what it means, yup. One or two of them pop up every few months, but as long as they stay in the back tunnels it isn’t a big problem. It’s kind of a retirement home down here, really. Only the very old ones start living underground like this, and they’re mostly old-fashioned Christians so you can just hit them with a skoosh bottle of holy water and have done with it. I heard someone in the ‘60s tried to train some of them as drivers, but they can’t cross running water so it was a bust. Good idea, though. They don’t get tired and you can pay ‘em in rats.’

Lucy said nothing. It felt like she was being pranked, but it seemed like a lot of effort, and Mr. Ahmad was so jovial and matter-of-fact about everything. And didn’t YouTube prank channels have to make you sign a disclaimer form before they could use your face on video, or something?

She blinked as they stepped through the door back into the light. ‘You all right?’ asked Mr. Ahmad kindly.

‘I think so.’

As they hung their helmets back on the hooks, Mr. Ahmad said, ‘Want to see something cool?’

It made her smile: a quintessentially dad-like old guy, trying to cheer her up with “something cool.” ‘Sure,’ she said.

He took his pager off his belt and angled it so she could see the screen. The little green words now said, “One tetchy vampire evicted from Bakerloo line South. Mondays, am I right?”

'Your first alert,' he said. 'Not bad, not bad.'

‘How did it know?’ asked Lucy, and then immediately felt like an idiot. The pager wasn’t an it, there was probably someone in an office somewhere, typing the messages out. Mr. Ahmad must have reported in, or something.

But Mr. Ahmad just gave her an approving nod. ‘The TFL Travel Alert always knows,’ he said. 'I don’t know how, but it’s never wrong. Except for the hoats.' He shook his head. 'It's always on about the boats, but swear I've never seen one in the flesh. Must be a glitch.'