Arun fell off the sofa and bumped his head on the floor. Swearing, he struggled to remember where he was, or what he was doing.
The thumping of The Whale’s heartbeat swam around his head. It brought him back to the room, back to the reality he found himself in. It wasn’t welcome.
His memory was blurred. He remembered talking to Winter about his sister, but couldn’t remember what he’d told her. Then that assistant of hers came in and took her somewhere. Arun had pretended to be asleep- or had he? The conversations and time merged into a large blur.
He needed another drink.
Nausea hit him as he climbed to his feet, using the sofa to move up in stages. He hovered over the bin in the corner of the room, waiting for the vomit, but nothing came.
With Josie not in the room he had an excuse to open the remaining cabinets. They were empty of booze.
He took deliberate steps to the window and looked out over Geppetto again. It was quieter now, there were less people around.
Arun shook his head. This was a game. It was someone’s idea of a joke, although not a particularly funny one. He’d only seen in the first chamber – he only had Winter’s word for it that this wasn’t some kind of structure on Earth.
He pushed open to door to the room and, noticed that her assistant’s desk was empty. He found the half-empty vodka bottle nearly immediately. Tucking it under his arm he stomped to the exit. Outside the air felt close, like it did on Earth before a storm.
There he was again, comparing Geppetto and The Whale to Earth. Had he really fallen for things that quickly? The drink was making him see sense. This was Earth. It was a trick the demon was playing on him. There was no other explanation. If it wasn’t for the booze, he’d think it was some kind of rehab facility. There were more and more of them popping up all over the place now, all with some kind of gimmick. There was one in Italy that only catered to priests. Catholic priests. No good for Arun the Anglican drunk, but good for all the Catholics.
To his right was the wall of the chamber, a dark, moist red structure that curved away from him.
To his left was the main street of Geppetto and in the distance the church where they worshipped their apparent kidnapper.
Arun didn’t understand it. He couldn’t understand why people would replace God with a creature, even assuming it was a real one.
He turned away from town and followed the wall. The glowing veins ran along it. He ran his hand on one of them. Thinner lines broke away from the main vein, spreading across all of the walls but getting gradually smaller as they did. It reminded him of looking down at cities from an aeroplane.
He took another swig from the bottle. The burn of the alcohol returned him to the present.
Where was he going?
Did it matter?
He doubted it.
Just outside the town was a row of trees. Each one had a crop of small apples on it. That was the most ridiculous thing, Arun thought. That somehow people were able to get plants and vegetables from Earth to grow –
There he was again, thinking the wrong way. He was on Earth.
He just needed to find the door.
He found a small tunnel in the chamber wall. It was about his height, and about the same width. It was, Arun reasoned, the exact size that someone would build an access tunnel. The type that would lead to an emergency exit or a sewer. It was dark inside, but there was a small vein running along the roof that provided some light.
Arun scoffed. Even the lighting was convenient.
The vodka bottle felt empty, and when he took a swig he found nothing came out. Had he finished it already? He couldn’t remember, but he threw it on the ground beneath the closest apple tree. It rolled, the trunk stopping it from continuing on its journey. This was getting messy. Arun couldn’t understand what any of it meant, but he knew that he had to get out of Geppetto. There was no one watching him – at least no one he could see – so he ducked into the tunnel.
The humidity increased the moment he stepped inside, but he walked on. Sweat ran down the back of his neck and into his shirt. The confidence afforded to him by the alcohol allowed him to ignore the physical impact of the heat, but he was aware of it. It was as if he was recording the effects, rather than participating in them.
Soon the extra light that filtered through from the Geppetto chamber was lost. After a number of twists and turns the vein in the roof split in two. One moved left, the other right and each followed their own separate tunnel away. Arun was walking in a single tunnel again before he registered that a choice had been made.
He reached a small chamber no bigger than a bus. Along the side, a slow-moving gloopy substance bubbled out from the chamber’s walls. It was the seep that the others had spoken to him about, the substance that Reedor and Human alike manipulated to create whatever the ivory wouldn’t. Further down were rows of bright orange plants that glowed. Arun didn’t recognise these from the bowl of strange fruits that Winter had shown him during orientation. Entranced by the sight, he stepped forward and reached out for one.
The surface was soft, mailable. He tried to move his hand back but the surface held him in place like flypaper. He lifted his leg up against the wall of the chamber and used that to force himself backwards. With a sharp stab of pain, he fell to the other side of the space and saw that the skin had been peeled off.
Opposite him, the orange plants glowed a little brighter for a moment, then faded.
Arun was convinced that the things had just tried to eat him.
The pain helped him regain some of his sobriety. All his wandering in the tunnels was useless. It served no purpose other than to put him in danger. Wherever he was, heading out like this alone was dangerous. And to what end? Proving to himself that he wasn’t at the mercy of Winter and The Whale? Looking for an exit that didn’t exist?
All the time when the Demon was here – wherever here was – with him.
He took a deep breath. That should have been his target, not messing around in the tunnels getting eaten by plants. He needed to get back to Geppetto, but as he stood he heard a voice. It was a woman, shouting something he couldn’t make out. It didn’t matter. Another human was just what he needed now.
“Down here!” he shouted, hoping it was Winter out looking for him.
There was more noise from the tunnel as whoever it was stumbled her way toward him.
The woman who emerged from the tunnel was covered with a blue substance. Her clothing was ragged and dirty, and her hair pulled back into a single ponytail, was frazzled.
“Is this the way to Geppetto?” she asked.
Arun held his hand by his side, trying to ignore the pain from his finger.
“I think so,” he said, “at least, that’s where I came from.”
“Right.” The woman looked at the orange plants. “It’s not a good idea to be in here with them.”
Arun nodded. “I figured that out.”
“You’re new, aren’t you?” she said.
He nodded again.
“Trying to find the emergency exit?”
“My name’s Michelle Tammerson,” she said, “and trust me, there isn’t one.”
“Arun Mali,” Arun said. Neither of them offered a handshake.
“When did you get here, Arun?” Michelle asked.
“I don’t remember.”
“Are you drunk, Arun?”
Michelle pointed down the tunnel that Arun thought he’d come from.
“Is that the way you came?”
“I need to get back to Geppetto as quickly as possible,” she said.
Arun watched her but said nothing.
“Are you coming with me?” she asked.
He looked at the glowing plants on the wall opposite and the darkness of the tunnel that Michelle had just come from. His escape plan seemed stupid now, juvenile.
“Yes, please,” he said.