By Ben Maunder
Henry lowered himself into the darkness, the thin rays of sunlight punching through the smog of London barred from him by the thick iron of the manhole cover. With a grimace he carefully took each rung of the ladder, testing to ensure their sturdiness before placing his full weight on the decades old metalwork. The ever present stench of London’s waste assailed him with inescapable vigor with each labored step.
He had no doubt in his mind that his boss had singled him out for this, the bastard. No one liked pulling duty in ‘The Gates’, sordid little hole that it was. Feeling solid concrete underfoot he breathed a sigh of relief, quickly rejecting the filth that hung to the air with a labored cough. With fumbled half-blind motions he pulled the worn out re-breather over his jaw, replacing the air with a more filtered variation, a damn sight cleaner, but no amount of filters could remove the taste.
A powerful light sprung into life, causing darkness, as well as the rats that hid within, to flee from its gaze. Henry brought it close to his eyes, double checking the batteries. Satisfied with the healthy green glow blinking from its energy bar he cast a large arc through the tunnel. ‘The Gates’ had a notorious homeless problem and it was far too common of an occurrence for the disenfranchised to lurk in the warmer alcoves of the tunnels. It hadn’t been too long since a maintenance worker had been on the business end of a jagged liquor bottle, a memory that caused him to affectionately pat the stab vest covering his ample frame.
“Anyone there?” Henry spoke with a voice that portrayed confidence, but did not enforce it. Letting the words hang in the air for a few seconds he waited, half ready to bolt to the ladder once more. Thankfully, no response came, he was unsure if this reassured him or not.
The crackle of static crept into life, a tinny voice calling out from Henry's’ hip, the shock of the sound running a chill though his body.
“Hen'? You down there yet man?” The voice was one he recognized, Harry, another maintenance worker and old friend. Sparing a moment to chastise himself for being so easily scared Henry unhooked the receiver from his belt and brought it to his lips, pushing an exasperated burst of air from his lungs as he did so.
“Hey Harry, you scared the crap outta’ me buddy.” The re-breather served to punctuate his point as it extenuated each gasping breath.
“Heh, yeah I’ll do that.” Shaking himself sensible Henry started walking, damp footsteps echoing in the near silence as he moved. “Don’t suppose you’ve seen the blockage yet?”
“Give me a break, I just got down here.” Continuing to assault the darkness with the torch Henry cut his way through the tunnel, taking the first right he came to and silently praying he was still alone. “I’m as eager to get out of here as anyone, probably more.”
“Yeah…” Henry could almost see Harry nodding as he leaned back in the air conditioned office, with a hot cup of tea happily steaming in hand. Envy was a powerful motivator, he picked up the pace. “Well I’m looking at the readout here and it should be coming from Junction 32-J, just head over and sort it, then you’ll be back up here with the rest of us surface dwellers.”
“As long as I don’t get stabbed first.”
“Hey man, chill, that was a one in a million chance.” Wrinkling his nose in agreement Henry stepped over a small patch of mushrooms that were peeking out of a crack on the floor. Accidentally catching his heel on one and crushing it under foot, the raw pulp causing him to wobble and steady himself on the wall.
“Shit.” His heart skipping a beat, a startled chuckle rang through the re-breather.
“Henry? You okay bud?” Actual concern, which was a nice change of pace, Henry, looked back to the fungus behind him, the surviving mushrooms silently quivered in his wake.
“Yeah, just tripped.” Readjusting himself he headed off again. “Any word on Mike by the way? I heard the cut was pretty deep.”
“Oh.” An audible sip could be made out, the phantom of a memory passed through Henry, holding his London FC mug at home. “Last I heard he was getting out of the Hospital soon, ‘cording to Bill he’s healed up pretty quick.”
“Good, we’ll have to grab a drink when he’s discharged, blame him for the new gear…” Stopping Henry illuminating a nearby map attached to the wall, damp had claimed the majority of the old paper, but it was still legible. A thick layer of fungi had claimed a portion of it, eating away at what little remained. Regarding it with a raised brow he continued on his way.
“Not far from the blockage now, how big do you think it’ll be?” What passed as a disinterested mumble was the only comeback Harry offered, causing a tired sigh. “Well as long as I can deal with it no…” Henry cut himself off as the searchlight ran over a silhouette, a small figure that jutted from the edge of the next bend, a single unmoving foot, bare and caked in the filth of the city.
“Oh for god’s sake.” Stopping in place he quickly ran the light across the length of the tunnel, searching for any signs other signs of life.
“What? You fall in?” Henry edged forward, curiosity mixing with apprehension with each step.
“No, I think there’s a drunk down here.”
“Yeah man, just, Oi!” Henry rounded the corner, bringing his flash-light to bear on what he hoped to be a harmless drunk. Though what greeted him tore the air from his lungs, shock pulling him to the edge of the walkway. As he had expected, the figure that lay against the wall was, at some point, human. Now only a putrid and near desiccated corpse leered at him, the half-light of the redirected torch flinging a horrific shadow across the wall, bathing yet more gently pulsating mushrooms in darkness.
Stifling a scream Henry pulled the torch back to encapsulate the husk, forcing him to stare with unblinking eyes at the figure before him. The body lay in an enveloping bed of fungi; a hundred quivering black capped mushrooms had pushed through paper-thin skin, dotting his form. Thick white tendrils of mycelium grasped out from the liquid waste below, wrapping around his other exposed leg, small bulges of flesh identifying where they began invading the body.
Harry’s voice called out from the receiver, breaking for instants to shout to unseen men and women on the end of the line. Henry was deaf to this, his entire consciousness dragged into focus on the sight in front of him. On the gaping hole that had been rent from the meat of the once man, on the necromantic rise and fall of a dead things chest.
Bile flooded into his mouth, filling the re-breather and choking him. Panic returned movement to his limbs and he clumsily struggled with the straps of his mask, both his light and the receiver abandoned to the darkness in the heat of the moment. The cascading beam of light revealed an extending mass of mushrooms, they stretched across the length and breadth of the tunnel, transforming it into a gruesome mockery of some faraway jungle.
The re-breather fell from his face, tumbling into the slurry, a sucking pop as it broke the surface. Spluttering, Henry voided himself onto the floor, his mouth filling with the taste of the death, tears gathering on the edge of his vision. With what sight he had he looked to his torch, his eyes following its glaring path and falling upon another set of bodies that twitched beneath the webs of mycelium that claimed the area.
Planting both hands on the floor Henry collapsed to his knees, his mind futilely trying to rationalize the situation. The sane part of his consciousness screaming at him to run, to turn and flee back to the relative safety of the light above, but terror had dulled him, years of sloth had slowed him, and an easy life had not prepared him for the harsh reality of this moment.
A ripple played across the sewage, an almost inaudible rattle filled the silence.
Henry snapped back into sentience, deaths cold hand lingering on his shoulder. With a stolen glance to his side he looked to the corpse, finding his gaze returned by unseeing eyes. Panicked he scrambled forward, overlong fingernails digging into the fauna and tearing damp moss from the ground.
The rattle intensified a bleak shape broke the water’s surface, slowly rising behind him.
The torch returned to hand, fat uncoordinated fingers pulled at it, struggling as an unseen force resisted him. Exposed flesh on his ankles tingled as the cool touch of plant matter wormed across it, grasping upwards through the loose cloth of his trousers, seeking a warmer place to settle.
Wet sounds of moving moss joined the rattle, cracking of long inert bones and the displacement of water melded together, a sickening mixing of life where none should lie.
With a final victorious tug Henry freed the light, thin white lines of mycelium hung from the plastic as he turned it on himself, exposing the darkness, exposing the horrors that were best left to the shadows.
All around him the necrotic amalgamation’s of man and fungi had peeled from their creeping deathbeds. Decomposing muscle and broken bones propelling them forward with shambling steps and terrifying direction, eyeless sockets locked in his path. Not just men, but rats and other rodents tore from the fungal flesh of the walls, each one a living hive of rattling mushrooms and single minded purpose.
In their midst though, a thing that defied the logic of nature loomed, brown capped and covered in the excrement from which it rose. Featureless apart from for a single fleshy stinger that flailed mindlessly before it, each vile movement heralding another burst of rattling, this fungal mass, pale white and pulpy, slid towards Henry, its speed dwarfing the aberrations that joined it’s advance.
Henry tried to pull his gaze from it; it’s every twitching movement demanding his adrenaline filled senses full attention. He tried to move, to flee, but the roots had wormed into the meat of his legs, penetrating deep and worming into his muscles. Pain coursed through him and all he could do was whimper in fear, the terrible mass gaping from the water, great droplets of filth crashing to the ground as it approached.
A stinger snapped outwards, catching the light and ripping it from Henry's grip. The heavy duty flash-light fell impotently into the sewage, the steady beam falling for one final time on Henry's quivering body as the aberration raised its stinger.
The light was sucked into the darkness, there was no final scream. Just a single wet thud, as the rattling ceased and life continued.