Crawlers - By Sam Enthoven

Below is the opening scene of CRAWLERS with – as an online-only bonus – some gorgeously sinister imagery by digital artist Malcolm Harrison. (Note: You can click on any of the images to see a bigger, more detailed version.)

Story © Sam Enthoven / Art © Malcolm Harrison, 2010. All Rights Reserved.

LONDON. The financial district, aka the City. Deep underground. 6:16pm

In the dark pit that had been my prison for almost three hundred and fifty years, Steadman’s latest victim was regaining consciousness.

‘Mr Miller?’ said Steadman’s voice from the pit’s wall-mounted speakers. ‘Mr Miller? Can you hear me?’
There was a groan. ‘Wh . . . what?’ The voice was that of a young man, not much more than a teenager. ‘Where am I? What . . . what happened?’
‘I imagine,’ said Steadman, ‘that the last thing you remember is lunch at my club. You spent most of the meal boasting about some trivial few million you made on the money markets this morning. For my part, I allowed you to imagine that the Corporation might be interested in you for a purpose other than your present one – and drugged your wine.’ He sighed. ‘Shocking way to treat a fine Margaux, I know. But then, so was wasting it on you.’
‘Mr Steadman,’ said his victim, trying for reason, ‘Lionel, I don’t—’
‘Kindly shut up and let me tell you what you’re doing there.’ Miller fell silent.

‘I . . . hate you,’ Steadman began. ‘I’ve never had the chance to say this to one of you before, but I’ve hated people like you my whole life. Ever since school, where my existence was made a misery by a smug, self-satisfied waster just like you, I have quietly dedicated my life to finding ways to revenge myself on your kind.
‘Something unpleasant is about to happen to you. But you can comfort yourself with two things. First, it will be over far more quickly than you deserve, and second, you’re in a very privileged position. You, Mr Miller, are about to serve the Queen.’
I took my cue.
Gah!’ cried Miller into the darkness when I first touched him. ‘What’s that?’
‘What’s what?’ Steadman asked, amused.
‘There’s something . . . crawling. Like a spider. It’s . . . going up my legs. Now it’s on my back! I can’t . . . Oh! Oh, God! GET IT OFF ME!

Mr Miller shrieked – a short, high note, his voice driven to that pitch by absolute terror.
The shriek stopped.
Then I spoke through his mouth.
‘I . . . like this one, Steadman.’ The words were husky and thick at first as I worked the unfamiliar vocal cords. ‘He’s young. Healthy. Much better than the sickly things you usually bring me.’
‘A treat for you, my Queen,’ said Steadman. ‘And he’s just the first of many. As of now, you no longer have to make do with those dregs I can steal from the streets without anyone noticing. As of this moment, you can take anyone you want.’ He paused, then said: ‘You are free.’
Free. More than three centuries had passed while I had been held captive in this pit. In the early days Steadman’s predecessors had kept me here with spiked chains and armed guards. Behind those guards had stood more guards, their weapons trained on the first in case I did what I do.

Now, in Mr Steadman’s time, I heard an echoing hiss and a whine of machinery. As the lid of my pit drew back I allowed myself a moment of triumph. From that first, blazing night when they caught me I had known this day would come. The reason was simple: they had not killed me. Even in 1666 the Corporation of London had recognized my . . . gifts.
‘You accept my offer then, Steadman?’ I asked him, through the young man’s mouth.
‘Not . . . quite.’ Even through the speakers on the pit walls I could hear the smile in Steadman’s voice.
‘To the left of your pit,’ he said, ‘there is a door. Through it you could go anywhere you want, but the door is shut and the only one who can open it is me. To the right of your pit is a second door: that door is open. It leads to the building above us, a building known as the Barbican. There I’ve set up . . . a little bet.’

I waited. I had waited a long time. I was patient.
‘You’ve never seen the Barbican, of course,’ said Steadman. ‘The Corporation completed it in nineteen sixty-nine – rather after your time. Then, it was the largest performing arts centre in Europe. Now . . .’ He paused. ‘Well, you’ll find out.
‘I’m giving you a chance to prove yourself, my Queen,’ he went on. ‘If you show me that you can do what you claim, I’ll accept your offer. The first door will open. We’ll go through. Together, you and I will take charge of this world and run it the way it should be run.’
‘And if I . . . displease you?’
‘This room, along with the whole of the Barbican, is rigged with explosives. At midnight precisely they will detonate. The entire building will be destroyed, erasing all evidence of tonight’s events – including, if I have not opened the first door, you. Do we understand each other?’
‘Yes.’ I understood him better than he knew.
‘Then go, my Queen,’ said Steadman. ‘You have less than six hours. If you’re as powerful as you say, you’ll know what to do. And I can hardly wait,’ he added, ‘to see you do it.’

Already my hands were moving. All of them. The pit resounded with soft, crawling sounds.
My wait was over. Now, at last, I could begin.

Story © Sam Enthoven / Art © Malcolm Harrison, 2010. All Rights Reserved.

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