He was still for a moment. Coming through the open manhole, the deep twilight served to light the immediate space around him. The tunnel went off into darkness ahead of him and behind him. He had not turned on his torch. He suddenly realised the madness of what he was engaging in. The grey stone of the tunnel, the festering smell of underground and the stale cold had made the reality of his choice clear to him. The tunnel walls fell in and out of lighter shades in patches like peeling skin. The dark lines indenting the stone on the low-hanging roof seemed to reveal fragility, as if these cracks would break apart any moment, the roof would fall, and he would be crushed. The light from where he was standing faded quickly into shadow, and then gradient by gradient the darkness took over until it was complete. His heart was racing. This was it.

He reached for his miniature flashlight in his pocket. He felt a flicker of comfort in its metallic promise of utility in contrast to the ashen stone around him. He flicked the switch. He felt his stomach protract outwards and sink in a lightning convulsion. The flashlight did not work. Trying to keep his movements calm so as to suppress his panic, he turned the cylinder over and opened the small battery cartridge near its stem. Empty. He had checked it yesterday, to see if it still worked. He remembered with a burn of self-reproach that his uncle had been looking for spare batteries last night for his dictaphone. The timing was such a perfect coordination of disaster he stood a moment just trying to believe it. He had left his phone at home to prevent being tracked, so he could not use its torch either.

He looked up to the open manhole and considered going back out. Would he be able to make it in the dark? The blindness of the tunnel was complete. There were no bends, but there was a great length to go. Looking back up to the circle of dark blue sky and the soothing breath of outside he considered what this really meant to him. And he considered whether he could pass on this moment. Perhaps he could go again another night, when he had light. He exhaled. He knew this was his only chance. After this the people he was supposed to meet would slither away again into the unknown. His friend would be gone with them, and would not come back for him.

Then he thought, maybe if he moved just a little, he could get used to it. He would see whether he could do it. Perhaps it was safer to be invisible anyway.

The first step required a conscious effort, as if he were learning to walk again. He moved slowly, with as little noise as possible. He placed his feet carefully, trying to step on the rails to avoid the crunch of the gravel. He imagined hands that would suddenly grab him from somewhere in the total darkness. He imagined the lights of a train appearing in the distance of the tunnel and racing toward him, with him unable to avoid them. Terror rose as the lights grew closer in his imagination.

He stopped for another moment and breathed. The tunnel was abandoned. There was no one down here. That was what he had been told …

He began to move again.

Originally, he had thought it would take him half an hour. Knowing now how slowly he was placing his feet he realised it would take him much longer. But he moved on at the same cautious pace, the darkness seeming to erase him from the world and in doing so erasing him from the trajectory of minutes and hours. There was a timeless detachment down here, a purgatory of unending night. He could take as long as he wanted.

He thought of what they would say when they saw him. And if they would accept him.

Of course they would accept him.

Why should they trust him?

His friend would help him. His friend would tell them he could be ­trusted.

The coldness and the loneliness, would this be his life from here on? Would he always be moving through abandoned tunnels and clambering in shadows as a typical subversive might? He could turn around. He contemplated it. Before long he could be back home. His room was draughty, so he slept in the lounge with the fire. He could lie on the couch in that settled warmth, feeling the cold of the tunnel leave his body as he wrapped himself in blankets. He could listen to his uncle snoring from the other room, a noise that worked like gentle rain to bring him sleep.

He stopped. He turned.

The light from the open manhole was hidden somewhere. He thought he could see it, the smallest glint of a lighter shade of black. But perhaps that was just his mind conjuring it for comfort. He felt vulnerable standing still. Again, he imagined those hands suddenly upon him, grasping tightly around his arms, their fingers burrowing into his shirt and burning themselves on to his skin. His friend had told him there was no one down here. But perhaps? Perhaps the eyes of the underground, accustomed to the darkness, were watching him right now, gauging his strength, gauging his ability to wrestle free and scream before they could smother him. These horrifying hands and eyes did not seem to have any cogent purpose to attack him, other than the evil axiomatically intended by all monsters of imagination. The entrance was far now. But he could still go for it. The fire, the blankets. He did not have to do this.

But with that reflex he had had for as long as he could remember, that sudden surge of strength in the most desolate of moments, he breathed in and turned resolutely towards the unquestionable darkness.

‘No,’ he silently said to himself, moving his mouth in the shape of the word. ‘That is no longer an option.’ And he began to move again.

‘so that the rest of us can follow in light … so that the rest of us can follow in light …’

He could hear the voice that had told him those words. And that voice, coming always with the scent of cigarettes, its tone low and bitter, old, yet somehow still young: it brought him comfort.

But another voice appeared. Another face.

‘Please no! Please don’t! Please! I’m begging you! Don’t go!’

His heart rose dutifully to the sound of her voice.

‘Please! I’m begging you! Don’t go! I love you!’

His shoulders dropped, his posture failed. His heart ached as he saw her face in his mind. That love for him so clear in her large, shimmering eyes, opened wide in horror as if to enclose him. He kept moving, but he was pushing against a wind. Her voice was forcing him back, back to the world above, back to the world he could have, the world of comfort, of routine.

‘Of apathy,’ he added for himself in his mind. ‘Of complacency. Of cowardice.’

He exhaled to steady himself, and found himself emitting a breath of bitter laughter.

This. This was torture.

‘Please not much longer,’ he thought. ‘Please not much longer.’

The subversives were waiting at the end of the tunnel. Once he had arrived, he would not be able to turn back. His choice would be affirmed by them, and he would be unwilling to step back into darkness. He pleaded in his mind to arrive soon so that he would be saved from his own hesitation. He did not often allow himself the realisation of weakness, but to fight this realisation now seemed too great an effort. Then he scolded himself. It only appeared too great an effort because he was desperate to leave. He could do this.

The tunnel was necessary, he had been told, because he would have been followed going through the streets. Or he would have been stopped by police. He did not have a pass, and the curfew was not to be disobeyed.

London. She had once lived. Her great past, immortalised in the stone of her landmarks, seemed to confirm her rightful future. She never shocked the eye. She was kind to it. Her summers were calm. In her colours, passion was restrained. Her in a word? Dignity. She had lived with dignity. She had not died suddenly. It had been slow. She died from the hate-speech laws. She died from the curfew. She died from the religious toleration routines which every individual had to observe. She died from the endless numbing of the media, its vapid hypnosis inhibiting thought and self-preservation. The silence now above him was not one of contentment, but of stillness.

Its inhabitants, hunched over from the cold, had scurried from building to building before nightfall in advance of the curfew. Now its streets were bare. Its shops were closed. No sound would be heard until the public service announcements came on at seven in the morning. By that time the fog would have settled and the loudspeakers would crackle from somewhere within, as in a dream where voices seem to come from nowhere.

‘Good morning London. Please remember to respect those around you today. In 2029, London will be the City of Love.’

‘The City of Love wishes you good morning. Remember to be kind to those around you. Remember to celebrate our wonderful multicultural city.’

‘London, remember to report all subversive activity. Do it for the safety of those around you.’

‘Good morning London, the City of Love.’

The voices spoke of love to a corpse. Whatever was on those cold, tired faces in the morning—their exhausting smiles hiding their desperation to scream, their fear of the state so constant it took flavour from food and enjoyment from sex—whatever it was, it was not love.

‘Please don’t go! I love you!’

He would stop, surely, if he kept having to hear her voice. And though he tried to shut it out it reappeared again and again. He knew it reappeared because he let it in. She would be lying in bed right now, silencing the convulsions of her sobbing so as not to awaken her neurotic mother in the next room.

He stopped again. This time he did not turn. He lowered his head, defeated. His arms fell to his side. He would have to turn around. He could avoid the police on the way back by going the long way through the surrounding suburbs. A text and she would let him in. He could spend the night with her. They would wrap around each other for warmth, content enough to endure the remaining cold. He could smell her already, that smell that was so irreplaceably her. She smelled like wheat. She did not wear perfume. He could feel the softness of her silk pyjamas as they pressed against him. He could feel her hand slowly moving through his hair, no longer feeling the need to pull at it as before, when she had begged him to stay.

And with numbness and disbelief, he turned and took one step backwards. The step was at once defeat and victory, evil and good. It stood beyond the clarity of definite moral perception. There was a numbness to it. It was faintly surrounded by fingers of accusation, by mouths of opprobrium. He ignored them, and they seemed to disappear. The retreat felt like he had washed his mind clean. He had discarded his principles, and in his head he was left with a dizzying lightness, as if the air pressure had changed. He felt a blunted awareness of everything. He had either woken up or had immersed himself in a vivid dream.

‘so that the rest of us can follow in light …’

He suddenly brought those words again to his mind, as if by a process of self-preservation that had become automated. That was the voice of his philosophy professor. But he had never heard those words. He had read them. Twelve days ago, his professor revealed to him that he too was a subversive. Knowing all too well that he was going to be taken, he had delivered a handwritten note in the mailbox. The note had read: ‘Think and be brave. The injustice of our world has two enemies: thought and courage. Think. Do not accept what you see around you. Do not assume it is there because it is wise. It is there because we are asleep. Be brave. The world relies on those brave few willing to step into the darkness first, so that the rest of us can follow in light. Goodbye.’

He turned. He looked into the darkness and smiled at it. Those words seemed to have created the light it premonished, or at least he could feel their heat inside him. The heat somehow filtered out into the surrounds and warmed them.

She would be crushed by this dictatorship. She was weaker than evil. That smile which had so protected him from his own pain and fear, that smile with its manic glee at the sight of him, its helplessness, its honesty—it was not something that belonged in a world of lies. That smile would be destroyed. Its honesty would fade. It would become nothing but a cynical disguise of horror, a trick to use men and avoid brutality. That was why he continued. To protect that smile. It was an end in itself. It was something that the world needed, not just him.

Ahead in the tunnel, there appeared a light. He would be upon it soon. In the surrounding darkness, it looked like a solitary star. He was filled with a sense of adventure as he might be journeying through space, towards some distant constellation. But he also felt as if he were returning home after many years away, after he had almost forgotten it.

*****

Magnus is an Australian writer currently working on a first novel. He also writes political commentary and is the host of an online philosophy channel, Reason Radical.

Photo by mookitty