“They’re coming! They’re coming!”
The tunnel turned to chaos as the warning spread along it. Soldiers ran back and forth, on alert for the enemy but unable to see them. The workers milled about in confusion, trampling each other in the dark. Adam shrank back against the wall as three burly soldiers ran past, looking for a way out.
“It’s the Reds!”
Another shout, somewhere near the surface. Adam joined the throng of workers as they fled deeper into the earth, soldiers rushing past and through them to reach the front lines. Another attack! The raids were all too frequent now.
Adam had never seen a live Red before, had never been this close to the front lines before, but he’d heard the stories. About how they fought with poison, so even a glancing blow could leave you dying in agony for hours afterward. About how they broke into the nurseries and stole the children. There were even rumours that the Reds ate their prisoners, but that was probably just a story to scare the young.
But the Reds were ferocious, that much was true. And now they were at war.
“Workers, this way!”
It was one of the soldiers, standing guard by one of the branch tunnels. Adam didn’t question the order; he just followed the crowd and ran for the entrance. Soldiers were expendable. Without the workforce, it didn’t matter how many soldiers they threw at the Red army. Soldiers still needed to eat.
“Adam! What’s happening?”
“Rumin! I thought you were dead!” Adam rushed over to his old friend. “I heard the lakeside tunnel was flooded.”
“It was.” Rumin turned away. “Some of us were able to dig our way out. Most of us… drowned.”
Adam tried not to think about the polluted waters that had broken through during the last rainstorm. The rain made the war far worse – dirt tunnels turned to mud, collapsing and destroying them. Hundreds, thousands of them dying in darkness and terror, because they couldn’t spare the time or resources to fix the tunnels in the first place.
“It’s the Reds,” said Adam.
“Another raid? So soon?” Rumin shook his head. “Did you see them?”
“No. The soldiers rushed us down here straight away. Can’t risk the workforce anymore. We’re too valuable.”
Rumin sighed. “I think we’re losing an entire generation to this war,” he said. “All the Queen wants now is soldiers. Says it’s fight or die out there. Why won’t those Red bastards leave us alone?”
Adam dropped his voice. “Maybe it’s not their fault. Maybe we’re the invaders.”
“Adam, don’t say that! If anyone heard you could get us both executed!”
“Well, maybe it’s true. We’ve been spreading out a fair bit lately. Maybe we’ve spread out into their patch, and they’re just defending themselves.”
“We had no choice.”
“I’m not listening to this.” Rumin shoved him away. “I’ve got work to do, Adam. They need me down in the stores. If you want to talk treason, go find your Red friends.”
The battle only lasted a few minutes. Most of the Red raiding party was dead; the survivors fled to report back to their leaders. This tunnel was no longer safe. Adam sighed. That meant they’d be digging a new one before the end of the day, and he was already exhausted.
But first, he had a far more unpleasant job to do. Adam and several other workers followed a squad of soldiers back to the tunnel. No-one spoke. No-one wanted to think about what was to come.
The smell hit him first. The tunnel was filled with corpses – some were Reds, but others were not. A thousand bodies. Some of them he’d probably spoken to in the tunnels before now. He might have brought them food. He may have cleared away their detritus. Now they were just detritus themselves.
There was no room for feelings in war. Friend or foe, the bodies had to be removed. There was no time to separate them out, no safe route to the surface for proper disposal. Adam picked up the nearest corpse and carried it down the tunnel.
Down to the pit.
It had once been nothing more than a rubbish dump. Now it was known as the pit. Down here in the dark, you couldn’t make out the difference between the fallen – or even between the corpses and the other waste that still found its way down here.
All you got was the stench.
Adam dropped his burden onto the pile, where it landed with a crunch upon the remains of its forerunners. He turned away, heading back up the tunnel for the next corpse. They didn’t shock him anymore. He’d already seen too many.
The next body was that of a Red. In death, the Reds looked very much like Adam himself. Adam wondered whether this soldier had friends waiting back home. Whether he’d heard the same ludicrous, but somehow compelling stories of eating babies that Adam had heard about them.
Back down to the pit. Another body on the heap. And another.
Wearily, Adam trudged back up the tunnel. He was hungry, but food was scarce, and it would be some time before his next meal. Out on the surface, there was plenty of food to be found – but a lone civilian couldn’t survive up there. Hopefully the Queen would agree to another scavenging run, as soon as she could spare the soldiers.
Most of the soldiers were young now. Younger than him. The veteran troops had mostly fallen to the Reds, wasted on retaliatory strikes. The younger ones – well, they were keen, but they weren’t experienced. They only had a basic level of training to fall back on. Could they actually win this war?
“Adam, I’m so sorry.”
Adam looked up from his meagre meal – little more than a few mashed up leaves.
“What is it, Tru?”
She looked at him for a moment, but she couldn’t hold his gaze. “It’s Rumin,” she said.
“He was shoring up the lakeside tunnel when the waters broke through again. I’m sorry, Adam. He didn’t make it. Not this time.”
“Rumin…” Adam sighed. Drowning was a horrible way to die. Despite his hunger, he no longer wanted the food in front of him. “How bad…?”
Tru shook her head. “No survivors. The Queen is having that tunnel sealed off – we can’t use it now. Adam… they’re saying the Reds did it. That they sabotaged the tunnel. But how?”
“I doubt it,” said Adam. “Just the tunnel giving way. I can’t imagine a Red getting that far into our tunnels without being seen.”
“The Queen is calling for another raid on them.”
That meant no spare soldiers for a food run. Adam looked at his tiny meal again, wondering when the next one would be – and whether it would be smaller still.
Somewhere in the distance, the cry went out again. “The Reds are coming!”
“Adam? Will this war ever end?”
He shook his head. “I don’t know. I hope so.”
Tru dashed away, ready to take the children to safety if the line broke. It hadn’t happened yet, but if the Reds attacked in force, there was no guarantee the troops could hold them.
Adam finished the last few bites of his meal, brushed off his antennae and headed for the tunnels, ready to do his part to protect the nest.