The Sampling: Below

By David Hill

A nerve-wracking underground adventure from a master storyteller, Below follows Liam as he dares his classmate Imogen to come on a forbidden tour of the railway tunnel being drilled through a nearby mountain, in the hopes she’ll quit protesting about it damaging the environment—his dad is an engineer working on the tunnel, after all. But just as they reach the huge tunnelling machine, everything goes horribly wrong. When the rocks stop falling and the dust settles, they are trapped, kilometres below ground, in the dark. Water is trickling in and beginning to rise. And nobody knows where they are. Can they stop arguing and start working together to escape before time runs out? Read an extract below, now part of our Summer Excerpt Series showcasing the junior and young adult titles from the 2023 Storylines Notable Book Awards. You can also read Sarah Forster’s review here.


But air could make its way through the tiniest crack. Even if they couldn’t find a way out, it could find a way in, surely?

Liam’s stomach clenched as he remembered another thing. Gas. Dangerous gases formed inside a mountain as tree roots rotted and chemicals in the rocks slowly changed. Every tunnel had detectors, to check for any gases seeping through walls and roofs. They could suffocate you. They might explode if drills or electrical wires caused a spark; then a fire could come roaring through the tunnel. Liam sniffed, but he couldn’t smell anything.

Imogen sat watching him. Her green jacket was filthy with dust. Tears and dirt streaked her face. She was trying to breathe slowly, deeply. The green backpack and spray can lay beside her.

‘What else have you got in the pack?’ Liam asked.

‘Just a water bottle and some tissues. Why?’

Tissues, thought Liam. Great. ‘No torch?’

The girl shook her head. ‘Why would I bring a torch?

I didn’t know anything—’ her voice began to shake ‘—anything like this would happen!’

Liam shrugged. ‘Yeah, OK. Just could have been handy for seeing if there’s any way out through that.’ He jerked his head towards the mass of rocks behind them.

They both exclaimed at the same time. Liam shoved his hand into his jacket once again, pulled out his phone.

It — yes, the light glowed. They had something to see with, if . . . if the TBM’s cabin lights failed. He tried to

push that thought away. ‘How about yours?’

Imogen held something out to him. The green (naturally) phone was almost broken in half, face smashed, a glitter of splintered parts spilling from it.

‘Must have been broken when I fell on the steps. Try yours. Go on — try it!’

He’d already seen the display on his screen. No bars at all. But he pushed his father’s number, held his breath. Half a metre away, the girl watched.

A second only, then No Signal. Liam’s stomach went heavy. ‘Can’t phone, can’t text. We’re too far in. It won’t work. It’s useless.’

More silence. Imogen had started to breathe slow and deep again. After a minute, Liam joined in. One . . .two . . . three . . . four. One . . . two . . . Fear still clawed at him; he kept shaking; but he managed to lift his head and gaze at the walls of the tiny cabin.

‘Mum gets us to do this when we’re in the bush.’ Imogen was staring ahead, also. ‘It makes you feel calm, makes you take things in. She and Dad and—’ Her face started to tremble; she hunched again. ‘We’ve got to get out! We’ve got to!’

‘I told you!’ Liam knew he was shouting. ‘The tunnel’s blocked. There could be more rocks coming down any second!’

But Imogen was crying once more. ‘We can’t just stay here. We can’t!’

Liam went still. His dad had told him something while they watched the giant shape of Lucia being assembled outside the tunnel. ‘You could even have a little holiday inside her, son. Light, seats, heaters if you need them, box of—’

He twisted to his feet, began hauling at the seats in front of the blank computer screens. One was jammed half-under its desk. He wrenched and heaved. It came free; fell with a clatter onto the floor beside Imogen.

‘Watch out!’ she said. ‘What are you doing?’

Liam ignored her. He snatched at the desk drawers.

Nothing inside except some sort of operating manuals.

‘What are you doing?’ the girl demanded again. ‘Tell me!’

‘Shut up!’ Liam was yelling again. ‘Shut up and help me. There must—’

They both froze as another rumble came, somewhere behind them. Rocks crunched and shifted. Something smashed into Lucia, and the huge machine lurched sideways. Then its lights went out.

They both froze as another rumble came, somewhere behind them. Rocks crunched and shifted. Something smashed into Lucia, and the huge machine lurched sideways. Then its lights went out.

Blackness. Absolute blackness. Liam couldn’t see anything, not even his own hands as he jammed them against his face. The cabin, Imogen, everything had vanished.

They were both yelling and howling. ‘No! No!’

Something thumped against his side. He yelled again, realised it must be Imogen and clutched for her, but his hands closed on emptiness. His heart hammered; he panted like an animal. They were going to die. Die in the dark, alone and terrified.

A flicker above them. Another second’s blackness, then the TBM’s lights glowed again.

They stared at each other. Imogen was crouched against the cabin wall, one hand thrust out in front of her. Liam bent over the second chair, where he’d been pulling at it. The lights flickered once more, and they both caught their breath. But the bulbs kept glowing.

‘Why — what happened?’ Imogen licked at her lips. ‘Will they go out again?’

‘Don’t know. Could be batteries switching to backup, or something.’ Silence, then he went on. ‘Look, Lucia has an emergency kit. My father told me. They keep one in case . . . in case something happens. Maybe it’s in here. Help me look.’

Imogen pushed herself up, turned to search the shelf running along the cabin’s other wall. ‘What does it look like?’

‘Don’t know,’ Liam said again. ‘Box or something. Just look.’

As he began crouching to stare under the computer desk, he stopped and said ‘See where I am?’

The girl stared at him. ‘What?’

‘If the — the lights go out again, just stay still. My phone’s in this pocket, see?’ He touched the side of his jacket. ‘I’ll turn it on. If you need to, that’s where it is.’

Imogen nodded, dragged in another breath. She turned back to the shelf. Liam bent and peered under the desks. Had it fallen down there? No — nothing.

He straightened up, moved the computers aside.

Nothing there except dust, grit and a couple of staples.

He checked the drawers a second time, lifted up the manuals. What’s it look like? his mind asked. Is there even one in here?

Still nothing. He was starting to pant again, felt panic crawling up inside him. He stared around. No cupboards. No cabinets. There wasn’t even—

Imogen spoke from behind him. ‘Is this it?’


As Liam turned, another roar battered at their ears.

More rocks collapsed, right above them. Something whammed on the cabin roof, and Lucia shook once more. They both yelled; the lights flickered again. Liam snatched at the hard hats he’d shoved onto the desks. He jammed one on his head, thrust the other at Imogen.

‘Put it on!’ As she shrank back, he shouted ‘Do it!’

She pushed dirt-smeared hair off her face, and slid the hat on. Then she pointed at the object beside her. A metal box, painted white, with a red cross on top. And a red crescent: some of the tunnellers came from Islamic countries, Liam remembered. He took a deep breath, opened it with hands that wouldn’t stop shaking.

They both stared inside. A whistle. Two bottles of water. Some bars of chocolate, sachets labelled SOUP and NOODLES. A packet of matches. A square white plastic container, labelled FIRST AID. A folded metal rectangle holding white tablets, with a picture of a fire on it — a tiny stove, Liam realised. Another, bigger rectangle made of silver cloth: what was that? And a bright orange, rubber-sheathed torch.

Enough to keep us alive for . . . for how long? Liam wondered.

Just two bottles of water; his throat felt parched already from dust and fear; he wanted to open a bottle and gulp it all down straightaway. He made himself push both bottles back into the box.

How long till anyone managed to reach them, through the mass of collapsed rock and shattered walls? How long till anyone even knew they were here? There was his bike outside, but who would know it was his? If the rockfalls had smashed the security fences outside, would his father even think about the missing keys?

They’d miss him by dinner time. So would Imogen’s parents, surely? Beside him, the girl was shaking out the bigger silvery rectangle. It hung in glittering folds, a thin shiny sheet the size of . . . ‘Survival blanket,’ he said. He tried to imagine himself and Imogen Parkinson sharing a blanket. Anyway, the air was too hot for that; they were both sweating. Air, he thought again. How much

Imogen clicked the torch, and a bright beam of light shone across the cabin. Specks of dust drifted in it. ‘Can we use this? Signal with it, or something?’

‘Dunno.’ Liam was still thinking about the air. Had it been this hot, the other couple of times he’d been inside the Puketapu Tunnel? Did it feel this way now because they were so . . . so terrified?

He stared through the scarred back window again.

The TBM’s shadowy bulk vanished into darkness just a couple of metres away. He could make out steel girders; the conveyer belt, unmoving now; a couple of big square shapes on the machine’s side. His father had said something else, about . . .

He picked up the packet of matches from the metal box. ‘Stay here,’ he told Imogen.

She jerked. ‘Where are you going? Don’t—’

‘I’m just gonna be outside for a minute. Best if we’re not both out there at the same time. Too much moving around might start more rocks coming down.’

She stared, but said nothing. Liam shoved at the cabin door. It opened a few centimetres, then stuck. He drew back, lifted a foot to kick at it, but Imogen was beside him, grabbing his arm. ‘Do it slowly. You said not too much moving.’

Together, they pushed carefully at the door. Rocks outside grated, slid backwards and dropped from he steps. When the gap was wide enough to squeeze through, they stood listening, trying to breathe quietly. No sound; no movement.

Liam moved slowly down the steps to the ground.

How long till anyone managed to reach them, through the mass of collapsed rock and shattered walls? How long till anyone even knew they were here?

Just a couple of metres away, a car-sized slab of rock lay jammed up against the TBM. Other big chunks were piled around it. Beside and in front of him, pebbles and stones were scattered, but there was plenty of room to move around.

Inside the dimly glowing cabin, Imogen leaned with her forehead against the window, watching him. He opened the packet of matches carefully, making sure it was the right way up, and eased out a single match. Mustn’t lose anything; the lights might go out again at any moment.

It was cooler out here. He struck the match, screwing up his eyes as it flared. Above him, the tunnel roof had split apart, and a section of rock hung like some weird curtain. Rocks bulged from other places; boulders lay heaped and jammed. But a big empty space stretched beside Lucia, beyond the slab that had crashed into her side. The tunnel didn’t seem totally blocked. Maybe . . .

Liam gasped as the flame reached his fingers. He dropped the match; clutched the packet as it almost slipped from his grasp. Carefully, he took out another match. He breathed slowly, till his body was still, then struck the second match, lifted it in front of him, stared at the flame. It was moving! No, his hand was shaking.

He gripped his wrist with his other hand, and stared harder.

The little flame was bending, blowing a fraction sideways. Somewhere, somehow, air was getting into the tunnel. If it could get in, maybe they could get out.

Back in the cabin, he told Imogen. The girl watched him; said nothing till he’d finished. ‘We both go and look,’ she said then. As Liam opened his mouth, she shook her head. ‘Suppose something happens and one of us needs help while we’re out there? We both go.’

She went on. ‘We won’t use the torch in here unless . . . unless the lights stop again. And we need to know where it is, like your phone. And the matches.’

Liam nodded. ‘Let’s have some water,’ the girl said. ‘I’m so thirsty.’ She unscrewed one bottle, took a slow sip. Liam saw her rinse it around her mouth, then swallow. She lifted the bottle again, stopped, handed it to him.

Dunno if I’ve ever drunk from the same bottle as a girl before, Liam thought stupidly. He took just one mouthful, like Imogen, made himself recap the bottle.

‘There’s not much,’ Imogen said. ‘Is there any that gets in from the rocks or stuff? You said something about water in the mountain.’

‘Mayb— hey!’

The girl jumped as Liam exclaimed. ‘What?’ she breathed. ‘What’s wrong?’

‘Something Dad told me. Come outside. Bring the torch.’

They climbed down to the rock-strewn ground. From outside, Lucia’s cabin looked so frail. A single big boulder could crush it. Liam picked his way along towards the rear of the TBM, Imogen behind him. As they left the dim glow of the cabin lights, she clicked on the torch. One after the other, they eased their way around the rock slab jammed against the machine’s side. The square shapes Liam had glimpsed stood just beyond it.

He hesitated. ‘Dad says — the drilling face uses water, to help its cutters. There’s big tanks they fill. This might be . . .’

Imogen pointed the torch. ‘There!’ A metal tap, near the bottom of one shadowy shape.

They were both silent as she twisted at it. It moved, and next second, a stream of water glittered in the torch’s beam, splashing onto the muddy ground.

The girl’s other hand seized Liam’s. Quickly, he bent and turned off the tap. They weren’t going to die from suffocation or thirst. Now . . . now what?


By David Hill

Published by Puffin

RRP: $22.00

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