THE TUNNELS SERIES
2 Palmer Street, Frome, Somerset BA11 1DS
Previously, in Spiral …
PART ONE Aftermath
PART TWO The Tower
PART THREE Bishops Wood
PART FOUR Mayhem
This is not my true country, I have lived banish’d from my true country, I now go back there,
I return to the celestial sphere where every one goes in his turn.
Salut au Monde! by Walt Whitman (1819 – 1892)
The truth is that there is only one terminal dignity – love. And the story of a love is not important – what is important is that one is capable of love. It is perhaps the only glimpse we are permitted of eternity.
Helen Hayes, actor (1900 – 1993)
Previously, in Spiral …
Will and Drake learn from Eddie, the former Limiter, that the Styx race is entering the Phase, a stage in their lifecycle which has occurred only two or three times down the millennia. A new Phase would mean the rapid production of an army of Styx Warrior Class Limiters, with devastating consequences for the country as they cut a swathe through the Topsoil population.
Drake’s father, Parry, mounts a military operation to destroy a warehouse in which the Phase is taking place. It is thought that all the Styx women have been eliminated and that the Phase has been averted, until a security video on a hard drive reveals that two have managed to escape the net. One of these women, Hermione, goes to ground in Topsoil England, while the other, Vane, travels to the inner world. Each of them intends to restart the Phase, although a successful outcome is far from guaranteed.
That’s the good news.
The bad news is that Styx mythology tells of a possible second reproduction cycle, effectively a backstop in the instance that the Phase is not able to proceed. This would have even worse implications for the human race as the far deadlier Armagi would be spawned, killing beasts capable of rapidly adapting to different environments, and of regenerating after injury.
As Will and the team regroup to plan their next move, Danforth has come up with his own plan to defect to the Styx. But when he makes his move, he brings about the death of Chester’s parents and entombs everyone in the Complex, Parry’s government stronghold deep in a Scottish mountain.
After the team eventually manage to escape from the Complex, Parry and Eddie remain Topsoil with members of the Old Guard and Eddie’s former Limiters, their brief to track down and kill Hermione. Anticipating that her sister, Vane, is going to attempt to use the population of New Germania as the hosts in a new Phase, Drake leads Will, Elliott, Sweeney and Colonel Bismarck on a mission to the inner world. Their task is to seal the Ancients’ passage and the pore, the only two ways in or out of the inner world, with nuclear explosions.
However, before the devices can be detonated, Drake and his team are surprised at the pore by Vane, Rebecca One and a squad of Limiters.
Colonel Bismarck is shot dead by the Limiters and, in the ensuing struggle, help comes from an unexpected quarter. To Drake and the others’ complete surprise, Jiggs has shadowed them to the inner world and now springs into action. He slashes the throat of one Limiter, and then takes a second out of the running by sweeping him over into the pore with him. Drake is forced to do the same with the Styx twin, but is still able to remotely detonate the nuclear bomb as he falls towards the zero-gravity belt.
Sweeney loses his life because he is too close to the electromagnetic pulse from the nuclear explosion, and it fries the circuits in his head. As he topples to the ground, he crushes a test tube in his pocket and inadvertently releases a deadly virus sourced from the Eternal City, which wipes out not just every human and Styx present in the inner world, but virtually all other species. Will and Elliott survive the virus because they have been vaccinated against it, but they are now sealed in Dr Burrows’ ‘Garden of the Second Sun’, seemingly with no way to return Topsoil.
And on the surface in a remote cottage on the Pembrokeshire coast, Old Wilkie and his granddaughter Stephanie care for Chester as he tries to deal with the death of his parents.
Although the Phase in the inner world has been forestalled, Hermione’s efforts on the surface have borne fruit, and the deadly Armagi are spawned.
This final instalment in the Tunnels series picks up the story just minutes before the nuclear explosion in the pore, as Jiggs battles for his life …
The battle would end with one of them dead.
Hands gripped wrists, arms taut as metal hawsers, muscles shaking from extreme exertion.
They strained and resisted, man and Styx testing each other time and time again as their blades reflected the sun far above, which grew ever smaller as they continued to fall.
The Limiter’s lips were drawn back and his teeth bared as he swore in the Styx language, but Jiggs was completely silent.
They’d been locked in mortal combat from the first instant that Jiggs had swept the Limiter over into the void with him. The Styx had lost his long rifle early on when Jiggs kicked it from his grip but, in the blink of an eye, he’d drawn out his scythe. In any case, at such close quarters a bladed weapon would always be the preference.
Without the element of surprise to help him, Jiggs had known that despatching the second Limiter wasn’t going to be easy. The first had been caught completely unawares as the perfectly placed strike with a combat knife severed his jugular. The Limiter had died with a frown on his face, still asking himself how the thin, bearded man had been able to appear from nowhere.
And now Jiggs was pitted against the second Styx soldier as they performed the macabre acrobatic display. Their deadly intent bound them together like shackles because neither would release the knife hand of the other, as that would spell instant death. So the contest went on, both adversaries knowing there was to be no intervention from a comrade, no relief from the topography, because it was just them and the rushing air.
Physically they were pretty evenly matched: both had that strength of sinew and honed muscle that years of service had brought, Jiggs in the jungles of the world where he had been sent in for solo recon missions, and the Limiter from his lengthy tours in the Deeps.
But, little by little, the Limiter was beginning to gain the upper hand. He seemed to have reserves of energy that went beyond those of any human. As they grappled with each other, turning slow spirals through the air, he’d managed to clamp Jiggs’ legs together with his own in a scissor move. And now that Jiggs was caught in this inflexible lock, the Limiter was pushing with all his might, applying pressure to his opponent’s back. Jiggs could feel his spine beginning to strain – he didn’t know much more of this it could take.
And the vicious curved scythe was moving closer and closer to his neck.
The sun was growing ever more remote and the shadows beginning to merge as Jiggs caught a rush of colour in the corner of his eye. Because
Jiggs knew that a collision with the side could be his salvation – as things stood, he was losing and needed to buy himself some breathing space. And quick.
Then they crashed into the slope, rolling over each other as they tumbled chaotically down it, quickly becoming pasted in the sticky bitumen. Due to the marked reduction in gravity at that depth in the void, they weren’t so much falling down the slope as bouncing down it, in a manner similar to the motion of a pebble carried along the bed of a river.
‘Yes!’ Jiggs thought to himself, as the Limiter lost his grip on his legs.
Then they entered a stretch of the slope covered with the stunted trees, branches whipping their faces as they tumbled through them, and the struggle growing even more confused as they strove to hold each other at bay.
Rolling off a small escarpment, they found themselves thrown into mid-air again.
Jiggs’ defence seemed to waver, as though his arms were giving out. The Limiter seized the opportunity. Twisting his upper body, he drove his scythe at Jiggs’ neck in one almighty effort.
Although Jiggs managed to deflect it, the tip of the scythe caught him along the collarbone. As it ripped through the material of his combat jacket, he was fortunate that the shoulder strap of his Bergen prevented it from doing much harm to the flesh beneath.
But the Limiter had drawn first blood. Believing the battle had turned in his favour, he immediately went for a second strike at his opponent’s neck.
Exactly what Jiggs had been hoping for.
He’d allowed the Limiter his small victory because he had seen what was fast approaching.
And just as Jiggs had intended, the Limiter had been so distracted that he hadn’t spotted the massive outcrop of rock they were about to cannon into as they gravitated towards the side again.
At the last moment, Jiggs arched his body, controlling their flight. Then they hit the rock.
With a resounding crack, the Limiter’s skull took the impact full on. His body went slack – given a few seconds he might have recovered, but Jiggs wasn’t about to allow that to happen.
He rammed his combat knife into the Styx’s chest, just below the clavicle.
As he detached himself from the lifeless Limiter, Jiggs didn’t have time to dwell on his victory. There was only one thought in his mind; he knew he was already far below the nuclear device that Drake and Sweeney had secured to the side of the void and then primed ready for remote detonation. And he knew that he had to put as much distance between himself and the device as he could.
Before it went off.
Jiggs didn’t feel any guilt over saving his own skin. There was nothing he could do for Will and the others back at the top of the pore – he was too far away to help them now.
Grabbing the booster rocket from a side pocket of his Bergen, he spun the valve round to full thrust and, aiming it behind him, fired it up. A blue flame sprouted from the end of the propulsion unit, and he took off like a firework.
At the breakneck speed he was travelling, he exited the void in a matter of seconds and then shot out into the huge cavern beyond, as endless as the night sky. Although they were still many hundreds of miles away, his trajectory was taking him straight towards the suspended bodies of water behind which ethereal lights flickered. Jiggs had already witnessed this illumination on the first leg of the journey to the inner world, and knew that it was being produced by triboluminescence in the Crystal Belt, where mountain-sized lumps of crystal ground against each other like some sort of perpetual motion machine. And this was also generating the rumbling sound that filled his ears. But, at that precise moment, Jiggs didn’t care which way he was heading – he just had to get himself clear of the blast radius.
With the booster still on full thrust, he braced himself for the explosion, counting the seconds. He continued to count until he’d reached a full minute, then two minutes, then three. At that point he stopped, wondering if Drake and the Rebecca twin were still facing each other in some sort of stand-off, or even if they had agreed to a truce, unlikely as that seemed. Perhaps there wasn’t to be an explosion after all.
Then the atomic device detonated.
As the roar shook every bone in his body, he braced himself for the first wave from the one-kiloton bomb – the blast of light and searing heat. He knew better than to look at it, making sure his head was tucked well down and that his eyes were protected by his arm. The heat on his back was so intense he really thought that his Bergen and clothing might burst into flames.
He didn’t have time to worry further about this as the shock wave caught up with him. The wall of compressed air felt precisely as if a giant hand had slapped him, flinging him forward with such impetus that he could barely draw breath. He was reminded of the first time he’d gone on a roller coaster as a child; the sensation of falling at precipitous speed was identical, but this ride seemed to have no end.
Daring to remove his arm from his face as he sped along, he caught a brief glimpse of the torrents of light from the blast rebounding and reflecting from the far-flung corners of the huge chamber before him. As the whole area lit up, it was so vast and endless it made him feel vertiginous. The glittering masses of water and gargantuan crystal spheres were revealed in all their glory – perhaps as they’d never been before in this secret place deep within the planet.
And what made absolutely no sense to him was, for the instant in which the veil of darkness was lifted, he could have sworn that the line of crystal spheres was remarkably regular, as if they weren’t simply some artefact of nature. And there was also something curious about the stretch of cavern wall he’d glimpsed through the haze in the extreme distance – it appeared to be marked with grids of lines, or raised sections of some description.
‘Pull yourself together!’ he growled at himself. There had to be a rational explanation – the patterns he’d noticed must be due to the superheated air currents. Either that or the shock wave from the explosion had temporarily scrambled his vision.
And it had been one hell of an explosion. He peered over his shoulder, quickly locating the dull red glow that marked ground zero. Where the void had previously been, the rock had fused into one massive plug of silicate and completely sealed the way into the inner world, just as Drake had predicted it would.
‘Jesus!’ Jiggs cried, flinching as a white-hot lump of rock shot not ten feet away from him. As more of these missiles followed, he realised it was fallout from the explosion, like a shower of miniature meteors. But the main barrage was over almost as soon as it began, and he was far enough away for it not to be a serious hazard.
Even though there was no ‘up’ or ‘down’ in this place, Jiggs didn’t need his finely tuned sense of direction to tell him that the explosion had sent him in completely the wrong direction. He checked his position in relation to the Crystal Belt. If he was to have a hope of navigating his way back to the outer surface again, he needed to find the mouth of the second void, called Smoking Jean, which they’d used on their journey to the inner world. He tried to use his booster to adjust his flight path, but such was his velocity that even several minutes with the propulsion device at full thrust made little difference.
But he had no option but to persevere if he ever wanted to get home again, so he kept using the blaster, all the time referencing his position against the still-glowing blast site.
That was when he noticed something curious. A streak of green light appeared in the distance, then faded away. Jiggs was wondering if his eyesight was playing up again when, several seconds later, it was followed by a second streak, although this time it was yellow.
‘Flares?’ Jiggs wondered aloud.
Of the team, only he, Sweeney and Drake had b
Jiggs frowned, briefly considering the possibility that something on the drifting corpse of the Limiter he’d killed had been set alight in the blast. But it was highly improbable that it would have been those precise colours. No. Jiggs quickly decided that it had to be either Drake or Sweeney, or one of the others. But who?
And he knew the flares must have gone off because of the intense heat, so there was no point in sending a counter-signal. Whoever it was had to be in trouble.
He didn’t think twice about what he must do.
‘We never leave anyone behind,’ Jiggs said, already setting himself on a new course to intercept where his team member – or perhaps members – were bound. There was enough propellant in the booster tanks for the detour, so that wasn’t a concern. His main worry was that he’d miss his speeding target, whose flight path would eventually take it into the huge suspended masses of water or even beyond them, into the Crystal Belt. But in the endless black canvas of this huge space, broken only by the flickering muted light, it was tantamount to looking for a needle in a haystack, at midnight.
Taking out his light-intensifying monoscope, he put it on his head and adjusted it for the ambient light levels. Although Drake had tried his best to make him adopt one of his proprietary lenses, Jiggs had stuck firmly to his Soviet-made night scope. The electronics may have been primitive compared to Drake’s design, but it had seen him through two decades of active service, and he knew how to repair it in the field if it malfunctioned.
But now all Jiggs was seeing through his monoscope was chunk after chunk of slow-moving rock that had been flung out by the explosion. Then finally he spotted something that looked more promising, and for a few seconds he continued to track it through his scope. It was further out than he’d expected, but nevertheless Jiggs angled his booster so he could home in on it, praying that it wasn’t just another hunk of itinerant rock.