Tomb of the Lost World
Surprisingly enough, Hazel quickly adjusted to his new position as first-time Chief Rabbit. His first act as leader was to issue an order that everyone healthy was to help with the digging if they wanted to eat. Many of the bucks, especially Hawkbit, were strongly opposed, but finally gave in after Bigwig, now their indisputable Captain of Owsla, threatened to discipline them for disobedience. And so, the group of rabbits and humans set to work in earnest, digging their new warren.
As they had no shovels or pickaxes, or any other digging tools of any kind, the three men had no choice but to improvise. Using some jagged stones as simple spades and scrapers, which, although primitive, still served their purpose, soon, they were on their knees digging alongside the rabbits.
Warrens were usually dug beneath dense forest floors, where tree roots provide the structural support for the runs and burrows. In this case however, they only had the large beech tree and its protruding roots above them to hold up the ceiling, which meant if they expanded the warren any further, they’d be tunnelling through loose earth, risking a catastrophic collapse. This was where Derek's knowledge of engineering came in handy, when he suggested they use mud and timber to reinforce the runs, using the same basic principals applied in mineshafts.
Work went on for the rest of the day. By the end of their first day on the Down, the main chamber was finished, and they could begin expanding the warren deeper into the bowels of the hill. Remembering from the story, Alan consulted with Hazel and they all agreed to christen their new home ‘The Honeycomb’. Finally, after the main chamber had been enlarged enough, so they wouldn't have to spend another night sleeping out in the open, they decided to call it a day.
While the group of hungry rabbits hurried out to silflay, the men made straight for the orchard to collect their own supper. Although mostly native to England, probably from old plantations, Alan noticed that some of the fruit were of foreign origin, but could now flourish in this northern zone as a result of the significantly warmer climate of this new age, as well as from the absence of most parasites and bacteria - perhaps the flora had developed some sort of natural immunity over the centuries? -, which allowed everything to flourish unattended in this wilderness without the need for farmers or fertilisers.
Pocketing a couple of apples, he made his way down the hill, towards the nearby unnamed canyon he had sighted from the Down on the day of their arrival. Originally a fissure it seemed, probably seismic in origin, it was at least fifty feet deep, with steep vertical cliffs on either side, seemingly inaccessible. Fortunately, he was able to make his way down using an ancient landslide that had piled up along the cliff face over the centuries, forming a vertical, yet scalable, incline all the way to the bottom.
On the bottom, he found himself a peaceful, pebbled riverbank overrun with mossy rocks. The opposite side of the canyon had no shore; instead, a small waterfall from an unnamed local stream poured over the edge of the cliff, feeding the new river that run along the bottom. Although a significant change to the landscape he had known from his own time, it was nonetheless stunning, not to mention useful, providing a virtually unlimited water supply for their little colony.
Making himself comfortable under a willow tree at the water’s edge, he settled down to eat his apples. As he sat comfortably, enjoying the calm of the evening, he heard a familiar voice call his name. Turning, he saw Fiver, who had followed him down here, approaching him. For once, the buck looked content and happy, his sixth sense not picking up any signs of danger for a change. All was fine with the world.
They sat together, staring at the waterfall pouring down the cliff face, reflecting the evening sunlight in rainbow colours. Fiver looked at Alan, “I still can’t believe this place is actually real – and now it’s our new home. I don’t think any other rabbits in the world have known such good fortune as we have.”
“That makes two of us,” replied Alan in equal contentment, “I don’t think I’ve ever known a place of such peace and tranquillity, at least not where I come from.”
"Are you sorry?" asked Fiver.
"Hm, sorry?” asked the man in slight confusion, “Sorry for what?"
"That you'll never see your home again."
Alan shook his head, "No, not really. After my family died, I had nothing left but a bad name. It's McEwen I feel sorry for; fate has separated him from his family forever and nothing can change that." Although Major McEwen had quickly become a useful member of their group, Alan was well aware of the pain and loss that still resided within the former Royal Air Force pilot's heart. Out of the three of them, he was the only one who believed he had found anything but a paradise in this new world.
“You’ve done so much for us, yet we can't repay you," Fiver said, suddenly looking downcast. Alan stared intently back at him. It seemed somebody had gotten a wrong impression here.
“Fiver, it’s I who should be thanking you," he said softly, "I realise you and your friends must be finding it hard to accept me and my companions living among you, considering all the trouble we’ve dragged you into already…" Fiver, however, had a far different opinion on the matter.
"But none of that was your fault!” he cried, realising what was resting so heavily on his friend’s conscience, “The Threarah chose to ignore your warning about Sandleford; and there was no way you could have known about Robbins. You nearly lost your own life trying to protect us from him... By Frith, you tend to literally play Bobstones with the Black Rabbit of Inle at every turn for our benefit!" Despite the small rabbit’s words, Alan still couldn’t help but feel somewhat responsible for his friends’ mishaps on their journey – and those that might be still to come.
"I was the one targeted, Fiver - you and Hazel nearly ended up in the crossfire because of me. And I should have watched out for Pimpernel, when I knew Cowslip’s warren was dangerous… I am so sorry I put your lives in danger…"
"There is nothing to be sorry for, Alan," insisted Fiver reassuringly, "It was our choice to follow you into danger. Besides, if it weren’t for you, my brother would have been sharing Pimpernel’s fate and I would have become a family feast for that homba's young if you hadn't come. Pipkin, Violet and Bigwig likewise owe their lives to you... And I, for one, have every intention of returning your kindness, whether you’re human or not.” Alan felt touched. He reached out and scratched the spot between Fiver's ears, feeling through his soft brown fur as Fiver snuggled up close to him.
Staring down at the water, Alan suddenly came up with an idea for some fun. Taking off his shoes and shirt, he approached the water's edge.
"Alan, what in Frith’s name are you doing?" asked the young rabbit in confusion, as he saw his friend about to take the plunge.
"Taking a swim. Come on, after all that dirty work you could use a good bath yourself," said Alan as he playfully picked up the runt rabbit by the middle and marched towards the water. Fiver looked rather uneasy at the prospect of going into the water.
"Alan, rabbits generally try to avoid water and I don't know if it’s safe…Aaaaaghhh…!" Before he could finish his sentence, Alan suddenly dove into the water, taking the seer below with him. The two of them resurfaced; Alan chuckled in amusement at the sight of a soaking wet and extremely pissed off Fiver. Then, the sound of laughter came from the shore; Pipkin, who had followed Fiver, stood there, killing himself laughing at the sight of Fiver looking like a wet cat. Alan and Fiver looked at each other mischievously, before suddenly lunging forward and tackling Pipkin into the water as well.
"Come on Hlao, you had it coming," chuckled Fiver as Alan playfully tickled Pipkin in the stomach, causing the dwarf rabbit to start thrashing around in a fit of giggles, his waterphobia entirely forgotten.
That night, the small colony of men and rabbits drifted off to sleep inside the semi-complete Honeycomb. For the first time in days, they would enjoy a peaceful night under the safety of a roof. Meanwhile, outside, the Aurora, still lighting up the night sky like a curtain of rainbow colours floating in mid-air, having nearly run its course, was slowly starting to shrink as the solar flare began to cool. The time warp, interconnecting the two distant eras in time was finally receding...
The following morning, work continued on schedule. By midday, they had successfully expended the warren deeper into the Down, where the sleeping quarters would be - a total of five burrows, big enough to comfortably accommodate four occupants each. The men were given one for their own use, where they could also store their meagre belongings.
Now that they had some permanent accommodation, Derek, Alan and McEwen could start making plans of how to furnish their new home with as many modern conveniences as they knew how. Although it went without saying that they wouldn't be indulging in any 21st century luxuries - at least not for a long time to come - they were determined to use their skill and ingenuity to provide all the means of making their new life bearable.
Alan's broad knowledge of plants and animals, combined with Derek's own knowledge of engineering and craftsmanship, went hand-in-hand in helping them draw up some simple plans on how to make everything they needed, using any available resources: timber and rope fashioned from dry weeds and plant fibres could be used to make some simple cots with straw bedding; earthenware bowls with suet extracted from any game they caught could be used to make lamps for light, replacing their diminishing battery-powered flashlights.
As part of his plan, Alan had also suggested that they plough a field and plant crops, using seedlings gathered from the surrounding environment. They would need an abundant food source, from which to stockpile for the coming winter, as well as herbs to restock their medicine chest, once the supplies from the chopper’s kit were used up. Finally, goatskins could be used to make garments after their clothes disintegrated completely. Within a few years, they figured, once they had made some progress, maybe they could slowly move on to even greater projects, like developing some means of producing electricity and other luxuries of the world they had once known.
Using the contents of the chopper’s survival kit, and whatever raw materials they could acquire from their surrounding environment, the three humans set to work with their endeavours. The two scientists carefully catalogued all their resources and how they could use them best, in preparation for their long task of starting civilisation anew. Their next accomplishment, following their digging tools, was a sundial made from a straight staff planted upright in a clearing, with stones placed in different time-marking positions around it, intercepting its shifting shadow. This would help them keep track of time after their watches stopped, until they could develop all the necessary tools and skill to build a working mechanical clock.
Alan had also suggested that they should start making plans to send out an expedition to explore their new territory, by following the new river in the new ravine all the way down to the coast. However, it was decided that all this would have to wait until after the warren was finished.
The extension of the burrows proved to be more difficult than they had expected; only a few feet below the surface, the soil was rocky and hard, making the digging slow and difficult. The does believed it might be best to divert the digging into another direction, but with only a little more left to go, they decided to take their time and finish the job, rather than start over.
At noon, they finally stopped for their lunch break. The men, now looking like dirty workmen, thirstily helped themselves to water, glad to cool off after slaving away all morning, while the rabbits went outside to silflay. During their rest period, Buckthorn challenged Hawkbit to a game of Bobstones down in the Honeycomb. With the exception of Boxwood and Haystack, who were doing watch duty outside on Bigwig’s orders, they all gathered inside the semi-finished burrow to watch and wager.
"Bobstone guess is… two," said Buckthorn. Hawkbit held back a groan of frustration; he knew the majority were betting on Buckthorn to win, as he always did...or maybe not. Discreetly, he forced the stone beneath his paw into the ground before calmly removing both paws, revealing only one stone. There was an instant of silence before the cheering followed. He smiled smugly.
"I win!" he chanted, about to announce himself as the new Bobstones champion of Watership Down. But Buckthorn, who knew Hawkbit well enough to guess he might try and play dirty, was suspicious.
"What were you trying to bury with your paw?" he asked sharply, "Stand aside, Hawkbit! Let me see!"
"Hey, I’m not hiding anything…!" Hawkbit protested, but Buckthorn shoved him roughly aside and felt the ground where his opponent had been standing. It didn't take him long to discover the stone that Hawkbit had buried at the last second, in a desperate attempt to win the game. Buckthorn was furious.
"Cheater!" he shouted, as he lunged at Hawkbit, ready to pound him to a pulp, "You conning, dirty little weasel! I'll cuff the living daylights out of you, I will…!" The two of them, caught in a match of blows, biting and clawing, went tumbled backwards, straight down into one of the unfinished burrows they had been digging earlier. Speedwell raised his eyebrows in silent exasperation.
"Come on, let's go save Hawkbit before my brother finishes damaging his mangy pelt," he said in a rather amused tone as they listened to his twin continue beating Hawkbit black and blue. Although content to leaving the two rabbits to their fighting match, the last thing they needed was for them to ruin a freshly dug burrow, which hadn’t been properly reinforced yet.
They all crowded into the burrow, trying to separate Buckthorn and Hawkbit, “All right, break it up, you idiots!” snapped Bigwig, “I said break it up now...!” Unfortunately, in the midst of their struggle, nobody noticed the burrow floor start to sag under their weight, much like a carpet concealing a hidden pit…
Suddenly, without warning, the burrow floor shattered beneath their feet like a sheet of ice, revealing a bottomless, pitch-black hole beneath. Before they knew what was happening, they were plummeted into the depths of the abyss, carried along by the torrent of loose earth and debris. Then, with a painful jerk, their fall was broken as quickly as it had started. Coughing and splattering, they struggled blindly, trying to untangle themselves from each other, until Alan managed to strike a match, which gave off enough light to illuminate the scene.
They had fallen down to, what appeared to be, the bottom of a deep shaft. However, it wasn't a natural formation; the walls were artificial, made of ancient-looking, crumbling concrete, lined with rusting tracks running up the walls from either side. With a gasp, Alan realised they were inside an elevator shaft, leading deep into the bowels of the Down. They were standing on the crushed, rusted cab, which had been stationed at the top of the shaft it seemed, supporting the floor of the very burrow they had been digging. Their combined weight had caused it to break loose, sending them all plummeting down into this abyss, jamming on the buckled rails partway down, arresting their otherwise deadly fall.
"Is anybody hurt? Where are we?" groaned Hazel, as Derek and McEwen lit their flashlights, allowing them to get a better look at their surroundings. Although, miraculously, nobody had been seriously hurt in the fall, it didn’t take them long to realise they were in trouble.
"It looks like we’re in a bit of a pickle," said McEwen, staring at the surrounding walls. The shaft was square, about twenty feet by thirty, and at least three hundred deep, probably penetrating way down into the bowels of the Down. The place resembled a derelict mineshaft, which seemed rather odd to Alan since that part of the country wasn’t rich in coal or tin. Above them, they could see a small patch of sunlight the size of Alan’s exposed thumb, shining through the hole they had just fallen through. But it was very high and the walls of the shaft were completely smooth, making it impossible to climb back up. They were trapped.
"Wonderful, just wonderful," muttered Derek, staring helplessly around at their entrapment. It was impossible to deny it; they were buried alive with the prospect of dying from the tortures of hunger and thirst. They had nothing to aid them in their plight but their flashlights, the oxygen bottles from the Cessna, which the men had been carrying by accident, and a single canteen of water. They could expect no help either; Boxwood and Haystack were still up there all right, but even if they could somehow get their attention, what could they do?
"So this is our fate: to die buried beneath our own warren. Nobody will ever know what happened to us," groaned Hawkbit for the one-hundredth time, still striding aimlessly around their living tomb. Several hours had passed as the group sat in silent misery, coming to terms with their grim fate. Some of the bucks, including Bluebell, Holly and Strawberry sat quietly with their mates, trying to offer them whatever soothing comfort they had left to give. The does were doing their best to stay calm, in spite of what little good it would do them – and Hawkbit’s continuous moaning wasn’t helping things in the slightest. He rounded on Buckthorn, "You clumsy idiot! If you hadn't pushed me into that burrow, we wouldn't be here now!"
Buckthorn glared back at Hawkbit, "Well, if you hadn't tried to cheat in the Bobstone match, this wouldn't have happened in the first place! Happy?"
"It's not Buckthorn's fault, no more than it’s yours, Hawkbit,” Fiver broke in, trying to calm down the two rabbits before it could lead to another scuffle, “How were we supposed to know about this place…?" But Hawkbit, desperate beyond reasoning and eager for an excuse to vent his anger and frustration, furiously rounded on Fiver.
"What would you know Fiver, oh great mystic visionary?" he retorted with a mock sneer, "You are the one suppose to sense danger and warn us beforehand; instead, your blasted visions either come too late or they bring more trouble upon us. So get lost, you troublesome curse…!" The others gasped in shock and outrage.
"You'll lose your teeth if you don't shut up, Hawkbit!" Alan warned Hawkbit, who instantly fell silent, probably realising he had gone too far, but the damage was done. Fiver gasped in shock, his ears drooping in shame and humiliation. Before anyone could say a word, he turned and fled to the farthest corner of the shaft, away from the rest of the group, ducking behind a pile of debris and out of sight. Hazel rounded on Hawkbit, looking more furious than Alan had ever seen him before. It was scary; the buck’s usually kind eyes were narrowed with anger like those of a cat, his fur bristling.
"I've always put up with your big mouth Hawkbit, but, Frith help me, right now I would like nothing better than to thrash you into next season!” His voice was icy and menacing, “But currently, I have to see if I can soothe the pain you've caused my brother.” Without another word, he turned and walked over to where Fiver had fled.
Meanwhile, Alan had caught up with Fiver and was trying in vain to comfort the distraught rabbit, who was huddled in a shadowy gap under some debris, "Come on, Fiver, Hawkbit didn't mean what he said. He is just terrified, that’s all," he said, trying to cheer up his little friend, but to no avail.
"It's my fault we’re trapped down here," Fiver sobbed over and over again, looking utterly heartbroken, "Hawkbit’s right; it's my visions that get us into trouble at every turn. Sandleford’s destruction; Pipkin almost drowning; and you almost being killed… I have to stay as far away from you as possible. Perhaps my visions won't drag you into any more trouble if I distance myself."
"Fiver, don’t talk such trash!” said Alan incredulously, “You know your visions don't cause things to happen. They are simply warnings of imminent danger…" But the young buck only looked away from him.
"Hrairoo, listen to me please," said Hazel softly, who had caught up with them, "You told Alan the other day, down by the river, to stop blaming himself for all the hardships we’ve had to face getting here…" Unfortunately, this only seemed to upset Fiver even more.
"He has done so much for us, while my visions continue bringing more trouble our way - trouble that you’re all forced to endure! Hawkbit is right; I’m a curse, a menace to you all…!" Hazel, however, continued trying to reason with his little brother, trying a different approach.
"Indeed, Hrair-roo, Alan has done more than enough to earn our undying gratitude. However, he couldn't have made it without you at his side, little brother…" Thinking they were mocking him with false praise, Fiver exploded.
"FRITH OF INLE, WHY CAN’T YOU JUST LEAVE ME ALONE, HAZEL? Please, just go away…" Hazel looked hurt at his own brother dismissing him, no knowing what else to say, but Alan wasn't giving up yet.
"And who confirmed my suspicion about Sandleford's destruction?" he asked hotly, "Or Cowslip's warren? If you hadn't sensed the danger of Silverweed, the humanoids would have had us all! Can't you see Fiver? Without your visions to guide us, we would be helpless; even my knowledge of the future won’t last forever. The further we go, the more things change; soon, it will only be your visions left to tell us what’s ahead of us." Although Fiver seemed to perk up slightly at Alan's words, he still looked uncertain.
"But how do you know that my visions don't make things happen?" he persisted. Alan seemed lost for words at this point and he knew it was no use bluffing to his long-eared friend. Then he remembered a philosophical saying he had read in the story of Watership Down, which would hopefully answer Fiver’s question.
"‘There isn’t a day or night that a doe offers her life for her kittens or an honest captain of Owsla his life for his chief. But there is no bargain; what is, is what must be,’" he quoted, causing both rabbits to stare at him in amazement, "Where did you hear that?"
"The Black Rabbit of Inle recited these words to El-ahrairah when he offered up his life for the safety of his people," he explained, turning back to Fiver, "Fiver, your visions simply show us things that are bound to happen. It is fate that determines the outcome; your visions have absolutely no control over destiny, no more than my knowledge of the future. You needn’t blame yourself for whatever challenge comes our way; the best we can do is to stand our ground and give it our best shot."
This seemed to finally get through to Fiver and he timidly came out of his hiding place. He shot Alan a smile of gratitude; his friend had given him the nudge he needed to snap him back to his senses, "Thank you Alan. I needed that."
"Anytime, lad. Come on, let's get back to the others and see what we can do…" He suddenly stopped in mid- sentence, noticing something. Shining his flashlight into the shadows between two fallen boulders, where Fiver had been hiding, he saw something that sent his heart racing: a sealed steel door in the shaft wall, obscured by fallen debris. By the sheerest luck, the falling elevator had stopped level with the entrance to wherever this shaft led to! Without realising it, Fiver had led them to a possible escape route, which they would have otherwise overlooked, leaving them here to die. He burst out laughing.
"See what I mean Fiver, why we really need you? I believe you’ve just shown us the way out!" For a split second, the rabbits stared at Alan in confusion, thinking he had flipped his marbles, before noticing the sealed door as well, "Go get the others, quickly!" Without another word, he started heaving away the debris, to get to that door. He was soon joined by the rest of his companions, who also pitched in, feverishly shoving piles of loose earth and rock out of the way, eager for freedom. Within minutes, they had cleared a path, revealing a landing in the wall, accessible via a set of hydraulic-powered sealed slide doors.
Normally operated electrically, the doors were fitted with a manual unlatch lever, fitted on a panel in the wall. But when Alan tried it, he found the mechanism was firmly jammed from centuries of corrosion and wouldn’t budge. Using a stone, he tried hammering the lever down, but only succeeded in snapping it off altogether. He even tried to pry the double-doors apart by hand, using his knife as a lever, but the seal was too tight.
“It’s no use. Only an explosion can get this damn thing open." The others fell silent, thinking they’d hit a dead end, when a smiling Derek calmly reached into his pocket and took out their last stick of dynamite left over from their raid on the humanoid village.
“I thought I’d save it for just such an emergency.”
"You're the man of the hour, Deke, you know that? With that stick of dynamite, we’ll force our way through there in no time. Let's get to work!" Soon everything was set; using some leftover duct tape, they taped the dynamite to the doors, directly over the crack in the middle, so the explosion would break the airtight seal. All that was needed now was a small flame and those doors would blast open, hopefully revealing an escape route on the other side. But as Alan took out his matches to light the fuse, he discovered he only had two left, having spent most of the box throughout their journey; and McEwen had left his lighter up in the Honeycomb. And, to make matters worse, there was a draft coming from above, making it difficult to keep a match lit.
These better work or else we’re doomed...
He struck the first match, which instantly went out in the draft. Cursing in frustration, he struck his last one, carefully holding his hand close to the dimming flame to shield it. Luckily, he was able to stretch the life of the flame with a scrap of paper he had found in his pocket. He held the burning paper close to the fuse with trembling hands, which lit up in the nick of time, just before the burning paper went out.
"Everybody get clear!"
They all quickly scampered away to the farthest side of the shaft, taking cover behind a safety barrier they had built using piled-up earth and debris, bracing for the explosion. The seconds ticked by…
Suddenly, the dynamite went; the force of the explosion shook the whole shaft, causing more debris to come crashing down, nearly crushing them in the process. Then, it was over; the doors had been blasted apart, revealing a dark chamber beyond. For a minute, it seemed everything had gone without incident; then, suddenly, they felt the floor start to sag again beneath their feet again. The explosion had shaken the elevator loose, which was about to resume its deadly fall any second now.
“Run for it!”
They dashed back towards the landing, running for their lives. Not a moment too soon, the ruined elevator gave way; they heard the crash of the impact reverberate up the shaft as it hit the bottom. Crowding on the narrow landing, hearts racing, they turned their attention back to the entranceway. Although the blast hadn’t been powerful enough to knock the doors clean off their frame, it had cracked the airtight seal so this time they had no problem prying them open. Coughing and spluttering, they entered the small room beyond.
The chamber they had entered was some sort of airlock, housing a rack of protective suits, similar to those used in hazardous environments, all covered in layers of centuries-old, undisturbed dust. Amazingly enough, the equipment had suffered little decay over the centuries, everything having been well preserved in this bone-dry environment. By being sealed airtight, the effects of time had ceased inside, leaving the place literally frozen in time like an ancient tomb. A second set of sealed doors on the opposite side led on forward...to where?
"What is this place?" Hazel asked McEwen, as both humans and rabbits looked around curiously, the latter sniffing at all the unfamiliar smells that filled the ancient air, which hadn’t been breathed by any living being for centuries, “A human warren?”
"Hardly,” replied the pilot, rolling his eyes at Hazel’s far-fetched definition of a ‘human warren’, “Humans don’t usually live underground." They crossed over to the second set of doors – this one, in contrast to the elevator entrance, was in pristine condition, the stainless steel gleaming like new in their torchlight, so the unlatch mechanism worked easily. But as they broke the pressurisation, a gust of stale air, infested with a noxious smell of kernels, came hissing out. They all froze, wincing at the off-putting smell.
"What’s that?" asked Derek, cringing his nose in disgust, "It smells like bitter almonds out of an old tin…" At the mention of bitter almonds, Alan had a suspicion, as he brought his nose close to the crack in the door and taking a whiff, tasting the air. In an instant, he had turned back to his companions, looking alarmed.
"Cyanide - poisonous gas! Get away from that damn door!" he hissed as they slid the doors shut again, blocking out the gas on the other side. "We can't go through there. That stuff would kill us in seconds."
"But there is no other way forward," Bigwig said, looking around the small room, "And we can't go back the way we came…" Alan’s mind instantly turned to their oxygen bottles. But what good were three bottles between the sixteen of them? For all they knew, it could take hours to find another way out - how far would they get with only five or six minutes of air? Then he remembered the protective gear stowed in the airlock.
McEwen, thinking along the same lines, picked up a drum containing a folded full-face, carbon-filter mask sitting on one of the dusty racks, wiped the dust off the faceplate, and tried it on. Although the rubber components felt rough from old age and dry to the touch, they still seemed in workable condition. Taking inventory, Alan counted a total of nineteen masks – more than adequate. Before they could distribute them however, they realised they had overlooked one little problem: the masks were not designed to be worn by rabbits.
"Well, this is all very well for you," Hawkbit said, not missing his usual sarcastic demeanour, "What about us?" Alan tried fitting one of the masks on Bigwig but it didn’t work; his nose stuck too far out, preventing the mask from getting a proper hold around his face, to keep the gas out. But Derek, who had also been examining the masks carefully, came up with an idea.
“These masks can be disassembled by hand,” he said, “What if we remove the filters and wrap them in some cloth, to improvise new masks that will fit you?” Although Alan wanted to point out it could be very dangerous, he realised they had no choice, unless they wanted to be stuck down here forever.
"All right, it’s worth a shot. Deke, take off your jumper; the aerie fabric is perfect for mask-making." Using his knife, he cut his fuming friend’s jumper into sixteen strips of cotton/polyester fabric and wrapped the doughnut-shaped charcoal cartridges they had ripped out of the mask filters inside, strapping them firmly in place with duct-tape; the ‘mouthpieces’ were then pressed firmly over the rabbits’ mouths and noses, the strips of fabric tied securely around their heads in a knot. Looking like Wild West bandits out of a children’s cartoon, all the rabbits were soon fitted with modified masks.
After some experimenting and adjustments, to make sure the makeshift masks worked properly, everyone was ready to face the gas challenge beyond the door. Gesturing to the others to keep back, Alan slid the door open once again. The heavier-than-air gas poured out like a mist of death, engulfing them all, but luckily their improvised masks did their job. The gas spread across the floor, out the elevator access and poured down the shaft like a waterfall of mist.
Stepping into the next chamber, they found themselves in a dark passage. Rather than a derelict mine, the architecture reminded Alan of a Cold War-era fallout shelter, with concrete walls lined with porcelain tilling, stainless-steel handrails and grillwork flooring. Sets of long-extinguished fluorescent light fixtures decorated the walls and ceiling. The place was thick with grey dust, no doubt undisturbed for a long time.
They set off down the passage, the men lighting the way with their flashlights. A formidable, aerie darkness and deathly silence filled the place. The air was thick and misty from the gas trapped in this airtight place for so long. There was no chance in hell of finding anyone alive down here.
Ascending a flight of stairs, they came to a vast, dome-shaped atrium. At least forty feet high and a hundred in diameter, with a domed ceiling, supported by a wrought steel framework, the atrium seemed to have been the lobby of the facility so to speak, with many doors and passages distributed on several landings leading off into different sections of this immense, underground complex. Scattered glass shards and ragged wiring hung from the framework, which were the remains of a luminous glass dome, similar to a planetarium screen, long since shattered from some unknown cause.
In the centre of the atrium, on an elevated platform, was a sphere-like compartment, resembling an igloo. Glancing at a map of the structure on a nearby wall, Alan realised it had to be the facility’s control centre; the most likely place to find the secrets of this place.
"Let's make for that control room,” said Derek, he said, his voice muffled from the mask, “Perhaps we can find a way to restore power and recycle the air so we can lose these damn masks." Making their way up a spiral staircase and onto the balcony surrounding the control room, they came to an armoured glass door, spelling in large letters the words AUTHORISED PERSONNEL ONLY! Ignoring the regulations warning, they pushed the door open and entered.
The control room was a large, circular room, with many different computer stations and control panels, each designated for a particular purpose: power control, environment systems, communications, surveillance and security. All the equipment, although not unfamiliar to the three humans, was of some highly advanced futuristic technology, well ahead of their time. Rotary chairs, bolted to the floor, faced each station, where personnel once sat. However, all this state-of-the-art equipment now sat dusty and lifeless, totally useless without electricity.
A row of windows lined the walls of the room, allowing a good view of the atrium outside. Alan didn't fail to notice that many of those windows sported web-like cracks from, what appeared to have been, rapid gunfire. The whole room was riddled with bullet holes, amidst the mess of scattered papers, cables, and broken computer equipment, indicating the aftermath of a violent struggle.
The rabbits meanwhile were staring in amazement at this strange and impressive place, lost for words, not knowing what to make of it all. True, from what little their friends had been telling them about their world, they had imagined the human world would be quite a mystery to belong, but nothing so unfamiliar, so alien, as this! The three humans, on the other hand, although equally perplexed as to why someone would build this fancy, high-tech facility in the bowels of Watership Down, of all places, had their minds on other things.
McEwen’s eyes scanned a nearby control panel linked up to the environment systems, until he found what he was looking for: 'EMERGENCY AIR RECYCLING AND EXHAUST.' But when he tried flipping the switch to activate the air recycler, nothing happened. The auxiliary power was out so all the systems were dead.
"Damn," he cursed, "We need power to get this thing running…" But Derek had already turned his attention to another panel at the engineer’s station, marked with two distinct hazard signs: one for high voltage, the other for radiation hazard; and three gauges displaying the status of a bay of radioisotope thermoelectric generators: temperature level, radiation levels and power production. In the middle of these was a large red circuit breaker, bearing the inscription: 'GENERATOR START-UP'.
Derek studied the readouts on the gauges, "It seems the nuclear core of one of the backup generators is still hot, so it can’t be completely exhausted. A radioisotope generator, when left hibernating, can retain its ginger for years and doesn’t require a jump-start - that’s why this technology has always been popular with the Space Program. Let’s fire it up!" He reached out to throw the main breaker.
"Hey, you don't want to touch that!" hissed McEwen, grabbing the engineer’s arm, "I'd be surprised if that old piece of junk doesn't become a fireball if you flip that switch." Alan however, ignored him and turned to Derek.
"We have no choice, “Alan said, "We need light and breathable air if we’re going to find a way out of here. Do it, Deke!" Although Derek did seem put-off by McEwen’s warning, probably thinking along the same lines, figured his friend had a point. Let's hope the engineers who built this place were worth their salt... Taking a deep breath, he flipped the breaker to start the generator. Everyone held their breaths.
For a few seconds nothing happened and Alan was beginning to fear that the generator might be depleted or corroded and wouldn’t work; but then, suddenly, a faint humming noise echoed throughout the dark facility, followed by the blinking of electric lights, as the emergency circuit restored every one out of six bulbs on low voltage. The entire control room lit up like a giant pinball machine going haywire, as computers and equipment rose from their long hibernation. The rabbits, utterly overwhelmed by this alien phenomenon of electricity, were cringing nervously, their eyes wide in fascination.
Soon, the current had stabilised and there was only silence, except for the humming and beeping noises of computers restarting around the control room. No meltdown, no explosion. A screen on the engineer’s station lit up, displaying the system status:
POWER LEVELS ON RESERVE MODE
AUXILIARY SYSTEMS ONLY
Power levels were low, but sufficient to operate most of the sub-systems. Alan wasted no time and activated the emergency air filtration system. They heard the humming sound of dozens of fans in the ventilation ducts, sucking up the contaminated air into the filters, as the atmosphere slowly begun to clear from the gas. The men kept monitoring the atmosphere readouts on the computer, watching the trace gas level slowly dip:
ATMOSPHERE: N2: 76% / O2: 21% / CO2: 2% / TRACE GASES: 1%
HUMIDITY: 1% / TEMPERATURE: 22 degrees Celsius
Finally, the air indicator was back in the green. Cautiously removing his mask first, gesturing to the others to keep theirs on, in case the filtration system hadn’t worked, Alan tasted the air again. It was stale and dusty, but breathable. Then he realised it was also contaminated with an awful stench that made him gag; a horrible smell of rot and decay. Could it be spoiled foodstuffs from the facility’s mess hall? He thought.
“By Frith, what’s that awful smell?” groaned Strawberry also noticing the stench in the air, as the men helped the rabbits remove their masks.
As Alan scanned the room for the source, he spotted a pair of legs protruding from behind one of the stations. They belonged to a figure lying face down on the floor. Alan approached and, cringing in disgust at the sight, turned the figure over with the tip of his shoe. Derek, right behind him, drew in his breath. They had found the mummified remains of a man.
It wasn't a pretty sight; the corpse’s muscles were all shrivelled up, its fluids long evaporated, the skin having turned a wooden shade of brown from the effects of anaerobic bacteria. The dead man was dressed in a khaki military uniform, which was shredded and stained with patches of dry blood. Both legs stuck out at odd angles, the tibias snapped by some blunt blow to the limbs it seemed. His dirty grey hair and beard still remained attached to his shrunken face, which was horribly mutilated, almost as if someone had forced it through a shredder, the eye sockets hollow and empty. Beside him lay a shattered gas mask, similar to those they had found in the airlock, along with a half-empty assault rifle that lay a short distance away from his outstretched hand, testifying to some struggle with an unknown foe he had apparently lost. Although decomposed and deformed beyond visual recognition, the dead man looked somewhat familiar to Alan…
"Frith of Inle, what happened to his face?" gasped Silver with a sharp intake of breath, as they stared down at the mutilated, dried-up corpse. “Do you think some elil got him?” This caused some of the more timid rabbits, including Pipkin and Fiver to cower, thinking the supposed elil might still be lingering somewhere down here.
“Where would you find elil down here, you thick-eared nitwit?” asked Holly incredulously, pointing out the obvious fact that nobody had been here for a long time. However, at least as far as some of the others were concerned, it still didn’t rule it out as the possible cause of death.
"Chum’s got a point; if I didn't know better, I'd say he was attacked by someone…or something," said Alan, staring at the dead man's mutilated face, with his grouched-out eyes and broken legs, "Look at all this damage to the soft tissue; massive abrasions, penetrating all the way down to the bone. No human being could cause such vicious mauling, not even a psychopath with a butcher’s knife and a hammer. It looks more like the work of an animal…Wait, what’s this?" he said, suddenly noticing something beside the body.
Chained to the corpse’s wrist was a hermitically sealed metal case, resembling an armoured briefcase of some description. Alan picked up the case and tried to open it but it was locked. Examining it closer, he saw a set of initials engraved on the lid:
C.S.D... Could it be..? The initials instantly jogged Alan’s memory; turning back to the body, he hurryingly went through the man’s pockets looking for an identity, but there wasn’t one. Then, feeling around the neck, he found a pair of customary dog-tags, worn by all personnel for identification. Scrapping the stain of dry blood off the miniature lettering with his fingernail, he read the figure’s identity out loud. The familiar name nearly took his breath away.
"Oh, my God… It's none other than my old colleague, Dr Cole Drake himself!"