The HAB was an endless maze of concrete passages and chambers, as Alan’s party continued on with their, so far, futile search for another way out. An eerie darkness, pierced only by the dim red glow of the facility’s emergency lighting, filled the corridors. As they walked along, Alan couldn’t help but wonder, what could have become of all the people that once lived here? Figuring from the gas leak and Drake’s body in the control room, he had been expecting to come across more mummified corpses, although so far they hadn't found any other bodies. The HAB, although derelict, appeared in nearly pristine condition, almost as if everyone had simply vanished into thin air...
At the top of the stairs, on Level 1, they found the facility's living quarters. These consisted of two mass dormitories - one for the women, the other for the men -, each housing a thousand bunks, divided into quadrate sleeping groups, each housed in a chrome cubicle, giving the occupants some privacy. Numbered lockers lined the walls of the dormitory, still containing the belongings of their long-gone occupants; clothing, shoes, stationary, washing utensils, electronics, jewellery, and other personal effects sat neatly stacked on shelves inside the lockers. No signs of any evacuation.
Exploring further, they came to another section, which seemed to have been reserved for the more important residents of the HAB. The sleeping quarters here were divided into private bunks, like cabins on a ship, which, although cramped, hardly ten square feet in size, offered some simple luxuries, including a desk, bookcase and private bathroom. Here too, the belongings of their missing occupants remained undisturbed, but no sign of their owners.
Moving on through the social areas, they came to a set of glass doors leading into another section. Entering, they found themselves in a vast, dimly lit chamber, the size of a stadium, with an arched framework ceiling, resembling the Crystal Palace from the time of the Great Exhibition. Most of the floor was taken up by hundreds of airtight glass cases of different shapes and sizes, filled with inert gas, housing the exhibits of the ages, which sat frozen in time, like an elaborate underground museum, fit for Citizen Kane himself. They had found the vault containing the national art and treasures of the long-vanished United Kingdom.
The massive vault, although packed tight, everything seemingly out of order, still retained the atmosphere of a museum – a place where they were likely to find something of interest. The section they had just entered seemed to house exhibits of Natural History; an awesome collection of fossils and preserved animal carcasses, dating from different geological eras, stood on display in their dusty cases. The rabbits cringed at the sight of all those artificial eyes of the stuffed animals of prey staring back at them through the gloom as if they were alive.
"What in Frith's name was that?" gasped Silver, staring at the massive teeth protruding from the jawbones of a massive skull belonging to a Tyrannosaurus Rex, hanging on cables from the ceiling. The others also stared wide-eyed at the fossilised creature of the prehistoric world, "I've never seen elil like this before!"
"It's called a dinosaur, a rather vicious beast of the Jurassic Period," Alan explained, staring at the all-too-familiar fossilised bones, "Or at least I think it was the Jurassic Period…"
"Your world was filled with elil this big?" gasped Hawkbit, staring fearfully at the size of the creature's jaws that could easily swallow him whole, “Glad I wasn’t born then…” Alan chuckled at the mental image of his rabbit friends confronting live dinosaurs.
"No Hawkbit, dinosaurs existed long before humans even appeared on the Earth. The same catastrophe that destroyed my world also occurred some 65 million years prior, wiping out the world of the dinosaurs. Only these fossilised remains remain, embedded in rock or amber... Come on, we haven’t got all day."
They moved on through another section of the museum, devoted to geology; hundreds of different samples of minerals, from feldspar to coal, sat on display on shelves in their glass cases. Seeing the possibility of finding something useful here, Alan called a halt, to get a better look. The rabbits soon found themselves passing around the many different gems and other minerals as Alan took them out of their smashed glass case.
"Look at that stone! Isn’t it beautiful?" Pipkin squalled with delight at the sight of a block of white phosphorous Alan had pulled out of a sealed jar, exposing it to the air and causing it to start glowing. He smiled at Pipkin, "Sure is, lad. This one by the way is called phosphorous – a stone that glows in the dark."
"Phosphorous," Pipkin repeated after Alan, who smiled; Pipkin was proving to be a pretty fast learner of human etymology.
Although there were a number of useful minerals on display, including sulphur and saltpetre, Alan couldn't think of any ways of making good use of all these samples at the moment. Making a mental note to coming back here when the time was right, he led his party on.
Exploring further on, they found another section dedicated to war; relics from all eras of British wartime history stood on display, some chunks of rust, others still in fairly good shape. Weapons, including pistols, rifles, machine guns, and even some heavy artillery, including cannons, bombs, rockets and torpedoes stood on display in their cases, enough to supply a small army. But unfortunately, there was no ammunition to be found, and even the bombs and torpedoes were all duds or diffused, rendering this entire arsenal useless.
Alan stared in dismay at all these relics of man's destructive power, no use to him when he needed them the most. Then, turning to another case, he struck gold when he found a large collection of knives, swords, cutlasses, daggers, sabres, bayonets and other bladed weapons – and these, in contrast to the firearms, didn't require ammunition and could be used indefinitely. Voila! Picking up a fire extinguisher, he smashed the case to retrieve its precious contents.
He stared at the knives on display, thinking; although he was quite happy with his commando knife, a larger blade would provide better defence against an opponent. A bushwhacker’s machete caught his fancy, which he tucked into his belt, along with a couple of other knives for his two companions – like their distant ancestors, they would have to learn to rely on simple hand weapons, rather than firearms, at least for the moment.
Their next stop was Antiquities; Roman, Classical, Tudor, Victorian and Edwardian era masterpieces, including sculpture, paintings, china, furniture and jewellery among other treasures, once worth millions, now worth less than the dust beneath their feet, stood on display, perfectly preserved. Alan had to suppress a laugh as they spotted several armoured cases containing the Crown Jewels, which now were worth nothing more than their sentimental value if anything.
They kept moving through the museum, finding many more interesting, but mostly useless, exhibits, until they came to another section dedicated to practical science; countless artefacts related to chemistry, medicine, physics, engineering and technology stood on display. There was a vast collection of famous relics, including the Salisbury Cathedral's mechanical clock, an Edison steam turbine, a Marconi telegraph, and even an assortment of electronics dating from Alan’s time.
He became lost in thoughts of restoring some of these ancient relics, maybe the turbine, and putting them to good use. But they still lacked the necessary tools, nor was this the right time. Then, another exhibit caught his fancy: a large collection of miniature models, including automobiles, ships, aircraft, spacecraft, trains, famous landmarks, monuments and other miniature relics of humanity's vanished civilisation. Alan felt his heart sink as his mind briefly wondered back to his daughter, remembering how she loved models... They moved on.
They moved on through another section housing sculpture; dozens of busts, waxworks and statues of famous people, historical and fictional alike, stood in rows behind glass screens. The rabbits, unaccustomed to seeing someone standing so still, gawked in confusion at the statues as they walked by, as if expecting them to move, causing Alan to snort in amusement. It was there that they found an interesting surprise.
"Everybody come look at this; you won't believe it!"
Hurrying over, Alan saw Fiver had found the statues of four familiar giant rabbits on display: El-ahrairah, a massive, handsome-looking buck stood tall and proud; on his side was another proud-looking buck, whom, Alan guessed, had to be Rubscuttle; Laurel, a gentle-looking doe with an intelligent face, stood on El-ahrairah’s other side. And standing further away from the trio was the most hideous-looking rabbit Alan had ever seen; even as a statue, the sinister expression of hate and cold-heartedness radiating from the creature's stony face was unmistakable.
Alan paled as he suddenly realised the statue bore a striking resemblance to the description of General Woundwort from the book… Was it just coincidence, or did Hemlock’s curious resemblance to the infamous Efrafan leader mean something more...?
Still having found no escape route, they cut the tour short and took a detour down a nearby fire escape, descending to Level 2. Stepping out of the stairwell, they found themselves in an elegant laboratory - probably the very place where Drake had created the Four Brothers. State-of-the-art equipment, which Alan would never even dream of stood around the lab, all covered in dust, but otherwise in pristine condition. Unfortunately, without power, all this high-tech was little more than husks of useless metal, plastic and glass. This seemed a likely place to find something useful so they began searching.
The rabbits stared at the many scientific instruments and equipment, complete oblivious as to what they were for. Alan, on the other hand, finally finding himself back in a familiar environment, was conducting a methodical ravaging of the lab, opening up drawers and cabinets, finding a number of useful items, which he pocketed. Sitting on a shelf beside a gas burner was a box of matches – something worth more to him than all the dead equipment in this room put together. Eagerly, he picked up the box and tried one. They were in perfect condition, the dry air having preserved them well. In another cabinet, he found another potentially useful item: a bottle of strychnine nitrate – a powerful poison - which he cramped into his pocket, along with the matches and knives from the museum.
This level turned out to be the most interesting of all, housing one treasure cache after another. Their next stop was the HAB’s medical bay, next door; still fully stocked, this elaborate hospital, occupying several adjacent rooms, looked almost as if it had never been used – in other words, they could rule out the possibility of the HAB’s personnel all having perished from an epidemic.
Their next stop was the HAB’s machine shop. Worktables strewn with more tools Alan had ever seen in his life could be seen everywhere - tools for carpentry, metallurgy, mechanics, electronics, and every other known field of engineering, complete with an ample supply of materials and components, stored in cabinets. Alan whistled aloud at the thought of Derek, who would be in heaven when he saw this place.
For the next half hour they kept exploring, finding more and more interesting facilities, each bulging with its own treasures, including a gymnasium, entertainment centre, and even an underground chapel, complete with a crematorium where all the deceased inhabitants of the HAB were cremated to prevent disease outbreaks, but no way out. Finally, they came to a set of glass doors leading to the last chamber.
Alan was surprised to see the doors were sealed from the outside with a chain and padlock fitted through the handles. Nearby, on the floor, lay a bunch of keys, where their owner had discarded them. What was in there than needed to be contained behind locked doors? Picking up the keys, Alan fiddled with them for a few minutes until he found the right one. As he swung the doors open, he was greeted by a cloud of ash, disturbed by the sudden motion of the doors, which came flying out like a ghastly breeze. Chocking and splattering, they backed away to breathe. Inside, the room was completely dark, the lights out of order.
Shining his flashlight inside, Alan saw it was a library - in contrast to the rest of the facility however, this place was utterly ruinous, incinerated long ago it seemed. All the panelling was gone, exposing the ragged framework of the walls and ceiling, all the furniture reduced to bare, corroded frames. It looked like some massive fireball had come rolling through here, contained only by the sealed fireproof doors. Piles of what had once been books littered the floor everywhere.
A quick glance at this sight of devastation told Alan that their most important resource of all - records of knowledge, the key to starting civilisation anew – was not to be found here. All those books, salvaged from some of the greatest libraries in England, had been reduced to worthless piles of ash and charcoal, which still littered the shelves of the charred, steel bookcases. The whole place testified to the aftermath of some mass book-burning.
Stepping inside, wondering what the hell had caused this, his foot crunched down on something; shining his flashlight on the floor, he realised it was a charred human skull. What he had mistaken for mere ash and debris were in fact the cremated skeletal remains of human bodies! Dozens of charred human skeletons lay handcuffed to the steel bookcases, where they had been chained and left to die. Scattered around the room were also a number of blown-up arson jerry-cans, which someone had used to torch the library.
“Oh, my God...” he muttered with a shudder. Although Alan was far from being some squeamish simpleton, only by picturing what had happened in here was enough to shake even the most resilient of men down to their bones.
Utterly horrified at the sight, feeling about to be sick, he stumbled backwards and fell to the floor. His head bumped the solid glass surface of some sort of glass pane resembling a screen of some description and for a moment he saw stars. Readjusting his glasses on his nose, he saw his companions hurrying up to him.
"You're all right, old chap? What’s the matter?” asked Bigwig with concern, as they helped Alan to his feet, “You look as if you’ve just seen the Black Rabbit of Inle...!" The man took a few seconds to calm himself before answering.
"It’s human bodies… All this ash is human bodies! We've found what happened to the missing people - they were all burned alive in here!" The rabbits all gasped in horror, also noticing the skeletons scattered all around, the eyeless skulls of the dead staring back at them, their mouths still hanging open in their death screams.
"Who could have done such a beastly…?" Before they could lament on this beastly massacre-book burning, they were suddenly interrupted by a soft voice sounding through the gloom, catching them all off-guard.
"Welcome to HAL System. How may I help you?"
Turning, they saw the strange full-length transparent screen, which Alan had bumped, suddenly begin to glow electric blue; within seconds the outline of a man had materialised inside it, looking misty from all the dust and flame smudges obscuring the glass surface of the screen, which stood erect on a circular cobalt pedestal, able to withstand millennia of corrosion. Dressed in an old-fashioned tunic and carrying a scroll under his arm, the figure resembled an ancient Greek philosopher – or perhaps that’s the kind of impression its designer was aiming for. Alan soon realised it was a digital hologram, apparently some artificial intelligence based on some sort of advanced futuristic technology he had never known. The figure spoke again, in a pleasant monologue.
"I am a fusion-powered Holographic Artificial Librarian, commonly known as HAL, and the HAB’s primary information unit. How may I be of assistance?" The rabbits were all lost for words, unable to grasp the idea of this ‘ghost’ of a man appearing out of thin air, talking all this gibberish.
"Who...or rather what are you? And where in Frith’s name did you come from?" Hazel finally blurted out. The holographic librarian answered calmly, registering Hazel’s words in its electronic brain and formulating the most fitting answer.
"I was designed in 2025, to serve as a safe-keeper of all human knowledge; my nickel-enforced casing houses a copy of the most advanced Rosetta Disk ever constructed, containing encrypted microscopic copies of every written text, forming a mass compendium of all human knowledge. Additionally, I have uplinks to multiple external information sources, including the Sat-Net network, which houses all autonomous major Internet databases from around the world. Alternately, I can process and verify visual or oral data upon request. My fusion power cell gives me a virtually unlimited lifespan, so that I may preserve all of humanity’s knowledge for the far future. Area of inquiry?"
Now this is what you might call a priceless high-tech toy, thought Alan, the wheels turning wildly in his head, realising that this futuristic super-computer might be able to give him the inside track on every scientific breakthrough of the future - perhaps even how time travel could be accomplished. He turned back to the A.I. librarian, to test its capabilities, "Can you tell me anything about time travel?"
HAL conjured up numerous digital icons, displaying long library catalogues, as his processors scanned all the data archives, retrieving the requested information. Finally, he spoke, as if reading out of an encyclopaedia.
"Time Travel is a fictional scientific theory, in which an individual has the ability to move backwards or forward through time. Noted inspirations include the written works of Henry George Wells, Isaac Asimov, Sprague De Camp, as well as the film adaptations of Wells’ novel The Time Machine, made in 1960 by George Pal and its remake by Simon Wells in 2002. Time Travel has always been a source of inspiration in literature, particularly in the genre of science fiction…" Alan was beginning to lose hope.
"What about practical application?” he asked, “Is there anything regarding time travel as a physical possibility, or any theories on how it can be accomplished?"
"There are a few obsolete theories on time travel, which were scrapped after it was determined by the Global Board of Sciences that time travel is physically impossible. That's all the information I have on that search. Will there be anything else, Dr Johnson?"
Well, I guess we can scratch any possibility of getting back home… Alan thought grimly, before realising that HAL had just referred to him by name. “Hang on! How did you know my name?"
"I am programmed to identify people by visual memory, and matching them against the records in my database. My sources indicate a 95% probability that you are Dr Alan Alexander Johnson, born on the 2nd June 1978 to Jack and Samantha Johnson, in London England; Mysteriously disappeared on the 27th December 2012, presumed dead in a suicide plane crash..." the hologram said, conjuring several newspaper articles and even a Wikipedia biography of Alan, who turned away upset, not in the mood to hear more about how the world had remembered him as nothing but a madman and killer. Well, at least being stuck in this future world can spare me living in such disgrace...
"Do you know us too?" asked Silver; he, like all the rabbits, was beginning to feel rather uneasy at HAL's know-it-all. After all, artificial intelligence was not something they saw every day. The hologram conjured another digital sand clock as it scanned its database for matching files.
"75% probability indicated you are Hazel-rah, Fiver, Pipkin, Silver and Bigwig, the fictional characters of Richard Adams' popular novel, 'Watership Down.' The novel was adapted into an animated picture in 1978 by Martin Rosen, a 3-season children’s series in 1999 by ITV, and a live-action show in 2018 by Tim Burton…"
Alan suddenly remembered Drake's damaged video log; perhaps HAL knew the missing piece of the puzzle? He turned to the artificial intelligence, “Can you tell me what happened here? Who killed all these people and why?” Surely, HAL should have a full account of the massacre, stored within the depths of his electronic brain, overlooked and forgotten for the last 700 years... Unfortunately, that was not to be the case.
"I am designed with a temporary memory, in addition to my knowledge data banks, which enables me to remember every last detail of information intercepted by my virtual and lingual data receptors for up to a maximum limit of 31 days, after which the data is automatically purged, to prevent overloading the memory bank. Regretfully, I have no recollection of anything before being revived..."
Alan felt his heart sink at those words – it seems they had hit another dead end. Where would they find the answers now? Glancing down at the bunch of keys from the padlocked library door he still held in his hand, he saw a name-tag bearing the name of Sven Shertok, Head of Security.
"Who was this Sven Shertok, I wonder?" muttered Alan with a frown. Could this be the culprit behind this act of destruction and murder? How were they supposed to find out for certain? Staring around the ruined library, he noticed an armoured door, leading to some sort of vault – the place where the most valuable collections of the library were once kept under lock and key. Above the door was the burned-out husk of a security camera, with a clear view of the library. But hadn’t the facility’s database been erased, including all of the surveillance footage?
"HAL, where does that camera send its feed? Up to the control room?"
“All cameras to the vault are on an independent surveillance circuit, which I control...” Alan could have kissed the hologram. “Can you show us the last recorded footage?”
“Written authorization is required...”
“I must insist,” Alan cut him off, “This is a Level-5 emergency command override,” The Level-5 emergency command override was an emergency order used by British Intelligence to bypass all security clearances. Highly restricted and with stiff penalties if invoked for non-official use and by a civilian nonetheless, at least, Alan figured, nobody could prosecute him for it. Thankfully, HAL was programmed to recognise military protocols and responded accordingly.
"Very well. Behold," His image faded away and, what looked like, a recording from the vault camera’s view appeared on the screen, dating sometime in 2041.
They saw the library intact and operational - only at that particular moment, it resembled a mausoleum rather than a library. Alan felt his blood run cold as he noticed the library floor was littered with dozens of lifeless bodies, foaming at their mouths, indicating they had all died of poisoning (perhaps it was the gas?). Several still-living people were also there, handcuffed to the bookcases, wearing expressions of absolute horror. A man was walking to and fro, placing arson jerry-cans, rigged with remote-controlled detonators, in place. The room was a death chamber, about to be torched.
They watched the man, his job complete, leave the room, sealing the doors to the library behind him. Then, a sinister, booming voice sounded over the intercom.
“Burn it, Shertok, my faithful servant! Burn those wretches and all their foul knowledge to Inle!”
A state of panic broke out as desperate people – those still alive anyway - struggled to free themselves, realising their horrible predicament. Then, their captor and executioner, standing outside the locked doors, triggered the detonator; before anyone could do anything, the incendiary bombs went off, unleashing a red-hot fireball, which swept the room, incinerating everything in its path. In an instant, all hell had broken loose, with arms and legs flailing madly through the flames, over the screaming of dying people.
Alan and his friends watched in horror at the sight of all those people being burned alive. Staring in the background, behind the safety of the fireproof-glass windows, he could see the executioner, whom, he figured, had to be that Shertok fellow; and beside him stood his accomplice, the mastermind behind this massacre. But it wasn’t a man. Sick recognition hit Alan as he gazed into that pair of gleaming red eyes of a familiar giant rabbit, whose face he had seen as a bust back in the museum, staring in sickening triumph at his enemies being burned like vermin, along with their legacy. Behind him, Alan could make out the outlines of many more rabbits, probably his Owsla, cheering aloud in hateful triumph... Then the recording stopped, as the heat destroyed the camera.
Alan sunk to his knees in shock; the mystery surrounding humanity’s downfall had finally been unravelled.
"Oh my God, it was him. It was Hemlock who started all of this!"