The Storm is Coming
They returned to the drawing room, to find a roaring cosy fire in the grate which McEwen had built, while Derek was preoccupied with trying to force the old safe open. The bucks were utterly surprised when they saw the does their Owsla had brought back, but gasped at the ghastly sight of the mutilated Blackavar. The men laid the injured buck down by the fire, making him as comfortable as possible. The Efrafan was running a high fever, his semi-healed wounds leaking puss from infection. Unfortunately, there was little they could do for him without proper medical supplies.
“He’s got a severe blood infection,” diagnosed McEwen, as Alan cleaned up Blackavar’s septic wounds with a handkerchief and some leftover alcohol from his hip-flask, “He needs penicillin soon, or else he’ll go into septic shock and that will be the end of it. I don’t know where the hell we’re going to find any around here…”
"You said the Efrafan Owsla did this to him?" Hazel asked Hyzenthley, staring at the ghastly bites and slashes in horror. If this was evidence of Woundwort’s cruelty, he dreaded the prospect of his friends and comrades finding themselves on the receiving end of it. It seemed Alan was right; one couldn’t even imagine Efrafa until they actually saw it.
"He was caught trying to escape,” explained Hyzenthlay, “The Council were going to have him executed, but then Woundwort decided to make a living example out of him instead…” Derek muttered a curse under his breath; this kind of inhumane cruelty made him want to bury a cleaver into Woundwort’s skull when he met him. Many of the Watershipers too were horrified, muttering threats under their breaths, utterly appalled by this savagery. As if reading their vengeful minds, Hyzenthlay turned to face them.
“You wouldn’t stand a chance against General Woundwort,” she said, “His strength easily outmatches your own, even your big friend Thlayli's. Just by helping us, he’d want you dead. He and his Owsla would rip you all to pieces in the blink of an eye. He does that all the time to any strange warren they come across…" Alan rolled his eyes.
"That's just great." He turned back to McEwen, who was still tending to the dying Blackavar, "Can’t you do anything for him, Major?"
"There’s nothing more I can do without medicine," said McEwen grimly, "And unless he’s given some proper medical attention soon, we might as well start digging his grave now…" Alan cleared his throat at the pilot to shut him up, as not to upset the does. They didn’t need to hear that. He turned to Hazel.
"We must go back and retrieve our supplies. This poor bastard needs medicine. If the Efrafans find the balloon, they’ll destroy everything, leaving us with nothing.” His friends stared back at him, not saying a word. After what Hyzenthlay had just said, they weren’t the least keen on going back out there any time soon. Alan sighed, “All right, I’ll go back and salvage what I can…" Grabbing his knife, he got up and headed for the door.
"Wait, I’m coming with you," said Bigwig, giving the others a disgusted look for chickening out like cowards, “You’ll need someone to cover your back.” Alan wanted to protest, but knowing his big friend, Bigwig would follow him into the depths of hell in a heartbeat. That was just Bigwig; loyalty to your friends came first, personal safety later. The recovery party, consisting of the additions of Hazel, Holly, Silver and McEwen, who had also volunteered to come along, left the hideout, making their way back to the crash site, keeping their eyes peeled, their ears extended, and their nerves wracking.
Robbins, accompanied by Woundwort, Vervain and Campion, stared around at the debris littering the ground where the outsiders’ balloon had gone down. Ropes, cord, the scattered contents of smashed-up kits, amongst other bits of human junk, lay scattered everywhere. But there was no sign of the outsiders themselves, dead or alive. A Patrol had been dispatched, combing the surrounding area for the intruders, but finding nothing.
"We're too late," said Campion, "They must have realised we were coming and run. Their tracks seem to lead in the direction of the forbidden Man-Burrow on the far side of the island. Should I send a Patrol up ahead to check and confirm?"
“Don’t waste your time, they aren’t going anywhere now,” said Robbins, the wheels in his head turning at the sight of the wrecked balloon, “I’ve got a better idea.”
Using some sedatives from the medical kit he had found among the wreckage, he doped the water supply in the group's canteens, setting a trap. It seemed rather fitting that he should copy his nemesis’ previous escape plan from Sandleford, to use against him. It was perfect. Johnson and his friends had to come back soon or later, to retrieve their supplies; and when they did, they’d strike when they least expected. Quickly clearing up all traces of his work and leaving everything just as he had found it, Robbins and his partners-in-crime withdrew, to sit tight and wait for the right moment to make their next move.
Slaving away back at the dig site close to the warren, a crew of exhausted diggers had finished unearthing the shabby, but otherwise intact, Black Inferno projectile, still standing erect in its silo. The missile carrying the weapon-satellite had been preserved intact all these centuries by being buried in dry, rocky earth by its former owners. On Robbins’ instruction, a tree trunk was rolled across the shaft, improvising a crude gangplank over to the satellite’s control panel in the side of the ascend stage. At the bottom of the shaft, more diggers were busy digging an access tunnel, joining the silo to the main warren. Just as he had promised Woundwort, Efrafa would soon be a nuclear power.
Robbins stared with a sense of deep pride as the long-lost life's work of his former boss finally emerged into the sunlight. Now the prize was all his and his alone. Although he had filled the naïve Woundwort’s head with visions of using the satellite’s destructive power to gain a cutting edge in his ambitions of conquest, the fool didn’t realise that such a weapon could be turned against him at any moment - and that was precisely what Robbins had in mind, as part of his elaborate scheme to destroy both Alan and Woundwort at the same time. A sinister smile crossed his evil face. Everything was going like clockwork.
The only one who seemed to realise Robbins’ treacherous thoughts was Captain Campion, who was watching the man out of the corner of his eye with suspicion. From the moment he had laid eyes on this Robbins, deep down, the cold-hearted, but level-minded Campion could tell that this human, who had impressed his Chief so much with his promises of power and glory, was up to something. He silently prayed to Frith that Woundwort wasn't making a grave mistake by trusting this human with Efrafa’s future...
Meanwhile, Alan’s party had returned to the crash site and were gathering up their scattered supplies. While Bigwig and the other rabbits kept a sharp lookout for Efrafan patrols that might try and sneak up on them, the men searched the surrounding woodland, hurryingly picking up everything they could find. All the kits had been smashed open on impact, making retrieving their things extremely slow work. Using a poncho as an improvised carrier bag, Alan hurryingly picked up the absolute essentials: rope, some space blankets, their canteens, some tools and food rations. No time to pick up the rest now. Returning to the balloon, he saw McEwen had returned with the hastily repacked first aid kit he had salvaged. Some of the bottles and ampoules had been broken on impact, their liquid contents spilled and wasted, but most of the other medicines were intact.
Next, they examined the balloon. The craft looked as if it been through the worst parts of town and would need a complete re-rigging, assuming they could find the missing basket, but at least there wasn’t any major damage, at least none that Alan could see. Luckily, there was still some propane left in the reserve tank, just enough to get them off the ground again. Maybe they could come back when it was dark, put it back together again, and then get the hell out of here... At that moment, Silver, whom McEwen had sent with Holly and Bigwig to search for the balloon basket, came running, looking alarmed. Alan and the others jumped to their feet, expecting trouble.
"What is it? A Patrol…?"
"Back there, we heard a voice in the wind, calling our names!” Silver panted, looking terrified, “I think it’s the Black Rabbit of Inle…!" McEwen rolled his eyes, Great, now we’re seeing bogeymen too...
“Oh, quit talking such nonsense lad!” he snapped at Silver, dismissing the alert altogether, “Did you find the basket…?” But Alan, although obviously not the least superstitious like his rabbit friends, noticing Silver’s troubled expression, motioned to McEwen to quiet down. He turned to the terrified rabbit, "All right, take it easy. Let's go see what the problem is. Lead the way."
They followed Silver to a spot only a few yards away from the crash site, where they saw the overturned basket lying at the foot of a tree where it had landed, amidst a mess of broken branches. Their attention was instantly shifted to Bigwig and Holly, who were standing beside it, frozen stiff with fear. Sure enough, Alan heard it; a faraway, ghostly-like voice calling their names over and over. It was only then that Alan realised it was in fact coming from inside the inverted basket, creating a creepy acoustic effect that made it sound big and monstrous, like that of the alleged rabbit grim ripper, scaring his superstitious friends out of their wits.
"When He calls my name, the rest of you run for it!" whispered Bigwig in an urgent tone, standing in a protective stance in front of his friends, determined to sacrifice himself for them. When the Black Rabbit called you, you had to go, “And don’t look back; remember, if you stare into the face of the Black Rabbit, He’ll take you too!” McEwen however, didn't seem the least concerned, as he calmly picked up a stone, Alan following his lead and drawing his knife. The rabbits stared at them incredulously.
“What in Frith’s name do you think you’re doing, you fools? You can’t fight the Black Rabbit…!”
"Look chaps, I don't know about this superstitious nonsense you spout at every turn, but that’s the voice of a living flesh and blood creature. If I didn't know better, I'd say some Efrafan spy came along and got himself caught in the cookie jar… But, whoever it is, we’ll soon find out!"
Grasping their weapons, both men heaved at the basket, turning it back upright, revealing the source of the voice – and it wasn’t the Black Rabbit at all! The rabbits, who had been backing away, cowering, expecting to come face to face with the alleged grim ripper, gasped in surprise at the sight of a battered Silverweed lying unconscious at their feet, having nearly suffocated to death inside the basket, but still alive.
"By Frith, it’s that weirdo rabbit, Silverweed!" gasped Holly, "What’s he doing here?" Bigwig, who was feeling extremely stupid for thinking he had actually been hearing the Black Rabbit calling him to his death, narrowed his eyes in hate at the sight of Cowslip’s mystic.
"Isn’t it obvious?" he growled coldly, "Cowslip decided to send his lackey along to spy on us. Only this wretched weakling's luck didn't hold out, did it?" He raised a massive paw, about to put Silverweed out of his misery, but Hazel stopped him.
"Bigwig, wait! You can't just kill a defenceless rabbit like that! Besides, what if he isn't here to spy at all? Perhaps he too has had enough of Cowslip and decided to join us? Strawberry and Nildrohein had a change of heart after all…" Not surprisingly, Bigwig was far from convinced.
"And what exactly do you suggest we do, Hazel?" he snapped indignantly at his Chief, "Take him back to our hideout, feed him, nurse him back to health? That's a serious breach of security! What if he decides to bewitch us the instant we let our guard down, like he did to Cowslip’s rabbits? I say we leave him here for Woundwort’s Owsla and be done with him. This rabbit is a menace…!"
"Right now, he’s an injured rabbit,” said Hazel sternly, “We aren't killing him in cold blood and we aren’t leaving here to be captured by Woundwort!” After seeing what had happened to Blackavar, he wouldn’t wish captivity by Woundwort on any rabbit, “Alan, get him out of there!" Alan half-heartedly obeyed; although he too wasn’t particularly happy with the idea of bringing Silverweed back to the hideout with them, he realised Hazel had a good point. Cowslip valued Silverweed too much to risk losing him by sending him out here alone to spy on them. Could the mystic really have had a change of heart? Or was it something else?
Pulling the unconscious Silverweed out of his entrapment, they checked him for injuries. There were several bruises visible under his silvery fur, indicating a recent struggle, as well as a few scratches. It was obvious he had had a bad time getting here, but at least he didn't seem to be in any immediate danger. With the rabbits carrying the unconscious mystic, while the men carried the supplies and the folded-up balloon envelope, which they were bringing back with them for repairs, they hurried back to Buxton Hall.
Soon they were safely back at their hideout with the rest of their companions. The others frowned when they saw Silverweed, but, on Hazel's orders, let him rest. However, on Bigwig’s insistence, the men had securely bound the mystic with duct tape as a precaution, keeping him restrained in case he tried anything. McEwen had treated Blackavar using the penicillin and some antibiotics from the medical kit. Soon, the mutilated buck was neatly patched up, still horribly disfigured but at least he would live. McEwen had given him a shot of morphine for the pain and now he was resting peacefully. Derek had gotten to work, repairing the breach in the balloon. As they worked, the Watershippers tried to get to know their new companions better.
Hyzenthlay wasn’t a native of Efrafa. Her parents Kopi and Lavender came from a small, easy-going warren from the west called Redstone. When she was still a kitten, an Efrafan raiding party had seized the warren, killing the Chief Rabbit and enslaving all the survivors. The only survivor of her litter, her mother had continued caring for her after they’d been brought to Efrafa and her father had even managed to earn a position in the Owsla thanks to his excellent tracking skills, allowing the family to enjoy the few privileges permitted to Owsla officers’ families, making their lives somewhat bearable.
Unfortunately, Kopi often got into arguments with his superiors, eventually getting into Vervain’s bad books, who falsely reported him as a traitor and a plotter. Like many others before him, Kopi was arrested and executed for high treason. Hyzenthlay and her mother, no longer retaining any privileges, were transferred to the slave squads, where they were subjected to Vervain and his Owslafa’s constant bullying and abuse. Lavender eventually died in slavery, leaving her daughter on her own. Hyzenthlay’s only source of comfort that kept her going all those years was a certain Captain Campion of the Efrafan Owsla who had secretly befriended her and often protected her from Vervain's bullying.
“If it weren’t for him, I would have died long ago,” she said, “Sometimes, I think he was the only decent rabbit there.” Bigwig snorted; personally, he couldn’t see how any rabbit loyal to Woundwort could possibly have a heart. But Alan, remembering from the book, wondered whether Campion could be their key into Efrafa. However, given the circumstances, it would be almost impossible to approach him, so he quickly dismissed the idea. Right now, they needed to focus on not ending up prisoners in Efrafa themselves.
Vilthuril, Nelthilta and Thethuthinnang were all native Efrafans from the same Mark Hyzenthlay came from. Like all Efrafan commoners, they were born slaves, forced to endure the hardships of life in Efrafa all their lives. Being does, they were also expected to mate upon reaching maturity, according to Efrafan law. Mating, just like everything else in Efrafa, functioned according to Woundwort’s law of breeding healthy future soldiers, rather than true love. Hyzenthlay was due to be presented to the Owsla and Owslafa, who would decide between themselves on her future mate (male slaves were not permitted mates). Campion had discreetly offered to become her mate, to remove her from Vervain’s cruelty.
Normally, any Efrafan doe in her right mind would have accepted such an offer without a second thought; but, while she did have deep feelings for Campion herself, Hyzenthlay knew that if she accepted, she would inevitably be relocated to another part of Efrafa, where the officers lived, separating her from her friends forever (visits between Marks were strictly forbidden to avoid conspiracies). Losing those who had been her only source of happiness all those years of slavery was too much, even in exchange for the noble Campion.
Unfortunately, when she had turned down the offer, much to Campion's disappointment, the Council had stepped in and informed her that they would be deciding on her future mate by the next full moon. Vervain, who had a personal vendetta against her because of her father, had been gloating about how he would use his influence to make her his mate and that she would be his concubine for the rest of her life. It was then that Hyzenthlay resolved that she would defy the impossible and escape – or otherwise welcome death.
At first, she had attempted to request permission from the Council to assemble a group to start a new warren someplace far away, as a solution to Efrafa’s overwhelming population. Unfortunately, Woundwort regarded any warrens outside Efrafa, even a colony under Efrafan jurisdiction, as a potential threat, so her suggestion was flatly turned down. Finally, she had given up all attempts for requesting changes, after the Council had started getting suspicious and threatened her with charges of treason.
Enlisting the help of her friends, including Blackavar, another slave, and his sister Thrayonlosa, they had planned their escape. Blackavar was a former Owsla cadet-turned-slave, axed from the Owsla on false charges. Once again, thanks to Vervain manipulating things to weed out any rivals, or simply to satisfy his sadistic agenda, the Council had accused him of supposed disloyalty to Woundwort and brought him before the Owslafa for punishment. Thanks to his Efrafan ancestry, he was spared execution and instead sentenced to life in slavery, along with his entire family. Blackavar had attempted many times to plead his case, but the Council had denied him any chance of ever being reinstated. At the chance for escape, to start a new life far away, he and Thrayonlosa had willingly joined up with Hyzenthlay.
Their first idea was to tunnel out, past the boundaries, and flee. Unfortunately, officers regularly inspected the prison burrows to ensure no such attempts were made, making it impossible to keep it a secret long enough to finish it. Instead, a new, more radical plan was laid out: They would wait until a rainstorm, very frequent at this time of year, would hit, when they were above ground on silflay. They would then overpower the sentries and flee, using the rain to cover their tracks. Blackavar had made sure to memorise a safe route across the boundaries, during his flayrah collection errands. Unfortunately, like many others before them, they had completely underestimated Woundwort’s Owsla.
Blackavar and Thrayonlosa had made the first run, the former tackling the unsuspecting officer Chervil, their Mark prefect, and making a run for the boundaries. Unfortunately, Blackavar had failed to take into account that Efrafa was surrounded by water and soon found themselves cornered on the edge of the cliffs by the Owsla. Thrayonlosa had been killed in the ensuing struggle; Blackavar had been apprehended alive by Campion and brought before the Council for punishment. When he refused to reveal the names of the rest of his conspirators in the escape, the Owslafa had tortured and mutilated him, but on Woundwort’s orders, spared his life, so he could serve as a warning to others.
After Blackavar was returned to his Mark horribly disfigured and with the news that his sister had been killed, the does had all but given up hope of ever escaping. Their spirits were crushed. Meanwhile, the Council had tightened up security, forbidding anyone from their Mark from venturing above ground to eat, instead having their food brought to them by officers. It seemed only the dead ever escaped from Efrafa. But then, their chance had finally presented itself only a few days later, when they’d stumbled across the Secret River.
“It was as if Frith Himself had given me this vision to guide us to freedom,” said Vilthuril, explaining how, only a few days after Blackavar’s failed escape, when some of their Mark, which happened to include all of the attempted escapees (excluding Thrayonlosa, who was dead) were taking their drinks from the warren’s underground spring, she had sensed something strange under the water.
“She’s had these strange premonitions before,” piped in Thethuthinnang, explaining how Vilthuril, who was something of a mystic like Fiver, moving as if in a trance, had waded into the water, amidst her friends’ pleas to come back before she drowned, and discovered an underwater passage, none of the Efrafan Owsla knew about, leading out of the warren. With the guard’s back momentarily turned, and encouraging Hyzenthlay and the rest of her friends to follow her, the does had swam along the passage, through a network of tunnels, which had led them outside, just beyond the boundaries. At long last, they were free!
With the baffled Owsla in hot pursuit and a death sentence on their heads if they were caught, they had run for their lives. Unfortunately, their troubles were still far from over when they realised that they were still trapped on the island, with the only way across constantly under heavy guard. So Blackavar had led them to the ruins of the abandoned ‘Man-Burrow’ instead, which he had seen on his errands and knew the Owsla avoided like the plague out of fear of White Blindness, as they did every human dwelling. Alan wanted to inquire a little further about this ‘underground river’ the does had used to escape from Efrafa, but then decided to hold his tongue, as Hyzenthlay continued on with her story.
“We had escaped Efrafa, but we were now prisoners in our own hideout,” she said, “If we set foot outside, we would be instantly caught and taken back to Efrafa. None of us had any experience in living outside, or any idea where we should go even if we could escape. Then Blackavar started getting ill and we feared he would die...until you came along and found us.”
Their story finished, the does were curious to hear their friends' own story. Bluebell, who was the group’s storyteller in Dandelion’s absence, told them how they had met Alan and his companions, their escape from Sandleford, their perilous journey to Watership Down, the discovery of mankind's forgotten past and its role in the rise of their world. Alan and the others would occasionally pitch in, explaining how they had realised the threat of Efrafa, which had eventually led them into coming here. Although the does were utterly impressed at their new friends' courage to infiltrate Efrafa, they were even more curious to hear the untold tale of the Four Brothers.
"Are you saying that Man created us?" asked Thethuthinnang in astonishment. Alan told them about Hemlock's scheme that had kindled the flame of animosity between rabbits and humans, which had eventually led to humanity's destruction, as they had seen it on the HAB’s video log.
"Hemlock only believed in rabbit supremacy – or more specifically his own. He killed El-ahrairah, destroying any chance of peace between our species, and branding us humans as evil - and now Woundwort is continuing his ancestor’s dirty work. As if annihilating the entire human race wasn’t bad enough... As far as we can tell, we’re the last remaining intelligent humans left on Earth, thrown into your world by accident. However, I don't think Woundwort is too happy knowing we’re out here, exposing his family’s treachery…"
"He’ll stop at nothing to destroy you,” agreed Hyzenthlay, “Anyone and anything that so much as questions his authority is killed on principal." She glanced at the unconscious Blackavar, who had been very lucky considering; although he would bear the scars of Woundwort’s cruelty for the rest of his life, at least he had survived, while countless others before him had not.
"Well, that settles it then," said Hazel, finally accepting bitter facts, "There’s no hope of negotiating peace with Woundwort. We must leave this place as soon as possible. And once we return home, we must start preparing for war!" None of them realised that their problems were about to get much, much worse than they even thought possible, the only one even remotely aware of it being Silverweed, currently unconscious and unable to deliver a warning while there was still time…
Night had fallen as the entire Efrafan Owsla and Owslafa assembled for the ribbon-cutting of the fully restored Project Black Inferno, now in General Woundwort’s possession. The notorious dictator, accompanied by his most senior officers including Captains Campion and Vervain, stood on the edge of the silo, now completely cleared of earth and leaving the launch module in plain view. Robbins stood on the tree trunk serving as a gangplank, working on the missile’s control port. The atomic cores had been placed into their housing and activated, powering up the ancient satellite.
The controls on the panel flickered back to life as Robbins inserted the safety key to arm the ion cannon, before turning to the guidance system. After scanning all the systems and finding no faults, he plotted a mass air strike, targeting the territories of Efrafa’s worst enemies – or so Woundwort thought. Unbeknownst to the evil warlord, rather than marking Watership Down as the primary target as instructed, Robbins added one final target in the flight plan, zeroing in on Efrafa. The final outcome would be a massive aerial strike of plasma bursts and microwaves, which would incinerate all of England, piece by piece, effectively wiping out the world of the lagomorphs.
Woundwort addressed his Owsla assembled around for the official announcement, "Soon, my noble ancestor's dream will finally be fulfilled. I will purge the world of all opposition! Efrafa will rule far and wide, without a single enemy to resist us. I will completely suppress any idea of freedom; every last rabbit will obey me, live through me, and any fool who defies me, whether buck, doe, or kitten, will be slaughtered without mercy. I lead you all on the path to glory for one purpose: to enforce my rule upon the world that Frith created for the dominance of rabbithood!”
"LONG LIVE STIH-RAH, MASTER OF ALL RABBITS!" chanted the Owsla over and over again, saluting their sovereign Chief-Rabbit-soon-to-be-Emperor. Woundwort then turned to Robbins, who had come to join in the festivities, and to accept his reward, "You have served me well, Robbins. Name your reward." Still playing the act of loyal ally, he knelt before the giant rabbit he called his master.
"My Lord, once my nemesis has been destroyed and you have enforced your rule upon the world, my task will be over and I will have fulfilled my pledge to you. As a reward, I wish to have your permission to leave Efrafa, to return to my home time to share the glory of your name with my own people."
"Granted. You will be granted an official discharge from my service as soon as the job is done, as per our agreement. This should also give you the chance of seeing your own revenge against your nemesis complete." Although incredulous at being forced to stick around until the last possible moment, and risk having his true intentions come out, Robbins knew he had no choice but to comply. If Woundwort even suspected his double-crossing scheme now, he’d be as dead as Johnson would soon be. He bowed in gratitude, "Thank you General. You are most generous."
"I always reward those who serve me loyally," replied Woundwort smugly. On Black Inferno’s control port, the final arming sequence was in the green, initiating a 12-hour countdown to the launch. Black Inferno sat armed and ready for lift-off, to unleash its unheard-of destructive power upon the world of the lagomorphs.
Once the Owsla had dispersed, including Robbins, who had gone to review the next phase of their plan with Campion, Woundwort turned to Vervain, "It seems you brought me a most valuable asset after all, Captain Vervain. Ironic, isn't? Harnessing Man's own powers to destroy! A most glorious destiny to behold! Such a pity he’ll have to die once the job is done though; I was beginning to admire his blind loyalty, fuelled by his foolish thirst for vengeance…" Unbeknownst to Robbins, Woundwort, being an equally dirty player, had his own plans for his ‘prized’ ally once his usefulness expired – something only the sly Vervain knew about.
“Do we kill him now, Sire?" asked the sadist rabbit scornfully, “We don't need him anymore.” Although Robbins had presented him with the opportunity for revenge against Alan, Vervain hated anyone more popular that him on Woundwort’s side with a vengeance. His most usual strategy in eliminating any such rivals was to report them for some supposed crime and then claim the credit for weeding out a ‘traitor’. Unfortunately, so far he had been unable to find the faintest shred of incriminating evidence to use against Robbins, a master of deception, although he could literally smell treason in the man’s breath, "Should I have him confined to quarters, to ensure he doesn't escape?"
"No Vervain, not yet,” said Woundwort with an evil smile, “I’ll personally take care of Robbins, nice and quietly, once the job is done… Now, does the Owsla have any further news on our escaped does?"
"No, Sire, although Campion suspects they might have joined the outsiders who infiltrated our territory today. They might be hiding in the abandoned Man-Burrow where the outsiders were spotted. Should we launch an attack on their hideout yet? We have them completely at our mercy…"
"That, Vervain, will be discussed shortly," said Woundwort, turning to Robbins who had returned with Campion and officer Chervil, the prefect from Hyzenthlay’s Mark, from watching the outsiders’ hideout from afar, planning their attack, "Everything’s set, General. As I expected, they came back to retrieve their equipment and don't suspect a thing.” He showed Woundwort the empty box of Valium capsules he had planted into the group’s canteens. Now it was only a matter of time before they consumed the doped water supply, allowing their own party to infiltrate the hideout undetected, and execute the next phase of their plan: acquire some bait, to use as leverage against the outsiders.
Woundwort considered Robbins' plan; although he would have rather handled this his way and launched a full-scale attack to wipe out those miserable outsiders right away, rather than coax them into surrendering through this elaborate cat-and-mouse game, he figured Robbins knew certain human tactics the outsiders might otherwise use against him, so he decided to go along with the plan.
"Excellent. You, Vervain, Campion and Chervil will set out at once, to carry out the plan. Then I want you back here to accompany the Wide Patrol for the final attack on their warren. Those fools won’t even know what hit them before it’s too late! And remember,” he added, his red eye gleaming dangerously in warning, “I want that leader ithe brought to me alive!” Although aware of the grave consequences if he was discovered, Robbins was confident; so far, everything was going like clockwork. Soon, he would be on his way home, leaving both the unsuspecting Woundwort and that animal-loving fool Johnson to their fate…
Silverweed weakly opened his eyes and stared around him, confused. Where was he? How did he get here? Trying to sit up, he realised his paws were bound. His stomach bottomed out as he noticed the ithe and his friends standing over him, staring at him with suspicious, and, in many cases, hateful, expressions. The leader ithe was fingering one of those sharp, shiny human weapons Silverweed remembered was called a knife. Panic kicked in.
"Please, don’t kill me! I…I’ve come to warn you! You’re all in terrible danger…!" But his voice was hysterical gibberish, practically incomprehensible, like that of a raving mad rabbit, causing all the spectators to back away in alarm, "He’s still alive and seeks revenge against you…! He intends to destroy our world…! You must stop him…!" Silverweed screamed on and on as they all continued staring at him, thinking he was clearly insane. Seeing he was a danger to himself, Alan hastily gestured to McEwen who took out another syringe of morphine. Within seconds, Silverweed was lights out again.
"What the bloody hell was that all about?" asked Derek suspiciously, "What was he saying?" But with Silverweed now sedated, they wouldn’t be able to question him, at least not until the sedative wore off. So, instead, they turned their attention back to examining the contents of the safe, which Derek had finally managed to force open. Despite their success in acquiring several recruits, including four does, the primary objective of their mission was still incomplete. They badly needed a new lead on Black Inferno. Where could that damn thing be hidden? And how did they stop it?
The inside of the safe, sealed airtight all these centuries, was virtually untouched by the effects of time, without a single trace of rust or grime. The interior was divided into several stacked drawers, containing an assortment of interesting items, which were deposited on the floor for a closer examination.
There were many files containing what looked like stolen top-secret documents from numerous secret government agencies around the world, including the KGB, CIA, Interpol, amongst others, detailing various classified military operations, mostly involving notorious criminal organisations, militias or terrorist groups, which Red Hand apparently had had ties with. Although useless to them now, all these records gave Alan a good picture of the faction’s organised, massive criminal network. In another drawer, they found some personal effects, including a gold wristwatch, leather chequebook, some papers and cards, and a ring bearing the familiar black-hand-held-in-a stop-gesture – the crest of the Red Hand Brotherhood. An enclosed death certificate of the deceased owner bore the name of the faction’s infamous ringleader: Sergey Petrograd.
“I guess my hunch was correct – this place was once Red Hand’s safe house,” he said, reading Sergey’s death certificate aloud, “Death by heart attack? And only a week after we disappeared… Curious…”
In another drawer they found maps of different major cities around the world – particularly those which, Alan knew, controlled the global industry, economy and military powers back in the 21st century. These had to be Red Hand’s intended targets for Black Inferno, he thought, which would have led to the collapse of power and peace worldwide, pushing the world into a new Cold War, and allowing Red Hand to take control. It was only thanks to a simple quark of fate, which had taken Sergey out of the picture at the right moment, that this intended strike had never come to pass – or rather, it had been postponed; the threat of Black Inferno, now under the control of a new warlord intent on seizing control of the world, was their problem now.
In another drawer, they found a stash of personal files on numerous individuals, including government officials, scientists, soldiers, even ordinary civilians, all registered as ‘deceased’ or ‘missing.’ Curiously enough, all these people seemed to have died or simply disappeared under very mysterious circumstances. Alan felt his blood run cold as he recognised the names of Red Hand’s victims, including his own family. He stifled a sob as he saw the picture of Mary and Lucy clipped to the edge of one of the files.
“Is that your daughter?” asked Fiver, noticing the resemblance between Lucy and her father, as they passed the files around. Alan nodded grimly, looking away. God, how he missed her. Robbins’ fate of being eaten alive by that hawk, despite having given him a sense of closure, seemed too lenient a punishment.
“She’s very sweet,” said Pipkin, also looking at the picture. Alan couldn’t help but smile. The rabbits were passing the various papers and trinkets around, utterly fascinated by them, but at a loss as to what they were for. The does in particular, who, in contrast to the Watershipers, had never been among humans before, didn’t know what to make of all this incomprehensible, if not unnatural, craftsmanship that had made these objects. It simply blew their minds away.
Going through the contents of another drawer, they found some sealed bottles, containing several gallons of 700-year-old moonshine vodka. Derek whistled aloud at the sight of all that liquor, “Just the thing for a victory-celebration party!” Although itching for a drink himself, this wasn’t the right time for any of them to get pissed. So instead, he tucked the bottles away before any of his companions got tempted for the alcohol and turned his attention to another interesting find: an old-fashioned mini tape recorder.
Alan studied the recorder. The tape inside bore no label; only one way to find out what was on it. Using a couple of spare batteries cannibalised from a flashlight, he got the recorder working. An unfamiliar voice with a slight foreign accent, probably a scientist, was heard on the playback.
“…The discovery that unobtainium produces twenty times the amount of energy than the most sufficient atomic elements on the periodic table gives it great potential in military applications. Distinct feature includes its extreme reaction to certain levels of solar radiation, which causes it generate some form of inexplicable electromagnetic interference that seems to bend light itself…”
Alan needn’t hear any more of it. They had finally unravelled the biggest mystery of all; so it had been the unobtainium fallout leftover from the bombs dropped over New Forest during the war reacting to the coronal mass ejection of 2012 that had opened up the Aurora gateway into the future. That newly discovered element, whose properties scientists could barely comprehend, must have created what Stephen Hawking might refer to as a singularity – a hypothetical tear in the space-time continuum, interconnecting two distant worlds across time. The militias of the Middle East had sought to build prototype weapons of mass destruction with it and had unknowingly discovered the key to time travel instead! Funny how things turned out…
They continued probing the safe, coming across more and more surprises. Alan was hoping to find some weapons among all this terrorist memorabilia, although unfortunately in this case none were seen, save for a bottle of lethal strychnine nitrate meant for unsuspected victims targeted by Red Hand’s assassination network. A box of sinister military decorations, a bunch of keys, some newspaper clippings, all ditto. Then, in the last drawer, they found something else.
“Hey, lads, check this out!” Derek had found a plastic cylinder, containing a rolled-up bundle of books and schematics. They had found the blueprints of Black Inferno! They all gathered around, overjoyed at their luck – now, they had detailed instructions for shutting down the satellite in their hands! Alan didn't fail to notice his friend frown as he studied a diagram of the satellite’s navigation system.
"Bloody hell, this is a guidance system I designed several years ago for a private communications satellite. Those bastards have been exploiting my work!” It seemed Red Hand, not missing the opportunity to exploit their intended victim’s work, had either stolen it, or used their contacts to obtain it, to use in their precious toy. Alan and McEwen stared at the engineer in surprise.
"Your guidance system? Does that mean you know how to shut it down?" Derek studied the schematics of the probe’s flight computer. It was all marked in illegible Cyrillic, but for a skilled engineer like Derek Shaw, these blueprints made as much sense to him as plants and animals did to Alan. Finally, he spoke.
"The arming procedure involves two sets of activation codes, which must be inserted via the probe's control port; disarming involves the same steps in reverse. However, without the code books, we shall have to use the emergency override switch instead.”
"Can you describe this override switch?" Derek carefully studied the blueprints of the guidance system for a few minutes.
"It is a large red button with the symbol Alpha-Omega on it, in the maintenance port. All you have to do is hit a button and the system automatically shuts down. Assuming of course, we can find the missile first." They had searched every corner of the old house, but found no trace of the satellite anywhere. Then, studying an old plan of the Buxton property he had found in the safe, Alan saw something.
“There’s a network of tunnels, probably an old mine, on the edge of the property - exactly where Efrafa is,” he said, studying the faded plans of the derelict tin mine that Sergey had once used as the secret silo for his prized weapon, and later by Hemlock for his new domain, “And look at this.” He pointed at a concrete-lined shaft, resembling a chimney of some description, leading up from the mine, with a miniature drawing of a projectile in it, “This must be the missile silo where the satellite is.”
"So it’s right in the heart of Efrafa," concluded Hazel with a sigh of exasperation, “What are we supposed to do about it?” Despite being the Chief Rabbit, and technically leader of the group, this escapade was going far beyond his capabilities. So the key to their success meant a break-in into Efrafa. He was glad Hawkbit wasn’t here to spout any of his usual sarcasm at the impossibility of the task that lay ahead of them. Alan however wasn’t about to give up now.
"I think it’s best if we stick to our original plan. We should take things one at a time," he said, glancing at the does, "First, we need to get them to safety; if they’re caught, the Efrafans will surely kill them. Then we must find some way to infiltrate Efrafa, to stop the launch…"
"And how exactly do you plan to infiltrate Efrafa?” asked Bigwig, raising an eyebrow, “Woundwort's troops still outnumber us and are probably expecting us. What if they’ve set a trap? It’ll be like a kitten trying to take on a lendri, for crying out loud!"
"And it gets better,” Derek added, “I don’t think the balloon can get us all off this island. We weren’t expecting to pick up recruits," he said, staring at Hyzenthley and her friends, "What’s more, I don’t think we have enough fuel left to take off at full capacity." That was bad news.
"How many of us can make it, can you give me an estimate?" asked Alan, dreading the thought of having to leave some of them behind, “What if we dump all our equipment, strip the balloon of all excess ballast? Anything it takes…” Derek did some rough calculations, "Hard to say… I don't know, I suppose we could push it to seven, eight of us tops." Alan sighed. Eight out of the seventeen of them – too many short straws. There was only one thing for it then.
"Well, I guess it’s the does, Silverweed, and Blackavar who get first seats on this ride; one of us will also go along, to fly the balloon. The rest of us will have to draw straws I guess…" All faces fell, realising that more than half of their group would have to stay behind.
"We’ll make do with what we have,” said Hazel encouragingly, trying to preserve the group morale. Deciding it’d be best to wait until daybreak to reassemble the balloon and get out of here, they started making preparations for the night. As they would be spending the night here, they had to make sure the place was secure from attack. After shoring up any holes in the ancient walls and fortifying the place best they could, with lookouts assigned to stand watch in turns overnight, they settled down to eat and rest.
The tense mood lightened somewhat as the group made themselves comfortable around the fire, trading stories, waiting for the dawn, to evacuate. Alan sat alone, with Pipkin curled up beside him, lost in his own thoughts. Once they had evacuated as many of their friends as they could in the morning, he thought, they had much, much bigger fish to fry, and with practically no idea how they were supposed to do it.
With Black Inferno situated deep inside Efrafa, they had no choice but to infiltrate the warren. It seemed a direct conflict with Woundwort, just as it was written in Adams’ book, was inevitable after all – and unfortunately, there was no telling how it would ultimately turn out for them. They had no weapons to make up for their smaller Owsla, putting the odds seriously against them. He was glad when McEwen passed him a drink of water and a protein bar ration for his supper.
“Cheers, Major,” he said, gulping down a mouthful from the canteen, squashing his thirst, and also offering some to Pipkin, who was snoozing on his lap. How he would have welcomed a large vodka-in-tomato-juice now, to push the grim thoughts out of his mind.
"You know, Pipkin, sometimes life’s a real bitch… Pipkin?" Suddenly, he realised his little friend was sound asleep in his arms. Turning to McEwen beside him, he saw the man lying on the floor in what appeared to be a deep sleep, the leaking canteen he had been drinking from still clutched in his limp hand. It was then that Alan felt the warm drowsiness slowly creeping up on him. Something was terribly wrong.
Within minutes his eyelids felt like lead and he couldn't fight the drowsiness any longer. He had another moment to realise that everyone in the room were also slipping into unconsciousness one by one, apparently by the same cause, before he sunk into a drug-endured sleep, courtesy of the sedatives the supposedly Robbins had planted in their drinks.