Paul was as surprised as any of his passengers might have been at the speed he attained with the big vehicle. It was a tourist coach, but a hybrid; electrical and solar-powered like most vehicles on British roads. Ironically, the coach was virtually silent apart from the sound of the tyres on the tarmac. This was in stark contrast to the continuing screams and cries of the people strapped inside.
“Fly for us,” Paul whispered to the coach as he stared beyond the widening dark gap in the road surface. He had never been a religious person, but like most humans do in their hour of greatest need, he prayed silently to every god he’d ever heard of. Paul’s gaze remained locked on the distant solid ground as if his concentration would assist the massive vehicle to achieve the jump.
Paul resisted any thought of failure. To consider the coach diving headlong into the crevasse would invite disaster and this was a time for faith and hope. Courage was already used up.
The front wheels left the fractured tarmac surface, and the coach was launched over the deep and widening chasm. Paul’s eyes were open and with slightly parted lips he held his breath. Being in mid-air in the coach was appropriately an unearthly sensation as the steering lost all sensitivity. The light hum of the hybrid vehicle was lost amidst the hysterical screaming and loud, rapid prayers of the passengers.
It was touch and go for a few seconds as the coach dipped forward slightly in mid-air, reaching for the other section of solid roadway. The front tyres touched the ground causing the big vehicle to shudder violently. The rear tyres punctured with a cluster of loud bangs as they hit and bounced against the jagged edges of broken road. The tarmac on the far side was smooth, but it was only reached thanks to the excessive speed the daring driver had achieved.
The coach skidded wildly side to side, still travelling fast, but now with fully inflated tyres at the front, and four burst tyres on the rear. There were also twenty-three terrified people in between—if Dawn and Paul were included. There was no thought of his own safety as Paul fought the rapid skidding and screeching vehicle to save his passengers. Rather than braking, a release of power and then light pressure on the accelerator reintroduced some of the speed lost on the jump. The action counteracted the skidding.
Paul’s fingers were curled around the rim of the steering wheel in a vice-like grip, and his gaze was locked on the road ahead. The mountain road curved right in a long bend. Paul was confident that if he was able to negotiate the parabolic he could hold the road and follow it around the mountain. He had three hundred metres before the ultimate test of his skill. Bringing the vehicle under control in such a short distance in normal conditions would have been bad enough. Now, with bare wheels and shredded rubber at the rear, it reduced braking ability.
The whole situation so far had been life and death, and the burden of any fear was lessened for Paul while he concentrated. He ignored the sounds of terror within the confines of the coach.
Dawn continued to whisper encouragement which gave her colleague and friend renewed confidence and also alleviated her personal fears, if only slightly.
As Paul steered into the long bend he brought the speed down to fifty miles per hour. A fresh wave of screams erupted as the coach skidded again. Passengers saw that they were aiming towards a level crossing on the next tight bend. Surely all was lost now after so many death-defying antics?
“Hold tight!” Paul shouted, over the high-pitched screeching of the tyre-less rear wheels. Heather and forestry flashed past but all eyes were either closed or staring at the road ahead.
At the level crossing where the railway line ran at an acute angle across the road surface, Paul jerked the wheel hard and turned from the road onto the railway line. The front tyres burbled loud and rapidly as they bounced at speed over the metal rails and wooden sleepers. A positive aspect of the intermittent contact of the tyres on the old sleepers was that the big vehicle lost propulsion. Four hundred metres ahead was the side of the mountain, and looming up in line with the coach’s trajectory was a railway tunnel.
Paul flicked on the headlights, for all the good they would do as the coach ploughed onwards. It was in those few seconds of doing something as mundane as using the light switch that he realised he was holding the wide front tyres on the rails. The rear wheels which had long ago lost all trace of rubber had incredibly bumped from the sleepers and landed on the rails. The combination of bare wheels on metal rails was providing a steady if uncomfortably noisy ride.
When the tunnel was one hundred metres away, Paul considered the height of the coach—surely it had to be lower than the trains which had used this place at one time? He knew the old steam train had been for industrial use so might not be broad, but he hadn’t considered the height. Those days were a century before. On the right side of the track near the tunnel entrance, two people wearing green helmets, overalls and body harnesses stepped out of the forest. Having seen the approaching coach, they stepped back and stared wide-eyed, mouths agape.
“Heads down!” Paul shouted, but he kept his head up, aiming to save his passengers at his own expense if necessary. The old tunnel swallowed the coach easily, and the headlights served to illuminate one hundred metres ahead. Paul held on and sat impatiently, panting, waiting for the vehicle to stop. Sparks flew from the rear wheels, filling the dark space with flashes of bright colour. When the coach slowed and halted, Paul closed his eyes and took several deep breaths. He gazed through the large windscreen. To the front were the old railway line and the increasing darkness beyond the headlight beam range.
Dust clouds lifted and floated around the usually immaculately clean coach, making it feel like it had entered a car-wash which worked in reverse. Paul flicked a switch to disengage the cell-pack, and the low hum of the powerful hybrid motor stopped. The headlights died when Paul hit the switch, and then he turned the interior lighting to dim.
Dawn turned to Paul and murmured, “I take it this was your plan?” She gave a brief nervous smile, having recognised that her friend may have shaken up their passengers but he had probably saved their lives.
“So far, so good,” Paul whispered. He sat panting and trembling in shock until a slender hand reached across and touched his arm. Paul’s heart was finally slowing to a healthier beat.
“Well done, you crazy man.” Dawn smiled nervously.
After a few seconds, the sound of sobbing and nervous laughter changed to spontaneous applause throughout the vehicle, accompanied by ‘well done’ and similar messages of support for the man at the front.
Paul swung his seat around sideways and stood, but when his legs started to buckle, he resumed his seat. Instead of addressing his passengers by facing them, he used the PA system. “I apologise for the rough ride and the fright some of you experienced.” He glanced at Dawn as she unbuckled her seatbelt. “I don’t know what we’re going to do next, but you must believe me—we’re safer in here than out there.”
Although he was trying to sound calm, Paul was as traumatised and as worried as his passengers. A thump on the door saw him turn to the nearside. He saw the two people in hi-vis vests, both breathing heavily and leaning on the door. Paul buzzed the door open
The man in green overalls said, “Hi. Are you guys—”
“Get inside quickly,” Paul shouted.
The man and woman climbed the steps, and the door quietly zipped closed behind them.
Paul was about to speak to the new arrivals, but something had caught his eye. The entrance to the tunnel had been a dim light, but the intensity of light increased rapidly. As before he reacted from an instinct he didn’t know he possessed.
Paul shouted, “Close your eyes!”
Some of the passengers cried afresh after the light had dissipated and they were sitting once again in the dimly lit coach.
“I can’t see!”
“I can’t see … I’m blind.”
“I can’t see either—what’s happening?”
Screams and sobbing were underway once again as several passengers reacted to their newly acquired blindness.
Paul grabbed his mic. “Calm down … please, calm down. Your sight will come back.”
“Will it really?” Dawn whispered.
“I’m sure it will,” Paul said. “I’ve read about this—it’s one of the effects of a nuclear explosion.” Even as they had their quiet conversation, there was a sense of doom when it felt like the entire mountain range was shaking. The coach creaked, which created the right atmosphere to cause another bout of hysteria. Would this nightmare never end?
A thunderous roar a short distance behind the coach was the next sound. When Paul looked in his rearview mirror, he saw the entrance gradually close and become dark as rubble built up, causing a huge dust cloud and sealing off the final glimpses of daylight. For a few minutes, the rumbling, cries, sobs and screams were the order of the day, and then when the tremors ceased, slowly but surely the passengers calmed once again. If twenty people crying could be referred to as ‘calm’.
The two new arrivals were lying on the floor at the front of the coach. One was behind Paul’s seat and the other was facing down the aisle. They both got up and were more than a little shaken.
“Sorry,” Paul said to the overall-clad man and woman who were getting up after their quick dive.
“I’m Norman, and this is my colleague, Chloe. We’re with the Forestry Commission. We were trying to see what the noise was outside the woodland when we heard your coach approaching. We ran in here to help you.” He looked from Paul to Dawn. “We’ve had no radio contact for ages, so maybe you can enlighten us.”
Dawn turned to the man she’d worked with for several months. “Go on, Paul—you seem to have all the answers so far?” She slowly shook her head and forced a smile. Like Paul, she had been trained to deal with an abundance of emergency scenarios. Nuclear explosions and their aftermath had never made it onto the company’s driver or tour guide training schedule.
Paul met Dawn’s gaze, and in the dim light, he hoped she wouldn’t see the fear in his expression. He looked from Dawn to the two people in the bright vests and green overalls. “Unless something nasty lands on this actual mountain, we’re over the worst of the effects for now.”
Dawn said, “What do you mean, the worst, and for now?”
“Give me a few seconds—I’ll try to explain it to everybody and see if we can keep them from panicking again.” He nodded to the new arrivals, turned and pulled down his mic. “Ladies and gentlemen I’d like your attention, please.”
There were a few sobs, and some murmuring and then a couple of voices suggested that the driver should be allowed his say. He had, after all, delivered them safely so far, if a little shaken.
“Go on, mate,” Calvin shouted. “Let’s hear it.” The young black guy had a distinctive London accent and a deep voice which suited his solid physique.
“Right,” Paul said. “First of all, we’ve got two more in our group. He nodded down towards the two Forestry Commission people. I’d like you all to try and hold back from screaming and panicking—it will do no good for any of us, and only upset those people who are trying to come to terms with what’s happening.”
There were a few murmurs and then a commanding male voice from earlier broke the relative silence. “What makes you such a bloody expert on when we should or shouldn’t panic—you’re a bloody coach driver?”
“Could you tell me your name and what you do for a living?” Paul said without the use of the PA system.
“My name is Alan Nicholson, and I’m the Regional Manager of Harwood’s Foods. Why is that important?”
“Well, Mr Nicholson of Harwood’s Foods, I’m hazarding a guess that like the rest of us, you no longer have a job, and your company doesn’t exist.”
Muted comments sounded along the coach.
Nicholson, a tall, slim man stood. “Make your point?”
Paul had heard enough. He stood to face the other man along the aisle. “Would you like to come up to the front and address the assembled audience, Mr Nicholson? You can enlighten us with your vast knowledge of nuclear war, the weapons used and their effects?”
“I don’t know … anything … about those … things.”
“Well, bloody sit down and listen.” Paul paused and looked along one side of the coach and then the other. “I have basic knowledge, but I’ll step down if we have anybody here who knows about nuclear explosions?”
A tall, well-built man in his late thirties stood up at the back of the coach. “Bill Kane, mate—I’m an ex-Serviceman—an engineer. I know a bit about nuclear warfare.”
“Would you come up here, please, Bill and try to explain our situation?”
The ex-soldier made his way up to the front amid whispers. He spoke quietly to Paul when he arrived near him. “You’ve done a great job so far, mate—thanks.”
Paul nodded and sat down, finally feeling appreciated, and relieved to have another ally.
“Okay, everybody,” Bill said. “We can’t dress-up our predicament or what’s going on out there. I’m confident that thanks to this brave guy up at the front here, we’re now in a safe environment. We can discuss the details, and our plans later, but for now, I believe what we’ve just witnessed is what Paul suggested—the effects of a nuclear explosion. It was possibly one of several.” He let the murmuring start again and then held his hands up for quiet.
“I can see again … I’m not blind … I can see again.” A middle-aged woman cried with relief.
“What’s your name?” Bill said.
“Jean … Jean Sands.”
“What happened was caused by the intensity of the light caused during the nearest explosion—it can’t be avoided. Paul was right to shout for us to close our eyes, but even with them closed we’d have experienced the light at some intensity.” Bill paused. “There is also the nuclear blast, which causes a rush of air outward from the point of detonation.” He let the second aspect sink in. “The outward air pressure is massive, but then a few seconds later, the vacuum is filled as all the air returns.”
Bill held his hands up and got silence again. “When the dust finally settles the bad news isn’t over. The mushroom cloud we’ve all seen in pictures and in the movies is full of earth and particles which are made radioactive during the explosion. The particles can be carried for hundreds of miles high above the clouds and any regular winds. Those radiation particles will eventually come back to earth.”
There was silence, as every person on the coach listened to somebody who sounded like he knew his subject.
“In the military, we were trained in how to recognise the effects and how best to survive, but what I’ve just explained is only the immediate effects. Back in my days in uniform, we had protective outfits, respiration kit and all sorts of training. In here, thanks to Paul, we’ve survived those immediate effects, but now, although we’re in a safe place, most of the area outside of here will be liable to radiation of different types. Some people might be out there and survive the light, blast, heat and radiation only to be killed by the residual stuff.”
“How long does the radiation last, Bill?” A young woman in the middle of the coach.
“Different types of radiation last for differing lengths of time—minutes up to years—to hundreds of years.”
“Basically,” Nicholson said. “What you’re saying is that we’ve been saved by being buried alive in here. Now we’re going to die from thirst and starvation?”
“No, Mr Nicholson—we’re safe in here, and it’s how we respond from now on that will decide if we survive.”
A man near the front spoke quietly. “Are we going to die in here, Bill?”
Bill glanced at the frightened eyes and quivering lips before once again looking up to address the whole coach-load. “A lot of you are in a state of shock, and you’re frightened—which is natural.” He forced a brief smile. “Paul here, made a superhuman effort to get us this far, and I, for one, am grateful. I’m not going to give up now and waste our chances.”
“Brave talk is okay, Bill, but how do you suggest we survive?”
“Mr Nicholson, one of the first things we all have to do, is start thinking positively. It doesn’t matter what any of us did on the outside—we’re now all in a shit situation together.”
A woman from the back murmured. “It all sounds so hopeless.”
“Okay, let’s cut that out—we’re survivors, not the condemned, so I’d like to sense a bit of positivity.” Anger and frustration were rapidly building in the ex-Serviceman. “Hands up all those who’ve been under effective enemy fire, or seen a good friend blown to pieces?”
Not for the first time, apart from a few gasps, the passengers were silent as Bill was the only one to raise a hand.
“I apologise,” Bill said. “Those are circumstances I regard as stressful and testing. We’re alive so our present circumstances are simply an inconvenience. I’m not saying I’ve got all the answers, but we’re here now. We must assess our situation and then form a plan of action.”
A woman halfway along the coach raised a hand. “Bill.”
“I know you might not want to assume command, but I think you’re our best bet to get us working together.”
Voices piped up from around the coach.
“Yes, and I’m with that lady.”
“Well said—me too.”
“Count me in.”
“And me too.” The unmistakable deep and well-educated voice of Nicholson.
A general hubbub circulated and stopped short of becoming a chant.
Bill looked over his shoulders to see Paul and Dawn both nodding and smiling. He met the gaze of the only outspoken person on the coach. “Are you quite sure, Mr Nicholson?”
“Absolutely … Bill … and it’s Alan.”
The frustration bubbling under the surface dissipated, and Bill nodded his thanks to the tall man. “Okay, guys, I think the way forward would be for us to have a small group as a sort of strategy, or if you like, planning committee. The smaller the number of people involved, the better or we’ll end up discussing everything in one big democratic mass of opinions.”
Again, his words created a silence.
“Ideally, we need at least one person with some knowledge of this tunnel. Somebody acquainted with the local area would also be beneficial.”
Dawn said, “Both Paul and I have seen diagrams and been told the history of this place, but we’ve never been allowed to venture inside.” She half-turned to see a nod from Paul. “We’d like to help.”
Bill stepped back two paces so that he had his back to the inside of the vast windscreen and he was standing between Paul and Dawn. “Okay, that’s two so far—anybody else?”
The man and woman in overalls and hi-vis vests who were sitting on the floor both raised their hands. “My name is Norman. Both Chloe and I have some local knowledge—we’ve attended forestry issues all around this mountain and the others nearby. The tunnel is quite long and goes under two mountains before it sees daylight again briefly, and then enters another mountain. The old railway line at one time reached the hydro-electric power station a few miles away.”
“Could either of you guys help?”
“I’ll do it,” Chloe said.
“Now we’re getting somewhere,” Bill said. “I’m happy to stay on board with these guys and get us underway, but we could do with a strategist to help keep our ideas on the straight and narrow.” He turned and looked at the businessman. “What did you say your position was out there, Alan?”
“Regional Manager, and I’d feel privileged to help.”
“You’re in, mate.”
A low murmur of voices sounded throughout once again.
Bill held up a hand for quiet. “I don’t suppose anybody has anything as old-fashioned as a notebook?”
“I carry a notebook and a pen.” A forty-something woman called out. “My name is Steph.”
“What are you, Steph—a journalist?”
“An author, but I’d be happy to be the group’s scribe.” Steph was five-nine, with striking features and a fuller figure.
“Thank you—okay people, if you have any objections or anything to add to what we’ve got now, please speak up.” Bill looked along both sides of the coach.
A few whispers and shaking of heads was the response.
Bill said, “We’ve got a few empty seats along the coach, so if you guys in the front would be kind enough to move back we can get our fledgeling committee seated together at the front.”
Two minutes later, Bill rested in a half-sitting position against the centre of the broad dashboard. He had Dawn in her swivel seat to his right and Paul to his left, while Alan, Chloe and Steph sat in the front row.
“Before we go any further,” Bill said, “do we have any medical professionals?”
“My name is Jay-Dee,” a slim young Asian man said. “I’m a male nurse.”
“Noreen—a midwife,” a pretty, curvaceous black woman called out.
“Thank you, guys. I’d appreciate it if you could both go around and check everybody over.”
“You’ve got it,” Jay-Dee said and started along one side of the aisle.
“No problem.” Noreen got on with checking the people on the other side.
Bill left the medics to do their thing. He turned to his small band of recruits. “Welcome, thank you, and remember, we’re not an escape committee.” He nodded to Paul and smiled. “We’ve already dealt with that part. Now we have to work together to survive.”