Bill kept his voice low, but loud enough to be heard by the people nearest to him. “Unless anybody thinks otherwise I believe we have certain things we need to consider straight away. A couple of us need to get out and explore this tunnel. There are several basic needs. Water and food are a priority, although we also have to consider hygiene with so many people in one small space.”
Dawn said, “We’ve got a good supply of bottled drinking water and snack bars in one of the storage lockers underneath.”
Paul said, “Although we have a toilet facility onboard at the back, it’s not intended for perpetual use. We need to find a way of dealing with that aspect.”
The others nodded.
Paul said, “Perhaps we’ll find a suitable hygiene facility when we explore.”
“Possibly, mate,” Bill said. “It’s something we must keep in mind.” He paused. “I don’t know how many it will affect, but this tunnel must be a no-smoking and no-vaping zone.”
Dawn said, “I think we have maybe half a dozen people who like to smoke or vape.”
“We’ll need their matches or lighters later, but we don’t need to find out by accident that there are pockets of gas in here. It might come across better if you mention the gas first, and then the no-smoking rule. As far as vaping is concerned, we don’t want our uncertain level of oxygen polluted.”
“I’ll deal with delivering that information,” Alan said. “I suppose most of them dislike me already anyway because I was acting a bit stroppy earlier.”
“Good delivery and showing we care about each other—that’s all you need, Alan.” Bill winked and got a smile. He turned to Paul. “Your knowledge of your vehicle will be invaluable.”
“I’ll be happy to get involved in any projects, including when we need the coach.”
“Good. Have you got a decent flashlight in your maintenance box?”
“I’ll go fetch it now—would you like me to go with you on the trek through the tunnel?”
“I think it would be best, mate. It sounds like Chloe and Norman know the outside area and forest, but you and Dawn might have a better knowledge of the tunnel’s history and configuration than anybody else.” He turned to Dawn. “For now, it would make sense to continue in your primary role, if you don’t mind.”
“Got it, and I agree.” Dawn nodded. “I don’t drive the coach, but I’m well-acquainted with every part of it.”
Paul went outside and was back in a few minutes with a large, rubber-encased flashlight. “This is usually plugged into the coach’s power pack, so it lasts for hours.”
Steph said, “Before you guys leave, is there anything we can tell our companions—something of interest that will keep everybody’s hopes up?”
“I wouldn’t want to reel off statistics,” Paul said. “The tunnel is about five miles long and I know it has several emergency exits and maintenance portals.”
“That’s a long tunnel. Do we have any idea how far in we are from the entrance?”
Chloe said, “Norman and I ran like hell to catch up after the coach passed us—I’d guess at maybe three or four hundred metres.”
“I’d go along with that,” Paul said.
“Okay, that will give them a couple of things to discuss,” Bill said. “Before we can do much more planning I think we need to find out what we’ve got down here by way of facilities. We’ll leave you guys to check with the medics that we have no passengers with physical injuries. You can also explain to everybody where we’ve gone and what we’re doing.”
Dawn consulted the levels of a small coloured scale on the dashboard. “The onboard toilet will be good for at least twenty-four to thirty-six hours.”
“Thanks.” Bill nodded. “It might be useful to perform a roll call of your passenger list. Hold their attention for a while by double-checking details, like names and occupations.”
Alan said, “If Dawn deals with the passenger names I can tell everybody about the hygiene, the non-smoking and whatever.”
Dawn added, “We’ll keep them talking to each other—it will stop them going stir-crazy in the dim lighting.” She turned and glanced out of the windscreen into the blackness. “Do you two guys want the headlights on?”
“No, thanks,” Bill said. “We’re better off to start the way we mean to go on—the flashlight. However far we go, when we’re on the way back, it will be a welcome sight when we see these interior lights, even if they’re dim.”
Bill and Paul synchronised their watches with the coach clock and Alan’s watch.
“We’ll aim to be back in three hours,” Bill said.
Dawn handed Paul a small bottle of water. “You two will need this more than me.”
The two men set off slowly, Paul on the left and Bill on the right. They walked on the gravel and undergrowth away from the ends of the railway sleepers. Bill was carrying the flashlight and aimed the beam well ahead and centrally. The technique he used was sufficient to illuminate a reasonable length of the old rails and create more confidence for the pair of them as they walked. Anything beyond the beam was pitch black apart from the occasional shine of crystallised substances contained within the surface of the tunnel roof and walls. Occasionally, a pair of beady eyes reflected the light from the low beam of the flashlight. A few times, a small winged creature dropped from the ceiling to investigate the intruders in their usually quiet nocturnal world.
For a while, the pair advanced with no other sound than their breathing and the crunching of gravel underfoot.
“Bill,” Paul whispered. “Do you really think we have a chance of surviving down here?”
“I’ve been in worse conditions, mate, and living in a disused railway tunnel is not going to be the end of the line for me—if you’ll pardon the pun.”
“I think it’s amazing that you can be so positive and humorous.”
“We’ve got two choices, Paul. We can either roll over and die, or we can tackle the adversity face-on and fight.” He laughed briefly. “Having seen how you drive a coach when under pressure, I’ve got you down as a fighter.”
The pair fell silent once again, but Paul was buoyed by the confidence expressed in him. He already trusted this ex-soldier, and if this guy half-believed they could survive, then that was good enough. Their conversation was brief and sporadic for half an hour.
“An orange reflective strip,” Bill said. “On your side, but still a distance away.”
“I see it—maybe it’s an exit or maintenance portal.”
“We’ll find out soon enough.”
The reflective strip remained a focal point as they advanced along the railway, occasionally stumbling over a rock or tuft of undergrowth.
On arrival, the men found that the reflective strip was fixed to the edge of a door frame. Bill shone the beam partly onto the door and read the warning sign. “Emergency exit—Authorised Personnel Only. Possible hazard on exit from the external door.”
“What do you think?”
“I think you should hold this mate while I try and move this push-bar.”
Paul accepted the flashlight. “What about the warning of a hazard?”
“It says ‘Possible hazard on exit from the external door’, which tells me that there is something between this door and the one that poses the danger.”
“You mean there might be something like a … an airlock or chamber of some sort?”
“That’s exactly what I’m thinking, but stay back, just in case I’m wrong.” Bill gripped the push-bar with both hands, got up onto his toes and heaved his weight downward—nothing. “It’s a little bit stiff, which I suppose is to be expected.”
“What if I lay the flashlight on the deck and we both have a go. Steady rocking on it together?”
“Come on, mate, let’s do this.”
The light was placed between and behind them, and they tried together several times to budge the bar. On the fifth attempt, there was a metal grinding noise at one end.
“Okay, Paul, keep it going together—on three … one … two … three.”
The pair continued to grip and jump up and down, puffing for breath, until at last the bar went loose, and the door moved inward slightly. The men stopped and stepped back, breathing heavily. Bill stooped to lift the flashlight. He shone the beam into the area as he pushed the door open with his boot.
“Good guess,” Paul said as he looked into the short chamber. The floor was concrete, and the walls were tiled up to and around an arched ceiling. A few tiles lay broken on the floor, but though a few were cracked, most were still sound and secure.
“This is a good omen,” Bill said. “If something like an emergency exit has been built to last this long, it speaks volumes about the standard of the workmanship.”
“I agree that it’s in great condition, but why is it a good omen?”
“This is a route for leaving the tunnel in a hurry—the maintenance portals will be built to the same standard, and they would have been set up for men to spend time in them occasionally.” Bill shone the flashlight on the other door, which was several metres away. “There is the door with a possible hazard on the other side, so we’ll leave that one until it’s needed.”
“I suppose there will be a narrow passage leading to the final door which exits into a forest or the mountainside.”
“I’d agree with that, mate.”
“I wonder what that oblong box is up there?” Paul moved left and right to look.
“Wipe all the shit off but don’t cut yourself.”
Paul rubbed a hand over the flat area about the size of a small shoebox. “It’s glass—a light, or it will be if we can arrange a source of power.”
“I think we’ll list this little find under the heading of hope.” Bill tapped his companion on the shoulder. “Let’s move on, mate.”
The pair closed the door most of the way and then set off once again into the tunnel. For a while, they crunched along on the gravel without conversation.
“Paul, what have you got on the coach in the way of tools?”
“I have the usual breakdown and wheel-changing equipment. I also carry a small but comprehensive toolbox in the storage bin—why do you ask?”
“We may not have much down here, but if we can adapt or disable the push bars on the doors, we could make use of these exit chambers. I’m just thinking out loud at the moment.”
“What did you have in mind?”
“The coach is comfortable, but we could be in this tunnel for some time, and we can’t live in the coach—we’ll need to organise some type of makeshift accommodation.”
“Do you ever stop planning?”
“No,” Bill laughed as the pair of them continued walking and talking. “While we’re thinking of planning, what type of power pack is on the coach?”
“It’s a relatively new hybrid—solar power obtained via the veins in the windows, combined with the choice to switch over to electric or the emergency traction-wheel generator.”
“The solar energy part, are we talking about the windows that make up the roof?”
“No, all of the windows, including the windscreen. There is a fine metal thread element which runs through every pane of glass, and the solar power which is absorbed is fed to the individual window frame. From there it joins a network of thin metal cables and feeds the cell under the coach.”
“What about if the weather isn’t so bright?”
“As long as there is sufficient power to get the drive or traction wheels at the back turning, they charge the power pack.”
“How efficient is the system?”
“The sunlight we had today was enough to give a full charge, which means that if I hadn’t driven us in here, we could travel for about three hundred miles without sunlight.”
“Okay, so you could start the motor?”
“Yes—have you got an idea forming?”
“I’ll have to think it through, but yes, there is a germ of an idea in my head. In the military, invariably we found that we couldn’t access the correct equipment, so we had to improvise to make something work. When it’s been your lifestyle for twenty years, it sticks with you.”
“Look, Bill, another reflective section, and it looks a bit broader.”
When they arrived, it was to find that the coloured strip was to indicate the entrance to a maintenance portal—MP-1. The door this time had no emergency push-bar, but a regular handle. Bill turned the handle and pulled hard. The door creaked. He slammed a foot against the wall and pulled harder—opening the resistant door a few inches.
“Hold the flashlight again, Paul.” Bill, at six-foot and muscular was the best person to force an entry. He squeezed his right shoulder between the door and the frame and pushed. The door jammed when partly open, but it was enough to get inside.
Paul eased his slimmer physique through the gap and handed the flashlight back to Bill, who was showing such determination to make progress.
At first, it looked like the exit chamber they’d been in earlier, including the rear emergency exit a few metres away with the warning of a possible hazard. The difference was that both side walls had doors. Two doors on the left wall and one on the right. Bill pushed the nearest left door, and they both went inside. It was a small room, but to all intents and purposes, it was a kitchen. Immediately to the front was a tiny rudimentary cooker and grill. Above was a flue for heat and steam to escape. To the left was a small sink with a single tap, and to the right, a large cupboard with shelving containing a few dusty metal mugs, metal plates and utensils. In the bottom of the cupboard were two large boxes.
A reasonable level of light was reflected around the room because the entire portal had been fitted with white tiles.
“I like this already.” Bill placed the flashlight on the small worktop beside the cooker and lifted one of the large wooden boxes from the metal cabinet. Attached to the edge of the lid was a metal loop or hasp which hooked over a thin metal bar to secure the container.
Bill flicked open the hasp and lifted the lid. “What do we have here?”
“What is it?” Paul leant forward to look inside.
Bill lifted out one of the contents. “In my days in a camouflage uniform, we would have laughed at this stuff but eaten it anyway—composite rations. Some of it might taste like shit, but it keeps you alive and can be stored for bloody years.”
“Does it have a date on the packaging somewhere?”
“Personally, I’ve never been bothered by that sort of thing, mate, but we’ll have a look.” He lifted out a tin containing chocolate, fruit and nut flavoured bars, and it was stamped ‘Use by Dec 2067’ which he showed to Paul and winked. Bill lifted out a large wrapped bundle of protein bars. “These bars are each the equivalent of a meal.” He turned the packaging over. ‘Use by Apr 2068’.
“Does this mean we’re not going to starve to death?”
“Yes mate, but this tells me that a replenishment team has been sent in here recently.” He paused. “Maybe in the past five years.”
“How do you know, and why would they?”
“Food like this lasts for many years, but not fifty or more. I’d guess that some local government or council has deemed the tunnel a safe haven for their emergency planning committee.”
“Like a bunker, to conduct an official role similar to what our committee is to do?”
“Exactly, mate, which is good. I reckon they would have ensured all of the portals had food.”
“What about water?”
“We must find drinking water, and that might not be so easy. Let’s try that tap.” After trying several times, they were unable to turn the tap.
“At least we know it’s here,” Paul said. “We could come back with some tools later.”
Bill nodded. “Let’s see what’s in the other room.” They went into the room on the other side of the small tiled chamber to find a long slatted wooden bench and an equally long wooden table—both sturdy. Above the wooden bench was another, but it was folded flat against the wall.
“This bench and the folded one above are fitted as bunks,” Bill said. “At some stage, the maintenance guys must have expected a lengthy stay in shit conditions.”
The room was as small as the kitchen, but in this case, instead of a cupboard, there were three metal doors which took up the whole of one wall.
Bill opened all of them to find that they were full of wiring, massive fuse-links and other electrical components. At one level to the side was a set of large throw switches—all in the downward position.
He turned and grinned at Paul in the beam of the flashlight as he lifted one switch after the other. Nothing happened, but he left them up anyway. “I had to do that—you never know.”
“We’ve still got a door to check—what do you think it’ll be?”
“I’m guessing it’s a basic toilet.”
They went into the tiled chamber and along to the third door. After effort was applied, the slightly smaller door opened. Bill reached out with the flashlight and shone it around inside. “It is a toilet, but there’s no water in there, and the whole room looks and smells like a zoo for insects and strange, resilient plant life.”
“Is it like the kitchen tap do you think—workable if we can locate the water source?”
“Yes, Paul. Time is on our side, as long as we have a source of drinking water. Talking of which, I think we deserve a drink.”
They both took a pull from the bottle Paul had carried along.
Paul said, “Shall we go on to the next portal?”
Bill played a fingertip across his watch, and it illuminated. “No, mate, I think we’ll head back and see how our companions are doing.” He paused. “For the foreseeable future we don’t have day and night, or regular sleeping patterns, so we could come along here again later.”
They set off back towards the coach, both happier having found something positive to report on their return. They discussed the idea that the food had been replenished but the water supply and toilets had not been maintained. Paul suggested that perhaps the lack of running water was the reason that no local emergency committee was using the place in this time of crisis.
Bill said, “You and Dawn gave out small bottles of water earlier today—how much do you carry on the coach?”
“We’ll have a few cases of water. We usually maintain a good stock of bottled water and snack foods in one of the luggage storage areas, especially in the summer. If the coach is being used for a longer tour, then the luggage compartments would obviously be full of luggage. We’ve been picking up occasional passengers as part of our three-day excursion, so we’ve had no need to account for more than their backpacks.”
“I’m glad we’re all dressed for hiking up hills and through woodland. I wouldn’t like to be traipsing through here in regular shoes.”
Paul said, “My thoughts are in turmoil at the moment. I keep thinking of how things would have turned out if I’d headed north.”
“Hey, mate, if you didn’t have the local knowledge to find this place and the guts to get us here, we might have driven halfway to Fort William.”
“Halfway? Do you think Fort William was affected by one of the blasts?”
“I wouldn’t repeat it to the others, Paul, but I think most of Fort William will either have been vaporised or swallowed by that tsunami we witnessed from the mountain road. Remember, the town sits on a coastline beside a bloody big loch.”
“You’re right, I don’t think we should mention it, especially since it was where we were supposed to take you guys after Dawn did the mountainside hike in the afternoon.”
The men fell silent, both with their own train of thought regarding Fort William. The town had been directly in the path of the gigantic wave. Nobody in the area would have stood a chance, whether or not the population was in a secured safe zone—the town would now be a modern Atlantis, full of corpses.
From a long way, they could see the dim interior lights of the coach and even at two hundred metres, Bill was able to switch off the flashlight. There was a slight glint on the metal rails reflecting the lights from the distant coach. The vehicle sat there bathed in the glow of its interior lights against the stark contrast of the area that had once been a tunnel entrance—now wholly sealed with fallen debris.
“It’s so good to see you two back,” Dawn said, standing on the gravel outside the door of the coach. “We’ve got a problem—a big problem.”
“What’s up?” Bill said.
“One of the passengers has gone missing.”