Paul was as surprised as any of his passengers might have been at the speed he attained with the big vehicle, not because it was tourist coach, but because it was a hybrid; mechanical and solar-powered like most vehicles on British roads. Ironically, the vehicle was virtually silent apart from the sound of the tyres on the tarmac, which was in stark contrast to the screams and cries of the people strapped inside.
When the front wheels let the surface and the coach was launched over the deep and widening chasm, it was touch and go for a few seconds as it reached for the other section of roadway. The front tyres touched the ground causing the big vehicle to shudder violently and then the rear tyres punctured as they hit the jagged edges of broken road. The distant side of tarmac was smooth, but it was only thanks to the excessive speed that the daring driver had achieved, the rear tyres touched down at all.
The coach skidded wildly, still travelling fast, but now with fully inflated tyres at the front, four burst tyres on the rear, and forty terrified passengers between—forty-one if Dawn was included. Paul’s fingers were curled around the rim of the steering wheel and his gaze was locked on the road ahead. The mountain road curved right towards the location for which Paul was striving. If he was unable to make the slight turn on the next bend he knew the road followed around the mountain in a series of bends. He had three hundred metres before the ultimate test of his skill. Bringing the vehicle under control in such a tight distance in normal conditions would have been bad enough but with bare wheels and shredded rubber on tarmac at the rear, it reduced braking ability.
The whole situation was life and death to begin with so the burden of any fear was lessened as the young man concentrated—ignoring the sound of terror within the confines of the coach.
As he steered into the bend and brought the speed down to fifty miles per hour a fresh wave of screams erupted when passengers saw that they were aiming towards a level crossing on a tight bend. Surely all was lost now after so many death-defying antics?
“Hold tight!” Paul shouted.
At the level crossing where the railway line ran at an acute angle across the road surface, Paul jerked the wheel and turned onto the railway line. The front tyres burbled loud and rapidly as they bounced at speed over the rails and over the ends of the wooden sleepers. A positive aspect of the intermittent contact of the tyres on the wide wooden 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, therefore providing a steady, if uncomfortably noisy ride.
When the tunnel was one hundred metres away Paul considered the height of the coach—it was surely lower than the trains which used this place at one time? He knew the trains had been for industrial use and where therefore narrow gauge, but had hadn’t considered their height. On the right of the track two people wearing green helmets, overalls, hi-vis vests and body harnesses stepped out of the forest, but having seen the approaching bus, stepped back and stared in disbelief.
“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 let the driver see one hundred metres ahead, as he sat impatiently, panting, waiting for the vehicle to stop. When it did, the driver closed his eyes and took several deep breaths. He gazed through the large windscreen and the only thing to the front was the railway line and 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 her colleague and murmured, “I take it this was your plan?” She gave a brief smile, having recognised that Paul had probably saved everybody’s life.
“So far, so good,” Paul whispered.
The coach was filled with a variety of sounds, including sobbing and nervous laughter. After a few seconds, the sound of applause erupted spontaneously throughout the vehicle, accompanied by ‘well done’ and similar messages of support for the man at the front.
Paul stood, and 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 had him looking to the front. He buzzed the door open when he saw the two people in hi-vis vests, both breathing heavily and leaning on the door.
“Hi, we’re with the forestry—”
“Get inside, quickly.”
The man and woman climbed the steps and the door zipped closed behind them.
Paul was about to speak to the new arrivals but something in the rearview caught his eye. The entrance to the tunnel was a dim light, but the intensity of light was increasing rapidly. As before he reacted from an instinct he didn’t know he possessed.
“Close your eyes!”
Some of the passengers had started crying again after the light had dissipated and they were all 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 mike. “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—the effects of a nuclear explosion.” Even as they were having 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 sobbing and screaming. Would this experience never end?
A thunderous roar, a distance behind the coach was the next sound and when Paul glanced in the rearview 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 or more people crying could be referred to as ‘calm’.
The two forestry personnel were lying on the floor at the front of the coach. One behind Paul’s seat and the other facing down the aisle. They both got up and were more than a little shaken.
“Sorry,” Paul said to the man and woman who were getting up from 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 bus approaching. 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 know all the answers so far?” She slowly shook her head and gave a nervous smile. The young woman had been trained to deal with an abundance of scenarios, but nuclear explosions and their aftermath had never made it onto the training schedule.
Paul met the woman’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 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 mike. “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 accent and a deep voice.
“Right,” Paul said. “First of all, we’ve got two more in our group. He nodded down to indicate the 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 shouted 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.”
Murmurs sounded along the coach and Nicholson stood. “Make your point?”
Paul had listened to enough of the man—he stood to face him along the aisle. “Would you like to come up to the front and address the assembled audience, Mr Nicholson. You can talk about 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 man in his 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 more than one ally.
“Okay, everybody,” Bill said. “We can’t dress-up what’s going on out there or our predicament. 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 was a nuclear explosion—possibly one of several.” He let the murmurs start again, and then held his hands up for quiet.
“I can see again … I’m not blind … I can see.” The 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 closed we’d have experienced the light at some level.” 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 we’ve been saved by being buried alive in here and 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 at 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. “This guy behind me 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 like survivors, not like the condemned. It doesn’t matter what any of us did on the outside—we’re in this shit situation together.”
A woman from the back murmured. “It all sounds so hopeless.”
“Okay, let’s cut that out—I’ve just said we’re survivors so I’d like to sense a bit of positivity.” Anger and frustration were building in the ex-Serviceman. “Hands up all those who’ve been under enemy fire, or seen a good friend blown to pieces?”
Not for the first time the bus went silent as Bill was the only one to raise a hand.
“I apologise,” Bill said. “I’m not saying I’ve got all the answers, or that I want to impose myself as our leader, but we’re here now. We must assess our situation and then form a plan of action.”
A woman halfway along the bus raised a hand. “Bill.”
“I know you don’t want to impose yourself on us, 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.”
“And I agree.”
“Well said—me too.”
“Count me in.”
“And me too,” came the unmistakable deep 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 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, but more would obviously be better. Some idea of the local area around the tunnel would also be beneficial.”
Paul said, “Both Dawn and I have seen diagrams and explained the history of this place, but we’ve never been allowed to venture inside.”
Bill stepped back two paces so that he had his back to the inside of the huge windscreen and he was standing between the driver and the guide. “Okay, that’s two so far—anybody else?”
The man and woman in overalls and hi-vis vests sitting on the floor both raised their hands. “Both Chloe and I have some local knowledge—we’ve attended forestry issues all around this mountain and the others close by. The tunnel goes under one mountain and up until a few years ago it continued to the next.”
“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 strait 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.”
“Thank you—okay people, if you have any objections or anything to add to what we’ve got now, please speak up.”
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 four in the front would be kind enough to let us have the front seats we can get Alan, Steph and our new arrivals, Norman and Chloe seated.”
Two minutes later, Bill rested in a half-sitting position against the centre of the wide dashboard, with Dawn in her swivel seat to his right, Paul to his left, and the front four seats holding the others.
“Welcome,” Bill said. “Remember, it’s not an escape committee.” He glanced at the driver and smiled. “We’ve already dealt with that part. Now we have to survive.”