EPISODE SIX: THE SVANKMEYER COUNTDOWN
The round grey slab of metal which covered the entrance to the sewer rolled away with surprising ease and myself, Michael and our two burly guards all peered intently into the gaping dark hole that was left in the road.
Immediately we all recoiled in unison from the pungent smell which wafted up from the depths.
“Surely, no-one in their right mind would think of setting up base down there,” said Michael when the coughing and spluttering had finally died down.
“I think the key words are ‘in their right mind’,” I responded unhappily.
“I suppose we’d better investigate then,” suggested Michael, though without actually making any move.
I caught a glimpse of a smirk on the face of the smaller of the two guards. “I don’t know what you’re grinning for,” I told him huffily. “Anywhere we go, you have to follow.”
“No fear,” retorted the guard with a sharp shake of the head. “I ain’t going down there for anyone. We’ll wait for you up here.” His slightly larger colleague nodded an enthusiastic agreement to this plan.
“Well, if you’re prepared to risk the possibility that we might just sneak off down the tunnel and escape from another exit…” taunted Michael.
The smirk fell away and the smaller guard looked thoughtfully down the sewer opening for a moment, perturbed by this unforeseen development. Then, with a clear ping of inspiration, he took a walkie-talkie out from his pocket. “Delta 3 to control,” he barked authoritatively into the mouthpiece. “Have admin dig out a map of the sewers and deploy forces to every available entrance and exit.” He turned back to us, the sly smile fully restored. “I suppose it’ll be just the two of you going down there after all,” he couldn’t resist gloating.
“Can I come?” suddenly piped up an unexpected voice from somewhere behind us.
We all turned to find Tim still leaning on his over-sized bicycle and regarding us with a look of eager expectation.
“I’m not sure you really want to go down there Tim,” I replied gently. “That’s a pretty potent smell, even for a teenage boy.”
Tim shrugged. “You seem to forget I live over a pet shop,” he replied. “A bit of a stink is nothing to me.”
“It might be dangerous,” remarked Michael with an air of almost paternal concern.
“Good,” retorted Tim. “Nothing exciting is ever allowed to happen in Stafford Harcourt. This could be my one chance to do something genuinely thrilling.” He looked at us with pleading eyes. “Oh, but don’t tell my mum,” he added as an afterthought.
I swapped a weary glance with Michael; this really didn’t seem to be the time or the place to be arguing with an over-eager teenager. “Well, I suppose it might be alright…” I reluctantly began.
“Brilliant!” exclaimed Tim with an excited grin and tried to push his way past to be first down the manhole.
I reached out and hastily yanked him back by his collar. “Whoa there! We might let you come but you’re certainly not going first,” I insisted firmly. “We’ve no idea what might be down there.”
There followed a slightly awkward pause whilst Michael and I exchanged glances.
“Oh, I get it,” said Michael, finally catching the drift of my purposeful look. “Going first must be my job then, is it?”
“I just thought you might like to volunteer being as how you’re… no longer an official member of the land of the living,” I suggested mildly.
“Dead men can still smell you know,” Michael complained.
Nonetheless he took his handkerchief out of his jacket pocket and wrapped it around the lower half of his face before taking a long look down into the sewer opening.
“Hath not a dead man eyes?” he declaimed dramatically to nobody in particular as he set his foot on the ladder that led down into the sewers. “Hath not a dead man hands, organs, dimensions…” He took the flashlight that was helpfully offered by one of the guards and began to slowly descend into the darkness. “…fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons…”
I took one last long gulp of fresh air and set my feet onto the ladder to follow him down. The descent was long and cold and slippery but eventually I stepped down off the bottom rung into the tunnel below and directly into an ankle deep river of sludge. I paused there a moment to allow Tim to drop down beside me. Then the three of us headed off in procession along the grimy tunnel, Michael lighting the way and still quoting as he went. “If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh?”
He was still at it a couple of minutes later when we first caught sight of a strange orange glow in the tunnel ahead. The narrow passageway here had opened out into a broader avenue with a raised ledge on either side that allowed us to step out of the worst of the slurry. “Shhh!” I hissed at Michael as I caught the sound of something not far in front of us.
We all paused to listen and the noises came through a little more clearly; a succession of clinks and bangs and thumps that were difficult to make sense of.
Cautiously, we began to inch our way forward and the noises grew progressively louder. As we gently edged our way around a bend in the tunnel the source of both the noises and the strange glow came into sight.
We had come to a junction in the sewer where several tunnels met up in a shallow pool of filth. In the midst of this pool a broad wooden platform had been constructed. And sitting on top of the platform was an extraordinary looking machine, basking in the glow of a semi-circle of arc lamps strung out across the ceiling. The basis of the machine seemed to consist of a kind of large metal cone that reached almost up to the roof but it incorporated all manner of cogs and belts and levers jutting out at every angle. It rather resembled something Heath Robinson might have made after a particularly thorough garage clear-out.
I was gaping at this vast and impressive, if rather eccentric looking, piece of engineering for a few moments before I noticed the diminutive figure of Svankmeyer alongside it. He was dressed in a navy blue boiler suit and accompanied by a box of tools that was almost bigger than he was. We seemed to have caught him in the midst of conducting some kind of concert with his machine for he kept darting around the base, occasionally pausing to tweak a screw or hammer at a metal panel. In response to each of these interventions the mechanism responded with a series of chugs and groans and an occasional hiss of steam, as though it were being reluctantly coaxed into life.
Whilst I was endeavouring to take in each of these unlikely elements my mind was also rushing forth in its attempt to formulate a strategy for dealing with both megalomaniac and machine. Given the unpredictable nature of the appliance and Svankmeyer’s proximity to such a large collection of potentially dangerous tools, I think I would probably have quite quickly settled upon an attempt to sneak up on him, perhaps in some form of pincer movement designed to make the most of our numerical advantage.
Unfortunately, any plans I might have made on this score were swiftly scuppered when Tim, after gawping open-mouthed over my shoulder at the spectacle for a few moments, suddenly blurted out, “Cor blimey, would you have a look at that!”
Svankmeyer started and hastily spun around with an expression that was a mixture of irritation and alarm.
His eyes quickly fell upon Michael and I balancing side by side on the ledge alongside the sewage river. “A-ha, so we meet again,” he announced, recovering his composure. “This time, my friends, you will not find it so easy to escape the wrath of Svankmeyer.” And then he turned back to finish making his adjustments to the machine.
“Alright Svankmeyer, the game’s up,” retorted Michael, keeping a wary eye on the strange structure around which Svankmeyer continued to jig. “You’d better give yourself up.”
“We’ve got armed guards right behind us,” I lied, trying not be too disconcerted by the large hammer that Svankmeyer was waving around.
“Ha, your guards are nothing to me,” spat back Svankmeyer. He made a final twist to a bolt at the side of his machine and then turned again to us, drawing himself up to his full diminutive height. I had the feeling he was about to launch into something of a general diatribe when he was distracted by his first proper sight of Tim, who had been peering at the action over my shoulder.
“You!” Svankmeyer exclaimed, pointing a bony finger at the bemused teenager. “You are also an enemy of Svankmeyer. You assured me those rabbits I bought would be both ferocious and easily trained.”
I turned in surprise to Tim. “Did you really tell him that?”
Tim responded with a languid shrug. “Well, he wouldn’t take them otherwise and I wasn’t going to cycle them all the way back across town.”
Svankmeyer looked for a moment as though he was about to boil over with rage but somehow he managed to deflect his anger into an insane cackle. “Well, I hope you enjoyed your triumph for vengeance shall be mine!” he cried out melodramatically. “All three of you will taste the wrath of Svankmeyer!”
He darted to what appeared to be some kind of control panel on the side of his machine and busied himself with pushing buttons and twisting dials.
“If it’s compensation you want for the rabbits I’m sure we can work something out,” I suggested in a vain attempt to deflate the tension.
Svankmeyer simply ignored this remark and, after a couple more flicks and twists of his control panel, took hold of a large lever. He turned to us, his face flush with anticipated triumph. “I think you will find the manner of your demise most appropriate,” he announced and gave the lever a swift pull.
The machine coughed and belched and hissed and churned. For a moment I thought it was actually going to take off from its platform and burst a hole through the roof, with Svankmeyer still attached. But after a few seconds the convulsions died away. There was a moment of silence then, with a gentle whirr, a door opened up in the front of the machine. Initially we could see nothing but a black interior but then there came a clanking noise from within and suddenly out of the belly of the machine hopped a small robotic bunny.
It bounced, clanging metallically at every hop, to the front of the platform and sat there, staring impassively out.
“Say hello to my little friend,” announced Svankmeyer and he flicked another switch on the panel.
The robo-bunny threw back his head with an electrical twitch, opened his mouth to reveal a stunning set of razor sharp teeth and set his jaw chomping at a ferocious rate.
It was a rather incongruous sight. After all, the creature, though made of metal, looked in every way, shape and form like your average, common-or-garden pet rabbit. Except, that was, for the fact that it could quite possibly take your leg off with one bite.
Svankmeyer broke out into his most evil grin, clearly enjoying our discomfort. “Once it is up to speed,” he proclaimed proudly, “this machine will be able to produce my little friends at the rate of one a minute. Stafford Harcourt will be overrun. In many respects, I am sorry that you will not be around to see it.” He paused, relishing his own words. Then he threw out his hand in our direction. “Kill them!” he yelled to the robo-bunny.
The effect was certainly more immediate than had been the case with the live rabbits. With its metallic teeth still snapping viciously away, the bunny hopped across the platform towards us. For a second I thought it was going to be stymied by the river of sewage that ran between the platform and the ledge. But, after taking a moment to judge the distance, it bounded across the gap in one big leap and headed straight for us.
Svankmeyer, chuckling in an appropriately demented fashion, pulled at the lever on his machine again and it began to hiss and churn, cooking up another little robotic menace.
In the meantime Michael, Tim and I were making a frantic attempt to fend off the attentions of Robo-bunny One. It launched itself first at Michael, he being the closest, and he was reduced to defending himself by jabbing at it with the end of the flashlight. Tim and I tried to back away to give him some more room to work with but were rather hindered by the narrowness of the ledge which did not allow much room for manoeuvre.
Robo-bunny One, deflected by Michael’s skilful feints with the torch, launched an attack towards my ankles instead. I just had time to catch sight out of the corner of my eye of another identical metal rabbit emerging from the machine to Svankmeyer’s evident satisfaction before I was forced into a rather desperate evasive manoeuvre.
I liked to claim later that the kick which caught Robo-Bunny One just behind the jaw was expertly aimed but the truth was that my foot simply slipped on the slimy surface. However, whether by luck or by judgement the important point was that the strike was almost perfect. Caught mid-hop, Robo-bunny One flew in a wide arc, jaws still chomping and limbs flailing, off the side of the ledge and landed with a resounding splash in the middle of the sludge river.
It was immediately apparent that, by setting up his base in the sewers, Svankmeyer had made another of his basic villainy errors. For it was quite clear in an instant that mechanical rabbits do not react well to being dipped in a pool of slurry.
Robo-bunny One dipped under briefly and then bobbed back up but straight away its metallic body contorted and wheezed and its jaw opened and shut in a sequence of twisted jerks. We all stopped and stared as the slow, steady flow of the river swept the rabbit back towards the platform. There, apparently obeying some primeval robotic instinct, it caught hold of the leg of the platform. Then somehow it managed to scramble its way back on board with an heroic hiss and splutter.
There it sat for a moment, dripping filth and jerking its head in a very unhealthy manner. But, having struggled its way back to base, Robo-bunny One now found itself confronted by Robo-bunny Two which had been spewed forth from Svankmeyer’s machine during the engagement. It seems Svankmeyer had truly made his minions in his own image for Robo-bunny One did not take well to finding this impostor taking pride of place. Issuing a petulant burst of steam from its ears and setting its teeth back in motion as best it could, it immediately launched itself in a frenzied attack on Robo-bunny Two.
“No!” cried out Svankmeyer, pushing ineffectively at various buttons on his control panel in an effort to pull his two robots apart.
Some kind of robotic survival instinct appeared to take over though as they chomped ferociously at one another. Locked together in violent embrace, they rolled back into the dark recesses of the machine from which they had been born. There were a series of creaks and bangs from within as Svankmeyer continued to ineffectually fiddle with his control panel. “Stop that!” he cried. “Come out of there at once!”
But nobody was listening. The machine, objecting violently to the sudden intrusion of filth encrusted malfunctioning machinery, began to hiss and shake in a manner even more alarming than before. A small explosion at the back blew a metal panel off the side and a lever pinged free, crashing through the platform below.
Tim and I were still staring, transfixed, at this spectacle when Michael gave me a nudge. “I think we need to get out of here,” he suggested rather urgently. He called across to Svankmeyer, who was dodging flying bits of metal as he still endeavoured to get the machine to respond to his controls; “Leave it Svankmeyer, it’s too late!”
Svankmeyer ignored him. “No!” he cried out. “My perfect machine!”
“You can build another one,” I urged him. “It’s going to explode!”
Svankmeyer picked up a hammer and began hopelessly trying to bash the broken metal panel back into place. “You will not defeat me!” he cried out between blows. “I am Svankmeyer. You will obey me!”
There was a loud hiss of steam and a series of rivets flew off the top of the machine, crashing into the arc lights above and sending a shower of glass across the sewer. I decided I’d seen enough. “Let’s go,” I yelled and, grabbing Tim by the arm, began running as fast as the slippery ledge would allow.
With Michael hot on our tail we slithered around the corner and back along the tunnel to the ladder leading up to the street above. As there came the sound of more bangs and crashes from back down the passage, I pushed a reluctant Tim up the steps first and followed as quickly as I could. Michael scurried up directly behind me.
The two guards stared at us in astonishment as we burst out into the open air.
“Quick, the manhole cover!” I cried, with some vague idea that it might help to contain the blast.
Still looking entirely bewildered, the guards nonetheless grabbed hold of the metal slab and pushed it back towards the manhole. They were just about to roll it back into place when an exotically accented cry rose up from down below. “Wait for me!”
“That’s Svankmeyer, help him out,” Michael urged the guards.
The larger of the two leant down and grabbed Svankmeyer’s up-stretched arm. At just that moment there was an enormous explosion and a second later I found myself knocked backwards off my feet by an enormous blast of warm air. My last sight as I flew backwards was of Svankmeyer bursting up out of the manhole on a cushion of warm air like the decorative centre of some fine fountain.
He seemed to hang in mid-air for several seconds, limbs flailing, before he came crashing back down and landed right on top of the guard.
There was a shuddering silence during which the whole neighbourhood – streets, buildings and all – seemed to rise up a few centimetres and then settle back down.
I lay motionless in the street for a few moments before I was sufficiently certain that all my limbs were still attached. Slowly I propped myself up and glanced around. The guards were flexing aching limbs but had managed to hold onto a winded Svankmeyer. “Are you alright?” I asked Michael.
Michael responded with a low groan.
“Tim, are you okay?” I asked in concern.
Tim sat up and shook his head. Then slowly a broad smile spread across his face. “Wow, that was bloody brilliant!”