I waited until I was quite sure that the ground had stopped moving before opening my eyes again. When I did there was nothing to see but a thick cloud of choking dust all around me. My legs seemed to have given way for I found myself sitting unexpectedly on the floor and it was only when I put my hand out to heave myself back up and felt the sharp nick of broken glass that I realised my lamp must have shattered.
Rising unsteadily I spotted a dim light moving in the gloom. The light drew closer until what had been a dim blur revealed itself as the figure of Michael holding up his lamp. His jacket was torn, blood dripped from a gash above his left ear and he was covered from head to toe in a coating of grey dust, giving a peculiarly ghostly aspect to his whole appearance. But apart from all that he seemed fine. “Are you alright?” he asked, thrusting his lamp forward in order to make his own inspection.
I had to take a good look about myself before I could reply with any conviction. The cut across my palm spilt thick drops of red blood onto the floor and I appeared to have acquired my own spectral coating of dust but a tentative trial of my limbs confirmed they were all in working order. “I’m okay,” I told Michael.
Moving through the dusty gloom we soon came upon Clarence, seated in the midst of a heap of rubble. He was staring down in stupefaction at a sequence of rips and tears in his finely embroidered waistcoat and it took three shouts of his name before he was capable of responding but we were eventually able to ascertain that he was essentially unharmed.
Michael then swung his lamp forward to check for any further signs of life but here our search came to an abrupt end. The tunnel just beyond Clarence was blocked from floor to ceiling with a thick wall of impenetrable boulders. Whatever might be left of Colonel Pendlebury, Grisham Jnr and the miner with the lamp must have lain on the other side. As, I realised with a sinking heart, must be our only exit from the mountain.
“Hello?” I called out helplessly. “Can anybody hear me?” But the rocks merely flung my words back at me in a contemptuous echo.
“Don’t worry,” insisted Michael with just a hint of desperation in his tone. “I’m sure Colonel Pendlebury will go and get help.”
“Assuming he’s still in one piece,” I responded mournfully. “And assuming, of course, he remembers who we are.”
Clarence began to rock gently backwards and forwards. “Shoulda listened to Pops,” he chanted gloomily to himself. “Never go down them mines boy, never go down them mines.”
Preferring to keep myself occupied, I joined Michael in checking the dimensions of our re-sculpted tunnel and hunting out what was left of our supplies. Once I had bandaged up my cut hand with a piece of fabric torn from the bottom of my shirt and checked my backpack was still intact, I was able to locate one small shovel and a pick-axe with a broken handle. It was a haul patently inadequate to the task of digging our way out. But at least Michael managed to fish out Clarence’s lamp from the heap of rubble which surrounded him. This was battered but not completely broken and, after a bit of tinkering, it was coaxed into providing an additional light upon our surroundings.
It was not a particularly heartening sight. Michael and I scoured every inch of the rockfall searching for any chink of light but we could find not the slightest breath of air to give us hope in that direction. Eventually, I turned in frustration away from the rockfall. “Maybe if we can’t go back then we ought to try going forwards,” I suggested, peering down the pitch-black tunnel ahead.
“But it’s just a dead end, isn’t it?” replied Michael uncertainly.
“Just cos nothing was marked on Ratty’s map it doesn’t necessarily mean there’s nothing down there,” I argued with rather more optimism than I actually felt. “You never know, the passage might loop back, or cross another tunnel.”
Michael’s consideration of this point was interrupted by a fresh rumble of noise welling up deep within the rock. The ground shook violently beneath our feet for a few seconds and a fresh shower of dust fell down upon us before it finally died away again.
Michael and I looked at one another. Suddenly, anywhere seemed a better option than staying where we were. “Let’s go, shall we?” said Michael swiftly.
“Time for a walk Clarence,” I remarked brightly, hauling the prostrate figure up onto his feet whilst Michael gathered up our broken tools.
And so we set off further into the mountain in a gloomy procession; Michael taking the lead, me bringing up the rear and Clarence in the middle, muttering all the way, “Never go down them mines boy, never go down them mines.”
Pressing on deeper into the mountain, our tunnel soon lost any indication that it had been carved out by human hands, resembling rather a natural fissure in the rock. We scrambled for some way over an uneven floor strewn with rocks and boulders before the passage narrowed alarmingly, requiring us to turn sideways and edge our way along. I was just beginning to conclude that any attempt to continue must surely result in one or more of us getting hopelessly wedged in the tight space when the passage unexpectedly opened out into a broad, circular cavern.
There was barely a moment though to rejoice in the licence to move freely once more before the awful realisation that the cavern represented a dead end struck us full in the face. We all stood in the middle of the circular hollow, staring dumbstruck at the smooth walls that thoroughly enclosed us. It was Clarence who finally broke the silence. Slumping to the floor, he let out a dreadful piercing wail before burying his head in his hands and taking up once more his favoured chant of, “Never go down them mines boy, never go down them mines.”
I was half minded to join him but, after a few seconds of dumbstruck desperation, opted instead to grasp one of our two remaining lamps and begin a close inspection of the cavern walls. What I hoped to find I wasn’t entirely sure, perhaps a breath of air or a crack of light that might offer some form of hope, no matter how feeble, but it felt better to be concentrating on doing something, however futile. Whilst I worked my way along the left hand wall, Michael took up the other lamp and began to scan the wall on the right. I was about half way along the cavern when something in the rock caught my eye, something that shimmered and danced beneath the beam of light.
“Hey,” I called out. “You don’t suppose that’s…”
“Gold!” Somehow Clarence was up and alongside me in an instant, all his woes forgotten as he gazed at the rock-face with an excited gleam. He ran his fingers along the thin seam wherein flecks of gold glinted and glittered. “Goddamn,” he exclaimed. “Ain’t that just the most beautiful thing you ever saw? I wonder if old Ratty McCulloch ever got to look upon such a sight.”
“I don’t really see how he could have missed it,” came Michael’s voice from the other side of the cavern. We both swung round to see Michael holding up his lamp over a large boulder. In its shadow, leaning back against the cavern wall, sat Ratty McCulloch.
Or rather I should say there sat what was left of Ratty McCulloch for he had clearly been dead for quite some time. All the flesh seemed to have melted away from his corpse, leaving a yellow papery skin stretched taut over sharp bones. His tattered clothes wore a thick layer of dust and there were just a few straggling grey hairs clinging tenaciously to the top of his head. The jaw hung slackly open and the dark empty eye sockets appeared fixed on the golden seam in the wall opposite. It looked for all the world as if he had just sat down and died the moment he looked upon it.
“Poor old Ratty,” murmured Clarence respectfully. “His heart must have given out with just one glance at all that treasure.”
The mention of the word treasure brought to my mind thoughts of another kind of prize. “Does he have the inter-dimensional travel drive on him?” I asked eagerly.
Michael swung his lamp a little closer. Lurking in the shadow of the boulder, tucked beneath the dead man’s right arm, we could now see a dark leather bag. Approaching the corpse with a certain reticence, Michael gently prised the article out from beneath the lifeless hand. We all stood and stared at the bag with breathless anticipation.
“Well, aren’t you going to look inside?” Clarence finally asked.
Setting his lamp down on top of the boulder, Michael began to carefully empty out the contents. First came a neatly folded checked handkerchief which, judging from the few dusty crumbs which fell out, had presumably once contained Ratty’s dinner. Next up was an empty water canteen. Then Michael drew out another checked handkerchief, this time wrapped around something rather larger and more substantial. He laid it on the boulder beside the lamp and opened it out. The item inside was a bit battered and scratched and the outer casing bore a large dent along one side but there was no doubting that it was the CMH Trans-Dimensional Travel Modulator Mk I.
“But will it work?” Michael was the one to finally ask the obvious question after we had gaped at the instrument for several seconds.
“I guess there’s only one way to find out,” I replied, digging out the instructions from my backpack. “Okay, here we go,” I said as I began to scan my way down Clarence Snr’s checklist, carefully testing the components of the device as I went along. It wasn’t long before I hit a snag. “Bugger,” I murmured unhappily. “It looks like the dial is broken.”
“What does the dial do?” asked Clarence.
“It determines where the device will take you,” I explained. “You enter the co-ordinates for where you want to go and, well, Bob’s your Uncle. Look, your father wrote down the co-ordinates for his workshop. But it must have got damaged. It won’t let me input the numbers, it just spins round and round.”
“Is there no way of getting the thing to work without the right co-ordinates?” asked Michael after an awkward pause.
I scanned further down the checklist. “There’s nothing to say it won’t work,” I eventually concluded, “but we’ll have no way of setting our destination. We could end up anywhere.”
“Anywhere?” echoed Clarence.
There was a moment of silence whilst we all considered the possibilities. Then, as if to make its own contribution to the debate, the mountain gave out another of its low, ominous rumbles.
“Well, we can’t stay here…” Michael said with an unhappy sigh. I looked at Clarence. Eventually, with a sideways glance at the departed Ratty McCulloch, he gave a reluctant nod.
“Right then,” I said with a renewed determination. “Into the unknown it is.” I turned back to the instructions. “The first step is to charge the device by turning the switch below the dial,” I read aloud. “Upon activation the operator should hear a high-pitched buzz and the three ‘ready’ lights on the right of the switch will light up consecutively. Once the third light has illuminated the device can be activated by pressing the large red button in the centre.”
I picked up the device and, with a deep breath, turned the switch as directed.
I blew away every ounce of dust I could find, gave the device a careful wipe down with the edge of my sleeve and turned the switch again.
I gave the device a firm shake and then turned the switch several times.
Still nothing happened.
“It’s knackered!” I finally cried out in frustration, resisting an urge to throw the bloody thing down on the floor.
Clarence let go another of his helpless wails and struck up his familiar chant.
“Perhaps the batteries have died,” suggested Michael equably. “We could try swapping them for the batteries from one of the lamps.”
Feeling just a little foolish that I hadn’t considered such an obvious factor myself, I allowed Michael to take the device from my hands for examination. Due to the dent in the casing, it took a few minutes before he was able to prise it apart. “Oh,” was all he said when the interior was finally laid bare. I peered over. The inside was an intricate mass of wiring and circuit boards. It contained nothing that remotely resembled a common or garden battery.
“Well I suppose it was a bit much to hope that a device capable of punching a hole in the fabric of space would run on Double A’s,” I sighed.
“There’s got to be some kind of power source,” insisted Michael with a frown. He began to poke about tentatively amongst the wiring. It wasn’t long before he drew his finger back with an aggrieved, “Ouch!”. He looked up at me sheepishly. “Got an electric shock,” he explained, painfully shaking his finger.
“Serves you right,” I replied.
“But don’t you see,” returned Michael, “there must be electricity flowing from somewhere to give me an electric shock. And quite a bit of it too.” Michael held out his finger to reveal a nasty red burn across the tip.
I looked at the device with renewed interest. “Maybe it’s just a loose connection then,” I suggested hopefully. Accepting the device back from Michael, who was busy nursing his wounded finger, I began a comprehensive survey of the jumble of circuitry. “There, on the side!” I eventually exclaimed. “That must be it.” Where the casing had been dented there was a crack in a circuit board, creating a small gap in the electrical loop.
“But how do we fix it?” asked Michael.
I could only look back at him blankly. Clarence, whose muttering had died down during our examination of the device, struck up another mournful cry. “Oh, the tragedy of it,” he proclaimed melodramatically. “Trapped here forever. And with all this gold too.”
“Gold, that’s it!” I suddenly cried. Michael and Clarence looked at me, baffled. “Gold is an excellent conductor of electricity. It’s actually used in all kinds of electrical goods – mobile phones, laptops…”
“What-tops?” repeated Michael uncertainly.
“Never mind,” I said hurriedly. “But if we could free a bit of gold from the seam in the wall we might just be able to use it to bridge the gap in the electrical circuit.”
Michael continued to regard me dubiously for a moment, clearly considering carefully whether or not I might actually be onto something or whether it was just that the stress of our situation had finally tipped me over the edge. He eventually settled on the former option. With a resigned shrug he picked up our broken pick-axe and walked over to the seam of gold. Clarence, clearly regarding this as his area of expertise, hurried after him. I remained by the boulder and watched nervously from a distance. After examining the rock-face carefully for a few minutes Michael took aim at a likely looking spot and swung his pick-axe.
His blow struck sweetly. A little too sweetly perhaps. There was a low rumble and a deep crack spread sharply along the wall from the point of impact. We all looked around nervously. Michael took a deep breath and swung again. The crack extended a little further along the wall and a small shower of dust shook itself free from the ceiling. The mountain, it seemed, disliked being asked to give up its gold.
There was no option though but to continue. By a tortuous process of hacking and chiselling, periodically accompanied by an ominous rumble and a deepening of the crack in the wall, Michael finally managed to prise free a small chunk of gold. This was far from the end of our labours though. He carried it across and laid it on top of the boulder so that between us we might set about chipping it down to the required size to fit in the gap in the circuitry.
It was an agonizing process, complicated by the fact that our tools were entirely unsuitable for the job. I imagine even a qualified engineer would struggle to build an electrical circuit using only a large unwieldy pick-axe with a broken handle. So involved was our work that I entirely failed to notice that Clarence had remained standing by the seam of gold, staring reverently at the gap chiselled into the rock. His muttering had been such a constant theme since the tunnel cave-in that it never occurred to me to observe that the words had changed. “Look at that little beauty,” he was now murmuring in awe, “just look at that beautiful gold.”
“That must be it,” Michael finally said after two failed attempts to get the electricity in the device flowing. Having gingerly slid the refined flake of gold into the gap in the circuit board, I replaced the outer casing and turned the device over. With a deep breath I turned the switch once more.
This time I was rewarded with an audible hum. After a few seconds the first of the ‘ready’ lights illuminated. “It’s working!” I proclaimed triumphantly.
I looked up just in time to see Clarence, having stealthily grasped the discarded pick-axe, take a determined swing at the gold seam. His blow was much firmer and deeper than any that Michael had dared try. Instantly the mountain gave out a thunderous roar and a whole succession of cracks ran up, down and across the rock-face.
“Clarence, for God’s sake!” cried out Michael as the ground beneath our feet began to judder and shake.
“Just one more strike,” muttered Clarence, entirely oblivious to the shower of small stones falling down all around him. Before anyone could stop him he struck again at the rock-face with the pick-axe. The mountain growled louder than ever. Cracks sprang along both floor and ceiling. I had to jump out of the way as the large boulder lurched to the right, crushing the lifeless arm of Ratty McCulloch.
“Stop it, you idiot, you’re going to get us all killed!” yelled Michael furiously.
But Clarence was staring feverishly at the hollow in the seam of gold. “What a piece of gold!” he exclaimed. Dropping the pick-axe, he began to scrabble with his hands in the hole created by his blows, desperately trying to free up the nugget of gold.
A glance down at the device in my hands revealed that the second of the ‘ready’ lights was now illuminated. “We have to get out of here,” I called out. “We all need to be holding the device when I press the button.”
As the floor continued to shudder and ever larger rocks and stones tumbled from the walls and ceiling, Michael reached out and placed his hand alongside mine around the device. But Clarence was still desperately scrabbling at the rock-face. “Almost there,” he murmured. “Almost there.”
The third ‘ready’ light pinged brightly into life. The rumble of falling rocks had now become almost deafening.
“We have to go now,” I cried, reaching my spare hand up to press the red button.
“One second,” demanded Michael. Still holding onto the device with one hand he reached behind him with the other and made a grab through the shower of falling stones for the possessed Clarence. Clarence was still muttering, “Almost got it, almost got it,” when his left hand was suddenly yanked away from him and folded over his father’s device.
“Now!” cried Michael. I needed no further encouragement. With the whole of the cavern collapsing around us, I shut my eyes and pressed the red button.
There was a sensation that felt something like every atom in my body being ripped apart and fed through a blender. For a moment I thought this must be what it felt like to be crushed to death by falling rocks. But then I realised that, although every nerve was still tingling and I had a dreadful ringing noise in my ears, I appeared to be breathing in great gasps of fresh air. Tentatively, I opened my eyes.
My right hand was still held tightly onto the inter-dimensional travel device in front of me, alongside Michael’s. Clarence had his left hand folded around the device whilst his right arm reached in the opposite direction, grasping for a piece of gold in a rock-face that was no longer there. In fact, nothing of the cavern or the mines or the Blue Ridge Mountain was around us anymore. My first impression indicated that we appeared to be standing in the middle of a grassy field, soft white clouds scudding through the blue sky above us.
Clarence turned round and glared accusingly at Michael and I. “My gold!” he cried. “What have you done with my gold?”
“We had to get out of there,” explained Michael reasonably. “The cavern was caving in.”
“I could have been rich,” wailed Clarence.
“You could have been dead,” I retorted.
Finally dropping both his arms down by his side, Clarence gazed around him in anguish. “Where are we?” he demanded.
I glanced about. On one side I could see a row of trees, in the other direction the ground rose gently up to the horizon. There were no buildings, landmarks or points of identification anywhere within sight. “No idea,” I eventually confessed.
“You!” hissed Clarence, gazing furiously at Michael and I. “I’ve had enough of you two. You lure me into those mines, nearly have me crushed by falling rocks and now you’ve gone and stolen my gold. Well, I ain’t hanging around here with the likes of you for a second longer.” He began to stalk off towards the horizon. After a few strides he paused and turned around. “Don’t think of trying to follow me!” he warned us darkly before setting off again. “I don’t ever want to see you two again.”
Michael and I stood and watched him go for a minute or two. “Do you suppose we ought to go after him?” Michael eventually asked rather reluctantly.
“Ah, let him be,” I shrugged. I began to pack the instrument that had saved our skins away into my backpack. “Well, I suppose at least we managed to get Sturridge his inter-dimensional travel device,” I said, unable to resist a small smile of satisfaction.
“Albeit one without a steering wheel,” remarked Michael. “What do we do now?”
I looked around thoughtfully. “I suppose we’ll have to find out where we are,” I said.
“We’ll have to find Colonel Pendlebury,” added Michael, “and find out if he’s alright.”
“We’ll have to find Sturridge,” I pointed out.
“And then we’ll have to find the Explorer’s Club, find out exactly what they’re up to and find a way of putting a stop to them,” offered Michael.
“Do you know,” I said as we began a slow walk in an aimless direction, “I’m sure this whole adventure seemed so much simpler when we started out.”
Travels Through An Imaginary Landscape will continue shortly with Episode Nine – ‘The Everingham Complex’.