Into the Bowels of the Earth they Venture
With Boz in the lead and Slasher McGoogs bringing up the rear the adventurers wriggled and crawled down the narrow flu. Slasher checked regularly over his shoulder for any sign that they were followed and surreptitiously fingered his Mauser Red Nine, his security blanket; the rest of them would be furious if they knew he was toting a real and loaded weapon. The atmosphere was oppressive and damp, the hum grew louder as they descended and there was a definite breeze coming up from below. Soon the tunnel widened slightly and Bozzy stopped.
“There is a large extractor fan fixed into the tunnel, blocking our way. Can I have that Swiss Army Knife of yours, please Ferdy?”
Using the Philips screwdriver attachment, Boz removed a small service cover and with the insulated wire cutting attachment snipped a brown insulated wire. The fan stopped. The sudden silence was not comforting. He next undid the wire safety cage with the flat bladed screwdriver attachment and then used the adjustable spanner attachment to unscrew a large nut on the hub. With the fan removed and a large hole snipped out of the far safety cover, using the heavy-duty wire cutter attachment, the gang were able to squeeze through. Phoebles got a bit stuck due to an excessively generous breakfast, but a firm push from behind by Ferdy soon freed him. Slasher was the last cat through.
“We’d best press on. Someone might come to investigate why the fan’s not working,” he whispered.
The tunnel was still descending steeply, but from here on in it had been chiselled out to a reasonable diameter and it was paved. Moving quickly downwards they eventually came to an almost vertical shaft with iron rungs set into the wall. At the bottom they were in a sizeable cave chamber, part of the Peak Cavern system. There were stalactites hanging down and dripping, and rounder orange or yellow topped stalagmites reaching up. Occasionally mite met tite to form a thin column of almost gothic tracery. From oozing cracks in the walls green fingers of limestone deposit had dribbled over millennia, forming grotesque gargoyle guardians to terrorise the feint of heart. A narrow path wove through the natural hypostyle, between petrified forests of sculpted rock and a fast-running stream carved deep into the cave floor. They were in the dark – a creeping, all encompassing darkness that seeped into the soul; a darkness broken only by the narrow beams of their headlamps which cast menacing shadows about the interior, shadows of hideous beings that could only exist in such blackness. Not helping in any way to dispel their disquiet, the silence was total and they were entirely alone. The Peak Cavern had been closed to visitors since inexplicable, phantom, will o’ the wisp lights and unnatural humming sounds had terrified the tourists. Not that weirdness was unknown within the cave system. Excremental toilet odours bubbling up from the bowels and moans and farts amplified and echoing about the antediluvian orifice had led the pious medieval serfs of Castleton to christen this The Devil’s Arse – a name which stuck until a visit by the Queen Empress had required a less graphic appellation. For the next hundred years it became the Peak Cavern, an improvement to their address that was more than welcomed by the rope winders who lived and worked within the vast cave mouth.
Approaching the back of the chamber the gang found that the stream issued from a low culvert. The pathway had originally terminated at a small quay alongside which lay coffin-like barges in which recumbent adventurers were, in times gone by, pulled one at a time under the rocky vault and into the chamber beyond. Luckily, nineteenth century etiquette could not allow such demeaning transport for a visiting monarch and a relief tunnel had been dynamited through to the next stage of the tour. It is a low passage, for Queen Victoria was short.
The second chamber was even larger than the first, fewer stalactites, but their path, stepped in places, carved out from the natural rock wall, clambered over a tumbling mass of hardened mineral sediment that cascaded down to the stream in terraces filled with crescent moons of still, black water before veering to cross, high above the stream on an iron footbridge supported on slim, fluted, floriform columns. Passing a side gallery they could make out a derelict narrow gauge railway track to nowhere and a derailed, rusted and battered wagon. Beyond this their path descended through a straight, well-constructed tunnel with a brick floor, rust-red plumbing ran along the foot of the passage wall, old iron pipes, repainted many times, new aluminium pipes silver-gleaming in the light of their headlamps. The companions could hear rushing water ahead and at the bottom of the decline the track ended at a handrail; they were overlooking a wide, fast running underground river; the tourist trail ended here. However, the pipes turned to disappear into holes drilled through the rock wall and next to them was an old, weathered wooden door, blue-grey paint flaking, something indecipherable and worn stencilled in no-longer white letters. There was a latch, but no lock.
Pausing only for a moment to quell their doubts the little group of nervous adventurers entered what was apparently a service tunnel. The pipes, now running along wall and ceiling, were joined by many others. Thick and thin, new and old, the pipes congregated, merged and parted, wove around each other. There were valves and junctions, U-bends and Z-bends, a labyrinthine tangle dreamed up by a plumber spaced out on something stronger than catnip. Heavy-duty cables sheathed in lead festooned the walls, fed steel boxes that buzzed and tiny coloured lamps that flickered. A socket, corroded by the damp, beside one such box, was joined by an outdated, frayed a twisted flex to a faintly glowing glass orb which seemed to hang in the air by its own will power. It sang – a wordless and disquieting song. They did not investigate, wanted to move on and as they progressed further a large riveted iron tank with a brass tap that dripped, almost filled the chamber.
“We’ll have to remove our rucksacks in order to squeeze past,” observed Phoebles.
Even holding their packs the going was tight for some of the stouter members of the group, heads got bumped, and clothing snagged. The tunnel was not straight – it snaked inexplicably; plant life thrived on the dank walls and the odours of rot and decay hung around every unscrubbed nook and neglected cranny.
“Great God! This is an awful place…” quoted Ginsbergbear.
“We are very near the end, but have not and will not lose our good cheer,” responded Ferdy.
“I think the end may be in sight,” chipped in Boz.
The large hatch that faced them was battleship grey. It had a porthole, which was painted over. It had steel clamps at the corners, which Boz undid. It had a maroon wheel handle, which he turned. The heavy door swung back and Boz found himself teetering above an impenetrably gloomy void. Ahead was a polished, lightly greased, brass pole. Without thinking too hard he wrapped his arms tightly around it and jumped.
And the others followed.
As the pile of bodies at the base of the pole grew, they heard the steady clunk clunk clunk of hobnailed hiking boots on iron rungs. The voice from above belonged to Slasher McGoogs.
“Perhaps another time you may wish to give some consideration to your actions before leaping… and maybe have a look around for a less thrilling alternative.” He completed his descent of the cast-iron spiral staircase and began to help the boys pick themselves up and dust themselves off. Ferdy had friction burns on some of his wing-stub feathers, Phoebles had grazed his knee, Ginsbergbear had snapped his favourite pencil and they had all landed on top of Boz. There were no other injuries. Once composed they began to look around. They had arrived in one of the main linking shafts of Les Chats Souterrains’ subterranean domain – wide, arched and concrete lined. It carried a tarmacadam roadway and twin narrow gauge railway tracks. The artery and its subsidiary systems existed parallel to or even confluent with the cave system, just a tiny dimensional twist away, kept apart by a micron thin membrane of warped space-time. It was but a miniscule section of the Atlantean world-wide tunnel system, disused for eons and now usurped by the Lizard Kings, which honeycombs the earth’s crust, linking natural cave systems, accessible only under mystic circumstances from every mine, cavern, metro and catacomb; normally undetectable and gateway, some maintain, to the inner world of our hollow earth.
“Wow!” exclaimed Phoebles.
“Just come on!” insisted McGoogs. But they had not gone far when they heard the purr of a combustion engine. Scrambling as quickly as they could up a fall of rock and scree the boys gained a wide ledge, well above eye height, and cautiously peeped down. What they saw was the arrival of a lichen-grey painted Mini Moke Twinny, which halted whilst four characters, uniformly dressed in khaki one-piece overalls, got out. They had ghost-white, narrow faces, tiny pink eyes and overly large ears. They were armed and they were searching.
“I’ve never seen them without their goggles before,” said Phoebles, “Ugly looking bunch.”
“I don’t think we should hang around here,” said Slasher, wrenching a grill off the wall behind them. “Boz, you come through last, and pull this grating back in place.”
They were in a small, square cross-sectioned shaft that carried a steady draft of warm air. It inclined gently and branched off at regular intervals. At length their somewhat randomly chosen route emerged into a gallery that overlooked a truly vast cavern. Ginsbergbear threw himself back from the edge and pressed into the cave wall. Ferdy and Phoebles gave out simultaneous gasps. This was Titan, the belly of Behemoth – one hundred foot of vault above them and an eighty-foot drop to the floor below. They were looking down into the mother of all chambers – and it swarmed with industry.
Mass tangles of wiring hung between flickering screens and bays of valves, beam tetrodes glowing violet or lime-green. Rainbow lights pulsed along ionized gasses in glass tubes and flasks. Heavy-duty High Tension cables hung from ceramic insulators and harsh strip lighting dangled precariously from chains and improvised scaffolding. High on one wall a huge screen showed:
  /   /    
Don’t let the Mayans down
“We can’t use the water pistols with all this electricity about – remove your magazines and pass them to Ferdy,” ordered Boz.
They could make out several assembly lines trundling inwards towards the centre of the floor. One carried copper tanks like oversize water heaters.
“Vril accumulators,” pronounced Slasher sagely.
Another line was doing pipe cots, with robot arms sewing canvas covers and welding joints. Yet another bore printed circuit boards, technical bits and electronic pieces, between robots that soldered and snipped, towards half-finished, splayed-bell shaped craft, like bizarre giant hub caps, their shell plates being welded, riveted and spray-painted by beavering robots on the outside, whilst metal mechanics rushed in and out with the fittings as they arrived on the lines. One completed Reichsflugscheiben sat on a flatbed, narrow-gauge railway truck receiving the finishing touches to its paint job. A Chat Souterrain in a silver radiation suit and fish-bowl helmet was stencilling alien symbols around the hull.
µƒß ç¬ø∂^øñ +
The pals grouped and squatted in a circle to discuss a plan of action while an apparently uninterested Ginsbergbear opened a nearby junction box that had caught his attention, marked as it was with the inscription ‘DON’T!’ on the door in large, red letters. Once inside he snipped through some of the wiring, mostly blue wires, and a fat bunch of filaments that had all been taped together. He unscrewed a connector block and began swapping connections, yellow wires for green wires; brown wires for the pretty little striped ones. Finally he took two red wires and shorted them together with a crack and a spark. Down below some of the banks of valves flickered and went out. Some of the valves began to glow brighter and brighter. Then they all began to strobe neurotically. The robots lost control, mechanical arms waved and jerked, welding arms lanced and riveting arms sewed. The humming and crackling of barely harnessed alternating current soared orgasmically. White lab-coated overseer Chats looked uncertain, worried, panicked. Bolts of lightening began to arc over the insulators and a maniacally frenzied laser arm sliced a ruby pencil of lethal light through a dangling power cable. The severed conduit swung down till its exposed core shorted against one of the bays, sprayed sparks above the growing pandemonium.
“RUN!” cried Ginsbergbear as he rushed past his comrades, and a small explosion shook the stalactites.
Suddenly the vast space was echoing to Klaxon alarms, the walls flashing in reflected crimson light.
“Up There!” someone had shouted above the general ruckus and, with the first bullets ripping and pinging about them, the boys abandoned their rucksacks and scurried after Ginsbergbear as he disappeared back down the ventilation duct. They were scuttling awkwardly in the confined space, but the bumping and scraping behind them told of their pursuit by Chats Souterrains far more comfortable in the claustrophobic darkness. After an eternity of blind shoving, shouting, scrabbling they fell, sweating and wheezing, into the main tunnel and continued their mad dash without any attempt at concealment. As they ran there were distant shouts and explosions behind them. Then they became aware of a throbbing whine rapidly growing in volume.
“Take cover!” shouted Boz, and they pressed against the dark walls as a flying saucer, the very craft they had seen on its railway truck, whooshed past. It veered towards the tunnel wall and directed a static discharge ionising the air ahead, the electromagnetic crackling mingling with a booming sound beam howl, like an amateur brass band attempting a Charles Ives composition. The wall dissolved into tatters akin to a moth eaten lace curtain and the gaping maw of the Devil’s Arse appeared ahead. Boz and Slasher broke cover, the others following close on their heels, and rushed through the shimmering gap before the rock wall could reform and the overlapping universes part company once more. The saucer, silhouetted against the sky, zoomed out and up, scattering jackdaws, its mission unknown and its crew’s attention far from the fleeing group that followed in its wake. Slasher broke his step momentarily to fire his Mauser, once, into the blackness behind them. The shot echoed around the cavern like a fusillade; the others flinched, but the relentless pounding of their commando-booted pursuers did not falter. They fled past the ropewalk and workers hovels out into the winding back alleys of Castleton – ducking, weaving, bouncing off walls in their wild flight.
Flight of the Sore Afraid
Out of the Devil’s Arse we blundered
Into the street where Emos chundered
And Punks who wondered
“What the f…”
We did not make reply
Theirs was not to wonder why
Theirs was but to duck or die
Les Chats’ Sten guns thundered
Bullets to the left of us
Bullets to the right of us
Bullets from behind us
Buzzed and whined
Blasted with shot and shell
Swiftly we ran… ah well
Out of that mouth of Hell
Nought could our terror quell
I wish we could catch a bus
We must be mad as bats
Taking on the pallid Chats
Rounds ripping through our hats
Gasping teddy wheezing cats
Legs all spent
Relentlessly pursued by Paras
Tough old vets of Mons and Arras
Battle hardened bold as brass
Armed to the teeth they’ll kick our ass
Our future looks like diddly squats
A miracle’s our only chance
A cavalry with sword and lance
On mighty steeds that rear and prance
Slasher chucks t’ward me a glance
“Is that Plan B?”
“There’s no Plan B”
Grovelling upon all fours
Hammering on shuttered doors
Mourning for our last lost cause
Doomed Amigos of El Boz
Is this really our last dance?
Ms Goldilocks’ Convalescent Home for Bears,
As the fearful five skidded out onto the High Street a cloud of paragliders rose above Mam Tor and swept towards the fleeing heroes.
“It is Le Régiment Étranger de Chats Parachutists, known colloquially as The Flying Eyebrows; a nick-name deriving from the appearance of the curved, hollow fabric wing of each chute above the eye-like dot of le chat de combat,” explained Boz, hurriedly. “They side with the Dark Forces, so we might have a bit of a problem.”
With our heroes weaving once more between the gathered goths, the paras swooped down onto the town, landing on their feet running, jettisoning their parachutes and firing their PPSh-41s from the hip. The carnival crowd scattered with a depressed mumble, a few shrieks or screams, the odd groan and thud, to take shelter, for the most part, in the cellars of local hostelries. The crunch of the shock troops’ hobnail boots, rattle of their blazing submachine guns and zip zipping of randomly scattering 7.62mm Tokarev rounds was withering the resolve of cats and dodo and terrifying the normally resolute bear.
“Don’t let me die dressed like this!” cried Slasher, momentarily shedding his customary cool.
“Amen to that.” sympathised Ferdinand.
With lead and splinters ricocheting all around them the fleeing gang dove into the Rose Cottage Tea Rooms.
“I hear they do an excellent lemon meringue pie,” cried Phoebles excitedly.
They were just putting in an order with a nippy waitress in very short black dress, black stockings, lacy white apron and starched doily perched and pinned to the top of her head when the teashop windows were stoved-in by a thunderous barrage of sound. An intense pressure wave was shattering plate glass along the length of Cross Street. Outside, the massed Dark Agents of the Merovingian Lizard Kings stopped their advance, clutching at their ears, then fell back and soon were in full retreat. Down the road from the neighbouring village of Hope, at full throttle, hurtled the legendary Vicecream van, black and menacing. Its jingle system had been upgraded and a bank of Marshall 350-watt vacuum tube amplifiers was feeding The Kittens of Chaos Mariachi Band’s insanely abandoned live rendition of La Cucaracha into an array of horn woofers and tweeters flanked by twin Megadeath Bass Boomer Geo-Frackers. Consuella was riding the roof, unplugged on tambourine and Dark Flo squatted behind the driver, wringing every last decibel out of the sound desk. The vehicle squealed to a halt half way down the shop lined, unglassed high street and the Snake Pass Zapatistas charged past, guiding their mounts with their knees, firing off short bursts from their AK47s or accompanying the Kittens of Chaos’ in La Cucaracha on their guitars and singing till their lungs ached. Riders and chargers alike had their ears plugged with cotton wool, twists of Bronco toilet paper, or solidified and manipulated dairy products.
Boz was choked with disbelieving emotion as he stared through the café’s wrecked window frame. The gang rushed back outside and Snowdrop’s Techanka drew up alongside Phoebles.
“Jump up!” she signed, over the earth-pounding music. nd he swung aboard to man the Maschinengewehr 08, heavy machine gun, its 250-round fabric belt of 7.9mm ammunition snaking wildly. He, in turn, collared a passing teddy, yanked him into the landau and yelled, “Feed me, Ginsberbear!”
Throwing the van door open, Dark Flo sprang onto the street, dressed in full oyster-grey Ninja kit and armed with an 18inch feather duster crowned with pheasant plumage. She took off after a small cluster of Les Chats Souterrains that looked as if it might rally.
“And what exactly does she intend to do with that?” queried Slasher McGoogs.
Above the retreating Chats the menacing, angular dazzle camouflaged, Merovingian Flying Frisbee had doubled back and was moving slowly and systematically towards the partisans, waiting for them to come within range of its death-ray. Then it met the full, reverberating force of the ‘Wall of Din’©. It tottered, dropped suddenly, partially recovered in time to avoid hitting the ground and withdrew, spinning erratically. It also started to glow – an unhealthy, bilious glow – as its magneto-shield overheated and the stricken craft wobbled away towards the doom-haunted cleft of Winnat’s Pass. A writhing bundle of Kittens of Chaos fell out of the Vicecream van, the trumpeters and a lone soprano saxophonist now playing an unbridled Marseillaise whilst the remainder threw their sombreros into the air, jeering, mooning and making rude paw gestures after the retreating UFO.
As Cross Street began to calm, and the action moved into the distance, Snowdrop returned; the horses were lathered up and panting, the machine gun overheated and out of ammunition, Ginsbergbear and Phoebles babbling in adrenaline fuelled over-excitement. Aunty Stella, in matching honey-beige pith helmet, snake boots and safari suit, climbed down from the cab of the Vicecream van. She pushed her Halcyon Mk49 goggles up above the rim of her topee and met the charging rush of squealing cats and dodo. There were relieved hugs and enthusiastic welcomes all round, then she explained to the group that Googleberry had gone missing again. Before she had become really worried however she had received a text message from him saying that he was visiting relatives at Chatsworth Hall and to come up, urgently, with the Vicecream van, the Kittens, Consuella and Dark Flo, all would be required and much would be revealed.
“Who’s running the shop?” enquired a fiscally worried Boz.
“Doo not deesturb yoorselv Meester Bozzz,” chipped in Consuella Starcluster, “Sam assurrres us hee ees ayble to hold thee forrrt forrr ay day orrr two.”
“…We were met, en route, by the Zapatistas,” continued Aunty Stella, “and so here we all are.”
“That’ll be ginger beer and lemon meringue all round then. Job well done,” exclaimed Phoebles, fresh from the fray. “Is there a litter tray out the back? I may have got a bit over excited.”