Victoriana 18

Tachybaptus, Going Postal

Chapter 18

As the monstrous vehicle clanked towards them, they all looked at St George hopefully.
‘McHerring can’t kill me – he needs me,’ he said. ‘We’ll all stand in front of the Telectroscope, and he won’t be able to fire it at us.’
‘But then he’ll just send his thugs to capture us,’ said Rusty. ‘Anyway, I may have a better idea. Is the Intensifier the one they brought from New York?’
‘Have they tried to use it yet?’
‘I don’t think so. Why?’
‘Because we took out the two smallest lenses. What’ll happen if he sets it going?’
‘Aha! It won’t focus the beam. The heat will stay inside until something melts, I think.’
Victoriana was on to the idea. ‘Will there be a bang – a big one?’ she asked.
‘Probably,’ said St George.
Rusty was whispering urgently with Irving and Fingers. Irving picked up a discarded three-foot length of drainpipe from the tunnel floor, and Fingers took a box of matches from his pocket – big English matches, not the American book kind.
‘Youse stay here,’ he said. ‘An’ when da bang comes, run up da tunnel ’s fast’s ya can. We’ll be wid ya in a minute.’
Before they could protest, Irving and Fingers had stepped out in front of the advancing juggernaut as it slowed to a halt before the rock wall.
There was a rising whine as the generator started up, which soon settled to a steady howl. As McHerring raised his arm to give the signal to fire, Irving raised the pipe on to his shoulder and pointed it at the Telectroscope. Behind him, Fingers pushed the match-filled tray from the box into it, lit another match on the outside of the box, and tossed it on to the tray.
Just as McHerring dropped his arm and shouted ‘Firre!’ there was a brilliant yellow flare as the matches inside the tube all lit at once, echoed by a blue flash as the Intensifier fired up. The end of its casing glowed white-hot for a moment, then there was a sharp crack and black smoke billowed from the device. A moment later the generator, short-circuited by molten metal, blew up in a shower of sparks.
Fingers and Irving walked steadily past the incandescent ruin, pointing the drainpipe menacingly at McHerring. Then they all raced up the tunnel, safe from pursuit for the moment as McHerring’s men milled desperately around trying to put out the fire.
Half a mile up the slope, with Irving carrying Victoriana and Fingers carrying Rusty, and St George puffing behind them, they had to pause for breath in the shelter of a heap of packing cases.
‘Is dere any way outta here but dis tunnel?’ asked Irving. ‘’Cos dey’ll be after us ’fore we can geddada da udder end.’
‘There’s a small cross shaft in another quarter mile,’ said St George. ‘It goes to the next tunnel.’
‘Another tunnel?’ said Ricky. ‘How many are there?’
‘Thirty-five,’ said St George, ‘every three miles up the fault line, beyond Inverness.’
They hurried on to the entrance. Irving and Fingers heaped packing cases haphazardly in front of it while the other three continued up the main tunnel a short way to leave footprints in the dusty floor, returning backwards. It was not perfect, but it would have to do.
The cross shaft was pitch dark, but it had been perfectly cut into a smooth eight-foot diameter tube by the Miner and they felt their way along the bottom easily enough. A few minutes later they heard the puffing and clanking of the giant machine as it returned up the main tunnel. It seemed sensible to continue in the direction they were going.
St George, who had recovered as they went along at an easy pace, explained, ‘As you know, he has to lock the Great Glen Fault together. He’s done it with the tunnels. Each one goes down to the fault line and fifty yards beyond into the rock on the other side. He’s filling them with steel reinforcing bars and then pouring concrete in to make giant plugs a hundred yards long to pin the rocks together. He’s made thirty of these so far, starting at the Inverness end. We were in the thirty-first tunnel – he still has to finish this one and the remaining four.’
‘But the fault’s moving,’ said Rusty. ‘Won’t it just snap the pins?’
‘It’s only moving very slowly,’ said St George. ‘The pins should last until he’s cut the whole circle free and turned it round. Of course, if he doesn’t, there’ll be an earthquake when the pins break.’
‘Da guy’s meshuggah,’ said Irving.
They could only agree.
After they had trailed through the dark for what seemed like an age, they were aware of a faint light ahead. They came to the source, a vertical shaft leading up from the roof of their tunnel; the top seemed miles away. Below it, a metal container like a large bucket hung from a rope. It was shackled to a ring bolted to the wall
Fingers, who seemed to have an endless supply of matches, lit one and examined the container. A notice was stencilled on the side: MAX 6 MEN OR 1200 LB.
‘’S for escape in an emoigency,’ he said.
‘Dis is an emoigency,’ said Irving.
They climbed in. Fingers released the shackle, using a screwdriver from his belt to save his fingers from being caught. The bucket whipped up at a startling speed, leaving them sprawled in the bottom.
‘We’re way less than twelve hunnerd pound,’ said Fingers, pulling a lever that gave a crude braking action by splaying two arms against the shaft wall, with a screech and a shower of sparks. ‘An’ keep yer arms inside, folks. Dere’ll be a coun’erweight comin’ down past us any time soon.’ He released the brake.
A large block of stone whizzed past them. Fingers applied the brake again. The light increased, and there was a thud from the bottom of the shaft as the stone landed. The bucket oscillated up and down sickeningly, but when it stopped they were level with a ledge roughly hacked out of the rock. They climbed out to find an iron ladder. At the top, a rough doorway led into the open air, and they were under the blessed grey sky of Scotland, in a heather-clad mountain valley.
Looking back, they could see that the exit was disguised as a heap of stones which would not have attracted attention.
‘Where are we?’ said Victoriana.
‘We’d better go up that ridge,’ said Rusty.
When they reached the top and looked to the south, a violent scene was revealed. The Vulgarian airship hung over a chaos of gunpowder smoke, in which the khaki uniforms of British soldiers could be dimly discerned.

Tachybaptus, Going Postal

Rusty said, ‘It looks as if the army are attacking McHerring, and Molotok is attacking them both. What a mess.’
‘I hate this,’ said Victoriana. ‘People are getting killed, and it’s something we started.’
‘Don’tcha worry yaself, goil,’ said Irving. ‘Dat McHerring started all dis, and he’s godda be soited out, no madder waddit takes.’


This chapter by Tachybaptus. © Tachybaptus et al. 2017.