Leaving the brightness of the midday city behind them, The Four Heroes made their way down roughly-hewn steps of stone into gloomy tunnels that twisted and snaked below the streets of Nottingham. They were fast proceeding towards the co-ordinates Kral-it-Gor had disclosed to them, which, once they had been run through Dylan’s map-plotting computer, had yielded something of a surprise.
“Right under our noses,” Bret declared, shaking his head in disbelief as the heroes hastened into the dark. “Phoenix Prime’s set up a base in the caves nearest the surface, the ones you can still get to, and she’s been there all along!”
“Which raises the fairly important question of how she’s been able to shield herself from us telepathically,” commented Dylan. “Obviously her clones can only sense her if she wants them to, otherwise Phoenix would have known about her from the start. But…”
“But to conceal herself from our psychic powers?” Joe went on grimly. “And for such a duration?”
“I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” Neetra muttered. “All the way down to my socks!”
“If this is where she and her men are, though, at least there’s one thing we can do right now,” said Bret, and stopped for a moment to lean Kral-it-Gor’s weighty tablet of a letter against the tunnel wall. “His son should find it here. I swear we’re the only people in the world who’d end up doing this!”
“A promise is a promise, Bret,” Neetra said, rather primly. “Besides, he sure helped us!”
“That’s fact,” said Dylan. “We can’t delay going after Dimension Borg, but this couldn’t wait either. We’ll subdue Phoenix Prime, bring her in, then set off for outer space like we planned. I’ll rest a whole load easier once we’re on our way, for knowing her threat’s finally contained!”
“Yeah, dealing with the aftermath can wait until we get back,” Bret agreed. “This needs to be quick and decisive, in and out with the element of surprise, and all on the down-low. The last thing we need is to draw the Next Four’s attention, today of all days, and have them find out at the eleventh hour we’ve got the drop on them over getting to Dimension Borg!”
“Why does everything always have to come at once?” Neetra speculated.
The Four Heroes were approaching the area where Dimension Borg’s third drill had fallen, on the day of his devastating planet-wide attack. That set them directly beneath the City Centre, and though repair crews had since sealed the hole at the foot of the Town Hall that that giant weapon had gouged, the damage it had done under the earth was not so easily remedied. Ahead of our heroes bulked a rock-face that they knew, with heavy hearts, barred all passage to the many caves far deeper where the essence of their cause itself resided. For the angry light the glowered from these stones, suffusing the scene with a lurid crimson haze, was also known to The Four Heroes. It resembled that of the Energy Warp, an earlier product of Dimension Borg’s diabolical genius that had all but been their defeat, and it was through a scientific process adapted from the Warp that the Nottingham drill had worked its monstrous mutations on the subterranean landscape. The outermost strata were now so contaminated by the drill’s irradiations that not even The Four Heroes’ powers could breach them.
Nevertheless, Dylan paused before the damaged cliffside as they passed and stayed there, his expression profoundly troubled. He laid a hand on the limpid polluted surface.
“It’s changed,” our hero murmured. “I came down here with General Dartmoor just hours after the drill hit, and those incisions – and those ones – weren’t there at the time! Someone, somehow, has mined quite a few chunks out of this wall since then!”
The other three heroes clustered round to look. “Dylan, that shouldn’t be possible, right?” Bret said uneasily. “Our toughest diamond-tipped drills were turned to scrap metal trying to get through. Surely there’s nothing that could have done this?”
“Nothing within our knowledge,” was Dylan’s ominous reply. “It would take a far greater understanding of geology that humankind has ever achieved. Phoenix Prime’s soldiers, on the other hand, with their silicate-based science and recent first-hand experience of sub-molecular distortions on rock, would be right at home.”
“Did I mention I have a bad feeling about this?” said Neetra.
Our heroes set off again, not fully understanding the discovery they had made and not at all heartened by it. Soon the red glow was behind them, and after trekking for some miles through gloomy tunnels with the flames from Joe’s hand to light their way, a new source of illumination appeared ahead. They crept forward, to find themselves on a high ledge overlooking a spacious cavern below.
Here a strange fusion of two disparate ways of life was to be beheld. The great cave’s bare granite walls and sandy floor were lit by flickering stone torches just as The One Below’s funeral had been, and a handful of rock-men identical to his many mourners were going about their duties. Amid this typical scene from the underground realms, however, a varied assortment of manmade technical apparatus purloined from the city above was arranged in the form of a mobile laboratory. Banks of computers and monitor screens whirred and bleeped on battery or generator-power, and at the heart of it all sat a hefty space-vessel adorned by refuelling-pipes and charging-cables. Dylan cast an appraising glance over this last as he and his comrades crouched on high in the shadows.
“Does everything but hyperdrive,” he reported in a whisper. “Could easily keep pace with the Ultimate Cycle. Phoenix Prime really doesn’t want us getting away from her!”
“Look over there!” Neetra whispered, pointing. Part of the laboratory was given over to a row of stasis tubes, too small to accommodate a grown human being, but apparently tailor-made for tinier residents. Inside each glass prison was a creature resembling a human baby, with iridescent red skin and a pair of vestigial fiery wings flittering from its back. The glow from their blazing bodies danced across the rock-men’s graven hides as they passed.
“I thought Phoenix Prime was just killing the clones,” Neetra murmured to her friends. “Why is she holding those ones captive instead?”
“When our minds were linked with hers, we discovered that her maniacal plans do not end with Phoenix’s destruction,” Joe observed. “Rather, Phoenix Prime’s deranged belief is that once she has eradicated the last of her clones, she will cure herself as Phoenix was cured and somehow take her place within your family.”
Dylan nodded his agreement. “It stands to reason she’d need to experiment on the clones, if she’s going to learn how to undo her anti-matter mutation,” said he. “Those ones down there will be her test-bodies.”
“We have to free them,” Neetra whispered fiercely. “In their own way, every one of those clones is as real and alive as Phoenix is. We can’t let Phoenix Prime’s treat them as unthinking guinea pigs!”
“We won’t, Neet,” Dylan reassured her. “But without knowing how exactly those stasis tubes work, there’s a risk I’ll harm them if I try releasing them now. We’ll take down Phoenix Prime first, then find out from her what we have do!”
“Man with a plan,” Bret declared. “And on that note, where is the lady of the house?”
“I suspect we will not be long about running her to ground, my friends,” said Joe, turning to face the cave at the end of the high gallery. “Come!”
Keeping out of sight, The Four Heroes crept along the ledge above the laboratory and took to the tunnels again, moving ever deeper into the catacomb where their enemy awaited them.
END OF CHAPTER THREE