The Everlasting Beyond Of Eternal Happiness

Chapter Three

Disgusted, Higgs rammed the ammo clip back into the assault rifle. Ten rounds left. It wouldn't be enough. He swept the back of his hand over his eyes, wiping away the sweat. Dressed only in combat fatigues and size twelve boots, his naked, muscled torso shone with perspiration in the stifling half-light. Blonde, crew-cut hair topped his lantern-jawed face, right ear pierced with a gold stud.

Intense blue eyes twinkling in the faint glow of the gun's laser sight, he advanced cautiously up the passageway. There was breathing ahead of him, the guttural, inhuman rasping of some unspeakable nightmare. Higgs took hold of his fear. He was trained. Fear alone could not hurt him.

Cold air played on his face as the corridor opened out onto some unseen dark space. The breathing was louder now, its pace quickening. Heart thumping, Higgs tried to control his own gasps for air. It was so hot. He wiped his hand on the material of his combat fatigues and gripped his gun's handle again, waiting, listening.

The breathing thing was getting closer, coming at him from two o'clock. Higgs swung the gun round and narrowed his eyes. Was that a shape, loping towards him? He aimed, squeezing the trigger gently. Three flashes and three bullets sped off into the darkness. There was a squeal, like a stuck pig, and the breathing stopped.

Higgs listened. There was an expectant hush as the echoes of the gunshots faded away. Then, they started up, the noises, countless little grunts and squeals, distant but closing, their creators concealed in darkness.

"Shit."

Touching the wall to his right, Higgs trotted blind along the side of the room. The air was slightly cooler, telling him the ceiling was very high but the pitch black above him gave no clues. The sounds were getting closer. Higgs' only hope was they would go to the source of the gunshots. He needed to put as much distance between himself and the corridor as possible.

A shape loomed up and he slowed, taking his hand from the wall and reaching out in front. He touched a cold, hard metal surface. It was some sort of huge container, like an oil drum but taller than he was. Following its surface away from the wall, Higgs came to a second drum, then a third. This was the last and he followed it, running parallel to the wall again.

Realising the squeals had stopped, he paused and listened. He heard many creatures, sniffing, tasting the air for his scent. They were tracking him. Higgs felt along his belt until he found his last mine. Unclipping it, he placed its magnetic side against the drum to his right. The contact made a dull thud and the sniffing stopped. Higgs froze, counting his heartbeats. He would need to activate the mine and it would beep when he did so.

Eleven heartbeats passed before the sniffing resumed. Hearing the scratching of clawed feet on the metal floor, Higgs twisted the top of the mine, priming the motion detector to come on in five seconds. A loud beep echoed through the dark and in answer came a chorus of squeals and howls.

Higgs ran alongside the drums, still parallel to the wall, making as much noise as he could. Behind him, they came, how far he couldn't tell. It didn't matter, just as long as they came past the mine.

A faint glow appeared in the gloom ahead of him, a luminous sign on the side of the next drum. Higgs glanced as he ran, making out the lettering, registering the significance of the words highly inflammable.

"Jesus."

He threw himself to the left, away from the drums, counting his strides, praying no unseen obstacle blocked his path. The mathematics of survival were simple. Ten meters, twenty meters, thirty meters, thirty-seven meters. The hanger lit up in a brilliant, silent glare for a fraction of a second before the blast's deafening force hurled Higgs forward. Hitting the ground he rolled, instinctively holding the strap of his rifle, tensing against the heat and the pain. Covering his head to extinguish the flames there, Higgs turned over to see the destruction. The drum where he placed the mine was gone, a liquid inferno covering the vacant space. Shapes struggled, screaming as they burned, long clawed hands reaching up in pain.

Counting a dozen more three-meter high drums, Higgs leapt to his feet and sprinted towards the opposite wall, making for the shelter of a corridor. He reached the entrance just as the remaining canisters blew. The force of the explosion threw him several meters down the passage, clear of the burning fluid. He lay for a moment, panting, trying to block out the searing pain from his legs and chest. His breathing laboured in the chemical smoke. He had to get up, had to keep going.

Struggling to his feet, he stumbled down the corridor, clutching his gun to his chest.

"Higgsie, oh help, help."

The woman's call came out from the darkness ahead, her Texan drawl giving her away.

Mandy?

Higgs slowed his pace, clutching his brow, heart sinking. Mandy Pollins. Oh, Jesus.

"Higgsie, I'm here honey. Save me, save me."

Higgs lumbered on. Ahead, the corridor opened on a second large chamber, illuminated by a dull, green glow. Crouching at the corner, he looked in. A rough-hewn cavern lay before him, maybe thirty meters to the far wall and of untellable length. Glowing green sludge flowed slowly down a river channel from left to right, bisecting the cave into two equal halves. Opposite Higgs across the toxic ooze, Mandy struggled, chained between two pillars on a dais. She wore a white dress, immodestly ripped at the shoulder, her Monroe-blonde hair perfect. A little way behind her stood a bank of battered lockers.

Advancing into the room, Higgs swept left and right. The room was clear, for now. Three great chains hung from the darkness above, evenly spaced across the poisonous river, their ends a meter above the surface.

"Higgsie, be careful."

Slinging the rifle over his shoulder, he ran to the edge of the river and leapt for the first chain, gagging at the rising fumes and blistering on the hot metal. The chain lurched forward as he clung to it, but not far enough to reach the second chain. He swung back and forth, each time closing the gap on the second chain until he could grab it, wrapping his wrist around to get a secure hold. Clinging now to the second chain, he swung until he reached the third, forcing his aching fingers into the links. He hung for a moment, holding both chains, gasping for breath, head spinning. Clutching the third chain, he swung for the bank. After two swings, he could hold no longer and threw himself forward, knowing it was not far enough. Braced for the plunge into the foul liquid below he fell, breath held, eyes closed.

He landed on solid ground, winding himself. Somehow, he had made the far side. "What?"

"Oh, Higgsie. You're so brave. But hon', there's a bomb."

Shaking his head, Higgs stood. "I wasn't far enough over. I should be in the slime."

"Er, Higgsie, babe, there's a bomb."

"What?"

"A bomb." Mandy pointed her right finger at a meter-square steel cube close by, a small screen in its top surface showing a countdown in red numbers. Thirty, twenty-nine, twenty-eight…

Higgs leant wearily over the cube, shaking his head. A numeric keypad lay next to the screen. "What do I do? How do I stop it? This wasn't here when I came in."

"The override code."

"What code?"

Twenty-two, twenty-one, twenty…

"Higgsie, this is no time for games babe, you gotta put the code in."

"I don't know the code."

Mandy's voice was shrill. "Higgsie, I know you're a terrorist. This is one of the terrorist's bombs. Put the override code in."

Higgs put his hands on his head. "I don't know the goddamn code."

Fifteen, fourteen, thirteen…

Hysteria edged into Mandy's shouting. "Durn it, all terrorists know the code for Christ's sake. Higgs. Do it. Babe, please."

Higgs gaped at her, mind racing, searching for something, anything that might be the code.

Ten, nine, eight…

Higgs swung the rifle from his shoulder and smashed the butte down on the corner of the bomb.

"Higgsie, what are you doing? Put the terrorist code in."

"I'm not a terrorist. I don't know about any code." Higgs frantically smashed the rifle-butte on the bomb, again and again. "Come on, come on."

Four, three, two…

"Shit." Higgs flung his rifle aside and threw himself over the cube, face screwed up in anticipation of the blast.

He stayed there for several seconds.

"Higgsie. I don't think it went off."

Raising his head, he looked around. Everything was still intact. Movement by the lockers caught his eye, there, poking out of the louvers on one of the doors, someone's fingers, wiggling.

Higgs stood and, snatching his rifle from the floor marched over to Mandy. "What is going on?"

"Higgsie, you've saved me."

"Cut the crap. How did you get here?" A sudden thought occurred to Higgs. "How did I get here?"

"Cooeee." A little, whiny voice came from the fingers in the locker.

Higgs nodded in their direction. "Who's in the locker?"

"Well, aren't you asking a lot of questions." Mandy's petulant scowl soured her blond bombshell looks. "I'm here because of terrorists like you."

Higgs sighed heavily. "Mandy, who's in the locker?"

"Cooeee, Higgs, it's me, Information Officer Simms."

Higgs put a hand over his eyes. "Simms too. Oh boy."

"Simms, for the last time, button it, ya hear?" Mandy snapped her fingers and the chains fell from her hands. She stepped down to Higgs.

"You have no idea how close you are to being terminated." Her gaze lingered on Higgs' pectorals rising and falling as he caught his breath. "Still. Higgsie, Higgsie, Higgsie…"

She ran a finger across down his sternum to the six-pack of his stomach. He grabbed her hand, eyes burning dangerously.

"Mandy, where the hell are we? I want answers, now."

"You're hurting me."

"Where are we?"

"Oh, this is hopeless." Mandy clicked her fingers. "Show's over."

Pain seared through Higgs' hand, forcing him to release his grip. Mandy stepped away. "Higgs, you are being just so rude. If I didn't know you loved me, I would be really very cross with you."

"I don't…" A fresh wave of pain flashed through Higgs, forcing him to his knees.

Mandy sauntered to the bomb, running a finger across the surface while Higgs grovelled. "However, I think you need a little time to consider your harsh words.

Ma'am?"

A woman's voice filled the cave. "Yes, Agent Mandy?"

"I think Higgs needs a little time in the naughty cupboard."

"Agent Mandy, this interrogation exercise has not yielded the expected results. Terrorist suspect Higgs has not revealed anything of the insurgent organisation as you suggested he would."

Higgs struggled against the pain to speak. "I'm not a terr…" Mandy clicked her fingers. Higgs curled up as every nerve in his body burned with agony. Mandy shook her hair carefully, watching her reflection in the shiny surface of the bomb. "Ma'am, did you not pick up on the code words? The particular hand signals Higgs used as he entered the cave? He looked left and then right, not the other way around."

Several seconds passed. "Agent Mandy, I do not see the significance…"

"The significance!" Mandy spun away from her reflection, face awash with earnest concern. "Don't you see ma'am, he looked left and then right."

"Agent Mandy, I…I do not understand."

"Terrorists are capable of being very devious ma'am, you must not underestimate their cunning. It's vital that we continue to interrogate Higgs. We're so close to getting the answers we want."

"We are, Agent Mandy?"

"Ma'am, have I ever lied to you?"

"You have not, Agent Mandy."

"Ma'am, we're close. Are we not winning this war on terror?"

"We are winning the war on terror, Agent Mandy."

"I think Higgs holds the key to the whole insurgency. I need to interrogate him in my own way. I can pick up things you simply can't see, no disrespect meant ma'am." A hint of vulnerability crept into Mandy's voice. "You do trust me, don't you ma'am?"

"You have never given me cause for concern, Agent Mandy."

"Ma'am, I am touched deeply. Now, Higgs has been very disrespectful to me and he needs to spend some time in the naughty cupboard."

"Agreed, Agent Mandy."

"Oh, Higgsie."

The pain left Higgs, and he lay gasping.

"Oh, Higgsie." Mandy prodded him with her foot. "You've been a naughty boy Higgsie. You're gonna go in the naughty cupboard."

Higgs got unsteadily to his feet. "Mandy, what is wrong with you?"

A little squeal of annoyance escaped Mandy's lips and she clapped her hands crossly.

Moments later, Higgs found himself in the naughty cupboard.