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The Coming of The Mark III

-------- I --------

It is a fine spring afternoon.  In the board room of British Caves Limited, the bright sunshine falls on bone china teacups and polished mahogany.  We are moving in very distinguished circles, for a board meeting is in progress.  The Chairman and Managing Director, Sir Percival Makepenny is speaking.

 “….and this, I regret to say, leaves only one last possibility. Gentlemen, I am in no doubt that our prototype Mark III cave is being sabotaged.”

The Marketing and Sales Director is head to mutter something about 'those rats from Plasticave'. Sir Percival turns towards the source of this interruption and continues,

"Commercial sabotage by our competitors can be ruled out.  We have got to look elsewhere.  The situation is so serious that I took the unprecedented step of meeting the Chief Executive of Plastcaves, Ted Tacky.  It seems that their research is proceeding on very different lines to our own, and we are, in effect, aiming at different markets.  We can hardly be said to be competitors at this stage, and they would have no motive for any form of sabotage.”

“Perhaps, Sir Percival,” smoothly suggests the Company Secretary, “You would give us a little more detail?"

Sir Percival absentmindedly picks up his teacup, mutters ‘Cheers’ and drinks it down, spluttering on the unexpected tealeaves.  “It would appear,” he says at last, “that Plasticaves are aiming at what one might call the coastal market.  Their new model is designed to float and can be moored on any convenient body of water. Of course, they are emphasising cheapness of installation.  I might add,” says Sir Percival in his best lecturing manner, “That British Caves have always aimed at providing a traditional cave, soundly constructed of British steel and concrete.  Speaking frankly, gentlemen, I regard Plasticaves' venture as little more than a flashy gimmick.  Supposing one of their new models breaks away from its moorings and drifts out to sea with a full complement of school cavers aboard?  Apart from the outcry that would occur if it sank with all cavers, can you imagine being seasick in tight bedding plane?  No, gentlemen, I fancy we can forget all aspects of Plasticaves."

There is a discreet murmur of approval, until the members of the board recollect that they are there to solve a problem rather than to slate their competitors.  Sir Percival clears his throat and returns to the main theme.

"The Mark III is of crucial importance to this company, and we must have it operational.  As you know, gentlemen, the Sports Council, for ease of administration, insisted at the time our first caves were put into service to cater for the growing demand for caves, that all cave should be identical in design.  That was why the so-call natural caves were all sealed up as soon as enough of ours and, I regret, Plasticaves, models had been opened.  At first, we had enough work just catering for the demand and the Mark I was installed over most of the country.  Then we developed the Mark II, which is designed to be erected above ground and which has proved such a great success in East Anglia and other low-lying areas where the deep excavations required for the Mark I were not really practicable.  The Mark III contains a number of new features which, if they are successfully demonstrated, will convince the Sports Council of the need to install them in all our existing caves to bring them up to a new uniform standard.  I need hardly add that the increased sales will result in a corresponding increase in Directors' salaries.  We must get the Mark III operational.

There is an awkward silence, broken Technical Director.  “I have on my staff,” he suggests,  “a keen young engineer who we might well entrust with on-the-spot investigation. He is both intelligent and discreet.”

Nobody else having any ideas, there is a general murmur of assent.

-------- II --------

Sid Spanner, for it is he who has been selected for this delicate task, climbs wearily down the ladder to Checkpoint 13.  Once again, he looks through the view port.  He sees a narrow bedding plane through which successions of schoolboys are crawling.  He broods on his problem as he idly watches their slow progress.  All the mechanical systems work perfectly.  The adjustable squeezes adjust.  The hydraulics are spot on.  The ‘DRY-NORMAL-FLOOD’ control leaves nothing to be desired.  The automatic sump drainer, which can empty the sump in five seconds should a caver stop moving through, works every time. The only thing wrong is the new infra-red lighting, which enables the supervisors to watch cavers even when they appear to be in complete darkness, and even that fault is confined to a particular section of the cave.  Sid is baffled.  His gaze returns to the view port.  A particularly fat schoolboy is halfway through the squeeze.  With a sudden vicious twist of the appropriate levers, Sid closes the squeeze down two notches and sets the water control to FLOOD. He is losing his temper.

-------- III --------

It is later that same day. Sid's temper has now been restored by two cups of canteen tea which he has imbibed in the Supervisor's Canteen - situated between Checkpoints 7 and 8.  Whilst in the canteen, he has become convinced that the decision to convert one of the earliest Mark I caves to this new Mark III standard has been a mistake. In Sid's opinion, the firm should have built a brand new cave.  Besides, he muses, this cave is on Mendip - one of the old notorious natural caving areas - now, happily, a thing of the past.  He distrusts the entire setup.

He decides to return to the problem area, that part of the cave quite near the bottom and viewed from Check points 16 and 17.  Arriving at Checkpoint 16, he looks into the bottom of the Main Chamber.  A small group of scruffy looking older individuals is passing through.  They must, Sid reflects, be some of the few club cavers left.  He returns to the ladder and descends once more.

At Checkpoint 17, all is now in darkness.  Sid waits for the arrival of the party he has just seen.  In a few moments, he starts to see their lights as they climb downwards over the concrete boulders.  They appear to stop somewhere between checkpoint 16 and 17.  One by one, their lights go out. Sid, now thoroughly alert, climbs rapidly back to Checkpoint 16.  It is now in darkness too.  He waits for the party to return.

To Sid's amazement, this takes nearly two hours.  It is only ten minutes caving from checkpoint 16 to the end of the cave.  Just before they arrive, the infra-red goes on once more. Sid Spanner feels that he is on the track of the saboteurs at last.  Promotion, he feels certain, is in the bag.

-------- IV --------

It is a week later. Sid has laid his plans well.  He has identified the cavers.  They are from one of the few caving clubs still in existence.  It is called the B.E.C.  Once more they have arrived at the cave and Sid has run down all the supervisor's ladders to Checkpoint 16 and opened an emergency door into the cave. He is dressed in old fashioned caving clothes like the B.E.C. party.  He squats behind a large boulder and waits.

Soon, the party approach the spot.  They have the sort of voices one would associate with their general appearance. They stop quite near the place where Sid is crouching.

"Any ruddy Weegees about, Fred?"

"All clear, Pete."

"Right lads, drift over and do, your stuff, Ron!"

The man called Ran comes almost to where Sid is hiding.  Pulling some sort of instrument from his pocket he applies it to a spot on the cave wall.  Whatever he is doing takes a little time.  Presently he removes the instrument and takes from his pocket a little tube through which he squints in all directions.  "O.K.", he calls, "All I/R's are off!"

From his place of concealment, Sid reflects that he has just witnessed an illegal act.  These B.E.C. cavers, he grimly notes, shall pay dearly for this.  But more is to come.  Before his astonished gaze, one of them tugs at a section of cave wall which slowly swings outwards.  One by one, the party disappear through the resulting hole.  The last man pulls the wall section back into place after him.

Sid waits for a few moments before getting up and going over to the wall to investigate.  To his surprise, it is a concealed emergency door, of the type fitted to all British Caves so that supervisors can, if necessary, get into the cave from the supervisors section.  However, this door is fitted where no door should be according to the plans.  With some misgivings, Sid opens it and sets off into the blackness beyond.

-------- V --------

Sid's first reaction to his new surroundings is one of professional chagrin.  This new section hardly looks like a product of British Caves Limited.  He doubts whether it even conforms to the British Standard.  Sid examines the wall closely.  It is not like the rough imitation stone of a cave section or like the smooth concrete of a supervisors section.  It does not even look as if it has been manufactured at all.  With a sudden start, Sid realises that it has not been.  He is in a natural cave.  With a totally unaccustomed feeling of not knowing what to expect, he moves cautiously onwards.  He is now in a chamber of sorts, with rocks strewn most untidily and unprofessionally all over the floor.  Suddenly, he hears faint sounds of the party returning and conceals himself once more behind a large boulder. As they approach, he realises that they are talking and he catches a fragment of their conversation as they pass by his hiding place on their way out.

“It's no ruddy use, Fred.  We might be able to keep up this ruddy caper a bit longer, but sooner or later one of their ruddy engineers is bound to catch up with us.”

“There must be something we can do, Pete.  We’ve always managed to be one up on the system se far.”

“We’re getting blinded by ruddy science this time.  When we got Sam to apply fore a job as a supervisor, he slipped up by talking about sump 2.  Clean forgot British ruddy standard caves have only one sump”

The words become blurred as the party continues on its way out.  Sid waits until he hears the door shut before switching on his light.  His course is now clear.  He will beat them to the entrance by using the supervisor’s ladders and get the Cave Manager to detain them as they surface.  The company will, no doubt, bring charges against them. After a few formalities, he will be free to leave and get back to the company headquarters - to receive congratulations and, no doubt, promotion.

Meanwhile, the cave remains utterly silent, save for the quiet drip of water from somewhere nearby. Quite suddenly, Sid is seized by a desire to know what lies beyond the chamber he is in.  He cannot understand what is happening to him.  He is in the grip of something which, although suppressed by years of training, has nevertheless been lying dormant within him. It is the natural urge to explore. His promotional prospects suddenly forgotten, Sid starts off purposefully in the opposite direction.

-------- VI --------

It is a few hours later. Sid has free-climbed two pitches; pushed his way through several squeezes and wad through a deep canal. He turns the next corner and finds himself in a beautifully decorated passage.  The variety, quality and sheer quality of the formations take his breath away. Compared to the few miserable-looking bits of formation contained in a British Standard Cave, these are fantastic.  Sid's professional manner re-asserts itself as he starts to compute how much a passage like this would cost to construct - only to be relegated to second place, in his mind for ever as he realises that one cannot put a price on beauty.  Taking care not to damage the place in any way, Sid sits down and contemplates the scene. He remains motionless and silent for some time.  He is thinking hard.  At last, he gets up, takes one last look at the passage and starts to make his way out as quickly as he can.  He has a lot of hard work ahead of him and very little time to spare.

-------- VII --------

Once again, we are back in the board room of British Caves Limited.  As one might expect, Sir Percival is in the middle of a lengthy speech.

"….the excellent report by Mr. Spanner which I am sure you have all read thoroughly.  It was, of course, a great disappointment to find that the new infra-red lights suffer from technical disadvantages which I have no doubt you have grasped from the paper."

There is a pause while Sir Percival drinks his tea and hands the empty cup to his secretary muttering some thing about ‘another round’.  The members of the board are all trying to look as if they understand the subject of infra-red illumination - with varying degrees of success.

" However," continues Sir Percival, "it is a matter of great comfort to know that any form of sabotage has been ruled out completely although, without the new lights it is difficult to see enough advantages in the Mark III to be able to put a convincing case to the Ministry."

The members of the board all assume expressions of intelligent interest and concern.  This latter comes easily to them, as the promised increase in directors salaries will not, presumably occur.  Sir Percival, however, has something up his sleeve.

"I must confess, gentlemen, that until a few hours ago, the situation hardly looked promising. However, just before this meeting, I was handed a second report by Mr. Spanner.  It outlines an entirely new scheme.  Briefly, the entire supervisory system is to be controlled from a central monitoring room by a single operative.  He will be able to view any part of the cave by television cameras and to control all the hydraulic and mechanical systems by suitable electronic controls.  The saving in manpower is very significant.  Even the registration clerk is to be replaced by a computerised system which will record all visits to the cave and persons below at any time, I will not bore you with the details, but I might add that the suggestion has my full approval.  The only difficulty appears to be that we do not at present have an Electronics Department.  I suggest that we form one without delay.  We will, of course, need a suitable man to lead this new department. I would welcome any names you might put forward."   Guided by these broad hints, the board unanimously appoint Sid to this new job.

-------- VIII --------

It is now several months later.  It is, in fact, Christmas Eve.  In a cosy Mendip Pub, the members of the B.E.C. sit morosely drinking.  For months now, the only natural cave still open has been denied them by gangs of men installing new electronic equipment in the artificial cave above it.  It is certain in their minds that the door they persuaded one of the original workmen to fit when the cave was being constructed has now been discovered.  So low are their spirits that Fred Ferrett has just bought a round without protesting that he bought the last one. A caveless future stretches grimly before then as they gaze unhappily into their pots.

Out side the pub, a car crunches to a halt in the crisp snow.  It is a brand new Range Rover.  It belongs to Sid Spanner who has just returned from the successful trials of the Mark III and has seen the contract signed for the modification of over two hundred caves to the new standard.  It is widely rumoured that he will be offered a seat on the board of British Caves Limited.

As Sid gets out of the car, he looks thoughtful almost worried.  A trifle nervous.  It is one thing, he muses as he walks towards the front door, to force ones way to the top of a large company.  It is quite another to attempt to join the B.E.C.  However, he is not without hope, for there are aspects of the new improvements which - so far - are known only to himself.  There is the small box he is carrying in his left hand coat pocket for instance.  When this box is switched on down the cave, it becomes impossible to activate the T.V. cameras in its vicinity.  Thus, a party can move about the entire cave unobserved.  There is the other small box in his right hand coat pocket, which operates the gear on the door leading to the natural cave below.  There is also the fact that a new cave has been ordered for Mendip and that some privately commissioned work has established the existence of a large and hitherto unexplored cave below the site which British Caves have been persuaded to recommend.

Even so, Sid thinks as he enters the pub, the B.E.C. doubtless have their pride.  They may well consider that he is trying to buy his way in.  Perhaps if he bought them enough beer?

-------- IX --------

It is much later that same night.  The hour is just past midnight.  Technically speaking, it is now Christmas Day.  At the Belfry, nothing stirs.  The moonlight, filtering through the icy windows, falls on the motionless figure of Pete Pushem as he lies stretched out on the floor, his pint pot still in his lifeless hand.  Nearby lies an ungainly heap consisting of Ron, Fred, Sam and Sid.  Slowly, this heap stirs and the figure of Fred Ferrett detaches itself.  He staggers outside.

The quiet of the night is suddenly broken by a characteristic sound.  It is Fred honking.  He staggers back, closes the door, trips over Sid's feet and falls once more on to the top of the heap.

"Merry Christmas!" he mutters thickly as he sinks into a deep stupor.