Half an hour later, we stood a hundred metres or so from the stern of the Vengeance - years before, the Psychotronic bomb's
dimensional shearing had pinched shut the massive walls like so much wet clay, forcing us to go right around to the prow and back. Here,
Clem had surveyed the ship for radiation leaks while it lay off Asgarth in happier days, seeming long ago now as we shivered in the humid air,
the lights on our helmets sculpting misty cones and turning exposed dew-glistening fur to diamond-dust.
"Rest ! I think we'll need it." Clem waved us back, as he approached the narrowing defile between the walls. "There's a way into
the ship - at least, there's a way further into the ship. How far it goes ... " he winced.
"It's "A" deck, isn't it ? " Barnstoneworth looked at the feline, ears flat . "Tha's gonna try and gerrus in through THERE ?
Happen we'll not want for lights in there - place still glows in t'dark, from what tha's told us."
"There's no other way !" Clem snapped, his tail bristling right out under his coverall. "The only other way up is the way we came in -
and you're welcome to try that one !"
I shivered. Looking around, the walls curved steeply, their once smooth curves distorted by the dimensional blast that had almost
crippled the ship. Far above, I could see a faint glow, a gap in the inner hull where one of the turrets had been. From round the curve of
the hull, the ship's interior lights shone faintly down, like an unattainable star constellation. "If we could get up there, or send a
message, folk could drop us a ladder down."
"If we could ! " The Professor nodded. "You might be in with a chance - not here, but where the walls narrow further on, maybe a good
climber could risk it, wedging their way up. It's five storeys up , I'd think - too far to throw a message. Right here, there was never a
vertical archer of Belgium that could have hit the opening round that curve."
"Of ... Belgium ?" I felt my heart lurch within me. "Sir ... what do you mean .. I'd never heard of ... that."
"Aye." Barnstoneworth turned to me, his stumpy tail bristling almost skunk-wide in shock. "Did they do that ? Folk don't talk about those days ..."
The elderly baboon shrugged, as he picked his way forward, following Clem to a heavily sealed door. "Little to tell, really. One of
their national hobbies, from back before the EC was even formed. A harmless pastime, and a useful way to practice archery in crowded towns
with no room for proper ranges. Suspend the target right above, and make sure you're wearing a good helmet for the shafts that miss and come
back again. But what about it ? I think it's been extinct for a generation. "
Barnstoneworth shook his striped muzzle slowly, his eyes wide. "Wish you were right, sir ... ". He turned to me, and winced. "Shall
you tell 'im, or shall I ?"
When Barnstoneworth had finished, there was a tense silence. At length, the Professor stirred, his muzzle wrinkled in worry, the
bright blue and scarlets of his face looking pale and bleached under the wavering beams of our head-torches.
"So ... we have this Miss Duclos .. the one who went out today, and never reported finding anything ... but who seems to have lost her
crewmate. She ... practices a sport I'd not thought of in twenty years - what else does she .. emulate ? "
"Sir, she can't be to blame, surely !" Guthfriede burst in. "I've seen her Girl Scout badges - you don't get those issued in
breakfast cereal boxes ! She's got the Deborah Fforbes-Umiatora badge in freestyle interrogation techniques, I mean, and I'd only ever SEEN one
of those before !"
Barnstoneworth nodded slowly. "Aye, lass. Reckon tha's right. But she drinks fruit-flavoured beers and troffs on exotic chocolate that
I've not heard tell of in a long while, like .. where did she get 'em from, eh ? Last bottles o' raspberry ale I saw, had an EU code on t'bottle."
Just then, there was a low call from Clem, his tail just visible from round the buckled corner where the inner wall had flowed like
melted wax from a guttered candle. "This is the place !"
We hurried forward. Almost buried in the slumped inner wall was a low circular portal - it seemed to have been wholly buried at one
time, as the fused scars showed where our engineers had cut the covering silcrete away with thermite. Little more than a metre across, the door
had a pressure gage and a thick glass viewport in the centre, no light showing from within. Eight hefty steel turnbuckles clamped the door
shut, locking star-shaped lugs like the breech-block of a giant artillery piece.
"By 'Eck, " Barnstoneworth breathed, looking at it. He handed me his spare quart rum bottle, and I took a warming pull. "Folk didn't want
that door to open in the wind, eh ?"
Clem tapped the seal, pointing at the pressure gage. "It's under negative air pressure, so we can't ..." His ears suddenly shot up
in alarm - as the gague's needle suddenly swung at his tapping. "Hellfire ! It must have been stuck ! We've been checking it every day,
but .. it might have been lying to us for weeks !"
"And you were using an air-pressure gage as a security alarm ?" Professor Grimslaithe demanded. He shook his muzzle sorrowfully. "I'd
hoped you'd built better than that. Anything could be happening in there."
As if the ship had heard him, there came a deep vibration in the hull. From beyond the outer plates, a familiar sound rolled through the
narrow space. The ship was slowly moving, on its tracks.
"OK. We'd best get IN there," Clem's whiskers twitched nervously, pulling a geiger counter off his belt. "Lend a hand, folks?
This is about two tonnes of lead-backed cast-iron, Barnstoneworth - you're right about folk not wanting it open by accident."
Five minutes of straining and effort opened the door. A huge, multi-layered plug of heavy metal slid out on its bearings, the smooth
unrusting teflon sliding as half a dozen of us pushed its huge mass aside. Panting, we looked through.
I had become familiar with the "B" deck reactors, on the floor above us. Those had been rather dull brick-shapes of silicrete, all
their workings hidden by the thick shielding. This was different.
Dim in the light of our torches, what we could see of "A" deck ran the full length and breadth of the ship, ten minutes brisk walk from
end to end. The roof above was slightly arched, with dimly glowing green panels that showed nothing - only revealing their own pallid forms
in the darkness.
"Tritium lights, I'll bet .." I gestured up towards them. "Half-life of twelve years, no wonder there's not much left in them. But ..
ones that size ? It's not the cost, but ... who'd put those sort of resources to waste ? We had fusion reactors paying top whack for every
milligram of tritium, well before the EC wars, didn't we ?"
"We did," confirmed the Professor. Then he frowned. "Yes, WE did. This is the only part of the ship that's never been worked on,
since it was built. But - who built it ? All the books say the first ones came out of and the other havens folk fled to. But ...
this ship is old. It's too old, and too .. expensive. That copper backing on the enchanted belt, back there ..." he shook his head. "And
these tritium lights. Somehow I don't think this is Miquelon built."
I nodded. Though I had never been outside the old Europe, I knew the tale well, of the exodus from the tightening grip of the
Legomancers. Small, scattered islands that had been uneconomic to attract the EU were secretly rebuilt first as havens, then springboards
to launch the Liberation - most macro-tanks had been forged in the massive industrial complexes under the isles of and Miquelon,
and crewed from the teeming millions inhabiting Kergulen, Pitcairn and Bouvet Isles.
The thirteen of us spread out, a few paces apart, at his orders - to look for a way out, and to look for anything unusual. What that
might be, he did not tell us - but there was a curious gleam in his eye, as we picked our way forward towards the centre of the great
Two hundred paces in from the hull, a great dark shape the height of a railway embankment looked out of the shadows. One of the
ancient weapons systems reactors, I told myself, recalling the diagrams that had appeared so mysteriously on the Ready Room wall. I
gestured at it to Clem, next to me - he nodded, understanding, scanning it with his geiger counter.
"About five rems an hour," he called out softly. "We don't want to set up Base Camp here, but ... it's not too bad. These haven't been
fired up since Belgium."
As we approached, the details of the huge tube resolved themselves - a great cylinder ran the length of the ship, looking here
like an oil pipeline ten metres thick, supported on thick silcrete cradles and laced in lesser coolant pipes. At each end of the ship were
the reactor cores, lost in the gloom still and yet an ever-present thought in our minds as we picked our way forward.
The ursine reactor technician, Melanor as I recalled her name was, had been a few paces ahead of me, eager to examine the gargantuan
piece of engineering. She reached up to one of the pipes - and gave a grunt of surprise.
"There's writing on this !" She called over. "It's that strange one we keep finding everywhere - and another script .. this one, I recognise."
We gathered round. She had found a plastic tag tied to a complex electrical mechanism full of switchgear, which was covered in writing.
Professor Grimslaithe took it carefully, peering at the script in the light of the torches.
"Fascinating .. it's a parallel inscription - one's printed, the other's hand-written underneath each symbol - I think the language
is the same !" He turned round to look at us, excited. "The handwritten one is standard European 'Futhark' series Runic script, with a few
twists .. I'll have to examine it when we've more time and more light. But keep your eyes open for more like this one."
For a minute we halted, resting while Clem and Barnstoneworth passed their bottles around - I cursed myself for having left my daily
rum ration behind in my room. A hundred paces or so towards the stern, the furthest beams of our torches suggested a bridge or walkway crossing
the first reactor.
Clem's keen ears perked up, and he frowned as he looked up. "B deck's drive reactors sound like they're all on full power. But ... I
don't hear the tracks or the water jets, going .. at least, they're not running anything like that fast. In fact , I'd swear we're barely moving."
"So ?" I queried, as we approached the skeletal steel bridge, a single curving arch rising over the great tube that housed the MHD coils
of the boiling-potassium reactor "We don't want to be moving anywhere - the slower we're going, the better."
"So ? We've got all our B deck systems powering up - where's the power going to ? If it's not running the tracks ..." He broke
off, eyes wide in horror as he reached the top of the bridge, and looked down at the great curve of the tube below him. His nose twitched anxiously.
Suddenly, Barnstoneworth dropped to the steel decking of the bridge, reaching down over the edge to touch the tube. His body jerked
as if shocked, and he scrambled to his feet.
"Tha' scents hot oil, right ? Well, I tell thi' where t' power's going to ." He paused a second, gesturing to the expanse of metal below
us. "Tha' told us, Clem, nobody knows how to power one of these up any more ? Well, somebody knows - 'coz it's getting ready to come online
reet now !"
There was an instant's grim silence - then moving as one, we hurried forward over the bridge. For Clem had explained how these huge
systems worked - on full power, the white-hot reactor core would function like a jet engine, accelerating a plume of potassium vapour to
nearly two kilometres per second, streaming down the tube below our feet. The magnetic braking at the far end produced huge electrical
currents, thousands of amps for the ship to draw on - but to cut down on weight in an area never designed to be crewed, the unknown builders had
left out most of the shielding. As if on cue, the geiger counter at Clem's waist began to click and hiss urgently.
"If .. we're in here while these things start up ..." the Professor panted, as we hurried forward to the bridge over the second
tube ... "we're toast. And How ? How can these systems start up - didn't you disable the control systems ?"
"With an axe, and ten kilos of thermite," Clem's tail bristled wide in panic, as he led the way. "But this ship just keeps on getting
healthier - unlike us .."
We ran. Seven more bridges, seven huge tubes, and by the eighth one our paws could feel the heat rising from the MHD coils, as they
switched into induction-furnace mode and started to melt the potassium into working fluid ready for the awakening reactors. In a few minutes we
reached the far side of the vessel, where another squirrel-walk led up into an enclosed duct. The ship trembled, like a racehorse poised to
leap into action - and as the last of us crowded up the stairs, the counter emitted a loud chirping scream.
"Out of here - Now!" Barnstoneworth dropped the towing rope of his one-bore and was up the stairs like a burning mime, the stocky
badger moving faster than I had ever seen anyone except a cheetah sprint. The duct slanted up at nearly sixty degrees, becoming a ladder,
leading up to a closed hatch two stories above us.
"It's no good, that hatch is welded .." Clem called up, anguish in his voice. But he looked up, as Barnstoneworth slammed into it, and
the metre-wide plate crashed open. "Shut ..." he finished, his night- eyes going still wider in shock.
We poured up through the hatch like panicked express train, Melanor at the rear slamming it shut behind us and sitting firmly on it.
After a second she realised what she was doing and winced, jumping up and wiping her broad rump as if to clean it.
I looked around, my tongue hanging out as I gasped for breath. The corridor was dark, the air strangely stale and cool, unlike the
rest of the ship. "Clem .. did you weld that hatch, or use chewing-gum?"
The engineer's ears went down, as he examined it. "We arc-welded every way down into the A deck, the first week we took over the
ship. Tested the welds, too, ultrasound and pressure seal. But .. " he blinked, ears going back up in interest, "we labelled them all, too.
Every hatch and room is labelled - and this one isn't. Where ARE we ?"
The corridor seemed identical to the ones we had come to know so well , starting from the hatch we were mostly looking at so
nervously, and running straight to where it turned a corner that headed inboard. But the Professor's technicolour face creased in a frown,
looking up at the ceiling. "Labeling isn't the only thing that's missing. The lights, and data cables !"
I followed his gaze, and understood. Our first real job of restoring the ship had been to string bundles of cables through every
passage, replacing the old lights, and powering the equipment we had to install to replace the strangely incompatible mechanisms that had so
"Ey .. this is a reet funny place, though but," Barnstoneworth nodded, glancing round nervously. "Best explore - cautious, like.
Ethelred, take lead - tha's had most experience. Two years in that Short-Range Patrol Group, wasn't it ?"
I nodded, looking down the corridor as Barnstoneworth handed me a pair of small offensive grenades and two inoffensive ones. "Lights
down - follow twenty paces behind," I whispered, dropping to all fours. As all but two head-torches were switched off, I closed my eyes and
waited a minute for my vision to adjust before slowly moving off. We had to assume there were foes around that corner, and every corner - and
though they must have heard us open the hatch, there was no reason to let them know we were moving closer.
The corridor seemed longer in the dim light, as I pressed close to the right-hand wall, all senses alert. Rough silcrete underfoot was
lightly scattered with dust and small fragments, grating as I moved .
Taking my cap off, I began to sweep the dust silently from my track ahead, disturbing the debris of years - how many years, I found myself
asking . From near the floor the angles altered subtly, arching higher above me in the dim shadows cast from behind.
At the corner, I halted. Closing my eyes, I scented the air ahead. It was cold, stale air, with no hint of draught against my
whiskers. And faintly, was that same forest-floor scent I had smelled once before on the Vengeance.
Five metres round the corner, the passage ended. There was a door, sealed tight and scrawled with smeared, hastily-scrawled black
runes - and a thing at the doorstep, that my eyes took a few seconds to make sense of. I stood, and waved the party forward, as I switched my
headtorch back on.
"Here's someone who could tell us a lot," I nodded towards the door, breathing easily again. "But I don't think he's going to, somehow."
While Clem and the technicians looked at the sealed doorway, I joined Barnstoneworth and the Professor as we bent over the second
member we had found of the ship's original crew. Moving the husk from the doorstep, we laid him down reverently at the corner of the passage -
and though I say He, there was little more than a skeleton remaining, and neither of us were practiced enough as anatomists to work out more
than the species.
"Another wolf, like you," the Professor nodded to me. "Same general uniform as the one we found in that crystal chamber, on the
steel throne - but this is a trooper. Look," he pointed to a breastplate and helmet, still strapped onto the brittle body "What sort of ...
threat would you design these against ? Black steel, not kevlar - covered in runes and lots of black spiky bits."
Barnstoneworth's eyes widened. He nodded towards the door, where similar runes were smeared. "Aye, Prof - there's things tha'
fights off with blood-graven runes, that laughs at rifle fire." He paused. "Think on it. He's only one we found here - mebbe the last one
left. Gets in here, badly wounded, can't go down to A deck wi' reactors running. So he seals t'door, writes a last-ditch protection in
chap's own blood, like enough. There's dark stains all around t'floor, see ? An' there he waits for rescue, mebbe. " He looked down at the
shrunken form, bleached fur seemingly shrink-wrapped on the bones. All those years he had lain there, and no help had come.
Reverently, we searched the mummified form. There was a plastic wallet in an inner pocket, though the body's decay had soaked and
rotted its papers years ago. Suddenly, I noticed a plastic edge in the corroded mass of cellulose. Wordlessly, I slit it free and looked at it.
"It's a photograph - a holiday snap ?" I blinked, showing it round. It was stained, but just legibly a snow scene, of six heavily-
insulated canines standing on a snowy peak. The distant view was simply snow and icefields, stretching out as far as we could see.
"Gizzit," Barnstoneworth reached for it. He unclipped the rum flask at his belt, and dampened the old film a little. Frowning, he
scrubbed at the image with a striped finger. "Tha' sees, lad ? Aurorae Borealis, thought I could see summat
behind 'em. Could be folk from Greenland Anarchist Non-State, reckon. Or ..." he stopped, his brow furrowed. "Thing is, they weren't set up back then. "
"There's an Aurora Australis at the South Pole, too," the Professor reminded us. He rummaged further, his dextrous primate fingers
searching through the belt pouches and smock pockets. "And ... what do you make of this ?" He held up a silvery box, just palm-sized, looking
something like an antique personal stereo.
I shrugged. "Some form of measuring device ? Could be a geiger counter, if he expected to come anywhere near here," I nodded back
towards the hatchway. "I'll have to get it into my workshop, see what X-rays and ultrasound can see in it. Thinking of which ..."
Just as I turned my head towards the door, I heard a muted cheer. With his shoulder against it and Melanor shoving behind, Clem
slowly slid the door open, revealing another dark corridor. Cautiously the cat stepped through, flashing his headtorch upward.
"It's our part of the ship - it's our wiring and lights," his whisper carried back down the narrow corridor towards us. "But .. the
lights are out and ... I can't hear anybody around !"
Stealthily, the thirteen of us looked out into the ship. The door that we had opened was a solid, twenty-centimetre panel of inner
hull plate that sealed tracelessly from the outer passage, its hinge line looking exactly like any other construction joint. As we went on,
we searched through one room after another, looking for our comrades.
Before we left the hidden chamber, Barnstoneworth had suddenly stiffened, every hair bristling - for a second he had looked around
wildly, before relaxing.
He had turned to me, and for an instant I somehow failed to recognise him. Gently, the badger knelt over the shrivelled figure and
unfastened the neoprene straps of the breastplate and helmet. "If tha's goin' point, mebbe tha'd best tek this." He hesitated, a strange look
in his eyes. "He'd have wanted you to have 'em."
Section after section, we moved through the engineering section of B deck - the propulsion reactors had quitened down, and by the lack
of vibration we had stopped moving.
"Quieter than the grave," Guthfriede whispered. "Where are the ghouls ? There's always some down here - we're not two compartments
away from their main nest."
"I can smell something," I nodded. "Ghouls, yes, but .. it's faint. And .. something else."
For the past ten minutes we had been moving in a style I found reassuringly familiar - split into two groups of six, we advanced in
turns from one corner to the next, each of us watching their set direction. I led the way, nostrils sniffing delicately, and eyes wide
in the gloom - the armour fitted as if customised for me, its radically spiky bits well engineered not to catch on too many things as I moved.
"Main nest," I whispered, a few minutes later. Reaching for my unlit headtorch, I hesitated, standing pressed to the side of the
doorframe - then I hit the torch switch, lobbed the bright light in and rolled in after it, scurrying away from the silhouetting frame of the door.
Nothing happened. My ears strained, for the familiar meeping and glibbering sounds, and the appetising gnawing noises that normally
filled this place. But there was nothing, only an empty silence. I gave a soft whistle, and five torches swept the room from the doorway.
"Oh my Goddess..." I heard Melanor's panicked grunt. "All those bones ..."
"The bodies piled up shoulder-high .. a charnel-pit ...", Guthfriede gasped, looking in.
I nodded, scanning my own torch around the emptied room. "Exactly. Where's it all GONE to ?"
Just then, the floor rocked again, as another tremor shook the unquiet land. The ship vibrated, ringing for several minutes as the
great open corridors resonated like organ-pipes. At last, the shaking ceased.
"About six on the Richter scale," the Professor rose to his feet, dusting himself down. "And it just kept going ... somewhere,
there's a lot of earth movement going on." He frowned, looking around. "But ... that's not our concern. What's happened here ? Looks like the
place has been .. cleaned out."
"Sponged clean," the otter behind me shivered, pointing his torch up to the doorframe. "Look ! Those marks ... as if something
... huge, and soft came through ... took, like .. Everything !" He winced, his eyes going wide, trembling uncontrollably as he stared
wildly around him. "IT ... and I almost saw .. IT ..."
I grabbed him, pulling his dosimiter out of his pocket - it had turned bright red. His temporary Sanity points were at zero, with the
repeated exposures he had taken that day . Any further deterioration would start exponentially degrading his permanent points. "Quick, folks
- first aid, now !"
Barnstoneworth nodded, waving forward the few of us with mental first aid experience. While the badger slapped some sense into him,
Melanor earnestly threatened him with an asylum, and Guthfriede sat down and firmly and repeatedly told him to pull himself together. After a few
minutes, his dosimiter turned merely orange - recoverable on his own resources.
"He should be all right for now, Sir ... " I nodded to Professor Grimslaithe, who was busily examining the room. There was
the usual armoury off to one side of the entrance, and we all tooled up. Though as I stared around, I realised that it would probably help
little against the kind of Entity that I dreaded was amongst us. "He could use a transfusion, if we've any of the Swiss sanity points in
stock. In fact .." I pulled out my own dosimiter, and winced at the reading. "I could use one myself, fairly soon."
The baboon frowned. "We're a long way from the sickbay ... fastest way might be up the outer stairs, in across E deck. And ..
that way, we could take a look outside, maybe see where we've got to."
In the gloom we advanced, our footsteps echoing oddly. There was something altered here - I had been on the ship before alone, when only
the ghosts of its former crew had walked its halls - now, it had changed. A Presence was here, something we had never felt before - and
as we searched room after room, the feeling of dread grew.
Reaching C deck, we looked around the great kitchens. There had been a meal in preparation; fresh food was on the tables, and my nose
twitched at the delicious aroma of reprocessed Chinese pork lard. Only a knocked-over chair lay in mute testimony to whatever had happened. In
a side-chamber I saw movement - and dived in low, acid-thrower ready to spray.
Behind me, Barnstoneworth tutted. "Nay, lad. It's EU stuff, all right, but it's nowt we didn't have before." On the benches were a dozen
melons being carved into fanciful 3-D sculptures for the Captain's Table, each one strapped securely into the computer-controlled grip of
an old EU surplus Lobotomatic. We sighed with relief, until Clem looked at the programme timer on one of the hard-used cerebrosculptors.
"It's only half way through a forty-minute cycle." He pointed at the little screen, and looked around the deserted room. "Not twenty
minutes ago - folk were preparing high tea in here."
Silence fell, broken only by the crunching of the power trepans on rough melon-rind.
"Further up, and further in," Professor Grimslaithe pointed at the exit. "And if we were going carefully before - now we try harder !"
Moving cautiously from doorway to doorway, it took us half an hour to cross the ship to reach E deck, the uppermost complete level.
At the top of the walkway, I looked out into the huge, echoing tank hangars. There was a little light here, a grey blur, that I recognised
as the open hatch of the great landing-ramp. Silhouetted against it were three huge shapes.
Barnstoneworth must have heard me gasp, for he tapped me reassuringly on the shoulder. "Eh, lad, tha shoulda recognise them.
Them's Viper, Vicious an' Vilify - looks like folk had time to get us landin' tanks aboard before ship moved."
Embarrassed, I nodded. "It might be an idea to go there. There's equipment onboard, weapons and comms gear that we could use." I looked
around the great echoing bay, feeling wide-open and vulnerable with our head-torches visible a mile away to anything that might be there to see.
And there was something reassuring about slamming a lockable turret hatch down, in an unknown and threatening world.
We reached the little landing-tanks without incident, and looked around. They were parked barely ten metres away from the edge of the
open hatch, turrets pointing into the ship. I frowned. "These should be pointing the other way. It's always top priority, before you refuel or
bomb them up. It's as if ... " I looked around at a dozen faces, anxious in the ghostly light. "It's as if folk just had time to get them on
board. But only just."
While the rest of the party searched through the little ninety-tonne runabouts, I edged towards the open hatchway, gaping open and
just wide enough to drive the three vehicles up abreast. The light was dim, a foggy night lying heavy on the forbidden lands outside. Looking
up, for an instant a star shone through a ragged gap in the swirling vapours.
Professor Grimslaithe joined me, staring out into the gloom. The landing-ramp led down out of sight, plunging into the fog. He gestured
up at the dark, lowering skies, his technicolour face bleached to stained muddy hues in the dimness. "It's clearing up, just a bit. If we
could just see where we were, or even what direction we're facing, I'd be happier."
We looked out for a minute, before I stiffened in fear. Close now, was that sound we had come to dread - the deadly pulsations of the
Native's drum-and-bass machines, somewhere hidden in the choking mists. "They're out there." The Professor's face was grim. "We don't
know a lot about this part of the world, since the Millennium." He shivered. "There's a few of the more obscure stanzas of the Cleethorps
Fragments, that might be referring to them." He paused. Suddenly, his eyes widened.
"This landing-ramp ..." he said slowly. "It's still here - but the ship's moved. And it's only got a torsion tolerance of .. about ten
degrees - if you turn any sharper corners with the ramp trailing, you'll rip it off. So ..." his eyes closed in concentration, picturing
courses and maps, "so ... that puts us almost on the mainland. At least, it's towards that odd upthrust ridge you and Barnstoneworth explored."
"Aye, that's so," that worthy nodded, coming up behind us, now helmeted and towing a perchloric-acid thrower. "An' summat else, Prof ?
That road us found, first day here. That was on top o' the ridge, though it's not on the final series maps. If we're headin' towards t'ridge,
we're headin' right down t' road. Who knows what's waitin' fer us, like?"
"The Magic Stays", The Professor Grimslaith intoned. "That's from the Eighth Brochure of the Cleethorpes Fragments, the one where
they located its original position on the planet by the sun angles and a timestamp recovered from the photograph. " He paused. "We were all too
near that site, even before we went aground. I think this part of the world got through one of their Civil Wars with nothing worse than
thermonuclear carpet-bombing ... the fallout decays, but ... maybe something else doesn't. I just wonder ... how much stays."
As he talked, we had slowly moved away from the yawning maw of the launching ramp, towards the landing-tanks. Just then, something gave
a loud chirp.
We all jumped in suprise, looking around us. "Clem - is that your geiger ?" I called out softly, my tail pressed between my legs in
panic. But then the sound came again - from my own pocket. I pulled out the metallic box that had rested for so many years
with the lost wolf, turning it over in my paws. He had been lightly equipped, carrying nothing except absolute essentials, and this had
been part of his kit. There seemed to be no controls on it, no indications what it was for - but as I swung it around, it chirped again.
"Ey lad, back off a bit, and see if it's directional, or what," Barnstoneworth advised. I nodded, moving out to the centre of the
hangar, and swung it again - getting a fainter chirp, pointing towards the landing-tanks. A few minutes circling left me where I had begun -
facing the Vilify, Minette's vehicle.
Clem ran his geiger over the whole vehicle, frowning as he tuned it to its highest sensitivity. "It's not hot, nothing above background -
and the others are just the same. So what's that box detecting, that this tank's got ?"
"What HAS it got, indeed?" The Professor queried, cocking his head to one side. "This is the one Minette and Cnuthwald went out in -
and only Minette came back. Or did she ? Something came back, certainly. Remember, Jethro said she wasn't alone, that last time anyone saw her.
But he couldn't say who was with her. Who - or what ?"
My mouth dried, as I remembered the events of this morning - only a few hours ago, but seeming to belong to another age of the
world. "Barnstoneworth ... Minette told everyone she'd hardly gone a mile from the ship, before things went strange and the tech stopped
working. So she shouldn't have been anywhere near us - if she was telling the truth."
"Aye. If she was, if she was ! So whose prints did we find in the mud, up there on the block ? Hobnailed boots, small size too - in
our pattern. Suppose she got there before us - she might have, tha' knows. Could ha' gained ten minutes on us if she'd gone straight to the
block, another ten if'n she found an easier way up. Recall, those prints went off to the side ?" His stripy features were a mask of fear. "But
how could she, like ? We didn't know what was there !"
There was a silence, broken by the dismal 280 beats-per-minute echoing in from the fog-shrouded darkness outside. At length, the Professor stirred.
"It could be," he said slowly, looking from one face to another, "That she knew. She might have known long before she joined this ship,
for texts like the Cleethorps Fragments, and worse, may find their way into many hands. Or it may be that she didn't HAVE to know - just by
being what she was, and doing as she did, she ... attracted attention to herself."
Clem nodded. "I've heard of that. There was a case in Asgarth last year. A research student, he'd passed security clearence before
they let him access any EC material, but .. his work ..." he swallowed, nervously. "His work, researched and rewrote HIM. The police found he'd
got a lockup garage ... it was horrible. There was a tantalum -lined pit in the floor, proof against most detection, with nearly a tonne of
highly refined, weapons-grade Cuteonium."
"Exactly," the Professor said, accepting a helmet from Melanor. "Like the psychic version of a radio aerial - once you shape your
thoughts in a certain way, they become attuned to what's out there. And after that, what's Outside - oh, definitely, it doesn't stay Outside for long."
Taking the strange box, I scanned it over the outer hull of the Villify. The traces, whatever they were, concentrated on the back of
the vehicle, the great rear doors that in happier times would shield a platoon of mech infantry.
"We've looked in there," Clem whispered, cautiously opening the rear doors. "Nothing visible."
The doors opened, and we looked about. At first glance, Clem seemed to be right, as we scanned our torches round the interior. But
then the Professor pointed wordlessly - up at the roof of the cargo hold, at certain ... traces that were there.
"Just like in the Ghouls' nest," he nodded significantly, looking around us. "Looks like something .. came on board the ship in
here. And it was big, even then - big enough to press against the ceiling, three metres high."
I shivered, trying not to recall the ghastly rounded thing that had brushed by us on the squirrel-walk. But there was one thing that
even my damaged sanity balance could not account for. "Sir - unless there's .. two of them .. the one we saw - it was big, but it wasn't
THAT big ! " As if in agreement, the detector in my hand cheeped constantly as it faced the interior of the Vilify, and the curiously
blurred impressions that seemed to have been made by something bonelessly soft and fluffy.
"In the B'harne Fragments," Professor Grimslaithe whispered, his eyes widening in alarm, "There's .. mention made of the - undefined
shape and form of some Entities ... some of the Great Stuffed ones, from Outside. They're not wholly here, in the usual sense .. and the
way they .. interact with things of Earth and Einsteinian Spacetime, is ... odd." He paused, wincing. "One of them, that revealed its true
nature at a certain .. Site outside Tokyo, started off as a normal, factory-made toy in a shop window - just before we found out the true
nature of all such things. It was .. admired, and that gave it the energy to bring in more of itself from the far side - then it was
worshipped, and it started to grow in three dimensions. When it began to ... feed, it got huge." He shook his head, looking at us bleakly. "By
the time the defenders of Kobe slew it with a nuclear lunge-mine, it was ninety metres across, and growing .. exponentially."
"You worship them, you give them life. Feed them, they grow." I looked down at the squeaking box. There seemed to be an odd echo in
here, I thought, till I looked around. Barnstoneworth was well outside the Vilify, but he was looking alarmed. I slowly retreated, till I was
standing out in the open, pointing the detector well away from the Vilify, in the open hangar.
Beyond our headtorches' beams and the pale, fog-drowned light filtering in from outside, the huge expanse of the tank hangar stretched
away into the darkness. And from that unknown distance there came a squeaking, horribly soft as if filtering through vile oceans of
fluffiness - and yet near, frighteningly near. As I whirled round, to my horror I saw a glow, a pastel pink false dawn just creeping into
visibility - and the detector I carried squeaked in reply.
"Out ! Out ! Exit to 'F' deck, over there !" Galvanised into action, I sprinted away from the three parked landing-tanks, towards
the stairs. The rest followed in a rush, arriving almost together on the narrow enclosed staircase barely two seconds behind me.
At the top of the stairs, I looked down for an instant. Melanor and the black-suited otter, Hengist by name, had collided at
the tail-end of the group, and bowled each other over. Three of the bone-digging canine archaeologists turned round to help them, when
suddenly the foot of the stairs was bathed in a ghastly pastel flood of light.
"Don't look !" I shouted down to the four below, in direct sight of the hangar. "Run!"
Time seemed to slow to a crawl. The rest of the party charged past me in fear, their natural defense mechanism (run away screaming)
kicking in. But for the five trapped in direct eye contact ... I had seen it demonstrated, even as a pup, that any energy is
dangerous in enough concentration. A century ago, what fur could have thought something as innocuous as light could become a strategic laser
striking down from orbiting battlestations ? And who, though pulled by Earth's loving gravity every second of their lives, could truly have
envisaged what that force could do when squeezed into a Black Hole ? In that instant, as my stomach emptied convulsively in defensive reaction,
I saw the rarely whispered effects of a comparable concentration of pure, focused Cuteness on mortal flesh and bone.
That my sanity snapped a little, I cannot doubt, and even now I scream if I unexpectedly see cotton-wool or candy-floss. Just before I
lost consciousness, I saw one other thing that is always with me - the runes on my breastplate flashing with silvery fire, some force hurling
me back like the kick from a carthorse, up the stairs and into merciful oblivion.
Again, I had that dream - the viewpoint, high as a six-storey building, as if I looked from the front of a ground-hugging helicopter
on a scene of battle. There was a low cloudbase, wreathed with columns of smoke, from a shoreline just ahead. And on that shoreline, things
waited as we ground towards them - unspeakable things, that my friends could see only through a specially filtered super-Iconoscope to save
their minds ...
The shoreline grew nearer - mundane fire and explosive whipped against me, stinging and smarting - I felt the hurts, but knew they were
minor. My back was guarded, the sea foaming with turbulence from two shoals of the Albanian Interceptor/Strike Halibut patrolling just
offshore. Ahead of me was the heavy shield I pushed, its spikes and graven runes catching the light as it turned, and I trampled an inviting
defense position beneath me.
Far in the distance, huge rounded shapes appeared on the horizon, their distant forms painful to behold. These, I recognised.
With a shrug, reflexes kicked in - and I knew that huge motors were shunting thousand-tonne belts of full-calibre Fluff-Piercing rounds
towards the turrets. I might reach the nearest of the pastel things from here - I had sabot shot available, one twitch in the right place
would send a stream of them arcing out to strike a few minutes later...
White pain lanced through me ! Brilliant light and an agony like to boiling oil thrown in my face - blinding energies and a kick that
drove me backwards, a millionfold agonies telling me of real hurts throughout my body. Darkness settled, lanced with growing red pain.
Suddenly there were voices, urgent yet distant, as if shouting through a wall. Voices told of fires coming under control, of the most
critical wounds being mended - but the front shield was gone, vaporised by the trap. And that I had been lucky, the trap had been triggered too
soon, fifty metres in front of my shield. Grievous were my wounds, crippling me here on the edge of the land I had come so far to see - but
then knew grief indeed as I heard the count of how many of my friends were dead forever in the fires as they sought to heal me.
Behind me, another trap was sprung. A horde of small things must have been waiting hidden behind me, on the seafloor - The instant
the blast passed over they bobbed to the surface, evil blue daemons paddling in for a beach landing, balancing through the crashing breakers
standing on their smurfboards. Though crippled, I turned on my remaining good side, focussing my will there as a broadside from ninety
turrets rang out and the sea thrashed in hails of five-nines iron grapeshot. Time was running out, I knew - though the thrashing wakes six
kilometers offshore showed where another shoal of combat halibut were vectoring in at forty knots, a pyramid of the filthy blue things was
forming on the stern like swarming army ants .. hidden in the angle behind the tracks where the point-defense turrets had been blinded by
the nuclear near-miss...
Shuddering, I felt the horror and madness spread throughout me. The squeakily singing horde had climbed above the main Enchanted belt,
with only the few metres of Erebus-werke silcrete now protecting the crew. And they were getting through .. the great rune-graven glacis
plate would have kept the radiant Cuteness out for hours by the virtue of its active Tantalum-gravings and its blood-smeared black spiky bits
... but the thinner top and back armour was giving way, letting their ghastly emanations flood throughout the long corridors ...
I awoke, conscious first of a swaying motion. I must have groaned, for the swaying stopped and I was suddenly lying on a hard surface.
Vision returned, and I looked up at a corridor ceiling. I blinked, but took a second to realise what was new - the ship's lights
were on. The Professor was looking down at me anxiously - in his hand I saw the strange Detector pointing down at me.
Eventually, he nodded, waving the others forward - I saw Clem, Barnstoneworth and Guthfriede there. Barnstoneworth's grim expression
softened as he saw me struggle to my feet, and he switched the safety device back on his perchloric acid-thrower.
"Ey, lad - we reckoned we'd lost you," the badger sighed, shivering in reaction. "Tha's all reet, and - tha'self. " He winced.
"Hengist and Cuthbert, further from the burst ... I 'ad ter do what a Vicar does. They'd ... started to Change. A mate of mine, were Hengist
- he'd been conductor on me tram, at Third Lille."
Clem nodded. "I saw the reactive runes blow on your armour - that must have been what saved you." He pointed to burned scars on my
breastplate, where several of the black spiky bits were missing. "But they're a one-shot protection, and that was it. Luckily, when you threw
up most of it hit the armour, which helped."
I looked around. We were on the F deck, the uppermost level surviving, where the ship's Bridge and altars were. "Is there nobody else ... left ?"
The Professor shook his head, canine teeth exposed in a grim rictus of worry. "Nobody."
"And that means, no body, either," Clem's tail drooped on the floor. "But ... this thing, onboard the ship..."
"This thing." The Professor's voice was calm now, cold as ice. "We cannot have any more doubts. It is one of the Great Stuffed Ones,
its kin were summoned by the Legiomancers of Brussels. But I don't understand - how this one came here. The Vicars would have detected a
Summoning, anywhere on the planet - these days. Only if it had been here already, before the EC wars ... maybe long before the Milennium, when
this was all dry land. And there's something else that hasn't been seen, since Brussels fell." He gestured around at the well-lit corridor.
"What do you make of that ?"
It took me a few heartbeats to realise what he meant. "The lights ! They're working here - we didn't see any .. physical damage
down below - and you could shoot this ship half to bits before any the systems went, the way it's built."
"Exactly. We have lights on in three corridors - which makes no sense, the way the circuits are wired. Something here is preventing the
- changes outside taking place, the sort of Legiomancies that were practiced in the EC towards the end. Electronics just aren't working,
the way the Laws are being altered outside these few rooms."
"EU forces ? Surviving here ?" I gasped. But the elderly baboon shook his head. "Not necessarily. That power, to alter our Regulations, is
certainly in effect all around us. As for the EU's abilities - who do you think taught THEM ?"
Just behind the entrance to the Bridge, we paused. I felt a strange sensation, a vague heightening of tension in the air - but it
was neutral, something like static, rather than the aimed and exquisitely personal threat that had caught us below. My tail waved
slowly, and I pointed in towards the Altar room.
Clem dropped to the floor and looked around the door. He gasped. "In there - it looks like there's someone alive there, and .. the altar's online !"
"How ? Surely they couldn't ..." I bit back the obvious comment about how many sacrifices an altar that size usually took to
reconsecrate from scratch, and looked round the corner.
The great black monolith was there, where we had left it - but not quite as we left it. Its complex angles now shifted as you looked at
it, concavities becoming convexities, runes seeming to crawl in unthinkable patterns over its surface. Two figures were lying still,
within the circle of cabling that I noticed had appeared on the floor since we had last stood here - little over two hours before, I noted
with shock. One of them was Phoebe, sprawled in the Recovery position - from the scent, I could tell she had been taking her "control Group" job
seriously - the other was a still and rubbery ghoul, not one that I recognised.
Reaching over the circle of wiring, Barnstoneworth touched both figures cautiously. "Phoebe's alive, though happen she's got a reet good
skinfull. T'other one's Undead, but looks no worse for it. " He reached out towards the altar, fur standing on end as the electrical tension
leaked into the mundane world. "Altar's running, aye."
"Well, that looks all right," the Professor nodded. He bent down, pointing to a small box on the floor, cables linking it to the
ship's power supply. "There was another way of rebooting it, after all. Look ! A ring of video Praystations, the modern Japanese ones you can
link. Once the link's established, it'll load right up." He frowned, motioning Clem and I forward. "Do we have Divine Intervention available yet ?"
After a few minutes examining the enchantment, we both shook our heads. "It's only partly up .. enough to stop the special effects from
Outside altering the Praystations' electronics, like the rest of the ship's suffering from." Clem summed up. "And .. we've seen this before, today."
"Aye, we 'ave that." Barnstoneworth called softly from his lookout position at the doorway. "This mornin', like ... when us
instruments went barmy. Reckon we're near enough same spot - which is a sight too near, to my way o' thinking."
"Schtroumf !" The Professor swore, slamming a leathery wrist into his palm. "That'll mean nothing outside these rooms are going to
work properly, none of the sensors - at least, nothing from our technology. And what we need - is Information. " He gestured to the
still figures. "They were safe inside the circle, maybe .. or if they were already unconscious, whatever went through here ... didn't hunt by
sight or scent. We'll have to wake them up."
There was a first-aid kit by the door which I ransacked for anything suitable. Despite all the medical advances, there was little
that was any use against a severe hangover such as Phoebe would be getting - or, at least, nothing except for placebo effects. Suddenly,
my questing paw found the very thing. "Suggestex 2000," I read the little bottle, "High strength,
prescription-only placebo. Not to be taken by medically knowlegeable patients." I blinked, looking round. "Barnstoneworth, do you know if
Phoebe's got any First Aid experience ?"
He shook his head. "Nay, lad. Last time we 'ad an exercise, she was about to treat a badly bleeding headwound case wi' a neck
tourniquet, when folks stopped her." He paused. "Still, it would'ha worked one way and another, have to credit her that."
The placebo worked perfectly, and soon Phoebe was conscious and complaining. But we learned little: she had worked her way through three
bottles of Nasti Spumanti that she could recall - and probably several more besides. Someone else had carried her up here, and the ghoul
beside her - whose metabolism resisted placebo effects, and slumbered on.
As we told Phoebe of the nightmare that had fallen on us all, her ears dipped, her eyes widened. She was silent for a minute, then stirred.
"I never did trust that Minette," she muttered finally. "Now I know who poured mayonnaise on my fish and chips. If she got plushed
flat, serves her right."
"Quite," the Professor said, one ear dipped. "But - we need some help. We found this, down below on A deck" - he pulled out the hand-
writtten card with its double inscription, and presented it to her. "Do you recognise this ? I know your course studies a lot of strange secrets."
Phoebe sniffed, looking at the inscription. "It's just a set of notes about valve settings and pressure readings. As for the script, of
course I recognise it. That script gets handed in as supposed evidence for all sorts of silly stuff on my course, but you don't get marks for
investigating it. Although ... we do study Negative as well as Positive Conspiracies on my degree, you know."
"Eh ?" Barnstoneworth queried elegantly. "What's a Negative Conspiracy, when it's at 'ome ?"
The blocky vixen sighed. "It's one that folk have tried to push as the truth, but doesn't hold up. This fake .." she tapped the
inscription, "Is from ... well, supposedly there's a civilisation living deep under Antartica, been there since the 1940's. Allegedly,"
she wrinkled her muzzle, " known for their exotic tech base and unhealthily narrow genetic base. But if that was true, it'd clearly
invalidate Wilmington's Third and Eighteenth Prime Conspiracy Tenets - it'd undermine the very foundations of Conspiracy Studies. Clearly,
you've got the wrong evidence."
"Hmm ...," the Professor frowned. "But I've seen pictures taken by people who've been there - talked to them, too."
"Mass hysteria," Phoebe turned up her narrow muzzle. "Those facts just won't fit the theories ! We need some better facts. Some
that'll fit the underlying principles properly."
A badger ear dipped, wryly. "Last time I heard o' doing things that way, was before the Milennium. Folk in this part o' the world
decided mathematical methods didn't show enough Faith. I heard o' a bridge they built wi' no Mathematical principles allowed, only Christian
"It's a perfectly good experiment !" Phoebe protested. "I've read of that project. Okay, so the bridge fell down - but it wouldn't
have done if folk had enough Faith in its integrity. They brought in maintainance engineers who had the wrong mindset entirely - the
Principles said very explicitly it would Heal itself, given enough faith. Bring in unbelievers like that, and of course it falls down.
Proves what I was saying. "
The Professor waved her away. "Well, at least we know who built the ship, now. So That's settled." He nodded , smiling. "For awhile
there, I was worried it might be something sinister."
A wave of relief swept around briefly, and I found myself regaining a sanity point or two. But then, I looked around at the six
rooms whose working lights proclaimed them as wholesome islands in this sea of blasphemous, abnormal Cute into which we had blindly floundered.
"There's no way we can communicate with the rest of the world, from here," I gestured to the room next door where the resurrected
computers still whirred and blinked. "But - if we need information, there's one more thing we can try."
As the shadowy world of the Infranet surrounded me, I was drawn back to the central plaza of the World-Wide Catacomb, the timeless
place that I had fled from before. As I travelled, the sensation grew that things were different this time - and as my viewpoint settled down,
I saw that I was right. Though indefinitely large, the place was crowded - and many shapes turned towards me as I landed.
The crowd was wispy, hard to see in any detail - it was as if I stood in a circle of fog, a crowd surrounding me at the edge of
visibility. Then one figure stepped forward, moving towards me.
I blinked, staring. It was a mustelid of some kind, though in this place all the colours were blurred, arbitrary things. Not until he
drew near did I recognise him - and my virtual heart virtually lurched within me, for I was face to face with the custard-yellow polecat who I
had last seen dead in the room three decks below, who had seen something through the Panjandrum's camera that had left him with suicide
as his only safe escape.
Walking forward, I extended my arms, palm upwards as I had heard described in many guides to the World-Wide Catacomb. Though the dead
here had nothing exactly analagous to voices, they could still pass on impressions of what they had seen, especially in their last minutes.
"There's some knowledge that a fur cannot survive understanding," I told myself, steeling what defenses I had, feeling
like a cub reinforcing a sandcastle against an incoming tsunami. "But unless we find out what's happening - none of us stand a chance anyway."
My hands reached clasp was odd to the touch - there was an answering pressure
there, but it was more like the pressure of a stream of water than a solid object. And as the data began to flow, I recognised the scene - it
was the viewpoint of the Panjandrum's hub-mounted camera, that I had looked out through for tedious mist-filled hours this morning.
At first, there was nothing out of the ordinary, just a flat terrain of deep ocean ooze crossed with runnels of water, a dreary
mudscape barely fifty metres across, edged by swirling fog . Gradually, I noticed that the streams of water were all flowing towards us now,
and had cut deeper into the mud, revealing things that the ocean had bravely tried to hide for dread decades. I shivered, at something
glimpsed at the bottom of a scoured channel - it was only a second's flash of a pre-milennium popcorn beaker, but I saw there unburied the
logo of something I had seen, just once in that terrible third pop-up book of the Compte D'isgny that none should read after dark.
The scene slowly changed. From the rolling wheel of the Panjandrum it was hard to tell the angle of slope we were climbing, but
the runnels of water were eating deep into the mud and the speed icons were dropping. Superimposed on the screen was the familiar pattern of
instruments telling the speed, location and fuel state - but as I watched, a second set of symbols appeared, flashing in urgent warning
blue and white. For a second, I thought they must be control signals being relayed from the Vengeance - but then I recalled the log file we
had found, where my command to return home had been the last instruction any of us had sent the scouting pinwheel.
"Any of US, anyway ..." I swallowed, virtual mouth dry. "But those are controls it's getting - where from ? The transmitter used the
ship's scrambled link ... nobody could break into the signal just like that ..."
For an instant the view was blocked by a gout of spray as the panjandrum ploughed up a watercourse, bumping over things that the
ocean ooze had mercifully hidden. There was a signpost, bent flat by the tsunamis that had smashed this area flat in those apocalyptic final
hours ... and upon that dread stencil-graven tablet was a Name, a Name that I had seen in the dread B'harne Fragments - all the more terrifying
for the utter ... obliqueness of every cryptical reference there. It was as if even the authors of that unspeakable text had not dared to say
what they knew - or if they had spoken more fully, those passages had not survived to further trouble an unquiet world. In the Kawaiinomicon
that placename is mentioned but once, and only in the enigmatic Milton Keynes edition - most significantly of all, in the loathesome "Das
UberPflaumig Kulten" of Von Tuu, no reference whatever is made. Did Von Tuu not know, or did he know and not dare to tell ?
As my mind reeled at the revelation, the horror grew . With a jolting, the Panjandrum went over an unseen step buried in the ooze -
and the going was suddenly smoother. Looking back through the panoramic camera, I saw a dirty but unmistakeable concrete roadway
exposed in the Panjandrum's wake. Off to each side in the mud were footprints of various species, too many to count.
And then ... I had not known the Scout Panjandrums recorded sound, until that terrifying pulsation thundered around my ears, the
two hundred and eighty beats per minute of the sinister native drum-and-bass machines. Before I could pull my view away, unwilling at the last
to face what was waiting there, the final veil of fog parted, and it was suddenly too late.
I saw it ! What was all around it was bad enough - a party of natives, thirty or forty of them, lined up on each side of the buried
road, stamping and clapping as they line-danced in modes that ancient Meroe knew and knew as accursed. Their dress was ragged, in the odd
blue cotton and reversed caps you see in films from before the Millennium - but it was their features that were similar, shockingly so. I saw a
dozen or more species there, but all bore the same ... tendencies, that even now I hesitate to recall too exactly. Limbs were rounded, fur
texture too soft-looking for healthy descendants of this planet's evolution - and some of the more degraded ones who danced at the further
end, showed unmistakeable shoe-button like eyes and noses that I could only describe as pink heart-shapes.
The Panjandrum's camera panned forwards past the obscenely capering horde - to the thing to which they had come here to make
shocking obesiance, perhaps summoned by some hereditary taint or darkly whispered legend as soon as the earthquakes had raised it from its
decade-long slumber on the oozy floor of ocean. It was raised up on a tall pillar that stuck jaggedly up into the glowering mists - and as its
worshippers line-danced to it, it hopped and skipped gleefully, even though its form was greatly .. stuffier than things which normally
move of their own accord. Cutting through the drum-and-base cacophony, I heard it squeak and giggle, bouncing up and down even as it accepted
their mental energies .. and began to grow.
Just before the Panjandrum's screen lit up with gun-camera sighting marks as it prepared to self-destruct and erase that vile
festival from existence, I saw the Thing turn and look directly at the camera. That it knew what it faced, I am sure - but instead of any sign
of fear, it giggled happily, rubbing its soft pawsies together in gleeful anticipation. More than that - in that final second I saw it
looking hard into the lens of the fighting pinwheel - as if it was following the datalink back across the trackless muds, to those who had
sent it - and finding the prospect appealing.
The Panjandrum's transmission clicked off, three hundred kilos of aluminised cyclonite breaking up the party. I felt as if the floor
had unexpectedly come up and hit me, my viewpoint jerking violently as I found myself in the shadowy main plaza of the World-Wide Catacomb - and
realised why the place suddenly seemed so crowded. Of the Vengeance's crew, three hundred and sixty strong, I now knew that only those who
were with me on the F deck bridge were still alive.
Shaking, I disconnected from the Infranet and was pulled back to my waking body. As I looked around, I saw Phoebe standing on guard at
the doorway - the rest were gone.
She saw me look around in panic, and pointed next door. "In there," she whispered. "That strange map - at least we know something's
definitely working, outside this corridor."
As I staggered to my feet and looked round into the next room, I saw that the ship's map had altered yet again. Where we had seen one
black spot of contagion before, now most of E deck was a smoky cloud glowing like the cremated ruins of a recently bombed city.
"Look !" The Professor pointed urgently, "That thing's not getting its own way, not everywhere ! " For the lower two decks were a
healthy and vibrant green, slowly spreading up to C deck, where shifting masses of black, red and green fought to and fro. "That's what
the ship's doing with all that power - eight boiling-potassium reactors, Cthulhu alone knows how many hundred megawatts each ... it's going to
its immune system."
"Immune system ?" Phoebe looked over his shoulder, tail swishing critically. "This is a machine, Prof - a Machine. It doesn't have a
heart, a brain - or an immune system. You'll be saying it has a soul next ..."
"If it works like a soul, hurts like a soul, aspires like a soul - then it IS one, as near as you need to know," the babboon snapped.
"Don't you see ? The ship's been waking up all along - when we started repairing it, it approved and helped us along, with whatever it could."
"Which explains a lot," Clem muttered. "The reactors on A deck -" he frowned. "It had to know somehow it'd need them. And it waited as
long as it could - until we were almost out of the room, before triggering them." He gulped, looking around, up at the ceiling. "It
knows we're here, then. And .. it knows where something else is."
Far below us came a thundering roar, and a vibration that sang up through the floor. It was the unforgettable sound I had heard in my
dreams, the world-scale ripping of fabric, as all eight A deck reactors went to full power.
"Look !" Clem yelped, pointing urgently at the screen. "It's .. punching a hole through the Great Stuffed One's form !
Glowing dimly on the ancient LED screen, a region of green light was extending up from below, vicious eddies of scarlet and yellow
showing how intense the struggle was. Pushed more than a certain distance, the cloud retreated grudgingly, like the ocean around an ice
caisson - defeated for the moment, but ready to burst in through the least flaw.
Just at the end of the far corridor a light which had been extinguished, winked on.
"Ey eck !" Barnstoneworth breathed, tracing a narrow green corridor on the map. "It's linked up to us .. aye, Clem, it knows
we're here - it's offering us a way out."
"A way somewhere," Clem nodded. He frowned, grey tail waving. "That doesn't go outside. It goes ... " Suddenly his ears went right
up. "D deck, but not the resedential bits - it's that room we found ! The one with the commander sitting in it !" A strange expression washed
over his face.
"Commander ?" Professor Grinslaithe queried, eyes wide. "What makes you say that ?"
Feline ears dipped. "I ... don't know. It just came to me." He frowned, and the image that came to me was a card-carrying Sceptic
tearing his cards up. "That sort of thing just doesn't Happen ..."
We looked around at each other, for a few heartbeats. Then the Professor looked at me. "The ship ... it knows what it needs. It's spending most of its
reserves, redlining its reactors to get someone in there .. and you're the one it revealed itself to. I don't know what it needs - but I know
we've got to find out. Right now."
As I sat again in the throne of steel, I knew that things had .. altered. The white-metal runes glowed faintly, whole new sections of
them having appeared from the stone wall like a shoal of silvery fishes swimming near to the ocean's surface. My arms gripped the seat, fingers
seeming to dent the metal like firm foam - the whole surface melding to my form, very subtly.
"The Helm !" Suddenly I realised, as I sat there feeling the heart of the ship surge into new life. "That's why we could never find
it - we were looking for the kind of computer WE built in our macro-tanks, and not for this at all !" My heart laboured, as I looked
around - there was no obvious button to press, Clem's team having thoroughly searched this room and found it bare of anything that looked
like controls as we understood them.
Two decks above me, the rest of them - Barnstoneworth, Clem, Phoebe, Guthfriede, Professor Grimslaithe and the unknown ghoul - all of
them waited for me to find the answers. I pounded the throne in frustration, then closed my eyes ... and things began to alter.
In my waking thought, the dreams that had disturbed me returned.
I felt that odd shift of viewpoint, as if I looked out from the top of a high moving vehicle, higher than the treetops. But unlike before,
there were no treetops or buildings here - the land was a low swamp of glistening grey mud-flats, shrouded in night and fog.
Concentrating, I looked "around" - my viewpoint shifted, and as I strove to look through the fog the colour of the picture shifted.
Blinking, I realised that the image I was suddenly seeing was radar, a synthetic aperture aerial rotating on the roof above "F" deck.
""The block .. it's got bigger", I looked at the long whaleback of horribly resurrected ocean floor that I had explored with
Barnstoneworth that morning - now the Vengeance was parked with the its steeply sloping glacis plate scarcely a hundred metres away from its
edge. But there would be no repeating the route we had used to get up there, barely twelve hours earlier - the block had been raised further
in the earthquakes, naked rock glistening bright on the radar image forming cliffs ten or fifteen metres high above a wide, crumpled apron
of piled mud and debris shaken down from above.
I turned my head - or rather, even as I decided to turn my head, the view swivelled, looking out over the wide flats. These had altered
too, great gulleys and crevasses running across the landscape where long-silent faults had moved in the last few hours. I looked almost due
East, towards what seemed to be another, still bigger upthrust block ... and stopped.
There was something there that I could not focus on - the more I stared at it, the more it slipped away - my peripheral vision showed the
roots of a large rise, but .. there was a fuzzy area, that the radar refused to resolve - or refused to show me. It was like the distorting
hologram effect that some of the latest camouflage systems used - or the Japanese "virtual swimsuits" that let their wearer get an all-over tan,
while showing up as a confused blob of pixels on camera.
For an instant, I thought of Barnstoneworth, of what he had said on top of that first block. The Panjandrum's detonation had left nothing
alive there - at least, nothing that had been alive in the flesh and blood sense. But there had been tracks coming out of that crater, odd
tracks that seemed to get bigger as they circled and quartered the area - and suddenly, I knew why.
"Worship them, they gain life ... feed them and they grow. We never did find a shred left of the Natives who were caught in the blast
..." I swallowed, my mouth dry "It'd been underwater all that time, maybe trapped by the tsunamis .. nobody around to feed it". In a ghastly
parody of many of the Really Teriffic Old Ones, something stuffed had lain deathless but dreaming, till brought to the surface - even before
any of this blighted land had reappeared from the waves, the wise ones of Earth had felt its influence lying like a pastel blight in the area -
and asked for only volunteers of mortal lifespan to be included on this expedition.
"The natives, they were worshipping it, right enough .. and they might have brought it a sacrifice, like the Unspeakable Texts say.
But ... that would have been only one or two, surely. We wiped out the whole tribe of them .. letting the Great Stuffed One eat ... everyone.
That's why its tracks got bigger as it moved around the area .. it was growing, even then." In panic, my paws gripped the arms of the throne
hard, as the realisation hit me. "We're responsible for - unleashing it on the world - and with our radios out, we can't warn anyone !"
Suddenly, another image flashed before my eyes, as if a previously darkened monitor had been switched on. It was a twin of the
odd LED display behind the bridge, which had showed me the way here - and like the one above, it was changing. There were obvious differences
though - areas that were blank or curiously undefined on the bigger map were shown in full detail. I mentally blinked, staring hard.
"It's not the same sort of change as I've seen, the ship repairing itself.. it's like looking at a classified map, compared with
the retail version ... what are those ?" Right down on C deck were six long shapes, three on each side of the ship, folded in telescoped
geometrical shapes like diagrams of long-beaked bird embryos still in their shells. Their "shells" were hidden within big water tanks right
against the outer hull, a complex arrangement of fins extending far into the water spaces.
As I looked, the various systems linking them to the rest of the ship swum into focus. Control lines, liquid oxygen and hydrogen feeds,
and long, empty passages the size of ventilator shafts that snaked away into the depths of the ship.
"What ARE those ?" I looked harder, feeling a strange irritation building up. It was a physical itch, almost as if the throne was a
second skin pressed close to my fur, giving me the sensations of a far larger body, of a radically bigger shape than my own lupine frame.
A shiver ran through me. I looked "up" - and saw the Entity that filled most of E deck. I saw it, and in that moment I felt sure
that it saw me. A shudder ran through the ship, the hideously plushie mass vibrating like a shaking jelly. As a black, ember-strewn flood it
appeared, the red highlights revealing nothing but its own swollen horror. And the mass moved - like a bad animation of an avalanche, it
flowed through the big tank landing hatch and away from the ship. "Professor !" I shouted, experimentally - focusing my will on
the room where they were, I felt in my new vision the little band of survivors look up - and Barnstoneworth wave, putting hands over his ears
in gesture. "It's leaving the ship - I'm shutting the hatch .. now." I concentrated, but did not shout this time - and as I imagined the huge
hatch shutting and locking, a distant clang echoed through the open corridors.
For a minute I looked around - the main mass had already moved some two hundred metres from the ship, and was heading towards the
distant mountain. As I watched, it began to develop a definite shape, and the odd pixel effect flashed into existence ; somehow I was reminded
of the anti-flash systems on helmets and aircraft canopies that protected crews from blinding lasers or nuclear flash. The display was
protecting me from something- and I had a hideously good idea, of what it was.
"Professor ! You said something about - a site that existed before the Milennium, near here .. where millions of people went to
worship Cute things, before we found out the truth about them." Though there was no camera in the real sense, I could see the baboon nodding.
"What would happen if something that big and Cute, with that much power - got to the site. Would it know what to do - to get it working, like
... " I hesitated, my fur bristling, "Like Brussels nearly was, at the end ?"
There was a hesitation. At length, Professor Grimslaith looked up, and very slowly and deliberately nodded his head.
For a few heartbeats, I sat still, my blood seeming to turn to ice. Growing horribly was the sensation that none of us might have many
heartbeats left, and certainly none to waste. One final time, I projected my thoughts to that room, where my friends waited.
"It's this ship. It really IS alive - it was built to fight things like that, and ... I think it has something planned. I don't
know what it is .. but I've got to stay here and help it. You've got to get clear, E deck should be safe .." I swallowed, checking the route on
the new, full map that I could see with closed eyes. "The landing-tanks are still there - take Viper or Vicious, but don't go near Vilify ! It's
contaminated ... you wouldn't get down the landing-ramp unaltered."
The Professor nodded again, and Barnstoneworth gave me a quick "thumbs-up" sign, gesturing something to Phoebe and Guthfriede. The
four younger crew picked up the ghoul, one to each limb, and began to head towards the stairs.
I looked around, my heart pounding. The huge stuffed menace was moving away now, taking on a very definite form that the protective
filter provided by the Vengeance could not wholly hide. I caught just one glimpse through my peripheral vision, and was sorry I had done so -
for in that instant I knew what Cotton Mather had alluded to so very obliquely in the ninth volume of "Mysterii Plushiisnsii", and what Bri-
Nylon Jones had so very significantly never mentioned even once. As I winced away, my mind recoiling, I felt that odd itching from the throne
suddenly subside - as if I had been struggling to force my hand into a tight-fitting glove that had smoothly fitted into position.
The display of the ship had altered, I realised. Barnstoneworth and the others were arriving at E deck, but two decks below them, the
strange telescoped structures had suddenly opened out like metallic flowers bursting from the bud - and I saw that despite all our searching
and surveying, the Vengeance had some suprises left in store. Thick silcrete hull panels fell away to splash mightily in the mud two storeys
below - the symbols for liquid oxygen and hydrogen flashed on pipework that had been empty for decades. With a shiver, motors the power of
express trains began to shunt metal cylinders from emergency reserves right on the A deck - without needing to ask, I knew them for full-
calibre Fluff-piercing shells, continuous-rod bundles of depleted uranium plated in tantalum. Bumping like old freight cars down the three
magazine feeds that remained, in half a minute they stacked up by the breeches of sponson guns whose status flickered from orange to vibrant
"Barnstoneworth," I whispered, perceiving that worthy look up at whatever hidden speaker the ship had "You found an Internal weapons
turret, didn't you ? Well - there's three of them left working .. they've just popped out through the forward hull on C deck .. get moving
! I can cover you - I don't know how, but I bet the ship does."
The laden party seemed to crawl actoss the display to the welcome metallic bulk of the Vicious, and I felt myself breath again as
I saw them vanish inside. A few seconds later I felt the vibration as the tiny ninety-tonner swivelled to face the landing ramp, turbines
turning and ready to make a break for freedom.
Just as I willed the landing ramp to lower, two things happened. The ship rocked, as another earthquake struck it - and a cold,
sickening sensation as of pure dread washed over me, as tangible as a bucket of foul, icy water sluicing down my back-fur.
"Out ! Get away NOW - don't stop for anything !" I hardly needed to look at the outside picture to realise where the danger was
coming from. The Vickers-Matsushita landing-tank spooled its turbine engines to full emergency power, leaping over the threshold and hardly
touching the descending ramp for six lengths down it - with a muddy splash, it ploughed deep into the flats below and wallowed away from
the Vengeance as fast as its neo-Christie tracks and suspension could carry it.
Breathing deeply, I steeled myself to look in the other direction, towards the second mountain. The two shapes had blurred, the
interference from the Great Stuffed one merging with the vaster image as it approached it - knowing it was the only thing to do, I set myself -
my ship - to a walking pace, the huge living machine now fully awakened and ready to face what lay upon that upthrust block, had lain there
unquiet all through the Pastel Years.
The Vengeance rolled on, skirting the low edge of the first block - almost three kilometres long, one narrow edge thrust up like the
corner of a book dropped in the mud. The earthquakes were more or less continuous now, as far in the distance I heard the excited squeaking of
something too cute and fluffy for any sane or wholesome cosmos to contain.
Sitting there on the throne of steel, I felt my senses widen - my strength that of the ship, but at the same time - memories crowded
in, like those of my dreams but far more intense, the pains and exileration magnified a hundredfold. The ship - it had seen its whole
crew die once in Europe, defending every last corridor as they fought hand-to-hand till the Erebus-forged weapons of tantalum-edged tungsten
melted and boiled in friction, not only blinding light but hard UV and X-rays searing the passageways as one by one they fell to that which the
EC had summoned. And then again - twice now, its organic crew had been wiped out, in ways that the Vengeance's sensors could not help but
record in awful detail. The ship was Alive, I had known that for some time - alive, and with a mind that was pressed to madness with the grief
and terror of what it had endured.
The second mountain was getting nearer now. Without seeing too clearly, I gained the impression that the Great Stuffed one was already
almost at its foot - and there was a site, some kind of structure there on the top which it was gleefully padding towards. And still the
earthquakes rocked that land, as if strains were being built up that the very planet flinched away from, unable to escape.
"Go get it ..." I heard my voice soft, feeling the ship respond. The Vengeance had less than one percent of its original
weapons remaining - but the ship was willing. There was one thing, though - an image that came to haunt me.
Without prompting, I was shown the ship - corridor after corridor scoured empty of life, a ghastly echoing emptiness where voices
should be and had been. The viewpoint flashed past like a fly-by, coming to rest on the door I recognised, the chamber of the Helm.
Inside, was the figure I had found, the lupine commander who had stayed there till the last, sitting there still for most of my lifetime while
the stricken ship slumbered. A wash of grief passed over me - the ship had had enough of this.
Outside, the skies seemed to be changing colour. As the Great Stuffed One skipped and bunny-hopped towards its goal, an alteration
seemed to take place, a subtle and spectral mutation of the grey fog, as if the pictures were being re-drawn using some horribly alien pallette.
Another image came unbidden - that of a clock counting down fast, the ticking of a very live fuse with an unknown length of timer.
"Go for it ! Don't mind me .. if we don't stop that thing .. there won't be anywhere to escape TO ... for anyone !" All the ship's
systems flicked green, its eight boiling-potassium reactors wound up to full power, as its huge rune-graven glacis plate nosed around the hull
and we came face to face with that which was there.
"I have to see - ALL of it." The three remaining cannon twitched and moved, feeling natural in my grip, though the "grip" was a
battery of servo-motors swinging the barrel's two hundred tonne masses as responsively as duelling pistols. And then the protective distortion
ceased, and I saw at the last ...
I can barely focus my mind on that instant, on that one apocalyptic instant when my muzzle-fur began to turn grey. The mountain
was there, an upthrust block several kilometres across, and almost at the top was the Great Stuffed One. Its rounded back was awful enough -
had it turned those huge eyes on me, I know I could not have endured to live any longer. At that moment the Vengeance's last remaining cannon
awoke - the 385 mm point-defence systems rising to a scream of fully automatic fury, white light in three arcing torrents splashing across
the pink fluff of that which was seconds away from becoming immune to such puny forces.
In one second, I knew that the last reserves the Vengeance carried would be gone - the final hundred rounds were accelerating
towards the liquid-air cooled breeches, and then it happened. The stuffed thing had almost reached the Doorway, when it turned and exposed
a hidden seam-line, metres deep in fluff. There was a horrifying squeak, that seemed to echo across the planet, going on and on - and
then a sudden .. dissolution, as if a balloon filled with fibres too fine to individually see, had burst.
The world seemed to lurch. Tensions were released that had been so very nearly enough to tear a whole in the fabric of existence - the
Vengeance's bulk was thrown fifty metres across the flats, slewing sideways like a cat scrabbling on sheer ice as the house-wide tracks
struggled to grip. Huge chasms began to tear open, mud and water, with the uncovered remains of - other things, pouring into their yawning
depths. In horror I watched as the Vicious was caught on a rent slab like the breaking of a melting ice floe - slowly, funereally slowly the
little landing tank sank out of sight as the ground tore and tumbled around it. From somewhere out on the far horizon I heard a low,
thundering roar, and was jolted out of my seat, nearly hitting the rune-graven ceiling as the Vengeance too jerked downwards like a sticking lift.
"It's not us that's sinking .. it's Everything ! The whole place." But then I turned again, and saw in all its hideous entirety, the Castle.
It was big. It was modelled on the fine, pinnacled versions you see lurking on the cliffs of the Rhein and the Alpine flanks - but it
was a ghastly parody, even its materials were the plastic and glass-fibre of a forbidden era. This was the place the Professor had
hinted at, the place to which the expunged roadway had led - the site which had predated even the shuddersome Bouncy Castles of lost Belgium,
the place that the world had thought destroyed in the turmoil around the Millennium.
All this I saw, and felt with a growing urgency that the destruction of the Stuffed One had not been enough. For like the macro-
tank, that place had awakened now after long slumber - and within its confines, shapes moved.
Before me flashed the schematics of the Vengeance again - barely a dozen rounds remained in its last magazines. But - on its outer hull a
flashing halo of silvery fire danced, as the Main Enchanted Belt reacted to the awful transformation taking place so near the gateway. An image
flashed across my mind - a brave spirit throwing itself onto a high-tension electrical fence, so that its companions could escape free ...
Again was the image, of the ship's last Commander, the mummy in the throne of steel - and the sensation of grief washed back like the
tsunami I somehow knew was sweeping in from the horizon at ninety knots and more. The door to the Helm room sprang open, and I stumbled out -
the ship knew what it had to do now, and was determined that its captain at least should not go down with it once again.
Before I took leave of that place, I focussed my will throughout the Vengeance - for as it knew what would happen if the opposite charges
of its enchanted belt encountered the buckling realities ahead, so too did I know. I wished the Vengeance goodbye, instructing it to have the
Viper ready to roll as soon as I reached E deck . Then, I took one last look at what we were heading towards - and this time, I saw Everything.
"The Gateway - it's opening ... and it's being opened by the other side !" I stood transfixed, unable to break away. As I
watched, there were ... figures there, that had waited long, so long for this moment. And, may I someday forget the memory of what was there,
but I recognised them, from the images graven all across the planet before the Milennium. And I saw them as they really are, on the Other
Side. ... Gods forgive me, that I ever looked - for I knew them, ... towering colossi of Cute, pushing open that Doorway, that recognised me
even as my sanity snapped shrieking as I flung myself away from the vision ... WHAT I SAW WHAT I SAW I CANNOT TELL YOU WHAT I SAW !
Captain's log transcript, His Socialist Majesty's Hovercraft Hildago, 457th Cuban fleet, August 4th, 2034.
'Following the massive earthquakes epicentred 250 miles North of Havana, emergency evacuation measures were put into place to evacuate our North
coast. However, the resulting storm was minor, only a few percent of that predicted from the Richter Scale 9.7 recorded . We were sent out to
explore the area, which had been shrouded in fog strangely resistant to our radars, five days after the main shocks, which subsided unusually
rapidly for an event of this size.'
At Latitude (27) Longitude (83) our sensors detected a metallic object floating low in the water, which investigation proved to
be a Vickers-Matsushita landing tank, Tristan da Cunha built, about 10 years old. The vehicle was severely damaged, much of its armour
missing, in a manner consistent with being hit with collapsing earthquake debris. Its only occupant was an unconscious canine in the
top turret, with a severe skull fracture from presumably being thrown around in the disturbances and tidle wave (estimated 200 metre waves
converging on that approximate location.) After treatment and partial recovery in Havana, the patient insisted that his story, attatched
above, be verified. Sonar sweeps of the sea floor showed an entirely flat area, consistent with the pre-milennium geology, of the Orlando,
Florida area, and no trace of the mountains or structures mentioned.
We regard the above narrative as unproven, since although the macro-tank Vengeance of Asgarth is certainly missing with all hands, our
geologists insist there is no way on earth it could have vanished on a flat sea-floor. A more exhaustive survey of the area is being made by
the submarines Toreador and Chupacabra - they are currently 10 days overdue, but we feel sure their eventual return and reports will put the
patient's mind at ease."
Simon Leo Barber