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By Sarah Hapgood

Once out on the ocean both ships sped in a northerly direction, whipping up a froth of foam between them. As though trying to avert his gaze from a tragic accident, Bardin was determined to get past the area of the Village of Stairs as quickly as he could.

On the first night back out at sea, they moored at a deserted, sheltered cove. Both ships organised a stringent night-watch.

After supper Adam had a visit from Malachi, who asked to speak to him alone in the galley. Malachi was carrying a small cloth bag, which he set down carefully on the table.

“Have a look”, he said.

Adam opened the bag, and pulled out a handful of exquisite diamond jewellery, very finely-cut.

“They’re beautiful”, he said.

“They belonged to my late wife”, said Malachi “A gift from me”.

“Well they’re lovely”, said Adam “But shouldn’t you keep them safely locked up on Lord Robert’s safe? I know he has one in his cabin”.

“I am keeping them in there”, said Malachi “But I wanted to show you, because if we ever reach civilisation, I want you to know they are there … as currency”.

“Well we still have a little of the Starhanger jewels left”, said Adam “We can’t possibly use your late wife’s jewellery”.

“They are of no use to her”, said Malachi, with surprising bluntness “Please. This is not a time for excessive sentiment”.

“I still think you should lock them in the safe though”, said Adam “And we will worry about civilisation if and when we ever reach it [if it’s still there]”.

He carefully put the diamonds back into the cloth bag, and then pressed it back into Malachi’s thin old hands.

Malachi bade him goodnight, and went back up on deck. There was a gloriously vivid sunset, and most of the night-watch were staring in wonderment at it. Bardin was strolling about on the deck, with a rifle slung casually over his shoulder. He nodded a goodnight to Malachi.

“Bardin”, said Malachi, awkwardly “I know we are in safe hands with you”.

He then scuttled off the ship, watched in amazement by Bardin.

Bengo came up on deck, carrying a tray of cocoa.

“Give it to the others”, said Bardin “I’m coming below in a minute”.

Bengo placed the tray on a fold-up card-table, and left the rest of the night-watch to come and collect a mug. He turned to face the sunset.

“I hope that’s a good sign”, he said “And not some terrible omen”.

“More likely it’s just the sun going down”, said Bardin “And an omen of hot weather tomorrow”.

“It’s so silent round here, Bardin”, said Farnol, who was part of the night-watch.

“I find it hard to believe that anywhere can be silent with you around!” said Bardin “Anyway, I’m going below for a couple of hours. I’ll come on again about two o’clock”.

“Do you have to take that gun below with you?” said Bengo “It makes me nervous, you could fire it off anywhere”.

“The safety-catch is on, you daft idiot!” said Bardin.

“Oh right”, said Bengo “I suppose I am a bit jangly at the moment”. “We all are”, said Bardin.

The night was uneventful, apart from Bardin being roused at around 2 AM because of a strange noise in the far distance. He went up on deck but it was so distant it was impossible to decipher.

“Sounds like a whale noise or something odd you’d get on the radio”, he said “Whatever it is it must be a helluva way away, particularly as noise will travel far in this silence”.

“I thought you’d better hear it though”, said Rumble.

“I know”, said Bardin “Well listen out for it again”.

A delightful breakfast followed a few hours later, with the occupants of both ships mingling with each other There was a lot of running about and happy conversation. The tensions and forebodings of the night-time had gone with the daylight. It would be an exaggeration to say there was a holiday atmosphere about, but it was the best they could do under the circumstances. There certainly seemed to be a lessening of tension since leaving the river.

“We’re moving”, said Bardin “And I suppose in a time of crisis that feels better than sitting there waiting for the shit to fall”.

Having said that though, the day was so beautiful that they all agreed to linger and put in a few hours fishing instead of moving on immediately. Things were going well, and it seemed at last as if they’d found a way to make even Beatrix find contentment. Standing out on a rock with a fishing-rod, she seemed content to stand staring at the sun-dappled waters of the ocean for hours.

“Finally, we’ve found a way to shut her up”, said Joby, standing on the main deck “Just stick a fishing-rod in her hands!”

Unfortunately this blessed state of affairs wasn’t to last for very long, as in the middle of the afternoon there was an unwelcome development.

A figure was spotted shambling along the headland, in a zombie-like fashion. Everyone scrambled to find telescopes and binoculars to get a better look at this rare phenomenon.

Umbert was the first to get a proper look at the person, and when he did he nearly dropped his binoculars in shock.

“It’s diseased”, he said.

He grabbed Bardin and handed him the binoculars. Bardin peered through the lenses. The figure stumbling along was emaciated and dressed in tattered black clothing, which fluttered in the cliff-top breeze. The head of the person seemed to have been shrunk, as though boiled.

“It looks more like a dog-bone than a head”, was the first thought which came into Bardin’s mind.

The “dog-bone” was covered in random scabs, which left the skin peeling away in parts.

“What the hell is wrong with him?” he said, handing the glasses to Ransey.

“I don’t think we should take any chances”, said Ransey “In case he’s contagious. There’s nothing we can do for him”.

“He certainly looks contagious”, said Umbert, with memories of the appalling sickness which had wiped out almost the entire population of the New Continent.

“OK OK let’s not stand here debating about it”, said Bardin “I want everybody back onboard. We’re moving on. We can’t take the risk”.

Those ashore began to slowly amble back to their respective boats.

“Get a move on!” Bardin yelled.

Beatrix looked up and gave him her customary filthy look of contempt.

“That includes you too, frosty-face!” said Bardin “Or you can stay here. It’s entirely up to you”.

“And frankly I don’t give a toss if you do”, he muttered, as he turned away.

“Bardin”, said Malachi, as he prepared to return to Lord Robert’s yacht “You’ve done the right thing there. I was concerned you would insist on staying to help that wretched creature. That would’ve been very unwise”.

“Oh come off it”, said Bardin “Even Kieran wouldn’t be that philanthropic! I can’t put everyone at risk for the sake of one person”.

“It gets on my nerves the way he keeps commenting on everything I do all the time”, said Bardin, placing his rifle on the sofa in his cabin.

“He admires you, Bardy”, said Bengo, who had followed him.

“OK, but does he have to sound so damn patronising about it!” said Bardin, running his hands through his sweaty hair “Does he think I can’t operate unless I get his nods of approval all the time?”

“That man was weird wasn’t he?” said Bengo “The one on the cliff-top I mean. What had happened to his head? It looked like it had been shrunk back to the bone. What disease would that be?”

“I don’t think that can have been down to disease”, said Bardin “That looked as if it had been done to him. God knows why or how”.

The ship’s engines started up.

“Thank God for that”, he said “I suppose I’d better check everyone’s on board”.

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