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By Sarah Hapgood

The ships steamed northwards, searching for the elusive island where Malachi had assured them dwelt his sister Watcher. Ransey spent a lot of time in the wireless room, scanning the airwaves for any information he could find. There was nothing to be found, nothing whatsoever.

“It’s a complete dead zone”, he said to Adam “I don’t know what I was hoping for, but SOMETHING. Times like this I wish I smoked”.

“Oh dear, don’t say that”, said Adam “We’ve only recently cured Julian of his wretched cigars”.

A small island, sticking like the hump of the Loch Ness monster out of the ocean, gave them a chance to rest for twelve hour, do more fishing, and exchange news between the boas. The island was a reassuring distance from the mainland, and being completely treeless it was easy to see at once that there was no one there.

Lord Robert came onto the galleon, and asked Adam if he could stroll about for a little while.

“Well yes of course, old love”, said Adam “As long as you don’t mind what you might find. We can be a bit rough-and-ready. Toppy tries his best, but it can be rather overwhelming”.

“Perhaps if he spent less time doing fucking gun-practice he might have more time for domestic work!” said Joby.

“Why don’t you go and make Lord Robert a nice cup of tea, Joby dear?” said Adam.

Joby made an unintelligible remark, but disappeared into the galley.

Lord Robert laughed good-humouredly, but it was clear his mind was on other things.

“Tell you what, I’ll show you around”, said Adam, hoping that a stroll and a chat would wrinkle it out of him what was wrong.

He took him into the dining-room first. Fortunately, most of the others were up on deck, or on the island, so the room looked large and spacious in the morning sunshine. The table had also been cleared of the breakfast things, and dusted by Mutton Broth. Not to Toppy’s high, exacting standards naturally, but it still looked presentable.

“It’s like an officers’ mess-room”, said Lord Robert, looking around him, even though he had seen it many times before.

“Yes I suppose it is”, said Adam “It’s our little social-area. We eat here, have sing-songs, card-games …”

(“spank Bardin”, he thought to himself, and immediately tried to banish this distracting thought).

He took Lord Robert into Bengo and Bardin’s cabin next door. The clowns were up on deck, and the cabin bore some very homely traces of their presence. The bunk was unmade. A soapy razor was lying by the washing-bowl. Their boots were discarded in a heap by the sofa.

“I’m afraid Toppy hasn’t had a chance to get in here yet”, said Adam “But … well you get the gist of it”.

Lord Robert stood on the hearth-rug, staring down into the unlit grate. Adam had never seen him looking so pensive.

“Hold on a moment”, said Adam.

He went to the door and shouted “Joby, can we have those teas now?”

“Yeah, I was just bringing ‘em in”, was Joby’s reply.

The teas appeared. Adam placed them on a small table within reach of the sofa, and then gestured for Lord Robert to sit down.

“There is clearly something on your mind”, said Adam “Probably best to talk about it”.

“Will we be disturbed?” asked Lord Robert.

“Not if I bolt the door”, said Adam, going over to do so.

“Now”, he said, once they were both seated on the sofa “Suppose you tell me what’s on your mind”.

“Adam”, said Lord Robert “I work for the Ministry”.

Adam felt as if he’d been punched in the stomach. He stared at Robert agape.

“But, you’re not serious?” he said.

“Both myself, and Jane and Cloris as well”, Robert confessed, grimly.

“But you were living on Fire Island!” Adam protested “We thought you were a commune. Like us. Oh my God, we’ve been such trusting fools. It’s like Pabbio’s Island all over again”.

“We were assigned there”, Lord Robert explained “To closely monitor that area”.

“You were in touch with the MInistry all that time?” Adam asked “I suppose you must have told them about our arrival?”

“No we didn’t do that”, said Robert “We’ve never told them”.

“Why not?” Adam snapped “Isn’t that rather lacking in doing your duty?”

“Adam, please don’t be like that”, said Robert “We have never betrayed you, and we have no intention of doing so. Being from the Ministry doesn’t automatically make us bad people. Ransey was from the Ministry, and you accepted him”.

“That was somewhat different”, said Adam “Ransey never deceived us. Never”.

He got up and moved over to the door. Lord Robert followed him.

“Adam, you can trust us”, he said.

“I need to speak to the others”, Adam mumbled, barely able to control his temper.

He slid back the bolt on the door and left the room. Joby and Toppy watched furtively from the galley.

“Adam’s furious”, Toppy whispered.

“Summat’s up, that’s for sure”, said Joby.

Adam was now seated coiled up on the windowseat in Julian’s cabin. Ransey was seated on the guest-chair.

“Have you calmed down?” said Julian.

“Well you can’t blame me for being angry”, said Adam “With everything else that’s going on, we do not need people to be deceitful”.

“Just because he worked for the Ministry doesn’t automatically make him bad”, said Ransey.

“He said that”, said Adam.

“Well it’s true!” said Ransey “They’d been stuck out on that island for God knows how long. Completely removed from the Ministry HQ”.

“They’d gone native, to use an old expression”, said Julian.

“I doubt they feel any great allegiance to it”, said Ransey “And it would’ve taken a lot for him to come over here today and tell you all this”.

“Then why didn’t he tell us much sooner?” said Adam.

“Perhaps the opportunity never felt right”, said Ransey “Perhaps he meant to all along, but the more we became friends the harder it became. I can understand that”.

“Let’s have some sherry”, said Julian, going to the drinks tray he kept near his wash-stand.

“Not that stuff again!” said Ransey “I swear Hillyard uses it clean the boiler”.

“Well I can fetch you a nice glass of tap water instead if you would prefer it”, said Julian. “No, go on then”, said Ransey.

“Thought you might be able to force it down somehow”, said Julian, pouring out the drinks.

“We’ll just have to muddle along with all this”, said Ransey “The Lord Robert situation I mean. Perhaps not be quite as open with them as we have been up til now”.

“I’m just concerned about Patsy’s safety that’s all”, said Adam “They could be a risk to it”.

“The biggest threat to Kieran’s safety is Kieran himself!” said Ransey “Always has been, always will be. Anyway, where’s Bardin? Shouldn’t he be sitting in on this conversation?”

“He went over to the island to play cricket with the other clowns”, said Adam “They’ve had so little fun lately I thought it was a good idea. I’m not looking forward to telling him all this. He’ll be so disappointed”.

“He’ll probably take it just fine”, said Julian “He hasn’t got your Scorpio temper!”

As Julian had predicted, Bardin took the news in a more philosophical vein than Adam had done.

“I’m more concerned with the journey ahead than Lord Robert’s dark past”, he said “If they want to carry on travelling with us, they can. There’s an argument for safety in numbers after all. But we have to be on the alert for any strange occurrences around them, that sort of thing”.

“I should pay even more attention to the wireless”, said Ransey.

“Any old excuse”, said Hillyard.

“To check if they’re communicating with anyone”, Ransey explained “Remember those strange signals I found a short while back?”

“Don’t tell me they’ve been secretly radioing the Ministry?!” said Bengo.

“No, that’s what I’m saying”, said Ransey, patiently “Just that it could be a possibility we can’t disregard”.

Bardin had more pressing matters than wireless transmissions to occupy his mind with. A thick fog-bank rolled in after sunset, and he had to impress on the night-watch the need for extra vigilance. There was much debate as to whether to light deck-lamps or not. In the end Bardin decided against it. It would make them more noticeable from the mainland.

“What if something runs into us, Bard?” asked Mutton Broth.

“What if something runs into us?!” Bardin exclaimed “We haven’t seen sight nor sound of another ship, apart from Lord Robert’s, in an absolute age! When was the last time we saw another ship, ANYWHERE?”

“Snow Lake?” Farnol speculated “When we was being followed from there? I can’t remember now”.

“Whatever happened to them that was following us?” said Mutton Broth.

“I don’t know!” said Bardin “Perhaps they got bored! Look, just keep a sharp look out tonight for ANYTHING. You’re only on duty until 9 o’clock, I’m not leaving you up here all night. We’d be really in the shit if I left you two to do the all-night vigil”.

Bardin thumped back down the quarterdeck steps, and walked into the galley, shedding his coat and cap as he did so.

“Is it turning cold, bardin?” asked Adam.

“I wouldn’t say so particularly”, said Bardin “Perhaps I’m just feeling any slight chill after all the all the tropical weather we’ve be having for a long while now”.

He flopped into the chair by the stove, gently turfing the cat out as he did so. The cat immediately jumped onto his lap.

“The plan is”, said Bardin “That we head off after breakfast tomorrow. I shall see Lord Robert first thing and see what he thinks, whether he wants to come along with us or not. That alright with you?”

“Of course it’s alright with me!” said Adam, testily “It’s just taken a little while for me to be as philosophical as you about it that’s all”.

“I wouldn’t say I was particularly philosophical”, said Bardin “It’s just I don’t think, with everything else that’s going on, that we can afford to start distrusting people who’ve been pretty decent to us since the day we met them. You can’t hold it against them because they worked for the Ministry. Ransey used to work for the MInistry, and he’s reasonably human”.

“I heard that!” said Ransey, from the doorway.

“Well that’s what you get for listening at doorways”, said Bardin.

“I wasn’t listening, I just happened to be walking past when I heard my name mentioned”, said Ransey “Perfectly human reaction to be on the alert when that happens. Anyway, for what it’s worth I think you’re right. The impression I get is that they’ve had precious little to actually do with the Ministry for years”.

“They’ve gone native, to use an old expression”, said Adam “I can accept that. It just takes a while for me to come round to these things”.

“I bet you anything you like they didn’t do anything as bloody awful as I did”, said Ransey, grimly.

“Oh now Ransey, all that was a very long time ago”, said Adam.

“I don’t remember you having any trouble accepting it at the time either”, said Ransey.

“Well that’s because you’re one of us”, said Adam “It’s harder to accept when it’s the neighbours”.

“And that’s just it!” said Bardin “They’re the neighbours, and that’s how we should regard them. And as neighbours go, they’ve not been too bad”.

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