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When he awoke a couple of hours later Ransey was disturbed to find that a red scorch-mark had appeared on his stomach. He tried washing it off in the lake, but the mark persisted. He pulled his shirt over it to conceal it from the others, who were already treating him like a volcanic psychopath. Quite how much so was revealed to him when he overheard a conversation between Julian and Adam. The gist of it was that Ransey wasn't to be trusted, he was like a pot that was about to boil over, a space had to be drawn round him.
Ransey was appalled and saddened by this, and he knew that somehow he had to put the record straight. This wasn't easy, as Adam showed a distinct aversion to being in his company.
"I don't know what it is you're thinking of me Adam, but the last thing I'd do is hurt you", Ransey pleaded "Or any of you come to that. My job has been to protect everyone these past few years. Dammit, you've trusted me with the baby often enough. Would you have done that if I was a nutter?"
"W-We got it into our heads you were ill, Ransey", said Adam, awkwardly.
"I'm not. It's just I don't find it easy to discuss my feelings that's all. It takes a lot out of me", said Ransey "It's because of what I once was isn't it? That's why you don't trust me. I sometimes think no man ever fully escapes his past".
"That's certainly true", said Adam, sadly.
"Believe me, I'm telling the absolute truth. I mean no one here any harm, not even Julian. I over-reacted to what Lonts said last night because I'm too sensitive, because I thought everyone would mock me for having emotional feelings. I know none of you understand what it's like to be me. But I'm not a threat to you or anyone".
"It's alright old love", Adam squeezed his arm "I acted as though I've got the vapours as well. It's being down here that does it. If we stay down here much longer we'll turn into troglodytes. I'm sorry about what Lonts said, he comes out with some startling stuff sometimes, the little monster! Why do you think I don't let him get interviewed properly by the papers, in spite of their repeated requests?"
"I dread to think what he'd tell them", said Ransey.
"Exactly. I can see the headlines now. 'ORGIES AT MINISTRY HQ', 'BABY LONTS TELLS OF PRESIDENT'S FAMILY IN MASSED SEX ROMPS!'"
"Except Ransey", the said man smiled, sadly "Because no one has sex with him".
They chugged further down the waterway, but caught no further signs of any water-cows, which was worrying. Until they rounded a corner that is, and came upon a whole forest of very large mushrooms growing on a fertile patch on one side of the lake. The fungi weren't much smaller than a scattering of dwarf-trees nearby. Suddenly they found they had food and kindling in one go. It was a red-letter day. They moored the boat and clambered ashore, leaving Adam in charge of the tiller. Hillyard checked that the mushrooms weren't poisonous, and then they all went wild.
"They have a lovely soothing effect", said Adam, nibbling at a mushroom-cap the size of a dustbin-lid which had been handed down to him "You be careful Joby. The last time you had magic mushrooms your eyesight went all to pot".
"Oh good, he can't see me coming then", said Hillyard, and he yanked down the back of Joby's pants to expose his bare bottom to all and sundry.
Joby, annoyed that Kieran found this extremely funny, grabbed his skinny friend around the waist and tossed him like an under-sized fish into the lake. Kieran swam around in the murky depths before re-surfacing and being helped back to the side by Lonts.
Whilst all this tomfoolery was going on Ransey had wandered down a side tunnel which, because of the coating of silver crystals all round it, was lit up as effectively as if there had been electricity installed. The whole effect was beautiful and yet disturbing at the same time, like being trapped in a fairground hall of mirrors. His image was reflected in the crystals, but in a misplaced way, like an abstract painting made up of millions of tiny different segments.
Soothed from having eaten part of a raw mushroom he wandered in a dream down the tunnel, oblivious to the fact that the unnaturally dry dust on the tunnel floor was accumulating rapidly. By the time the tunnel opened out into a small cavern the dust was up to his bare ankles. Ransey didn't notice it though. He was too distracted by the extraordinary sight which met his eyes.
An old man, naked but camouflaged by a long straggly white beard like Old Father Time, was sitting cross-legged in the dust in the middle of the room. He was so still that Ransey stood watching him for some time, uncertain whether the man was dead or alive. Suddenly the old man raised his head and opened his eyes. His face, typical of a thin elderly man, was unremarkable except for one thing. His eyes were a vivid electric blue, like that of the monkeys they had seen.
"Who are you?" said Ransey "And what are you doing here?"
"I have been here a very long time", the old man replied "Many many years. So many I have lost count. It could be thousands, millions of years, then again it might only be a few months".
Ransey had no time for such riddles. His accountant's mind didn't relish abstract games, if the silly old fool had simply lost all track of time, why didn't he just say so?
"Do you live here alone?" Ransey asked.
"I'm not sure", the old man looked about him vaguely, as though expecting a large body of people to suddenly emerge from the walls "I had a companion, but I haven't seen her in some time. She wanted to leave here very badly, I tried to stop her, but she got away from me".
"She?" Ransey exclaimed "You had a woman here?"
"She was very beautiful", the old man bit his lip thoughtfully "I remember now. Although I try to forget. She was bad and they punished her. But she wasn't bad, just beautiful, and no beautiful woman should have to resist temptation".
"How was she punished?"
"She was entombed alive. Such a waste. They embalmed her and wrapped her magnificent body in bandages, as the Ancient Egyptians used to do. And then they buried her. I saw her eyes whilst they were doing it. She was aware of each process. And before they put the lid on her, shut her beauty away forever, I ... I never saw such terror in someone's eyes. I had tried to rescue her from such a fate, but they tracked her down. They know these tunnels so well".
"Who tracked her down?"
"The Ghoomers. The ones who I sadly have to call my own people", said the old man "They are very unforgiving to the ones that fail them, particularly the women. I was exiled to the Catacombs and tunnels. And I have been here ever since. I feel nothing. I merely observe".
"How do you live?" said Ransey "Do you just eat mushrooms or what?"
"Eat?" the old man sounded surprised "I haven't eaten in years. Nor drunk. Nor passed water or emptied my bowels".
"You are alive aren't you?" said Ransey, remembering the zombies of Xuste.
"I don't know. I haven't located my corpse, so I suppose I must be".
"Ransey, are you alright?" Hillyard walked into the cavern. He didn't seem surprised to see the old man there, only a little dismayed.
"You were meant to stay!" the old man shouted at him "To observe the future along with me".
"I couldn't", said Hillyard "I saw all I wanted to see that night".
"Saw what?" said Ransey.
"I showed him the visions I have seen of the years to come", said the old man "Of how the world will end. Of how it will get eaten up by fire, as effectively as if it had been consumed by the sun. It will burn up and then freeze, collapsing into itself like a dead star".
"People have been saying that for years", said Ransey, dismissively.
"It is going to happen", said the old man "And in your lifetime too. You will be left with nothing. I have been to the end of time and beyond. And there lies only darkness. There will be nothing".
"Did he show you all this Hillyard?" said Ransey, sharply.
"He showed me what the darkness would be like", Hillyard whispered "No one would be able to survive in it".
"Except the Ghoomers", said the old man "They will survive".
"What?" Ransey exclaimed "That bunch of mad parasites!"
"They know the darkness", the old man continued "They are as much creatures of these black tunnels underground as they are Overlanders. There are parts of this place you could never see your way out of. But they can. They are the perfect hunters. They have probably detected your presence already, even with you being right out here. And when they have found you they will kill you. The women are like the Witches of Thessaly. They will strip your bones, suck out your brains, and leave what's left for the men. The demons and abnormalities of this dark world are their pets. Whether you like it or not, the future of the world belongs to them. One day there will be no distinction between Overland and below. It will all be one and the same, and you Overlanders will not be able to cope with that. But they can. They can adapt to above or below".
"Oh no no no!" Ransey shook his head "It may well be true what you say about the end of the world, it might well be all darkness. But they won't last any longer than us, because they're on borrowed time too. Their women are beyond childbearing age, and so they are all as doomed as we are".
"Do you think the Ghoomer males rely on their womenfolk to perpetuate the survival of the species?" the old man laughed in a very unpleasant way "Not so my boy. For years now, decades even, the men have copulated freely with the freaks and demons of this Belowland. They have produced hybrids, half-demon half-human, half-beast half-human. Who knows? In generations to come it may all work itself out and the human genes will reign dominant once more. But the demonic and the bestial ancestry will be there. In the new world of darkness the Satanic freaks will be the surviving species. We are into the Age of Capricorn, whose symbol is the Goat. The Horned One. The Devil".
"Are you a product of such a union?" said Ransey "You have the eyes of the monkeys we have seen".
"I am a half-human half-bestial freak", said the old man "And I have no cause to be ashamed, I am proud to belong to the surviving race. To belong to a race where trivialities of gender will be made irrelevant. And shall I show you exactly what I mean?"
The old man lifted up his long, straggly beard, to reveal his very female breasts.
Kieran was wringing out his sopping wet vest when he heard Ransey give out a cry of despair. He glanced at Joby and they both reached for a couple of shot-guns. They ran down the crystal tunnel but failed to locate the cavern where Hillyard and Ransey were. The crystal walls were playing tricks. Other tunnels, dark and numerous, opened into it and seemed to swarm all around them.
"Hopeless", said Joby "Like being trapped in an optical illusion".
"They must be around here somewhere", said Kieran, and he began to touch the crystal walls, as though expecting one to slide open and reveal a secret passage.
Joby caught sight of a movement at the end of the corridor directly in front of him. Thinking it was one of the others he whistled and waved his arms. The shape got nearer. It moved fast, it was bounding along in fact, making horrific leaps with its long scissor legs. Too late he remembered what Angel had once said about the Slime Man. He found he was immobile with terror and he screamed.
Kieran fired at the creature several times. In return the creature squealed, but it seemed to be more with amusement than pain. Kieran threw himself in front of Joby, but his presence didn't seem to deter this particular evil. The two men clung to each other desperately.
The Slime Man was upon them. Flames licked from his mouth and his nostrils like a dragon. He slapped Kieran around the face, and the Irishman felt his skin go numb under the impact of the creature's icy-cold hands. Next to him Joby was screaming uncontrollably.
When Hillyard and Ransey found them, Joby and Kieran were lying in a huddle on the dusty ground, with their arms wrapped round each other. They only came unlocked when Hillyard coaxed them to their feet.
"The Slime Man", Joby whimpered "He must have vanished when he hit Kieran".
"Cocky bastard", said Kieran, willing his face to un-numb itself "He over-reached himself. Thought I'd have no effect on him at all".
"Are you alright?" said Hillyard.
"Me face is just a bit numb that's all", said Kieran "I think it'll be alright in a little while".
"Let's get out of here", said Ransey, tersely.
"What happened to you two then?" said Joby.
"Never mind all that now", said Ransey "We'll do all the post-mortems when we get back in the balloon".
"We're gonna go backwards?" said Joby "The way we came?"
"Do you really want to see anymore of this place?" said Kieran.
"Point taken", said Joby.
They got back to the boat, where they were relieved to find the others waiting.
"Get in at once", said Adam "We've been hearing noises coming from some of the other tunnels. I'm so bloody relieved to see you again".
Lonts wrapped Joby in a blanket and tried to comfort him, but the man was in a terrible state and began calling for Adam like a lost soul in the wilderness.
"What is it?" said Adam, crouching down in front of him "Don't worry, we'll soon be out of here".
"Adam, I can't see out of my left eye", Joby sobbed "Me sight's gone in it".
"I suspect it's a nervous reaction", Adam replied "Partial hysterical blindness is what I think it's called".
"Will I get it back?" Joby wailed.
"Of course you will. It's just the result of shock that's all".
"Now sit quietly and let us do all the escape details. Lonts'll look after you".
Lonts took Adam's remark very solemnly, and watched Joby intently for the duration of the boat journey, occasionally putting his thumb in his mouth as though it helped him to concentrate better. Joby stared at the floor of the boat, vaguely noting that Julian and Finia had certainly been busy cutting down the mushrooms for supplies.
They made no stops on the journey back up the subterranean river. No one felt safe in this kingdom of the damned anymore, it could seem only too likely that the Ghoomers would appear at any time and pursue them through the damp, murky depths. As it was it was all too easy to fancy that they saw dark shapes flickering on the rocky crystal shore.
No one's anxiety entirely disappeared until they were air-borne once more a few hours later. The hydrogen supply was getting very low, and at times it seemed as though they were flying on determination alone. The views they saw below them over the next two days were so astounding though that it almost distracted them from their predicament.
They were now leaving the Uncharted Area (little did they know it at the time) and flying into the north-western province of Henang, which for a few of them was their old stamping-ground. This area was some way to the south of the notorious, but now deserted, penal colony. The province of Henang covered a vast area, of which was these days uninhabited. This had always largely been due to the intense concentration of volcanic activity in the area. The Henang province was liberally spotted with these huge craters, and flying over them was an extraordinary experience. Everything about the area hissed, bubbled and steamed, and looked as though it belonged in some prehistoric landscape, with vast quantities of mud restlessly heaving like a hot cauldron below.
"If we come down here we've had it", said Ransey, which wasn't the most cheering thing to say at such a time.
Soon after they began losing height rapidly, but the sea was now in view which gave them hope that there might be life somewhere. It came barely in the nick of time in the form of the fishing township of Stockva, nowadays the only sign of civilisation in the Henang province at all. This place was so isolated that no roads connected it to the outside world, and it could only be reached by sea or by air. And this was where they made an emergency landing in the balloon, an event which caused the town's entire population to turn out and greet them. After several weeks of being lost in the Uncharted Area, the President at last proved to his people that he was still alive.
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