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There was a light shining in his eyes, it blurred everything else out of his line of vision. He tried to raise his hand to his eyes, but found that his wrists were handcuffed behind the back of his chair.
"Take it away", said Ransey, groggily.
The lamp was moved to one side, but he still couldn't see properly. Without his spectacles his vision was hopeless, blurring angles and straight lines, and merging colours into one psychedelic mass.
"Please, my glasses", he said "Please find them for me".
His spectacles were obligingly placed on his nose, and the room emerged out of the fog. He knew at once where he was, the office cum living-room belonging to the Constable of Thetislog. Ransey remembered going to interview him when Kieran first moved into Wolf Castle. Ransey had wanted to ensure his full co-operation in keeping intruders out of the Castle grounds. This building also served as the village gaol, with one barred cell attached to it, so that offenders could be held securely until help arrived from the City, or they had sobered up (which was usually more likely, as Thetislog had never been a violent place).
Ransey had always liked this room. There was something homely and cheerful about it, with its red checked tablecloth and shining brass lanterns. The only institutional touches were a yellowing list of rules and citizen's rights pinned to the wall, and a safe, where the Constable had kept his keys and his small armoury of weapons. Ransey was intrigued to find that Kieran's portrait was still hanging where Gorth's should now be.
The Constable wasn't in the room now. He hadn't been since the Blast, when he had disappeared along with the other villagers. Instead a slim thick-lipped boy faced him, sitting on the edge of the desk.
"I suppose you don't know who I am?" said the boy.
"No, so perhaps you'd kindly inform me", said Ransey. His throat felt very sore.
"I'm a Ghoomer", said the boy, proudly "And we've now emerged from the dark".
"Where are the others ... my others?"
"What do you want to know about them for?"
"Are they alright?"
"We've got them caged in the other room", said Tamaz.
"Why am I in here then?"
"Because you're different. Because we think you may be interested in what we've got to offer", Tamaz walked around the desk until he was sat very close to Ransey "Would you like a cigarette? I know you don't smoke very much, but I believe you have been known to roll your own in times of stress".
"You seem to know a great deal about me, considering we've never met before".
"We've had long enough to learn, a very long time in fact. We had to have something to do to take our minds off our poverty and hunger. Living out of sight underground is not easy", Tamaz removed a cigarette from a packet "These are cork-tipped, I hope you don't mind. Some prefer them unfiltered".
"I'd rather not", said Ransey "I can't smoke and talk very well at the same time. I haven't got the knack, particularly when my hands are tied up".
"Let me help you", said Tamaz, using his wispiest voice. He picked up a small key from the desk and unlocked the handcuffs.
Once his hands were free Ransey accepted the cigarette.
"Now you know you can trust me", said Tamaz "We are alone here. The Ministry men have gone up to the Castle to enjoy a bit of comfortable living".
"They're in with you?"
"Easily bought. We made them an offer they couldn't resist, and I doubt you'll be able to either".
"You'd better give me the deal then hadn't you?"
"We are hermaphrodites", said Tamaz "And we can breed".
"Thought you might be. That's why I separated you from the rest".
"Can you all breed?"
"Yes, including me", Tamaz tapped his stomach "And we want to interbreed with ordinary humans too. We are going to inherit the earth anyway, so you might as well. You lot can't sustain yourselves for much longer. You're on borrowed time".
"We're aware of that and we've accepted it", said Ransey "Quite a sensible solution really. One gender containing two sexes. It'll ensure atrocities like the Massacre of the Women can't happen again".
"Exactly. And we're looking for men like you to fall in with us".
"Men like me?"
"Men who were forced by circumstance to be celibate", said Tamaz "The world is now yours".
"What about the others though?"
"They will die", said Tamaz, simply.
"Die?" Ransey was shocked out of the composed act he had created for himself "Why? Hasn't the world seen killing enough? Surely there's room for all of us?"
"New civilisations are never easy to create. A certain suffering has to be gone through".
"But they don't do any harm", said Ransey "Look at my lot. If you were to let them return to Wolf Castle, they wouldn't interfere in the slightest. The world would still be yours".
"Your lot?" Tamaz laughed "They bear no relation to you. We have the Ministry on our side too. They are very excited about our plans. There is a new wave of men there who are eager to build a new race. And they see themselves as the founders. And we can't afford to tolerate men who waste useful sperm on not procreating. That is the way it has to be".
"You were the ones who beat up Hillyard weren't you?"
"He is a prime example of the sort of wastrel we wish to eliminate".
"But his sperm can still be useful", Ransey protested "Artificial insemination for example".
"No!" Tamaz roared, petulantly "Breeding in laboratories, people hatched like chickens. That is not going to be our way! We are going to build family units. Children will be born into family environments, not battery farms!"
"But we already have family units", said Ransey "Me and mine, we're a family unit".
"You do not reproduce amongst yourselves", said Tamaz "Therefore you are not a true family unit. You are not Breeders".
"But it's not just about that surely?"
"Are you with us ... or not?" said Tamaz, sounding like a school bully not accustomed to having his law questioned.
"Yes", said Ransey.
"Good", Tamaz laughed, humourlessly "The killings start tomorrow".
Ransey was blessed with the twin virtues of patience and innate caution, he was to need them both over the next twelve hours. The Ghoomers could be heard but not seen. They seemed to have taken over the village and were enjoying themselves, revelling in their freedom from the caves and swamps. Ransey was kept confined to the Constable's house, but was otherwise well cared for. He was given the bedroom behind the office, and was kitted out with new clothes. He was also given plenty to eat. He had only the simplest notions as to why he was being treated so well. He was the Ghoomers' trophy, the member of the Vanquisher's family they had enticed onto their side.
It was an awful lot for him to assimilate all at once. He still had the idea of the Ghoomers as a bunch of mad aristocrats living by a set of archaic rules, and breeding with demons to produce hermaphrodites. He felt as though he was going to go mad under the strain of it all. More worrying than anything though was the sure and certain knowledge that Kieran and the others were to be executed as soon as the Ghoomers had finished their obligatory celebrating. This knowledge gnawed away at Ransey's insides. He had given up asking about the others, as it made Tamaz so bad-tempered, but they were never out of his thoughts.
Early in the evening the Ghoomers' celebrations were reaching fever-pitch. Ransey had watched it all from the office window. The older Fully Female Ghoomers were putting on a pageant, which involved them riding their horses topless down the village streets, with their ancient breasts flapping madly in the cold night air. It was all too disturbing for Ransey, and for all the wrong reasons. He'd had another "dream" that afternoon. In it, if it was a dream, he'd been effectively raped by a couple of the Fully Female Ghoomers. Unable to get him stimulated, they had in exasperation turned him onto his stomach and rogered him with dildo's.
"Perhaps he prefers it that way", said one, cackling coarsely.
"He'll have to do better than that", said the other "Or he'll go the way of his friends".
So much for sex being only used for procreation, as Tamaz had proudly told him. These women were far beyond child-bearing age anyway. The whole experience had left him physically bruised and emotionally drained. In some ways he was glad about this, as it meant he couldn't feel the humiliation, which was raging intolerably beneath the surface. He used all his training from years before to turn his rage into constructive channels. Fortunately, never was Ransey better than in a crisis. He watched the Ghoomers out in the street with unnerving detachment. By the time Tamaz came back into the room, after an absence of several hours, Ransey had it all worked out down to the smallest detail.
"Your friends will be executed at dawn", said Tamaz "Traditional time for executions isn't it?"
"Can I see them first?" said Ransey "For old time's sake".
"No", said Tamaz "Not all of them. You can see one, have him as a supper guest. You are free to choose which".
"Kieran", said Ransey.
"The Vanquisher himself", Tamaz sounded bored "I understand he was once married to a woman, perhaps he might be useful after all ... no, on second thoughts, I doubt it. He's had two male consorts all these years".
Supper was set out on the table in the small windowless bedroom. The young hermaphrodite who acted as Ransey's room steward obviously tried to veer more towards the female side of her body. She wore female clothes, and elaborate earrings. Whilst she busied herself with the plates she occasionally brushed against him. As she did so Ransey caught the underlying stench of her body. It was the aroma of a demon.
A movement in the stone corridor outside made the Ghoomer tense and step away. When the door opened and Kieran walked in, the creature fled past him like a thief in the night. Normally Kieran would have made some joke about this, but he said nothing. Even when they were at last alone together he didn't speak. He stood just inside the doorway of Ransey's room, looking like a bewildered child in his grubby nightshirt and bed-socks.
"What's happening Kieran?" Ransey asked eventually, sounding about as spiritually lost as it was possible for any human to get.
"I was hoping you'd tell me that", Kieran replied "They've gone to all the trouble of cooking this meal, so perhaps we should eat it".
"Are you lot getting enough to eat?"
"Oh they don't bother feeding us. There's no point when they're going to kill us all".
They sat down at the table, and Kieran scooped up the rice hungrily with his hand, too impatient to bother looking for the cutlery.
"I'm surprised you asked to see me", he said, when his hunger pangs been sated a little "I thought it'd be Adam as your choice".
"Don't be cold with me, Kieran. I'm as scared by all this as you are".
"Oh I doubt that! You're not the one who's going to die at first light".
Ransey put down his fork and began to sob helplessly into his hands. Kieran moved his chair round until he was next to him, and touched him gently. For the first time he noticed the marks on Ransey's neck.
"What have they done to you Ransey?" he asked, softly.
"Unspeakable things", Ransey sobbed "I'm going alone with all this to try and buy us time".
"We haven't got any time", said Kieran "They're going to kill us at dawn, however much you pretend to go along with them. I don't know what's happening here. I fell asleep in my own bed, and I woke up to find myself in a cell with all the others. The Ghoomers must have drugged us somehow".
"I will get us out of here", said Ransey, firmly "I'll get us away from here if I have to find a parallel universe to do it. I will not be a part of any of this. They'll be organising witch-hunts, killing men who don't fit in with their scheme of things".
"If there's a chance you can save yourself Ransey, then you must".
"They'll kill me in the end too", said Ransey "What if I always fail to get an erection, turn out to be completely useless as a progenitor? They'll crucify me too, like those people we saw in the swamp. I can save us Kieran, but I need your total co-operation".
Kieran suddenly draw away from him, as though sensing a trap.
"Dammit Kieran, you can trust me", said Ransey, angrily.
"I'm not sure I can", said Kieran "These people are offering you the life you should've always lived".
"Oh really?" Ransey gave a cruel laugh "I was abused this afternoon, did you know that? I was molested by two old hags. I doubt I'll ever feel the same again. Just before they left they said they'd have to whip me next time to get me stimulated. Now you can crack all the jokes you like, as I'm sure the others would if they were here, but I can assure you I didn't find it in the least bit funny".
"I'm sorry. Oh God, Ransey I'm sorry".
"I can just hear what the others are going to say".
"Never mind them. Can you get us out of here?"
"That's the easy part", said Ransey "This lot are all show. I've been watching them. They're so busy celebrating, they can't think of anything else".
"That's true, we haven't exactly been under the round-the-clock surveillance", said Kieran "The keys to the cell are kept on a hook by the stairs, and the guard, such as he is, only looks in occasionally. What's the difficult part then?"
"There are two. First, getting out before the Ministry men join in the fight. They're going to be like this lot's version of the Elite Squad. Chances are they're going to be the ones who organise the execution tomorrow, so that gives us a few hours. The second part is much harder. Staying undetected once we're out. The Ghoomers are born hunters, and they'll love pursuing us through the surrounding countryside".
"We'll worry about that once we're out", said Kieran "One thing at a time. Let's give 'em a wee while to get completely legless now".
They ate sedately for about half-an-hour. The only time they were checked on they were innocently discussing the ongoing feud between Hillyard and Joby. A clock chimed nine in the office.
"Right, that's it", said Ransey "They won't look in again".
Kieran led him down the stone corridor to a short flight of stairs at the far end. These took them straight up to the bars of the cell. A babble of noise went up immediately on Ransey's appearance. As soon as he had unlocked the cell door using the key's from the hook, Lonts fell on him like an excited labrador.
"Ransey, you're alright", he exclaimed, nearly knocking the said man over "We've been so worried about you".
"Obviously with no need", said Julian, surveying Ransey's scrubbed and well-fed appearance "Nice suit".
"It's nice, Ransey", said Lonts "It makes you look cute".
"I look cute do I?" said Ransey, warmly.
"Come to release us from captivity I hope", said Adam, who looked exhausted.
"No, he's probably part of the death-squad", said Julian "After all, he did use to belong to the Grand Order of Assassins!"
"Leave him be, Julian", said Kieran "Ransey's not had it good".
"It's hardly been a barrel of laughs for us", Hillyard grunted.
"But Ransey's come to rescue us now", said Lonts.
"Where are we going to go?" said Hillyard "Home's out of the question".
"If we can get to the air-buggy we'll be alright", said Gorth, who had been sitting in the corner throughout the conversation "But we need to get up there without the Ghoomers finding out".
"Or your loyal troops", said Adam.
"And those things don't have a high success rate of starting easily", said Hillyard, gloomily.
"Then we take a hostage", said Ransey, pulling a flare pistol out of the inside pocket of his jacket "I got this out of the desk in the other room, just before Tamaz came back in earlier".
"A hostage?" said Kieran "I'm not sure it'll work, Ransey. That lot don't seem to value individual life very much, even one of their own".
"I think they value Tamaz", said Ransey "He seems to be their brains, their great hope for the future. We'll take him with us".
They waited until the noise of the celebrations had died down, and they could be certain most of the Ghoomers were in a state of torpor. Tamaz was hauled out of his bed, and had the flare pistol jabbed into his cheek. In the event though none of his people were conscious enough to witness his abduction, and he was spirited away as silently as Kieran and his people had been.
It was far harder in fact to get back up the mountain to the Castle grounds. The air was bitterly cold, and most of them were only in the nightclothes they had been kidnapped in. Adam began to cough so badly that Hillyard had to pick him up and carry him.
Back up at the Castle, the front door gaped open, and lights burned in every one of the windows. They had to ignore the violating of their old home though and make straight for the air-buggy. A shout went up from the Castle as soon as Ransey tried starting it. Men spilled out onto the lawn and began to run towards them, yelling like an ancient tribe performing a ritual war dance.
"Start you bastard", Ransey panted through gritted teeth, whilst Gorth nervously sat over Tamaz with the flare pistol in his hand.
"We seem to have been in this situation before", said Joby, glumly "Fleeing from the Ghoomers".
"And like last time", said Ransey, as the air-buggy spluttered into life "We're going to make it".
"Chocs away", said Adam, and fell into another spasm of violent coughing.
"It won't get them far", said one of the Ministry men "It hasn't been re-charged enough".
"Shouldn't we tell the Ghoomers then?" said the smallest member of the group, a little sandy-haired man "So that they can go hunting".
"Oh I don't think there'll be any need for that", said another, who was beefy and bearded.
"But aren't we in with them now?" Sandy said, in confusion.
"No need for us to be", said the Beard "The Ghoomers will win, it's inevitable. All we need to do is sit here comfortably until the battle is over. Prepare ourselves for the future".
"This could be stud farm", said the first one, jokingly "We could just lounge around up here and wait for the Ghoomers to come to us for impregnating".
"But the men who don't want to breed", said Sandy "I think it's rather tough on them to be shot".
"I don't", said the first one, emphatically.
"No. No, neither do I", said Sandy, hastily.
"The immediate future has to be given over to founding a whole new race", said the Beard "That means not just breeding, but forging whole new communities, re-instating family life as it once was. All links with the past as we know it must be forcibly severed. It's the only way".
"More bloodshed", said the first one, sounding serious for once "The earth must be drenched in blood by now".
"It is the only way", said the Beard "There is no alternative. It is natural selection. Wholesome living will triumph, and all the decadence of the past hundred years will end".
Back inside the Castle the Ministry renegades finished their exploration of it. No one enjoyed this more than Sandy, who was a natural sneak. At the Ministry Headquarters he often pried through his colleagues' desks and lockers, not because he was looking for something to steal, but because he was simply nosey. At times this nosiness degenerated into voyeurism, such as the evenings when he took himself to the area of the City part which was a notorious pick-up spot for eunuch whores. Sandy often hid in the bushes to watch men fumbling under the eunuch's costumes. It wasn't unusual to see men he knew there, but Sandy would never have dared say something in case they turned violent on him. Men needed their little secrets from one another, their own space, and no one enjoyed being spied on secretly during their most private moments.
Whilst his colleagues ransacked the kitchen and store-rooms like a plague of locusts, Sandy went up to the bedrooms and had a deliriously happy hour going through cupboards and drawers. At first he opened them noiselessly and carefully, as was his custom, until he realised that no one would say anything even if he tipped them out on the floor.
At the back of one cupboard he found a stack of some of Adam's paintings and sketches. The intimacy portrayed in these was a major scoop for Sandy. One showed a naked Mr Joby, lying on his side with his hand resting on his genitals. Another showed a naked Baby Lonts (looking very unlike a baby) sitting in the bath-tub, with a highly suggestive smile on his face. A quick sketch, obviously done impromptu, showed a naked Hillyard holding a clean dinner-plate up to his groin in a coy fashion. A second one of Lonts was the most explicit of the lot, showing him crouched naked on all fours on the floor with his bottom perched high in the air, and his dark eyes peering mischievously through his hair.
The pictures were a little gold-mine. Sandy knew of some newspapers and picture galleries in the City that would pay a small fortune for them. If he could find one of the ex-president, the Vanquisher of Evil, he would be made for life. He finally ran them to earth in a separate folder. Kieran was naked in all of them. He was lying on a sofa, either face-up or face-down. In all of them his startling thinness was disturbing to behold. His bones stuck out like craters on the moon, and his arms and legs were like sticks. Adam hadn't flinched at portraying his lover's anorexia, or perhaps that was his intention. In all of them Kieran looked ethereal and vulnerable. Even without the voyeuristic content, these were amazing studies. Anyone would pay well over the odds for them. Sandy could just picture the headlines. "THE VANQUISHER AS YOU'VE NEVER SEEN HIM BEFORE!" They made all the other portraits look like chocolate box illustrations.
Sandy heaped the pictures on Adam's bed, and then turned his attention to other objects of profit. He located Kieran's room by the crucifix hanging over the dressing-table mirror, and he methodically began to go through the drawers. Under a heap of socks he found a small stack of notes, all from Adam or Joby to Kieran. Some made no sense at all, and were obviously private jokes that would be conundrums to anyone else. Others were more clear.
"IF YOU DON'T PUT SOME FLESH ON, BONE-BAG, YOU'LL START SPLINTERING IN MY ARMS" ran one "I'VE SEEN DILDO'S BIGGER THAN YOU". Kieran had scrawled underneath "I'M SURE YOU HAVE, JOBY! LET'S RUB EACH OTHER TOGETHER LATER AND START A FIRE!"
Sandy scanned a few more hungrily.
"AM MOST DISPLEASED WITH NOT HAVING SEEN YOU ALL MORNING, PATSY", read another "WE'LL START SUFFERING CABIN-FEVER IN THIS COLD DARK OLD HOVEL IF THIS MATTER ISN'T RECTIFIED SOON. YOU CAN ONLY APPEASE ME BY COMING TO MY ROOM AT TWO AND HAVING YOUR BUTT SPANKED - VERY SOUNDLY".
For the very briefest of moments Sandy felt a pang of conscience. This was someone's private life he was wading through. The pang of conscience didn't last long though, and soon he was stuffing the notes into his coat pockets. He left the pictures in Adam's room, ready to collect when the time was right, and made his way to the top of the back stairs. He was distracted by a framed photograph hanging on the wall. According to the date written at the bottom it had been taken in May of the previous year, two months before the Blast. In it Kieran and his party had assembled outside the front door whilst a neighbour from the village had snapped them for posterity. Kieran had his hands on Joby's arms and was squeezing them fiendishly to make him smile. The others all looked sun-tanned and relaxed. Whilst he was looking at the picture one of the dogs (who had proved to be perfectly useless as guard-dogs) nuzzled his hand. When the animal failed to recognise his scent it moved away dejectedly.
Sandy remembered that he had seen a notebook in Ransey's room that looked as though it may have been a diary. Appalled that he may have missed something so vital, he sped back along the gallery. Down in the atrium the others were gathering round the fire with scraps of food gleaned from the kitchen.
"That peculiar wall in the pantry doesn't look in good nick", one of them was saying "It was crumbling in parts".
"Not our problem", said the Beard "If it gives us too much trouble we'll just pull it down. I don't suppose it serves any useful purpose".
Sandy located the diary in Ransey's room. He was ecstatic to find in fact a while shelf of them hidden in a curtained niche. Ransey had been keeping a diary one-and-off since the days following their flight from Gabriel's house, when he had filled in a log in order to keep track of the passage of time. A quick scan revealed that the earlier entries were mainly notes he had jotted down during Kieran's presidency. Nothing terribly controversial or enlightening, just an aid to help him keep track of business. The ones since living at Wolf Castle were astonishing though. They were like an on-going love-letter to Adam, interspersed with details of the disturbing dreams he had suffered when Angel was still alive. They formed a chronicle of one man's struggle with himself.
"I FEEL AS THOUGH I'M TUMBLING THROUGH THE FIRMAMENT", he had written "A TRAVELLER LOST WITHOUT A COMPASS. ADAM IS LIKE A DRUG. I DON'T WANT TO SEE HIM. I HATE THE WAY HE DISTURBS ME. I DON'T WANT TO FEEL AS INTENSELY AS THIS. IT'S NOT FAIR. I TRY TO AVOID SEEING HIM, AND THEN I FIND MYSELF LOOKING FORWARD TO SEEING HIM. IT'S ALL SO BLOODY HOPELESS. I CAN'T BEAR ANYONE ELSE MENTIONING HIS NAME SOMETIMES. THEY SAY IT SO CASUALLY, AND IT'S LIKE A KNIFE IN MY HEART. ALL THIS EMOTION, ALL THIS FEELING, AND THERE'S NO POINT TO IT AT ALL".
Sandy felt like a glutton. His voyeuristic senses had been stuffed with it all, and now he felt sick with indigestion. He placed the books back on the hidden shelf. Nudity and saucy love-notes were one thing, but some things were just never meant to be made public.
He emerged back into the gallery. The first thing he noticed was that the whole house was now unnaturally quiet. Even the dogs had stopped barking. Sandy went to one of the arches that overlooked the atrium. One of his colleagues had fired his pistol at the wall over the fireplace. He had obviously been intending to create the word "GHOOMER" out of bullet-holes, but had got bored after "GHOO". His friends had lined up on the carpet and were all facing one way, with looks of utter incomprehension on their faces.
Someone in a black hooded cloak was standing at the side of the atrium. The hood was pulled down over the face. As Sandy watched the figure paced awkwardly towards the men, until Sandy was staring at her back. She reached up slowly and tossed the hood away from her face. At first he couldn't make out what she wore on her head, it was like some form of elaborate head-dress. Only it seemed alive. Writhing and hissing. His colleagues were now screaming in terror, one was trying to hide his face in the back of a chair, although it was rather too late for such precautions. The Beard fell gasping to his knees, clutching at his chest as though he was having a seizure.
Sandy fled into Adam's room and threw himself under the bed. Where he continued to lay quivering for quite some time to come.
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