“If you managed to get yourself up there, then it stands to reason that you can get yourself back down again”, said Bardin.
He was standing on the attic floor landing of the house on the Weather Rock, looking up at the skylight in the roof. His partner, Bengo, was jammed halfway through, with his feet dangling in mid-air.
“But I can’t!” Bengo shouted down.
“Bardin’s right, Bengo”, said Adam, who had appeared at the top of the stairs, flanked by Joby and Hoowie “It’s basic law of physics, unless you have violently expanded your girth in the short time you have been wedged there”.
“That wouldn’t surprise me”, said Joby.
“Perhaps we should oil him all over with butter”, said Hoowie “Grease him up and slide him out that way”.
“I think you’ve been spending too much time hanging around with Julian”, said Adam.
“It would be a complete waste of butter anyway”, said Joby.
“Well we can’t just leave him up there”, said Adam.
“I don’t see why not”, said Bardin “What were you doing getting up there anyway?”
“Lissa said if we could only get up on the roof, then we’d be able to get a much better view of the entire area”, Bengo shouted back down.
“So like a chump, you volunteered?” said Bardin “Now listen very carefully to my instructions, Bengo”.
“Yeah listen, Bengo”, said Joby.
Bardin positioned himself directly underneath Bengo’s feet, and took a grasp of his knees.
“I’m standing between your fat, hairy legs”, said Bardin “Raise your arms in the air, and when I count to 3 I’ll give a sharp pull, and don’t go squealing like a big girl when I do”.
“I’m sure you must have done this in one of your routines over the years”, said Adam.
“Very likely”, said Bardin “The trouble is, he’s often rubbish at following even the most basic of stage directions”.
“That’s not true!” Bengo exclaimed “It’s just you always terrified me by adopting a superior tone”.
“Oh shut up and listen”, said Bardin “I’m about to count to 3”.
He pulled Bengo back down through the skylight, and then catapulted him forward over his shoulders. Bengo rolled onto all fours, and Bardin gave him a kick up the behind.
“Now that’s really not necessary, Bardin”, said Adam.
Bengo crawled round to face Bardin and promptly pulled his trousers down to his ankles, much to the amusement of the others.
“I was always good at ad-libbing”, said Bengo.
The voices of Lissa and Elaine could be heard on the landing below. Bardin hastily scrambled to pull up his trousers.
“I think it’s time I got you two home”, said Adam to Bengo and Bardin.
“What are we gonna do about their skylight?” said Hoowie “There’s a howling draught coming down through it”.
“Now here’s a novel idea”, said Bardin “I shall stand on a chair and close it, and don’t allow Bengo anywhere near it”.
Julian was laid up in his cabin with a bad cold. To his utter confusion and annoyance he was the only one on the galleon who had thus, so far, succombed to this ailment. There were times when he thought it was all a plot, and not down to the fact that he had been the one who had gone walking about on the freezing cold main deck in his bare feet early one morning.
“Will you stop pacing around”, he exclaimed at Bardin “You’re like a whirling dervish, too much energy that’s your trouble”.
“Probably because I’m getting a bit of cabin fever with being stuck in one place for so long”, said Bardin, sitting astride a chair.
“Didn’t the impromptu comedy routine with the skylight, which Hoowie was telling me about, work off a bit of excess energy?” said Julian.
“No, that house doesn’t help matters”, said Bardin “It’s a gloomy old pile, I’m glad we’re not living in it. Whoever was stationed here when it was the Weather Rock must have gone clean off their chump”.
“The previous inhabitants did seem to abandon it in a hurry”, said Julian “The burning question of the hour is, what did Bengo actually see when he was stuck up there?”
“To quote Himself, bugger all”, said Bardin “Although no one should expect a detailed, helpful summary from Bengo! He said the interior of the mainland looked like a cold desert, which pretty much sounds like how it was when Adam, Joby and Kieran were travelling through it all those years ago. Over the years we’ve stayed in some remote places, but this one feels like all of civilisation has been wiped out, and we’re the only ones left”.
“We haven’t even see any of the alleged monsters the previous inhabitants warned about”, said Julian.
“I suppose we should be grateful for small mercies there”, Bardin sighed “Anyway, it doesn’t sound like there’s much point exploring too far into the interior at the moment. We’ve still just got to wait out this few weeks until the better weather comes, although it all feels endless at the moment”.
“Off already?” said Julian, as Bardin got up from the chair.
“Yes, Adam wants to have a session with me before 7 o’clock”, said Bardin.
“Why, what happens at 7 o’clock?” asked Julian.
“We’ve got guests”, said Bardin “They’re coming down from the house for supper”.
“What, again?!” said Julian “They were eating down here only a couple of days ago!”
“I know, but I think Adam feels sorry for them”, said Bardin “The 4 of them rattling around that windswept old mausoleum on cold, dark nights. I must admit it would give me the irrits too”.
“You’ve no idea how light and cheerful it is coming below deck here, after being up at the house”, said Lissa, when the island quartet came down the quarterdeck steps a couple of hours later “All the lanterns lit, the dining-table polished”.
“I’ll pass your compliments onto Toppy”, said Adam, greeting her at the bottom of the steps “He’ll be delighted. It is largely down to him that we have a modicum of civilisation on the galleon. Is life up at the house that bad?”
“Oh don’t get me wrong, we’re very grateful to have it as a safe haven”, said Lissa, removing her coat “Compared to the places we were all living before, it’s a palace! But on these wintry days it can feel very gloomy at times. The wind whistles around the building, and there seem to be a lot of dark corners. I must admit I don’t like finding myself alone in any of the rooms”.
“Is that what is bugging Elaine?” said Adam, dropping his voice “She doesn’t seem her usual outgoing self”.
He glanced through the open doorway to the dining-room. Elaine was standing, staring down at the table in a pensive manner.
“She’s convinced the house is haunted”, said Lissa “It doesn’t take a great leap of the imagination to see why anyone would think that! She’s also convinced that there are hidden parts of it we haven’t been able to access yet”.
“Oh?” said Adam “Like secret passageways and such like?”
“And hidden rooms”, said Lissa “Did you find anything like that when you were here before?”
“Well we weren’t really here for long enough”, said Adam “And we were too distracted by other things to go exploring. But I’m sure Bardin could arrange a thorough search of the house if you like, provided Bengo doesn’t get stuck in any more windows! Tell you what, to cheer her up, I’ll arrange for Hillyard to sit next to her at supper. He has a very reassuring way about him at times”.
“That’s one way of putting it”, said Joby.
“Be quiet”, said Adam.
“It was dead eerie when we were here the first time”, said Joby “I didn’t like creeping around it late at night. God knows how Buskin managed to live there all by himself all those years”.
“I think his work kept him fully occupied”, said Adam “But yes, now you mention it it did spook us a bit back then. It’s just we’ve been in so many spooky places over the years that I’d forgotten about it. Plus, after the Loud House, it must have felt almost cozy!”
Adam’s idea to put Hillyard next to Elaine at the dinner-table paid off. Elaine relaxed, and by the end of the main course was giggling again.
“Is it true what I’ve heard?” Hillyard teased “That you 4 up there have taken to sleeping in the same room?”
“Yes we have”, said Elaine “Purely safety in numbers. Nobody wants to be in a room by themselves”.
“Don’t it put the mockers on Ben and Lissa’s conjugal bliss?” said Hillyard.
“Oh there’s not much of that goes on”, said Elaine, stifling a burp “They’re more like Nixx and I, brother and sister, really. Ben’s health still isn’t very good you know. He’s quite frail. From what I can gather, it wasn’t very good in the City, and all the stressful travelling since hasn’t helped”.
“No I suppose not”, said Hillyard, observing how pale Benjamin looked across the table “It can’t be easy on Lissa, I mean she’s young and healthy and all that”.
“Now don’t you go getting ideas”, said Elaine, tapping his arm playfully “She’s devoted to him. Anyway, I get the impression she’s not much interested in all that generally. She told me recently that she thought it was all over-rated”.
“People only say that when they haven’t had it good”, said Hillyard.
“I shall tell Adam about you if you’re not careful”, said Elaine.
“He won’t mind, I’m supposed to be cheering you up”, said Hillyard “That place really scares you doesn’t it?”
“Even in broad daylight”, Elaine nodded “It’s the kitchen I don’t like. Even when the weather’s noisy outside, it can feel deathly quiet in there. It’s not natural. Will Bardin mind doing a recce of the place if we ask him?”
“Don’t worry about him, he’ll do as he’s told”, said Hillyard, topping up her beer “Adam’ll make sure of that”.
Lissa deliberately bumped into Kieran in the below-deck corridor after supper. She asked him if he would do a Blessing on the house at the same time as the others were examining it.
“Course I will”, said Kieran “I should have suggested it myself. I hope you don’t mind me saying so, but I get the feeling you have actually seen something up there”.
“Only a dark shape”, said Lissa “In the corner of the kitchen. I couldn’t make out any distinguishing features. I’m not even sure it was human, although it had a vague outline of a person. I only saw it briefly, I got the impression it didn’t want me to see it. I did tell Ben about it, but not Elaine. She’s already spooked enough by the house without me adding that. It was very strange. It was like a shadow, only more tangible, as though it had substance”, she gave a shudder “Ugh! It was horrible”.
“We’ll get over there first thing tomorrow”, said Kieran “In the meantime I think you 4 should spend the night on here, you can have Bengo and Bardin’s cabin”.
“Here!” Hoowie shouted “I swear this wall is false, come over here!”
He was standing at the back of the living-room, running his hands over the faded floral patterned wallpaper.
Bardin gave a harrumph and strolled across the room. In the passageway Kieran could be heard intoning the words of Blessing. Several of the others were drifting from room to room, randomly opening cupboards and doorways. So far the house hadn’t yielded anything unexpected.
“Here listen”, said Hoowie, tapping on the wall “Hear it?”
“Yes”, said Bardin, and he gave a few knocks himself “It’s not a solid wall. And yet this wall is right at the back of the house, so there can’t be another room hidden behind it”.
“Might be a staircase or a passageway though”, said Hoowie.
“I think we might have hit the motherlode!” Bardin called out.
Kieran carried on with the Blessing, roaming into the kitchen, but Ransey, Hillyard and Lissa walked briskly across the room.
“I knew it!” said Lissa, her eyes sparkling, after she had done her share of the knocking too “I knew there had to be more to this house than meets the eye. There are some old tools in the shed outside, we could easily bash this down”.
“Now hang on a minute”, said Ransey “Let’s not get carried away”.
“Why not?” said Hillyard.
“This isn’t our house!” said Ransey.
“I can’t believe you’re saying this, Ranz”, said Hillyard “So whose house is it then?”
“The previous inhabitants legged it”, Lissa pointed out “And left that note for us on the kitchen table. It doesn’t sound to me like they have any intention of coming back”.
“And if they did”, said Hoowie “Couldn’t we just sort of apologise or something?”
“What apologise for demolishing their living-room wall?!” said Ransey.
“Ranz, I know you mean well”, said Hillyard, putting a hand on his old friend’s shoulder “But can’t you forget you used to work for the Ministry for one moment?”
“Well I like that!” Ransey exclaimed.
“We can’t leave this mystery unsolved”, said Bardin “And no one’s going to feel at ease in this place until we work out all its little quirks. Come on, let’s fetch those tools”.
Hillyard wielded an enormous hammer, generating clouds of dust as he knocked large holes in the wall.
“I won’t be sorry to see the back of that wallpaper”, said Elaine, watching on “Perhaps we should take a hammer to all the walls”.
“And destabilise the structure of the house?” said Joby “Yeah, great thinking”.
“Frankly, I wouldn’t care if the whole place fell down!” said Elaine.
When sufficient holes had been knocked through, Hoowie and Lissa excitedly tore at the crumbling blocks of stonework.
“There’s a staircase here!” shouted Lissa.
“Going up or down?” said Joby.
“Down”, said Lissa.
“I had a horrible feeling you was gonna say that”, said Joby.
“Did they wall off the entrance to the cellar?” said Ransey.
Hillyard put one leg over the remains of the wall and peered down.
“I don’t think this was the cellar”, he said “It seems to go down into the bowels of the island”.
“Hm, we’ve seen a few places like that”, said Bardin “That makes some sense”.
“Does it?” said a perplexed Lissa.
“Yes”, said Bardin “There are underground networks all over this world, running right under the ocean too. We saw it on Hy Brasil, the island we lived on in the middle of the ocean for a while, and also that strange little place off the west coast, where we found that body that time, just before we met you lot”.
“And you think they are all connected?” asked Elaine.
“We can only guess at the moment”, said Bardin, straightening up “But let’s just say it wouldn’t surprise me”.
“Do they run under everywhere?” said Elaine.
“I think so”, said Bardin “Under the seas, under the land, everywhere. Years ago we used to hear strange underground train noises in some areas”.
“Good heavens”, said Elaine “But what for? And who built them?”
They were interrupted by the sound of an air-buggy droning overhead.
“It’s all go today isn’t it”, said Hillyard.
Everyone, including Kieran, ran outside, and gathered at the northern-most tip of the small island, which faced the mainland. A small air-buggy was slowly drifting into land, and glided to a halt on the bleak, featureless terrain.
“I recognise that air-buggy”, said Hillyard “It’s Doctor Xavier!”
“All the way up here?” said Hoowie.
“Let’s get the skiff and go over”, said Bardin “Ransey, Hillyard, Kieran, Joby. The rest of you stay here. We’ll be back soon enough”.
Doctor Xavier clambered awkwardly out of the air-buggy. He had been sitting cramped in one position for some considerable time, and his legs felt stiff and unused. He stood outside it, peering up at the handful of people who were watching him from the small rocky island offshore. He fumbled for the binoculars which he had taken from the passenger seat, and peered through them. He was startled - and pleasantly surprised - to see two women amongst the little throng. He also recognised Hoowie and Bengo with them.
“I made it”, he said under this breath.
The shore-party dragged the skiff onto the pebbled beach, and then ambled towards their visitor.
“How the hell did you find us?” said Bardin, holding out his hand towards him “All the way up here?”
“Persistence, my dear fellow, persistence”, said the Doctor, returning the handshake, and then doing the same with the others.
“I’ve been travelling for a few days”, he continued “I flew up the west coast, because I knew that was the direction in which you were heading. Everywhere is so depopulated now, it’s so distressing. I couldn’t see any sign of the galleon anywhere, nor any shipping come to that”.
“No we’ve not seen any either”, said Joby.
“I thought you might have found some way of getting into the Great Forest”, said the Doctor “I knew if that had happened it would be nigh-on impossible for me to find you, it would be like looking for a needle in a haystack, so I just kept on. When the Forest ended, I flew out over the tundra. My heart leaped when I saw the island here, with a ship anchored off it!”
“Weren’t you concerned about getting stranded by yourself all the way up here?” said Kieran.
“I am quite spectacularly indifferent about what happens to me these days”, said the Doctor, sadly.
“Antonia has gone?” said Kieran.
“Yes”, said the Doctor “Everyone seemed to think that, just because I knew it was going to happen, that somehow that would make it easier. Well it didn’t. It didn’t at all. No amount of preparation can cushion the shock you feel when it happens. How someone who was such a major part of your life can suddenly just cease to exist overnight. It is horrific. I came to the conclusion that I had to get away from Zilligot Bay. I knew that as the months went on, people would expect me to … pull myself together. All I could see was me becoming more and more reclusive in that house. I said I was going to get the buggy out and see what had become of our world. I really wanted to see if I could find you”.
“Let’s get you over to the galleon”, said Kieran “Adam’s going to be delighted to see you”.
“Who are the women?” said Doctor Xavier.
“Ah, some friends of ours we met on our travels”, said Kieran “We met them on the west coast, refugees from the City, just like yourself”.
“So don’t tell me he’s going to be moving in here as well?” said Julian, still in his sick-bed “They’ll be out-numbering us soon! We’ll be the ones who’ll have to move out!”
“What nonsense”, said Adam “Anyway, he’s not moving in here, he’s moving into the house with them. He’ll be able to keep an eye on the air-buggy better from up there”.
“He does realise that, thanks to Hillyard, there’s a bloody great hole in the living-room wall?” said Julian.
“According to Elaine they are just going to close the door on it”, said Adam “She says they didn’t like that room anyway. They seem very keen to have him there”.
“Probably going to eat him for breakfast”, said Julian.
It was certainly true that Elaine and Lissa were enthralled at the prospect of having Doctor Xavier moving in with them. Benjamin just seemed bewildered by the whole thing, and Nixx accepted it, as he did everything, with calm fortitude.
“It’s amazing what a difference one extra person makes”, said Elaine, as the 5 of them sat around the kitchen table having supper “You wouldn’t think it would, but it does”.
“As if we’re a proper gang at last”, said Lissa, placing a large lantern in the middle of the table.
“I suppose it’s safety in numbers”, said Doctor Xavier “The more the better”.
“The galleon crew are very lucky like that”, said Benjamin “There must be about two dozen of them. It makes all the difference”.
“I don’t mind us staying here now”, said Elaine, who could barely contain herself “I was starting to yearn for the day we resumed our travels, but now it doesn’t seem so bad”.
“I had the impression you hated this house”, said Doctor Xavier.
“Well it’s gloominess has got on my nerves at times”, said Elaine “But with one more here it feels as if we can fight back against the darkness”.
“You sound like Kieran”, Xavier smirked “What do you make of him?”
“Oh I think he’s cute”, said Elaine.
“He has a definite aura about him though”, said Lissa “A good one I mean. He can seem very other-worldly, I suppose it might be those intense blue eyes of his, as if he’s permanently seeing into the distance”.
“Has his Blessing worked on this house?” said Xavier.
“Well it definitely feels different this evening”, said Lissa “But I can’t tell if it’s because of the Blessing, or because you’re here”.
“Perhaps you came out of the Blessing”, said Elaine “Perhaps in some weird way Kieran arranged for all this”.
As Doctor Xavier’s entire trip had come out of his grief for his wife, Antonia, he forbore to comment on that one.
“Let us just say that I am pleased to have reached you all”, he said instead.
After supper they helped the Doctor to move into the main bedroom which they had all been using on the first floor of the house. The Indigo-ites had loaned them a camp-bed from the hold of the ship, which Nixx set up in a corner of the room.
“I hope you’re going to be comfortable on it”, said Elaine “Your long legs are going to be hanging over the end”.
“For the past few nights I’ve barely been sleeping at all”, said Xavier “Sitting cramped in the cockpit of my landed air-buggy, convinced someone or someTHING was going to come creeping out of the darkness at me. Believe me, this is luxury by comparison”.
“Yeah you’ll be alright on here”, said Nixx “These things are sturdier than they look”.
“If there are any problems”, said Lissa “We’ll rescue one of the armchairs from the living-room tomorrow and get it up the stairs”.
Down on the galleon, Rumble and Hillyard were doing evening-watch on the main deck.
“Aye-aye”, said Rumble, when a lantern appeared in the first floor bedroom “Things are getting cozy. Elaine’s really got a bit of a thing about the Doc hasn’t she?”
“Good”, said Hillyard “Perhaps Adam will now stop trying to prostitute me out as some kind of gigolo!”
“It must have been horrible for him though”, said Rumble “Flying all the way up here, lonely nights in the middle of nowhere”.
“I get the impression”, said Hillyard “From what he’s said, that he was indifferent to everything. Grief can get you like that I guess”.
“Has he said much about news in the outside world?”
“Not yet, we’ll have plenty of time to talk about all that over the next few days”.
Rumble’s shift finished about an hour later. He crept down the quarterdeck steps, as most of the rest of the ship’s inhabitants had turned in. He went into the galley, where Adam was dozing by the stove. Rumble tried to sneak over to the teapot as quietly as he could, but a creak in the floorboards betrayed him. Adam woke up.
“Oh let me make some fresh”, he said “That stuff must be as stewed as heck by now”.
“Nah, don’t worry about it”, said Rumble, grabbing an available mug “I quite like it this way”.
Adam stood up, and faced the small window over the sink.
“It’s not dawn already is it?” he said.
“It’s a Full Moon tonight”, said Rumble “Looking dead stunning over the ocean. It will appeal to the artist in you”.
“If I wasn’t feeling so tired, I would go up and have a look”, said Adam, as he began wrestling with his pinny “And I’ve still got this damn thing on too. Sometimes it feels as though I’ve been sewn into it!”
“Hang on, I’ll give you a hand”, said Rumble, picking at the knot on the ties.
“It’s the quiet, capable ones like you who keep this ship running”, said Adam.
“Thanks”, said Rumble “I’ll pass that onto Bardin tomorrow, that’ll annoy him!”
“Well it’s true”, said Adam “Look at Finia for instance. Does all the mending, and the First Aid, and he’s been dosing Julian with that ghastly cough mixture he found in the hold”.
“I can see why that appeals to you!” said Rumble “Anyway, if it comes to that, look at all the work you do. All the cooking, acting as Agony Auntie, keeping the tea flowing …”
“Oh that’s usually Joby most of the time”.
“That is entirely pleasure”, said Adam “Although as hard as I try it never seems to have much effect on him!”
“One day it might”, said Rumble “Particularly if we stay here a while”.
“You like it here?” Adam turned to face him in astonishment “All I hear from most people is how bleak it is, and how the Winter feels so long”.
“I’ve grown to like it”, said Rumble “It’s sort of a quiet pause, after all the travelling of the last few years, and all the endless hustle and bustle round Zilligot Bay. Here, we just sit on the edge of the ocean, and I like it. I know some are spooked by the house and all its mysteries, but I like it. Makes me feel like I’m in an old thriller”.
“Well certainly an old black-and-white B-movie!” said Adam.
Lissa couldn’t sleep for the Full Moon shining through the windows. The blinds they had upstairs were inadequate. She was glad when the lunar glare gave way to daylight, and she was able to go downstairs and begin breakfast. Whilst she was busy in the kitchen, Nixx had to brave the living-room to retrieve some wood for the stove.
“Lissa!” he came rushing back in “Come and have a look, girl! There’s a light shining up from down below!”
Perplexed, Lissa put down the frying-pan, and followed him into the room across the passageway. She could see a glimmer of light through the wreckage of the wall, and approached it cautiously.
“You’re right”, she whispered, getting as close as she dared.
There was a glow coming up the stairs.
“OK”, she said, softly “You go upstairs and tell the others. I’ll go down to the galleon and tell them”.
“Whatever it is it’s now moving about”, said Bardin, standing at the top of the narrow steps, and holding a lantern at knee level “I think it’s someone carrying a torch. Hey down there!”
“Be careful, Bardy”, said Bengo.
“Oh don’t be such a wuss”, said Bardin “There are several of us armed to the teeth up here”.
“I notice you haven’t taken your gun out of its holster”, said Ransey.
“Hang on a minute, I thought you always said only take the gun out when it’s absolutely necessary”, said Bardin “So now I’m supposed to start firing at this person before I even know who they are?! I think you’re losing your touch! … Hey down there! Show your face!”
“And what if it’s a gorgon?” said Bengo.
“I’ve never heard of them lurking around in underground tunnels”, said Hillyard.
“Might be a Reptile Man”, said Joby “Although it’s years since we’ve seen one of those”.
“I can assure you I am not a Gorgon or a Reptile Man”, came a male voice.
“Can you come up?” said Bardin.
A bobbing light was reflected on the wall of the steps. Gradually a man appeared, holding a large torch, and blinking in the unaccustomed daylight.
“Wow”, he said, when he peered over the crumbling wall at the top of the stairs “A reception committee”.
He was a young-ish man, of painfully slim build. Jet black hair hung in an unwashed curtain around his face. He had substantial beard growth on his face, and looked as if he hadn’t washed in quite some while. He had already been frisked for weapons, and apart from a penknife he wasn’t found to be carrying any. He was now seated on the sofa in the bay window, facing Bardin, Bengo, Ransey, Hillyard, Joby, Nixx and Lissa, who were all staring at him, completely nonplussed.
“How long have you been down there?” said Bardin.
“Mainly since I left the City”, said the man, who had an oddly affable air about him “Apart from very occasionally when I’ve braved the surface”.
“What made you travel underground?” said Bardin.
“I’ve heard so many horror tales about life on the surface that I thought it was safer”, said the man.
“Really?” Joby exclaimed “I wouldn’t have thought travelling underground was the safest thing”.
“Perhaps not, but it’s what I was used to”, said the man “I used to work in the sewers back in the City”.
“Lissa and Nixx are also refugees from the City”, said Bardin, gesturing at them.
“Not from the sewers though”, Lissa laughed.
“I always said City women were the most beautiful in the world”, said the man.
“We’ll have to get Elaine down here”, said Joby “She’s gonna love you!”
“I’ll go and fetch her”, said Nixx, scurrying off.
“What’s your name?” said Bardin.
“I always went by the name of Moley”, said Moley “For obvious reasons”.
“Was that your speciality?” said Bengo “The Human Mole?”
“Oh for God’s sake, Bengo”, said Bardin “We’re not auditioning him for a show!”
“Well I suppose I was”, Moley laughed.
“What did you find underground?” said Hillyard.
“Mainly endless dark tunnels, plus what appeared to be some old underground train platforms”, said Moley “I had heard rumours of these over the years, so that didn’t surprise me. I followed the tracks sometimes and got myself more and more lost”.
“Any living creatures?” said Bardin.
“Apart from rats, nothing really”, said Moley “Although occasionally I was aware of other things lurking in the tunnels, but I didn’t see anything. It’s not for the faint-hearted down there. I took to sleeping on some of the old train platforms. I hadn’t managed to break the surface in some while, and I was starting to wonder if I ever would. I couldn’t believe it when I saw your light at the top of the stairs”.
“But nothing ever threatened you?” said Bardin.
“I think whatever is down there”, said Moley “Has lost whatever power it may have had. It seemed to be more concerned with staying out of my way than confronting me. They are more sort of spectral residue, I suppose you would say”.
“Good God man, you must have some determination”, said Hillyard “To survive all that, on your own!”
“No, the odd thing was I always felt safer down there than on the surface”, said Moley “I had heard that some areas have turned to cannibalism, and others have been saturated with demons. Believe me, below ground felt safer! It was keeping nourished that was the hardest thing, I would stock up on berries and such like when I went overground. Fortunately there was always plenty of water down there”.
“Hell’s bells”, said Bardin.
“Well look at you!” said Elaine, breezing into the room as if she was entering a cocktail party, closely followed by Dr Xavier “Like a little ragamuffin who has been playing in the coal cellar”.
“Praps you could give him a bath”, said Joby.
“I think Dr Xavier should give him the once-over first”, said Bardin.
“It’s plainly obvious to me that he’s mainly suffering from malnutrition!” said Xavier.
“I think some breakfast is in order”, said Lissa.
“So now we seem to have accumulated yet another one!” said Julian, waspishly, from his sick bed “I tell you they will be outnumbering us soon”.
“Rubbish Julian”, Hillyard laughed “There are about two dozen of us, and only 6 of them! It’s turning out to be useful actually. The Doc bought his air-buggy with him, and Moley’s told us about the underground tunnels”.
“Moley”, said Julian in disgust.
“Come off it, I think you’ll like him”, said Hillyard “Adam says he reminds him of Hoowie”.
“Adam would, the sentimental old fool”, said Julian.
“You’re just narked because you’ve been laid up for too long”.
“Well of course I’m narked, I haven’t anything to do! And it’s pissing me off that I’m the only one who’s gone down with this damn lurgey. I swear it’s all Kieran’s doing, to keep me out of the way”.
“Funny that”, said Hillyard “He was saying to me earlier that he couldn’t wait until you’re on your feet again, ‘cos you’re a bloody awful patient”.
“Hah!” said Julian.
“I’ve just had an idea”, said Hillyard.
“I can’t wait to hear it”, Julian snapped.
“Perhaps we need to try a touch of kill or cure”, said Hillyard “You’ve been laid up in that bed for too long, incubating bugs. Perhaps if we got you out into the bracing fresh air, it might help kill it all off”.
“I’m desperate enough to try anything”, said Julian “I’m sick of the sight of the four walls of this cabin, lying here listening to everybody else laughing and doing things. Particularly now everybody seems to be avoiding me, even Hoowie vanishes for hours on end”.
“Look, I’ll dig out some warm clothes for you”, said Hillyard “And take you up to the house. You can have a look at the hole in their living-room wall”.
“I am desperate enough to even regard THAT as entertainment now!” said Julian.
“And you say he was roaming about down there?” said Julian, now standing at the top of the basement steps up at the house on the island.
“Yep”, said Hillyard “Had been down there for weeks, working his way up here, mainly subterranean, poor sod, what a life”.
“Where is he now?” asked Julian.
“Upstairs I think”, said Joby “Probably being given a bath by Elaine”.
“Not me sweety-poops”, said Elaine, coming into the room “Lissa. Julian, you look absolutely awful!”
“Thank you”, said Julian “Although doubtless I shall feel better now the compliments are flowing again”.
“I just didn’t realise you had been that poorly”, said Elaine.
“He doesn’t look THAT bad”, said Joby “He’s only had a touch of flu”.
“A touch of flu?” said Julian “That’s easy to say when you haven’t had it yourself, and I still swear Kieran had something to do with it”.
“No he didn’t!” said Joby “When have you ever known him deliberately make someone ill? He hasn’t even done that to Angel!”
“I shall go and make us all some tea”, said Elaine.
“I’ll give you a hand”, said Joby.
He followed Elaine across the passageway to the kitchen.
“Julian confuses me sometimes”, said Elaine, reaching for the kettle.
“That doesn’t surprise me”, said Joby.
“The way he talks about Kieran …”
“Oh look don’t worry about that, Julian talks about everybody like that!”
“But if he doesn’t like him …”
“He does like him”, said Joby “It’s just banter, Elaine, that’s all, nothing more”.
“Yes I suppose so”, said Elaine, looking sombre “I seem to have lost a lot of my sense of mischief on my travels”.
“Living at that old railway station for years on end would be enough to make anyone lose their sense of mischief”, said Joby.
“I never thought I would be the sort of person who would end up taking everything too seriously”, said Elaine.
“Everything that’s happened these past few years has been enough to change anyone”, Joby squeezed her arm.
He caught a movement through the window over the sink and went over to it. The skiff had been dragged up onto the small sliver of pebbled beach, and Bardin, Ransey, Kieran and Doctor Xavier were disembarking.
“Where are they going?” said Elaine.
“Just to check over the air-buggy I expect”, said Joby.
Bardin and Co secured the skiff and then clambered up the rocky slope towards the flat main interior of the land. The air-buggy had been left parked a short distance away.
“Does no harm to give it the once-over”, said Ransey.
“Now it’s got me here”, said Doctor Xavier “I don’t much care what happens to it”.
“You might not!” said Bardin, crossly “But it might come in very useful at some point. There are plenty of times when an air-buggy would have been a godsend to us”.
“Then you have it, old boy”, said the Doctor “Hillyard seems pretty clued up on flying, I’m sure he’ll willingly be your pilot”.
“You won’t always feel like this”, said Bardin.
“Oh no?” said the Doctor “Would you say that if you lost Bengo?”
“Look we understand”, said Bardin “But the fact remains this is a highly valuable piece of equipment you have here”.
“Then as I said, you have it”, said the Doctor.
There was clearly no reasoning to be had with Xavier. Kieran escorted Bardin a few feet away to look out over the tundra, whilst Ransey went with Xavier to inspect the air-buggy.
“I understand how you feel, Xavier”, said Ransey, when he had had a good look at the cockpit “But Bardin’s right, this is a very valuable beast you have here”.
“And as I said, you can have it”, said the Doctor “I mean it. I have no further use for it. Whatever happens from now on, I will stay with the people up at the house”.
“And if they decide to move on?” said Ransey, joining him outside at the back of the buggy.
“There isn’t room for all 6 of us on here”, said the Doctor “So it wouldn’t be much use to us, whereas you lot can at least use it to look over an area”.
“We might want you to pilot it for us”, said Ransey “You did a damn good job when you rescued Glynis and Jane from the Third Island. We owe you an enormous debt for that one”.
“I feel like I am constantly repeating myself here”, said the Doctor “As I said before, Hillyard can do it. I don’t wish to sound crotchety, Ransey, I value you for your intelligence and pragmatism”.
“The others can be intelligent too”, said Ransey “Just they do a bloody good job of concealing it sometimes!”
He looked over at Kieran and Bardin, who were now having a fairly animated discussion, complete with lots of hand-waving.
“That was my doing wasn’t it?” said the Doctor, sombrely.
“Don’t worry about them”, said Ransey “And don’t worry about upsetting Bardin, most things roll off him. It’s his clown’s training”.
The Doctor at least laughed at that one.
“A bird’s eye reconnaissance of this area would be useful”, said Ransey “But somehow I don’t think it would be the same without you piloting us”.
“Lissa has told me about this strange woman, Trinity”, said the Doctor “Who is reputed to have a house in the interior somewhere”.
“If we could locate that”, said Ransey “And give us some idea of what actually is out there in the interior these days, then some of us have suggested doing an overland trip, but it would be a waste of everybody’s time if there was nothing to look for”.
“You’re not continuing to sail down the coast just yet then?”
“Eventually yes, in the very long-term we will sail back to Zilligot Bay, which unfortunately would mean crossing the Horn again. But we don’t want to abandon Glynis and Jane forever”.
“That’s a lot of options ahead”, said the Doctor “There’s also another option. Moley’s underground route”.
“You’ll have to forgive me if I can’t muster up much enthusiasm for that one!” said Ransey.
“Not even if we finally solve the mystery of the underground tunnels?” said the Doctor.
“Well that is an enormous step forward”, said Adam, when Ransey told him about this conversation back on the galleon.
“Is it?” said Ransey, wearily divesting himself of his outdoor gear, and draping it over the chair by the galley stove.
“Yes it is”, said Adam “Xavier is showing an interest in the future! When someone has been grieving that is an enormous step in the right direction!”
“Even if it means exploring the underground tunnels?” said Ransey, dubiously.
“Praps he fancies himself as a Tube driver?” said Joby.
“There is too much to absorb right at this minute”, said Ransey “I thought we were supposed to be hibernating at this rock, and instead it feels like it’s been one damn thing after another at times. I was looking forward to some quiet maintenance around the ship, particularly with Julian being laid up and out of the way. The reconnaissance stuff was all meant to be for the Spring”.
“And it will be”, said Adam “But Spring isn’t that far off now, it wouldn’t do any harm to start making plans”.
“Where’s Bengo got to?” said Joby “I sent him down to the hold for some dried fruit ages ago. I bet he’s having a kip down there!”
“No I’m not”, said Bengo, coming into the galley, clutching two bags of dried fruit in his arms “I haven’t done that for ages”.
Bardin paused in the doorway and glared at everyone.
“I don’t want a cross word out of any of you”, he snapped “I’ve had enough chastisement for one day”.
He then marched on into his cabin.
“What on earth was all that about?” said Adam.
“He and Kieran were having words together out on the tundra”, said Ransey.
“Oh Kieran can go on a bit sometimes”, said Joby.
“No, I bet it was Bardin’s fault”, said Bengo.
“You clowns are far too harsh with one another”, said Adam “Look, take some stewed tea into him, and try and be nice”.
Bengo found Bardin lying on the sofa in his cabin.
“Don’t you start”, said Bardin.
“I was bringing you some tea!” said Bengo, placing the mug carefully on the floor.
“Sit down”, Bardin ordered.
“OK”, said Bengo, sitting down cross-legged on the carpet “What was Kieran having a go at you about?”
“Oh all about being patient with the Doc over his grieving”, said Bardin “I AM being patient, but I don’t see how cossetting him is going to help. He needs to get back into life. The trouble was, he and Antonia hid themselves away for too long”.
“They were very close”, said Bengo “I can’t help feeling sorry for him, Bardy. I know how much quieter my life would be without you in it”.
“And it’s the same for me!” said Bardin “I don’t need reminding of that time you buggered off and left me!”
“I don’t want reminding of it either”, said Bengo “Because you always end up making me feel a right bastard!”
“I know it’s not easy”, said Bardin, rubbing his eyes “I threw myself into work, but I still felt half-alive, as if nothing would ever be right again. So I do know what he’s going through, but he’s here for a reason. I overheard him say once that he became a doctor because he wanted to help people. Well he’s helped us all in an enormous way since he came here. Not just with bringing the air-buggy, but the House Gang have chirped up considerably since he came. I wish he could see that”.
“He will”, said Bengo “Eventually”.
“No it’s alright Joby, come in, I’ve finished”, Kieran got to his feet.
Joby walked into the little cabin he shared with him, and closed the door behind him.
“Are you alright?” he asked “You seem a bit despondent, as Adam would put it”.
“I’ve had a long conversation with Moley up at the house”, said Kieran, tucking his rosary beads carefully into the folds of a silk handkerchief “I thought it was about time I did. We’ve all been too busy to really go into some of the information on the outside world which he has”.
“Some of it must be a bit out of date”, said Joby, sitting on the sofa “He left the City ages ago, and has been underground for much of the time”.
“Hm maybe so”, said Kieran, joining him on the sofa “But I had a feeling that he was holding things back from us. It turned out to be true. Now first off, I just want to say there is no danger for us as far as Moley is concerned”.
“Well of course there isn’t!” said Joby “He’s a right weedy little squirt. I can’t imagine he’s any danger to anyone!”
“No I don’t mean like that”, said Kieran “Do you remember the Sweating Sickness on the New Continent?”
“Yeah”, said Joby, cautiously “How could I forget? We saw all the corpses in the city there, had to bury a lot of ‘em”.
“That’s right”, said Kieran “Well it’s broken out on this continent, down south. It was a wee bit irresponsible of him not to tell us right away, but he said he was worried we’d boot him out if he did”.
“The selfish little swine!” said Joby.
“No no don’t be like that”, said Kieran “He knew he was safe. The Sweating Sickness has an incubation period of a couple of weeks at most. If he did have it it would have shown up quite some time back. In fact if he did have it he’d have perished in the underground tunnels, and I wouldn’t wish that fate on anyone. He knew very well he was safe, but he was concerned that none of us would believe him. The same goes for Lissa and Benjamin, it would have shown up on them by now, and Elaine and Nixx are well out of the frame. This Thing, this epidemic, has only manifested in the past few months.
“What about Xavier?” asked Joby.
“He’s a doctor, he would know if he had it”, said Kieran “And from everything he’s told us there is no sign of it having reached Zilligot Bay”.
“Fuck me, but it might!” Joby exclaimed.
“I know, and that’s something we have to give a great deal of thought too”, said Kieran “Moley travelled underground, it felt safer that way. No one contagious was likely to follow him down there. And that’s the trouble, this thing is highly contagious. It’s like the common cold, it can be passed by being in the same area with someone, and if they haven’t started showing signs of it yet, you wouldn’t be likely to know”.
“Bloody hell”, said Joby, leaping to his feet “It’s one damn thing after another lately. How the hell did it get to this continent, after all these years too? Who bought it here?”
“It could have been anyone, or anything”, said Kieran “Remember the Black Death was bought in by fleas on rats. We need to discuss this with the others. I’m wondering if infected demons got over here somehow. I’ve always been a bit too smug that they couldn’t travel across water .. but there’s those blasted tunnels everywhere”.
“Do the House Gang know yet?”
“I’m leaving Moley to tell them, he said he would”.
“Anything?” said Adam, standing in the doorway of the wireless room a couple of hours later.
“Nothing useful”, Ransey sighed, taking off the headphones “I know there’s a wireless set at the harbourmaster’s office in Zilligot Bay, but I’m not picking up anything remotely rational on the airwaves. I’ll keep trying though”.
“I keep hoping the Saturn Desert will protect them”, said Adam “Hardly anyone ever travels across that, likewise with the Horn”.
“Mm I know”, said Ransey “But it would only take one ship, or one lone traveller carrying the virus”, he gave a heavy sigh “I don’t know what to suggest. Even if we set off right now it would take us several weeks to get down there”.
“What about the air-buggy?”
“There’s no way it could be done in one trip. There would be several overnight stops, and the risks then would be too great. It sounds like much of the hinterland south of here is at risk. Even if we were mad enough to take Moley’s route it would take weeks on end to reach there, and we would have to surface for air every so often. No, our best bet at the moment is to keep trying the radio. If I could only get a message to Glynis and Jane, warn them”.
“Didn’t I tell you?” said Julian, struggling into his dressing-gown “Didn’t I tell you that it would be a menace having complete strangers turning up?”
“Oh don’t talk such rubbish, Jules”, said Adam, helping him with one of the sleeves “If it hadn’t been for Moley we wouldn’t have had any warning about this wretched thing”.
“Wretched thing?” Julian laughed “Only you could make a lethal pandemic sound like a minor inconvenience!”
“Hillyard thinks it’s more important than ever to fly the air-buggy over the part of the interior directly to the south of here”, said Adam “Not to land it, but just to see if there’s anyone around we need to know about”.
“Good call”, said Julian.
“It’s snowing!” Lonts suddenly shouted from out in the corridor.
“That’s all we need”, Joby growled in reply.
“That could put the kibosh on Hillyard’s flying-trip”, said Julian “It never rains but it pours … or snows in this case”.
Adam and Bardin paid a social call up at the house, and both came back to the galleon feeling disgruntled.
“They want to put the island into a state of quarantine”, said Adam, when they reached Joby in the galley.
“Well it effectively is”, said Joby “Nobody ever comes here, well not unless they crawl out of the drains like Moley did!”
“It is pointless trying to get any sense through to that lot”, said Bardin, shrugging off his coat “You’d have better luck trying to talk to the hole in their living-room wall!”
“What do they mean then?” said Joby.
“Oh nobody should arrive or leave”, said Adam.
“Fuck that!” said Joby “They can’t tell us what to do. We go where we please, we always have. Whose bright idea was that?”
“I’m not sure who the original source was”, said Adam.
“Probably Elaine”, said Bardin “She’s as daft as a brush. She told Bengo recently that food wasn’t important, that there are people who are able to live on air!”
“Well if that’s the case, praps she should try it!” said Joby “She didn’t half bulldoze her way through the rock cakes last time she came down here for tea. I had to snatch the cake-tin away at one point, or there’d have been none left for anyone else. Her cheeks were bulging like a hamsters!”
“I don’t know why I’m getting upset”, said Adam “As you said, Joby, they can’t tell us what to do. If they want to wall themselves up here, they can. But we’ve always made it fundamentally clear that we were only staying here for the Winter”.
“And anyway, Xavier’s still letting us borrow the air-buggy”, said Bardin, peering into a saucepan on the stove and dipping his finger into it.
“Stop that!” said Joby.
“And so I think we should go ahead with the interior recce sometime soon”, said Bardin “Particularly now the snow’s calmed down. We have to make to clear to that lot that they don’t have any say over what we do”.
“We always end up having trouble with guests”, said Joby “Never fails, apart from the ones who shake down with us that is”.
“There’s an old saying”, said Adam “Guests are like fish, they go off after 3 days. And we’ve had ours for over 3 months”.
Joby went up on deck “for a breather”. The snow hadn’t amounted to very much, it had merely provided a soft covering for a couple of days. The wind was bitingly cold, but the sun was clearly gaining in strength. He went up onto the poop-deck and leaned on the bulwark, gazing out down the endless stretch of wild, rocky coastline, which threaded off in a southerly direction. He could feel the boat gently rocking beneath him, the waves lapping at the wooden sides of the boat. At times like this he loved the Indigo galleon like a person. She had carried them all over the world, been a refuge and a sanctuary, and sometimes a vital means to flee danger.
“Planning the next trip?” came a voice overhead.
“Fuck, you made me jump!” said Joby, crossly.
“Sorry mate”, said Moley.
He was sitting cross-legged on a rock at the edge of the island. His hair had been trimmed, and his beard shaved off since arriving on the island. But he was still painfully thin, and had a vaguely unwashed look about him.
“I was just having a moment to myself”, said Joby “It’s important when you live so cheek-by-jowl to have moments like this”.
Moley seemed incapable of taking the hint. He stayed firmly rooted to the spot.
“I guess that’s so”, he said “But when you’ve had as much solitude as I’ve had …”
“Yeah yeah I know”, said Joby, impatiently “We’re all different, OK? I’m sure there are plenty of others who’d love to chat with you”.
“Are you though?” said Moley “Planning the next trip?”
Joby took a deep breath.
“That’s not down to me”, he said “We haven’t decided anything definite yet. A lot will depend on what happens when Hillyard takes the air-buggy over the interior”.
“But you will be moving on at some point soon?” said Moley, insistently.
“I don’t know!” Joby exclaimed “But this place was only ever intended to be a stop-gap for the Winter, it was never going to be a permanent mooring”.
“And the Sweating Sickness hasn’t changed that?”
“No, we’ve got friends down south we’re concerned about”.
“Well I guess it’s OK for you”, Moley sighed “Being immortal and all that, you don’t have to worry about catching it”.
“We can still get ill!” Joby protested “I’m going back below deck, you have a nice day now”.
Doctor Xavier made it perfectly clear that he didn’t want to come on the short trip into the hinterland. He said they could do what they wanted with the air-buggy, and that was that.
“Look I know he’s grieving and everything”, said Hillyard “But I still can’t grasp how he can’t appreciate a valuable vehicle like that”.
“We have to respect his wishes I guess”, said Adam, handing him his outdoor gear “You won’t be very long will you?”
“Back in a few hours”, said Hillyard.
“Well if you’re not back by nightfall”, said Adam “We’ll have to send the truck after you”.
“All by itself?” Hillyard joked.
As the air-buggy only seated 4, Hillyard took Ransey, Bardin and Kieran with him. For some time they flew over featureless terrain.
“Bringing back memories, Kiel?” Hillyard shouted from the pilot’s seat to Kieran in the back.
“Every bit as bleak as I remember it”, said Kieran “We were at our lowest ebb here, Joby, Adam and myself. Until we met up with you in Kiskev”.
“And then everything got worse!” Hillyard laughed.
“Keep your eye on what you’re doing, Hillyard”, said Ransey, from the passenger seat.
“Alright mate, lighten up a bit”, said Hillyard “This is exhilarating”.
“I just cannot get over that we haven’t seen any of the monsters we were warned about”, said Bardin, peering down below “Not a thing”.
“Shame we didn’t have room for old Jobe”, said Hillyard.
“It would have done him good”, said Bardin “Stop him moaning about Moley”.
“Well be fair, Moley has been annoying him a wee bit”, said Kieran “Joby says he keeps popping up when he least expects it. Moley seems incapable of getting the hint. Trouble is, Moley just can’t get over being around people again”.
“They won’t be around him for much longer if he carries on pushing his luck like that!” said Bardin.
Eventually they came to the edge of the Great Forest. It stood at the southern edge of the tundra, as if it dared not go any further. For a while the trees were so densely packed that it was hard to see a sign of anything, although occasionally a rough track could be picked out.
“You didn’t travel through the forest when you were up here in the early days did you?” said Ransey.
“No, we were to the west of here”, said Kieran.
“Perhaps we should swing back that way on the way back”, said Hillyard “See if we can see the remains of Kiskev and the old railway station”.
“Another abandoned railway station?” said Ransey.
“There seem to be a few dotted about”, said Kieran.
And suddenly there it was. In a large clearing stood the remains of a white-stoned one-storey building. There had been a fire here at some point, and all that remained were the crumbling walls, sticking up, minus a roof.
“I have a feeling this is Trinity’s house”, said Kieran.
“I’ll be amazed if she’s here now”, said Hillyard.
“Hillyard, can you find somewhere convenient to land?” said Kieran.
Hillyard carefully landed the air-buggy in the field below the house.
“Everybody, make sure you’ve got your guns to hand”, said Ransey “We don’t know if there’s anything here. That includes you, Kieran”.
“Yes alright”, said Kieran.
Water dripped in a dispiriting fashion from the remains of a water-tank, which had collapsed into one room. Otherwise there was no noise at all. It was easy to see where it had once been a home, with wallpaper still up, and odd sticks of furniture lying around. They drifted from room to room, hearing only the noise of the dripping water, and nothing else.
“I don’t think the fire was that long ago”, said Hillyard “It doesn’t have a feeling of it having been abandoned for very long”.
“In recent months perhaps?” said Ransey.
“Could be”, said Hillyard “It was a few months ago when we first heard about this place, from Lissa and Benjamin. The fire might have happened since then”.
Kieran paused in a corridor outside one of the bedrooms. On a side table stood a couple of books, covered in plaster dust. The lack of singeing suggested the books had somehow escaped the worst excesses of the fire. Kieran picked up one of them and wiped the dust from the cover. He gave an exclamation of disgust and dropped it again.
“What is it?” said Ransey.
Kieran looked at the Satanic emblems on the cover.
“Something I suggest we don’t bother with”, he said.
“Here”, Bardin called out from one of the other rooms “There’s a note on the wall”.
“We keep finding notes everywhere when we arrive at new places”, said Hillyard.
“This one isn’t as friendly as the last one”, said Bardin.
Pinned to the wall of what had once been someone’s study was a large sheet of paper. It was covered in large, jerky capital letters, written in red ink.
‘AS YOU CAN SEE, THERE IS NO ONE HERE’, it read ‘I AM SICKNESS, I AM DISEASE, AND I AM SPREADING MYSELF WHEREVER I CAN. I HAVE ASSUMED HUMAN FORM, IN ORDER TO CONTAMINATE MORE EASILY. ANYONE WHO COMES WITHIN RANGE OF ME WILL BE INFECTED AND DIE. SOMEONE TRIED TO BURN THIS PLACE, HOPING I WOULD PERISH. THEY MUST HAVE BEEN GETTING IDEAS FROM YOU, KIERAN. THEY FAILED. ALL I DID WAS MOVE ON. BEFORE LEAVING I OPENED THE BIG DOOR IN THE CELLAR. IT IS ONE OF MANY, DESIGNED TO KEEP OUT THE DEMONS. WE ARE ALL NOW GLEEFULLY SPREADING DISEASE. WE HAVE FOUND A WAY THAT EVEN YOU CAN’T DEFEAT, KIERAN. WE ARE CONTAGION, AND THERE IS NO STOPPING US. YOU MIGHT AS WELL STAY WHERE YOU ARE’.
“I’ve just had a horrible thought”, said Hillyard, as they gathered by the air-buggy. The February sun was beating down on them, strangely at variance to the disturbing discovery in the house “Is Moley a demon?”
“I can see why you might think that”, said Kieran, wishing he still smoked “But no he isn’t”, he gave a big sigh “Moley is exactly what he says he is, although he has been remarkably fortunate in not meeting any of this lot”.
“The note said ‘you might as well stay where you are’”, said Ransey “Does that mean she has known where we are all along?”
“Possibly”, said Kieran “I suspect she wanted to spread herself southwards. Our area is too depopulated for her to bother with, not worth her while”.
“But you’re in it”, said Hillyard.
“Yes, nicely isolated at the Weather Rock”, said Kieran, with a surprisingly bitter tone in his voice “Keeping conveniently out of the way. No monsters to disturb me, everything to make sure there was no reason for me to leave my little rock”.
“I see”, said Bardin “Well it does mean she’s not as triumphalist as she would have us believed. If she was truly invincible against you, then she wouldn’t care whether you were isolated or not, look at it that way”.
“You’re a true positive believer on the quiet aren’t you, Bardin?” Kieran smiled “Under that snappy exterior”.
“I’m a clown”, said Bardin, patiently “We are supposed to believe in positivity at the end of the day, however grumpy we might look on the surface”.
“Let’s get out of here”, said Ransey “I’ve had enough of this place. That somewhere so beautiful should harbour such Evil. I know we’ve seen this kind of thing before, many times, but I still have trouble accepting it”.
“Should we take the note back with us?” said Bardin “To show the others?”
“I think we can relay its contents easily enough”, said Kieran “I’d rather we didn’t take anything from this place if it’s all the same to you”.
“Fair enough”, said Bardin.
“Don’t distract me, Adam”, said Ransey, marching purposefully past the galley door, and into the wireless room “I have important things to do”.
“Well get you”, said Adam.
Bardin followed close on his heels. Adam reached out and grabbed him by the coat, knocking Bardin’s cap over his eyes in the process.
“Someone surely can spare a minute to fill me in on what happened on the trip”, said Adam “Because clearly something did”.
“Rather a lot”, said Bardin, adjusting himself “It might be easier to explain over a pot of tea”.
“Of course”, said Adam “Well at least you’ve all got back in one piece, so it can’t be anything too serious”.
“I’m afraid it is serious”, said Bardin “And the sooner we head south the better. And whether that lot up there [vaguely indicating in the direction of the house at the top of the island] want to come with us is entirely their affair”.
“It’s going to take a couple of months at the very least to get back to the very southern tip of this continent”, said Julian, ensconced at the dining-room table “And that’s without taking into account all the pitfalls of going round the Horn again”.
“What a delight that was last time”, said Joby, setting a large pot of tea on the table.
“We don’t necessarily have to go that way”, said Bardin, spooning sugar into his mug, which was a surprise as he normally didn’t take any “We can go back the way we came”.
“What? Up past the Loud House again?” said Joby.
“We won’t be calling in there”, said Bardin “Or Nixx and Elaine’s old railway station come to that. In fact we’ll go ashore as little as we can, and then only if we can be reasonably certain there’s no one else around. I think it might be interesting to see back over the way we’ve come”.
Kieran could be heard thumping down the corridor towards the heads.
“He’s angry”, said Hillyard “He seems to think we’ve been deliberately kept out of the way”.
“That’s absurd”, said Julian.
Suddenly a cry went up from Ransey in the wireless room.
“What now?” said Julian “Has he got his nuts caught in the door?”
Ransey ran out, looking rather excited.
“You won’t believe this”, he gasped “But I’ve managed to locate Glynis on the wireless set”.
“Have you told her about the Virus?” said Adam.
“Yes I have, look …” he grabbed Joby “Go and speak to her Joby, she’d love to hear your voice”.
“OK”, said Joby, putting down his mug.
“Ahoy there matey”, said Joby, over the wireless set “How’s life down there?”
“I’m so pleased to hear you”, said Glynis, her voice sounding very distant, but there all the same “Talk about serendipity. We called in to see the Harbourmaster’s wife this morning, and Ransey came through on the airwaves whilst we were here. What time is it where you are?”
Hearing all this, Joby suddenly felt homesick for Zilligot Bay. For Glynis, Jane, Woolly, Rosa and Ernesto. In the incessant madness of this world it suddenly seemed a safe haven.
“Not sure”, said Joby, vaguely “Early evening. Listen Glinny, has Ranz told you all about the Sweating Sickness?”
“Yes he has, and what a ghastly thing it sounds”, said Glynis “We haven’t had any outbreaks of it here, but then we’ve not had any visitors at all since you left. It’s been a very long Winter”.
“The thing is”, said Joby, worried in case the connection dropped whilst they were talking “We’re gonna head back to you …”
Glynis gave a whoop of joy.
“Now hold on a minute”, said Joby “It’s gonna take a few weeks, even if we travel flat out. Bardin’s got some idea that we should go back the exact route we came, which would mean leaving out the Horn”.
“That doesn’t matter”, said Glynis “Just to know you’re on your way back will be enough. We’ll be walking up to the headland every day, to keep an eye out for you. Oh Jane and I have missed you all so much. So has Woolly. And we miss Doctor Xavier too, we have no idea where he went, he just took off into the blue …”
“He’s with us”, said Joby.
Glynis gave another squeal.
“If you keep doing that, I’ll have to hold the headset away”, said Joby.
“He’s with you?!” Glynis exclaimed.
“Yep, he flew all the way up here”, said Joby “We’ve managed to pick up about half-a-dozen strays on our travels”.
“Bring them here”.
“That’s if they’ll come, they’ve got some mad idea it’ll be safer to stay here on the rock”.
“Rubbish”, said Glynis, stoutly “I won’t hear of it. Stay up there on a bare rock in the middle of nowhere …?”
“Tell her they need to make preparations”, said Ransey, sternly, from the doorway “In case the Sweating Sickness gets down there”.
“Yes I heard that”, said Glynis “But I can’t see us turning the town into an armed camp, we’ll just have to be cautious that’s all. And we do have the hospital here, if we need to isolate anyone”.
“Will they let us in when WE come?” said Ransey “There might be fears we’ll be infected too”.
“Well if you have Doctor Xavier with you, then I’m sure he can make sure you all test negative”, said Glynis “Oh bloody hell, the line’s breaking up, and Jane wanted to speak too”.
“There’ll be other times”, Ransey shouted “I will NOT be budging off this bandwave, that’s for sure!”
“So we’re leaving tomorrow?” said Joby “As soon as that?”
“Problem?” said Bardin.
“Nope”, said Joby “I’m ready to leave anytime. I think we’ve exhausted the pleasures of this island”.
They were sitting side-by-side on the sofa in Bardin’s cabin. There was a flurry of activity going on around the ship, as everyone made sure everything was ready for the voyage.
“How’s Kieran now?” asked Bardin “He’s not going in on himself is he?”
“I’ll kick his arse if he is”, said Joby “We had enough problems with that in the past. I’m not gonna lie, he’s angry. He seems to be taking it all as some kind of personal affront, that the Evil pulled one on him. Making this island seems so safe that we didn’t wanna leave it”.
“Tell him that’s bloody arrogant”, said Bardin “Or I shall tell him if you like, that’s diva-ish pride he’s exhibiting there”.
Joby roared with laughter.
“He won’t like that one”, he said.
“Well he deserves it if he carries on like this”, said Bardin “We pitched up at this island because it was a convenient, safe place to see out the Winter. That’s all. And I don’t regret that at all. We needed a breather after all that travelling, and without it we wouldn’t have got valuable information. I find Moley a pain in the arse, he reminds me of Hoowie sometimes! But without him we wouldn’t have found out about the Virus. Likewise Xavier might not have found us here. I shall tell Kieran in no uncertain terms that I will not tolerate him carrying on like that”.
“I can’t wait to hear that one!” said Joby “What’s happening with the House Gang? Are they all joining us on the Great Exodus?”
“That’s what Adam’s gone up to find out”, said Bardin “If they do Bengo and I shall give this cabin over to them, and if you don’t mind, you and Kieran can give up yours again. It’ll be cozy in the Big Saloon”.
“It’s only for a few weeks”, said Joby “And there’s less chance of Kieran sitting glumly around then”.
Hillyard burst into the room, breathless and rosy-cheeked from the cold wind.
“Great news!” he gasped.
“Calm down”, said Bardin “Or you won’t live long enough to tell us it”.
Hillyard leaned on the back of an armchair and gave a few more gasps.
“You’ll never guess what we’re going to do”, he said.
“Peg out in your case, by the looks of things”, said Joby.
“We’re moving the air-buggy to the main deck”, said Hillyard.
“WHAT?!” said Bardin.
“Oh now don’t be difficult, Bardin”, said Hillyard.
“There isn’t room for it!” said Bardin “The bloody thing’s huge!”
“This is a galleon”, said Joby “Not an aircraft carrier!”
“No look listen”, said Hillyard “It’s not that big”.
“Yes it is”, said Bardin.
“It’s not that much bigger than the skiff”, said Hillyard “It’s just the wing-span that’s all”.
“Oh so what are you planning to do?” said Joby, sarcastically “Take the wings off and store ‘em somewhere?”
“There’s a helluva lot of rubbish on the main deck”, said Hillyard “Stuff that’s been sitting there for years, which we’ve accumulated. If we spend the next few hours clearing that … anyway, yes it’ll be a tight squeeze, but think about it Bardin. How else are we going to do this? I’ve been chatting to the Doc, and he’s admitted he’s not keen on the idea of going back to sleeping in the cockpit in remote areas”.
“That shows he’s getting better”, said Joby “He was all ‘oh I don’t care what happens to me’ on the way up here”.
“Won’t taking off be tricky?” said Bardin “It’s not as if we’ve got anything like a runway”.
“Oh for God’s sake, it doesn’t need a runway”, said Hillyard, in exasperation “Didn’t you learn anything from our little jaunts out in it? This type of air-buggy rises up and down”.
“Like a helicopter”, said Joby.
“Yeah whatever”, said Hillyard “It’ll be fine”.
“There’ll be no room for the night-watch”, said Bardin.
“They can go up on the poop-deck”, said Hillyard “Look Bardin, normally I’d always check anything with you first, mate, you know that. But this is too important. Having our own air-buggy on board is going to make all the difference. You must see that”.
“Do I have a choice?” said Bardin “I just hope the ship doesn’t sink under the strain!”
“I can’t believe they’re still um-ing and aagh-ing when we’re about to leave at any moment!” said Joby. He was chatting with Adam in the galley doorway.
“Bardin has given them a very firm ultimatum”, said Adam “We are leaving at Noon sharp, with or without them. At least we know for definite that Xavier is coming with us. He has told me very firmly that he wants to go back to Zilligot Bay. I think he’s got the immediate grieving darkness out of his system”.
“That’s good”, said Joby.
“Well I did sort of make it plain to him that, given the current world situation, his medical skills may be in great demand in the community”, said Adam “There is nothing like a purpose in life to get someone motivated again. Plus I think he misses the town. The Weather Rock is scarcely a substitute for it”.
“So if he’s definitely coming”, said Bengo, who was standing nearby, wiping a cup with a tea-towel “Then surely Elaine is too. She’s potty about him”.
“I’m not so sure”, said Joby “She’s now got a new waif and stray to be potty about!”
“I have told her that she’ll have a lot of fun in Zilligot Bay”, said Adam “And that it even has a strong reputation for its arts and culture”.
“Arts and culture?!” Bardin spluttered, who was passing by “That bunch of pretentious nutters who are obsessed with nudity?”
“Bardin, I had to sell it to her somehow”, said Adam.
“And stop being such a snob”, said Bengo, swiping him with the tea-towel “That bunch of pretentious nutters gave me a starring role!”
“Good grief”, said Joby “That means we could be seeing Elaine on stage in the all-together soon”.
“I’m sure they do other things besides that”, said Adam.
There was a very loud buzzing noise coming from overhead.
“That’ll be Xavier landing the air-buggy!” said Bengo.
“It’s really exciting!” Lonts bellowed from the other end of the corridor.
The air-buggy was landed on the foreward deck. It was a somewhat snug fit, with very little room to spare, but at least they still had the poop-deck clear, which was essential for steering. Bardin went up to inspect it. He found the whole thing claustrophobic, but was sensible enough to see the essential use of it.
“Plus we can’t leave Xavier to travel all the way back on his own”, said Rumble “Not with knowing what’s up with the world now”.
“Hey look out”, said Mutton Broth.
He was referring to Lissa, who was heading down the island towards them.
“We’ll leave you to deal with this, Bardin”, said Rumble, slapping his shoulder.
“Cheers”, said Bardin.
Lissa was carrying the camp-bed they had borrowed for Doctor Xavier. Over the next few minutes she had an argument with Bardin, whilst they dodged around the air-buggy on deck.
“You have to understand”, she said “All this has been somewhat sprung on us. We have just become rooted here, and now we’re expected to suddenly up sticks and leave”.
“I would’ve thought you’d be used to that by now”, Bardin snapped.
“But that’s just precisely it”, said Lissa “This is the first home we have had in an absolute age, and now we’re being expected to leave it”.
“Lissa!” Bardin shouted “It is entirely up to you what you do. It would sadden us all greatly to leave you here, but if that’s what you want then so be it. The world is in the grip of a massive crisis, and we are worried about our friends to the far south. And in any case, it was never our intention to stay here beyond the beginning of Lent. We’ve just moved it forward a few days that’s all. You’ve always known that”.
“Yes, but we kept hoping you would change your mind”, said Lissa, pathetically.
“I have nothing further to say”, said Bardin, checking his fob-watch “It is twenty-to-twelve. We will be leaving in 20 minutes, with or without you. The Doctor is coming with us. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a lot to do”.
“I had a wild thought at the back of my head that he might decide to travel back the way he’d come”, said Joby, hearing Moley’s excitable voice coming from the dining-room.
“Why on earth would he want to do that?” said Adam “I should think one excursion through the sewers would be enough for anybody!”
“He’s said he can explore Zilligot Bay’s sewers when we get there”, said Bengo “In case there are any underground train tunnels there too”.
“It’s amazing what people get excited about sometimes”, said Joby.
“Are they definitely all coming with us now?” asked Bengo.
“Yes”, said Adam “I think Xavier joining us was the clincher. And hopefully the prospect of being here, just the 5 of them, on the edge of this grey ocean, was sufficiently dismaying to make them see sense”.
“Are all the animals safely aboard?” asked Ransey “Plus any food and goods we loaned up to the house?”
“As far as I know”, said Adam, looking at the clutter of pans and baking equipment which was littering the galley table.
“Plus we’re nicking some bedding and one of the armchairs from the house”, said Joby.
“Not nicking, Joby”, said Adam.
“What do you call it then?” said Joby “Borrowing-with-no-intention-of-giving-it-back?”
“We haven’t got time for this kind of philosophical discussion”, said Ransey “We will be leaving in under two minutes”.
“Righto, sweetie”, said Adam.
It was an emotional scene leaving the Weather Rock. Joby remarked that he found it hard to believe anyone had ever got upset at leaving it before, ever. The House Gang had to be constantly reassured that they would have a new home in Zilligot Bay.
“And I can’t wait to see what Zilligot Bay makes of them!” said Julian.
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