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Buskin lived in splendid Gothic isolation on the Weather Rock. His house was large and substantial, built to withstand any of the extreme weather conditions that the sea induced. Doors were wide and broad, and the windows protected by shutters. The house dominated the island which, on closer inspection, turned out to be little more than radio masts, rocks and moss.
Here, amongst a mass of computers, Buskin made his home. The house was moderately comfortable, and well-stocked with food and generators. The non-appearance of the Ministry men would not be a serious source of concern for him until some time yet.
"I've programmed this message to go out every half-hour", he said, guiding them round what he referred to as his Engine Room. He had stopped in front of a small terminal, on whose screen a cursor blipped impatiently, waiting for the next thirty minutes to elapse when it could move again. Buskin scrolled back the screen to show the same message repeated over and over again.
"MATE, ARE YOU THERE?" it read, plaintively.
Adam was surveying the equipment with a noticeable look of amazement on his face. He waited until Buskin was out of earshot, an then whispered incredulously at Kieran "This stuff is out of the ark! Can't they do better than this?"
"Aargh, don't be so mean", Kieran gently chided him "The poor fella's as proud as anything of this lot".
"What happened to all the amazing feats of technology from our own time?" Adam went on "The great advances in computer graphics, and on-line communication. I'm wondering with some of this stuff where you put the coal in!"
"They've probably had a second Ice Age since our time", Joby gloomily pointed out.
"That shouldn't have affected science and technology. Even if the original equipment got destroyed, the software and knowledge would have been preserved somewhere surely? The IDEAS wouldn't have disappeared".
"Well we can't ask him can we?" said Kieran "Not without blowing our cover. We're supposed to be nomads remember? Not time-crossers".
"Brilliant idea that was of yours Adam", Joby said, waspishly "It means we can't be seen to be asking too many questions".
"Look, until we know what these people are like, it's best to play it cool", Adam explained "In his eyes we wouldn't just be time-crossers, but escaped convicts, and that also means we'd have to explain about the Vanishings at the prison. I want to trust someone a bit more before I go divulging all that lot".
As a host Buskin veered from being a little treasure (plying them with food, drinks and warmth) to a pain in the neck (endlessly fussing and talking about himself). He had stoked the fire in the main hall, closed the shutters, and covered the table with dishes of chicken, fish, fruit and bread. He brought out a couple of wine flagons, like a schoolboy offering an illicit spliff behind the bike-sheds.
"All good stuff here you know", he said, pouring the ruby liquid into pewter goblets "I sometimes think I should open this place as a hotel or a restaurant, 'cept no one'd want to come out here".
Adam held the goblet up to the firelight and twirled it round. He hadn't seen pewter outside of a museum. When Buskin circulated with the wine flagon Adam hastily covered his goblet.
"He don't drink", said Joby, with solemn simplicity.
"Oh I should've asked", Buskin said "Is it your religion? I know some nomadic tribes practice esoteric religions on the quiet".
"Sort of", Adam mumbled.
"We drink though", said Kieran, grabbing the spare flagon "Don't it give you the irrits living in this place Buskin?"
"No, no. I thought this house was rather welcoming actually", Buskin protested.
"I didn't mean the house. I meant living so close to the Skirra Fludd rock, and the Loud House".
"The L-Loud House?" Buskin looked awkward "Look, what the eye doesn't see the heart doesn't grieve over. What I mean is whilst I can't see the Loud House from here, I don't have to worry about it. I must admit that there have been occasions when ... when I've heard things. When the winds in the right direction you know and the sea's quiet. I've heard singing, or at least that's what I think it is".
"You won't be bothered by that no more", Adam whispered.
Joby looked at him sharply, but mercifully Buskin didn't seem too keen to pursue the subject of the Loud House, so it was quietly dropped.
"I find the marshes more spooky sometimes", the little man said "They have their moods you know, just like the sea does. Sometimes, on a winter's afternoon, they can seem a touch too bleak and sombre. I tend to close the shutters then, so I can't see 'em. Like a dark ocean, that's how they can seem at times. An endless dark ocean".
"Doesn't this island ever seem creepy to you?" asked Kieran.
"Oh I should say so! But you get used to it. I'm a realist at heart, and I can usually talk meself out of it when I get too fanciful and start hearing things".
"Hearing things?" Adam stared at him intently.
"Voices outside on the rocks, low voices, mumbling. And sometimes a shadow can cross a room as though someone's walking past the window outside. It used to bug me a lot, now I just don't look up when I sense it. As I said to you earlier, I don't believe in going looking for trouble".
"Is the rock haunted then?" said Joby.
"Ghosts!" Buskin exclaimed "I don't believe in ghosts. They were disproved long ago".
"I know", Kieran leaned forward on the table "But you say there are no time-cusps here either, so what do you think accounts for the voices you hear? Voices that obviously disturb you, otherwise you'd go outside and look when you hear them wouldn't you?"
"Do you think there could be a time-cusp here?" said Buskin "On the Weather Rock?"
"A small one perhaps", Adam lolled back in his chair "Big enough to let the odd bewildered shade pass through, but not big enough to cause any permanent visitations, certainly not on the Henang scale".
"Pity", said Buskin "You almost had me excited there. Mind you, if there was a sizeable one here they'd go and move me. Can't have me seeing things on the Weather Rock! I'd like to see a Woman though, just once, before I die. See one with me own eyes. I wouldn't give her away to the authorities, she'd be safe here".
"Do you know anyone who has seen a Woman?" asked Adam, casually.
"Oh you hear tales don't you! Braggarts who claim to see them in remote places. Hallucinations I think. Fishermen are particularly prone to that".
"Like the ancient sightings of mermaids in the ocean?" said Adam.
"Quite. A load of baloney. Anyway, the authorities are very tight on that one. Make sure that all sizeable time-cusps are out of bounds, like at Henang".
"I don't know why they don't let women time-crossers stay", said Joby "Integrate them back into your ... our society".
"Can you imagine it!" Buskin chortled "No lad, it's too far gone for all that. The whole structure of society would break down, it'd be anarchy. Men would be monsters. They'd have to isolate the women for their own safety. Just knowing they were there would plunge everyone into insanity. It's an interesting idea, but it can't be done. Not now".
"You'll have to excuse me", he said, rising to his feet "It's time to send another message to the Ministry".
"Can't you set it to send automatically?" asked Adam.
"I could, but it blocks the wire. And I don't want to do that in case they're trying to get hold of me".
After dinner Kieran roamed the ground floor of the house, but found little of interest. There were no pictures on the walls, absolutely no reading matter, precious little in fact to provide Buskin with entertainment during his lonely days and nights. The furniture was old, and most of it unused in recent times. Kieran could only assume that during his leisure time Buskin retreated to some other part of the house, and lived there.
Kieran emerged into the stone passage that ran the length of the house at the back. It was dark, narrow and eerie, a place where it was easy to see shadows lurking in corners. He wondered, not for the first time, how Buskin lived there alone without going mad.
Suddenly the little man himself emerged from a doorway, looking flustered.
"They're useless", he said, on seeing Kieran "That lot at the Ministry I mean. Don't know their arse from their elbow. I mean, they employ enough of 'em there. You'd think someone would be checking the wires".
"Still no reply?"
"Not a single bloody word, and I'm helpless here aren't I? It's not as if I can leave this place and go looking for 'em".
Kieran felt overwhelmingly tired, all of a sudden. Buskin's presence was a wearing one. His continual state of flustered excitement was hard to take in large doses. Even Angel, with his constant state of nerves, had been an easier companion than this little, rotund man with the moon face.
"They're gonna hear about this I can tell you", Buskin was saying, feverishly "When they deign to get in touch with me that is. I suspect they think I wouldn't dare, well I'm gonna show 'em that they don't meddle with me. I may be out here alone on a rock in the sea, but I've still got a voice!"
"You certainly have", said Kieran "Look, I'm tired. I think I'll go up now".
"Yes, you look tired. But check on that friend of yours first".
"Which one?" Kieran asked, wearily.
"The one that looks like a hawk", Buskin chuckled, tiresomely "Although I shouldn't say that. Probably 'cos he's so thin in the face, like you all are".
"Buskin, why do I need to check on Joby?"
"Acting a bit peculiar just now. Nothing to worry about I think, but he seemed a bit distressed".
"Yes, muttering about angels or something. Probably just exhausted, poor lad ..."
Kieran felt too exhausted himself to check on anyone. He climbed the stairs wearily and entered the room at the top that Buskin had allocated him. It was a large, but claustrophobic room overlooking the Grey Sea. Every stick of furniture was old and musty. Dust coated every surface, and a yellowing blind was pulled halfway down the window, plunging the room into a jaundiced glow. A large spotted mirror over the basin seemed to be sucking the heart out of the room.
"Or perhaps I'm just too tired to think straight", Kieran muttered, splashing cold water onto his face.
He examined his bruised eye in the mirror. The damage seemed to be getting worse not better, and he was worried in case it swelled up completely. A soft knock on the door froze him.
"Who is it?" he asked, trying to sound forceful.
Kieran pulled a chair from under the doorhandle, which he had propped there earlier, yanking off one of the spindly legs in the process. This irritated him, like everything about the house was beginning to do, and he tossed it into a corner with a loud clatter.
Joby came into the room.
"What's with the barricade? Were you expecting Buskin in his nightie?"
"Can't you just tell him you've got a headache?"
"I don't think he'll really try anything at the moment", Kieran sighed, drying his face on a towel "He seems to avoid being alone with me. Perhaps that's just as well".
"I'd have said so", Joby sat on the bed, and looked deflated, as though someone had squashed all the life out of him.
"Buskin said you were acting strange", Kieran peered at him through the mirror "What's the matter?"
"Angel's dead", Kieran pulled the plug out of the sink "We buried him with our bare hands, remember?"
"Have you seen him? Heard him?"
"I've sensed him", Joby mumbled, visibly embarrassed "He's haunting me".
"Only if you let him. It's your conscience playing tricks on you that's all. It often happens when someone dies. We get plagued with guilt, simply because we're the ones still alive. Guilt, that's all".
"No it's not", Joby shook his head "How can it be? I didn't give a fuck about him when he was alive, so why's he squatting in my brain now he's dead!"
"For precisely that reason I'd have said. Perhaps your conscience is saying ..."
"No! Look, I can sense him about the place. It's exactly as it used to be when he was around, except I can't see or hear him. Why me for God's sake? You're supposed to be the most psychic one of us, why don't you sense him?"
"I don't know. Perhaps he doesn't want to show himself to me, or perhaps I've shut meself off. When did you first notice him?"
"Very brief flashes since we left the Loud House. But here, this evening, is the strongest. I sensed him standing near me at dinner. I could even have fooled myself I was seeing him at one point, but I'm sure that was just me mind playing tricks".
"We've always worked on the principle that there is no life after death, which was bloody hard for me in the early days, what with my upbringing, until we started time-crossing ourselves, and then I realised the truth about ghosts. So if that is the case then Angel is only a time-slip mirage".
"You heard Buskin earlier. He said he often hears ..."
"Bollocks. Look, I'm not seeing or hearing anything. I just know, KNOW, that he's around. He was a vampire, Flannery".
"He had his neck broken!"
"That wouldn't stop the spirit of a vampire".
"Oh, been brushing up on our Bram Stoker have we? Next, you'll be seeing wisps of smoke coming through the keyholes. He was schizophrenic Joby, he had convinced himself he was a vampire".
"I believed that too all the time he was alive, but now I'm not so sure. I don't understand any of this, but I know I'm not imaging it".
"Is he here now? With us two?"
"Is he nearby then?"
"I don't think so. He seems to come and go".
"You'll feel better in the morning".
Joby sighed in exasperation. Kieran held up his hands in surrender.
"Alright I'm sorry", he said "I believe you, but remember it is only Angel. He was more scared of us when he was alive than we were of him, and I don't see any reason for that to change just 'cos the little sod's gone and got himself resurrected".
"Can I stay in here with you tonight?"
It was a couple of hours later that Joby woke with a start. Kieran was asleep next to him, but there was a strange noise in the room. A peculiar, crunching sound, as though someone was eating a paper-bag.
"Angel?" Joby whispered "At least have the decency to show yourself".
There was a scampering sound and then silence. Joby had almost convinced himself that he had really heard a rodent, when the scampering continued, much louder, on the other side of the door. It sounded considerably larger than a rat.
Joby got out of bed, and pulled on a voluminous robe that Buskin had left hanging on the back of the door. There was a low-wattage light burning at the top of the stairs, which reduced the rest of the upstairs landing to shadow. The noise had stopped the moment he opened the door.
"Angel?" he whispered, creeping along the corridor.
He felt faintly absurd, as though he was trying to catch an elusive kitten. At the far end of the corridor he heard a soft, scraping sound. Someone was brushing against the hideous red-flock wallpaper.
"Angel, c'mon", he said, wearily "You can't gain anything by staying hidden. Oh c'mon out you dozy vampire!"
A door nearby opened and a beam of light fell out. Joby spun round in panic, but it was only Adam standing there.
"You scared the shit out of me!" Joby exclaimed.
"You haven't done my heart-rate any favours either", Adam grunted "All I could hear was someone creeping about".
"There is", said Joby, following him into the room "Angel's here".
"Oh don't you start! I've already had this conversation. Look, I don't understand it either, all I know is he's returned", he noticed that Adam's bed was still made "Why are you sitting up?"
"I can't sleep. Too much on my mind I suppose. Do you mean to tell me we still haven't got rid of the little bastard?"
"You don't sound too surprised. Flannery denied it like hell when I told him".
"I make a habit of not being surprised", said Adam, dryly "Except perhaps at myself".
"You've not sensed anything then?"
"No. He must be trying to channel himself through you".
"Well I wish he wouldn't bother, I can do without it".
Joby looked out of the window. The night was surprisingly clear, he could even faintly make out the distant obelisk shape on the horizon, which was the unlit lighthouse. Everything was coated in a grey sheen.
"What do we do tomorrow then?"
"It depends what time the tide goes out", said Adam.
"Alright, what do we do when the tide goes out?"
"Get out of here. I don't like our jolly little host one bit".
"Seems alright to me", Joby shrugged "Bit of an old bore, but you expect that when someone's alone as much as he is".
"I was referring not so much to his personality, as to who he is. He works for the government Joby. That's a dangerous spot for us to be in. What if we're still here when he gets a visitation from the much-maligned Ministry? You can't fool all the people all the time. They might be able to tell we're not nomads. I doubt we can count on them being all quite so self-absorbed and incurious as he is. After all, they must know about the prison by now".
"They might not. I mean, no one's answering Buskin's demands are they? What, if they've all gone as well? We still don't know what happened".
"We can't count on that. Even Buskin has noticed we're out of our way. I remember Angel saying that nomads tend to stay in the deserts to the south, occasionally going into the City, but I doubt if they ever come up this far. If they find we're time-crossers they'll clap us in irons".
"What do you suggest we do then?"
"We have a choice. There's the lighthouse, but I doubt we could get there without begging or stealing a boat from Buskin, either of which would make him highly suspicious. After all, why do three nomads want to reach the Skirra Fludd rock?"
"Why do WE wanna reach it come to that?" Joby exclaimed "From what the Governor told me I don't like the sound of it, and particularly after seeing what this - ahem - Force For Evil did to that poor woman at the Loud House".
"He said a time-cusp might open there", Adam pointed out.
"No he didn't actually! He told me it would be disastrous IF one opened there, but was not certain it would. That particular 'if' is too big to my mind to risk fighting whatever's on there. There must be other cusp zones".
"And if there aren't?"
"Then, and only then I mean, we try and get out to the lighthouse".
"It didn't seem to bother you too much before"
"Because I didn't take it seriously before", Joby protested "I mean, his Governorship waffling on about forces of evil lurking in lighthouses, well it didn't sound real, it went over my head. But after seeing ... Her. I saw her as she was before, I saw what it did to her. You didn't".
"Fair enough", Adam sighed "I can't say it was something I was looking forward to anyway. We head south then and risk the City. Who knows, there might be dozens of time-cusps waiting for us between there and here".
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