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"Ransey says we're getting near that strange building", said Joby, standing in the doorway a few minutes later, after Tamaz had been despatched back to his cabin.
"O.K, I'm coing up", said Julian, edging past him.
Joby went to follow him, but was distracted by the sight of Mieps in the heads. Mieps was staring with undue fascination into the mirror above the sink, grinning at himself and pinching his cheeks like a Southern Belle.
"Are you alright?" said Joby, dubiously.
Mieps turned suddenly to stare straight at him, and Joby gave a shocked start. The Ghoomer seemed to have lost several years of his life. His hair was thicker and less grey, his skin softer and less coarse, and his eyes undoubtedly sparkled. It was as if he had become a computer hologram of his younger self.
"What the hell's happened?" Joby exclaimed "What have you done to yourself?"
"I haven't done anything", said Mieps "This is all caused by external forces".
Joby heard Kieran talking to Tamaz in the gangway, and ran out to drag him in.
"You've gotta see this, Kiel!" he yelled "It's a fucking miracle!"
"Mieps!" Kieran gasped, when he saw him.
"This is all your doing", Mieps cried, ecstatically.
"Me? No", said Kieran "I can't work miracles".
"Yes you can", said Mieps "You've lifted the curse, don't you see? She cursed me. Said I would never be accepted by anyone for as long as I lived. I was doomed to rot and grow old by myself. But you trusted me and took me in, in spite of knowing how I felt about Tamaz. You have done this".
"This woman you're talking about", said Kieran "Is she small and dark, and a wee bit malevolent-looking?"
"How can you be a 'wee bit' malevolent-looking?" said Joby.
"You've seen her?" said Mieps.
"In my dreams, as Joby would say", said Kieran "The village I dreamt about, with everyone stabbing each other, full of hate, and the woman at the boundary, I was acting your part wasn't I? You escaped into the forest didn't you?"
"She cursed me when I left", said Mieps "Mocked me. Said there was no way I could survive away from my own kind. You've proved her wrong, in spite of ... in spite of Tamaz and how I feel for him".
Joby was looking very disgruntled. There was no denying that the new-looking Mieps may not be conventionally handsome, but he certainly wasn't unsightly either. All Joby's insecurities about his own grizzled looks came to the fore, and he was struck with the breathless fear that he could lose Tamaz after all. Kieran sensed this, and knew in that instant that he would have despatched Mieps back to his tin-shed instantly if he could. Never had he loved Joby so much as he did at that moment.
"Well now Tamaz", Mieps stared at the said person, who had just appeared at Kieran's side "Not so much the vile old snake now am I?"
Joby and Kieran watched with acute anticipation as Tamaz stared back at him inscrutably. Then he looked at his two lovers in mild disgust.
"I get it!" he bellowed "Now this loathsome reptile's got his looks back, you're going to parcel me off on him. Well I won't have it, do you hear me! I won't have it!"
Tamaz stamped his foot and left the room. He could be heard squawking and hissing to himself as he climbed the quarterdeck steps.
"No worries, Joby", said Kieran.
Mieps' transformation caused no end of consternation with everyone else topside. So much so that The Strange Building was almost forgotten, except by Toppy, who kept shrieking (ignored by all) that a bell which must weigh at least 90 pounds could not possibly ring all by itself.
"You make me feel quite envious, old love", said Adam, congratulating Mieps on recovering his long-lost youth, well sort of.
"You don't have any concerns", Mieps laughed.
Things calmed down sufficiently to allow them to steer the Indigo through the arch and see the disused building close to hand. Lonts though had noticed Miep' rejuvenated cockiness around Tamaz, and was thoroughly alarmed. He got Mieps alone by the bulwark.
"I warn you", he said, in a doom-laden voice "If you take Tamaz away from us, I swear I will kill you".
"Lonts, you misunderstand me", Mieps laughed, nervously "I want to mate with Tamaz, tis true, but I'm sure we can come to some arrangement".
"Yes", said Lonts, fiercely "The arrangement is that he stays with us".
Further discussion on this contentious subject was averted by Julian being inundated with demands from a lot of the other Indigo-ites to go ashore. The building had intrigued them.
"I would've thought you'd want to leave it well behind", Julian had said.
"It can't be dodgy", said Ransey "Or Kieran would've picked up on something by now".
"He's not an infallible guide!" said Julian "His tubes are probably blocked!"
"I think it's just an empty building", said Kieran "But it might be a good idea to have a look inside to set everyone's minds at rest about this area. The nothingness has been getting on all our nerves of late".
"Who goes ashore and who stays here?" said Mieps.
"We all go ashore", said Julian.
"But that'll leave the Indigo unprotected", Mieps protested.
"Far better than risking us being split up", said Julian "And you suddenly seem to have a lot to say for someone who's only a guest!"
"That was uncalled-for, Jules", Adam muttered.
"Julian was right to say that", Lonts thundered "Mieps is trying to take Tamaz away from us".
"That's silly", said Adam, reassuringly "Tamaz won't go anywhere he doesn't want to".
"Tamaz will do as he's told", said Julian, firmly "And that means staying with us for the rest of his natural life!"
The building turned out to be exactly what outward appearances had suggested, an old textile mill-cum-warehouse. Disused and abandoned for many a long year. Abandoned almost in an instant it would seem, as many bolts of material and equipment lay, dust covered, as though the workers had downed tools in an instant and walked out, never to return. The Indigo-ites spent an entertaining hour going around the place, feeling like shoppers who'd been given free run of a department store with no obligation to pay. Julian slipped back into interior designer mode, and held up sheafs of material against Finia to gauge what suited him the best.
"You'd look like a goddess in this", he enthused, holding out some gold-coloured silk.
"Oh I'm all for looking like a goddess!" said Finia.
Lonts found a stack of old furs and went into raptures over them, trying on coats and hats. Unfortunately this all reminded him too much of Kiskev in the end and he burst into melancholy tears, and had to be comforted by Adam and Joby.
Tamaz, needless to say, was in his element.
"Finia could run me up some frillies out of this", he said, unravelling a ream of lace.
"You want the entire bolt I suppose?" said Ransey.
"It's easy enough to take back to the Indigo", said Tamaz "You can carry it back for me".
"I feel a cigar coming on", said Julian, and he went and sat down on a dusty window-ledge, rooting around in his jacket pocket for the small case of cigars he carried around with him.
"It's a good job we don't have to pay for any of this", he said, when Tamaz joined him.
"It wouldn't matter anyway", Tamaz shrugged "We can afford to buy anything these days, so I can have anything".
"You should be spanked", said Julian.
"I have been, loads of times", said Tamaz, haughtily "It doesn't make any difference at all".
"That's not what I remember from last Christmas", said Julian, teasingly.
"Joby took me by surprise", Tamaz mumbled.
"Hey!" Kieran thundered back up the wooden stairs, from where he had been exploring the basement. He looked flushed and excited as though he was about to yell 'there's gold in dem der hills!'
"How many times have I told you not to disappear out of sight?" Ransey snapped.
"Yes, that is rather thoughtless, Patsy", said Adam.
"Never mind all that", said Kieran "There's an old tube-train in the lower basement".
"Eh?" Joby looked shell-shocked.
"Yep, still ona line too", said Kieran, excitedly "This whole place is built over an old underground station!"
"Which one?" said Adam, incredulously.
"There's no way of knowing, sadly", said Kieran "There are no signs anywhere or adverts even. But the train's there. Come and see".
All of them went down several flights of stairs into the lower basement, where they found themselves on an underground platform, with a tube-train waiting by it with its doors gaping open, as though it had just this minute disgorged a multitude of passengers. The train and the platform were devoid of any lettering or identification. The walls of the platform were plastered with white tiling, but there was absolutely nothing else to indicate where this ghost station had once belonged.
Nothing was said for some time. They all stood on the platform, staring at the train in silence. This was mainly because the most startling part of the whole contraption was that its interior lights were on!
Kieran stepped into the compartment, and barely had time to slip out again before the doors slid shut.
"Don't do things like that!" Ransey squawked, shaking Kieran by his wrist.
The train gave a hiss and then a slow whoosh, as it pulled away from the platform and disappeared into the inky-black tunnel. Joby stood on the edge of the platform and stared after it.
"Ransey's right!" he eventually yelled at Kieran "That could've been you on there!"
"Let's get out of here", said Julian, and he indicated for everyone to move up the stairs.
"TOPPY!" Lonts suddenly screamed.
A phosphorescent arm had appeared out of the tiled wall and was groping for Toppy's shoulder. Lonts managed to yank him away, and the luminous arm disappeared back through the tiling, as though it was being sucked up a vacuum hose.
"Toppy could have disappeared for good", Lonts wailed "We wouldn't have known where he'd gone!"
Everyone gave the wall a wide berth as they headed back up the stairs.
"'Later'", Julian wrote in his log-book "'I'm writing this up on the forward deck by the light of the full moon. We've decided to travel for a few extra hours tonight, in order to put that dreadful place behind us. Naturally we find ourselves facing about 101 different questions. Did the workers at the mill/warehouse disappear in the basement somehow? (the whole place had a very 'Marie Celeste' feel to it, as though it had been abandoned quickly). Who was driving the train, and where was it going? What would have happened to Toppy if that Thing had got him?
Talked to Kieran when we got back to the Indigo. He informed me he'd heard a train whilst we were staying in Triga. If it is all part of the same thing, then this train, or underground network, whatever, stretches across a helluva distance. Who or what is running it, and for what purpose, is not very comforting to speculate on.
I will be glad when we get to Woll's place. We could have lost both Kieran and Toppy today, and the thought of how we would all feel now if that had happened is just plain intolerable.
Needless to say Our Youngest is very shaken up. I've decided he should spend another night in the saloon. Bengo and Bardin may not be the most relaxing room-mates, but at least their constant squabbling will help to distract him from his fears.
At the same time I can keep Mieps under surveillance. He started giving Freaky the come-on again just now, sitting on the pile of hemp I'm sitting on now and patting the space next to him. When Freaky didn't respond Mieps got up and started fondling his neck. Joby's taken Tamaz below and is keeping him occupied in their cabin.
To be honest, although I find Mieps and his excessive libido wearying, at least it's all relatively harmless. Nobody is being whisked off to oblivion on tube-trains, or sucked into the ether through brick walls because of it anyway. It's going to be a while before any of us feel easy about walking round empty buildings again!'"
"You look so serious", said Tamaz, lying next to Joby on the bunk. The curtain was pulled round them, and they were bathed in a small circle of light from the oil-lamp bracketed on the wall above them.
"I have a naturally miserable-looking face", said Joby, propped on his elbow and looking down at him.
"You look really stern sometimes", said Tamaz.
"That cdan only be a good thing, where you're concerned!" Joby smiled.
"I didn't do anything to encourage Mieps earlier", said Tamaz, with rare solemnity.
"Oh he's bound to be a pain in the jacksey at the moment", Joby sighed "Now he's had a couple of decades knocked off his appearance, I expect he'll be grooming himself like a tom-cat for the rest of the trip!"
"He was trying to get at me earlier", said Tamaz "Going on about how humans are incapable of having a mating relationship with one person for very long, and that he'll take me off your hands when you're tired of me".
"You don't wanna listen to him", said Joby "That's a load of bollocks what he's been saying. Look at us all on the Indigo here. Me and Kieran have been together for 20 years, so have Adam and Lonts".
"He said that once humans lose desire for someone they can never get it back", Tamaz went on.
"That's another load of bollocks", said Joby "He's really been trying hard hasn't he! Some people used to come out with rubbish like that in my time. People in long-term relationships were looked on as freaks, there must be something wrong with you if you've loved the same person for several years. Miserable gits".
"I'll mate with snake-features if it'll get him out of my hair", said Tamaz "But I don't want to be left with him forever. He's too hard. He says I've got soft, living with humans, but I don't care".
"Are you afraid of him?" said Joby, softly.
"No!" Tamaz retorted, indignantly "Well ... alright, sometimes I am, because I don't get any peace when he's around. He stares at me all the time, he's hunting me, and everytime he speaks to me I know he's thinking about pulling my drawers down. I suppose you're going to say that serves me right?"
"I wasn't gonna say that", Joby rubbed Tamaz's stomach "Perhaps when he's been used to living amongst humans for a while, when we get to Woll's estate, he might learn to calm down a bit. From what I can gather you're the hottest babe he's ever seen, or certainly in a long time anyway. But I'm not gonna abandon you, whatever happens".
Kieran was walking past the open door of Julian's cabin, when he saw Mieps sitting at the desk, idly rummaging through the top drawer. He had undone his shirt, leaving his breasts on display. Unlike Tamaz's breasts, which looked natural on him, Mieps's looked incongruous. Out of place on his slight but muscular torso.
"Are you looking for something, Doris?" said Kieran, coming into the room.
"Just exerting my curiosity", Mieps looked up and gave an inscrutable smile "You humans are rather keen on stressing what a healthy emotion curiosity is, after all".
"Even so, I wouldn't let Julian catch you going through his things", said Kieran "He gets a wee bit sensitive about his possessions sometimes".
"Unlike yourself of course", Mieps slid the drawer shut.
"Pick up thy bed and walk", said Kieran, simply "Fairly sound advice, all told. People get too stressed out about belongings, it's not good for them".
"Well I haven't taken anything", said Mieps, holding up his hands "You can search me if you like. I really was just curious. But then I don't need to explain, I know you trust me".
"It's not a simple matter of trust, Mieps", said Kieran, sitting on the desk and lightly touching Mieps' face "Now you've had this taste of your long-lost youth, you're not going to want to give it up again in a hurry".
"Oh I see", said Mieps "If I don't toe the line you'll bring the curse back, is that it?"
"I wouldn't need to", said Kieran "If you were banished as an outcast again, disliked and distrusted by all, it wouldn't be long before you suffered a reversal of fortune. Back to being the loathsome old snake, as Tamaz puts it. One thing you Ghoomers and we humans have in common is we're a social species, we don't do well as outcasts, not belonging anywhere. Loneliness is upsetting to both of us. Now you wouldn't want to go back to that, would you, Mieps?"
"Why can't you give me Tamaz?" said Mieps, plaintively.
"Because I love him", said Kieran "And love is the one thing I'm greedy for above all else".
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