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Although he had preserved a dignified demeanour throughout the appalling scene at Gabriel's lunch-party, Kieran wasn't the same afterwards. He retreated into himself, and to Joby's horror and dismay, seemed to lose the will to live. He silently gave up the fight without a word of explanation. Joby tried to coax him round by cuddling him, and sneaking in titbits from Gabriel's dinner-table. But Kieran remained unmoved.
"Kiel, you can't just give up", Joby protested, as Kieran spent another evening lying on his side in the straw, barely saying a word "You've got to keep going for my sake. I love you".
"Don't be kind to me, Joby", Kieran muttered "It pains me too much".
"That's stupid talk", Joby wept "Oh God, I wish Adam was here. He'd know what to do".
This wretched state of affairs went on for some time. By now Kieran had stopped talking at all. He lay on his side, like an animal that had given itself up to death. Joby went through his daytime duties in an automatic fashion, almost oblivious to Gabriel's rantings and the violent whacks with the stick. He lived only for getting back into the alcove and seeing to Kieran.
"You haven't eaten for ages", he said, one evening "You'll die if you don't eat".
Kieran didn't say a word. In desperation Joby pulled open the other man's jaw and tried to ram a piece of wafer biscuit through his teeth. Kieran made no effort to chew on it, and the soggy remains of the biscuit spilled down his chin. Joby laid his head on Kieran's chest and gave himself up to weeping.
"You bastard Kiel", he cried "If you die I'll have nothing. Nothing at all. Just 'cos some fatheaded wanker makes a stupid joke about your cock. I was always doing it and you never carried on like this! If you die I'll kill myself, and Adam won't be at all happy about that. And as for those Ministry turds, well you'll get your own back when you're President. I can help you think of something humiliating for them. Just don't die on me, you selfish bastard!"
In despair Joby turned his back on Kieran, and lay on his side sobbing wretchedly. Kieran sat up with difficulty, handicapped by the wrist restraints, and he kissed Joby's arm. He noticed that Joby was nursing his broken finger. He'd been in considerable pain with it since Gabriel had rapped it with the ruler at breakfast-time.
"That should be seen to", said Kieran, softly.
"I'll ask Gabriel if I can have the morning off to see the doctor shall I?" Joby sniffed.
"When we get out of here I'll make a splint for it", said Kieran "That First Aid course I went on at work in our time may be useful after all".
Joby rolled over onto his back and stared up into Kieran's face.
"When we get out of here", he said "I like the sound of that".
"It'll happen", said Kieran "I'm sorry I went to pieces. It's being trussed up like a chicken all the time that does it. I get so focking frustrated. And that episode with the Ministry men was the last straw. I just couldn't stand anymore humiliation. I wanted to bow out. I was selfish, I could only think of me own misery. I'm sorry Jobe".
Joby smiled weakly, and then gave a loud sniff.
"Looking at you like that", Kieran continued "I suddenly realise how much I want to look after you".
"You can't do that if you're dead!"
"I was being very stupid. You'll have to get Adam to sort me out".
"Chance'd be a fine thing".
No one in the cage could remember the last time anyone had brought them any food, except suffice it to say that it was a long time. Adam had lain awake for hours, trying to ignore the hunger pains in his stomach, but finding it impossible.
"We've just been abandoned", said Ransey "No guards have been in here for some time now. They've taken Kieran and Joby way, they don't need us three, so they've just left us here".
"You reckon we've just been left to rot?" said Hillyard.
"Yea, it looks that way".
"So no one'll come back at all?"
"What are you getting at Hillyard?" said Adam.
"There's nothing to stop us escaping", said Hillyard.
"Oh nothing except a set of iron bars", said Adam "And a jungle full of zombies".
"The lock on the door is a doddle", said Hillyard "I bet I could get it open in a few minutes".
"Then why haven't you done so before?"
"Because we need a bit of strategy here", said Hillyard "It was no good me wrecking the lock and then a guard coming in whilst I was at it. That wouldn't just endanger us, but Kieran and Joby as well".
"Good point", Adam conceded "But as Ransey reckons we've been abandoned we have nothing to lose".
"You still need a strategy", said Ransey "Somehow we have to find the others, and I don't expect Gabriel's left them somewhere easily accessible. He might even have left here and taken them to the City with him".
"Oh don't say that", Adam groaned "I don't think I can face the thought of that journey back without them with us".
"We have to find that out first", said Hillyard, stepping gingerly over the filthy straw.
"Can you really get us out of here Hillyard?" said Adam.
"You just watch me".
"So when did you add lock-breaking to your long list of useful skills?" said Adam, as Hillyard swung the cage door backwards and forwards.
"I'll tell you all about that one long winter's evening when we're back in the apartment", said Hillyard "Bloody nuisance Ransey's never been here before. I haven't a clue where we go from here".
"I only have a map of Gabriel's suite", said Adam.
"That's something though", said Ransey, stretching his arms and legs out fully "We'll be alright, as long as we keep a look out for any zombies".
They checked the other cages to see if any of the inmates were fit to travel, and were appalled to find them all dead. Abandoned to starve to death.
"Who are these people?" said Adam "What did they do to end up here?"
"Members of staff I expect", said Ransey "Who incurred his wrath somehow. It wasn't unusual for people to 'leave' suddenly. There was a rumour flying round for some time that they finished up here".
They went up the staircase that Joby had been hauled up some considerable time before. At the top though their way was barred completely by a hermetically-sealed iron door.
"Fucking nuisance", Ransey slammed his hands against it in exasperation "I bet that would take us directly to his private suite as well".
"Well if we can't go up we'll have to go down", said Adam "We haven't any choice".
The stairs led them down eventually to a small railway track which cut a swathe through the bottom of the volcano. There was no one in sight and not a sound could be heard anywhere. They decided to follow the track until they came to a diversion of any kind.
"According to Julian's map", said Adam "Gabriel has a secret passage in his suite, for use in case of attack or emergencies. That means it must lead out through a different entrance. If we could find that we'd be in business".
They walked along the track for some time before noticing anything out of the ordinary. There seemed to be a great deal of yelling and screaming going on down a darkened side tunnel. They followed it cautiously and ducked down onto the ground when it opened out suddenly onto a ledge which overlooked a chamber below. In it Gabriel's troupe of guards, divested of their masks, were lined up and each were taking it in turns to run screaming at two of their colleagues tied to a wall at the far end. The vests of the victims were drenched in blood from where their colleagues had repeatedly stabbed at them with nails, enough to wound but not enough to cause any fatalities.
"It's an initiation ceremony", Ransey whispered "Brutal isn't it? Gabriel encourages this sort of thing. It stops the men getting too attached to one another. He wants their undivided loyalty you see".
"Reminds me of my schooldays", said Adam "Do you think this could be his entire force?"
"I wouldn't be surprised", said Ransey "Come on. I'd advise we move on whilst they're otherwise preoccupied. We don't want 'em doing it to us. Remember, as far as Gabriel's concerned, we are expendable".
In the City it was the hottest day of the year so far. Everyone was well entrenched in the dog days of summer and were sufficiently exasperated with them to long for winter. It was also a festival day, and one of the most colourful in the calendar. The eunuchs were to parade, and even those men who normally cringed at the sight of them still turned up for the spectacle.
Seats on the stands lining the parade route were booked up weeks in advance, and men had commandeered them at dawn. By mid-morning most had drunk the beer they had brought with them, and were impatient for things to start. The organisers had long since learnt the wisdom of listening to the crowd and the eunuchs began at once. At first they were content to show off their bizarre costumes, or expose their legs to the crowd. If the insults and catcalling got too much though they were prepared to expose their private parts to them also, whilst jeering at any particular troublemakers.
The Union of Honorary Virgins had also insisted on taking part, and weathered the barrage of abuse that rained down on them from all quarters with the traditional blank-faced obstinacy of the committed believer. Many were disappointed that Gabriel had chosen not to appear at this year's parade. This, combined with rumours that he was seriously ill, had done little for morale amongst the ranks. And so this year they paraded silently, with none of the usual evangelical singing and leaping up and down that normally characterised their marches. They were too busy inwardly praying for Gabriel's rapid recovery.
"Welcome", said the fresh-faced man at the end of the second tunnel "Gabriel told us to be prepared for new guests at any time, and it is our great pleasure to welcome you to our little commune".
Uh-oh, thought Adam, on hearing the word "commune". His first sight of the place did little to allay his fears. They had walked right into the midst of Gabriel's nest of believers. These people had built an indoor village in the heart of the volcano. It was certainly an extraordinary-looking place, being a collection of one-roomed dwelling places made entirely out of glass, and surrounded by a beautifully cultivated indoor garden.
The natives looked a serene enough lot. They walked around tending their own little plots, and looking extraordinarily contented for a community that lived out of sight of sunlight. But the young dark-haired man that faced Adam had the kind of perennially smiling face that could all too soon seem petulant if thwarted in some way.
"My name is Isaac", he said, offering a limp handshake "We all take Biblical names here".
"I should fit in well then. My name's Adam".
"The first man", said Isaac "The one who was so easily tempted into sin".
"I was well-named then", Adam sighed, and introduced Hillyard and Ransey "We are looking for friends of ours. We believe they are staying in Gabriel's private suite, only we can't seem to find anyone to direct us to it. Perhaps you can help".
"All in good time", said Isaac, looking too enigmatic for comfort "We would like you to eat with us. Come, surely you must be hungry after your travels. You do look it if I may say so".
"It can't do any harm to have a bite to eat Ad", said Ransey.
"I thought your stomach might decide for us Ransey", said Adam "And I'm too hungry myself to argue".
The culmination of the eunuch's parade always occurred at the steps of the Ministry Headquarters, where the President received flower garlands from the eunuchs. The current President, a lifelong celibate who had never been tempted to be anything else, had always found this festival a curious oddity that had to be endured as part of the job. Not that he was against the eunuchs, he recognised them as doing an important job, that of trying to fill the gaping hole in society. As such he always appeared on the steps with a show of willingness, and accepted their offerings graciously.
The eunuchs made the garlands themselves the day before the festival. This was as much a spectacle as the parade itself. Many of them would gather in the market square to sit amongst the finest blooms donated by the traders, and knot the garlands together. The President, who had been a keen amateur gardener himself before the demands of state took over his life, always enjoyed the presentations.
Today was no exception. Within a few minutes he was festooned with different-coloured garlands, and had relaxed sufficiently to be thoroughly enjoying himself. He received the flowers with thanks, and remembered to congratulate many of the eunuchs on their costumes.
It was without any warning whatsoever that he unexpectedly found himself staring into the face of death, and it didn't come armed with a black cloak and scythe. He was in fact wearing a blonde wig and a sequined silver dress. Even before he had pulled the knife from his sleeve though the President knew what was going to happen. He stared directly into the assassin's eyes, silently pleading for his life in the few seconds that he had left of it. It was to be of no avail. The knife went through his heart, his mouth filled with blood, and the assassin had melted back into the crowd before anyone else realised that anything was amiss.
Within a few minutes of it being announced to a stunned crowd that Mr President had been fatally stabbed, his ministers were diving towards his strongbox of private confidential documents, searching for that one piece of paper that confirmed Kieran as his successor. They knew it was vital that Kieran was proclaimed (and that he accepted his new role) without delay, or there would now be nothing to stop Gabriel.
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