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For some time now Yentzi had had a menial job in one of the Ministry offices. It wasn't quite on a par with addressing envelopes, but it was close. Although he had personally helped Kieran in his quest to get rid of Angel, Yentzi had still fallen out of favour with the Ministry. They hadn't taken kindly to a top-level government worker abandoning his post and stealing expensive government property to boot, even if it was to help the Vanquisher of Evil.
The late President had offered him the clerk's job as a kind of backhanded act of forgiveness, under the unspoken knowledge that after a suitable period toiling in the lower ranks, Yentzi could eventually be put back in his old grade. That hope died when the President was killed, and Gabriel took over. Since then Yentzi had kept a very low profile. He assiduously shied away from any question of promotion, and had resigned himself to being an envelope-shuffler for as long as Gabriel was in power.
The biggest problem was Gabriel's increasing paranoia. He was coming up to his first anniversary as President, and he lived in a state of daily obsession concerning Kieran. All attempts to trace him had failed, and yet Gabriel now refused to believe he was dead. He couldn't be, not when Kieran haunted his dreams so vividly at night. Yentzi knew that if Gabriel found out about his associations with Kieran, he would be in very hot water indeed.
Yentzi also refused to believe that any of them were dead, particularly Adam. Most evenings after leaving work, he would walk the City streets, always endeavouring to pass his old apartment where they had lived. It had stood empty all this time. Gabriel had wanted it to be sold and inhabited by someone new, terrified that supporters of Kieran would start treating it as a shrine otherwise. But it couldn't be sold until the real owner could be traced, and Yentzi wasn't going to admit that the real owner was him.
He had been restless all that summer, and it hadn't gone unnoticed in the office. Pugdog, as Yentzi nicknamed the little man he shared his working space with, had advised him to throw himself into his work. It was a cure for most ills, he said. Yentzi failed to see how you could throw yourself into the kind of chores he was given to do, not unless you were a person of extremely limited outlook anyway.
It was now the day before Gabriel's first anniversary. The last day of August had been decreed a universal holiday. Yentzi supposed he would spend it getting quietly smashed. There was nothing else to do. The art galleries had been shut down, after Gabriel had heard that one of the smaller ones had defiantly staged a special exhibition of erotic art featuring eunuchs. The theatres were bland, showing only "safe" productions, the sort that Yentzi referred to in normal times as "the market for mediocrity". Underground cinemas showed forbidden films, but these were raided regularly and Yentzi couldn't risk being caught in one of them.
Three o'clock sharp. Time to make the tea. Some things about office life had never changed, thought Yentzi. Over the centuries there had been wars, famines, dramatic global changes, massacres ... and yet in government offices the tea was still made in the middle of the afternoon.
"Great exciting gossip circling the urinals", said Pugdog.
"Oh yes?" said Yentzi, in a disinterested fashion. Pugdog was always coming back with some snippet of conversation from the lavatory. Yentzi wondered why Gabriel didn't bug the place, he would learn so much if he did. Yentzi assumed it was probably all part of his fastidiousness concerning bodily functions that he didn't.
Pugdog was very excited this time. He came up to the table where Yentzi was brewing tea, and leaned forward in a conspiratorial fashion. Pugdog had bad breath, so Yentzi didn't appreciate this.
"There's a rumour going round", said Pugdog "That Kieran and his chums may still be alive and living somewhere in the South Seas".
"That rumour has been circulating for months", said Yentzi.
"But it makes sense! Apparently they stole Gabriel's yacht and made off in it. So there's a good chance he may be shipwrecked somewhere".
"That probably means Gabriel's doing his best to trace him", said Yentzi, his dark brows furrowing with worry "I hope he doesn't find him".
"Ah, a man after my own heart", said Pugdog "I often wondered. Only you play your cards very close to your chest".
"What difference does it make to you who's President?" said Yentzi "I mean, you only seem concerned about your pension most of the time".
"I ... er", Pugdog looked sheepish "Have a fondness for eunuchs".
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to embarrass you".
"And I was once rather hoping that, once the vampires were gone, we wouldn't have destruction on such a large scale again. I'm an old man now. I'm tired of it. I want to see the final generation living in peace, or at least finding some semblance of it. Not having to listen to bells ringing in the early evening to drown out the screams of the tortured".
"It's dangerous to talk here", said Yentzi "But thank you for telling me. Even vague good rumours are better than none at all".
That evening Yentzi paced his bedsitter, feeling like a ghost in his own home. It was a dreary little room, decorated in brown and a dull shade of orange. All a far cry from the classy apartment he had enjoyed at the Colony. But in the past year or so the normally fastidious Yentzi had lost all heart in improving his surroundings. His main hobby of collecting paintings and antiques held no appeal anymore. His collection of vases, carefully garnered over the years, now cluttered up every surface and made the room feel like a junk shop. He got no pleasure in them these days, and had even stopped cleaning them.
He was owed some leave, and knew he needed a holiday. But there was nowhere he felt like going. Everywhere would be as contaminated by Gabriel's presence as the City. Unless ... unless it was true what they said about Kieran, that he was on an island in the South Seas. There were very few islands left in that part of the world since the Warming, and so it shouldn't be too hard to trace him. It was still possible to charter a private air-buggy. It was expensive, but Yentzi had saved money during his menial job at the Ministry, and he could pilot it himself. He would be taking a huge risk, Gabriel may even ask questions, but Yentzi reasoned with himself that the President would not be interested in the holiday plans of a mere clerk. He bargained without Gabriel's paranoia.
He discovered that all requests for hiring a private air-buggy had to be sanctioned by the President. Gabriel wanted to know why anyone, however insignificant they were, wished to travel outside the City. Yentzi had filed his request for the loan of an air-buggy, and before the week was out he had been summoned to Gabriel's private office.
Gabriel had had the late President's office gutted and re-decorated throughout in brown marble. Yentzi couldn't help feeling that it was like sitting inside a huge turd. Gabriel had come out from behind his desk when Yentzi was shown in. The President's appearance startled him. Gabriel was wearing make-up. Closer examination proved that this wasn't for any glamorous reasons. It was camouflage. Gabriel was seriously ill. Underneath the panstick make-up his skin was disintegrating. Pressures of state and his own paranoia and distrust of those closest to him meant he hadn't been to Mundaba Heights since taking up office. The side-effects were becoming more and more disturbing everyday.
"Where do you wish to go in the air-buggy?" said Gabriel, his soft voice sounding wispier than ever.
"I thought I would fly down to Lixix", said Yentzi "Take in the sights, then fly out over the desert. I've been feeling a bit depressed of late, so I thought the wide-open spaces there would do me good".
"Why are you feeling depressed?"
"It's not really depression as such. I'm more tired and run-down actually. I haven't taken a break all summer, and I enjoy flying".
"Why did you learn to fly?"
"B-Because it's always been an interest of mine".
Gabriel returned to the chair behind his desk. He seemed to have shrunk. He had lost weight, and his clothes swamped him. He hadn't slept in some while. He badly needed a trip to Mundaba Heights, and yet he felt he couldn't leave the City without being perfectly sure that Kieran was dead. It was a vicious circle, because as he got physically weaker so did his power. In recent months the elemental had been all but useless in its attempts to trace Kieran, useless or downright obstreperous, he wasn't sure which.
"I need a holiday myself", said Gabriel "But the demands of State do not allow for such luxuries. They never found his body you know. I keep expecting to hear of it washed up somewhere, but no, not a sign. I suppose the sharks might have eaten it. I have to get away too. I never realised quite what a trap leadership could be. Mundaba Heights is so far from here. I am never secure. There is always someone near waiting for me to fall. Are the people happy?"
"In their way", said Yentzi, not at all certain what to say for the best "People are never happy all the time".
"No. Life is full of worries. Are you afraid of what you want?"
"I-I want very little. Except a holiday".
"But your goals in life. Do they scare you?"
"I haven't any", said Yentzi "I'm a little person".
"Yes of course", said Gabriel "It is easy for me to forget what that is like for everyone else. Because I have always been special, ever since I was a child. Which is all very well but one never knows peace. I'm sorry, did I startle you?"
"Not at all", said Yentzi, now thoroughly confused.
"You're the one that wants to fly to Lixix aren't you?"
"Yes, that will be great fun. Will you wear clothes when you fly the buggy?"
"I generally do dress when I'm out".
"There must be such freedom in nudity, although of course it's not right. The human body is too vile to be shown. Too vile indeed. I see no reason why you should not have your holiday".
"That is very kind and generous of you".
"Perhaps you would care to tell me about it when you come back?"
"If that is what you wish".
"Yes. It's a year, over a year, since I was last in Lixix. Make sure you get a high-duty battery won't you? The desert is no place to crash".
"I've brought in a lot of reforms since I was President", said Gabriel "Are they working, do you think?"
"Time will be the best judge of that. It's early days yet".
"So it is. It would never have worked you know, with him in charge. He hasn't the maturity to cope with high office. Too young, no dedication, ill-educated. I really was the best choice you know. The people chose well when they chose me over him".
"The people are often the best judge of character", said Yentzi, cautiously.
"Appearances only go skin deep you know", said Gabriel, touching his own face "They are not the whole. It's what's inside that counts".
Yentzi was nervous and restless after his peculiar meeting with Gabriel. He was relieved that he had finally acquired the travel warrant, but now he had it he didn't trust it. He believed strongly in the saying that if something was too good to be true then it generally was. In the still watches of the night he worried that Gabriel may be tricking him, using him as a means to trace Kieran. During daylight hours, when he could think more rationally, he knew this wasn't true. Gabriel was mad, what he had said made no sense at all. He was also sick. Yentzi knew he had to trace Kieran and bring him back, kicking and screaming if necessary. He had deserted his people for too long. That Yentzi would also see Adam again certainly played a strong part in his actions too.
He had collected the air-buggy on a chilly autumn morning. He had paid an extortionate sum of money for the most durable programme and battery that was on offer. He was also assured it could fly substantial distances on auto-pilot. This was important as Yentzi had no intention of landing beyond Lixix, not until he reached his chosen destination at any rate.
He had started the journey in good spirits, buoyed up with the excitement of it all, and feeling like a pioneer. He had enjoyed an overnight stop in Lixix, enjoyed causing a sensation in the skies over Husgalonghi, where he had looked down to see the people running into the street to point up at him. But from then on the journey had become more frightening. Civilisation had seemed to run out beyond Husgalonghi, and Yentzi was only too aware of the empty countryside below him. It had got worse the further south he went, until even the jungle had petered out. Below him then was more desert, great white expanses of it. There were small villages scattered at random in this hellish place, all separated by miles of nothingness. Small boys gathered on sand dunes to wave to him, which helped to alleviate some of his despondency, and occasionally he passed over a stray group of nomads who weren't quite so friendly. Some even shook their fists at him. He could understand their hostility. If you couldn't get privacy in the desert, where could you?
There was a string of uninhabited islands off the very southern tip of the land mass, and this was where Yentzi was heading. The islands were small and very widely-spaced. One, Miracle Island, was to have been the new penal colony, but it was rumoured that some terrible tragedy had occurred there, as nothing had been heard of the place for some time.
Yentzi had put the air-buggy onto auto-pilot for twelve hours. He slept heavily and when he woke again he found the land below him had disappeared, and he was flying over open sea. This was momentarily disconcerting, as though the floor had given way under his feet. He had the crazy notion that all the land had disappeared, and there was nothing left anywhere but water. To add to the unsettling feeling the engine had started to make peculiar noises, as though it was protesting violently at such a long period of exertion. Yentzi muttered endearments over it, begging it to keep going just a little longer. It whined back at him but limped onwards, for the moment.
"It's not sodding fair", Hillyard was complaining "I was up early this morning, putting the finishing touches to me bed. Then suddenly I find we're all being hauled off on a route-march. I haven't even had any breakfast yet".
"I'm certain I heard something in the middle of the night", said Adam "A buzzing noise and then a loud bang".
"I didn't hear it", said Hillyard "You were probably dreaming".
They were all walking in single-file through the fern bushes. Nobody was wearing any clothes, as there had been a rare laundry session the day before, and the ragged garments were all still hanging from the makeshift washing-line on the verandah.
"Nobody else heard it either, Adam", said Joby.
"I'm surprised I managed to hear it above your snoring", Adam snapped "It sounded to me like an air-buggy. If it crashed someone could be in trouble".
"Serves 'em right for crashing on our island", said Joby.
It was early afternoon before they came across the air-buggy lying in a clearing in the north-eastern part of the island, beyond the small waterfall. The buggy had simply given up, and Yentzi had had to make an emergency landing. The force of it had caterpaulted him through the cockpit window, and he now lay sprawled on the ground below. There was blood oozing from a gash in his head, and frighteningly he couldn't feel anything below his chest.
"Yentzi!" Adam cried, rushing over to him "Can you hear me?"
The man opened his eyes, and blearily glimpsed six naked men standing over him.
"I must be dead", he joked, weakly.
"Is there anyone else with you?"
Yentzi shook his head.
"We'd better get him home", said Hillyard "See if we can find something in the buggy to make a stretcher out of".
In the end they improvised with a parachute doubled over several times. Between them they lugged the seriously wounded man back to the beach. It took some considerable time, and it was nearly dark by the time they reached the hut. Every jolt caused Yentzi severe pain, but he knew they were trying their best and gritted his teeth firmly.
"It's a bit basic I'm afraid", said Adam, as they placed Yentzi on Ransey's mattress, because it was nearest the door "But it's home".
"You live here?" said Yentzi.
"I know", said Adam, tipping him up gently so that he could sip some cold water "Sad isn't it?"
Yentzi vaguely took in the mattresses, the lopsided table, and the general clutter of lamps, tools and cutlery. It looked like a chaotic garden-shed. The others had gradually drifted outside to light the fire and prepare some food, except Lonts who hovered near the door, gazing over his thumb at Yentzi in rapt curiosity.
"Lonts", said Adam, firmly "Go outside and help the others".
"Was that the boy, the Kiskev Survivor?" said Yentzi, after Lonts had gone "He's grown hasn't he?"
"Mmm", said Adam " Where does it hurt, where are you wounded?"
"All over", said Yentzi "Adam, I have an awful feeling that I've broken my back".
"I'm sure it's not as serious as that", said Adam.
"I think it's true. Something feels very awry, as though my spine has splintered apart. Rather typical of me I'm afraid. I come out here to rescue you, and you end up looking after a cripple instead".
"It's far too soon to be talking like that. Does Gabriel know you're here?"
"He hasn't a clue. I think his powers are waning. He hasn't been to Mundaba Heights for over a year, and he's noticing it. If Kieran was to return in the next few months I don't think Gabriel could put up much of a fight. He could go back. I don't think the buggy is irreparably damaged. It just needs a bit of tinkering with".
"You're in pain, don't talk", said Adam, frightened by everything Yentzi had said.
"I understand how you feel, Adam", Yentzi winced "But none of you can hide from your destiny. Kieran is the Vanquisher of Evil. People need him".
"I'm rather tired of hearing what people want from him", said Adam, slamming together items on the table as though he was brick-laying "If Gabriel is getting as weak as you say then surely the people can rise up and depose him themselves? Patsy doesn't want to be President, he never has. I'm sure there are any number of good men around who can do the job. Put it this way, they couldn't be any worse than Gabriel! I sometimes think they're latching on to Patsy like leeches. It's so unfair".
"I should never have come here", said Yentzi "I'm most terribly sorry. I should have left you in peace".
"None of that matters at the moment", Adam crouched down by the side of the mattress "The important thing is we have to find out exactly what's happened to you".
"If my back has broken", said Yentzi "Listen to me! I'm a grown man, I don't need molly-coddling with stories of 'it'll be alright'. If my back is broken, then I will die. I'll make damn sure of it. I don't wish to be a burden on you".
"Does he want something to eat?" said Ransey, coming into the hut.
"I'll get him something", Adam ran out, pushing Ransey aside as he did so.
"So this is what happened to you", said Yentzi "It was all over the papers that you'd walked out on Gabriel, and no one knew where you had gone. Rumours were you'd fled with the Vanquisher, but no one was certain".
"Has Gabriel put out a bounty on me?" said Ransey, tartly.
"He has more pressing concerns about himself at the moment".
"That wound is still bleeding", Ransey grabbed a handkerchief and pressed it against Yentzi's head gently "I'm surprised Adam didn't patch it up".
"He's rather upset".
"Why did you come here?"
"To persuade Kieran to go back. Only I didn't bank on breaking my back in the process".
"You don't know for sure that that's what's happened", said Ransey "If we could only get a doctor somehow, we could have you properly looked at".
"You couldn't even get a doctor in the City these days. Gabriel has closed down all the hospitals".
"Good grief", Ransey looked shocked "I didn't think even Gabriel would go that far. But why?"
"He believes everything that happens is God's Will, and doctors are not to play God themselves".
"So what's happening to all the sick then?"
"They get sicker. And die. God's Will, you see".
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