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By Sarah Hapgood

Within a couple of days of leaving the riverside hotel the galleon sailed into a massive dust-storm. Huge tidal-waves of dust swarmed over the desolate and barren landscape. They had left all forest land behind for the time being, on both sides of the river.

Bardin was convinced the dust was being caused by more of the fires, even though nothing could be seen or smelled that would point to this. As such, he ordered the exterior of the boat to be regularly doused with water.

Anyone who went up on deck had to wear swimming-goggles, to keep the dust out of their eyes. When they returned below they were invariably sweaty, sticky and dusty, as though they’d been rescued from a house-fire.

“I’ve never seen anything like it”, said Bengo, who was sharing a whisky with Joby in Joby’s cabin.

“I’ve seen pictures of dust-storms”, said Joby “But this one’s just plain weird”.

“If one envelops us”, said Bengo “We won’t be able to see a damn thing”.

“Well from what Stan and James told us back at the inn, we can’t have far to go now”, said Joby “And if needs must, we can get back to them”.

In the galley Adam was washing Jane’s hair, after she had returned from a stint on deck looking as if she’d been frolicking in a coal-cellar.

“What I don’t understand is why it’s leaving us quite so filthy”, said Jane, as Adam combed her golden locks “I mean, I know what dust-storms are, but this leaves huge black smuts on us”.

“I suppose we simply have to accept all the weirdness until we’re out of this”, said Adam “The time for analysing will be afterwards. Incidentally, I don’t think you should go back up on deck today. You’re getting a distinct croak in your voice”.

“A lot of us are”, said Jane “Hopefully we’ll reach the coast in a couple of days”.

A be-goggled Kieran came into the room. His long hair was tangled and filthy.

“I think you’d better take your turn at the sink”, said Jane, getting to her feet, the towel still draped over her bare shoulders.

“What makes you say that?” said Kieran, pulling off his goggles, and exposing two white circles around his eyes.

“I shall go and light the samovar in the Captain’s Cabin”, said Jane.

“The Captain’s Cabin?” said Kieran, when Jane had gone “Bardin will want it called that all the time from now on!”

He peeled off his t-shirt and trousers. Adam kissed him vigorously.

“I can’t remember the last time I did that”, he said, when he came up for air.

“Not often you and I get a chance to be alone these days”, said Kieran “Things will calm down at some point, and then we have to start the healing process … and that can take many forms”.

Bardin came in, carrying Snowy, Lonts’ teddy-bear, under his arm.

“Any tea going in here?” he asked.

“Nothing to stop you putting some on”, said Adam “I’ve got to clean up Patsy”.

“Can’t he do that himself?” said Bardin.

“Don’t be a spoilsport!” said Adam.

“Bardin, why are you carrying Snowy around?” asked Kieran.

“Oh. That”, said Bardin, as though only just becoming aware that he was carrying a teddy-bear around “Lonts gave it to me. He said carrying Snowy would help me cope with the stresses of the situation. He’s not a guy you argue with really”.

“Well I’m glad there’s someone you don’t!” said Adam.

“You’d hate it if I was docile”, said Bardin, putting Snowy on the table.

“I find it very hard to imagine such a far-fetched idea!” said Adam.

“I’m getting bad vibes”, said Bardin “I keep wondering if everyone on the west coast has disappeared. I don’t know what’s put that into my head, but I’m finding it hard to shake off”.

“Certainly a somewhat forbidding thought”, said Adam.

“I think you’d better have that tea, Bardin”, said Kieran.

“I’ll light the samovar in here”, said Julian, leading Ransey and Hillyard into his cabin “Adam seems to have turned the galley into a hair-salon a the moment”.

“Where’s Hoowie?” said Ransey.

“Can’t you hear him?” said Julian, referring to the jangled piano music which was coming from the dining-room next door.

“I wish Umbert would teach him how to play that thing”, said Ransey.

“Hoowie!” Julian rapped on the wall with the cane which he kept on his desk “Can it!”

The racket stopped immediately.

“I wish I had that knack”, said Ransey.

“Sit down”, said Julian “Let’s have some sherry”.

“Good, manly stuff”, said Hillyard.

“I think you’ve had enough good, manly beer lately to be a one-man brewery”, said Julian.

“I keep thinking we’re getting to the end of this bloody river, and it turns out we’re not”, said Hillyard, adjusting his crotch for comfort and sitting down on the windowseat “I thought a couple of days on from the inn and we’d be there. I’ve never known a part of the world like this. How long have we been on this river now? Months? YEARS?!”

“I honestly have no idea”, said Julian “I don’t even know what time of the year it is anymore. I’ve long since accepted that we seem to be in some kind of Altered State. It’s all really most peculiar”.

“Ever wondered if we’re … like … stuck here forever?” said Hillyard.

“I try to damp such thoughts down”, said Julian “We are not without resources. If push comes to shove then some of us could take off overland. If we keep heading in the direction of the west coast then we must get somewhere eventually”.

“If we stop believing that”, said Ransey “Then the wretches that are controlling this area will have won. They’ll have switched the light off at the end of the tunnel”.

“And that we can’t have”, said Julian.

“You have to stop and analyse it rationally”, said Ransey.

Hillyard groaned.

“Yes you do”, Ransey insisted “The creatures we’re dealing with are relying on us losing the plot, of being afraid”.

“If the worst comes to the worst, and the river is endless”, said Julian “Then we’ll go back to the inn, and we’ll make up a home in their vicinity. We’ll bloody well stay in the area. See how they like it then. Having Kieran permanently in their midst!”

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