Welcome to Schlock! the new webzine for science fiction, fantasy and horror.
Vol 2, Issue 8
1 January 2012
Schlock! is an exciting new weekly webzine dedicated to short stories, flash fiction, serialised novels and novellas within the genres of science fiction, fantasy and horror. We publish new and old works of pulp sword and sorcery, urban fantasy, dark fantasy and gothic horror. If you want to read quality works of schlock fantasy, science fiction or horror, Schlock! is the webzine for you!
For details of previous editions, please go to the Archive.
Schlock! Webzine is always willing to consider new science fiction, fantasy and horror short stories, serials, graphic novels and comic strips, reviews and art. Feel free to submit fiction, articles, art or links to your own site to firstname.lastname@example.org.
We will also review published and self-published novels, in both print and digital editions. Please contact the editor at the above email address for further details.
The stories, articles and illustrations contained on this website are copyright © to the respective authors and illustrators, unless in the public domain.
This week's cover illustration is "Up Helly Aa" by Anne Burgess. Cover design by C Priest Brumley.
Editorial by Gavin Chappell
Days of High Adventure: The Shadow Kingdom - Part One by Robert E Howard - Kull of Atlantis has yet to learn the terrible truth that lurks behind civilisation's facade... SWORD AND SORCERY
Conversations With Dead People - Part One by C Priest Brumley - The specimens were people, or at least used to be... HORROR
The Hettford Witch Hunt by James Rhodes - Continues in the New Year... OCCULT SIT-COM
State of Emergency - Part Twenty by David Christopher - Past crimes catch up with Will... SCIENCE FICTION
Benny Does the Right Thing by Tommy Chewat - Down-and-out but principled, Benny meets a new peril... HORROR
Thieves From The Stars by Rex Mundy - A Saxon raider flees into the depths of the Caledonian Forest... SWORD AND SORCERY
The Tell Tale Heart: Demise of the Bionacle by Obsidian M. Tesla - Continues in the New Year... STEAMPUNK
Schlock! Classic Serial: Varney the Vampire: Part Thirty Seven ascribed to Thomas Preskett Prest. Before Twilight... before Nosferatu ... before Dracula... there was Varney... GOTHIC HORROR
Schlock! Classic Serial: Brigands of the Moon (Part 31) by Ray Cummings - The giant electronic projector was the brigands' most powerful weapon... SPACE OPERA
A new year dawns!
What will 2012 bring? The year in which the Mayan calendar runs out, the year of the Apocalypse! Will the polar ice caps melt, flooding every continent? Will a meteor collide with the Earth? Will a rogue state begin a devastating nuclear war? Or will the global economy break down to such an extent that we all become road warriors of the freeway and no longer have to go to work on a Monday morning? We can but hope.
All or none of these things might happen; the sad likelihood is that life will continue much as normal. Except on the pages of Schlock!, where our run of Robert E Howard stories reaches The Shadow Kingdom, featuring Kull of Atlantis; we also witness the return of C Priest Brumley in his literary incarnation, with his long-awaited novella, Conversations With Dead People; meanwhile, in State of Emergency, Will’s past finally catches up with him; we also have a short story by Tommy Chewat; another Arthurian fantasy from Rex Mundy; and many more.
I’d like to thank all Schlock!’s dedicated readers and contributors who have made this little webzine what it is today, and wish you all the best in the New Year.
THE SHADOW KINGDOM by Robert E Howard
Kull, the Atlantean barbarian warrior who fights his way to the throne of the civilised empire of Valusia, is in many ways a prototype of Conan. Indeed, Howard’s first Conan story, The Phoenix on the Sword, was a rewrite of an unpublished Kull story entitled By This Axe I Rule! Kull is by no means identical to his Cimmerian successor – although Howard stated, in his essay The Hyborian Age, that the Cimmerians of Conan’s day were descendants of the Atlanteans who survived the great Cataclysm thousands of years before.
In some ways, Kull is more barbaric, being the sole survivor of a Stone Age tribe, raised, like Tarzan, by animals. Exiled from his homeland, after a chequered career as a galley slave, a pirate, then an outlaw, gladiator and mercenary in Valusia, (like Conan), he seizes power during a time of civil strife. Unlike the Conan stories, however, the focus of the Kull saga is on his time in power, his ceaseless struggles to keep his throne and his battles to comprehend the baffling mazes of civilised thought. And the latter is as important as the former: although a fierce warrior, Kull is also a dreamy, meditative man, and an equally dreamy atmosphere permeates many of the stories.
In the final story, The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune, Kull comes to the realisation that "There comes, even to kings, the time of great weariness. Then the gold of the throne is brass, the silk of the palace becomes drab. The gems in the diadem sparkle drearily like the ice of the white seas; the speech of men is as the empty rattle of a jester's bell and the feel comes of things unreal; even the sun is copper in the sky, and the breath of the green ocean is no longer fresh." It is hard to imagine Conan pausing to ponder such poetic profundities.
One other character of note in the stories is Kull’s companion Brule the Spear-Slayer, a Pict, whose people are the ancestors of the Picts of history. His descendant is Bran Mak Morn, another of Howard’s heroes, who leads his barbaric people in endless wars against the civilised might of Rome. But that is another story, for another week.
Chapter I: A King Comes Riding
The blare of the trumpets grew louder, like a deep golden tide surge, like the soft booming of the evening tides against the silver beaches of Valusia. The throng shouted, women flung roses from the roofs as the rhythmic chiming of silver hosts came clearer and the first of the mighty array swung into view in the broad white street that curved round the golden-spired Tower of Splendor.
First came the trumpeters, slim youths, clad in scarlet, riding with a flourish of long, slender golden trumpets; next the bowmen, tall men from the mountains; and behind these the heavily armed footmen, their broad shields clashing in unison, their long spears swaying in perfect rhythm to their stride. Behind them came the mightiest soldiery in all the world, the Red Slayers, horsemen, splendidly mounted, armed in red from helmet to spur. Proudly they sat their steeds, looking neither to right nor to left, but aware of the shouting for all that. Like bronze statues they were, and there was never a waver in the forest of spears that reared above them.
Behind those proud and terrible ranks came the motley files of the mercenaries, fierce, wild-looking warriors, men of Mu and of Kaa-u and of the hills of the east and the isles of the west. They bore spears and heavy swords, and a compact group that marched somewhat apart were the bowmen of Lemuria. Then came the light foot of the nation, and more trumpeters brought up the rear. A brave sight, and a sight which aroused a fierce thrill in the soul of Kull, king of Valusia. Not on the Topaz Throne at the front of the regal Tower of Splendor sat Kull, but in the saddle, mounted on a great stallion, a true warrior king. His mighty arm swung up in reply to the salutes as the hosts passed. His fierce eyes passed the gorgeous trumpeters with a casual glance, rested longer on the following soldiery; they blazed with a ferocious light as the Red Slayers halted in front of him with a clang of arms and a rearing of steeds, and tendered him the crown salute. They narrowed slightly as the mercenaries strode by.
They saluted no one, the mercenaries. They walked with shoulders flung back, eyeing Kull boldly and straightly, albeit with a certain appreciation; fierce eyes, unblinking; savage eyes, staring from beneath shaggy manes and heavy brows. And Kull gave back a like stare. He granted much to brave men, and there were no braver in all the world, not even among the wild tribesmen who now disowned him. But Kull was too much the savage to have any great love for these. There were too many feuds. Many were age-old enemies of Kull's nation, and though the name of Kull was now a word accursed among the mountains and valleys of his people, and though Kull had put them from his mind, yet the old hates, the ancient passions still lingered. For Kull was no Valusian but an Atlantean.
The armies swung out of sight around the gem-blazing shoulders of the Tower of Splendor and Kull reined his stallion about and started toward the palace at an easy gait, discussing the review with the commanders that rode with him, using not many words, but saying much.
"The army is like a sword," said Kull, "and must not be allowed to rust." So down the street they rode, and Kull gave no heed to any of the whispers that reached his hearing from the throngs that still swarmed the streets.
"That is Kull, see! Valka! But what a king! And what a man! Look at his arms! His shoulders!" And an undertone of more sinister whispering:
"Kull! Ha, accursed usurper from the pagan isles"
"Aye, shame to Valusia that a barbarian sits on the Throne of Kings." . . .
Little did Kull heed. Heavy-handed had he seized the decaying throne of ancient Valusia and with a heavier hand did he hold it, a man against a nation. After the council chamber, the social palace where Kull replied to the formal and laudatory phrases of the lords and ladies, with carefully hidden grim amusement at such frivolities; then the lords and ladies took their formal departure and Kull leaned back upon the ermine throne and contemplated matters of state until an attendant requested permission from the great king to speak, and announced an emissary from the Pictish embassy. Kull brought his mind back from the dim mazes of Valusian statecraft where it had been wandering, and gazed upon the Pict with little favor.
The man gave back the gaze of the king without flinching. He was a lean-hipped, massive-chested warrior of middle height, dark, like all his race, and strongly built. From strong, immobile features gazed dauntless and inscrutable eyes.
"The chief of the Councilors, Ka-nu of the tribe right hand of the king of Pictdom, sends greetings and says: 'There is a throne at the feast of the rising moon for Kull, king of kings, lord of lords, emperor of Valusia.'"
"Good," answered Kull. "Say to Ka-nu the Ancient, ambassador of the western isles, that the king of Valusia will quaff wine with him when the moon floats over the hills of Zalgara." Still the Pict lingered.
"I have a word for the king, not"—with a contemptuous flirt of his hand--"for these slaves."
Kull dismissed the attendants with a word, watching the Pict warily. The man stepped nearer, and lowered his voice:
"Come alone to feast tonight, lord king. Such was the word of my chief."
The king's eyes narrowed, gleaming like gray sword steel, coldly.
They eyed each other silently, their mutual tribal enmity seething beneath their cloak of formality. Their mouths spoke the cultured speech, the conventional court phrases of a highly polished race, a race not their own, but from their eyes gleamed the primal traditions of the elemental savage. Kull might be the king of Valusia and the Pict might be an emissary to her courts, but there in the throne hall of kings, two tribesmen glowered at each other, fierce and wary, while ghosts of wild wars and world-ancient feuds whispered to each.
To the king was the advantage and he enjoyed it to its fullest extent. Jaw resting on hand, he eyed the Pict, who stood like an image of bronze, head flung back, eyes unflinching. Across Kull's lips stole a smile that was more a sneer.
"And so I am to come—alone?" Civilization had taught him to speak by innuendo and the Pict's dark eyes glittered, though he made no reply. "How am I to know that you come from Ka-nu?"
"I have spoken," was the sullen response.
"And when did a Pict speak truth?" sneered Kull, fully aware that the Picts never lied, but using this means to enrage the man.
"I see your plan, king," the Pict answered imperturbably. "You wish to anger me. By Valka, you need go no further! I am angry enough. And I challenge you to meet me in single battle, spear, sword or dagger, mounted or afoot. Are you king or man?"
Kull's eyes glinted with the grudging admiration a warrior must needs give a bold foeman, but he did not fail to use the chance of further annoying his antagonist.
"A king does not accept the challenge of a nameless savage, he sneered, "nor does the emperor of Valusia break the Truce of Ambassadors. You have leave to go. Say to Ka-nu I will come alone." The Pict's eyes flashed murderously. He fairly shook in the grasp of the primitive blood-lust; then, turning his back squarely upon the king of Valusia, he strode across the Hall of Society and vanished through the great door.
Again Kull leaned back upon the ermine throne and meditated. So the chief of the Council of Picts wished him to come alone? But for what reason? Treachery?
Grimly Kull touched the hilt of his great sword. But scarcely. The Picts valued too greatly the alliance with Valusia to break it for any feudal reason. Kull might be a warrior of Atlantis and hereditary enemy of all Picts, but too, he was king of Valusia, the most potent ally of the Men of the West. Kull reflected long upon the strange state of affairs that made him ally of ancient foes and foe of ancient friends. He rose and paced restlessly across the hall, with the quick, noiseless tread of a lion.
Chains of friendship, tribe and tradition had he broken to satisfy his ambition. And, by Valka, god of the sea and the land, he had realized that ambition! He was king of Valusia—a fading, degenerate Valusia, a Valusia living mostly in dreams of bygone glory, but still a mighty land and the greatest of the Seven Empires. Valusia—Land of Dreams, the tribesmen named it, and sometimes it seemed to Kull that he moved in a dream. Strange to him were the intrigues of court and palace, army and people. All was like a masquerade, where men and women hid their real thoughts with a smooth mask. Yet the seizing of the throne had been easy—a bold snatching of opportunity, the swift whirl of swords, the slaying of a tyrant of whom men had wearied unto death, short, crafty plotting with ambitious statesmen out of favor at court—and Kull, wandering adventurer, Atlantean exile, had swept up to the dizzy heights of his dreams: he was lord of Valusia, king of kings. Yet now it seemed that the seizing was far easier than the keeping.
The sight of the Pict had brought back youthful associations to his mind, the free, wild savagery of his boyhood. And now a strange feeling of dim unrest, of unreality, stole over him as of late it had been doing. Who was he, a straightforward man of the seas and the mountain, to rule a race strangely and terribly wise with the mysticisms of antiquity?
An ancient race-"I am Kull!" said he, flinging back his head as a lion flings back his mane. "I am Kull!" His falcon gaze swept the ancient hall. His self- confidence flowed back. . . . And in a dim nook of the hall a tapestry moved—slightly.
CONTINUES NEXT WEEK
CONVERSATIONS WITH DEAD PEOPLE by C. Priest Brumley
Part 1: Dr. Swanhurst.
Dr. Emile Swanhurst, 52, Professor of Mortuary Sciences at Tulane University, and PhD in both Mortuary Science and Internal Medicine looked on in morbid fascination at the scene transpiring in the laboratory below him.
A creature was strapped to the table in the center of the room. It was young, female, not yet fully developed, with dyed black hair and multiple piercings. Long legs and a diminutive bust completed the package. The name on the tag read, “Lucille Jane Landry, D.O.B. 3-23-92 D.O.D. 11-2-10.” The creature struggled against its restraints, snarling and snapping at anyone who dared come close enough.
A laboratory supervisor, in a white coat, entered the room quietly and retrieved the clipboard from a bracket on the wall near the door. She perused its contents, ignoring the table. When she was satisfied with what she read, she returned the clipboard to the wall, then walked to the old-fashioned intercom nearby and engaged the microphone.
"Dr. Swanhurst,” she said. “Specimen sixteen-oh-nine is ready for cycling. Proceed?"
Emile Swanhurst sat forward from his voyeuristic viewpoint and keyed the com on the table in front of him.
"Proceed, Dr. Peterson.”
Peterson nodded once, then pressed the lighted button next to the intercom. At once, the lights in the laboratory darkened, only to be replaced moments later by a dazzlingly bright spotlight directly above. A tray with surgical tools sat nearby. She put on latex gloves, then pulled the surgical tools closer.
The specimen continued to snap and scream, occasionally managing to spook Dr. Peterson to flinching, but she regained her composure rather quickly. The young Doctor continued at a relatively steady pace, removing individual organs one by one and setting them on disparate carts placed strategically nearby by an aide earlier. After she finished with the autopsy, she recorded the duration, and took to measuring the organs themselves.
Everything she pulled out of the specimen was still alive, Dr. Peterson noted with a hint of disgust. The heart still pumped, the bowels contracted as if to make, and the kidneys still worked as though to continue filtering blood. After recording her findings on a legal pad, she reached to the counter behind her and pulled back a pistol-sized crossbow that was ready and waiting.
Careful aim. A note of recognition in the specimen's eyes.
The ashes started forming around the creature's head wound mere moments after impact. The excised organs disintegrated alongside the body as if they were still attached. The slow, arduous process, a grotesquery in its own right, was being filmed like the others before it. And, like the preceding, Dr. Swanhurst was there to watch it the first time. The disintegration process that dissolved the specimen's entire being, starting from the fatal wound of origin, took a tad bit more than a half hour on average. And for that entire duration, Dr. Swanhurst would not move from his usual spot next to the viewing monitor.
He was so utterly fascinated by the whole process that he absolutely insisted on being present. "Why does that happen?" had become his mantra these past few weeks, and was so well known amongst staffers and colleagues alike that the usual litany of parodies- the most popular of which being "Why don't you fuckoff?" -had begun cropping up in e-mails and printed office art. So complete was Dr. Swanhurst's obsession that even his abnormally pristine office was affected, now being plastered in graphs, charts, essays, detailed photographs and multi-picture scene progressions.
The first specimen of the day had completed its "cycle", as the Doctor would say, almost exactly on cue with the average. At the press of a button, a clean-up crew in HazMat suits armed with roll-along ShopVacs and sterilizing chemicals swarmed the room. The first half vacuumed any details of the prior specimen's existence away, while the second half cleaned the room to laboratory sterility in preparation for the next. The clean up lasted longer than the Cycle. And while the crew worked, Dr. Swanhurst let himself get lost in thought.
The specimens were people, or at least used to be. They were of all walks of life; race and religion were of no matter here. They were of differing gender and sexual orientations. Some had families, others did not. The only correlation, Dr. Swanhurst mused, was the fact that all had died... recently. This was not affecting the old dead, only affecting the newly deceased and those whom had suffered skin-breaking injuries from others like the affected.
No correlation, the Doctor repeated miserably to himself. There are no similarities whatsoever. All possible connections, aside from those wounded and recent fatalities, have been discounted. He sighed internally. Am I working on a dead end? Will all this be in vain, in the end? Will I...
His thoughts were interrupted by a young man nervously coughing nearby. Dr. Swanhurst ran his somewhat withered hands through his unkempt white hair in frustration, both at the interruption and at himself for allowing such thoughts to form in the first place. I shouldn't stoop to thinking like that, he told himself miserably before turning to face the new man. He affixed his warmest grandfathering smile and folded his hands under his chin like the proverbial mad scientist as he addressed the page.
"Can I help you with something, son?"
"Uhhh, yes sir," the page started nervously. "The former specimen is in latter stages of disposal currently, and your room is now prepared for your, err, star pupil, sir. Shall I give the order to bring him in, or would you like to, umm, spend some more prep time on the, uhh, the subject?"
Dr. Swanhurst considered the young man thoughtfully, staring over his fingertips as though mesmerized. He realized many years ago how intimidating he was, both by means of his professional status and his physical stature. Still, it won't do. Maybe, after we finish Sixteen-Ten, I will pull this young man aside and lay down a stricter set of rules of conduct, he thought.
The Doctor continued to survey the page as he thought, taking note of the near panic attack the man was enduring while awaiting a reply. Finally, Dr. Swanhurst lifted his chin from his fingers and coughed once to clear his throat.
"I will prep the specimen myself, son. Tell Dr. Langlonais to be prepared for filming in ten minutes, and also kindly remind him again that I would like to shoot the next one at sixty frames per second, just as I requested earlier. Thank you."
The page bolted out of the door without so much as a "bye" or equivalent. As he went to deliver the message, Dr. Swanhurst laboriously extracted himself from the wing-backed chair he insisted on using in the monitor room. Staffers scoffed at the notion of it, but if you're going to spend a great deal of time somewhere, you might as well be comfortable in the process, as Dr. Swanhurst was fond of pointing out.
The Doctor took the trip down to the prepping station quietly, preparing himself for what lay ahead. He imagined the specimen like many before it, a corpse strapped to a table with no respect for modesty and snarling against the restraints like a rabid animal. None broke free, of course, but there was that one time... No! Swanhurst thought, shaking his head at the thought of the staffer a month ago. Now is not the time for that. Time enough for memories later, he told himself sternly.
Dr. Swanhurst finished descending the stairs on the fourth floor and turned left out of the stairwell. Two doors down on the right was his destination, a door marked "Preparations: Authorized Staff ONLY". Swanhurst swiped his identification badge and swiftly stepped inside, shoving away the blackout curtains put in place to discourage photographs or video from non-staff personnel should the door be held open. The specimen was laid out like the others before it on the stainless steel table in front of him. But that's where the similarities ended. This one... was special.
Everyone knew by the extra care being taken that the Doctor meant to use the unique circumstances of the specimen's arrival to hopefully answer his lingering question. He had even invested several thousand dollars of the lab's annual funding (a marvel in and of itself due to the Doctor's intense frugality) in an extra-high-quality high-definition camera earlier that day. Dr. Langlonais of the Electronics Technology department was called in to help operate it, being the only person in the building with prior experience. And now, time to see if it will all pay off.
Dr. Swanhurst prepped the specimen himself, practically humming with excitement while he swabbed the specimen's forehead first with alcohol, then with the prerequisite Betadine. He knew it wouldn't be too long before the specimen resurrected, so he hurriedly finished preparations by sewing the specimen's mouth shut through the lips and the gums using veterinary-grade sutures (previous attempts using surgical grade had proved disastrous, and the Doctor insisted on veterinary-grade every time after that). Dr. Swanhurst then hurried out of the room before resurrection could occur, locking each failsafe by hand before quickly ascending the stairs and retreating to his viewing room.
The stage is set, the curtains are drawn, and the performers are here to take the stage, the Doctor thought to himself, as he settled in his chair by the large viewing monitor.
CONTINUES NEXT WEEK
THE HETTFORD WITCH HUNT by J Rhodes
...continues in the New Year...
STATE OF EMERGENCY by David Christopher
Chapter Twenty: The Prisoner
Will felt cold sweat break out on his skin. He stared in shared confusion at Geoff. To have got so far and to be held up at gunpoint by soldiers of his brother’s own unit.
‘You can’t do this!’ Anna was crying. ‘You’ve got to let Will go!’
The lieutenant shook his head, thin-lipped. ‘Nothing doing,’ he said. ‘You’re all to remain here. Any attempt at escape and my men open fire.’
Will looked at Mercer. Why had they been so stupid as to leave their weapons in the SUV? Mr Towers came forward.
‘Will is the only person in this country with a chance of bringing things back to normality,’ he began. ‘He has to get to Ox…’
Will touched his arm, and nodded to the seat where the old man had been sitting.
‘Let me deal with this,’ he said.
He approached the lieutenant, who sighed audibly. ‘Look, the security services didn’t say they wanted all my friends for questioning, did they?’
The lieutenant shrugged. ‘The message didn’t specify.’
‘The message only mentioned that I was accompanied by a policeman,’ Will insisted. ‘You can let the others go. They’re nothing to do with this. There’d be fewer for you to guard then.’
The lieutenant shook his head. ‘Not what my orders said. You’ll all stay here under armed guard.’ Will tried to say something, but the lieutenant nodded to a soldier, who lifted his rifle butt as if to club Will down. Will relented, but was gratified to see Geoff’s face go white as his brother made an involuntary step forward.
‘I’m needed at the operations table,’ the lieutenant snapped impatiently. ‘Captain Youds, they’re your responsibility.’
Geoff saluted smartly. The lieutenant marched away, leaving the soldiers behind.
‘Sit down,’ Geoff suggested to the group.
Slowly, they did so. Will remained standing, facing his brother.
‘Geoff…’ he began.
‘Captain,’ Geoff corrected him. He looked surreptitiously at the soldiers and leaned forward. ‘I didn’t get a chance to tell Lieutenant Bishop that you were family,’ he added. ‘And that’s the way it had better stay. Now sit down, Will.’
‘Yes, captain,’ said Will.
He sat down. Geoff’s revelation had given him the first feeling of hope he’d had in days. Okay, so they were under armed guard and the security services wanted him for questioning. But Geoff was there, and the lieutenant didn’t know the connection between him and his prisoner. Surely blood was thicker than water.
Mercer leaned over.
‘Can you ask your brother if we can clean ourselves?’ he said. ‘You might not have noticed, Will, but we’re all filthy.’
Will hadn’t noticed. He had had his mind on other things. But it was true; they were all in a terrible mess, travel stained and blood-spattered, some of them. He beckoned to Geoff, and asked him for soap and water.
‘I’ll see what can be provided,’ he said.
Mercer leaned over again.
‘Your brother’s an okay kind of guy,’ he said.
Will looked at him in surprise. This was an entirely new angle on Geoff.
‘He’s a smarmy bastard who thinks he’s the ultimate lady’s man,’ Will contradicted. ‘You saw him with Anna.’
Mercer shrugged. ‘But it looks like he’s doing his best for you,’ he said. ‘Do you think you could persuade him to let you go?’
Will shook his head. ‘If it was just Geoff, maybe,’ he said, ‘but even still, he’s a career-obsessive. He wouldn’t want a black mark against his name, even if it meant helping out his brother. He didn’t tell the lieutenant that we’re brothers. Maybe he plans to help us… but I’d think it more likely that he just doesn’t want to be associated with me.’
Mercer looked at Will with pained eyes. ‘You do have a cynical view of your brother,’ he commented.
Mr Towers leaned over. ‘Shouldn’t we be trying to get out of here?’ he hissed. He nodded towards the two guards. ‘Jump them! They’re not expecting anything.’
‘I think you must have watched too many war films,’ Will said gloomily. ‘What about the rest of the place? There’s men with guns everywhere.’
‘But Mr Towers is right about one thing,’ Anna said. ‘We ought to be working out some way to escape. You can’t let them keep you here. You’ve got to get to Oxford.’
Will glanced up sharply at the two guards, who were both watching the muted confab with increasing irritation.
‘Please don’t mention that particular city,’ he said.
One of the soldiers, a corporal, stamped forward.
‘Shut up, the lot of you,’ he barked. ‘You’re to sit quietly until told to do otherwise.’
‘That’s enough, corporal!’
Geoff had returned, carrying a tray of mugs, and followed by an orderly with a bowl of hot water and some towels. He was glaring at the soldier. ‘I didn’t tell you they had to keep silent.’
The corporal sprang to attention. ‘No sir. But they were whispering together. Sounded like they were plotting something.’
Geoff looked the man up and down, angrily. ‘What were you expecting, a breakout? Who’s got the gun, you or them?’
‘Sir,’ snapped the corporal.
Geoff joined them. ‘Here’s hot water and soap,’ he said, as the orderly placed the bowl down on the occasional table between the chairs. ‘Make yourselves decent. And here’s some tea. Only the usual Army crap, I’m afraid.’ He smiled oilily at Anna.
Will took a mug and sipped at it while the others took turns to clean themselves up. While he was waiting, he looked at Geoff.
‘You’re being very considerate,’ he said. ‘I would have thought you’d want to see the back of me. I must be an embarrassment.’
Geoff looked pained. ‘I wish you hadn’t turned up like this,’ he admitted. ‘You’re a right pain in the arse, always have been. But I’m going to look out for you, as much as I can. You’re my kid brother.’
Will leaned closer. ‘Does that include letting me go?’ h muttered.
Geoff drew back slightly. ‘You need to clean yourself up,’ he said. ‘You smell like you haven’t washed in weeks. And I want you to let the orderly look at some of those injuries.’
Rebuffed, Will put down the tea and went to sponge off the worst of the muck. Once he’d done so, the orderly joined him bearing a first aid kit and began to clean and dress his wounds. He saw that Mercer had joined Geoff and was talking to him in quiet, urgent tones. Geoff was smiling and nodding, while keeping his eyes on Anna, who was sitting with the Towers and giving every impression that he found Mercer a bore. But gradually, he began to pay more attention, withdrew his eyes from Anna, and began talking seriously with Mercer.
‘That should do you for the moment, sir,’ said the orderly, breaking into Will’s thoughts. ‘You really ought to be in a hospital, but it’s the best I can do in the circumstances. Next time you get a chance, pop into a hospital and get them to look you over.’
Will smiled bleakly at the man. ‘Don’t know when that’ll be,’ he said. ‘Thanks, mate.’ He went to join Geoff.
The orderly took Mercer to one side and tended to his wounds while Will and his brother stared at each other.
‘Bit of a storyteller, that copper,’ said Geoff.
‘Who, Mercer?’ Will asked. What had the big man been telling him? ‘Yeah, I suppose he tends to exaggerate.’ He hoped Mercer hadn’t mentioned the siege of Liberty Park.
‘He seems to think you’re civilisation’s last hope,’ Geoff added. ‘This manuscript of Professor Quigley’s…’
Will looked at him in horror, turned to glare at Mercer, who didn’t notice.
‘He told you about that?’ he hissed.
Geoff nodded, seriously.
‘If he’s to be believed,’ he said, ‘then we’d better not keep you here.’
Will’s eyes widened.
‘You believe him?’
‘Shouldn’t I?’ Geoff asked. ‘You said he tends to exaggerate. But look, I don’t want to keep you prisoner, obviously, and I don’t like the idea of turning you over to the spooks. I don’t know why they want you, but the whole situation stinks. Have you heard the news recently?’
Will laughed hollowly. ‘I’ve been a bit too preoccupied to pay attention to the wider political situation,’ he said stiffly.
Geoff scowled. ‘It’s fucking insane,’ he said, ‘and it depends on which channels you watch. We’re under orders not to listen to local radio or log on to the internet. So of course we do. I know there’s some conspiracy theories out there, but…’
‘What are you on about?’ Will demanded.
Geoff frowned. ‘What they say is that these rebels in Oxford are the real government,’ he said.
‘The government was shot,’ Will said.
Geoff shook his head. ‘Some of them survived,’ he said. ‘And they flew to Oxford. The rebel factions are under their command.’
‘Well, who’s your commander-in-chief?’ Will asked.
Geoff shrugged. ‘The only politician to officially survive the attack was the home secretary,’ he said. ‘We’re under the command of Susan Verlaine.’
‘Shit…’ said Will.
‘But it gets better,’ Geoff added. ‘The UN doesn’t recognise the rebels. The international community is backing Verlaine. They’re talking about sending troops to support us against the rebels. But the rebels are the real government! That’s why half the army is fighting for them.’ He slammed his fist into his palm savagely. ‘The whole thing’s fucked up, Will.’
‘Wasn’t it always?’
‘But the thing is,’ Geoff went on, ‘is that a lot of my brother officers are unhappy with the situation. They want to join the other side. They say Verlaine has caused the situation, she’s the reason the country’s sunk into anarchy. Now, if what your cop friend says is true, this manuscript holds the key to the situation. You need to get that to Oxford, right…?’
Will stared at his brother with a sense of dawning realisation.
‘Are you trying to say you want to help?’
Geoff was about to reply when there was a commotion from the library entrance. Several armed police officers entered, flanking a thickest man who wore a Saville Row suit. He looked oddly familiar.
‘What’s happening now?’ Will asked.
‘I don’t know,’ Geoff admitted.
‘Could we make a break for it?’ Will added. Most of the men in the room were concentrating on the newcomers.
Geoff shook his head. ‘That would be a good way to get shot,’ he said.
The thickset man marched up to the officers by the map table.
‘Dawson, Security Service,’ he said. ‘You are to release your prisoner to me, lieutenant.’
Lieutenant Bishop saluted, but his face was cold. ‘Prisoner, sir?’ he said, indicating Will and his companions. ‘You’ll have to take your pick. We’ve got several.’
Dawson turned to stare over at them. His eyes locked on Will’s and he came over. Bishop followed, giving the security man a sardonic look.
‘This is the man,’ Dawson said. ‘I recognise him from the CCTV footage. The rest are your responsibility, lieutenant, but this is the suspect. My superior is waiting at High Wycombe custody suite to question him, and then he’ll be going on a journey.’ He turned to Will. ‘William Youds, I am arresting you for the attempted murder of Susan Verlaine.’
There was a mass intake of breath. Will looked about him in alarm. To his horror, the people who seemed most shocked by this revelation were Mercer and his other friends. Geoff stared at Will, wide-eyed.
‘You do not have to say anything,’ - Dawson’s words carried in a silence punctuated only by the distant boom of the guns -, ‘but it may harm your defence if you do not mention when questioned something you later rely on in court. Anything you do say may be given in evidence.’
Will stared at the floor in defeat.
BENNYDOES THE RIGHT THING by Tommy Chewat
The interior light briefly flickered on as the driver fumbled for whatever it was he was looking for. Presumably it was his wallet, or at least his ATM card. The driver leant out of his window reaching to punch his PIN in to the drive-through teller machine. He was a heavy set white man, of course. Although he was some distance from his observer, his observer could nevertheless make out the connected circles that designated the make of his car. And also, a magnetic yellow ribbon which was there to let people behind the car know that the driver supported the troops of his country’s ongoing struggle with Iraqi insurgents. The man’s skin was soft from over-indulgence, it hung down from under his chin like a pink rooster giving a silhouette that suggested a less robust version of Alfred Hitchcock‘s famous profile. Then, within a few seconds both he and his silver-grey Audi shifted out of the Cranbrook Shopping Area and took a left. The driver would be able to pass through the apartment complexes within the matter of a minutes and be back at the larger more expensive homes that kept Cockeysville snooty and relatively free from people such as the man who lay just out of site in a small enclave a few shops down from the High’s Dairy Store.
It was 9.30 p.m. and High’s had stopped serving hot drinks. Benny had received this information from the last person that he asked for change to buy coffee from.
“What about McDonalds?” Benny asked the lady but following only two steps she was magically out of hearing range.
The big yellow M was beginning to mock his stomach. He had not eaten since the night before and had worked a six hour shift since then. He had been sent back from the job early because he’d finished what he was told to do and there was no prize for finishing quick. The boss had even subtracted a half hour for lunch so that Benny would only get five and a half hours. He got back to Labor Ready at 2p.m. There was a sign in the window declaring that they would be back at four.
Benny and ten other workers waited until 6.30 p.m. (when the office was supposed to close) and there was still no sign of anybody. A few people came and went, but for the most part the people who worked there (on those wages) couldn’t afford to just pack up and go home - especially not on a Monday. So, they hung on until there was absolutely no hope. They would complain about it the next day but not too hard because work has a way of slowing down very suddenly for those that complain at Labor Ready.
It was one of the coldest nights that Benny had felt since his sister kicked him out for standing up to her husband on her behalf. It had felt like the right choice at the time.
In fact, making the right choice had been the hallmark of Benny's adult life. The crucifix he wore around his neck had been given to him by his mother with these exact words, “This is to remind you to always do the right thing.”
He had taken the words seriously at the time and now she was dead he held them as sacred. Despite, or perhaps because of, the crappy lot that Benny had had in life he was a devote Christian. When he was ready to pack it in, there was Christ. But following Christ often led Benny to an increasingly literal interpretation of "consider the lilies."
The best example of this pattern of behaviour was that Benny had lost his job teaching art at a Baltimore City elementary school simply for telling the wrong person that there seemed to be a discrepancy between the amount of funding the schools received from the state and the amount of money they actually had.
And now, broke, tired and desperately hungry, Benny made the right decision again. Instead of waiting for the next expensive car to pull up to the ATM and saving himself, he would simply wrap up in his blanket and try to sleep against the concrete wall.
He could feel the small metal crucifix lying on the skin of his chest and even with his hood up and the blanket pulled up to his nose it was the warmest thing he had on. The gold did not absorb the temperature as quickly as his skin and compared to the rest of his body it felt warm. The more that he lay still and focused on it, the less he felt like shivering. Its warmth spread through his chest and heated his neck and face. This unnatural comfort lulled him in to a phlegm-thick sleep. The first flake of the snowfall placed itself delicately on his eyelid. It melted without being wiped away.
Benny was simply too cold to notice the snow. And when he did finally wake up, it was not the snow that caught his attention.
He did not want to wake up; his body was set on rest or death. He felt the first prod dully bruising his shoulder but it was not enough to wake him. The consecutive pokes sounded in him like an alarm that he was reluctant to acknowledge. He heard voices.
“Call an ambulance, he’s dead.”
“Shouldn’t we call a hearse then?”
They laughed. Benny knew even before opening his eyes that they were policemen. He looked up.
“I’m sorry, officers, I’ll move along.”
They were silhouettes against an almost blinding yellow.
“We’re evacuating the area; do you have your own transport?”
Without even bothering to chuckle Benny told them that he did and they disappeared in to the yellow. They disappeared fast.
In his early waking stage Benny had assumed the light was simply the McDonald’s sign reflected by the snow and magnified by sleepy eyes. But as the police car skidded away he saw that it was something more - Cranbrook Road had been torn open right in the centre between the commercial and residential areas. And from beneath the lacerated concrete a beam of yellow light reached up in to the sky. The snow reflected the light in every direction and was still falling heavily.
The beam was so bright that it almost appeared solid, rising up to the clouds but not stopping there. It continued on past the eye's capability to follow it. Even a glance directly at it had scarred Benny’s retinas adding blue to the concoction of radiance. He wondered how far the evacuation had reached and saw an immediate plus to the situation. If everyone was evacuated then he could safely go and sleep in a warm apartment stairwell without anyone noticing and informing the police. He wondered what time it was and what time the evacuation had taken place.
He knew that there was a clock in High’s and resolved to peek in through their window before he took any further action. To his immense surprise he found High’s with all of its lights on and its door open. The clock, that had been provided by Marlboro as part of the cigarette display case read at seventeen minutes past four. They must have been evacuated before they closed at 11 p.m. Benny realized that he must have been the absolute last person in the area. He was a little offended that no-one had thought about him or his welfare. But he was used to that and the feeling was supplanted by a sensation that he had just been given the keys to the kingdom.
He took a Pepsi from the fridge and drained it in seconds. The store had a microwave and he cooked himself five hotdogs - revelling in the fact that the buns and condiments were only a hand reach away. The stale food sat like a feast. Then there was the cash register just waiting.
Within minutes he was not only full but richer than he’d been in a long time. He heard an intense crack outside and the light grew yet brighter in the room. Suddenly alive enough to be aware of his own mortality, he quickly gathered a bag of provisions and hastily set out.
He noticed that the tear in the street was increasing in size, spreading its yellow light in every direction. He began to run down Cranbrook Road, back in the direction of the Labor Ready. As he ran he could feel the road breaking up behind him, it was a slight vibration for such massive damage and even though it occurred to him that there was no escaping from the light, he continued to run.
Frantic with the sudden will to live, his feet tore against the snow and into the concrete almost with the same speed as this encroaching terror. Without the fear of cars in the road, he dropped his stolen groceries and tore down the open tarmac making the best time possible.
He could feel something beating against his chest as he ran but he didn’t have time to consider what it was. The light was already reflected ahead of him so bright that it bounced off the parked cars, the houses, the trees - everything. And it grew brighter. As he ran from the light, he ran towards its reflection and that reflection grew brighter and brighter still.
Benny could hear his breath beating in time with the beating against his chest. He did not stop running even as he felt the ground disappear from beneath his back foot. As the road disintegrated entirely he was briefly suspended in the impact of the light. And at that moment of hopelessness he was free to investigate the thumping irritation.
Clasping his palm firmly against his chest he could just make out the shape of his mother’s crucifix made bulky by his jacket and clumsy fumble of a last moment. Feeling that crucifix he also felt his full stomach and the roll of notes in his pocket. The dreadful thought occurred to him that he was dying with a sin against his soul.
THIEVES FROM THE STARS by Rex Mundy
1 The Forest
King Arthur was on their tail.
As Theodric the Saxon fled with his men into the shadowy eaves of the Wild Wood, he heard the thunder of the Welsh cavalry at his tail. He cursed his treacherous chieftain Oeric as he ran.
‘What happened to those reinforcements?’ demanded Boia, his thane. ‘Oeric said he’d bring up support for us when the Welsh appeared. Did they ambush him too?’
Theodric shook his head silently. Boia had never been too bright, he reflected.
‘Through here!’ he gasped. He pushed aside a tangle of branches and revealed a path leading up a steep hillside into the heart of the forest. The ground here was too rocky for horsemen. He raised his horn to his lips and blew it to summon his men to him. They gathered around him, and he showed them the path.
As his surviving warriors rushed through the gap, he turned back, and stared out across the field. The long line of Welsh cavalry was advancing rapidly across the scrub, weapons and armour glinting in the last light of day.
‘Come on!’ he urged his fleeing men. Honour would not be theirs this night, but neither would it be Oeric’s, if word of his betrayal got out. The last Saxon warrior passed him, and scrambled up the rocky slope beyond. Theodric shoot one last glance at the advancing cavalry then ran lithely up the slope after his men.
The horsemen reigned to a halt at the edge of the woods. One of their chieftains wrenched off his helm to reveal red hair and a wild face, and gazed angrily into the shadows of the forest.
‘Damn them!’ he cursed. ‘They’ve got away into Coit Celidon!’ He laughed. ‘Let’s hope all the old stories are true.’
‘Whether they are or not, Caius,’ called another warrior, whose blue tattoos identified him as a Pict from the North, ‘the woods of Coit Celidon are deadly. The bogs and quicksand will finish them off even if there’s no truth in the stories of monsters and wild men. Isn’t that right, Artorius?’
This was directed at the warrior in the purple cloak who had just ridden up. On seeing him, his men bowed their heads in greeting.
‘Aye, Walwain,’ Artorius replied. ‘Wild men or quicksand, wolves or bears – they’re doomed. Now we must get after Oeric, who abandoned his own men to save his own skin. Come. Duke Cato’s scouts tell me Oeric’s army fled towards Castle Guinnion.’
At their chieftain’s urging, the riders turned their steeds away from the forest edge, and they began to stream across the field towards the south. The field was theirs; the battle was won. Now to win the war...
‘Halt!’ Theodric called, once they were half a mile into the trees. His men sighed with relief, threw themselves to the ground, and began to loosen their armour.
After posting a couple of guards at either end of their impromptu camp, Theodric sat down with his back against a tree. He loosened the chin-strap of his helmet, and eased it off. He sniffed. There was an unpleasant stench in the air, one he couldn’t place. Not the usual forest smell of rotting vegetation and reeking bogs, but something worse. Something animal...
Boia came over to him, and sat down. The wound he’d sustained to the temple early in the battle had cracked open again, and was weeping fresh blood. But Boia’s own face was stoic and betrayed no feelings.
‘Do you think we’ve got far enough away from the Welsh?’ he demanded hoarsely.
Theodric nodded. ‘They won’t bring their horses into this tangled, stinking forest,’ he replied. ‘It’s worse than Mirkwood.’ He wiped the sweat from his brow, and recalled his adventures in the forests round the Vistula estuary. His face twisted with bitterness. ‘Besides,’ he added, ‘they’ll be after Oeric now.’
Boia spat in the mud. ‘To think we’d be betrayed by Hengest’s own son,’ he snarled.
‘I never trusted him,’ he replied. ‘Too much like his sister, that witch Renwein.’ He tore up a handful of grass from the sward beside him, and started polishing his armour. ‘Hengest was a true man, when all’s said and done. But his children were an evil brood.’
‘Oeric must’ve known that we could only hold King Arthur’s men off for so long,’ Boia hissed venomously. ‘His scouts had told him their numbers.’
‘Aye,’ Theodric replied shortly.
The day’s events were fresh in his mind. They had been on the verge of recovering from their defeat at the River Bassus when news came to Oeric’s tent. King Arthur, the leader of the Welsh army, him the Latin-speakers named Artorius, had returned unexpectedly. The Saxon host had been anticipating a respite after their defeat, but Arthur had ridden to Cair Leil, on the borders of the forest of Coit Celidon, and levied reinforcements. He was riding back, intent on pushing them into the sea.
Oeric had panicked at this. His forces were by no means ready to face another attack, but he had told his chieftains to march their troops towards Arthur’s army. Because Theodric’s troop had been freshest, having only been on the periphery of the battle of the Bassus, he had put them in the vanguard. They had met Arthur’s outriders at the edge of the vast forest that stretched from Cair Leil to the mountains of Caledonia, and the kingdoms of the Picts.
Here Theodric’s men had fought a long and valiant battle against the forces of Arthur, forever anticipating reinforcements from the main army. But none had ever come. Though Theodric’s war band had sown the field of battle with gore, and glutted the ravens with Welsh corpses, the warriors of Arthur had gradually pounded them into the dust.
‘What do we do now?’ Boia’s voice broke into his reverie.
Theodric glanced up. Night had fallen, and the trees around them rustled eerily in the gloom. He had forbidden his men to light fires, since this would give their positions away to anyone beyond the forest’s edge. What would they do? Returning to Oeric was not an option, but it left them alone in a hostile country. They couldn’t even rely on the Picts to take them in; the new king was a man of peace, a Christian who preferred to stay quietly at home than regain the glories of his predecessors.
‘We lie up here for a few days,’ said Theodric. ‘Then we make for the coast.’
‘For the coast?’ asked Boia. ‘But why don’t we just head off now? We don’t want to stay in this wolf-infested wilderness for too long. As long as we remain here, we could be attacked…’
His words were barely out of his mouth when the rustling in the trees above suddenly increased in volume. Suddenly, dark shapes were dropping from the branches, bringing with them a hideous stench. Great dark figures, seven foot high or more, dark and vast, blotting out the stars, reeking like animals but somehow manlike…
Theodric drew out his sword. Around him, his men were shouting in fear and disgust. A great furry thing leapt at him, and he stabbed at it with his sword. Sounds of struggle erupted from the darkness around as the creatures attacked. Theodric lashed out at his invisible foe again.
Suddenly, something came whistling out of the darkness beside him, and struck his head. Stars and comets exploded in his mind, and he sank into a deep dark booming sea of impenetrable night.
CONTINUES NEXT WEEK
THE TELL-TALE HEART: DEMISE OF THE BIONACLE by Obsidian M Tesla
Final Part of The Tell-Tale Heart: Demise of the Bionacle
Dr Watson finished reading Lestrade’s covering letter, sighed deeply and put it on the table next to the diary and blueprints. He rubbed the bridge of his nose with his forefinger and thumb and paused momentarily, before allowing Holmes to hear his thoughts on the matter. “So do you actually believe this account? I mean do you really believe in the fanciful notion of ‘time travel’ and old men who vanish into thin air like Harry Houdini?”
Holmes continued to observe the day’s comings and goings in Baker Street through his window, the cup of hot tea Mrs Hudson had made for him held thoughtfully in his hand. “I fear that the accomplishments of Professor Roystone Makepeace far exceed Mr Weisz’s much celebrated escapology Watson. I have read Makepeace’s diary and have studied his blueprints and equations in absolute detail. I can only conclude that his theory, as radical as it is, appears to be sound. As for its practical application, I can see that an energy source of incredible power would be needed in order to create his proposed ‘worm-holes’. If this ‘nuclear power’ he describes comes into being forty years from now then yes…I can validly say that his story has a high degree of credibility. Beyond this, his invention of the bionacle is undisputed fact…I have the blueprints of that device here and it does restore sight to the blind. It is a technical marvel in itself Watson, so it would be idiotic to underestimate Professor Makepeace’s engineering capabilities.”
Watson shook his head and took a slice of toast from the ornate toast rack, buttering it lavishly with a knife. “Very well…but even you have to admit that this does not constitute a case that needs solving. The ‘victim’ has both been butchered and vanished simultaneously and the government have confiscated the evidence from Makepeace’s home. We have little to go on…even you have to admit that much, Holmes.”
“On the contrary, my dear Watson!” Holmes grinned broadly, holding up the diary in his free hand. “We have all the evidence we need and, as you yourself have clearly stated, the victim appears to have died twice over! I would say that we have all the bones we need to re-construct the case and come to a logical solution. Beyond all of this, there is one issue that has been overlooked and which piques my curiosity far beyond even the concept of time travel.”
Watson sighed and shook his head good naturedly, the ghost of a smile showing itself after swallowing a mouthful of warm toast. “Fine…I’ll play along, Holmes…what is this all-consuming issue that is drawing us into this fantastic tale then?”
Holmes put the diary back on the table and looked Watson directly in the eyes. “That, my dearest Watson, is the most elementary component of all in this tangled machine…the cog that drives the engine…the concealed puppet master!”
Watson poured himself a cup of tea, then paused to weigh the china pot in his hand. “Good Heavens, Holmes!...how many cups of tea have you consumed this morning? And why on earth are you standing guard at the window? You do realise that two of us live here and that poor Mrs Hudson does not possess the means for limitless tea production and…”
Holmes raised his hand and talked over his friend, his voice almost urgent in tone. “I was accused of a murder, Watson…of shooting dead Albert Makepeace, Royston’s father, twenty two years ago in their family home. Obviously, I did not commit this crime, but someone most certainly did. We do know that Roystone Makepeace used his time machine to try and kill himself on at least two separate occasions, failing the first time and losing an eye in the struggle. He was rather more successful on the second occasion. Roystone doted on his father and devoted his life trying to avenge his brutal murder. Thus we can exclude Roystone from the list of suspects. The person who did commit the murder planted the blame firmly at my doorstep by using my own name. By doing so they planted a very poisonous seed indeed…they formulated the very genesis of this twisted tale some time ago and with infinite care and precision. What better weapon to use against me than a disturbed genius carrying the most potent of grudges and who has the ability to travel through time! We can thus examine the list of enemies who have crossed my path over the years.”
Watson laughed, “That could be a rather exhaustive list, Holmes.”
“On the contrary, my dear Watson…who do we both know all too well with the sheer intelligence and foresight to plan and execute such an ingenious and deadly plan?”
Watson shook his head. “No…he is currently secured firmly in gaol! You put him there, Holmes!”
Sherlock Holmes smiled enigmatically and carried on looking out the window, his fourth cup of tea cooling in its cup. “Who is to say he is going to stay there forever, Watson? Let us postulate, if we dare, a scenario where this most dangerous individual is able to release himself from his current confinement at some point soon and then becomes aware, from one of his nefarious sources, of the existence of a time machine. What better way to exact revenge on the person who put him in that most notorious and unsanitary prison?”
Watson looked stunned and horrified, in equal measure, by the very possibility. “But Makepeace’s device is in pieces…it is little more than scrap metal!”
“What makes you think that Her Majesty’s government is resting on its laurels now that it has taken possession of the most incredible device ever constructed by human hands? Do you really think that they will not attempt to rebuild it? Humans are an inquisitive bunch, Watson…always getting their collective fingers burnt during inappropriate adventures. If they rebuild it, do you think that it cannot then be spirited away from under their bovine noses?” Holmes moved the lace curtain to one side and checked his pocket-watch. “As with all aspects of this curious case, Watson, time is of the essence. It would appear that our expected guests have arrived. It also seems that our good friend Lestrade was not as careful or invisible as he thought when delivering our evidence to us.”
Watson moved hurriedly towards the window and looked down at the busy cobbled street below. Three black carriages had pulled up on the opposite side of Baker Street and several burly men climbed out, casting furtive glances up at the window while talking animatedly. Holmes smirked to himself and took a sip of his tea. “If you care to observe their clothing, you may see that the cut and finish of the cloth is expensive. The smaller of the men is the one in charge. This can be seen by the fact he is doing the majority of the talking and gesticulating and by the fact that several of the others are nodding in agreement with him, while saying very little themselves. He is giving them instructions. He is also the best dressed of their number, signifying a better financial income. Also observe, if you will, Watson, their body movements. They are assertive and confident…possibly ex military men. This is further alluded to by the fact the smaller man carries an officer’s walking cane and walks with a slight limp, a probable war wound. I would hazard a guess that these are the very men who arrived with orders to confiscate the contents of Professor Makepeace’s basement. Be a good chap and dust the toast crumbs from your moustache before they enter. It would appear that we must relinquish our evidence in mere minutes.”
Watson pawed at his moustache self-consciously as the men walked up to the front door of 221b Baker Street and knocked loudly. “Well, that would appear to be our case ended as soon as it has begun, Holmes…so much for Makepeace and your grand theory. They will doubtless take everything.”
“Never underestimate the capabilities of a photographic memory Watson.” Holmes grinned impishly, tapping his temple with an index finger as heavy footsteps were heard ascending the staircase towards their apartment. “Also never underestimate the power of a lit fire to consume blueprints and paper diaries!”
Without further need of prompting, Watson gathered together the documents and threw them into the fireplace of the dining room. The amber flames greedily licked at the sides of the paper, igniting them mere seconds before the urgent knocking at the door and the concerned voice of Mrs Hudson requesting that they open the door immediately and allow entry to the British Secret Service.
Part Three: Endgame
49 Elston Court, 29th July 1870
The tiny mouse emerged from behind the musty wooden boxes in the basement and sniffed the air cautiously, ever aware of possible dangers lurking in the shadows all around it. Tiny whiskers twitched as it inhaled the dank atmosphere, its delicately honed senses suddenly aware of a subtle change in its environment. A second before the blinding flash of illumination and gust of warm air, it bolted back to the safety of the crack in the brickwork from where it had crawled.
Old papers and a cloud of dust spiralled into the air as the time machine materialised like a phantom, the brass and bronze framework glowing magnificently like some celestial chariot in the near darkness. Only a small grimy glass panel admitted a meagre portion of the summer sun outside, the diffused rays struggling to hold the darkness at bay.
Professor James Moriarty sat in the central chair like some regal Emperor on a throne, his leather-gloved hands still holding the polished bronze controls. He took a moment to adjust his vision to the darkness, glancing down at the numerous controls and dials. The ‘Departure Date’ was set at the 29th July 1905, the day exactly thirty-seven years from the present, when he had finally masterminded and executed the theft of the re-constructed time machine from the British government. It was also the day he had murdered his eternal nemesis, Sherlock Holmes, an event intrinsically linked to all that had happened thus far. Holmes had been a fool to think that the destruction of the documents in his fire would stop anything. Roystone Makepeace may have been half-mad, but he was ultimately thorough…he had backed up everything! Every note…every equation and observation!
His smile was victorious and calculating in equal measure as he glanced down at the loaded revolver that lay on his lap. He carefully climbed out of the machine and strode purposefully up the stone steps, sure to keep his appointment with Albert Makepeace and his young son.
VARNEY THE VAMPIRE ascribed to Thomas Preskett Prest
THE STAKE AND THE DEAD BODY.
The mob seemed from the first to have an impression that, as regarded the military force, no very serious results would arise from that quarter, for it was not to be supposed that, on an occasion which could not possibly arouse any ill blood on the part of the soldiery, or on which they could have the least personal feeling, they would like to get a bad name, which would stick to them for years to come.
It was no political riot, on which men might be supposed, in consequence of differing in opinion, to have their passions inflamed; so that, although the call of the civil authorities for military aid had been acceded to, yet it was hoped, and, indeed, almost understood by the officers, that their operations would lie confined more to a demonstration of power, than anything else.
Besides, some of the men had got talking to the townspeople, and had heard all about the vampyre story, and not being of the most refined or educated class themselves, they felt rather interested than otherwise in the affair.
Under these circumstances, then, we are inclined to think, that the disorderly mob of that inn had not so wholesome a fear as it was most certainly intended they should have of the redcoats. Then, again, they were not attacking the churchyard, which, in the first case, was the main point in dispute, and about which the authorities had felt so very sore, inasmuch as they felt that, if once the common people found out that the sanctity of such places could be outraged with impunity, they would lose their reverence for the church; that is to say, for the host of persons who live well and get fat in this country by the trade of religion.
Consequently, this churchyard was the main point of defence, and it was zealously looked to when it need not have been done so, while the public-house where there really reigned mischief was half unguarded.
There are always in all communities, whether large or small, a number of persons who really have, or fancy they have, something to gain by disturbance. These people, of course, care not for what pretext the public peace is violated; so long as there is a row, and something like an excuse for running into other people's houses, they are satisfied.
To get into a public-house under such circumstances is an unexpected treat; and thus, when the mob rushed into the inn with such symptoms of fury and excitement, there went with the leaders of the disturbance a number of persons who never thought of getting further than the bar, where they attacked the spirit-taps with an alacrity which showed how great was their love for ardent compounds.
Leaving these persons behind, however, we will follow those who, with a real superstition, and a furious interest in the affair of the vampyre, made their way towards the upper chamber, determining to satisfy themselves if there were truth in the statement so alarmingly made by the woman who had created such an emotion.
It is astonishing what people will do in crowds, in comparison with the acts that they would be able to commit individually. There is usually a calmness, a sanctity, a sublimity about death, which irresistibly induces a respect for its presence, alike from the educated or from the illiterate; and let the object of the fell-destroyer's presence be whom it may, the very consciousness that death has claimed it for its own, invests it with a halo of respect, that, in life, the individual could never aspire to probably.
Let us precede these furious rioters for a few moments, and look upon the chamber of the dead—that chamber, which for a whole week, had been looked upon with a kind of shuddering terror—that chamber which had been darkened by having its sources of light closed, as if it were a kind of disrespect to the dead to allow the pleasant sunshine to fall upon the faded form.
And every inhabitant of that house, upon ascending and descending its intricate and ancient staircases, had walked with a quiet and subdued step past that one particular door.
Even the tones of voice in which they spoke to each other, while they knew that that sad remnant of mortality was in the house, was quiet and subdued, as if the repose of death was but a mortal sleep, and could be broken by rude sounds.
Ay, even some of these very persons, who now with loud and boisterous clamour, had rushed into the place, had visited the house and talked in whispers; but then they were alone, and men will do in throngs acts which, individually, they would shrink from with compunction or cowardice, call it which we will.
The chamber of death is upon the second story of the house. It is a back room, the windows of which command a view of that half garden, half farm-yard, which we find generally belonging to country inns.
But now the shutters were closed, with the exception of one small opening, that, in daylight, would have admitted a straggling ray of light to fall upon the corpse. Now, however, that the sombre shades of evening had wrapped everything in gloom, the room appeared in total darkness, so that the most of those adventurers who had ventured into the place shrunk back until lights were procured from the lower part of the house, with which to enter the room.
A dim oil lamp in a niche sufficiently lighted the staircase, and, by the friendly aid of its glimmering beams, they had found their way up to the landing tolerably well, and had not thought of the necessity of having lights with which to enter the apartments, until they found them in utter darkness.
These requisites, however, were speedily procured from the kitchen of the inn. Indeed, anything that was wanted was laid hold of without the least word of remark to the people of the place, as if might, from that evening forthwith, was understood to constitute right, in that town.
Up to this point no one had taken a very prominent part in the attack upon the inn if attack it could be called; but now the man whom chance, or his own nimbleness, made the first of the throng, assumed to himself a sort of control over his companions and, turning to them, he said,—
"Hark ye, my friends; we'll do everything quietly and properly; so I think we'd better three or four of us go in at once, arm-in-arm."
"Psha!" cried one who had just arrived with a light; "it's your cowardice that speaks. I'll go in first; let those follow me who like, and those who are afraid may remain where they are."
He at once dashed into the room, and this immediately broke the spell of fear which was beginning to creep over the others in consequence of the timid suggestion of the man who, up to that moment, had been first and foremost in the enterprise.
In an instant the chamber was half filled with persons, four or five of whom carried lights; so that, as it was not of very large dimensions, it was sufficiently illuminated for every object in it to be clearly visible.
There was the bed, smooth and unruffled, as if waiting for some expected guest; while close by its side a coffin, supported upon tressles, over which a sheet was partially thrown, contained the sad remains of him who little expected in life that, after death, he should be stigmatised as an example of one of the ghastliest superstitions that ever found a home in the human imagination.
It was evident that some one had been in the room; and that this was the woman whose excited fancy had led her to look upon the face of the corpse there could be no doubt, for the sheet was drawn aside just sufficiently to discover the countenance.
The fact was that the stranger was unknown at the inn, or probably ere this the coffin lid would have been screwed on; but it was hoped, up to the last moment, as advertisements had been put into the county papers, that some one would come forward to identify and claim him.
Such, however, had not been the case, and so his funeral had been determined upon.
The presence of so many persons at once effectually prevented any individual from exhibiting, even if he felt any superstitious fears about approaching the coffin; and so, with one accord, they surrounded it, and looked upon the face of the dead.
There was nothing repulsive in that countenance. The fact was that decomposition had sufficiently advanced to induce a relaxation of the muscles, and a softening of the fibres, so that an appearance of calmness and repose had crept over the face which it did not wear immediately after death.
It happened, too, that the face was full of flesh—for the death had been sudden, and there had not been that wasting away of the muscles and integuments which makes the skin cling, as it were, to the bone, when the ravages of long disease have exhausted the physical frame.
There was, unquestionably, a plumpness, a freshness, and a sort of vitality about the countenance that was remarkable.
For a few moments there was a death-like stillness in the apartment, and then one voice broke the silence by exclaiming,—
"He's a vampyre, and has come here to die. Well he knows he'd be taken up by Sir Francis Varney, and become one of the crew."
"Yes, yes," cried several voices at once; "a vampyre! a vampyre!"
"Hold a moment," cried one; "let us find somebody in the house who has seen him some days ago, and then we can ascertain if there's any difference in his looks."
This suggestion was agreed to, and a couple of stout men ran down stairs, and returned in a few moments with a trembling waiter, whom they had caught in the passage, and forced to accompany them.
This man seemed to think that he was to be made a dreadful example of in some sort of way; and, as he was dragged into the room, he trembled, and looked as pale as death.
"What have I done, gentlemen?" he said; "I ain't a vampyre. Don't be driving a stake through me. I assure you, gentlemen, I'm only a waiter, and have been for a matter of five-and-twenty years."
"You'll be done no harm to," said one of his captors; "you've only got to answer a question that will be put to you."
"Oh, well, certainly, gentlemen; anything you please. Coming—coming, as I always say; give your orders, the waiter's in the room."
"Look upon the fare of that corpse."
"Have you ever seen it before?"
"Seen it before! Lord bless you! yes, a dozen of times. I seed him afore he died, and I seed him arter; and when the undertaker's men came, I came up with them and I seed 'em put him in his coffin. You see I kept an eye on 'em, gentlemen, 'cos knows well enough what they is. A cousin of mine was in the trade, and he assures me as one of 'em always brings a tooth-drawing concern in his pocket, and looks in the mouth of the blessed corpse to see if there's a blessed tooth worth pulling out."
"Hold your tongue," said one; "we want none of your nonsense. Do you see any difference now in the face of the corpse to what it was some days since?"
"Well, I don't know; somehow, it don't look so rum."
"Does it look fresher?"
"Well, somehow or another, now you mention it, it's very odd, but it does."
"Enough," cried the man who had questioned him, with considerable excitement of manner. "Neighbours, are we to have our wives and our children scared to death by vampyres?"
"No—no!" cried everybody.
"Is not this, then, one of that dreadful order of beings?"
"Yes—yes; what's to be done?"
"Drive a stake through the body, and so prevent the possibility of anything in the shape of a restoration."
This was a terrific proposition; and even those who felt most strongly upon the subject, and had their fears most awakened, shrank from carrying it into effect. Others, again, applauded it, although they determined, in their own minds, to keep far enough off from the execution of the job, which they hoped would devolve upon others, so that they might have all the security of feeling that such a process had been gone through with the supposed vampyre, without being in any way committed by the dreadful act.
Nothing was easier than to procure a stake from the garden in the rear of the premises; but it was one thing to have the means at hand of carrying into effect so dreadful a proposition, and another actually to do it.
For the credit of human nature, we regret that even then, when civilisation and popular education had by no means made such rapid strides as in our times they have, such a proposition should be entertained for a moment: but so it was; and just as an alarm was given that a party of the soldiers had reached the inn and had taken possession of the doorway with a determination to arrest the rioters, a strong hedge-stake had been procured, and everything was in readiness for the perpetration of the horrible deed.
Even then those in the room, for they were tolerably sober, would have revolted, probably, from the execution of so fearful an act; but the entrance of a party of the military into the lower portion of the tavern, induced those who had been making free with the strong liquors below, to make a rush up-stairs to their companions with the hope of escaping detection of the petty larceny, if they got into trouble on account of the riot.
These persons, infuriated by drink, were capable of anything, and to them, accordingly, the more sober parties gladly surrendered the disagreeable job of rendering the supposed vampyre perfectly innoxious, by driving a hedge-stake through his body—a proceeding which, it was currently believed, inflicted so much physical injury to the frame, as to render his resuscitation out of the question.
The cries of alarm from below, joined now to the shouts of those mad rioters, produced a scene of dreadful confusion.
We cannot, for we revolt at the office, describe particularly the dreadful outrage which was committed upon the corpse; suffice it that two or three, maddened by drink, and incited by the others, plunged the hedge-stake through the body, and there left it, a sickening and horrible spectacle to any one who might cast his eyes upon it.
With such violence had the frightful and inhuman deed been committed, that the bottom of the coffin was perforated by the stake so that the corpse was actually nailed to its last earthly tenement.
Some asserted, that at that moment an audible groan came from the dead man, and that this arose from the extinguishment of that remnant of life which remained in him, on account of his being a vampyre, and which would have been brought into full existence, if the body had been placed in the rays of the moon, when at its full, according to the popular superstition upon that subject.
Others, again, were quite ready to swear that at the moment the stake was used there was a visible convulsion of all the limbs, and that the countenance, before so placid and so calm, became immediately distorted, as if with agony.
But we have done with these horrible surmises; the dreadful deed has been committed, and wild, ungovernable superstition has had, for a time, its sway over the ignorant and debased.
BRIGANDS OF THE MOON by Ray Cummings
I was only inactive a moment. I had thought Anita would have on her helmet. But she was reluctant, or confused.
"Anita, we've got to get out of here! Up through the overhead locks to the dome."
"Yes." She fumbled with her helmet. The climbing men on the ladder were audible. They were already nearing the top. The trap door was closed; Anita and I were crouching on it. There was a thick metal bar set in a depressed groove for the grid. I slid it in place; it would seal the trap for a short time.
A degree of confidence came to me. We had a few moments before there could be any hand-to-hand conflict. The giant electronic projector would eventually be used against Grantline; it was the brigands' most powerful weapon. Its controls were here, by Heaven, I would smash them? That at least I could do!
I jumped for the window. Miko's signals had stopped, but I caught a glimpse of his distant moving curve lights.
A flash came up at me, as in the window I became visible to the brigands on the ship's deck. It was a small hand projector, hastily fired, for it went wide of the window. It was followed by a rain of small beams, but I was warned and dropped my head beneath the sill. The rays flashed dangerously upward through the oval opening, hissed against our vaulted roof. The air snapped and tingled with a shower of blue-red sparks, and the acrid odor of the released gases settled down upon us.
The trajectory controls of the projector were beside me. I seized them, ripped and tore at them. There was a roar down on the deck. The projector had exploded. A man's agonizing scream split the confusion of sounds.
It silenced the brigands on the deck. Under our floor grid, those on the ladder had been pounding at the trap door. They stopped, evidently to see what had happened. The bombardment of our windows stopped momentarily.
I cautiously peered out the window again. In the wreck of the projector, three men were lying. One of them was screaming horribly. The dome side was damaged. Potan and other men were frantically investigating to see if the ship's air was hissing out.
A triumph swept over me. They had not found me so meek and inoffensive as they might have thought!
Anita clutched me. She still had not donned her helmet.
"Put on your helmet!"
"Put it on!"
"I.... I don't want to put it on until you put yours on."
"I've smashed the projector! We've stopped them coming up for a while."
But they were still on the ladder under our floor. They heard our voices: they began thumping again. Then pounding. They seemed now to have heavy implements. They rammed against the trap.
The floor seemed holding. The square of metal grid trembled, yielded a little. But it was good for a few minutes longer.
I called down, "The first one who comes through will be shot!" My words mingled with their oaths. There was a moment's pause, then the ramming went on. The dying man on the deck was still screaming.
I whispered, "I'll try an Earth signal."
She nodded. Pale, tense, but calm. "Yes, Gregg. And I was thinking—"
"It won't take a minute. Have your helmet ready."
"I was thinking—" She hurried across the room.
I swung on the Botz signaling apparatus. It was connected. Within a moment I had it humming. The fluorescent tubes lighted with their lurid glare; they painted purple the body of the giant duty man who lay sprawled at my feet. I drew on all the ship's power. The tube lights in the room quivered and went dim.
I would have to hurry. Potan could shut this off from the main hull control room. I could see, through the room's upper trap, the primary sending mirror mounted in the peak of the dome. It was quivering, radiant with its light energy. I sent the flash.
The flattened past full Earth was up there. I knew that the Western Hemisphere faced the Moon at this hour. I flashed in English, with the open Universal Earth code:
And again: Help. Archimedes region near Apennines. Attacked by brigands.
Send help at once. Grantline.
If only it would be received! I flung off the current. Anita stood watching me intently. "Gregg, look!"
I saw that she had taken some of the glass globe-bombs which lay by the foot of the ascending ladder. "Gregg, I threw some of them."
At the window we gazed down. The globes she flung had shattered on the deck. They were darkness bombs.
Through the blackness of the deck, the shouts of the brigands came up. They were stumbling about. But the ramming of our trap went on, and I saw that it was beginning to yield.
"We've got to go, Anita!"
From out of the darkness which hung like a shroud over the deck an occasional flash came up, unaimed, wide of our windows. But the darkness was dissipating. I could see now the dim glow of the deck lights, blurred as through a heavy fog.
I dropped another of the bombs.
"Put on your helmet."
"Yes—yes, I will. You put yours on."
We had them adjusted in a moment. Our Erentz motors were pumping.
I gripped her. "Put out your helmet light."
She extinguished it. I handed her my projector.
"Hold it a moment. I'm going to take that belt of bombs."
The trap door was all but broken under the ramming blows of the men. I leaped over the body of the dead duty man, seized the belt of bombs and strapped it around my waist.
"Give me the projector."
She handed it to me. The trap door burst upward! A man's head and shoulders appeared. I fired a bullet into him—the leaden pellet singing down through the yellow powder flash that spat from the projector's muzzle.
The brigand screamed, and dropped back out of sight. There was confusion at the ladder top. I flung a bomb at the broken trap. A tiny heat ray came wavering up through the opening, but went wide of us.
The instrument room was in darkness. I clung to Anita.
"Hold on to my hand. You go first—here is the ladder!"
We found it in the blackness, mounted it and went through the cubby's roof-trap.
I took another look and dropped another bomb beside us. The four foot space up here between the cubby roof and the overhead dome, went black. We were momentarily concealed.
Anita located the manual levers of the lock-entrance.
I shoved at them. Fear leaped in me that they would not operate. But they swung. The tiny port opened wide to receive us. We clambered into the small air-chamber; the door slid closed, just as a flash from below struck at it. The brigands had seen our cloud of darkness and were firing up through it.
In a moment we were out on the dome top. A sleek, rounded spread of glassite, with broad aluminite girders. There were cross ribs which gave us a footing, and occasionally projections—streamline fin-tips, the casings of the upper rudder shafts, and the upstanding stubby funnels into which helicopters were folded.
We moved along the central footpath and crouched by a six-foot casing. The stars and the glowing Earth were over us. The curving dome top—a hundred feet or so in length, and bulging thirty feet wide beneath us—glistened in the Earthlight. It was a sheer drop and down these curving sides past the ship's hull, a hundred feet to the rocks on which the vessel rested. The towering wall of Archimedes was beside us; and beyond the brink of the ledge the thousands of feet down to the plains.
I saw the lights of Miko's band down there. He had stopped signaling. His little lights were spread out, bobbing as he and his men advanced up the crater's foothills, coming to join the ship.
I had an instant's glimpse. Anita and I could not stay here. The brigands would follow us up in a moment. I saw no exterior ladder. We would have to take our chances and jump.
There were brigands down there on the rocks. I saw three or four helmeted figures, and they saw us! A bullet whizzed by us, and then came the flash of a hand ray.
I touched Anita. "Can you make the leap? Anita dear...."
Again it seemed that this must be farewell.
"Gregg, dear one, we've got to do it!"
Those waiting figures would pounce on us.
"Anita, lie here a moment."
I jumped up and ran twenty feet toward the bow; then back toward the stern, flinging down the last of my bombs. The darkness was like a cloud down there, enveloping the outer brigands. But up there we were above it, etched by the starlight and Earthglow.
I came back to Anita. "We'll have to chance it now."
"Good-bye, dear. I'll jump first, down this side, you follow."
To leap into that black patch, with the rocks under it....
She was trying to tell me to look overhead. She gestured, "Gregg, see!"
I saw it, out over the plains, a little speck amid the stars. A moving speck, coming toward us!
"Gregg, what is it?"
I gazed, held my breath. A moving speck out there. A blob now. And then I realized it was not a large object, far away, but small, and already very close—only a few hundred feet off, dropping toward the top of our dome. A narrow, flat, ten foot object, like a wingless volplane. There were no lights on it, but in the Earthlight I could see two crouching, helmeted figures riding it.
"Anita! Don't you remember!"
I was swept with dawning comprehension. Back in the Grantline camp Snap and I had discussed how to use the Planetara's gravity plates. We had gone to the wreck and secured them, had rigged this little volplane flyer....
The brigands on the rocks saw it now. A flash went up at it. One of the figures crouching on it opened a flexible fabric like a wing over its side. I saw another flash from below, harmlessly striking the insulated shield.
I gasped to Anita, "Light your helmet! It's from Grantline! Let them see us!"
I stood erect. The little flying platform went over us, fifty feet up, circling, dropping to the dome top.
I waved my helmet light. The exit lock from below—up which we had come—was near us. The advancing brigands were already in it! I had forgotten to demolish the manuals. And I saw that the darkness down on the rocks was almost gone now, dissipating in the airless night. The brigands down there began firing up at us.
It was a confusion of flashing lights. I clutched at Anita.
"Come this way—run!"
The platform barely missed our heads. It sailed lengthwise of the dome top, and crashed silently on the central runway near the stern tip. Anita and I ran to it.
The two helmeted figures seized us, shoved us prone on the metal platform. It was barely four feet wide; a low railing, handles with which to cling, and a tiny hooded cubby in front.
It was Snap and Venza. She seized Anita, held her crouching in place. Snap flung himself face down at the controls.
The brigands were out on the dome now. I took a last shot as we lifted. My bullet punctured one of them: he slid, fell scrambling off the rounded dome and dropped out of sight.
Light rays and silent flashes seemed to envelope us. Venza held the side shields higher.
We tilted, swayed crazily, and then steadied.
The ship's dome dropped away beneath us. The rocks of the open ledge were beneath us. Then the abyss, with the moving, climbing specks of Miko's lights far down.
I saw, over the side shield, the already distant brigand ship resting on the ledge with the massive Archimedes' wall behind it. A confusion back there of futile flashing rays.
It all faded into a remote glow as we sailed smoothly up into the starlight and away, heading for the Grantline camp.