At Percy’s shout, Gerald whirled round, his blade glimmering in the single shaft of light that pierced the burial mound’s musty atmosphere. The barrow wight reared triumphantly above him, warhammer raised.
Gerald flung himself to one side as the weapon pounded into the grave mould at his feet. Quick as lightning, he hacked through the thing’s wrist. The skeletal claw clattered down on the gems and coins of the open treasure chest that lay between Gerald and his necrotic foe.
With a wild scream, Brian brought his axe down on the barrow wight’s skull, splitting it like a rotten egg. Percy and Norman rushed forward, hacking madly at their opponent, dismembering its black, withered body.
But just as before, the separate parts began slithering and scrabbling across the black earth towards each other. To no avail, Gerald stomped frenziedly on a tattered leg.
‘It’s trying to reform again!’ Percy shouted. Was the thing never going to stay dead?
‘Grab the treasure chest!’ Gerald told him. ‘Grab the chest and leg it out of here. The Ornithomancer said that if we replace the rock door, that thing won’t be able to follow us out of the tomb chamber. Quickly!’
Percy and Brian grabbed either side of the rusty, glyph-inscribed treasure chest, slamming it shut as they did so. The scattered members wriggled around them, still struggling to come together.
‘Now get up the shaft!’ Gerald shouted. He and Norman stood panting beside the rough-hewn stone archway as the other two adventurers staggered through, groaning under the weight of the great chest.
Gerald and Norman watched, open-mouthed, as the barrow wight rapidly reformed under their bulging eyes, lacking only its right hand. The remaining claw searched the floor for the fallen warhammer.
‘Time to go,’ Gerald said grimly. They turned, and followed their two friends up the muddy shaft.
With a reverberating crash, the great boulder rumbled down to block the gaping barrow mouth. Dusting their hands, Gerald and Norman staggered back as it settled back into place, and gazed around the clearing.
The forest was silent except for the mournful soughing of the night wind in the treetops. The moon sailed high in the star-strewn skies above. A few yards from the great barrow, Percy and Brian had halted, slamming the chest down in the earth beside them. They turned quickly at the scrambling approach of Gerald and Norman.
‘Let’s not hang around.’ Gerald panted. ‘The barrow wight can’t get out, but I don’t reckon this area is going to be too healthy right now.’
Percy dashed the sweat out of his eyes.
‘Well, you can carry that thing,’ he said wearily, indicating the chest. ‘It’s heavy!’
‘Gladly,’ Gerald replied with a grand gesture. ‘It’s heavy because it’s full of loot.’ He grabbed one end, motioning Norman to take the other. ‘When we get this back to civilisation, we’ll have it made - food, drink, women... everything we’ve ever wanted. No more sleeping out in the cold, wet woods.’
He straightened up, struggling under the weight of the chest. Percy was right - it was heavy. But he was right, too. They had it made. Nothing could go wrong this time.
‘Let’s get back to the camp,’ he wheezed. ‘We can bed down there for the rest of the night, then head on down to Hollowdale in the morning.’
The hills above Hollowdale seemed a sinister prospect at high noon; gnarled, tree-swathed crags brooded above the vale and mists hung like steam from the cauldrons of a thousand witches, eternally brewing evil for the peaceful rustic villages below. But at blackest midnight it was a truly perilous place. The four young adventurers trod the muddy path beneath the looming oaks with considerable circumspection.
As he staggered under the weight of the chest, Gerald reflected that they had come a long way from Merganser Smew and his dingy offices off the Street of the Musicians, Hollowdale Town. Well, as soon as they got down in the vale, they could pay a farmer for the loan of a cart to transport the loot. But it wouldn’t be a good idea to advertise their fortune. Bannzatch Skane, Mayor of the Palace, had yet to save Hollowdale from the marauding shield-maiden raiders of the Amazon Legion.
As the adventurers neared their camp, a green shooting star passed low overhead.
‘Look!’ said Percy idly, pointing up. ‘Think it’ll bring us luck?’
Gerald grunted. His mind was still on the heavy chest he was carrying. ‘Just get back to the camp,’ he said. ‘Then we can talk about our good fortune.’
Soon afterwards they reached the stand of fir trees beside the winding Hollowdale road. Their tents still stood there, beside the cold ashes of their fire. Gratefully, Gerald and Norman slumped down with the rusty chest. Percy and Brian joined them, and they sat in silence for a while. Percy poked at the dead embers with a stick.
‘I’m knackered,’ he said. ‘Think I’ll turn in.’
‘No you don’t,’ said Gerald nastily. ‘You didn’t carry the chest all the way down here. Don’t forget, these hills are still dangerous - especially now we’ve got the treasure. We’ll have to keep watch. And I’ve just voted you for first watch.’
Percy shrugged, amused by Gerald’s outburst. ‘Fine, fine,’ he replied. ‘I’ll wake Brian in two hours - unless something happens.’
Grumpily, Gerald scrambled into the tent, and got into his sleeping bag. Brian and Norman followed him. Exhausted, Gerald dozed off.
He was woken from deep, dreamless sleep by a hand shaking his shoulder.
‘Warr-aggh!!!’ he said blearily, looking up to see Percy leaning in through the open tent-flap. ‘Eh, wassup? You’re suppose’ to be on watch!’
Percy’s eyes were wide.
‘Something’s going on,’ he hissed. ‘In the forest nearby. Weird lights and noises.’
By now, the other two were also awake.
‘Lights?’ Norman asked. ‘What kind?’
‘Weird ones,’ Percy replied shortly. ‘Come and take a look.’
Outside the tent, they could all see what he was talking about. The nearby trees glowed eerily, backlit by a ghastly green light. Odd bleeps and whirrs were audible in the distance, drifting across on the still night air.
‘What is it?’ Brian asked. ‘I reckon we should attack it!’
Gerald scowled at him, although his expression was invisible in the dark. ‘Not till we know what it is,’ he said firmly.
‘I reckon we get a bit closer,’ Percy suggested, emboldened by company.
The four youths crept forward through the tangled briars and bracken. The rank smell of rotting earth and fallen leaves hung heavy in the unmoving air. In the distance, the green lights still glowed.
They reached the top of a small rise, and gazed down into the dell below.
In the centre of the open space was a large metal object, about twenty feet across and shaped like an upturned bowl or saucer. It stood on three metal legs, while a gleaming metal ramp ran from a circular hatch in the side of the hull down to the forest floor below. The green light they had seen was spilling from the open hatch.
The clearing surrounding the strange craft was busy with oddly shaped reptilian figures going about enigmatic, scientific-seeming tasks: investigating shrubs, taking soil samples, studying bark. Another reptilian creature stood on guard at the base of the ramp.
‘Aliens!’ Brian said.
‘But what are they doing here?’ Norman demanded, clutching his sword hilt firmly. ‘This is all wrong!’
Gerald shrugged. ‘What are aliens usually doing?’ he asked with a smirk. ‘Probing things. That right, Percy?’
Percy nodded. ‘Right up the chockie starfish,’ he said.
The four youths watched the bizarre scene for a few moments longer.
‘I reckon we nick their ship,’ Brian said.
Gerald glanced at him. Occasionally the lad’s crazy ideas had some merit. ‘It would save walking,’ he replied thoughtfully. He had worn out a fair few boot soles since they had been so mysteriously transported from their own world to this planet. Momentarily, his heart was stirred by the notion of journeying beyond the farthest stars, to visit strange new worlds, to seek out new civilisations and new life - and kill them.
Norman’s voice broke in on his thoughts. ‘Does anyone know how to drive a spaceship?’ he asked peevishly. ‘Anyway, it would be stealing.’
‘Right,’ said Gerald, suddenly filled with decision. ‘So let’s do it!’
Commando-like, the adventurers sped through the undergrowth, flitting between the trees one by one, finally dashing behind the massive bole of an oak before rolling into the cover of a hawthorn thicket. They circled round the reptilian scientists, who were still intent about their alien business, before they reached the back of the craft. The metal hull throbbed and hummed with power.
Brian peered round the side, and then dodged back into cover. ‘There’s still a guard on the ramp,’ he hissed.
Gerald nodded silently. He signed to Norman and Percy to circle round the far side of the saucer-like craft, with a further gesture to suggest surprising the alien guard.
The instant the two adventurers had vanished round the far side of the saucer, Gerald led Brian at a crouching run.
They soon reached the shadows beside the ramp. The alien stood at attention, cradling some kind of futuristic-looking hairdryer, possibly a gun. It was surveying the scientists in the green-lit clearing. Gerald crept up toward it, followed by Brian.
He glimpsed Norman and Percy sneaking up on the far side, flattening themselves against the hull. Norman was still looking peeved.
The two groups converged. The throbbing of the spacecraft’s engines drowned out a muffled grunt, which was followed by the thud of a body falling to the leaf-covered earth. Casting cautious glances at the alien scientists, the four youths leapt over the guard’s supine body, scrambled up the ramp and flung themselves in through the glowing hatch.
They staggered to a halt in the eerie, green-lit corridor.
The passage opened out into a chamber, packed with mysterious machines of an alien technology. To the left and right, hatches led deeper into the ship.
But as they walked nervously towards the control console, a klaxon blared into life, and the green lights began to flash on and off. A thing resembling a disco-ball revolved on the console, while a computerised voice shrieked gibberish inside their heads. The noise of the klaxon grew louder.
‘We’ve set off an alarm!’ Brian shouted, never afraid to state the obvious.
‘Those aliens will hear!’ Percy shouted back.
Decisively, Gerald tore out his sword and sprinted back towards the main hatch.
Streaming across the clearing and up the ramp, leaping over the fallen body of the guard, were the alien scientists. All bore smaller versions of the hair-dryer the guard had held, and as he watched their advance, Gerald cursed his lack of foresight in not looting the corpse.
The aliens - nine or ten of them - surged up the ramp, firing energy bolts as they came. Gerald met them in the hatchway, his sword glowing strangely in the eerie green light.
He dodged a sizzling energy bolt from the first alien, whirled round with his axe, and sent its scaled, reptilian head spinning off into the darkness of the clearing. Gushing green ichor, the body stumbled and fell back down the ramp. Then the three other adventurers were at Gerald’s side, Brian and Percy and Norman with their weapons at the ready. The remaining aliens bore down upon them. Energy blasts sparked and ricocheted off the fuselage. Steel glittered in eerie light. Aliens scattered across the deck, spouting ichor. The air grew rank with a smell of ozone.
Norman fell back, nursing a scorched shoulder.
Suddenly the struggle was over, as quickly as it had begun. The members of the alien expedition lay in sticky pools of ichor, scattered down the ramp and across the clearing. Brian, Percy, and Gerald rooted among their corpses while Norman tended to his wound. The victorious adventurers seized the aliens’ weapons as trophies.
Percy turned to Gerald. ‘With these ray-guns we could zap any barrow wight back to the hell it came from!’ he exclaimed.
Gerald shook his head. ‘Why waste our time with this planet?’ he asked, heartily sick of donjons and dragons, taverns and trulls. ‘There’s a whole universe out there. And if these pussies are anything to go by, it’ll be a pushover!
‘Come on, back to camp. We’ll grab the treasure and all our equipment. Then we pilot this flying saucer to the nth dimension. After that…’ He laughed. ‘We’ll see!’
The four adventurers staggered back up the ramp, weighed down with tents, bedding, backpacks, the treasure chest, and a medley of swords and axes, ropes and grapnels, lanterns and iron spikes, ten-foot poles and assorted adventuring trash. Slinging this into a pile at the back of the control room, they slouched down on the weirdly shaped chairs and tried to puzzle out the controls.
Percy found the lever that opened and closed the hatch, and amused himself with it until Gerald snapped at him.
‘What’s this do?’ asked Brian, pressing a button. A visi-screen clicked on, showing a 360º view of the surrounding forest. Blast cannons mounted on the central dome rotated. Brian jabbed his thumb down on another button and a barrage of energy beams lit up the night.
‘Dakka-dakka-dakkka!’ he jabbered fanatically.
‘Stop that,’ Gerald said, as two trees went up like Roman candles. Sulkily, Brian obeyed.
Gerald yanked a lever, and a star-map blossomed out to cover the visi-screen. A cursor glowed over the third planet of a star located near the top right of the map. Joggling a joystick, Gerald moved the cursor over onto a neighbouring planet, and pressed a button.
A computerised voice echoed in their heads: ‘This vessel is now en route for Ophidia.’
Without warning, the engines rumbled into life. The deck shook. Smoke and exhaust fumes billowed up from beneath the craft. Gerald whooped.
‘We’re on our way!’ he bellowed.
The spaceship took off, soaring into the black skies above the mist-tapestried forest, its retro-rockets gleefully belching pollution into the hitherto unsullied environment.
As the autopilot guided them through the swirling clouds of the planet’s stratosphere, the four adventurers gathered around the glyph-inscribed chest.
‘Fuck knows where we’re going,’ Gerald muttered, fumbling with the catch, ‘but wherever we end up, they’re bound to appreciate hard cash.’ He flung open the chest, and abruptly gulped in horror.
Quivering evilly, like a venomous spider crouching in the midst of the gold and gems, was the severed hand of the barrow wight. Gerald stared down in shock. Before he could react, the hand sprang into frightful life and leapt at the youth’s throat.
Gerald flung himself backward as the talons snapped within inches of his windpipe. He fell to the metal deck with a clatter, and the withered claw thumped down on his chest. He stared cross-eyed as the thing came scuttling up towards his face.
‘Get it off me!’ he bellowed. The shout galvanised his companions, till now frozen in horror. They scrambled forward, blast guns at the ready.
Gerald threw himself to one side, spilling the reanimated hand onto the deck, where it lay for a moment, clenching and unclenching. With Percy and Norman’s help, Gerald staggered his feet.
He glared at the hand in horror. So its hideous life remained even when severed from its body! He remembered how the barrow wight had reformed again and again, no matter how many times they had dismembered it.
Brian aimed his blast gun at the thing. The claw sprang to one side as the beam lanced down. Brian’s energy bolt danced dangerously round the chamber, causing the youths to duck and dive out of its ricochet. The severed hand bounded forward, and flung itself at the control console.
Percy opened fire from a crouch, hitting the console dead on. Sparks showered the chamber. Undeterred, the withered claw seized a lever and yanked it. As the adventurers rushed the console, the entire ship lurched to the right; the deck tipped at a forty-degree angle, and the four youths went crashing into a bulkhead, showered by a rain of objects from their pile of equipment and plunder. Brian dropped his blast gun, and it clattered off into the shadows.
‘Get that hand!’ Gerald bawled.
The deck tipped again, to the left this time, sending them stumbling past the console. Percy aimed a wild blast at the sinister claw as they passed. The console exploded again, and Percy’s energy beam ricocheted. The main lights went out, leaving the chamber illuminated only by a glimmer from the visi-screen.
The ship screamed into a dive. Stars whirled past the visi-screen. The treasure chest, which had been rumbling across the chamber floor with every lurch, came slamming into the instrument bank. It showered the youths with all their ill-gotten gains. The adventurers were flung across the console.
Gerald cried out in fear as he felt something skeletal scamper across him. It clattered down onto the deck.
‘There it goes!’ Percy shouted, seeing the barrow wight’s hand scuttling in the glow of the instrument bank.
Brian sprang down onto the deck, his axe whirling. The blade glittered once in the green light. Above the whine of the out-of-control craft, Gerald heard a final crunch.
‘That’s done for that,’ Brian gloated, gazing down at the mangled, unmoving claw.
The other adventurers climbed down from the console. Gold and jewels jingled beneath their feet as they picked their way up the sloping deck.
‘All very well!’ Gerald muttered tersely. He turned, and stared at the visi-screen, where the green orb of an alien planet was rapidly growing in the distance. ‘But thanks to that thing, this ship is out of control.’
He looked wildly at the others.
‘The fight wrecked our controls!’ he said. ‘There’s no knowing where we’ll end up.’
The others returned his gaze unspeaking.
Silence filled the control room, split only by the increasing whine of the engines as the spacecraft hurtled towards the misty surface of the mysterious planet.
STATE OF EMERGENCY by David Christopher
Chapter Twelve: The Road
When there was no immediate reply, he nerved himself and went to the door. In the corridor outside, he saw a man standing over another man’s body. The man held an assault rifle, and another gun leant against the wall beside the body. Will stared at him and the man looked back. They stared at each other for a long time.
‘We’d better get moving, then,’ said Mercer eventually.
He hefted the rifle that he’d taken from the dead soldier’s body and hung it over his shoulder. Will picked up his own gun from the wall and followed the man down the stairs.
Steve and Curtis both lay facedown in the vestibule. For an incredulous moment, Will wondered what they thought they were doing, lying down on the job. Then he noticed the dark stains in the red carpet that surrounded their unmoving bodies. Both had pistols in their hands. Clearly not much cop against the soldier, with his assault rifle.
Mercer held up his hand, and nodded towards the broken-down front door.
‘Do you hear anything?’ he asked.
Will tore his eyes away from the bodies. ‘No,’ he said.
‘Neither do I,’ said Mercer.
Will thought that was the funniest thing ever, and laughed until Mercer hit him.
‘The soldiers must have moved on,’ Mercer said without further comment. Will rubbed his cheek thoughtfully.
‘It’s getting dark outside,’ he said. ‘If we’re safe here, we should maybe find beds for the night then move on in the morning.’
Next morning, the streets of Shepherds Bush were empty, deserted. No sign of the soldiers, apart from a huddled corpse in the main road. When Will first saw it, he couldn’t work out what it was. A bundle of rags? A fallen tree trunk? His mind desperately tried to fit it into a credible frame of reference until he got closer and saw it for what it was. There was something so empty about a dead body. He could see why people believed in the soul.
He stood staring down at the corpse for some time. Mercer waited patiently.
‘You don’t seem bothered by all this,’ Will said.
‘It’s an act,’ Mercer replied.
They walked on.
‘London seems to be completely deserted,’ Will commented. ‘I wonder where all the people have gone. How far this spreads. Have the Home Counties become just as depopulated?’
‘Depends on how far the fighting’s spread, I suppose,’ Mercer replied.
Turning a corner, they found a bin lorry at an angle across the street, its bonnet up against a brick wall. The doors were open. Investigating, Will looked gingerly inside the cab. Empty.
‘We don’t want to walk all the way to Oxford,’ he told Mercer. ‘Why don’t we travel in style?’
‘In a bin lorry?’ Mercer laughed. Then he looked down at his scuffed, worn down boots. ‘Are the keys in the ignition?’
Will swarmed across the seats to check. He looked back.
‘No,’ he said. ‘They must have taken them with them when they went. Wherever they went. We’ll have to hotwire it, then.’
‘Okay,’ said Mercer placidly.
Will scrambled back down out of the cab and looked at him. Mercer returned his look and shrugged.
‘Aren’t you going to make a start?’ he asked.
Will shook his head. ‘I don’t know how to hotwire a bin lorry,’ he said. ‘I thought you might.
Mercer folded his arms. ‘I’m an officer of the law,’ he said. ‘Not a criminal.’
‘Come off it,’ Will said, ‘you were sent by the agency. And what about those stories you were telling Steve and Curtis? All that London gangland stuff.’
Mercer looked down at the ground. ‘I made it up,’ he growled. ‘I got sick of their boasting.’
‘Looks like we’re walking, then,’ he said.
As they entered Perivale, Will’s phone beeped. They were walking up the A40 with the intention of going to Oxford by the quickest possible route, following the general line of the M40 once they had got out of Greater London. Taking it out, he looked at it. He had voicemail. That was odd; his phone had been silent for the last few days. A thought struck him. Maybe it was Daisy!
He listened to the most recent voicemail. It was his father.
'Where are you, Will?’ Dad was saying. ‘We’ve been trying to get in touch ever since we saw the news. Are you still in London? I’ve rang your flat and there’s been no reply, your mobile keeps going to voicemail. For God’s sake, Will, call back! Your mother’s worried sick.’
‘Hang on, Mercer,’ he said. Mercer stood staring into a shop window.
The call had been made yesterday. Will’s inbox was full of texts. There were several other voicemail messages. Will rang his father.
The phone was answered immediately. It was his mother.
‘Will? Will, is that you?’ she said, her voice tremulous with emotion.
‘Yes, it’s me,’ he replied. ‘I got Dad’s message…’
Suddenly his father was on the phone.
‘Will! Will, where are you? Why haven’t you been answering your phone? Your mum even emailed you, but I can’t make head nor tail of those things. Why didn’t you get back to her? Are you still in London?’
‘Just getting out of it, Dad,’ Will replied. ‘My phone hasn’t been working. I haven’t been back to the flat. I think there’s been a blackout. The TV wasn’t working either…’
‘Then you haven’t seen the news?’ his father asked. ‘Some little idiot’s shot the Home Secretary! There’ve been riots. The Army was called out, too late in my opinion. Some of these new regiments, not Geoff’s I’m glad to say, some of these new regiments have mutinied. There’s been a mass exodus of refugees into the Home Counties. And Will, someone’s shot the government!’
Will felt himself go white.
He had been about to tell his father that he knew what was going on better than anyone, having been in the thick of it. But this last revelation hit him like physical blow.
‘Dad, Dad, you’re not making sense,’ he said. ‘I know that … someone shot Susan Verlaine. But she survived. You’re confused, Dad. No one’s shot the government. They’re trying to sort things out.’
‘Will, are you telling me to doubt what the morning paper is telling me?’ his father said sternly. ‘It says the situation’s confused, but yesterday rogue members of the security forces entered an emergency meeting of Parliament and opened fire indiscriminately on government and opposition alike.’
Will couldn’t take it in. the whole government… shot…. This was no longer a bit of civil disturbance. This sounded more like revolution.
‘Well, who’s running the country, then?’ he asked.
‘Susan Verlaine. She wasn’t there, of course,’ his father replied, ‘because she was in hospital, or “hospitalised” as these journalists insist on saying. She’s issued a call for calm and promises to do her utmost to restore order before a new government can be chosen…’
Mercer was staring at Will. ‘What’s going on?’ he mouthed.
‘Someone’s shot the government,’ he said briefly, and Mercer gaped.
‘Who are you talking to?’ Will’s father demanded. ‘Are you with someone else?’ Suspicion sneaked into his tone. ‘You’re not back with Caroline, are you?’
‘No, dad,’ said Will. ‘I’m with… a policeman.’
His father was silent for a moment. ‘Well, that’s good,’ he said. ‘At least I know my son’s in safe hands.’ He called, ‘Will’s with a policeman,’ and Will heard his mother’s emotional reply.
‘Okay, dad,’ Will said. ‘I’m getting out of London now. The city’s deserted. I should be safe.’ He eyed Mercer, who was waiting impatiently. ‘Talk soon.’
He rang off. Mercer was looking at him in concern.
‘They’ve shot the government? Must have been the secret police.’
‘What?’ Will demanded in disbelief. ‘Why would the secret police shoot the government?’ He paused. ‘We don’t even have a secret police.’
‘That’s what they want you to think,’ said Mercer knowingly.
Will sighed. Conspiracy theory bollocks, he thought. ‘Why have I never heard of the secret police, then?’ he said challengingly.
Mercer shrugged. ‘They’re secret, aren’t they?’
Will shook his head. There was no point arguing with this drivel. ‘It looks like the only person running the show is Verlaine,’ he said firmly.
‘And some bastard shot her,’ Mercer added. Will tried not to squirm. ‘But she’s in hospital. She can’t be in any position to regain control.’
Will was about to speak when he heard a roar of engines from the street ahead. He looked at Mercer urgently.
‘Better get off the road,’ Mercer replied. ‘If that’s more soldiers…’
‘Or police,’ Will added.
They hurried into the cover of a front garden and crouched down behind a privet hedge. The rumble of engines grew louder. Then army trucks were passing, one after another, each with grim-faced soldiers sitting in the back. Will counted twelve lorries before the cavalcade passed by. He rolled over and looked at Mercer.
‘Looks like someone’s making a move,’ he said.
Mercer nodded. ‘Those weren’t rogue soldiers,’ he said. ‘Too organised. Verlaine’s bringing in soldiers from outside to take control of the city. Decisive action. Amazing. Even from her hospital bed she manages to gain control…’
‘She hasn’t done that yet,’ Will said, resenting Mercer’s praise for Verlaine. ‘Central London must still be in chaos.’
‘We seem to be getting out of the worst of it,’ Mercer replied. ‘Who knows? Maybe the buses will be running when we get out of London. Or we could even take the train to Oxford.’
They rose and continued on their way. Will wasn’t as optimistic as Mercer. Troops were being sent into Central London, but it looked like the rogue soldiers they’d met in Shepherds Bush had been heading for the countryside. If even small groups of them were at large, that might make things difficult. The anarchy could spread.
They were passing a park near South Ruislip when Will heard a muffled cry.
He turned. It had come from behind a tall hedge beside the road. Mercer unslung his rifle when the cry came again, then broke off suddenly. Will heard voices, and the sound of a scuffle. Then the cry came again. It sounded like a woman.
‘Come on,’ said Mercer. Will nodded grimly and turned off the safety catch on his rifle.
They found a way through the hedge a few yards up the road. Peering in, they saw the open expanse of the park. In the shadow of some trees, two policemen were pinioning a struggling figure, a young woman. Another policeman was on top of her. His trousers were down and he was heaving himself up and down. Will stared in sick horror.
The girl broke free of one of the policeman holding her and struck out at the rapist. He paused, and punched her in the face. She fell back.
Mercer fired into the air.
As one, the policemen leapt up, and ran towards the trees, casting terrified looks behind them. The rapist was trying to pull up his trousers. Will shot him down.
Mercer loosed off a couple of shots at the other two policemen but they vanished into the trees with hardly a backward glance. Will hurried towards the girl, who lay sobbing on the green, her skirt torn and her knickers round her ankles.
Mercer joined him. He crouched beside the girl.
‘It’s alright, love,’ he said. ‘It’s alright.’ To Will’s surprise, he was almost crying. The girl pulled away, staring at him in horror. Her nose was broken and blood covered her mouth. She tugged futilely at her torn clothes.
Will took a cursory look at the policeman he’d shot. A neat hole in the back of the man’s skull showed where the bullet had hit him. A head shot. That was pretty good going. The man was stone dead.
He returned to Mercer, who had persuaded the girl to cooperate. She had sorted out her clothes and was sobbing on his broad shoulder. Will saw an empty supermarket bag-for-life lying on the grass nearby. He picked it up and brought it over.
Mercer looked up. ‘She thought I was one of those bastards,’ he said. ‘First chance I get, I’m going to get rid of this uniform.’
‘Where do you live, love?’ Will asked gently.
The girl lifted her head. She was in her early twenties by her appearance. Although he could see that she was naturally pretty, she wore a lot of makeup, too much to his mind, and her eye-shadow had run so she looked like a terrified panda. Her clothes were expensive and smart, despite their rips and tears.
‘Liberty Park,’ she muttered.
Will was startled. ‘What, in Leeds?’
She scowled, shook her head. ‘No, in South Ruislip!’ She had a lisp.
Will raised his eyebrows. Liberty Park must be a chain. Well, he never knew that. Was there one in every town?
‘We’d better get you back there,’ he said. ‘Is it a security village?’
She nodded quickly.
‘At least you’ll be safe there,’ said Mercer.
‘What were you doing out here?’ Will asked, as they followed her out of the park.
‘I was going to the shops,’ she said. ‘My car wasn’t running, so I had to walk.’
‘Don’t you watch the news?’ Will asked. ‘Things are more dangerous than ever. The government’s been shot.’
She shrugged. ‘I needed to buy my groceries. But the shops were shut when I got there. I was making my way home when the police stopped me. They were in a car. They said they wanted to question me. They took me into the park. Then they… then they…’
‘Yes, love,’ said Will, patting her. She flinched away from him and he realised she wasn’t ready for personal contact.
This branch of Liberty Park was on the other side of town, in a leafy suburban area. High walls surrounded it. It looked to Will as if the place had been a small estate back in the nineteenth century. The main house had been demolished, and several Barretts Homes-style houses stood within its walls. Electric gates had replaced the original entrance. A lodge stood just within the gates.
The girl, who hadn’t yet told them her name, hurried to the keypad in the wall outside and tapped in a code. The side gate sprang open and she hurried in, closing it behind her. Mercer grabbed the gate before she could shut it completely. She gasped, and sprang away.
‘Hang on, love,’ Will said. ‘We want to see you safe home.’ As they entered the security village, a thickset man in late middle age appeared from the lodge. He wore the uniform of a security guard.
‘Hang on, what’s happening here?’ he demanded, speaking in broad Cockney. ‘Miss Flowers, you know these men? What’s happened to you? You’re in a right state, love.’
‘I was… I was assaulted!’ she gulped. Then she turned and ran towards one of the houses.
The security guard turned towards Will and Mercer, his eyes widening as he took in their guns.
‘I think you’d better turn round and get out of here, guys,’ he said levelly.
Will was impressed by the man’s courage. He obviously thought they were rogue police. They were armed; he wasn’t. And yet he was willing to face them down.
‘Sure, no problem,’ said Will. ‘We just wanted to make sure the lady got home okay. She was raped by three men. She should be taken to hospital, really.’ He looked up as a door slammed, and he saw that the girl had gone into her house.
‘I think I should call the police,’ the security guard said heavily.
Mercer shook his head. ‘I am the police,’ he said, indicating his uniform. ‘But so were the guys who raped her.’
The security guard mopped his brow. ‘I don’t know what’s going on in this country today,’ he complained. ‘It’s gone to the dogs. Gone to the effin’ dogs. What happened then?’
Will explained. The security guard expressed his admiration.
‘You shot one of them?’ he asked, eyeing Will’s rifle. ‘You must be a crack shot. Ever been in the army? I was in it for twenty years.’
Will shook his head. ‘My brother’s in the army,’ he commented.
‘What happened to the others?’ the security guard was asking when they heard a screech of brakes from outside the gates. A police car stood on the pavement, its engine running. Two policemen climbed out. Both were heavily armed. Will recognised them.
Two more police cars pulled up and more armed police poured out. Looked like the two men who’d escaped had gone to get their mates.
The policemen swaggered towards the gates.
SUPER DUPER by James Rhodes
Biggy stared furtively out of the window. Rain swished against the wipers. It had started coming down not long after they had left the police station. Biggy had found the car in someone’s driveway, had gone into their house, and retrieved the keys from its owner’s corpse pocket. He swerved suddenly to avoid a cat.
“Will you keep an eye on the road, please?” The Don talked through gritted teeth; the movement had buffeted his shoulder wound.
“I’m looking for Jon.”
“Is that your mate?”
Biggy thought about it.
“He said he was going to the hospital.”
“Is that what he told you?”
“That and that you didn’t have any bullets left.”
Biggy squeezed the steering wheel tightly, just for a second.
“That’s it,” Smith pointed to the hospital.
They pulled into the ambulance bay and Smith peered around the area.
“I don’t like the look of those dogs. One of them has an arm in its mouth.”
Biggy immediately recognised the colour of the uniform that hung out either side of the salivating labradoodle, which glared menacingly at them.
Biggy jumped out of the car and kicked his friend’s arm out of the dog’s mouth. Its head shook in an explosion of golden curls and human gore. It bared its teeth and then looked briefly surprised as Biggy snapped its back with his foot as if he were stepping on an ant.
“Can you do me a favour, Smith?”
“Of course, mate.”
“Whilst those dogs are distracted by that idiot, could you go into one of the ambulances and see if they have any morphine and syringes?”
Smith weighed the situation up; he looked at The Don’s pale face and heavily bandaged shoulder.
“Go on, then,” agreed Smith.
He opened his door as quietly as possible, then sneaking on his tiptoes he skulked towards the closest ambulance, which was about three metres away. He pulled on the handle and the back door opened.
Smith rummaged quickly around and carelessly opened a few boxes. On his third attempt, he found a box of morphine in tiny little vials and some sealed sterile syringes.
As Smith stepped out of the ambulance, he glanced down at Biggy. He was stood tall with what appeared to be a Staffordshire terrier hanging from his left shoulder and a Yorkshire terrier hanging from the seat of his pants. Between his hands was a large bullmastiff that was thrashing its legs as Biggy strangled it to death. It would have looked a bit like a slapstick sequence in a cartoon if it had not also looked like a large man violently fighting for his life.
Smith jumped back into the car.
“Should we help him?”
“I would, but now the adrenaline has died off, I have realised that I am in no fit state to be doing anything at all, least of all fighting a pack of dogs.”
“Adrenaline's an amazing thing. Did you know, there was this ole woman and...”
“Not to rush you, Smith, but could you inject some of that into one of my veins.”
“You want me to do it?”
“I’m scared of needles.”
The Don shook his head.
“Just do the tourniquet then.”
Smith took off his belt and climbed into the backseat of the car. He wrapped it around The Don’s arm. The Don squeezed his fist and his veins popped up like really shit balloon animals. The Don injected himself with some morphine and it was just as well that he did because Smith wouldn’t have done it properly and The Don would have gone into cardiac arrest. As it happened, he did not, so it was fine.
The front door opened and Biggy reached and pulled the handle to open the boot. There was the sound of something heavy dropping into the boot. Biggy got into the passenger side of the car.
“I found Jon,” he said. “Could I please have some of your morphine?”
The Don passed the morphine forward and Biggy jacked up. He then started tending to his multiple wounds.
“I suppose I’ll have to drive, then.” Smith turned the ignition, put his foot down on the accelerator and waited patiently for someone to explain to him how a car works.
BABBAGE MUST DIE by Gavin Chappell
Chapter Twenty Four
Brian felt quite unwell. He found himself craving laudanum. What on earth was going on?
‘You were a pirate captain last time I saw you,’ the madwoman added.
‘Ssh!’ he said urgently, with a quick glance at Catesby. ‘Ada?’ he said, feeling a touch of déjà vu. ‘Is that you? But what are you doing in Bedlam?’
‘Getting out,’ she said succinctly. ‘With the help of my friend and fellow alumnus here.’ She indicated a young man with a shock of fair hair who sat in the far corner gazing into space.
It was Ada. Definitely Ada. Brian hadn’t recognised her in her current, rather scruffy get-up, which really didn’t do her justice, but the tone of voice was hers, for sure. ‘How did you end up here?’ he demanded. ‘I saw you climb the cliffs. Why did you leave me?’
Ada shrugged. ‘I couldn’t find you after the wreck. I went to get help. I found your bloody cat, though.’
Brian’s eyes widened. ‘Puss? She survived?’ He felt a flood of relief. ‘Where is she? She’s not in Bedlam, is she?’
Ada shook her head. ‘She fell in love with a saucer of cream, and I had other things to do. So I left her at the parsonage and went away with the parson. We were going to Cambridge. I thought.’
Brian nodded resentfully. ‘Oh, the parson,’ he sneered. ‘I’ve heard all about him. But how did you end up Bedlam? Best place for you, mind. You should have been committed long ago, with your crazy schemes, before you had a chance to drag me into them…’
Ada raised an eyebrow. ‘What about your story? You can’t come traipsing in here, weeks after they locked me up, dressed like Beau Brummell on a bad hair day, and not expect me to pass comment.’ She eyed his clothes enviously. ‘Nice outfit, by the way. You’ve moved up in the world since I last saw you, back when you were a pi…’
‘That’s enough of that,’ Brian growled. He didn’t want Catesby, who was quite shamelessly earwigging nearby, to hear about his previous occupation. ‘I,’ he added with dignity, ‘am the Count of Monte Carlo.’ He grinned. ‘You know, like in that film.’ He hoped she got the reference. He thought it had been really clever.
Ada snorted. ‘I take it you’re referring to Dumas père’s novel Le Comte de Monte-Cristo,’ she began.
She hadn’t lost her habitual air of superiority, Brian noted. He was itching to bring her down to size. ‘No, actually,’ he told her, ‘I mean the 2002 film starring James Caviezel and Guy Pearce, clever-clogs. There’s this guy in it who finds a buried treasure, right, and he uses it to pose as this Frog aristo, the Count of Monte Carlo…’
‘Cristo,’ Ada corrected him smugly.
‘Anyway, what about you?’ he asked. ‘I’ve been hobnobbing with the great and the good. Oh, and your old boyfriend Lord Byron. And what have you been doing? Except from getting sectioned under the medieval Mental Health Act?’
Ada began her story.
‘When I saw we were going to crash, I grabbed hold of a rail and hung on for dear life. I’d lost sight of you already, with the fight going on, so I didn’t know where you were. We hit the sand with an almighty crash and I was almost flung out of my little corner. But I managed to keep my grip when other people were tumbling past. Then silence fell, and I was at a loss what to do. The deck was at an acute angle, about 80 degrees, I’d say, though I didn’t have my protractor with me. In my little corner, between the middeck and the quarterdeck, I was safe, so I hung on. Eventually, I fell asleep.
‘I woke the next morning, and spent about half an hour negotiating my way down the deck towards the sands below. Halfway down I encountered Puss, soaked to the skin and meowing piteously. With great difficulty, I persuaded her to come with me and I carried her down to the beach. She jumped down and started sniffing round the corpses that littered the sand...’
‘One of those corpses was probably me,’ Brian pointed out. ‘Didn’t you think to investigate?’
‘I thought maybe you were one of them, since I couldn’t see you elsewhere, but if you were, you were a corpse,’ Ada explained. ‘Then villagers appeared from the cliffs and began looting the wreckage. I didn’t want a confrontation, and I was running a temperature, probably from the night out in the open in wet clothes. So I picked up the cat and went up the cliffs to see if I could get any help.
‘I came to the nearby village and knocked on the door of the parsonage. It was obvious none of the villagers were going to help; they were all too busy grabbing what they could from the ship and looting the corpses. But I thought the parson would be above that.
‘His servant led me into the parlour where he welcomed me with concern. Parson Greene is a stout, middle aged man with a fringe of beard, bald and with great round spectacles, resembling Donald Sutherland in a costume drama. He listened to my rambling with concern – by then I was feverish, and not really thinking too clearly.
‘The next thing I remember was waking in a bed in a comfortable if austerely furnished master bedroom. I called out, croaked rather, and the servant came. He gave me something to drink and then Parson Greene joined us. Seeing I was more lucid, he asked me my story. What I’d said when I first got there had been pretty wild, he said.
‘I told him the truth.’
Brian raised his eyebrows and laughed hollowly.
‘You told him everything?’ he asked. ‘About coming from the 21st century? How did he react to that?’
Ada shrugged. ‘He was very warm and sympathetic. He listened to me with great sincerity and then withdrew, saying that it fell to him to find a remedy for the situation.
‘Some hours later, he returned, saying that he had arranged for a coach to London. I told him I didn’t want to go to London; I wanted to go to Cambridge, where Babbage would be. He placated me, telling me that I would have to go to London first. No coaches went straight to Cambridge from the village.
‘I believed him. Leaving Puss at the parsonage, we boarded the coach and went to London. I didn’t know where you were. I was afraid you had drowned. I thought I was all alone in this century. But here was this kindly old man who wanted to help me as best he could. We came to London, left the coach, and the parson said he would arrange lodgings for me.
‘Well, he did. You find me in the lodgings house he chose.’
Brian hooted with laughter. ‘What a bastard!’ he said. He beckoned Humphrey over. ‘You hear this, Humphrey?’ he asked. ‘Your saintly parson who taught you your letters played the biggest baddest trick on Ada and had her locked up in Bedlam!’ Humphrey looked affronted and was about to say something when Brian turned back to Ada. ‘What did you expect? Anyone in this century would have locked you up, or me for that matter, if they’d heard our whole story.’ He shook his head, wiped tears of laughter from his eyes. Ada regarded him frostily.
‘He said it was for the best,’ she told him. ‘I argued with him, I told him I wasn’t mad. He looked at me with inexpressible sorrow in his eyes, shook his head, and told me that the parish would pay for my upkeep and I would receive the best care that the kingdom could provide. I tried to escape, tried to fight, shouted that I had to kill Babbage. That just convinced them that I was mad.’
‘And what’s it been like, in Bedlam?’ Brian asked gently. He did think the story was funny but he wasn’t really callous. Ada had been here for weeks while he’d lounged about drinking himself silly, developing a laudanum habit, and impersonating an exiled French aristo. ‘Is it like in all the old horror comics?’
Ada looked over her shoulder at the other inmates, and shuddered. She returned to the barred window.
‘It’s been pretty hellish,’ she said, ‘but I’ve not been entirely friendless. I’m not the only person wrongly committed.’ She beckoned to the shock-headed young man, who seemed to wake up suddenly, grinned up at her, and shambled over.
‘This is Mr. Engelbert Addlestrop,’ Ada introduced him. Addlestrop looked vaguely at Brian and extended a limp hand for Brian to shake through the bars.
‘Charmed to meet you, sir,’ Addlestrop replied in a weak, high-pitched voice. ‘It ain’t quite the circumstances I’d hope to meet a gentleman. They took me best clothes away when Uncle had me locked up in here.’
‘Mr. Addlestrop was at Peterhouse, Cambridge,’ Ada explained, ‘my alma mater, as it happens. He was the first person who’d speak to me; all the others were too crazy. Like me, he’s sane.’
‘Of course you’re sane, Miss Ada,’ Addlestrop said soothingly. ‘Although you seem to have fallen prey to certain delusions. I’ve told you before; they don’t allow gels in Peterhouse …’
‘And I’ve told you before, Mr. Addlestrop, that I’m a time traveller from the future,’ Ada snapped. Brian could see that she had developed much the same spiky relationship with Addlestrop as she had with him. He felt oddly jealous.
‘I met Mr. Addlestrop and we got talking,’ Ada went on. ‘Turns out that he was halfway through his first year at Cambridge when his father died, and he inherited quite a substantial estate. A clause in the will stated that should he prove feeble-minded or otherwise unable to manage his affairs, his inheritance would pass instead to his uncle…’
‘So schemin’ Uncle George had a physician declare me insane,’ said Addlestrop with rather more heat than he had previously shown. ‘Claimed that me studies in mathematics have turned my mind and I ain’t able to lead a normal life. I was down at the old place for half term and I told him all about Leibnizian calculus, you see...’ He went into a long rambling diatribe about the superiority of analytical calculus over Newtonian calculus, until Brian began to wonder if scheming Uncle George hadn’t been entirely right in having this poor sap committed. He exchanged a resigned glance with Ada.
She interrupted Addlestrop as soon as possible.
‘To continue. Conveniently, Mr. Addlestrop is a member of a secret society at Cambridge whose members swear an oath that they will extract any of their members who are committed to an asylum or madhouse. Less conveniently, we’ve had no way of contacting them - until recently.’
‘I had a visit from my sister, May,’ Addlestrop explained. ‘I told her how it had all come about and she was shocked and saddened. I begged her to help me. She said she knew no way that she, a mere female, could do this. Miss Ada spoke to her then, using words I never expected to hear from a lady, even one in a madhouse…’
‘I told the silly girl to write a letter to the leader of this society,’ Ada explained. ‘And she…’
Brian heard a commotion from down the passage. Catesby, who had wandered off during Ada’s story, came running back.
‘What’s happening?’ Brian demanded. Catesby’s face was white, his eyes wide.
‘Highwaymen!’ he stuttered. ‘Masked men with pistols! They’ve broken into Bedlam and they’re ransacking the place!’
Brian stared at him. In the distance, he could hear shouts and cries that cut through the general hubbub of the madhouse. Then a shot. Then another.
Ada looked urgently at Brian. ‘Can’t you do anything to get me out of here? I was hoping Addlestrop’s friends would help, but it looks like it’s too late…’
‘I suppose I could try bribing one of the warders,’ Brian said. ‘Humphrey!’ he called. ‘Find a warder and give him lots of money to let Ada go.’
Humphrey didn’t move. The sound of shouts and shots was coming closer.
‘I think your past is catching up with you, sir,’ he said. ‘No time for getting the lady out of her cell. I suggest you run.’
‘What are you jabbering about?’ Brian had to raise his voice over the hubbub. God, it really was bedlam in here now.
‘I saw the posters,’ Humphrey shouted back. ‘They must be after you – Captain Brian Wells, of the Black Flag.’
‘What?’ said Catesby, astounded. ‘You mean it’s true? Milord, surely not! You’re the notorious pirate captain?’
Brian looked desperately from Catesby to Humphrey. He turned to Ada and tried to say something.
‘Brian, what have you done?’ she demanded.
‘I… I… I…’ he said in explanation.
Suddenly the corridor filled up with figures, masked men who brandished flintlock pistols. Squealing, ‘It’s not me! It’s not me! He’s the pirate, not me!’ Catesby turned and ran.
One of the masked men levelled a pistol and shot him in the back. Catesby cannoned into the wall and collapsed.
The masked man blew down his barrel, then produced another pistol. He turned cold blue eyes on the others.
‘I’m looking for someone in here,’ he said. His voice, though muffled, was cultured and plummy. ‘They told me he was here. Where is he?’
He aimed the pistol at Brian.
‘Answer me!’ he cried. ‘Where is he?’
VARNEY THE VAMPIRE ascribed to Thomas Preskett Prest
THE MOB'S ARRIVAL AT SIR FRANCIS VARNEY'S.—THE ATTEMPT TO GAIN ADMISSION.
All eyes were directed towards that southern sky which each moment was becoming more and more illuminated by the lurid appearance bespeaking a conflagration, which if it was not extensive, at all events was raging fiercely.
There came, too upon the wind, which set from that direction, strange sounds, resembling shouts of triumph, combined occasionally with sharper cries, indicative of alarm.
With so much system and so quietly had this attack been made upon the house of Sir Francis Varney—for the consequences of it now exhibited themselves most unequivocally—that no one who had not actually accompanied the expedition was in the least aware that it had been at all undertaken, or that anything of the kind was on the tapis.
Now, however, it could be no longer kept a secret, and as the infuriated mob, who had sought this flagrant means of giving vent to their anger, saw the flames from the blazing house rising high in the heavens, they felt convinced that further secrecy was out of the question.
Accordingly, in such cries and shouts as—but for caution's sake—they would have indulged in from the very first, they now gave utterance to their feelings as regarded the man whose destruction was aimed at.
"Death to the vampyre!—death to the vampyre!" was the principal shout, and it was uttered in tones which sounded like those of rage and disappointment.
But it is necessary, now that we have disposed of the smaller number of rioters who committed so serious an outrage at the inn, that we should, with some degree of method, follow the proceedings of the larger number, who went from the town towards Sir Francis Varney's.
These persons either had information of a very positive nature, or a very strong suspicion that, notwithstanding the mysterious and most unaccountable disappearance of the vampyre in the old ruin, he would now be found, as usual, at his own residence.
Perhaps one of his own servants may have thus played the traitor to him; but however it was, there certainly was an air of confidence about some of the leaders of the tumultuous assemblage that induced a general belief that this time, at least, the vampyre would not escape popular vengeance for being what he was.
We have before noticed that these people went out of the town at different points, and did not assemble into one mass until they were at a sufficient distance off to be free from all fear of observation.
Then some of the less observant and cautious of them began to indulge in shouts of rage and defiance; but those who placed themselves foremost succeeded in procuring a halt, and one said,—
"Good friends all, if we make any noise, it can only have one effect, and that is, to warn Sir Francis Varney, and enable him to escape. If, therefore, we cannot go on quietly, I propose that we return to our homes, for we shall accomplish nothing."
This advice was sufficiently and evidently reasonable to meet with no dissension; a death-like stillness ensued, only broken by some two or three voices saying, in subdued tones,—
"That's right—that's right. Nobody speak."
"Come on, then," said he who had given such judicious counsel; and the dark mass of men moved towards Sir Francis Varney's house, as quietly as it was possible for such an assemblage to proceed.
Indeed, saving the sound of the footsteps, nothing could be heard of them at all; and that regular tramp, tramp, would have puzzled any one listening to it from any distance to know in which direction it was proceeding.
In this way they went on until Sir Francis Varney's house was reached, and then a whispered word to halt was given, and all eyes were bent upon the building.
From but one window out of the numerous ones with which the front of the mansion was studded did there shine the least light, and from that there came rather an uncommonly bright reflection, probably arising from a reading lamp placed close to the window.
A general impression, they knew not why exactly, seemed to pervade everybody, that in the room from whence streamed that bright light was Sir Francis Varney.
"The vampyre's room!" said several. "The vampyre's room! That is it!"
"Yes," said he who had a kind of moral control over his comrades; "I have no doubt but he is there."
"What's to be done?" asked several.
"Make no noise whatever, but stand aside, so as not to be seen from the door when it is opened."
"I will knock for admittance, and, the moment it is answered, I will place this stick in such a manner within, that the door cannot be closed again. Upon my saying 'Advance,' you will make a rush forward, and we shall have possession immediately of the house."
All this was agreed to. The mob slunk close to the walls of the house, and out of immediate observation from the hall door, or from any of the windows, and then the leader advanced, and knocked loudly for admission.
The silence was now of the most complete character that could be imagined. Those who came there so bent upon vengeance were thoroughly convinced of the necessity of extreme caution, to save themselves even yet from being completely foiled.
They had abundant faith, from experience, of the resources in the way of escape of Sir Francis Varney, and not one among them was there who considered that there was any chance of capturing him, except by surprise, and when once they got hold of him, they determined he should not easily slip through their fingers.
The knock for admission produced no effect; and, after waiting three or four minutes, it was very provoking to find such a wonderful amount of caution and cunning completely thrown away.
"Try again," whispered one.
"Well, have patience; I am going to try again."
The man had the ponderous old-fashioned knocker in his hand, and was about to make another appeal to Sir Francis Varney's door, when a strange voice said,—
"Perhaps you may as well say at once what you want, instead of knocking there to no purpose."
He gave a start, for the voice seemed to come from the very door itself.
Yet it sounded decidedly human; and, upon a closer inspection, it was seen that a little wicket-gate, not larger than a man's face, had been opened from within.
This was terribly provoking. Here was an extent of caution on the part of the garrison quite unexpected. What was to be done?
"Well?" said the man who appeared at the little opening.
"Oh," said he who had knocked; "I—"
"I—that is to say—ahem! Is Sir Francis Varney within?"
"I say, is Sir Francis Varney within?"
"Well; you have said it!"
"Ah, but you have not answered it."
"Well, is he at home?"
"I decline saying; so you had better, all of you, go back to the town again, for we are well provided with all material to resist any attack you may be fools enough to make."
As he spoke, the servant shut the little square door with a bang that made his questioner jump again. Here was a dilemma!
BRIGANDS OF THE MOON by Ray Cummings
The duty man at the exit locks stood at his window and watched me curiously. He saw me go up the spider stairs. He could see the figure he thought was Wilks, standing at the top. He saw me join Wilks, saw us locked together in combat.
For a brief instant the duty man stood amazed. There were two fantastic figures, fighting at the very brink of the cliff. They were small, dwarfed by distance, alternately dim and bright as they swayed in and out of the shadows. The duty man could not tell one from the other. To him it was Haljan and Wilks, fighting to the death!
The duty man sprang into action. An interior siren call was on the instrument panel near him. He rang it frantically.
The men came rushing to him, Grantline among them.
"What's this? Good God, Franck!"
They had seen the silent, deadly combat up there on the cliff.
Grantline stood stricken with amazement. "That's Wilks!"
"And Haljan," the duty man gasped. "He went out—something wrong with Wilks' actions—"
The interior of the camp was in a turmoil. The men, awakened from sleep, ran out into the corridors shouting questions.
"Is it an attack?"
But it was Wilks and Haljan in a fight up there on the cliff. The men crowded at the bull's-eye windows.
And over all the confusion the alarm siren, with no one thinking to shut it off, was screaming.
Grantline, momentarily stricken, stood gazing. One of the figures broke away from the other, bounded up to the summit from the stair platform to which they had both fallen. The other followed. They locked together, swaying at the brink. For an instant it seemed that they would go over; then they surged back, momentarily out of sight.
Grantline found his wits. "Stop them! I'll go out and stop them! What fools!"
He was hastily donning one of the Erentz suits. "Cut off that siren!"
Within a minute Grantline was ready. The duty man called from the window, "Still at it, the fools. By the infernal—they'll kill themselves!"
"Franck, let me out."
"I'll go with you, Commander." But the volunteer was not equipped. Grantline would not wait.
The duty man turned to his panel. The volunteer shoved a weapon at Grantline.
Grantline jammed on his helmet, took the weapon.
He moved the few steps into the air chamber which was the first of the three pressure locks. Its interior door panel swung open for him. But the door did not close after him!
Cursing the man's slowness, he waited a few seconds. Then he turned to the corridor. The duty man came running.
Grantline took off his helmet. "What in hell—"
"Smashed from outside," gasped the duty man. "Look there—my tubes—"
The control tubes of the ports had flashed into a short circuit and burned out. The admission ports would not open!
"And the pressure controls smashed! Broken from outside!"
There was no way now of getting through the pressure locks. The doors, the entire pressure lock system, was dead. Had it been tampered with from outside?
As if to answer Grantline's question there came a chorus of shouts from the men at the corridor windows.
"Commander! By God—look!"
A figure was outside, close to the building! Clothed in suit and helmet, it stood, bloated and gigantic. It had evidently been lurking at the port entrance, had ripped out the wires there.
It moved past the windows, saw the staring faces of the men, and made off with giant bounds. Grantline reached the window in time to see it vanish around the building corner.
It was a giant figure, larger than an Earth man. A Martian?
Up on the summit of the crater the two small figures were still fighting. All this turmoil had taken no more than a minute or two.
A lurking Martian outside? The brigand, Miko? More than ever, Grantline was determined to get out. He shouted to his men to don some of the other suits, and called for some of the hand projectors.
But he could not get out through these main admission ports. He could have forced the panels open perhaps; but with the pressure changing mechanism broken, it would merely let the air out of the corridor. A rush of air, probably uncontrollable. How serious the damage was, no one could tell as yet. It would perhaps take hours to repair it.
Grantline was shouting, "Get those weapons! That's a Martian outside! The brigand leader, probably! Get into your suits, anyone who wants to go with me! We'll go by the manual emergency exit."
But the prowling Martian had found it! Within a minute Grantline was there. It was a smaller two-lock gateway of manual control, so that the person going out could operate it himself. It was in a corridor at the other end of the main building. But Grantline was too late! The lever would not open the panels!
Had someone gone out this way and broken the mechanisms after him? A traitor in the camp? Or had someone come in from outside? Or had the skulking Martian outside broken this lock as he had broken the other?
The questions surged on Grantline. His men crowded around him. The news spread. The camp was a prison! No one could get out!
And outside, the skulking Martian had disappeared. But Wilks and Haljan were still fighting. Grantline could see the two figures up on the observatory platform. They bounded apart, then together again. Crazily swaying, bouncing, striking the rail.
They went together in a great leap off the platform onto the rocks, and rolled in a bright patch of Earthlight. First one on top, then the other.
They rolled unheeding to the brink. Here, beyond the midway ledge which held the camp, it was a sheer drop of a thousand feet, on down to the crater floor.
The figures were rolling; then one shook himself loose; rose up, seized the other and, with desperate strength, shoved him—
The victorious figure drew back to safety. The other fell, hurtling down into the shadows past the camp level—down out of sight in the darkness of the crater floor.
Snap, who was in the group near Grantline at the window gasped, "God! Was that Gregg who fell?"
No one could say. No one answered. Outside, on the camp ledge, another helmeted figure now became visible. It was not far from the main building when Grantline first noticed it. It was running fast, bounding toward the spider staircase. It began mounting.
And now still another figure became visible—the giant Martian again. He appeared from around the corner of the main Grantline building. He evidently saw the winner of the combat on the cliff, who now was standing in the Earthlight, gazing down. And he saw too, no doubt, the second figure mounting the stairs. He stood quite near the window through which Grantline and his men were gazing, with his back to the building, looking up to the summit. Then he ran with tremendous leaps toward the ascending staircase.
Was it Haljan standing up there on the summit? Who was it climbing the stairs? And was the third figure Miko?
Grantline's mind framed the questions. But his attention was torn from them, and torn even from the swift silent drama outside. The corridor was ringing with shouts.
"We're imprisoned! Can't get out! Was Haljan killed? The brigands are outside!"
And then an interior audiphone blared a calling for Grantline. Someone in the instrument room of the adjoining building was talking.
"Commander, I tried the telescope to see who got killed—"
But he did not say who got killed, for he had greater news.
"Commander! The brigand ship!"
Miko's reinforcements had come.