50. “We’re all going to hell!”

All their fighting and searching for information across the recursions as come to this point.  Burnie is ready and now just waits for the group to board and start their trip to the centre of the Earth and the Aleph component.

*****************************************************************************************

Day 2

Algernon was already waist-deep in the innards of Burnie when Bruce turned up at Peggy’s lab after breakfast.

“Last minute adjustment?”

“No, someone’s put a lock on the emergency button Hertzfeld installed,” Algernon reversed out of the mire of electrical cabling and pointed at the button, which now featured a shiny new lock holding down the perspex cover, “I’m following the lines to see what it’s connected to.”

“I put the lock on the button,” Bruce said a little smugly, seemingly having outwitted the two criminals in the group.

“Why?”

“I saw how you and Rain ogled that thing.  I don’t want it going off before it has to, so after dinner last night, I went out and bought a lock for which I have the only key.”  He displayed a shiny new key swinging from a chain.

“I guess I could just lockpick it,” Mused Algernon and Bruce’s self-satisfaction deflated a little.

“Nice jewellery, fellow Geonaut,” Tobias walked in to see Bruce putting away the key.

“To keep you out of the emergency button until we need it,” 

“Oh?” He looked into the cabin of Burnie and saw the lock,” Yes, should keep Algernon and me out for all of six seconds, what do you think?” Tobias turned to Algernon, who scoffed.

“If that.”

“Anything need done before we leave?” 

Bruce shook his head thoughtfully, but Algernon scrambled out of the van wiping the dust from his hands and knees.  He checked his phone, showing a view of Keating’s office.

“He’s in. I’d like to speak to Keating. I have a few last-minute requisitions.”

With a nod, the two men left the lab and started their walk across the campus towards the Administration block.  

Summer in Seattle was warm and humid. The water that surrounded Seattle providing the humidity also provided a cool breeze making the walk enjoyable.

“You know, the idea of destroying everything and starting again had an appeal for me,” Tobias mentioned in a moment of silence.

“Oh?” Algernon replied unaware Tobias had been mulling over the idea.

“Oh yes, I can understand Uentaru’s desire to take back what was lost. But, last night, I decided that I’d never go ahead with it if it meant losing you as my brother.”

Algernon didn’t know what to say.  His original belief of the two brothers had come from a misunderstanding of the sitcoms that educated him about Earth society in his first days with the group. He’d assumed the younger brother role to Tobias’ more experienced older brother.  Though those roles had been stretched and modified over time, during their first trip back to Ruk, the brotherhood had become more important to both of them, finding foundations in more than just a misunderstanding.  Tobias’ words now touched Algernon deeply, and he could only nod and brush away a speck of dust from his eye.  They walked on in silence, the cool breeze from the bay pushing them towards their destiny.

Knock! Knock! For once in their careers with The Estate, Algernon and Tobias waited patiently outside Keating door.

“Mr Keating, could we have a word?” Algernon asked, and Keating ushered him in, Tobias in tow.

“Yes, Algernon,”

“We are set for a dangerous mission, and there was just a few items I’d like to requisition if I may?” Algernon stated simply.  There was no need to discuss what the mission was. The whole Estate had been focused on the activities in Peggy’s lab since their return to days before.

“Yes,” Keating pulled out his requisition pad. Tobias said nothing and just watched.

“I’d like to request four kilos of C4, rocket-propelled grenades and launcher, a set of limpet mines and frag grenades, if I may?”

Keating stared at Algernon a moment, his expression unreadable, as the clock on the wall ticked out the seconds.

“If you were on any other mission…” He finally said and turned his attention to filling out the requests, “ You know, if you don’t succeed, no one is going to worry about the paperwork.”  He handed Algernon the requisition slip fully made out with every one of his requests, signed and dated.

“Congratulations on finally getting your heavy armament,” Tobias acknowledge the achievement.

They spent very little time walking across to stores.  One, because they weren’t sure when Peggy wanted to leave, but two, because they were worried Keating would have a change of mind and rescind the request.  As it was, the Quartermaster looked at the form twice, checked the signature was real and then against a copy on file.  He then rang Keating to confirm the request. In the end, he handed over the items in a black sports bag with some trepidation.

“What do you plan on blowing up?   The world?” He asked.

“The opposite, in fact,” Tobias replied, snatching up a flashlight he’d also acquired and followed Algernon out of stores with a cheerful wave goodbye.

Bruce and Peggy were doing some last-minute work to the van and getting into their silver heat suits as the boys arrived with their bag.

“What’s that?” Peggy asked suspiciously, pointing at the bag.

“Supplies.  Essential supplies,” Algernon stowed the bag in the van under a seat,  from which Peggy quickly extracted it and examined its contents.

“We don’t need these. We’re trying to stop everything from blowing up,” She removed the bag from the van.

“Peggy, could I have a short word?” Tobias asked, gently ushering her aside. 

“This is a highly experimental vehicle.  Do you want us to blow up before we get to our destination?” Peggy asked as Tobias gestured her aside, away from the van.

“That’s not what I want to talk. We may be going on a one-way mission, and we never seem to get around to talk about personal stuff much, This was not the conversation to have a few moments before launching a highly dangerous and experimental vehicle. “”I just wanted you to know that you are deserving of love and that maybe you should reach out now while you have a chance,” He said, completely stunning Peggy.

“What?”
“You mentioned you were able to crack that communication cypher and know how to do it.  I know you. You’ve been told your whole life that you are somehow unworthy of love.  Well, I want you to know you are and that there is someone you may want to reach out to before we go.”

“Who? You?” She asked, completely clueless about where this conversation was going.

Sensing that Peggy was thoroughly distracted, Algernon quietly returned his bag of explosives to their hiding place under the seat.

“No. Though I’m sure that would lead to a very short and intense relationship, that’s not who I’m referring to. Noel is no longer with the Geographic society because you confronted him.  Wouldn’t it be good to get in touch?”

“Him?” Peggy replied with disdain, “Oh no, he can chase me for a change.”

Tobias glanced over to the van where Algernon gave the all-clear sign.

“Well, okay,” He said, defeated, “I just wanted to make sure it was said before…well, I wanted you to know.”

“All right then,” Peggy physically shook the last few minutes of conversation from her mind, “Can we go now?”

“I wouldn’t want to hold up anything,” Tobias stepped out of the way and let Peggy through, a wistful look on his face. 

They silently donned their silvery heat suits and piled into the van.  There was a moment’s debate over who would drive.  Algernon had more flying experience, which driving Burnie was most like, but Peggy knew the systems better.  

“If something goes wrong, we’ll need you free to fix it, Peggy,” Tobias suggested, “You can ride shotgun and keep us on track while Algernon takes the pilot’s seat.”

Peggy grudgingly agreed and took the right-hand seat as Algernon eagerly climbed in behind the wheel.

Bruce made a show of the key on a chain for the group, making them all aware of the precautions he’d taken.    

“Now you’re just challenging me,” Tobias laughed, “You know that only makes pickpocketing it off you that much more interesting.”

“What? Are you going to rummage around in my pants for it?” Bruce looked suspiciously as his backseat companion.

“Well, we are facing the end of everything.  If not now, when do I let you know how I feel?” Tobias smirked and slouched back on Burnie’s bench seat.

Algernon pushed the start button, and the fusion engine hummed into electrical life behind the back seat.  The console in front of Peggy and Algernon lit up in LED  greens and yellows.  The air filled with the tension of static electricity as the world around the van seemed to shimmer as if a heat illusion.  Algernon rested his hands on the wheel.  Everyone watched for the moment when he would engage the engine and let Burnie slip beneath the ground.  Instead, he turned to Tobias, a thoughtful expression on his face.

“If I were to recreate the world, you’d been the first thing I make.” He said with genuine feeling.  Tobias leaned in, an expression of pure delight on his face.

“What a creative mind you have.  I’m sure you’d do it too.”

Algernon returned to watching the readouts as something akin to a brake was released, and Burnie dipped down and disappeared into the ground.

Technically, Burnie did not move forward, only down towards the core of the Earth.  They were the still point in the universe as the world slipped past the windows at four hundred and sixty metres per second. Beyond the glass and the shimmering field of Hertzfeld’s, very little could be seen. As soon as an interesting feature came into view through the front windows, it zipped past and was gone from view. The ride was smooth and, besides the hum of a tiny sun at their back, soundless. The small movements made by Algernon to adjust their trajectory were the only feeling of movement.  The lack of horizon and the constant fine adjustment soon had Bruce looking green.

With nothing to look at, Tobias was bored.  He flipped and shuffled a set of cards, only glancing up as Bruce turned in his seat and went to slide the window open.

“Gonna puke!”

“Don’t break the field!” Peggy shouted, and Bruce was doing a little shouting of his own.  Partially digested breakfast splattered the rock that had not seen the sun in billions of years and would make for interesting scientific discussion if it ever did again.

Red lights flashed on the dashboard as the field keeping them out of phase was disrupted.  The fusion engine’s whine pitched higher as it strained to provide energy to keep them from becoming part of the rock around them.  Algernon could feel Burnie grow sluggish, even bump into solid rock as parts of the field disappeared.  Bruce quickly closed the window and leaned back against it.

“Here,” Tobias dealt out cards on space between them on the bench seat, “Play cards with me.”
“I don’t think I can just now,” Bruce replied, a ghost of his robust self.

“It will take your mind off it.  Go on.”

Shakily, Bruce picked up the cards, and they played as Peggy stilled the alarms, and Algernon returned them to course.

With the view out the front window a confusing blur, Algernon soon got a feel for flying by sensors.  Several thousand kilometres after leaving Seattle, the sensor picked up a less dense patch of the Earth’s crust ahead.  Curious, Algernon steered Burnie towards it.  Suddenly, the ever-changing striation of rock turned to black, and the phase generator made odd gurgling noises.

“You idiot!” Peggy exclaimed once she realised what was happening, “You steered us into an oil deposit!”

“I didn’t know!  How was I to know?!” Algernon wailed as he tried adjusting course once more for the nearest solid rock.  Black smoke started leaking in from the driver’s side door.

Bruce grabbed a fire extinguisher behind the front seat, but no source for the fire could be found. Instead of coiling up and spreading across the roof, the smoke hung beside Algernon, gathering itself and creating a humanoid form. Watching it, Bruce recognised it as being akin to the shadow beings they fought in Dreamland.
“Shadow thing!  Light it up!”

Still trying to steer Burnie out of the oil pool, Algernon reached out and found a mind to touch.  Driven by a hunger for energy and life spark, there was not thoughts beyond feeding on this surprise meal.

“It wants to eat me, Bruce!  Get it off!”

Bruce didn’t need any more encouragement. With the base of the fire extinguisher, he smashed the shadow being.  A part of its being broke free and splashed onto Bruce, burning him with cold.  The creature pulled itself together, becoming a dark smudge between Algernon and Peggy in the front seat.  The atmosphere in the cab quickly chilled to below freezing, and everyone felt the cold drain their ability to move, even their will to live.  Once more, alarms sounded as the fusion engine strained.  The creature was drawing all energy to itself. If they didn’t stop it soon, they would become a frozen block of matter floating in a sea of oil.

While Algernon focused on driving them out, Peggy zapped the creature with her plasma bolt, sending blue-white light ripping through the creature’s body.  As a reaction, the creature exploded around her, plunging her into darkness. Tobias injected a mind-meld cypher into his arm and pulled out his flashlight.

You should leave now!  He thought at the creature and flicked on the light.  The creature recoiled from the high beams, making it easier for Bruce to swing through with his Crowbar.  It almost cut the creature in half, part of it dissipating in the air, the rest reaching out to touch its enemy, Bruce.  He batted away its advances before turning aside as Peggy launched another plasma bolt.  Weakened, the cloud of darkness convulsed then finally exploded, sending a jolt of cold through everyone.  

With a shaking, pale hand, Algernon reached out and turned on Burnie’s heater.  He’d been closest to the creature and been unable to dodge its draining attacks. Shivering, he focused on driving them out of the oil and back to rock as Bruce provided first aid. The first attempt at healing seemed to do little to relieve Algernon of the cold.

“It’s okay if you can’t heal me,” Algernon said miserably.  

“No, this will not stand,” Bruce responded and double his efforts.  Slowly the colour came back to Algernon’s skin, and he seemed to relax back into his seat.

Sooner than most expected, sensors picked up a spike of energy emanating from somewhere ahead.  A particularly large wave of energy from the Aleph Component rolled towards Burnie, and Algernon scanned the rock ahead for a dense patch of granite to hide behind.  The wave rolled over, sending sparks flying from the console and throwing the van around like a ship in a storm.  With sharp reflexes and a sense of balance trained from hours of flying, Algernon regained control of Burnie and drifted around another dense lump in their path.

“You, sir, are Kanada!  Definitely Kanada!” Tobias laughed, slapping his friend on the back as Bruce hunted stray sparks and potential fire with the extinguisher.

“You’ve been doing doughnuts in the carpark, haven’t you?” Bruce said, stowing the extinguisher once more unused.

Waves of energy were now hard to ignore. They sent pins and needles up and down limbs and made thinking difficult. They knew they were close when suddenly the rock gave way to a mammoth cavern lit by magma.  In the centre of the cavern, leaning to one side, was a block of worked metal. It certainly had not to place down in the depth of the Earth and had to be the Aleph Component.

“Can anyone see a place to park?” Peggy asked, looking out at the scene of awe with a hunting gaze.

A small opening in a wall drew the attention of everyone but the driver.  Too used to driving by instruments, Algernon barely had a thought for what was outside the window.  As Peggy turned off the phasing field, Algernon skidded low over the Aleph component itself, clipping Burnie as wheels impacted.  Suddenly aware they were back in phase, Algernon rolled Burnie to a halt in front of the crack in the wall.

Peggy slapped him across the head, “That’s for stupid driving!” She said, flipping her heat suit helmet over her head and opening the passenger door.  The heat rolled through the cabin, making everyone scramble for their helmets as the radiation off the magma flow outside evaporated the moisture from eyes and lips, making even breathing difficult.  Peggy had already circled Burnie checking for damage before the others had got out.

“It may have taken us a day to build, but I don’t think anyone wants to stay a day here to have it fixed,” Peggy grumbled through the suit’s inbuilt audio system.

While Peggy did what she could to make sure Burnie ready for the trip back, the others took in the view of the Aleph Component.  It was an irregular oblong shape of some composite materials. Metal walls gave way to flowing fluid gold veins, and the opening led into hallways of ivory and amber.  Though built, the angles and geometry of the component was alien and bewildering.  Knowing it had been part of a transport system did not help understand how the Aleph Component did or worked.  It could take a lifetime of study to understand, but who could spend that long in the oven that was the Aleph component’s resting place?

Once Peggy was satisfied that Burnie was in good enough condition to take them back, the group headed out on foot through the opening carved through the wall.  Bruce made sure he was last out of the van, leaving the key in the lock of the emergency button just in case they needed to go in a hurry.

Once walking the hallways, it was clear the confusing architecture extended to the interior as well.  Floors, walls and roof were all of the same ivory and amber panelling chased with the liquid gold veining. Hallways branched off from the first, and even more concerning, wall and floors seemed to move and shift, making for an ever-changing maze.  Tobias tried marking walls they passed with playing cards jammed into cracks. They quickly burnt up in the heat or fell out as walls moved to be ceilings of floors. Still, some did leave dark scorch marks on the pale coloured walls.  

The group travelled for miles through the winding and changing passages.  The Aleph component was far larger than the small chunk of it that rested in the cavern. 

“How much further do we go?” Bruce asked once they’d been travelling for a few hours without a pause.

Peggy reached out to Sense the Strange, and hopefully the heart of the mechanism.  Instead she could feel the Strange from all corners, it was a machine of the Strange after all.  A resonance or pulse could be felt coming from ahead.  

“Interesting, the liquid gold is not part of the original component.  I wonder if it’s Chaos Templar technology?” Peggy mused, “I’d suggest that this was her way into the component. Possibly to keep the hallways stable enough to come and go.”

“So, just follow the gold out, got it,” Bruce noted as Peggy started again, following the pulse.

As with mazes, there was no warning when the passageway suddenly opened up into a large chamber with a hole in the wall where liquid gold oozed out.  White energy rods held everything in place across the hole.  But that was not what had everyone’s attention.  

At least two metres tall, It looked like it had been made of all the parts leftover from creating the world’s creepiest beasts.   Four whip-like tentacles swung back and forth in front of four eyes on stalks.  The torso was a grey muscular stump leading to four thick tentacles that dragged it around.  It was hard to imagine where such a beast would feel at home, but it was certainly doing well in the baking heat inside the Aleph component.

Instantly, Bruce was ready to attack, guns drawn.  

“Wait!  Will you wait just a second before murdering everyone we meet?!” Tobias yelled, “Can I just talk to it?”

“You want to talk to that!?” Bruce asked, dumbfounded at the horror.

“I have up mind meld from the shadow creature attack. Please just let me try.”

With a grumble, Bruce lowered his guns, and Tobias stepped forward. Not sure how intelligent the creature was, he started simply projecting peace and goodwill.

The lower tentacles pushed the trunk of a body around so three eyes could get a good look at Tobias advancing. 

Who are you?   Are you with the Chaos Templars? I was expecting Uentaru. A voice replied, calm and thoughtful.

Even in the bulk of the heat suit, Tobias visibly relaxed at having reached an intelligent mind.

“We have come from Uentaru,” Tobias said and projected so that everyone knew what was said.  He thought for a moment.  If he was ever going to be convincing, this was the moment.  Choosing his words carefully, Tobias laced them with The Strange ensuring the creature would believe whatever he said.

“We have come with Uentaru’s knowledge.”
So you are here for the remaking?

“Yes, the time has arrived.” Tobias stepped up again. This time the group followed.

But Uentaru, where is she?

“There was resistance, and she was injured.  She has sent us ahead.”

“Ah, “ The whip-like tentacles shivered with what Tobias could only assume was excitement, “Long, I have waited this moment. Are you ready to perform the remaking?”

He gestured behind him to Peggy and Algernon, “My associates know the way and are ready.”

Peggy walked past and started examining the weeping wound in the wall.  Algernon stopped to look at the creature.

“Can you ask it about what this is and how it work?” He asked Tobias, who smiled nervously under his helmet.

“I can’t ask too many questions.  It thinks we’re with Uentaru and know what to do.”

Your friend seems unsure. Is he not ready for the remaking? The creature asked, two of its eyes turning just to watch Algernon, and he joined Peggy at the wall.

“He’s being cautious,” Tobias replied smoothly before deciding on a little distraction, “Tell me, we have never met anyone like you.  How do you come to work for the Chaos Templars?”

“My world was destroyed when our sun exploded. The Chaos Templars saved those of us they could and settled us on other worlds,” The creature slithered closer to Tobias, its thin tentacles examining his heat suit.

“What’s going to happen when this thing works out the end of the world hasn’t occurred?” Bruce growled in frustration from behind, still holding his guns at the ready.

“Well, I guess then it’s your turn?”

Across the room, Peggy and Algernon were getting their heads around the task ahead.  Peggy realised that the wound gave access to the energy collected by the Alephcomponent.  The energy needed to be siphoned off if  they were to stop the component from discharging itself.  Theoretically, not that hard.  Practically, the two theorists were at odds.

“Instead of dissipating the energy and wasting it, why don’t we use it to create a new recursion,” Algernon asked.

 “You want to make a mockery of what Uentaru intended?” Peggy replied with some disgust, “How would you know where to start? What do any of us know about her world?”

“Yes!  You could think of it more as an en marge,” Tobias replied, overhearing the argument, “I talked to her about her world while you were busy building Burnie. We have some broad strokes to start with.”

Tobias turned to Algernon, “Do you think you could do it?  I can tell you want I know, but I think it would be good to put a little of each of us into the creation of a world.” 

“Like what?” Bruce now joined in the conversation.  The idea of creating something new from disaster was appealing, especially if it could bring back even a little of what was lost.

“Well…how about Peggy’s reckless curiosity and your bravery and stoicism?”

“Creative thinking and goodnatured charm,” Algernon added,  pulling the entropic seed from his backpack.

“I like it,” Bruce nodded, and though they could feel Peggy scowl from behind the orange lens of her helmet, she too finally agreed.

Using this Spin ideal, Tobias implanted the idea of Uentaru’s world in Algernon’s mind, filling it with as much detail as he could from her recollections and their combined ideals.

Carefully, Algernon introduced the entropic seed to the raw source of energy, diverting the power away. The seed started to grow large, sending out roots that embedded themselves into the broken wall.  From the top burst a stem and then, as it grew, a large round leaf unfurled.  The leaf grew to almost two metres across before forming into an anaposite gate through which a new world could be seen. In the foreground, a field of plants and animals unknown on Earth.  In the distance,  a glistening silver city of lights and life. 

A pressure they hadn’t realised they had been feeling was released. A great whirring within the Aleph component subsided as the energy was quietly siphoned off into the new recursion.  The group looked at each other, unsure what to do.

“Is that it?  Did we do it?” Bruce finally vocalised.  In response, Peggy stepped forward and walked through the portal and into the field beyond.  The others followed, the first adventurers into this new world.

I did not expect this,  Said the creature from inside the Aleph compnent. Was this what was to occur?  I expected something….bigger.

“I assure you this is exactly how I envisioned it,” Tobias replied, and the creature ungainly dragged itself through the portal and into the new world.

It is a good place. I could live here, It replied and wandered off to explore its new home.

They spent some time in the new world loosely based on Uentaru’s lost home. Everywhere they looked, new life was sprouting.  Peggy kept taking samples as Algernon examined the gate and determined it would last for a year or so on the energy from the Aleph Component.  

“I could set up a base here and research the Aleph component in relative comfort,” Algernon mused as he turned his back on the new creation around him and went back into to explore hell on the other side of the portal.

There was a discussion about translating back to Earth from the new recursion.  But, as they’d left from the Aleph Component, that path back to the Estate needed reestablishing before any other travel could happen.  One by one, they walked back through the portal from the cool spring freshness of the recursion to the oven-like temperatures of the cavern.  

As they silently walked through, Tobias looked up at the walls and ceiling of the alien marvel around them.  Reaching out, he touched a wall, “It was very nice to finally meet you,” He said, making Bruce stop in his tracks.  There was no reply, and Tobias lowered his hand slowly.

“A quiet god.  Good, probably for the best,” Bruce said, and Tobias could only nod and agree.

The trip back was quiet and uneventful.  No waves of energy now flowed from the Aleph component, and Algernon was careful to steer clear of oil deposits.  Through Peggy’s careful calculations and Algernon’s driving, they made it back to the Surface, Seattle and the Estate.  

They had been gone less than a day, saved their world and created a new one.

Hertzfeld welcomed the explorers back with news that as soon as he’d seen the quakes subsided, he knew they had succeeded, “Only thing I don’t understand is why Mount Rushmore now has a forty-two chiselled into it.”

As the days past news also came back from Ruk.  Dram-Shara had returned with Giquabee and joined the Quiet Cabal.  She reported back that the top four floors of Whole Body Grafts had imploded, taking Bel-Tamar and his experiments with it.

Back at the Estate, Bruce campaigned hard to allow Uentaru access to the new recursion if she showed redemption for her actions, “But, not for a year at least.  Wait until the portal to the Aleph Component is gone first.”

As soon as they got back, Peggy’s first job was to lock down Burnie so Uentaru could not get access to it.  Her hatred of the woman who almost destroyed everything was absolute.  The same could not be said for Tobias.

The day after the trip, Tobias went down into the holding cells to see Uentaru one last time before they ‘moved her on’.

“It’s nice to be able to ask how are you today?” He said as a guard opened the door for him to enter.

“Why did you come here?  To gloat?” Uentaru no longer looked so stoically accepting of fate and was slumped dejectedly back on the cot in the cell, “Everything I had worked for, for hundreds of years, gone.”

“Maybe not everything is lost.  Don’t give up hope. Remember, we live.” Tobias said simply, stepping closer without touching her.

“I wanted you to know that I understood your desire to rebuild your planet. There are many of us refugees in the universe, just looking for a home.”

“But you didn’t condone it enough to allow me to at least try.” She said flatly, all energy gone from her voice.

“You can’t go back, and certainly not at such a cost.”  He swallowed and ploughed on with his plans,” Look, I’ve heard they’re moving you on and…”  Tobias eyed the guards who stood silently watching from the other side of the glass and mesh, “I don’t know what the Estate does to its enemies.  I wish you luck wherever fate takes you, and I hope that our paths will one day cross again.” He bowed, and in bowing, he quickly sleight of handed the Ruk portal cypher to  Uentaru’s overall pocket.

Her eyes flickered down for a moment as she registered something had changed.  She looked up at Tobias, him still watching, his violet gaze on hers.

“Thank you, so do I.”

That evening security were in a frenzy as word got out that Uentaru had somehow escaped.  Investigations were made, but no one could work out how she could have been in her cell in one moment and gone the next. Her hatred for Uentaru led Peggy to scour all the security footage of Uentaru’s last day at the Estate.  Besides the guards providing food, a representative of the Estate had visited but kept well back from the notorious criminal. Tobias, too had not touched or handed her anything during his visit, though he did get close as was his nature.  Frame by frame, Peggy scanned the footage of Tobias’ visit, yet she did not see him pass anything.  

And then, she noticed in one frame, his right hand was in his pocket; the next, it was by his side.  In one twenty-fifth of a second, Tobias moved something from his pocket and returned his hand to his side.  It was hard to see, he’d angled his body so the cameras could not get a good shot, and anyone who didn’t know him would have thought nothing of it.  Certainly, there wasn’t enough evidence to make a case on.

But Peggy knew. 

Tobias had conveniently taken himself off back to Ni’Challan with the remains of the helicopter and the suits.  Peggy locked down her lab, banning Tobias access to her or any of her work. She told Hertzfeld she was done with fieldwork and requested that all her tasks be lab-based from now on. When Tobias returned, it was to cold stares and curt answers.  She never told him what she’d discovered, and he never asked, but both knew that for them, nothing would be the same.

When Bruce gave his debrief, Katherine congratulated him on a job well done.

“You and your team may have had a dubious start, but you’ve shown yourself to be a first-class agent.  I’m hoping I can convince you to share some of your knowledge, become a supervising officer for junior agents?”


Bruce was flattered.  For much of his life, he’d felt like he’d been waiting, marking time for something to happen. Never could he imagined it would have started on a dark empty highway in the middle of a storm.  

“I thank you, working with the younger recruits sounds just fine, but…I love going out exploring, investigating with my…group.  I wouldn’t want to lose that.”

“Shame.  I appreciate what you’re saying, but the offer still stands,” Katherine stood and reached across her table to Bruce, “Thank you for all you’ve done.”

Bruce stood and shook her hand, glad he’d finally found his place.

Other news filtered through as the days moved into weeks.  It seemed that supplies of Spiral Dust had ceased. Don Whitclif was furious with whoever had destroyed his latest lucrative business and was looking for enemies.  Rumours had Uentaru seen back with the Chaos Templars, but her whereabouts were unknown.

Algernon returned to the Aleph Component and the new recursion. With his ability to adapt to his surroundings, he didn’t feel the heat of the cavern as badly as other researchers and spent long hours exploring the Aleph Component alone.  He initially set up a base outside the portal in the new recursion where he could enjoy the best of both worlds. Eventually, Algernon received the resources to set up a base inside the Aleph Component, a comfortable space to do his work and translate to and from safely.  He shared his research with Peggy, who made an effort to build a relationship with him, and together they…edited his research notes for submission to The Estate.   If the Estate’s scientists and leadership ever discovered they were not getting the whole story about the Aleph Component, it was never mentioned. 

Bruce and Tobias tried to keep the group together, occasionally persuading Peggy to leave her lab or Algernon to return from the cavern.  But, mostly, it was just the two of them aided by a group of junior agents.  Eventually, Bruce accepted the permanent role as supervisor of the junior agents, and Tobias spent more time with Ni’Challan and his own plans outside the watching eyes of the Estate.

49. Five days

Nakarand had been faced and defeated, and the group returned to Earth with Dram-Shara, a missing Ruk scientist and Uentaru, Earth’s real enemy.  Now they need to find a way of stopping the Aleph component from tearing the Earth apart and with it all the recursions.

**************************************************************************

It was an early Summer morning.  All over the campus, bird and squirrels were starting their days as Estate Agents check-in for morning shifts or got in a little exercise before work.  At the labs, there was a buzz of activity from deep below. 

“I’ve been working on the transport. It still needs an energy source and a time to plan…” Hertzfeld, head of the Scientific Department, walked briskly beside his smaller but formidable associate, Dr Peggy Martin.

“Energy source, I have.  Time we don’t.  Show me your lab.” Peggy displayed the fully charged battery rod, “What were you saying about something coming out of the Earth’s crust?”

“Yes, I have access to quite a few detectors all over the world.  With the usual seismic detectors, magnetic and neutrino detectors, the data is incredible. I wanted you to go over it with me.”

“Fine. I’d suggest it has to do with the Aleph component, a piece of old tech lodged in the Earth crust. Uentaru has been feeding psychic resonance to it with the use of Spiral Dust.  With the potential power of the component, she was trying to recreate her own lost world.”

“Uh-huh…maybe you should start from the beginning.”

Algernon had become the guardian of the entropic seed by default.  He was hoping to talk to Uentaru about its properties and searched for Tobias to smooth the way with her.  Unfortunately, Tobias had taken himself off to the dorms and collapsed on his bed, fully dressed.  Algernon looked at his bed for a moment, also contemplating a few hours rest. Turning Nakarand’s digestive juices to acid exhausted him more than he let on.  He swayed on the spot, clutching the entropic seed like his child.  In the end, it was the seed that won out as it almost slipped out of his tired arms, waking him with a start.  Heavily he turned and left the dorm determined to do what he could without Tobias and headed for the library.

The warm, quiet environment of the library was not conducive to staying awake.  Neither was the resource material which seemed to consist mostly of fringe conspiracy theory articles from magazines such as the New Aquarian. However, Algernon persevered.  On the entropic seed itself, almost nothing, a definition similar to that Uentaru had provided inside Nakarand.  A powerful item of almost unlimited potential.  He did confirm what she had to say about it powering the Aleph component, which was something. Her information could be relied upon if she were willing to tell the truth…or compelled.

On the Aleph component, he found almost nothing but near science fiction.  In this case, it seemed, that they happened upon the truth didn’t excuse the articles lack of evidence for their assumptions.  Many believed that something, not another proto-planet, hit Earth, forming the moon billions of years ago.  Very few had ideas what it was, but reading between the lines and gathering all the snippets together, Algernon gathered it was an item of The Strange.  What interested him most were notes, scribbled in the margin on these articles.  Beside one theory as to the nature of the object, someone had written Defunct Intergalactic Transport System, location unknown. Algernon looked back at who had signed these files out before him.  In every case of scribbled notes, Hertzfeld had signed out the file.

As usual, Bruce went straight to Katherine to debrief her on what had occurred. His continuing frame of mind to destroy something had not cooled.  It simmered as he explained what the party had discovered.  If anything, it seemed contagious as Katherine became more and more disturbed as he spoke.

“These beings are playing with us like a football!”He ended with a menacing grumble.

“You found something that will destroy the world?” Katherine replied, standing and leaving her desk, “To Hertzfeld, now.”

Hertzfeld’s experiment had grown considerably from the glove they played with the previous Christmas. Most of the lab benches, vacuum hoods and heavy lab equipment was pushed aside or removed entirely to make way for a black-painted Kombi van on ramps.  Hardware was bolted on its chassis, with wiring running everywhere. Something like the mesh the glove had been made of covered the front of the van. The van itself had been guttered except for the driver’s seat, and a wheel, much like that in an aircraft yoke, replaced the whole steering wheel assembly and connected to guidance panels on either side of the van.

When Katherine and Bruce entered the lab, Hertzfeld and Peggy were pawing over data from various seismic readers from all over the world.  Activity had been building for the last few days after a long quiet period. 

“If this trend continues, it seems the world has five days before it’s torn apart from the inside,” Peggy dispassionately presented the information to the alarmed group, “The destabilising event is inevitable unless we can release the resonance energies safely.  I’ve also established the activity is coming from 1,800 miles below, that’s well through the crust and just above the mantle.  We will need Hertzfeld’s invention online if we have any chance of getting there in time.”

“Right,” Katherine said, turning to Hertzfeld, “So what do you need?  Bruce said something about a seed…”

“An entropic seed.  Uentaru said it could help save the Earth,” Peggy supplied, but she knew little more.

“As to what we need,” Hertzfeld continued, “I need help extending the phasing field over the whole van, I need an energy supply to run it and some sort of guidance system to get the van to where it needs to go.” 

“Good, any suggestions for talent?  You can have anyone here, but is there anyone you would recommend from another recursion?”

“We brought Dram-Shara back with us from Nakarand.  She’s a biochemist, but there might be something she can help with,” Peggy suggested, and Hertzfeld put a call into security were Dram-Shara was being debriefed.

“There’s the Quiet Cabal. There were a few good hands there,” Bruce offered, and Kathrine made a note to send an agent to Ruk.

“Do you think Ni-Challan? He’s handy with his robots and computers,” Peggy offered as a suggestion, “We should also talk to Uentaru.  Her life depends on us getting to the component in time.”

“The one that put us in this mess!” Bruce growled with disgust, ”I’ll see what I can do there. God knows I understand only one of five things ya’ll talking about,” He pointed at Peggy and Hertzfeld.

“Rain can go talk to Ni’Challan…does anyone know where he’s gone?”

“He stumbled off to the dorms earlier,” Peggy yawned, stifling her own need for sleep.

“Figures…” Bruce said so low it came out only as a bass grumble.  With nothing more to say, he stormed out to talk to Uentaru.

No one got in Bruce’s way as he stormed through security and down to the detention cells.  No one dared.  His expression murderous and his body language threatening violence, his footsteps rung through the empty corridor to Uentaru’s cell.  The shiny metal mesh and glass cage was a faraday cage against those who could connect to The Strange.  It stopped Uentaru using any abilities she had, including translating.  Bruce stared at her through the mesh as two guards on charge intercepted him.

“I’m sorry, sir, you can’t talk to the prisoner,”

“Let me in and lock me in!” Bruce replied, not taking his eyes off Uentaru, who just turned her head and ignored the theatrics.

“Sir, we have strict orders to…”

“And I’m telling you we don’t have time to go through channels.  Let me in there and lock me in.”

The two guards look at each other, and as one put through a call on his walkie-talkie, the other opened the cage and let Bruce in.  

Bruce didn’t waste a moment. He stomped in and, lifting Uentaru by the collar of her Estate provided overalls, pinned her to the wall.

“They tell me the Earth ends in five days.”

“Well, if I was there to make it happen, my world would be reborn.” She stared back at him, unconcerned for her welfare.

“What happens.”

“Your world will end.  The only chance any of us have is if something good comes out of the tragedy.”

“The energies will be released, where?”

“Deep underground.”

“Where?!”

“Earth’s core. You won’t get there in time.  Face it. We’re all doomed.”

“What if we dismantle the Spiral Dust network?”

She laughed. A trilled that would have excited men for a thousand years, now it sounded hollow and defeated, “It’s in motion. No one can stop it now.  Do you think to put the water back once the dam is broken? I think not.”

Bruce stared at her a moment, trying to read her but unsure what was going on behind her too calm expression. 

“You’re pathetic,” He finally said and dropped her back on her bunk before turning and asking to be let out.

Peggy also entered security to see Dram-Shara.  As both Katherine and Hertzfeld were busy, Lawrence Keaton was debriefing Dram-Shara and preparing passage for her back to Ruk. Peggy didn’t believe in preambles and interrupted the interview.

“Are you a realist or an extremist, Dram-Shara?”

“Pardon?”

“You are an employee of a Karrum owned business. I asked you what do you think of Ruk’s chances if Earth and all the recursion were destroyed?”

“I…I surmise…Ruk would be severely damaged if not destroyed in such a case.”

“Good.  We have five days to stop that exact thing from happening.” Peggy said, turning to leave.

“Is that your way of asking for my help?” Dram-Shara scoffed, leaning back on her plastic chair.

“There’s no point in asking unless you’re interested. I can see you have a vested interest in saving Earth, so why bother wasting the words.  You know what is at stake.”

Dram-Shara sat there a moment staring at Peggy perplexed before standing silently and following Peggy back to the labs.

Bruce returned to the lab as Peggy finished briefing Dram-Shara on what was required and using her communication cypher to talk directly to Giquabee of the Quiet Cabal.  Though it pained her not to make her ear-worm torture device from the cypher, she realised that talking directly to people instead of relying on official channels could tip the balance.  With less than five days, they needed every advantage they could get.  Bruce took one look at the lab, knew it was not a place for him and stormed off again.  

Peggy yawned.  They’d been up for 36 hours and travelled two recursions and a worm.  It had been a long day, and she decided she needed some rest before focusing her mind on the work ahead.  As she left, she noticed Bruce travelling in the same direction as her.  She hoped to just follow in after him and slip past to the women’s dorms before anything more was asked of her.  That wasn’t to be.

Ahead she heard Bruce stomping down the vinyl floored hallway before slamming open the men’s dorm door.

“Ah! Ow!” Tobias cried from inside as he was suddenly jolted awake by the fuming Bruce. Spotting Peggy, Bruce also waved her into the men’s dorm before closing the door.

“Bruce, I need some sleep,” Peggy yawned again and climbed up onto Algeron’s well-made bed.  It was so comfortable she lay her head on the pillow as she listened to the other two talk.

“I was asleep,” Drawled Tobias stretching out the cricks in his back and neck, “What is this about and can’t it wait until I’ve had a few hours rest?”

“She knows,” Bruce ignored Tobias’ complaint.  

“Of course she does. It’s her plan” Tobias knew exactly who ‘She’ was and what she knew.

“I want to know what she knows about the component.”

“Well,” Tobias stretched again and stood up in one graceful move, “I guess I could ask her now,” He mused as he examined himself.  His clothes did not translate but were a little worse for being slept in. “ I’ll go freshen up a little.”

“We don’t have time…”

“There is always time to look decent.  Besides, alarms are only there to make the guilty do something foolish.” He replied quoting Alegernon, and walked into the showers.

“Oh, and don’t forget to talk to Ni’Challan about… help…ing,” Peggy said sleepily as she pulled Algernon’s blankets over her and fell asleep.

The ten minutes it took Tobias to clean off the worst of his exhaustion and smarted up his suit may have seemed an eternity to Bruce, but the duo were soon walking across the Estate, the little man chipper and as fresh looking as someone who’d just come back from holidays.  

“We could do with Algernon and his mind scraping,” Bruce said as they drew near the library.

“Bruce, have you ever wondered about the nature of God?”

Bruce stopped in his tracks.  The thought was so contrary to anything his brains was trying to comprehend that it froze, his mouth hanging open in astonishment.

Tobias stopped when he realised that Bruce was no longer by his side.

“What I mean is, it’s sort of a revelation to find out that God is a machine, don’t you think?”

“What…? Why are you talking at me about this?” Bruce wailed, finally finding his feet once more.

“I get Jesus. A man of his time, totally quickened. It only makes sense.  The same with Buddha and Mohammad.  These are people speaking of their time with voices and actions affected by the Strange.  But God?  We’re always told he’s unknowable, that his ways are ineffable and that it will all become clear at the end of days.  Well, we’re at the end of days, and I think it has been made clear.  The Aleph machine is God, and we couldn’t hope to understand it because what’s to understand?  It’s a broken down piece of alien tech, right?”

“Are you sure you don’t want to speak to a priest or something about this?” 

“Oh goodness no, could you imagine?  Hey, that religion you’ve been so keen on for 2000 years or more?  What if I told you I had evidence its deity is space junk?  No.  Algernon has no concept of God, and Peggy is busy.  You had a Christian upbringing. I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts.”

Bruce was not a philosophising man, but neither was he stupid.  He had a feeling that Tobias was playing with him a little, maybe for getting him out of bed.

“Look, all I know is you do what’s right, right?”

“But what’s right in relation to a machine?”

“It doesn’t matter about God.  You do what’s right. Look after others as you’d want them to look after you…”

“The Two Great Commandments, or at least Jesus version is.  So, it is not the power, God, Aleph component that matters, but how we respond to it?”

“Yes…?” Was that was Bruce was saying?  It sounded right but very wrong all at the same time.  Just then, he spotted Algernon through the library windows and, with a silent sigh of relief and pointed him out.

“Greeting all-powerful one.  Tell me, how do you destroy a planetoid with your mind and still walk around like an everyday human being?” Tobias joked as they walked up to Algernon in the near-deserted library, his head deep in files. When Algernon raised his head to respond, the pale complexion and deep bags under the eyes spoke for him, “Ah , so that’s how.  Still mere flesh then.”

“We’re going to have a chat with Uentaru,” Bruce ignored Tobias, who was obviously in  a prankish mood, “I’d like you to pick her brains.”

“I couldn’t last time I tried,” Algernon replied, staking up the files for the librarians to file away, “ Her mind was shielded or something. But I do have some questions to ask.” And leaving the library the trio headed towards security. Bruce made one more stop before reaching Uentaru.  At security, he signed out his gun, checked and holstered it.

“You don’t need a gun, Bruce.” Tobias was suddenly serious.

“Why not?”

“What do you hope she will say at the point of a gun she wouldn’t say before?  And I won’t help you with torture.”

“You just do your thing, and I won’t need the gun.” He replied adamantly, and they continued to their destination.

Uentaru was as before, sitting on a cot in the glass and wire cage.  Tobias led the way, politely knocking on the glass before speaking.

“How are you keeping?” He asked like a concerned friend at a sick bed.

“Fine,” She replied curtly, not bothering to keep eye contact once she saw who was there.

“Mind if I come in?” Tobias asked, watching her demeanour.   

“Suit yourself.” She was putting on a strong front. She’d had to for a long time. She was alone in the universe.  

Tobias asked for the cage to be opened, and he stepped inside.  There was nowhere else to sit beside the floor. Flicking up his yellow jacket, he couched to be on a level with Uentaru.

“Bruce tells me you are a Chaos Templar. That you founded the order. I found it intriguing that you created a group whose sole focus was to stop planets being destroyed.”

Uentaru’s gaze swung around, baleful and contemptuous, “I saved thousands of planets from destruction. I earned the right to resurrect what was.”

“Hmm, I’m not arguing with you.  But, do you think it’s a view your fellow knights would share?” Tobias asked, and the strong exterior cracked a little.  

“You know nothing of the Chaos Templars,” She couldn’t look at him and turned away, seemingly disinterested in the conversation.  But, for a moment, he saw the despondency and her complete lack of hope. 

Summoning the power of the Strange, Tobias wove one thought, an ideal that where there is life, there is hope.  With it, he continued to talk, embedding the ideal in Uentaru’s mind.

“That’s true. Nonetheless, they seem a noble group. I’d like to get to know them, Uentaru.”

“Well, it’s too late.  Everything is in motion. You can’t save it now.“ Now the hopelessness was obvious to everyone watching.

“Never,” Tobias smiled, trying to catch her eye, “We have a vehicle that can get us to the Aleph component, and we have the entropic seed.  We have the brilliant minds of Algernon and Peggy to guide us, and we’ve even got people from Ruk helping out. No, we have life, Uentaru, and while we have that, we have hope.”

The ideal connected with his words and sparked something deep within Uentaru. Her head bowed, and after a long pause, she spoke again, “If I had an Entropic seed, this is how I’d use it…”

Algernon took over the conversation from that moment on, asking appropriate questions to understand the true nature of the seed and how to use it in the situation.

“So, with the Entropic seed, we can turn off the Aleph component?”

“Yes, but you don’t want to do that.  The Aleph component made the Strange. It made Earth the way it is. If the Aleph component is turned off or destroyed…well, it would be the same as doing nothing.” She said with assurance that gave the group pause—doomed if they did too little, doomed if they did too much.

“The Earth is a rare place.  I search a thousand years and found only Earth with its link to the recursion and the Strange.  No other prime world has such a link. It created a race of people all with the spark and the highest concentration of quickened in the Universe.”

“Can I ask how you were going to get to the Aleph component when the time was right?” Algernon asked. It wasn’t a question that had come across anyone else’s minds.

“I have a key to cavern where the Aleph component lies. I keep it in a private recursion. The only way for you to get there is with a recursion key, a poster, held by my associate in Cairo.”

“Could you take us there?” Tobias asked hopefully.

“That’s not happening, Rain,” Bruce warned as Tobias shrugged his shoulders.  Instead, Bruce spoke to one of the guards and asked a message be send to the Cairo office and see if they could get a hold of the poster.  

“Uentaru?” Algernon asked again, “The distribution arrangement for the Dustman, how did you do all of that?”

“Contacts.  I found and gave him the contacts. The Crow Hollow families were ideal managers of the network. I arranged it for him.”
“The qephilim woman with the bright yellow mythlight…” Tobias slapped his head, “Remember Algernon?  Rimush back in Ardeyn told you that the Dustman first came with a woman.”  He turned to Uentaru in awe, “I never questioned you…you were so… good.”

Uentaru didn’t respond, only bowed her head so no one could see her face.

Algernon continued with his question, ”Do you have any tech that would be useful to us?”

“No,” She said without raising her head, “ I have nothing, you’ve taken everything from me.”

Algernon had what he needed to know. It was time to go.  

“I’ll come by for another conversation soon,” Tobias said, standing and leaving the cage “Say five days?”

It was late.  Bruce and Algernon had not slept at all since returning. In an unspoken agreement, they headed back to the dorms for a decent rest before the hard work of the next few days.  Algernon was flummoxed when he turned to his bed and found Peggy sleeping there.  For a moment, he thought to wake her, thought better of the idea (he really did require his ears) and snuck into the women’s dorm to sleep in her bed instead.

There were a few other occupants of the women’s dorms, so he was sure to sneak as quietly as possible, checking for traps and snags that would give him away.  He found one under the pillow, a nasty buzzer that would have woken everyone present.  With his crossbow armed and ready, he caught a few hours rest, all that he needed these days.  It wasn’t until he was leaving early the next morning that he caught a rug trap, tripping up and waking the closest of the inhabitants.

“Wha…? What are you doing in here?” Said the very fit young female agent as she sat bolt upright in bed.  

“Sorry, I was looking for Peggy. Is she here?”

“Get out,” The woman rolled over and didn’t give the peeping tom another thought.  

Algernon didn’t look back.  He was pleased that someone would be able to tell Peggy he’d been there.

Day 1

The group gathered over the usual breakfast, and Algernon updated Peggy on using the Entropic seed.  After a cup of coffee with the group, Tobias didn’t waste any time and headed to Peggy’s lab to translate out to the Graveyard of the Machine gods.

Travelling alone through the Strange was slow and taxing, and he was glad when the library with the large window looking out onto the space station slowly came into focus. Ni’Challan was not there to greet him this time, and he had to go hunting out the old man within the vast interior of the station. Thankfully, the sounds of repairing and the occasional verbalised instructions helped Tobias hone in on Ni’Challan’s location.  He found him organising a group of robots to replace the internal walls in a section of the upper station that saw most fighting.  

“Well, what disaster gives me the pleasure of your presence?” Ni’Challan said, glancing over his shoulder to where Tobias was walking down the hallway.

“I’m glad my presence is a pleasure, even in a disaster,” Tobias smirked, and the old man gave a dry laugh and turned back to orchestrating his robots.

“I assume you would like something.”

“Yes, unfortunately. Uentaru, how long have you known her?”

“Ohhh, a while.  She helps out when she can,” Ni’Challan turned and looked thoughtfully and Tobias, “Why?”

“And you’d say she’s a good person wouldn’t you?”

“Yes,” He replied instantly without doubt, but now Tobias had his attention, “Why?”

“We’ve just caught her planning to destroy the Earth and its recursions on the hope that she could remake her homeworld, Mycaeum.”

“Ah, yes,” Ni’Challan grew grave and now forgot the robots and the repairs for the subject at hand, “She always was overly fond of the old place.  But, what has this to do with me? You caught her? The world is safe?”
“We caught her.  She confessed the whole plan and has helped with information. Still, the machine is already working. Unless we can get to a spot deep in the Earth’s crust within five days and do something about it, the Earth and recursions will all be destroyed regardless.   We’re gathering help from all over the recursions, and I was wondering what you may know or have that could help, ” Tobias looked at the old man and could see his mind was already on the task.

“Tell me everything.”

Ni’Challan questioned Tobias about the Aleph component and their plans with the entropic seed.  As they spoke, Ni’Challan guided Tobias through the station and down into the lower levels.  Here he stored all the projects that he hadn’t got to around to preparing for display.  Here anonymous crates and broken artifacts lay in huge drifts through the vast warehouse-like space.  Glancing around at the collections of ‘junk’, Tobias was astounded that one person could collect so much in one lifetime, let alone know where anything was.  Still, Ni’Challan led him through narrow paths between near-titering piles of stuff with a sureness of a ranger in a favoured forest.

As with any forest, the junk piles finally thinned out to a clearing where a large two-seater flying vehicle rested.  It was a helicopter of sorts with two props that were held out from the vehicle’s body on long arms to either side.  The remains of a red and black paint job could be seen on the body of the vehicle in the style of a dragon.  That is, where the body wasn’t melted down to the chassis.  As far as Tobias was concerned, it was a wreck and belonged, floating among the detritus that encircled the station.

“The people of this recursion tried to restart their dying sun.  They failed, of course, but you had to admire their spirit,” Ni’Challan ran his hand over the unmelted side of the cockpit, and Tobias could see the old man’s passion for the story of noble but inevitably doomed heroism. He hoped their story would not be equally as tragic.

“The vehicle itself is too far gone, but the fusion engine could be useful in the right hands.”

“This just might be the thing Hertzfeld and Peggy have been looking for.  Thank you, Ni’Challan.”

“Bring it back if you can. One day it will have pride of place in my collection.”

Right.

Ni’Challan now went rummaging through nearby boxes strewn throughout the clearing.  With a cry of triumph, he pulled out a one-piece suit and helmet made of thin silvery material. He pulled out four such suits from the box and packed them carefully in the burnt-out shell of the flying machine.

“They should help with the heat.  You did say you were heading deep into the Earth’s crust?”
“I understand there’s a sort of cavern where the component lies.”
“Still, you’ll be glad you have those once you get there,” Ni’Challan tapped the suits, and Tobias realised that in sharing his collection, the coolly distant old man was showing love.  

“I never did get to tell you. I found out a little more about my background,” He said, drawing out the heavy silver locket and showing Ni’Challan the image of a young woman, “This is Avel, my mother.”

Ni’Challan’s dark eyes fixed on the small portrait and crossed the clearing , a hand outstretched.  Silently he looked upon the photo and then at Tobias, a fervidly curious expression on his face.

“Extraordinary! But how did you find her?”

“Ah,” Tobias smiled, taking the old man’s hand in his, “I’ll tell you all about it in six days.”

Back on Earth, the rest of the group were preparing as best they could.  Though Algernon had covered everything Uentaru had shared with him, Peggy still insisted on watching the security video footage of the interview for herself.  Algernon didn’t take offence and did what he could do to help Peggy get up to speed.  

Bruce spent the morning at the gym working himself hard while letting his mind drift through thoughts of what they’d been through in the last few days and where they were going in the next few.  Exhausting the body, he centred and renewed his mind, reinforcing his sense of self-control after the confusing and disorientating trip through Nakarand.  Once out the other end, he felt more at peace, ready to help in any way he could.

“Hey, I have this electrical null field,” He said, returning to Hertzfeld’s lab and the centre of all activity, “It protects against electricity.  Do you think it can help?”  

Peggy took the cypher with a silent nod and added it to a collection of useful items ready to be installed on the van. 

Soon after, Tobias returned with shiny metal suits and the promise of an engine.  While Peggy went back to her lab to inspect the copter, Bruce put on the largest of the suits, and Algernon bathed him in flames from a propane torch.

“Are you going to turn that on or what?” Bruce’s muffled voice could be heard over the roar of the flames.

Tobias took the opportunity to talk to Dram-Shara, who was busy laying down electrical cables throughout the van.

“In Nakarand, you said you had a cypher that would create a portal to Ruk?  I was hoping I could take it with us on this crazy trip to the centre of the Earth,” He said, giving her an imploring look.  She thought for a moment and then pulled from her pocket a small metal box with a press button.

“If you can’t stop the Aleph component, this thing is not going to do me any good.” She handed it over.

Peggy returned, announcing the engine would be suitable for the van, and she and Bruce started pulling the old Kombi’s air-cooled engine from the chassis.

“We could also reinforce the Kombi’s body with the aircraft frame.”

Algernon took it upon himself to start cutting up the aircraft body with an arc welder.  The extra power required started a short circuit in the cockpit of the aircraft.  Sparks and bright red flames illuminated the lab, quickly catching alight the seating and insulation.  Peggy and others, drawn by the fire alarms, soon had the flame out, but not the flames of Peggy’s anger.  That was until she realised none of her equipment was damaged. All he’d achieved was a black mark on the roof and scorching himself.  

“Maybe you should stick to creating the software interface,” She said, picking up an oxy-acetylene torch.  He quickly left and did as he was told.

 All that day, Hertzfeld’s lab was Queen’s chamber at the centre of a large beehive of workers all focused on one task. Giquabee turned up midday and started working on the guidance system that would direct the van to the cavern of the Aleph component.  Dram-Shara connected the fusion engine to the battery rod and the rest of the van, providing power for the phasing field, steering, guidance system and dozens of other essential systems.  The phasing field was Hertzfeld’s,  but his proudest moment was when he installed a large red button with a clear perspex cover to the dashboard.

“In case of emergencies.  Technically, it should take the van and everyone in it to a random recursion.”
“Technically?” Tobias asked, picking up on the adverb.

“Either that or it will blow you up. That’s why it’s for emergencies.” Shrugged Hertzfeld.

“Either way, I bags sitting there. Who can resist a red button.” Tobias grinned and missed Bruce’s calculating look behind.

 Algernon quietly worked away created computer interfaces between it all and the human’s who had to pilot the thing. More and more, that task was looking like his.

“Too many scientists and not enough lab assistance,” Bruce joked as by late that evening, they all stepped away from the modified Kombi van, their tasks complete.  

That night, they ate a feast ordered and Ubered in by Tobias.  At first, they ate quietly, too exhausted to enjoy the extravagant items on offer.  When the lobster was described as a giant sea cockroach and champagne as off fruit juice to the Ruk guests, merriment descended on the group.  It was at their last meal together that they christened the Kombi van.

“Why don’t we call it Unfazed?” Bruce suggested to the group, inspiring the other to come up with equally and punny names.

“I like Bertie,” Peggy said, inspiring Tobias.

“No, Burnie.”

Day 2

To be continued…

48. See Each Other Plain

In the literal guts of the worm Nakarand, the group are torn by what to do next?  With Uentaru in tow, do the group try destroying the worm from where they are now or continue and see how far the hole leads?

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“Guys, do what you can on the outside if you like,” Tobias stopped struggling against Algernon’s telekinesis and turned to his companions, “Best to get rid of that part of Nakarand in Ruk anyway.  But isn’t it obvious that there’s more to Nakarand than a slimy fat worm? Look where we are.”

He gestured to the space around the now twenty metres wide and increasing in size, many times larger than the worm on Floor 199.  The soft blue glow emanated from the walls themselves, so everything was lit by the dull blue light. The bubbles of pale blue liquid were starting to increase in numbers, and they were becoming increasingly more difficult to dodge.  Now Tobias has stopped trying to pull away, Algernon used his telekinesis to push bubbles away.

“Thank you, Algernon.  Nakarand is an intelligence and a place, and that’s where I want to go.”

“I think we’re there,” Algernon replied as a bubble he moved crashed into another and burst over Bruce’s arm.  The armour silently steamed.

“This is Nakarand!” Bruce protested, pointing to the pockmarks.  He glided over to the slowly pulsating walls and mimed the wall sucking him in, “Look, it’s eating me.” 

Behind him, the wall secreted more blue liquid.  As he shimmied unawares, the bubble burst, splashing him with more of the liquid.  He yelped as exposed skin at his neck started burning and turned to see something metallic leave the wall.  A warm bronzy coloured cylinder only about as wide as his hand slithered out to hang in space in front of him. Looking at it carefully, he recognised the item as a cypher and pocketed the very useful electrical null field.

“Can we please finish playing with this creature’s digestive tract and find out what’s at the other end?” Tobias complained, before Bruce pulled one of his Glocks, “Nothing personal, Bruce!”

“I just want to try something,” Bruce replied and levelled the gun at the oozing wall in front of him.  

Blam. Blam. The sound of the gunfire was oddly muffled.  A small chunk of the wall broke away, exposing raw tissue with more secreted white fluid now dribbling out.

“Algernon, stick a bubble in the hole,” Bruce pointed with his gun, and Algernon shrugged and did as he was asked.  The bubble broke and splattered on the surface.  The hole started closing up and healing before their eyes.

“Are you quite finished making stomach ulcers?” Tobias complained petulantly.  He brushed blue dust off his clothes and hair, only to have half a dozen other bubbles make more burning patches somewhere else.

“We can burn away at this thing!” Bruce crowed his short-lived triumph at the creature.

“Yes, you could kill it…really slowly.  In the meantime, you’re digested.” 

As Bruce and Tobias bickered, the wall started producing more bubbles of fluid in response to the contact.  Another cypher tough enough to survive inside the walls of Nakarand slithered out, and once more, Bruce grabbed it.  A purple blob of nutrition gel, three days worth of food for an average person. Knowing where it had come from, it was unlikely anyone present would want to use that particular cypher.

Algernon pulled Bruce away from the wall as bubbles popped against bubbles sending a shower of blue fluid in their direction.

“It’s making more bubbles,” Bruce noted quizzically, fascinated with the natural process going on in front of them.

“Yes, they have food in their stomach. Let’s not stick around to become tomorrow’s waste!” Tobias complained, annoyed by the situation and Bruce’s preoccupation with the basic biology of the place.

Bruce pulled out his crowbar.  He was desperate for an obvious enemy to smack.  When it was clear none were going to appear and that the wall was virtually impervious to what mere mortals could do to it, he floated away and started following Tobias and the others down the worm tunnel.

The walls were starting to close in on the group with no sight of any ‘place’ or ‘being’.  Tobias searched for signs of other individuals passing that way.  They knew hundreds of Venom workers and troopers had been sent into Nakarand from Ruk alone.  But, it seemed floating bodies made little impression on the systems of a giant worm, and he found nothing.

“People aren’t passing through Nakarand,” Bruce quipped, pleased to see the cocky Tobias struggle, “ Nakarand is passing them.”
“Hey, however it works, man,” Grumbled Tobias and continued.

The walls continued to contract until they were no more than twelve metres apart.  Around a corner, a new landscape opened up, a field of what looked like yellow ferns. The fronds stretched out into the tunnel from all walls, floor and ceiling, filling the passage and making it unpassable without touching.

“What do you think it is, some sort of trap?” Algernon took out a piece of random equipment and pushed it into one of the ferns. The fronds recoiled and withdrew into a node on the wall. “Maybe it’s like a Venus flytrap. You have to touch a few times for it to spring.”

Bruce now pulled out his crowbar and started tapping fronds.  They all shied away, hiding in the walls of the tunnel.

“I wonder if the metal is what they don’t like,” Tobias pulled out one of his silk scarves and wafted it towards a frond. Where it touched, the frond moved away, avoiding contact. 

“Ha! Whack a mole,” Bruce laughed and started bopping fronds to make a path through the tunnel for the group.

“I wonder,” Peggy said out loud and allowed her metal body to glance off one of the ferns. As expected, the frond recoiled, but not before giving Peggy a boost, a jolt of vitality that sent shivers down her frame, “Oh! What a buzz!” She tried again to get a sample, this time, she did not feel the jolt, and the frond sample, once taken, withered and browned in her test vial.

“Hey, be careful,” Bruce said.  When he saw her response, he stretched out a finger to touch the nearest frond.  Algernon and Tobias themselves stooding clear of the reaching fronds , but did not try to stop him.

“Aren’t you going to do anything?” Bruce asked, sure that someone should.

“Hey man, you do you,” Tobias replied, surrendering Bruce to his fate.

“Bruce, what if they control your mind,” Algernon added as the frond made contact with Bruce’s finger.  He shivered as the jolt course through him.

“That was gooood!” He said and tried again with another finger.  This time, as with Peggy, the jolt did not come.  He looked disappointedly at his fingers, wondering what he’d done differently.

“Would you like me to chop your finger off for examination at a later date?” Peggy asked, her scalpel ready.

“Not really. I’m very attached to it.”

“Shame,” The scalpel retracted.

Tobias, too did his experimentation as the group drifted along the tunnel .  He had thought them out in The Strange unconnected to any recursion except possible that of Nakarand themselves.  If that was true, why were they still in the same forms they took in Ruk?  Was the worm an inapposite gate?  He reached out and could hear the Allsong, a constant hubbub of information in the back of his mind.  That meant they were still technically in Ruk.  He tried to discover the undoing of Nakarand from the inside, using what he saw around him as a reference to his query.  All he got back was a cryptic answer, more at home in one of Peggy’s questions to the Strange, Nothing more than me.  A world within.

Yes, He thought to himself, the physical world of Nakarand.  I’m thoroughly sick of it. Can we continue to the recursion of Nakarand?

They continued down the ever constricting passage .  The ferns started to thin and eventually gave way completely. As it narrowed, the group became aware of a current as the bubbles were being pulled along.  It wasn’t strong, and they could hold their position against it with ease, though it meant suffered the wrath of bubbles coming up from behind.  Up ahead, the tunnel pinched in tight, and the bubbles formed a roiled spinning vortex down some unseen plughole ahead.  Down the centre a clear passage of air, the eye of the storm.  Bruce went to hold his crowbar against the flow, hoping to disturb the spin enough for everyone to pass.  Before he could, Tobias lept passed, spinning effortlessly through the centre to the far side, without touching a bubble.  

Seeing Tobias graceful attempt, he followed, not quite as gracefully, but in a workman-like fashion.  Peggy had pulled a rope in an attempt to tie one end to Bruce so he could pull her through.  Having lost her chance she offered the rope end to Algernon.

“That doesn’t look easy,” She said, the rope unmentioned between them.

“Allow me to help,” He replied, and with his telekinesis, threw her through the Vortex.  Rope trailing behind and completely out of control, she plowed into the wall of bubbles.  She made it through to Tobias and Bruce more pitted than when she started, but mostly whole.  Algernon jumped through next, relying on his levitate and his balancing skills in flight.  Unfortunately, it all did him no good as he slipped sideways into the vortex was churned around like a rag in a washing machine.  Spat out the other end,  Algernon steamed from chemical burns, and his head spinning from the battering against the walls of the tunnel.  To add insult to injury, Peggy zapped him with her spark from her probe.

“Youch!  I’m not feeling so well,” He said as Peggy took the opportunity of a stationary  Algernon to take a few tissue samples.  She then tried to scrape a few off her own metal shell, tearing a hole in one side where the metal had grown thin.  A small piece of duck tape was applied to the hole, and Peggy was ready to move on. 

“I think,” Tobias said quietly to Algernon as Peggy patch herself up, “the scariest thing in all the recursions is Peggy.” 

And to that, Algernon had to agree.

The last to ride the vortex was Uentaru.  She aimed and flung herself through the tunnel with impressive grace.  Bruce rolled his eyes, mumbling something about showing off.  Tobias sighed in admiration.

From the vortex, the tunnel started widening again appreciably.  Within metres, it had expanded from three to fifty metres wide and was still expanding. Suddenly, after what felt like hours in the confining tunnels, the passage opened up into a massive vault stretching away for kilometres in all directions.  Seemingly below them, a small blue and white mottled planetoid approximately 2 kilometres in diameter sat comfortably in the space.  From a wall over their left shoulders, a long umbilical cord sinuously stretched out into the void. Where the cord touched the planetoid, a blocky metal building sat, looking oddly out of place amongst all the organic skin and organs. 

Tobias basked in his own cleverness.  This, or something like it, was what he’d been looking for. The centre of the being the reason for everything, and he couldn’t wait to see what was down on the surface.  Popping out his wings for the first time that trip, he soared around the open space taking it all in. Bruce stood just inside chasm, gawping, his crowbar slack in his hands.  The faint gravity, merely a suggestion of weight, tugged innocently at the group, and Bruce scrambled back for the entrance.

“I can’t fly!  How am I going to get down.” He said, staring dumbfounded at the small world below.

“What do you mean you can’t fly? You’ve been doing it for hours,” Algernon protested, zooming past the entrance.

“Not for much longer, though, when that thing starts pulling me down!”

“You could climb down the umbilical if you want,” Algernon suggested, pointing out the twenty-metre wide rope attached to both the wall and planet.

“That makes sense,” Bruce agreed and floated over, without hindrance from gravity.  

It was what you expect from a planet-sized umbilical cord.  Thick sinew and other tissues made up the body of the cord.  Translucent villi carried creamy blue bubbles not towards but away from the planet.  It seemed Nakarand was feeding off whatever was down on that planetoid.  Peggy was sure this massive structure was natural to the creature that was Nakarand, though the shiny metal building certainly was out of place in the organic surroundings.

“If we break the umbilical cord away from the planet, can we starve Nakarand to death, do you think?” Algernon surmised after Peggy had shared her findings.

“Probably, but too slowly for our purposes,” She replied, turning to their quiet companion, “Uentaru, what do you think?”

What Uentaru thought was never heard as their view of the surface became clearer. Besides the small metal building, every piece of the planetoid was covered in bodies.  Around the planet, like veins, pipes pumped the creamy blue fluid around and between the bodies.  Sometimes the bodies floated in the liquid. Sometimes they were mottled, the natural skin colour disappearing as the fluid replaced it.  Some bodies were blue statues of solid minerals. Venom workers moved through the bodies, pulling out the solid blue, leaving any mottled bodies behind.  Like the bodies, the workers were also mottled blue, also being digested by Nakarand.

“It’s people.  Spiral Dust is people,” Peggy whispered, shocked at the magnitude of what she was witnessing.

Considering the size of the planetoid and the average surface area of a person, she and Algernon guesstimated that there could be as many as thirteen million people on the planetoid, and that was if the bodies were only one layer deep.

Almost none of this got through to Tobias, who had ceased flying and hung petrified above the surface.  He didn’t see the planetoid, the umbilical cord and the warehouse building as memories of another time flooded back in a nauseous wave of sensation.  

Choking white dust covered a pit of bodies, mottling their skins, turning them slowly into white statues.  All around him, a broiling river of bodies silently waited.  He tried to swim towards land, but arms, heads and torsos engulfed him. It turned him around until he didn’t know which was up or down. The bodies slithered against each other, threatening to crush him.  Everywhere he moved his head, there were faces, armpits, legs and torsos. And it was getting hard to breathe.  He grasped limbs slick with blood, sweat, and worse and pulled himself back up to the surface. Breaking through, he took a breath of clean air before slipping and falling back again into the darkness surrounded by death. 

A shout from the shore, “Hier! Ik zag iets bewegen. Kijken!”

“O mijn God! Er leeft nog iemand daarbinnen!” Another voice, closer, “Help me daar beneden!”

“Je gaat toch niet naar binnen?”

“Heb je een ander idee?”

The river moved.  Ripples left the shore. It made the bodies slither and settle against each other. A body rolled over, pinning him in place.  Stuck fast, he couldn’t reach the surface again.

“Zwaai met je hand! Maak een beweging zodat ik je kan vinden!”

He didn’t understand the words, but they sounded compelling, urgent. Standing on the back of someone below, he stretched as tall as he could and drove his hand through the river to the surface.

“O mijn God! O mijn God! Zie je het?”

Now he could hear as well as feel the movement.  A grunting, spitting retching as someone swam out to him, riding the wave of bodies towards him.

“Geef mij je hand…Geef mij je hand…” A voice, choking and panting said over and over again.

A rough, heavy hand took his and pulled him forward.

“Je hebt ons hier gebracht. Je gaat!”

“Give me your hand, Rain,” Said another voice, tinny and metallic but full of calm compassion.

“You hear me, Rain!  You brought us here. You’re going!”

“Don’t, Bruce…he’s…we’ll be along…”

“Oh no.  This is what he wanted. Here it is!”

Tobias clasped his fingers around the metal claw, the fingers turning white with the pressure.

“Hier ben ik…” He whispered under his breath.  

“I said leave it, Bruce! He just needs a moment.”

Tobias blinked…and blinked again. Peggy and Bruce were beside him, Peggy’s gentle metal claw holding his left hand, Bruce pulling at his right.  When the planetoid came back into focus he instinctually, pulled away from both before realising finally what had to be done.  

“Just…find a place…to land…” He gasped, exhaling and inhaled greedy gulps of air. Closing his eyes, he let the giddy relief suffuse him. He relaxed, and between Bruce and Peggy, they guided Tobias down to the warehouse.

Inside, a dozen venom workers filtered in and out, stacking up bodies like planks of wood at one end of the warehouse.  Others were processing the stiff blue statues, breaking them into smaller lumps and shovelling them into piles. If there had been any doubt over the origins of Spiral Dust, the proof was collected in large piles all around the warehouse. Venting pent up anger at what he was seeing, Bruce swung away on one of the statues nearby, and it smashed into dust and chunks before his eyes.

“Is this why you brought us here?” He rounded on Tobias, who had sunk to his knees trying to breathe, “Do you want more of this stuff?”

“No,” He sobbed. Melissa Romero and all the other people lost to Spiral Dust. No, this was far from what he’d wanted.

From off the left, behind piles of blue rock, a movement caught Bruce, Peggy and Algernon’s attention.  Slinking around, trying not to be seen, a woman covered in blue dust hid from the venom workers. In one sudden movement, Bruce was on her, his crowbar held high. He threatened the woman who could do nothing but cower.

“Who are you?!” He demanded before noticing the red ring on her hand.  The missing Whole Body Grafts scientist, Dram-Shara, in whose footsteps they’d been following.  Peggy projected the hologram she’d made of Dram-Shara off the security footage from Dram-Shara’s apartment.  Apart from the layer of blue dust, she was the same woman.

“You know what’s happening here? Your company was part of all this.  What’s going on?” 

“Please, believe me, very few of us knew what was going on in the Nakarand project,” The woman put up her hands in surrender.

“What did you think was going on?” Peggy asked, floating beside Bruce.

“Ur-Dust paid the company well, no questions asked.  But the tissue samples, so radically different from anything we’d seen.  I had to know.”

“How long has the company been studying the creature?”

“I think only Bel-Tamar knew about the creature.  I didn’t until I went and looked for myself.  As for how long, I couldn’t say…years.”  There was a resignation to her gestures, “And now I’m stuck down here with no way back.”

“You could translate out,” Algernon suggested, and she shook her head.

“I’ve tried.  I even brought a cypher down here to create a portal back to Ruk. The only thing is I think we’re still in Ruk..somehow.”

“Do you want to stop it?” Bruce asked, getting back on task.

“If it means getting out of here, count me in!” Dram-Shara replied adamantly.

“So, how do they get people out of here?”

“Ur-Dust comes every once in a while and translates out with broken up bodies and dust.”
“And you’re okay with that?”

“No, but what am I supposed to do?”
“What about the cannon?” Peggy suggested, gesturing to a wall almost two kilometres away.

“Great toy, but a one-shot.  Let’s face it. It won’t kill this thing.”

Just as Bruce lamented the flaws in the Stranger Killer, he noticed Uentaru stiffen and draw her weapon. She turned, sweeping a wide arch until she stopped at a darker shadow, a purple haze that shifted as the group drew their attention to it.

“Uentaru, have you brought these intruders to my stomach for us to destroy together?” Whispered a voice in all their minds.  Without hesitation, Uentaru shot at the shadow, but it merely moved on unharmed.

“We weren’t forced to come. We came to learn and understand,” Peggy called out to the shadow, but the voice ignored her, focusing it on Uen-Taru.

“We have worked together a while, have we not, Uentaru?  In all that time I watched your plans and schemes. You searched The Strange for a thousand-year until you finally found the progenitor, Earth and the Aleph component buried deep in its crust.  I admit, for much of that time, I had no idea what you were up to.  If I had known, I would have stopped you sooner…”
“Liar!” Uentaru shouted, firing her gun a second time.  The dust just moved away as before.

Algernon, forgotten in the background of the drama swirling through the warehouse, tried to read the surface thoughts of Uentaru.  Instead of the jumble of thoughts and impressions, Uentaru was blank. Either there were no thoughts to read, or she was better at covering them up than most.

“The Aleph component,” The voice seemed to direct its attention to the group now, “Is what makes Earth special.  It is part of the machine that first created the Strange billions of years ago.  When it crashed into your barely formed proto world, it formed the moon, all the quickened and all the recursions. So you can see it is not such a small thing.”

“Show yourself, Dust, so I can finally rid the universe of you and your murderous plots,” Uentaru yelled out into the warehouse.  Turning to Peggy, Bruce and Algernon, she argued her defence, “ Nakarand is the vile worm of a thing that eats humans. It would do anything to keep control over that resource.”

“Now, now Uentaru.  Have you not told them about your tragic past?  The loss of your Mycaeum to a planetvoir? She knows that if she can power the component, she can create a recursion in the likeness of that world, isn’t that right?” The voice of the Dustman insinuated, “I finally realised why you wanted to help me so badly, my dust, spread all over the Earth, awakening the minds of millions.”  

“But why?” Tobias croaked, shakily standing to address the voice or maybe Uentaru, “Why go to all the trouble with the dust? Why save us in the graveyard?” His thoughts came out a jumble of ideas that made little sense that confused his friends.

“That’s how it eats, Rain. The dust translates them here,” Peggy explained quietly.

Tobias shook his head and looked up at Uentaru for the first time since entering this cavern. He saw worry, that was to be expected, but he saw surprise and…betrayal.  She was surprised that Nakarand had worked it out.  He rethought her words, her actions since the shadow of the Dustman appeared and realised she’d been vamping, scrambling to recover what she saw as a betrayal by Nakarand.  She’d done a marvellous job of convincing them…him, of her sincerity.  Did he ever question her motive?  One healing cypher in the middle of a battle, and he’d been blinded.

Looking up, Tobias signed to Algernon to read his mind.  Misinterpreting, Algernon signed back he’d tried but couldn’t get through.  Tobias shook his head sadly and repeated, Mind link, me.  This Algernon nodded, and as simply as he could, Tobias laid out his deductions.  Algernon nodded and confronted Uentaru.

“Uentaru, what I don’t understand is why the network?  Why did Nakarand have the spiral dust sellers spread out all over the world in a pattern?”
“What network?  I don’t know what you’re talking about?” Uentaru replied, but by that time, it was hard to believe anything she was saying.  Tobias walked over to Peggy and touched her metal box, sharing with her what he’d discovered.

Of course, Nakarand had the answer, “Yes, Uentaru, that confused me for a long while too.  But the dust does more than feed me, drawing users to me. All those minds alive and connected to the Strange all over the Earth.  They would also power the Aleph component, wouldn’t they Uentaru.”

With his back to Uentaru, Tobias faced Bruce and quietly told him what he’d worked out.

“Yeah, I figured,” Bruce replied, not taking his eyes offUentaru.

“Will you shoot her with the cannon?” Tobias asked resignedly.

Bruce shook his head, “We made a promise to use it on the Dustman.”

Three metres away, the shadow settled and started to thicken, coalescing into a shape.  Once more, the voice of Nakarand appealed to the group.  Peggy withdrew the battery rod they’d recovered from Gwendyn Wurtz’ home. Bruce palmed the electrical null field, and Algernon did the same with a small force field projector.

“I suggest a new proposal, humans.  The Aleph component is already waking. I don’t know if it will give Uentaru the power over reality to resurrect her world. But I know one thing. When it is triggered to do her bidding, the Earth and its recursions will shatter. Of course, these are my hunting grounds, I don’t want to see Earth and the recursion destroyed.  If you or someone in your organisation can reach the Aleph component buried beneath the Earth’s mantle, I have something that might shut it down. Though, of course,  it may already be past the point of no return.”

The body of the Dustman formed and shaped before them. Bruce stepped up, watching as Uentaru levelled her gun.  As the arc of time-space energy left the muzzle, Bruce shot the Dustman with the Stranger Killer and ran in, Crowbar held high.  The Dustman recoiled, his form wavering from the impact.  From deep in his form, a purple light glowed. The light intensified as the Dustman held out his hands, and an object, the size and shape of a football, appeared.  He held out the object to Bruce.  Uentaru sent out another shot hitting the Dustman, his essence scattered.  The purple ball dropped into Bruce’s outstretched arms.  

The Dustman seemingly gone, Algernon’s armour bristles with ice crystals ready for the fight. Instead, he saw the determined look Uentaru’s face as she raised her gun again, this time on Bruce.  Algernon threw the cypher in his hand between Uentaru and Bruce.  Uentaru jumped in surprise as the light shield formed itself in front of Bruce and the object.

“Drop it! You don’t know what it is!” She yelled, looking down her gun at Bruce.  So intent on Bruce, she did not sense Peggy floating up behind her.  Down plunged the battery rod like a dagger in Uentaru’s back.  Uentaru yelled, her arms thrust wide in surprise and shock.  Bruce ran around the shield, passed off the item to  Algernon before swinging at Uentaru.  Even with the battery draining her energy, Uentaru was still faster than Bruce and dodged away from his attack.  

She stepped back from Bruce’s swing, brought up her gun to shoot him at point-blank range. But the unwieldiness of her long rifle made it hard to bring to bear, and Bruce dodged the shot.  Peggy stabbed again, siphoning off even more energy.

Behind them all, Tobias pulled out a cypher he’d kept for just this moment.  Drawing the power of The Strange trapped in the device, he focused his thoughts on one word.  In that word, he weaved the power of The Strange, and reached out to touch the mind of Uentaru.

“Help,” He said as the cypher disintegrated to dust and blew away, “Help me.”

All the external fight went out of Uentaru as she fought an internal battle to control her mind.  

“Help me save my world.  Help me create your world, but not at the expense of all the lives on Earth and in the shoals, please, Uentaru.”

Taking his chance, Bruce swung up to hit Uentaru.  Tobias smoothly stepped between them and looked up at Bruce. Bruce’s swing went wide as he tried to miss Tobias, and the crowbar failed to connect.

“She has to pay!  She would have, still could, destroy the world.  She can’t kill billions because of her sorrow, Rain!” Bruce yelled in frustration, but Tobias stood his ground, ready to take the next blow. It never came.  Bruce lowered his Crowbar, still fuming and snatched Uentaru’s gun from her hands.  

“We can’t live in the past, Uentaru,” Tobias said over his shoulder as Uentaru finally succumbed to the word of command, “I appreciate you wanting to rebuild your world, but not at the expense of other’s futures.”

“Why are we talking to her!  Humanity is not a plaything for these people!” Bruce continued his rant at Tobias, who said nothing but accepted his friend’s anger.

“You can save your world,” Uentaru said through gritted teeth, gesturing to Algernon and the device, “That’s an Entropic seed, a computational singularity that can splinter the rules of a recursion.  If used on a prime world like Earth, it will splinter reality on all its linked recursions as well.”

“But it could be used to remove your…thing from the Earth,” Bruce asked.

“Possibly…yes.” Uentaru agreed grudgingly, and all that remained was a deep sorrow as all her dreams and plans crumbled like the dust at her feet.

A few strides away behind the force field, Algernon examined the purple glowing object.  He’d heard of such things, almost legendary devices that could bend reality to a user’s will.  It seemed Nakarand had spoken the truth, they had a device that could save the Earth.  Or it could destroy the Earth and all the recursions with it.  

“How can we save the Earth?” Peggy said, realising the enormity of the task, “Even if we have a magical wish device, how are we going to get to this Aleph component in the Earth’s mantle?  What sort of transport could go through solid rock?”

The image of Hertzfeld and his phasing invention appeared in everyone’s mind at the same time.

“Didn’t Hertzfeld say he only needed an energy source for his contraption?” Tobias asked, pointing at the battery in Peggy’s hands. 

“Oh yes!” She exclaimed, “I can charge this thing up on the umbilical cord!”

Now that the umbilical cord had been drawn to their attention, Bruce discovered a new recipient for his righteous anger.  As soon as Peggy had filled the battery, he started hacking away at the cord with his crowbar.

“Hey, little help here,” He called, and Algernon turned to Uentaru.

“Can you help us break this connection?” 

Uentaru picked up her forgotten rifle with a silent nod and started blasting a line through the cord.  

He watched the duo slice and hack through the umbilical cord as the blue -white liquid continued to find other channels to Nakarand. Regardless what they did here, Nakarand would find a way of fixing the damage and contine on as usual. His biochemical training led Algernon down a well trodden path to poison.

Poison…No, I don’t know what would be poisonous to a giant space worm. Acid…better… delivered directly into the digestive system. He looked around the planetoid and his mind boggled at the enormity of the task.

“I think I can help too,” Algernon contemplated a moment, “I can change the laws of this place and replace the white fluid with acid.” 

“You can do that? ” Tobias asked incredulous, “A whole inter-spacial parasite?”

“I was thinking of starting smaller; with a planetoid,” Algernon replied more casually than he felt.

He had an idea what the chemical structure of the blue fluid was, he’d seen Peggy’s tests on Sprial Dust and knew it affects while fresh. In his mind he saw the chemical structures, the molecules and their base elements. He pulled a few a part like Lego pieces and put them back together forming a new chemical, a highly reactive and crossive acid.

In his mind, he dropped his first molecule back into the streams and rivers of digestive fluid that flowed all over the planetoid. From far behind him, a hole into Strange space appeared. Engery flowed from fractal space , through him and into the the molecule of acid. Like a nuclear chain reaction, all the other molecules around it exploded, setting off still others. The atoms reformed into the acid and slowly started replacing the digestive liquid.

Outside the reaction, veins on the surface of the planetoid turned from creamy blue to a sickly yellow-green.  The colour change was soon picked up by the umbilical cord and sent up into Nakarand itself.  Along with the colour change, there was a deep rumble from the planetoid as the ground began to buckle and crack.  Where the acid rose through the umbilical cord, it shrivelled and twisted.

Good, now just to turn off the power, He thought to himself as he focused his efforts on closing the passage to the Strange. Creating the chemical to destroy Nakarand had been a simple mind exercise in comparrison to fighting the force of the Strange. Like flood gates, the Strange poured through him, washing away his resolve and drowning his sense of self. With a mental push that would have sent Bruce flying into the nearest wall a kilometre away, he slamed the shut the doors on reality.

“Anyone for getting out of here?” He heard Peggy say as the ground beneath them shuddered. Algernon couldn’t tell if it was the ground or him that was shaking. He wanted to run and hide and rest somewhere safe.

“We can’t go now. We’re having an effect!” Bruce swung at the umbilical cord.  It was cutting, though slowly.  A fissure opened up under Bruce’s feet. He stepped away quickly, avoid the fall and doubled his efforts on the umbilical.

“I have a grenade?” Algernon offered groggily, reaching into his backpack without thought.

“Algernon, do you still have your dynamite?” Tobias asked.

“Oh yeah!” He replied with genuine surprise and returned to his backpack, pulling out the stack of six sticks.

As everyone pulled back from the planetoid’s surface, Bruce hacked holes, and Algernon laid his dynamite.  Those waiting could see the walls of the chamber were shrinking in on the planetoid.  Brown mottled patches showed where the acid had reached the body of Nakarand.  Algernon was last to leave the planetoid, and for a moment, he floated and watched with the others as the whole surface withered under the influence of his power.

“With great power comes great responsibility, “ Tobias whispered to Algernon, awed at the destruction his friend had wrought.

“Spiderman, right?  I remember those documentaries.” Algernon replied.

“And you.”

“And me, “ He acknowledged, as he realised he was the scary one. He threw the grenade and with the last of his will, guided it to where the explosives lay.  A pop was quickly followed by a larger bang!  A cloud of blue dust and the umbilical cord whipped away from the surface out into the cavern.  A roar of triumph rose from Bruce.  Forgetting gravity for the moment, he spun in the air, elated with the defeat of the worm.  Meanwhile, the cavern was still shrinking.  Convulsions rippled through the walls setting everything, even the air, to shiver.

“Time to go,” Tobias touched Peggy and sent the last of The Strange flowing through her. The group, including Dram-Shara and Uen-Taru, formed a circle, and Peggy led the translation. As the others waited for Peggy to make the connection, the other watched the walls collapse in. They pressed around the planetoid, crushing it like a rotten walnut and driving them closer to the same oblivion. As the walls reached them, the translation took hold, and they were all swept away, the walls falling in on the space they had occupied.

They returned to Peggy’s lab, where Hertzfeld was pacing, seemingly waiting for them.

“Thank goodness you’re back. Something is coming out of the Earth crust!” Then he saw Dram-Shara and Uen-Taru, the latter having her rifled once more confiscated by Bruce. “Who have you brought back this time?”

“Hello Hertzfeld, yes we know.  Can you get some security down here?” She pointed to Uen-Taru, “This one needs to be searched and restrained. She’s trying to destroy the world. The other needs an escort back to Ruk.”

Hertzfeld did a double-take but quickly called for security.  As the guards restrained and took Uentaru away, Bruce thought to look at her through his glasses.

Name: Uentaru

Origin: Mycaeum (lost to plantvoir)

Occupation:  Chaos Templar (founder).  A group of survivors from shattered prime worlds. In response, pledge themselves to the killing of planetvoirs.

“Peggy, what is going on?”  Hertzfeld asked as the guard’s left with Uentaru. 

“There’s a device in the mantle of the planet.  With it, she intended to reseed her own lost world. The only thing is, it would have destroyed the Earth and any connected recursion with it.  It still may if we don’t do something about it.”

“I’ve been working on my transport. It still needs an energy source and a time to plan…”

“Energy source we have, time we don’t.  Show me your lab.” Peggy displayed the fully charged battery rod and followed Hertzfeld out of her lab.

Tobias hadn’t moved from where he’d watched the guard take Uentaru away.  Bruce now saw this as his opportunity.

“What were you thinking!  I don’t care who she is. Grief is no excuse for evil, and what she planned was evil of the worst degree.”

Coated in blue dust, streaked where sweat and tears had washed it away, Tobias looked tiredly up at his noble friend, ”I’m glad you can take the high moral ground.”

“What? Don’t say you empathise with her?  You’ve had more than your reason to hurt people with your grief, but you haven’t.”

“Haven’t I?  I guess not since meeting you.  I don’t know Bruce,” He wiped his face, and the exhaustion was drawn through the lines on his face, “ I can’t shake the feeling that if I’d known part of what she did…had the opportunity she did… I just can’t see everything as black and white as you.”

“Hey, I’ve got a lot of ‘grey’ for those who were just caught up with the wrong circumstance.  They just need options and a nudge.  We all need nudges and reminders to keep us working towards betterment.  Where it’s not intrinsic to the being’s very purpose and existence, well… judge the sin not the sinner.”

Algernon, too hadn’t moved. He still held the Entropic seed in his arms like a precious newborn. And precious it was.  With it, they hoped to save a planet or doomed it, the recursions and themselves to oblivion.

No pressure.

47. Face to face

Their preparations made, their plan put into action, the group stand on the doorstep of Whole Body Grafts for their confrontation with Nakarand.

************************************************************

“I have to go shopping,” Tobias veered off as he spotted the shopping mall.  The shopping district was a brightly lit open area of tiled mall under the massive skyscraper.    It was here that Tobias headed, the group following close behind.

“What now?!  When’s the appointment?” Bruce looked up at the tower soaring two hundred floors above their heads.  As thick as the biggest hardwood trees, six supporting columns held up the entire building above their heads. Algernon wandered off to examine one of the supporting columns with a thoughtful look.

“I’m the Social Media officer. If I’m to be good stage dressing for you and Algernon, I need a camera,” He said distractedly as several cyphers attracted his eye, “It will do us no good to turn up on time and not do our best to manipulate the situation to our favour.”

A small drone camera floating on magnetic repulsion was an obvious purchase, but a compact surveillance set, spying grenade, a sleep-inducing injectable were also tantalising.  Bruce’s protests were forgotten as he spotted a pair of information lenses, glasses that would tell you basic information about whoever you looked at.

“We need these,” Bruce pointed out the glasses and they were placed with the drone.

“Algernon, would you like any of this stuff,” Tobias turned to Algernon, who was knocking the column, following it with his eyes until it disappeared in the building ten metres above.

“Hmmm?” 

“Nevermind,” Tobias replied and placed the syringe in the pile of purchases.

As they moved away from the store, Algernon drew the group close, “I think I can bring down this building, or at least the top part where Nakarand is.”

“I do like your thinking,” Bruce nodded with approval as Tobias looked around at the hundreds of shoppers going about their business.

“And where would this building fall with its two hundred floors of  innocents?”

“I was thinking the market square behind,” Algernon pointed out an open area of market stalls and crowds of shoppers looking for bargains, and Tobias shook his head.

“I appreciate your openness in sharing, Algernon.  I commend the thought you’ve put into this and your ingenuity,” Algernon physically swelled with pride under the praise before… “However, we’re not here to start a war between Ruk and Earth.  Can you put your ingenuity and godlike abilities into destroying our real enemy on floor 199?  For one thing, we have no idea if Nakarand could survive such an event.  They may be able to teleport themselves out of Ruk altogether at the first sign of danger.  We need more information.”

“That’s where the glasses come in,” Bruce said, tapping his new acquisition. 

“And for those, we need to get close.”

“But is it safe?” Algernon said, falling back on his old fears.  No one answered him. They all knew this may well be a one-way trip. 

“Still, I don’t think it’s as powerful as you think,” Bruce commented by way of changing the subject, “Why go to all the trouble of having only one avatar and getting others to do its work for them.  Why wouldn’t it make a bunch of Avatars and do it all?”

“Why go to the difficulty of being involved in everything and spreading yourself thin when you can just get others to do your work for you?”  Tobias argued from his own point of view, “Why do the miracles yourself when you can get your disciples to do them.  Besides, we know that Nakarand can control several people at once. They did that in Nederland with the spiral eyes.”

“So can you,” Bruce countered, bringing Tobias up short.

“Not across recursion….not yet, at least.”

“Regardless, I think we have to go and see what it is, study it before we destroy it,” Peggy said as they started for the lifts to floor 191, the Showrooms of Whole Body Grafts. 

“Please, never ‘it’,” Tobias complained nervously now that their destination was in sight, “By its name or them or even he or she if you prefer.  It presumed Nakarand is a thing.  As it is, we’re already assuming they’re not as powerful as we thought.  This creature has intelligence and is motivated by needs and wants we don’t understand. So please, don’t underestimate them.”

“I’m not, “ Barked back Peggy, “I’m not assuming gender either.”

“What has sex got to do with it?” Tobias asked as the group spotted a tall, tastefully dressed woman in the latest of Ruk corporate fashion.  Uen-Taru was waiting for them at the lifts with a small smile of recognition lighting her face.

“Uen-Taru!  I’m so please you could join us,” Tobias, forgetting the argument for the impressive woman who had saved his life. He rushed over to welcome her into the group, then once close he leant in, “I was surprised to see your name on our website.  How long have you been watching us?”

“What I want to know is how has she been watching us?” Algernon commented under his breath.

“I’ve had cause to take an interest in this place for some time,” She replied cryptically as the lift was called, “When I saw your interest, I thought I might be needed here.”

Peggy’s crystalline box shifted form uncomfortably. “And what is your interest in all this? Why are you here?” 

“I certainly know why I’m here,” Tobias bantered, very aware of Peggy’s suspicion at anyone from outside the group, “ And I know that Algernon wonders why he’s here.”

Algernon nodded in agreement.

“I’ve had my concerns over Whole Body Graft for some time, especially some of their recent advances.”

On the ride up to the 191st floor, Tobias quietly informed Uen-Taru about what they had discovered from Dram-Shara’s diary about using a creature of the Strange to make new products. By way of interference, Algernon hummed The Girl from Ipanema. 

“A creature from the Strange, that would explain it.”

The elevator doors opened up onto a glittering double-height space the entire width of the building.  Everywhere they looked were models highlighted by overhead lighting displaying what Whole Body Grafts could offer.  One body with tiger-like stripes had wings like that of a butterfly.  Another was a bodybuilders dream. A top-heavy body of cut muscle supported by legs looked spindly in comparison.  Bruce, fully dressed in his ablative Ruk armour, compared his physique to that of the model.  Though not as large or as cut as the model, he was sure that the artificially created muscle couldn’t perform as well as his work-hardened body.

“I could take him,” He said, satisfied as Tobias tossed the drone into the air and started a preamble about their visit,” Did you get permission for video recordings?”
Tobias smiled smugly at the question, “Of course not. It was all part of the plan.”

Several sales staff wandered the large space.  One started towards the group.  Tobias was ready with a brush-off when a man in a severe business suit stepped in and turned the sales assistant aside. Then, directing his attention to Peggy, he introduced himself.

“You would be Peg-Margret of Strange Cybernetics?” He asked with a slight bow.

Algernon noticed the red ring on his right hand straight away.  A look at the gentleman’s surface thought confirmed who he was.

“Ah, you’d be the security chief, Mu-Duggan?” He asked, informing the other of his discovery at the same time.

“I am,” Mu-Duggan looked surprised.

“We like to know who we’re dealing with,” Peggy added.

“Of course,” Mu-Duggan recovered and now turned to Bruce,” Your security can remain here, I can assure you, your safe with us.”

Tobias took this as his prompt to intervene,” Bar-Karow is Security for the whole of Strange Cybernetics.  He has input into the final form that Peg-Margret and Alga-Nune select and as such is vital to this process.”

Mu-Duggan looked uncomfortable with the idea of another security specialist in his space, especially an armed one. But, eventually, he led the way through a set of double doors into a meeting room with a gesture.  

Designed to impress, this room was dominated by a massive board table with an inbuilt holographic display.  Already waiting for the group were two individuals wearing white and green rings. Mu-Duggan introduced them as Teb-Shara, the white ring bearer of sales and Cara-Tem, a surgeon and green ring wearer.  

Introductions made, Mu-Duggan left them to it, much to Bruce’s disappointment.  Peggy now started up her part in the plan, distraction, and presented her list of demands to the representatives of Whole Body Grafts.  

Instantly Algernon and Bruce started prowling the room looking for security, access points to the computer network and panic buttons.  Bruce was frustrated that Mu-Duggan had left the room. He had planned to lock the door silently against them and then strike, taking down the three Whole Body graft staff members and stealing their rings. With Mu-Duggan gone, that left only a white and green ring, not high enough level to get through to floor 199 and Nakarand.

“I build intricate machines,” Peggy said, projecting several crazy and complicated machines with her hologram, “In a new body, I was looking for double-jointed long thin fingers.  Vision able to be magnified would be highly useful for the same reason.  Radiation and impact resistance almost essential….”

The surgeon was in a fever trying to add all of Peggy’s demands to the holographic model.  In the meantime, Tobias drew the sales representative, Teb-Shara, aside getting the camera between him and whatever Bruce and Algernon were up to.

“Is the camera really necessary?” Asked Teb-Shara as it fixed at a point beside Tobias’ head, a staring black eye into nothing.

“We’re a small company, but we’re influential.  We have quite the Allsong following, and I would think that Whole Body Grafts would appreciate that kind of exposure,” Tobias suggested and weaved into his words the thought that it was vital to the company’s welfare to get this group up to see the chief’s of Research and Development.

Peggy was doing the same with the surgeon. Her intelligence and knowledge allowed her to follow along, even provide positive suggestions on how the cloning and surgeries could be achieved. 

“Ah, I know our R&D are working on such ideas…” Said the surgeon as he started to flounder in the theoretical propositions she was putting forward.

“Exactly my thoughts too,” Said Teb-Shara excitedly, Tobias smiling proudly behind him, “It’s essential they talk to R&D.”

“Well, we pride ourselves for being on the bleeding cutting-edge of technology,” Algernon added. Tobias nodded quietly behind him in admiration. The kid was learning.

Cara-Tem, the surgeon, looked from his associate to the collected executives of Strange Cybernetics, unsure of what he should do next. He was focused on helping Peggy, but there must be some company security protocol they were stepping over that Mu-Duggan would have disliked. Tobias reached out a hand with a casual gesture and touched Peggy, sending a jolt of The Strange.  If she was their focus, she was the one that would have to tip the balance.

“Is there anything else you can show us?” Peggy added, showing the first note of boredom.  It was a subtle communication quite unlike Peggy’s usual blunt commands.  It suggested that Whole Body Grafts may not be the partners Strange Cybernetics were looking for.

It did the trick.  Cara-Tem stood and gestured for the group to follow him. As one, they walked out of the meeting room, through to the back of the showroom to the elevators.  Mu-Duggan was patrolling the showroom as the group moved past.  A silent look from Mu-Duggan, a question as to what was going on.  Cara-Tem nodded that he was fine, and the group filed onto the lift.  

Floor 195 and the Research and Development labs.  When they’d first made their plans, the group had never dreamed that they would be invited up so high in the building.  Giddy with their achievement so far, they quietly followed Cara-Tem through a security checkpoint, past a group of patrolling venom troopers, down a hall marked with warning signs for Biohazards, Radioactivity, and Poisons before entering another meeting room.

This room was more every day, a place that regularly saw all night planning and development sessions.  In the centre of the table was a holographic projector, but also a set of cups, spoons, jugs of hot liquid, and snacks of various types.  At the table surrounded by tablets, another man waited, looking curiously up at Cara-Tem.

“Iphur-Kishi, may I introduce to you the executives of Strange Cybernetics.  Iphur-Kishi is our Chief of Cybernetic Enhancements.  He’s currently working on something very similar to what you’re asking for.”  The whole group nodded to Iphur-Kishi, and one by one, noted the red ring on his right hand.  

“Cybernetics, oh no, if I wanted to be cybernetic, I would have made it myself.  No, no, no,” Peggy crystal box zoomed up into Cara-Tem’s face.  Bruce used the moment’s distraction to jam the door shut with spoons off the table.

“Yes, a cyberneticist seems out of date,” Tobias added as Algernon noted the one camera in the room, “What about your brilliant chemist, Dram-Shara?”

Iphur-Kishi now looked uncomfortable, “I’m afraid Dram-Shara is not available. She’s on leave.”

“No, not cybernetics as such,” Cara-Tem agreed nervously, getting back to his reasons for being there, “Subdermal plating. Iphur-Kishi, if you could show Peg-Margret what you’ve been working on?” 

Iphur-Kishi did just that as Cara-Tem and the sale executive, Teb-Shara, gathered around.  Peggy and Tobias planted themselves as distractions for Algernon and Bruce as they went about securing the room.  

Algernon eyed the snacks on the table.  Selecting one of the stickier ones, he used his telepathy to lift the snack up towards the camera, pressing it into the lens where it stuck firmly.  Bruce followed electrical lines to panic buttons and silently cut them.  Even Uen-Taru, who had said and done nothing so far, fished from her jacket a cypher and twirled it casually around her finger. 

The three executives were oblivious.  Peggy pummelled them with scientific questions, theories and ideas, drawing out more and more of their very latest prototype research. This was her field, and Iphur-Kishi was engrossed in the concepts Peggy was putting forward while having to defend the resilience and durability of his cybernetics.

Now the security was disabled, Algernon watched Iphur-Kishi to determine the best way to take out the executive.  He had the sleep-inducing cypher and, after a moment’s careful study, decided it would work well against him. He carefully palmed the syringe to Bruce and nodded at Iphur-Kishi.  On his next lap of the space, Bruce leant forward and injected the cypher into Cybernetics chief.

“As you can see, our subdermal implants are invisible until required, de…deploying…instant…” Iphur-Kishi stuttered, slowed and eventually face-planted onto the tabletop. Bruce’s movements had been so smooth and quick, Cara-Tem and Teb-Shara didn’t suspect a thing.

“Oh, um…must be working too hard,” Teb-Shara said, moving towards the door, “I’ll just go find some…”

“I suggest you not bother.  Sit down.  Relax,” Tobias said from beside Iphur-Kishi, where he’d only just pocketed the red ring. The Strange weaved through his words and  Teb-Shara swayed where he stood.  

“You have it covered,” Teb-Shara agreed amicably as he slumped into a chair by the door.

Noticing his companions unusual change of mind, Cara-Tem backed up now alert, “Hey, what’s going on here,” He backed up right into Bruce, who brought his crowbar down on the surgeons head with a crack.  Cara-Tem slumped unconsciously to the floor.

“What did you do that for?” Teb-Shara asked groggily.  

“A small misunderstanding,” Uen-Taru stepped up and clicked a button on her cypher.  Instantly Teb-Sharu was fixated with the device.  His eyes cross, and eventually, with a flutter of eyelids, he too fell unconscious.

“Nice!” Tobias celebrated, snatching up the other two rings and distributing them amongst the group.  To Algernon, he gave the red, to Bruce the green, and he kept the white.  At the same time, Bruce was propping the executives up in chairs and binding them into the place with gaffer tape.  Algernon arranged the chairs, so they looked away from the camera, their faces and hands obscured. 

“Straight to Nakarand?” Peggy asked as Algernon replaced the sticky snack in front of the camera lens with a piece of paper held only by telekinetics.

“Yes,” Both Bruce and Tobias said in unison.

“But is it safe?” Algernon asked.

 Bruce unjammed and latched the door to lock as they left, a grim expression on his face, “Not from us!”

The door shut, and the room was silent except for the falling paper revealing the room once more and the three executives deep in conversation.

Heading back the way they’d come was pretty easy.  They met no one who questioned them about being unchaperoned until they reached the checkpoint.  Here Tobias stopped the group and went ahead.

“You know it’s just occurred to me that I’ve not once got to know the everyday worker of this wonderful establishment.” He said, walking up the security desk and turning his camera on the guard, “You sir, I was wondering if you’d leaned me a moment of your precious time. I promise I won’t keep you long.”

“Are we on camera? Is this going on the Allsong?” The guard looked up excitedly, straightening out the wrinkles in his uniform.

“If that’s okay…”  Tobias smiled and gestured for the others to casually walked past and call for a lift.  He kept the guard busy chatting until the lift arrived and the group piled on.  A wave from the lift and his concluded the interview.

“I appreciate you talking to me today.  Keep an eye out on the Allsong.  We upload new content every week.”

Floor 199, the first of the four mysterious unlisted floors and the one they expected to find Nakarand.  The lift doors opened onto an ordinary-looking foyer, though the air did hold a strong briny smell of the sea.  At a desk, three workers in disposable coveralls stood watching as the group left the lift. At one end of the foyer, double doors, at the other a single door.  Bruce started for the double doors as Peggy went to intercept the workers.

“I’m sorry, are you suppose to be up here?”

“We’re here to see Dram-Shara. I understand she can be found on this level. We’ve been given access by Iphur -Kishi.”

Through the double doors, vat after glass vat was bubbling with pink fluid.  A man checking read-outs on the vats stood to look at Bruce, his red ring visible.

“Bel-Tamar?” Bruce guessed and stepped forward as if he belonged.

“And you are?” Bel-Tamar replied before Bruce’s crowbar slammed down on his skull, and he collapsed into a heap knocked out cold.

Outside, the maintenance group were getting interested in what Bruce was doing.

“Look, our boss is with your boss. We’ll go join him.” Tobias said, leading Peggy back to see what Bruce had found.  They walked in to hear Algernon ask, “ Has anyone yoinked his ring yet?”

“I assume that privilege is all yours,” Tobias replied as Peggy examined the vats.  

“Cloning tanks,” She said, said finding a tablet that Bel-Tamar had dropped“ Six Venom troopers and six Venom workers.  With this setup, they could churn them out.” 

While Tobias and Bruce gaffer taped Bel-Tamar and hid him in a corner, Algernon hacked the tablet, and  Peggy started fiddling with the vats.  Not so much that they’d notice a problem, but enough that this group would be useless to Nakarand. The tablet was a font of information, including invoices for vats, modification to venom workers and production logs that stated, “All mature product was sent into Nakaranad.”

“So, Nakarand is a place now?” Bruce asked as Algernon accessed ring management on the tablet.  Dram-Shara was still marked as being on 199, her life signs faint.

“Dram-Shara is here and not really here,” Algernon noted.  It was then he saw Iphur-Kishi, Cara-Tem, and Teb-Shara, also listed as on floor 199, “I better hide our rings or Mu-Duggan…”

Mu-Duggan’s marker was outside a meeting room on floor 195.

“We might have a problem…” Was all Algernon was able to say before alarms started ringing, “Mu-Duggan found the others. We’ve been sprung.”

“Well, then let’s go!” Tobias exclaimed, ready to run out the double doors.

“Rain, the purpose of alarms is to make the guilty panic,” Algernon said, turning back to the notes on venom worker production.

Tobias stopped in his tracks and thought, “That was very insightful, thank you.” 

“For several years, they’ve been making venom workers for Nakarand, though only in the last six months has production increased.” Algernon thought of the photographs of the Dustman he had from  London 1896 and Crow Hollow.  He wondered if the Dustman was one of these modified venom workers.

With the tablet, they returned to the foyer. Taking precautions, Peggy flipped her hologram to that of Bel-Tamar. Now that the alarms were going, the maintenance crew would not be put off with mere words.

“Excuse me…”

“You will stand down!” Peggy roared before the staff member could finish their sentence.  They backed up behind their desk, completely submissive to the one they saw as the superior being.

“Yes, sir,”

The group crossed the foyer to the small second door and found what they were looking for. This room was sparse and huge.  Whole floors had been stripped away to accommodate the creature that it held.  Taking up most of the room, a giant flabby worm-like creature pulsed, its skin moist even in the dry environment of the tower.  At one end, a ramp let straight into a chomping mouth lined with tiny rasping teeth.

Peggy swept the room looking for an access panel or interface of some sort and found nothing. Algernon started pulling out his weaponry, including a nasty disrupting grenade cypher he’d save for just this moment.  Bruce trained the Level ten Stranger-killer gun they’d received from Rimush, the golem on the hide of the worm.  He put on the glasses they’d picked up in the mall and received the following information:

Name: Nakarand

Species: Nakarand

Origin: Chaosphere

Strengths:  Tough skin, superior armour, regenerative healing properties

“It’s Nakarand all right,” Bruce informed the others as he spotted Tobias walk directly down the ramp and into the creature’s mouth, “Rain!”

“Rain, don’t go in there.”Algernon pocketed the grenade and ran.

“What!  You idiot, Rain! “ Peggy growled deep in her crystalline structure and also floated after.

Inside the worm, it was much larger than outside.  A massive tube made of the same thick brown skin reminded Peggy of the images she’d had from the Spiraleyed in Nederland.  A warm moist place, smooth and slick, and it made her crystalline box shudder as it had then.  A sourceless blue light lit everything in the same dull glow.  Bubbles of white fluid floated through the space.  When Algernon went to interact with one, it burst and splattered his hand with pale blue droplets.  He could feel the fluid burn his skin, and when he went to brush it off, he found it had turned into blue-tinted dust.  Spiral dust.  

There was no gravity, and Tobias found that with a thought, he moved through the space. He quickly shot ahead of the others, all his thoughts fixed on what was ahead when he realised he was no longer moving.  Turning back, he could see Algernon reaching out, using his telekinetics to pull him back.

“Let me go, Algernon.” Tobias said, flipping through the air to face his friend, “ You and Bruce try to kill this thing out there. I have to be in here. I have to follow this and find out where it leads.”

46. Know the enemy

Moving in on the Spiral Dust supplier, The Dustman, the group are back in Ruk.  Knowing that information is power, the group have started finding out what they can about Ur-Dust and his company, Whole Body Grafts.

**********************************************************************************

They quickly collected the names of the six heads of departments and likely red ring wearers.

Security Chief –

Mu-Duggan

R&D Chiefs –

Pra-Qatum

Ipqu-Adad

Iphur-Kishi

Dram-Shara

Bel-Tamar

“So, what first?”  

“What are their specialities?”Algernon asked as the group lazily walked around town as to not draw attention to themselves. 

“Can’t we just go?” Bruce was walking around like a soldier waiting for the whistle to go ‘over the top’.  He took out his crowbar, smacked it nervously into the palm of his hand before putting it away again, aware of the stares.

“Why are you in such a rush?” Tobias asked, dropping out of his search of the Allsong to confront Bruce, “You’re usually the by-the-book sort.”

“We know who we’re here to see and where they are, let’s go!” The crowbar appeared again.

“We have this one chance,” Tobias put a hand on the crowbar, and it was quickly put away again, “If we screw this up, he’s gone, and we won’t know where. We’ll be worse than back to scratch because now he’ll know we’re onto him.”

With bad grace, Bruce did control himself and allow Algernon and Tobias to search for information.  Whole Body Grafts was a wholly-owned company of the Zal group and not just an associated company.  Though there was nothing on Ur-Dust, there was a  lot to be found on each of the heads. 

All five had worked for Zal corporations their entire working careers, moving up from one position to another through the group.  Iphur-Kishi was head of Robotics and Cybernetics, Dram-Shara’s speciality was biochemistry.  Surgical technologies was Ipqu-Adad forte, and Pra-Qatum was in charge of Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering.  The one they couldn’t find listed anywhere was Bel-Tamar. 

“What if I search for research papers, public articles Bel-Tamar may have written?” Thought  Algernon.

“Yes, no one is taken seriously without a few published papers,” Peggy agreed from her own hard experience, “And just because his current speciality is secret doesn’t mean it always was.”

As he had been doing, Tobias charged Algernon with The Strange and sent him into the Allsong. Again, his search came back successful.

“Here’s one, ‘Improving the cloning process for venom troopers…’ and another on cloning vats.”
“Why would they want another specialist on cloning? They have Pra-Qatum,” Tobias asked, more to himself.

“Maybe we should ask, why does a nice civilian company want a specialist in making venom troopers?” Bruce replied.

“Maybe this will answer your questions,” Algernon  interrupted, “Bel-Tamar is also into exotic biological materials.”
“Spiral dust would qualify,” Peggy said.

Tobias was more interested in thechiefs as people.  Socially, all the heads of the R&D Departments were well off, living within gated communities around Harmonious (addresses found and noted) and seemingly without vice or fault.  Iphur-Kishi was well known for collecting unusually formed pieces from the Scar, an innocent but interesting fact.  Then Algernon discovered a query about the welfare of Dram-Shara dated a few days ago.

“Here’s a lead. We can say we’re investigators looking into Dram-Shara’s disappearance. “ Tobias offered as a possible step forward. 

“Hold on,” Algernon stopped the group and focused his search on one question for the Allsong. 

Is Dram-Shara still alive? 

Yes,  Came an emphatic reply.

Is Dram-Shara on Ruk?  

Somewhat. He shared his discovery with the others.

“Could she be tripping on Spiral Dust or Bywandine?” Bruce asked, “You know, physically here but off on The Strange?”

“I can answer that one,” Peggy said with confidence and closed her eyes to help link her to The Strange.
What is the current state of Dram-Shara? 

Trapped, Her voice replied from The Strange.

“I think that confirms it. Let’s try Dram-Shara’s home first,” Tobias nodded, bringing up the listed address for Dram-Shara.

The Research and Development Chief of Biochemistry for Whole Body Grafts lived in an apartment building with external passcode security and a staffed concierge on the ground floor foyer.  It was modern, sleek and Algernon had no problem remotely accessing the gate security.

“What if she’s home? You know, out on The Strange.”
“Then we’ll see if we can convince her to help us,” Tobias said with absolute confidence.

“Before or after we break into her home?” Bruce asked, unconvinced.

“Or we can just kill her,” Algernon mused.

“What?!” Both Bruce and Tobias turned on their young companion.

“Did I say that out loud?” 

“Unless I’ve learnt to mind-read,” Tobias cajoled his friend, “Open the gate and follow my lead.”

The gate opened, and Tobias led the way through the foyer to the lifts.

“Um…excuse me, are you here to see someone?” Asked the concierge politely, stepping out from behind their counter.

“Yes, thanks!” Tobias smiled, waved and stepped into the waiting lift.  

Several hundred floors above Harmonious’ streets, the lift deposited the group in a carpeted foyer facing one of several doors.  Algernon once more had no problem remotely breaking into the smart home system of the apartment, and the door opened.  As he added their images to the smart home system access whitelist, the others spread out through the small apartment, looking for clues.   Two bedrooms (one a study),an ensuite , a lounge, and a small kitchen later, they realised that it was empty.  The bed had been neatly made, and no personal items lay on bedside tables.

“You know, if something permanent has happened to Dram-Shara, we’d have a nice new base here,” Algernon commented, locking the front door behind him.

“You’re not to make something more permanent happen for a nice new base,” Bruce commented before following Peggy into the study.

Thinking as a mad (and paranoid) scientist she was, Peggy, the floating metal box, looked for panic rooms or hidden spaces where secrets would be safe. Behind the computer table, behind a wall panel made to open on a push in the right corner, Peggy found a tablet computer.  

“Well, look at this…” She said as her tiny metal claws extracted the tablet from its hiding place.  

ZAPP! And the high pitch squeal of an android followed Peggy across the room, clattering to the floor unconscious.

“Are you okay?” Bruce said, scrambling over to her unresponsive form.

“She just got a zap. We’ve seen this before,” Tobias picked up the box that held Peggy’s consciousness.

Algernon had other ideas, “Is she lying around again.  Maybe she’s dead.  Oh well, nothing for it then,” Opening a disposal chute, he grabbed hold of the box.

“Let go, you homicidal maniac,” Tobias fought back, and Peggy became the centre of a tug of war.

ZAAAP!  She awoke, blasting them both with the static, “No touching!” The boys tussle broke apart with matching yelps and peggy floated free.

“Ur…does this thing still work?” Bruce picked up the tablet, its case scorched by the trap on the hidden compartment.

Once feeling had returned to his hands, Algernon took the tablet, “No, its power supply fried. I think the memory was safe, but we can’t get access to it without parts.”

“No problem,” Once more, the tiny metallic claws picked up the tablet, this time drawing it into Peggy’s metal box body.

Bruce wandered away to the kitchen and living areas of the apartment.  Several takeaway containers were in the disposal unit showing several days of deliveries.  A check of the smart system confirmed a food delivery the night before the last recording.  The living area was sparse, with nothing in it to personalise the space.  There were no images of family or loved ones, no art and no books.  It was as if Dram-Shara never existed.

At the workstation in the study, Algernon found a link to the Whole Body Graft network and hacked in.  Dram-Shara’s speciality was Biochemistry, a topic that Algernon was very familiar. He was soon explained articles on slow-release caffeine systems to Bruce and Tobias as Peggy took screenshots.

“I wonder…” Peggy hovered over to the Smart Home interface and brought up images of Dram-Shara from the security feed. Then, making a composite 3D image, Peggy projected a hologram of the missing scientist.

“This could be useful. I can impersonate Dram-Shara at Whole Body Grafts,”

Tobias looked at the hologram, he had to admit the image was convincing, but there was more to impersonation than looking like someone.

“You know almost nothing about her. How does she speak? How does she treat her inferiors and superiors? Who is she friendly with, and who does she avoid?”

“Okay, say I’m an emergency system that went live after Dram-Shara failed to log in ,” Peggy replied, not willing to give up her new persona, “It would explain any gaps in memory or lack of social knowledge.”

“Okay,” He replied unconvinced, “From what you’ve seen, what sort of person is she?”

Peggy scanned through her memory banks for the security images of Dram-Shara. Unfortunately, watching and paying attention to people was not Peggy’s strong point, so she took a moment to think about what she saw before answering.

“Quiet.  Meticulous.  A little touchy, she likes things her way.”

“Okay, so maybe you could impersonate Dram-Shara if you practise moderating yourself,” Tobias said dryly.  Peggy was many things, but aware of her behaviour and how it affected others was not one of her skills.  He was about to say as much so when Algernon caught both their attention.

“I’ve found the security for Whole Body Grafts, including the ring system,” 

The group huddled around as Algernon requested the whereabouts of Dram-Shara.  A map of the Whole Body graft tower appeared on the screen.  On floor 199, a faint red glowing point appeared.  Beside it, Algernon brought up an image of the tower from the Allsong that included the floorplan for the different departments.  Floor 199 was one of four floors unmarked.

“How about Mu-Duggan and the other chiefs,” Tobias asked, and one by one, Algernon requested their locations.  Mu-Duggan was on floor 191, one of two floors marked as Sales.  Iphur-Kishi, Ipqu-Adad and Pra-Qatum were all noted as being on the Research and Development floors between 195 and 196.  Bel-Tamar, the venom trooper, exotic biological materials enthusiast, was also on floor 199.  All the other markers were bright and clearly defined in comparison to Dram-Shara’s weak signal. 

It was time to go.  Algernon powered down the workstation, and the group left the apartment almost as they’d found it.  As they once more walked through the foyer towards the door.  The concierge, as sharp as ever, came out to intercept the group.

“Did you find what you were looking for?” 

“Yes, thank you.  Have a good day,” Tobias maneuvered around and out the doors, politely disregarding the concierge.  The rest followed suit, and soon they were lost among the crowds out on the streets of Harmonious once more.

Parts for the tablet were not hard to come by for Algernon, the native and Peggy quickly found a quiet spot to repair the tablet.  The screen lit up and requested a passcode. Peggy handed the tablet back to Algernon. He bypassed the small computer’s security with a few deft movements and opened the first of many entries.

Reading over his shoulders, the group saw the tablet was a personal diary.  Dram-Shara outlined what she knew about the activity surrounding what she called the Nakarand Project conducted in the four unmarked floors of Whole Body Grafts.

“Nakarand…that sounds familiar,” Peggy mused, and Tobias rolled his eyes.

“Oh, Peggy.” And pulled out his current mind map of Nakarand, The Dustman and the movement of Spiral dust.

“…being of immense size and unexplained powers…?” Bruce read out loud.

“…provide venom troopers to Ur-Dust in exchange for tissue samples…”  Algernon pointed out, “Explains Bel-Tamar.”
“…already a source of inspiration for several inventions…” Peggy added as her mind wandered to what those inventions may be.

“She seems to be getting more curious about Nakarand; I wonder if that’s why she’s trapped on floor 199?” Tobias added, reflecting on the scientific mind of Dram-Shara drawn into the puzzle of Nakarand.

Sure enough, after a short entry about investigating further, the entries end.

They had found what they were looking for.  Now it was time to act.

Together the group built an illusion of a company on the Allsong called Strange Cybernetics.  Essentially, a start-up specialising in computers, engineering and fabrication, they were cutting edge and eager to make their presence felt.  Algernon set up the background of a company, legal status and web presence. Tobias filled in the details of the company, staff and affiliations. Peggy and Algernon were the CEO brother and sister duo, Alga-Nune and Peg – Margret.  Tobias added himself as Public Relations and Social Media Manager, Tabish-Va.  Bruce was Security, Bar-Karow. 

The website was taking shape.  Each of the senior staff had their own page with ficticious background information. In addition, a short article regarding an industrial accident was spread through news sites.  The co-owner of Strange Cybernetics had died in an unfortunate industrial accident, but that her mind and memories were currently loaded to a crystalline drone.

“Just the price that sometimes needs to be paid to be on the bleeding edge of future technologies.” The article quoted Alga-Nune after confirming that his sister was back at work.

 Even metadata was manipulated to show the site and articles had been up for months instead of just a few hours. Contact details led directly to a link that Tobias managed.  Using it, he booked a meeting with Whole Body Grafts for the following day. As Algernon was skimming through the site checking for errors, he noticed another name had been added to the staff list.

“Ven-Taru, Tech Support?  I didn’t add that.  Ven-Taru is familiar, though,” Algenon pointed out the name, and Bruce started remembering with clarity the last time they’d heard of her.

“That’s the woman!  The amazing fighter that came to Ni-Challan’s rescue.”

“Interesting,” Tobias said and was already drafting an email to Ven-Taru using the email listed.  

To be continued….

45. Unlikely friends

Caught and pulled in by both the Moriarty gang and Drood Clan, Algernon and Tobias have both made deals with the devils.  Now, rejoining after exploring the Drood mansion, the group decide their next move.

**********************************************************

“I was hopeless in there.  Maybe they should have shot me and put me out of my misery…” Grumbled Tobias as Algernon and Bruce found Peggy and himself in the market,” Algernon, you were marvellous against Moriarty’s men,  That attempt at pick-pocketing showed your legitimacy.  What did I do?  I have Lightfeather’s knives on my person. Did I give him one?  Use it to show my legitimacy?  No…”

“So…what happened?” Bruce asked, and between Peggy’s matter of fact report and Tobias’ self-recriminations, Algernon and Bruce learnt about Terilis Lightfeather, and the deal struck.

“Sounds like you were picked up to be interrogated, and you found a way of walking out having made a deal,” Bruce said as Tobias shivered his feathers uncomfortably, “I think you did great.”
“Yeah, well, it didn’t feel great,” Tobias slouched, and Bruce realised it wasn’t so much the deal-making as the situation he’d been in that upset the little man so much.  

Tobias shivered again and looked to the others for the first time, “So, what next? Algernon, are you going to go back to Rodney Dodd and his crew?”

“Ah yeah, I found some things in the house, so I might as well keep up the act.”

“You can mention that Terilis is keen to get Elvin back if that helps. Oh, and Caw Ek Carve, or at least the top twelve percent of him.”

“Won’t that mess up your plan with the Drood clan?”

Tobias shook his head emphatically, “I don’t intend to help them get back Elvin Lightfeather, I don’t intend to do anything for them,” He said with real loathing, a look of disgust somehow expressing itself on a beaked face, ”No, if it feels right, you use it.”

‘Okay…”

“Oh, and your dynamite.  I may have panicked and made the guy throw it out of the tree,” He now confessed, “We could go and look for that too.”

“No, we don’t need to,” Bruce commented, but Tobias and Algernon had already leapt out of the tree and were already gliding down.

It was a long way to the roots of the tree.  Even then, the ground was thick with massive dead leaves the size of bed quilts, making the ground spongy and soft.  If the dynamite had fallen this far, it had a good chance of surviving the impact intact.  Algernon Hovered above the roots keeping a lookout.  Peggy and Bruce finally joined Tobias walking amongst the leaves in the dappled shadows of the tree.  From above, Algernon was first to spot the leaves moving towards the group.  Tobias heard the sound of dead leaves crunching and rustling in Bruce’s direction.

“Heads up!” He called, as a giant raccoon the size of a horse leapt out of the leaf litter.  It caught Bruce by surprise, plunging four canines into his shoulder.

Reflexly, Tobias sent Avel out screaming at the creature.  Petrified, the raccoon went to run, but now it was Bruce’s turn.  Breaking free, he rolled away, withdrawing his crowbar in one smooth movement.  Standing now, he stepped forward, the forward movement only adding to the power of his swing.  The crowbar crashed down on the raccoon’s head.  The soft ground around muffled the cracking of bone and the thud as the creature returned to the leaf litter dead.  

Tobias turned his head away from the final blow and spotted the dynamite sitting on a large leaf not far away.

“That reminds me, I guess it was you two with the gun in the Drood mansion.  What happened there?” He asked, passing the dynamite to a landing Algernon.

“If you don’t want to see what happened to the raccoon, you don’t want to know about the thug,” Bruce said coolly, checking his shoulder.  Tobias didn’t ask again.

It was a long climb back up the tree to the pub specified by Rodney “Firetop” Dodd.  One by one, the group walked into the bar, taking up positions at random tables.  Tobias sat nursing a glass as he watched Algernon through the phylactery, Peggy sat at the bar and Bruce around the corner from the red-feathered Dodd and his group.  Algernon walked up to the barman, “Excuse me. I was told to ask for a Clovis Miller. Is he in?” 

“I don’t know anyone called Clovis Miller.  Hold on.”

The barman called for help at the bar and then went around the tables.  An unknown Cro, followed by the one with bright red plumage on the top of his head, left a table and ushered Algernon forward.

“Didn’t think you were supposed to come back without something,” Rodney Dodd said, looking down on the smaller Algernon.

“That’s right, I haven’t,” Algernon replied and pulled out the piece of Spiral Dust rock and a bunch of Bywindine leaves, “These looked like they were being protected. I thought they could be something interesting.  Was that the sort of thing you were after?  I didn’t have much guidance on what to find,” Algernon commented, but the derogatory remark was lost on Dodd as soon as he saw the Spiral Dust.

“It is, it is.  You are indeed full of surprises,”

“Is it worth the agreed ten crow coins?” Algernon held out his hand.  Grudgingly Dodd pulled out six crow coins then nudged his companion, Clovis, for the other four.  Clovis Miller sighed and held his hand above Algernon’s. Out of seeming nowhere four crow coins fell between them.  

“Come and have a drink and tell us your tale,” Dodd ushered Algernon across to their table where Clovis, Toby “Mutton Chops” Waltham and another Cro that reminded Algernon of the sniper from Dreamland all sat.  

“I found a back door, waited when they weren’t looking and walked in,” Algernon shared his vague tale as a cranberry juice was brought for him, “I walked around a while, found a room with the herbs and rocks and left.”

“You just walked in….” Dodd asked, sceptically.

“I have an honest face,” Algernon replied, and from somewhere behind the group, Bruce stifled a laugh.  Dodd didn’t question further.

Algernon gave them a layout of the house on a napkin and talked knowingly of the staff and security.

“What of the people?  Whose in charge up there?” Dodd asked, now fascinated by this young boy.

“There’s a very angry Cro, Terilis.  He’s missing his brother.”

“Oh? Who’s that then?”

“Elvin, Elvin Lightfeather,” Algernon replied as if it were common knowledge.  He saw a light of understanding move between the Cro at the table, “I didn’t go near him. He’s very aggressive.”

“Quite right, anyone else?”

“Salvin is Terilis’ second and deals with security down the markets.”

Algernon stood up to leave.

“Hey, kid.  If we want more work done, where can we reach you?” Rodney Dodd also stood. 

“You can leave a message for Cheezels here,” Algernon gestured to the barman back behind the bar.  He then gave them a second glance, “You guys do work for the Dona, don’t you?”

Dodd and Clovis looked at each other, “Yeah, of course, we work for Dona Ilsa.”

He went to go again when Dodd showed his hand, “This blue stuff,” He picked up the lump of blue-grey rock, “Do you know where they get it from?”

Algernon shrugged nonchalantly, glancing over his shoulder, “I could find out that.”

“There’s fifteen crow coin in it for you,” 

“I think more now,” Having proved his abilities, Algernon waited for Dodd to agree.

Rodney Dodd raked his fingers through the red feathers on his head, making them stand up on end, “Okay, we could go to twenty,”

“Half up front?” Algernon now returned to the table to the grumbling Dodd.

“Half up front, Clovis,” The boss gestured to his underling, who was already looking woozy.  Though his eyes may have pleaded for a break, Clovis Miller silently stretched out his hand.  Ten coins appeared and fell onto Algernon’s receiving palm. Across the bar, Tobias smirked into this glass, proud of how well the kids had hooked these crooks.

“I need to lie down now, boss,” Said Clovis once the transaction was completed.  Dodd gave him his leave, and he headed up a set of wooden stairs, leaning heavily on furniture and walls as he went.

“Maybe you should buy a drink,” Algernon quipped at the fleeing back of Clovis. “Pleasure doing business.”

Stashing his twenty crow coins away in a pocket of his backpack, Algernon left.   Tobias and Peggy left soon after, but Bruce stayed, overhearing the gang’s conversations.  Dodd and the remainder of his gang continued drinking. As he listened, he matched each Cro at the table to one of the Moriarty gang.  Toby Walsham was there, as was Ignatius Jessen, the sniper they’d caught in the Celephais docks.  They said nothing of consequence, but it was clear the group had no idea who Algernon was and thought him some enterprising street kid.  His group safe for now, Bruce left the thugs to their drinking.

“If we’re leaving, I better get my phylactery back,” Bruce heard Tobias say to Algernon, “ I don’t want to translate back without my soul.”  Algernon reached into his pocket to retrieve the puzzlebox when Tobias was bumped into from behind by a large round Cro.

“I do beg your pardon,” Tobias said, quietly checking his pockets for any lost items.  He had very few to lose and found them all present and accounted for as he turned to face the clumsy Cro.

“Do mind where you’re….Rain?  My dear chap, is that you?” The Cro’s consternation quickly turned to surprise and even relief as he looked down on the small, neatly dressed Cro he’d stepped into.  

Tobias was bemused to be looking up at the round face of a plain-looking Cro with a huge neatly combed walrus moustache going over the beak.

“Maximilian?”

“Rain!  My dear chap!  What a splendid coincidence! What brings you here?”

Tobias wasn’t so sure it was a coincidence but was willing to play along with the old rogue from the Implausible Geographic Society.  

“The same old business, and yourself?”

Behind Maximillian and out of his line of sight, Peggy was lifting her hands to zap the one she blamed for stealing away Noel and ruining her life.  Bruce quickly interceded and stayed the plasma blast for the moment.

“It’s wonderful to see you again, Mr Von Candlestick, “Algernon interjected, putting out a hand to shake Maximilian’s, “How are things with the Society?”  Enamoured with the old world charm of the Implausible Society, Algernon continued to try getting on the good side of Maximillian in the hope of being accepted into their ranks.

“My boy!  The Society does well, thank you for asking,” Maximilian shook Algernon’s hand jovially, seeming pleased to find allies in Crow Hollow.  Tobias’ suspicions grew.

“Why are you here, Maximilian?” He asked again, drawing the Society Agent’s attention.

“Ah well, I’m working.  I tracked several of Moriarty’s gang to Crow’s Hollow, but I’ve lost them in this crowd.” Maximilian looked around him and the thick crowds of all black bird people, “See, I’ve come alone. I wish I’d brought some bruts with me.” 

Regardless of his initial intentions, to Tobias, it looks as though Maximillian was in over his head. Though sociable, he was not the brains of his team and looked a little lost.

“Alone?  Where’s Noel,” Tobias looked around, expecting to find a tall, lanky Cro not far away, Noel Hargen.

The stout Cro sighed, “He took a leave of absence.  It seems someone got into his head, made him think about his life choices.”  Tobias smiled to himself.  He didn’t need to be linked to Peggy to hear her mumbled,
“About bloody time!”

“I say, you couldn’t help a chap out for old time sake,” Said Maximilian confirming suspicions.

“I certainly can. We’ve just left Rodney Dodd and his group of bully boys at the pub…spending their own resources, if you know what I mean.” Said Tobias, pulling Maximillian out of the flow of the crowd to a quiet spot by market stalls.  Maximilian said nothing, but it was clear from his blank expression that he had no idea what Tobias meant, “It would be a good opportunity to nab the four of them while their guards are down.”

“Oh, splendid!” Exclaimed Maximilian, “Are you free?”

“Ah…” Tobias looked to Bruce at that question.  The violence required to tackle Moriarty’s gang was not his strong suit.

“Tempting…” Bruce stepped in, still holding the irascible Peggy to his side, “Moriarty’s gang are distracting our guy, Don Wyclif and his people.  They’re a useful blunt instrument for us.”
At this, Maximilian looked crestfallen.  It seemed the capture of the gang was important.

“But Maximilian, I can share what we know about their business here in Crow Hollow.  That may be useful to Sir Raymond and the Society.” The mention of Maximilian’s superior drew the moustached Cro’s attention.

“Oh, do tell,”

Tobias gave a brief overview to Maximillian of Moriarty’s desire to break into the Spiral Dust market.  Dodd and his men were trying to find a way in with the Drood family and their connections. He also told him about the Drood’s desire to find Lightfeather.

“Moriarty took him at the fight in Celephais, “ Algernon said as he watched the crowd around them, “ Why don’t you organise trade and when they arrive, bump off Lightfeather.  It would create a lot of bad blood and keep both sides busy fighting each other.”

“Oh, could a trade be likely?” Maximilian leapt at the offered suggestion as Algernon spotted a figure not far away a little too still for his liking.

“It’s an option,” Tobias replied, lamenting the fact that Algernon’s solution to any problem person was to murder them. At long a range if possible.  

Algernon scanned the surface thoughts of the large Cro watching.  

A deal for Elvin? Maybe it could be arranged. Terilis is hard to control.

Siddling through the crowd, Algernon got up beside Bruce and quietly mentioned the big Cro listening in. Out loud so Tobias could hear, he said, “Oh look, is that Will over there?”

Picking up on the code phrase, Tobias took Maximilian’s arm and started moving him along as the larger Cro looked around for a friendly face “ Max we need to leave, move in the direction, Algernon indicates. 

“Is that Salvin, do you think?” Bruce asked as Tobias moved Maximillian past.

“It seems so. I’m not waiting around to find out,” Tobias replied, risking a glance at the Cro in question. He didn’t seem to be following, and the group soon left him behind.

As the group walked down the tree in a straggling line, Algernon continued to ingratiate himself with the Society member.

“I love your moustache, Mr Von Candlestick.”

“Why, thank you,”  Maximilian preened. It was his pride and joy.

“And the pith helmet.”
“Well, one must be fashionable,”

Behind them, Peggy seethed, “Are you sure I can’t plasma bolt him?  No one’s going to miss him, surely.”

“I’m sure,” Bruce replied patiently.

“Can you tell me what’s going on?” Maximilian asked, still baffled by the group’s actions.

“We were being listened to by one of Don Wyclif’s men,” Algernon was quick to explain, “We’ve left him behind, but he heard the discussion about Lightfeather.  He may try to make his own arrangements.”

“Is that a problem?”

“Hmm…” Tobias thought for a moment.  If they could destroy the Spiral Dust from its source, Moriarty and the Droods can do what they like.  It all hinged on stopping the Dustman. For the first time, they had a real lead, not that he was going to tell Maximillian that, “It all depends on how quickly we can move.  We need someplace safe to talk.  What do you think about Earth?”

“All right,” Maximilian agreed all too readily.  

As soon as they found a clear space to gather, Algernon led the translation back to Earth and Peggy’s lab. Once more, under the fluorescent lighting of Peggy’s bunker lab, the first voice to welcome them back was that of Hertzfeld, Peggy’s supervisor.

“Who the hell is this?” He asked as they translated in with a stranger into the most secure lab in a highly secure complex.

“Doctor Hertzfeld,” Tobias turned at the sound of the superior’s voice, “I’m so pleased we bumped into you.  This is Maximillian von Candlestick of the Implausible Geographic Society,” 

“Oh?” Hertzfeld said and tidied up a stack of papers he had been going through on Peggy’s desk.  Peggy gave him a look of disapproval and paranoia but said nothing. “Why did you bring him here?”

At that moment, Tobias was suddenly distracted as the heavy weight of the amulet was suddenly lifted from his neck.  Clutching his chest, he found the amulet had shrunk to a small flat oval about the size of a hens egg.  He quickly pulled away his tie and shirt and found a silver locket on a delicate chain.  Now oblivious to everything, including the demands of a superior, he opened the locket to see a picture of a smiling young woman, a red scarf wrapped casually around curls of light brown hair.  The similarity with himself was so striking it was clear who she must be.  As a film of tears obscured the image from his sight, Tobias drifted away from the others, nursing the locket like the long lost connection it was.

“Excellent question,” Peggy snapped, looking from Hertzfeld rummaging to Maximillian taking up space in her lab, “Rain?”

“So he wouldn’t die,” Bruce noticed his friends distracted air and interjected.

“Oh, so he’s that Maximillian,” Hertzfeld nodded, “Do you think it appropriate he’s in here?” It was time to leave.

Algernon, always at Maximillian’s side, now turned to him, “Mr Maximillian, do you like bacon?”
“One of the basic food groups I understand,” Max replied, now on firmer ground when it came to bacon.

“Follow me,” Algernon led the way out past Peggy’s traps and to the mess.  

Bruce made to follow and realised that Peggy, looking daggers at Hertzfeld and Tobias, were not following.

“How long are we staying?” He asked the two of them but directed the question to Tobias, lost in his own world.

“Huh?  Oh…” Tobias straightened, wiped his face with a colourful handkerchief and tucked the locket back under his shirt, “Um… Rest up, find out what we can about Whole Body Grafts and then off again, I should think.” 

“And you wanted Peggy to ask something of The Strange?” Bruce prompted, and Tobias leapt at the memory.

“Oh yes, Peggy, I was hoping you would ask if The Dustman and Nakarand are the same?”

Peggy dragged her eyes away from Hertzfeld, who by this time was feeling more than a little intimidated by his protege.

“The Dustman and Nakarand…?  Who was he again?”

“The one in control of the Spiral Eyes, back in Nederland,”

“Right, so you want to know if they are the same being?”

“Yes, it would narrow down our leads if we knew they were related somehow.”

Peggy, her hands laid on her stack of notes, closed her eyes and asked the question of The Strange. Instantly the reply returned like an echo, her voice speaking the answer, “The Dustman is a mere part of Nakarand.”

With the ominous and mysterious pronouncement made, the three friends split up to their own tasks.  Bruce left to find Katherine Manners to check in and give her a rundown on their activities.  Tobias followed the bacon clue to the mess and found Algernon asking questions of Maximilian, filling him with bacon sandwiches and coffee laced with maple syrup.  Peggy stayed in her lab.

“So, how was your trip?” Hertzfeld asked innocently, starting the conversation that was sure to escalate.

“Oh, exhausting.  Unprecedented, do you know there are recursions where you can just think a thing, wave your hand, and that thing happens?”  She brought her gaze around like a searchlight and fixed it on Hertzfeld,

“Why were you in my lab?”

“I am your supervisor. I have that right,”

“The right to die a grizzly death to one of my many traps, you mean,” She said, with all of her significant force of will bearing down on her boss, “You do know the meaning of the term, paranoid, don’t you?”

He sighed.  Brilliance often came at a price, and he’d known Peggy’s price from the very beginning.  She was paranoid, highly suspicious and uncommunicative, but he also knew he would get nowhere without her intuitive spark of genius.

“I was looking for your notes on energy sources. I’ve got an idea of expanding the phasing glove’s properties to encase a vehicle, but I need more power.  I need your help.”

“Hmmm, “ She stared at Hertzfeld, who, not for the first time, was wondering if the help was worth the trouble, “You could have at least said please.”  She opened the drawer of her desk and pulled out a set of long rubber gloves.  She slipped them on up to her elbows and turned to the fish tank, empty of fish.

“Again, your supervisor.”

“Is that an excuse for bad manners?”  From the fish tank, she took out a small Tupperware container.  From the container, she took a key and walked across the lab to a set of metal lockers.  Opening one of the top lockers, she displayed a collection of keys, all different sorts from different locations.  She selected one and once more crossed the lab to a filing cabinet.  

“You’ll want to stand back,” She gestured for Hertzfeld to move as she stood to one side of the cabinet and unlocked the drawer.  A dart shot out a predrilled hole followed by a flash-bang explosion that would have rendered anyone standing in front deaf and blind.  The dart embedded itself into a pockmarked wall showing where it had impacted previously.  

From a repurposed takeaway container, she sorted through a selection of near-identical USB drives and chose one.  She now plugged it into a modified standalone DOS computer and entered a long, complicated password that Hertzfeld had no hope in following.  Text started filling the screen, but it was jibberish, a mess of ASCII coding that meant nothing to everyone except Peggy.  She scrolled through the text as if she could read it, found the specific notes he wanted and typed in another password to decrypt the section.  The text resorted itself. Finally, the jumble became the legible, concise, and precise notes he’d come to rely on with Peggy.

“Thank you,” He said, sitting down at the green-black CRT screen, “You know we need to work on your teamwork.”

“I don’t understand,” Peggy replied with a flick that sent the rubber gloves flying, “My teamwork is great.”

“So, how did you first join the society, Mr Maximillian?” Algernon was making what looked like a second bacon sandwich as Tobias entered the mess.  Algernon spotted him enter and ushered him over to a table where Maximilian was just polishing off the first.

“I was just telling Maximillian that we should take him to go see Keaton and fill him in on all that’s happening,” Algernon was acting as the proactive team member.  He was doing an excellent job at impressing the wrong person.

“Yes, who is this Keaton and is it really necessary?” Maximilian asked Tobias, who was enjoying this little piece of theatre.  He took a moment to think seriously about the subject and then nodded gravely.

“I’m afraid so. Lawrence Keaton, he’s our direct supervisor.  We’ve broken more than a few protocols bringing you here, and he does deserve a debrief on our activities,”  Tobias glanced at Algernon and gave him a wink.  

Keaton was going to hate this.

Keaton hated it.  Surrounded by leaning towers of paperwork that never seemed to impact either Katherine Manners of Hertzfeld, Keaton sat with his head in his hands and asked for the second time.

“Why is he here?” He pointed at Maximillian, his elbows never leaving his worn leather tabletop.

“We helped Max get out of a sticky situation, and now he’s helping us with the London side of our investigation,” Tobias explained simply as she scanned the room for clues to their supervisor’s mental state.  It seemed he wasn’t doing too well.  The drinks cabinet, usually closed and locked on previous visits, was open. A half bottle of bourbon with initialled golf balls sat inside.  

A glance at Algernon confirmed he’d also noted the same thing as him. They shared a look as Maximilian blustered in his chair.

“I’m helping you?  I thought you were helping me?”

“Of course, but we need access to London.”
“Which one?” Maximilian asked, worried they’d want to go to his London.  It was one thing collaborating in an unknown recursion, but London was his patch.  It would be highly irregular for him to let the dreaded Estate have access to his world.

“Moriarity’s London,” Tobias smiled.

“I can help you with that,” Maximilian finally said, seeing sense in letting the Estate make things difficult for Professor Moriarty.

“Thought you could.” Tobias patted his arm and started the debrief with Keaton.

In the end, they gave Maximillian a lot of good information about Don Wyclif, Moriarity and the connection with Elvin Lightfeather through the unstable brother, Terilis.  After they’d said all they could in front of Max, Algernon took him back to the dorm to freshen up and relax before he headed to the library.  That was when Tobias informed Keaton about Dona Ilsa, her stolen eggs and the Dustman connection in Ruk.

Algernon was back at the library once more, but this time he had new information, a company, a name and a face.  The searching did not go well at first.  There was no reference to the name ‘The Dustman’ or Whole Body Grafts.  The first seemed too obscure, the second too small.  He looked at the sketch he made of The Dustman and remembered the facial recognition software they’d used to find Sharon Cooper-Smith.  Using the descriptions of the Dustman’s features and what they knew of Spiral Dust, he started an Image recognition search.  Excluding images of monks, superheroes and other unrelated results, he finally found two likely images amongst surveillance. The first was a few months old, the image of a robed figure talking with Eldin Lightfeather and Don Wyclif in Crow Hollow.  Another was along the same stretch of road they had just travelled in the Ardeyn.  A robed figure on horseback heading towards the Mouth of Swords.  

These two images he fed back into the search making special note of the cloak with the blue dust staining.  This brought up a third image, one where The Dustman was not the image’s subject, just a bystander watching from a distance as Caw Ek Carve received crates in a Steampunk London.  This image was only two weeks old.  Carefully, Algernon timelined the three images fitting them into the facts as the group knew them. With everything the archive had to offer at that time, he headed back to the dorms to share his discovery with the others.

Peggy had not returned to the dorms.  She had not forgotten her thwarted attempts to injure Maximilian. She didn’t feel he understood the gravity of the crimes he had committed, stealing Noel away. That in taking Noel when he did, Maximilian saved Noel’s life didn’t enter into her reckoning.  Maximilian and his Implausible Geographic society were to blame for her untimely fall from grace and ridicule.  With what materials she had to hand, she made a mechanical spider complete with shaving razors for fangs.  When she retired to the dorms after lights out, she set her little pet under the door of the men’s dorm.  

As Peggy did not pay attention to much that went on with the others, she didn’t know that Algernon hardly slept anymore.  An hour or two was all he needed to recharge his mind for the new day, and he often spent hours sitting up in bed watching the others unconscious around him.  He had been going over his notes from the library when a dark shape started making its way across the floor towards Maximilian’s bed. Reaching out telepathically, he caught the mechanical spider and lifted it into the air in front of him. Twirling it around, its legs kicking out trying to gain purchase on something, Algernon examined the spider and discovered the razor-sharp fangs equipt below its head.  

“Someone in the Estate wants to kill Max!” He said to himself, now very worried for his meal ticket into the Society. Then again, if he could be seen to be the hero of the moment…

“Look out, Max!” He yelled loud enough to wake the whole dorm.  Grabbing his crossbow, which was always beside his bed, he shot the spider at point-blank range.  The bolt rocketed the spider to the far wall above Maximillian’s head and pinned it there.  It looked to everyone watching that he’d shot the arachnid from his bed.  Bruce bleary looked at what the commotion was about, noted that everyone was safe and out of harm’s way, and rolled over, going back to sleep.  Maximilian, startled from sleep, turned to face the giant black spider dripping mechanical parts down the wall. Round eyed and ghostly pale in the dark he turned to Algernon.

“Good shot!  But, what is that thing?” 

“Never fear, Mr Maximillian, I will protect you with my life.  I will not rest so you can,” Algernon stated, standing on guard, his crossbow held across his body.

“Thank you, my dear boy. ”

Tobias, who had watched silently from his bed, now padded barefoot across the room to examine the spider more closely.  He pulled the bolt from the wall and saw the bolt had gone through the spider a long way before hitting the wall, possibly longer than would have been possible if the spider had been crawling down the wall to its victim.  He noticed the detailed mechanical and computer work required to create the spider. It seemed a work of genius.  Considering that they had only been back for a few hours and very few people would know that Maximillian was even there, it had to be an inside job.  Algernon could have made something like the spider, but he’d been busy at the library and had his images to prove it.  The spider was well beyond both Bruce and his own capabilities to conceive of, little lone make. And then he remembered Peggy’s expression at Crow Hollow.

“Will you excuse me,” He said quietly, handing the bolt back to Algernon he left the men’s dorm. Walking down the hall, he rapped quietly on the women’s dorm door or Peggy’s room as she never let anyone else in there.

“Peggy, can I have a word with you?” He said quietly so the others still talking in rasping whispers couldn’t hear.

“Go away, I’m meant to be asleep,” Came Peggy’s voice, muffled by bedclothes.  He could imagine her huddled in bed, sheet and blankets over her head.

“And yet you’re not.  Peggy, was it meant to kill?”

“What?!” Came the clearer exclamation.

“Don’t bullshit me, Peggy,” He said seriously, “It had razor blades. I need to know if it was meant to kill him.”

A moment’s silence from behind the door, ”I have no idea what you’re talking about.  What spider meant to shave off moustaches are you talking about?”

He smiled now, understanding her nasty little prank for what it was.  

“Goodnight, Peggy,” He said and returned to the men’s dorm. Maximillian, by now, was mollified by Algernon’s diligence and shooting skill. Tobias said nothing, just handed the remains of the spider to Algernon and went back to bed.

Several hours later… click click click click click click click click click click click click TWACK!

This time Algernon shot the spider as it crawled along the ground.

“Peggy, stop it!” Moaned Tobias, half-heartedly knocking a balled fist against the adjoining wall, “I need my sleep!”

“NO!” Came the sulky reply from the other side of the wall that no one but Tobias heard.  Maximilian was terrified and curled up on his bed, glancing around to see where the next attack would come from.

“Someone really wants you dead, Mr Maximillian,” Algernon said, pulling his bolt from the ground and pocketing the spider’s remains.

“But how am I supposed to sleep like this?”

“I’ll guard you, sir.  Never fear.” Algernon assured him, and with no better solution, the Society member curled up in his blankets and sheet.  

It is unclear how well Maximillian slept, but the following day he was quiet and jittery at breakfast. As Peggy walked into the mess, Algernon came up alongside her, handing her the two spiders, now thoroughly examined and pulled apart. 

“Can I suggest for Mark three, a mottled grey colouring? Black is too stark against the shadows and possibly rollers instead of the legs. They’d make less noise.”

“Thank you, I’ll take those suggestions on board,” She said equally as quietly before reaching up and grabbing ahold of Algernon’s ear.

“I know I’m breaking a promise, but this is a special occasion.  Don’t get between me and my quarry.”

“Doctor Peggy!…Yes, Doctor Peggy…”

After breakfast, the group took a short walk out of the Estate campus, across the road to Gasworks Park. In the shadow of industrial piping, the group prepared to translate to Steampunk London.

“Does Moriarty have the translation place watched?” Bruce asked before Maximillian started the translation process.

“One would assume,” He replied dully.  

The translation was familiar and uneventful, and they soon found themselves in a furnished apartment that smelt heavily of stale pipe smoke. Outside the irregular glass windows of the time, a neat and busy London street scene was revealed under a thickening blanket of fog.  

“Nice,” Bruce commented, looking around.

“Yes,” Maximilian preened. Obviously, this was his find, ”It once belonged to a detective who went missing.  I took up the lease.”

“Are we on Baker Street?!” Tobias rushed to a window and took on the view with the excitement of an avid fan.

“Yes,” Maximilian replied, surprised, “How did you know?”

“Max, do you ever read?” Tobias replied derisively without looking back to see Maximillian’s face fall in disappointment.

Now in Steampunk London, the group had access for future adventures. Right now, the clean, crisp skylines and futuristic world of Ruk and The Dustman called.

“Max, you need to go home, report all that we’ve told you about Moriarty, and if your superiors still want to pick up the gang, please take friends, okay?”

“As you say,” He said with little energy.  It was clear he’d thought he’d found some friends.  They let him translate out alone before setting up their circle to Ruk.

Soon the fog and coal smoke was replaced by clean air and the smell of ozone.  Algernon and Tobias were reconnected with the Allsong, and Peggy was once more the box with a hologram.  As Algernon remembered, Whole Body Grafts advertisements were all over the Allsong. It was quickly established that the company was associated with the Zal and unfriendly to Earth and its allies.

 Looking for information on the company, they quickly had the location of the Semiramis Tower and brought up a basic plan.  The first two levels were dedicated to Showrooms and the sales side of the body grafts business.  The third and fourth levels were the surgical suites and theatres, the fifth and sixth were Research and Development.  What was on the top four floors was a mystery.  No amount of snooping could find out what was going on there and the roof.  As with all Zal operations, a set of coloured rings allowed access to whatever floors the ring was set.

Moving on to the individuals that ran the operations, Tobias gave a rye smile,

“The owner of Whole Body Grafts is one Ur-Dust,” He shared with the group.  A search of the Allsong brought up nothing on Ur-Dust, unusual in such a connected world.  They quickly collected the names of the six heads of departments and likely red ring wearers.

Security Chief – Mu-Duggan

R&D Chiefs – Pra-Qatum

Ipqu-Adad

Iphur-Kishi

Dram-Shara

Bel-Tamar

“So, what first?”  

To be continued……

44. Deals with Devils

With all five eggs in hand, the group return to Crow Hollow with the expectation of learning a little more about the Spiral Dust network from Dona Ilsa.

**************************************************************************

“Maybe we should sell them to the highest bidder,” Algernon mused as the group settled themselves back into their Cro forms after translation from Ardeyn.  Behind him, Bruce gave the young man a scowl that would have made him take back his thought, if he’d seen it.

“I thought money was a transitory power, not worth your time?” Tobias asked as he threw the chain of the necklace around his overside bird head and hid the soul gem amongst the white feathers on his chest.  The heavy stone nestled above his heart, cool and present.

“Let’s just get to Dona Ilsa and find out what she knows,” Peggy yawned, exhausted from their ordeals in the Vaults.

They hadn’t bothered to rest, leaving Ardeyn as soon as they cleared the Mouth of Swords and the entrance to the Vault. Though now in new bodies that hadn’t endured the security and traps of The Vaults, some of the group were exhausted.  But, the end was in sight, and they went without tending to injuries to see the eggs safely delivered.

Once they climbed through the canopy of the great tree to the Conaro mansion, they were ushered straight into the great woman’s presence, a sitting room, genteel and refined.  Few words were wasted. Tobias let Bruce lead with the box as he stood aside to watch as Dona Ilsa was reunited with her lost eggs.

A relaxation of the shoulders and posture was all there was to see as Dona Ilsa opened the box and the five eggs were presented to her. She picked them up, one by one, examining them in detail before moving to the next. With each egg, a feeling of genuine happiness and relief suffused the lady, transforming her before their eyes, from the hard edge businesswoman and leader of a family dynasty to a mother.

“Thank you for returning my eggs to me,” She said simply, putting the box to one side, a protective hand on them at all times.

Tobias had to drag his attention away, deeply moved by the sight of a mother’s love. Clearing his throat, he opened the conversation.

“Lady, we have proven ourselves true to our word. We have an agreement.  Tell us what you know of the Spiral Dust trade.”

“Yes,” Instantly, the image of a doting mother was gone, the businesswoman returned, “He calls himself The Dustman though what he is…I can’t say. His supplies originally came through Ruk, from a business called Whole Body Grafts.”

“Algernon, do you know anything about that place,” Tobias asked, giving up a little push of The Strange to help the memory.

“It’s one of many body modification stores.  Nothing exciting,” He replied, remembering their advertisements on the Allsong.

“So you met with the Dustman? “ Returning to the Dona.

“From time to time.  He doesn’t come anymore, just sends the stock.”

Tobias looked at Algernon, who had his hand on his backpack. Both knew inside was a picture of the Dustman drawn by the golem of The Vault, Rimush.  There was no particular benefit in showing her the image of the being who had stolen her eggs. She’d confirmed they were after the same person already, so Tobias said nothing and eventually, Algernon dropped his hand.

“Dustman?  Wasn’t he one who took the eggs to The Vault?” Bruce said, oblivious of the non-verbal interaction between the other two.

“What? I should have known!” The Dona pounded her fist on the arm of the lounge chair she was sitting in.

“Yes,” Tobias sighed.  He admired the Dona, and he hated being the bearer of bad news,” So our contacts in Ardeyn told us.  I’m sorry, you were played.”

“What a fool I am!” She fumed, “When he came to me with the proposal, all I thought of was the chance to make a little extra money to find my eggs.  It never occurred to me he had arranged the whole damn thing!”

“I have had reason recently to see how far a parent will go for their children.  It can make you blind, I think.” Tobias said quietly, and the Lady turned to face him, all mask of authority gone.

She nodded, accepting his words, but the fire was lit.  She fumed silently where she sat.

“Dona, what would you like us to do?” He asked, hoping to soothe her, give her a moment to stop and think.

“End him,” She said, her voice and posture full of venom.

“Which end?” Bruce replied.

“The very end.  I want him and everything he is destroyed.”

That was certainly clear. Tobias changed the subject.

“Dona, do you know anything about the Drood side of the Spiral Dust trade?” 

“Only that their arrangement was made at about the same time as mine.”

“Would you be able to provide an introduction to Don Wyclif?” Bruce asked.

She laughed humourlessly, “Only to getting shot. We exchange nothing but gunfire these days.”

“Possibly we could go in as mediators between your two houses?”

“Only for your own executions, I’m afraid.”

“Dona, what does he like?” Algernon asked

“The Don likes power, power and fear over others.” Was all she would say, and in the end group were floundering for more questions to ask.  Algernon had at least one that was important to him.

“Dona, do you have an inapposite gate?”

“No, I do not.”
“Do you know the location of one?”
“I’ve heard the Drood might have one,” She said with a sigh. It was clear it was all they were going to get from the Lady, for now, so Tobias made their farewells, and they left.

“Could we demolish his house, do you think?” Algernon was musing as they walked back into the crowds of the branches of the tree.

“Oh yes, we need to see about getting that dynamite for you,” Tobias replied, only half attentive to the conversation.

“No, we do not,” Bruce interjected, “Are you sure that blowing up the Drood mansion isn’t more for your enjoyment?”
“I can’t help if I enjoy my work!” Retorted Algernon, “Say, what if I turned the metal wires holding the house to plastic?”

“We’re in a market,” Tobias was still bumbling along on his thoughts, “I wonder if there’s anything like the rumour markets here?  We could do with more information about the Droods and their organisation.”

“I could watch the Droods, maybe that back entrance, you know who comes in and out,” Algernon suggested.

“We have a disguise cypher. One of us could go in and scope out the place,” Bruce added as Tobias yawned, swaying on his feet as he nodded agreement to Bruce’s idea.

“You’re still hurt. Let me heal you up a little, at least before we go on with our plans,” Bruce offered, and Tobias stopped him with a wave.

“It takes effort for you even to try and heal us. I need your good right arm strong, don’t short yourself trying to patch me up,” Tobias looked around the buildings and businesses nearby, “Maybe I should just find us a place to rest.”

They continued to move down the tree. Tobias did find an inn and arranged accommodation for the night.  While waiting, Bruce and Algernon spotted two Cro talking at a market stall. They stood out as one had a shock of bright red feathers sticking out the top of his head. The second was a large Cro, with a sledgehammer strapped across his back.  His grey feathers seemed groomed to stick out each side of his beaky face.

“Say, doesn’t that one look like Muttonchops from Dreamland?” Algernon asked, subtly pointing the two out to Tobias walking back, now lighter of all his Crow coins.

“Toby Walsham…well, and that must be Old Firetop himself, Rodney Dodd.  Now, what do you suppose they’re doing here?”

“Moriarty wanted in on the Spiral Dust trade,” Bruce reminded him,” Seems he still does.”

Without seeing the group’s attention on them, Rodney and Toby moved further into the market.  Algernon gestured he would follow and, with a push from Tobias, started moving through the crowd.  Grabbing hold of Bruce’s armoured arm, Tobias focused on his phylactery, and they started following at a distance.

Firetop and Muttonchops visited several stalls, all asking their questions and moving through the crowd as if native to it.  It wasn’t until Rodney turned to glance through the crowd that he saw Algernon watching.  Their eyes locked, and Algernon knew he’d been made.  Rodney said something to Toby, who started pushing through the crowd towards Algernon.  A whistle from Rodney also brought another Cro, looking at rifles at an adjoining stall, and all three started circling Algernon.

“He’s in trouble. Dodd’s seen him,” Tobias whispered to Bruce, who moved them through the crowd.

Algernon stiffened, and like a deer, sprung away from the encroaching thugs.  He knew the others were behind him.  Even as a Cro, Bruce was very identifiably Bruce, and these men had fought him twice before. With this thought in mind, he started moving away from their direction. 

From within the crowd, Bruce noted Algernon wasn’t moving through the crowd as smoothly as he had.  People seemed to be getting in his way , slowing him down and then finally, he fell as Mutton Chops reached him.

“He’s caught!” Tobias cried, almost fighting against the bulk of Bruce in front of him.

“Yeah, I think the kid meant to be. Let’s just hang back and watch a bit.”

“Well, what ‘ave we got ‘ere?” Said Toby of the Muttonchops, lifting Algernon off his feet to face Rodney.

“Thank you, sir,” He bluffed, nervously smiling at Muttonchops.

“What for?”

“For helping me up.” Large black bird eyes looked innocently from Toby to Rodney and back as if an evil thought had never entered their head.
“What are you up to?” Rodney said, his red feathers swaying like flames as he moved.

“Oh!  Lovely red feathers, sir.  I was just shopping, sir.”

“Thanks,” Rodney eyed Algernon suspicious as Toby put him down.  If he could just show them he could be clever…Algernon shot a hand out to pickpocket Rodney, but the thug was ready for that game.

“Oi!”

“Sorry, sir!”

“What are you playin’ at?” 

“I work for you now, sir.  Now.”
“Now?  Who before?”

“No one, in particular, sir,” Algernon looked downcast, as if life had been very unfair up to that point, “But I can be useful.”

Toby growled and pushed Algernon close to Rodney, “Talk to the boss.”

“So, you want employment?” Rodney finally said, looking down on the small non-descript Cro.

“Yes, sir.  I can be very useful.”

“Doing what?
Algernon thought a moment, “Pickpocketing occasionally, I’m pretty stealthy…blowing things up…”

Rodney did a doubletake, his red feathers swinging back and forwards like a wildfire. 

“Tell you what.  A friend of ours has things we would like…back.”

“Recovery mission.  Where would you like me to go?”

“His place, we’ll show you. ”
“And pay, sir?  For this job?”

Rodney smirked, “Very little, and on completion.”

“How…little would that be?” Algernon asked timidly.

‘Oh, I think five crow coins would be little enough.”

“Bringing something back is surely worth…ten?”

At this, Rodney laughed out loud, “You come back, I’ll make it ten.”

“What do you want me to recover?

“Hmmm, our friend is not willing to share.  We need something that will…encourage him to share.”
“Something to inspire sharing.” 

The thugs gave him the directions to the second-largest house in the whole Great tree.  Algernon guessed correctly that this was the home of the Droods and Don Wyclif.

“And where can I find you afterwards, sir?”

Rodney named an inn further down the tree, “Ask for Clovis Miller.”

“I’m on my way!” Algernon almost saluted and ran off in the direction of the house.  

Bruce stood to one side and watched the murder of thugs.  They followed the kid with their eyes, bemused expressions on their faces.  They chatted for a moment or two. The third guy went back to the stall of rifles.

“Algernon’s just said we should probably regroup,” Tobias said, tugging on Bruce’s feathers.

“Yeah, just what I was thinking.” And, leading Tobias, moved back towards the inn they had booked for the night.

In the small but comfortable room, the group met and prepared to rest.  Not taking no for an answer,  Bruce prepared to do what healing he could for the two most injured in the party, Tobias and Algernon.  His first aid worked well on Tobias, who relaxed a little easier into a chair. For Algernon, he failed to make an impact.

“Is there a psychological reason you don’t heal me?” Algernon asked the frustrated Bruce, who made him sit down again.  This time, the healing took, and he was able to rest well.

The next morning, Peggy, Bruce and Algernon were all up before Tobias, who was still looking poorly and not moving with his usual speed.  It couldn’t be helped. At least the day held nothing more strenuous than talking.  They breakfasted and headed out into the market to each of their assigned tasks for the day.  Algernon found a good vantage spot to watch the back door of the Drood mansion and noted those coming in and out, how they were received and what was required for entry.  Two thugs were on guard at all time, and they seemed to expect a password from fellow security and generic house staff alike. Unfortunately, his hiding position was too far away from the guard to pick up a stray password from their minds.

Bruce was further away again, perched on a branch that overlooked Algernon’s hideout and the entrance.  Too far away to hear or see anything at the door, he was still within distance if Algernon got into trouble.  Peggy moved through the stalls keeping close contact with Tobias, who was gathering information.  Tobias was out talking to stallholders, especially those the Moriarty gang members had spoken to the day before.  He started by trying to sell the dragon marionette he had carefully brought back from Ardeyn.  He felt lousy and knew he looked it as he failed to gain the interest for the marionette he expected.

“It’s nice. I’ll give you twenty-five crow coin for it,” The Stallholder said.  Tobias almost kept it at that price, having grown fond of the thing, but he needed the information more.

“Tell you what.  I’ll sell it for ten if you tell me what the gentlemen yesterday wanted.”

The Storeholder looked around the crowd for anyone listening as he exchanged coins for the marionette, ”They wanted to know about the Droods.”
“And what did you tell them?”

“Wyclif has been busy focusing his attention on a special trade.  He’s fuming about the loss of his favourite lieutenant into the hands of an enemy.”

“So if the Don lost this second, whose taken up that role at the moment?”
“The younger brother, Terilis Lightfeather.”

“What sort of character is he?”

“He’s a mean one.  Real vicious.  He brings out the worst in the boss. He used to sit in his big brother’s shadow, but no more. I’ve heard some wish for the good old days of Elvin Lightfeather. He was tough, but you knew where you stood with him.  His brother is wild and can go off at nothing…”

The shopkeeper went quiet and looking past Tobias.  Tobias could feel a presence behind him, and something like a static shock ran through his body. He knew this situation of old.  Stepping aside, he looked at the new arrivals through his feathers.  Five big Cro had walked through the markets and now stood in front of the market stall.  One was a little taller than the others and seemed to be their leader.  Feathers matted down each side of his beak make this Cro look scruffy, not that anyone would have told him that to his face.  On each hand, he carried a large metal claw that flashed in the morning light. 

“I hear people have been asking about me?” The Cro asked the stallholder. Tobias could feel the stallholder’s eyes on him already.  Focussing on a calm like the one Dona had presented to them, he squared his shoulders and faced the goons.

“Ah, yes.  That would be me.  Not just me, of course.” He said, with seeming ease, all the while thoughts were churning.

“You?” The Cro said, turning to take in the small, dapper Cro in front of him, “What about this red-feathered guy…?”

“That’s the one.  Goes by the name Rodney Dodd and works for…hmm, have you heard of the Professor?”

The Cro cracked his neck menacingly and, without warning, punched the tree branch they were all standing on with this metal clawed fist.  The violence of the action set Tobias’ heart racing as he realised the quality of the Cro in front of him.  He’d suspected this was the infamous Terilis Lightfeather and now knew that the stories were true.  Suddenly he was back in New York once more working for the organised crime syndicate run by Louis Astra.  It was a life that he had run from, fleeing blindly to New Orleans in the hope of something better.  It seemed a cruel irony that having come so far, he was right back where he started.

“Moriarty?” Peggy added, honestly inserting herself into the conversation, “What a jerk!”

“Yes, that’s the one.  He has your brother,” Tobias confessed, knowing that right now, the difference between life and death may hinge on Terilis’ interest in his brother’s welfare.

“Go on,” The Cro said, brushing his long oily feathers out of his eyes.

“I wanted to talk to you.  That’s why I was asking around.  I can be useful.  Can we talk?” Tobias was aware he sounded like Algernon. His words came out at the speed his heart was racing.

“I’m listening,” 

Tobias looked around the market place as the stallowner had, checking for others listening and took a moment to centre himself. Didn’t they want inside the house?  

“Here? In the markets?”

Terilis nodded, “Take him.”  Suddenly the other four surrounded Tobias, and the panic in his chest spiked.

It’s okay.  Peggy will tell the others.  You’re not alone anymore, remember.  You don’t have to do this alone. He said to himself as the group started moving away.

“Excuse me, where do you think you are going with him?” Came Peggy’s voice from behind, and Tobias almost wept.

“And what’s it to you?” He heard Terilis say.

“I look after him. Where he goes, I go.” Peggy pushed through the group and stood beside Tobias.  He could feel her solid presence, the warmth of her beside him and felt that everything would be fine if she would just stay close.  

At the same time, he knew the others had no idea where they were or what was happening.  She needed to let them know.  With a wrench, he touched Peggy’s arm.

You have to tell Bruce and Algernon what happened, He said within the mind link.  Outside so all could hear, he turned and smiled indulgently at her, “Get out of here. We have business to discuss.” He looked to Terilis and ruffled his own feather to cover his discomfit, “She doesn’t need to be involved.”

“Scram, don’t you hear you’re not wanted,” Terilis added gruffly, and Tobias had to stop himself from contradicting him.

Why? You need me. She replied telepathically, though externally it was almost the same message. “No, I won’t.”

Please, go. He pleaded in her mind as he said out loud, “Go on, go find your brother.”

Why?

Because they don’t know where we are, He was going to add the truth, that she was right. He couldn’t do this without them but was sure that would keep her from leaving.  In the end, Peggy agreed grudgingly.

“Fine, fine!” She complained and pushing her way through the goons, and stormed off.  The Cro thugs laughed at the sight of her climbing higher through the tree.  Tobias watched her receding back until she was lost in the crowds.  He closed his eyes and could still feel the link between them.  Her quietly fuming as she found new words for idiot.  

No, these weren’t the bad old days at all.  

A slight shove in the small of his back told him it was time to move.

It had been a very dull morning.  Algernon had thought that spy work would be more of the infiltration, stealth missions and secret codes. All he’d done since coming to Crow Hollow was follow and watch.  Now he was watching.  He was in a good enough spot between stalls to get a good view of the door, the guards and those who came in and out but not close enough to hear what they were saying.  High above, within gliding distance, he could just make out Bruce’s bulky shadow.  He wished he had some way of talking to the others, or at least Bruce at this moment. It would have helped fill the time. 

Suddenly a rustle of feather and a harrumph, Peggy was beside him, taking up all the space in his tiny hidey-hole and making a scene.

“Budge over. I don’t fit.”

“No, you don’t. Why aren’t you with Rain?”

“Rain got himself caught. He sent me to let you know.”

“O-kay,” Algernon looked up to Bruce’s nest.  He was no longer there.

“What’s going on? Our canary’s being marched up the tree surrounded by heavies,” Bruce’s deep bass came up behind both Peggy and Algernon.  

“Terilis Lightfeather, Elvin’s little brother, is now Don Wyclif’s right hand. He caught Rain asking stallholders questions.  Rain sent me to tell you, and I’ve done that now,” Peggy replied and pushed past Bruce and was soon lost in the crowd of market-goers.

It wasn’t until the marching group of goons were within sight of the back door that Tobias realised they might see Peggy talking to Algernon and suspect something.   In a panic, he looked around for a distraction, something to stall the group so Peggy and Algernon would have time to clear the door.  He saw the market stall Algernon had been interested in before the trip to Ardeyn.

“Oh, my good man!” He exclaimed, pointing to the bundle of dynamite on the stall and aiming his suggestion square for the stallholder, “Can I suggest to you that dynamite is weeping nitro-glycerine and is highly volatile!”

The Cro grabbed the dynamite and, in a blind panic, threw it out of the tree.  It sailed away into the crowds of shoppers and stalls far below and was lost from sight.  The whole transaction took less than a few seconds and didn’t even slow the marching group down.  Tobias chided himself, remembering Peggy’s link.

You’ll have to get out of the way. We’re following you.

Why?  Came the same stubborn insistence for facts.

The goons want to use their back door.

Doesn’t everyone? He could almost hear her roll her eyes.

Exactly! And I’d rather they don’t see you lurking around.

Oh, they’ll see me,  She said through the link. 

He almost groaned. What could that mean? Tobias glanced around the crowds. With a determined look on her face, Peggy marched in from the right. She barged her way through the knot of thugs and stood beside him.

“I’m coming with you,” 

Thank god! He said via the link, Thank you.  He took her hand in his cold, shaking one.

Peggy blinked, surprised. Not so much for the physical contact, but from the force of his need. 

Idiot, She responded automatically, unsure how to react to the intense emotion, We’re a group. We look after each other, don’t we? 

It’s not a concept I will ever tire, I assure you.

Besides, I’m not leaving you alone with the bully brother of Lightfeather. The image of Elvin Lightfeather throwing his murderously accurate dagger in a narrow alley of Bollons, Railsea, was shared.  

Tobias’ grip on Peggy’s hand tightened. Together then?

No other option.

“What?  You again?” Terilis growled, oblivious to all that had been said in the moment she’d pushed through. Peggy paid Terilis no attention.

“You’re an idiot, and I’m coming,”  

Tobias turned to Terilis, “Little sisters, they think they own you.”

Without another word, they was pushed through the door.  They were bundled quickly down a narrow hallway, a door was opened, and they all entered the small private space.

“Okay, so talk,” Terilis barked, taking a seat behind a simple wooden table.  There were no other chairs, and the other four goons loomed over Peggy and Tobias.  Never letting go of Peggy’s hand, Tobias slipped into a new persona, one he hadn’t needed for a long time.  Dropping his head to define the change, his usual polite transatlantic accent was gone. When he next spoke, replaced with a broader cockney.

“Right, I’ll come clean wi’d you gents. Moriarty is a thorn in me side.  Dat’s my patch, that London, and ‘e don’t seem ta think there’s room to share.  So, when I found out ‘bout your brotha, I figured we ‘ad a mutual enemy.” 

You sound like an idiot, Peggy said via the link, I’m glad you don’t go around sounding like that.

Terilis nodded, this was something he could understand,” And what do you want from me?”

“He’s all gun-ho ‘bout dis Spiral Dust trade.  I want in before ‘e does.  I want ta cut ‘im out, know what I mean?”

Algernon and Bruce moved into the crowd and watched silently as Tobias and Peggy were marched up to the door by five Cro.  The guards snapped to attention, and though no password was given, they were let in.  Algernon skimmed the mind of the nearest guard and found the password.

“Usually, the guards give the password,” Algernon murmured to Bruce as they finalised their plans to follow, “I can probably pass myself off as staff…”

“And I’ll use the disguise cypher,” Added Bruce, who had made a note of a Cro about his size leaving for down the tree earlier.  Algernon handed over his crossbow to Bruce and made himself look neat, presentable and unnoteworthy.  Bruce used the Cypher and seemingly didn’t change much, remaining a larger than average Cro, now with a crossbow on his back.  Together they walked up to the door, and Bruce gave the password.  The Cro on guard said nothing, and they were let in without a question. Now, to find the other two.

A long hallway lined with doors faced them.  At the far end, a set of stairs led seemingly up to the main house.  Nearby a set of stairs led down into darkness. Algernon went to work looking for a trail, a blood smear path, anything that would give them a clue as to where Peggy and Tobias had been taken.  He didn’t find anything, as there was nothing to see.  Bruce stopped and listened.  Faintly he could hear a conversation being held behind one of the doors.  Drawing Algernon’s attention to it, they crept down the hallway, listening to doors until they could discern a higher voice in London accent amongst the deeper vocalisations from behind one of them.  Bruce rolled his eyes, they’d found their room all right.  Getting down on one knee, Bruce looked through the keyhole.

“So, you want into the Spiral Dust trade for your London in exchange for…what, my brother?” Terilis summarised, looking through his shaggy mess of feathers at Tobias across the table.

I wonder what makes his feathers all straggly like that? Peggy thought via the link,  Do you think it’s intentional or some sort of scalp condition…

“Sum fink like dat.  ‘Cept I was thinking a little bigger.  This universe is big, a lot bigger if ya get my meanin’.  D’ere no need ta step on each other’s toes,” Tobias paused, seeming for effect, but mostly to give himself time to figure out what he wanted from this conversation. What information do they have on the Dustman?  What were the Dustman’s intentions? “If we go into  for a partnership I want a bigger slice.  Say, I run my London and…Earth?”

 I wonder if Cro’s suffer male pattern baldness? I’ll have to ask someone when we get out of this stuffy room. Haven’t they heard of ventilation?

Terilis scoffed and gestured to one of his goons.  With a look and a sign, the goon crossed the room and opened the door.

Bruce peered through the keyhole.  At one moment, he was looking into a room filled with Cro, Tobias’ yellow suit clearly visible amongst the black.  The next moment, the scene was blocked by a body, and the door opened.  Instinctually, he grabbed the Cro by the throat with one hand and yanked him out of the doorway, throwing him across the hall.  That the Cro did not hit the wall was Algernon snapping him out of the air.  Controlled for the moment, Bruce quietly closed the door. Peggy, wide-eyed, the only witness.

With a single gesture, Algernon threw the Cro down the hall towards the stair heading down. The Cro tumbled out of sight as both Bruce and Algernon moved quietly as possible down the hallway. The Cro was stunned, sprawled on a landing half way down. Levitating his crossbow off Bruce’s back, Algernon shot him almost point-blank as soon as the goon was in sight.  Bruce closed the stairwell door, but no amount of wood was going to muffle the sound of gunfire as the goon pulled out his gun and shot.  It missed Bruce by inches.  Pulling out his crowbar, Bruce lept from down the flight of stairs, landing full weight on the Cro. There was a crunch and Bruce felt the body of the Cro give way beneath him. Standing, the Cro slumped down to the bottom of the stair, very much dead.

The gunshot was clear from inside the room, and Tobias instinctually flinched. He stopped his sales pitch to Terilis as all Cro heads turned to the door.  

“Go see what’s happening out there,” Terilis ordered, and another of the four opened the door.

Just Bruce and Algernon as usual.  Do you think they’ve ever heard of subtle?

“Everything okay?” The goon called down the hallway.  There was a sound of a door opening.

“Yeah, boss,” Came a voice, distinctly Bruce’s for those who knew it.

Yeah, playing with guns again.
“We heard a gunshot.”
“Yeah, sorry accidental discharge.”

Terilis slammed his metal claw into the table, the blades slinking through the wood, the fist leaving an impression on the surface.

“Don’t let it happen again,” Said the goon, translating his bosses body language and closed the door.

“Where did we find these idiots!” Terilis bellowed.

“They’re all over, gov,” Tobias sympathised, and Terilis focused his attention back on him.

“Here’s my idea, “Terilis said, straightening up and retracting his clawed fist from the tabletop,” You get my brother and one more thing.  I want the head of a traitor that left our organisation and joined Moriarty.”

A flash of Caw Ek Carve directing crossbow fire from on top of a warehouse room sprung to Tobias’ mind.

“Oh yeah, new bloke.  Sharp, but officious,” He mimed Caw Ek Carves wireframe spectacles, and Terilis nodded.

“That’s a lot of work, close to Moriarty.  Not saying it can’t be done, but that’s tipping my ‘and,” Tobias looked up as if collecting his thoughts. “ I was thinking more of a trap.  Moriarty’s safe in London, within his network like a spider, in ‘is web.  I can get information to Moriarty about your Spiral Dust contact’s location.  It would have to be legit, Moriarty’s smart. He’d see through any porky pies. We lay an ambush the other end and nab him outside of London and all his protections. Later, I can sweep in collect your brotha, find this traitor of yours and make London me own.”

Terilis seemed to warm to this plan for a moment.  He leaned back in his chair and watched Tobias, who fixed all his thoughts on just keeping up the mask and not crumbling into a shuddering wreck.  After a moment or two, Terlis shook his head.

“No good, the Dustman doesn’t tell us where it comes from.”
“Could we contact this Dustman, arrange somfin’?  It’s in his best interests that someone like Moriarty is not involved in his business.”

Again, the head shook, sending the dangling feathers drifting back and forward, “He stays out of things. He won’t get involved.”

If Terilis knew more than Dona Ilsa about the Spiral Dust, he was doing an excellent job of keeping it close.  Frustrated now, Tobias realised it was time to leave.  The hard part was getting Terilis to think so too.

“Hmm, so your brotha and this traitor and what, I become a junior partner is dis Spiral dust?”

“That’s how I see it?”

“Yeah, right, I’ll be in touch,” He gestured to the door, and the goons looked to Terilis.

“See them out, boys.”

With a shove from one of the two goons behind them, Peggy and Tobias were marched out the room and back through the rear door.  

Bruce dragged the body of the Cro down the stair and along another corridor as Algernon went ahead checking rooms.  So far, they seemed to be storerooms or currently unused workrooms.  Algernon had grabbed six grenades out of an armoury.

“I could probably bring down half the tree if I could find its weak points,” Algernon said as he tucked the grenades under his wing.

“I’m sure you could, but right now, I’d like if you could find a spot to put this one before someone finds us,” Complained Bruce. Algernon closed the armoury and opened another door.  It was a large workroom set up with two stations.  One for processing Spiral Dust and the other Bywandine. There were even separate tools to avoid cross-contamination.  Algernon took a few samples of each and handed them to Bruce before closing that door too. 

“We need somewhere they’re not likely to go for a while.”

The next-door offered them a better solution. It was a general storeroom, complete with mops, cleaning products standard, handyman tools.  With a little luck, the unlucky Cro goon wouldn’t be found until the cleaners arrived the next morning.  Propping him up in a corner, they close the door and started back down the hallway.  Now, which way should they go out?  The rear exit was closest, but as they’d just come through there, it could look suspicious, and they wouldn’t get to see any more of the house.  

They climbed the stairs from the storeroom, through the door at the top to the first corridor.  At the other end, the second staircase beckoned. They were almost there when Terilis Lightfeather walked out of the room flanked by one of his bodyguards.

“You! Are you the new guys setting off guns in the house?” He fixed both Bruce, hidden in his disguise and Algernon with a gaze that seemed to look right through them.

“Ah, yeah.  Sorry boss,” Bruce replied as Algernon silently tried his best not to be there.

The clawed fist slammed into the wall beside Bruce’s head, and snow of gyprock landed on his shoulder.

“Don’t do it again.  I don’t need more idiots, but all we seem to do is lose good hands and find idiots,” He said more to himself than to Bruce or Algernon, “Well, hasn’t Salvin got a job for you?  Get going!”

“Yes, sir,” Bruce replied smartly, and both he and Algernon walked on and opened a random door.  

It was a kitchen. The staff looked like they were preparing for a midday meal and had little time for security staff not where they should be.

“Ur…sorry, do you know where Salvin is?” Asked Algernon of one of the junior staff, peeling vegetables.

“Wouldn’t he be down in the market somewhere?” Replied the kitchen hand who thought he’d found someone lower ranking than himself and wasn’t afraid to show their disdain.  It was utterly wasted on Algernon.  He knew the vegetable peeling Cro was beneath him and was content to let him fall with the house when he got around the destroying it.

They waited thirty seconds to let the hallway clear before heading out again.  Climbing the stairs to the main house, they got a feel for the layout and where Don Wyclif would be further up in the building.  By now, they had pushed their luck as far as they were willing to go. They made their exit through the open front door and left the Drood residence for the genteel part of town.

To be continued….

43. The Great Egg Hunt

After finding out Dona Ilsa of Crow Hollow was trading in Spiral Dust in the hope of reclaiming her kidnapped eggs, the party travelled to Ardeyn.  Through the Mouth of Swords into the Vaults where traps, puzzles and creatures wait.  The party have found two eggs and now realise they will have to search the whole complex to find all five.

***********************************************************************

Leaving the forgotten room of empty shelves, the group notices the golem attacking spirits has now disappeared.  They wound their way past the room of the metal plates, past the statue of the riddle and back to the main chamber.  There the hulking mass of the golem stood, silent and still.  It faced the copper vessel, the flame-licked up in front of the golem encompassing the creature in its red glow.

“Hello there, I say.  Excuse me,” Tobias called to the creature. It half-turned to the noise, a fathomless black eye focused on the qephilim.

“Hi!  Do you speak at all?”

“I speak,” Came a voice deep and tired, full of the ages that the vaults represented.

“Excellent, who are you?”

“I am Rimush.”
“Very pleased to meet you. I’m Tobias.  What do you do here?”

“I clean up.” And the words were said with such finality that Tobias was sure that it was this creature that dealt with the corpses of failed adventurers and decorated the mouth with their swords.

“Do you mind if we go through to the next door?”

“I have no care,” Rimush stated and turned back to the fire.

“Excellent, I can work with apathy,” Tobias said to himself and turned to the others who had been discussing which door to visit next, “Choose your door, Gentlemen.”

Around the flaming urn, four more doors lay closed, all engraved with a qephilim in a different setting.  One had a qephilim holding a finger to their mouth for silence and one in full plate holding a curved sword, a Talwar. One was holding a chest overflowing with riches and one with a long scroll wound around their feet.  On the premise that it is the last place you look for something, Bruce picked the fourth door and pushed it open.

As with other doors, the first room held a statue similar to that on the door.  A female qephilim read from a long scroll surrounded by spiralling black tiles with gold highlights. More interested in the room than the statue, Tobias and Bruce step in, searching for left items of secret doors. As soon as they stepped in front of the figure, however, it spoke.

” Recite the seven act against Ardeyn that are considered sins.”

Bruce looked to Tobias, “Do you know?”

Wide-eyed shaking his head, he replied, “Not for Ardeyn.  If they were to ask me about Crow Hollow laws, I’m your guy…in Crow Hollow.” 

They both looked to Algernon, who seemed decidedly shifty under their gaze.

“What?”

“What do you remember of the seven acts against Ardeyn that are considered sins?”

“Ur…well assisting….Logan whats-his-face…I would assume,” He fumbled around for answers, “Wearing green, blue and pink in a uniform…?”

“That should be a law everywhere…except for those who know how to carry it off.” Tobias walked back to Algernon and sent a jolt of the Strange rocketing to his brain, “Does that help the old memory banks?”

Instantly, the list of seven sins and the seven qephilim kindred with all interconnectedness to the society and culture of Ardeyn became clear in Algernon’s mind.

“Desire, giving a Stranger or Lotanist access to Ardeyn.  Commerce, the collection of obscene wealth in the face of poverty.  War, cowardice that betrays a trust.  Lore, lies that harm another.  Law, theft of another’s livelihood.  Silence, failure to aid another.  Death, murder.” Algernon recited flawlessly.  On the word ‘murder’, the door at the far end of the room clicked open.

“Thank goodness for nerds who pay attention in class.” Tobias praised Algernon, who was still contemplating the sins.

“Murder.  What’s murder?  Was what we did to the keeper murder?”  He seemed more curious than distraught about the thought.

“I don’t think that it was ever alive so…no,” Tobias replied, responding from what he’d noticed of the wispy, mechanical nature of The keeper.

“Do we assume everyone here in Ardeyn is a mannikin?”

This subject preyed on Tobias’ mind from time to time.  Killing soulless clones in Ruk was one thing, but Tobias had wondered about those lives in Railsea who they’d help kill.  How many of those were constructs of their recursion, and how many had the true spark of life.  He then remembered the henchmen of Lightfinger and Caw Ek Carve they’d injured in Celephais. They would have travelled the recursion. They would have at least held the spark of life.  It gave him a cold shiver.

“We can’t tell the mannikin from the people. That’s the problem.”

By this time, Bruce had already stepped through the door and found a chilled room holding three chests.  On the wall, a shining blue scabbard held a long sword of unusual make.  

“Maybe it will talk to us,” Algernon said around Bruce’s side, “Everything else around here has.”

“Hello?”  Bruce said to the sword.  The sword did not respond.  Taking that as a good sign, he pulled the sword from the scabbard. Instantly the air seemed a little warmer to everyone in the vicinity.  With an appraising look, Bruce took the sword out of the treasure room and placed it against the wall for Peggy to look at when she got a chance.  He then returned to the chests.  Locked.  

“So which one of you sneaky sorts is going to try and open these?”  

Algernon and Tobias looked at each other.  Both had their thieve tools out ready, but in the end, Tobias shook his head and stepped aside. 

“I can encourage you,” Sending a tiny spark of The Strange to Algernon through his words, “I can’t encourage myself.”

“O-kay, so which one first?”

“How’d the old story go.  Goldilocks used Big Bears stuff first, so go for the big chest ,” Said Bruce sagely.

“Good thief was she? This Goldilocks?” Algernon asked.

“Famous for break and enter, but she was only ever done for misdemeanours,” Tobias replied straight-faced as he waited to see what lay in the chests.

The big chest clicked open, revealing a fabulously feathered dragon marionette.  Tobias instantly snatched up the puppet and, once its strings were untangled, started it walking the prancing around the room.  The feathers gave the puppet extra movement, and it all seemed uncannily alive.  Algernon looked at it with distaste, the talk of mannikins fresh in his mind.  When Tobias finally made the creature of paper mache, string and feathers beg in front of him, Algernon had to protest.

“I don’t like it, Rain, put it away!”

Tobias pulled the doll up to his shoulder and soothed it like a pet or unhappy baby.  Algernon went back to the chests.  The second chest stopped all the frivolity.  Nestled in the cushioning lining of the middle chest lay a large blue speckled egg, the third of five. Algernon carefully transferred the egg from the chest to the carrying box where two of its siblings already lay.  After finding the egg, the third chest’s discovery of three clay pots was anticlimatic, and they were perfunctorily placed in Algernon’s bag.

“Told you so,” Said Bruce looking pleased with himself, “Said there’d be an egg in the last room.”

They left the cold room and faced the brightly shining sword waiting for them.

“That’s a cool sword,” Punned Tobias as Bruce picked up the sword once more, “Wouldn’t you like to wield it?”

Bruce handed the sword to Algernon to examine and shook his head, “I smash things, I don’t slash things.”

Algernon’s eyes grew wide as he discovered the nature of the sword through the Strange.

“A soul sword, it’s really powerful. But, if it runs out of energy, it will suck the soul of the last victim or, if it can’t do that, it’s wielder.” 

“Well, that’s certainly not my thing, “ Tobias said, thinking the soul-sucking was cool but passing on the sword.

“Nor mine,” Algernon agreed.

“We could trade it for some…boomsticks?” Tobias said, remembering the dynamite Algernon had been keen on in Crow Hollow.”

“There’s no telling whose hands such a weapon will end up in there.  No, we don’t have to steal everything from this place.”

“I wonder if Peggy would like it?” Algernon mused.

That was enough for Bruce, who took the sword and returned it to the frozen wall where it had come from.

“So the wall is cold, not the sword,” Algernon realised, “So if we stuck Peggy up against the wall…”

Bruce slapped him behind the head in a very Peggy manner.

Before leaving the fourth door for good, Bruce did one last check of the room, with an extra push of the Strange from Tobias. In a seeming natural rock wall, Bruce found a notch that stuck out a little further.  When he pressed the button, the whole wall slid aside to reveal a long narrow corridor.  At the far end, a pile of crowns, the gold coins of Ardeyn, and one or two unopened chests lay twinkling in the firelight of torches.  Wary of traps, Tobias threw a knife down the corridor and made it twang into the wood of one chest.  Inside, the coins rattled and clinked, but nothing else.  No traps, no vicious box monster, nothing.  Algernon walked down the hall and put a coin of the local currency on the pile.  Nothing happened. He opened a closed chest and found it full of more coins, maybe 4000 crowns in total. He used a thin probe to check for hidden compartments on the chests, and still, the coins seemed to be the only things of value.  With a snort, Algernon walked away.

“Interesting, I thought you liked power.” Bruce commented as Algernon walked by, “Riches are a significant power in the world.”

“Too transitory,” 

“Youtube celebrity?” Tobias joked.

Algernon made a face, “No…that’s more your thing.”  He glanced back at the cold room, “You guys go ahead. I’ll close up behind us.”

“I’ll help you,” Bruce replied, having noticed the glance and moved between Algernon and the sword.

“Oh, I meant to the gold chamber,” Algernon sidled sideways to close that door.  As Bruce went to help there, Algernon levitated the sword off the wall and into his hands.  By the time Bruce had closed both doors and was ready to leave, the sword was strapped to Algernon’s back with his crossbow.

“Look, even a good person could do great harm with that sword,” Bruce said to a self-satisfied Algernon as they walked out of the fourth door.

“Well, we’ll make sure not to give it to a good person then.”

The fifth door was the qephilim in full-plate armour, the curved talwar ending in a point up over his head.  Beyond it, another door with a heavy lock stood open. Tobias stood back as this room was opened to reveal a huge statue of the same qephilim.

“Yeah, this is not my room at all.”

Along two walls, wooden racks of gleaming weapons stood attracting everyone’s eye, including the skittish Tobias.  His fascination with throwing blades drew him to the line of shining metal as Bruce and Algernon wedged the door with the lock open with a bolt shaft.

“I don’t trust this place, “Bruce rumbled in his baritone and spotted Tobias petting his marionette dragon.

“Don’t touch any of the weapons. They’re probably rigged to set off the statue or something,” He said before turning to enter the next room. 

“Did we hear something?” Tobias said to the dragon puppet whose head he flipped up to give him a look, “ Yeah, I guess we did, damn it!” He sighed and made a note to ask Algernon to levitate one of the daggers on their way out.

The next room was immense, easily the largest space beside the main hall. In the centre, a twenty-foot tall four stepped pyramid rose to the ceiling.  On each tier, runes were carved. Peggy and Tobias worked out they were the markers of other heroes who had attempted some combat and where they reached on the pyramid.

Gradnog the brave reached tier two before being slain by an arrow.  

Nyrod, the impervious, died here on tier three after being rent limb from limb.

“Yeah, we’re not going to want anything to do with that,” Tobias said as Bruce looked to the summit.  At the peak, a bronze altar shone.

“Peggy, could I borrow your shield generator?”
“Why?” She asked.  Though it was not always on, Peggy had come to rely on her force shield generator when combat was inevitable.

“Well, how much do you want to see Bruce with holes?” Tobias asked

“Not at all. I’m very aware of human anatomy.  Qephilim, on the other hand…” She let her thought hang in the air for Tobias to catch. 

“I have a hole. The unicorn’s work’s not completely healed,” He grumbled and lifted a hand to protect the shoulder.

“You two can keep discussing qephilim anatomy. Can I just please borrow the generator?” Peggy unclasped it from her belt and handed it over to Bruce.  

“Would you like the wings?” Tobias offered.

“Ah….no thank you, Algernon can levitate me up there.”
“Like a widdle baby…” Algernon mumbled loud enough for everyone to hear, and Tobias noted Bruces reticence, but said nothing. 

Regardless, Bruce insisted Algernon lift him to the top of the pyramid.  On the ground Peggy and
Tobias started walking around the pyramid.

Expertly landed at the top tier, Bruce scanned the seemingly empty altar.  The only adornment was a plate featuring three images and a dial.  The dial was currently pointed to the image, very much like the stepped pyramid.

“It looks like it can change shape,” Bruce called down to the others describing the dial, “I’ll flip it left and see what happens,”    He set himself to leap away if he had to, and with his free left hand, turned the dial to the left.

The top step dropped away into nothing.  Bruce felt the drop and leapt, grabbing hold of the third tier and rolled away from the now gaping hole beside him. He looked down into the hole that had been the top tier and could just see the altar far below.  Within seconds, the tier started rising again and within the minute was back in place at the top of the pyramid.  Bruce was now on the fourth tier. Five feet of rock wall was between him and the top tier.  With no interest in being on the movable tier for the next experiment, he called down to Algernon.

“Can you come up here?”

With a thought, Algernon flew up to stand on Bruce’s shoulders. Together, they flipped the switch to the right.

Down on the ground, near the other two, the door clicked and swung open. Levitating down, Algernon and Bruce lead the way into the third room.  Deja vu.  It looked almost the same as the first, including the statue of the armoured qephilim.  Here, however, three mummified bodies lay discarded against the wall.  It looked like they may have died of starvation.  Scratch marks on the inside of the door confirmed that these adventurers had tripped the security of this third room.  Across the room, three chests lay locked and ready to investigate.  Algernon had them picked and opened, revealing three bottles of 600-year-old wine, the head of a maul engraved with the legend, Grandfather’s Maul, and a fourth egg!  One more to find.

Algernon gently placed the egg in with its siblings, and the party turned to the other objects packed away for safekeeping.  Tobias started pulling out the bottles of wine.

“We don’t need to steal everything,” Bruce complained again as Tobias foisted the bottles onto Algernon to carry.  He found places amongst the eggs.

“It’s not robbing when you’re an adventurer. It’s looting.”

Under the egg, three cyphers were also hidden.  Bruce didn’t have any qualms about taking cyphers and passed them to Peggy for identification.  Curious to discover if the maul head had any interesting powers, Algernon levitated it out of its box.  Surprised by its weight, he hefted it up to eye level and studied it for signs of The Strange.  Nothing.  It was a huge chunk of metal that someone’s grandfather had seemed fond of.  He teleported it back into its box with disgust and closed the lid.

Leaving the chest room, crossing the pyramid room and finally filing out of the armoury, Tobias pointed out the dagger of this delight to Algernon. Algernon stepped through the doorway and drew the weapon to him.  As soon as it hit his hand, he disappeared, and the doors at both end of the first room began closing.  Bruce charged for the door, running to stop it from shutting. He would not have made it if not for the bolt jammed in the locking mechanism, preventing them from closing.  

“Challenge accepted!”  

Algernon was on the second tier of the pyramid alone with only a dagger in his hand. He put on his armour of atrocity and readied for an attack.  An arrow came from behind him, higher on the pyramid and struck the armour, bouncing off.  Turning, a creature with horns and holding a shortbow took cold damage from his armour.  Another arrow from below did the same.  Looking around, he could see five of the small devilish creatures, all with bows, all seeming ineffective against his armour.

Good, He thought, drawing his jawbone crossbow,  Target practice.

Bruce and Peggy strained against the door, pulling it inch by inch away and widening the gap.  As soon as it was wide enough, Tobias flew in over their heads towards Algernon on the pyramid, Bruce hot on his heels.  Pulling out her spellbook, Peggy found the page with the summoning for the umber wolf.  This time she focused her thoughts on controlling the creature before she released it into the room.  It bounded out, racing after Bruce for the pyramid.

Algernon aimed his weapon, hitting an archer.  The devils, seeing they could make no impact on Algernon, now tried for easier targets.  Arrows fell in Bruce and Peggy. One drew a bead on Tobias.

“Heads up, Rain!” Bruce shouted, vaulted up the first tier of the pyramid, rolling to his feet and pulling himself up the second.  Rain ducked, the arrow flying overhead instead of hitting.  The umber wolf bounded up the first two tiers and launched itself at an archer, but the archers weren’t without skill and stepped aside.  

Bruce was now facing a devil Algernon had previously shot. Pulling back his crowbar, he shouted into the room, “Fore!”  The creature (or what was left of it) flew through the air to land in front of Peggy. Bruce flexed, taking a classical archer’s pose in victory.

“I have no doubt you could take these guys on alone,” Tobias said, hovering above Algernon’s head. The Strange flowed, and Algernon felt it sharpen his senses. Another bolt hit true.  Peggy on the ground examined the devil creature that was now a meat shield as her umber wolf continued to tear into its compatriot above.  Beside it, a shortbow that she now took up, ready to use if need be.  Instead, she summoned a new and terrible creature. Something small, fluffy and white.  It leapt into the battle, going straight for the throat of the nearest devil.  Peggy chuckled as the killer rabbit of Caerbannog did its bloody work.  

Hovering above Algernon, Tobias kept out of the battle when he was clawed from above by one of the devil creatures with wings.

“Incoming!” He cried, looping up above the creature’s head and sending Avel out to scream.  Stunned, it fell to the ground beside Peggy.

“I don’t need anatomy examples that are still living,” She complained and turned her attention to it as it got groggily to its feet.

Bruce climbed to the third tier beside another of Algeron’s target practice dummy’s.  Already injured and with nowhere to go, it too went splat.

Things looked dire for the creatures now as they didn’t seem to be able to land a blow, though the group’s attacks were either debilitating or devastating. Bruce climbed back to the fourth tier and smashed one who was still fresh.  He took the blow and prepared his claws for attack.  On the ground, the devil knocked from the air, was up on its feet and advancing on Peggy.  She stepped back in preparation for the attack. 

“Avel, please take over that body down there and protect my friend,” Tobias asked the now unclothed spirit.  Creepily, the broken body that Bruce had flung there from ten feet up stirred and stood.  With uncoordinated limbs, it threw itself at the flying devil.  On the pyramid, Bruce called Algernon, ”Turn the dial!” He yelled, gesturing with his hands to drop the platform.  His eagle-sharp eyes caught the fight on the ground and recognised the devil as the one he’d knocked off the pyramid.  The disjointed movements, the viciousness of the attack gave him pause.  

What in the hell was Rain playing with?

He had little time to dwell on it as Algernon reached out with levitate and flipped the dial.  He was ready, stepping down as the platform disappeared. The creature wasn’t.  There was a clear crunch as the body hit the platform at the bottom of the drop.  Swinging his crowbar, he waited for its return.

Algernon filled the air with bolts, killing a creature the umber wolf had prone as the killer rabbit took out another.  The umber wolf, now free to attack another, was sent after the shambling monster being puppeted by Avel.

“That’s my Mother!” Exclaimed Tobias and quickly withdrew Avel from the body and the fight.  She returned to the tattoo, her warmth instantly making him clutch his chest protectively. The umber wolf’s target now collapsed again to the ground, it leapt for the winged devil and killed it.  One left, Bruce stood patiently as the platform rose.  The shaken devil stood for his attack. 

Splat!

On the rise of the top tier, a new line of runes appeared.  Tobias flew down beside Algernon and read it out loud,” Mighty Algernon and friends reached tier four.”

Peggy sent the killer rabbit up the pyramid and, with its teeth, scratched a new set of runes just above.

“What do they say, Rain?” Algernon asked as the rabbit completed its last task and disappeared.

Peggy had written the runes for ‘short’ between ‘Mighty’ and ‘Algernon’.

“Ur…Noble.  The Mighty Noble Algernon,” He lied.

“That’s not very apt,” Algernon mused to himself.

“What should it say?” 

“Hmmm, superior in every way,” He finally settled on.

“I’d suspect that’s too long to fit in the space,”

They shared a look, and Algernon handed Tobias the dagger.  

“Cheers,” he said and slipped it into the holder on his forearm. Bruce jumped down from the tier above, glanced at the newly chiselled runes and rounded on Tobias.

“You, don’t follow the lights!” He said, pointing with his crimson streak crowbar.

Tobias blinked, “Fair,” He replied, knowing full well the Lord of the Ring’s reference to the mire of the dead from the last great war. However, he wasn’t sure if it referred to acquiring the dagger or Avel and her terrifying abilities.  Neither said anything more.  Bruce handed back the shield generator to Peggy, and they all returned to the main hall and the urn. 

Rimush was still there, staring at the fire.

“What are you waiting for?” Algernon asked the golem, who didn’t bother turning his head to answer.

“The Mythkeeper. He opens the doors for me to clear up,” The golem replied, reminiscent of Marvin the robot.

“I can do that,” Algernon replied, lifting his hand and the ring,” Which door would you like opened?”

“I care not,” 

Algernon looked to the last two doors, one with a qephilim with a finger pressed to its lips and the other holding a chest full of gold coins. Algernon opened the latter, and without a word, the golem slowly made its way through the door. 

“Happy clearing up!” Algernon waved before turning to Tobias, “Do you want to go in there while he’s clearing up?”

“No,” Tobias shuddered.

“No, let’s go to the other one.” And he twisted his ring.  The flame in the cauldron spun around, and the door clicked open.

Bruce had been busy with his first aid kit on Peggy.  He’d been able to soothe her injuries a little, but not with any great success.  He now turned to Algernon, and Tobias sent a shock of  The Strange through Bruce, hoping it would aid the treatment.  The healing did nothing, and disgruntled Bruce packed up his potions and ointments.

Refreshed, if not healed, the group entered the doors of the silent monitor.  It was clear as they passed the massive door that this was not like the other spaces.  Clean and well lit, the other spaces gave a sense of opulence and grandeur.  This winding corridor heading downwards was dark, unused and ill-kempt.  As they wound down the snaking corridor the dust accumulated grew heavier, and the mythlights of the qephilim grew brighter against the darkness.  Everywhere Tobias read the same runes of spirit warding, stopping unclothed spirits from entering The Vaults from this direction.

“I don’t know if this is where we belong,” Algernon said first.  Tobias said nothing and kept walking.  Eventually, the long corridor ended in a door marked with runes.

Journey not into the Night Vault.

Tobias and Peggy both looked at each other.

“That was one of the myths of Ardeyn,” Algernon said, referring back to his studies with The Estate, “The Night Vault is where you go when you die.”

“What? Hell? What are we supposed to do? Go down and fight Satan?”  Bruce exclaimed, sure he shouldn’t be anywhere near such a place.

“More like Hades of the Greek tradition,” Tobias added, now feeling drawn to what lay beyond the door, “What if there’s an egg down there?  Don’t we have to try at least?”

Bruce had to agree if an egg was down there, they would have to go as well.  He pushed it open, and Tobias jumped back as another unicorn statue reared up silently in front of them.  This one’s horn was made of metal and shone dully in the mythlight.  

“I’ll get this one,” Algernon said, climbing up the side of the unicorn. Not getting in front of this one, Tobias walked around the statue to Algernon’s side. Climbing up a leg and along the statue’s flanks, Algernon edged towards the head and tried the horn.

“It turns,” Algernon said.  

Bruce was checking the seemingly empty room for secrets when he spotted the subtle outline of a door at the far end, “Hey guys, there’s a…” Was all Bruce got to say as Algernon turned the horn to the right and a piercing scream emanated from the statue.  It echoed endlessly around the room making all of them clutch their ears and throwing Tobias to the ground.  When the screaming ceased, blood could be seen trickling from his ears as he held his head in his hands.  Bruce rushed over to see how he was and found the cuts the flying devil had inflicted in the pyramid room.

“Why didn’t you get this healed up before?” He asked.

“It was more important you healed the others.  Even with The Strange’s help, it didn’t seem to be working.  I just wanted to finish this place and leave.”  He confessed as Bruce helped him back to his feet.

At the same time, Algernon turned the horn to the left and a click was heard from the secret door.  Following the other, Tobias wobbled after, down a new passage.

This passage seemed even more abandoned and forgotten than the previous.  Steps lead further and further down, but no longer curved and wound, instead headed due east and away from The Vaults.  A breeze up the passage brought the sound of umber wolf howls.

“I don’t think this is safe,” Algernon said from the head of the group.

“No, the living should not be here,” Tobias swayed like a psychic at a seance adding to the creepiness of the space.

“Doctor Peggy, could you ask The Strange if this is a good way to go?”  Algernon turned to Peggy who closed her eyes and posed the question to the energies of The Strange.

This way is only taking you away from anything of value, Peggy heard her voice reply.

The decision made, the party started back up the stairs.  Tobias stood for a moment wondering what besides umber wolves they may have found further down the path.  He wasn’t sure if it was the qephilim body he inhabited or something else, but he felt drawn towards whatever lay at the end of the passage.  In the end, feeling unwell and longing for a rest, he too turned and trudged back up the winding passage that eventually led back to the main room.

There were no arguments from anyone when they returned to the warmth and temporary safety of the urn for a rest.  They spent an hour recharging, looking over their finds and catnapping before tackling the last door, the one with the chest of gold.  

A short corridor led to a new door that opened up onto a room holding a large glass vessel.  Frosty plumes of fog rolled off the glass and condensation dripped down iron tripod legs.  

Feeling better for his nap, Tobias walked up to the vessel and waved away the mist, but besides the bitter cold emanating from it, he could see or feel nothing.  Peggy cast a spell protecting her from the ferocity of the cold and placed her hand on the glass.  

Roar! Someone said.  It was so curious, Peggy didn’t flinch away but stood, hand on the glass, a look of surprise on her face.

Hello?

Who are you?

A traveller and a scientist.  And you?

None of your business.  This is my home, what do you want?

We’re on a mission of discovery and adventure.  I do ask your pardon for our intrusion.  Are you willing to talk at all?

There was general mutterings but no outright statement yes or no.  Peggy continued, I do apologise for the intrusion.

“Is it imprisoned in there?” Algernon asked from outside the fog of cold.

Is this your willing adobe? She asked.

What’s it to you?

Not much, your situation need not change, but if you were unfairly placed in this vessel I could be persuaded to let you out.

Look, I am stuck in here, but I like it.  I’m safe and I  usually don’t get bothered by nosy intruders! The voice rose in irritation and volume.

Well, pardon.  Enjoy your next eternity, And Peggy released the glass with a snort of frustration.


Another door and an empty hallway ran off this room.  Runes moved in loops on the flooring tiles. At the far end, another door on the right-hand side and darkened archway to nowhere were clearly visible. From the doorway, Bruce used a darkvision cypher to peer down the hallway and beyond.  The cypher did nothing to dispel the darkness beyond the archway.  He stepped into the hallway.

It seemed an ordinary sort of hallway, nothing as flash as the ones they’d come to expect from The Vaults.  The runes moving down the hallway were disconcerting.  Algernon asked Tobias what they said.  

“Ah, Bruce?  The darkness hungers!”   

He took another step and the world flipped.  Gravity, instead of pointing down to his feet, pointed down to the dark archway at the end of the hallway.  His feet slipped away from under him as he felt inextricably drawn in the dark maw, now below. Instinctively, Bruce threw out an arm and caught the door frame.  He climbed up out of the doorway like climbing out of a hole. Normal gravity reasserted itself once he was mostly past the door frame and he rolled back into the room with the glass vessel.

Algernon stood outside the doorway.  He pulled a bolt from his quiver and sent it down the hallway supported by levitation. Once again, the gravity shifted and he had to adjust his hold on the bolt to keep it from falling to the archway.  He let it float all the way to the door on the right-hand side noting the gravity did not change again. It seemed once past the door the hallway just became a shaft.

“Ropes, we can lower someone down to that door on the side at the very least,” Bruce started rummaging through the group’s supplies and found rope enough to make the hallway.  Now it was only to find someone willing to ride the rope down. 

“I’ll do it,” Algernon volunteered.  He was an obvious choice.  Light enough that Bruce would be able to hold his weight, able to levitate himself if need be.  He tied the rope securely around his waist and walked into the hallway.

As before the gravity shifted, but this time he was ready and caught himself with levitate.  Slowly he hovered down to the door, as an unusual rhythmic sound could be heard echoing up to the doorway.

Do  Do  Do-Do

Do  Do  Do-Do…

The door opened to reveal a sculpture studio.  Statues from the very large to the tiny tokens were on tables and benches in various states of completion. Under one bench five iron pails held various useful objects, including extra irons sword ready to decorate the Mouth of Swords.  Papers lay on every flat surface containing illustrations of figures, past and future works as well as notes.  Above a work desk full of clay tokens a bright red light glowed  Amongst all the half-finished statues, another figure stood, still and silent.  

“Rimush, what are you doing?”  Algernon asked from the door.

“I don’t understand the question?” Rimush moaned.

“Fair enough, what are you doing here?” 

“This is my workshop,”

“Can I come in?”

“If you wish.”

Algernon levitated in, was caught by the shift in gravity for a moment and fell to the floor, sliding in the stone dust and clay dust of the floor.  He untied the rope and started looking around at the sculptures and papers.

Above the rope went slack. They’d seen Algernon presumably talking to Rimush and enter in the doorway.  Bruce wedged the rope into the door frame by tying a knot and slipping it over the door, allowing the rope to trail down the hallway.  Checking to see if the rope would hold, he then started climbing down to join Algernon.

Tobias left in the glass with Peggy and focused on his phylactery still with Algernon.  He took Peggy’s hand and shared the link.

Algernon was investigating the red light, trying not to stare directly into it.  Below, new little clay figures like the two in his pockets lay in various states of completion.  Beside them, pages containing a humanoid figure in robes.

“Rimush, do you make these?” Algernon asked, picking up a token.

“When I have the time, the Mythkeeper uses them.”

“And these images, “ He pointed to the man in robes, “Whose this?”

“The Dustman, I hate him. I hate him, I would kill him if I could.” Rimush said with no more urgency in his voice than usual, but the words themselves were full of menace.  Algernon made the connection between the man (not a man) covered in blue dust that brought the eggs to The Vaults.

“So why don’t you?”

“The Mythkeeper forbids it, otherwise I would have killed him.”

“Why? Why do you hate him so much?”

“He is a stranger and not of Ardeyn, and I hate him.”

“Rimush, the Dustman stole some stuff, and he brought them here. Would you know where they would be?”

“The Mythkeeper handles storage.”

“How often has The Dustman been here?”
“He has visited four times.  First with a q.  I did not see her again, and I did not get her name. “  

“We are looking for the Dustman.  He stored something here that did not belong to him.  Would you know where it is?”

“No, the Mythkeeper deals with storage.”

“Would you know where the Dustman is?”

“No, but if I did, I would kill him.  I have a device.  A device of ultimate sorcerers that will kill a Stranger, you know.”

“What if I told you that we want to kill the Dustman?”

For the first time, Rimush seemed to show any interest,” You wish to kill the Dustman too? Oh…if you swear…swear on the Maker to kill him, I will give you the Device.”

“I swear Rimush, on the Maker of Ardeyn to kill the Dustman,” Algernon said, and Rimush gave him a cypher.  He identified it as a Stranger slayer, a weapon uniquely designed to hurt creatures of The Strange.

“Thank you, Rimush.  Can I ask you one more question?”

“If you wish?” 

“What is the red light?”

“It is my working light. I make the figures.”

That much was clear from Algernon’s original investigation.  He poked around a little more, finding polishing sand, bolts, ink and quills.

Outside the hall, Peggy was drawing on her knowledge of The Strange to find the last egg.  She wondered if a spell to draw an item to her would find the egg.

“I think it will take a lot to use this ability.  I wouldn’t be good for much else afterwards, so we’d want to leave straight away.”

“Well then, maybe I need to have a chat with Mr Grumpy now before you try,” Tobias nodded and letting go of his view of Algernon and Bruce in Rimush’s workshop. He walked back over to the glass vessel.  Peggy cast the shield spell to resist the cold, and Tobias touched the glass.

Oh, what do you want now!  The voice said gruffly.

My names Tobias, I won’t disturb you long, but I wondered if you’ve seen a large egg in your time within The Vaults.  A Cro egg? 

Hmmm…  The voice took on a new quality, one that didn’t so much mind the disturbance, What’s in it for me?

Tobias was on firmer ground now and smiled, Well, we’ve seen a few things while here.  Do you have anything in mind?

Silence for a moment as the being in the glass vessel thought.

I like good wine.  I haven’t had good wine in ….well, I don’t remember. The voice said.

Tobias’ smile broadened, This is your lucky day as we just so happened to come across a very old bottle of wine a few rooms back.

Oh!  I could trade the egg for that then, No longer grumpy, the voice was eager, even excited.

Tobias dropped the contact and walked back to the hallway.  

“Hey Algernon, Grumpy has the last egg, but we need the wine,” He called to the workshop.

Inside, Algernon was drawing a map of the Vaults they’d explored.  When he thought it was accurate, he showed it to Rimush.

“Have we missed anywhere in this place?”

“You have not,” Rimush declared 

“Hey Algernon, Grumpy has the last egg, but we need the wine,” Came Tobias’ call from up the hall.

Algernon took one more piece of paper and made a copy of Rimush’s Dustman sketch.  When he was satisfied that he had the likeness, he left Rimush to his workshop and headed back up the hallway.  Bruce had also been investigating the workshop.  As he left, he looked down into the dark archway.  Even with the aid of the dark vision goggles, Bruce could see nothing in the darkness beyond the archway.  He climbed the rope and back into the room where Tobias was making a trade for the egg.

“That darkness is magically resistant.  Can you feel anything Strange in there?” He asked Peggy.  

She looked down the hallway and through the arch.  She let her focus drift to things of the Strange.  There was something.  She sent a ball of fire down into the archway to try and light the next space along.  The darkness swallowed the ball of fire, and when she looked again, the strange thing was still there, hidden in its cloak of black.

“Oh, that’s a lovely bottle of wine,” The voice was now eager and genial as Tobias gently handed off the last Cro egg to Algernon to be safely put away, “Do you have any more of those?”

“I may,” Tobias smelt the sell, “I was looking forward to it myself.  What’s in it for me?”

“I have one or two items in here that you may find of use.  I have a spirit slaying gadget that could be of use.”

Tobias blanched thinking of that thing used against Avel.  Algernon looked keen and described how it could also be used against individuals out of phase. He made the deal, and the bottle and cypher were exchanged.  Just as Tobias was about to farewell the being in the glass, they made one more deal.

“I have a lovely soul gem here, great for soul sorcerers like yourself,” It said, now getting into the patter of the sale, “One spirit can be safely stored inside indefinitely.”

Tobias stopped himself from talking.  This was the answer to his concerns for Avel once they returned to Earth or any recursion that did not support his soul sorcery ability. He was deeply aware she had spent more than twenty years voiceless and seemingly alone.  He didn’t want that fate to befall her again.  Taking a breath, he sighed and seemingly bored with the exchange, he replied

“I suppose I could find a use for it.”

And so the last bottle of six hundred-year-old Ardeyn wine was exchanged for a gem hanging from a chain that he quickly made disappear somewhere on his person.

The five eggs found the group did not waste any more time in The Vault.  Leaving through the broken teeth of the Mouth of Swords, they gathered outside and translated back to Crow Hollow.

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