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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?


“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.


“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 –


R&D Chiefs –






“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.”


“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.


“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





“So, what first?”  

To be continued……