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50. “We’re all going to hell!”

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


Day 2

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

“Last minute adjustment?”

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

“If that.”

“Anything need done before we leave?” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, Algernon,”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Gonna puke!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Instantly, Bruce was ready to attack, guns drawn.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Uentaru, where is she?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, I guess then it’s your turn?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you, so do I.”

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

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

But Peggy knew. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

37. The rebellion begins

On their way to Manihiki to find Bruce’s father, the group found a new ally in a quickened native of Railsea, Ish-Ma-El, a Salver of extraordinary abilities.  They returned the Molly to the rails and are now only two days out from their destination, Manihiki.   They are hopeful of meeting up with the Captain of the Almighty Bruce.


Clear skies and empty sands had made The Molly’s journey smooth railing.  When not entertaining the crew with stories and songs, Rain was spending his downtime revisiting his Spiral Dust mind map excluding all details to do with Bywandine and that end of the drug trade.  The information left was sparse.  In Crow Hollow, two families traded in the raw product. One was initially through Railsea with an agent called Caw Ek Carve and one directly to Earth through Linda Lance.  The only other piece of information was the name Nakarand and this mysterious entity’s connection to the Spiral Dust users.  It seemed the being could see, hear and act through users creating the spiral-eyed zombies the group had encountered in Nederland.

Now it was clear Ish-Ma-El was quickened, Rain informed them of the group’s adventures in The Strange and what brought them to Railsea in the first place. He was also selling the idea of the new Captain joining them on their travels through recursions.

“Your ability to read minds is a sign you can travel The Strange like us,” Rain informed them one morning in the train’s mess, “Recursion mining is a real thing, and some places like Graveyard of the machine god would provide great salvage opportunities.”

“Besides being dangerous and the fact that anything you find translates to fit the world you return to,” Bruce said as he joined the duo at the trestle table.

Ish-Ma-El gave the two men their now-familiar suspicious glance, “Really?  I’m just supposed to believe that powerful beings just showed up out of space and offered me the chance to travel with them?”

“It seems ridiculous to believe it can all be a coincidence, I agree.  We didn’t come here looking for a quickened. We’re supposed to be rare, but here you are.” Rain turned to Bruce who sipped his chicory coffee in contemplation, “I’ve been saying this all along, something is guiding our path, bringing us together, and we don’t know what.”

“And when we find it, we’ll kill it!”  Algernon with a plate of roasted mole meat joined the group at the table.

“Do you think we could ask it a few questions first?” Rain asked with a smile.  

Previous to their latest adventures in Ruk, Algernon’s attitude to the subject of such powerful beings was to find a safer place to hide. The more aggressive attitude was new and proof that Algernon now had full control of his own mind.  Rain couldn’t be happier for his sociopathic friend.

“Smoke, smoke on the horizon!” Came the call from the lookout above their heads.  Captain Ish-Me-El, their black coat flapping, ran from the mess, the others following quickly after.

A thin stream of black smoke rose vertically into the sky on the horizon.  A train would create a long low cloud of white or grey smoke, at least a moving train would. Without a thought, Rain leapt up into the air, wings extended and started for the smoke.

“Not alone!  For God’s sake, how many times!” Bruce called out ready to drop onto the rails and chase after the flyers.

“Just a little look, there and back.” Rain waived and sped off across the sands.

The fire wasn’t a train, but three carriages still smouldering from a fire lit earlier.  The engine was nowhere, and the carriages looked like they’d been picked clean before setting alight.  As Rain swept over the wreck, the flames and smoke cleared from the middle carriage for a moment revealing a deep rectangular wedge cut out of the centre.  It was like someone had tried slicing the boxcar with a giant hot knife.  The cut did not go below the bogies, but all the wood above was still a chard and smoking mess.  As promised, he looped back over the wreck and returned to The Molly and Bruce’s scornful look.

“Do we need to see if we can help survivors?” Bruce asked the Captain and Ish-Ma-el nodded seriously calling for the Switcher to change their course for the wreck.  As The Molly moved in, all could see the damage done to the carriage.  Ish-Ma-El leaned out over the handrail of the lookout as if searching for something.

“I wonder what did that?” Algernon asked, pointing out the long clean slice, “I want one.”

“Pull up alongside,” Peggy ordered as she made her way up to the lookout, ignoring the presence of Captain Ish-Ma-El.  

“Captain?” Bruce said, fallstalling any mutinous movement the Switchers may feel they need to make.   The Switchers dutifully waited for Ish-Ma-El’s for confirmation.  

Ish-Ma-El nodded distractedly, “Tack in alongside.”

On top of the carriage with the ballistae, Rain and Algernon both saw something under the last carriage not burning wood and twisted metal.  A flutter of material and the exposed skin of an unconscious woman.

“Bruce, I’m going there!” Rain called before leaping into the sky and swooping down towards the woman.

“Godammit, Rain! Where?!  Bruce called in reply, leaving the Captain’s side to run across the top of the train.  Algernon pointed out the woman under the carriage to him as he unslung his crossbow.

“You spend so much time chasing after him. You should just tell him how you feel.” Algernon ignored Bruce’s outrage grumblings and looked back to the front carriage where the engine should be.  The coupling was there and in good order, showing no signs of wrenching or violence.  As Bruce dropped off the front of the Molly, Algernon’s attention went to the skies.  Experience taught that at least one giant owl loved snatching up engines and dropping them on unsuspecting theatres.  When nothing showed itself, Algernon busied himself, watching the unconscious form lying on the tracks through the sights of his crossbow.

Ish-Ma-el joined the chase behind Bruce, his three-sleeper-strides eating the ground. Ish-Ma-el moved quickly, long skinny arms and legs pistoning madly like their prized Molly.  A rumble under their feet and the sand below the ties shimmied away to form a 20-metre wide funnel.  Two massive pincers the size of Ish-Ma-El alone reached out of the sand and turned to the vibration of running feet.  The exposed rail sagged as sleepers started falling into the pit to be knocked aside by the eager claws.  Bruce leapt the last few metres to firm ground, but Ish-Ma-el was trapped on the now twisted rail above the hole.  The rail finally snapped with a jarring twang and knocked Ish-ma-el off their feet.  Pinwheeling, they caught the rail, safe for the moment from the jaws, but only while their grip held out.

“Algernon!” Yelled Bruce as Algernon ready with his crossbow let a bolt fly for between the jaws.  There was a squeal, and the antlion revealed its bristly flat head skewered with a bolt.

Peggy sent a plasma bolt at the antlion’s exposed head before hunting the equipment lockers for a rope and grappling hook. The antlion, now pierced and burnt, attempted to grab the hanging prey.  It pulled its bulbous body out of the sand and snapped at Ish-Ma-El’s flailing legs.  The jaws snapped shut on air, and it fell back to the safety of the sand once more.  

Reaching out with his levitate, Algernon lifted Ish-Ma-El, so it looked like the Captain was swinging themselves up onto the rail.  With a flip that would have had Olympic champions standing for an ovation, Ish-Ma-El found themselves balanced on the rail, their hands-free now to attack.  Without thought the hand crossbows were out and firing, one bolt following the other into the exposed folds of skin behind the antlions head.

Bruce’s yell made Rain turned to face him in the air.  By the time he stopped to see what had happened, Ish-Ma-el was back on the rail and shooting the giant antlion from a safe distance with Bruce beside them.  However, the woman was still under a smouldering carriage, and he didn’t spend any more thought on his Captain or friends.  Landing beside the wreck,  he pulled the woman out from under the carriage and onto an empty rail.  She was still breathing but looked to have been left for dead by whoever had destroyed the train.

“Medical aid, Bruce!” He yelled as Ish-Ma-El reloaded and fired once more into the antlion nest.  Once more the antlion tried to reach its prey.

Thock! Thock! Each bolt found it’s target.

It’s wounds now more than it could bear, the antlion slid down to the bottom of its hole and sunk into the sand.

The Molly slowed and stopped alongside the three carriages, and the crew started spilling out to see what they had found.  In the lookout, Peggy tried swinging the grappling hook onto the lead carriage of the wreck.  It landed on the roof but slid off, failing to catch hold.

Chink! Sheeee! Thud!

As Bruce started first aid on his patient, Ish-Ma-El walked up behind him and stopped, recognising the woman.

“Ish?” Rain said, recognising the change in the captain, if not it’s origins. It was like they’d seen a ghost. Ish-Ma-El waved away his concerns as Bruce gave his assessment.

“Dehydrated and suffering exposure. Seems like she may have taken a hit when the carriage was attacked.”

Chink! Sheeee! Thud!

He tended her in silence for twenty minutes until the woman’s eyelids fluttered open and saw her saviours for the first time.

“Ish-Ma-El?” Came a harsh reedy croak from the woman’s lips.  A little water helped soothed the parched throat, and her voice gained a bit of its strength.

“What are you doing here?” Ish-Ma-El asked unsettled by the sight of someone they knew.

“When the navy came, and they started rounding up the crew…well, I hid.  I could still hear the crew as they fed them to the antlion,”  She swallowed a little more water and continued, “I stayed hidden until the screaming stopped and then I stayed where I was.  I had some rations.  But then the navy came back.  They’d been tinkering with what they’d stolen from us.  They turned the things on,  and the carriage…I…I don’t remember anymore.”

Chink! Sheeee! Thud!

“The thing we found?  That’s what they had on their train?” Ish-Ma-El asked coolly, all the time their hands were clenching and unclenching

“Yeah, had it rigged to it somehow?”

“They took it?” 


Chink! Sheeee! Thud!

“A mighty beefy weapon,” Bruce commented, looking back at the smouldering slice out of the middle carriage.

“Ish, maybe you can introduce us?” Rain said to Ish-Ma-El who ignored him, instead of returning to the woman.

“I…I’m pleased to see you again.” They said now with genuine feeling.

“Is the life of a Salver always like this?” The woman asked with a laugh that started a bout of coughing.

“Yeah, usually, maybe not so much of the murdering navy.”

“Hi, my name’s Rain,” Rain interrupted their conversation, frustrated at being ignored,” Can I ask yours?”

“Han, Han Fara Rung,” She replied automatically.

“Well Han, a friend of Ish-Ma-El is a friend of ours,” He assured her, and she relaxed a little.

“It’s nice to be among friends again.”

“Better than being among antlion.” Bruce joked.  No one found it funny.

Chink!  Twang! Peggy grappling line caught a low rail and caught fast. She tied it off to The Molly.

“Oh, did you want me to fly you over?” Algernon now said, and he felt the slap of Peggy’s hand against the back of his head.

“Well, we certainly have room for one more,” Bruce said helping Han Fara Rung carefully onto unsteady feet, “We’re only a day or two out of Manihiki so tight quarters won’t be too much of an issue.  Anyone else left alive, Han?”

“No,” Han Fara Rung replied shakily, “I think I was pretty lucky finding my hiding spot when I did.”

After making sure his patient was comfortable and had plenty of food and water, Bruce scoured what was left of the carriages.  The carriages by now were weak from the attack and fire, and parts were still alight.  Rain called across from the safety of The Molly.

“Bruce, you complain about me!  What are you doing risking your life for a few odds and ends?”

“I’m looking for people,” Bruce replied, doggedly.  If one person could survive this attack, then maybe there were more. He had found a stash of cyphers probably hidden by the Captain, but even he had to admit it, there was no one else left to save and returned to The Molly.  Algernon identified the cyphers Bruce had found:

A permanent bonding glue

Force armour projector

A Nutrition and Hydration kit

A Hangover cure.

The Molly slowly pulled away from what was left of the carriages. Algernon, Peggy and Rain quiz Han Fara Rung about the weapon.

“So, what sort of weapon made the hole?” Rain asked as the patient watched what was left of their first train disappear out of view.

“I don’t know, just something the salver’s found.  It was about a metre to metre and a half long.. Metallic… none of us had seen anything like it before.”

“It was a heat beam of some sort, but with such a strange square profile.  Very odd,” Peggy added her observations.

“Imagine if you could mount it on a ballista,” Algernon thought out loud.

“It cut through the carriage like a bread knife,” Rain shivered as Ish-Ma-El walked into the carriage,” Ish, you had more to do with the weapon that Han, what was it like?”

They stopped and considered their answer before speaking,” A device, we never got a chance to work out what it was.”

“ Certainly doesn’t seem like the type of device we want in the hands of the Ferro Navy,” Rain mulled over seriously, “Especially if they’re after the Almighty Bruce.” 

Almost simultaneouslyAlgernon and Bruce spoke up.

“Could we have it?”

“It should be destroyed.”  They eyed each other across the carriage as the discussion continued without them.

“Han, what direction was the Navy train heading?”

“Tacking around towards Manihiki.”
“And your engine, it was missing, where did it go?”

“The navy took it.”

“What engine did they have?” Peggy asked, now interested in the conversation.

“Deisel, a big one.” Han-Fara-Rung supplied 

“That would make sense,” She mused, “A heat ray would need a lot of energy, and a diesel could provide that if they found a way to connect it to the system.”

“Do you remember its name?”

“Yeah, the Ironside Roar.”

“Captain, would you like to go hunting?” Rain finally turned to look up at the Ish-Ma-El who had been standing, listening the whole time.

“Any monetary gain?” 

“Probably not, but we’d be hunting the Navy, not a bad recompense I’d suggest.”

The Captain pondered the idea a while as the group just watched.

“Knowing the crew’s indifference and my own love of the navy, I don’t think that’s a problem,” They finally said, turning to the group.

For the next two days, the stout-hearted Molly chugged across the wastes of Railsea, hardly stopping the whole way.  Everyone was busy with duties and discussing plans for Manihiki.  On top of that, the group was involved in getting the crew on-side for a push against the most powerful organisation Railsea had seen since the mythological builders.  The Captain took the crew aside and told them in general terms their story and what they had planned.  They said up-to-date letters weren’t even enough to save a train the navy wanted disappeared.  By this time the crew thought they knew the Captain’s story well enough that no one questioned their seemingly outlandish proposal to go against the Manihiki Navy. 

Rain also started telling new stories about the group and their scrapes against impossible odds.  If the crew believed the stories or not, it didn’t seem to matter as the message to perseverance against injustice was quickly picked up by all.  It also helped that he’d changed the wording and added another verse to the Song of Ishmael,

Song of Ish-Ma-El (Revision)

 (To the Tune: Do the “Loco-mo-tion”)

Last of their cr-ew their friends and family

Ish-Ma-El, Wanderer of the Railsea

They were left for dead by wicked Na-vy

Ish-Ma-El, Wanderer of the Railsea

Now Railers everywhere, please take heed

“Never say, die!” Became their creed.

So, come on and follow.

Ish-Ma-El, Wand’er of the Railsea!

Three lonely we-eks, Alone but not lonely

Ish-Ma-El, Wanderer of the Railsea

Followed by the dead crying, “Vengence only!”

Ish-Ma-El, Wanderer of the Railsea

A tiny flag of red, against the sand

Leads to ancient riches lost under land

So, come on and fol-low

Ish-Ma-El, wand’er of the Railsea!

Captain Ish-Ma-El!

Fears no one!

Not mole!

Not man!

Not even Ferro-Navy Grand!

Wow oh wow oh!

Four days and nights, they worked on Molly.

Ish-Ma-El, wanderer of the Railsea!

Reclaimed her from the dust, the moles and the vermin

Ish-Ma-El, wanderer of the Railsea!

A hoard of giant rats came to cause havoc.

Crossbow and twin swo-rds

Flashed through the dark

So, come on and fol-low

Ish-Ma-El, wand’er of the Railsea!

Following the sm-o-ke, they found their old train.

Ish-Ma-El, wanderer of the Railsea!

The crew fed to an antlion, the navy to blame.

Ish-Ma-El, wanderer of the Railsea!

Now the Ferro Navy is their phil-oso-phy

And they won’t stop un-til all Railsea’s free!

So, come on and fol-low

Ish-Ma-El, wand’er of the Railsea!


The largest city-state in all of Railsea was a smudge of the horizon. As quietly as a yellow steam train can, The Molly pulled up at a pier, paid its dock duties and started unloading.  Besides the original cargo, the Gliding Vulpine had been transporting, there was three or four tons of molemeat, and a massive quantity of silver-grey hide from the Dreaming Sable.  From the proceeds, The Molly resupplied and paid her crew handsomely, boosting their spirits even further. Once the business of running a train was sorted out, the group went out into town to hear the latest gossip and spread a little of their own.

“I feel like a target is painted on my back, “Bruce complained as they walked up through the city proper. Rain turned and looked at the group as a whole.  Though Bruce did stand taller than all of them and was twice as wide, Algernon walked around with a giant crossbow across his back, same too for Ish-Ma-El and their double blades.  Rain himself wouldn’t be part from the wings, and Peggy’s suspicious stares were enough to give anyone passing by a second glance.  In comparison, Bruce was almost invisible.

They listened to what the rumourmongers had to say about the Ironside Roar (sent to hunt the Almighty Bruce), the Almighty Bruce and the Onoka mining community.   In return, they shared their rumour of the Captain’s son searching for his father.

Rain made a discovery when he stumbled across a group of Ferro Navy Officers well into their cups in an inn he had inquired.  After a few more rounds of drinks and an appreciative audience, the officers started telling their new best friend, all they knew about events out of the Railsea.

“Of course the Ironside Roar is part of the hunt to find that Almighty Bruce, as is half the navy.  The big push is clear for a few days from now, that is if the Dread Baron doesn’t get it first.”

“The Dread Baron?”

“One of the most powerful trains in the whole Ferro navy.  Not the flagship by any means, but big!  They’re expected back any day, and then ….the hunt is on!”

“I think we need to sabotage some trains!” Algernon said as soon as Rain had informed the group what he’d learned.

“And I for one, think you should have the chance to do just that.” Rain beamed, “So how are we going to do it?”

“What?  Walk into the navy dockyards and demand to see the engines?” Ish-Ma-El said, their usual sarcastic nature getting the better of them.

“I was thinking more distraction and sabotage.  We still have a good supply of mole steaks and a Captain to mourn, a man who was a paid-up supporter of the Ferro Navy…” Rain suggested merrily.

“We have a BBQ…” Bruce added, “No engineer is going to pass up a free meal.”

“A free steak meal,” Algernon finished with pleasure, “ So, you guys put on a BBQ and distract everyone while Rain and I sneak in and disable the engines.” 

“Rain’s going to be needed at the BBQ to stir up the interest,” Bruce burst Algernon’s vision of the events.

“I’m afraid so,” Rain agreed, “I’d love to go with you, we can run our technician and boss routine, but I wouldn’t be much use to you if something technical came up.”  

Rain looked at Ish-Ma-El noting how well they dealt with the crew, and even with him and Bruce that first day at the theatre.  

Bruce was thinking the same thing it seemed, “Ish-Ma-El should go with Algernon. They’ve proven their quick on their feet and if things aren’t what you expect can probably jury-rig something on the spot.”

“Er…sure, I can do it.” Ish-Ma-El agreed reluctantly as Algernon pulled Rain aside.

“But I don’t want to do this with Ish-Ma-el. I don’t trust them,” 

Algernon’s suspicion of strangers had been a hindrance in the past, but usually, Rain saw it as the balance to his own more than generous acceptance.  Not everyone could be an ally, as hard as he worked at it.  Still, Ish-Ma-el was an exception. They’d prove their worth and had more than a few stakes in the game.

“I can’t see how we have much choice, “ Rain said in the end, “You know how to destroy things, and they can get you in, I’d only be in your way.”

“We could at least fly out if we needed to,” He brooded on the subject, “If I have to, I’ll just leave them behind.”

“It won’t come to that.  Look, I’ll give you a boost before you leave the gate, that will make the first engine easy.  If you have to, you can come back for another shot.”

“It feels a bit like cheating,” Algernon confessed, the first time the most power of Rain’s abilities had been discussed between them.  

“Now whose being silly,” Rain laughed, ”You know better than I do that it’s not cheating if you don’t get caught and I don’t intend for any of us to be caught.”

“Yeah,” Algernon agreed, as reluctantly as Ish-Ma-el had, “I guess.”

“So, tell me.” Rain asked with a mischievous grin, “How are you going to wreck these trains?”  

The rest of the day was spent acquiring and preparing materials.  Clothes, similar enough to the Ferro Navy greys, were purchased. Quantities of powdered aluminium and the worst of the rusty iron that could be found with salvers.  Several barrels of cheap naval rum were bought, and recently acquired supplies for The Molly were dipped into.  That evening in front of the iron gates to the naval shipyards, they set up and started their BBQ.  

Bruce was the cook and looked at home over the hot coals and sizzling fat of the meat. Peggy was in charge of the drinks and kept them flowing for as long as the rum lasted.  Rain gathered the crowds, at first talking to individuals and groups to encourage them to let others know.  He quickly found a stack of crates to stand on and excited the forming crowd for the feast about to begin.  Algernon and Ish-Ma-El stayed back until the mass of engineers vying for a free meal was thick at the entrance.  

“Engineers and brave heroes of the Manihiki Ferro Navy, “Rain started his ringmaster routine with the crowd, “We mourn the loss and celebrate the life of Captain Al-Ram-Kuno, late of the Gliding Vulpine.  As a loyal and fully paid supporter of the Ferro Navy, it is only fitting that we note his life and passing with this small tribute to you, courageous crews!”  The crowd cheered, some already into their cups.  The noise attracted more engineers from the docks, and a constant stream of rail crew now trickled out to the party at the gates.

Soon the steaks served on slabs of fresh bread, and a cup of rum quickly started moving through the crowd.  Two figures, seemingly ignoring the spectacle, walked calmly up to the gates. As they walked past his perch above the crowd, Rain clapped each on the shoulder verbally encouraging them to enjoy the meal as he sent them jolts of The Strange.  

“State your business?” Said the marine on duty more than a little harassed and put-out by the impromptu BBQ.

“Engineering specialist sent down to oversee the overalls for the…uh…big push,” Ish-Ma-El said the last just low enough for only the guard to hear.  

“Oh…er…right!” This was someone in the know, and he didn’t stand in their way a moment longer.

There were currently two steam trains in the docks, and the saboteurs had come prepared.  While Ish-Ma-El scattered handfuls of thermite pellets made to look like lumps of coal throughout the tender, Algernon set to work on the machinery itself.  Steam trains are brutally simple, especially compared to what Algernon was used to tinkering.  A few pins in pressure gauges to stop the needle from rising too far, wadding stuffed down the safety release valves, and they were good to go.  The idea was that the trains would leave, as usual, all systems working normally.  Then they would hit one of the thermite lumps taking the firebox temperatures from 1,300 degrees centigrade to 2,200 degrees.  It was hot enough to melt out the firebox and any other steel in the vicinity.  In the meantime the pressure in the boiler would rise to dangerous levels, but the engineers’ gauges and safety valves wouldn’t register a problem.  Enough pressure and the boiler could explode, possibly derailing the whole train. 

As Peggy has said during the planning session, “A pressurised explosion is nothing to sneeze at.”

Halfway through their sabotage and  Ish-Ma-El and Algernon were feeling pretty pleased with themselves.  Looking like they belonged, they left the first train and started for the second.

That’s when chaos descended onto the dockyards.

It had been limping in for a while, a dark smudge on the darker night sky. It wasn’t until the Dread Barron’s hulking wreck rolled into dock billowing black smoke from various locations that the naval dockyards burst into action.  Engineers ran from the BBQ, food and drinks still in hands sprinted for the dock where the engine released the last of its boiler pressure in a huge gout of steam, obscuring even the Barons’s massive bulk.

“Oi, you!” Came a call, and Algernon and Ish-Mae-El were confronted with the gate guard, “You said you were some specialist engineers, they need you at the Baron!”

“Unfortunately, my companion has hit his head in all the excitement of the Baron’s arrival,” Ish-Mae-El  lied convincingly as Algernon looked vaguely out to the distance with a strained look on his face, “I need to take him to the hospital.”

“Right, but hurry back,” The guard replied, clearing their path, his expression grim.

At the gates, Peggy was putting down the last of the cups she’d been pouring and pulled off her apron.

“I want a closer look at that thing,” She said as she stepped by Bruce and Rain.

“No, Peggy you’ll get shanghaied!” Rain moaned knowing as soon as they saw her talent she’d been taken.

“They can try,” She replied simply, slipping away amongst the crowds of other engineers swarming through the gates, just as Ish-Ma-El and Algernon appeared back at the BBQ.

“Going well?” Rain asked, handing Algernon a sandwich and zapping him once more.

“Yeah, all engineers are being called to help out of the Baron though, and we’ve only done one train.” Explained Algernon as Rain did the same for Ish-Ma-El.

“This is the perfect timing if you can swing it.  Peggy’s just gone to look at the Baron herself on the back of all this chaos.”

“We’re on it,” Ish-Ma-El nodded, and they headed back in amongst the crowd.

This time when guards tried to direct them to the Dread Baron, Ish-Ma-El rounded on them, ”I know better than you the state of the Dread Baron and don’t you think headquarters do too?  Now more than ever we need those two trains in top condition now that they’re all that’s left to protect us.”

“ Very well, “ The marine stepped aside, sure they had met another know-it-all with headquarters backing.  The second train sabotaged, they were soon walking out past the BBQ and out into the city streets to be lost in the crowds.

Peggy was another story.  The Dread Baron was a mess. Whole chunks had been smashed out of the engine and train.  Peggy stepped inside the diesel compartment to see the largest engine she’d had seen, certainly the largest she’d been able to work on and must have, at some time, come out of a ship. She already noted that a massive timing belt, many times longer than herself had been damaged in the fight and been jury-rigged to get the train back to port.  She helped pull off the old belt but didn’t give suggestions on improvement as she would normally.  These were the enemy.

“What caused all this?” Peggy asked conversationally of one of the navy engineers working alongside her.

“A fight with the Almighty Bruce, ” She replied, taking the opportunity of the chat to have a moment’s rest, “They have a cannon and a huge catapult that throws bombs.”

“The Almighty Bruce?  I thought that was a legend.”

“We don’t like to admit it, but it’s real, alright.”

Peggy estimated that the work required to get the Dread Baron back on the rail would take two or more weeks.  With any luck, the Baron would have to sit out the rest of the fight.  Having found out all she thought she could, Peggy climbed off the Dread Baron and started for the gates. 

“Where do you think you’re going?” As a marine watching over the engineers crawling all over the stricken train blocked her way.

“Food, I hear someones giving away steak sandwiches,” She replied, continuing to walk by only to be stopped by a spear across the body.

“The navy will supply you with all your needs now,” He replied and pointed out a barracks where a camp mess and rows of beds had been set up.

As feared, Peggy had been conscripted into the Manihiki Ferro Navy.

At the gates, Bruce and Rain were getting worried. Algernon and Ish-Ma-El were out and long gone, their task done.  The crowds of engineers were thinning, but Peggy was nowhere to be seen.  Taking the last of the sandwiches on a vast platter, Rain walked straight through the gates as if he belonged there and down the docks to the Dread Baron.  There he handed out sandwiches to the engineers who had come in on the stricken vessel and kept an eye out for Peggy.  It didn’t take long to spot her arguing with a marine.  

“Good food for a hero of Manihiki? “ He said, handing her a sandwich.  She took it, touching his hand in return and creating a mental link.

What’s up? He asked, continuing to hand out the food.

I can’t leave


Watch, Peggy said through the mind link and tried walking past the marine again.

“Come now. You belong to the Navy now, hop-it’” The marine said with no malice and shoved her back.

Just get ready to run, Rain said before turning to the guard himself and offering him a sandwich.

“I suggest this one is needed at the gate,” He pushed, gesturing to Peggy. 

The marine’s eyes glazed over for a moment before he realised Peggy was standing in front of him.

“You’re needed at the gate, better get moving.”

Peggy did just that, stepping past him she marched towards the gate, the marine guard in tow.  She made it to the gates as Bruce was packing up the BBQ.  Peggy made a gesture, pointing out her escort to Bruce as she inspected the well-oiled and maintained gate.  When Peggy felt the distance was enough, she bolted through the gate and down the dock.  The guard, surprised by the sudden movement, gave chase, only to collide into Bruce carrying crates of BBQ supplies.

By the time the marine stood up to looked after Peggy, she had melted into the crowds. He swore, probably having lost a commission for bringing in a new engineer.  He turned on Bruce.

“Didn’t see you there, sorry about that.  Here have a steak,” Bruce handed a sandwich to the marine who snatched it up belligerently.  Behind them, Rain walked nonchalantly through the gates and joined Bruce in the cleanup.

Where are you? He asked Peggy hidden somewhere in the city.

I don’t know, safe. 

Stay where you are and stay connected. Algernon and Ish-Ma-el are out, and Bruce and I are nearly finished here.  We’ll come and find you.

35. Expecto Patronum

After a successful trip to Ruk, the party are preparing for their next trip to Railsea. Following the clues to the disappearance of Bruce’s father, the group is focusing their efforts on the Manihiki Ferro Navy.  Though most of the party is ready to start flexing their Strange powers in Railsea, Bruce is more reticent to go.


Katherine Manners, Lead Operative and founding member of the Estate pulled up a report.  She had been Earth’s representatives on foreign shores.  And that was when the less theatrical of the party wrote the report.  This last Ruk trip had been no exception, with the discovery of secret genetic labs, the recovery of kidnapped Earthlings for experimentation and the destruction of a whole mountain along with the death of a serious opponent of Earth, Doctor Strangelove.  She confirmed the facts through channels, found them accurate, and called in Bruce Johnson, the group member she was directly responsible for in for a chat.

As usual, Bruce was prompt and prepared.  There was something else she noticed as Bruce entered her office and sat down.  A quiet assurance.  The confidence of someone who had gone through hell and come out the other side stronger.  She approved.  

“Bruce, you and your group have had quite the adventure in Ruk,” She prompted turning her screen with the report displayed.

“Did what we set out to do.  Got into the kid’s head, got him fixed.  His brothers too, though Mortimer is one to keep an eye on,” 

“Noted, though we hope great things for him if he proves himself reliable,”

Bruce nodded thoughtfully, “He’s sharp, and he’s fast.  A dangerous combination.”

“As too were your group, blowing up a large tract of Ruk,”

“Ah well, I believe you’ll find that was the build-up of a highly explosive gas that was being created by Strangelove,” Bruce started to defend the group’s action until Katherine waved his arguments aside.

“In doing so, destroyed a secret base and one of the Karum’s major players all while leaving our allies on Ruk out of the frame. This is a significant victory that will have implication for years to come.”
“Yeah, the Allsong said she was dead.  Algernon asked,” He said, unconvinced, “But who’s to say she was alive at all.”

“Whose to say with Ruk,” She flicked to her screen to the other reports from Ruk, “Still there’s no sign that she’s alive and the Karum is in a panic.  I think it’s fair to say she is no longer a threat to Earth.”

Bruce nodded, mulling over his thoughts.

“Anything to add before I file the report for good?”  

“Ah no, nothing directly related to Ruk, only what we discovered.”
“Go on,”

“How hard is it to deliberately get into a story-based recursion that you have an idea may be out there, but have no links or key?”

“Some do it.  It requires a high concentration level and not a little luck if you don’t know if the recursion exists.  Translations go bad every day.  I can organise for some advanced translation coaching if you like.”

“Could you bring anything back?”

She shook her head, “Everything is translated.  Whatever you find in the recursion will only change into something mundane to this world.”

“How about we use an anapposite gate? Like we did for the Martins?”

“Anaposite gates are rare things.  We have no way of making a reliable gate.”

“We have the artefact from Ruk. Maybe we can rig that up.”

“Perhaps.  May I ask what recursion you would try to get to?”

At this, Bruce became a little more circumspect, “Ah, I know of a specific shrink ray that we could put to use.”

“Truly.  Would you like me to organise the coaching? Or would you like to think it over?  You may find other options open up to you in your travels.”

”Huh?” Dumbfounded, Bruce stopped in his tracks as he was about to leave.

“Railsea, I believe a number of your party mentioned it was your next trip out.”

“Oh yeah, tidying up loose ends.” He recovered quickly, but Katherine could tell Railsea wasn’t Bruce’s idea of destination.

“Foresee any difficulties?”

“No…no.  As I said, following up a few loose ends,”  He shook his head as he reached the door, “And do keep an eye on Mortimer, I worry what he might get up to while I’m not around.”

Algernon and Rain were also visiting with their direct supervisor.  It had become a bit of a tradition for both of them.  Algernon was obliged to ask for a highly specific and useful item of equipment, a rocket launcher.  Keating turned it down as usual.  Rain had better luck, as he didn’t bother asking.

Walking into the administration centre as if he owned the place, he greeted the staff by name and seemed to loiter around Keating’s office door, as if waiting for him to arrive.  Behind his back, he carefully picked the lock, not having a lot of luck.  The lockpick had jammed, and as he was about to check what was hindering its progress, Keating walked into the office.  Some would suggest this would be a good time to slink away, hide, and try again later.  That wasn’t Rain’s way at all.

“Mr Keating, I’m so glad I caught you,” He deftly stepped away from the door as if he hadn’t been standing there for minutes. He walked up to Keating, hand outstretched and Keating complied to the customary greeting. It gave Rain the chance to turn Keating around, so he did not see the door and the jammed lockpick.

“I have been remiss in keeping you abreast of my group’s activities if you have a moment I’d love to fill you in.”
“Rain, what a surprise.  Ah, yes that would be good…” Keating mulled over his current tasks, “ I can spare you a moment or two in my office…”
“I was hoping for a walk .  You will be pleased to know I have been availing myself of the Estates excellent councillors. They suggest more physical activity and sunlight, and it is such a lovely day,” He looked out the second storey office windows to the usual heavy leaden sky of Seattle.

“Unfortunately I have quite a bit of paperwork to get to…”

“No really, I Suggest we go out for a walk,” Rain pushed, embedding the suggestion into Keating’s mind.  He hadn’t wanted to do it.  He didn’t know the penalties for altering the mind of an Estate official, but at that moment it felt more likely he’d be caught for the attempted break-in than manipulating his supervisor’s mind.  He watched Keating’s face slacken as the push took hold.

“I promise not to keep you long, the walk will do us a world of good,” Rain steered Keating towards the door.

The two walked around the Estate commons to the far side of campus, near the library.  Having timed his story to finish at that point, he left Keating there and once out of sight, sprinted back.  There he found the lockpick still in places.  Now he could see the jam, Rain unlocked the door and quickly stepped into the office.

Keating’s bottle of bourbon wasn’t too hard to find. Rain knew he kept it near his desk for easy retrieval and disposal and soon found it tucked into a bottom draw.  Keating’s long legs had returned him to the office earlier that Rain anticipated.  His silhouette through the frosted window of the office door sent a jolt of adrenalin through Rain. He only had one option.  Carefully tucking the prized bottle away in his long black coat, Rain opened the window and leapt through.

For some, falling is just flying over short distances. The twenty feet to the ground was a very short flight.  Pushing his legs out in front of him, they took for the first brunt Rain’s landing.  He allowed momentum to roll him back onto his feet and walked away before Keating even had a chance to notice his window was open.

Rain was worrying over the bourbon bottle in the mess when Algernon and Peggy came in for lunch that day.

“The box I can get, I’ll ring around a few bars in the city and see who has one on their shelves, but I want to make this bottle spectacular.”

“A half a bottle of alcohol?” Algernon asked, bringing his lunch to the table, now both were looking through the bottles amber glow.

“Exactly, that could be any half bottle of bourbon. I want to make it clear it’s his half bottle,”

“Well there’s plenty of room to put something in with the bourbon. You can get Peggy to try out Hertzfeld’s glove.  She could get something inside without cutting the glass.”

The suggestion had the desired effect, and Rain’s face lit up, “Golf balls!  Peggy!” He called the Doctor over and gestured for her to sit down.

“If I got a number of golf balls, possibly two…?” He asked his technical advisor, Algernon.

“Three would fit nicely,” Algernon replied thoughtfully gauging the available space in the bottle.

“Three balls, would you be able to use Hertzfeld’s glove to put them inside?”

“Yes.  I could also break the bottle.  Can I ask why we’re doing this?”

“It’s a Christmas present,”  Rain replied as if it were self-evident.  

Peggy nodded, “Very well, bring them to my lab as soon as you acquire the balls.”

After a few days trip out to see Ni’Challan, Rain stopped by Keating’s office again.  This time the supervisor was in, busy with a project of his own.

“Sorry to trouble you again, I was wondering if I could ask your advice on something rather important,” Rain poked his head around the door.  He noticed a step ladder dominating the room and a security camera mounted into the corner facing the desk. Wires hung from the camera, and false ceiling tiles gave access to the services above.

“Security camera?s  You know Algernon is very good at installing those.  He used one very effectively in  Ruk just recently,”

“I am rather busy at the moment, can it wait?” Keating grumbled over the directions to the camera installation.

Rain could see Keating would not be so patient with the usual nonsense, so he brought up a subject that he’d been considering for some time.  He slipped in and closed the door.

“I’m considering my future.  I don’t think it’s a surprise to discover I am not the corporate type and my building relationship with Ni’Challan has me thinking of life after The Estate.”

“You’re thinking of leaving?” Keating looked up incredulous, “I know your methods are unorthodox, but you are a very fine agent.  The Estate would be poorer without you.”

The compliment, genuinely given, gave Rain pause.

“That’s very kind of you to say, and I do want to still be of use to The Estate, but possibly in not such a formal capacity,” He stepped in front of the golf bag, deeply moved by what he’d heard.

“And you intend to work with Ni’Challan?  We could do with a liaison out in the Graveyard of the Machine god,” Keating now sat down and mused over the possibilities, “We have such individuals all over the shoals. Still, there are very few inhabitable places in the Graveyard…yes, that could be very useful…” 

The two of them chatted about a future role for Rain outside the confines of The Estate proper.  Rain was impressed by how insightful Keating’s vision of his future.  A contact in the Graveyard for information and to represent the Estate to the community in that area.  Rain found himself enjoying the conversation, even as three balls somehow made their way from the golf bag and into his pockets.

He thanked Keating, apologised for taking up his valuable time and raced over to Peggy’s lab via a stop at the dormitory to pick up the bottle.  It was a moment’s work for Peggy to phase the glove through the glass of the bottle and deposit the three balls in the bourbon, Keating’s signature clearly visible in black Sharpie through the clear amber liquid.

Bruce looking for the group, found them all circling the bourbon bottle, Rain goggling at their new creation. 

“You’ve been up to mischief again,” Bruce said, walking over to see what all the fuss was about.

“How is this news to you?” Peggy replied as Rain was about to hide the bottle from Bruce’s sight.  He thought better of it and let the upright citizen examine their handiwork.

“Is that Keating’s signature?” Bruce pointed as a ball floated lazily passed his finger only millimetres off the bottom of the bottle.


“Do I want to know?”

“Probably not.” Rain smiled, and changed the subject, “So, already for Railsea?”

“I have training in the dojo this afternoon. The martial arts master has agreed to train with my crowbar, fully padded of course.” Bruce deflected, but his friend was a magician and con man.

“Naturally, and then after?  Tomorrow morning.  That would give me time to find a box and gift wrap the bottle.” He said, tucking it away.

“I have concerns over Mortimer and the triplets.  I know you don’t think of them as real people, but I have a deep concern for their welfare…” Bruce sent the conversation down a misdirected quagmire of blame that even Rain felt he had to defend himself.

“I never…you know me, I love the boys… “ He looked to Algernon and Peggy before realising Bruce’s scheme, “Mr Johnson, was that you trying to steer the conversation away from Railsea?” He looked proudly at Bruce as Bruce’s face turned red.


“That was very good, you had me wondering what I’d said to make you think such a thing,” Rain replied, and then returned to the subject at hand, “So, tomorrow morning then.” 

“We need more information,”
“Now you sound like Algernon,” Peggy commented, and even Algernon had to agree.

“All the information is in Railsea, we just have to get to Manihiki from Bollons,” Rain countered, “Come on Bruce, you do realise you’re the last enigma amongst us.  Let’s go save your father and clear up that blot on your past.”

Bruce agreed grudgingly, and Rain didn’t push the subject. He remembered the private conversation they’d had in the Dreamlands.  Bruce harboured legitimate grudges against his father and was unsure he wanted the man back in his life. He kept that little snippet to himself, keeping the privacy he had created in the dream.

Instead, Rain informed Algernon that Keating had installed a surveillance camera.  Instantly, Algernon pulled out his laptop and hacked into the one camera system via wifi.  He left his computer to record whatever random video it picked up for future use.

The next morning, as promised, the group gathered in Peggy’s lab for the translation to Railsea.  Bruce was wearing the wings Algernon had ‘acquired’ during his time with Doctor Strangelove. A real work of Ruk science and art, the wings were light weight and fitted well to his broad back.  He fiddled with the strappings not used to the restriction on his shoulders and waist.

Algernon led the translation this time and the party without fuss, found themselves dissolving into the Strange.  The first things they could see as they arrive were the greys and dull browns that dominated Railsea.  They were standing in their blood-splattered clothing in the one-room bedsit once owned by Caw Eh Carve.  The furnishings were different, though in the same dreary time-worn fashion of all of Railsea.  Bruce’s wings here were even more impressive steampunk versions of themselves.  All brass with gauges and dials looking more at home on a steam engine with details picked out in gold gilt and glossy black.  He was about to protest their gaudiness when the front door opened and a hairy man dressed only in a bath towel entered the bedsit.

“What?  Do you mind?” He asked, grasping his defensive towel with one hand, looking around him for a weapon for the other.  

Algernon raised his crossbow in readiness.

“Yes we do,” Peggy blustered, pushing passed him and through the front door, “Propriety sir!”

“Sorry to have disturbed you, “ Bruce acknowledged the man’s genuine complaint, “We’ll be on our way.”

They were back, walking down the street of Bollons, smelling the dust in the air, taking in the industrious human activity amid a dessicated world. Above, the sky was a thick grey covering of cloud that unlike Seattle, never lifted.  From vantage points around the city, a sea of sand surrounded Bollons,  crisscrossed by train-track, creating random geometric shapes out to the horizon—the Railsea.

“Oi!” A voice yelled.  Rain turned to Algernon.

“Know anyone called, Oi?” As they slowly turned to see an artist drop his paint pots and run across the road and into an alleyway.  Giving chase were the yellers, three Manihiki Ferro-Naval officers who seemed to have taken offence of the artist’s work. Walking back to the mural, for it was too large and detailed a work to be called graffiti.  All one side of a building had been bisected laterally the top painted the same grey-green as the sky, the bottom the unique yellow-brown of the sand around Bollons.  To the left, a shape was blocked out ready to paint in the details.  The text on the sign was obvious for all to read.

Almighty Bruce

“Like the movie?” Rain asked as the four of them stared amazed at the mural, “Or was that the other way around?”

“What is this?” Bruce asked, feeling very exposed.

“Your past exploits?” Peggy suggested, “You did capture the Dreaming Sable.”

“Harpooned, he never caught it.” Algernon corrected, “Though that shape to the left looks like it could be a moldywarp diving into the sand.”

“Why would they take offence at that?” Peggy asked, referring to the Naval officers well out of sight.

“It has to be a recent development,” Rain dredged up what he knew of Railsea history, “There’s no historical significance that I can gather.”  

He looked around them as the party studied the mural for more details.  People in the street were giving the mural, and them, a wide berth.  It seemed it was dangerous to take an interest in the Almighty Bruce.  The wide berth didn’t stop Bruce himself, reaching out and grappling a passing stranger.

“What’s this?” He asked again, as the shock had robbed him of speech.  

“I don’t know, a picture,” He replied, a smug little grin on his face.

“My friend means, why would the Ferro-navy take offence at this mural?” Rain supplied the required context.

“Oh!  Bruce has been kicking their arses all over!”  He chortled, then caught himself and glanced around them to see who’d noticed.

“So who is he, a Captain?” Rain asked and was rewarded with a dismissive look from the stranger.  There was a disconnect. Bruce wasn’t a train Captain, but then who? Or what?

“You’ve been such a helpful fella, what if I buy you a drink and you can tell us all about it?” Rain suggested, determined to get to the bottom of the mystery.

“Er…if it’s all the same, I’d rather go…”

“I really do Suggest you join us for a drink,” Rain pushed, but was stopped by a familiar heavy hand on his shoulder.

“Let him go,” Bruce said simply.

“But, oh very well…” Rain grumbled and turned back to the man, “Thank you for your time, you have been very helpful.”  The man’s eyes cleared of the Suggestion and scuttled away, confused and bewildered.

Algernon, unrestrained, walked up to another random person and scanned their thoughts,

“Hello, who’s Bruce?” He asked, pointing to the mural.

Bruce, odd name for a fella, Thought the woman, who verbally apologised and also scampered away.

“Not a person,” Algernon informed the group.

“Well, we can find out all that later,” Peggy finally said once it was clear there was little more to gather from the mural, “I need new clothes, let’s got to the market and we can ask there.”

The Bollons markets were the heart of Bollons itself with anything and everything on sale, even rumours.  Here Peggy found the first pair of pant that she thought may fit and asked to buy them.  It was a rare, but not unheard of thing for a woman to go around in men’s clothes and Peggy’s money was as good as the next gentleman’s.  Rain was a little more choosy and wove in and out of the clothing stalls until he felt suitably dressed and the party had heard several different versions of the legend that was the Almighty Bruce.

“Fight the power!   Almighty Bruce!” One shopkeeper proclaimed a little loudly and scared himself, checking who had heard and ducking back into his clothing racks, “Yes, the captain was a deserter from the Ferro-Navy.  He found himself a train out on the Railsea and liberated the tiny mining community of Omoka.  Almighty Bruce has been hunting the  Ferro-Navy trains ever since.”

“Regardless of what you think of him, he never forgot you,” Rain said quietly, as he adjusted the fit of a worn but serviceable gold and brown silk striped vest. From a stand, he snatched up a yellow silk scarf and tied it loosely like an ascot around his neck. 

Bruce glanced back as Rain completed his dressing with a long blonde frock coat that had seen better days, “There’s nothing to say that it’s him.”

“Your unusual name and him being a navy deserter says it is,” Rain murmured back and went to pay.

“Anything else we should know?” Bruce asked the stall owner.

“Nothing really, just don’t mention the Bruce around the Navy.” The stall owner added unhelpfully.

Omoka was north-west of Manihiki.  The group would need to take passage on one of the trains heading north to find the Almighty Bruce, her Captain and hopefully Jimmy Johnson.

“We need to get on a Navy train,” Algernon stated adamantly.  If the Bruce were attacking Navy vessels, they could do worse than book passage on one.

“Yes, let them come to us,” Rain said as Bruce shook his head.

“That’s the hard way. I want to know more about this Captain first.”

“To the rumourmarket then, “ Rain clapped his hands together and led the way.

The rumourmarket of Bollons was famous.  It was a great place to find out information, but more importantly, it was a place where information could be disseminated and spread.  As they walked, they prepared a little rumour of their own, so when Bruce and Rain discussed terms with the rumour mongers, they had something with which to barter.

“Good day, I’m looking for information on the Captain of the Almighty Bruce,” Rain announced to the rumourmonger, “I have a trade, information pertaining to the Captain’s son.”

“The son of the Captain of the Almighty Bruce?” She said in disbelief, “I have to hear this so, for what little I know, you’ve got a deal.”  

They moved through the rumourmarket talking to every rumourmonger they could.  In exchange for whatever snippet they could offer, Rain and Bruce told them, “The Captain’s son is on his way to Manihiki.”

They came away knowing less for certain about the Captain than they had previously.  No one in the rumour market knew the Captain’s name, though the story of him being a press-ganged deserter was by far the most common tale about the man.  One rumour had him as an old Naval Admiral seeking some personal revenge of his own.  The most ludicrous was that there was no Almighty Bruce and that it was, in fact, a Ferro-Navy conspiracy to raise money.  

They were heading back through the market when they spied four Ferro Navy Officers heading in their direction. 

“These damn stupid wings,” Bruce said as he realised they had been spotted by the brass wings glittering on his back, “They’re too flamboyant for this.”

“Nonsense,” Rain smiled and stepped up to greet the officers, “ There’s no such thing as too flamboyant.”

“Gentlemen, what can we do for you today?”

“What do you know about the son of a certain Captain?” One demanded, obviously seen as the most intimidating of the four.

“Captain?” Rain asked

“Captain who?” Bruce added hoping these log-heads would drop that snippet of information to show how clevers they were.  

“You’ve been sharing a rumour about his son all over the market, what else do you know?” The officer flexed.  Yes, these officers were used to bullying people for what they wanted.

“Oh, the rumour wasn’t that we knew the son, the rumour is that the son is heading for Manihiki,” Rain explained as if it were all a simple misunderstanding.  

“Huh,” The officer grunted and looked to his fellow navy men for help, “Know any more?”

“‘Fraid not, gentleman, that’s what brought us to the rumour market in the first place.”

The four officer’s seemed to deflate at the news.  Their hot tip had turned cold.

“Uh…if you hear anything, we’d appreciate it if you could let the Navy know,”

“Anyone we could get in contact with? Maybe someone we can put in a good word for “…four upstanding officers…” of the Ferro Navy?” Rain asked, and received the name of an Admiral As Lac Grel as well as the calling card for the most talkative of the four officers, Ro Ban Ottmer.  Offering their best of luck, Rain and Bruce headed back through the market sure that if they saw those officers again, it would be too soon.

Peggy and Algernon were also busy.  Peggy was going from bar to bar talking for train Captains heading to Manihiki and seeing if they were interested in hiring-on.  It was true that Peggy was a first-rate engineer and Algernon and Bruce had more than proven their skills as gunners, but Rain’s talents were always harder to define.  She offered Rain’s services as a general hand.

Algernon was scanning the stalls for cyphers as usual.  Looking carefully through the offerings, he could feel the presence of the Strange on the items that didn’t belong and were hiding in plain sight.  He was offered a potion by a  stall keeper, didn’t think much of it and moved on.  At another stall, he found a handle which he identified quickly as a monoblade, a collar which seemed to change its wearer’s appearance and an odd block that he discovered was a salve with healing properties.  The first two, he paid the asking price and was able to get the third for free.  Algernon walked away, feeling he’d won the trade game and found the others as Peggy was sharing what she had organised with Bruce and Rain.

“General hand, I’m not a general anything,” Rain grumbled.  Peggy ignored his protests and continued.

“The train is the Gliding Vulpine, a diesel heading out tomorrow morning.  The captain’s name is Al Ram Kuno and has agreed to take us on as crew in exchange for transport, food and board.”

“We’re not getting paid?  You alone are worth more than transport,” Algernon said to Peggy as he stowed his treasures in a hessian haversack referring to her knack at improving engine performance.

“Yes, well I’d do it anyway, but this way I have permission,” She replied looking forward to getting her hands on the inner workings of the Gliding Vulpine.

That night they found lodging at one of the taverns and early the next morning they were down at the dock boarding the Gliding Vulpine.  Bruce and Algernon were surprised to discover that though the train was equipt with ballista, they were the only gunners.

“We’re a trading vessel, we usually don’t need heavy defences,” Captain Al Ram Kuno replied smoothly.  Knowing the dangers of the Railsea, Algernon wasn’t so sure.  A quick investigation of the gunnery deck soon proved his suspicions.  Though the deck itself was neatly scrubbed and train-shape, they’d missed dried blood left in the cracks and seams of the carriage roof. The Gliding Lupine had undoubtedly come across some adventure.  Algernon and Bruce organised their shifts to ensure they wouldn’t become the next blood smear.

Peggy went straight down to the engine, greeted the current engineering staff with a nodd and got to work even before the train had left the dock.  Rain alone slunk around the train, dodging work until the Captain spotted him and put him on as switcher.  The speed and timing required to shift the train onto a new track amused Rain as did being at the helm beside the Captain as decisions of navigation were made through the wild tangle of the Railsea.  

The group’s first day onboard was uneventful.  Getting used to the train layout and its crew idiosyncrasies kept them busy for the most part.  Bruce made a point of feeling out the crew and Captain about the Almighty Bruce and the Ferro Navy.  The crew, in general, were ambivalent about the Ferro navy and its dealings. Most felt that it was best not to get involved with whatever the Navy considered its duty.  The Captain, on the other hand, had nothing but praise for the Ferro-navy.

“They keep the Railsea safe for honest traders such as ourselves,” He boasted, though Rain felt that was more because he paid for protection and had no fear of being attacked by the Navy.

The day slipped passed like the Railsea’s sands, and with the evening, Bruce found himself alone on the gunnery deck.  Now without the cumbersome wings, he felt at ease scanning the seemingly empty Railsea for signs of activity on the rails or below.  A soft shifting of sand, the appearance of bow wave as something large broke the surface.  Silently slipping through the sand beside the train, the velvety grey hide of a massive moldywarpe kept pace with the train.  Thirty metres long from nose to harpoon riddled rear the creature turned its eye on Bruce, and a blue spiral glow lit the night.  It was the Dreaming Sable!

“Mole Breech!” Bruce roared as he brought the trains Ballista about.  The Dreaming Sable rolled, the bolt flew wide of the mark and skittered away into the darkness.  With an economy of movement, the talpa swung into the train, shoulder checking the carriage Bruce now rode. Taking the opportunity, Bruce leapt from the train onto the mole itself.  His crowbar in hand, he used his forward momentum to smash it down onto the back of the mole.  

A roar from the mole broke the night as the train’s crew also scrambled to their posts.  Peggy was flung from her hammock and smashed into the bulkhead winding her as Algernon and Rain grabbed crossbow and the abandoned wings respectively.  As they climbed up on deck the mole attacked again, this time rolling into the train.  Algernon deftly made it to the gunnery deck, his jawbone crossbow ready as Bruce ran with the rolling mole keeping his footing for a second swing at the creature.  Rain leapt as the train jolted, rocketing into the night’s sky on brass wings as he watched Bruce now run along the spine of the beat to its head, the glowing eyes leading the way. Bringing the crowbar down between the creature’s glowing orbs, the mole rolled again and threw Bruce from its back, into the darkness of the sands.  This time, the roll derailed the carriage dragging the engine with it.  

Rain could only watch as he saw first Bruce and then the Captain and helmsman thrown into the night. It was no contest. Bruce needed to get off the exposed sand and back to the mole.  With a thought, he tilted forward, and the wings took him out across the sand to where Bruce was already picking himself up.

“Here, take the wings, why you weren’t wearing them I’ll never know,” He complained already unbuckling as he landed.  The sand below their feet shifted and rumbled ominously.

“Thanks, but no thanks,” Bruce acknowledged his friend’s gesture but stayed Rain’s hands on the buckles with his own.

“Well, then…” Through the touch, Rain pushed the Strange to Bruce making the big man gasp, “Hit the thing from me!”   Energised, Bruce raced across the tracks towards the mole as Rain shot back into the air and out to where the Captain and helmsman had fallen. 

Back on the train, Algernon focused the Strange on the Dreaming Sable’s wedge-shaped head.  The powers twisted and shifted the mole’s view of the world, distracting it and slowing it down.  Bruce caught up and climbed up the hill of a creature aiming for the head.  Through the cracks in the upturned carriage walls, Peggy focused her thoughts on the Dreaming Sable.  Understanding its weaknesses and feeling its proximity to the prone engine, she too drew the energies of the Strange to her and bided her time, waiting to make her strike.

Now the train had stopped, the mole took advantage of its fallen prey and rose into the air twenty feet before crashing down, breaking the back of the engine.  A cracking blue plasma arc snapped out of the carriage and connected the mole to the diesel engine.  Suffused with the blue webbing of energised gasses, creature and machine were bound together to the same fate.  The plasma found the fuel tanks.  A heavy thud, a flash of light, and the whole world shook with the explosion as the engine blew up under the mole’s massive body.  The Dreaming Sable shuddered and moaned, its end was nigh as Algernon and Bruce readied their attacks.

Out on the sand, the Captain and helmsman were running for their lives.  Drawn by the activity of the Dreaming Sable, humps in the sand glided in from all quarters.  Smaller mole rats, though still the size of Alsations grabbed and nipped at their boots.  From the air, Rain dove, snatching up the Captain and dragging him to the relative safety of the rails as the helmsman tripped and fell to the razor teeth of a dozen rodents, tearing him apart.  Rain screamed into the night as, at the train, Algernon and Bruce delivered their final blows.  Algernon’s bolt sank deep into the flesh of the beast now exposed by the explosion as Bruce, now back at the head of the beast delivered a mightly blow into one of the glowing spiral eyes.  A crack of bone, the crowbar sunk deep, breaking the creatures’s skull.  The Dreaming Sable shuddered, the blue glow from the eyes dulled and disappeared as the creature fell, the mountain of fur and flesh finally defeated.

“I am Mighty Bruce!” Bruce roared, from the head of the beast.  The sound of it echoed across the empty desert to where the Captain and Rain stood.  A reply rose from the stricken train, as the crew cheered the hero of the moment.  The Captain did not cheer, just scowled and started walking back to his fallen train, the horrified Rain on his heels.

The night was long, dirty and anxious as the crew got to work.  Under Peggy’s expert eye, half righting what was left of the train and returned it to the tracks.  The other half, overseen by Bruce and Algernon butchered the Dreaming Sable before it, and they, were food for lesser mole rats.  Peggy dolefully salvaged what she could from the engine, but it was a wreck only good for scrap.  The Captain awarded the kill to Bruce, asking Bruce to refrain from referring to himself as the ‘Mighty Bruce’. It didn’t matter, the crew all knew, and once they made landfall, it would be a moment’s work for the legend of the Mighty Bruce to spread.

As dawn rose over the Railsea, a few of the group spotted a very familiar red rag flapping in the morning breeze.

“Hey, that’s my flag, we’re near the old theatre,” Rain said, and Peggy’s demeanour improved considerably.

“Molly!”  She cried and scrambled out of the wreckage that had once been the Gliding Vulpine

“Molly?” Rain asked, sure they’d seen no one in the lost theatre but a couple of giants rats and spiders.

“The engine.  I called her Molly.” Peggy replied self-consciously.  She looked over the desert to the flapping red rag, “I wonder if we wrap a good heavy chain around the drive wheel if we couldn’t pull her out onto the rails…”

To be continued…

30. Brothers at Arms

 After discovering that Doctor Strangelove was on her way to Ni’Challan’s home, the party leapt into action. From Ruk, they translated directly there, bringing the fight with them in the form of two cypher portals linked to squads of Ruk Venom troopers.  Fighting through two rooms of enemy Venom troopers, the party now find themselves in a moment of peace, with a choice of two paths.


The sounds of battle in the first two rooms petering out far behind him, Algernon investigated this third space alone. It was another exhibition space, rare items from recursions all over the Strange protected and confined behind  Ni’challan’s unique force fields.  At the far end beside an exhibit of ancient metal armour, a set of stairs led up to the next level.  There was no sign of Ni’Challan, but thankfully there is also no sign of Doctor Strangelove.

To the empty room, he asked, “Well, where to next?”

As if in response, a yellow glow appeared on the other side of the stairs from the armours.  The force field on the armours also flickered and died.  The armours as one came to attention with a snap of metal.  Wielding crystal blue blades, the armours stepped down and clattered towards Algernon. 

Rain and Peggy were in the large room near the ruins of the dead brute Vemon trooper.  Their attention was pulled first towards the clay golem fighting two venom troopers, and then to the exhibition area, Algernon had raced.  Either way could be the most direct to Ni’Challan.  There was no way of telling.  Movement in the broken doorway in front of them revealed Algernon stepping back in defence of some new threat.  Moulding his yellow light into a large hand, Rain ran in beside Algernon and faced the two animated armours, their swords now burning with blue light.  Peggy lined up one of the two Venom troopers with her cannon and shot it square in the back.  Having aided the golem, she then turned and followed Rain to face what Algernon had found.

The yellow glow in the corner was resolving itself into a human form, a figure wearing a high collared trench coat and long-bodied gun cradled in its arms. As the party readied for an attack, the person pulled up their arm cannon and aimed it straight down the room towards them.  Algernon didn’t know if the figure had anything to do with it, but he didn’t think the force-field cutting out was an accident.

In unison, the armour charged across the room one arcing its sword towards Algernon, the other slashing out at Rain.  Rain dodge aside, making the armour overreach and unbalance, Algernon could not move as fast, but his shields held and kept the blow from striking him.  Peggy, in her cyborg persona, interposed herself between Rain and the armour.  From inside her metal frame, the whirl of electrical motors fans and gears foreshadowed Peggy preparing to unleash on the two armours. Two bolts of plasma streaked from her cannon. The bolts ricocheted off the breastplates of both, leaving dents and a cracking field of energy, but not doing the damage she’d expected.  Frowning, Peggy held her ground preparing for the returning blow.

In the previous room, Bruce watched the golem as it received a bladed blow from a Venom trooper, leaving a jagged scar across its fired clay body.  From behind, a squad of six allied troopers ran through from the previous fight and started firing on the enemy.  Bruce could see nothing behind the golem, the room beyond was full of thick smoke, making viewing impossible.  Lifting his gun, Bruce shot twice, one on each enemy.  One missed, having dodged the golem’s blow at the right time, the other bullet found its mark and killed it.

The troops opened fire only half hitting the enemy Venom trooper, as the golems earthenware fist smashed into its face.  With the last round in his gun, Bruce shot and killed the creature, putting it out of its misery.  Returning his first gun to its holster, he drew his second and looked up at the blank face of the golem,

“That’s it, right?” 

The golem bowed its head solemnly towards him as a sign of respect and turned, entering the smoke and disappearing out of sight.  The sound of more fighting within the smoke told a tale of more enemies.  As the squad moved to follow the bulk of the party into the other room, Bruce called three over, and they followed the golem into the smoke.

In the armour room, the figure was most definitely a woman and with her weapon fully transported she fired, shooting an armour from behind. With her front-row position, Peggy realised the gun was projecting weaponised coherent space-time.

“It’s not Strangelove,” Algernon said out loud as he levitated the armour attacking him.  Floating up and back to where it had come, the armour could do nothing but flail wildly, it’s legs trying to run but getting nowhere.  Algernon moved forward, directing the armour back into its case as Rain brought around his large hand made of light and put it between him and the armour still fighting Peggy.  The armour struck at the hand, dissipating some of its energy, but the hand held.

Unsure and wary of the individual with the space-time gun, Peggy shot at the woman before moving to protect Algernon.  The bolt hit, but dispersed harmlessly off a shield, a few inches away from her body.  The woman gave a disappointed shrug and once more shot the armour on the ground.  It shattered into its many parts, clattering and bonging randomly across the room.  The two armours now seemingly under control, Rain touched Algernon, pushing the energy of the Strange through him before running for the stairs and up to the next level.

With a shiver, Algernon focused the energy on the job at hand.  He wanted to return to armour to its case, to do that he needed to reestablish the forcefield.  The timing was critical. Letting go of the armour, he trained his thoughts and the Strange on the mechanism that controlled the forcefield.  It should have been hard, but Algernon found the right connections and reestablished energy flow.  The forcefield sprung into life between him and the armour just as it was maneuvering to attack once more.  Instead, the armour stopped, inverted its sword to point down and stood at attention.

“Impressive, “ Said the woman reloading her weapon and overlooking Algernon’s handiwork.

“Who are you?” Peggy asked, her sharp tone sounding even harsher in her cyborg form.

“Uentaru,” She replied, pushing past Peggy, “I’m a friend of Ni’Challan.”
“Are you one of his ‘found’?” The note of disdain was clear.  The group had met one of Ni’Challan’s Found Gentlemen last visit.  An unsavoury slaver from Railsea called Rondat tu Vin.

“No, he looks after a few things for me.  When he called for help, I teleported over.”

Somewhere above, the whoomp of a large energy weapon discharging followed by the blunt smack of a body hitting a  metal wall.  

“We should help your friend,” She cradled her gun and followed Peggy up the stairs.

In the smoke-filled exhibition space, Bruce could barely see a few metres ahead of him.  Following the sounds of a massive battle,  he found the golem trading blows with a Venom trooper Brute.  The Brute was trying to bring its cannon to bear on the golem, but the close combat was hindering.  In one corner, Bruce could just see the source of the smoke, a machine of some kind spewing billowing noxious clouds into the air.  None of it phased Bruce.  His mind was on the kill as he raised his new gun and shot the Brute.  A chunk of cloned flesh flew from the left shoulder, and the arm dropped uselessly to its side.

Now it was a slugfest between the golem and the Brute.  The golem swung a king hit on the Brute.  In return, the Brute brought his fist up between them for an uppercut, smashing the golem.  Blood and pottery shard flew everywhere as the three troopers awaited Bruce’s orders.

“Shoot the Brute!” He yelled, dropping his gun to pull out his faithful crowbar.  The allied troopers provided cover fire, as Bruce ran in, swinging in with his full might and skill.  His crowbar connected in a jarring blow cracked the skull of the Brute.  The giant sank to its knees, finally keeling over, dead.

Bruce and his three troopers had finished the enemy threat on this floor.  He took a moment to enjoy the rush of power, a unique feeling for the once construction worker.  Looking around, he could now see the burning machine.  A full-size working tie-fighter, straight out of Star Wars had been the innocent victim of a stray blaster bolt.  Giddily, not from the smoke but his success, he wandered the room until he found glass hand grenades filled with a gel that purported to be fire extinguishers.  Lobbing a few of those as the seat of the smoke seemed to do the trick, and the station’s environmental systems soon started clearing the smoke from the air.

The golem, its job done, now returned to a large plinth beside a doorway.  Bruce wandered over and looked through the archway as the golem ceramic joints ground and settled back into place.  Inside was an elevator with floor markers going up.  There were a few scorch marks, a few stray shots had made their mark, but the mechanism seemed clear.  There didn’t seem to be anything to do now but head back and find the others.  Calling over his three troopers, they all trotted out and after Algernon.

Rain blindly ran up the stairs into the next room, expecting the automated weapon systems of the space station to turn aside for him like the ones downstairs.  In this long narrow room, he spotted four of the regular wall-mounted turrets, as well as a large turret on a pop-up stand at the far end of the room. He had a moment’s realisation that a panel in a nearby wall had been opened and tampered with before the large turret fired.  The plasma bolts caught him in the chest, picked him up and threw him into the back wall.  Winded and dazed as his clothes smoked and smouldered, Rain could little but lay there and wait for the turret to find him again.

  Peggy was first at his side and assessing the situation.  With deft hands, she provided first aid and got him sitting up behind an exhibit for protection. Something in his side ground disturbingly as he moved.  A rib? Something worse? He couldn’t tell.  As shock settled in and he began to slide into a passive state of being injured, Uentaru appeared and silently handed him a healing cypher.

“Er…thank you.” He choked-out and accepted the gift from the stranger. 

From the stairs, Algernon called, “What did it?”

“Cannon…someone’s tampered,” Rain replied and with a shaking hand pointed out the open panel on the wall.

Algernon scanned the room and judged the threat.  It seemed that only the cannon had been tampered with as none of the four turrets had fired. Pulling out a cypher he carefully moved from exhibit to exhibit until he was in position, then placed the cypher on the floor.  Instantly, a clear, indestructible shield rose between the panel and the cannon.  Now protected, Algernon felt brave enough to defy the machine that had hurt his friend.  Standing close to the shield, he pressed his lips up to its transparent surface and blew out his cheeks, a sign of defiance and childish bravado.  The cannon fired, its bolt dispersing harmlessly against the shield.  Unfortunately, now the four turrets fired.  Two could not get through the defences of shield and exhibition force fields, but two behind Algernon shot him in the back.  His armour took the damage, but he was rocked forward, chastened and ducked back undercover within reach of the panel.

Seeing Algernon take a hit, Peggy pulled out a shrapnel grenade, she’d picked up at The Scar, and bowled it underarm under the large turret.  The grenade damaged the turret but didn’t stop it from firing again at Algernon behind the shield.  The shield took the blow, flickered and held as Algernon got to work on the panel.

It was curious. The more Algernon looked at the sabotage done to the control panel, the more he realised it was exactly what he would have done.  He returned the circuitry to its original configuration and stood, the cannon remained silent. So did he, about his small mysterious nugget of information.

Now feeling a little more together after Peggy’s first aid and the healing cypher, Rain spent the moments Algernon worked on the panel to talk to Uentaru, his mysterious benefactor.

“Where did you come from?”

“Oh, I have a small home in the middle of The Strange.  I heard Ni’Challan was under attack and teleported across.  I assume you did something similar.” She said in a friendly, efficient way that reminded Rain of a military officer.  Neat, efficient and respectable.

“Something like that,’ He thought, of the beacons, their group had left for Doctor Strange to follow.  A point in their story well worth leaving out.

“Sorry for attacking you,” Peggy’s metallic voice joined the conversation as if fearful of being left out, “Weren’t sure if you were friend or foe.”

“Well, “ Uentaru looked sidelong at Peggy, almost dismissively, “You weren’t much of a threat, so you’re forgiven.”

Peggy fumed, and in this cyborg form, it was a physical effect as steam rose from her metal body.

“Er… I for one am pleased to know that Ni’Challan has such good and adept neighbours,” Rain dragged the conversation back to something more civil as Algernon stood, still focused on the panel.  The turrets were silent.

Algernon was now wondering, looking at the control panel in front of him.  He pondered what mischief he could get up to with such access and by inference, what the tamperer would likely have done. Certainly interfering with the power supply to the force-fields was within control of this panel.  He thought about what he would have done in their place.  His usual process was to add a remote connection so he could control the systems here from wherever he went.  With that thought in mind, he easily found a remote coupler tucked into the wiring.  He pulled it out, only pausing a moment wondering if doing so would tip his hand to the coupler’s owner.

Bruce with six Venom troops in tow now stomped up their stairs and took in the room. 

“No time to sit and smoke Rain.” He joked before spotting Uentaru with his friends, “Who are you?”

“Uentaru, a friend of Ni’Challan’s, “ She replied as simply as Bruce’s blunt question, 

“She teleported across when she heard Ni’Challan was under attack, “ Rain added context and Bruce’s eyebrow raised,

“What? Into the middle of a firefight?”

“Yes, she’s been amazing,” Rain exalted before catching Peggy’s part human part cyborg red eyes glaring down.  He shrugged as Uentaru and Bruce continued their conversation.

“Can you get us out to that ship outside?” He asked. He was determined to capture the Strangelove ship.

“First, find Ni’Challan,” She said, their mission set, Rain nodded in enthusiastic agreement.

“There’s a lift on the other side, where does it go?”

“Observation level for the specimen pens.”

The revelation was met with mixed reactions as the party wondered what sort of living creatures would Ni’Challan had thought to collect.  The group picked Rain up and continued past the floor turret and into the next room.

It was smaller than most rooms they’d been in so far.  Nearest the group a double force field denoted by yellow safety holograms filled a gap into a massive double-height room full of forest plants, cycads and vines.  At the other end, elevator doors stood closed but ready to take viewers up to a mezzanine level high above the canopy.

“Oh, this would be the T-Rex exhibition space,” Uentaru mentioned offhandedly as the force field flickered.

Bruce looked through the dense foliage as everyone else looked up to a metal walkway above the forest. He saw the thick, scaly hide, the muscular legs and a plate-sized staring eye above height level. Algernon and Rain saw a figure, tinkering with another control panel on the far side of the room.  Both did a double-take, then turned to look at each other.

“You did try to tell us,” Rain said, shrugging his shoulders.

“Tell you what?” Algernon asked as the forcefield flickered again and died leaving a large six-metre tall gap into the forest enclosure

“That we may end up fighting you someday,” The figure looked precisely like Algernon himself.  The moment was lost to a more pressing problem.

“You know Jurassic Park?” Bruce said, gesturing to the huge beast now pushing its way through the forest to the gap.  He turned to Uentaru now pointing to the metal walkway where the figure did his best to murder them all via dinosaur “How do we get up there?”

“Elevator,” She replied as if it were obvious. Raising her gun, she shot a round into the forest, the beast roared.  The six troopers took up positions in the gap and started firing at what they could see of the T-Rex through the thick forest.

The second Algernon started at the noise and looked down to see the party below.  Concentrating on the Strange, one minute Algernon was by Rain’s side, the next he was up on the walkway beside Algernon2.  The mix of his Atomic Dash and Levitate surprising the saboteur.  Up close, Algernon could see that his doppelganger was not a complete copy, with a different mix of the same facial features.  It was more like looking at a brother than a twin or clone.

“That’s weird,” Commented Bruce and he raised his gun and trained it on the Algernon2, “Algernon never jumps into combat like that.”  The bullet flew true, but the other Algernon was faster and dodged the bullet swinging his body out of its path in a blur of speed.

“Ah, I’m having second thoughts!” Algernon said so the rest of the party below.  

Back on the ground, the fight with the Tyrannosaurus Rex was on in earnest.  Both Peggy and Rain shot at the creature and missed; Peggy with her arm cannon and Rain with his fear laidened Hard-light blast.  The troopers did better as did Uentaru, but the beast was massive, the bolts barely scratching its heavy hide. 

 On the walkway high above, Algernon2 sprung up from the ground and tried to connect with a roundhouse kick to Algernon’s head.  Algernon stepped back, and the kick missed.  His reflection in this eerie dance rebalanced and was ready to defend in a moment.  Algernon used Mind link to pick up his doppelganger’s surface thoughts.

Why does this guy look familiar?  Nevermind, he’s hostile! Along with the thought came the idea to push the hostile away and over the railing back into the dinosaur enclosure.

On the ground, the T-Rex was showing what it would do if it got jaws on Algernon.  One bite and first one trooper, then another disappeared.  Humanoids were a mere mouthful for this monster.  Peggy shot and hit the T-Rex as Rain gave up trying to scare the creature with his blast.  Instead, he created another hand of light and waggled it in front of the T-Rex’s nose as a distraction.  A trooper and Uentaru both shot the T-Rex as the creature took the bait.  Between jaws that could crush a car, the T-Rex snagged the hand, flailing it back and forth like the biggest rubber chew toy.  Rain and Peggy both ran for the elevator doors.

“Disperse into the forest!” Bruce told the troopers as he used the noise and action to sneak past the T-Rex’s attention, and started climbing the metal infrastructure holding up the walkway.  Grabbing a support, hand over hand he climbed a triangular support to the edge of the walkway.  Grabbing the walkway from underneath with both hands, he swung himself up and rolled his body onto the walkway. 

 Now across the walkway from Algernon, Bruce watched as the figure crouched low and swung his fist up in a deadly uppercut.  Even knowing it was happening, Algernon couldn’t match his twin for speed and the hit connected.  He flew up and over the railing and fell through the forest canopy and back into the enclosure.  Rolling back to his feet, Algernon attacked, focused on the reality around Algernon2. The space around him warped and shifted sickeningly. Algernon2 swayed drunkenly in place, an easy target for the sharpshooter waiting his chance.

Bruce didn’t hessitate.  A shimmering field of energy around the figure slowed the bullet’s velocity, but could not stop it.   Bruce saw blood blossom on the shoulder of the person that could have been Algernon.  he grinned at getting past the enemies shielding and moved up ready to shoot again.

From the lift door, Peggy tried shooting the T-Rex as it swung back into the forest, chewing the hand. Her shot went wide and hit a trooper.  The hand finally took as much abuse as it could stand and disappeared with a pop.  The look of surprise on the dinosaur’s face would have been comical if it didn’t hold quite so many dagger-sharp teeth.  It turned to find prey further in its jungle, in the location of fresh blood.

“Algernon, get out of there, brother! The T-Rex is coming!” Rain called out to Algernon somewhere across the enclosure deep in the undergrowth.  Hearing Rain, the spark of the Strange still found Algernon and the old familiar feeling of competence filled him.

Above, Algernon2 had also had enough.  Tinkering with the control panel once more, he opened a door beside him and made his escape. Through the mind link, Algernon knew he was going for help.  More like himself?  No, others.  Levitating up, Algernon joined Bruce on the walkway, and together they followed Algernon2 around the corner.

On the ground, Rain was frustrated by the slowness of the elevator.  Even when the doors finally opened, Uentaru and Peggy took two last parting shots at the T-Rex.  Uentaru gravely injured the beast, but it was Peggy’s shot that finally killed it.  As its hulking body collapsed to the ground making the room shudder, she had a moment to consider her actions.

“I’ve done a terrible thing,” She said as Rain impatiently held the door for the four remaining troopers now returned from the forests.   With a shudder, Rain made another hand and put it up between himself and his Venom trooper allies.

Now too far away for Mind Link, Algernon and Bruce chased Algernon2 down a long hallway from the T-Rex room. Dropping something as he passed, Algernon2 ducked in a doorway and out of sight.  The thing sprang to life, another forcefield that shimmered blue.  As they moved closer, Bruce could feel the bitter cold emitted by the shield and slowed.  Algernon did not.  Instead, he Atomic Dashed through hoping the speed would mitigate most of the cold damage.  The frost field bit deep into his shield, and it snuffed out of existence.  The cold did not touch him, however, his speed made him lose grip on the icy floor.  Sliding out of control, he slammed face-first into the wall opposite. Running through at a more careful pace, Bruce kept his footing.  He reached the corner in time to see Algernon2 run to the side of two Venom Trooper Brutes.  

In a large room past the force-field, a shooting battle had been raging for some time.  The two brutes had their backs to Bruce and Algernon as they shot from behind a makeshift barricade.  Two more squads of three Venom troopers were further ahead trading shots with a wall turret.  Algernon2 said something to the Brutes before disappearing into the fight.  The Brutes together turn to face the door, Bruce and Algernon.

Algernon scanned the area for flammables, found one and ignited it, a canister filled with a swirling gas. With a violent explosion, Venom troopers scattered to the floor, and the battle was now on two fronts.  Bruce stood back and set down the second of the two gates cyphers.  Instantly a tear in reality, let their troopers into the fray as the two Brutes shot the doorframes inches from both the companions.

When they looked again, they could just see the doppelganger organising the second group of Venom troopers to concentrate fire on the wall turret.  It would not last long under the torrent of damage.

Two rooms away Rain, Peggy and companions burst out of the elevator and started running around the exhibition space walkway.  They were most of a room and a hallway away, frustratingly far from a gunfight they could hear was happening.  As they ran, Rain reached out and Stimulated Peggy knowing that she was the faster of the two of them. He hoped she would get there in time.

To be continued…

29. The secret deeds of Doctor Strangelove

Harmonious, the Glistening City and jewel of Ruk.  Our group have received an invitation to talk to a representative from the Quiet Cabal, an important faction in Harmonious.  Though outwardly the Quiet Cabal is on good relations with the Estate, Algernon’s own experiences with Ruk life have the whole group questioning their intentions with them in general and specifically with their wayward enemy operative.


The Quiet Cabal headquarters building was a marvel of architecture.  Tall and incredibly thin it made a pure needle-like projection into the skyline of Harmonious.  As the group walked up the front gates, noting the people scanning holographic passes and walking through, Algernon asked a question of the Allsong.

Is Doctor Strangelove on the way or at the Graveyard of the machine god?

Yes, Came the definite reply.

Now he knew where Doctor Strangelove had taken herself in such a hurry. He also suspected he knew why she’d taken this time to go. Peggy determined a beacon had been placed there.  Keeping this information to himself, he followed Bruce and the others into the foyer of the building and up to the front desk.

“Holograms out!  Holograms out!” An officious security guard called from behind the desk to the respectably dressed office and other technical workers as they filed past, “Yes, what do you want?”  

Without Rain’s soothing frontman persona, Bruce had taken the lead into the building.  Reluctantly, he stepped up to the counter as the guard caught his eye.

“We’ve been invited to see someone…” He started confidently enough but realised he had no idea who had arranged the meeting.

“We are here to see Tabaseth,” Rain supplied smoothly, stepping back to allow Bruce to continue.

“Yes, him,”  Bruce added.

“A moment please, “ The guard put through a call via an internal network.  The group could see his lips move as he spoke, but no sound was made.  For those who could read lips, it was a perfunctory conversation confirming they had arrived that lasted no more than a few minutes.  

“Tabaseth will be with you shortly,” The guard returned to Bruce, just a little more respectfully this time now they were guests of the management.

Tabaseth did not keep them waiting and was soon bustling towards them, a respectable member of a respectable organisation.

“Greetings, you say you’re from The Estate?” Tabaseth moved from face to face until Bruce spoke up for the party.

“We are,” He replied simply.  The response seemed inadequate and Bruce was sure he could hear Rain in  back of his mind say “…thank you for seeing us at such short notice…” or “ …apologies for the abruptness of our arrival…”

“Please, follow me.” Tabaseth didn’t seem to mind though and led the group into lifts that took them up several floors into the heart of the building.  Here a small conference room had put aside for their meeting and Bruce looked to Rain to see if he would take up the task of communicating to Tabaseth.

“Our mission, “ Rain started without preamble, “for some time has been following the trail of Spiral Dust users and dealers on Earth and off. Recently, this mission has been hampered by a memory block on this one.” He gestured to Algernon who suddenly looked awkward being the centre of attention.

“We believe that the memory tampering was done by a Doctor Strangelove, a Ruk scientist,” Bruce added.

“…allegedly,”  Rain interjected, still a stickler for diplomatic language use.

“Doctor Strangelove of the Karum?” Tabaseth asked, confirming Bruce’s information from the Allsong.


Now Tabaseth turned his attention to Algernon as if sizing up an interesting if not dangerous specimen.

“You are one of her creations?” Algernon nondded. “Amazing you didn’t set off our security when you arrived.” He said, not to Algernon but more to himself, “Well, we shall soon look into this, “ To the group as a whole he now turned, “The Quiet Cabal would be happy to help you with this problem,”

“Yeah, gives them a chance to poke around with the competition’s technology,” Peggy mumbled to no one in particular.

“Have you a scientist that can oversee the testing?” Tabaseth and the group almost as one gestured to the floating box.  Peggy projected her hologram and nodded to the Quiet Cabal representative.

“This is Peggy.  She is considered one of The Estates leading minds.”

At the sight of Peggy, Tabaseth was taken aback and spent a moment or two taking in this new form of life.  The distraction gave Algernon a moment to slip back from the conference table and towards the door.  It was only Tabaseth’s gesture toward’s a security button that sent him back to the conference table.  Rain took Algernon’s hand in his.

“About Doctor Strangelove, couldn’t we get the police to arrest her?” Bruce asked, bringing the conversation back around to the real culprit.

“I’m afraid that it’s not that easy.  The law can not touch her.”

“She controls the law?” Bruce was horrified.

“She has a lot of political influence, I’m afraid while on Ruk we can’t touch her.

“But while she’s off-world, would that be something you would consider?” Rain asked matter of factly.

“Yes, we had heard she put together a raiding party of venom troops, but our information didn’t tell us where she was going.”

Now that all the party had been in Ruk for a while and experienced the Allsong, they had seen the advertisements put up by the Zal Corporation for their latest and greatest clone shock troops.  The lineage between the Venom troops and the vat rejects was obvious for those looking, and showed how much power the individual factions wielded in Ruk.

But, just where the elusive Doctor Strangelove had gone was a mystery, to most.

“What if she took those Vemon troopers back to the Estate?” Bruce asked, saying what everyone was thinking.  Both Rain and Algernon shook their heads.

“The majority of Earth do not know about Ruk.  Would she be so reckless as to destroy that advantage for one strategic strike?”  Rain turned to look at Tabaseth.

“Besides, the venom troops would have to follow Earth laws once they got there, their weird science advantage would be lost.”

“Peggy’s old house?”

“Why? There’s nothing there, and why now, it’s been abandoned almost a year.”

The group started going through beacon location and an alarm set off in Rain’s logic pathways.

Brother, is there a beacon at the Graveyard of the machine god?  He asked Algernon via their link. 

Yes, that’s where she’d gone. Algernon replied the same way.  

Rain turned to Bruce, “We need to leave, we need to leave now.” Rain said with such conviction that it bordered on panic.

“Before we’ve had a chance to examine your friend?” Tabaseth asked oblivious to the communication going on around him.

“Just a moment, sir,” Bruce interjected, “This is the most emotion I’ve seen out of this one since we got here.”  He turned to Rain, “ Can it wait until we sort Algernon out?”

The imperative to leave now and to protect Ni’Challan, was overridden by the need of the Bloodbrother.  Algernon’s abilities would be important for any rescue attempt.  His importance had been further reinforced by the reciprocation of the blood pact Algernon had made when establishing the link between the two of them.  They were in Ruk to help Algernon, nothing worthwhile could be achieved until that was done.  To the logic-driven Rain, Algernon’s needs at that moment were more important than one old man.

“Yes,” Rain finally said and fell silent, letting the discussion of Algernon’s testing to flow around him.

“Well then, follow me and I will introduce you to Giqabee,” Tabaseth said with an air of pride as he led the group of the conference room and up several more floors to what was a laboratory wing.  Here they were introduced to two individuals, Giqabee a stout woman of middle age and a tall thin man by the name of Torquel.  Together they would run a number of tests to determine Algernon’s origins and what had been done to him

“Now please, for the sake of Algernon I’d like you to clearly tell him what you will be doing,” Bruce said remembering the many awful snippets Algernon had told them of his life on Ruk, “ Full disclosure and you will do nothing without permission, is that acceptable?” He turned to both the two scientists and Algernon, all who agreed, the scientists a little more heartily than Algernon.

“Yes, Mr Bruce.”

“Well I’ll get started with a simple DNA analysis, find out what our young friend here didn’t trip our security, “ Giqabee laughed in an attempt to lighten the mood.  It didn’t work, “While that’s happening we’ll do a brain scan, non-intrusive, of course, while Torquel will run a psych evaluation.”
“Oh, I can pass those,” Algernon responded planning to get at least one over the scientists.

“We’re all sure you can fool the test, Algernon,” Bruce said staying clear of the bustling scientists around the young man, “In this case it may be better to answer truthfully.”

“They’re more diagnostic than for determining aptitude, “ Torquel added, “It will tell us what’s going on in that brain of yours.  I must say,” Torquel now turned his attention to  Algernon as Tabaseth had, like examining something very rare and not a person at all, “If he is a clone, he’s a very high fidelity one.  I don’t think I examined such a clearly defined personality before.” 

Algernon took the psychologist’s statement as a compliment.  The rest of the group could not say the same.  It led Bruce to ask Tabaseth a few questions. 

“Tell me, what would you normally do if you found such a clone?”

“You must understand that we do have clone infiltrations from the Karum on occasion. Unlike your companion, they come in covertly with none of your party’s goodwill and honesty.  If a clone was found and it was not one of ours, we would interrogate and dispose of them, naturally.”  Tabaseth explained clearly, seemingly having some understanding about the Earthlings squeamishness around the rights of clones.

“He is a highly regarded member of this group,” Rain interjected as if putting a stamp of ownership on this wayward clone.

Now having inserted himself into the conversation, Rain turned it towards topics closer to their mission.

“Tabaseth, we have information that shows that Earth has been set up as a beacon to a being in The Strange.  We have reason to believe that this being to be a planetovore.  Knowing your people’s history with such a being, this one would be interested in learning what you know.”

“Indeed, could I look at your information on this?” 

Rain pulled out his mind map, the summary of everything they knew on Spiral Dust and its link to the potential planet eater.  As he stepped aside with Tabaseth to work through the details, a message came through from Algernon over their connected link, 

Don’t tell them too much, I don’t trust them.

Understood, Came the simple reply as the logical mind sorted the essential information from the personal and left with Tabaseth to another room.

Now that the Quiet Cabal scientists were starting their testing. Algernon’s thought literally focused on the lead scientist who was taking a blood sample for DNA testing.

Such an intriguing specimen, I wonder how it got past our security?  I didn’t realise Strangelove was this good…can’t wait to get to work.

Something in Algernon’s demeanour at that point prompted Peggy to ask,

“For safety, would you like to mind link?”


“Really, after all this time?” Her genuine offer of comfort rebuffed, Peggy took offence, “Have I ever invaded your privacy, or experimented without express permission?”

“You’ve been very subtle that way.” Algernon responded, his inbuilt distrust of Doctor’s being revealed, “Doctor Peggy, in  the documentaries, when the older apologies to the younger, one usually dies.” He then added, “Usually the older.”

“Well, then you’re safe,” Peggy scoffed, on the assumption that his visual age of fourteen was his true one.

“Are you okay, Doctor Peggy?”

“Death is a natural part of life and to be expected.” She sighed, and let the Ruk scientists maneuver Algernon into a scanner.  Looking much like much like an x-ray, the scanner showed live images of brain activity.  As Algernon moved his telepathic link from Giqabee to her offsider, Torquel, an area in his frontal lobes flared and startled the psychologist.

“Is it always so active?” Torquel asked no one in particular.

“Yes, except when it’s like this,” Algernon replied and let go his focus on the psychologist’s thoughts.  The lights at the front of the brain faded.

“Oh, that is intriguing,” Torquel added and made a note.

Torquel brought up a set of questions on his datapad and started running Algernon through them, noting the parts of the brain that responded.  Nervous at the Ruk scientific attention, when Giqabee made a start at something she had discovered in the DNA, his telepathic link automatically asserted itself to find out what the issue was.  That made Torquel start once more.

“You’ll find that’s an involuntary defence mechanism, “Peggy bluffed, sure she knew what was setting off the flares in the brain scan.  Even Bruce figured out the link.

“If you’re doing stuff right now, you may want to let it go, “ Bruce said cryptically to Algernon nodded back.

“Yes, sir.”

“You do seem a little jittery,” Torquel said to Algernon, “What can I do to help you relax?”

“Send me back to Earth, “ Algernon responded instantly.

“With a world eater coming?” Peggy asked, “Wouldn’t here be safer?”

“We can go anywhere from Earth,”

“And from here too, ten more minutes,” Peggy soothed

As the testing progressed, more exclamation of excitement came from the two doctors. 

What if we translated, right now? Algernon sent to Rain over their private link.

Patience, brother. Was the terse reply.

Rain was patiently discussing the end of the Earth with Tabaseth as Algernon was experimented on floors away and  Doctor Strangelove edge closer to Ni’Challan.  Even in his current partitioned self, Rain was having a tough time focusing his thoughts.

“Making the whole Earth a beacon, like the one you suggest, is ingenious, “ Tabaseth mused theoretically, “But, why go to all that trouble.  Doctor Strangelove is a leading figure in high energy particle physics.  Sabotaging your Hadron Collider would be easy for someone such as her.”

“So, you believe the Doctor would use more direct methods?” Rain thought for a moment, “Our investigations have shown a clear link to Crows Hollow and we would indeed be there now if not for Algernon’s condition.”

Tabaseth shook his head slowly, “We know of no links to Crows Hollow, you are certainly more advanced on this investigation that we are.”

“And the Karum, it is not their usual M.O. to work through third parties, such as Crows Hollow?”

“Not to our knowledge, no.”

What had seemed so obvious when the group arrived in Ruk, now seemed far fetched.  Though the Karum faction would love to see Earth destroyed, the elaborateness of the plan didn’t seem to fit with their usual way of working.  At least as far as Tabaseth was concerned.  Rain did not feel that Tabaseth was lying, but was he providing the whole truth, and if so, for what purpose would they hide that information from an ally.

The logical mind flipped to the next subject on his list of enquiries, 

“Sir, I would be interested in viewing any information you have on planetovores, possibly there is something that will help.”

Again, Tabaseth seemed more than pleased to offer the information.

“We did share quite a bit of this information with the Estate early on.” He said, offering a loaded datapad of information.  As he said, it was the same information Algeron had found originally and forgotten.  The very same notes, Rain had found later testing him in the library. 

Rain thought about the next question he wished to pose.  The need to discover Doctor Strangelove’s interest in the Graveyard of the machine god was high, but Algernon had suggested caution.  The location of Ni’challan’s home and collection was not information that Rain was willing to share, but perhaps there were other reasons for the Doctor’s interest in that location.

“One more question, do you know of any reason Doctor Strangelove would be interested in the Graveyard of the machine god?” He asked Tabaseth.

“Odd place,” He thought a moment then shook his head, “Is that where she’s gone?”
“We have intelligence that leads us to believe she had an interest in that location.”

“Nothing that we know of, why do you ask?”

  All his options had been whittled away.  It seemed that Doctor Strangelove had some interest in Ni’Challan or his collection, spurred on by the beacon left by Algernon. If Rain could have sighed he would have. Instead, he shared the information he’d discovered with Algernon.

Ask him to send out the troops to the Grave of the machine god, Algernon suggested, before something happened at his end and connection was lost.


Back in the lab, all of Algernon’s attention was focused on the exploding and smoking brain scanner in front of him.  Everyone’s attention was.

“Oh my god, are you okay?” Peggy asked, checking Algernon for any contact burns or signs of shock.  Without a word, Algernon reached out and touched her on the arm, establishing a mind link.

What’s going on?

I resisted it,  Algernon said through their link to his complete astonishment, I sent Rain a message suggesting a course of action that will put Doctor Strange in danger…and did not pass out!

 Peggy looked Algernon over, as she listened to his revelation. He was sweating and breathing hard as if he’d just come back from a run, but there were no other physical signs of trauma.

I think your brain sent out an EMP and fried the scanner, Peggy suggested just as Torquel reclaimed his voice.

“What just happened?” He asked, gingerly checking the still smoking scanner.

“Your machine broke and smoke came out,” Algernon replied looking at the scanner as if he had nothing to do with it.

I directly put Doctor Strangelove’s life in danger,  He confessed, and light of triumph lit his features.

“Well, I did see some definite signs of deep reprogramming, “ Torquel noted on his datapad, oblivious to the revelation happening in front of him.

Peggy pushed Algernon aside as she had a look at the scanner to see if there was anything she could do with it.  While Peggy and Torquel were busy, Bruce, pulled Algernon aside,

“What did you do to fry the machine?” He asked knowing very well what was behind the mystery malfunction, “It would be very helpful to know what.”

“A passing thought triggered a cascade effect,” Peggy said as Bruce’s conversation wasn’t as private as her’s and Algernon’s had been, “Maybe we could recreate the thought pattern?”

“I’d suggest we’ve hit a deep safeguard, something Doctor Strangelove has put in place to stop just this sort of thing, “ Torquel added as Peggy removed the burnt-out component and started rewiring the scanner. “I’m afraid that means I will need the original notes from Doctor Strangelove herself if we want to break the programming.”

Peggy flicked a switch and the scanner started rebooting again.

“I told you she was good, “ Bruce crowed as Peggy raised an arm in victory

“Feel free to bow now.”

“The defences sent out a very strong signal, “Torquel surmised as the last of the scanner’s readings were revealed, “Impressive.”

“Excuse me, Doctor?” Algernon now got the attention of Giqabee watching fascinated from her counter, “If the Quiet Cabal knew the location of Doctor Strangelove’s secret lab, what would they do?”

I don’t want to go, He confessed to Peggy over the mind link, but if we had an army…

Can you pass that information on, maybe through the link?

Only thing is I don’t know, or I don’t know that I know. He said and shrugged apologetically.

“We’d certainly pass on that information to Tabaseth, “ Giqabee replied to Algernon’s question, “Why, do you have something you want to share?”

Bruce had not idle this whole time.  Not being aware of the extent of the Allsong he was unsure of its capabilities, but he knew enough about Earth tech to come up with the makings of a plan.

“I was wondering,” He now said, gaining his party’s attention, “Is it at all possible to track Algernon’s movements through the Allsong?  Maybe those records can at least show an area to start looking for this secret base.

Algernon searched the Allsong for the information that Bruce suggested.  Nothing…well, almost nothing.  Records from twelve months before showed Algernon moving in and out of the Scar (to hide the wings he assumed) and nothing else.  Someone had deliberately wiped the records and left that small scrap behind.  Did that clue get left intentionally so he would go searching for the wings on a return visit? Was it left by accident because the record manipulator did not know to look there for a record to expunge?  Regardless, Algernon let the others know what he’d found.

Have you left beacons here in Ruk? Peggy suggested.  None had been found in her previous searches.

I haven’t left any beacons anywhere! Algernon replied and then furrowed his brow.  But he had been, hadn’t he.  His fingers went instinctively to a spot on his left wrist.

“Okay, let’s think about this,” Peggy started circling Algernon paying attention to the smallest details of his clothing starting at his head and working down, “We know that when we re-enter a recursion we have previously visited we pick up the ‘skins’ that belong with that recursion just as we left them…”

“Do we…?” Bruce asked.  This was news to him. 

“…so anything on Algernon right now may give us clues to where he went then.” She got to his shoes, a black zip-up style boot and noticed a pale grey substance clinging to the side.   It flaked off looking very much like a fine dried mud with a slight metallic sheen.  A sheen of some clear liquid had also dried along the edge of the boot and up his pants leg..  Grabbing two glass slides and scalpel from Giqabee’s counter, she scrapped the grey substance off the boot onto one and the clear residue onto another. 

“Well, what have you got there, Sherlock?” Bruce stood by bemused as Peggy transferred the grey mud slide to Giqabee’s scanners.

A few moments later and the samples was identified.  The first was a Ruk substance called organema, a living metal and one of the byproducts of the Ruk biotechnology.  Organema’s structure was disorganised and unsuitable for use but was found in a number of places outside of Harmonious, especially in the Veritax.  

“The Vertiax is a system of underground tunnels, a labyrinth that has never been fully explored,” Giqabee supplied, totally engrossed in the investigation now underway.

“And we know the secret base is underground, “ Bruce added, a clue he’d discovered while searching the Allsong.

The second sample was even more telling.  It was an artificial embryonic fluid used exclusively in the cloning industry.  The two samples together screamed Vertiax underground lab.

“Great, pull up a map, what do we know of the Vertiax?”


Rain’s connection with Algernon went dead and for a moment the little man swayed in indecision, to continue the conversation with Tabaseth as suggested by Algernon or run back to the lab and find out what was going on.  In the end, the decision was taken from him,

“Are you okay?” Tabaseth asked, looking curiously at Rain.  Rain knew he was being scrutinised, it would not do to have the representative of the Quiet Cabal think badly of the group because of his poor performance.

“A thought has occurred to this one,” He stated as clearly as possible as the contradictory demands of secrecy and finding aid clashed in his mind, “If you knew where Doctor Strangelove has gone, would you send troops to pick her up while she’s out of the jurisdiction of Ruk?”

“Possibly, “ Tabaseth hedged, he wanted more information. “I assume it’s somewhere in the Graveyard of the machine god otherwise you would not have asked.  You have a location in mind?”

“This one would need to know your intentions before handing over…senitive material,” Rain replied and once more felt Tabaseth scrutiny on him, “The location is of a third party that values their privacy.”

“Curious. Do you think we’d hurt them?”

What did he think?  The logical mind did not have enough information.  He did not know Ni’Challan’s relations with Ruk or what items in his collection could have originated from there. He had to respond, Tabaseth’s eyes were on him.

“You and your factions intentions to this individual are unknown. Taking into consideration your response to Algernon I would suggest no, “ He replied honestly, “But, he is alone and his interest in rare and unique items from all over the Strange could theoretically make him a target.  Does this sound like something that may interest the Doctor?”

At this Tabaseth took a keener interest himself.

“Are you concerned for their safety?” He asked and something within Rain leapt.

“Yes.” It was a simple word, said with such finality that Tabaseth could only nod.

“I will order a contingent of Venom troopers, will you go with them?”

The part of Rain partitioned off wanted to go.  Say yes and immediately with no thought for the others.  This one logic suppressed the thought.

“My group are here to see to the welfare of Algernon.  I would suggest if you are to send troops then we would go with them. I will need to confer to determine the correct course of action.”

“Of course, I will prepare them nonetheless for when you’ve made your decision.”

In the labs, the organema had been narrowed down to an area south-east of Harmonious.  When asked, Algernon, as usual,  had no recollection of the area.  Even when Peggy used the scanner to determine if parts of his brain were subconsciously triggered by the location on the map, nothing appeared.

“How about doors, passageways in and out of the lab?” Bruce asked as Peggy continued to look for more samples.

“I was never conscious, I just found myself outside,” Algeron confessed and he noted the expression of sympathy pass over Bruces faces. In shame, Algernon looked away, disliking the feeling.   It was then that Rain returned and Algernon instantly re-established the link.  

Brother. Rain responds was immediate. In the only way he had presently to show how pleased he was to see Algernon well, Rain shared his entire conversation with Tabaseth. 

The rest of the room was focused on Giqabee and Torquel who had finished their deliberations and were ready to present their findings.

“The subject in question certainly has fascinating DNA, “ Giqabee started, noted the sour faces to her use of the word ‘subject’ and continued, “…uh…I’m not quite sure what…Algernon is, but I can confirm he is not a clone.”

This was a surprise to all including Algernon who asked for confirmation.

“Oh yes, that much is clear.  Clones are of only a limited pool of DNA samples and are easily identified.  Besides which there are two other features of your makeup that definitely rules out you being a clone.”

She brought up an image of Algernon’s DNA, the double helix looking like any other to most in the room.

“In fact, it explains why you did not set off our alarms, your DNA does not read as either clone or for that matter, of Ruk.  You are human, or at least your DNA identifies you as being of Earth.”

Peggy scanned the image in front of the group and pointed out a section of the DNA.

“The telomeres are short, this would identify Algernon as being a clone, wouldn’t it?”

“Well spotted, yes the telomeres identify that quite a bit of modification has gone on, and I suggest that it…he was not born naturally.”

“A mother and father?” Algernon asked, astounded.

“Oh yes, there are two unique individuals expressed in your DNA, another marker showing that you are not a clone.”

“So a natural egg, modified and with accelerated growth?”  Peggy ask Giqabee

“My report will suggest artificial fertilisation and vat-grown,” Giqabee nodded, more comfortable discussing this with a fellow scientist than the subject of the testing.

Bloodbrother…  Rain sent via the link, once more reaffirming the connection.

“Can I suggest, “Algernon interrupted, “That some alteration may not show in a simple blood test.”  And he started to list his noted abilities.

“I am unaffected by alcoholic drinks, though caffeine has a stimulant effect.  I have this…” And he exposed his left wrist.  Bending his hand back, a small slot in the skin just above the wrist gapped like a tiny mouth.

“What’s suppose to happen?” Bruce asked as Algernon moved his hand once more.

“Something comes out,” Algernon replied, allowing Peggy to examine the area.

“Like Spiderman?”

“Just like that.”

“Cool.”  Bruce looked impressed, “One of the beacons?”

Algernon nodded. 

Try as they might they could not release a disc. Though scans revealed two glans just inside the radius and ulna that made the two halves of the bone beacons, none was seen or made.

“Would you let us take a sample of the gland?” Peggy asked probing at the slit to see if there was access that way.

“Would it be damaged?”

“It could be, nothing is guaranteed”

“No,” Algernon made his decision final by withdrawing his hand.

While the scientist discussed the new discovery, Rain quietly turned to Bruce.

“Doctor Strangelove is in the Graveyard of the machine god.”

“Yes….oh shit!” His expression moved from interested to deep concern as the implications sunk in.  

“I concur,” Rain replied simply as he shared this conversation with Algernon via the link.

“What are we going to do?”

“Tabaseth is organising troops who await our decision.  We will do what is best.”

“What is best for Ruk?  For us?  For Earth?  For Ni’Challan?” Queried Bruce.


If we don’t go at all, he won’t know it was us, Algernon said over the link images of a stern-faced Ni’Challan and the discs giving context to the words, I do not want to go to the Graveyard.

Rain struggled with an appropriate response.  In the end, he shrugged, He made me.  Inadequate description of magnitude.

And you don’t resent him? Algernon seemed astounded that a creator figure could be appreciated or even admired, his experience tainting his opinion.

No. Came the adamant reply.

Aware of some of the communication via her mind link with Algernon, Peggy asked out loud, 

“Would you want to stay here and look for the lab?” 

“Yes, “ Was Algernon’s simple reply.  With a group of troopers, he felt equal to the task, especially as the Doctor was not at home.

“Then this one will also stay and find the labs.” Rain said blandly from beside Bruce, though it was clear to the group it was not a decision that sat well with him, “It is inefficient to split the group, we are more effective together.”  Rain’s shoulder’s sagged and his eyes drifted to the ground as he accepted the inevitable decision, to find the lab and clear Algernon’s mind.

Algernon looked to the scar on his left hand, not the slit in his wrist made by the Doctor, but the slice through his palm that Rain had made as they translated into Ruk.  He knew the little man’s thoughts at that moment, he was still linked and saw the conflict of Ni’Challan’s safety and the mission.  Out loud, he asked,

“Rain, do you need me?”

The response was immediate and unequivocally, both out loud and over their link,



Algernon took a breath, “Then we’ll go to the Graveyard.”

Things moved rapidly after that.  The group were taken to the top floor of the tower where transport was waiting.

“I sent a message to Jir, “ Tabaseth said as they travelled through the building, ‘Troops and equipment will be waiting for you when you arrive.  The whole trip should take two days.”

“And this the fastest transport?” Rain asked.  She had two days head start, Doctor Strange was already in the Graveyard and could already be at Ni’Challan’s Spacestation.

“Yes, it’s a two day trip by troop carrier.”
“If we were to translate, “ In Rain’s hand, his black puzzlebox appeared for the first time in a while.  He opened the second compartment and withdrew the card, “This one can leave a key.”

“If it takes Strangelove a day or two, we can get there ahead of her.” Bruce realised, but his hopes were quickly dashed by Peggy and Algernon.

“The venom troopers are clones,” She said.

“They can’t translate,” Algernon added.

“I have an idea, “Tabaseth excused himself a moment, before returning with two identical cyphers, “Drop these in appropriate spots and they will make gates that the troopers will be able to come through directly.”

Bruce took the cyphers, “Could they be set up with a dead man switch?” Bruce suggested, “ You know, if we’re captured immediately it will still drop and create the gate?”

“You couldn’t hold it through translation,” Peggy reminded him and put the second cyphers carefully in her bag.

With Peggy leading translation, the group formed up.  Rain took one of Peggy’s hands and she felt her senses tingle as a blast of Strange energy passed from him to her.  She felt her whole body glow with the power as she focused her thoughts on that small room overlooking the derelict space station on the edge of the Strange.

In an instant, they were there.  Peggy once more her cyborg self, Rain glowing with a yellow light with Bruce and Algernon looking oddly the same. Outside the thick perspex window, a new ship hovered alongside the station.  Black scorch marks around an access way showed that entry had been made by force.   

 A blue haze of smoke hovered overall giving the image an ominous feel. 

Rain did not wait but ran from the room into the hallway leading into the Ni’Challan’s collection. Algernon, stopping to turn on a shield, was soon racing behind him.

Peggy pulled her cypher out of her bag to set it off in the tiny study.

“Not here, we need to get one of those gate cyphers to that ship,” Bruce said to her, ‘We can take their ship and stop them from leaving, here is too far from the action.”

From the doorway, the sound of three blaster shots echoed through the exhibit room and up the hallway.

“Well, let’s get close then,” She gestured and ran out the door.  

Now fully in his full mind, adrenaline-fueled Rain ran through the hallways, every nerve on edge.  As he approached an archway leading to the first of the large exhibit chambers, he instinctively fell to the ground as two guns were aimed in his direction.  Two bright bolts of energy left Vemon troopers weapons and streaked across the intervening space to scorch the wall behind.  A third trooper continued its efforts to disable an automated turret that was keeping the three of them pinned behind artefact force fields.

“Ni’Challan!” Rain yelled from the ground as Peggy and Algernon made a more careful approach to the archway.  Bruce saw the shots hit the wall and pulled out the first of his handgun Glock 40s. Glancing into the room, he spotted his three opponents and started shooting.  From everyone else’s view, Bruce simply stepped into the archway and shot the three venom troopers, ending at Rain’s side. From Bruce’s perspective, the world slowed to a crawl as he smoothly went through what he’d practice hour after hour in the firing range.  First, the two who had fired on Rain, clouds of red misting through the air behind each one.  Then, carefully aimed for the third, the heavy calibre bullet knocking him off his feet. 

Algernon took the momentary lull to peek out further and saw a larger than average Venom trooper smashing away at a large metal door, guarded by another two troopers.  He turned back to the first group, who were still reeling from Bruce’s attack. Raising a hand in a focusing gesture, Algernon pointed to one standing near an exhibit containing a sphere of clear fluid suspended by Ni’challan’s force fields.  With a thought, the liquid ignited.  It blasted out of the force field covering the venom trooper in liquid fire.

With the devastation that was Bruce and the spectacle that Algernon wrought, the two remaining troopers had forgotten the wall turret.  One stepped too far out to avoid his friend on fire and was gunned down.  Beside him, damaged by Bruce but untouched by the fire, the trooper flicked out an arm blade and advanced on Rain as the one on fire ran at Bruce.  

Rain rolled and Bruce dodged as both escaped the damage meant for them. Peggy, just inside the archway, put down the first portal. A dark hole in space tore through the hallway and the first troopers from the Quiet Cabal started through. 

Though he had clutched his ears as Bruce’s handgun thundered through the exhibition chamber, Rain now brought them down in front of him and formed a sphere of light. The yellow light that suffused him gathered and focused before he threw it at the arm bladed trooper above him.  The blast sent the trooper reeling backwards, not with force but with raw, gut-wrenching fear.  The trooper’s eyes bulged in their sockets as Rain stood becoming all his nightmares at once.  It gave Rain a chance to looked around, taking in the large trooper and his two companions at the locked door.  

No sign of Doctor Strangelove and it was unsure of no sign of Ni’Challan was a good or bad thing.

With the arrival of their reinforcements, Bruce and Algernon were now free to turn their attentions to the second group.  Watching from around a corner, Bruce noted the siege specialist, their armour, how they held themself and how their body moved. He saw weaknesses in the joints of the armour and where chitinous panels met and then stepped out firing once more. His shots hit true, finding an especially weak point on the big guy who was making fast work of the door.  The siege specialist sags under the impact of Bruce’s shot and the door finally gave way.  Behind the troopers at the door,  Algernon had seen another exhibition space. Taking careful aim with his crossbow, he shot the burning trooper dead before making a dash for the door.  

The two venom troopers defending the specialist turned their weapons on Bruce.  They both fire, but he ducked smartly back around the corner in time for the bullets to hit the metal of the wall.  Rain was focused on the trooper frightened by him.  The trooper hesitates for a moment, the fear taking hold.  Suddenly his breeding and conditioning kicked in and he roared a bloody scream and leapt into a charge for Rain.  Slipping past the deadly arm blade, Rain dodged the trooper, leaving him for the Quiet Cabal reinforcement to mop up.  As he passed Bruce he placed his hand on the big man’s back and let the Strange flow.  As the energy hit, Bruce shuddered and he gave an involuntary gasp, every nerve seemed to crackle with black fire.  Having done what he could, Rain ran after Algernon, toward the broken doorway.

The siege specialist was no longer interested in what’s beyond the door, he’d found an enemy.  Turning his huge cannon of an energy blaster on Bruce, he fired.  The recoil made the shot go high and over Bruce’s head.  Buzzing from the Strange, Bruce slowed the world once more, took careful aim and shot all three troopers at the door as Algernon and Rain ran past.  The two regular troopers hit the ground, dead.  The big guy took another devastating blow breaking through his armour at the knee join and his leg was shot away from underneath him.

Algernon was just ahead of Rain as they lept past the three at the door. He felt the tickle of the Strange and reached out with his mind to tap into it. With a grin of sheer abandon, he focused the energy into movement. It surged towards him, propelling him forward as if he’d been hit by a wave.  From behind, Rain saw Algernon make a gesture and blink ahead, past the next doorway filled with another set of troopers and into a third exhibition space.

All around Peggy, the allied troopers were coming under fire. Though more were on their way, the first group were currently pinned by a well placed Vemon trooper.  Peggy pulled up her arm cannon, swinging around the wall she shot, her projectile on target for the troopers head.  Most of the trooper slumped to the ground as Peggy and the allied troopers swarmed out after Algernon and Rain.

Inside the second exhibition space, Rain stopped when he saw a group of Venom troopers held down by turret fire.  The turret swung to add him to its blacklist.   Rain held his hands up for the turret operator if any was there to see,

“N’Challan, it’s Tobias!” He called and the turrets stopped, repositioned back on the original attackers and continued firing.

Peggy walked up beside Rain taking a breath from the action when the body of a Venom trooper ragdolled through the exhibition space and smashed into Peggy.  In a second broken doorway, a massive automaton made of clay swung around to face another venom trooper.  One of Ni’Challan’s many trinkets had backhanded the trooper across the exhibition hall.  Rain lent down and gave Peggy his hand.

“Unnecessary!” She complained, her backwards legs and cyborg exoskeleton making it difficult to stand.

“Very necessary!” Rain pointed to the golem making a paste out of the second venom trooper.

“It hit me!” She protested and for the first time in days, Rain smiled.

“Dodge faster,” As he let the Strange flow through their grasp.

As she stood, from behind Rain another two troopers appeared, guns up ready to shoot.  Her cannon brought to bear, she blasted both, their smouldering carapaces falling to the ground dead.

Bruce ran into the second space, once more finding targets for every one of his three shots.  With three rounds left in his magazine, the room was theirs and their allied troopers were mopping up the last of the resistance.

Alone, Algernon examined the third exhibition space, the battle petering out far behind him. There was no sign of Ni’Challan, but thankfully there is also no sign of Doctor Strangelove.

To the empty room, he asked, “Well, where to next?”

28. The Glistening City

Searching for a way of freeing Algernon from whatever has control of his mind and memories the group have arrived at the city of  Harmonious.  As the skyline and urban spaces of the city dissolved into focus around them, each of the party members needed to decide how this recursion would shape them. 


The first few moments of any new recursion were always the most disconcerting, you never knew what you would be made into.  Ruk with its reliance on highly biomechanical technology was no exception.  Still, the seasoned hoppers of Bruce, Rain, and Peggy had no idea what Ruk would make of them until their conscious’ became aware.  Bruce was clad in a thick military-grade armour made of a synthetic that was lighter than his laminated kevlar but seemed just as tough. He took a breath and listened to his own thoughts for a moment, pleased to find that they were indeed his and not modified somehow by the recursion.  

Looking around he found the group had landed on the edge of a city busy plaza, hundreds of people busily going about their lives, surrounded by clean lines made of steel, glass and other artificial materials.  Flanking the plaza, escalators led up to a monorail track that carried even more people around to other parts of the city in carriages that looked almost biological or at least part grown for their task. Above it all, a fractal night sky swirled menacingly, like the tentacles of a boundless elder god. 

His keen eye first picked up the sudden movement of Rain, currently wearing a cross between a pinstripe suit and iridescent partywear, stumbling into Algernon also decked out in a long black coat, slicked hair, and dark glasses.  Rain’s left hand reached out and grabbed Algernon’s.  Before Bruce even realised there was a knife in Rain’s hand, both palms were cut open, Rain pressing them together, their mingled blood seeping through their fingers.

“Remember…brothers… not just in name… but in blood…Remember.” Rain was saying low and with effort as if each word was a fight to say. 

“Yes,” Algernon agreed, concern and surprise mingling on his face before everything dropped away.  Both he and Rain fell into a trance as the Allsong took them.

Bruce was about to ask Peggy, what she thought was going on when he turned to where Peggy should be and she was nowhere to be seen.  In her place, hovering at about head height was an ever-evolving box of silicone metal.  As it spun, taking in its surroundings, parts of it opened, revealed bright energy within and closing again. The whole process reminded Bruce of Rain’s puzzlebox as he flicked it open and closed.  From a small speaker on one side Peggy’s voice was distant and tinny,

“Don’t look at me.”

A talking box on his left, his other two companions bleeding and comatose to his right, Bruce shook his head slowly in dismay, “Ah, shit!”

Algernon’s eyes flickered open a short while later once his consciousness had reestablished a connection to the world-wide data link called the Allsong.

“Mr Bruce, do you have a bandage?” He asked, and Bruce pulled out his first aid kit, which now included a spray-on wound sealant.  As he applied the spray to Algernon’s bloodied hand, he thought to ask Algernon a few questions.

“What now?  In the middle of the concourse?” Algernon glanced around at the crowds of brightly dressed and well-heeled individuals. This was Harmonious, the bright and shining jewel of Ruk and here was the centre of the entertainment district where the well to do amused themselves.  This was not the place to discuss the type of underhanded activities he associated with his life in Ruk.

“Where do you suggest?” Bruce asked as he finished strapping up Algernon and continued onto the still insensible Rain.

“Ah..over at the Allsong communal.” Algernon pointed to one of the lounges.  Taking Rain by the arm they guided him to a set of comfortable beanbag like seats and tried to blend in. Peggy’s reshaping box followed along, a silent drone waiting on its masters’ orders.

“So, this person controlling you, is it Peggy?” Bruce asked by way of a test question.

“No, “Algernon replied adamantly, almost insulted.

“Scientists?  Ones that made…cloned you?”

“Probably,” He admitted furtively, carefully watching the crowd and the Allsong for eavesdroppers. 

“Back…home, you said it was obvious who was controlling you?”

“Yes..”  The questioning was getting closer and closer to topics Algernon did not want to contemplate and he started deflecting the discussion, “Last time I was here I had to use an umbilical to contact the Allsong and now I don’t.”

As he said this, something on the Allsong noticed his presence.  He didn’t know what it was, but it signalled the start of a counter on their time here in Ruk. 

“That’s a good thing,” Bruce encouraged Algernon, pulling his thoughts out of the Allsong and back to the material world, “So, you know where you’re going to find your Doctor Strangelove?”

This time Bruce did not miss the sudden twitch Algernon gave at saying his old mistresses name.

“You know, what I’m gonna miss is the bacon.” Replied the black-clad fugitive.

“Where is Strangelove’s laboratory?”
“I don’t know.”

“ In the city?”

“I don’t know.”

“Have you been to other places in Ruk?”

“Yes, I’ve been around.”  At this question Algernon gave a start as he suddenly remembered something, “There’s someplace we should go.”


“To see if something is still there.”

A movement from Rain caught both of the men’s attention.  Almost straight away it was clear that something was not normal with the smaller man.  Still and speechless, Rain stared blindly out at the bustling city around him without interest.  

“Er…Rain?” Bruce said holding a hand out to touch Rain.  His hand hovered inches from Rain’s arm unsure if to wake what looked like a sleeping walker.

Rain turned, his violet eyes focused on Bruces, but there was no expression, none of the life usually present, “Yes, Bruce?”
“You spaced out there for a while, are you okay?”

“This one is beside you, “ Rain replied in a monotone voice that held no intonation, no life at all, “This one is currently working within expected parameters.”

“Ah, he’s uploaded at least part of his consciousness to the Allsong,” Algernon explained as he too linked wirelessly, looking for Rain.

“Right…” Sighing, Bruce covered his face with his gloved hand, “Did you at least hear the conversation we just had?”

Rain stood for a moment, his head cocked to one side as if listening to something that no one else could hear, “This one was unaware of a recent information exchange.”

Standing, Bruce bent down so his face was on a level with Rain’s he growled, “We are going to have words when we get back.”  He stared at the unresponsive face of his friend with a looked that showed he really wanted to knock a little sense into the fool.

“Can this one be of service, Bruce?” Rain asked, again in the empty monotone voice.

Bruce turned to Algernon, “Yes, we will be leaving as soon as possible.”

At the same time, Algernon was scanning through the Allsong.  He hadn’t been in Ruk for more than twelve months and scanned for information about recent developments.  He never got a chance to go out much, usually just dawdling back from one mission or another, but he was surprised that so little had changed  Or maybe it was he had changed so much. 

So as not to leave a trace he carefully searched for the movements of one Doctor Strangelove.  From all reports, it seemed that the Doctor was off-world having left in a hurry.  He breathed a little easier knowing that she would be out of range of the Allsong and dropped the search.  Next, he found Rain and made contact creating a virtual private network between the two of them. 

Bloodbrother, He called accepting the ritual that Rain had started as they translated.  

Rain responded immediately.  

Ah, password, And the word was added to the security of the VPN.  Algernon nodded, pleased to think that Rain understood.

Out in the physical world, Bruce was taking in the ever-shifting shape of Peggy’s new form.  

“And how are you going?” He asked, feeling like an idiot for talking to a floating box.  Peggy’s tinny voice replied,
“All good, considering I’m a silicon construct.”

“Bruce, you do not look happy,” Algernon commented after completing his tasks online.

“Yeah,” Bruce flicked a look at his friend, “We need Rain’s people skills and he’s switched half his brain off,” Bruce confessed, “Rain, could you at least look up Doctor Strangelove?”

Rain’s head tilted as if he were again listening to something unheard by everyone else, “Apologies, this one is unable to find that information at this time.” Came back the response.

“Ready to go?” Algernon asked as he too rose ready to get moving.

“Go where?” Bruce asked, “You haven’t said.”

“The scar, come on.” Algernon ushered them along sure that any moment black-clad figures would descend and take them all.  People very much like he once used to be.

“Why?” Bruce started again with the twenty questions.

“I left something there.”


“I’m not sure what it is.” He responded truthfully, he really couldn’t remember.

“Will it help us find Doctor Strangelove?” Bruce asked and Algernon physically winced at the sound of the name.

“Possibly,” He didn’t know,  and he really wished Bruce would stop saying the name out loud.

As they walked, the mind of Rain was busy surfing through the bewildering tangle of information that was the Allsong.  He followed links and hints until he found a contact with the Quiet Cabal, a group that was known to be on friendly relations with the Earth and worked with The Estate.  The headquarters of the Quiet Cabal in Harmonious was in the opposite direction to the way they were going.  He made a mental note of the address and sent a message via the Allsong. 

Members of The Estate enquire about speaking in person.  Is this appropriate, please advise.

Off to the side, Bruce asked Peggy if she could do a search for Doctor Strangelove as the other two seemed unable or unwilling.  Though her identity had been saved to a floating metal cube, she did not link to the Allsong like the Algernon and Rain and had no access to its information.  She still had her link to the Strange so, as they walked along the city street,  she focused her thoughts on the swirling mass of stars and clouds only just above her head.

Where is Doctor Strangelove, She asked and was frustrated once more by its cryptic reply.

Off chasing something interesting, It said in her voice, making her swear in computer code, a jarring mess of machine language that blurted out her tinny speaker.

As the group walked through the streets of Harmonious they passed several groups of heavily armoured guards watching the citizenry, checking IDs of individuals and making the presence felt.  These were the Myriand, a highly trained and equipped form of police and Algernon took careful note of each and every checkpoint that the group moved through.

“So what is this Allsong, what is it like?” Bruce asked after they’d been walking a while.  He knew that Algernon and Rain were constantly linked to it, but had been frustrated with having to find information second hand through the unreliable or the possible untrustworthy.

“You can link to it at an Allsong Communal, “Algernon pointed one out, “You’ll need to use an umbilical, but many on Ruk do just that.”

Stopping at another cafe lounge-style establishment, this time Bruce and Peggy both attached to leads that either plugged into ports (as in Peggy’s case) or encased the head as with Bruce.  

“So, do I know Kung Fu?” Bruce quipped as the umbilical engaged and opened his conscience to the Allsong. He was oblivious to the stares he received as his mind fell into the Allsong.  The sardonic smile soon left his face as he found himself drowning in sensation, not just visual and auditory, but scents, touch and even taste.  He could smell a song being played by a virtuoso across the Allsong, taste the colours of an advertisement for the Zal Corporation, hear the flavours of a variety of products brought from the Grey Forests.  With a force of will, he pushed through his request for information on Doctor Strangelove and was rewarded with a number of locations, the rumour of a secret lab, registrations of various vehicles owned by the doctor and information about the doctor’s membership to the Karum, a faction opposed to Earth dominance and focused on its destruction as a way of advancing Ruk. He tucked that information away and disengaged from the Allsong.

“Why did you have such a tough time finding that information,” He asked the unresponsive Rain, “I found it very easy to find her address.”

Rain made a very human shrug, “This one is still navigating the Allsong, Bruce.” 

Now with the information, Bruce felt that now they had a course of action apart from the vague and dubious directions given by Algernon.

“We can now go and visit Doctor Strangelove.” He said, watching as Algernon twitched.

“Great,” Algernon replied, and once more started directing them towards The Scar.

Turning to Rain, Bruce gained his attention, “If needed, can you get access to all of Rain’s skills?”
Immediately Rain responded, “This one is fully functional.”

“No, you’re not and if you were you’d know why I want them.” 

Rain remained silent, awaiting input.

“I want,” Bruce finally relented, describing his plan, “to negotiate with Strangelove for Algernon’s contract.”

A pause from Rain as the all familiar head tilt as Rain listened to the Allsong.

“This…is one possible solution to Algernon Balthazar Theobald’s problem.” Came the response that was as far as the limited personality of Rain could express doubt.

In the private connection, a message as fast as thought moved from Rain to Algernon, 

The plan that Bruce has outlined, is this an appropriate process?
I’m currently trying to work out how to block Bruce’s future links to the Allsong, Came Algernon’s irritated response.

The Scar was recognisable as a feature in the city long before they got to the entrance.  Great random pieces of city, scaffolding, blocking, twisted glass.  All the elements that made up a city seemingly growing at random as if the construction coding, the city’s DNA had been lost or jumbled up for this section.  The Scar was a deep cut through the centre of the city and went all the way down, to the Undercity, a place where those who could not afford to live on the surface, existed.  The entrance to The Scar was a twisted metal wall looking like a giant’s broken set of piled up pick-up-sticks.  Here, loitering around, the group noticed three Myriand troopers.  As they came close, however, the three troopers moved on as if on business of their own.  

Algernon watched the troopers with interest as Peggy’s attention was drawn to the metal wall.  Deep within the structure, she saw the telltale shimmer of the Strange, and with a little careful movement of her new silicone form, she edged through the random construction of the wall and picked up three cyphers.  While Peggy fought her way back through the tangle, Bruce continued his questioning of Algernon.

‘What is this thing we’re getting?

“Something that may have come into my possession by…unusual means.”

“Is it stolen?”

“Well, they didn’t give it to me if that’s what you’re asking?”

“Is it safe?” Bruce asked, an echo to Algernon’s well-asked question, they both smirked.

“There’s safe and there’s safe, “ Algernon replied and looked to Rain who he knew would have appreciated the response…at any other time, “Safe enough.”

“Could we use it to negotiate your release?  What do you think it would go for?”

“I don’t know.”

“Do you think it’s even possible?” Bruce said almost to himself when he remembered that the Doctor was a member of the Karum.  She will not want Algernon’s memory released so he can help save Earth.  But, if the deal was sweet enough, would her greed override her principles?  

He looked at Rain, beside him.  His usually lively lavender eyes were dull and lifeless only taking in the world passively instead of absorbing the wonders and sights all around.  He had to admit he was feeling very lost without the little man’s insights into human nature, his easy way of seeing an opportunity or his intuitive leaps in reasoning.  Even though they stood side by side, Bruce felt was alone.  

Right now I can’t yell at you, it would mean nothing. But just wait until we get back, Mr Bigby.

Peggy, her treasures stowed within her silicone shell, the group continued down the metal gangplanks into the random artificial jungle that was The Scar.  Indeed, now having found the cyphers ‘growing’ in the tangle, she felt emboldened joined in the conversation.

“Algernon, what does the Doctor find interesting?” She asked through her tiny speaker.

“Her experiments,” Algernon suggested, not really sure what made such creatures as the Doctor, tick.

“What does she experiment on?”

“Particle physics, portals, Strange matter…” He remembered that training well, he had often assisted her in her experiments in those fields.

“And what sort of experiments on you?”

“On me?” Algernon thought this was a topic that had come up before, at least now he had to admit to himself that something wasn’t right, “Nothing I can remember.”  

He glanced at Rain and found his friend staring at him, the Spiral dust tinted eyes looking through him in a blank stare that was unnerving.  Through their link he could…feel that Rain was collecting data on his body language, tone of voice, language use and expression, but for what purpose Algernon couldn’t tell.  The eyes blinked, the blank expression didn’t change and eventually, the eyes returned to looking forward once more.  Had a decision been made?  Just as he was about to ask, Algernon’s sense went blank.

For a moment he wasn’t sure what was going on.  He was sure he was still standing on the sloping catwalk of The Scar, but he couldn’t feel the slope, see the path, hear his companions or taste the rusty metallic tang of the air.  Slowing, like a computer booting up first one application, then another, his senses returned and he saw Rain collapsed and sliding down the ramp in front of him.  

“We’ve lost connection with the Allsong,” Algernon said looking up and realised that they were now covered by the interlacing network of metal. Like the branches of ancient trees in old-growth woods, the girder and twisted metal blocked out light.  No signal could penetrate that amount of metal and though his identity was fully within his own mind, the breaking of the link was a significant loss.

As Bruce reached the unconscious Rain, his eyelids flew open and he sat up with a jerk.

“Connection to the Allsong lost, offline protocol now established.”

Bruce’s teeth ground audibly, but he said nothing, instead helped Rain to his feet.

Not long after, the metal grating they were walking on levelled out and over the side of the walkway, a huge chamber opened up below.  Ahead, a nexus of paths provided an open space where vines of metal and other artificial materials hung down from the girders and scaffolding twisted above.  

From somewhere back in the recesses of his mind Algernon recognised the vines as a nutritional source, a food supply of sorts.  Bruce’s head jerked to the left as his keen senses heard something that the others failed to pick up.

“I can hear something…kid, do you know what that is?” He asked and Algernon focused on the sounds around them.  A faint cry an odd squeak, maybe the movement of rusty parts of The Scar?  Again from the dark recesses of his mind, he dredged out a name.

“Vat rejects,” He said,  rejected clone set loose in The Scar by unscrupulous creators.  No one knew their real origins, but as the Zal corporation made most of the clones, it was assumed that the Vat rejects were something to do with them. “Extremely violent and dangerous.”

“Is it a Wil Robertson?” Asked Rain.

“Yes, Run!”

They ran or hovered as fast as they could down the opposite passage as the creatures emerged into the dim light of the crossroad. No two were alike, and none of them humanoid.  Armoured in a chitinous carapace, the vat rejects were covered in spikes and protrusions that they used to skewer and smash into each other. 

Looking back, the group could see that the vat rejects weren’t interested in them at all, instead, all their attention was on the vines.  Tearing at the strands, the creatures lapped up a thick milky sap that dripped out.  When one grabbed a juicy piece of vine and snapped it off, the group attacked them on mass lashing out to be the one to possess the treat.  The feeding frenzy continued until a brightly lit blaster bolt sliced through the group of vat rejects hitting one.  The shot had come from up the path, back into the city and the vat rejects turned, ignoring their feast to attack the new intruder.  The group didn’t stick around to watch anymore and continued on their way.

It was unfair to think that Rain was not aware of what was around him. In fact, his mind was as active as always. Now his mind wondered and theorised without the external processing of information, the others were used to. It certainly didn’t come without the emotional baggage he’d been inflicted since confirming his story, which was the whole point

  As they continued into the depths of The Scar, his thoughts turned to uses that the Scar was put to by the citizen of Ruk.  For all its randomness, it seemed a place of great opportunities, cypers waiting for the picking, direct and unobserved ways around the city. Though there were the occasional surveys sent down to understand The Scar, maybe the odd salvage team, it was mostly a forgotten place to hide mistakes, like the vat rejects or as in Algernon’s case, a good place to hide a secret.

It was Peggy who noticed the vibrations first.  As she floated above the metal walkway by magnetic repulsion, she was keenly aware of a deep buzzing throughout the structure before the others noticed.

“Algernon…?” She queried as if he had something to do with it.  Suddenly, the whole section of walkway she hovered above shot four metres into the air.  Quick reflexes and the control of her magnetic body ensured she didn’t fall off, but the others were now trapped, blocked off from the path that now continued where she hovered. 

“I think we need to go this way, “ She said from above, and without a word, Bruce and Rain started climbing the metal structure and Algernon levitated up to join her.  They continued on the new path opened up by The Scar.

Algernon knew they were getting close to where he hid the item, he stopped to look around him as Bruce came up and placed a meaty hand on his shoulder.

“We can do this, together,” Bruce suggested, but Algernon sensed another message in the gesture.

“Mr Bruce, I’m not going to run away.”

“I know you won’t.”

“I think I’m close, I just need to look around,” He stepped off the path and started climbing through the latticework of twisted metal.

“Use all your senses to see, “ Came the cryptic advice of Rain, accompanied by the frisson of his encouragement.  Algernon scanned the space around them and picked up a movement, behind them just off the path. The individual was big, as big as Bruce in his heavy armour and moved more subtly that the vat rejects.  It was a member of the Myriand, a veteran to judge by his skill.  If it hadn’t been for him searching for the item, he’d have never spotted the watching eyes behind.  He passed the information back through the connection with Rain who quietly informed the others.

“A cop? What’s so interesting about this thing?” Bruce asked, purposefully not turning to see where the Myriand was.

“That is information, this one would be interested in as well,” Rain replied as he tried to look around Bruce to where the officer of the law hid.

“Look, I don’t have to get it,” Algernon said as he climbed back through the metalwork, “We’ll just walk away.”

“This thing is important, it was the first thing you thought of when we got here.” Bruce protested as he moved to walk away, exposing the all too curious look of Rain.

“It’s like…that documentary, the Monty Python and the Holy Grail, they have to get it, but they don’t know why?” 

“They were on a mission from God, “ Bruce corrected as the group started moving away, oblivious to what was going on behind, “Do you think you’re on a mission from God?”

“I guess I missed that bit.”

Rain’s less than subtle scanning of the path behind had drawn the Myriand’s attention.  Knowing now he had been discovered, the veteran left his hiding spot and walked purposefully down the path towards the group.

“Why is the Myriand guy walking towards us?” Peggy asked and everyone stopped to allow the officer to catch up.

“Now we don’t need any trouble, “Obviously the officer was expecting trouble from Algernon as he looked straight at him, only taking a cursory glance Bruce and Rain, “Just hand over the device.”

“What device?” Algernon asked in his standard innocent schoolboy manner, “I’m just a kid.”  Dressed as something from the Matrix it didn’t wash with the Myriand. It never really had.

“The one you stole.  Hand it over,” The officer was now taking in the other two, calculating his chances.  

Algernon stepped behind the group, and focused his thoughts on the Myriand and tried to find the undoing, his weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Sensing the movement in the Strange and the nature of Algernon’s power, Rain stepped in front of the officer.

“What is the nature of your information?  We believe it to be faulty.” He said, drawing attention away from Algernon and onto himself.

“Oh, yeah?  And what do you say you’re doing down here in The Scar?”  He asked, more than capable of keeping his attention on two suspects at a time.

“We are on a survey to understand The Scar, “ Rain gestured to Peggy, the folding and unfolding metal cube that the officer, until that moment,  had disregarded,  “Peggy herself has found unique items that the Scar seems to be creating.”

With a whistler and shudder, Peggy’s drone formed a light-emitting crystal and a hologram of Peggy herself was projected amongst the party.  Wearing her usual lab coat, she looked very much like the mad scientist that dominated society here in Ruk.

“Urgh, that’s weird.” She said, looking down at her shimmering body of light.

“Ah, are you associated with this one?” The Myriand asked pointing at Algernon.

“Sometimes, though he dislikes being associated with me, shame.” She replied in her usual matter of fact style, “We do know that Algernon has gaps in his memory, it is entirely reasonable that he may have stolen something, but unfortunately he may have no recollection of the item or where to find it.”

In the meantime, Algernon had his information and was sharing it silently with Rain over their private link.  Myriand were modified human’s, with specialised senses to detect lies and dissemblement.  They were also linked to a hive mind, via the Allsong. What one knew they all knew.  

He won’t have fallen for your story, Rain.

Irrelevant, it was a distraction for your process.  Rain emotionless thoughts returned via the link, He can not talk to his collective as he too is unable to link to the Allsong at this time.  If you wished to destroy this Myriand, now would be the ideal time.

It was unsure what Algernon thought of the suggestion of murder from Rain as Peggy’s conversation had returned the attention of the officer back to him.

“Do you recall stealing the prototype?” He said and there was an internal sigh of relief as Algernon could truthfully reply. 

“I definitely do not remember taking it?”

“And concealing?”

Here Algernon was on dangerous ground.  His lie would be detected before he could even say the words.  At that moment, he felt the frisson of the Strange as Rain spoke.

“You can do this, remember well.” The words said, but the Strange energy was Rain’s familiar encouragement.  Bolstered , Algernon confidently turned to the officer, “I do not remember.”

The Myriand blinked, surprised by the ring of truth in the words.  Now it was Peggy and Bruce’s turn to go on the attack.

“We understand he worked for some individuals, would you happen to know any of his previous associates?”  Peggy asked innocently enough, probing for information that the officer was not willing to hand over.

“Some,” The officer hedged.  This was his interrogation, when did he need to answer questions?

“Is it possible that these other individuals have the item in question?”

“Possible, “  He hedged again, looking more and more likely that his information was not complete.

“This is an appropriate line of questioning, “ Rain said to the officer, but this time Peggy felt the sizzle of The Strange.

“Also, I was wondering if mind control was a legally sanctioned practice here in Harmonious?” Bruce asked.  He’d been quiet up until that point, ready to attack if needed, but it was a point he wanted to make.  The officer looked uncomfortable.

Peggy’s official look and the party’s all-round relaxed demeanour, plus the fact that the suspect in question could not be found to have lied finally convinced the officer, at least for the time being.

“I will need to keep in contact with you, where do you live?”

“No abode at this moment,“ Rain added, “This one is sure you can keep in contact via the Allsong until accommodation arrangements have been made.”

Having noted the names of each of the party members, the officer left, walking back the way he had come.  The party stayed where they were until they were sure he was well out of sight.

“Peggy, that was amazing, I didn’t think anyone could stare down a Myriand,” Algernon congratulated her and even her hologram flushed from the unaccustomed thanks.

“Well, ah…your welcome,” She replied shyly, and smiled, making her look younger than her 25 years.

After the scare with the Myriand, Algernon was taking no chances.  Pulling a cypher from his backpack, he set it off.  Nothing seemed to happen, but Algernon relaxed.

“It’s a blackout, no one will be able to listen in on what we’re doing, “ He explained before heading back into the tangle of metal that was The Scar.

He hadn’t been far wrong in his estimations and soon returned with a metal suitcase, a metre long and half a metre wide.  On a metal label on one side were the words, Project Nephilim. Prototype 1. The Zal Corporation logo was prominently stamped on the case.

“Nephilim, …when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men and they bore children to them. Those were the mighty men who were of old, men of renown. Genesis 6:1-4, “ Rain quoted,  to the group like a talking dictionary.

“Should we open it?” Algernon asked the group, looking around for an appropriate place.

“Better than walking out of here with that case, I’m thinking,” Bruce replied and Algernon moved a little ahead to where an uneven doorway seemed to give way to a small living space.  Once the home to some destitute, Algernon carried the case towards it perceived safety.

Before Algernon knew what was happening, he felt a hand push him down into the hovel, as Rain stepped in above him, dagger drawn.  In one smooth movement, the dagger was thrown, not at Algernon but above the door where a giant metal spider perched, ready to ambush the unwary.  The knife did no damage, but it pinned one of the creature’s legs between the wall and the flat of the knife blade.  As it struggled to free itself, 

Bruce swung his metal pinch bar up he struck the spider, cracking its metal carapace.  A milky substance ooze out the breech.  Having been granted time to act by his friends, Algernon swung around his huge crossbow, here equipt with robotic limbs that pre-tensioned the line, ready to fire. He did, the bolt slipped inside the crack made by Bruce and pinned the creature to the wall for good.

“Metal spiders, that’s a new one, “Bruce commented taking a close look as the body dripped white ooze.

“Chaos spider, like the vat rejects, “ Algernon explained returning to the case and finding the latches, “Leftovers from other’s failed experiments.”

The latches clicked under Algernon’s fingers and he slowly lifted the lid.

Inside, folded one on top of the other were a pair of mechanical wings and harness designed to fit an average human.  Algernon lifted them out of their case and examined them closely before handing them to Bruce.

“Query,” Rain asked pulling his knife off the spider and slipping it away unseen, “Why would this be so desirable?  By whom?”

No one answered.  It was a marvellous machine but was just that.  Even Earth had similar tech, though nothing so advanced.  In the end, Peggy, using the materials around her in The Scar, fashioned a new case, a vaguely machine looking piece of metal with a cavity for the wings to hide.  Strapping the whole thing to his back, Bruce carried it back out of The Scar, Algernon careful to go another way.  

When the two boys hit daylight once more the Allsong reconnected and Rain received a message from the Quiet Cabal.

We have heard about your team. Yes, we should meet.

“Algernon, could you take us to the following address. The Quiet Cabal has heard of us and wishes to speak,” He informed the group of his previous message, before entering The Scar.

“Yes, this is a good idea, “ Bruce said, making a connection from the information he’d gathered about Doctor Strangelove. “The Doctor is a member of the opposing faction.  They may be willing to help.”

“In-deed,” Rain said, turning his blank eyes on Bruce.  If Bruce didn’t know better he would have sworn that those two syllables were computer Rain’s attempt at sarcasm.

“Yes, very much, indeed.”

To be continued….

27: But, I don’t want to

Using the invitation found in Rain’s puzzlebox the group travelled to the Graveyard of the Machine God and the collection of Ni’Challan.  Here the group learnt a number of truths, Bruce’s father’s fate in the Fero Navy of Railsea and Rain’s tragic past. They left the facility with more than just information as Algernon, unknown to even him, has taken something back to Earth.


Translating into Peggy’s lab the four companions broke away with nothing to say to each other, all cocooned in their own thoughts.  Rain was the first to stumble upstairs and away to who knew where.  Bruce went straight to the firing range for a few hours where he set up three targets and shot them all in quick succession.  Algernon was at a loose end.  He had surveillance equipment and thought to set it up to watch Keaton, his supervisor, then thought better of it.  He thought back to his studies into human psychology and brain chemistry in an attempt to solve the problem of his memory loss and blackouts.  The more he studied, the more he realised that the information was only for human minds and didn’t equate to his experience.  He knew if he really wanted to do something about it, he’d have to go home. But, that was the last place he wanted to be.  

In the end, no wiser, he made his way to the mess for an evening meal. Bruce, having finished his gun practice and was also sitting down to a meal and waved Algernon over.

“Bruce, you use to work in construction, did you ever knock things down?” Algernon asked as he brought his meal over to Bruce’s table.

“Oh yeah, it was good fun.  You don’t have to be so careful, and if you can find the right spot you can bring down a wall in a blow, very satisfying.”
“So there’s a science to it?”
“Absolutely, and an art.  The quality of the construction and materials, the formation of the load-bearing structures…all play their part”

“Could you knock a building down in one hit?”

“No, I imagine you could take out a load-bearer, but that won’t make the building fall down, just sag a little.”  Bruce put down his cutlery now paying more attention to his young friend’s line of questioning, “Why?  What is this all about?”

“Just curious,” Algernon tried to deflect Bruce’s interest.

“Come on, what’s on your mind?”

“Well, for example, it could have been useful to have the warehouse collapse as we escaped Celaphais.”

“Couldn’t have done it, not in the time we had.”

They ate in silence for a moment or two as Algernon digested his thoughts and meal.

“Kid, how’s your head?” Bruce asked and Algernon responded by making sure it was still in place, “I mean, you learnt some difficult stuff.”


“Someone’s been messing with your mind.” Bruce gave up on his meal and focused on Algernon squirming under the attention, “You know we’re here for you, you’re safe with us.”


“Well, we’ll keep Peggy from more of her extreme experimentation.”

A look came over Algernon’s features, a resolve, “It’s pretty obvious who it is…” He said before passing out again.  When he came to it was to Bruce crouched beside his chair, concern turning to relief as Algernon sat back up, wiping the remains of his meal off his face.

“I didn’t know you could do that to yourself,” Bruce said once he was sure his young friend was fine and sat back down.

“Do what?”

“You fainted again.”

“Oh,” Algernon said, now making sense of the mess, “Do we need to fix it, Mr Bruce?”

“Don’t you want this out of your head?”

“Not if it results in blowing my head off.” 

“I don’t think that will happen.”

A steely look flashed through Algernon’s expression, “I think you’re naive then.”

“I think, if it was to happen, it would have happened already.”

Peggy had spent the evening thinking over the cyborg augmentations she had acquired in the Graveyard of the Machine God.  She found it pleasant thinking about how she should incorporate such augmentations into her current form as she freshened up from the trip and grabbed some food before heading back to her lab.  However, passed her passcode, over the electrified floor and around motion sensors that were a staple of her lab, she found Rain, curled up in a corner drinking straight from her once hidden bottle of Burbon.  Without a word, she moved aside a chair at a large office desk revealing an alcove.  The space was lined with an old mattress and blankets.  Detailed technical drawings of engines from Railsea with breakdowns of the engine and gearing from The Limness were tacked to the wood all around. It was where Peggy had taken to sleeping most nights and the place she went to when she needed to think.  Rain crawled into the offered ‘safe space’ taking the bottle with him. 

Inside, a flash of metal caught his eye. Stuck to the underside of the table with a wad of chewing gum was a disk, no larger than two dimes stacked.  Shaking fingers peeled the device away from the table to reveal a tiny blue LED that had been hidden against the edge of the draw.  As Peggy busied herself around the lab, Rain silently pulled out his puzzlebox and dropped the disc in a compartment, before asking a question.

“Peggy, do you remember when you lost your parents?”

The question stopped Peggy in her tracks.

“Of course,” She said in her most matter of fact voice she could muster.

“What was it like?”

Where the first question had rocked her, the second had stung.  No longer able to keep up a facade of detachment she turned to Rain curled up under her desk.

“It was awful, what do you think?  They didn’t die or even go anywhere, they just ceased to be. “

She took her seat beside the table and reached for the bourbon just as it was offered up, “There’s CCTV footage of them going into a tunnel in their car, but they never came out the other side.  People looked, I’ve looked but there’s nothing to show what happened to them.”  She tilted the bottle to her lips and in a practised action drank down two quick mouthfuls.

“I use to tell myself fairytales. My family would be safe, I could find them if I just…I thought…knowing would make a difference, that I could put the ghosts to rest.” Rain said taking back the bottle as it was past down, “But it doesn’t, it just….why does it hurt?”

“Because they’re gone and they’re probably not coming back,” Peggy replied to Rain’s question from her own fractured childhood, “Mind you,” She sniffed, surprising herself with the tears now running freely down her face, “After Noel, I don’t know what to think.”  She brushed the tears away as Rain once more pulled out his puzzlebox and withdrew the metal disk.


Holding a finger to his lips he handed her the disc and pointed to where he’d found it, before leaning back onto the mattress and falling into a drunken sleep.

Without a word, she examined the disc.  It had no timpani or other device for converting sound waves to electrical impulses so she assumed it was not an audio bug.  Under a microscope, she could see the surface that looked metallic was actually bone, grown and not machine-made. The density of the material showed it had been formed from mammalian bone, but without DNA testing she could not narrow down her search.

 Slowly she pulled the item apart found that its components identified it as a beacon, one that used and broadcast across the Strange to another recursion. A beacon on a stationary item?  Lifting her head from her work she yelled out, 

“Hertzfeld, you have some ‘splaining to do!”

Hertzfeld, now use to this sort of communication from his protege, soon sauntered down the stairs to Peggy’s lab.

“What’s this about?”

“I can understand listening devices in my lab, but a beacon?” She gestured to the disk now pulled apart into components on a tray beside her.

“Why do you have a beacon?” He asked dumbfounded as he too realised what the disc was.

“Good question,” Peggy quipped back eagerly, as the excitement for the hunt replaced all maudlin feelings, “Come and help me answer it.”

Hertzfeld and Peggy worked side by side teasing the details out of the device.  He was fascinated to discover how it used the Dark Network to power and signal and was able to find a way of switching it off.

“I believe if we can find a way of tapping into the signal we would probably find others just like it.”  He said as Peggy eagerly stepped up to the task.  The night wore on and they kept at their allotted task oblivious to the rising sun the next day.

Algernon and Bruce were keeping themselves busy in the absence of the rest of the party.  Algernon took to the library and sat researching demolition techniques through his VR headset oblivious to the bustling Hertzfeld as he too looked for information pertaining to the signals through the Strange.  Bruce warmed up with a set in the gym, then put on his new armour and redid the workout again.  

Peggy had not left her lab.  She was close to a breakthrough on the beacon, she could feel it but it eluded her every search parameter.  Stepping back from the counter she rubbed her eyes with the palms of her hands and allowed herself to feel the exhaustion she had been keeping at bay all night.  Her eyes alighted to her bed where Rain still lay, the bourbon bottle now empty beside him.  

Subtle. It was how Bruce had described Rain’s abilities when they were first discovering they were quickened.  It was a good word, it described the beacons too.  How they subtly used the chaotic patterns of the Strange to project their signal.

And then she saw it.  She could see it in her mind, how the beacons worked and how to follow the signal not just to other beacons but back to their source.  Putting her inspiration into action she traced the signal through the Strange to five other beacons.  With all six beacons locations, she sent a signal through the network. The beacons all pointed to Ruk, the technology recursion, as their point of origin.

With a whoop and a victorious scream, Peggy leapt from the counter.  The sudden noise woke Rain with a start who cracked his head on the underside of the table making the desk jump.  

“Arrrrrh..” Was the inarticulate groan from the hidey-hole as Rain once more curled up adding the physical pain and hangover to his other woes.

Peggy had no thought for his pains.  In quick succession, she identified the other five beacon locations.

One on Earth, disturbingly outside New Orleans at her old home in the swamp.

One in Halloween, at the home of Hazel Jenkins

One in the Graveyard of the Machine Gods

One in a Zombie Apocalypse and the last in a Space Opera style recursion that the group had not been to.  

Taking careful note, she stood back and let the information sink in.  It still didn’t tell them who had planted the beacons in the first place.  She looked to the heap of misery under her table as Hertzfeld returned and she let him in on her discovery and voiced her concerns.

“This is a high-security facility, my lab is pin coded, covered by CCTV and equipt with an electrified floor.  I can’t imagine anyone but one of my group who could have  brought it in.”

“The other lab graduates make it a point of honour to put bugs in your lab.”

Peggy waved away the suggestion, pointing to a box of broken bugs of various kinds, “I find those.”

“But, your own team?” Hertzfeld said, also glancing at Rain thinking about the security risk of having him in the lab.

“It has to be.  Bruce could have been blackmailed to put it there, he has a family to protect,” She said, but shook her head just as quickly.  Bruce was far too honourable and practical to allow himself to be blackmailed, wasn’t he? “Algernon had blackouts.  Something is influencing him but…” She had to admit she found this thought very unsettling and she had considered Algernon a future collaborator and someone to whom she could trust.

“And…” Hertzfeld inclined his head to Rain who seemed to be snoring once more, but who could tell.

Peggy had to shrug her doubts over Rain.  He had found the beacon, but he could have just as easily placed it.  What did they really know about his convoluted past?

 “There will have to be an investigation.”

“I can’t run it,” Peggy confessed, “I don’t want to bring up the whole trust issues with them again.  You’ll have to run it and it has to be done now.”

Hertzfeld nodded and started with the first and most conveniently placed of the party.

A rap on the top of the table solicited a response of sorts.

“The number you have called is unattended, please leave a message after the beep.” Came a muffled voice, but no beep.

“Rain, I need to ask you a few questions,” Hertzfeld said in his best managerial voice. As chief of the Estate, he’d had practice and Rain turned to face Hertzfeld.

“How often do you come to Peggy’s lab?”

Rain’s brow started to wrinkle in thought, and then his eyes drifted out of focus. He made an effort to answer and eventually gave up shrugging.  “I came in a few days ago with the invitation… and then last night…was it last night?”  He looked at Peggy.

“He’s often here, they all are.” She agreed and Hertzfeld changed his question.

“Why were you here last night?”

At this Rain became decidedly shifty and looked back to Peggy, “Can you tell him it’s not relevant?”

“I don’t know what’s relevant and what’s not,” Peggy replied genuinely and Rain moaned.

“I couldn’t break into Keaton’s office for his stash,” He gestured to the now empty bottle of bourbon.  Keaton silently took that information on board and continued.

“Have you seen this before?” He showed the disc and Rain spent a moment trying to get his eyes to focus.

“Yeah, I found it up there,” He pointed to the blob of chewing gum still in place.  

Peggy reached for a Petrie dish and scalpel realising that this too could be analysed for clues. As she started her testing, Hertzfeld asked one last question.

“Have you seen anything like it before?”

“No.” Rain shook his head, discovered too late his mistake and sunk back down to the mattress, his eyes squeezed shut. 

Hertzfeld set to work looking for the rest of the party.  He found Bruce first just finishing his training and asked for a private word.  

“I need you to answer my questions as truthfully as possible.,” He said showing Bruce the disc, “Have you seen this before?”

Bruce picked it up and examined the disc before replying, “No, new to me.” He said adamantly.

“Tell me about your group’s usual movement patterns in the lab?”

Bruce’s eyebrow raised in question, but he kept it to himself and gave Hertzfeld a rundown on their usual routines.  

“Outside of the mess it’s the place we meet most often.  We always leave from there whenever we translate and if we’re looking for Peggy it’s the most obvious place to look.”

“So you would say you and the rest of the party freely move through the space, gain access when you please?”

“Yes, is that a problem, sir?”
“Not before now, no.” Hertzfeld considered his next question, “ Do you know where I could find Algernon?”

At that moment, Algernon was looking for Rain.  He sent an SMS.

Where are you?

Peggy’s lab.


Something’s up.

Should I go there? He replied and started heading in that direction.

Hertzfeld will find you.

Should I hide? He stopped and found a convenient dark space to wait for Rain’s reply.

There was a pause, longer than he expected, Probably in your best interests to talk to him.

Feeling the heat of the interrogation lamp already upon him, Algernon did what came naturally, he hid. Slowly he made his way to Peggy’s lab, skirting around the CCTV as he and Rain usually did he looked through the partially open door.  Inside Peggy was busy working on something, oblivious to the slight movement of her door.  Across the way, Algernon could see Rain, for some reason, hiding under a desk but nothing more. 

Pulling out his surveillance gear, he carefully placed a camera just inside the door and then stepped away to a storage cupboard across the way and locked himself inside.  From his phone, he watched as Peggy extracted white strands of DNA from a pink piece of some pliable plastic.  He had just settled down to watch as his phone rang, the Mission Impossible theme tune loud in the small space.  He answered it quickly.


“Algernon, Hertzfeld here.  I’d like to…” Algernon could clearly hear Hertzfeld just outside the door to the storage room talking on his phone.  There was a pause, “…are you in the storage cupboard?”

“Well done sir, you win.” Algernon bluffed, wishing Rain wasn’t there to help.



“Right,” Hertzfeld usually intimidated Algernon just because of his position as the Chief of Science.  Now his voice held a more serious tone that Algernon had ever heard. 

“Would you like to come in?” He offered and the door handle turned, the door opened.  Hertzfeld, seeing Algernon crouched on the ground, took a cleaner’s bucket, turned it upside down and sat on it.  He closed the door behind him.

“Have you seen one of these before?” Hertzfeld showed Algernon the disc.

Algernon’s heart sank into his chest.  He knew what the disc was.  Schooling his expression he replied, “No sir. What is it?”

“Some sort of beacon.  Do you know where we found it?”

“Peggy’s lab, “He slowly showed Hertzfeld the feed from the camera, “Under a desk, I assume.”  He pointed to Rain now making the connection.

Hertzfeld blinked and watched the feed as Peggy moved back to the desk scalpel in hand to try and take a second sample of the gum.

“Why do you have that?”

“I didn’t want to be blind-sided,” Algernon confessed, there was really no point in lies now.

“Who told you I was looking for you?”

Or maybe there was, “A big avian told me.” He thought that was how the saying went.

“Did you plant this?” Hertzfeld returned to the subject at hand and gestured once more to the disk.

“No. “

“And the CCTV?”

“I just put it there.”


“Five minutes ago.”


“I hoped to see you interviewing Bruce.”


“So I knew what I was in for?”

Hertzfeld paused, looking down on the young man, his knees up to his chest in the corner.  

“You know how this looks.”  It wasn’t a question.

“How does it look, sir?”

“Very suspicious indeed.”

“You think I did it?”

“As soon as you found out I was asking questions, you put up a camera in Peggy’s lab and hid in a storeroom.  I also know about your blackouts, that you are being affected by something outside of yourself.”

“But I’m just a kid!” Algernon wailed. Hertzfeld signed,  ignored the theatrics and continued with his questions.

“Do you have any idea how something like this would have got there?”

“Do you know, sir?” Algernon deflected.

“No that’s why I’m conducting this investigation.”

“How was it affixed?” Algernon asked.

“With chewing gum.”

“Someone who chews gum.”

“ Who do you think that could be?” 

“I don’t know, I’m just a boy.” Algernon tried again, but it was gaining no traction and he knew it, “Am I the prime suspect?”
“Well, yes,” Hertzfeld said simply as he ticked off mentally motive, access and capability.

Algernon put away his phone and held up his hands for handcuffs, “Best take me in, sir.”

Hertzfeld blinked again, “I… don’t have  handcuffs.”

“I do, “ Algernon offered, retrieving his own set he’d requisitions when capturing The Cowboy. He helpfully handed the out to Hertzfeld.

Hertzfeld looked at the handcuffs with distaste, “Come with me, I trust I don’t need handcuffs.”

Hertzfeld led Algernon across to security where they took one of the interrogation rooms. For several hours Hertzfeld questioned Algernon about his movements and about the beacon. Over and over they went through the same questions, all the time Hertzfeld was trying to find the lies in his statement. He was getting nowhere.

For Algernon’s part, he was finding the whole process thrilling.  It was like being part of one of his documentaries and he had to refrain from offering suggestions on how best to question the witness.

“It might be time to use the phone book, sir.” Algernon said enthusiastically.

Hertzfeld’s eyes bulged behind his glasses, “We don’t do that here,” He replied hesitantly, “Do we?”

With a screech of his chair, Hertzfeld stood and excused himself from the interview. Outside, Bruce and Rain were sitting on chairs in the hallway.  Bruce stood when he saw Hertzfeld appear.

“Bruce, what can you tell me about these blackouts?  What is their source? Do they have a trigger?”  

Bruce shared what the group knew which wasn’t much, “We were just deciding what to do about it.”

“I’d suggest you may need to go back to the source, have you thought about going back to his home world?” Hertzfeld suggested.

“He’s terrified of the thought,” Bruce replied but had to agree that this was an obvious way to get to the root of the problem.

“Do we know where he comes from?”

Bruce shook his head, “He keeps that stuff pretty close to his chest.”

Hertzfeld sat down in an empty chair looking every inch as tired as he was.  For a moment he just sat there, his head in his hands and the other two could do nothing but look on.

“Well, right now he’s a security risk.  Unless you can take him home and sort out these blackouts, I have no choice but to bar him from future work for the Estate. Your team have done good work, I’d hate to see that happen.”

Bruce nodded sagely as Rain twitched agitated beside him.

“He deserves better from us than to be cast aside.”

At that Rain reacted, jumping to his feet in what he saw as defence of his friend.  To the others, he was a dishevelled mess of a creature that was barely in control of himself.

“You do that and we’re gone, you hear me.  I’ll take him and we’re off through the millions of recursions that make up this universe and you’ll never find us.”

“Rain, don’t be melodramatic,” Bruce replied pulling Rain back into his seat, “They don’t treat people like that.”
“No?” Rain would not be put off, “How about Kamn Sharn?  All she’d wanted was to work on cars. And Leroy Caine?  Where did he go?  What does the Estate do with its little embarrassments?” Taking Bruce’s hand off his arm, Rain walked out, his coattails flying.

Hertzfeld excused himself once more and let himself back into the interview room.

“If you plan on exterminating me I will not go without a fight.” Algernon said as Hertzfeld reappeared.  Obviously he had heard the outburst in the hall.

“The Estate does not exterminate,” He sat back down his hands clasped in front of him, “Especially not good agents who are in need of help.  You are in need of help, even if you don’t realise it.  I’m referring to your memory loss issue, of course.”

“I have a problem with my memory?”

“You do.” Hertzfeld said with a finality that seemed to make the problem more real and present, “The best course is for your team to take you home and find out what is causing it.”

During the hours they had been talking, Hertzfeld had seen Algernon lie, obfuscate, plea his youth and deflect his questions.  Never had he seen Algernon pale until that moment.  
“I’m sure we should be finding Bruce’s father.” He suggested.  Another deflection, another distraction.

“It has something to do with your memory loss?” Hertzfeld asked wondering where this thought would lead.

“There are strange occurrences, Noel’s appearance, Bruce’s Dad’s journal. All clues to side missions.  I‘m sure in those I can find something….” Clutching at the straws of an idea, he vainly tried to persuade Hertzfeld.

“You’re afraid of your home recursion?”

“Aren’t you?” Algernon replied automatically, “No, I guess not.”

“Was something done to you?”

“I don’t dwell on it.  It’s not my home.”

“But you see, it has left its mark.”

Peggy had been working now for twenty-four non-stop. The DNA results were tantalising, but inconclusive.  She’d clearly found DNA, but the telomeres or terminals of each strand of DNA were shorter than expected.  This person was either very old so that their DNA was starting to break down, or they were a clone, or both.

Unfortunately, exhaustion was getting the best of her and an unattended beaker overflowed starting a fire. It destroying much of her equipment and all of the sample she’d been able to gather.  She was in the process of bashing her head on her lab desk when Hertzfeld walked in directly from his Interview with Algernon.

“Not good news?” He asked, trying to make sense of the chaos that was Peggy’s normally organised workspace.
“The DNA was so frustratingly interesting for a moment, and then I had a fire and I lost the lot.” Peggy lamented, she looked to her desk and to the now-empty hidey-hole.

“When did you last sleep?”

“Sleep?!  I have to clean up here, get replacement equipment, possibly run a DNA test on the bone of the beacon itself…” Peggy listed off her task.

“No, you sleep.  I’ll clean up here.” Hertzfeld said gently and pushed her towards her bed under the table.

“There another thing, what does short telomere mean to you?”

“Short telomere? We have a very old spy or someone genetically altered?  A clone, perhaps.”

Peggy nodded, swaying on her feet,  “ You’ll clean up my mess?”

“It’s my job, go.” He ordered, and this time Peggy did not argue but collapsed onto the mattress and was soon fast asleep.

When Rain had left security he had gone straight back to the lab and found the two recursion keys from Railsea.  It hadn’t been hard, Peggy had been distracted and he knew where they were kept. For a while, he’d walked around the campus common, trying to clear his mind. 

Under the green light of a large maple, he stood and listened to the wind through the boughs, the distant conversations of Estate agents and the even more distant sound of cars thudding across the nearby bridge. Each time his thoughts would swirl back in and chase around his head, clashing and interrupting each other until there was only a cacophony of thought.  The alcohol had made him sleep, but it had not been restful. All night he had dreamt and it had been exhausting. And now, in summer light the spinning of his thoughts was a physical thing that he couldn’t ignore. 

He just wanted to scoop out his thoughts and put them aside for a while.  Put them in a jar and look at them from the outside.  He just needed to get out of his head, but he no longer seemed able. Since the final opening of the puzzlebox, it no longer seemed to help calm his thoughts. Not Pandora’s box,  but Tobias’ box was open and all the woes of the world were loose inside his mind. 

In the end, he took off his coat and hung it carefully from one of the lower branches of the tree.  Then he started running.  A circuit didn’t take him long, so he went around again, and again, and again.    He didn’t count, just paid attention to the strides, the breaths in and out his racing heart. Each time a thought intruded into the simple mechanics of running he would go faster. He kept running until what was left in his stomach wouldn’t let him and he was sick behind the maple. When there was nothing left, he tidies himself at the garden tap, replaced his coat, now far too hot, and slowly made his way to security.

Bruce was talking with Algernon in the interview room when Rain stalked back.  Without interrupting he watched the two of them from the hallway.

“Bruce, I didn’t think I’d see you again,” Algernon said, all puppy-dog sweetness.  You couldn’t help but fall for the guy.

“I know, me too.” Bruce replied matter of factly, “You know we really need to fix this.”

“We really need to find your dad,” Algernon replied in the same practical tone. 

“It will be in your head forever.”

“It’s the safest course”

“I really don’t think you’re taking this seriously, kid. They’re talking about you like you’re a security risk.”

“Well, “ Algernon stiffened a little, his voice became just that little more steely, “The way I see this play out, Bruce, is that we all go and I’m the only one that comes back.”

“Why? We’re a pretty good team, we’ve got each other’s backs.  Can you tell me why this place would be any worse than where we’ve been already?”

“What if you were forced to fight me as well?”

Bruce paused at this for a moment, it was not a contingency he’d wanted to contemplate.

“Well then, I guess I’d knock you out.”

‘You see Bruce, I’m good.” Algernon replied not taking his eyes off Bruce’s.

Bruce’s grinned, “Yeah, but I’m better.  Want to take this to the gym?”

“I’m all good,” Algernon spoke and it no longer sounded like the puppy, but something knowing and formidable.

Bruce leaned back on the plastic chair making it creak.  The small room echoed with the noise.

“The idea of me losing all of you doesn’t feel…nice,” Algernon spoke, breaking the silence.

“Because we’re family, it’s the same for us, “ Bruce grasped at the truth at the heart of both their arguments, “We don’t want to lose you, and we’ll do whatever we have to, to keep you.  You’ve got to admit it would have to be something pretty extraordinary that you’d come back and the rest of us wouldn’t.”

Algernon leaned forward across the table between them, thinking through each word carefully, “It is not a place that is gentle on people.”

Bruce was starting to get tired of the cryptic answers, “Look someone is in your head that needs taking out.”

“Maybe my head needs taking off.”

“Quit it!  I’m not willing to go there.”

“Can I suggest, sir.  I am only a danger to the Estate, in the Estate.”

“You’re a danger to yourself, Algernon.  Someone can ask you a question and you’ll blackouts.  Who is it that’s controlling you?”

Algernon leaned back in his chair and thought for a moment.  

He’s trying to tell us. Rain thought, but could not have said what Algernon was trying to say.  

Eventually, Algernon shook his head and seemed to make a decision, “This seems like a distraction sir, let’s get moving.”

“Where do you want to go?”

“I want to meet your dad.”

“He’s not important.  He’s not part of the mission.”

“It’s a clue.”

It’s a clue.  Rain thought and he wanted it to be true.  Dad, Father, maker, creator?  His head spun with all the information and he was finding it hard to stand up.

“My dad disappeared years ago, he is not the task at hand.” Bruce continued oblivious to the chaos in the hallway.

“London then?”

“Also not a mission, they have nothing to do with the spiral dust.”

“Crows Hollow?”

“Goddammit, Algernon.” Bruce swore and only just held back from thumping the metal table, “Someone is influencing you, that has to be fixed before it endangers the mission.”

“It hasn’t affected the mission yet.”
“Hasn’t it?”

There it is. Rain winced.  They had been skirting around the issue the whole day, but only Hertzfeld called it for what it was.  A problem with security.  A problem of trust.  He didn’t know if he wanted to hear any more and started to move away just as he heard his name spoken by Algernon.

“Are you hungry?” Algernon asked in his usual conversational tone.
“I guess it is that time.” Bruce agreed with a heavy sound to his voice.

“I want some coffee.  Where’s Rain?”

“Floating around.”

“They took my phone, do you think I can have it back?”
“Not yet, you can use mine.” 

“Not the same,” Algernon said but a few moments later a message silently came through from Bruce’s phone asking him to join them in the mess.

Just as silently, Rain left security,  walked the campus one more time before joining them both at the mess.

When he arrived the mood of the two friends had changed.  There was a quality of reminiscence to Algernon’s conversation.

“There are some things I miss.” He said as Rain got his own cup of coffee and joined them at the table.

“Like what?” Bruce asked.  The party had very little details about the world that Algernon came from, every scrap was noted and discussed between the other three.  Maybe it was his own mood, but Algernon’s calm acceptance felt like that of a prisoner on death row facing their imminent death.

“The information.  None of this,” Algernon mimed typing on a keyboard and swiping screens.

“What, it just comes to you?”

“Sort of.” 

“Like your own memories?”

“No, more deliberate.”

“What else is really good about home?”

This took Algernon a while to think.

“They don’t have bacon like we do,”

“Any people?”

“No,” He shook his head emphatically, his face scrunched up in disgust.

“We’ll get you  sorted out and then we’ll get my dad.”

“Peggy knows where the beacons are coming from.” Rain dropped on to the group as the conversation lulled, “We’re going, it’s a done thing.”   Now if Algernon was facing his death, it felt like he’d released the blade on the guillotine.

“I don’t want to lose any more family.” Rain reached across the table trying to bridge whatever gap existed between them.

“Same here, “ Bruce agreed with a gusto that jarred with Rain’s mental state.

“I feel the same,” Algernon added, looking Rain back with his steady gaze.

“I have a way of getting out, “Rain confessed, “If things go wrong.  There’s a whole universe of recursion to explore.”

“That sounds good, let’s do that.”
“But we can’t unless we know what we’re running from.”
“I can tell you.”
“But you can’t, can you. You haven’t been able to.”

“When we come upon it, I can.”

“But…” But what?  Rain couldn’t get his thoughts straight.

“Rain, you’re not making a lot of sense.” 

“I know…I…know…” 

That evening the boys collected in the dormitory as usual.  What was not usual was Hertzfeld and a contingent of security to lock them in for the night.  Algernon was given back his phone and once he was behind the locked door he quickly sent a message to Peggy.

Say the beacons come from Railsea

But they aren’t from Railsea, She replied just as quickly, They’re transmitting to Ruk.

But we really don’t want to go there.

But that’s where it is.

The next morning Rain was awoken by Bruce’s new daily routine.  For a moment he sat watching, taking note that the exercises were tailored for speed and agility instead of his usual strength routine.  Eventually, the brain kicked in and drove him to the showers as the door was unlocked and Algernon left for breakfast.

Peggy was already eating and lifted her head from her usual notes to spot Algernon piling his plate with Bacon.

“So, why don’t you want to go to Ruk?” She asked washing her last mouthful down with black coffee.

“Because of the….” He started to explain before falling away in a dead faint.  Peggy picked a glass of water off the table and threw it in his face.  Algernon spluttered awake now wet and covered in bacon fat.

“They’re monitoring my spaces and I want to know why.”  She said as he went back and piled another plate high with crispy strips.

When Bruce and eventually Rain joined the table she explained the beacons and how they were all reporting back to the major recursion of Ruk. As she talked she took out three vials and one by one took a hair from Algernon and Bruce.  

“You’re not taking my hair, I don’t know if there’s male pattern baldness in my family, “ Rain protested, holding his hand out for the vial.  Peggy gave him the vial and he spent a moment or two filling it with spit.

“How are we getting there?” Algernon asked, sensing a change in the course of the party’s plans.

“You could take us there,”  Bruce suggested and a gleam came into Algernon’s eye.

“Sure,” He said, just as he’d heard Rain say many times before.  

“I’ve requisitioned a key, “ Peggy tapped several forms in front of her, “My lab is ruined, I needed new equipment so I asked for the key at the same time.”

After breakfast, a small random piece of Ruk tech in her hand, Peggy initiated the translation.  Connecting to the Strange was, as usual, the pull of the swirl fractals drawing their consciousness out of Earth influence.  Peggy had trouble focusing through the key and the path through the recursions would not open to her at first.  With a force of will, she pushed through the obstruction and set the course to Ruk.

26. Many Simple Truths

Back at the Estate, after the revelation of an invitation in the final compartment of Rain’s puzzle box, the party tried to decide where to go, Crow’s Hollow or take the invitation. When Bruce suggested leaving the decision to God guiding their destiny with a coin toss, Rain took up the challenge.  *********************************************************************

“Sure,” Was all Rain said as he flipped a gold crow high into the air, the gold claw motif once more catching the light as it spun and flipped.

“May God guide your hand,” Bruce said low and fervently watching the heavy coin fall.

All eyes watched its rise and descent, all eyes except Rain’s who never left Bruce’s face. He turned his practised hand ready to receive the coin. With a movement so small and subtle, instinctively judge the coin’s fall, he caught the heavy coin vertically between index and middle fingers of his left hand.

Bruce’s face fell in deep disappointment and a twinge of guilt spiked through Rain. But the guilt could find no purchase and was quickly replaced by irritation.

“I have another idea.  Instead of leaving things to chance why don’t we use our god-given brains.”  He said giving Bruce the coin.

“It wasn’t leaving the decision to chance, it was letting the powers decide,” Bruce grumbled at Rain.  He ignored it and turned back to the group.

“Due to all the excitement over the puzzle box, I may have overlooked another piece of information that we discovered at the library.” Rain gestured to Algernon giving him one last chance to speak openly and honestly about the facts he’d been hiding from the group, “Would you like to tell the others about the documents we found  before the puzzle box fell?”

Algernon looked surprised at Rain, puzzled by his request and unsure what to say.  He turned to the group, his hands open and visible in front of him shaking his head in confusion.

“We didn’t find anything new.” He said and Rain’s irritation was fanned.

“Really?” He said now facing the young man square on, “Now, I suggest you tell us all about planetvores.”  The phrase left Rain laced with the force of the Strange.  Rain’s indignance and frustration over Algernon’s and Bruce’s behaviour pushing the influence of the words.

Algernon straightened, his gaze locked on nothing, “Alright, the thing about planetvores…” He started saying before his eyes rolled up, his eyelids fluttered closed and he slumped bonelessly to the floor of the lab, unconscious.

Bruce was the first to react, immediately at Algernon’s side, checking breathing and heartbeat before placing him on his side in a comfortable position.

“He’s breathing and heartbeat seems normal.  He’s just fainted. “Bruce turned his attention to Rain, his expression thunderous, “What did you do?”

Rain just stood back frozen, his face locked into an expression of unutterable horror.

“No…I didn’t…” He said but nothing he could say was the truth.  He had done this, he had turned The Strange on to his friend and pushed.  In the end, he just stood there shaking his head and Bruce turned away in disgust back to his patient.  

No more than a minute later, Algernon’s eyelids flicked open and he sat up looking curiously at the others circling him.

“What just happened?” He asked as he stood with Bruce’s help, on wobbly legs.  Rain, on equally wobbly legs, sank onto a lab stool and silently thanked the powers.

“Well, we don’t know, Rain asked you a question and did something that he’ll never do again, “With another thunderous look from Bruce, Rain could do nothing but look away, “Isn’t that right, Rain?”

“Yes, yes…I’m sorry.” He agreed hastily, relieved, dismayed and curious at the same time, “Algernon, do you suffer from blackouts?  I mean, moments that you can reconcile, when you don’t remember how you got where you are or what you are doing?”

Algernon stared at Rain with as bemused smile flicked across his face, “Well, doesn’t everyone?”

The room was silent.  The three companions looked at each other with worried expressions.

“No Algernon,” Bruce informed his patient soberly in a quiet voice, “That is not normal.”  He looked at Rain whose eyes darted back and forth as his mind made sense of the new revelation. 

“How did you know?” 

“I get it now,” Rain replied, “I’m…sorry I didn’t understand before.”

“What?” Bruce asked anger once more bubbling up, only just cooly restrained, “What did you just understand?”

“I get people, that’s what I do.” Rain stood, taking the floor.  He turned to Peggy behind her lab table, “ I get Peggy, no offence you’re easy,”

Peggy shrugged, not sure if to be annoyed or pleased.

“And I now get Bruce, “ He turned to Bruce wanting to say more and thinking better of it, “But Algernon was so….contradictory.  You are so smart, so sharp and…couldn’t remember whole conversations…you’d seem afraid of confronting anything then throw yourself into a fight, like the one in the warehouse…or…throwing yourself at a moving car in the wastelands…do you remember that?” He spun on the spot and faced Algernon was slowly shaking his head. 

“I just thought that was how he manifested his fight or flight.”  Bruce said, “He is naturally tentative, but when the shit hits the fan…”

“People are more…nuanced than that.” Rain shook his head now facing Bruce, “The written conversation in the cave… the words he uses sometimes…the way he sometimes seems…different…” As he said it he remembered where Algernon’s body language was more determined, less tentative, “…just lots of little things…”

“Can we fix it?” Algernon voice, small and unsure echoed across the lab.  There he stood, his arms wrapped around his chest looking scared and very alone.

“There’s nothing to fix.” 

“Something for me to study?”

“Bring the two together, the determined and the smart Algernon?”

All three said together, stopped and stared around.

“Just..go slow, “Bruce turned to Rain and Peggy, “Remember what you said Rain when we thought we were going to lose Peggy?”

“What did you say?” Peggy arched an eyebrow.

Raising a hand asking for her patience, Rain stepped forward and faced Algernon.

“Do you think you want to be fixed?”

“It’s not safe.” Algernon replied, but this time, in the context it seemed odd, nonsensical, “I have to go.”

“No, please!”

“You’re not leaving my sight.”

“Just a few tests?” The others said together and Algernon stopped, a mouse frozen to the stop, surrounded by waiting cats.

“Please, Algernon why isn’t it safe, can you tell me?” Rain asked but all he got back was the terrified stare of a prey animal facing its predator.

“I don’t understand why I fainted, “ He finally said, “What happened?”

“I asked you a question about…about the scary thing…I made you answer…”  Rain looked to Bruce, “You were right…I did do something, I…pushed him to tell me, I wanted to know how he could know and not know at the same time.” Rain faced Algernon again now tears of not frustration but remorse welling in his eyes, “When you tried to answer…you fainted.  I’m so very sorry?”

Instead of more fear or even anger, Algernon seemed to calm and grow curious.

“You did something? What?”

“Ah…you remember when we fell into that couple’s apartment in Celephais?”  Rain said stepping one step closer to Algernon, “Do you remember that I suggested to them that it was all military exercises?”

Algernon nodded, even smirked a little at the memory.  Rain stepped closer.

“That was the first time I’d pushed someone into thinking what I wanted them to think.”

“Oh,” Algernon replied now interested in this new ability.  All thought of running had gone and he stood thinking a moment with Rain only an arm’s length away, “Can you use it again, if I asked?” 

A collective held breath was released.  

“Yes,” Rain nodded earnestly, “If you want, but only if you want.”

“Yes, Rain, only with the patient’s permission.” Peggy scolded from behind her lab bench, “Do you need a lecture on patient rights as well?”

Suddenly the tension that had been building in the room since Rain had posed the question was released.  They all chuckled at Rain’s discomfort at the thought of a lecture from Peggy and Bruce now stepped up and drew Algernon and Rain back into the fold.

“It seems to me, maybe we need to go on vacation somewhere.  Things have been crazy of late, we could do with a break.”

“Yeah, not Crow’s Hollow for a while.” Rain brushed a shaking hand across his still bruised face dismissing the welling tears and sighed, “I still have my recursion.”

“I was wondering about another trip out to Railsea,” Bruce suggested and there were nods from Peggy and Rain.

“What about the invitation,  the Found Gentlemen?” Algernon reminded the party and Rain remembered his puzzle box still clutched in his right hand.

“Found Gentlemen, odd name.  How were they lost to have to be found?”  Peggy asked, now employing the more relaxed feel of the group to go through a few basic coherency tests with Algernon.

“A picturesque phrase for a certain sort,”  Bruce replied dismissively as if they were not the sort of people you would want to associate with.

“Rain is one, he got an invitation.” Algernon retorted.

This comment seemed to disturb Bruce, “He’s not…at the moment.  He has an invitation, doesn’t mean he is one.”

“Why not?” Rain now looked aggrieved that Bruce, “I felt very lost over the year, it would have been nice to be found. Besides, it leads to your past as well.”

“Do you think it would be seen as aggressive if we all come along?” Algernon mused and grin bloomed on Rain’s blotchy face.

“I wouldn’t go without you.”

“Algernon, “ Peggy completed her tests and found Algernon perfectly conscious and aware, “Can I mind-link with you?”

“Hell no!” Algernon replied, but he didn’t jump back or shy away, only laughed at Peggy’s disappointment.

“Well, where else have you suffered blackouts?” She would not be deterred from asking simple questioning at least.

“Mostly in the library.” He confessed and it was Peggy’s turn to chuckle, “I know that feeling, just before big exams.”

Peggy tried one more way to get information without the evasive testing that she knew would send Algernon running.  Closing her eyes and linking to that feeling of the swirling clouds of the Strange she asked a question.

What influence is causing Algernon to have mental blanks?

Returning to her in her own voice was a cryptic reply, He carries his past with him, but he doesn’t know it.

Peggy repeated the reply, “What sort of fortune cookie bullshit is that?” She spat in disgust.

“It certainly sounds very familiar for this group, “ Rain replied, “So I guess that mean’s he belongs, congratulations, you’re as loony as the rest of us.”

Somehow without any particular agreement, the group decided to use the invitation and travel to see the Found Gentlemen.  They broke up to prepare themselves for the next day in whichever way they thought best.

Bruce went down to the gym and firing range, getting in touch with the instructor, readjusting his routine and mentally re-tunning with exhaustive physical exercise.  After, he returned to Katherine’s office topick up his amour and report their next excursion claiming it was a micro recursion of Rain’s finding but not sharing information about the Found Gentlemen. 

Rain went out into the city for a few hours, coming back with a new set of lockpicks purchased and not given to him by the Estate.  When the cordite had cleared from the firing range he tried out the new arm sheaths and soon became as proficient moving blades from them as he had from his back sheaths.  The speed of Lightfeather may be beyond him, but accuracy was his aim.  He spent a few hours until his arms ached and he remembered to check in on Algernon.

Algernon tried designing explosive bolts for his crossbow.  At this Peggy was a font of inspiration and even offered a plan for a prototype that would use cyphers to create a tiny rip in space wherever it hit.  Materials for such an endeavour were rare though, so that led Algernon finally to Lawrence Keaton’s door, his direct supervisor.

The creaking and slamming noise of doors hastily being closed in response to his knock told him that Mr Keaton was in his office and making ready to receive visitors.

“Ah Algernon, I did not expect to be seeing you, what can I do for you?”

“I am in need of special equipment, something that Doctor Peggy believes can be made with the right parts.  I understand she calls it an Arrowhead of total destruction.”

Keaton balked at the name of the weapons and automatically shook his head, “You’re doing some great work at the moment, you don’t want to spoil your glowing reputations with unnecessary death and destruction.”

“Don’t you trust me yet, sir?  Haven’t I proved my worth?” Algernon replied aggrieved.

“Not with explosives, no.”

“These are more implosive as I understand, sir.”  Gesturing with his hands Algernon simulated the difference with a sharp clap. 

“You’re really not convincing me here, kid.” Keaton grimaced, “You’ve succeeded so far without wreaking total destruction, keep up the good job I say.”

“But sir, think what could be achieved with better equipment.”

“Precisely.  The answer is no.  Anything else?”
“I’d like to requisition more surveillance equipment.”

“See, a sensible suggestion, “ Keaton pulled out a requisition slip and started filling it in.

Peggy filled Hertzfeld in on the Implausible Geographic Society, mostly to complain about their crude laboratory set up, but also to vent about Noel and his abandonment to the “other side”.  Hertzfeld had problems of his own with his phasing suit and was pleased for a moment’s reprieve to go over Peggy’s plans for the arrowhead.  Though theoretically possible, he had to agree the components were not available for such a project.  Her attempts at trying on her own failed and she had to shelve the project for the time being.

That evening, Algernon was sequestered in the library surrounded by research material when Rain finally found him. Without disturbing his friend, Rain noted the subject of the research, information on psychology and brain chemistry.  Seeing that Algernon was dealing with the problem as best he could, Rain let him be and, since reminded of the joys of literature from his Daydream library, found the fiction shelving and burrowed into the collection getting reacquainted with old friends.

The next day, feeling much improved after resting in beds in the safety of the Estate, the group met once more in Peggy’s lab.  Rain dumped the invitation out of his puzzle box onto the lab table and Peggy led the translation.

A room, luxurious in its appointments, swam into focus.  On three side, richly inlaid wood-panelled walls decorate the space.  In the centre two large wingbacked chairs in deep red leather sat either side of a small side table that held a cut glass tumbler, ice defracting the light through a clear brown liquid.  The fourth wall was a thick glass or perspex window looking out onto natural space and the decrepit remains of a broken space station.  Sparking in the starshine, a halo of broken components, metal and glass gave the station a misty, magical appearance.

Besides their location, some of the group had also changed. Bruce and Algernon looked like their Earth-based selves. Rain was covered in integrated LEDs that flicked through an array of colours before settling into a cheery yellow.   Peggy was most changed.  Her skin was deathly pale with a slick sheen of moisture.   Her hair instead of the soft messy curls, was a black wiry array sprouted from her head.  Three-quarters of her face was replaced with a metal mask from which both eyes glowed dimly red.  From her right arm, a weapons of sorts protruded out from behind her at the elbow.  Her legs were bent backwards like that of birds.

Rain reached out and touched her skin, it was cold and clammy and made him shiver.

“Are you feeling okay, Peggy?”

“I…feel…good…different.” Her voice came out synthesised and neutral, as dead as her skin.

Taking a deep breath, Rain looked at the two chairs, the ice in the glass chinked as they slipped against each other.  Picking up the glass, he breathed in the scent of the peat and wood tones of single malt whisky.  It made him smile nervously.

“I guess I get to sit down.” He said almost as a question.  Bruce nodded agreement.  

The glass in one shaking hand, Rain grasped Bruce’s in his other before carefully taking his seat in the nearest chair. A moment of nothing and then an image flickered into existence in the opposite chair.

It looked like an elderly man, with close-cropped hair and beard with clear pale blue eyes.  The man’s image was familiar but did nothing to allay Rain’s nerves.  Leaning back, he nodded to acknowledge the hologram and waited for the being to speak.

“Greetings Tobias… and friends?” The hologram looked around the room at the rest of the party watching on.

“I suppose you’re wondering why you here.”

Rain raised the glass and breathed in the whisky, attentively listening, saying nothing.

“I like to collect things, I look for people who can find interesting things for my collection.  You seemed like someone that I would like to work with.”

With that Rain shot the whisky and focused on the burn before speaking.

“I apologise, “ He finally said when he felt more in control of himself, “I think you found me twelve months too late.”

The hologram of the old man wrinkled his face in consternation, “Oh? How so?”

Without a word, Rain looked to his companions arrayed around.

“Ah.  You’ve found your place.” The hologram nodded understanding.

Rain, in the moment, was flummoxed.  He felt this moment was important, but didn’t know why. He didn’t think he wanted anything from the image, and it was certain there was nothing he could give. In the end, he settled on the second reason for their visit.

“But sir, we are not here just for me, “ He said, and stood, clearing the chair for Bruce.  Bruce sat down.

“What do you want from Rain?” Bruce asked and Rain clutched the back of the chair in anticipation.

The figure in the chair took a moment to think then looked back to Bruce in the chair, “He has a darker past than he knows. I slipped him my card hoping he’d find me when he was ready.”  

He knows. Rain thought and for a time he heard and saw nothing as the equivalent of mental white noise dominated all his senses. When he returned to himself the discussion had moved onto the other topic and tears were running down his face.

“Look,I’m here searching for a man from Railsea, he used to work for the Manihiki Fero Navy.  I have information that tells me he works for you.” Bruce was telling the figure in the opposite chair.

“Why is he of interest?”

“I believe he knew my Pa, Jimmy Johnson.”

Rain giggled at the mention of ‘Jimmy’, having to stifle it when Peggy stared at him with her red eyes.  The coincidence of Bruce’s father’s name and his own first true alias had driven out a bubble of nervous energy in the form of a giggle.  He didn’t see anything funny in it, but the thought sparked something for Rain and he tried to focus once more on the image in front of him.

“The gentleman in question is out on an errand at the moment.” 

“Could you tell me where he went?  Maybe we can find him.”

“He’s out acquiring an item for my collection.  He will be back in a day or two, “ 

“Collection?”  Peggy interrupted in her mechanical voice, “Could we see it?”

The hologram turned to look at Peggy and slowly nodded its head, “Yes, why not.”  

The image stood and led the group through the door at the back of the room and into a dark space highlighted by pools of light.  The lights were forcefields surrounding some of the most well-known items of history and fiction.  A sword pertaining to be Excalibur was set beside a piece of the hull of the Titanic where the iceberg had ripped through like tinfoil.  Part of the Berlin wall with a graffitied image of two middle-aged men french kissing sat alongside a small plain gold ring in a very thick forcefield.  

Pop cultural references and item from major moments in Earth’s history side by side.  It was not surprising when Algernon gasped and raced through the exhibits to stand in front of a low bodied motorcycle, decaled in branded sponsorships and painted a bright crimson red.  Try as he might, he could not get past the forcefield to sit in the Shotari Kaneda’s Akira bike.

Rain had been following along behind the group, blind to the stuff displayed around him.  His eyes were only for the figure, moving through the lights, sometimes commenting on one piece or another, discussing in general terms the properties of the forcefields that protected them.  The hair was different, but that was nothing, the way this figure walked without stiffness or infirmary was also different and harder to reconcile, and it had been 25 years and a whole lifetime of experience watching people ago.  But the more Rain watched, the more he was sure that the hologram was of the man he knew as Mr Joseph.

“Excuse me, sir,” He interrupted the tour with a crack in his voice, “May I ask your name?  I assume that Mr Joseph is no longer appropriate?”

The figure stopped and smiled, happy that he’d finally been found out, “You may call me Ni’Challan.” He said and turned back to his collection.

“You collect people and things, “ Peggy could be heard from behind a working shuttle from the NC-1701 Enterprise, “Do you have John and Athena Martin in your collection?”


“Or Lededje Y’breq?” Algernon asked seemingly in the same vein.  Though Peggy’s answer had been monosyllabic, the image that was Ni’Challan thought about his answer for a moment.

“Interesting.  I don’t, but maybe I should look into this individual.”  

The tour moved through a group of specimen jars with various biological examples.  Peggy clearly identified a face-hugger from the Alien franchise and determined that it seemed dead.

“What is this place called?” Algernon asked as they passed another thick window of perspex that looked over the debris field that was the space station.

“Originally it was called the Graveyard of the Machine god.” NiChallan joined Algernon at the window, “Or I should say at the end of the space that was the Graveyard and The Strange.”

“Ah, we knew a girl who visited the Graveyard of the machine god, made an android mother.  She might be worth you collecting.”

“What about her?” Peggy interjected, “She’s on a traineeship, she’s doing well where she is.”

“Well, it would get her out of the Estate.”

“Why would she want to leave the Estate?  It’s the best place I’ve ever work?”

As Peggy and Algernon bickered, Bruce sidled up beside Rain who was hanging back lost in his thoughts.

“Are you going to ask him about your history?” He whispered low so only Rain could hear, “Sounds like this might be your chance to find out.”

An electrical shock part excitement, part horror travelled Rain’s nervous system making his shiver.  This was the moment he’d been wishing and dreading in equal measure for 25 years. To let it slip by now would be a tragedy.  Again, he felt himself forget to breathe so he nodded and took a shuddering breath in.

“Ni’Challan,” He said, not recognising his own voice as it came out strained and stiff, “You mentioned something about my past.  Just for interest sake, you couldn’t tell us my story, could you?”

Ni’Challan, who had grown bored of the argument, had wandered through the collection. He stopped and once more turned his penetrating gaze on Rain.

“When I was told about a possible candidate for collection, such a rare and tragic case, I had to see for myself.  What I found was a creative, problem solving individual that had a great deal of potential.”

When Rain did not reply, barely moved, he continued, “You don’t remember do you?”

“No sir, “ a stilted reply.

“Do you know your real name?”

Rain was sure his heart had stopped at that moment and a shaking hand enclosed the pendant, the white flower with a green centre, “I have only the name Tobias Cudo.”

“Amir.” The short gentle sound left Ni’Challan’s lips and struck Rain like a battering ram. Instantly another name sounded in his mind, Ademovic.

“Mean anything?” Bruce asked quietly at his side.  The shock and rareness of the memory, the truth of it was too much and Rain could do nothing but shake his head.  Ni’Challan didn’t seem to notice and continued on with his story.

“…a mostly pleasant childhood I understand…”

“Parents?” Rain whispered.

“Yes, they were taken from you, tragic.” 

“Who took your family and who and why?” Bruce asked Rain who was now, head bowed silently weeping.

“Sir, do you not know your history?” Ni’Challan turned his pale gaze on Bruce, “The Bosnian War?”

Bruce had to shake his head in ignorance of the conflict.

“On the 11th July 1995, Serbian troops overran UN peacekeepers and took the city of Srebrenica.  In the following week, more than 8000 Muslim men and boys were rounded up and killed.  It was a massacre.”

“Eight-thousand-three-hundred-and-seventy-two.” Rain automatically corrected without looking up.  It was true, and now it had finally been said, it was real.  He hadn’t expected facts to hurt.

“But how did you know to look up those number, that massacre?” Bruce asked.

“It…was…mine…” Rain said, “My foster records…no details, just a lost kid without a name from Bosnia, but enough…not hard to look up.”

The room went silent as the only sound was Rain gasping for breath between tears and Bruce shuffling awkwardly beside him.

Peggy now took the opportunity to change the subject.  She had been staring and the objects in the collection with a question that she now able to articulate.

“Usually when you bring an artifact through to another recursion, they change to fit their new surroundings.” She said, gaining Ni’Challan’s attention.

“Hey yeah, “Algernon added, “When we watched the probe go through the inapposite gate in Celephais, the display changed as it entered a more technological recursion.”

Peggy nodded, “Exactly, so what’s stopping these artifacts from changing to just hunks of space junk?”

“Ah,” Now Ni’Challan seemed to see Peggy and responded accordingly, “The force fields, you have already noticed.  They were able to trap a piece of the reality of that recursion along with the artifact.  Of course, being on the edge of The Strange doesn’t hurt, this is the only place where this technology can exist.”

“I guess you’re not inclined to share this piece of research with others?” Peggy’s red eyes lit up adding  a rosy blush to her grey complexion, “Not even for good will.”

“I think I’ve shown you quite a lot of goodwill.” Ni’Challan moved away leaving Peggy to ponder the nature of the force field in front of her.  

She looked around, trying to make sense of it and noticed a series of optical sensors that lined the roof of the exhibition space.  She studied the force fields in as much detail as she could with her enhanced naked eye.  Ni’Challan did not try to stop her, but neither did he give her any clues.  She knew it was drawing power from the Dark Energy Network, but how and to do what, she had no idea. In the end, she had to file away what she had gathered and let it be.  Maybe the concepts would come in useful if not the direct practice.

“I suppose if you’re to wait for Rondat tu Vin to return I should show my hospitality.” Ni’Challan now said to the group, “I have rooms I keep aside for recruits.  Even if you aren’t joining me,” He looked at Rain who was unable at that time to respond.  “You are all welcome and look like you could do with the rest.”

Ni’Challan led the way to private rooms that the group took advantage of and rested and reflected on the day. 

Hours later and the group were invited to have breakfast with Ni’Challan.  In another room of massive proportions, a continental breakfast awaited. Ni’Challan also waited at the head of a long dining table.  Flanking the table, another window looked out onto space, this time a clear view of stars and nebulas, free of space station debris.  They mostly ate in silence, staring out the window or lost in their own thoughts until a movement at the window drew their attention. 

As they watched, a bright spot of energy grew, lengthening forming a tear in space.  Through it came a spaceship that Peggy and Rain instantly recognised as the one he had seen in Celephais.  Peggy moved over towards Rain on her springy mechanical legs and touched his hand to create the mind-link.  Instinctually, Rain’s hand seized hers in an desperate grasp at comfort and she was flooded with sensory information from the physical touch and the link. 

Unlike the usual order calm of a fractal starscape that Rain was careful to project to Peggy, Rain’s thoughts were a mess of emotions, sounds, smells, words in other languages all spiced with an adrenaline kick that seemed very familiar.  Maybe it was her partly computer brain at that moment, but she was able to remove herself from the human mess and focus on the coherent thought, the strongest being a name.

Amir Ademovic.

Same ship?

Yes.  A simple reply returned

She acknowledged the message, quietly letting the others know.

They waited, watching as the ship maneuvered towards a dock and locked in place. Engines on board the ship powered down and a passageway extended out to an airlock door on the ship. Through the door, a trolley covered by a tarp trundled up the ramp. Ni’Challan who had excused himself could be seen in the passageway, greeting a middle-aged man pushing the cart.  They exchanged a few words and then Rondat moved the tarp enough to let Ni’Challan see beneath. Satisfied with the delivery, Ni’Challan beckoned Rondat inside and to the group.

“Here is a man who thinks you can help him find his father.” Ni’Challan pointed out Bruce who stepped forward to speak to the newcomer.

“Very well, why do you think that?” Asked the man in a straight forward tone of voice.

“You sold this journal in Celephais, “ Bruce pulled out the journal to show to Rondat who glanced at the book before returning to his gaze Bruce. “That is my Pa’s journal from Railsea.”

“Yes, “ Replied Rondat simply, “He joined up with the Fero Navy, he said he didn’t need it anymore.”

Behind Bruce, the connected Peggy and Rain silently watch Rondat tu Vin.  Sharing the same thoughts they could clearly see that though he was hiding the truth of Bruce’s father “joining the navy”, the fact that “he no longer needed” the journal was an outright lie.

“By the last entry in the journal he’s been there ten years?” Bruce asked flicking through the few entries there were to the last written page.

“If you say so, I can’t say I kept in touch,” Rondat replied and Peggy and Rain nodded together, that was the truth.

“It says here something about navy recruiters sniffing about.”  Bruce pointed to a section, “When was the last time you saw him?”

“When he sailed out from Manuhiki.” 

“Any way of confirming that information?”

“I would assume Navy Admin.”

“Where’s that?”

“Manuhiki.”  He laughed nervously and looked around the group like that information should be self-evident.  All he got in response was silence.

“I’m sure the Navy will be quite happy to help…”

“Was he press-ganged?” Bruce interrupted.

“Never, no, our recruits are all volunteers.”

The two lie detectors stiffened at the outright lie.

Bruce changed the subject, “Found Gentlemen, what do you collect?”

Rondat looked to Ni’Challan who nodded for him to continue.

“A statue.”  He lifted the tarp to reveal a primitive carved statue.  Peggy recognised it from her anthropological studies as a statue of Nodens, and ancient Celtic god and also of the ghoul.

“You bought this from Lightfeather?”

“Yes, “Rondat stiffened defensively.

“Which was it before then? Was it bought or stolen from the ghouls who owned it?” Peggy spoke sharing her knowledge of the idol with the group, “Lightfeather is a thief.”

“I have a long-standing relationship with Lightfeather, “ Ni’Challen said without guilt, “He’s able to get things that others aren’t.”

“That relationship may well be over, last we saw him he wasn’t looking very well.” Bruce said to Ni’Challan without taking his eyes of Rondat, “A rival drug cartel got him.”

“He in drugs?” Ni’Challan said seemingly surprised by the revelation, “ I just buy objects for my collection.”

“It doesn’t matter, “Rain said tiredly to Ni’Challan, “We’ll not inconvenience you too much longer, sir.  Just one question.  We have recently become the interest of a planetvore, do you know anything about them or how to stop them?”

Ni’Challan gestured Rondat away who quickly took his cue and left the room.

“That is unfortunate.  I collect things not information, I don’t know much about them.”

Rain nodded.

“I really don’t think you were wrong about me.” He said quietly, “Just one year too late.  Is there a way I can keep in touch?”

“You have my card.” Ni’Challan replied and Rain nodded, a sad little smile flickering across his face, “If you want something you think I could find, let me know?”

As they walked back to the wood-panelled room, Algernon made a silent detour returning moments later.  Silently, without discussion, they translated back to the Estate, everyone happy to be leaving Ni’Challan and his collection, for now.

25. Moving On

After starting the day on a reconnaissance,  by early afternoon the party were carrying a dangerous enemy back to their hideout at the docks.  They’ve only had time to catch their breath before something has found them and was knocking on the back door.


“138…139…140…” Each number counted corresponded to the fall of a gold coin and the thunk as it joined its fellows in a small wooden chest, “ 141…142…”  The golden claw motif on each coin caught the afternoon light filtering through the skylight above Rain as he collected the last handful of coins.

“I could count those crow coins faster if you want.”  Algernon offered watching Rain monotonously drop each of a hoard of coins they found on Lightfeather.

“No…no… this is just my pace right now.” Rain replied, the image of misery.  A bruise was blossoming redly over half his face, contrasting with dark rings under his eyes.  Though the party had won a major victory, Rain looked like someone who’d lost the war.


Bloodied and worn out, Bruce was seemingly in a better mood.  He walked out of the office rummaging through his backpack,

“Okay, who needs a little first aid?”

Any responses he may have expected were forgotten as all heads turned to a heavy wooden door to the back of the warehouse that had until that moment been ignored.  Chained locked, it seemed as secure as the wall it was built into.  Now, the scraping sound of metal against chain echoed faintly through the warehouse.

“Wha…oh…what was I up to?” Rain lost track of his count.  He sadly dropped the last of the gold coins into the box as he turned to the others, “What is it?”

“A crowbar, “ Bruce replied, forgetting his first aid kit and pulling out his own well-worn weapon of choice, “They’re using it against the chain on the door.”

Peggy, already going for her hand crossbow, focused her thoughts on the door and asked the Strange who and how many were beyond the door.  In response, she understood there were four beings, two of them were known to her.  Her mind-link to Rain made him aware as well as he tucked away the box and started for the front door with the intent on getting eyes on the invaders.

I’ll let you know.

Noel and Maximillian were readying for battle.  Noel was checking the weight of a falchion the party had collected, Maximilian disappearing into the office they shared, returning with a long-barrelled blunderbuss, complete with slowmatch which he now lit with a flint and steel.

Quickly leaving the warehouse via the front door, Rain snuck along the wall and peeked around the corner.  At the far end of a small alley, he could see Toby Mutton-Chops of the giant sledgehammer, two other heavies breaking through the chain on the door and an aesthetic looking gentleman with a distinctive hooked nose.  Caw Eh Carve was looking straight at Rain, black eyes glittering behind small round spectacles.  Rain sighed heavily and stood, leaning tiredly on the corner of the warehouse as he let Peggy know who was breaking in.

“Ellis, Rowan pin that one down, Toby get through this door.”  Caw Eh Carve ordered cooly and the two heavies left the door to Toby and started walking towards Rain.

Inside, the chain fell away from the door and clanged through the warehouse.  Bruce moved quickly and wedged his crowbar against the door and the ground, firmly holding it closed for the time being.

“Ideas, people?”

“Shall we kill the prisoners?” Algernon asked, shrugging his crossbow off his shoulder and gesturing to Caw Eh Carve’s thugs in the other room, but the sentiment was extended to the unconscious Lightfeather as well.

“What?  No, we need them to get to Londontown,”  Bruce replied, leaning on the crowbar and holding the door firmly shut.  

“But if Caw Eh Carve comes in now, they’d be better off dead.”  

“They don’t deserve death just for following orders.”

“Don’t worry, you don’t have to do it.”

“I’m not worried because it’s not happening.”

“Maybe they’d go if we give them Lightfeather…” Peggy mused wondering if there was a way to bargain their way out, “…or maybe Noel?”

From outside they heard the roar of some beast then…THUD! The whole door shivered and cracked as something heavy hit it.  Dust rained down on those nearest the wall, but the door held.

Outside, Toby swung his massive sledgehammer with a roar and smashed it square in the centre of the door as his boss turned to the wall directly opposite and pulled out a cypher.  Tracing a rectangle onto the wall, the space inside shimmered creating a portal to another recursion.  Rain didn’t get to see anymore before Ellis of the crowbar took up all his view.  After a day of sneaking, dodging, fighting and being pummelled, Rain’s responses were all instinct. Moving aside and using Ellis’ own momentum, he pushed him into the warehouse wall.  Rowan was one step behind his comrade, picking up the fallen chain and wrapping it around his fist.  It was time to get out.

“Terra, Zeme, Aarde, Monde Jord!” Staring down the two thugs, Rain muttered a string of words from all over the world.  Selling the idea of a powerful spell with his whole being, he crouched down, drawing his hands up as if pulling something heavy from deep down. With a yell, he completed the words and created an illusion of a huge monolith of stone rising out of the ground, showering the thugs with dust and broken pieces of earth.  They never questioned the illusion stepping back, believing completely that the path out of the alley was now blocked.  Rain didn’t waste any time and started running back to the front door.

“There’s a trapdoor to a sunken souq back in the office,” Noel supplied as a possible escape route from their current predicament, “Not exactly a secret but not out in the open either.”

“Sounds good, “ Peggy replied, “So, do we stay or go?”

“We stay,” Algernon loaded his crossbow and aimed at the door.

Outside the door, a blue flash of light caught everyone’s attention and it looked like the time for action had come.  Bruce nodded and withdrew his crowbar from the door. From outside a roar forecast another attempt at the door.  This time though, instead of the door holding, the door swung wide and Toby Muttonchops stumbled in behind his sledgehammer, surprised.  The moment of surprise gave those ready inside the advantage.  The blunderbuss went off, glancing against a metal plate sewn into Toby’s overalls and the shot ricochetted off.  Bruce’s crowbar swung, in the dark of the warehouse, the metal created an arc of silver landing on Toby’s skulls.  The impact was not meant to crush, but to shake and stun.  Toby’s eyes crossed and he stumbled on the spot.

Peggy flung out a hand, and a plasma arc linked Toby to something through the portal, Toby taking the brunt of the damage.  Now with the big man swaying on his feet, Noel reversed his hold on the falchion and brought the butt of the heavy sword down on Toby’s head.  He crumpled into a mess of limbs in the doorway as Peggy scowled.

“Wrong end!” She complained to the nonplused Noel.

As attacks rained down on Toby behind him, Caw Eh Carve was running through a portal on the opposite wall.  It led into another warehouse, similar to those in Celephais, though there seemed more boilers, more metal piping and working pistons.  As the party watched a huge three-legged steam-powered machine stepped heavily out into the frame of the portal, driven by a red-haired man.

In the doorway, the two thugs Rowan and Ellis now were free to move in.  Rowan with his chained hand swung out at Noel, clipping him in the head, making the explorer step back.  Ellis put his crowbar to use against Bruce who blocked the attack with his own equally heavy bar.

Outside, Rain was almost back at the front door of the warehouse.  He reached out his hand to grab the open door when wandering around the corner, the hulking shape of Theo flanked by four goons came full into view.  Theo saw Rain at the same time, and Rain sighed, “I’m sorry we don’t have time for you at the moment.  If you could come back in half an hour and we can compare schedules.” And taking firm hold of the door he slammed it shut and locking it,

Peggy, Theo and four goons at the front door, I think we need that escape plan.

“Theo’s out front, Rain’s ready to get out.” Peggy let the group at the back door know what was waiting at the other end of the warehouse.

“This is getting better, we just have to get out of their way,” Algernon said this time glancing at Lightfeather.  Bruce followed his glance and for the first time since the ruins allowed himself to contemplate the cold-blooded dispatching of their dangerous enemy.  A clang of heavy metal and the crunch of broken masonery refocused his thought back to the door where the walking machine was breaking down the wall between its recursion and Celephais.  There was no time left.

“Okay, grab your stuff, time to go!” He said, positioning himself to protect the retreating group back to the trapdoor.

WHAMP!  The front door slammed open as Theo kicked it aside and his goons rushed the front door.  At the backdoor, Peggy launched another Plasma arc striking Rowan through his wrapped chain.  Rain sprinted across the warehouse ready to leave and saw Bruce glance back at Lightfeather once more, a look of deep agitation clear on his face. 

“Bruce!” Rain called across the warehouse, gaining his friends attention, “Let him go.  We beat him once, we can do it again.” He watched as some unseen weight lifted off his friend’s shoulders and the expression cleared to one of determination. Bruce gave a nod and turned back to the thugs at the back door and Rain continued his scramble to the trapdoor, opening it ready to receive the party.

At the back door, Ellis and his crowbar and Rowan with his chain were also deflected by Bruce and Peggy respectively.  Two goons from the front door made a beeline for Lightfeather, a third reached Maximillian and pulling out a wicked blade. It missed Maximillian, barely, as the blade struck the metal barrel of his blunderbuss.  Noel moved in beside his companion, falchion against the heavy knife.  The goon was no slouch and parried away the bigger blade adding to the clanging from the machine outside.  

Algernon alone had plans of attack.  As Theo’s goons reached Lighfeather’s side, he quickly levitated their leader and with a flick of a free hand sent him flying across the warehouse and through the back door landing just in front of the steam walking machine. The goons chased after their fallen leader but could not hope to cover the distance before he was crushed under the machine’s heavy foot.  With a cool glee simmering to frustration, Algernon watched as the next foot rose, moved forward…and stopped.  A clawed hand, more used to moving boilers than picking up people, descended and encased the fallen Lightfeather.  With a look of triumph, the redheaded driver of the walking machine gently curled the claw around the unconscious Lightfeather and started turning his machine around, his prize secured.

Peggy and Bruce were both free, but Maximillian and Noel were still fighting enemies on both sides.  Lightfeather’s surprise disappearance meant Theo and his goons ran through the battle at the back door. They eyed Algernon suspiciously as they went past and would not have stopped if Rowan and his chain had not lashed out at Theo trying to trip him up.  Ellis, in support of his fellow English thug, clothelined another goon running behind with his crowbar and the fight between the two invaders was joined.

Maximilian and Noel broke free of the fighting and ran for the trapdoor, Bruce covering their flank.  

“Bruce, go, “ Rain gestured to the hole in the floor as Bruce stopped to protest, “I’m going to make it look like an explosion went off, sealing the passage.  Go!”

Without an argument, Bruce dropped down the hole with Rain following soon after.  Seconds later, the sound of a  huge explosion rocked the warehouse, for a moment all fighting was forgotten as it seemed the two offices,  furniture, walls and floor rose into the air and collapsed over the trapdoor, sealing off the passage.  The illusion lasted only a minute, but by that time, the fight had moved elsewhere and the party was long gone.

Sometime later, an out of breath Maximillian gestured for a break and everyone crouched in the tunnel. Ahead the quiet echoes of an underground market filtered through. Here was their last chance to plan in private before moving back out into public.

“I like what you did with the explosion, collapsing the roof on the tunnel like that.”  Algernon effused to Rain.

“Go out with a bang, as they say.” Rain smiled weakly back, “but it won’t last, it just buys us a little time.  Unlike that move with Lightfeather.  I know it didn’t come off as you wanted, thankfully, but getting the two groups together was strategically very clever.  I was impressed.”

Algernon straightened under the compliment, though noted the tone of disapproval for trying to make Lightfeather jam.

Bruce and Peggy were in discussions with Noel and Maximillain about where to go next.  First stop was a safe place to translate from.  Back to the bathhouse, the famous temple in town or somewhere else?  Noel, it seemed, had another place in mind that was less public than the other two suggestions.  Next was the problem of where to translate to next, and here there was a disagreement.

“You could come back with us to Seattle.” Bruce suggested, knowing the problems with just ‘inviting visitors’ into The Estate, but keeping them to himself for now.

“We really must report back, “Maximillian said adamantly, “Things are heating up and our superior need to know.”

“So do ours,” Bruce thought, “but…what if we came back with you to the Geographic Society first?”  This suggestion was not received as well as the first.  

Maximilian and Noel looked at each other, “Well…we think that may raise a few eyebrows amongst the more senior staff…” Noel confessed.
“Oh, it may raise a few eyebrows, oh we wouldn’t want that!”  The comment only fired up Peggy’s thin skin when it came to Noel and his seeming indifference, “Well who needs you then?! Go on, fly back to your comfy libraries and just forget we ever existed, again!”

The commotion drew Algernon and Rain into the discussion.  When it was clear that Maximillian and Noel wanted to break from the party, Rain interrupted.

“Gentleman, this is not an Estate issue or a Society issue but a global one.  I think we’ve seen that both our respective issues are intertwined, we can’t work in isolation any longer. We have  to work together. ”

Maximilian and Noel didn’t say a word, just looked at  each other for a moment where an agreement was made.  

“I have a small place we can take you.”  Maximilian finally said to the group, “Not the IGS mind, but somewhere safe where you can rest and we can get in touch with our superiors on what to do next.” 

Nods all round, except from Peggy.  

They quickly moved through the souq to a room that looked like it was set aside for pray at other times, but right now was empty.  Maximilian lead the translation away from the sun and dust of Celephais to the dank, fog filled air of London, but no London that Rain knew.  

The room they found themselves in was a middle class 19th century apartment, complete with gas lamps, heavily sashed windows and leather, though worn and cracked, furniture.  As soon as the vertigo of translation had subsided, Rain walked to the window and saw a cobbled alleyway leading to a busy London street filled with people, hansom cabs and delivery carts.  The air was thick with coal soot and the smell of animals and people living in close proximity.  The sky was a yellow-grey, the unique colour of industrial smog mixing with the natural fog off the Thames.  A real pea-souper was rolling in. Recognising and feeling completely alien to all about him, Rain said nothing but stalked off to find a bathroom down the hall.

Peggy as silently as Rain, headed straight for a four poster bed set at one end of the apartment, only stopping to pull off her Doc Martens as she went.

Bruce shook of the last of the translation, “Right, we all sorely in need of rest. Us men will take the chairs and floor while Peggy can have the bed.” He looked around and discovered that no one had heard a word he’d said, “Right then…good.”

“Now as mentioned we need to get in touch with our superiors,” Maximilian informed Algernon and Bruce, “In the meantime, rest up here and we should be back in a few hours.”

The boys made themselves comfortable and were aware of how their clothes had morphed in the new recursion.  Algernon had on a black suit with short waist-length coat, a black top hat and cane that marked him out as a public school boy, and someone of status, if not class.  Bruce on the other hand was dressed in a straight thigh length leather coat,  heavy cotton clothing, checkered cloth cap and tartan scarf.  He ran his fingers through hair far longer than he’d normally allow, with muttonchop sideburns that he couldn’t help stratching.  After an hour, Rain returned clean, well pressed in an appropriate morning suit, white flower in his buttonhole, and a moustache, neat tidy and thoroughly respectable.  Having surveyed the room and his companions, he flopped down into a squeaky springed leather chair and fell asleep.

The party dozed as best they could after the day’s excitement and were soon awoken a little more refreshed by a knock at the door.  Standing outside to be let in was an imposing middle aged gentleman bundled up against the dank chill air outside.  Flanking him was Noel and Maximillian looking subdued and silent.  The gentleman walked in stripping off his heavy coat, throwing it and his top hat and cane onto the bed. They woke Peggy with a start.  Without a word she climbed out of bed and joined the others in the lounge, now dressed in a tartan walking suit, tailored, tasteful and very respectable.  Her hair though, was its normal curly mess.

“My name is Sir Raymond Creswick, I am Quartermaster for the Implausible Geographic Society.  I understand you are with The Estate.” The gentleman announced to the room as if he were speaking to a much larger group.  His voice was deep with an authoritative rasp that spoke of a man who was not used to having to raise his voice to be heard.  His tone was clipped and to the point, with a hint of distain at the phrase, “The Estate.”  

“They pay.” Rain replied, not sure if he wanted to be known as anyone’s man.  Bruce glowered at him, their disagreements of old showing.  Sir Raymond didn’t seem to care either way and continued.

“I hear you have stumbled onto the same investigation as Maximillian and Mr Hagan.” It wasn’t said as a question and Rain didn’t see a need to reply to it as such.

“We find we are investigating the same thing…from the other direction.” He qualified confidently, making sure to catch and keep the eye of Sir Raymond.

“Indeed.” Sir Raymond returned the look with interest, “What can you tell me about The Estate?”

“The same as you can tell us about the Geographic Society, Sir Raymond,” Rain relaxed a little feeling comfortable with the polite banter so close to that he’d grown up with, “But that doesn’t mean we can work together on this issue.”

Sir Raymond’s mouth twitched into something that could have been a smile and barked a sound that in some other face could have been a laugh.

“Very well then, “ Sir Raymond rocked back once on his heals spoke, “As you know we have been following James Moriarty and his crime syndicate’s trade in Bywandine for sometime.   We always knew there were other groups, but had no evidence to tell us who they were or where they worked from. From a string of clues uncovered by us led us fortunately to finding Mr Hagan here, “ He gestured to Noel who was standing uncomfortably to one side, “Unfortunately, the criminals destroyed all the evidence before we got a chance to investigate for ourselves.”

“What?”  Peggy said standing at the news, breaking the silence that Sir Raymond had commanded, “you mean the dig site…the temple…?”

“It was deliberate.” Rain said quietly as Sir Raymond continued and as she sunk back into her chair, “We’re lucky you weren’t killed.”

“Bywandine, “ Sir Raymond said as if he hadn’t been interrupted, “ Of course a herb native to the Dreamland laced with opium creating very vivid dreams.  Recently, the trade has extended to that of white slave trade as a new additive has  the effect of capturing users for unknown purposes.”

“Excuse me sir, “Peggy took to the floor again and Sir Raymond had no alternative but to allow her to speak, “As mentioned we came to Bywandine through unusual means and have not had a chance to do any experimentation comparing Bywandine and Spiral Dust.  We know they have similar effects, though from our human trials, “ She gestured to Rain who found himself working hard to keep a neutral expression, “Spiral dust  users seem to have little or no control over where they go, in comparison to the Dreamwalkers of Bywandine.”

“If you can provide laboratory space I would like to see if the two have anything in common.”

Slowly Sir Raymond breathed in, assessing the young woman in front of him. He turned to Noel, not taking his eyes off Peggy who looked like she was presenting a thesis to a funding body, “This is the Doctor Martin you spoke of when you first came to us?”

Noel nodded, “Yes, Sir Raymond.”

“I think that could be arranged, “ Sir Raymond said now turning to Maximillian, “Could you accompany the young lady.”  Again, it wasn’t a question but a command and Maximillian quickly complied.

Now Rain stood and held the floor.  He filled in their side of the investigation into Spiral dust, how it had led them to a distribution network that was spread all over the world and seemed all to flow through Crows Hollow.

“We know of two groups out of Crows Hollow for certain, the Droods and the Cornaro families.  There’s a  possibly third depending where Elvin Lightfeather’s loyalies lie, what dubious information we have says he’s in the Drood camp.”

“I can confirm that information. We know about Crows Hollow and its mafia-style crime syndicates, but you are saying they are involved in both Bywandine and Spiral Dust trades?”

“Indeed.  For certain the Droods are.”  Rain, as was his habit, fell into the speaking style of the culture he found himself in, “As far as our information goes, the Cornaro are involved only in Spiral Dust, but their’s was the most extensive of networks we’ve seen so far.”

There was a pause as Sir Raymond digested the information.  Algernon, stood and moved up beside him.

“Sir, I have to tell you I have been very impressed with your operatives in the field.” He said to the bemusement of Sir Raymond.


“Yes, especially Maximillian.  He has been very helpful in understanding the Society and your investigation.”


“Yes sir, in fact I was wondering how one would go about joining the society?”

Sir Raymond turned to take in the young man in front of him, his voice low and cool, “You don’t think that’s a conflict of interest?”

“Not in my mind.” Algernon replied innocently and Rain had to agree.

Sir Raymond drew himself up to his full height, not as tall as Bruce but well above both Algernon and Rain, “Membership to the IGS is strictly by invitation only.”

Several hours later, Peggy returned alone and with the results of her experimentation.

“Bywandine is a plant derivative with active ingredients that affect users as they dream by connecting them to the Strange, but it seems only to Dreamland.  Spiral dust is still…unknown origin with a completely different active ingredient. On the surface it seems to have a similar effect but does not connect them to Dreamland just The Strange.  They are completely unrelated.” She informed the group with a look of defeat about her, “We still have two complete sources so I guess it makes sense that we continue to investigate Spiral Dust while the Geographic society follows Bywandine.”

“Well, thank you doctor, I think that was a worthy task, “Sir Raymond straightened seemingly pleased with Peggy’s conclusion, “I concur with your reasoning, the Society will continue to follow the Bywandine and The Estate can follow your Spiral Dust lines of investigation.”  …and neither the two shall meet… his face said as Sir Raymond gave a short bow, placed his top hat on his head and made for the door, “Mr Hagan?”

Giving the party one last look, Noel walked past on his way to the door, Peggy grabbed his arm.

“Meet me at Berkley…at the University Cafe…a week from today.”  She said fervently before quickly turning away.

Now alone and still exhausted from two running battles back to back, the party settled down for a full rest as the city bustles around them unheeded.

The next morning, Algernon and Rain were sufficiently rested to now desire the next two basic needs after shelter and security, coffee and bacon.

“Do they have bacon in London?” Algernon asked as he followed Rain down through the apartment building to the street where Rain was already hailing a hansom.

“Do they?  My dear, Bacon is the staple of a standard English breakfast and for the young man on the go there is the sacred bacon-buttie, British cuisine at its finest.” Rain extolled  catching the eye of a cab driver who turned his horse’s head to the curb.

“I think I like this place.” Algernon jumped into the cab and Rain asked to be driven to the best nearest coffee house.

“Yes, to a young man with a little ready cash, such as ourselves, there are few better places to be than Victorian London.”

“A second home.”

The two of them spent the morning at Verrey’s Coffee house on the corner of Hanover and Regent streets eating one of the greasiest most delicious fry-ups of egg, sausage, bacon,  bubble and squeak with coffee.  Rain sent a young runner to enquire about Thermos flasks so to take coffee back for Bruce and Peggy and was told by the same young boy that such a thing couldn’t be had.   

Fuller and feeling more themselves, they returned to the apartment and for the planning of what to do next.

“Moriarty’s London?”

“Not much reason to go now,” Peggy said sitting on the bed, “Moriarty is not selling Spiral Dust.  But, the taking of Lightfeather by his thugs was interesting, I wonder what he wants with him?”

“How about Crows Hollow? “ Rain retrieved the coin they found on Theo that had been identified by Peggy as a key.

“I’m scared stiff of going to Crow’s Hollow,” Algernon confessed clutching his bony elbows as he perched in one of the leather chairs.

“Yeah? I’m looking forward to seeing what I look like as a crow.”  Rain replied, leaning on Algernon’s chair.

“Remember, they won’t be all Lightfeathers and Theos.”  Bruce added when Algernon looked unconvinced by Rain’s spin, “ We’ve been unlucky in meeting some of their highly skilled fighters, most of the community will not be so skilled.  Still, there’s a lot to be said for just going back to The Estate first, checking in, find out what news they have before making a decision.”

“Yes, I do want to do a little research at the archive.” Rain looked meaningfully at Algernon who didn’t know if it would be good or bad.

In the end, with no clear cut destination in mind, the group formed a circle and once more translated back to Earth and Peggy’s lab at The Estate.  On first arriving , Rain tried making his mini sun to no avail, that ability was tied to Dreamland and not available in mundane Earth. Without a word he followed Bruce and the other to Katherine Manner’s office and waited for a  moment to report.  Though technically, Lawrence Keaton was Rain’s and Algernon’s direct supervisor, reporting to him always seemed at the least a waste of time at the worst a waste of breath.  Instead they filled Katherine in on all their investigations and trips through recursions. She had nothing new to offer in the way of information, but she was interested in being a sounding board for their next plans.

“And how confident do you feel about going to Crow’s Hollow?” She asked when the location was brought up.

“We need to know. Everything at the moment is leading to Crow’s Hollow, the Droods and the Cornaros.  They are the only ones dealing in Sprial Dust and have an extensive network already in place.”  Rain said, adamant that now was the best direction.

“That’s a thought, what is the importance of that arrangement of dealers all over the world?” Peggy mused outloud  as she put the question to The Strange itself.  A one word reply run through her mind.

“Resonance?… Oh god…”

“The Earth is a giant becon?” Bruce articulated, “By who and for what purpose?”

Rain said nothing, just watched as Algernon expression grew grim and pale.

“Well, I don’t know about you, but young Algernon and I have an appointment with the Archives.” He said, springing from his seat and turning to Algernon.  Without a word Algernon followed and the two made their way to the library.  There Rain instructed Algernon to identify everything he studied on the creatures of The Strange.  Then Rain asked the Archivist for a list of all the materials Algernon had requested on The Strange and compare the two lists. 

Peggy also excused herself and went back to her lab to “blow stuff up”, her way of letting off steam. When she arrived Hertzfeld was excited to demonstrate his latest developments in the phasing glove.  No longer just a glove, but half a suit (two arms and a lower body) that could phase through a solid surface and bring things back through.

“I’m thinking that the technology could be expanded to a vehicle that could be driven through solid objects, but that’s still a long way off as the energy requirements are far too high.”  Hertzfeld explained happily.

 This left Bruce alone with Katherine.

“You look like you have something to say, Bruce, “She said after Bruce ensured they were alone and closed the office door, “ Something you don’t want the others to hear?”

Bruce looked at his hands for a long moment, collecting his thoughts before finally speaking, “What are we when we go to those other places? What do we become when we’re there?”  

“It’s all theoretical mind, “ She replied coolly, leaning back in her chair to remember the gist of many long lectures from the senior scientific staff, “But when we appear in a recursion it’s in new bodies made by the recursion,  suitable and reflecting the nature of the place as well as your own nature.”

“My own nature…” Bruce seemed to take no comfort from that statement, in fact his expression darkened to that of deep concern.

“What is it that’s worrying you, Bruce?”
“In Halloween, one of the smaller recursions, it seemed….it felt like I was being…taken over.”

Katherine nodded and when it was clear Bruce wouldn’t articulate it further, she replied, “Yes, sometimes the recursions have a way of…amplifying parts of your…personality.  Usually it’s for the best, we discover parts of ourselves that go beyond what we thought was possible…then sometimes…”

“Well, this one was a real self-righteous bastard.” Bruce added with a smirk, then grew serious again, “It didn’t feel like me.”

“That would have been disturbing, “ She acknowledged, coming around from her behind her desk and took one of the empty seats beside Bruce, “If you ever find yourself in that situation again I want you to remember two things.  Firstly, it is only temporary, no matter how uncomfortable or disturbing. As soon as you leave that recursion, that identity will also be left behind.  Secondly, here at The Estate we will always try to send you out to new recursions as part of a team. Though the recursion is completely alien, you will not be alone.”

Bruce sat still staring at his two strong hands and nodded silently.  It wasn’t what he wanted to hear, he was the strong one, the one that could be relied on, was relied on.  To be the one in need of help disturbed him more than another change in personality.  Eventually he couldn’t think about the problem anymore and just changed the subject.

“So, if we’re going to Crow’s Hollow, can I put in that request for heavy armour?”  

Katherine nodded more annimatedly than was required and returned to her desk, “Yes, I believe that this time you are right.” And she pulled out a requisition form and filled it out.

Back at the library, discoveries were being made.  Rain was scanning documents while fiddling idlely with his puzzlebox.  He’d just come across a group of reports and stories on creatures of The Strange that were so massive that they literally ate recursions.  Naturally, called plantvoires very little was known about them, but their presence in The Strange was without question.  He turned the small wad of documents over to Algernon sitting beside him.

“Why didn’t you ever mention these before? When Peggy was talking about creatures of the Strange that coud be linked to the Spiral Dust? Or when I asked you if there were others in The Strange we could talk to?”  

“What…?” Algernon said just as Rain’s puzzlebox, uncharacteristically tumbled from his fingers. 

“What…?” Rain said at the same moment as Algernon. Snatching the box out of the air before it fell to the ground, but not before the last compartment opened revealing a card.

Rain stared in shocked silence as the seconds ticked by, first at the open compartment and then at the card and what it said.

“But, that’s….that’s…how??”  He stammered, words all of a sudden becoming stumbling blocks.

“Maybe the old man that gave you the box put it there.”  Algernon suggested remembering the story Rain had told them of his first Christmas in England.   

Rain shook his head in disbelief, “I …don’t think so, he…had never made it past the first compartment…I’m also certain.”   Though Rain was anything but certain. It had been a long time ago, could he be so sure of old Mr Joseph’s true intentions as a seven year old?  He read through the card again three more times before he leapt to his feet as if electrcuted and scrambled for his phone.

“Bruce, where is Bruce?”

Bruce was just leaving Katherine’s office when his phone started buzzing with a call.  Before he could unlock the phone the person hung up and a message came through, and another, and a third.  Bruce read the first.

Where are you? From Rain’s phone.  Before he could reply to the message, the phone rang again, this time he was ready.

“Rain, what? I’m just leaving…”
“Where are you… I have to show you…I have a…no wait, where are you??”
“As I said, I’m on my way to the dorms…”
“Okay, okay, okay… don’t go anywhere.” And Rain hung up.  

Bruce was used to Rain’s excitable nature, but he was also used to the conman being able to put a sentence together.  Bruce quickened his step, sure whatever it was, would be big.

They made it to the dorms at about the same time, which was no mean feat as the Administration block was only one building up from the dormitories, and the library was right across the otherside of campus.  

Without a word, which was appropriate as both Rain and Algernon were breathing heavily, Rain thrust his puzzle box into Bruce’s hand.  He’d only ever handled the box once before, out in the wastelands of that first recursion. Now he could see that its arrangement had changed, a new compartment was open  and inside a small card.

“Tobias, “He read out loud, “The Found Gentlemen would like to meet you.  Enquire Within.  Oh!”

“Yes!” Rain said and seemed to be waiting for something more.

“This is new?”


Bruce handed back the box, “And this had been in your puzzlebox all along?”

“Yes….maybe….I don’t know….” Rain dithered

“Enquire within. Does that mean it’s a key?”

Rain’s thought visibly shifted from the course that had brought him to find Bruce to what had just been said, “Key?  Algernon?”  Rain turned on Algernon now handing him the box to examine.

“Ur…Peggy would be better at telling than me.”

“Peggy!”  Rain said and ran back out the door, the puzzlebox clutched in two hands.

Keeping up with Rain’s frantic pace they made it to Peggy’s lab door.  The red light was spinning in it’s casing signifying that potentially dangerous experiments were underway.  Bruce knocked on the door, Rain walked straight in.

“What is it now, didn’t you see the light?” She asked as Rain ran straight up to her, his puzzlebox open.

“Is it a key?” He panted handing her the box.  She examined the box, allowing her normal sight to go out of focus so she could more clearly see the aura coming from it.

“As I’ve noted before, there is something of the Strange about this box but nothing very extraordinary,” She looked at the card and nodded, “The card on the other hand is no doubt a key.  Whose Tobias?”

This single question to stun Rain back to sense who stepped back. It allowing him a moment to gain control once more, “Me!  At least I was known as Tobias when I received this box.  I told you in the ghoul camp.”

Peggy had still been deeply disturbed by events in the ruins of Sarkomand when the party stayed the night with the ghoul.  It was then that Rain had shared the story of his box and the name he had used for much of his life.  Taking a deep breath to calm his thought, Rain gave Peggy a summary of that story.

“Well, then it seems to me that the old man must have put that card there for you.”

“Possibly…”  He was coming around to the fact that possibly the kindly old man had been more than what he seemed.

“Well naturally, the box was only a test, a way of finding those worthy to join.”  Algernon added his theory.

“When I was seven?  How would he have known?  It wasn’t just for anyone, it had my name on it.”
“Maybe it’s not always been there, maybe it’s only been there recently.”

“For…now?” Rain tried to make sense of the Algernon’s thought processes, “But it has a name on it I haven’t been able to use in more than ten years.”

“Oh yeah…”

“Who are the Lost Gentlemen?” Peggy asked pointing to the card.  Suddenly Rain remembered why he’d wanted Bruce in the first place.

“Bruce, it links to Bruce?”  He swung around to a confused Bruce,

“Does it?”

“That’s why I showed you?!” Rain almost cried in frustration, “It was the group the military man was joining.  The one who sold your father’s journal!”

Now Algernon and Peggy were confused.  Though they vaguely remembered Bruce buying a book in Celephais, he’d never mentioned that it was his Father’s journal.  It was now Bruce’s turn to give them a summary of what he knew about the journal, the man who sold it and where it had come from.

“But that’s a personal thing, I don’t think it or Railsea have much to do with where we’re heading next.”

“Are you so sure?”Algernon said thinking, “What are the odds of you finding that book in Dreamland?  Actually, I could probably work that out, do you want to see the figures?”

“Exactly!”  Rain interrupted, “Just what I’ve said from the beginning.  We’ve been told from the beginning that the gifted are rare, and yet here we are, some of the most powerful beings I’ve ever seen right here in this room, thrown together on a rainy night off a highway outside New Orleans.”

“I know that something brought us together, “ Bruce stood pacing the floor, “I”m not a good church man, but there is a god and he’s in control.” Now he turned to Rain, “If something is guiding us, take one of those crow coins and flip it.  Let it decide where we go next.”

A shadow flickered over Rain’s face for a moment, but quickly past as he made a heavy gold coin appear and danced it across his fingers.

“Sure,” Was all he said as he flipped it high into the air, the gold claw motif once more catching the light as it spun and flipped.

To be continued…