At The Mountains Of Cuteness Being a H.P.Lushcraft tale, transcribed and edited by Simon Barber.

It is not without great hesitation that I break my self-imposed vow of silence, and put before the world at last the true facts, as far as I witnessed them, of the Grimslaithe-Nakajawa Expedition of '34, from which I alone returned. And it was not wholly ficticious, the loss of memory which I claimed before the investigating team and the relatives of those who had left the English shores with me three months before ... a fractured skull was my own souvenir, and it was long before more than hazy outlines of those final hours returned to mind. Even now, I would keep my silence, preferring to forget forever what I now recall with such hideous clarity. But from Asgarth University there are solid plans being made for another expedition ...... and they will be heading into the same peril, if they follow our route. To their leaders, I beg publicly, avoid those deadly waters, if you value your souls and your sanity ... for lives are the very least of what stand to be lost, if you enter there ! But I must start at the beginning, with the facts and events that can be proven, if I hope to convince those brave, foolish explorers. There was a time when I was as brave myself, before my nerve went, and as for foolish - I was not merely ignorant, but worse, I closed my eyes to events I should have noted, and refused to draw conclusions that might have saved my sanity and my companions' lives. It all seems so long ago, now - but the calendar counts only sixteen months before any of it began. My snout was free of any trace of white fur, back then. It was a telephone call that began it for me, as I returned home late one evening. I had been working late at the University, in the final days of my postgraduate course in Practical and Applied Theology. There was just one interview to write up, and a dozen e-prayers still to be sent off in thanks, and the final draft would be complete. "Glad I could catch you at last, me old hound !" I recognized the booming tones of Huddesworth Senior, one of my class who had also stayed on, though in the PseudoScience department. "Got a vacancy coming up, I thought you might be interested. Professor Grimslaithe's little boating trip out West, seafloor surveys for a couple of months. They've had a couple of folk drop out at the last minute - are you in ?" My eyes fell on the calendar, with two dates underlined in red. The next week, when my final paper had to be in - and the end of the month, when my grant funding ran out. One of those dates I could face without worries, but the other "Count me in," I nodded to the phone, my tail thrashing happily. "I'll be round first thing tomorrow with my toothbrush packed!" Of course, things took rather longer than that. Huddesworth had thought of me for the crew due to my handiness with improvised machinery - the previous year I had won the Heath Robinson Scholarship by building the most eye-catching, nitro-burning dragster unicycle to ever pull twelve "g" straight off the start line. Persuading the actual organisers that they wanted me, was another matter, and it was the day after my last paper was handed in that I was accepted, and learned exactly what I had volunteered for. "Undersea mapping," I blinked as I stood on the harbour of Asgarth town,looking through the expedition plans with Mr. Grike, from the Vague Engineering department. "But ... surely that's all been done ?

Both ways, from the top down and the native maps upward." I nodded greetings to Cth'Rhy'Gac Junior, as the handsomely squamous philosophy professor climbed out of the harbour. A world-renowned leader in his area, he was never out of his depth. A deep one, certainly. "Aha..." Mr. Grike tapped his own tusked boar-snout, turning to wave at his icthyitic colleague. "That depends. Most of the basic work that surface-dwellers could do, certainly was finished before the Milennium, and then of course after that we had access to first-hand accounts. But - there's a few parts that .... weren't ON the sea floor then." He opened up the chart to show where he meant, and I winced. Not long after the Milennium, following the newly discovered Cup-Handle Principle of geological instability, various "Sticking-out bits" of the continents had broken off and fallen into the ocean. For a few seconds we both stood there by the harbour wall, somehow feeling slightly chilled despite the Spring sunshine. All around us, was the normal routine of the town and harbour, peaceful right out to sea where a heavy swell showed something huge was undulating just beneath the surface. A mile-long tentacle waved cheerfully on the horizon, and the feeling passed. The boar coughed. "Actually, we've been asked to investigate the whole area - here." He pointed on the map. "It seems there's still a lot of geological activity, with some very strange sea-mounts reported from a distance. The local .... government want us to map it out thoroughly before any of them swim over and take a look. Surface-dwellers only on the active team." I nodded, a little relieved. It made perfect sense - in the general run of events, none of the expedition members would expect to see their fourteenth decade - I knew, as we all did, how much more in terms of centuries Cth'Rhy'Gac Junior and his relatives stood to lose if a dangerous expedition went wrong. (The University had needed to introduce a new category of "Mature Student", to cope with those who were only 2 percent into their expected life-spans, but still could lecture on most of recorded history as seen first-hand.) "So, we're going for a bit of underwater sight-seeing ? " I looked at the expedition outline, and my ears raised in surprise. "It's scheduled to experiment with using ice-dam techniques, in the open ocean ? I've heard of that ... freezing a caisson of ice all the way to the ocean floor and pumping the water out .... that'll need a hell of a ship to provide that much refrigerating power !" Clint Grike's rock-solid features split in a stony grin. "Won't it just. One hell of a ship." It was Barnstoneworth who filled me in on the details, as we retired to the pub that evening, the Eurocrat's Head. The tavern was old, comfortably so .... I noticed three of the Historical Architecture students in the corner, textbooks out, arguing over the date of a wellpreserved leatherette coffee-bar. All around us was history, some of it dating back to the fabled 1960's era ... rumour had it that a band of ghouls exploring deep in the sub-basement had once come across a real aluminium barrel for pressurising ale. I looked around the room, drinking in the familiar sights - the upper floor was new, having been gutted in a firefight with armoured assault units of the Salvation Army just before the Liberation ten years ago - but down here, things looked much as they had done for merrily Eldritch centuries. "Cheers ! Eh, but it'll be good to see the sights a bit." The great bristling badger set two brimming pint tankards down. "I've been here ten years, like, time for a change. And ..." he looked around,

taking in the memento-packed room, the air rich with hops and the sharp scents as pints of absinthe were poured out, " it's a bit o' history that'll be taking us out there, an' all. A Macro-ship, that's what we've found, left ower from the War .... enough of it left to salvage, for what we want." I almost choked on my ale. "A Macro-Ship ? There's one survived in one piece ... and they just let us Have it ? HOW ?" For I had only once seen one, the size of a small town on tracks, far off on the horizon in the final days of the EC Liberation, heading south towards the nightmare land that our ancestors had shudderingly called Belgium. He chuckled, his sharp teeth gleaming. "For this trip, like, you might say we've got friends of Influence, who want to see it go smoothly. Friends in high places, 'cept they're down there at the five tonnes per square inch level, like. And .... you might say, it needs a little ... work on it, to get it going." How much work, and the scale of the problem in every sense, I found out the next weekend. There were twenty or so of us on the quayside, looking out into the rain-swept drizzle that faded into grey evening out to the East, where we strained our eyes every few minutes. Suddenly one of the engineers, a white cat in a fluorescent yellow boiler-suit that would probably show up from orbit, pulled off his pocket stereo and grinned around at us, whiskers twitching. "Got a neutrino detector patched into the left channel," he tapped the pocket-sized box smugly. "Someone's running a reactor out there, or I'm an ape-descendant. Take a listen." The box was passed around us eagerly, and we had to agree. The Bulky Disc was still running in one ear, one of the "neo Prog-Rock" albums that modern digital recordings have made so popular, allowing the bands to explore musical frontiers involving eleven-hour guitar or even drum solos. But in the other ear, there was a slow, random ticking as ultimately tiny particles passed through the world's mass unhindered till they met the "Virtual V " of the detector's force-field. Swinging the set, I stared out with the rest of us to the rolling fogbanks of the North Sea, where something was definitely fissioning its way towards us. Half an hour later, our thoughts of damp fur and freezing paws were forgotten. The wind had sprung up in sudden squalls, just as the last of the light touched the moors and altar-stones high above Asgarth town behind us. And there, suddenly churning through the grey waters towards us, was a quarter of a million tonnes of sentient armoured fighting vehicle, its wrap-round tracks each the width of an autobahn, driving straight out of the pages of History and onto our dockside ! There was a massed sigh, and night-vision glasses were raised as more of it came out of the cloaking fogbank, its grey-black armoured bulk blending into the darkening horizon. And then someone coughed nervously, and passed the glasses around. From the first we had seen of it, I had thought there was something .. strange about it, apart from the tracks rotating in the "wrong" direction, slowing it for a docking rather than an overrun attack on Asgarth. I saw the cat in the yellow suit wince, as he stared out at our class project. He handed me the glasses, and I could read the name "Eckingthwaite" on his nametag. "It's something like a Class Twenty-Six, as far as I can tell," he murmured. "At least... it might have been, before someone was .... Unkind to it." The next morning, I stood aboard our new home as it lay aground

at low tide, still three hundred metres offshore. This was the last surviving fragment of "I" deck, four turrets leaning out over the deeply scarred glacis plate that sloped down into the choppy Spring waters some eighty metres below. "Not a lot left of the upperworks." Clem Eckingthwaite, the feline I had met the day before, carefully set up a laser theodolite. "There was J and K decks above where we're standing, as this was first built. But .... we're not sure what happened to them. In fact, we're not sure about any of this ship .... no documentation, and .... it looks .... all wrong. It's one of ours, a macro-ship, but .. the style." I nodded, for I had surveyed the rear decks, and found traces of Dimensional Shearing. This vessel had been fought to a standstill in the war against the EC, as its huge scars still showed. Thousands of tonnes of mass were .... missing, in no sane pattern : evidently it had been caught by a near-miss from a Psychotronic Bomb. I voiced my suspicions, and Clem's ears drooped. "I ... can't see how it would have survived at all, a target this size. Not unless - unless it'd been in action right at the end, when we'd overrun most of their Summoning sites ... by then, they had to fire from the far side of the territory they'd got left. Did you ever see one of those ? I did. Or, I saw what was left of it ... the energy release takes a sort of arc outside Space, a bit like a hyperspatial mortar. Shorten the range, and eventually you're pointing the thing almost straight up .. one miscalculation, and it drops down the back of your neck." There was a silence between us, though in the background I could hear a portable set tuned to Radio Liechtenstein's most popular wavelength - no adverts, no Disc Jockeys, just good honest Yodelling twenty-four hours a day, Every day. Clem's ears picked up a little at the refreshing sound, and his expression was more puzzled than horror-struck. "That explains the back hull.... all the turrets must have been blown apart like a street-mime. But ... I've studied these vessels, and ..... I can't quite put my paw on it, but.... " he shook his head worriedly. "There's something very Different about this one." For eight weeks we laboured, exploring and renovating. Fortunately, all macro-ships has been designed to carry on despite massive damage: far from "restoring" it, half our work was more like peeling off layers, onion-fashion, till we reached the less damaged core. Three trips we made to the Dogger Bank in the middle of the North Sea, to dump the larger pieces we had stripped off onto the artificial reef the fisheries trade were building. "Only thing you can do with it, really..." it was Clint Grike who spoke, as we watched the three-hundred tonne slab that had roofed H deck's #23 turret, vanish with a huge splash into the cold grey waters. "At least, it's non-polluting ... just processed igneous rock, don't you know, laser-fused. These ships pretty much build themselves.... get the first reactors and the Helm up and running, and all you need to do is point it at a mountain you can do without. No way could you spare the resources to make something this size out of metal." "The Helm ?" I queried "I've heard the other folk saying they couldn't find it anywhere. What is it - some kind of computer ?" He sat down, the spray glittering like jewels in his fur as he looked out over the flat expanse of ersatz volcanic glass that would be our final roof, "G" deck being the first truly repairable level we had found. The boar stared moodily at the tracked engineering vehicles in

the far distance, and waved for me to join him. "Maybe I'm starting to romanticise things in my old age," he looked out into the hungry waves. "But .... these vessels aren't like any other machines. The size and complexity of its control systems and processors ... everything having to be routed in triplicate and quadruplicate, no single vital spot on the whole ship....." He broke off, and looked at me strangely. "When they built the first of these, they found out what you get if you link enough autonomous, intelligent units together, and program them to constantly reconfigure themselves, ready to take damage and carry on. The ship .... lives. Not in the way some folk had thought .. it's not the sort of intelligence you can hold a conversation with. But it lives, like maybe a coral colony .. no, more like a city, an old city that grew up to suit itself. The Helm was the main control device ..... that's what we can't find. Oh, we can control it - if you mean steering it around the place, that's been done. Somebody's been here before us, and ... put in overrides, we can patch into those. Funny, the way they had to do that." He stared out over the chill grey waters, and would say no more. Another two weeks passed, fourteen days of hard labour, three shifts a day of the intricate work of getting the Macro-ship ready to face the Ocean. I recall little more than a blur of climbing through ductwork, tracing leads and setting endless patch panels to link the ancient, decade-old electronics with our own systems. At least the drive reactors had survived, or the task would have been hopeless ... though they were solid-state coolantless affairs, each one buried in a block of Asawa-Zarkov thermocouple compound, transforming the simple fission core's heat direct to electrical drive for the huge tracks and the water-jets that drove it afloat. They were on B deck, far below the waterline .... but what was below them on the very keel of the ship was sealed off, the access doors welded shut with ten-centimetre armour plate. Pressure gages assured us that any leaks would be inward, not out. "What's down there, had better stay there," Clem Eckingthwaite winced visibly when I queried him about it. "For what we need, the B deck groups will provide quite enough power ... what's down there on most designs is the weapons systems reactors." I must have blinked, for he looked at me pityingly. "Believe me, you don't want to be in there. That's not a nice clean solid-state system, or even a liquid-sodium design ... I'm cleared to work on those. On "A" deck they never had mortal crew, just the maintenance robots who were sealed in and left there ... there's several boilingpotassium reactors, hundreds of tonnes of pressurised liquid metal down there. It's all cold and solid right now ... I don't think there's anybody left who even knows how to re-start one of those things. For which we can be grateful." That night, I worked late, and missed the ferry hovercraft back into town. There would be an hour or so until it returned with the evening shift, and I found myself alone, with just the great echos ringing in the ship's corridors, a kilometre long, for company. Shouldering my toolkit, I followed the ancient tyre tracks down the long expanses of lonely metal. Once this vessel had hummed with life, with purpose ..... its thousand-strong crew and its almost-living onboard systems keyed to desperate pitch as it ground its way across the EC federation's frontier, so that mortal life might endure against that which the Eurocrats had summoned from pastel dimensions of fluffy

horror. I stood, in the middle of the corridor, and closed my eyes for a minute. There was the lonely sighing of wind through the hatchways, and in the far distance the cries of seabirds perched on the superstructure. The vessel seemed .... at peace, somehow, in the manner of an ancient crumbling fortress ... those of its crew who had died, had gone down in battle with their blood hot and their back-banners flying, and their spirits feasted forever at Odin's long hall. Very different indeed to many an area I had shudderingly hurried past on land, where the cordoned areas around sites of the EC's Political Correctness Enforcement Community Centres would be the psychic equivalent of cobalt-bomb craters for centuries to come. A wry smile came to my face, as I stopped to critically examine the new welding work on the electrical conduits and the fat, insulated liquid-air ducts that cooled the weapons systems. The pub I should be in right now on the bustling Quayside of Asgarth town, was known as the Eurocrat's Head for short .. but the full name on the licence read "Da Federalist Bastard Wiv 'Is Nut Ripped Orf An' A Gurt Bayonet Stuk Innit" - and according to Barnstoneworth (who had been in town just after the Liberation), the original inn sign had not been a Painting. "Well, Cheers, lad !" Toasted that very same badger, not ten days later, as we celebrated the ahead-of-schedule completion of our task. "All ready for sea, like ... just the supplies to finish loading, and we're off !" It was a wild, windy night outside the taproom of the Eurocrat's Head, where outside the bay we could see the riding-lights of The Good Ship Vengeance, as its rediscovered papers had named it. Enough power and control had been restored to get the town-sized battle machine ready - its solid-state reactors had years of working power left in them even now, and only the needs of its mortal crew remained to be filled. On the dockside, several hundred tonnes of frozen tripe, vindaloo paste and processed canned green mushy peas awaited calmer waters to be loaded aboard for the galley store rooms. I nodded, raising my mug of ale. "To the Vengeance .. swords turned into ploughshares .. or in our case, excavation trowels." We raised our glasses and drank, our tails swishing in time to the music as a party of cheerful ghouls hunched around the jukebox selecting from the latest Ungrateful Undead album. Barnstoneworth's snout furrowed in concentration, as he followed my gaze out into the blustery night, the air wet with spray and low cloud. "Eh, tha' finds Strangest things," he mused, tapping his luggable dataTome, where an ancient Bulky Disc of data was spinning wheezily, "We didn't re-name t' ship, that's what it were called in service ... but the Vengeance, isn't it's original name . After its first major damage, it was re-named and re-fitted ... major-like. Which explains a thing or two ... but not everything. It'd been abandoned for six months after t' North Sea third campaign, a track blown off by a nuclear mine, and left heeled right over in t' mud o' the Frisian island of Sylt." "Or perhaps in the Silt of the Island of Mudd ?" Clem Eckingthwaite called out across the room. He and a dozen of the electrical engineers had been celebrating all day with our Russian Exchange students around a portable Field Altar to Stakhanov, Patron Saint of Industrial Overachievers. It looked as if the Russian Unorthodox Church had made a few converts that day. Barnstoneworth glared at the cat, who was demonstrating to his

fellow-believers that you actually Could drink the traditional "Yard of Ale" using vodka. He tapped the databook, his eyes still troubled. "We're missing half o' them technical notes, and there's nowt about it before its refitting," he looked at me over the rim of a quart of Kreakstones Kamikaze (as exported to the Imperial Family of the Japanese Co-Prosperity Sphereoid). "An' I mean, nowt. The Vengeance just ..... shows up in the earliest records I can find, as a salvaged wreck .... in urgent need o' fixin', and no crew listed as alive to rejoin it, like they always did. The funny thing is, tha' knows, half the salvage work weren't repairing battle-damage. I've got some of the manifests ... it LOOKS, more like it was ripping out working systems they just couldn't patch into. Which is barmy, like... them things were built on standard template, but here's a request for some adaptors because "The fastenings are all wrong, right down to the screw pitch". Those have been universal sizes for sixty years and more." I nodded, frowning. There was a lull in the conversation, and I swept my gaze around the pub. It might be a long time before I sat here again, I knew, and I fixed the calm scene in my memory . All was as it should be for one of our final evenings ashore: the scent of freshly drawn ale, the flickering of the firelight, and the background chatter of the radio in the other bar. Being a Thursday, it was that game-show where a randomly picked suburban family were given two weeks to plan and carry out the assassination of some famous sporting or media personality, using only common household tools and materials. Just then, there was a commotion from near the main door, and I recognised the strident voice of Phoebe Elsthwaite, a vixen I had known for several unhappy years ; being a Mathematical History specialist, I was not the only one she had enjoyed (from her point of view) a nonlinear relationship with. Barnstoneworth caught my eye, his own ears twitching. "Wonder what she's found to Investigate this time ? She should have been one o' them Tabloid newspaper Reporters in the twentieth century .. before folk found out all them things were true any road, and lost interest...." But then there was no more time to talk, for the vixen herself had spotted us. She was hard to miss herself, being of an unusual shape for her species.... not precisely fat, in the standard Earth-Goddess proportions, but wide, solid and blocky. If anyone ever made a statue of her, their natural material would not be marble but heavily reinforced concrete. "So, they roped you into this as well ?" She clapped a paw on a shoulder of each of us, her voice that surprisingly delicate huskiness I remembered. "Don't say I didn't warn you ...." I blinked. "You haven't warned us, yet .... but I imagine you're going to. What about, this time ? The "Vengeance" is about as seaworthy as we can make her." Reaching into her shoulder-bag, she flourished a glossy magazine. "Journal of Conspiracy Studies ..... you can't be telling me you don't subscribe to it ? Article of mine listing the so-called "coincidences" that are following this whole project." "Conspiracy studies," Barnstoneworth gave a heavy mock sigh. "I should have guessed, tha'd be into t' Grand Unified Conspiracy Theory. If you can't explain something with tha' first piece o' paranoia, that's taken as proof a bigger and older one's t' blame. " Phoebe sniffed disdainfully, though I could see from where she held the cover, one article was earnestly re-creating pre-dynastic Atlantean politics from "An Inspired correlation of modern supermarket prices and fourteenth-century Venetian Inheritance Law."

"I'm coming with you," her tail swished menacingly, and I saw half a dozen sets of ears and tails behind her droop like falling trees. "There's something strange about this whole mission, and I intend to find out what !" Suppressing a groan, I bought us all the next round, recalling how ten years before, buying a person of the opposite sex a drink had been a criminal offence under the Pro-social Homogenisation Enforcement Directives #4533778 to #4533986 bis, whether or not they had wanted or even asked for one. Hesitating as I looked back at the table, I ordered two more pints of Kreakstones and a carafe of Amerretoni for Phoebe. That was another well-remembered taste of hers I had not shared. Barnstoneworth's nose twitched as I set the tray down on the table. "Amerretoni,", he looked on, his muzzle wrinkling, eyebrows raised. "The most far-reaching export from that part of the world since Soya Substitute. An expensively priced, yet unpleasant, experience, it manages to combine an authentic eighteenth century recipe with the upto-date flavour of something bootlegged by bored engineers in an Eastern Block oil refinery." The vixen gave one of those special grins that could damage exposed electrical circuitry, as she raised her glass of the blue, oilylooking liquid. "Cheers ! Last chance we'll have for awhile .... on board, there'll only be the usual half-a-pint of rum in our daily rations." She looked over at the engineers, and her ears dipped. "Weapons crew and reactor personnel get two-thirds of a pint nominal, of course, scaled up or down to their body mass." For a few minutes there was a reflective silence .... something with an albedo of about .85, my training told me. Then I noticed Phoebe leafing through her contract, the same commercial class as mine. My ears must have raised a little at the sight - for she waved the papers depreciatingly. "I need the money too, you know..", she sniffed. "The Conspiracy Studies Department won't fund my new project .. I'm having to get it researched and printed privately." She leaned over and looked around the bar, conspiratorially. "I've got a hot lead on this story, that's going to blow holes in History as we know it. There's this pile of old songs I found, recordings from the early 1960's, mostly ... I don't think anyone can ever have analysed them properly. As soon as Anyone sets foot on any sort of transport ... motor-cycle, car, aircraft ... chances are they're dead before the last verse. Scale that up with the known traffic levels of the time ....." She looked across at me, her eyes gleaming, ears pricked up. "It must have been ten times worse than the Plague, the Black Death and the Los Angeles Ebola, rolled into one ...... and not only do the official records overlook it totally, but .... " her grin was triumphant "I've talked with old folk who must have been amongst the handfull of survivors .... their minds have been wiped completely, every single memory of the events removed ! Now, that's what I call Proof." She sat back, her arms folded, and emitted what my grandfather's pre-computer games would have described as a (Grin + 6, Save Vs. Gaze Weapon). "Probably masterminded by a loose association of the Bavarian and Wurtemburger Illuminati, the Wilfriedian Society of Gugnunks, and the last desperate survivors of the Sigue Sigue Sputnik Fan Club." Barnstoneworth's muzzle twitched resignedly. I exchanged a sympathetic glance: it was not my choice of company to take into the howling wilderness, far from the cheerily bright altar-fires of our own yodelling civilisation. He nodded towards the corner, and I followed him there, to where the pub's games machines flashed and bleeped. He looked over at me, and edged behind a NanoBall game being

played by a Slow Lorris and a transonic-in-a-dive Lemur. The lights of the display twinkled in his eyes, as the players' Five-a-side nanobot teams earnestly kicked a BuckminsterFullerite carbon molecule around a transistor playing field forged from a chunk of old 1586 DX processor. "It's a good thing they've got the traditional launching ceremony sorted out for the Vengeance," he gave a wry grin, one ear up and the other down. "Much better than wasting a champagne bottle, tha' knows... our Reverend caught one o' them Sociologists hiding out in Australia, and us Ministry of Certain Things was kind enough to gi' 'im ower to us. They'll stake him out in front of the tracks first thing tomorrow, before we roll." In the corner of the room, I spotted our local Vicar, the Reverend Archibald "Machete and Hammer-Job" Naismith, earnestly explaining something to our flag officers. We had wanted him to come along, but he had been impressed by what he had seen on his antipodean trip, and was joining the full-time watch for dimensional invaders in the area of Australia's Ramsey Street public open-air nuclear testing range. I sighed with relief, looking around the room. It was a good thing these days that our Vicars could relax a little, as spacetime recovered from the pounding it had taken in the EC war, where so many Psychotronic bombs were used that the area around Brussels was still slightly fractal even now. "Well, at least that's One thing sorted - a proper sendoff. I have a feeling we'll need all the good luck we can get."

Grey Atlantic swell stretched in all directions eleven days later, as we got under way after a morning's halt. It had been a good trial run for the landing-tanks that we had found coocooned against corrosion on "D" deck: the little ninety-tonne runarounds we hoped would prove useful in the unsettled area we were headed for. Slipping below the horizon was the giant Mid-Atlantic memorial marker that had been put there after the Liberation of Europe had allowed the various nations to set their affairs in order. Clem Eckingthwaite looked into of the ElectroEpiscope, the synthtic-aperture porthole that was our only outside view from where we laboured below decks, fine-tuning number Eighteen starboard reactor. The cat's tail swished. "Heh. There we go, past the midpoint. Forty-one degrees longitude, latitude thirty .. bang on course. You should have come with us, paid our respects ! Monument to common-sense, that, where they let the Fifty-first Staters decide which way they really wanted to go. It's Traditional, to show our respect .... all the ships coming this way stop over." I shook my head. Just because there was nobody left back home who affected a mid-Atlantic accent or culture, was no reason to preserve the memory of such things. "Well, dropping them here and letting them swim either direction they wanted, was a good way of getting them to finally making their minds up, even if it was a bit final..... did you have a fun trip over ?" There came a feline grin. "I'd say so. I won eight shillings betting against Phoebe ... she was sure that big Wolverine marines officer could hold out till we got there to pay our "respects" on the monument, but I'd seen how much water he'd been swallowing to get ready ... and a kilometre trip in a small landing-tank over those seas .... Oh dear."

I looked around, glad the Vengeance's huge size damped out even the long ocean swell. My own cabin was a small windowless section in the depths of D deck, which still smelt sickeningly of explosives after all these years - and despite it being handy for the kitchens and bathrooms, I was resolved to find a better one. Directly above me were the great tank hangars of E deck, currently home to a Girl Scout regiment we were transporting to Bermuda - and the sound of joyriding main battle tanks pulling handbrake turns was a little loud at times. They were a cheerful but boisterous lot - their leaving party at Asgarth had resulted in a high-spirited artillery duel and the burning down of The Tentacle And Firkin, the main rival to the Eurocrat's Head. Clem's tail swished, and his whiskers twitched as he looked along the great slab which had once been the floor of F deck. In the distance, a "step" of F deck itself had been left intact, looking like the bridge of one of the giant tankers of old. His eyes were suddenly troubled. "You haven't been..... working overtime, down there ?" He asked uncertainly. "Things have been .. altering, and I've talked with about everyone else." I shrugged, reminding him of the workload that we had agreed on. It was a hard life, below decks ... handling hollow charge explosives and thermite charges which were about the only rapid way of "remodelling" the tough, siliceous composite the ship's structure was extruded from. "If it wasn't for the double rum ration, we'd have trouble enough getting through the work as it is. No, I'm not moonlighting on this trip." He nodded, slowly. "Maybe it's nothing. But, you know, one thing I've got is an eye for detail. I used to work in the holidays for an architect, before my Asgarth course started ... restoring executive studio flats and second homes into working field barns and dock warehouses. You get to .... notice when things have - shifted round, even if it's only just a bit. It's not that I'm complaining ... but I keep finding wiring routes altered, circuits changed .. and my team's not done it." "Sabotage ?" My ears must have pricked up. "I heard there's another University who were turned down for this mission .. maybe they're ..." But he shook his head. "I'd have reported that. It's something stranger. When I test the systems that look .. a bit odd, they work. And a couple of the heavily damaged ones - well, I can tell you, we didn't know how to fix them !" Night fell, and after our usual communal meal of curried tripe and chapatti bread, I felt oddly disturbed. The meal had been excellent, and the pitching of the vessel was hardly noticeable, but as I lay in my cabin, I could not relax. Irritated, I flung the door open, and looked out into the long, dimly lit corridor which stretched the length of D deck, its blast-proof doors all open in ring after ring receding into the distance like a surgeon's optical probe looking down some immense gullet. This side of the ship was little occupied: the four cabins next to me were used by engineers on the early morning shift, who were off preparing for work right now - and despite my canine ancestry, I was not on the Dog watch. So I fixed my eyes on the distant far corner of the corridor, lit here and there by worklights with long sections of shadow between, and started walking. Whether it had been the strange events of the day, or whether the usual triple tot of rum after the meal was having some unusual

effect on me, I hardly knew. But as I slowly walked down that great ringing hallway, I found my ears pricked up, my nose sniffing unconsciously as if for something that I knew was there - something standing there in the passage with me. In the darkest section between the pale nightlights, I stopped, and closed my eyes. I stood there, nose twitching, straining my senses .... and very slowly, I began to relax, opening up my mind. It was a sound that first began to change. The solid-state motors that propelled us across the ocean, through the churning tracks and water-jets, gave no more than a distant whispering this far from the hull. But they seemed louder ... and further away, as if the sound fell from some distance not measured in metres, another sound shook deep in my bones. It was nothing I had heard before, in waking memory .. a deep tearing bellow, like the tearing apart of a cloth big enough to cover worlds. I listened, and the space around me seemed to fill with presences, as if I was suddenly transported hooded into the middle of a packed railway station, unable to see or hear the crowd, but knowing now that I was not alone. There came a sudden jerk, and I opened my eyes to silence and the normality of the empty corridor. That jolt, had been .... like a few times when I had been falling asleep, I had suddenly jolted awake as if picked up and dropped onto a hard floor. But looking around, I felt wide awake, more so than I had been all evening. My tail shivered. This was a job for an Arcaneologist, not an Engineer like me. I turned, and walked back, passing the point where a last stand had been made by Blast Door #57, before the attackers had swept through.... "What the ... ?" I exclaimed aloud, my voice echoing. And my fur began to bristle outward, as I looked carefully around. Since the refitting of the "Vengeance" in the final week of the EC liberation she had acted as long-range artillery, never getting into line-of sight with that which the Belgians had called up to aid them. Barnstoneworth had told me that much, adding that the ship's turret rings were too small to take anything better than 485 mm cannon, which even in triplex mountings was woefully underpowered to face that which had been Summoned just before the end. The ship had never been attacked directly - at least, not since it appeared on our record books. Before that - our records were as silent as the dim shadows that surrounded me. And yet ... I knew what had happened here, like I knew my Grandsire's name or my breeches' tailgusset size - as a solid fact. Dropping to my knees, I examined the floor carefully, just around the doorway. I found myself hoping that my strange fancy was nothing more than that - until I found something, just where I expected it to be. The grey fused rock of the ship was incredibly tough, as I had found out the first time I tried to chisel a conduit through it - the laser-fused igneous rock had partly been spun into fibres, cemented together in a silicate felt that nothing short of explosives or thermite would make much impression on. And yet here it was riddled with holes like a fine cheese - not splintered as by solid shot, but smoothly fused. Taking my worklight from my belt pouch, I shone the beam down the near-vertical shaft, about the size and shape to swallow a pencil. Something glittered brightly at the bottom - and as I crouched there, I knew I would not be resting that night till I found out what. "Tungsten," Clem Eckingshaw nodded, taking what looked like a silver-grey ball-bearing from out of his analyser, and hefting it in the palm of his furred paw. "You found this six or eight centimetres deep in

the decking ?" He whistled, his whiskers twitching. "I can tell you one thing .. this was molten when it went through that stone like a hot knife through lard ..." I nodded, showing him the scans I had made of the area with a metal detector. "That was the only piece I could get loose - the rest are fused tight into the rock. What do you think caused it ?" The feline's tail swished, describing a slow metronome-like beat as he looked at it in frustration. "Nope. No idea. But whatever happened .... was enough to volatilise kilos of this stuff.. . they don't melt it even commercially, they powder-sinter the stuff." His eyes widened. "That's one HECK of an energy release you're talking about!" He looked around the room, one of the arched, tunnel-like structures that ran the length of E deck. It was bare apart from the rows of testing instruments and three lab chairs, and our voices echoed oddly. The two of us looked at the silvery sphere, and then at each other. I thought of telling him about the sensations I had felt standing in that long, gullet-like corridor .. not only did I know what had happened there, in a clear but distant way, but I had a .. feeling, that I knew who had fought there as time and hope had ebbed away. It was a shadowy background cast on my own memories, like the recollection of my classmates in my first school at the age of four .. names, events and faces had faded beyond recall, though I knew that they had been there. But Eckingshaw was a card-carrying Sceptic, I told myself, and believed nothing except his instrument readings ... much to the dismay of the tax officials, who had to take him on a tour of the Gross National Product every year before he agreed to contribute to it. Suddenly, he smiled. "Still, that was a long time ago .. whatever it was, is long over. Our archaeology isn't due to start for another week .. though I suppose there's no harm in getting a bit of practice in. In fact, I already have .. you should have heard Barnestoneworth last night. He'd found the remains of an internal weapons turret on B deck, two decks below the waterline now ... said it looked like it had been ritually destroyed, not just put out of action .... if you can imagine that." I could tell he had been missing some of his homework for this trip. I had read a few books myself, starting with Professor Grimslaithe's own work on the Bronze-age sites of our native moors, and the civilisation known as the early Bronze age Beaker culture. Grave goods had been ritually "killed" to follow their owner into the afterlife; fine pots smashed, swords and jewelry broken. Which reminded me of something else .. but not until much later, did I clearly recall exactly what. Later, of course, would turn out to be much too late. Three more days passed, and we had our first sight of land .. though we were only two-thirds of the way to our final destination, we were stopping over at Bermuda, almost exactly on our great-circle route across the planet from the friendly monolith-crowded moors of Asgarth. I checked the navigation station: 33 degrees North, 65 East ... hurriedly re-setting my watch, as I did now every day we sailed. Most of us were on deck, lined up outside the "step" where the surviving deck rose a level some kilometre abaft of the great crennelated glacis plate and the thick stubs like amputated wrists that jutted out fifty metres as a double bowspirit on each side of the track's drive sprockets. They had once bravely held out the ship's thousand-tonne spiked fighting roller like a warrior's shield before her breastplate (we had left most of that area intact, to keep the macrotank

in balance for its ocean crossing.) The long swell had broken into dancing, foam-capped wavelets tossing white in the cheery sunshine, and our spirits were high. Even some of the Ghouls were daring the sunlight: on my left I could see a pair of young ghoulkins wearing big shady hats and dark glasses, playing with their "My Little Bony"(Tm) dolls, cheerfully wrapping the little equine skeletons' tails in festive black ribbons. Spirits sank a little as Phoebe joined us, swaying slightly she waved towards the blue smudge on the horizon. "'Been saying bye to the girls," she nodded owlishly, "Wishin' them a good holiday out there." Barnstoneworth's striped tail twitched in annoyance, for he had doubled as public Relations officer for the elite Girl Scout armoured division now getting ready to disembark. "I'm sure they'll 'ave themselves a grand time," he said finally, shading his eyes as he looked out into the westering sun. "Which is more than t' natives will ... I've radio'd ahead of us, so when they hit town an' start pickin' fights wi' bouncers, folk can't say we didn't warn 'em...." I looked on, smiling slightly, as Phoebe swayed along to the massed battle-hymn drifting up from E deck through the open hatches ... she hummed, and then sang along, the old Robynist hymn that the Scouts had sung all the way from the massed armoured breakout at Thirsk Salient on the great North Yorkshire plain, to the final apocalyptic encirclement of Brussels from which none had returned both alive and sane ..... "Sometimes I wish I was a pretty girl... So I could wreck myself in the shower ... Sometimes I wish I was a pretty girl .. Been on my own so long, I can't tell left from wrong .. Bloody red pus ! Squelching Offal ! Foaming mutilations, and the kiss of Death !" * Many of the folk around us sang along, but I was silent .... for this ship had seen it all, and of all the teeming crew it had first carried, none would sing again. Sunlight beat down on us the next morning, as we berthed at Fort Charles, Bermuda. The landing-craft had ferried the tanks and artillery of Battle Group Hetty_Olmthwaite ashore at midnight, towards the ivycovered walls and staff of the New Miskatonic, that hallowed hall where the Girl Scouts would be taking over security duties. * "Sometimes I Wish I Was A Pretty Girl", (c) R. Hitchcock 1984

Barnstoneworth was looking much happier, as that burden was raised from his stripy shoulders. "Aye, an' mebbe it was worth the trouble, for the ferry price they paid us." he nodded. "And we've two days shore-leave, like, to recover." We strolled along, passing coraline sand beaches and waving palm trees . Phoebe instinctively waved back, but then, she had tended the Venus Tank-traps of a Vegetable Warfare unit throughout her cubhood, and had never really readjusted. I shuddered. None of us had, really, after growing up in the Occupation and the Liberation of Europe .... it had taken years to reaccustom myself to entering a strange room without instinctively

wanting to spray the windows with suppressing fire and lob a grenade in first .. in my pocket I still carried a placebo, a foam-rubber ball that I found myself throwing in ahead of me at times. Phoebe gave a low murr of pleasure, looking around. "It's been awhile simce I saw any vegetation this .. exotic." Her eyes widened, and her tail swished. "We were training the genespliced Neo-Triffid stock, they had to be ... socialised, so they wouldn't simply attack anything without chlorophyll. It was sort of Interesting, as a job." Barnstoneworth's ears raised, wryly. "I heard of them. Wasn't it the batch they bred from african edible tubers, got the most - social ?" The vixen grinned. "I should say. Some of them turned out as absolute sex Maniocs." Suddenly Barnstoneworth stopped, his nose twitching. "Ey up ! Ah know they're re-stockin' ship's galleys wi' fresh food, an' all," he said, eyes gleaming. "But we've cash to spend .. and I smell a restaurant that'll make us a nice change!" An hour later, three very large and very empty plates were pushed aside as we relaxed, warm trade winds ruffling our fur. Barnstoneworth gave a contented sigh, which I echoed. "All Ingredients freshly caught locally, and prepared by our own chefs," he read from the menu, and turned a wistful eye on me. "When I were a lad, we used to Dream o' eating food wi' Ingredients in it. Nowt but E numbers, in them days." Phoebe nodded, looking around. We sat in a shaded arbour in front of the wide-open doors of the restaurant, shaded by thick vines growing up a latticework dividing the area into open-air "rooms", one per table. "Same here," her ears drooped " We couldn't afford much, either. I remember I got a jigsaw to play with one New Year, when I was little ... I had to wait for my birthday before I got any blades for it." My ears drooped, as if a shadow had fallen over us. While Phoebe had still been playing with jigsaws, I had joined the Resistance after losing my own family, victims of the Pro-Social Homogenisation Directive #4533789. They had committed the capital crime of playing Tubular Bells in the local marching Brass Band - and Tubular Bells were forbidden, being obviously Phallic Cymbals. But the moment passed, and I smiled again. Drifting down the wind came the cheerful notes of Lurs and Alpenhorn, one of the big turbojet-pumped models by the sound of it. Somewhere Outside, friends would be listening, although only after the Milennium had the world at large discovered the aid to be summoned by dressing in rune-graven leather shorts, climbing steep lightning-crowned hilltops and Calling Out To The Hills in a properly supported yodel. We looked at each other, relaxed and content for the moment. It was a moment I think I will always remember - we were sinister but we were happy, and you can't say that of everybody, can you ? Then I turned, and looked Westwards, to where the horizon darkened oddly in a heavy haze. We were at rest for the moment, but our real task had not yet begun. Down on the dock, we saw Clem Eckingthwaite deep in conversation with a stranger, a cheerful-looking Human girl, obviously Japanese by her pure blonde hair and three-inch wide eyes. She was sitting on a bench next to a strangely unfocussed patch of space, that seemed to twist and shimmer in writhing, sinuous patterns. Next to me, Phoebe nudged me. "Rich kids," she growled softly "I'll bet that's her aircraft we saw going over us this morning ... the custom job with the Japanese registration."

I nodded, having seen it parked on the runway we had passed a few kilometres back ... one of the Classic Planes, obviously uprated far beyond its design specification to judge by the characteristic charring patterns of atmospheric re-entry on its plywood wings and reinforced chipboard nosecone. "Looks like it .... it's a long hop to get here from anywhere civilised, let alone Japan.... this is about the only place to touch down between the Greenland Anarchist Non-State and the Anti-Nowhere League's Caribbean territories." The strange human waved cheerfully, and her non-Euclidean friend bulged a little closer into our spacetime. From what I could see, it was somehow poured into a traditionally styled male Student's black uniform tunic, the collar daringly and disrespectfully left flapping undone. Barnstoneworth looked on, recognising the classical motifs we all saw regularly in the films ... the Orient had survived the horrors of the Milennium better than our part of the world had, and its tight society had been the first to rebound. In that part of the world, though Rebellious youth was permitted, it organised itself into synchronised formation rebellion, with clearly recognized ranks, competitive exams and designer-casual uniforms. His snout wrinkled a little in disapproval at the Juvenile Deliquescent. Clem waved us forwards, smiling. "Come on over, folks ... I've been looking all day for someone with up-to-date information about where we're headed. This is Miss Leclerc and her friend .. they're here on business." The Anime girl nodded her pumpkin-shaped head, and pulled out a satellite photo of the new coastline to the South-West of us. "That's right!" Her French was almost accentless, but held a slight Normandy lilt to it. "Me and [ ] here .... he's one of the Unspeakable Ones, but we don't talk about that ..... we were just over there, checking for any news of last year's expedition." Phoebe's tail twitched. "You send folk over there ? " Huge eyes sparkled, as Miss Leclerc nodded again. "It's our Peace Studies course, they run field trips ... " She pointed to the new coastline, close to where we were headed. "The area used to be called .... umm, something like Azerbaijan or Armenia, I think. This bunch from my Academy go out every year to mediate between warring tribes of drugfrenzied cannibal hillbillies .... as far as we can tell, they must be doing really well. The tribes don't raid around for food for, like, Ages after one of our study groups get in there..." I nodded. Fortunately, my French was good enough to follow the conversation, despite it having ... certain unpopular associations, as the internal language of the Brussels Empire. But still, I reminded myself, even Belgium had not been wholly decadent, and had produced notable folk in the previous centuries .... from Felicien Rops (the socalled "decadent" Artist who had drawn from life the first modern Cthuloid entities interacting with willing mortals long before it had been fashionable to do so) to the alternative war-hero Leon Degrelle (who merited a whole week in Phoebe's Conspiracy Studies course, or so I had heard). Clem Eckingthwaite waved a sheaf of aerial photographs, and a Bulky Disc. "I'll hand these over to the Professor ... we're short of current landform data. " He looked at us meaningfully. "Ah .. these are freely given, but the young lady IS collecting for a charity.." He fished in his pocket for spare change. Miss Leclerc pulled out a large collecting box, and rattled it meaningfully. "Lead-Mining residential holidays for Over-Priveliged teenagers," she said hopefully. "It's a worthy cause .. after a few months, you should see the benefits ! They start out unhappy with life

unless they've got all the latest Neo-Neo Tokyo cyberwear fashions ... by the time they leave, they're sincerely happy at simple things like water, fresh air and a few minutes of light a day." We dug deep in our pockets .. indeed, after today there would be nowhere we could spend our change, and it was certainly a worthy cause. I recognized the logo on her charity box, having donated before to the same institution's "Seaside holidays for the Criminally Insane" back home. Phoebe smiled, dropping a hefty golden shilling into the box deflation was a problem these days, and we were threatened with golden sixpences by the time we returned to Asgarth. "I've read about that charity ... it's a classy operation .. they spend a fortune recruiting the right staff for the residential areas ... they couldn't find enough local talent around the Siberian labour sites, so they had to bring in Indonesian and Paraguyan workers." She shook her head wonderingly. "And persuading folk with those career records to leave the Secret Police can't have been cheap or easy. Wonder how they did it ? " Her tail swished excitedly, and a familiar gleam came to her eyes. I saw her reach for her notebook, and as she scribbled 64-bit encrypted shorthand she muttered something about "Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Freemasons, Enslaved Plumbers and the Ovalteenies fan club," before I managed to get out of earshot. In a few minutes we boarded our vessel, the silcrete deck of the Vengeance firm and steady beneath our booted paws. I turned and waved to our new friend on the dock, and faintly heard her parting blessing "May you live in Fortean Times!" The four of us stood looking at each other for nearly a minute, feeling the warm winds in our fur. At last, Barnstoneworth voiced what I think we were all feeling. "It's been a right good stopover..." his voice was wistful, "But - now, it's back to us work." It was twelve days after our return to the ship, almost to the hour .... when at last, we saw what we had come to find. The "Vengeance" had made good progress beyond Bermuda, steering South-West to the strangely .. unsettled area of lost land and unready waters where our mission took us. As we dropped anchor, I re-set my watch for the last time, and looked at the readouts - 27 degrees North, 83 degrees East ... over seas that had once been lands. We moored some thirty kilometres offshore - not that the shore was easily defined, for the sea had not had time to wholly take this area to itself, and the ruins of buildings that had been tall before the Milennium, still stuck up making hazardous shoals. I had spent three days testing liquid air connections, all the while cursing the massively duplicated, quintiply-redundant systems that made this ship so resilient - about every fifty metres was an independent high-capacity cooler, able to pour perhaps fifteen tonnes an hour of liquid air into a great arterial system that had once cooled the ships' batteries of 485 mm automatic weapons. Now, the turrets were all gone - but we had another use for the air supply. "Hidy!" Came a voice from just behind me - not a voice that I knew. Standing up too suddenly, I banged my head on the great curving buttress supporting C deck's Coolant Pump 447. I turned, and looked. Looking up at me appraisingly was a short canine .. almost Anime, but with something more - exotic still, about her large eyes. Her white head-fur was a curled mop, and the rest was in a "poodle-cut" such as you see pictures of from before the Milennium. But her fur was

not the surprise - she wore the brown uniform jacket and yellow neck-tie of Battle Group Hetty_Olmthwaite, all of whom I thought had left us at Bermuda. In her paw she carried a paper cone of chips, evidently from the F deck chip shop - but there was a sharp, unfamiliar scent to them, as if mayonnaise had been poured over them. I shook my head, realising how silly the idea was. She grinned, following my eyes as I took in her Accomplishment badges, several of them enhanced with extra orders and what must have been a dozen of the rarely-given Frenzy stars. "I'm on leave ... I tagged along with my Troop, for the free trip ... I'm interested in this sort of thing." Phoebe, of course, knew all about her, or so she said - but then, Phoebe made it her business to learn every true and untrue story she could cram into her computer and wetware. "Minette, Minette DuClos, that's her," the vixen growled, her ears dipped. "Yes, she's paying her own fare, yes, she's a listed volunteer. So we're stuck with her." Barnstoneworth raised an eyebrow, and said nothing. We three were sitting at the bow, hidden in the refreshingly cool fog flowing from the great ice caisson that now reached down to the ocean floor. In the distance, pumps laboured, emptying the seawater from the tube and filling the Vengeange's main coolant tanks, the extra weight pressing us firm against the seabed. Phoebe gave a sniff. "I wouldn't trust her. She's a NeoRevisionist ... thinks everything in recent history's made up .. anybody who was actually there is automatically biased. Heretic!" The badger gave a quiet cough, and looked at her. "But that's what you always do, eh ?" "Yes .. but this is Different ! I'm on a Quest for Truth, about why things Happen - I don't just go around denying they ever did!" I looked around, through the eddying mists, and suddenly stiffened. I pointed, to a secluded spot of the main deck, where a great loading gantry towered forty feet tall. There was a figure standing where only we could see her, and only for instants through the vapour. "That's her, isn't it ? But what's she doing ? " Recognisable with that ancient haircut even under a steel helmet, Minette was looking up at something on the loading gantry high above her. She pulled out what looked like a metre-long piece of pipe, and suddenly I realised what it was - for the major sporting broadcast these days was no longer ProCelebrity Golf, but Anti-Celebrity Archery. Barnstoneworth gave a deep chuckle. "That's all it is. Keepin' her skills up, nowt wrong wi' that. An' it's a tricky shot she's makin' , straight up like that." But Phoebe had frozen, her tail fluffed out in shock. She looked at us searchingly, her eyes scanning from face to face. "I .. I can't remember where I've read it," she whispered, eyes half-glazed. "But I know for a fact, there's a terrible .. Association somewhere, involving vertical archery." It was a popular duty, to actually work on the archeological "dig" - at least, in the blazing sun, to be at the bottom of an icewalled dry hole in the ocean was a welcome relief. Twenty metres of seafloor were exposed, frosted over near the caisson walls, but easily cleared with water-jets and suction hoses. There was a constant thumping of pumps, and around us the sharp cracking of ice under pressure - it had been alarming at first, but soon we

accepted that the supercooled ice really Did re-freeze any cracks instantly, the circulating liquid air effectively making it a selfrepairing structure. "Hmm." I looked round, to see Professor Grimslaithe absentmindedly scratching his head with his excavation trowel. He was staring at a readout held in his other hand, turning to look at what we had uncovered, a water-worn fragment of road, as if trying to make sense of it. "Attention, people ..." he called out to the twenty or so of us who were busy clearing and labelling the finds. "I'd say we're in the wrong place ...." he waved his hand, as a general groan arose - "but ..... the telemetry says otherwise. This is the right piece of the planet, to within five metres ... but this road isn't on the map." One of the senior students held up a polythene bag, with specimens that had been part of the deposits in a culvert under the road, and spared the scouring effects of the tidal waves that had swept the area under. "Artifacts check with what we'd expect, sir ... dated to the Sheet-Metal age, Styrofoam Cup Culture." He shivered, and not a few of us did likewise. The age of the site was appalling ... there had been life here far post-dating civilisations, in dread non-Elder decades lost to knowledge in the Pastel Years. The professor nodded, glancing through the polythene bags of the days finds. In the top layer was an aluminium can of aggressively generic carbonated beverage, its garish logo still proclaiming "Tilt with the Totally Typical Taste". On board the Vengeance, there was equipment that could probably read enough of the printing to make out the sell-by date, for an exact date fix. I looked at the road - we had picked up its trace on the ship's sonar, spotting the smooth concrete even buried under three metres of mud and debris piled up from the catastrophic floods. Certainly, it had gone somewhere ... it was three lanes wide each way, and here and there were the jagged, corroding reinforced concrete stumps of streetlights. A road well-lit, and much used, but in an area that had been mainly swamps and lakes even when it had lain under the sunlight. And a road that for some reason, I knew, had been wiped off the map. That night I lay in my bunk, unable to sleep. It might have been the stillness, for we were held fast to the ocean floor; the gentle motion was missing that even in dock offshore of Bermuda, had lulled us asleep. It was hot, too, a thick muggy warmth that penetrated the great corridors even far below the water-line. I sighed, as my watch beeped two in the morning. Earlier, I had tried my radio, but we were too far from any radio stations .. ghosts of distant voices drifted through my head, fading in and out. For maybe ten seconds there had been one clear burst .. the great Alto Tenor yodeller Ernst Straintz, with that pure vibrato tone that Barnstoneworth had called "Like drivin' a tractor crossways up a ploughed field wi' a pair o' breezeblocks tied to 'is privvits". But that had dissolved into static, leaving me looking around the bare silcrete room. Restlessly, I stood up, heading out towards the ship's #47 heads, a few hundred metres away. My footsteps echoed eerily, as I walked down the darkened corridors. The change was so gradual that I can even now hardly put words to it. Once again, it felt as if I was no longer alone with the skeleton crew and ghoul passengers that were my companions ... the feeling of company was there, as if I would turn any corner and find it packed with people, though I can not say if I exactly heard or scented anything. It

was more ... as if I had already heard a roomful of busy people, that had fallen silent for that second .. a second that dragged on for minute after minute of straining silence. Turning the corner, I blinked, looking around. Somehow, I had taken a wrong turning .. the nearest Heads to my room were halfway down a corridor with two air-pipes running along the starboard wall at waist height, and this place had only one. And I was walking towards a dead end, a blank wall of silcrete. What happened next, I can scarcely explain or easily describe. The floor was even, and well-swept ... but I lurched forwards, not stumbling, but AS IF I had stumbled, I put my hand out against the smooth wall. There was a click, and a door opened - inside it was darkness, and a smell of mold, a forest scent of things long-dead. Reaching up to steady myself on the doorframe, my hand went straight to a switch hidden in the darkness ... before I could draw breath, the light was on. I saw a small chamber, faceted like the inside of a cut jewel. It was sharply pointed, the walls rising vertically from a twelve-sided floor some four metres across .. white marble or something like it lined the room, inlaid with silvery metal tracing strange patterns that could have been circuitry or some arcane and unknown script. In the centre of that chamber there was a chair - no, a throne, raised on two steps of white marble, the chair itself high-backed and flowing, glittering steel curved and moulded like clay drawn up by a skilled potters' fingers. That was a throne, indeed - and it was not empty. Still upright in the throne of steel, was what once had been a canine like myself - Time had reduced him to mummified dry flesh, the bones jutting hard under the shrunken hide. He wore a uniform, a white and silver one, its primary colours still tinted like hard steel chips on endless icefields. As I looked, something clicked in my brain ... I had served with our armies, fought all our foes and seen allies come in from all over the world. This uniform - was nothing I had ever seen before. And here, in the hidden heart of one of our own ships, I knew that there was something terribly wrong about that. "There's something terribly wrong about this," Clem confirmed the next day, looking around the room I had found. "Not that it's missing from the plans ... we don't HAVE any detailed plans. But this place .." he scanned the strange inlay on the walls, and his whiskers drooped. "There's electrical activity here, and I've no idea what any of it does." "Right," nodded another of the Engineering team, his head encased in the helmet display as he ran a surface-piercing radar up and down the walls. "These inlays aren't mechanically plugged in, or I'd take one out and get some more tests made. The energy pathways and data routes .. look like they're cast in as part of the structural keel .. short of the ship's back breaking, there's just no way of tracing where they go. Or why." We stood aside, as the medical team carried away the ancient husk of one who had known the answers we sought. The morning was spent running tests on the faceted room, but nothing was found that made any sense. Only a few of the circuits had power in them, and those intermittently - and what pattern did emerge, suggested the whole place was one tuned system, rather than the network of separate black boxes that we had installed to run the ship. I remembered what Barnstoneworth had said, about the earliest records we had of the Vengeance - that its repairers had patched and spliced into an existing system that was incompatible with what had been standard techniques and dimensions used

for half a century and more across the known world. Our watches bleeped, and Clem straightened up. The cat slung his testing probe over his shoulder, and his ears dipped wryly. "Lunchtime. We can't spare any more time on this .. whatever it's doing, it's not causing us any trouble. I'm recommending we just seal the place for now - if anyone breaks this thing and it turns out we need it, THEN we'll be in trouble!" The next two days passed busily, as the archeeologists finished with the first caisson site and moved on. It was a simple matter, only needing to stop the flow of coolant to the lowest caisson ring, and waiting for the frozen grip on the seafloor to release. I was standing on the deck, monitoring the gradual closing off of the liquid air valves - when the world gave a sudden lurch. In an instant, there was a splintering crack from the caisson, and all the sirens on the ship began to scream. "Earthquake!" Someone yelled over the speakers. "All hands below deck ... hatches sealing in one minute!" There was just time to switch off all the air lines, right back to the stub arms that held the caisson structure together, before I unplugged the remote unit and sprinted for the nearest hatchway. The deck heaved again, and I looked round to see an incredible sight at the prow of the ship. The shock had snapped the weakening base of the ice tube - leaving the ocean to roar into a seventy metre hole, the highpressure surge pulling in hundreds of tonnes of bottom silt as it shot up the caisson's bore and jetted into the clear skies as a colossal waterspout. Then I dived down the hatchway, red flashing lights warning me as the emergency doors slammed shut - and three seconds later was a deck below rubbing a twisted ankle as the great muddy eruption cascaded down amongst the decks of the Vengeance. Seven of the excavation team were not so lucky, being caught in the avalanching waters. Though we searched all afternoon, there was no trace of them to be found. It was a subdued ship's company that met that evening, with Professor Grimslaithe chairing the meeting. We met in the great tank repair shed of "E" Deck, those of us who were on duty watching through the ship's comms system. "While the earthquakes continue," the elderly baboon summed up, "further caisson work is just too dangerous. But ...." he waved a hand, as many of us groaned aloud, "we can carry on with the Mapping work, using the ship's instruments. I propose we head towards the new shore .... although that is where the shocks seem to be originating." It took very little time for Phoebe, at least, to bounce back. "Earthquakes ?" She clicked her claws derisively, as we sat down together for our usual supper of black pudding and mucky-dripping sandwidges "We're in a Macro-ship, I mean ! This is built to take a bit of hammering. Ran over a nuclear landmine, it did, and kept on fighting." There were answering nods from the tables around us - as Phoebe patted the solid silcrete wall of the dining hall. "This has been through worse than earthquakes." Barnstoneworth's eyes took on a strange, fathomless look. "And she held off the foe, even crippled as she was, though they built a subhuman pyramid to swarm into her wounds.. " I blinked, looking at the badger. "Beg your pardon ?" But he

was staring straight ahead, as if looking at the unseen horizon beyond the ancient, decades-old armour. "... And those of her friends she could protect, she shielded with her shields and weapons, until the last of them died fighting before the great iridium doors ... she tore open her own body to finish those of the vermin that remained inside.. and then when there was nothing to do but resist, sixteen days she fought on, all alone......" suddenly he gave a twitch, and looked around. "Eh ? Tha' were sayin' ?" My ears rose in interest. "You've found out more about the ship's history ?" But Barnstoneworth only looked puzzled. "Nowt like that. Why'd you ask ?" For once, Phoebe's obsession with Conspiracy Studies failed to drive me out of the room. It was half an hour after our friend had departed to his bunk, pleading dizziness, and we sat alone in the sparsely furnished dining hall. After the day's events, the ship was hushed, and those of us off duty were in little mood for leisured chat. The vixen frowned. "Evidently, he didn't remember a thing about it. If only .. there was some way to .. confirm or deny what came out. He's not the kind to make things up .. I don't think he HAS an imagination under that flat cap. Badger stripes on the brainbox certainly aren't 'go-faster' strips......" I hesitated - and was about to tell her of the strange memories that had washed through my own mind, since boarding the Vengeance nightmarish memories as if seen by some observer that had seen it all yet I told myself it was absurd, for none of the crew had survived to transmit their impressions. And just then, a certain yellowneckerchiefed figure waved cheerily from the entrance, as Minette strolled in carrying a tray full of mugs. "So many long faces !" The poodle beamed, putting the tray down on our table. "I thought you looked like you needed company... so I've brought over my Special recipe ale." She looked across at Phoebe, and her tail twitched, the round pom-pom of fur swinging. "I'm sure I don't know how I've offended you .. but I'd like to bury the hatchet." For a moment, I saw Phoebe's gaze flick aside to the wall, where a fire-axe hung on the emergency racks next to hosepipes, decontamination equipment and both physical and mental first-aid kits. Then she mastered temptation and nodded, her ears pulled up by force of will. The vixen waved Minette forward, no doubt with teeth gritted too tight to speak. Minette slid into the chair opposite be, and brushed back the curly white head-fur from her eyes. "I think it's so Exciting, don't you ? We're going to see the real coastline, and maybe .... we'll find something Interesting." "Such as ?" I asked cautiously. She turned her large eyes towards me, and I suppressed a shudder .. as if some odd and unhealthy association in my distant memory surged unquietly towards the light. "Oh ... I've heard there's all sorts of things in this part of the world." Again came that secretive smile. "You might say it's come down as a family tradition. My grandmother worked over here for a season, before the milennium, as waitress at a drive-by cafe." Phoebe snorted. "Get your history right, can't you ? You mean 'drive-in' - a 'drive-by' is where folk cruise past in vehicles and spray the place with automatic weapons." The poodle nodded. "That's right. They had a lot of very

dissatisfied customers." I winced, as I took a sip at the beer in the mug. Phoebe seemed to be supping it without comment, but then, she liked Amerretoni. This concoction was hardly ale as I knew it .. though obviously somebody, somewhere had thought that flavouring it with cranberries would improve it. After three uneventful days of surveying the sea floor through the ship's sonars, at last we stopped again. The ship's tracks made muddy contact with the sea bed twenty metres underwater, as we ran gently up onto a shallow bank that once had been the top of some low hill. "Weather's closed in," Clem Eckingshaw commented, as we stood on deck. "Can't abide this sort of fog. Like a sauna bath, sort of .. gone wrong." I looked out into the cloaking banks of warm fog, the vapours foetid with the wind-bourne exhalations of coastal swamps, only a few kilometres away through the mists. I shivered, my ears pricked up, at the sound the indolent breeze brought with the scents ... a distant monotonous drumming, the first sign we had heard of the natives. Professor Grimslaithe joined us on the prow, where I had been checking the liquid air feeds for damage. He rubbed his hands together, and looked out at the two-hundred metre circle of grey steaming water that was our world. The swell looked long and oily, somehow uninviting - and since we had driven onto solid land, there had been three clearlyfelt tremors. "Meteorological computer's on the blink," he grumbled, his fangs showing in his wrinkled face. "It says we should be having bright sunshine right now, not this fog. And the location system keeps jumping our reported position like a frog on a frying-pan .. if we didn't already know where we were, we'd not find out now." Through the fog all that day came the sinister thudding beat of the Natives' drum-and-bass machines, penetrating the first layers of the ship. Phoebe threw down her anti-fashion magazine, her ears down. "The drums .. the drums ... don't they ever stop drumming ?" Her tail swished, as she looked longingly at the headphone sets one of the sonar operators had securely clamped to his head. "Two hundred and eighty beats per minute .. it's driving me mad. Mad, I tell you !" I looked around, surveying the cluttered wardroom, and peered out of the electroepiscope at the wall of greyness outside. The hot, sticky fog worked its way everywhere, my fur feeling glued as if by rancid fat worked right down to the skin. I shuddered, and then suddenly had an idea. "Until the earthquakes calm down, they won't need us to work on the caisson feeds." I suggested, ears rising as I thought of a useful way to pass the time, "So why don't we take a look at the folk over there ?" After a quick consultation with the ship's Flag officers, they let us into one of the few areas of the ship cordoned off against casual intruders. This was a great lift-shaft, rising from the empty magazines on C deck to the cut-off top deck, where it had led to the land-torpedo turrets we had removed at Asgarth. "Bit of luck, really .... " Clem waved his hand at the lift, a cramped structure barely big enough to turn a landing-tank round in, "When this ship was salvaged, they found a few thousand tonnes of

ammunition left, mostly in turret feeds that had got jammed. But they also found - these." "Panjandrums!" Phoebe's tail rose in delight, looking at the great three-metre rocket-driven fighting wheels, resembling a giant cable-drum, or a squashed excercise dumb-bell. Two wide wheels were separated by a two-metre diametre drum, its fat "axle" housing the electronics and warhead. "I saw one of those fired at the siege of Bromley .. chased an EC running mecha down the spiral ramp of a multistorey car park, and dropped right in after him when he tried hiding in the lift-shaft. Neat !" "Do these still work ?" I asked cautiously, "They're rather old by now ... and they're wartime stocks, they weren't built to have much of a shelf-life." Clem smiled, and handed me the control console. I recognised a converted video-games controller - for most of the new weapons forged in the EC war, it had proven essential to give them controls that the unskilled users already understood. "Blue button .. this one's got battery power still, just needs the fuel tanks filling and the diagnostics say it's ready to roll." I pressed the "start game" button, and the giant street-fighting missile gave an oddly gentle bleep ... whirring into wakefulness, its ancient electronics woken from long slumber. At the axis of each wheel was a hemispherical camera cover, supposedly of bulletproof plastic, but more usually made from a pyrex glass mixing bowl .. and I was rewarded with a small but surprisingly sharp view of the lift, my two comrades and the three other panjandrums still sleeping on their launch cradles. "I've never run one of these .. " I must have broken out in a wide grin, looking around at them, "But today seems like a good time to learn !" As we towed the big pinwheel down the long, echoing corridors of the ship, we felt the decks lurch beneath us. "Another one!" Phoebe yelled, her paw slamming down on the locking brake of the launch cradle, before dodging out of the way. "This feels the biggest yet !" The three of us sprinted to the next corridor junction, our legs almost buckling as the floor came up and hit us - as if we were in the aisle of an aircraft slamming through turbulence, not a massive tracked mountain firmly grounded on the planet. I tumbled, hitting the floor, and then I recall trying to do nothing but hold on as shock after shock rattled the solid frame of the Vengeance. For fully half an hour the ship rang like a bell, as the earth trembled and jolted us, again and again as aftershocks rattled around the neighbourhood. At last, it grew calm. We looked around at each other, slightly dazed - listening to the ship's comms system calling for damage reports. Clem struggled to his feet, dusting his fluorescent overalls down with one paw. He grimaced, smoothing down his tail-fur, and stuck his head round the corner. "Well, at least that didn't fall over .... we'd never be able to get it upright without lifting gear," he commented, as we followed him to check the panjandrum. "And I think we'll be too busy with fixing the ship to do that today, at any rate." By the time we finished making our checks that evening, turned out that little had been damaged aboard the Vengeance casualty had been the sleep of the second shift, who yawningly out to help run diagnostics. So before I turned in myself, I it had the main turned saw the

big fighting pinwheel fuelled and drawn up to one of the landing-tank ramps on B deck, its airlock door hinged to float it out into the ocean at first light. Dawn showed a changed scene. Where there had been unbroken, choppy waters, now low banks of mud reared out of the mist like beached whales, with rushing runnels of water between them. The earthquakes had heaved this part of the world back to the surface - and I shuddered at the sight of hideously un-cyclopean architecture revealed on the nearest bank. Just as I arrived at the launching ramps, I heard again, faint but shockingly clear, the distant, dismal pounding of the natives' drumand-bass machines. "It's coming from about North-North-East .. " Clem waved a map at me, the printout from the disc we had been gifted with under the clear skies of Bermuda, now seming a long time ago. "There's high ground that direction - must be pretty high, the tsunamis after those tremors must have been something fierce. " "Just the backwash off the land was up to "D" deck on us," one of our flag officers pointed up to a muddy tide-line two decks above us. We stood in the launch bay, which the day before had been a deck and a half underwater - now the hatch stood open to the mists, a ten-metre wide ramp leading down to the shallow muddy waters, scarcely a metre deep. I stretched, limbering up my fingers like a concert synth player - settling down in the loader's chair which had served the 250 mm spotting rifle for this turret's main guns. The panjandrum was pushed to the edge of the ramp, and Clem stood clear, giving me a cheery "thumbs-up". There were four of us in the launching bay; Clem, the flag officer and two other engineers, looking intently at the screen, an old 4096 by 4096 38" monitor of the kind they give away with games cartridges these days. I pressed the "Game start" button, and the towering drum gave a loud whine, as its internal rotors spun up. Clem nodded, looking at it vibrating under the growing power of its rocket-tipped rotors. "I forgot ... you've used this technology before, haven't you ? Your unicycle runs on the same principle." As the whining note steadied off, I nodded, my fingers poised over the port and starboard clutches. "That's right.. but these have two rotors, contra-rotating - like ... this....." With that, I cautiously let in the clutches, hearing the rotors change tone as the electromagnets picked up the power, and the great wheel rolled down the ramp with ever-increasing speed. "Whoa! " But it was too late - the ramp was steep, and in a second there was a huge splash as the panjandrum dug deep into the exposed ocean bed, mud and water flying. Cautiously, I halted it and checked the diagnostics - everything reported as well, and I gave one last look around at the expectant faces of the crew. The flag officer checked his watch, preparing to rejoin the bridge, but the engineers, a rat and a polecat from the Duke Of Argyll's Regiment, looked on in interest. "Well.... here we go." And with that I pushed the clutch levers forward, and the giant fighting-wheel rumbled off into the mists. For two hours I stared into the screen, watching the little digital readout updating its position. A hundred and twenty, then a hundred and thirty minutes of steering the panjandrum at walking speed over flat, featureless mudbanks, shattered masonry, and deep rills of running muddy seawater draining still off the unseen land. And all the while came that sinister, monotonous bass-beat from beyond the walls of

fog, where the unseen drummers mocked at us (and any sane or wholesome musical taste.) At last Clem tapped my shoulder, pointing to a blinking amber light. "Fuel's getting low. Better bring it back ... "Control-ShiftHome" will do it automatically." I nodded, rubbing my eyes. This was the only Scout model we had, with a nail-down inertial guidance system and extra fuel in place of much of the warhead - apart from a tiny self-destruct charge, less than three hundred kilos of aluminised cyclonite, it was wholly unarmed. "About twenty minutes till it gets back, if it finds a straight-line course. Good thing it floats .. just paddle-wheels right across anything it finds." Standing up, I waved to the two engineers who were standing by with the fuelling hoses, idly watching the screen. "Give me a shout when it's back, I'll lend a hand getting it onboard again." As luck would have it, we had restored one of the Ready Rooms that the original gunnery crews had used, barely twenty metres away from the open hatchway. Phoebe and Minette arrived together as we sat abusing the hot drinks machine, an old and unrepentant model. Clem pulled a face, his ears right back as he sipped from a neoclassical plastic cup. "Don't try the "Animal Soup" .... I 'm not sure I WANT to know what species went into it." "The vegetable ones aren't much better," I felt my own taste buds clog like a tank's tracks in shingle, as something reddish-brown and sludgy sluiced over my tongue. "If this is genuine tomato like it says, it must mean it's made from real photographs of them ...." Just then there came a scream from down the corridor - not just a scream, a ripping, throat-tearing howl of terror that went on and on in a rising wave of tortured sound. The four of us froze for a heartbeat - but only Minette was still in the room a second later as the rest of us sprinted towards the loading ramp, our reflexes remembering desparate years of street-fighing in burned-out basements and smurfedout slann-shacks all across the battle-torn cities of Europe. We took up position, diving to the side of the door - Phoebe had grabbed a fire-axe, and Clem had the hose of one of the refuelling carts, fifty pressurised litres of pyrophoric borane fuel ready to spray. My own Swiss Army knife was out, the dim light catching the iondensified edge of the twenty centimetre Eurocrat-whittling blade. As I tensed, ready to roll into the room, there came a crashing, popping noise from within - and the scream stopped. I dived, rolling in across the floor, adrenaline pumping. In that instant I saw what there was to be seen - both engineers, lying still. One, the lop-eared rat, was stretched out stiff as a board - the other, the custard-yellow polecat whose scream I was fairly sure it had been ... he was still standing, but he was surely dead. The popping noise had been when he had punched both fists through the screen of the old monitor, the stink of burned fur and electronics drifting in the air from the high-voltage discharge that had earthed through him, killing him instantly. And from the look on the singed face, I sudenly realised it must have come as a relief. All this had taken less than three seconds - and as Phoebe and Clem cautiously followed me into the room, there came a deep, rumbling boom from out of the fog. I looked around, my whiskers stiff with panic fear, bafflement in all our faces - and saw that the panjandrum's control screen suddenly read "No Signal". Clem's ears were pressed right back against his head. "It selfdestructed. That shouldn't have happened..." he whispered. "I disconnected the firing switch on this console - and look - " he

scrolled the command buffer back, showing us the last ten actions. "Nobody touched it, since you told it to come home - it was heading straight back to us, and those things DON'T have minds of their own !" As we stood looking at each other, hearing alarm bells ringing in our heads as well as through the ship's speakers, I realised that the distant drumming had stopped. An hour later, the four of us were crowded in one of the ship's galleys - Clem and Phoebe were shaking, and the ship's surgeon had prescribed a flagon of rum between us. Over a portable Console, we could follow the developments as the Flag Officers investigated, and answer any questions they put to us. Clem's eyes were bleak. "You saw the ... look on their faces. The defence system says nothing came near the ship ... whatever they saw, was on the monitor. And to have THAT sort of effect...." He reached for another big tumbler of the eighty-percent proof Naval spirit, and sank it like water. "It's been a long time since I saw anyone ... affected like that. And the things that caused it ... I don't even want to think about." Minette smiled condescendingly. "I see. Back in the so-called Liberation days, I expect." She sipped from a bottle of one of the exotic beers that she seemed to have an inexhaustible supply of, though none of us recognised them. Phoebe's eyes flashed. For a second I had the image of her fangs sinking into the young poodle's throat, but she calmed herself down with an obvious effort. "There's no "So-Called" about it.. as you'd know, if you'd been there." Minette's eyebrow raised, and her ears tilted wryly. "You're doing Conspiracy Studies, and you've never thought there was anything a little ... suspicious about the whole story ? You actually believe that the Brussels Empire was masterminded and then controlled by evil squeaky-toys from some so-conveniently 'other' plane of existence ? To which they naturally returned, before you, or anyone you know, actually saw them." She swished her poodle-cut tail, the white pompom waving like a tail-mace. "Rather TOO convenient of them." "There was folks as saw them." We turned, to see Barnstoneworth standing in the doorway. "I were in t' Pioneers, layin' track for an armoured tram assault on s'Hergtensbosch, like ... when they came ower the hill. Three macro-tanks went up in front of us, lost wi' all hands ... but I were detailed afterwards as stretcher-bearer for Duke o'Devonshire's 897th Airbourne that went up to plug us line. I saw them that'd been in contact wi' the Enemy." The badger shook his head slowly, painfully. "Good folk we had, like ... an' I found em' lyin' in a pool o' Sanity Points, some o' them too far gone to save .. we'd gone short o' transfusions since they hit Switzerland in the last week. Some folk had ......" he hesitated, " started to CHANGE. Us vicar had to shoot'em and burn the bodies on the spot, for their own good." "I see." The poodle smiled, nodding. "But you didn't actually see anything yourself ? Or meet anyone who claimed to ?" "Nay. I'm still here - tha' needn't chuck thisself ower a cliff to find out if it's fatal - seein' it happen to other folk is bad enough. Folk as dealt wi' them things and lived, were mostly us Vicars an tha's welcome to try asking one' o' THEM about it." Phoebe's ears were pressed flat against her skull. "Minette - I AM doing Conspiracy Studies - and I can tell you as a fact, that ... even before the EC took over, there were .. events happening, that don't have any sane explanation. Not unless - something with a strangely unearthly sense of humour was behind things - like the

Monaco/San Marino war. Explain that one away." I nodded, agreeing - the thermonuclear exchange between the two pocket-sized principalities had been almost as inexplicable as it was brief and final. And just as with so much of the Liberation, there was nobody left who could shed light on just what had happened there. The poodle's tail swished, as she stood up. "I suppose with you oldsters, I have to make historical allowances for your - skewed viewpoint. But I know there's no such thing as evil fluff from other worlds. After all, I .... " She hesitated, as if she was about to say something else and stopped herself just in time. The round pom-pom of fur on her tail tip swished again, and she gave us a pitying smile. "If you could only hear yourself, and how silly it sounds ! But some folk just won't be helped." With that she turned, blew us a kiss and bounced out, heedless of Phoebe's kilowatt stare at her back. There was a silence, and we all stirred uncomfortably. At last, Clem spoke. "How's the survivor, Barnstoneworth ? Has he said anything ?" The badger shook his striped head. "Nay, lad - he's gone catatonic. We've more chance o' contactin' the dead'un, than gettin' owt from him. An' we would - but there's a snag." Phoebe blinked. "What's wrong ? Surely we'll just feed the body to the ghouls, like always - the one that gets the brain, will find out whatever he last knew, if we hurry." She looked outside, as the grey mists pressed heavy across the waters. "Don't they have ghouls working the reactors all shifts, away from sunlight ? We needn't wait till dark." It was a useful trait of the Undead, their high resistance to radiation. "Ey. That's trouble, like. Chap joined us at last minute, didn't go through same paperwork as rest of us - his Doner Card says we can use him for Doner or Kebab, but not 'et raw." There was a gloomy silence, as we looked at each other. My eyes focussed on the comms screen, and suddenly my ears rose high in surprise. "They're asking for volunteers to crew landing-tanks, and do a manned reconnaisance," I looked around, my tail twitching. "Anybody interested ?" An hour later, the launching ramps splashed down again from "D" deck, and three Vickers-Matushita amphibious tanks waded into the mud and fog. I was radio operator and loader on "Vicious", with Barnstoneworth at the controls. Evidently the handling qualities were much like one of the trams he had driven from the Rotterdam landings to the final armoured battle, that big confused mecha brawl generally called Third Lille. "There they go .. out of visual," I called down into the cramped driving section. On my screens to left and right were the radar images of "Viper" and "Vilify", the only other landing tanks we had been able to get working. "Vilify" was to our left: it had suprised us when Minette had volunteered to drive, though I had noticed the Girl Scout armoured combat badge on the sleeve of her tunic the minute we first met. "Aye... keep thi' eyes peeled, lad.." Barnstoneworth called up. "Visual too - there's stuff that can spoof the detectors, tha' never knows." He tapped his screen, the camera showing a projected line ending three kilometres ahead of us still, the Panjandrum's incoming route and last reported position. Slowly we ground forward, the little landing tank riding high in

the muddy water between low steaming banks of exhumed sea-floor. We were almost empty, the great troop-carrying compartment at the back containing only our thermos flasks and sandwiches, rather than the platoon of infantry or skateboard-riding scout mecha it was designed for. Outside the turret was a familiar view, to me at any rate - one screen full of fog and mudbanks was much like another I had seen earlier that sinister day. Suddenly, I frowned. "Barnstoneworth .... " I called down the cramped turret hatch, to where he sat on his reclining seat, "Anything on your radar ? I'm picking up something big about 10 degrees port..... can't make it out." Tapping the screen, I watched in horror as the image seemed to blur like a watercolour painting in the rain - in twenty seconds I had lost contact with our companions, and even the great slabsided bulk of the Vengeance herself seemed to wave and bob like a dancing mirage. "Eee 'eck, lad ... what's up wi' us instruments ?" the badger grunted. "I saw same thing - looked like a great whaleback hill, before screen went daft on us .. but all this land was flat swamp, before the Milennium. Any road, I'll take us ower there." For another twenty minutes we ground forward, our instruments blind. All the diagnostics packages either blandly reported all was well, or gibbered an ever-changing litany of contradicting hardware and software errors that changed by the minute. It was as if - I had the disturbing sensation, that it was as if something very basic was altering out there, leaving our finely tuned mechanisms helplessly spinning like a compass needle at the Magnetic Pole. Suddenly we slowed right down. Peering out through the gunner's optical sight, I saw a steep slope looming ahead of us; easily a one in four gradient, stretching up into the vapours. We turned right and cautiously edged along its base, until a corner began to bend away from us pointing towards the regular shoreline. Barnstoneworth gave one last try at the radio, and shook his head. He looked up at me, his head some two metres below my shockmounted seat in the front turret. "Well, lad .. what do you reckon ? It must be not so steep away back there, or us Panjandrum couldn't have got this far - by deadreckoning, I say we're not two hundred metres from where it went off." As the engine shuddered to a halt, I popped the hatch above me and looked out. The slope ahead was abrupt, cliff-like in places, a sharp corner of fairly freshly faulted rock showing where it had been roughly thrust up from the ocean floor. And I remembered the first briefing I had heard of this mission - about the strange distant seamounts that had somehow disturbed the wise dwellers in the depths, even before this new resurrection to the land. The mud and ocean ooze covered the steep slopes, carved into gulleys from the drainings of the block above - and somewhere on that block, strange events had taken place. I hoped they were over. Sealing my coverall, I pulled the hood up over my ears, standing up in the bucket-seat while I swapped the useless communication helmet for a more practical kevlar model. Looking at it, I smiled, spotting the old insignia and dates; this had been part of a tram conductor's mechsuit - and for it to have returned from the Continent, its owner must have survived the campaign. A lucky omen, I hoped. "We're here to look around ... " I shrugged, looking down at Barnstoneworth as he wriggled up through the turret ring, squeezing past the breech of the main cannon and its co-axial 185 mm spotter gun, "So .. let's take a look !"

Getting up the slope proved even worse than I had feared. The ooze was knee-deep in places, and flowed slowly down towards the devouring bogs at the foot of the block - we knew we had to stay on the steep but recognisable corner to avoid losing our direction entirely. The thought of getting lost out here, with the ever-present threat of another earthquake sending tsunamis washing over us, was in the back of our minds every second as we sloshed and laboured uphill, slipping and falling till our suits were foul with the glutinous ooze. "Ey .. I think we're not far off top, tha' knows," Barnstoneworth panted after fifteen minutes of desperate labour. "Looks lighter up ahead." "I think so .." I was a little ahead of him, but I had been concentrating on my feet as I scrambled up a steep slab of fractured limestone. "I think we're looking West into the sunset, unless I'm quite turned round ... as if we could tell in this fog." Soon, the slope abruptly levelled out. I stood on a sheer broken edge, with the torn chaos of rock and spilled sea-slime below me, as Barnstoneworth caught up. Suddenly I reached down and wiped some of the ooze away from an oddly regular slab of rock, torn apart at the edge of the block. It was concrete. We stood there, getting our breath back. The top of the block looked much like the land below - but as I scuffed more ooze away, I could trace the edge of the road, a fractured kerb pointing straight back the way we had come. Suddenly Barnstoneworth stiffened. "Hear that ? " He pointed urgently, away into the gloom. "Somethin' out there. Cries, sounded like." I fumbled, muddy-pawed, with my helmet straps, and pulled it off. "Can't hear anything .... are you sure ?" My companion unslung one of the throwaway rocket-launchers from his shoulder, an old Swiss "Miniman" by the look of it. He nodded grimly, extending the folding tube and flipping up the plastic sight. With a gesture he waved me forward, along the lines of the old road, visible as a depression in the muck. The sense of relief at finding a landmark to follow was tempered by a creeping doubt, as I looked at the cracked, weed-choked surface: this was in almost the right spot to be a part of that other mysterious road we had found before the mists closed in, which had vanished from the final pre-milennium map as if the cartographers had belatedly tried to shield the world from what had been there. It might have been two hundred metres, or a little more - we advanced cautiously, skirting the pools of standing water that would have been noisy to splash through. The fur on my tail was trying to stand straight out like a flue-brush inside the coverall ... my eyes, ears and nose were at their fullest alert as we advanced in turns, freezing at the slightest sound. Yet there was only the soft bubbling of the mud, and a distant background of water still escaping over the steep edge of the block away to our right. This time, I was first to freeze in alarm. I had been folowing a long, shallow furrow in the mud, when I came across another one, a few metres long and just perceptibly angled to it. With a few gestures, I told Barnstoneworth what I thought we were looking at, and he nodded we stood at the outer edge of the Panjandrum's effects, where far-flung shrapnel had ploughed into the ground. Half-crouching, I stalked forward, as alert as any of my wild canine ancestors at the hunt, knowing wary prey awaited over the ridge. Then came a scent I knew well - high explosive and burned flesh,

hanging sickly and heavy in the still air. Whatever had been there initially, was no longer a threat to us, I told myself. And then, faint through the mists ahead, the sinister pulsing of the drum-and-bass machines started again. "Nowt much left here." We stood a little later on the edge of a broad, shallow crater. Barnstoneworth looked around, trying to reconstruct what had happened. Here on the top of the block, there was a little more light. Cautiously we had circled the crater, until we found the remaining tracks where the great fighting-wheel had arrived on the scene. "It was heading straight for home, and happened to run up the shallow end of this hill," I mused, half to myself. "Its cameras were running - what did it see ? What was up here ? There's marks here of lots of people, coming from the same direction " - I nodded into the mists towards the mainland. The drumming seemed a little louder now, its sinister rhythm pounding monotonously through the blind clouds. "By the tracks, the people were here first .. all moving along the old road, to that point there." I looked at the great circular mud-splash, and something occurred to me. "Where are they - what's left of them ? I've not found a whisker of anything organic - but I can certainly smell it. This place would have looked like a Siberian butcher's shop, guts all over the place !" "Tha's right," the badger blinked. He waved a twisted shard of metal. "Piece o' the warhead casing. Biggest piece o' Anything we've found. An' it went off right .. here." He stood in the centre of the crater, deep in thought. His arms wrapped tight around his chest, then he suddenly flung them out, hurling the metal shard off into the mist. Then he looked at his feet, and bent down to examine the ground. "Stay there, lad ... there's tracks heading out o' this - fresh ones!" He dropped to all fours, his black nose sniffing. In a minute, he waved me over. "Look .. the crater rim's regular, but .. there. You see ? Headin' off to the far side, like ... but I can't make'em out. Something .. soft, but heavy." We followed the ill-defined traces to a point five metres away from the crater rim, where there was a small, shallower crater. My nose twitched with the smell of fresh blood and burned meat, and I pointed to the colour of the mud. "Looks like somebody ended up here .. or a fair-sized piece did, anyway. But .. then what ?" Barnstoneworth scratched behind his ears, snout wrinkled in worry. "Them funny tracks stopped, then go right past them ...... see, now we know what to look for, you can spot they're going all ower the place. Reckon we'll follow ?" For half an hour we paced across the explosion site, occasionally picking up metal fragments - and once, a shredded cap of odd design, such as you see in the films coming down to us from before the Milennium. The soft marks became oddly clearer, the impressions firmer in the mud - till they abruptly turned away and headed towards the far corner of the block, the steep side opposite where we had climbed. Standing on the edge, I looked out into the unknown gulf. Just as I was going to suggest following further, two things happened. There was a slight tremor beneath us - and somewhere very nearby, a second centre of the drumming broke out. Somewhere, I guessed, on this very block. And then another noise, softer but far more horrible - a kind of odd squeaking, filtering through the mists - a sound I instinctively knew I had never heard in waking life, but that sent panicked signals of

hard-coded terror shrieking from the primal centres of my mind. In that second, I was suddenly very glad that the mists hid us from that which made the sound. I cast Barnstoneworth a glance, and he nodded, giving the "retreat" hand-sign and pointing to the far corner. A fur-prickling sensation was growing by the second, somehow warning us that this was no longer a place for any normal healthy living or undead folk to be lingering. We beat a hasty retreat, moving as fast as the mud and pools of water would allow us - this was no place to twist an ankle. About halfway back to the edge of the block, I spotted something - a single set of fresh tracks, running almost parallel to ours .. with a hiss of warning and a gesture I swerved our course to take a look, neither of us willing to drop below a jogging speed. "Ours ? Can't be .. we were together on this bit .." I panted, waving towards the road some ten metres to our left, our only guide in the cloaking fog. "But .. they're regular Issue boot prints ..... like ours." For perhaps five seconds we risked a stop, looking and sniffing carefully at where the prints angled away from our route, heading back towards the edge at the opposite side to where we had ascended. "Aye .. same tread pattern, an' all," the badger panted. "I recognise them old World War 3 Surplus hobnails anywhere. But we can't follow. Quick now ! " With that he started off again, bending back to the road. Three minutes later we were at the edge, and soon found our prints heading uphill. Looking down at the steep slope we paused again, scanning around nervously, ears and noses twitching. There was nothing to be seen, and with a sick shivering I realised it was getting darker by the minute, as the sun began to set behind the clouds. The drumming echoed around us, though mercifully there was nothing more of the squeaking ... but as I swivelled my ears, there was one sound that faintly reached us from downhill. It seemed to be the sound of turbine engines, but I could not be sure and said nothing. Barnstoneworth was sliding noisily down one of the flowing mud-gulleys at that second, and I doubt that he heard it - in a few seconds I was following him down. After a muddy but uneventful glissade down the steep face of the block, we soon reached the welcome metallic bulk of "Vicious", and without a word were soon stowing our muddy oversuits in the turret lockers and wriggling in through the cupola hatch. The heavy clang of the turret hatch locking above us was one of the most comforting sounds I have ever heard. I looked down at Barnstoneworth, and breathed a sigh of relief. "Well, that's that, I hope .. they can get someone else to volunteer next time." I switched on the electrics, and was pleased to see at least half of the sensors running again. "Back to base, green eggs and ham for tea tonight!" Barnstoneworth nodded, firing up the turboshafts and swinging us around in a lazy, wide turn to follow our outward trail. Below me I could see his striped face in the green and red glow of the instrument lights, muzzle wrinkled with concentration as he stared out into the deepening gloom. After about ten minutes of steady driving at eight knots or so, he stepped down through the gears, ears tilted back in worry. "Eh, lad, I don't like look o' this ... " he growled, bringing us to a halt. "I can see the Vengeance on the radar, all right, but she's moved - three klicks nearer land. She didn't ought to 'ave done that, not wi' landing tanks out in this fog. If us radar was still down,

we'd be lost an' no mistake. Still, there she is - should be plain sailing back 'ome now." Relaxing, he reached down into the ITE rack (In-Tank Entertainment) for a Bulky disc, and soon the inspiring strains of mantra-filed oompah bands reverberated merrily inside the Vicious, theBagshot composite armour ringing tunefully with the sounds of fuelinjected euphoniums and aerospike trombones. In another ten minutes the great slab-sided bulk of our ship loomed out of the mists. As we drove around it, I noticed that some of the lights seemed to have gone out, and others on the top deck were the distinctive blue-white glows of emergency searchlights. "What the .. ? They've shut door on us !" Barnstoneworth's ears went right up in surprise and anger as we rounded the corner to the port side, where the big ramp from "D" deck's tank hangars was pulled up flush with the hull, leaving us parked at the foot of an unassailable eighty-metre wall. He hit the Transmit button to the Bridge frequency, and after a minute in which I learned several new words, there was a faint clunk on the outside of the hull. I popped the hatch and looked up - to see a thin wire ladder reaching up to the top deck. I sighed, switching off the onboard systems as I looked down at the badger in the warm, dry hull below me. "I didn't expect them to roll out the red carpet for us ..... " I gestured towards the narrow, twisting ladder already glistening with condensation from the greasy fog, "But this is ridiculous." "The ship went crazy, ten minutes after you left," Clem explained, after grabbing us off the deck and hustling us straight inside, "It was as if ... I don't know, as if a virus got into the control system. But we've checked, there's nothing like that. Systems starting up and shutting down, all over the place ... all the reactors on B deck switched on to full power, tracks engaged and we were running out of control towards the old shoreline ! Had to run downstairs and hit the manual resets we'd put in ... the automatic shutoffs just weren't taking orders." He led us to a room just off the "C" deck emergency bridge, one of the ubiquitous drinks machines and a dispenser for prestaled biscuits taking up most of the room. "But wait till you see this. It just ... appeared." My tail fur bristled out in shocked suprise, as I looked in. I had worked in this room, a plain silcrete-walled cuboid not four metres along its longest side - there had been nothing in it, except the emergency equipment I had help install. Now there was. A panel had slid back, almost a metre high by three metres long, revealing what looked like an old low-tech LED screen, with a complex shape on it, an intricate meshing of multicoloured lines and planes. I blinked. "It's the Vengeance .... but - look, the fighting roller and everything's marked on it - it's the ship as it was first built!" I had pored over too many tantalisingly incomplete working surveys not to pick out the vessel's distinctive shape. "There ... all the parts in red are missing pieces, lots of orange, yellow and about ten percent green." I scratched my head. "Reactors are all green ... at least, the B deck groups.. could mean green are the fully working systems. But what's that ?" On the cutaway diagram that slowly rotated and shifted to display every surface, the keel of the ship supported eight huge structures displayed in light orange, running the full length of the vessel. They looked vaguely like giant cannon, for they had a straight barrel and a complex, breech-like structure at one end to which a tangle

of various cables and coolant ducts led. But the other end was closed off, in a smaller but equally complex structure that finished behind thick armour plate, the whole system surrounded by giant water ballast tanks. Clem's whiskers drooped. "That's what's down there, locked away forever on "A" deck. Eight of the things! I thought maybe two or three ...... nobody ever put eight boiling-potassium reactors in a ship this small ! " His feline tail fluffed out like a great log as he traced the giant structures, cast into the very structural hull of the vessel. "Saint Stakhanov preserve us ... those must have pumped out enough power to make this ship do a wheelie......" Barnstoneworth tapped my shoulder, and pointed to a fine yellow line up on "D" deck. "That one there. I don't know what it is, but that were orange three minutes back. Changed slow, like ... but it changed, right enough." I cast it a glance. "Well, it could be anything. Could be its way of letting us know there's a water flow when the ship's Heads are flushed." I shrugged. "I don't recognise any of the symbols ... look a bit runic to me. " The badger nodded slowly. "Aye ... mebbe tha's right," he frowned. "But if I were in charge o' this, I'd have someone sittin' here wi' a Comms panel, keepin' a VERY close eye on this thing." We spent ten minutes staring at the panel, but nothing more happened that we could notice - except for the faint impression I got that the entire display was very gradually lightening. It was nothing I could point to exactly, and might have been nothing more than our eyes getting used to the otherwise dim room, and seeing better contrasts. At length, the portable console Clem carried gave an urgent bleeping as it tracked us down . Barnstoneworth answered it, and turned to me. "Prof Grimslaithe an' the rest want to debrief us, like," he jerked a striped thumb in the vague direction of the bridge, far above us on "F" deck. "Come on, lad, let's get us tails into gear." Professor Grimslaithe grilled us for half an hour as to what we had found, out there in the mists on the sinister shore. By his side were two of the Flag Officers, traditionalists in most things like most of their kind. Apart from their rank badges worn on armbands, the two big humans wore nothing but good honest British Woad, the blue plant dye providing a cool and healthy costume in this climate for folk with the figures to carry it well. At length, the baboon relaxed, motioning us to sit down. He waved apologetically. "Sorry to put you through it .. but the other tank, the Viper, found some equally .. disturbing things. " He pulled out a sheaf of instant photos, and a sketch map with our courses marked on it. "They found a large ruined concrete structure, and spent their time exploring it. It was one of those unnaturally large shopping complexes the aboriginal culture here had, years ago .. we could date it by the drive-in Psychosurgery studio, to the very last days, before the tsunamis rolled in." Barnstoneworth nodded, his ears pressed back. "Aye, Prof ... I knows about them. Folk had their brains modified to make themsel's more Statistically Average Consumers .. it were the accepted thing to do." He shook his head slowly. "They 'ad things called "Chat Shows", back then ... it weren't their fault, we know that now." The baboon's ears went back. "The Viper's crew found - these. "

He put on thick neoprene gloves, and pulled out some objects, still half caked in mud, from a heavy lead case. Behind us, one of the human flag officers gagged at the sight, his face turning as pale as his fashionably limed hairstyle. What the objects were, I cannot bring myself to recall - except to say that I had thought them gone from this world after the thousandbomber raids hit Namur, ostensibly to demolish the factories making chocolate teapots and trick melting teaspoons, innocent-looking things that we discovered almost too late to have such hideous ritualisic significance. I was very sorry, then, that I had read the Compte D'Isgny's soul-shattering "Cultes Des Schtroumphs" as a bet in my first year at Asgarth, secure in the friendly ghoul-scented stacks of the University's great Library. Even Barnstoneworth's stripes seemed to lose definition, and his stub tail drooped. "By 'eck ..." he choked out, and for a minute was silent. "But all this area was gone under the waves years before ... that stuff was ever made. Weren't it ?" Professor Grimslaithe shook his head ruefully. "Would that it had. We have evidence that in at least four sites around the world, there was a .. test run, you might say, made before Belgium was chosen as the place for the Invasion to start. The Vicars keep much of the knowledge to themselves, probably for the best ... but somewhere around here, we believe there was a major Site. Have any of you heard ", he hesitated, looking from one face to the other "of the .... Cleethorpes Fragments ?" Wordlessly, we shook our heads. He glanced around, and gave a nod. The two humans left the room and shut the door securely, relief clear on their faces as they left us to it. "Well, we have a few special texts kept under very secure lock and key, at Asgarth. This is something that was found in an ancient piece of furniture being renovated - it had fallen behind the drawers, you see." I felt my fur rising in fear, and suppressed a whimper. I had worked myself on restoring furniture, reviving stripped chipboard kitchen units and the like ... never suspecting there could be sinister secrets concealed. "What .. was it, Sir ?" The baboon turned away from us, his hands clenched behind his back, as he chose his words carefully. "There was a fair-sized sheaf of paper, one way and another. We traced the desk unit to a Cleethorpes travel agent, harmless in itself .. long gone now, of course. It was just one of the brochures, that makes reference to a place very near here, a very large complex that we've picked up very disturbing .. Associations with. There were photos .. from the angle of the sun, and a clock showing the date and time on three of them, our computers fixed the position pretty accurately. There were also some Inhabitants, that might have been people wearing costumes at first .... but not right at the end. Let's say that when they advertised a World Of Magic, they were much nearer the truth than anybody at the time could possibly have thought." Another long silence followed. I thought of the road we had found, back in the days when the sun had shone innocently above us, and all was full of promise. That six-lane road had served a substantial site that had not been a city, as all the maps agreed. Exactly what it had been, and its exact position, was not a comforting thought to those of us stranded here on the sinister shore. Suddenly, Barnstoneworth stirred. "What 'appened to the Vilify, Sir ? That couldn't have bin far off our track. What did they find ?" Professor Grimslaithe gave a dismissive shrug. "Miss Duclos typed in the report, I haven't seen her .... they only got four klicks

away from the ship before their instruments packed in. They spent the whole afternoon parked on a mud-bank, trying to fix their radar, rather than risk getting lost. Even so, they were the last ones back." He frowned. "Very unenterprising, I would say. Next time, I'll send someone who's keener on finding things." As the fog-laden night darkened, I returned to my room. A hot bath washed some of the stains of the day's travel away, but still the very air felt thick and greasy with fog - and even in my narrow room on "D" deck, I found my ears straining to pick out the sinister bass-beat from Outside. Again, sleep eluded me. It felt as if the air was wrapping around me like a thick, foul blanket pressing close against my fur .. my tongue hung out as I panted in the humid air. Standing up, I stretched, and yawned. Exercise could do me nothing but good, I told myself, and strolled out into the echoing, night-shrouded corridors of "D" deck. As I walked, I pondered the events of the day. From the time when I had steered the Panjandrum out into the mists, strange things had happened .. as if I had poked a hidden nest of venemous insects, and they had come swarming out in response. But that was absurd, I told myself - this ship and its fighting-wheels had been dedicated to the extirpation of that which the Belgians had called, long after the healing waves had ended whatever nightmare had been planned here. Professor Grimslaithe's artifacts were a dread piece of history, to be sure, but that surely was all they could be. How long I walked, I cannot say. But I had gone far, circling past my room's uninviting door several times, when I felt a deliciously cool draft of air around my ankles. Dropping to hands and knees, I sniffed - there was no scent to it, rather a pure ice-fresh clarity, as if it had swept from great starlit slopes untouched since the Elder Ones had given up skiing holidays in remote geological fastnesses of Time. Half closing my eyes, I concentrated on my scent and the delicate touch of flowing air on my fur .. as I rounded several corners in search of its source. My eyes were closed for a few seconds, so I cannot say even now that there was a light ahead of me, unlike the dim fluorescent worklights strung by our paws throughout the ship. But I remember a sensation, as if there had been a brilliant white light a second before I opened my eyes and found exactly where I was kneeling. In front of me gaped the door that I had found, the crystal chamber. It had been sealed off while investigations were made - but now it was open, to the darkness. From that door, the cold air flowed. I stood, looking around. I was alone, poised on the threshhold of something unknown, with no witnesses or chance of aid nearby. Like anyone else would, I switched on the light, and stepped inside. The chamber was as I had last seen it, its strangely inlaid walls silverywhite, the high-backed chair standing empty. Empty, and somehow ... folorn, I remember feeling as I looked at it. For most of my life, and maybe longer, it had been filled by the canine whose body we had found there, faithful to death and beyond. Now it was empty, and as I looked, a sensation of loneliness swept over me that I had never felt on any solo mountain or glacier trek. The throne of steel was cool as I sat in it, the welcome coolness as of crisp sheets in a welcome bed. Smooth and hard it might be, but somehow not uncomfortable, the hardness of a sword hilt supremely matched and balanced to my grip. There was no draught here, nor do I remember seeing condensation outside the room as I would have

expected with a cold wind flowing into the saturated miasma that filled the rest of the ship. Sitting there, my arms found themselves relaxed on the rests, which I saw now were finely engraved, that strangely ... developed Runic style that folk better qualified than I had fruitlessly puzzled over. It was like looking at printed modern Greek, if you knew only the most archaic forms four thousand years old - the letters were similar, but the language changed to reflect the new world it described. I yawned. This room was pleasantly cool and I had slept badly since we had left Bermuda, leaving me short several night's worth of true rest. Without meaning to, I fell asleep. Certainly, I slept soundly at first. When the dreams began, they were nothing out of the ordinary. It was a dream of motion, a landscape moving past me as if I was in the nose of a low-flying aircraft - trees and houses just below me, passing to each side. And yet there was no hint of being in any kind of vehicle, only the changing view flowing past on each side, always the same distance below. There was a feeling, too, growing stronger and stronger .. a sense of familiar company that reminded me of the thronged taproom of the Eurocrat's Head back in Asgarth, but more .... urgent, more earnest, and steeled to accept some stern purpose. Then the dream changed, or I saw it from a darker viewpoint. The land around stretched fair and smiling under the sun, but hidden things lurked and festered in secret. There was a Nature book I had read as a pup, with a cut-away drawing showing life in the soil, mortals and immortals playing on the grass above unsuspected things that coiled or burrowed beneath. Here, the sensation was the same. Great monuments were raised that were not what they seemed, images were made familiar around the world whose true meaning was known to a sinister few. Towards the end I saw a feast like that of Trimalchio, with a horror in a covered mall ... as all around the world, things that had been thought made in factories opened their eyes at the same instant, and came lurching and crashing out through shop windows from where they had long watched the living world with patient hunger. Again the dream changed. It was the dream of motion again, but plunged into the hideous whirlpool of a war beyond mortal endurance. Things seemed tiny all around me, specks of motion glowing a virulent painful colour, a tide of filth closing around me, innumerable as army ants. And I fought them - where I turned my gaze there fell sledgehammer blows that tore the landscape apart, or floods of fire that washed the things back like a high-pressure hose. Yet ever there were more and more of them: each wave came closer and closer, until they were crawling over my outer skin ..... The sensation was hideous. Red-hot embers on flesh could barely begin to describe it - all the more so when the entities began to burrow inside. Now I felt despair indeed, as the sensation of company that had sustained me began to fade, candles snuffed out one by one by the trickling pollution, and a darkness fell. But as the voices faded, so did some of the spots of crawling horror, till only a few remained - I wept, though oddly I knew I could not weep, as I felt lives that I vad been part of flare and fade forever. If my gaze now had brought hammer blows falling in the distance, now I concentrated and stabbed within myself, again and again, as if I skewered parasite worms within my veins and arteries. My body torn and shattered, I lay in the unpeopled mud, waiting as darkness fell.

The dream ended and I awoke, gasping. I looked around - the chamber was as I has last seen it, and I was unhurt - checking myself over, I realised I physically felt as healthy and rested as I could remember, once my nerves stopped jangling. Standing up, I was looking again around the room's mysterious engravings, when two things happened. First, there was what I can only describe as a flashback - a thousandfold less than in my dream, but of that unmistakeably hideous crawling sensation within me. And just as I flinched, in the distance I heard the ship's forward Security alarm bell ringing. "We found him just ten minutes ago," the Flag Officer stood over the sheeted form in a corner of "D" deck's main tank hangar. "Boswell Parkinson, one of our Undead liason experts." He shook his head. "He was armed, but didn't have time to draw it .. something must have crept up behind him, and ..... squeezed." The tall human turned pale. "Boswell was a fennec, there's NO way anything should have been able to get behind him !" "You'd need feet made out of feathers, or something like it, to be that quiet," Clem nodded, the feline looking around the hangar he worked in. "Even barefoot with fur, a fennec could hear you. Footsteps, what am I saying ? Anything that breathes, he'd have heard." As the body was carried away, the voice on the comm ordered us all to our stations, for a head count. "All those not on duty," rang the echoes in the suddenly sinister semi-darkness, " Check the rooms on their decks, wake up all sleepers and bring them to "C" deck assembly hall for registering. Security teams, stand by." Clem's tail swished, his whiskers trembling. "Who's on your deck ? I've got the watch lists, but some folk swapped cabins, some moved about .. not everyone's told us." He scanned the lists on his databook, and read out the names. "Anyone else you've seen about ?" I thought for a moment, then my ears picked up. "Minette! Minette Duclos, I've seen her in the corridors, I'm sure she's on this deck somewhere. She'll be asleep by now." The cat looked around, his tail fluffed out and his eyes wide. "There's a killer on board. I'd better come with you; it's no time to be wandering about on your own." Ten minutes walk took us to the quiet end of the ship, where my room was. We knocked on all the doors, opening and glancing inside, checking there was nobody inside. All the occupied rooms belonged to engineers or marines on active shift, who were away at their duty stations. I looked around, scratching my head at a corridor junction, as I thought. "That's all the regular rooms ... but wasn't there a big shell-hoist area, we sealed off ? I think those were made habitable ... I didn't work in there myself." Clem clicked his claws, remembering. "Of course ! This way !" With that, he led me down one of the narrower access passages towards the outer port side of the ship, while I scanned around us nervously as a fighting tram's mid-upper gunner. We found the converted shell hoist, and knocked. There was no reply. I was about to turn the handle, when Clem tapped his nose and pointed to the bottom of the door. Nodding, I got down and sniffed the room through the crack under the door, closing my eyes in concentration even as I gave thanks that this was not one of the original airtight blast-doors from the Vengeance's mysterious first building. I scented Minette, certainly, and a sweet, almost cloying aroma of the distinctive and unfamiliar chocolates she seemed to always carry around. But there was another scent too, which I could hardly identify

at first .... a marine odour, much like that I had scented earlier in the day. Signalling "No Danger", I stood and turned the handle. We looked around, seeing a neatly laid-out bed, not slept in - and the usual kitbags and folding drawers of clothing and effects. I glanced over her Girl Guide full dress uniform as it hung in the open cupboard, and was a little reassured. She had not been wearing it aboard ship, but Minette had the Letitia Scarsdale Medal, awarded only for extreme and conspicuous brutality in the course of duty - anyone who had earned that decoration, had little to fear in the mortal world. Clem's nose wrinkled. "Here's what I can smell ! His booted foot nudged a bundle of heavy rubberised fabric, an oversuit complete with boots and gusseted, fur-compressing tail pouch. "Covered in muck. I thought you always left these out on the tanks ? Standard procedure, if you're not going through decontamination." I shrugged, peering inside an empty mayonnaise jar - finding a few dried ear necklaces, nothing out of the ordinary. . "Not for her. Minette's too young to have been in the EC war ... she doesn't know. She doesn't even believe what happened. Neo-Revisionist, I think Phoebe called her." Clem's eyes looked far away, as he stood silent for a few seconds. "As Robynist scripture tells us .... 'If you believe in Nothing, honey / IT believes in YOU.' Some things don't stop to ask if you believe in their existence." He shivered. "Come on, let's hope she's got to the assembly hall." We made our way swiftly back through the deserted corridors, and lined up along with the rest of the shift to be counted off on the roster. Minette was not there, nor were six other crew members - one of them, Cnuthwald Helsgarth, had been with her on the "Vilify" for the afternoon's exploration. "Right," Professor Grimslaithe looked around at us, the crew roster in his hand. "Someone must have seen these folk - we'll go through the names one by one, everyone sing out where and when they last saw them today. I'll patch it through to all the Duty stations. " He tapped in a few keys on his databook, setting up the correlation program. Name by name, the missing six were read out, and folk racked their brains to recall exactly what they had been doing all day. But as silence fell at last, the Professor's face was grim. Cnuthwald had not been seen since he had clambered into the Vilify's turret after Minette, to head out into the deadly mists. Like us, they had returned to the ship when it was a mass of panic-stricken engineers trying to work out why the systems had suddenly acquired minds of their own - a wire ladder had been let down eventually, but nobody had waited around to see who climbed it. "And Miss Duclos ... she typed her report in from her room, but didn't mention anything untoward..." the baboon looked around at us. "That was half an hour later. You, Jethro, saw her last, on D deck. Are you sure about that ?" Jethro, one of our cooks, looked sheepish despite his goat genes. "I think so, loike," he muttered in the broad tones of the West country.. "Oi sees her at the end o' the corridor, Zurr, bain't no mistakin' that poodle-cut. Seemed to be summon with 'er, but .... " he shook his head, baffled. "Oi can't say more'n that. Oi just gets the feelin', she weren't alone, but oi can't 'zactly say why." There was a silence, and the Professor nodded slowly. After a whispered conversation with two of the Flag Officers at his side, he

gestured to me and Barnstoneworth, to come closer. "There's something else happened, just been reported," he said softly. "Do either of you know how to get an Altar consecrated and tuned in ? The ship's main Altars, and both the backups have been .. sabotaged. We can't call for Divine Intervention - that means we're absolutely on our own here." I winced. My course in Practical and Applied Theology had covered the basics, but establishing a working Altar was a specialist trade that only fully qualified Vicars did these days. "I'll do my best ... if you've got the Unspeakable Manuals handy." Barnstoneworth cast me a glance, the kind you see in classic Disaster films when a failed hang-glider pilot turns out to be the best passenger qualified to land the damaged aerospace liner. "I 'opes tha' knows what tha's doin," the badger growled. "Half the folk as try and get a backyard Altar consecrated ends up dead .. and some o' them ain't so lucky." The professor nodded. "It's a risk, I know. But our long-range radios are still out, and there's no friendly forces with any sort of tech level nearer than Cuba. Even if King Fidel the Third's navy heard us - it'd take days to reach us. You see, we've no real idea how far inland we are. Could be fifty kilometres, if the old coast as far as Cape Canaveral's back to being land" "Aircraft ?" I asked hopefully "I heard before we left that Haiti was petitioning to join the Anti-Nowhere League .... " Instinctively, we all glanced up. The League flew big, "austere" Peruvian Mach three reconaissance bombers, all welded steel and recycled commercial components - maybe right now some turret or waistgunner was looking down on the sea of clouds that hid us, as they flew their weeks-long missions. And just maybe they would be bored, sealed in their suits in the unpressurised craft, scanning the radio frequencies for good Bavarian "Oompah" music, but hearing our distress signal from a hundred thousand feet below. I shook my head, tail drooping. "It's not likely, I know. Not with the sort of luck we've been having." As the rest of the crew either manned their duty stations or prepared to bed down en masse in the big, well-lit hangar, our faces were bleak. But then my ears pricked up, as a sudden inspiration hit me. "I noticed a pile of old computing kit in one of the storerooms back there," the excitement rose in my voice, as the idea flashed up to full throttle. "Maybe most of the folk who tried to get improvised altars online didn't survive the attempt - but we just might be able to learn from their mistakes !" It was a strange group that met in a guarded room half an hour later, carrying varied items of equipment. Using his authority as acting Captain, Professor Grimslaithe had opened the safe all such ships carried, and ceremoniously brought out the little library of Unspeakable Books. Barnstoneworth's fur was looking definitely pale, in brazen defiance of most biological principles. But he had a reason, as he surveyed the pile of dread tomes. There was a copy here of D'Isgny's "Cultes des Schtroumpfs", a worm-gnawed ninetieth edition of Von Tuu's "UberPflaumig Kulten," and even a rare copy from the University's library of the dreaded "Kawaiinomicon" itself, in the suppressed 1985 Milton Keynes printing by the impious translator Filofax(Tm). Newer books were listed as well, some of them originating from not so far from our present anchorage - there was Cotton Mather's "De Plushiensii

Mysterii", and Bri-Nylon Jones' "1001 things to do with a dead WarriorMage." I cleared my throat. "For the ... special information, we'll need the equipment brought back online. Is there anything suitable ?" Just at that moment the door opened, and three ghouls lurched in, heavily laden with electronic equipment. The Professor meeped and glibbered something to them in their language as they plugged it into the wall mains, soon losing me as to what he was explaining - I meeped well enough, but my glibbering lessons had been ended too soon when I was caught up in the military surge preparing for the Liberation. The badger looked on uneasily, watching them busily at work. Whatever their original species, the ghouls tended to converge on a fairly standard form in their new existence, looking rather like strong if slightly decayed generic carnivores. In the dim lights they glistened, their hides a handsomely rubbery, gelatinous texture like the jelly on a fresh meat pie. "Tha's sure tha's got the right kit ?" he queried "This kit looks old , right enough, but if it's just a month too new...." I looked on silently as the ghouls grabbed screwdrivers and torx wrenches, and set about the dead computers in a frankenstinian frenzy of rebuilding. "It looks good so far," I murmured as they glibbered merrily to each other "By the case design, these would have been in use before the Monaco/San Marino exchange, which is our best access point - And I think they've got enough bits." One of them had ripped a case clean open with his admirably strong clawed hands, not bothering with the fiddly patented screws. Tearing a processor chip out and discarding it, he swapped it for another and began to pound it into place with a two-kilo lump hammer. "See ? That dates it, to the right year, even. It's a MIF socket - "Massive Insertion Force", they don't make 'em like that any more..." I gestured as the ghoul swung the hammer with great crashing blows, its well-nourished muscles standing out like those on a flayed Eurocrat ".... Look, Barnstoneworth ! Now what do you say ?" We watched the screen flicker into undeath, resurrected in horrid fashion by the ghoul hackers. The machines were even older than I had hoped, for on the screen was the antique logo of the software company which had bought up the discredited Vatican after the Milennium, when so many savage theological truths had been revealed. As the startup screen proclaiming "Heavenly Gates (R) (C) (Tm) " scrolled up with threats of impalement on extraordinarily blunt and splintery stakes for copyright violators, I grinned. "Pass me that headset - we'll see who we can find !" Half an hour later, the dead computer had made its connection to the shadowy world of the Infranet. I had passed through the San Marino address, whose physical silicon and wiring was now radioactive dust scattered to the winds of the world, its very half-life mostly decayed by now. The original Net had been designed to survive a nuclear strike and carry on - but between the original design and the system that had plugged the San Marino gate to the world on that final day, there was decades of development, much of it unplanned and even unsuspected by those who maintained it. I had heard it said that any complex enough system could develop an Awareness and an Identity of what it was : in enough time some form of Spirit could take shape transcending any physical explanation. This had definitely happened to the Net, when it was at last called upon to cope with what it had always been meant for. Perhaps no other catastrophe would have had the same effect, according to some of

the Cyberpunks and Cyberhippies I had talked with back at Asgarth - but this one attack touched something that had been engrained so deeply in the spirit of the System that it had triggered a wholly unexpected response. At first, the surrounding data routes had simply switched to steer around the destroyed areas, which suprised nobody. But in the weeks that followed, travellers in its furthest realms began reporting things that had not been there before, and which they returned to recount in hushed and disbelieving tones. The nodes of Monaco and San Marino were still there - and in some sense, so were the people who had been Net connected at the instant the missiles hit. Like a phantom limb, the addresses which had been destroyed in that earliest stage of the EC war kept sending strange signals, which no search could ever trace to a physical source. I navigated through the San Marino Gateway to the great central virtual plaza of the World-Wide Catacomb, and sat down. At least, my "Viewpoint" now stopped moving, as I racked my brains to think of someone who might be willing and able to help us. A Vicar would know how to get a modern Altar up and consecrated, if I could find one - but I had only known well our present Vicar, the Reverend "Machete-and-HammerJob" Naismith, who was still alive. His predecessor, The Very Reverend Terence "Nuclear Lunge-Mine" Pobjoy, had indeed laid down his life as he fought an Entity in single combat before the great plastic gates of the Bouncy Castle at Liege, but I had no idea of his Infranet address. By all accounts, it could take years of conventional time before a recently dead spirit reached out back to the living world this way. The world was grey and foggy here, where uncertain regions led off into that strange realm where the information patterns lived that had existed in electronic memories at the instant their life-giving electrical power was cut off. What circumstances had opened this gateway to the living, I hardly knew - but reality itself had taken a battering at the merciless (though adorable) paws of that which the EC had summoned, and many strange things had been reported towards the end. An old friend of my family's had claimed to have fought alongside an entire platoon of clearly recognisable fictional characters, in those final hours when the Legomancers sought to warp Existence enough to bring overwelmingly Cute things through to Earth - and though his sanity points had by then been down to single figures, I still think that he did not lie to me. I hesitated. I could spend hours fruitlessly crawling the WorldWide Catacomb, and the feeling was fast growing that I was running out of time. So I stood there, my viewpoint surrounded by the drifting rain of pixels falling eternally from a million leaking bit-buckets into this eternal land, and concentrated on the story as I had heard it proudly told on many a Sunday morning at the local Temple Of Reason. "In the final days of the Liberation," I began, "In the land that had been taken by the Eurocrats, a Terror ruled. For that land's power was bought at great cost to the world by Legomancers, those who sought to re-word the regulations of Existence. With many a million word their spells were written, reaching out to touch those who their mortal offices ruled, and with each visible Regulation that was obeyed, their Invisible power grew." There was a drifting motion in the pixel snow, as curious ghosts gathered. I glanced at them - some wore antique fractal shirts, and others the dread logos of corporations long forgotten save in hideous tales not quite extinct among the remoter housing estates of my native North Country. But these were all too old: one indistinct figure seemed

indeed to be in CGA resolution, clutching a first-generation joystick whose cable drifted off into the uncertain regions like an astronaut's umbilical line. "And the Eurocrats, those who had raised Power from trafficking with those of Outside, saw their mortal armies facing defeat. For the armoured trams that advanced on Brussels ran on rails of electrified iron, that tied them to the Reality outside, and shielded them from the worst of the Legomancies rained down on them. In their desparation, those who had made Bargains before with those from Outside, called upon them again - and asked again for aid, without this time asking the price." More curious ghosts focussed into view - my heart leaped, for I recognised one wearing the first-generation neural link of the King's Own 2nd Virtual Cavalry, who had fought on the strangely buckling interface of Reality at the end, till Virtually annihilated. But that figure waved and faded, drifting off again out of focus. "Many were the deeds of those hours, many unsung or unguessed by the living, for none returned to tell. In this place and that, deadly strife there was between the Outer fluffiness and the defenders of our space, our Vicars ever foremost amongst them. By their deeds they are known, whether sung or forgotten by those who can sing by grace of the sacrifice they made, in the world Saved by their valour...." There came a strange sensation, and I shivered. I had been exploring a cave once, when a storm-water surge many miles away had begun to enter the system. Even before our section had begun to fill up, leaving us with scant minutes to reach safety, there had been a feeling of pressure, a vibration in the air just below the threshold of conscious thought. Something like it was happening now - I looked around, but nothing visible in the world of mists had changed. Back in the cave, nothing had been visible until a quickening flood had swept through minutes after the warning. "And in those hours when the skies over Brussels began to turn pastel," I continued hurriedly, " All alone came the Reverend "Cordless Hammer-Drill" Trubshaw, evading those of the mortal defenders till he stood before the great gates of Brussels, last of his bretheren to survive so far. All alone was he, save for his unfearing robot, that needs must park a thousand metres outside, for the bending of realities that were sure death to the quantum effects of his electronics - all alone and wholly unarmed save for a perchloric-acid-thrower and the tantalum blades of his rank." "And the Reverend Trubshaw beat on the great rainbow-coloured doors and his voice carried far and deep into that great pit whose floor was no longer of Earth - he called for the Great Fluffed Ones to come out and face him, naming them craven and fit only to receive the worship of Accountants, Lawyers and Marketing Executives. And as his voice rang out and the mortal slaves therein trembled, one indeed of the Stuffed ones, the greatest of those that lay hid awaiting the Opening, came forth." "Very great and terrible was the Pastel Shadow, and its fluffiness knew no bounds. Graven with the dread Heart-rune was the round swell of its tummy, swollen like the dying red-pink sphere of a gas giant star in the final hours before its collapsing. Its voice was like the shrill notes of accursed kazoos, and in its stubby paw it held aloft a mallet, swollen to the size of a small airship and engraved with crayon-scrawled runes of squishing." "But before that unspeakable thing, stood the Reverend Trubshaw, alone and far from aid, there on the edge of mortal reality he stood and challenged IT, in defence of his world, all alone and unwatched save by

the straining distant eyes of his autonomous tram's cameras, he stood uncaring of his fate. And he laughed ! Standing there like a black and silver blade and unafraid, for an instant all the world stood still." "Down came the inflatable mallet, and smote a great perfumed crater in that unhallow'd parking-lot outside the Gate. But the Reverend sprang aside, his tantalum blades ripping deep into the exposed seamline of that huge foot, and the Stuffed One gave a great squeak, and all the plush-slaves in the place below felt their evil hearts quail within their damned breasts." "All through that teatime fought they, while from below the Opening was delayed, and in Mortal lands was readied the final assault. Legomancers shook free from their designs, willing their aid, neglecting for vital minutes the mortal defences of what soon would become unassailable. Stuffing spilled there from the blades of tantalum, six wounds that the Reverend hewed in what part of the Thing that he could reach, till he stumbled at last, wearied by his struggle and the unspeakable Cuteness of that which faced him, which any man else would have long since run from screaming. He stumbled, and the mallet smashed him to the ground , there in the dust and fluff before the Gate." "That Thing loomed over him then, and with adorable toes the greatness of fuel-tankers, ground him like a mime into the tarmac. Yet even as it did so, it looked up, seeing in the last of moments what approached - the downward-slashing contrail of that final assault which burned Brussels from the face of the earth, and which the Reverend Trubshaw had let in by his sacrifice." I ceased, feeling drained myself. All around me the ghosts swarmed and wavered like virtual mist - not a few of them were wearing the tattered suburban camouflage patterns that went with my tale. But they were onlookers, I sensed - they hung around expectantly, as if waiting for something - and not, I somehow guessed, for more of my tales. Something was coming - something or someone, from out of the far distance. Though I could see nothing definite, in the cybermists each figure glowed with a dim auroral light - and some light grew far off, great and diffuse as the sky-glow of a city over a dark horizon. And then I wondered, in that place - far too late, what OTHER things had perished in my tale, that my retelling of it would attract. "Monaco and San Marino survived here, though they were on different sides - " my own heart quailed as the thought seeped around me like cold water running down my neck. "I've seen our Virtual troops here - what if the Things they fought, are down here with them ? " Looking down, I noticed that my "body", or its representation here, was feeling increasingly solid. Which was no bad thing in some ways, as I attuned myself to the WorldWide Catacomb - but it was a two-edged thing. That which was here, could "interact" with me now - one way or another. Hastily, I broke the link, drifting back through the Portal, as if hauled on an elastic tow-rope back to my living body. With a deep breath and a mental command, I woke up. There was no-one in the room with me, as I looked around blinking. Checking my watch, I noticed with shock that three hours had gone by, and night was falling outside. Through the door, I heard the muted sound of voices, and followed it around the corner to the next room around the corridor. "Cheers ! " Phoebe toasted me, her tail twitching a little unsteadily. "Ehhh.. want to .. joing the, Control Group, like ?" "Control Group ?" But then I saw what she meant. Beside her was

an opened crate of Nasti Spumanti, a fizzy Italian wine that was usually intended for breaking over ships' bows, or spraying over crowds by racing champions. "The Professor reckons it's THAT bad ?" For in several battles of the EC wars, regiments had been saved by having a small fraction of their numbers kept immune to Psychological warfare, by having them intoxicated out of their skulls when the attack came in. The vixen nodded, handing me a bottle. "Best job on the ship. But .. the Prof wanted to see you, first." She turned to her databook, and murred in excited interest. "I'm busy .. another eight stories arrived just before the sattelite link went down .. CustomNet's a great innovation, mmm ?" "CustomNet ? Isn't that the one where you put in the sort of story you like, and a program writes it on the spot ?" My ears went down. "It's one thing when we've got undead hardware hackers, but virtual hack writers, I can do without ." The vixen shooed me out. "I've got eight historical dramas customised on 'cruel, haughty Aristocratic lady accidentally impregnated by her mixed-species slave-boy' - what I can do without right now, is company." A few doors down, I found Professor Grimslaithe at one of the ship's main Altars. Barnstoneworth was with him, as were several of the ghouls and two of the Engineering team. The professor sighed, putting an Unspeakable Tome down as I entered. "Ah. Just the canine for the job," the wrinkled baboon smiled, carefully chaining down the book's covers. "Did you find anything helpful on the Infranet ?" My ears drooped. "Nothing useful.", I admitted. And then I stopped, in shock at the book that had been opened here in an unshielded room. "Sir, do you know just what you're dealing with there ? That's an uncensored copy of the "B'harne' Fragments" - do you know what that book can DO ?" The Professor's faded scarlet and blue muzzle twitched, ironically. "I should do. I was there when Eric Otley swore he'd be the first one to read the full text - there was only one copy of the book in existence, obtained in circumstances far to unspeakable to think about." He sighed. "Eric Otley. Poor, brave fool. We only agreed to let him try it wired up to a bio-scanner, in full view of the cameras .. so we could pull him out quick if anything went wrong. But he ... couldn't wait. He stole the book the night before, and locked the door of his room to read it, and that was the last time he was seen alive." He looked at me pityingly. "I heard the screams start, young canine .. I was one of the ones who broke the door down, much too late. You see, he'd done far more than read the book - though he'd managed to burn the final chapter, we saw... indications that he'd started to fill in the "join-the-dots" pictures in it. What they were, we'll never know - he saw what was there, and managed to pull his own head clean off ." I was silent. Taking up the book, I set to work, examining first my dosimiter for my remaining Sanity Points, before going near the Altar. The great black Monolith, main communication centre for the ship (apart from the merely Mortal things such as radios) has been sabotaged, I knew already - by someone who had known exactly what they had to do. Now it was just lifeless stone, fixed in three dimensions its distorted, Euclidean angles made me shudder, as I saw how all the angles fitted in fewer dimensions than they should do. "To use a technical expression," I announced, after half an hour of investigation, "It's bust. We'd be better off starting from scratch and consecrating a new one. Does anyone have any Aeons-old Halian

Artifacts - or a chunk of the lost pinnacle of Dead Ghan'gharoan The Towering ?" Two of the Flag officers put their hands up, and I sighed with relief as they ran off to their quarters to get them. "Well, that's a start," I put the book down, slightly relieved. "Now, till they get back ......" Just then, one of the Ghouls loped into the room, glibbering in alarm. It extended a grave-mould encrusted arm, pointing down the corridor. And I recalled now just where we were - next to that inexplicable room with the chart of the ship in its original, unknown form. Something was evidently amiss there, and my heart lurched at the though of what could have affected our brave ghoul so. We rushed into the small room, and stared blankly for an instant at the old display of the Vengeance. Barnstoneworth cast me a withering clance, his ears pressed right back. "Did I tell them folk to 'ave a chap in here watchin' it wi' a comms link ?" He demanded, his voice aggrieved. "I did. An' did they do it ? Happen not." The display had changed. The shape was the same, the complex threading of systems that I recognised from my weeks of crawling through the ancient ductwork, but the colours had altered in the hours since we had first seen it. Where there had been great tangled skeins of orange light, there now glowed yellow - and whole sections were now a vibrant, healthy green. Clem pointed to a feature that had appeared from out of the details, like a crop circle seen from the air. "What's that ? Looks like a ring-main going around the whole ship, low down - "A" and "B" decks. All in silver, except - there." His claw-extended finger jabbed at a pulsing, purple-black spot some three hundred metres forward of us, on the starboard side. I shivered. Though the runic language on the diagram was unfamiliar still, the symbolism seemed clear. The diagram showed ghostly reds where the uppermost decks had been, and green for systems that were alive and functioning, many of them suddenly returning to life after strange years of silence. If red was total destruction, this black spot spoke of worse, an active, plague-like contagion within the ship itself. As I looked, I felt the burning sensation shift slightly within me. I gasped, and clutched at the wall. Panting, I looked at the diagram, as waves of nausea swept through me. The sensation was as if my body was becoming a rotten fruit, bored through by insects, wasps and grubs crawling within. I pointed at the black spot, urgently. "That's right by the outer hull, on B deck ... " I held my voice steady somehow. "Come on, I know a short-cut down there !" We raced down a side-passage towards the hull, where I had remembered seeing a gap formed by removing one of the point-defence 350 mm gatlings. There was an engineer's ladder hanging into a large, fenced-off gap, the two-metre separation between the inner and outer hulls. I shivered. Towards the stern, the dimensional shearing of the near-miss Psychotronic bomb had pinched the fibre-stone walls almost together. For an instant we looked and listened, before clicking our torches on. Barnstoneworth towed a one-bore shotgun he had snatched from the rack on the way past the duty lounge. The badger nodded, his ears pressed right back down on his skull, and unloaded his weapon from its trailer. "Follow in a minute, lad," he whispered, "I'll give three

whistles in .." he checked his watch "one minute from - now. If it's bad as we reckon, don't come down else. It'll be too late for me." I bowed, pressing his hand, and behind me the Flag officers saluted him gravely. For the unspeakable books we had been browsing through had much to say concerning the diet of the entities this vessel had been dedicated against - and indeed, there had been few prisoners taken in Belgium, for the land had been almost emptied. Where the civilians and our captured comrades had gone to, was a thing most preferred not to speculate; the final draft EC Regulation ( 88665634988c/TX-56 bis ) had mentioned a serious and well-funded scientific study as to whether the Great Stuffed ones really COULD devour enough mortal flesh to tire of it. Barnstoneworth vanished over the edge, the scraping of his hobnailed boots on the ladder tread soon lost in the hum and background mechanical noises of the ship. Indeed, as I listened, I fancied that sound was getting louder, a rushing of liquids through pipes and a thumping of great pumps in the depths below us. The minute seemed to crawl past - but at last, with five seconds to go we heard three distant whistles echo rigingly up. A gasp of relief went around, and I noticed the Professor replace the pin in a grenade he had been holding shut. I nodded, wishing I had remembered to do that - there had been entities that could have left us lying in a pool of sanity points just by appearing in front of us, and a fast release from that horror was a better fate than most on our side recieved. "Cover me ... I'm still not SURE it's him ...." I looked around the strained faces, preparing to descend. The Professor nodded, and I descended, my close-combat Stanley-knife held in my jaws. Descending into the darkness, I felt my heart pounding, and barely suppressed a whine of fear. The hull curved here, the spacer bars between the inner and outer plates blotting out the view above and below me. My head-torch cast long, curving shadows as I looked around - and gasped with relief as I spotted Barnstoneworth standing on an internal squirrel-walk, waving up at me. "Ey, tha' took tha' time gerrin' 'ere, lad," his voice came as a whisper. I looked, and saw he was shaking like a leaf. "Come look at this - did tha' ever see like of it ?" At the far end of the squirrel-walk, there was a shallow crater in the wall - no, more like an area of thick plaster that had been ripped off. Looking, I gasped, the knife falling unheeded to the platform below as my jaws opened in astonishment. Under the outer silcrete layer, was a metal band - at least a metre high, as revealed by the prized-off layer. It was reddish-yellow in colour, and inlaid with some silvery tracing, like the designs in the strange room of crystal. They formed words, or they had done - for a section two metres across had been prized out and destroyed. "I'd heard about this .... but I'd never thought to see one ....." It was the Professor who spoke, the baboon dropping down off the ladder lightly despite his age. He blinked. "The first-generation of Macro-tanks had their main protection over just the first few decks, about up to the waterline - the main enchanted belt. Look ! This tracery ..... It's tantalum foil, I'll bet anyone a case of Kreakstones' Kamikaze Ale on. Formed into runes, circling the ship, and backed onto a copper-foil heat-sink to pass on the energy surges to the cooling system behind." "'Tain't copper FOIL, sir," Barnstoneworth pointed to the deepest gouge in the centre."That copper's five centimetres thick, maybe more - and there's no sayin' how far up it goes. But it wasn't enough.

Feel it ! It's still hot, here !" We winced. "Something ... set these protective runes off... " my throat was dry as I looked around. "Something they were designed to counter - was here just a few minutes ago." The fur on my back began to bristle, as I worked out how far it might have gone since then. The Professor nodded. "And it's still down here with us. Right Now." There was a strained silence. I picked up my Suburban Combat knife, straining every nerve fibre as ears and nose scanned the darkness. Definitely, the ship's background noise was growing - far below us in the curving depths, there was a shuddering like some giant pot boiling over. Down the ladder behind us came more of the crew, crowding on the squirrel-walk and silently filing past us. As the tenth one came down, there came a sudden lurch, as if another earthquake had shaken us. "THERE ! " The hoarse shout came from a black-boilersuited Otter, the only one who had turned round to look behind me. "It .... It...... " He pointed urgently, up the way we had come. Spinning round, I turned to look ........... Even now, I thank the cloaking darkness from protecting me from seeing that which went past us. Only that saved my remaining sanity, but my dosimiter turned bright red in an instant as I looked up - not at IT, indeed, but towards where it had gone. For an instant there was a soft bumping, and then .... that shadow, cast on the wall above me ! That great, rounded shadow ! It looms in my nightmares even now .... what I saw was frightful enough, even though I saw so little of it. There was a scream from above, cut off rather suddenly, and then - a clang, and silence. The ladder fell writhing past us into the gulf like a suicidal snake, leaving just the thirteen of us cut off, clinging to the inner hull. We looked at each other, eyes wide in more than just reaction to the dim light. Down below me, a feline voice nervously began to intone a Robynist Battle Hymn - one I had last heard at S'Hergertensbosch, before the storming of the dread Bouncy Castle that had appeared in such hideous circumstances: "The Face Of Death, Is My Best Friend.... "He Lurks Behind my Favourite Bend.... "And though we meet, we never speak .... "I've got a feeling he's Unique........ "He looks so "He eats his "His leather "I'm sure we crushed, but he's all right food, he sleeps at night ...... jacket's quite like mine two would get on Fine ......

"But someday I'll make him Mine, "l'l wear your face ! I'll come to tea "My place or yours - and then you'll see... "It's like walking through a Mirror ....." "Mirror........" the echo faded away, as the darkness began to sap our courage. We stood, spread out over two squirrel-walks, one about five metres lower than the other, with a steep punched-steel staircase leading down out of sight found the curve in the armour. The Professor looked around himself, his long baboon fangs exposed in a rictus of fear and strain. "No way back up to THAT doorway, I fear - it's closed from the far side ... and maybe something is guarding it yet. So - if we can't go up - we'll go down !"

There was a moment of silence. I looked around, still shivering in panic fear, my nerves jangling like a dropped glass bowl that would have smashed with a tiny fraction more impact. And then I nodded too. We went down. Three stories of descent brought us to the very keel of the ship - the walkway two metres wide that separated the inner and outer hulls. Only the floor itself was flat - above us and along that road the hull curved, leaving us very little visibility, nothing past forty paces in any direction. Halting, we assembled for a head-count. Professor Grimslaithe looked around, putting his famous memory to good use as he identified us from the three hundred and sixty-strong crew of the Vengeance. "Barnstoneworth, Guthfreide, Aelfwine, Leofric, Melanor, Clem, Ethelred, Hengist, Eric, Cuthbert, Dibble, Grubb. Thirteen of us .. a lucky number - we may need that." "Thirteen .. not many of us..", Hengist muttered behind me. Under the EC rule, folk had only been known as numbers and bar-codes those who had never been allowed names at birth had chosen them after the Liberation, and in the mood of the times, tended to choose classical English ones. I had always voted Jingoist myself, though they had lost the previous election and been ousted by the Neo-Dadaists. The Profesor led, Barnstoneworth following with his one-bore, then the rest of us. We gathered at the foot of the squirrelwalk, feeling dread build as tangibly as if a waterfall of fear was spilling down the curving wall above us. Suddenly, one of the feline engineers in front of me stiffened, her tail twitching. "Something over there, sir !" She pointed to the middle of the narrow corridor , where low mounds of debris emerged from the ankle-deep pools of condensation that sloshed at our boots. "Guthfriede, isn't it ?" Professor Grimslaithe peered at her in the gloom. "Let's take a look - but cautious. " He motioned Clem to join her, and the two felines slowly picked their way forward, testing every footstep. I saw Clem turn and glance back once, his night-eyes fully wide and glinting green in the light of our torches, the glow reflecting eerily off dark waters around us. Thirty paces away, we saw Guthfriede pick something up something that glittered slightly. "Bayonet, sir," she called back. "Broken, snapped off at the hilt." "Nothing else that we can see, Prof," Clem waved us forwards, a minute later. "Looks safe." Barnstoneworth sloshed over to join them, his one-bore shotgun trundling after on its two-wheeled carriage, the wheels making an evenly paired V wake like a towed catamaran. As I joined him, his striped forehead was furrowed in a deep frown. "We're right below where that hole was ripped in the main enchanted belt," he whispered, his voice echoing eerily as we gathered round. "Look - this debris is part of the inner hull - and it didn't fall down fifteen years ago, I'll bet. And this - " he held the broken blade gingerly "Anyone else recognise it ? Because I do." "And me !" Guthfriede nodded. "It's a Girl Scout issue bayonet. But .." she frowned. "It's not quite right. It should be cruciform in section, this is triangular. And all the modern models are zirconium ceramic fibre, you just CAN'T break them like that, not if you ran the Vengeance over them !" The Professor's wrinkled muzzle creased further, as he looked at her. "An older pattern ? Or ... a different branch of the Service, perhaps ?"

Guthfriede shrugged. "Sorry, Sir .. I couldn't tell you. I know some folk joined for the uniform, I just joined for the brutality, and the camp-fire songs." "And the forced marches .. they were good too ..." murmured an ursine reactor technician behind me, her mind clinging to happy memories as we stood ankle-deep in dread, trapped within our own vessel. "Pack-drill ..lots of Pack-drill. Hours of free bayonet-drill, expert tuition from Olympic record-holders, every day .... " Guthfriede nodded wistfully, before snapping to attention. "Sorry, Sir - I can't say where it's from. But it's not current issue, anyway." "Hmmm. So .. where now ? There should be some other way back into the core of the ship." The Professor glanced round at us. "Ideas ?" Clem winced slightly. "I've got an idea .. but I don't think you're going to like it .." Half an hour later, we stood a hundred metres or so from the stern of the Vengeance - years before, the Psychotronic bomb's dimensional shearing had pinched shut the massive walls like so much wet clay, forcing us to go right around to the prow and back. Here, Clem had surveyed the ship for radiation leaks while it lay off Asgarth in happier days, seeming long ago now as we shivered in the humid air, the lights on our helmets sculpting misty cones and turning exposed dewglistening fur to diamond-dust. "Rest ! I think we'll need it." Clem waved us back, as he approached the narrowing defile between the walls. "There's a way into the ship - at least, there's a way further into the ship. How far it goes ... " he winced. "It's "A" deck, isn't it ? " Barnstoneworth looked at the feline, ears flat . "Tha's gonna try and gerrus in through THERE ? Happen we'll not want for lights in there - place still glows in t'dark, from what tha's told us." "There's no other way !" Clem snapped, his tail bristling right out under his coverall. "The only other way up is the way we came in and you're welcome to try that one !" I shivered. Looking around, the walls curved steeply, their once smooth curves distorted by the dimensional blast that had almost crippled the ship. Far above, I could see a faint glow, a gap in the inner hull where one of the turrets had been. From round the curve of the hull, the ship's interior lights shone faintly down, like an unattainable star constellation. "If we could get up there, or send a message, folk could drop us a ladder down." "If we could ! " The Professor nodded. "You might be in with a chance - not here, but where the walls narrow further on, maybe a good climber could risk it, wedging their way up. It's five storeys up , I'd think - too far to throw a message. Right here, there was never a vertical archer of Belgium that could have hit the opening round that curve." "Of ... Belgium ?" I felt my heart lurch within me. "Sir ... what do you mean .. I'd never heard of .... that." "Aye." Barnstoneworth turned to me, his stumpy tail bristling almost skunk-wide in shock. "Did they do that ? Folk don't talk about those days ..." The elderly baboon shrugged, as he picked his way forward, following Clem to a heavily sealed door. "Little to tell, really. One of their national hobbies, from back before the EC was even formed. A harmless pastime, and a useful way to practice archery in crowded towns with no room for proper ranges. Suspend the target right above, and

make sure you're wearing a good helmet for the shafts that miss and come back again. But what about it ? I think it's been extinct for a generation. " Barnstoneworth shook his striped muzzle slowly, his eyes wide. "Wish you were right, sir .... ". He turned to me, and winced. "Shall you tell 'im, or shall I ?" When Barnstoneworth had finished, there was a tense silence. At length, the Professor stirred, his muzzle wrinkled in worry, the bright blue and scarlets of his face looking pale and bleached under the wavering beams of our head-torches. "So ... we have this Miss Duclos .. the one who went out today, and never reported finding anything ... but who seems to have lost her crewmate. She ... practices a sport I'd not thought of in twenty years - what else does she .. emulate ? " "Sir, she can't be to blame, surely !" Guthfriede burst in. "I've seen her Girl Scout badges - you don't get those issued in breakfast cereal boxes ! She's got the Deborah Fforbes-Umiatora badge in freestyle interrogation techniques, I mean, and I'd only ever SEEN one of those before !" Barnstoneworth nodded slowly. "Aye, lass. Reckon tha's right. But she drinks fruit-flavoured beers and troffs on exotic chocolate that I've not heard tell of in a long while, like .. where did she get 'em from, eh ? Last bottles o' raspberry ale I saw, had an EC code on t' bottle." Just then, there was a low call from Clem, his tail just visible from round the buckled corner where the inner wall had flowed like melted wax from a guttered candle. "This is the place !" We hurried forward. Almost buried in the slumped inner wall was a low circular portal - it seemed to have been wholly buried at one time, as the fused scars showed where our engineers had cut the covering silcrete away with thermite. Little more than a metre across, the door had a pressure gague and a thick glass viewport in the centre, no light showing from within. Eight hefty steel turnbuckles clamped the door shut, locking star-shaped lugs like the breech-block of a giant artillery piece. "By 'Eck, " Barnstoneworth breathed, looking at it. He handed me his spare quart rum bottle, and I took a warming pull. "Folk didn't want that door to open in the wind, eh ?" Clem tapped the seal, pointing at the pressure gague. "It's under negative air pressure, so we can't ..." His ears suddenly shot up in alarm - as the gague's needle suddenly swung at his tapping. "Hellfire ! It must have been stuck ! We've been checking it every day, but .. it might have been lying to us for weeks !" "And you were using an air-pressure gague as a security alarm ?" Professor Grimslaithe demanded. He shook his muzzle sorrowfully. "I'd hoped you'd built better than that. Anything could be happening in there." As if the ship had heard him, there came a deep vibration in the hull. From beyond the outer plates, a familiar sound rolled through the narrow space. The ship was slowly moving, on its tracks. "OK. We'd best get IN there," Clem's whiskers twitched nervously, pulling a geiger counter off his belt. "Lend a hand, folks ? This is about two tonnes of lead-backed cast-iron, Barnstoneworth you're right about folk not wanting it open by accident." Five minutes of straining and effort opened the door. A huge, multi-layered plug of heavy metal slid out on its bearings, the smooth unrusting teflon sliding as half a dozen of us pushed its huge mass aside. Panting, we looked through.

I had become familiar with the "B" deck reactors, on the floor above us. Those had been rather dull brick-shapes of silicrete, all their workings hidden by the thick shielding. This was different. Dim in the light of our torches, what we could see of "A" deck ran the full length and breadth of the ship, ten minutes brisk walk from end to end. The roof above was slightly arched, with dimly glowing green panels that showed nothing - only revealing their own pallid forms in the darkness. "Tritium lights, I'll bet .." I gestured up towards them. "Halflife of twelve years, no wonder there's not much left in them. But .. ones that size ? It's not the cost, but ... who'd put those sort of resources to waste ? We had fusion reactors paying top whack for every milligram of tritium, well before the EC wars, didn't we ?" "We did," confirmed the Professor. Then he frowned. "Yes, WE did. This is the only part of the ship that's never been worked on, since it was built. But - who built it ? All the books say the first ones came out of St.Pierre and the other havens folk fled to. But ... this ship is old. It's too old, and too .. expensive. That copper backing on the enchanted belt, back there ..." he shook his head. "And these tritium lights. Somehow I don't think this is Miquelon built." I nodded. Though I had never been outside the old Europe, I knew the tale well, of the exodus from the tightening grip of the Legomancers. Small, scattered islands that had been uneconomic to attract the EC were secretly rebuilt first as havens, then springboards to launch the Liberation - most macro-tanks had been forged in the massive industrial complexes under the isles of St.Pierre and Miquelon, and crewed from the teeming millions inhabiting Kergulen, Pitcairn and Bouvet Isles. The thirteen of us spread out, a few paces apart, at his orders - to look for a way out, and to look for anything unusual. What that might be, he did not tell us - but there was a curious gleam in his eye, as we picked our way forward towards the centre of the great echoing space. Two hundred paces in from the hull, a great dark shape the height of a railway embankment looked out of the shadows. One of the ancient weapons systems reactors, I told myself, recalling the diagrams that had appeared so mysteriously on the Ready Room wall. I gestured at it to Clem, next to me - he nodded, understanding, scanning it with his geiger counter. "About five rems an hour," he called out softly. "We don't want to set up Base Camp here, but ... it's not too bad. These haven't been fired up since Belgium." As we approached, the details of the huge tube resolved themselves - a great cylinder ran the length of the ship, looking here like an oil pipeline ten metres thick, supported on thick silcrete cradles and laced in lesser coolant pipes. At each end of the ship were the reactor cores, lost in the gloom still and yet an ever-present thought in our minds as we picked our way forward. The ursine reactor technician, Melanor as I recalled her name was, had been a few paces ahead of me, eager to examine the gargantuan piece of engineering. She reached up to one of the pipes - and gave a grunt of suprise. "There's writing on this !" She called over. "It's that strange one we keep finding everywhere - and another script .. this one, I recognise." We gathered round. She had found a plastic tag tied to a complex electrical mechanism full of switchgear, which was covered in writing. Professor Grimslaithe took it carefully, peering at the script in the

light of the torches. "Fascinating .. it's a paralell inscription - one's printed, the other's hand-written underneath each symbol - I think the language is the same !" He turned round to look at us, excited. "The handwritten one is standard European 'Futhark' series Runic script, with a few twists .. I'll have to examine it when we've more time and more light. But keep your eyes open for more like this one." For a minute we halted, resting while Clem and Barnstoneworth passed their bottles around - I cursed myself for having left my daily rum ration behind in my room. A hundred paces or so towards the stern, the furthest beams of our torches suggested a bridge or walkway crossing the first reactor. Clem's keen ears perked up, and he frowned as he looked up. "B deck's drive ractors sound like they're all on full power. But ... I don't hear the tracks or the water jets, going .. at least, they're not running anything like that fast. In fact , I'd swear we're barely moving." "So ?" I queried, as we approached the skeletal steel bridge, a single curving arch rising over the great tube that housed the MHD coils of the boiling-potassium reactor "We don't want to be moving anywhere the slower we're going, the better." "So ? We've got all our B deck systems powering up - where's the power going to ? If it's not running the tracks ......" He broke off, eyes wide in horror as he reached the top of the bridge, and looked down at the great curve of the tube below him. His nose twitched, anxiously. Suddenly, Barnstoneworth dropped to the steel decking of the bridge, reaching down over the edge to touch the tube. His body jerked as if shocked, and he scrambled to his feet. "Tha' scents hot oil, right ? Well, I tell thi' where t' power's going to ." He paused a second, gesturing to the expanse of metal below us. "Tha' told us, Clem, nobody knows how to power one of these up any more ? Well, somebody knows - 'coz it's getting ready to come online reet now !" There was an instant's grim silence - then moving as one, we hurried forward over the bridge. For Clem had explained how these huge systems worked - on full power, the white-hot reactor core would function like a jet engine, accelerating a plume of potassium vapour to nearly two kilometres per second, streaming down the tube below our feet. The magnetic braking at the far end produced huge electrical currents, thousands of amps for the ship to draw on - but to cut down on weight in an area never designed to be crewed, the unknown builders had left out most of the shielding. As if on cue, the geiger counter at Clem's waist began to click and hiss urgently. "If .. we're in here while these things start up ..." the Professor panted, as we hurried forward to the bridge over the second tube ... "we're toast. And How ? How can these systems start up didn't you disable the control systems ?" "With an axe, and ten kilos of thermite," Clem's tail bristled wide in panic, as he led the way. "But this ship just keeps on getting healthier - unlike us .." We ran. Seven more bridges, seven huge tubes, and by the eighth one our paws could feel the heat rising from the MHD coils, as they switched into induction-furnace mode and started to melt the potassium into working fluid ready for the awakening reactors. In a few minutes we reached the far side of the vessel, where another squirrel-walk led up into an enclosed duct. The ship trembled, like a racehorse poised to leap into action - and as the last of us crowded up the stairs, the

counter emitted a loud chirping scream. "Out of here - Now!" Barnstoneworth dropped the towing rope of his one-bore and was up the stairs like a burning mime, the stocky badger moving faster than I had ever seen anyone except a cheetah sprint. The duct slanted up at nearly sixty degrees, becoming a ladder, leading up to a closed hatch two sories above us. "It's no good, that hatch is welded .." Clem called up, anguish in his voice. But he looked up, as Barnstoneworth slammed into it, and the metre-wide plate crashed open. "Shut ..." he finished, his nighteyes going still wider in shock. We poured up through the hatch like panicked express train, Melanor at the rear slamming it shut behind us and sitting firmly on it. After a second she realised what she was doing and winced, jumping up and wiping her broad rump as if to clean it. I looked around, my tongue hanging out as I gasped for breath. The corridor was dark, the air strangely stale and cool, unlike the rest of the ship. "Clem .. did you weld that hatch, or use chewing-gum ?" The engineer's ears went down, as he examined it. "We arcwelded every way down into the A deck, the first week we took over the ship. Tested the welds, too, ultrasound and pressure seal. But .. " he blinked, ears going back up in interest, "we labelled them all, too. Every hatch and room is labelled - and this one isn't. Where ARE we ?" The corridor seemed identical to the ones we had come to know so well , starting from the hatch we were mostly looking at so nervously, and running straight to where it turned a corner that headed inboard. But the Professor's technicolour face creased in a frown, looking up at the ceiling. "Labelling isn't the only thing that's missing. The lights, and data cables !" I followed his gaze, and understood. Our first real job of restoring the ship had been to string bundles of cables through every passage, replacing the old lights, and powering the equipment we had to install to replace the strangely incompatible mechanisms that had so puzzled us. "Ey .. this is a reet funny place, though but," Barnstoneworth nodded, glancing round nervously. "Best explore - cautious, like. Ethelred, take lead - tha's had most experience. Two years in that Short-Range Patrol Group, wasn't it ?" I nodded, looking down the corridor as Barnstoneworth handed me a pair of small offensive grenades and two inoffensive ones. "Lights down - follow twenty paces behind," I whispered, dropping to all fours. As all but two head-torches were switched off, I closed my eyes and waited a minute for my vision to adjust before slowly moving off. We had to assume there were foes around that corner, and every corner - and though they must have heard us open the hatch, there was no reason to let them know we were moving closer. The corridor seemed longer in the dim light, as I pressed close to the right-hand wall, all senses alert. Rough silcrete underfoot was lightly scattered with dust and small fragments, grating as I moved . Taking my cap off, I began to sweep the dust silently from my track ahead, disturbing the debris of years - how many years, I found myself asking . From near the floor the angles altered subtly, arching higher above me in the dim shadows cast from behind. At the corner, I halted. Closing my eyes, I scented the air ahead. It was cold, stale air, with no hint of draught against my whiskers. And faintly, was that same forest-floor scent I had smelled once before on the Vengeance.

Five metres round the corner, the passage ended. There was a door, sealed tight and scrawled with smeared, hastily-scrawled black runes - and a thing at the doorstep, that my eyes took a few seconds to make sense of. I stood, and waved the party forward, as I switched my headtorch back on. "Here's someone who could tell us a lot," I nodded towards the door, breathing easily again. "But I don't think he's going to, somehow." While Clem and the technicians looked at the sealed doorway, I joined Barnstoneworth and the Professor as we bent over the second member we had found of the ship's original crew. Moving the husk from the doorstep, we laid him down reverently at the corner of the passage and though I say He, there was little more than a sketeton remaining, and neither of us were practiced enough as anatomists to work out more than the species. "Another wolf, like you," the Professor nodded to me. "Same general uniform as the one we found in that crystal chamber, on the steel throne - but this is a trooper. Look," he pointed to a breastplate and helmet, still strapped onto the brittle body "What sort of ... threat would you design these against ? Black steel, not kevlar covered in runes and lots of black spiky bits." Barnstoneworth's eyes widened. He nodded towards the door, where similar runes were smeared. "Aye, Prof - there's things tha' fights off with blood-graven runes, that laughs at rifle fire." He paused. "Think on it. He's only one we found here - mebbe the last one left. Gets in here, badly wounded, can't go down to A deck wi' reactors running. So he seals t'door, writes a last-ditch protection in chap's own blood, like enough. There's dark stains all around t'floor, see ? An' there he waits for rescue, mebbe. " He looked down at the shrunken form, bleached fur seemingly shrink-wrapped on the bones. All those years he had lain there, and no help had come. Reverently, we searched the mummified form. There was a plastic wallet in an inner pocket, though the body's decay had soaked and rotted its papers years ago. Suddenly, I noticed a plastic edge in the corroded mass of cellulose. Wordlessly, I slit it free and looked at it. "It's a photograph - a holiday snap ?" I blinked, showing it round. It was stained, but just legibly a snow scene, of six heavilyinsulated canines standing on a snowy peak. The distant view was simply snow and icefields, stretching out as far as we could see. "Gizzit," Barnstoneworth reached for it. He unclipped the rum flask at his belt, and dampened the old film a little. Frowning, he scrubbed at the image with a striped finger. "Tha' sees, lad ? Aurorae Borealis, thought I could see summat behind 'em. Could be folk from Greenland Anarchist Non-State, reckon. Or ...." he stopped, his brow furrowed. "Thing is, they weren't set up back then. " "There's an Aurora Australis at the South Pole, too," the Profesor reminded us. He rummaged further, his dextrous primate fingers searching through the belt pouches and smock pockets. "And ... what do you make of this ?" He held up a silvery box, just palm-sized, looking something like an antique personal stereo. I shrugged. "Some form of measuring device ? Could be a geiger counter, if he expected to come anywhere near here," I nodded back towards the hatchway. "I'll have to get it into my workshop, see what X-rays and ultrasound can see in it. Thinking of which ..." Just as I turned my head towards the door, I heard a muted cheer. With his shoulder against it and Melanor shoving behind, Clem

slowly slid the door open, revealing another dark corridor. Cautiously the cat stepped through, flashing his headtorch upward. "It's our part of the ship - it's our wiring and lights," his whisper carried back down the narrow corridor towards us. "But .. the lights are out and ... I can't hear anybody around !" Stealthily, the thirteen of us looked out into the ship. The door that we had opened was a solid, twenty-centimetre panel of inner hull plate that sealed tracelessly from the outer passage, its hinge line looking exactly like any other construction joint. As we went on, we searched through one room after another, looking for our comrades. Before we left the hidden chamber, Barnstoneworth had suddenly stiffened, every hair bristling - for a second he had looked around wildly, before relaxing. He had turned to me, and for an instant I somehow failed to recognise him. Gently, the badger knelt over the shrivelled figure and unfastened the neoprene staps of the breastplate and helmet. "If tha's goin' point, mebbe tha'd best tek this." He hesitated, a strange look in his eyes. "He'd have wanted you to have 'em." Section after section, we moved through the engineering section of B deck - the propulsion reactors had quitened down, and by the lack of vibration we had stopped moving. "Quieter than the grave," Guthfriede whispered. "Where are the ghouls ? There's always some down here - we're not two compartments away from their main nest." "I can smell something," I nodded. "Ghouls, yes, but .. it's faint. And .. something else." For the past ten minutes we had been moving in a style I found reassuringly familiar - split into two groups of six, we advanced in turns from one corner to the next, each of us watching their set direction. I led the way, nostrils sniffing delicately, and eyes wide in the gloom - the armour fitted as if customised for me, its radically spiky bits well engineered not to catch on too many things as I moved. "Main nest," I whispered, a few minutes later. Reaching for my unlit headtorch, I hesitated, standing pressed to the side of the doorframe - then I hit the torch switch, lobbed the bright light in and rolled in after it, scurrying away from the silhouetting frame of the door. Nothing happened. My ears strained, for the familiar meeping and glibbering sounds, and the appetising gnawing noises that normally filled this place. But there was nothing, only an empty silence. I gave a soft whistle, and five torches swept the room from the doorway. "Oh my Goddess...." I heard Melanor's panicked grunt. "All those bones ......." "The bodies piled up shoulder-high .. a charnel-pit ....", Guthfriede gasped, looking in. I nodded, scanning my own torch around the emptied room. "Exactly. Where's it all GONE to ?" Just then, the floor rocked again, as another tremor shook the unquiet land. The ship vibrated, ringing for several minutes as the great open corridors resonated like organ-pipes. At last, the shaking ceased. "About six on the Richter scale," the Professor rose to his feet, dusting himself down. "And it just kept going .... somewhere, there's a lot of earth movement going on." He frowned, looking around. "But ... that's not our concern. What's happened here ? Looks like the

place has been .. cleaned out." "Sponged clean," the otter behind me shivered, pointing his torch up to the doorframe. "Look ! Those marks .... as if something .... huge, and soft came through ... took, like .. Everything !" He winced, his eyes going wide, trembling uncontrollably as he stared wildly around him. "IT ... and I almost saw .. IT ..." I grabbed him, pulling his dosimiter out of his pocket - it had turned bright red. His temporary Sanity points were at zero, with the repeated exposures he had taken that day . Any further deterioration would start exponentially degrading his permanent points. "Quick, folks - first aid, now !" Barnstoneworth nodded, waving forward the few of us with mental first aid experience. While the badger slapped some sense into him, Melanor earnestly threatened him with an asylum, and Guthfriede sat down and firmly and repeatedly told him to pull himself together. After a few minutes, his dosimiter turned merely orange - recoverable on his own resources. "He should be all right for now, Sir ... " I nodded to Professor Grimslaithe, who was busily examining the room. There was the usual armoury off to one side of the entrance, and we all tooled up. Though as I stared around, I realised that it would probably help little against the kind of Entity that I dreaded was amongst us. "He could use a transfusion, if we've any of the Swiss sanity points in stock. In fact .." I pulled out my own dosimiter, and winced at the reading. "I could use one myself, fairly soon." The baboon frowned. "We're a long way from the sickbay .. fastest way might be up the outer stairs, in across E deck. And .. that way, we could take a look outside, maybe see where we've got to." In the gloom we advanced, our footsteps echoing oddly. There was something altered here - I had been on the ship before alone, when only the ghosts of its former crew had walked its halls - now, it had changed. A Presence was here, something we had never felt before - and as we searched room after room, the feeling of dread grew. Reaching C deck, we looked around the great kitchens. There had been a meal in preparation; fresh food was on the tables, and my nose twitched at the delicious aroma of reprocessed Chinese pork lard. Only a knocked-over chair lay in mute testimony to whatever had happened. In a side-chamber I saw movement - and dived in low, acid-thrower ready to spray. Behind me, Barnstoneworth tutted. "Nay, lad. It's EC stuff, all right, but it's nowt we didn't have before." On the benches were a dozen melons being carved into fanciful 3-D sculptures for the Captain's Table, each one strapped securely into the computer-controlled grip of an old EC surplus Lobotomatic. We sighed with relief, until Clem looked at the programme timer on one of the hard-used cerebrosculptors. "It's only half way through a forty-minute cycle." He pointed at the little screen, and looked around the deserted room. "Not twenty minutes ago - folk were preparing high tea in here." Silence fell, broken only by the crunching of the power trepans on rough melon-rind. "Further up, and further in," Professor Grimslaithe pointed at the exit. "And if we were going carefully before - now we try harder !" Moving cautiously from doorway to doorway, it took us half an hour to cross the ship to reach E deck, the uppermost complete level. At the top of the walkway, I looked out into the huge, echoing tank hangars. There was a little light here, a grey blur, that I recognised as the open hatch of the great landing-ramp. Silhouetted against it were three huge shapes.

Barnstoneworth must have heard me gasp, for he tapped me reassuringly on the shoulder. "Eh, lad, tha shoulda recognise them. Them's Viper, Vicious an' Vilify - looks like folk had time to get us landin' tanks aboard before ship moved." Embarrassed, I nodded. "It might be an idea to go there. There's equipment onboard, weapons and comms gear that we could use." I looked around the great echoing bay, feeling wide-open and vulnerable with our head-torches visible a mile away to anything that might be there to see. And there was something reassuring about slamming a lockable turret hatch down, in an unknown and threatening world. We reached the little landing-tanks without incident, and looked around. They were parked barely ten metres away from the edge of the open hatch, turrets pointing into the ship. I frowned. "These should be pointing the other way. It's always top priority, before you refuel or bomb them up. It's as if ... " I looked around at a dozen faces, anxious in the ghostly light. "It's as if folk just had time to get them on board. But only just." While the rest of the party searched through the little ninetytonne runabouts, I edged towards the open hatchway, gaping open and just wide enough to drive the three vehicles up abreast. The light was dim, a foggy night lying heavy on the forbidden lands outside. Looking up, for an instant a star shone through a ragged gap in the swirling vapours. Professor Grimslaithe joined me, staring out into the gloom. The landing-ramp led down out of sight, plunging into the fog. He gestured up at the dark, lowering skies, his technicolour face bleached to stained muddy hues in the dimness. "It's clearing up, just a bit. If we could just see where we were, or even what direction we're facing, I'd be happier." We looked out for a minute, before I stiffened in fear. Close now, was that sound we had come to dread - the deadly pulsations of the Native's drum-and-bass machines, somewhere hidden in the choking mists. "They're out there." The Professor's face was grim. "We don't know a lot about this part of the world, since the Milennium." He shivered. "There's a few of the more obscure stanzas of the Cleethorps Fragments, that might be referring to them." He paused. Suddenly, his eyes widened. "This landing-ramp ..." he said slowly. "It's still here - but the ship's moved. And it's only got a torsion tolerance of .. about ten degrees - if you turn any sharper corners with the ramp trailing, you'll rip it off. So ...." his eyes closed in concentration, picturing courses and maps, "so ... that puts us almost on the mainland. At least, it's towards that odd upthrust ridge you and Barnstoneworth explored." "Aye, that's so," that worthy nodded, coming up behind us, now helmeted and towing a perchloric-acid thrower. "An' summat else, Prof ? That road us found, first day here. That was on top o' the ridge, though it's not on the final series maps. If we're headin' towards t'ridge, we're headin' right down t' road. Who knows what's waitin' fer us, like ?" "The Magic Stays", The Professor Grimslaith intoned. "That's from the Eighth Brochure of the Cleethorpes Fragments, the one where they located its original position on the planet by the sun angles and a timestamp recovered from the photograph. " He paused. "We were all too near that site, even before we went aground. I think this part of the world got through one of their Civil Wars with nothing worse than thermonuclear carpet-bombing ... the fallout decays, but ... maybe something else doesn't. I just wonder ... how much stays." As he talked, we had slowly moved away from the yawning maw of

the launching ramp, towards the landing-tanks. Just then, something gave a loud chirp. We all jumped in suprise, looking around us. "Clem - is that your geiger ?" I called out softly, my tail pressed between by legs in panic. But then the sound came again - from my own pocket. I pulled out the metallic box that had rested for so many years with the lost wolf, turning it over in my paws. He had been lightly equipped, carrying nothing except absolute essentials, and this had been part of his kit. There seemed to be no controls on it, no indications what it was for - but as I swung it around, it chirped again. "Ey lad, back off a bit, and see if it's directional, or what," Barnstoneworth advised. I nodded, moving out to the centre of the hangar, and swung it again - getting a fainter chirp, pointing towards the landing-tanks. A few minutes circling left me where I had begun facing the Vilify, Minette's vehicle. Clem ran his geiger over the whole vehicle, frowning as he tuned it to its highest sensitivity. "It's not hot, nothing above background and the others are just the same. So what's that box detecting, that this tank's got ?" "What HAS it got, indeed?" The Professor queried, cocking his head to one side. "This is the one Minette and Cnuthwald went out in and only Minette came back. Or did she ? Something came back, certainly. Remember, Jethro said she wasn't alone, that last time anyone saw her. But he couldn't say who was with her. Who - or what ?" My mouth dried, as I remembered the events of this morning only a few hours ago, but seeming to belong to another age of the world. "Barnstoneworth .... Minette told everyone she'd hardly gone a mile from the ship, before things went strange and the tech stopped working. So she shouldn't have been anywhere near us - if she was telling the truth." "Aye. If she was, if she was ! So whose prints did we find in the mud, up there on the block ? Hobnailed boots, small size too - in our pattern. Suppose she got there before us - she might have, tha' knows. Could ha' gained ten minutes on us if she'd gone straight to the block, another ten if'n she found an easier way up. Recall, those prints went off to the side ?" His stripy features were a mask of fear. "But how could she, like ? We didn't know what was there !" There was a silence, broken by the dismal 280 beats-per-minute echoing in from the fog-shrouded darkness outside. At length, the Professor stirred. "It could be," he said slowly, looking from one face to another, "That she knew. She might have known long before she joined this ship, for texts like the Cleethorps Fragments, and worse, may find their way into many hands. Or it may be that she didn't HAVE to know - just by being what she was, and doing as she did, she ... attracted attention to herself." Clem nodded. "I've heard of that. There was a case in Asgarth last year. A research student, he'd passed security clearence before they let him access any EC material, but .. his work ..." he swallowed, nervously. "His work, researched and rewrote HIM. The police found he'd got a lockup garage .... it was horrible. There was a tantalum -lined pit in the floor, proof against most detection, with nearly a tonne of highly refined, weapons-grade Cuteonium." "Exactly," the Professor said, accepting a helmet from Melanor. "Like the psychic version of a radio aerial - once you shape your thoughts in a certain way, they become attuned to what's out there. And after that, what's Outside - oh, definitely, it doesn't stay Outside for

long." Taking the strange box, I scanned it over the outer hull of the Villify. The traces, whatever they were, concentrated on the back of the vehicle, the great rear doors that in happier times would shield a platoon of mech infantry. "We've looked in there," Clem whispered, cautiously opening the rear doors. "Nothing visible." The doors opened, and we looked about. At first glance, Clem seemed to be right, as we scanned our torches round the interior. But then the Professor pointed wordlessly - up at the roof of the cargo hold, at certain .... traces that were there. "Just like in the Ghouls' nest," he nodded significantly, looking around us. "Looks like something .. came on board the ship in here. And it was big, even then - big enough to press against the ceiling, three metres high." I shivered, trying not to recall the ghastly rounded thing that had brushed by us on the squirrel-walk. But there was one thing that even my damaged sanity balance could not account for. "Sir - unless there's .. two of them .. the one we saw - it was big, but it wasn't THAT big ! " As if in agreement, the detector in my hand cheeped constantly as it faced the interior of the Vilify, and the curiously blurred impressions that seemed to have been made by something bonelessly soft and fluffy. "In the B'harne Fragments," Professor Grimslaithe whispered, his eyes widening in alarm, "There's .. mention made of the - undefined shape and form of some Entities .... some of the Great Stuffed ones, from Outside. They're not wholly here, in the usual sense .. and the way they .. interact with things of Earth and Einsteinian Spacetime, is ... odd." He paused, wincing. "One of them, that revealed its true nature at a certain .. Site outside Tokyo, started off as a normal, factory-made toy in a shop window - just before we found out the true nature of all such things. It was .. admired, and that gave it the energy to bring in more of itself from the far side - then it was worshipped, and it started to grow in three dimensions. When it began to ... feed, it got huge." He shook his head, looking at us bleakly. "By the time the defenders of Kobe slew it with a nuclear lunge-mine, it was ninety metres across, and growing .. exponentially." "You worship them, you give them life. Feed them, they grow." I looked down at the squeaking box. There seemed to be an odd echo in here, I thought, till I looked around. Barnstoneworth was well outside the Vilify, but he was looking alarmed. I slowly retreated, till I was standing out in the open, pointing the detector well away from the Vilify, in the open hangar. Beyond our headtorches' beams and the pale, fog-drowned light filtering in from outside, the huge expanse of the tank hangar stretched away into the darkness. And from that unknown distance there came a squeaking, horribly soft as if filtering through vile oceans of fluffiness - and yet near, frighteningly near. As I whirled round, to my horror I saw a glow, a pastel pink false dawn just creeping into visibility - and the detector I carried squeaked in reply. "Out ! Out ! Exit to 'F' deck, over there !" Galvanised into action, I sprinted away from the three parked landing-tanks, towards the stairs. The rest followed in a rush, arriving almost together on the narrow enclosed staircase barely two seconds behind me. At the top of the stairs, I looked down for an instant. Melanor and the black-suited otter, Hengist by name, had collided at the tail-end of the group, and bowled each other over. Three of the bone-digging canine archaeologists turned round to help them, when

suddenly the foot of the stairs was bathed in a ghastly pastel flood of light. "Don't look !" I shouted down to the four below, in direct sight of the hangar. "Run!" Time seemed to slow to a crawl. The rest of the party charged past me in fear, their natural defense mechanism (run away screaming) kicking in. But for the five trapped in direct eye contact .......... I had seen it demonstrated, even as a pup, that any energy is dangerous in enough concentration. A century ago, what fur could have thought something as innocuous as light could become a strategic laser striking down from orbiting battlestations ? And who, though pulled by Earth's loving gravity every second of their lives, could truly have envisaged what that force could do when squeezed into a Black Hole ? In that instant, as my stomach empied convulsively in defensive reaction, I saw the rarely whispered effects of a comparable concentration of pure, focussed Cuteness on mortal flesh and bone. That my sanity snapped a little, I cannot doubt, and even now I scream if I unexpectedly see cotton-wool or candy-floss. Just before I lost consciousness, I saw one other thing that is always with me - the runes on my breastplate flashing with silvery fire, some force hurling me back like the kick from a carthorse, up the stairs and into merciful oblivion. Again, I had that dream - the viewpoint, high as a six-storey building, as if I looked from the front of a ground-hugging helicopter on a scene of battle. There was a low cloudbase, wreathed with columns of smoke, from a shoreline just ahead. And on that shoreline, things waited as we ground towards them - unspeakable things, that my friends could see only through a specially filtered super-Iconoscope to save their minds .... <<The shoreline grew nearer - mundane fire and explosive whipped against me, stinging and smarting - I felt the hurts, but knew they were minor. My back was guarded, the sea foaming with turbulence from two shoals of the Albanian Interceptor/Strike Halibut patrolling just offshore. Ahead of me was the heavy shield I pushed, its spikes and graven runes catching the light as it turned, and I trampled an inviting defense position beneath me. Far in the distance, huge rounded shapes appeared on the horizon, their distant forms painful to behold. These, I recognised. With a shrug, reflexes kicked in - and I knew that huge motors were shunting thousand-tonne belts of full-calibre Fluff-Piercing rounds towards the turrets. I might reach the nearest of the pastel things from here - I had sabot shot available, one twitch in the right place would send a stream of them arcing out to strike a few minutes later... White pain lanced through me ! Brilliant light and an agony like to boiling oil thrown in my face - blinding energies and a kick that drove me backwards, a millionfold agonies telling me of real hurts throughout my body. Darkness settled, lanced with growing red pain. Suddenly there were voices, urgent yet distant, as if shouting through a wall. Voices told of fires coming under control, of the most critical wounds being mended - but the front shield was gone, vapourised by the trap. And that I had been lucky, the trap had been triggered too soon, fifty metres in front of my shield. Grievous were my wounds, crippling me here on the edge of the land I had come so far to see - but then knew grief indeed as I heard the count of how many of my friends were dead forever in the fires as they sought to heal me. Behind me, another trap was sprung. A horde of small things must have been waiting hidden behind me, on the seafloor - The instant

the blast passed over they bobbed to the surface, evil blue daemons paddling in for a beach landing, balancing through the crashing breakers standing on their smurfboards. Though crippled, I turned on my remaining good side, focussing my will there as a broadside from ninety turrets rang out and the sea thrashed in hails of five-nines iron grapeshot. Time was running out, I knew - though the thrashing wakes six kilometers offshore showed where another shoal of combat halibut were vectoring in at forty knots, a pyramid of the filthy blue things was forming on the stern like swarming army ants .. hidden in the angle behind the tracks where the point-defense turrets had been blinded by the nuclear near-miss..... Shuddering, I felt the horror and madness spread throughout me. The squeakily singing horde had climbed above the main Enchanted belt, with only the few metres of Erebus-werke silcrete now protecting the crew. And they were getting through .. the great rune-graven glacis plate would have kept the radiant Cuteness out for hours by the virtue of its active Tantalum-gravings and its blood-smeared black spiky bits .... but the thinner top and back armour was giving way, letting their ghastly emanations flood throughout the long corridors ....>> groaned, surface. I awoke, conscious first of a swaying motion. I must have for the swaying stopped and I was suddenly lying on a hard

Vision returned, and I looked up at a corridor ceiling. I blinked, but took a second to realise what was new - the ship's lights were on. The Professor was looking down at me anxiously - in his hand I saw the strange Detector pointing down at me. Eventually, he nodded, waving the others forward - I saw Clem, Barnstoneworth and Guthfriede there. Barnstoneworth's grim expression softened as he saw me struggle to my feet, and he switched the safety device back on his perchloric acid-thrower. "Ey, lad - we reckoned we'd lost you," the badger sighed, shivering in reaction. "Tha's all reet, and - tha'self. " He winced. "Hengist and Cuthbert, further from the burst ... I 'ad ter do what a Vicar does. They'd .... started to Change. A mate of mine, were Hengist - he'd been conductor on me tram, at Third Lille." Clem nodded. "I saw the reactive runes blow on your armour that must have been what saved you." He pointed to burned scars on my breastplate, where several of the black spiky bits were missing. "But they're a one-shot protection, and that was it. Luckily, when you threw up most of it hit the armour, which helped." I looked around. We were on the F deck, the uppermost level surviving, where the ship's Bridge and altars were. "Is there nobody else ... left ?" The Professor shook his head, canine teeth exposed in a grim rictus of worry. "Nobody." "And that means, no body, either," Clem's tail drooped on the floor. "But ... this thing, onboard the ship..." "This thing." The Professor's voice was calm now, cold as ice. "We cannot have any more doubts. It is one of the Great Stuffed Ones, its kin were summoned by the Legomancers of Brussels. But I don't understand - how this one came here. The Vicars would have detected a Summoning, anywhere on the planet - these days. Only if it had been here already, before the EC wars ... maybe long before the Milennium, when this was all dry land. And there's something else that hasn't been seen, since Brussels fell." He gestured around at the well-lit corridor. "What do you make of that ?" It took me a few heartbeats to realise what he meant. "The

lights ! They're working here - we didn't see any .. physical damage down below - and you could shoot this ship half to bits before any the systems went, the way it's built." "Exactly. We have lights on in three corridors - which makes no sense, the way the circuits are wired. Something here is preventing the - changes outside taking place, the sort of Legomancies that were practiced in the EC towards the end. Electronics just aren't working, the way the Laws are being altered outside these few rooms." "EC forces ? Surviving here ?" I gasped. But the elderly baboon shook his head. "Not necesarily. That power, to alter our Regulations, is certainly in effect all around us. As for the EC's abilities - who do you think taught THEM ?" Just behind the entrance to the Bridge, we paused. I felt a strange sensation, a vague heightening of tension in the air - but it was neutral, something like static, rather than the aimed and exquisitely personal threat that had caught us below. My tail waved slowly, and I pointed in towards the Altar room. Clem dropped to the floor and looked around the door. He gasped. "In there - it looks like there's someone alive there, and .. the altar's online !" "How ? Surely they couldn't ..." I bit back the obvious comment about how many sacrifices an altar that size usually took to reconsecrate from scratch, and looked round the corner. The great black monolith was there, where we had left it - but not quite as we left it. Its complex angles now shifted as you looked at it, concavities becoming convexities, runes seeming to crawl in unthinkable patterns over its surface. Two figures were lying still, within the circle of cabling that I noticed had appeared on the floor since we had last stood here - little over two hours before, I noted with shock. One of them was Phoebe, sprawled in the Recovery position from the scent, I could tell she had been taking her "control Group" job seriously - the other was a still and rubbery ghoul, not one that I recognised. Reaching over the circle of wiring, Barnstoneworth touched both figures cautiously. "Phoebe's alive, though happen she's got a reet good skinfull. T'other one's Undead, but looks no worse for it. " He reached out towards the altar, fur standing on end as the electrical tension leaked into the mundane world. "Altar's running, aye." "Well, that looks all right," the Professor nodded. He bent down, pointing to a small box on the floor, cables linking it to the ship's power supply. "There was another way of rebooting it, after all. Look ! A ring of video Praystations, the modern Japanese ones you can link. Once the link's established, it'll load right up." He frowned, motioning Clem and I forward. "Do we have Divine Intervention available yet ?" After a few minutes examining the enchantment, we both shook our heads. "It's only partly up .. enough to stop the special effects from Outside altering the Praystations' electronics, like the rest of the ship's suffering from." Clem summed up. "And .. we've seen this before, today." "Aye, we 'ave that." Barnstoneworth called softly from his lookout position at the doorway. "This mornin', like ... when us instruments went barmy. Reckon we're near enough same spot - which is a sight too near, to my way o' thinking." "Schtroumf !" The Professor swore, slamming a leathery wrist into his palm. "That'll mean nothing outside these rooms are going to work properly, none of the sensors - at least, nothing from our

technology. And what we need - is Information. " He gestured to the still figures. "They were safe inside the circle, maybe .. or if they were already unconscious, whatever went through here .... didn't hunt by sight or scent. We'll have to wake them up." There was a first-aid kit by the door which I ransacked for anything suitable. Despite all the medical advances, there was little that was any use against a severe hangover such as Phoebe would be getting - or, at least, nothing except for placebo effects. Suddenly, my questing paw found the very thing. "Suggestex 2000," I read the little bottle, "High strength, prescription-only placebo. Not to be taken by medically knowlegeable patients." I blinked, looking round. "Barnstoneworth, do you know if Phoebe's got any First Aid experience ?" He shook his head. "Nay, lad. Last time we 'ad an exercise, she was about to treat a badly bleeding headwound case wi' a neck tourniquet, when folks stopped her." He paused. "Still, it would'ha worked one way and another, have to credit her that." The placebo worked perfectly, and soon Phoebe was conscious and complaining. But we learned little: she had worked her way through three bottles of Nasti Spumanti that she could recall - and probably several more besides. Someone else had carried her up here, and the ghoul beside her - whose metabolism resisted placebo effects, and slumbered on. As we told Phoebe of the nightmare that had fallen on us all, her ears dipped, her eyes widened. She was silent for a minute, then stirred. "I never did trust that Minette," she muttered finally. "Now I know who poured mayonnaise on my fish and chips. If she got plushed flat, serves her right." "Quite," the Professor said, one ear dipped. "But - we need some help. We found this, down below on A deck" - he pulled out the handwrittten card with its double inscription, and presented it to her. "Do you recognise this ? I know your course studies a lot of strange secrets." Phoebe sniffed, looking at the inscription. "It's just a set of notes about valve settings and pressure readings. As for the script, of course I recognise it. That script gets handed in as supposed evidence for all sorts of silly stuff on my course, but you don't get marks for investigating it. Although ... we do study Negative as well as Positive Conspiracies on my degree, you know." "Eh ?" Barnstoneworth queried elegantly. "What's a Negative Conspiracy, when it's at 'ome ?" The blocky vixen sighed. "It's one that folk have tried to push as the truth, but doesn't hold up. This fake .." she tapped the inscription, "Is from ... well, supposedly there's a civilisation living deep under Antartica, been there since the 1940's. Allegedly," she wrinkled her muzzle, " known for their exotic tech base and unhealthily narrow genetic base. But if that was true, it'd clearly invalidate Wilmington's Third and Eighteenth Prime Conspiracy Tenets it'd undermine the very foundations of Conspiracy Studies. Clearly, you've got the wrong evidence." "Hmm ....," the Professor frowned. "But I've seen pictures taken by people who've been there - talked to them, too." "Mass hysteria," Phoebe turned up her narrow muzzle. "Those facts just won't fit the theories ! We need some better facts. Some that'll fit the underlying principles properly." A badger ear dipped, wryly. "Last time I heard o' doing things that way, was before the Milennium. Folk in this part o' the world

decided mathematical methods didn't show enough Faith. I heard o' a bridge they built wi' no Mathematical principles allowed, only Christian Science ones." "It's a perfectly good experiment !" Phoebe protested. "I've read of that project. Okay, so the bridge fell down - but it wouldn't have done if folk had enough Faith in its integrity. They brought in maintainance engineers who had the wrong mindset entirely - the Principles said very explicitly it would Heal itself, given enough faith. Bring in unbelievers like that, and of course it falls down. Proves what I was saying. " The Professor waved her away. "Well, at least we know who built the ship, now. So That's settled." He nodded , smiling. "For awhile there, I was worried it might be something sinister." A wave of relief swept around briefly, and I found myself regaining a sanity point or two. But then, I looked around at the six rooms whose working lights proclaimed them as wholesome islands in this sea of blasphemous, abnormal Cute into which we had blindly floundered. "There's no way we can communicate with the rest of the world, from here," I gestured to the room next door where the resurrected computers still whirred and blinked. "But - if we need information, there's one more thing we can try." As the shadowy world of the Infranet surrounded me, I was drawn back to the central plaza of the World-Wide Catacomb, the timeless place that I had fled from before. As I travelled, the sensation grew that things were different this time - and as my viewpoint settled down, I saw that I was right. Though indefinitely large, the place was crowded - and many shapes turned towards me as I landed. The crowd was wispy, hard to see in any detail - it was as if I stood in a circle of fog, a crowd surrounding me at the edge of visibility. Then one figure stepped forward, moving towards me. I blinked, staring. It was a mustelid of some kind, though in this place all the colours were blurred, arbitrary things. Not until he drew near did I recognise him - and my virtual heart virtually lurched within me, for I was face to face with the custard-yellow polecat who I had last seen dead in the room three decks below, who had seen something through the Panjandrum's camera that had left him with suicide as his only safe escape. Walking forward, I extended my arms, palm upwards as I had heard described in many guides to the World-Wide Catacomb. Though the dead here had nothing exactly analagous to voices, they could still pass on impressions of what they had seen, especially in their last minutes. "There's some knowledge that a fur cannot survive understanding," I told myself, steeling what defenses I had, feeling like a cub reinforcing a sandcastle against an incoming tsunami. "But unless we find out what's happening - none of us stand a chance anyway." My hands reached out. The clasp was odd to the touch - there was an answering pressure there, but it was more like the pressure of a stream of water than a solid object. And as the data began to flow, I recognised the scene - it was the viewpoint of the Panjandrum's hub-mounted camera, that I had looked out through for tedious mist-filled hours this morning. At first, there was nothing out of the ordinary, just a flat terrain of deep ocean ooze crossed with runnels of water, a dreary mudscape barely fifty metres across, edged by swirling fog . Gradually, I noticed that the streams of water were all flowing towards us now, and had cut deeper into the mud, revealing things that the ocean had bravely tried to hide for dread decades. I shivered, at something

glimpsed at the bottom of a scoured channel - it was only a second's flash of a pre-milennium popcorn beaker, but I saw there unburied the logo of something I had seen, just once in that terrible third pop-up book of the Compte D'isgny that none should read after dark. The scene slowly changed. From the rolling wheel of the Panjandrum it was hard to tell the angle of slope we were climbing, but the runnels of water were eating deep into the mud and the speed icons were dropping. Superimposed on the screen was the familiar pattern of instruments telling the speed, location and fuel state - but as I watched, a second set of symbols appeared, flashing in urgent warning blue and white. For a second, I thought they must be control signals being relayed from the Vengeance - but then I recalled the log file we had found, where my command to return home had been the last instruction any of us had sent the scouting pinwheel. "Any of US, anyway ...." I swallowed, virtual mouth dry. "But those are controls it's getting - where from ? The transmitter used the ship's scrambled link ... nobody could break into the signal just like that ..." For an instant the view was blocked by a gout of spray as the panjandrum ploughed up a watercourse, bumping over things that the ocean ooze had mercifully hidden. There was a signpost, bent flat by the tsunamis that had smashed this area flat in those apocalyptic final hours .... and upon that dread stencil-graven tablet was a Name, a Name that I had seen in the dread B'harne Fragments - all the more terrifying for the utter .... obliqueness of every cryptical reference there. It was as if even the authors of that unspeakable text had not dared to say what they knew - or if they had spoken more fully, those passages had not survived to further trouble an unquiet world. In the Kawaiinomicon that placename is mentioned but once, and only in the enigmatic Milton Keynes edition - most significantly of all, in the loathesome "Das UberPflaumig Kulten" of Von Tuu, no reference whatever is made. Did Von Tuu not know, or did he know and not dare to tell ? As my mind reeled at the revalation, the horror grew . With a jolting, the Panjandrum went over an unseen step buried in the ooze and the going was suddenly smoother. Looking back through the panoramic camera, I saw a dirty but unmistakeable concrete roadway exposed in the Panjandrum's wake. Off to each side in the mud were footprints of various species, too many to count. And then .... I had not known the Scout Panjandrums recorded sound, until that terrifying pulsation thundered around my ears, the two hundred and eighty beats per minute of the sinister native drum-andbass machines. Before I could pull my view away, unwilling at the last to face what was waiting there, the final veil of fog parted, and it was suddenly too late. I saw it ! What was all around it was bad enough - a party of natives, thirty or forty of them, lined up on each side of the buried road, stamping and clapping as they line-danced in modes that ancient Meroe knew and knew as accursed. Their dress was ragged, in the odd blue cotton and reversed caps you see in films from before the Milennium - but it was their features that were similar, shockingly so. I saw a dozen or more species there, but all bore the same ... tendencies, that even now I hesitate to recall too exactly. Limbs were rounded, fur texture too soft-looking for healthy descendants of this planet's evolution - and some of the more degraded ones who danced at the further end, showed unmistakeable shoe-button like eyes and noses that I could only describe as pink heart-shapes. The Panjandrum's camera panned forwards past the obscenely capering horde - to the thing to which they had come here to make

shocking obesiance, perhaps summoned by some hereditary taint or darkly whispered legend as soon as the earthquakes had raised it from its decade-long slumber on the oozy floor of ocean. It was raised up on a tall pillar that stuck jaggedly up into the glowering mists - and as its worshippers line-danced to it, it hopped and skipped gleefully, even though its form was greatly .. stuffier than things which normally move of their own accord. Cutting through the drum-and-base cacophony, I heard it squeak and giggle, bouncing up and down even as it accepted their mental energies .. and began to grow. Just before the Panjandrum's screen lit up with gun-camera sighting marks as it prepared to self-destruct and erase that vile festival from existence, I saw the Thing turn and look directly at the camera. That it knew what it faced, I am sure - but instead of any sign of fear, it giggled happily, rubbing its soft pawsies together in gleeful anticipation. More than that - in that final second I saw it looking hard into the lens of the fighting pinwheel - as if it was following the datalink back across the trackless muds, to those who had sent it - and finding the prospect appealing. The Panjandrum's transmission clicked off, three hundred kilos of aluminised cyclonite breaking up the party. I felt as if the floor had unexpectedly come up and hit me, my viewpoint jerking violently as I found myself in the shadowy main plaza of the World-Wide Catacomb - and realised why the place suddenly seemed so crowded. Of the Vengeance's crew, three hundred and sixty strong, I now knew that only those who were with me on the F deck bridge were stil alive. Shaking, I disconnected from the Infranet and was pulled back to my waking body. As I looked around, I saw Phoebe standing on guard at the doorway - the rest were gone. She saw me look around in panic, and pointed next door. "In there," she whispered. "That strange map - at least we know something's definitely working, outside this corridor." As I staggered to my feet and looked round into the next room, I saw that the ship's map had altered yet again. Where we had seen one black spot of contagion before, now most of E deck was a smoky cloud glowing like the cremated ruins of a recently bombed city. "Look !" The Professor pointed urgently, "That thing's not getting its own way, not everywhere ! " For the lower two decks were a healthy and vibrant green, slowly spreading up to C deck, where shifting masses of black, red and green fought to and fro. "That's what the ship's doing with all that power - eight boiling-potassium reactors, Cthulhu alone knows how many hundred megawatts each ... it's going to its immune system." "Immune system ?" Phoebe looked over his shoulder, tail swishing critically. "This is a machine, Prof - a Machine. It doesn't have a heart, a brain - or an immune system. You'll be saying it has a soul next ....." "If it works like a soul, hurts like a soul, aspires like a soul - then it IS one, as near as you need to know," the babboon snapped. "Don't you see ? The ship's been waking up all along - when we started repairing it, it approved and helped us along, with whatever it could." "Which explains a lot," Clem muttered. "The reactors on A deck " he frowned. "It had to know somehow it'd need them. And it waited as long as it could - until we were almost out of the room, before triggering them." He gulped, looking around, up at the ceiling. "It knows we're here, then. And .. it knows where something else is." Far below us came a thundering roar, and a vibration that sang up through the floor. It was the unforgettable sound I had heard in my

dreams, the world-scale ripping of fabric, as all eight A deck reactors went to full power. "Look !" Clem yelped, pointing urgently at the screen. "It's .. punching a hole through the Great Stuffed One's form ! Glowing dimly on the ancient LED screen, a region of green light was extending up from below, vicious eddies of scarlet and yellow showing how intense the struggle was. Pushed more than a certain distance, the cloud retreated grudgingly, like the ocean around an ice caisson - defeated for the moment, but ready to burst in through the least flaw. Just at the end of the far corridor a light which had been extinguished, winked on. "Ey eck !" Barnstoneworth breathed, tracing a narrow green corridor on the map. "It's linked up to us .. aye, Clem, it knows we're here - it's offering us a way out." "A way somewhere," Clem nodded. He frowned, grey tail waving. "That doesn't go outside. It goes ..... " Suddenly his ears went right up. "D deck, but not the resedential bits - it's that room we found ! The one with the commander sitting in it !" A strange expression washed over his face. "Commander ?" Professor Grinslaithe queried, eyes wide. "What makes you say that ?" Feline ears dipped. "I ... don't know. It just came to me." He frowned, and the image that came to me was a card-carrying Sceptic tearing his cards up. "That sort of thing just doesn't Happen ......" We looked around at each other, for a few heartbeats. Then the Professor looked at me. "The ship ... it knows what it needs. It's spending most of its reserves, redlining its reactors to get someone in there .. and you're the one it revealed itself to. I don't know what it needs - but I know we've got to find out. Right now."

As I sat again in the throne of steel, I knew that things had .. altered. The white-metal runes glowed faintly, whole new sections of them having appeared from the stone wall like a shoal of silvery fishes swimming near to the ocean's surface. My arms gripped the seat, fingers seeming to dent the metal like firm foam - the whole surface melding to my form, very subtly. "The Helm !" Suddenly I realised, as I sat there feeling the heart of the ship surge into new life. "That's why we could never find it - we were looking for the kind of computer WE built in our macrotanks, and not for this at all !" My heart laboured, as I looked around - there was no obvious button to press, Clem's team having thoroughly searched this room and found it bare of anything that looked like controls as we understood them. Two decks above me, the rest of them - Barnstoneworth, Clem, Phoebe, Guthfriede, Professor Grimslaithe and the unknown ghoul - all of them waited for me to find the answers. I pounded the throne in frustration, then closed my eyes ... and things began to alter. In my waking thought, the dreams that had disturbed me returned. I felt that odd shift of viewpoint, as if I looked out from the top of a high moving vehicle, higher than the treetops. But unlike before, there were no treetops or buildings here - the land was a low swamp of glistening grey mud-flats, shrouded in night and fog. Concentrating, I looked "around" - my viewpoint shifted, and as I strove to look through the fog the colour of the picture shifted.

Blinking, I realised that the image I was suddenly seeing was radar, a synthetic aperture aerial rotating on the roof above "F" deck. ""The block .. it's got bigger", I looked at the long whaleback of horribly resurrected ocean floor that I had explored with Barnstoneworth that morning - now the Vengeance was parked with the its steeply sloping glacis plate scarcely a hundred metres away from its edge. But there would be no repeating the route we had used to get yp there, barely twelve hours earlier - the block had been raised further in the earthquakes, naked rock glistening bright on the radar image forming cliffs ten or fifteen metres high above a wide, crumpled apron of piled mud and debris shaken down from above. I turned my head - or rather, even as I decided to turn my head, the view swivelled, looking out over the wide flats. These had altered too, great gulleys and crevasses running across the landscape where long-silent faults had moved in the last few hours. I looked almost due East, towards what seemed to be another, still bigger upthrust block .... and stopped. There was something there that I could not focus on - the more I stared at it, the more it slipped away - my peripheral vision showed the roots of a large rise, but .. there was a fuzzy area, that the radar refused to resolve - or refused to show me. It was like the distorting hologram effect that some of the latest camouflage systems used - or the Japanese "virtual swimsuits" that let their wearer get an all-over tan, while showing up as a confused blob of pixels on camera. For an instant, I thought of Barnstoneworth, of what he had said on top of that first block. The Panjandrum's detonation had left nothing alive there - at least, nothing that had been alive in the flesh and blood sense. But there had been tracks coming out of that crater, odd tracks that seemed to get bigger as they circled and quatered the area and suddenly, I knew why. "Worship them, they gain life .... feed them and they grow. We never did find a shred left of the Natives who were caught in the blast ..." I swallowed, my mouth dry "It'd been underwater all that time, maybe trapped by the tsunamis .. nobody around to feed it". In a ghastly parody of many of the Really Teriffic Old Ones, something stuffed had lain deathless but dreaming, till brought to the surface - even before any of this blighted land had reappeared from the waves, the wise ones of Earth had felt its influence lying like a pastel blight in the area and asked for only volunteers of mortal lifespan to be included on this expedition. "The natives, they were worshipping it, right enough .. and they might have brought it a sacrifice, like the Unspeakable Texts say. But ... that would have been only one or two, surely. We wiped out the whole tribe of them .. letting the Great Stuffed One eat ... everyone. That's why its tracks got bigger as it moved around the area .. it was growing, even then." In panic, my paws gripped the arms of the throne hard, as the realisation hit me. "We're responsible for - unleashing it on the world - and with our radios out, we can't warn anyone !" Suddenly, another image flashed before my eyes, as if a previously darkened monitor had been switched on. It was a twin of the odd LED display behind the bridge, which had showed me the way here and like the one above, it was changing. There were obvious differences though - areas that were blank or curiously undefined on the bigger map were shown in full detail. I mentally blinked, staring hard. "It's not the same sort of change as I've seen, the ship repairing itself.. it's like looking at a classified map, compared with the retail version ... what are those ?" Right down on C deck were six long shapes, three on each side of the ship, folded in telescoped

geometrical shapes like diagrams of long-beaked bird embryos still in their shells. Their "shells" were hidden within big water tanks right against the outer hull, a complex arrangement of fins extending far into the water spaces. As I looked, the various systems linking them to the rest of the ship swum into focus. Control lines, liquid oxygen and hydrogen feeds, and long, empty passages the size of ventilator shafts that snaked away into the depths of the ship. "What ARE those ?" I looked harder, feeling a strange irritation building up. It was a physical itch, almost as if the throne was a second skin pressed close to my fur, giving me the sensations of a far larger body, of a radically bigger shape than my own lupine frame. A shiver ran through me. I looked "up" - and saw the Entity that filled most of E deck. I saw it, and in that moment I felt sure that it saw me. A shudder ran through the ship, the hideously plushie mass vibrating like a shaking jelly. As a black, ember-strewn flood it appeared, the red highlights revealing nothing but its own swollen horror. And the mass moved - like a bad animation of an avalanche, it flowed through the big tank landing hatch and away from the ship. "Professor !" I shouted, experimentally - focussing my will on the room where they were, I felt in my new vision the little band of survivors look up - and Barnstoneworth wave, putting hands over his ears in gesture. "It's leaving the ship - I'm shutting the hatch .. now." I concentrated, but did not shout this time - and as I imagined the huge hatch shutting and locking, a distant clang echoed through the open corridors. For a minute I looked around - the main mass had already moved some two hundred metres from the ship, and was heading towards the distant mountain. As I watched, it began to develop a definite shape, and the odd pixel effect flashed into existence ; somehow I was reminded of the anti-flash systems on helmets and aircraft canopies that protected crews from blinding lasers or nuclear flash. The display was protecting me from something- and I had a hideously good idea, of what it was. "Professor ! You said something about - a site that existed before the Milennium, near here .. where millions of people went to worship Cute things, before we found out the truth about them." Though there was no camera in the real sense, I could see the baboon nodding. "What would happen if something that big and Cute, with that much power - got to the site. Would it know what to do - to get it working, like .... " I hesitated, my fur bristling, "Like Brussels nearly was, at the end ?" There was a hesitation. At length, Professor Grimslaith looked up, and very slowly and deliberately nodded his head. For a few heartbeats, I sat still, my blood seeming to turn to ice. Growing horribly was the sensation that none of us might have many heartbeats left, and certainly none to waste. One final time, I projected my thoughts to that room, where my friends waited. "It's this ship. It really IS alive - it was built to fight things like that, and .... I think it has something planned. I don't know what it is .. but I've got to stay here and help it. You've got to get clear, E deck should be safe .." I swallowed, checking the route on the new, full map that I could see with closed eyes. "The landing-tanks are still there - take Viper or Vicious, but don't go near Vilify ! It's contaminated .... you wouldn't get down the landing-ramp unaltered." The Professor nodded again, and Barnstoneworth gave me a quick "thumbs-up" sign, gesturing something to Phoebe and Guthfriede. The four younger crew picked up the ghoul, one to each limb, and began to

head towards the stairs. I looked around, my heart pounding. The huge stuffed menace was moving away now, taking on a very definite form that the protective filter provided by the Vengeance could not wholly hide. I caught just one glimpse through my peripheral vision, and was sorry I had done so for in that instant I knew what Cotton Mather had alluded to so very obliquely in the ninth volume of "Mysterii Plushiisnsii", and what BriNylon Jones had so very significantly never mentioned even once. As I winced away, my mind recoiling, I felt that odd itching from the throne suddenly subside - as if I had been struggling to force my hand into a tight-fitting glove that had smoothly fitted into position. The display of the ship had altered, I realised. Barnstoneworth and the others were arriving at E deck, but two decks below them, the strange telescoped structures had suddenly opened out like metallic flowers bursting from the bud - and I saw that despite all our searching and surveying, the Vengeance had some suprises left in store. Thick silcrete hull panels fell away to splash mightily in the mud two storeys below - the symbols for liquid oxygen and hydrogen flashed on pipework that had been empty for decades. With a shiver, motors the power of express trains began to shunt metal cylinders from emergency reserves right on the A deck - without needing to ask, I knew them for fullcalibre Fluff-piercing shells, continuous-rod bundles of depleted uranium plated in tantalum. Bumping like old freight cars down the three magazine feeds that remained, in half a minute they stacked up by the breeches of sponson guns whose status flickered from orange to vibrant healthy green. "Barnstoneworth," I whispered, perceiving that worthy look up at whatever hidden speaker the ship had "You found an Internal weapons turret, didn't you ? Well - there's three of them left working .. they've just popped out through the forward hull on C deck .. get moving ! I can cover you - I don't know how, but I bet the ship does." The laden party seemed to crawl actoss the display to the welcome metallic bulk of the Vicious, and I felt myself breath again as I saw them vanish inside. A few seconds later I felt the vibration as the tiny ninety-tonner swivelled to face the landing ramp, turbines turning and ready to make a break for freedom. Just as I willed the landing ramp to lower, two things happened. The ship rocked, as another earthquake struck it - and a cold, sickening sensation as of pure dread washed over me, as tangible as a bucket of foul, icy water sluicing down my back-fur. "Out ! Get away NOW - don't stop for anything !" I hardly needed to look at the outside picture to realise where the danger was coming from. The Vickers-Matsushita landing-tank spooled its turbine engines to full emergency power, leaping over the threshold and hardly touching the descending ramp for six lengths down it - with a muddy splash, it ploughed deep into the flats below and wallowed away from the Vengeance as fast as its neo-Christie tracks and suspension could carry it. Breathing deeply, I steeled myself to look in the other direction, towards the second mountain. The two shapes had blurred, the interference from the Great Stuffed one merging with the vaster image as it approached it - knowing it was the only thing to do, I set myself my ship - to a walking pace, the huge living machine now fully awakened and ready to face what lay upon that upthrust block, had lain there unquiet all through the Pastel Years. The Vengeance rolled on, skirting the low edge of the first block - almost thrr kilometres long, one narrow edge thrust up like the corner of a book dropped in the mud. The earthquakes were more or less

continuous now, as far in the distance I heard the excited squeaking of something too cute and fluffy for any sane or wholesome cosmos to contain. Sitting there on the throne of steel, I felt my senses widen my strength that of the ship, but at the same time - memories crowded in, like those of my dreams but far more intense, the pains and exhileration magnified a hundredfold. The ship - it had seen its whole crew die once in Europe, defending every last corridor as they fought hand-to-hand till the Erebus-forged weapons of tantalum-edged tungsten melted and boiled in friction, not only blinding light but hard UV and X-rays searing the passageways as one by one they fell to that which the EC had summoned. And then again - twice now, its organic crew had been wiped out, in ways that the Vengeance's sensors could not help but record in awful detail. The ship was Alive, I had known that for some time - alive, and with a mind that was pressed to madness with the grief and terror of what it had endured. The second mountain was getting nearer now. Without seeing too clearly, I gained the impression that the Great Stuffed one was already almost at its foot - and there was a site, some kind of structure there on the top which it was gleefully padding towards. And still the earthquakes rocked that land, as if strains were being built up that the very planet flinched away from, unable to escape. "Go get it ...." I heard my voice soft, feeling the ship respond. The Vengeance had less than one percent of its original weapons remaining - but the ship was willing. There was one thing, though - an image that came to haunt me. Without prompting, I was shown the ship - corridor after corridor scoured empty of life, a ghastly echoing emptiness where voices should be and had been. The viewpoint flashed past like a fly-by, coming to rest on the door I recognised, the chamber of the Helm. Inside, was the figure I had found, the lupine commander who had stayed there till the last, sitting there still for most of my lifetime while the stricken ship slumbered. A wash of grief passed over me - the ship had had enough of this. Outside, the skies seemed to be changing colour. As the Great Stuffed One skipped and bunny-hopped towards its goal, an alteration seemed to take place, a subtle and spectral mutation of the grey fog, as if the pictures were being re-drawn using some horribly alien pallette. Another image came unbidden - that of a clock counting down fast, the ticking of a very live fuse with an unknown length of timer. "Go for it ! Don't mind me .. if we don't stop that thing .. there won't be anywhere to escape TO ... for anyone !" All the ship's systems flicked green, its eight boiling-potassium reactors wound up to full power, as its huge rune-graven glacis plate nosed around the hull and we came face to face with that which was there. "I have to see - ALL of it." The three remaining cannon twitched and moved, feeling natural in my grip, though the "grip" was a battery of servo-motors swinging the barrel's two hundred tonne masses as responsively as duelling pistols. And then the protective distortion ceased, and I saw at the last ...... I can barely focuss my mind on that instant, on that one apocalyptic instant when my muzzle-fur began to turn grey. The mountain was there, an upthrust block several kilometres across, and almost at the top was the Great Stuffed One. Its rounded back was awful enough had it turned those huge eyes on me, I know I could not have endured to live any longer. At that moment the Vengeance's last remaining cannon awoke - the 385 mm point-defence systems rising to a scream of fully

automatic fury, white light in three arcing torrents splashing across the pink fluff of that which was seconds away from becoming immune to such puny forces. In one second, I knew that the last reserves the Vengeance carried would be gone - the final hundred rounds were accelerating towards the liquid-air cooled breeches, and then it happened. The stuffed thing had almost reached the Doorway, when it turned and exposed a hidden seam-line, metres deep in fluff. There was a horrifying squeak, that seemed to echo across the planet, going on and on - and then a sudden .. dissolution, as if a balloon filled with fibres too fine to individually see, had burst. The world seemed to lurch. Tensions were released that had been so very nearly enough to tear a whole in the fabric of existence - the Vengeance's bulk was thrown fifty metres across the flats, slewing sideways like a cat scrabbling on sheer ice as the house-wide tracks struggled to grip. Huge chasms began to tear open, mud and water, with the uncovered remains of - other things, pouring into their yawning depths. In horror I watched as the Vicious was caught on a rent slab like the breaking of a melting ice floe - slowly, funereally slowly the little landing tank sank out of sight as the ground tore and tumbled around it. From somewhere out on the far horizon I heard a low, thundering roar, and was jolted out of my seat, nearly hitting the runegraven ceiling as the Vengeance too jerked downwards like a sticking lift. "It's not us that's sinking .. it's Everything ! The whole place." But then I turned again, and saw in all its hideous entirety, the Castle. It was big. It was modelled on the fine, pinnacled versions you see lurking on the cliffs of the Rheine and the Alpine flanks - but it was a ghastly parody, even its materials were the plastic and glassfibre of a forbidden era. This was the place the Professor had hinted at, the place to which the expunged roadway had led - the site which had pre-dated even the shuddersome Bouncy Castles of lost Belgium, the place that the world had thought destroyed in the turmoil around the Milennium. All this I saw, and felt with a growing urgency that the destruction of the Stuffed One had not been enough. For like the macrotank, that place had awakened now after long slumber - and within its confines, shapes moved. Before me flashed the schematics of the Vengeance again - barely a dozen rounds remained in its last magazines. But - on its outer hull a flashing halo of silvery fire danced, as the Main Enchanted Belt reacted to the awful transformation taking place so near the gateway. An image flashed across my mind - a brave spirit throwing itself onto a hightension electrical fence, so that its companions could escape free .... Again was the image, of the ship's last Commander, the mummy in the throne of steel - and the sensation of grief washed back like the tsunami I somehow knew was sweeping in from the horizon at ninety knots and more. The door to the Helm room sprang open, and I stumbled out the ship knew what it had to do now, and was determined that its captain at least should not go down with it once again. Before I took leave of that place, I focussed my will throughout the Vengeance - for as it knew what would happen if the opposite charges of its enchanted belt encountered the buckling realities ahead, so too did I know. I wished the Vengeance goodbye, instructing it to have the Viper ready to roll as soon as I reached E deck . Then, I took one last look at what we were heading towards - and this time, I saw Everything. "The Gateway - it's opening ....... and it's being opened by

the other side !" I stood transfixed, unable to break away. As I watched, there were .... figures there, that had waited long, so long for this moment. And, may I someday forget the memory of what was there, but I recognised them, from the images graven all across the planet before the Milennium. And I saw them as they really are, on the Other Side. ..... Gods forgive me, that I ever looked - for I knew them, .... towering colossi of Cute, pushing open that Doorway, that recognised me even as my sanity snapped shrieking as I flung myself away from the vision ... WHAT I SAW WHAT I SAW I CANNOT TELL YOU WHAT I SAW ! <Captain's trlog transcript, His Socialist Majesty's Hovercraft Hildago, 457th Cuban fleet, August 4th, 2034.> 'Following the massive earthquakes epicentred 250 miles North of Havana, emergency evacuation measures were put into place to evacuate our North coast. However, the resulting storm was minor, only a few percent of that predicted from the Richter Scale 9.7 recorded . We were sent out to explore the area, which had been shrouded in fog strangely resistant to our radars, five days after the main shocks, which subsided unusually rapidly for an event of this size.' At Latitude (27) Longitude (83) our sensors detected a metallic object floating low in the water, which investigation proved to be a Vickers-Matsushita landing tank, Tristan da Cunha built, about 10 years old. The vehicle was severely damaged, much of its armour missing, in a manner consistent with being hit with collapsing earthquake debris. Its only occupant was an unconscious canine in the top turret, with a severe skull fracture from presumably being thrown around in the disturbances and tidle wave (estimated 200 metre waves converging on that approximate location.) After treatment and partial recovery in Havana, the patient insisted that his story, attatched above, be verified. Sonar sweeps of the sea floor showed an entirely flat area, consistent with the pre-milennium geology, of the Orlando, Florida area, and no trace of the mountains or structures mentioned. We regard the above narrative as unproven, since although the macro-tank Vengeance of Asgarth is certainly missing with all hands, our geologists insist there is no way on earth it could have vanished on a flat sea-floor. A more exhaustive survey of the area is being made by the submarines Toreador and Chupacabra - they are currently 10 days overdue, but we feel sure their eventual return and reports will put the patient's mind at ease." <Transcript Ends>. -Simon Leo Barber

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