The Buccaneer Chronicles:
By Karen Dunn (Despite Interference by Keith Dunn, Andy Simpkins, Adam J Purcell and Tony Gallichan)
Chapter One - The Nightmare
Nights are the most difficult.
I lay there for hours at a time on the most comfortable bed I have ever known, my head sinking into the feather-soft pillow, completely unable to sleep.
My body is usually exhausted from the rigors of the day but my mind has started playing tricks on me it hasn't tried since I was a kid - shadows move and I swear to God there is someone whispering just far enough away for me not to be able to hear them properly.
I asked Mac about it once but he just said the Ship was working through a few problems and I should ignore it.
When I asked him what problems they were he told me my mind couldn't possibly handle the knowledge and if I was scared of the dark I should try sleeping with the light on.
He then flicked through the pages of the book he was reading with an air that told me I was dismissed.
I like to think I'm a big enough man to take the odd insult but there are times with Mac when I consider decking him just to make myself feel good.
Getting thrown off the Ship would do me no good, though, and there is no way I'm sleeping with the light on like a frightened tot so I've fallen back on that reliable stopgap - patrolling.
I know it sounds ridiculous, patrolling on a ship where the closest thing there is to an enemy is probably skulking somewhere in the bowels of the craft fighting a never-ending battle against insanity, but it makes me feel useful.
I allow my gaze to travel along the walls and floors and across the ceiling of the ship, taking in the almost gothic feel of the décor. My pistol is in its holster inside my jacket as usual but as I stand here, alone among architecture that reminds me, in a sideways kind of way, of the interior of Notre Dame cathedral, I feel almost blasphemous. I would never consider walking into a church with a gun and, although I know this is a ship, dancing through deep space at the whim of its eccentric commander, I have the same sick feeling in my stomach.
Despite my misgivings, I have to admit to myself yet again that this place amazes me.
The vaulted corridors go on and on forever but, despite its inexorable resemblance to a medieval church, this is the last place you could ever hope to find an alter.
Colonnades loom above me adorned with busts that range from the pleasantly flowery to the most evil-looking ghouls, their blank eyes staring down at me as if daring me to make a false move.
There are roundels set into the walls, their outlines flush to the surface, their presence given away by a gentle glow, which speaks of circuitry hidden behind them, incongruous against the ancient surroundings.
I ponder briefly that my parents would love it here. Historians and archaeologists both, I was dragged round more than my fair share of imposing cathedrals and crumbling ruins as a child. Even now I don't see the attraction.
Lost in a memory in which my exasperated father was trying to impress upon me the importance of a recently discovered tomb in the bowels of some nameless church, I jumped as a wordless shout erupted from behind a closed door.
Looking up I realised I was outside Blanche's room and the shout had been the all too familiar angry cry which spoke of trouble.
Drawing my pistol cautiously from its holster, I peeked round the door to see the girl curled up in the middle of her bed, dead to the world. The blanket was gripped tightly beneath her chin and a frown played across her forehead.
She gave an agitated mumble in her sleep and the frown deepened as she rolled over and kicked the constricting blanket to the floor.
Crossing the room, I retrieved the blanket and draped it over her sleeping form as she muttered her disapproval at some unseen foe.
Resisting the urge to stroke her hair as she slept, I realised I had come to look on Blanche as a younger sister. I've never had a little sister but I know that if I had I would look out for her to the bitter end and never ever let her anywhere near Mac.
Leaving her to sleep, I returned to the door as she continued her mumbled dream battle. I froze with my hand on the door handle waiting for her to settle, loath to disturb an already disturbed sleep. If she woke now and saw me standing here, gazing at her, the next month of my life would be a hell of peeping Tom jokes.
For a moment it seemed that whatever had invaded her dreams had decided not to bother her further and she fell quiet, though the frown never left her brow.
I allowed an unconsciously held breath to hiss through my teeth and silently pulled the door closed, leaving her to her sleep.
I hadn't even taken three steps down the corridor when a heart-wrenching scream had me racing back to the room.
The girl was sitting bolt upright in bed, her eyes screwed tightly shut, tears streaming down her cheeks as she wailed the most pitiful of cries into the night.
I shouted her name as I crossed the room and seized her by the shoulders, shaking her sharply.
The cry stopped as abruptly as it had started and she blinked at me in confusion before dissolving into tears and flinging her arms round my shoulders.
She didn't say anything, just held onto me like a lifeline as wracking sobs shook her body.
I allowed myself to stroke her hair and make soothing noises until she calmed, a long, shuddering breath signalling the end of her tears.
She pushed herself away from me, dragging a sleeve wetly beneath her nose and blinking
away the remnants of tears from red eyes,
I awkwardly offered her my handkerchief,
She nodded and snuffled her nose into the handkerchief before tucking it into the sleeve of her nightshirt, "Don't know what it was about. Just that I was very scared."
She shivered even though the ship's temperature is perfectly balanced, and pulled the blanket up around her shoulders, "Do you ever get that?"
I shrugged and sat on the edge of the bed, "I don't think I dream. If I do I don't remember them."
"You're lucky. Hello Cre'at."
I turned and saw Cre'at hovering next to the door, a metal tray attached to one of his stunted metal arms bearing a steaming mug of something or other.
It still unnerves me slightly to think that a floating metal head with a ham fixation is more intelligent than Blanche and I put together.
I nodded as it drifted across the room towards us, "What's that, buddy?"
Cre'at came to a halt next to Blanche, bobbing gently as he extended the tray with a barely discernible purr of gears,
* I have brought hot chocolate. *
"So I see. Why?"
It was like talking to a defective Speak and Spell machine, * Hot chocolate is good for relaxing humans when they are unable to sleep. *
Blanche reached out and took the offered mug, inhaling deeply of the aroma before taking a sip. When the tension in her shoulders lessened visibly I gave Cre'at the thumbs up, "You're a godsend"
* The probability of an omnipotent, all-seeing being existing is questionable and the chances of such a mythical being instructing me to bring hot chocolate to Blanche is even less likely. *
That was another thing I found hard to deal with. The Head took everything at face value. If you told it to go take a running jump it probably would - if it had any legs. Rather than explain the meaning of 'godsend' I scowled at it, "You forgot the marshmallows."
* I apologise. I will fetch them. *
"Don't worry about it."
Cre'at bobbed silently for a second or two, taking in Blanche's obvious enjoyment of the chocolate and the yawm which escaped her as the lack of a true night's sleep caught up with her.
I took the cup from her and returned it to the tray, ushering Cre'at out of the room and bidding Blanche goodnight. I would speak to her tomorrow about the nightmare.
As I closed the door Cre'at buzzed past me with an almost smug expression on his expressionless face, * Hot chocolate returns humans to the land of nod. *
"The land of nod?!"
* I am attempting to blend in more. *
I watched him poodle off down the corridor to who knows where and resumed my patrol. An hour later, klaxons blaring around me, I was desperately trying to find my way to the control room.
The words on the page blurred and Eleanor blinked back tears of fatigue before snapping the book shut with a sigh. Reading the same paragraph over and over was no fun at the best of times. With the hunger raging through her veins it was intolerable. She would get no more work done this evening.
She pushed the book across the heavy oak table away from her, flinching when it brushed against a rack of test tubes, making them tinkle like wind chimes while the liquid inside sloshed gently against the glass, glistening in the light of the table lamp.
With a tired groan she kneaded her dark eyes with the heels of her hands before pushing a flop of unruly black hair away from her forehead. It had been a while since she had felt this exhausted and the washed-out feeling unnerved her.
Pushing herself away from the table and its clutter of books and equipment she allowed her gaze to roam the room.
There was very little light in the room - glancing at her watch she realised she had worked all day again - and the table light made the low beams in the ceiling cast long shadows onto the panelled walls.
The chill in the air told her the log fire in the grate behind her was flickering feebly as it ate through the last of the wood. Turning away from the table she reached for the poker and jabbed viciously at the fire, cursing the dying flames before giving it up as a bad job and crossing the room to the window to pull aside the heavy velvet drapes.
The sun had gone down hours ago and the lane outside was black as pitch though she could make out the inviting glimmer of the lights of the town in the distance.
The hunger tugged at her stomach in an angry roll and she gave into it without a fight.
She left the study and took a black cloak from the coat-stand in the hall, pulling it over her knee-length red dress and fastening the silver clip at her throat.
She didn't bother to lock the front door as she stepped out onto the path. No one ever passed this way so late and even if they did, her reputation and that of her friends would ensure her possessions remained untouched.
Gravel crunched beneath her feet as she made her way up the lane towards the town, pulling the cloak tightly around her in defiance of the cold.
The night was almost perfectly dark. Clouds thick with threatened snow hung heavy in the sky, obscuring the moon.
Eleanor's breath fogged before her as she walked, unfazed by the darkness and the shadowed trees which loomed around her like monsters. There was a bite to the air that promised snow but she kept her steps unrushed and steady.
She reached the edge of town and paused to take her bearings. To call it a town was perhaps a little generous. It comprised of a huddle of shops around a market square, cobbled roads preserved in deference to an age when the sound of horses' hooves echoed a hollow resonance as they pulled carts laden with produce from farms scattered across the countryside for miles around.
The horses were still around but these days the farmers brought their goods to town by tractor, their rusting suspensions protesting as they juddered along, fighting a losing battle against the cobbles.
A clock tower rose from the centre of the square, keeping time quietly, chiming away the hours as life moved on.
Directly behind the clock stood the life's blood of the town, the pub.
No one could remember how the King's Cruelty got its name. It had been generations since the people had bowed to royalty.
But the lights in the windows always promised a warm welcome, the food was good, the wine exquisite and the entertainment guaranteed to see patrons returning for more. So who cared if the place had a silly name?
Eleanor could hear the drone of conversation and the clatter of glasses from within the pub while the swell of music told her the band was earning its pay in the back room.
She pushed open the door and breathed in the warm air, the heady mix of sweat and ale and cigarette smoke dancing in her nostrils as she closed the door behind her.
It was like walking into an old English pub somewhere in the heart of Somerset - an image William, the owner, barman and bottle-washer positively encouraged.
The beer was pulled from wooden barrels from beneath the bar that dominated the centre of the room; the lighting was just low enough to hide the corners of the room in shadow and the haze of cigarette smoke made the air move.
The bar was busy but not too crowded, men and women flushing a hard day out of their systems over a drink or two and a debate with friends about the state of the world and how they would put it right if they were in charge.
William, a bear of a man with shoulder-length hair, paused in his task of polishing a glass, the fragile container looking tiny in his huge hands, and nodded to Eleanor as she passed, easing herself through a group of drinkers and opening the door to the back room.
The back room was a foreboding den, the atmosphere as dark and heavy as the music.
In a parallel of the main bar the air hung heavy with smoke and alcohol fumes, so thick you could taste it, but the similarities ended there.
While the bar was built for carousing, the back room was designed with comfort in mind.
The whole room reeked of cosy opulence and the low beams hanging from the ceiling making it seem a lot smaller than it actually was.
The panelled walls were draped with silk curtains and cluttered with private booths while the seats were topped with deep cushions.
Most of the booths were empty but one or two were occupied, shadows hiding those within from prying eyes.
A discreet bar was tucked into one corner of the room, the barman a picture of refined dignity, in complete contrast to William's earthiness.
Couches were dotted about the room while embroidered rugs and hidden lighting complete the feeling of hominess.
A raised stage at the far end of the room was home to the latest band to grace the King's Cruelty: a quartet of young men who looked barely old enough to shave but whose deep guitar pieces and soulful voices had the meagre crowd hypnotised.
Nodding to the drinkers who raised their glasses in silent greeting, Eleanor fixed her gaze on the stage, her eyes drinking in the lead singer as he came to the end of the song, bidding farewell to the microphone with one last caress.
The hunger was building and she swayed across the room toward him as he acknowledged the patter of polite applause.
He saw Eleanor as she reached the stage and, with a quick word to his band mates, vaulted down to meet her: "What did you think?"
She smiled at him, enjoying the child-like question that was his face, his green eyes bright, his shaven head glistening with a sheen of sweat.
As the band melted into a slow, sultry number that matched the mood of the patrons, she ran an immaculately manicured hand down his cheek, feeling him shudder at her touch:
"Perfect, Rafe. Just perfect."
He blushed, taking her hand and whispering the lightest of kisses against the skin: "Drink?"
She nodded, fire in her eyes, accepting a glass of wine from the waiter who came running at the snap of Rafe's fingers.
She took the smallest of sips and licked the sweet liquid from her lips with a purr: "Hungry."
He smiled: "Business first," and lead her to a vacant sofa.
Eleanor sank into the cushions with a sigh and Rafe sat next to her, smoothing out his baggy shirt.
"Is this all of you?" she asked, waving a hand at the stage as the rest of the band melted into a smooth jazz number.
"This is us," he said, leaning into her until they were cheek to cheek, facing the stage. "That's Ryan on bass, Conor on sax and the little one at the back mauling the guitar is Marco." He flicked her an apologetic glance, "He's new. You'll get used to him."
She shrugged, "As long as he can do the job."
Rafe grinned, "Are you kidding. He may look like a baby but he's a hard bastard underneath."
Eleanor watched as Marco, his face tight with concentration, battled to produce the correct chords from his guitar. A flop of blond fringe dropped over his face and he flicked his head back to clear his vision, catching her eye as she studied him.
She smiled at him and a deep blush crept up his neck and he fluffed the next chord before jolting his attention back to the song at hand, ignoring the glares of his band mates.
"Oh yeah," said Eleanor, "I can tell he's as hard as nails."
Rafe reached across and plucked the wine glass from her fingers, draining the contents. He smacked his lips and gave an exaggerated sigh: "Are we needed yet? Is the bastard on the move?"
She shook her head: "Stackmore's sealed himself in the castle with a bunch of kids. Seems he's having a party, converting some new followers."
"And you still say we're not needed?"
Eleanor shifted in her seat, the hunger making the room feel stifling, the air hot on her skin: "He deserves the same chance as everyone else, Rafe. I'm close to a breakthrough. A matter of days and I'll have it."
He shook his head and allowed his gaze to trail back to Marco and his on-going battle with G-sharp: "You've said that before."
Eleanor gripped his chin in her hand and turned him back to face her, earnest pleading flooding her eyes: "I am so close to a cure I can taste it. Give me another day. If I can't do it by then, you can kill him."
Rafe nodded: "You'll need a couple of guinea pigs."
"We'll fetch them to you later tonight."
She smiled at him, aware that the slow song had finished and that Marco, Conor and Ryan had launched into a darker piece, heavy with clashing chords.
She took Rafe's hand and placed a gentle kiss at the centre: "Thank you," she whispered, "Thank you for your patience."
He watched as she trailed a blaze of kisses to his wrist, her eyes bright in her flushed face. Swallowing with difficulty, he flashed her an encouraging smile, his voice a shuddering squeak of suppressed excitement: "Eat."
Eleanor looked up at him, her eyes devouring him as she lowered her mouth to his wrist.
Rafe caught a glimpse of feral fangs peeking from between her lips before a sharp pain drew a gasp from him as she pierced the soft skin of his arm and began to suckle.
His head was pounding; his vision a nonsensical blur, and he could hear his own pulse as wave after wave of life flooded from his arm as she continued to drain him.
Just as he thought she had gone too far, just as he was about to give into beckoning darkness, she pulled away and ran her tongue over blood-stained fangs and ruby lips with a satisfied sigh:
Rafe smiled a stupid smile and allowed her to stroke his head as though he were a child. For a moment there was only him and her, Rafe and Eleanor, nothing else mattered. Everything else was just background noise.
He heard the band playing and her husky voice singing gently to him as he fell asleep.
As klaxons wailed their distress throughout the ship, Macfadyan balled his hands over his ears and screamed at the voices in his head to damned well shut up.
A man of many lives, in this body Macfadyan appeared to be in his thirties, his long blond hair pulled back in a ponytail, his full beard neatly trimmed. He wore the clothes of a 17th century gentleman pirate, bucket boots trimmed with gold, his patterned black waist coat snug under a black over coat.
Usually he was a picture of elegance but now his hair was awry and his eyes wild as he howled at hallucinations.
The control room was shrouded in the dim glow of hidden lights that refused to obey his commands to shine at full power.
He had been battling with the controls for more than an hour, desperately trying to catapult the ship from the confines of the universe into the void that was E-Space.
But the ship seemed determined to fight his every move, taunting him with touches of dusk as the voices of guilt droned on in his head, the grating chorus of alarms unable to drown them out.
And with each voice accusing him, imploring him, there was a candle - a tiny light for each lost soul.
No matter how many times he swept them away or torpedoed them into the eternity of the space-time continuum, there were always more waiting wherever he went, mocking him, accusing him of an atrocity that was a blur in his mind.
He had made mistakes, many mistakes in his time, but none that deserved being doomed to this slow descent into madness the wretched voices were bringing.
How dare the ship turn on him? How dare it judge him?
Whatever it was he was being accused of, he was sorry.
Didn't the ship know how sorry he was? He had howled his repentance on his knees to the heavens at the shore of a crimson sea on some deserted world while his companions slept deep in the safety of the ship.
Did his good deeds count for nothing?
Where were the candles for the countless souls he had saved through one heroic act or another?
The ship lurched and he slammed his hands down on the console, using it as an anchor against the bucking floor.
He had to get away. If he ran far enough and fast enough perhaps, just perhaps, he could leave the voices of the damned far behind.
The Exo Space-Time continuum was perfect. No one could follow him there. A year or two with no voices in his head should be enough to allow his demons to find rest.
With a tiny squeak of air, a candle appeared next to his hand and he flicked it away with a frustrated growl, extinguishing its mocking glow as the ship's lights dimmed even further.
He spun round, teeth bared, and glared into the shadows, certain he had seen something move:
"Blanche?" Nothing. "This really is not the time to mess about."
With an exasperated sigh he turned away, refusing to squint at shadows like a frightened child.
The wailing klaxons were making his ears ring but he kept his hands clenched in tight fists at his side, refusing to give the ship the pleasure of watching him make another futile attempt to block out the sound.
"You don't scare me," he roared at the cloisters, "I've faced down far worse than you can conjure up."
Macfadyan spun round; certain he had felt the slightest whisper of a breath against his cheek.
His eyes darted around the control room coming to rest on the incongruous growth of ivy that had taken root along one wall, twisting its way round the gothic pillars and climbing to the vaulted ceiling.
There was someone there... he was sure of it.
He took a cautious step forward: "Captain Curtis? There are a few rules we must discuss about creeping up on people..."
For a second the ship allowed the lights to rise and, as he blinked into the resulting glare, Macfadyan was faced with the solid form of a soldier, his armour glistening, the sword at his side honed to lethal sharpness. The man raised his hand in greeting, a smile brightening his dark features: "...Warlock..."
Macfadyan frowned, his head starting to ache: "Crilla..?"
The lights dimmed once again and Crilla's eyes shone in the darkness as he drew his sword with a threatening hiss, his face twisted with hate: "Murderer!"
With a yell, Macfadyan vaulted the console, his fingers like claws on his outstretched arms, but Crilla disappeared beneath his hands.
He tore the ivy from the control room wall, ripping its hold from the stone and flinging it from him with a petulant sneer: "I have nothing to feel ashamed of."
The lights flared briefly before dimming once more and Macfadyan spun round as the voices whispered behind him.
There was noting there. Of course there was nothing there, but when he turned back to the controls he found himself faced with row upon row of candles, their flames casting an ethereal glow over the console.
Macfadyan squeezed his eyes shut, gripping his scruffy hair tight between sweating fingers and roared: "Leave me alone!"
A hand clapped down on his shoulder and he hurled a fist wildly at his attacker, expecting to connect with nothing more than thin air.
So it was a surprise when he bruised his knuckles on something solid and heard someone fall to the floor with a startled: "Oof!"
He opened his eyes. The lights were back on, the control room was free of candles, the klaxons and voices in his head were silent and Colin Curtis was sitting on the floor holding his stomach, a slightly hurt look on his face.
"Grief, Mac," he groaned: "I know we discussed not creeping up on people but really..."
Macfadyan blinked, taking in the complete normality of the control room.
He was aware of a gentle hum as Cre'at pootled into the room and the patter of bare feet as Blanche, still clad in her pyjamas, followed hot
on his non-existent heels.
* Captain Curtis is injured, * grated the Sot'm, * I will fetch hot chocolate and ham. *
Blanche helped the young soldier to his feet: "S'oaky Head, no need for that."
She turned to Macfadyan, who hadn't moved since punching out their friend, and waved a hand in front of his face: "You okay, Bucky? We heard alarms."
Macfadyan stared right through her, his eyes wide and far too bright: "...what..?"
Blanche shot a glance at Colin, confused by the normally confident Bucaneer's shrunken attitude.
Straightening his back and flexing his shoulders with some discomfort, Colin reached out a placed a cautious hand on the Time Lord's shoulder: "You okay, Mac?"
With a blink and a shudder Macfadyan came to life: "Perfectly," he said, "Perfectly."
An exaggerated smile plastered across his face, he clapped Colin on the shoulder and ruffled Blanche's hair, an overly affectionate gesture which left her smoothing out her cropped locks with the flat of her hands, a scowl aimed at her unpredictable mentor: "So what was with the alarms?"
Crossing to the console, Macfadyan waved a dismissive hand as he fiddled with the controls: "Nothing to worry about. Just the ship complaining about being taken into E-Space."
Blanche frowned: "What's that then? What's E-Space?"
Macfadyan flicked a switch and frowned at the red light which began blinking at him: "It's a dimension outside normal time and space which may or may not exist depending on which literature you believe."
Blanche nodded thoughtfully: "I didn't understand that but it sounded a bit dangerous."
Macfadyan shrugged: "It is. But we need to go somewhere where the normal laws of time and space not apply."
"So I can repair the chameleon circuit. Go and get dressed."
Shooting him a dirty look, Blanche pattered out of the control room, muttering under her breath.
Colin peered over Macfadyan's shoulder, trying to make out what he was doing, but the array of dials and switches were well beyond his patchy technical training.
"You said 'might or might not exist'."
"Well, what exactly did you mean by that and is it likely to get us killed?"
Macfadyan pressed a large, blue button and smiled as it gave a self-satisfied beep.
He gave Colin one of his haughtier looks: "I sincerely doubt that, Mr Curtis. I happen to be a firm believer in E-Space and am quite looking forward to seeing it. And so is Cre'at, aren't you Cre'at."
The Head bobbed gently over the control panel:
* Repairs must be effected. A planet with a suitable atmosphere must be found. We will picnic under purple skies and stay-out-of-Macfadyan's-hair-for-once-is-that-too-much-to-ask. *
Colin let the slur pass: "But, assuming it does exist and we don't all end up dead, how do we know it's safe?"
Macfadyan straightened his jacket and snorted: "What possible danger could there be with you and your trusty service revolver to guard the perimeter?"
Any reply Colin was about to make was lost as all the lights in the control room went out and the room lurched with a mechanical groan, hurling him against the back wall.
When the lights came back up a moment later, he found himself being helped up from the floor for the second time in as many minutes with a sizable bump on his head.
With a frown, Macfadyan dusted down his crewmate and checked him over with a critical eye: "I think we've arrived. Cre'at?"
A desperate whirr of gears drew their attention to one of the majestic columns that swept up to the vaulted roof of the control room. The ship's erratic lurch had disoriented the Head and it had careered into the pillar becoming entangled in the ivy.
* I am here, * it said, sounding slightly annoyed, * I have been consumed by greenery. Assistance please. *
Colin reached into his boot and unsheathed his standard issue knife with a cocky flourish: "Don't panic C."
* I am unable to panic. *
"Well that's good." With a tug, he tore the blade through the ivy, tearing its tendrils away from the floundering Sot'm, "Now why don't you go and check on Blanche. Tell her we're going to land soon."
* Yes, Captain Curtis. * And he pootled off through the connecting door to find her.
Wiping clean his knife on his trouser leg, Colin sheathed it and looked up to find Macfadyan staring at him, an arrogant sneer spread across his face: "Mac?"
Macfadyan glared at his companion: "You assume a lot, my lad."
"Did I say we would land?"
"No. But if you need to repair the chameleon circuit surely we have to land to find out whether or not it works."
Macfadyan's sneer turned into an almost petulant scowl: "I decide where and if we land. Not you."
Colin held up his hands: "Okay, okay. I just assumed..."
Blanche and Cre'at entered the control room and paused at the sight of the two men glaring at one another.
The girl stepped forward, tugging a red jacket on over a Mickey Mouse T-shirt and black jeans:
"You two gonna kill each other or what?"
Colin dragged his brooding glare away from Macfadyan and grinned at Blanche: "Just a little disagreement about where we land, kid. Mac was about to stamp his foot and storm off in a huff."
Macfadyan straightened his back with a sniff, pulling himself to his full, substantial, height: "I refuse to be dragged into this childish bickering. Cre'at?"
* Here. *
"Set course for the nearest planet with a breathable atmosphere and begin landing protocols.
* Doing it. *
Colin raised an eyebrow at Macfadyan: "So we are landing..."
"Because I say so. No other reason."
The soldier shook his head: "You are unbelievable."
Counting to ten before speaking was something Colin had grown accustomed to since becoming a member of the ship's crew. He had taken to counting in different languages just to make a change. But he was fast running out of languages.
Clenching his fists at his side he began pacing back and forth in front of the door, waiting for the familiar shudder as the ship materialised on solid ground.
"Un, deux, trios, quatre, cinc..."
The shudder came and Cre'at announced:
* Landed. Safe. No dents. *
Macfadyan clapped his hands and rubbed them together with glee: "Excellent. Our first glimpse of an E-Space planet."
He smacked his palm down on the door control and swept his coat from the hat stand in the corner: "Shall we?"
Feeling slightly less enthusiastic, Blanche, Cre'at and Colin followed, the latter checking his revolver before stepping out onto the planet.
"Well, this is boring."
Macfadyan frowned at Blanche as she summed up the beauty of their surroundings with typical teenaged apathy.
"Look around you, Blanche," he said: "Tell me what you see."
The girl screwed up her nose and let her gaze take in the wooded glade in which they stood; the cloudless sky, tinged with a touch of purple, the greenest grass she had ever seen and the carpet of bluebells disappearing into the trees.
Colin was spreading out a chequered blanket next to a bubbling stream and Cre'at was zipping back and forth between the blanket and the ship - which was cunningly disguised as a yellow-and-blue-striped beach hut - carrying a wide array of foil covered dishes.
"S'pretty enough, I suppose."
"But it's not very exciting, is it?"
Macfadyan sighed and shook his head: "Cre'at was muttering something about a picnic. Do you think the three of you could stay out of trouble while I work on the chameleon circuit?"
Blanche grinned and plucked a bluebell from the grass at her feet. She reached up and slipped it into Macfadyan's flowing locks: "Well, Bucky, unless all these flowers rise up in protest at the sight of a million ham sandwiches, I think we'll be okay."
Macfadyan pulled the bluebell from his hair and wandered off to the ship, sniffing it absent-mindedly.
Colin came up behind Blanche and put a hand on her shoulder: "You gave him a flower?"
"Just appreciating nature, Crumbly, even if it is boring."
Colin smacked her gently on arm: "We want to make a fire. How about finding some fire wood?"
Blanche picked up a twig and waved it at him before skipping off into the trees in search of branches.
By the time Colin returned to the picnic site, Cre'at had laid out quite a healthy looking spread of dishes and it was only when he looked closer that he realised they all contained ham sandwiches cut in a variety of imaginative shapes.
Cre'at was bobbing close by, his expressionless face exuding smugness: * You may feast now. *
Colin scratched his head: "Yeah, thanks, C. Let's wait for Blanche."
* Very well. *
There was an awkward silence, filled only with the gentle tweeting of some unseen bird. Then:
* I am here. *
"Yes...is there anything else apart from ham sandwiches?"
The Head extended his arm and extracted a small tub of ketchup from the centre of the blanket. He held it under Colin's nose: * For dipping. *
The very Blanche-like holler from the woods was almost a welcome relief and they both raced off in the direction of the scream.
Despite previous protestations of boredom, Blanche found strolling through the trees quite relaxing.
The aroma from the flowers mixed with a just-rained-on smell in the air reminded her of her one and only visit to the country with her mother, shortly before the horrible woman had gambled her away in a dodgy hand of blackjack, abandoning her to a life on the streets.
She had gathered quite an armful of dry wood and was about to return to the campsite when she spotted something.
It was only when she moved in for a closer look that she realised it was a leg.
A leg attached to a torso, attached to a head, the eyes of which were staring blankly at the sky out of a bloodless, dead face.
The hefty stake of wood sticking out of the man's chest had pinned him to the ground, piercing his heart.
Maggots were eating him.
Dropping her meagre armful of wood, Blanche staggered back with a scream and landed unceremoniously on her backside, her eyes as wide as those of the corpse.
Seconds later, Colin and Cr'eat burst through the trees.
"Dead man by the tree. Oh dear."
Colin automatically checked the body for a pulse, knowing he would find none. The smell alone told him the man had been dead for days:
* I will fetch Macfadyan. *
Colin waved a hand at the retreating Sot'm and turned to help Blanche to her feet: "Alright, kid?"
She dragged her gaze away from the dead man, certain his festering eyes were watching her:
And she threw up on Colin's shoes.
With a heavy sigh, he patted her on the back and steered her away from the corpse: "I guess this was a bit more excitement than you hoped for."