for The Watcher.
A delightfully witty
story blending farce, black humour, a strong thoughtful plot and rich
characterisation into a gourmet novel. Star Dancer has a draining presence
and, to the inhabitants of the planet Ojal, this is a life threatening
situation. Earth is identified as the planet from which Star Dancer comes.
The Ojaliens, with expert help, produce an android, Kybion, and send it
into the past to wait for the rise of Star Dancer and prevent it from
draining Ojal’s power. Excellent.
of any serious social, moral, human or extra-terrestrial issue, Jane Palmer’s
The Watcher (Women’s Press, £2.50) flips lightly around the
adventures of an Asian teenage girl with no nerves, helped along by a
Benson-from-Soap character and an ugly baddie who gets fried by the power
source he is trying to steal. If the baddies succeed then an entire planet
of one-parent families with wings will perish; but, fear not, most of
the action takes place in English villages by the sea. It has the tone
of early Eric Frank Russell and a style reminiscent of Enid Blyton.
The Watcher turns some of these clichés around and her cast list
features a middle-aged black android who falls in love with a middle-aged
female humanoid. The watcher of the title is a benevolent 17-year-old
young woman, which knocks your aging male warlords into the box marked
Adele Saleem 7 Days
published in 1986
by The Women’s Press as
published in Great Britain
by The Women’s Press 1986
As The Watcher
edition by Dodo Books 2008
© Jane Palmer 2008
rights reserved. This is a work of fiction and
any resemblance to persons living or dead is
The author asserts the moral right to be identified as
the author of this work.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system,
or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying,
recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher,
nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than
that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed
on the subsequent purchaser.
Other science fiction books by this author
THE PLANET DWELLER
THE ATON BIRD
stars sparkled through the dense atmosphere as the yellow sun set. It
would be a few moments before the other sun appeared above the horizon.
Controller Opu shut down the refractor that had been concentrating the
nutritional radiation into the energy pool below. The rising sun’s
pink light had no nourishment value. Its luminosity was just as great,
bathing everything in a pretty pallor, yet it was the yellow binary star
that had given the ancient races the energy they needed to evolve and
create their civilisation.
The first refractor able to collect and store the sun’s energy had
been built three million years ago; or so it was believed, because any
trace of it had vanished long ago. Since then the efficiency of these
technological temples had increased a thousandfold. Unfortunately, Ojalie
ambition had not. To them, the greatest delight of these gigantic silver
domes was the way in which they spangled the planet like a pomander studded
Opu tucked her wings comfortably by her sides. Looking over her blunt
beak that ran seamlessly down from her cranium, she pondered on the glinting
shields that were slowly closing as the pink sun rose above the horizon.
She wondered where the Ojalie would be now without the light energy from
those massive pools to bathe in when they needed the occasional boost.
Perhaps soaring above the cloudbanks to collect their nourishment on the
wing when the yellow sun disappeared behind them, or maybe chewing different
plants to see if they could digest them. That would have been pretty pointless.
The Ojalie had never developed the bowels to cope with solid food. Intestines
and other internal organs would just increase the weight this species
had to get airborne. The only other nutrition their digestive tracts required
was a mineral-rich fluid that bubbled from the crust of their planet,
though over the millennia some other potions had been invented. These
were responsible for more mid-air collisions than freak air currents.
Most of the space inside the short, wide-hipped bodies of the Ojalie was
to allow their large-skulled offspring to grow. Their pelvic girdles were
so wide they were unable to walk very well, but their huge wings more
than compensated for this until the last stages of pregnancy when they
were grounded. It had never occurred to anyone that there was pleasure
in walking very far anyway. As the Ojalie were hermaphrodite, this shape
was pretty standard, even between different racial types that hadn’t
interbred. Without that exchange of genes, and the ability to both inseminate
and give birth, they would have probably evolved back into the pigeon
like creature found in ancient fossils.
Opu looked down at the chattering bundle of uncoordinated wings, arms,
and legs tumbling about the floor beneath everyone’s feet, and wondered
what pitch of evolution she represented. Her child had just managed to
escape from the play-pen that was supposed to be child-proof for the fifth
time, and was about to bite the leg of another controller to discover
the different things a beak could be used for. If Opu had known how lively
Opuna was going to be, and how many friends she was going to alienate,
she would have thought twice about having her.
Her gene partner, Anapa, had not so long ago looked thoughtfully at the
antics of the bundle of disruption and observed, ‘How does she manage
to be so active? Mine hardly moves about at all.’
‘Swap?’ Opu had suggested hopefully.
‘Not now I’ve got my home just how I like it,’ was the
prompt reply. ‘I might let you visit us when she runs out of energy
and has more control over her hands and beak’
‘A fine parent you are.’
‘Maybe, but I’m sure she has more of your genes than mine.’
Anapa’s disposition was about as vivacious as the grey-skinned,
fungus eating slow-worm, so Opu had to agree.
The unfortunate controller let out a shriek as the monster child’s
beak found her leg and she turned, only to find an innocent Opu looking
in amazement at her child’s behaviour.
Finishing the shift under the frosty disapproval of her colleagues, Opu
tucked her squawking offspring beneath her short arm and leisurely flew
back to the devastation of her own home. As things would immediately be
dislodged and flung about as soon as they had been tidied up, she had
long since stopped bothering and only invited in the most broad-minded
of her friends. She had thought about cutting down the amount of light
nourishment Opuna received. Many, who claimed to be more responsible,
had frowned severely at the idea. All growing children needed at least
five meals every sun. Without it they would shrivel up to nothing as their
ancestors, so deprived, had done. Or just fall to pieces, like the pioneering
astronauts when they had travelled too far from the sun. The Ojalie were
one of those species dependent, like most vegetation, on their sun. They
had given up trying to leave their planet, but the old stories of what
had happened to the early astronauts still made Opu shudder.
Perhaps her offspring wouldn’t be a pest forever. A long walk to
try and tire Opuna into flying only exhausted her and left the brat as
ebullient as ever. They watched a golden backed reptile disembowel an
unsuspecting mollusc, and then spit out its shell. Opu felt ill, while
Opuna pondered the need to fly when such wonders could be seen on the
Opu asked herself what she had been like at that age, and had to believe
the horror stories her parent had told about her juvenile behaviour.
They next came upon an automatic cleanser scraping up the remains of some
poor pulverised creature that had fallen from the sky. Opu decided Opuna’s
flying lesson had lasted long enough. She scooped the brat up and flew
back home where she placed the child in the cubicle to be bathed in the
life-giving sun’s light, while she sprawled out and fanned herself
with a wing. The one positive thing about having a monster for an offspring
was that it took her mind off other problems.
As Opu fanned her cares away she recalled the wispy shape that had hovered
over the refractor two shifts ago. She had put it down to the exhaustion
brought on by parenthood. That was it! She could make a reasonable request
for a temporary parental swap. Anapa had been avoiding it for ages, now
she could face a fine if she refused.
So Anapa was compelled to ensure the rigors of Opuna’s delinquency
while Opu took the other child of the union, Anop. At last there was an
offspring she could place in the control room playpen without having to
worry about what disaster she was about to engineer. Opu felt relaxed.
Her colleagues began to speak to her again, and she was no longer tired.
Then the energy level indicator dived for a second. She glanced out at
the open shields and saw a menacing shape hovering over the refractor.
This time it was blazing intensely, like a small sun. Inside the flaming
shell a shape slowly revolved, growing brighter and brighter with the
power it consumed from the energy pool.
One of the controllers jumped in alarm. ‘Vian Solran! Star Dancer!’
Opu instinctively hit the lever that opened the power bank to the other
stations dotted about the planet before the level could fall dangerously
The usually laid-back Ojalie were thrown into a panic that made worldwide
gossip. The controllers would have liked to blame Opu for the power drain,
but on this occasion her conduct was too efficient to fault. However despicable
her brat, she was the only one with the know-how and presence of mind
when it was needed.
‘Vian Solran, Star Dancer,’ Opu mused to herself when the
emergency was over. It was strange how such ancient race memories could
surface when someone was under stress. Given the circumstances, it was
probably the most logical thing anyone could say about the energy vampire.
For all their knowledge and expertise, it might as well have been that
Legend had it that Vian Solran was a born from a quasar at the centre
of the Galaxy when it was young, and developed the rapacious appetite
of a collapsar. It was believed the entity could appear anywhere in space
and perform a deadly dance from one star to the next, devouring each in
That was the first visit of the energy vampire to Ojal. As yet, it hadn’t
become as dangerous as Vian Solran, but the unspoken fear that it was
only a matter of time grew. Long before the Star Dancer turned its attention
to their suns, the planet’s energy pools would be bled dry and the
Ojalie doomed. Despite their technical competence, no one had yet dared
put that fear into words. Like a blip on the solar scan, or disease in
the digestive tracts of the perverse creatures that decided to survive
off vegetation, it first had to be investigated.
The controllers had been so stunned by the sighting they weren’t
able to describe it when making out a report. Even the children watching
from their playpen couldn’t invent words to express what they had
seen, though Opu didn’t doubt for one moment that Opuna would have
When she returned for the next shift, inventive suggestions from every
source had been pouring in to explain the apparition seen by the staff
of Main Base Station 93 - usually such a lucid bunch. No convincing explanation
could be found amongst them. On Ojal, monsters were things of the remote
past. They knew of no hostile civilisations wanting to attack their planet,
yet the Star Dancer must have been alien.
The only good thing to come of the traumatic event for Opu was that Anapa
now had to look after both children while she waited with the other controllers
for the Star Dancer to appear again. Even a small drain on an energy pool
caused a planet wide imbalance, and there was a limit to how much the
other stations could compensate for it.
As though it knew they were waiting, the Star Dancer’s next appearance
was at a refractor on the other side of Ojal. Although the staff had been
prepared for a drain on the energy pool, they were watching for something
terrifying, not beautiful. To their amazement a huge ghostly butterfly
floated over their open shields, sucking power from the energy pool like
nectar from a blossom. This time the power drain was serious.
From then on the lives of Opu and her gene partner became even more complicated.
Anapa’s, because she was obliged to look after both children, monstrous
and docile, indefinitely, and Opu’s because the computer, which
took no account of anyone’s delinquency, decided that she was the
best controller to take charge of the situation. A sudden promotion her
easy-going nature could have done without.
Space travel might have been biologically impossible for the Ojalie; transmitting
signals at tachyon frequencies was not. Unable to visually observe the
sky because their suns permanently lit the planet, they had designed spacecraft
that could carry satellites far beyond Ojal to orbit with the comets.
They achieved this not long after constructing the first refractors about
three million years ago. Since then they had developed the technology
to see and track anything within the known Galaxy. Something many species
accomplished at space travel weren’t able to do. This Ojalie expertise,
and a willingness to share it, had made them popular with other civilisations,
which was just as well. They were going to need help as the Star Dancer’s
visits increased and their life giving power was drained away.
as new controller-in-charge, was still unable to make sense of the multi-form
Star Dancer after its sixteenth visit. She decided, because it was energy,
they would be able to pinpoint its origin. By the time a way was devised
of attaching a tracking signal to the tail of the marauding manifestation,
the situation had become critical. When the opportunity to use it arose,
the signal only managed to follow the apparition as far as the edge of
the binary star system, and then the entity accelerated beyond the speed
of light and shook it off. No one had been expecting this. Though the
Ojalie could talk to the other side of the Galaxy in real time, not many
manifestations with mass were known to travel at the speed of thought.
Opu was beginning to feel like a wrung-out beak warmer. She sent a message
around the planet to rally the technicians to generate enough power to
create a tachyon “tag” that could pursue the Star Dancer at
the speed of thought. If it travelled any faster than that she resolved
to give it in her notice and fade away with everyone else.
As Opu waited, it didn’t help to receive a hysterical message from
Anapa. Opuna had succeeded in alienating most of her friends, and sent
the remainder into a near frenzy as they tried to relieve her of the menace
for a few hours. The controller-in-charge had other things on her mind,
Opu felt a relieving numbness creep over her as they waited for the thirsty
apparition’s next visit. At least it made the waiting easier. She
checked that every available satellite was programmed to track the tachyon
tag, across the Universe if need be. It would have been pointless to ask
assistance of any world until they knew where it led them. All they could
do was wait.
Without warning, the Star Dancer was there, hovering above Station 30
at the planet’s equator. This time it was shaped like a long-legged
insect draped in swirling robes. While the controllers topped up the energy
pool from other stations, Opu transmitted the tag. It tracked the intruder
as it rapidly retreated into space. To her relief, it worked this time.
By the time the Star Dancer had reached the other side of the Galaxy,
snippets of information began to filter in. There was no sensible time
sequence to their arrival and the jumble was fed into the computer to
unscramble: it produced data measuring a planet’s location, density,
size, and atmosphere. More data produced images, some easy to comprehend,
and others that had to be electronically translated before they made sense.
At least they could be sure that the Star Dancer came from another world
and wasn’t an emanation from some freak star - the name stuck anyway.
Now it was possible to contact the planets in that region and glean more
specific information about the solar system.
As they could make instantaneous contact across light years with anyone
who had receivers capable of picking up their signal, the Ojalie had given
up using electromagnetic radiation waves for communication millennia ago.
Opu soon learnt that their quarry inhabited the third planet of a yellow
sun that appeared to have a small, dim red companion. The world’s
landmass was verdant, and filled with a multitude of life forms.
An aquatic species on Taigal Rax, in a neighbouring solar system, had
long been interested in the Star Dancer’s world. Taigalians were
more concerned about the large body of water that covered most of the
planet, which they had named Perimeter 84926, than the creatures that
had managed to crawl out of it. As they believed the oceans of the Star
Dancer’s home would eventually cover the remaining landmasses, just
as they had done on Taigal Rax, their priority was to learn more about
the evolving species in the water than the eventually-to-be-drowned ones
out of it. They did send Opu some useful data, however.
A precocious land animal had rapidly evolved to become reasonably intelligent.
Unlike the Ojalie, who had six limbs, this animal and other larger life
forms had only four and there, mostly, appeared to be two sexes. On the
verge of space exploration, this planet had launched a vehicle carrying
odd information about their world and a small plaque representing one
of the larger sex making a sign of some sort with an upper limb. The creature
was known to have a fear/aggression response, and to be terrified of anything
out of its immediate experience.
Opu groaned. ‘Very helpful. Contacting them is definitely out.’
‘No chance they could be sending the creature deliberately, if they
are aggressive?’ somebody suggested.
‘With their backward technology?’ Opu didn’t even bother
to turn and see who had spoken.
She sat back and thought. Their only chance lay with the aquatic species
on Taigal Rax. They may have been more interested in this planet’s
oceans, but knew about the terrestrial creatures inhabiting Perimeter
84926, and were closer to it than any comparably advanced civilisation.
They even had laboratories deep in the planet’s crust and could
activate slumbering service robots at the bottom of its oceans.
Hardly aware that she had come to a decision, Opu transmitted a detailed
summary of their predicament to Taigal Rax. She next sent out for engineers
to design an android to track the Star Dancer on its own planet.
As soon as the others knew what she was about to do, the chorus of controllers,
who secretly believed they could do the job better, arose. ‘There
isn’t time for that.’
‘There will be.’ Opu didn’t have the patience to elaborate.
‘Somebody find me Technician Controller Annac.’
‘She’s dead - or retired.’
Unable to breathe in the hothouse of objections generated by little more
than controlled hysteria, Opu stepped out onto the balcony, unfurled her
wings, and took off into the cool pink sky without a word of explanation
Below, amongst the spacious gardens, rambling, twisting homes punctuated
the skyline in a haphazard fashion. The older Ojalies lived here, out
of the flight paths of the younger more reckless fliers, and whiled away
their time doing anything that age, advanced technology and their fancy
Opu’s purple-scaled tunic was impossible to miss as she hovered
over the flat roof of one home, catching the attention of the figure seated
Controller Annac glanced up as though not really amazed at the visit from
the senior controller who held the fate of the planet in her hands. ‘Thought
it about time you retired too, young Opu?’
Opu touched down beside Annac. ‘I’m tired of promotion, children,
and monstrous apparitions that drop in from the other side of the Galaxy.’
‘So you should retire. Though I thought you went in for a youngster?
What’s she like?’
‘Oh. Some are you know.’
‘Problem with retiring, though, is that...’ Opu took a deep
breath, and stopped.
‘Is that nobody else will be living to retirement age if you can’t
help me with a small problem,’ Opu managed to say without sounding
too overcome at the thought of it herself.
Annac put aside the plan of the force field bubble she had been working
on. It looked as though sending goods by sunbeams would have to wait.
‘I wouldn’t call that a small problem. What do you want me
‘A long while ago you devised a system for transmitting matter from
one place to another. It could be sent faster than light without the need
for a receiver.’
Annac gave her a long, hard look with her large orange eyes. ‘You
mean the one that used the Kybini particle?’
‘That’s it. The elementary particle without any mass.’
‘I withdrew the proposal for the Kybini System.’
‘I know,’ said Opu.
‘Then you know why.’
‘I do. But it’s not my intention to transmit people with it.’
‘Even if I’m sure you won’t, how can I be sure no one
else will? Mineral matter was what it was intended for, not us.’
‘We’ve run out of options. Delicate sensibilities are for
the unthreatened and comfortable. The Ojalie have never confronted extinction.
The Star Dancer isn’t a comet we can deflect.’
Opu’s tone had enough gravity to make Annac bend her moral stance.
‘Is it really that bad?’
‘A few more energy drains and the whole system will bleed to death.
We’re all three million years too evolved to go back to basking
in the sun. Come and see for yourself if you don’t believe me.’
Annac sighed. So much for a peaceful retirement. ‘All right. But
if you want to reach the source of this thing on the other side of the
Galaxy with my system, you’re not going to have much success. It’s
only effective under distances of two hundred light years. Over that,
it’s impossible to select the time matter arrives. It could take
‘Our computer signal doesn’t though,’ Opu hinted. She
could see Annac would remain unconvinced until she explained her plan.
The controllers weren’t surprised to see Opu and Annac stroll in
from the balcony and go to the plans the android engineers had produced.
‘We’ve got enough data to make a transmitter. We’ll
use its energy imprint to create a signal that will attract the Star Dancer
on its own planet. The data can be sent with the components for an android.’
Annac pointed to the blueprint. ‘What’s this machine going
to look like then?’ There was something aesthetically unpleasant
about it. ‘There’s no outer casing,’ she complained,
‘Doesn’t matter. Will its components transmit on your system?’
‘Of course, but not at this range.’
‘Good.’ Opu smiled beneath her blunt beak. ‘Let’s
hope that any favours Ojal has done in the past were appreciated. The
Taigalians have already promised to help.’
‘How far away from this Perimeter 84926 are they?’
‘One hundred and fifty light years.’
‘Then if they transmit the android, it’ll arrive far too soon,
even with compensations for different space time.’
‘Over one of Perimeter 84926’s centuries before it actually
happens here,’ Opu explained, ‘This will give the android
time to orientate itself and be established when the energy source manifests
itself there - I hope.’
‘You’ll have no control over the machine,’ Annac warned.
‘We can only transmit it back into their past because the signal
will bisect the time curve Perimeter 84926 has travelled through.’
‘Of course we won’t have any control over it. The first thing
we’ll know about it intercepting the Star Dancer is when it stops
‘And how will that pile of metal and crystal manage to do that?’
‘We intend our aquatic friends to build into this expensive pile
of metal and crystal a sense of what the creatures on Perimeter 84926
look like, and then use your Kybini system to transmit it. They can supply
it with power units and any data needed about the planet. The android
will be able to change its appearance whenever it needs… and develop
living tissue if necessary.’
The other controllers froze in horror.
‘Living tissue!’ Annac blurted out. ‘If you’re
sending something like that back into anyone’s history without any
control over it, you’d better pray the Watchers never find out.’
‘We’ll double-check it, and Taigal Rax shall do the same.
It’ll only activate the biological process if they instruct it.
We have to take the risk. We’ve got everything to lose if we don’t.’
However tedious she found retirement, Annac knew she had no right to obstruct
other Ojalies from having a future. ‘So we’ll only know whether
it has been successful when the entity stops attacking the energy pools?’
‘Assuming I start transmitting the data before things get out of
hand here, just so.’ Opu started to transmit the program to Taigal
Annac cursed as her old wings fluttered her unsurely home into the pink
sunrise. ‘What a way to spend retirement.’
heavy mist rolled across the inky sea washing against the treacherous
rocks. The moon lit the grey chalk cliffs where the breeze had pushed
the mist back, and they glowed like a sinister silver ribbon.
Above the fuming waves an eerie, swishing noise echoed about the top of
the cliffs. It was followed by an unlikely tinkling sound as something
hit the ground. A couple of seconds passed. Another swishing was followed
by the tinkling sound. Then again and again until there was an untidy
heap of diamond-metal, crystal, and gold tendons on a cushion of sea thrift
Delivery complete, the glinting components began to arrange themselves.
Some stood erect as though trying to take their bearings and others rolled
towards their adjoining members. Each piece knew where it should fit,
like a mechanical chromosome. Clicking and whirring, they assembled themselves
into a glittering, faceless machine. It sat twinkling on top of the cliff
for several moments, checking its components and circuits, then lifted
itself erect on two stick-like legs in imitation of a human frame.
It picked its way unsurely over the unfamiliar ground towards the edge
of the cliff and sent out signals in every direction to make take its
bearings, then stood pondering for a few seconds.
Satisfied, it sprang forward and plunged into the dark churning sea below.
An ominous rumble echoed from the bowels of the ironclad ship as its cargo
slid across the hold. The vessel tilted so far over the deck was partly
submerged. The sails and the steam-driven paddles of the merchantman were
useless in the teeth of the storm that was trying to capsize it. The crew
were well rehearsed for such a disaster. They had been expecting something
like it for their last eight voyages. They didn’t begrudge the owners
their insurance money, but they were damned if they were going to drown
for it. Before the order to abandon ship could be given, the lifeboats
were launched and passengers and crew loaded into them. When someone yelled
across the bows to ask the inebriated captain if he was going down with
his ship, he sobered up with remarkable alacrity and slid across the deck
to join his first mate in the nearest boat.
‘Sheer off! Sheer off!’ he yelled. ‘Sheer off or we’ll
all be sucked down with her!’ as though that hadn’t already
occurred to the sailors battling with oars.
‘My cargo! My cargo!’ rang out a despairing cry from one of
the smaller boats being rowed away from the mêlée towards
the cliffs looming out of the spray.
‘Better to be alive and have the insurance,’ a young man hauling
at an oar tried to reassure Mr Humbert.
‘I don’t need your insolence, you young pup!’
‘Well shut up then you old fool, and sit down,’ snapped an
older woman. ‘If you can’t help row the boat you might stop
Mr Humbert was obviously not used to being spoken to in such a manner
and would have stood resolutely at the bows glowering if a wave hadn’t
thrown him down to the bottom of the boat.
The young woman pulling at the other oar snatched a glance over her shoulder.
‘We’re heading straight for the cliffs, Toby! We should have
taken a sailor on board with us.’
‘You’re right, Tasmin!’ The young man was exhausted
and panicking. ‘We’re being dragged towards them! I’m
more used to holding a pen than an oar.’
At that the older woman placed herself between the struggling younger
couple and, seizing the end of each oar, tried to add her weight to their
efforts. Humbert meanwhile sat facing them, staring stonily at their exertion
as though his Victorian affluence had given him some immunity against
Soon all the other lifeboats with sailors on board were out of sight and
in safer waters. As much as the three battled with the waves, the cliffs
were soon towering above them and the boat was sucked towards their craggy
One of the oars snapped against the jagged rocks. ‘Get down!’
yelled the older woman. ‘Lie flat!’
All four clung to the slats in the bottom of the flooded boat as it banged
against one rock after another. At any moment they expected it to disintegrate
and pitch them into the swirling water.
Then the hammering suddenly stopped. The roaring torrent was left behind
and they were swept into a world of muffled darkness. Ahead was the gushing
of water being forced into a large chamber. For a few seconds they were
spun round, and then the boat travelled along a straight channel.
‘We’re in a tunnel,’ the older woman eventually murmured.
‘I’m scared, Mrs Angel,’ whispered Toby. ‘Are
you all right, Tasmin?’
‘I’d rather be in here than outside.’ Tasmin rose from
the bottom of the boat to see if she could glimpse anything through the
pitch-blackness and banged her head on the cave roof.
‘Be careful,’ Mrs Angel warned. ‘We could be travelling
into a dead end.’
‘What can we do?’ asked Toby helplessly.
‘It depends on how narrow the tunnel is. We may be able to wall-walk
our way out once this storm has abated.’
‘You mean like the canal bargees?’
‘Yes, like the canal bargees.’
‘Goodness. My legs would never be long enough.’
‘You’re an inadequate sort of creature aren’t you? What
made you think you would be a suitable husband for my assistant?’
‘Please, Mrs Angel, it’s hardly the time and place to discuss
that,’ remonstrated Tasmin.
‘This is the sort of situation that will prove how worthy he really
‘But you can’t expect Toby to be the one to rescue us.’
‘Then you might have at least considered a more suitable specimen
to break your vestal vow for, young lady - a ledger clerk indeed!’
‘How can I keep that vow forever?’
‘You will for as long as I employ you. Our class of clientele will
not want to listen to their departed loved ones through the mouth of a
housewife or scarlet woman.’
‘I’m sure I wouldn’t do anything to dishonour Tasmin,
Mrs Angel,’ protested Toby.
‘Fortunately, so am I.’
The argument would have continued if an eerily glimmering light hadn’t
appeared ahead of them. They were swept out of the tunnel into a large
dimly lit cave. At the far end was a wide platform. The boat came alongside
it and was nudged to a stop.
Gratefully, the sodden passengers clambered out. Before them was a wall
studded with small lights and knobs. Some of the rock was transparent
and inside it were cavities holding strange machines, spinning, and clicking
in time to some tuneless rhythm.
Astonished at what they had accidentally transgressed into, no one spoke.
They gingerly examined their surroundings, careful not to touch anything.
The thought crossed their minds that they could be trapped here for a
A sickly light appeared in the water lapping the platform. A shape was
walking towards them from its depths. Although the creature carried itself
like a human being, its movements were mechanical. As it rose from the
water the travellers shrank to the far end of the platform. The entity
wore a long shroud, like a monk’s habit, which instantly dried when
the air touched it as it walked up some rough steps and onto the platform,
cutting off their only chance of escaping in the boat.
Even the indomitable Mrs Angel was daunted by the strange hooded figure.
‘Who are you?’ she demanded tremulously.
‘Who are you?’ the figure asked in a metallic, clicking voice.
‘I am Mrs Angel.’ Despite her apprehension, she formally introduced
the others in turn as though she were at a dinner party, ‘This is
Tasmin, and Mr Humbert. And we call this fair-haired young man Toby. He’s
only a ledger clerk.’ She turned back to the figure. ‘Now,
what is your name?’
‘I am the Kybion,’ it replied.
‘Rum sort of name,’ muttered Toby.
Only one thing concerned the entity. ‘What are you doing here?’
‘Why ask that?’ snapped Mrs Angel. ‘You must already
know.’ She wasn’t sure what made her say it.
‘You are right, Mrs Angel,’ the voice clicked in what might
have been surprise. ‘You are perceptive.’
‘I am a medium.’
The Kybion didn’t seem to register the meaning of the word, so she
explained, ‘I can see into the future and contact spirits from the
world of the dead.’
As that revelation met with stony silence, Tasmin added, ‘Mrs Angel
and I were coming back from France after an important séance when
our ship foundered.’
‘Wretched ironclads,’ snorted Mr Humbert. ‘How can anything
stay afloat with all that metal riveted to it?’
‘Remember the insurance, Mr Humbert,’ Toby dared to remind
him, and received a hefty clip round the ear for his advice.
Before real violence could break out, the Kybion’s voice resonated
about the cave. ‘You should all be dead.’
‘Probably so,’ agreed Mrs Angel. ‘But the Good Lord
in his infinite mercy spared us.’
‘Your “Good Lord” had nothing to do with the matter,
Mrs Angel. I made the inlet you were swept into. It was pure chance your
boat found it. You should have all been killed on the cliff-face. Events
cannot be moved out of time sequence.’
‘What do you mean, sir?’ Humbert strode towards the mysterious
gowned figure. ‘Do you know who I am?’
‘You should be dead, Mr Humbert,’ was the clinical reply.
At that, Humbert’s heavily-jowled face glowed red with fury. ‘Now
let’s see who you are, sir! This mumbo jumbo has gone far enough!’
He reached out and snatched off the Kybion’s hood. Its habit fell
Mr Humbert reeled back in terror and toppled from the platform.
The other three looked on in horrified disbelief, ignoring Humbert’s
calls for help as he splashed about in the shallow water. Standing before
them was a faceless jumble of tangled wire tendons, and winking crystal
arteries. The creature was a metal skeleton entwined with gold nerves,
and supported by clear muscles filled with fluorescing fluid. Not even
Mrs Angel could think of anything to say to that.
‘I am the Kybion,’ the machine announced. ‘I am not
‘You’re really going to kill us, aren’t you?’
said Tasmin as the trembling Toby wrapped his short arms protectively
‘The fault that you did not die is mine.’
‘We don’t mind - really we don’t,’ blurted out
‘I am from a future time. I cannot interfere with the history of
this planet, even to let you live.’
‘You are a scoundrel, sir!’ spluttered Humbert, dragging himself
back onto the platform. ‘Not only a scoundrel, but as twisted a
piece of machinery as is ever liable to be assembled by a madman.’
‘And no one can travel from the future,’ snapped Mrs Angel.
‘It would be ungodlike if they could.’
‘I am the Kybion. I have no gods. This God of yours is part of your
own inadequacy in working out existence for yourself. Many stars away,
people can achieve what you call miracles. They do not need gods. I come
Tasmin disengaged herself from Toby to square up to the machine. ‘Why?’
‘I was sent to stop a creature they call Star Dancer from sucking
the life energy from another planet. At some time in the future it will
originate from this world. I am here to wait for it.’
‘Why not let us help you instead of killing us?’ pleaded Toby.
‘What possible harm could we do to the future if you were to let
The Kybion hesitated. ‘If I were to let you help me, I would have
to prolong your lives for longer than is natural to your species. How
can I be sure you would not try to disrupt the future of this world if
I did that?’
‘We could only give you our word,’ Tasmin reluctantly admitted.
‘On this cross,’ Mrs Angel pulled a large crucifix from her
‘Yes, yes,’ begged Humbert. ‘We couldn’t do any
more than that.’
Toby was silent. He wanted to live more than anything else, but knew Mrs
Angel and Humbert were lying. He wasn’t sure whether the Kybion
Without warning, it jabbed a spiked finger at Toby. ‘I will select
you. I shall administer a longevity process that will increase your life
span. The others will die.’
‘No!’ Toby found himself protesting against his better judgement.
‘How could you expect me to help you if you kill the others?’
The Kybion hadn’t taken that into consideration and was silent for
a few seconds.
‘At least let them live their natural life spans,’ Toby suggested.
‘No,’ gambled Mrs Angel. ‘You cannot half trust us.
We would know the clerk has longevity. There is no reason why we should
not be treated in the same way.’
The Kybion sensed the deceit in the older woman and man but, despite its
threat, was not programmed to take life.
‘I won’t help you unless Tasmin is able to live for as long
as I do,’ insisted Toby. ‘I don’t care how powerful
you are.’ Realising his mistake before he had finished speaking,
he added, ‘And Mrs Angel and Mr Humbert as well.’
‘Very well,’ the Kybion said eventually. ‘I will administer
a treatment that will slow down your ageing process. You will grow older,
but at a much slower rate than is natural. You will not be able to carry
on your normal lives. Those who know you must believe that you are dead.’
Humbert winced at the thought of having to give up his insurance money,
and was soon plotting some way round it. ‘I will be watching you.’
‘What is it you want me to do?’ Toby inquired, half afraid
of the answer.
‘You shall carry a small transmitter that will draw the Star Dancer
to you. The planet it threatens recorded its energy pattern and they devised
a signal to attract it. The transmitter was going to be installed in a
fixed position but, over the passing years, the human species could dig
up the unit or build over it. I cannot carry the device because the power
in my circuits would disrupt its signal.’ The Kybion detected that
Toby was having severe doubts. ‘It will not harm you, and it is
unlikely the Star Dancer would. If you do this, you will save a whole
species of creatures like yourself from extinction.’
‘I suppose if I should be dead anyway... I’ve nothing to lose.’
Toby was no longer sure which was the better arrangement. ‘What
will happen when I do meet this “Star Dancer”?’
‘Do not worry. I will be here.’ The Kybion turned to the others.
‘I will always be here. You three will carry markers; ones that
will let me know where you are at all times to ensure that you do nothing
to subvert future events. Your lives must now be spent unobtrusively,
for neither power, nor gain.’
Toby’s conscience overwhelmed his terror, and he gave in. ‘All
right. I’ll do it. Where will I carry this trans... mitter then?
How big is it? What happens when I’m not wearing pockets?’
‘You will not need pockets. There are many cavities inside your
body into which it will fit quite easily.’
Toby almost fainted. The Kybion was unaware of the fear any surgical procedure
held for a Victorian, otherwise it might have explained it would be totally
The others certainly showed no signs of discomfort when it gave them their
longevity treatment that consisted of nothing more than impregnating the
skin with a needle. The process was quick. To Toby it felt like hours.
The machine may have been incomplete, yet had sense enough not to let
the three realise how it had fitted the tracking devices. Each marker
was minute and would cling to their skeletons for as long as they lived
- and after.
Tasmin, Mrs Angel, and Mr Humbert were completely re-costumed from a wardrobe
in a cavity behind one of the chamber walls. At any other time it would
have seemed a strange facility for a machine to have, but even Mr Humbert
no longer felt inclined to question the Kybion about its odd behaviour
in case it changed its metal mind. They were also handed enough to cash
and bonds to ensure they could invest well and idle the years away in
luxury. The Kybion’s more comprehensive understanding of human nature
would come later - when it was too late.
‘Be brave, Toby. I’m sure we’ll meet again,’ Tasmin
Even that affectionate reassurance couldn’t revive his good humour.
The clerk’s life, prospects, and worldview were about to change
‘Take care of him,’ Mrs Angel told the Kybion imperiously,
having to acknowledge that the ledger clerk had saved their lives. ‘Remember
that his intelligence is no more than matches his station.’
The machine hadn’t a clue what she meant, so Tasmin added, ‘Don’t
‘Let us out of here,’ Mr Humbert demanded impatiently.
Toby found the presence of mind to give Tasmin a self-conscious hug.
Mrs Angel quickly parted them. ‘Remember your vow, my girl,’
she chided with consummate bad timing.
‘There is a tunnel running under these cliffs. It leads to the nearest
town,’ said the Kybion. ‘Remember, wherever you are, I will
With that warning ringing in their ears, they hastened away to freedom
and new lives.
Apparently unconcerned whether they reached the other end of the dimly
lit tunnel or not, the Kybion returned to the trembling Toby who was desperately
wishing he had been able to go with them. The ledger clerk couldn’t
believe what was happening to him. The more he thought about it, the more
his senses became numbed, until the clammy air and prospect of what was
about to occur made him faint away.
urban brick and Tarmac receded and the train sped through the June countryside
of velvet-green fields rippling with new corn. Gabrielle gave a deep sigh
of relief. She felt better already. The bright lights and candyfloss company
of her student friends would have just made her worse, and probably diabetic.
Too many exams and too much study and had frayed her usually resilient
Out here it was possible to see things with a clear perspective that would
enable her to unwind. Gabrielle was confident of passes for every paper
she had sat over the last two months, and probably wouldn’t have
worried too much if she weren’t. Not many orphans had her assured
future. Not many children grew up to retain the intense confidence of
adolescence once they learnt what life was really like. There was something
else making the teenager restless.
Gabrielle was a strong, healthy girl, and had overcome the severe injuries
from the car crash that had killed her parents when she was four. No next
of kin could be found, even in India, their homeland, but she didn’t
regret being put into a children’s home. They had been very indulgent,
and her foster parents over the past nine years had doted on the precocious
and demanding girl. They knew that the child was exceptional. Although
not particularly pretty, her looks were striking and expression thoughtful,
as if she were always pondering something, and her eyes intelligent enough
to belong to a woman twice her age.
Smuggler’s Halt, the small community that had built up around the
railway station, was just remote enough, without a road on the way to
As Gabrielle walked down the path to Smuggler’s Row, the terrace
of cottages where her foster father’s sister lived, she watched
the swifts and seagulls circling over the cliffs. The air carried the
smell of seaweed and fumes of a bonfire.
Gabrielle was fond of her foster Aunt, Penny, and her ten-year-old daughter
Paula, and almost regretted that they would be taking a morning train
to go on a holiday of their own. Everyone she knew thought the student
had been mad to want to live in her aunt’s cottage without company
for over three weeks. Gabrielle had never seen the place before, yet inexplicably
knew that this was where she needed to be. The door opened as she entered
the front garden and the pixie like face of Paula beamed a mischievous
‘It is remote here,’ Penny told her as she poured the tea
with one hand and rapped Paula’s knuckles with the other when she
tried to sneak another piece of fruitcake. ‘But with the train and
the occasional bus you can get almost anywhere. Even walk to the village
if you want. It’s not far up the coast path.’
Gabrielle yawned. ‘I just want to rest. Doing all the things adolescent
girls should do must be tiring enough. Trying to avoid doing all the things
adolescent girls are expected to do is even more tiring.’
Her aunt smiled. ‘Don’t waste your life away. You’re
no adolescent and will be old soon enough.’ Penny was in her forties,
and still attractive, so the advice didn’t ring true.
‘Is there a library in the village?’ Gabrielle asked suddenly,
as though remembering the reason she was there.
Penny wondered if her foster niece had really turned into the swot her
brother and his wife proudly claimed. ‘A small one. The main library
is in town. I’ve got tickets for both.’ She went to her handbag
and pulled two cards from her purse and handed them to Gabrielle. Why
shouldn’t the girl study? If Penny had possessed half her brains
she would have probably done the same when she had the chance.
‘Thanks a lot. I might take a walk into the village tomorrow.’
‘Good idea. We’ll need to be off early, so you’ll have
all of the day to yourself.’
Gabrielle spent that night in fitful sleep and was visited by the turbulent
dreams that had haunted her for as long as she could remember. They had
become worse with the exams. She had hoped they would subside with some
peace and quiet.
The next morning Gabrielle saw Penny and Paula onto the train then returned
to the cottage to unpack a pair of stout walking shoes from her suitcase.
It was threatening rain as she strode out over the glistening shingle,
untouched by holidaymakers’ feet. Walking on the pebbles was tiring,
so she climbed some crumbling steps braced by railway sleepers and continued
along the top of the cliff. The only other people she saw were a plump
woman being taken for a walk by her dog, and the motionless figure of
a fair-haired man watching her intently from a distance.
‘Good morning,’ said the dog owner.
It took Gabrielle a moment to realise that people out here were more relaxed
about talking to strangers. ‘Good morning. Looks like rain.’
‘At least there’s no wind. Even the seagulls hide when it
blows through Wrecker’s Cove.’
Gabrielle indicated the man watching them. ‘He’ll get soaked
without a coat.’
The woman laughed. ‘Oh him. He’s always out here watching
for something. It’s about time he found what he was looking for
after all these years.’
In the village library, Gabrielle found a volume on 18th century politics.
It was in good condition, and last withdrawn by a researcher nine months
ago. The librarian cast her a glance of admiration as she checked it out.
The student’s striking looks and billowing black hair soon caught
the attention of the locals, as though an Indian girl in mackintosh and
walking brogues was a novelty in those parts. Curious to know more about
her, some people went out of their way to be friendly, while others kept
their distance. This was a world away from the brash melting pot of college
campus and home.
Not wanting to appear stand-offish, Gabrielle managed to supply them with
enough information about her to satisfy their curiosity and, in an attempt
to show interest in their small world, enquired about the man who spent
so much time standing on top of the cliff. Two older women she had struck
up a conversation with smiled, secretly flattered by the attention of
the well-spoken young woman.
‘He’s been looking out for goodness knows what on top of them
cliffs for as long as I can remember,’ one of them said. ‘And
‘He doesn’t look a day over forty-five though,’ joined
in the other. ‘And my old dad said he could remember him too.’
‘Mind you, Dot,’ the other woman reminded her, ‘your
old dad’s brain did go eventually. My Ma reckoned it was his father
‘Might have been, but I don’t remember his funeral. I’ve
been to the funeral of everyone who died around here, and I can’t
remember him ever dying.’
Whatever the vagaries of the two women’s memories, Gabrielle’s
curiosity had been fired. She could picture the man watching on the cliff
above the village as she stood chatting. He hadn’t appeared to be
very old, and she wanted to know how a seventy-year-old could look no
more than forty-five. ‘Why doesn’t somebody ask him?’
The two women were silent for a moment, ‘It probably hasn’t
occurred to them,’ Dot said.
‘He never gets near enough to anyone to let them,’ her companion
added. ‘Even his groceries are put on his back doorstep where he
leaves a cheque and list for the next week.’
‘You going to ask him then, dear?’ Dot suggested, half in
humour and half in hope.
‘I could do.’
‘He’ll run off before you can, but I wouldn’t stop you
trying. A sturdy girl like you could probably catch him.’ At that,
Dot and her friend fell about laughing.
Gabrielle took the opportunity to escape, and made her way to the top
of the cliff where her quarry still stood. Although she hadn’t really
intended to, the teenager felt compelled to speak to the strange figure.
Even from fifty yards away, she could feel his pale grey eyes observing
her determined approach. He didn’t run off as the women had suggested,
and remained stock-still.
As she came closer, Gabrielle sensed the coldness of the man’s penetrating
gaze. His hair was fair, nearly white, and his skin wan. It was difficult
to believe this face belonged to a man of forty-five, let alone seventy.
His features were unlined, and a polo-necked sweater concealed his neck
where telltale signs of ageing could usually be found.
‘Good morning,’ Gabrielle said cheerfully.
The expression in the pale eyes became suspicious, if not hostile. ‘Go
Despite his frosty response, she remarked in spite of herself, ‘Why,
you’re not that old at all.’
‘Go away,’ he repeated then turned on his heels and almost
ran from the edge of the cliff towards a flat-roofed bungalow nestling
in a gully.
That should have been enough to convince Gabrielle he didn’t want
to hold a conversation. However, there was something so magnetic about
the mysterious stranger she couldn’t resist following him down the
slope. He stood in the porch of the bungalow watching her approach.
She called out before getting too close and scaring him inside, ‘What’s
the matter? I didn’t mean to alarm you.’
‘You didn’t. Who sent you?’
Encouraged by the odd question, Gabrielle walked down to him. ‘Why,
nobody. I was only trying to be sociable.’
‘No one round here tries to be sociable with me,’ he retorted
flatly. ‘Are you sure no one sent you?’
‘Of course they didn’t. I only arrived here yesterday. Why
should anyone have sent me?’
He replied with a cool, accusing look.
‘The truth is,’ Gabrielle admitted, ‘two women in the
village were trying to kid me you were seventy, and I didn’t believe
‘You are right, I am not seventy.’
‘I can see that now. Don’t you let anyone talk to you?’
‘Not if I can avoid it. You aren’t English?’
It almost sounded like an accusation. ‘Yes, I am. My parents were
Indian, but I was born here. I can’t remember them. I was brought
up in a children’s home. I couldn’t even pronounce my own
name if you were to ask me.’ What on earth made her tell him all
that when he would admit to nothing? She was usually good at mind games.
Something else was going on here.
‘What are you called now?’
‘Gabrielle. What’s your name?’
‘Never you mind,’ he said firmly enough for her not to ask
Gabrielle was unable to make him out. ‘You’re an odd sort
of person. I’ll leave you alone if that’s what you want.’
The man said nothing. It was obvious his frosty manner didn’t intimidate
the eighteen-year-old as it did other people. As she walked back to the
cliff path, his gaze followed her. There was a tinge of fear in the tight
night Gabrielle quickly fell asleep and didn’t have any dreams vivid
enough to disturb her. The next morning she woke early and lay in bed
looking out at the gulls circling over the cliffs. Random thoughts flowed
through her mind.
Still drowsy, Gabrielle noticed the ghostly figure of a young man standing
by the bedroom window. He was slightly built and had a friendly, mobile
expression. Strangest of all, he was wearing nineteenth-century clothes;
a frock coat and trousers that were almost threadbare and chisel-toed
shoes that had all but lost their original shape. By comparison, his frilled
cream shirt, which was set off by a faded maroon waistcoat, looked quite
expensive. He was hatless and his smiling face seemed to sit on a wide
cravat tied with meticulous care.
Gabrielle lay watching the apparition, wondering what part of her fancy
had conjured him up. He pulled a newspaper called The Daily Bugle from
under his arm. When he held it out towards her, she could see the date.
There was something peculiar about it. History was Gabrielle’s strongest
subject; though he was obviously Victorian, the date of the paper was
1st, April 1917. Her overloaded mind must have been playing practical
jokes. Feeling ridiculous, she sat upright to make sure she had only been
All through breakfast, Gabrielle couldn’t help smiling to herself
about the unlikely visitor and his wrongly dated newspaper, and then started
to wonder whether The Daily Bugle ever existed. As she showered and idly
sorted out what clothes to wear, a forceful urge to go to the town library
and find out struck her. There was a bus in fifteen minutes. She finished
dressing and dashed out, combing her long hair on the way to the bus stop.
Gabrielle told herself she was mad to travel eight miles on a silly whim
like this; but the buses were infrequent, and the trains didn’t
pass through the town, so she would have had to fight back her curiosity
for two hours before another opportunity arose.
Gabrielle didn’t need to consult her map. She had been given specific
directions to every place of importance by her fellow bus passengers,
happy to encourage visitors to explore the nooks and crannies of their
town. The area had never been a great tourist attraction. It lacked the
places of amusement and architectural splendour other resorts possessed.
The library was still housed in its Victorian monument dedicated to the
education of the lower orders and, despite the unobtrusive PC stations
and electronic databases, had not allowed its shelves of books to be decimated
to pay for them. This library either had a private sponsor or managed
to vanish from the cost cuts of the county council. This was Gabrielle’s
hands-on sort of place. She preferred the musty smell of old book to electronically
generated pages that stunned the optic nerves and turned the concentration
The listed building had the faint aroma of disinfectant and the austere
silence due it. Gabrielle felt her muscles tense as she noticed for the
first time that her new shoes squeaked.
Being able to request a specific paper with an exact date meant the librarian
didn’t have to ask her embarrassing questions about what she was
looking for. This was just as well, because she wasn’t sure herself.
Gabrielle was amazed to learn there was once a local paper called The
Daily Bugle, and not only that, it hadn’t yet been stored in the
vaults of the town hall, also Victorian and already filled to capacity.
The trainee librarian scanning records into electronic format had only
got up to The County News before taking leave to have twins.
The 1st of April 1917 was apparently a Sunday, so Gabrielle was brought
the next day’s edition. Something at the back of her mind said that
a date as ordinary as the 2nd of April would have easily been forgotten.
It seemed that the apparition had an uncanny reasoning about it. She could
feel her hands shaking as she took the newspaper in its Perspex cover.
This was getting too eerie. The student thanked the librarian and carried
it to a stand where she carefully turned the discoloured pages, scouring
every last detail.
Reaching page five, Gabrielle was unable to believe her eyes and gave
a small gasp. The man reading opposite glanced up to give her a concerned
look. Under the heading of ‘Man proves he is sixty-seven years old.
Court upholds decision he is not eligible for conscription’, was
a picture of the subject, who couldn’t have been over twenty-five.
Then the cold, clammy truth dawned. It was, without a doubt, the face
of the stranger she had accosted on the cliffs. His name was Alfred Tobias
Stunned at the discovery, Gabrielle quickly glanced through the rest of
the paper. She had a rational, thorough mind and would have cursed herself
for missing something else of importance. Then she took the paper to the
photocopier to make a record of the front cover and the article. This
was where a little technology would have come in handy. The machine swallowed
four coins before printing anything reasonably like the original. Gabrielle
put its malfunctioning down to the fact it must have been Victorian as
well and didn’t bother to ask for her money to be refunded. She
was in too much of a hurry to catch the bus back to grieve over forty
There had to be an explanation for the picture. As Dot had suggested,
he could have been the man’s father. Gabrielle doubted it. It was
unlikely a face would have inherited the same features so exactly. There
was only one thing for it. She must confront him again. After yesterday’s
encounter it might not have been a very promising idea, but it was either
doing that or forgetting she had ever met him.
As Gabrielle changed into her walking brogues, she wondered about the
ghostly Victorian who had presented the paper to her. Who on earth was
When she reached the cliff top, her quarry was nowhere to be seen, so
she went down to the bungalow and knocked resolutely on the door, half
expecting a bucket of water to be tipped over her head from the flat roof.
To her surprise, a voice from inside called out, ‘Come in. The door
It was his voice all right; cool, without any trace of cordiality.
She went inside, through a small hall, and into a large room. Everything
was immaculately tidy; even the man in the polo-neck sweater sitting at
the table over a mug of coffee was groomed like a schoolmaster supervising
‘Do you take sugar in coffee?’ Wendle asked.
He added a large spoonful to another steaming mug. ‘You can come
in and sit down if you like. Standing around like that looks untidy.’
‘You like everything tidy?’
‘I have a very tidy mind. The curse of the Victorian clerk.’
Gabrielle sat in the chair facing him, clutching the photocopies she had
taken that morning. ‘How old are you?’
‘One hundred and twenty-seven,’ he replied, not moving his
gaze to ensure he didn’t miss her reaction.
She half believed him. ‘You’ve worn well.’
‘It’s not a blessing.’ He paused. ‘How much are
you capable of believing?’
‘How much do you want to tell me?’
‘I cannot tell you part of the truth. I must tell you everything.
I am not good at talking to other people. It is unlikely they would believe
anything I have to say.’
‘People in the village think there’s something strange about
you. Why not confirm their suspicions?’
‘Because people will only believe what they have been taught is
plausible. What is out of their experience becomes impossible.’
‘I was going to ask you about this.’ Gabrielle put the photocopies
on the table. ‘You seem to have anticipated me.’
‘I was a young man once. Quite a lively good-natured fellow in a
naive way. I was an impoverished ledger clerk, and wore the same suit
and shoes for years. The only new garment I was able to afford for a long
while was a frilled cream-coloured shirt.’
‘What was his name?’
‘He was called Toby?’
‘Alfred Tobias Wendle?’
‘Then you are Toby.’
‘No,’ he said sharply. ‘Don’t call me that.’
He rose abruptly and went to the window.
‘Why did you want me to know about this after you’ve kept
everything to yourself for so long?’ Gabrielle enquired carefully.
Wendle gazed out at the sky. ‘Because you may be intelligent enough
to believe me.’
‘And?’ prompted Gabrielle.
‘Now there is a problem. I believe I could carry on growing old
at this tortuously slow rate if I can’t find someone to help me.’
Wendle turned and saw her puzzled expression. ‘Longevity is not
the marvellous thing it is made out to be by those who have never known
it. It is a living death. Though your brain hardly ages, it becomes tired
of the same old thoughts. Nature designed the human mind to have a certain
span. You have to sleep for days at a time to escape the boredom of it.
Your real self has to escape from the body for fear of going mad.’
‘So that’s who Toby is?’
‘I hardly know him.’
‘Why aren’t you able to age at the same rate as everyone else?’
Wendle returned to the table and sat facing Gabrielle again. He gave her
one last long look as though to reassure himself he wasn’t making
a mistake. ‘I made a commitment that I would never tell this to
a living soul. I now believe that the party I made the pledge to is not
keeping to its side of the agreement. If I am right, I must tell someone.’
Gabrielle listened to his extraordinary tale in silence, her rational
mind astounded at what it heard. It was difficult to take in. A planet
on the other side of the Galaxy, an energy vampire called the Star Dancer
and a faceless robot capable of doubling human life spans? It was obvious
Wendle was no practical joker. Both fascinated and alienated by him at
the same time, Gabrielle was totally convinced of his integrity. Behind
his brittle exterior there was a vulnerable creature she was willing to
help. Perhaps the greatest assistance she could provide, though, was not
to think him mad.
Gabrielle made the formidable mental leap and decided to believe him.
‘Can I help?’
‘I would if you’d let me.’
‘There is nothing you can do.’
‘The other three, Tasmin, Humbert, and Mrs Angel contacted me recently.
They had somehow managed to remove the markers the Kybion had impregnated
them with to keep track of their movements. This enabled them to amass
fortunes; Mr Humbert by collecting ship insurances and Mrs Angel and Tasmin
by setting themselves up as mediums again. I believe Tasmin was always
a genuine physic, yet can no longer be the woman I knew.’
‘You were fond of her?’
Wendle ignored the question. ‘They were not content with the fortunes
the Kybion had enabled them to make, and knew I was being used to attract
an energy source of immense power. What could be more profitable nowadays,
‘But if even you don’t know what form it takes, how on earth
will they manage to control it? If a highly advanced race on another planet
can’t deal with it, how could they hope to?’
‘Greed can make people blind to the obvious. I am not afraid of
losing my life: I am afraid of what they might try and do if they were
ever to meet this Star Dancer. They could well prevent the Kybion intercepting
it, and let it loose on this planet as well.’
‘Then the Kybion must be warned.’
‘If I knew where to find the machine, it would be. It should have
contacted me a long while ago, when the Star Dancer was due to arrive.
I haven’t seen either of them. I’m afraid of being left like
this, but dread what could happen to this other planet. I have only one
‘You believe me. Even if you aren’t able to help me find the
Kybion, it’s a relief someone else now knows.’
Gabrielle was puzzled. ‘Why don’t the other three have the
same problem with longevity as you do?’
‘Because they have materialistic minds and are now able to move
about as much as they want. If I were to travel from this area, the transmitter
is bound to encounter interference that would stop it functioning.’
‘Perhaps that’s happened already, and is why the Kybion hasn’t
been able to contact you.’
‘The Kybion was incomplete when I first met it. That was long ago.
It must have overcome that problem by now. And I would feel it if the
transmitter stopped. If Humbert or the other two were to try and move
me from this place, I don’t know what would happen. I only know
it would not be pleasant.’
‘At least they wouldn’t get the Star Dancer.’ She could
see he wasn’t impressed. ‘Yes. I suppose that could be pretty
disastrous as well.’
‘Especially if they tried to cut the transmitter out of me. At least,
I wouldn’t be very happy about it.’
‘Don’t suppose the police would be any use?’ Wendle
gave her an even cooler look. ‘No, they wouldn’t believe even
part of it. There’s only one thing for it then.’
‘Toby will have to let me know if anything happens to you.’
‘No!’ Wendle snapped.
‘Why not? The other three aren’t able to conjure up alter
egos in the same way, are they? Even your Tasmin doesn’t have that
ability, does she?’
‘Then they can’t find out what we’re up to, can they?’
‘Not as far as I know. But I did not intend you to take any risks.’
‘Who says I will?’ Gabrielle replied innocently.
Wendle paused for a moment, and then seemed satisfied. He poured out two
more mugs of coffee. They sat in silence drinking until the grandfather
clock struck. It looked oddly out of place in the uncluttered room. The
hollow chime urged Gabrielle to move. Obediently she gathered up the photocopies
and her shoulder bag, and left with a brief farewell to the preoccupied
That night she slept unusually deeply. Her subconscious needed time to
digest the revelations before the next strange day arrived.
Wendle remained seated at the table in his bungalow, not daring to fall
asleep. He heard the breeze catch the kitchen window and blow it open
but he was too exhausted to go and close it. If he had been his usual
vigilant self, he would have sensed the figure standing behind him.
A quick hand pressed a pad over his nose and mouth. After a brief violent
struggle, all the cool breezes of the Channel couldn’t have roused
a sharp crack, the screen measuring the level in the energy pool shattered.
Opu didn’t turn to see how it had happened. She was busy keeping
the power as constant as possible. It was either that or shutting down
another refractor, and with five other stations out of commission that
wouldn’t have been a good idea. Everyone’s consumption had
already been rationed and the energy giving yellow sun was about to enter
its short phase. By the time it was at its regular meridian again, it
could well be shining down on a world minus intelligent life.
‘Damn evolution,’ swore Opu. ‘Why the heck can’t
we go without perpetual nourishment, like our ancestors?’
There was a familiar voice from the balcony. ‘Can’t invent
anything to shift us back in time.’
‘Come inside, Annac. You might as well be in here as anywhere else
when we all drop out like spent meteors, one by one, round the globe.’
Annac joined the harassed controller-in-charge. ‘Your little plan
not working, eh?’
‘You invented the system. What went wrong?’
‘Did it arrive there?’
‘So Taigal Rax says.’
‘Then my end went all right. Must have been your machine or the
fancy bits they added to it.’
‘But it must have worked,’ insisted Opu. ‘It was faultless.
It was repeatedly checked.’
‘Has the Kybion contacted them?’ asked Annac.
‘Not yet. They can’t raise it.’
‘Then they must have given it a mind of its own. After all, we don’t
understand enough about the creatures on the Star Dancer’s planet
to know what idiosyncrasies it needed.’
‘The Kybion may have become faulty.’
‘Don’t let it cross your mind.’
‘The thought has been trampling through my mind ever since we should
have been receiving results.’
‘You need a short break.’
‘You must be joking.’
‘Believe me,’ said Annac, ‘I did a permanent shift when
those solar flares shattered eleven refractors and, if I hadn’t
taken a short break, I wouldn’t have thought my way out of it. Don’t
worry, the problem will still be here when you come back. You could go
and see your youngster if you want.’
‘That I would not survive at the present time.’
‘If you don’t change your mind about that child soon, it could
grow up with a complex.’
‘If that bundle of circuits and crystals doesn’t do something
about this Star Dancer soon, nobody will have the chance to grow up.’
‘Still, I want you to meet someone.’
‘It’s not far. Looks as though the Star Dancer is through
with you for this shift anyway.’ She pointed to the remains of the
Opu saw that it was still and sighed with relief. She handed over to another
controller and went to the balcony with Annac.
‘Where to?’ Opu asked.
‘Just follow me.’
‘Well, don’t swerve about, will you. My reflexes aren’t
up to avoiding mid-air collisions.’
‘My wings are as steady as they ever were,’ Annac assured
her with the arrogance of old age, and lurched from the balcony into the
Many near collisions later, Annac and Opu were circling over an untidy
clutter of spherical homes. They had become stacked, higgledy-piggledy
on top of each other over thousands of years and looked an eyesore from
the air. Some were so old no one bothered to demolish them because they
thought it was only a matter of time before they fell down of their own
Annac spiralled towards one of the lowest in the stack and Opu followed
at a safe distance. Alighting on a narrow balcony and passing through
a curtain of light beams, they found themselves in a large round room
littered with antique apparatus.
‘Hey,’ Annac called to a recess, ‘don’t you know
there’s an emergency on?’
‘Then how did you manage to find time to come here?’ came
back a voice. ‘I always thought your input was so invaluable - unlike
us poor seers.’
‘Because I’ve come to consult a seer,’ Annac shouted
back, and in so doing woke a lounging figure who rolled over onto her
back, crumpling a wing. ‘What a way to spend an emergency,’
commented the old Ojalie contemptuously.
‘I was trying to conserve energy until you lit in here like a miracle
from the moon,’ retorted the recumbent visitor. ‘I’m
very energy conscious at the moment.’
‘Aren’t we all,’ agreed Opu wryly.
‘Come on Anaru,’ called Annac. ‘We haven’t got
all this sun. It was your idea after all.’
‘I’ve just finished setting it up,’ Anaru flitted from
the alcove. She immediately threw her arms about Opu in greeting and completely
ignored Annac. ‘I’m sure it might help if we give it a chance,’
she bubbled. ‘Now everyone clear the loop please.’ She ushered
her reclining guest out. ‘We need all the room we can get for this.’
Opu recognised the equipment. ‘But this is an old-fashioned mental
‘That’s right! That’s right!’ Anaru fluttered
her wings in excitement. ‘And you’ll never guess who I got
through to only a short while ago?’
‘Who?’ asked Opu, just managing to be polite.
‘The Water Planet.’
‘She means Taigal Rax,’ Annac explained.
Opu had already guessed that. ‘We are able to contact them at the
speed of thought, you know,’ Opu reminded her.
‘Ah,’ Anaru lifted a stubby finger, ‘but are you able
to contact the planet where the Kybion is?’
‘Of course not. If the android built a receiver that powerful, it
would be more than a little conspicuous. At the moment the wretched thing
won’t even contact Taigal Rax.’
‘But what if you could contact it?’
‘The Kybion is a machine; it doesn’t have a mental link you
‘But humans have!’
‘Oh no, I’ve got all the problems I need for one lifetime.’
‘Why not?’ asked Annac, who hadn’t been known for flights
‘This is an evolving species. Even if we could contact these humans,
it’s unlikely they would understand us.’
‘Is that what they call themselves?’ asked Annac.
‘We’re still evolving. Any species that isn’t is an
‘If we make a bad contact we can easily break off,’ Anaru
insisted. ‘We only have to shut down the power. Let me show you
how it works.’ Opu lowered her beak in disapproval. ‘Please...’
‘Oh, all right,’ Opu said somewhat disagreeably.
Anaru was already connecting the equipment before the words were out of
her mouth. ‘I’ll just let them know I’m coming through.’
She dashed into the alcove.
‘Hey,’ called Opu, ‘that’s cheating.’ She
turned on Annac. ‘How did she manage to get a link into the computer
‘Stop complaining, it doesn’t make any difference to your
‘Get on with it then,’ Opu snapped as Anaru reappeared.
‘Now don’t rush me,’ the seer protested. ‘I must
concentrate.’ She sat upright on the floor with her wings outspread,
looking like an ancient statuette. ‘Don’t interrupt, and look
at the screen.’
Annac and Opu joined her on the floor and did as she said. With a beam
of power playing about her broad skull, Anaru’s thoughts were projected
onto the frequency selected on the screen. Within seconds, an image began
to flicker before them. The distinct features of an aquatic Taigalian
‘You can speak to her if you become part of the loop,’ Anaru
told Opu. ‘There’ll be no language problem as long as you
don’t move out of it.’
Unexpectedly impressed, Opu moved into the loop and studied the amphibious
features on the screen. They were shimmering silver and framed with white-edged
scales. Double lids protected the eyes, and a nostril in the centre of
the forehead occasionally opened and closed.
‘My name is Controller Opu,’ she thought.
The response was immediate. ‘I am Healphani-Kioyono. I know of you,
but am not connected with the transmission of the Kybion. We hope your
problem is resolved soon.’
‘So do I,’ Opu absently thought. It was instantly transmitted
across the Galaxy.
‘Anaru told us she would like to link with the planet, Perimeter
84926. If you permit it, I can find out the co-ordinates of the Kybion.
She may be able to pick up a human sensitive in its vicinity.’
‘As long as it doesn’t interfere with its function, anything’s
worth trying.’ Opu was becoming more impressed by the minute. ‘Though
all official contact will be made through my control.’
‘Of course. This is purely experimental. We could boost Anaru’s
signal should she need it.’
‘We must conserve the power now, Healphani. Reception’s getting
erratic,’ Anaru cut in. ‘Many thanks. I’ll be back to
you as soon as I can.’ She slapped the disc that shut down the equipment.
‘Well?’ said Annac.
It was obvious Opu had changed her mind about seers. ‘Yes,’
she admitted. ‘You’re not often wrong.’ Then she turned
to Anaru. ‘Even if you can reach a human on that planet, how will
you make them understand, let alone help us?’
‘We talk through thought, so won’t need a translator. It’s
purely a matter of selecting the right sensitive,’ explained Anaru.
‘Forgive me,’ Opu said, ‘it’s my job to be sceptical.
I’m not handed prizes for believing in miracles.’
Annac pulled herself up. ‘I’m not surprised you had a brat
for a child,’ she commented dryly. ‘I’ll see you later
Anaru fidgeted herself out of her statuesque position. ‘Well, don’t
come back and interfere until I tell you. Your ideas have too many angles
to be of any use in here. Goodbye, Opu. I hope we see each other again.’
‘You’re the seer. You should know whether that’s going
to happen,’ Opu reminded her somewhat unkindly.
Anaru just chuckled and returned to her alcove.
was dawn when Gabrielle half woke and turned to see the familiar figure
of Toby standing by the window. He was holding something out to her; an
address written on a sheet of paper. Reaching for the pencil and notepad
she always kept beside her bed, Gabrielle copied the words before he faded
As she shook herself awake, Gabrielle realised that his expression had
been tense and unsmiling. Something was wrong. She tumbled out of bed
and went to the bathroom to splash water on her face, then returned to
the bedroom to read the address written on the pad. ‘High Acre Grange,
Haymaker’s Green’ it read. Wondering whether her mind was
playing tricks again, she pulled out her local map. There actually was
a place called Haymaker’s Green.
After what he had told her, it seemed probable that Wendle had been kidnapped
and taken to that address. Gabrielle had no idea what to do next. Even
if she told the police, no one at the Grange was going to admit it and
let them search the place without something better than her suspicion
to go on.
What to do? The address was a good twelve miles away. Then she remembered
Penny’s bike in the backyard. It was under a primitive lean-to shed,
and fortunately not padlocked.
Gabrielle snatched a quick breakfast, showered, and then dressed in jeans
and T-shirt, trying to look as inconspicuous as possible. Armed with her
map, she peddled furiously along the path to Wendle’s bungalow.
The door was ajar, and when she entered it was obvious that a struggle
had taken place. She worked out the quickest route to Haymaker’s
Green and jumped back onto Penny’s bike.
Gabrielle cycled non-stop for those twelve miles and hardly had enough
energy left to circle the wide green to find the right address. When she
found it, the sight of the long drive leading to the house almost filled
her with despair. And what was she going to do when she did reach the
door? The only thing she could think of was to apply for a job as a scullery
maid. The place looked as though it needed a large staff to keep it going.
Having the sense not to go to the huge front door at the top of two flights
of wide steps, she peddled over the courtyard of pale, pink granite chips
to the tradesman’s entrance.
Before Gabrielle could dismount, a tall black man who looked as though
he must have been in charge of something crossed her path.
‘Hello,’ she sang out. ‘Friend of mine says you need
someone to work in the kitchen.’
The man’s clean-shaven features were immobile for a moment as rapid
thoughts, and possibly astonishment, passed behind them. Then his face
‘No, no - she meant a laundry maid.’
‘Oh.’ Gabrielle was glad it was a cleaner job. ‘Got
‘That’s all right. Nobody stops here long anyway. You probably
won’t either. When can you start?’
‘Now if you want,’ she told him like a diffident teenager,
trying not to sound suspiciously enthusiastic.
‘You’re a big girl. Uniform won’t fit. You’ll
have to borrow a black skirt from Alice, and that’ll be too large...
But nobody’ll notice. Still, I can show you around today. Got your
‘Cards?’ Gabrielle queried with convincing innocence.
‘Yes, young lady. And P45.’ He was obviously used to the problem.
‘We have to pay stamps so you can get tranquillisers on the National
Health after working here for a couple of days.’ Her blank expression
spoke volumes. ‘Oh, don’t worry, I’ll show you how to
apply for them. Stow your bike over there and come inside.’ He bounced
into the staff entrance. It was just as well he never asked for her CV;
she hadn’t yet been to university, and it was already a little too
accomplished for a laundry maid.
The servants’ quarters were impressive and, in the subdued light,
Gabrielle’s escort looked even more imposing, or would have done
if it weren’t for that nonchalant bounce in his step. As he passed
the occasional maid, secretary or thinly disguised guard, he greeted them
with the same quick, insincere grin and flourish of the hand. By the time
Gabrielle had been shown all the rooms she needed to know about, she seriously
began to wonder how anybody, even a crook, could have managed to employ
this unlikely, irreverent man in the patterned, satin waistcoat as a butler.
Finally she was shown to a large bedroom with curtained bed, wall tapestries,
and marble fireplace.
‘Linen in this place will have to be changed every day,’ her
escort announced. ‘Got a special visitor coming tomorrow. Be your
‘Oh? Must be a fussy sort of geezer,’ she said, angling.
‘Well, I suppose surgeons are.’
Gabrielle gulped back an exclamation of horror and said instead, ‘What’s
your name then?’
‘Weatherby. What’s yours?’
‘Jennifer,’ she answered quickly.
Weatherby looked disapprovingly down at her faded jeans, T-shirt and long,
tangled hair, and pondered. ‘No... You couldn’t be a Jennifer.’
‘No?’ Gabrielle felt a cold sweat round her neck.
‘Scheherazade,’ he decided. ‘Probably wrong continent,
but old man’ll like that better. Might even suit you when you’re
‘Oh...’ Gabrielle sighed with relief, hoping she wouldn’t
have to know a thousand and one tales as well. They’d all have been
about Florence Nightingale, Disraeli, and the Ming Dynasty, if she did.
‘When do I have to start in the morning then?’
‘Seven thirty.’ Gabrielle grimaced. ‘Or whenever you
like. Could live in if you want. Can’t be too fussy in this place.
As long as things get done we aren’t bothered by anyone. It’s
his heavy boys Mr Gunn keeps tabs on.’
‘Heavy boys?’ Gabrielle exclaimed.
Weatherby grinned cynically. ‘We have trouble with the mice. They
won’t bother you. He keeps them on short leads.’
Gabrielle followed Weatherby back down the stairs, trying to remember
the layout of the mansion.
‘Don’t suppose there’s any chance of stopping here tonight
is there?’ she asked tentatively.
Weatherby threw a quizzical glance back over his shoulder at her.
‘Only I got trouble at home y’see. Brother don’t like
this boy I’m seeing.’
‘No problem, if that’s what you want. You’ll have to
get your own meal today, though, if you want to eat. The cook’s
going through one of her emotional phases. Mr Gunn’s been playing
her up something awful and she’s a bit sensitive at the moment.’
‘Oh thanks. And I don’t mind where I sleep.’ But Weatherby
had bounced too far ahead to hear.
In the large kitchen Gabrielle was introduced to the emotional cook. The
delicate frills of her blouse sleeves and collar beneath the white overall,
and the heavy mesh stockings clung awkwardly to the contours of a very
‘Call me Alice,’ the cook said in a husky voice, reaching
out to take Gabrielle’s hand.
‘Her real name’s Arthur, but call her Alice,’ Weatherby
The cook cast him a warning glance. ‘Don’t pay any attention
to him, my dear. Because this place finds it difficult to keep staff it
attracts all sorts of riffraff. Though it’s not surprising. You’ve
no idea what a dreadful man Mr Gunn can be.’
‘That’s right,’ said Weatherby, ‘now she’ll
really want to stay.’ He turned to Gabrielle. ‘Just how serious
is this problem with your brother?’
Alice turned on him. ‘It wouldn’t hurt you to do the laundry
once in a while. You’re always interfering in everyone else’s
‘I’m paid to. I am the head butler.’
Alice sneered. ‘Head butler indeed. You’re the only butler
who’s ever been here since you rolled up three month ago.’
‘Is Mr Gunn really that bad?’ interrupted Gabrielle before
Alice could get really worked up.
‘Only if you meet him,’ Weatherby said reassuringly.
‘I won’t need to, will I?’
‘Oh, you shouldn’t worry,’ Alice told her. ‘He’ll
like a handsome young thing like you. Only don’t go and make the
mistake of throwing up the first time you set eyes on his face.’
Gabrielle’s eyebrows must have risen sufficiently for Weatherby
to explain, ‘Mr Gunn’s facial attributes are not all that
‘He’s grotesque,’ Alice declared.
This certainly sounded like the Mr Humbert Wendle had described, and the
house and guards could have easily concealed a prisoner without anyone
Gabrielle only met two part-time housekeepers, a handyman, two gardeners,
and a kitchen maid, and wondered how they managed to maintain the place
by themselves. She also discovered that Mr Gunn’s bodyguards were
the only ones allowed near him. They even escorted an older woman and
her companion who were visiting Mr Gunn that afternoon.
The next day Gabrielle managed to busy herself convincingly by running
backwards and forwards along the long landing that overlooked the main
hall carrying bundles of laundry. Most of it went into the huge washing
machines and was hung on lines in the back yard. She helped one of the
housekeepers with the ironing then made the beds.
Although quite exhausted by the evening, Gabrielle had noticed the much
used door to a lower floor opening and closing automatically to let the
guards pass through. Because she could only see the tops of heads from
the landing, one of them might have been Mr Gunn for all she knew. Gabrielle
had better sense than to arouse suspicion by asking what was down there
and waited until the place was quite deserted.
Being the new girl, she found it difficult to break away from the gossip
in the kitchen. Inventing an elaborate family saga to back up the story
about her bully of a brother was more taxing than putting the cover on
a king-size duvet. When she eventually managed to break free, she was
at least sure where everyone else was.
Gabrielle knew that there must have been an easier way to get down to
the lower floor than through that automatic door, and wandered round the
pink gravelled backyard looking for an outside entrance. She carefully
picked her way round the house in the slowly descending summer dusk. As
though he had read her thoughts, a familiar shape stood waiting for her
by an ivy-covered alcove beneath some large windows. Toby pointed down.
At first she could only see the blanket of ivy. He remained resolutely
where he was, so she pushed the tangle of leaves with her foot.
There was a door under the ivy. With a hollow crack, the rotten wood fell
from its hinges and crashed down a short flight of steps. Gabrielle froze
at the noise, sure she would be discovered. There was nothing else for
it but to flee down the steps after it. She fought her way through the
ivy, pulled it back after her to cover the entrance, and then waited a
few moments to make sure she hadn’t attracted attention. When nobody
came out to investigate, she groped her away along the rough wall at the
bottom of the steps.
As her eyes became accustomed to the dark, Gabrielle realised she was
in an ancient coal cellar. She didn’t need a degree in ancient buildings
to know that if she reached up she would find the slanting doors that
should have been on the outside of the coal cellar. But that was wrong.
The coal chute should have been on the outside of the house and the steps
on the inside, unless it was constructed by a builder with a grudge against
the owner. On the opposite side of the cellar, Gabrielle found the coal
chute above a pile of ancient coke from a century old delivery. She carefully
climbed on to it in the gloom and gingerly reached up to push the doors
open. It led to a tiled pathway lit by skylights in the top of a wall.
The extension had been built over the demolished remains of another building
and part of its garden. She nearly tripped over stacks of ancient flowerpots
that had been left there.
Although she could now see where she was going, Gabrielle didn’t
know which way to turn. Then Toby reappeared. He led her along the enclosed
tiled garden path until they came to a rusty grating at a dead end. It
was possible to see through into a dimly lit corridor below. It was long
and quite deserted. Not thinking for one moment that she could wrench
the grating out with her bare hands, Gabrielle half-heartedly shook it.
To her amazement it came free. This was too much of a coincidence and
she turned to look accusingly at Toby, but his fancy cream shirt and fading
frock coat were nowhere to be seen.
Things were going too well for Gabrielle’s rational mind. The very
fact that she was able to get this far so easily made her suspicious when
anyone else would have put it down to luck. She pushed her way through
the hole and lowered herself down.
Although it was below ground, the air felt warm and dry, and there was
the faint whirr of an air conditioning fan. Gabrielle moved cautiously
up the corridor. The door at the end of it opened without difficulty.
Someone had very conveniently forgotten to secure the heavy bolt on the
other side. Ahead was the motionless figure of Toby waiting for her to
catch up. He must have been the one making her progress so easy, yet how
could a ghost draw back a bolt or loosen a grating?
Gabrielle hesitated for a moment. Was someone expecting her? Gunn could
only know that Wendle had spoken to her if he’d told him. It wasn’t
possible, she decided, and followed Toby once more. He stopped by a grille
at the bottom of the wall. She looked down into a white-walled room. Inside
were four men. Two were guarding a door, and an obese figure was standing
over someone lying on a table. It was Wendle. From the grotesque, bloated
features of the man by him, it was easy to deduce that this was Mr Gunn.
He was frantically trying to wake Wendle up. Gabrielle noticed that Toby
was getting fainter and fainter. He vanished as Wendle was brought to
his senses by Gunn’s hefty smack to his face.
‘At last,’ Gunn growled. ‘Don’t think you can
get out of this by staying unconscious forever. I’m not going to
have you killed just yet.’
‘Why not?’ murmured Wendle, ‘Haven’t you taken
out any insurance on me?’
Gunn clearly didn’t like this accurate reference to his method of
amassing a fortune, and hit out again. By this time Wendle was fully conscious
and managed to roll from the table before more damage could be done. He
obviously preferred to be asleep, with or without the aid of chloroform.
‘I’ve told you, I don’t know anything about this Star
Dancer,’ Wendle pleaded. ‘The Kybion didn’t tell me
any more than you already know, I swear.’
‘Of course you know, you lying pup!’ Gunn bellowed. ‘You
never did have any respect for me, but I’ve got too much to lose
to put up with your bloody-mindedness now.’
‘What’s the difference if you’re going to get a surgeon
to remove the transmitter anyway?’
‘The difference is whether you get an anaesthetic or not when he
Gabrielle could see Wendle stiffen. The nausea in the pit of her stomach
told her she would have to do something before the surgeon arrived the
Gunn continued to rail at his victim like a sadistic toad for as long
as his body had the breath, adding a few more threats worse than the one
he had already made. Then he stormed out, leaving the two guards with
Wendle. There was no way to get to him from where she was. The grille
would have needed more than Toby’s supernatural powers to shift
it without alerting the guards. There was nothing Gabrielle could do but
return to the servants’ quarters before she was missed.