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Thursday, July 17th

64. Interim Report From The Major

There were two trees in the grounds of the Five Eichen Guest House – both of them to be found in the car park. One was a sturdy buhn, and the other a simbel which was infested with creatures that resembled small, red spiders. Set in a rural area, thanks to extensive clearance of derelict buildings, the guest house had enjoyed an elegant past, it existed in a break-even present, and it had very little future.
   Room 319 was better than representative of current standards. Major Rufus Tarpigan, who was sprawled full-length on the bed with his shoes on, had no complaints. His dark-skinned colleague, Captain Sam Smith, was sitting on the more comfortable of the room's two easy chairs and resting his feet on the other.
   "How's the vetting going?" asked Tarpigan, blowing cigar smoke towards the greying ceiling to gas a passing fly.
   "The freaks are easiest to check on," replied Smith. "It's the respectable ones that give you the problems. Mind you, we'd be absolutely lost without the entry codes supplied by our employer. Going through so many ‘access denied' labels in the nation's computer files give you a sense of enormous power."
   "Turning into a proper computer-worshipper, Sam?' laughed Tarpigan.
   "It's not that difficult. All these stories of sacrifices and naked orgies round the Central Tax Computer at midnight on the night of a full moon sound quite fun."
   "Don't you have to be a fully paid up member of the Civil Service for that?" remarked Tarpigan, consulting his diary. "The next full moon's a week on Tuesday," he added helpfully. "If you want to get into training."
   "I'll have to find out if they can invite friends," grinned Smith. "Oh, yes. We had one of your pals trying to sign up. Charlie Fisher, Prot Intelligence. Works just round the corner from Alex Cardinal."
   "How did he get into the act?"
   "A minor mouth called something Billy. He can make himself fairly invisible at times. He hears things. This time, it was a couple of potential recruits discussing The Big One."
   "That's what they're calling it?"
   "Very apt, if you ask me," said Smith. "Anyway, this Billy was able to give Fisher the vid number of one of our recruiting posts. He called in about a couple of minutes before we dropped it. Had quite a nice cover story worked out in the more accessible computer files. Not a bad effort for a rush job."
   "I suppose you're giving poor old Charlie the blue-arsed fly treatment?" Tarpigan swung a fist at the fly, catching it in the slipstream.
   "We've sent him rushing off to Norland," laughed Smith.
   "Keeps him off the streets. He might even meet Alex."
   "Is that there he is?"
   "Doing a quick job for Sir Nigel," nodded Tarpigan. "He has to maintain a professional ignorance of what we're up to. As he said, it's all right for us, we can dash off to foreign parts if it all blows up in our faces. He's got roots and a private investigator's licence to think of."
   "Well, it's not illegal to follow the letter of the law and not the spirit, as a candidate in a county election once told me," returned Smith. "The other lot are ignoring both. And we've got right on our side."
   Tarpigan turned his head to look at his colleague. "You know, you've got a strange habit of saying things like that as if you could mean them."
   "Keep a straight face and you can get away with murder," laughed Smith. "What does his little friend Dortmann know about what's going on?"
   "Nothing, officially," said Tarpigan. "But why Grantby thinks that's going to stop her finding out anything she wants to know is beyond me. I don't think he trusts her fully yet. Probably because Security's such a basic corner-stone of a business these days. Worried about residual loyalty to his disgrace the Duck of Atmain, I should think."
   "Can't think why Alex didn't look her up years ago."
   "Fear," decided Tarpigan. "That the past isn't really the way he remembers it. That Ilse might not be glad to see him and make him look an idiot. It's always a chancy business, digging up the past."
   "Our Sir Nigel isn't afraid of digging," remarked Smith. "Keeps his public hands clean but he keeps sneaking to these meeting for reports. Perhaps there's a lot to be said for vicarious thrills."
   "The trouble is, you have to be seriously rich before you can indulge in them. I doubt we'll ever have that problem."
   "You mean we're doomed to an ignominious end?" grinned Smith. "Shot to pieces in some swamp over nothing much?"
   "Well, I don't have to tell you how many people in our line have decided to do one last job – and found it one too many." Tarpigan turned back his cuff and showed his watch to Smith. "Is he really that late, or am I fast?"
   "Sure it's the right day?" asked Smith.
   "A man of many contradictions, our Sir Nigel," observed Tarpigan. He blasted another cloud of cigar smoke at the orbiting fly. "Insists on punctuality, then keeps us waiting. I think that entitles us to lunch on him."
   "Suits me," agreed Captain Smith, punching up the menu on the videolink. "I'm starving."

Friday, July 18th

65. Major Tarpigan Contacts The NTF

Major Rufus Tarpigan rested his elbows on a well-worn table and asked, "So it's all fixed, then?"
   "Bockan right, it is!" agreed his pale, bearded companion.
   They toasted the success of the venture in synth-café. A constant muttering of expressway traffic seeped through the closed café window on their left.
   "Your lads can pick the stuff up any time after Monday, but no action till Wednesday night at the earliest, right?" Dark shadows under his eyes from lack of sleep and his well-cut but crumpled business suit in marine stripe made Tarpigan look more like a dedicated reveller than a soldier.
   "Fine by us," nodded the vital, leisure-suited young man at his side. "This should even the score for our people in that ambush in Neal. We don't like being used."
   "Right! Nobody does," agreed Tarpigan, repressing an urge to smile at the irony of the situation. "You'd better leave first."
   "Right. And thanks from all of us."
   "A pleasure," smiled the mercenary.
   Major Tarpigan gave the representative of the National Temperance Front a five minute start, then he left the café for a warm summer evening. There was a decent pub about two miles beyond the next exit from the expressway. A meeting with a member of the NTF always generated a raging psychological thirst in Tarpigan. The pub could also offer a basic but excellent evening meal.
   He had arranged for a carefully selected NTF group to be supplied with plans and sufficient equipment to attack three of the Duke of Atmain's more important Refuse Reclamation Centres. It was only fair that another victim of Demirell's war with the importers be allowed revenge. The group in question had strong PSF connections. Anything that the remnants of the Popular Socialist Front, which was no longer as popular as it had been, could manage would be a bonus.

Sunday, July 20th

66. Convenience And Compromise

Intelligence Chief Inspector Raymond Aldred laughed openly at the apparition perched on the visitor's chair in his fifth floor office and asked, "That's your best suit, is it?"
   "It's my NeoKirlan suit," protested Intelligence Inspector Charlie Fisher. "Don't you like it?" He spread his arms to show off his crumpled brown, green and yellow mottled safari suit and black knee-boots.
   "You look like you've been lynched by 'lensters, maccar," his superior assured him.
   "You think this looks buckle, you should have seen some of the others. They looked like they'd been dragged through a saw-wire fence a couple of times. Any coffee going?"
   "Help yourself. Well, what brings you in on a Sunday, Charlie? And so early. It's only just after ten."
   Fisher became serious. "It's this NeoKirlan thing. It just doesn't smell right."
   "In what way?" invited Aldred.
   "Well, it's nothing I can put my finger on." Fisher frowned as he poured synth-café into a Norlish coronation mug. "But I'm bockan sure I'm getting the runaround, Ray."
   "I suppose this had to happen sooner or later."
   "What's that supposed to mean?" Fisher produced a packet of Norlish uisge-flavoured cigarettes.
   "There's something very political going on, Charlie. I keep meeting a disturbing lack of interest, stone walls and sometimes active discouragement when I try to discuss this whole NeoKirlan thing in the Higher Zones. The attitude seems to be: ‘It won't be our problem when it breaks.'"
   "You mean they know what's going on round at Great Wrytal Street?" frowned Fisher. "And they're not saying?"
   "Some might. And the rest are trying to give the impression they're in the know too."
   "Not our problem, eh?" said Fisher slowly. "Do you reckon they are going to storm that Norlish castle for the film we've been hearing about? One take only? And with real bodies?"
   "It would be a pretty huge Big One."
   "So where does this leave me?"
   "As I see it, we can do one of two things," decided Aldred. "Pretend we're a pair of vid cops and batter away at the wall in the hope of finding a loose brick – and take the risk of the whole bockan lot falling on us. Or we can move on and tackle something more potentially productive. In the first case, success will bring us enormous feelings of personal satisfaction, if the vid is to be trusted, plus the ingratitude of the Higher Zones and a blight on our careers. In the second case, a decent level of achievement will bring us esteem, promotion and an eventual mention in the honours list if we can claw our way high enough up the ladder."
   "Such a difficult choice," grinned Fisher.
   "Isn't it just?" agreed Aldred. "You know, Charlie, I think I must be getting old. I can't remember what you're working on at the moment. Can't be all that important, can it?"
   "You know," said Fisher, reappraising his safari suit, "I won't be too sorry to see the back of this horror. They nearly wouldn't let me into the lift. And the wife laughed her head off when she got over the shock."
   "I'm sure you're in a rush to get home for a shave and a shower," grinned Aldred, pretending to hold his nose.
   "You can laugh," returned Fisher. "But who's going to get a proper Sunday dinner and who's stuck here writing reports?"

Sunday, July 20th

67. Alex Cardinal Tapers Off

Ilse Dortmann emerged from the entry porch of the offices of Julian Legion & Company and called, "Alex, are you home?"
   "In the kitchen, korolan," replied Cardinal.
   Dortmann moved from the hall to the lounge. She reached to the left without looking and deposited her attaché case on a neat table topped with sand-gold plastic laminate. A right turn brought her to the swing door to the flat's kitchen. She found Cardinal standing beside the fridge, tasting a dry Tombrian white wine. "Been busy today?" she asked.
   Cardinal treated her to a wine-flavoured kiss of greeting. "Not especially. Hungry?"
   "Starving. What's the nice smell?"
   "I had most of it sent up from the Belldan restaurant on the second floor," Cardinal admitted. "You take the wine through. The rest should be ready by the time you've changed."
   Dortmann pushed through the other swing door and put the bottle on the dining table. The seventeenth floor windows gave her a view of Liston Grove that was becoming familiar and friendly. She was feeling quite at home in Camerland.
   "It's rather like being in a restaurant with your special ambience tape playing," she remarked later to a background of murmured conversation and cutlery on china merged with gentle, swirling music.
   "Eating out at home, as long as you keep looking out of the window," agreed Cardinal. "A way of getting away without going anywhere."
   "I could have done with something like this at the castle, if there'd been anyone to share it with."
   "The loneliness of command, Herta?"
   "You tend not to become aware of it when things are going well, and I had quite a few friends in Cavenne. But it's difficult for a security executive to form strong attachments. Like the police, we're unreliable socially. And your authority goes if you become involved with a junior member of your staff. And the Belldans tend to be very old-fashioned about working wives."
   "Is that a warning to me?" scoffed Cardinal.
   "I'm sorry, Alex. I was going on a bit."
   "We're friends, so it's perfectly all right to go on a lot."
   "I think that's what I've needed more than anything. A friendly ear attached to a mouth that knows when to stay closed."
   "So you're glad of the change?"
   "Fishing for compliments, Alex?" laughed Dortmann.
   "I'd be offended if I didn't know you don't mean that," replied Cardinal, contriving to look hurt just the same.
   "He said from behind his multiple negatives," chuckled Dortmann. "The last two weeks have been a marvellous tonic."
   "Even though you keep dashing all over the country?"
   "It's nice to come home to find the dinner's ready, Alex. I mean a proper meal, not something you can order up from the canteen. You'd make someone a good wife."
   "Volunteering to be the someone?" asked Cardinal with a side-long glance of invitation.
   "I might. When you've had a chance to find out all my bad habits."
   "Bet they're not as bad as mine. Oh, yes – I'm going to Marn Bay with you tomorrow."
   "That's nice. For a day out at the seaside?"
   "A small investigation job. Some undesirable is trifling with the affections of the teenage daughter of Sir George Braben. He's being very mysterious about his past. My job is to dig into his background to find out if he's after her body or her money. Or both."
   "Rather a change from what you've been doing lately."
   "A little less risky, too. Unless the young sobok's part of a crime syndicate. Actually, I think I'm being tapered off now the Refuse Barons' new security consultant is getting into the swing of things. I expect a handshake and a final payment on Friday. So does Doris. She's off on holiday next week."
   "Are you glad it's over? This job?"
   "High risks for big rewards and a long life don't go together so it'll be rather a relief to get back to tracing missing persons and slipping a summons to some elusive sobok. Not that the little jobs are always so safe. You can get your head beaten in as easily for ten pounds as ten thousand. Still, I've got a couple of decent security consultancies promised for the middle of next month. Sorry, I seem to be going on a bit now myself."
   "Where's Doris going?" Dortmann asked with a smile.
   "A place called Boppard, half-way up a mountain in Tombria. Very elegant, if the brochures can be believed."
   "Have you had a holiday yet, Alex?"
   "Me? No, not yet."
   "My grandparents want me to visit them at the end of September. I could show you Meermond and some Heitainan seaside."
   "As long as they're not shocked at you dragging a strange man along."
   "It might make them realize I'm not a little girl any more." laughed Dortmann. "And we went to college together. And here you are with grey hair. You're obviously no passing fancy."
   "Would you like me to shave a few bald patches as well?" offered Cardinal. "To make them think I'm old and harmless?"
   "I don't want them thinking I can only get a man who's too feeble to resist!" laughed Dortmann.

Wednesday, July 23rd

69. A NeoKirlan Vacuum

Detective Sergeant Fred Drew, parking himself beside his superior's desk in their open-plan squad room and stared at him until Detective Inspector Mike Forrest looked up. "Want to hear something funny, Chief?" Drew asked.
   "I'm just dying for a good laugh," Forrest assured him, energetically tearing pieces of paper in half and dropping them onto the heap that overflowed from his waste paper bin.
   "I've just seen Charlie Fisher in the canteen."
   "Not exactly hysterical, was it, Fred?"
   "Ha, ha!" groaned Drew. "No, listen. When I told him about all those potential NeoKirlans who've gone missing, you know what he said?"
   "Not being a mind reader, no," replied Forrest, pointing to an unoccupied desk. "Kick us that bin over, son."
   "He didn't seem all that bothered at first. Then he said he hopes they remember to put film or tape in the cameras."
   "Oh, yeah?" frowned Forrest, pausing with paper in each hand. "And what's that supposed to mean?"
   Drew shrugged. "Search me, Chief. I thought you might know, being clever an' all."
   "All I know is no one in his right mind wants to know about NeoKirlans," decided Forrest. "And now they've gone, we know for sure they're not holding their Big One around here. Just think of all the paperwork that'll save," he added with a dreamy smile.
   "And the strain on the bins," added Drew.
   "Do you know'" continued Forrest, accepting a cigarette. "Cheers! Some of this bockan stuff is two years old!" He ripped up another batch of blue, white and green paper. "I've got memos about memos here. Asking about memos about letters asking why I've not replied to some other bockan memo. It's at times like this I begin to think it might have been me that stuck that bomb in the Commander's car last week. And they wonder why we've not caught him yet! Who was it said the videolink and all the stuff that goes with it would free us from the paper jungle?"
   "Not the bloke that put the printer attachment on them."
   "They say every great invention has a fatal flaw," nodded Forrest. "Here, go and stick this lot in Don's bin while he's lurking somewhere else. Let's spread it around a bit so they don't work out where it's all come from."
   "Or everyone might start getting rid of the junk?" laughed Drew, accepting a wad of waste paper.

69. The Duke Of Atmain Returns To Camerland

The Duke of Atmain and his pair of aides received a cautious welcome when their helicopter landed at the heart of Camer's business district, on the roof of Refuse House. Norman Chatelle had left the senior members of his security staff at home, judging that he would be quite safe in the company of his Camerlish counterparts.
   Several helicopters belonging to the various news services fluttered around the building, capturing a piece of history and trying to spot VIPs among the concentration of security personnel. Ilse Dortmann was tactfully elsewhere.
   When their discussions began, the Duke attributed an atmosphere bordering on good-will to the wines and liqueurs which had accompanied an excellent lunch. He felt certain that he was negotiating from a position of strength.
   During an amicable if unproductive afternoon, the Camerlish Refuse Barons gave no sign of knowing that the Duke's firm if scattered position in what had become their traditional refuse reclamation market was due to anything other than normal commercial expertise. His wife, who had spent the day shopping, rejoined the Duke at the end of the session. They travelled four miles to the east, to the growing suburb of Starbank, to visit their daughter and grandchildren...

70. A Fine, Red Evening or NeoKirlan Sunset

Juggernauts were on the march. From every direction, along every road that led to Cavenne, wheeled monsters were closing in. Two tiers of warriors with plumed helmets sat quietly in the back of each heavy lorry, swaying gently with the motion of their vehicle. Servants of the Church of His Aweful Satanic Majesty occupied each cab – a driver and a mate, whose job it was to monitor the bio-functions of his platoon of NeoKirlans and to add a touch of control gas to the air if they showed signs of waking from a drugged torpor. These NeoKirlans were all doubtfuls. The mercenary Captain Sam Smith's screening had shown them up as potential security leaks or lacking in proper suicidal conviction.
   The remainder of the NeoKirlan army had already assembled on the outskirts of Cavenne. A flood of summer tourists from the other side of the Straits and Brivauche had been swallowed up by the woods to the south and east of the grounds of the Duke of Atmain's castle. The army received reinforcements to its wings when the juggernauts began to unload. Mock breakdowns of homeward-bound vehicles blocked routes other than those to be used by later arrivals. Traffic police helicopters arrived to attempt to direct impatient road users onto uncongested side roads.
   An issue of weapons began. Each NeoKirlan had expressed his or her personal preference before the event, and they had been divided into preference groups. Human bombs mingled with machine gunners. Some of the warriors had opted for automatic rifles or light machine-guns, others for hand guns and grenades. Traditionalists carried swords, axes, maces and sharp-toothed flails in case they managed to come to close quarters with the enemy.
   An atmosphere of nerveless calm hung over the speedy preparations. All those who would be taking an active part in the Great Adventure were under the influence of CHASM control drugs. The organizers of the Big One had no specific targets to achieve, and they were therefore taking a very cool, wait-and-see approach to the whole affair.

Half an hour from setting, the summer sun looked down on furious jams on the roads around Cavenne. Helicopters still dotted the sky, trying to work out routes round the trouble spots. When several aerial units from news services arrived, no one in authority took much notice.
   Violations of their air space had been so common that the duty surveillance team at the Duke's castle ignored two newcomers when they flew right over the castle. A barely visible cloud of microfine particles drifted with the wind into open doors and windows. Minor irritations began to overflow.
   A guard at the southern gatehouse of the outer bailey decided that he wanted a smoke and lit a strawberry-flavoured cigarette. His immediate superior ordered him to put it out. The dispute became a free fight.
   One of the staff in the kitchen behind the Green Watch mess in the inner bailey dropped a cup. Another swore at her. Within seconds, the air of the kitchen was full of flying utensils, crockery, and hot and cold liquid and solid food.
   Two members of the service staff decided that they wanted a particular parking space in the half-empty underground garage beneath the keep. They smashed up their own and several other cars in the butting contest that followed.
   A tide of NeoKirlans swept slowly to the edge of the woods. Radios spoke in the helmets of a selected few. They relayed a command to the incommunicado majority. Every left hand lifted to its mouth. Every mouth opened. Every set of teeth crunched on a small antidote capsule. Every NeoKirlan swallowed.
   The leader of the duty surveillance team in the aerial-infested building on the roof of the keep was screaming that the castle was besieged by giant helicopter-sized bats with huge, dripping fangs. Another of the team was just screaming. A third was staring placidly at a screen filled with plume-helmeted shapes, who were pouring over a wall in a never-ending flood.
   NeoKirlans surged into the grounds of the castle. Patrols managed to report before being overrun. Nobody received their desperate alarms and calls for assistance. Yells of wordless joy, cries of Kir-Laan! and approaching wild screams of pleasure mixed with converging manic laughter were the first indications that many of the still-active members of the guard received that all was not well.
   The last traces of the cloud of Devil Dust decayed to harmless by-products as the NeoKirlan horde reached the moat. Those on the southern side of the castle stormed across the bridge. Those on the eastern side displayed a rare co-operation by fitting together sections of prefabricated bridges with inflatable supports.
   Charles Demirell, who had been fortunate enough to be in his windowless office when the cloud of Devil Dust had smothered the castle, marshalled the remainder of his army with panic-stricken haste. Alarms blared all over the castle, along with warnings to those still in possession of their senses to stop breathing until they had found a riot helmet fitted with a gas-filter.
   The southern gatehouse shuddered as explosive charges lifted the steel portals from their hinges, crashing them to the ground with deafening metal clangs.
   Closed-up in riot helmets, the defenders concentrated on intercepting the rockets aimed at the eastern wall. The rabble army took heavy casualties when sections of a concrete well between the towers collapsed, spraying steel-reinforced shrapnel at the attackers, but allowing survivors to charge in. Automatic weapons laid a blizzard of death in the killing ground between the walls, until a hail of rockets smashed the southern and eastern towers to flying rubble.
   Triumphant NeoKirlans surged onward, crouching instinctively as more rockets raced over their heads to blast holes in the inner bailey wall. Buildings gaped open to receive the horde. Shouting, screaming, helmet plumes dancing, the warriors flooded through holes with projecting rusty steel-reinforcement fangs in the concrete inner bailey, racing into barracks, store rooms, offices, public rooms, private rooms. The castle's staff withdrew to the system of concealed corridors or the shelter of the keep with their bewildered or unconscious colleagues.
   In a mad orgy of destruction, NeoKirlans rampaged into bars, grabbing bottles to drain and smash. In the absence of opposition, they turned on one another, acting out scenes recalled from films and holovision plays, fencing up and down stairs, lurking in ambush, burning and breaking wherever they went.
   Neil Finder sat on a concrete floor, staring at a minute, dark grey chip of stone in an off-white concrete wall, waiting for a revelation.
   Invaders who ventured into the open space between the inner bailey and the keep were cut down immediately. Those who remained in the cover of the buildings met a stiffening resistance as Demirell began to gain control of the situation.
   Order returned when Demirell cleared the monitor room of the drugged duty crew and gathered a nucleus of his general staff. Assault squads dashed along stone and concrete tunnels, leaping out to ambush roaring NeoKirlans, then ducking back into the shelter of parallel passages.
   Louise Liston trailed to the castle's small hospital, clutching desperately at the bone-deep sword-cut in her left arm.
   NeoKirlans blew holes in walls with mines in their attempts to gain access to the network of concealed passages and the enemy. Those who located passages that led to the keep found themselves without a floor as traps opened beneath their feet. Impaling steel spikes broke their fall. Flame throwers blackened walls and bodies alike. Heavy duty lasers set at knee-height carved first through legs, then ripped through falling bodies.
   Structures weakened by rockets failed to withstand the impulsive stresses of explosives or the sudden loss of supports and fell onto plumed helmets. Death waited everywhere for the intruders, but that was why the NeoKirlans were in the castle.
   Inert forms, sedated to keep the horrors away, filled the hospital at the heart of the keep. The lucky ones had beds. The rest had to make do with the floor. A scratch medical staff could do no more than leave them to metabolize their dose of Devil Dust. Wounded in need of immediate attention kept the doctor and his staff at full stretch.
   Clive Westwood, lightly Devil-Dusted, sniped at the invaders from the ruins of a defence tower, picking off only those wearing a particular shade of blue.
   Sweat-drenched castle guards pounded up spirals of concealed stairs to operate manual overrides on paralysed automatic equipment as power failures cut off vital defensive positions.
   Terry Bleiler threw away his riot helmet, now sadly dented after having stopped a sword-cut fractions of an inch from his scalp. He collected a golden-plumed helmet and a flail on the run. Swinging the studded bar in a figure of eight pattern with his left hand and firing continuously with the needler in his right, he led a small squad out of a concealed passage to ambush a pack of drunken NeoKirlans.
   Gradually, such sallies and their own internal conflicts wore down the number of invaders. Brian Pnight lost his footing in a dark pool of thick, congealing blood and crashed down a public staircase. A singing, howling mob surged round a corner twenty yards away. Pnight started to run. Sheer terror cast aside the pain of a broken ankle.
   "Down!" yelled a voice from somewhere ahead of him.
   Without lifting his head to see who had shouted, Pnight dropped flat. Deafening noise boiled over his inert form. Choking propellant fumes filled the air. An explosion of agony burst from his ankle as two of his colleagues seized his arms and dragged him into the safe haven of a parallel passage.
   Fire surrounded the keep. The inhabitants of Cavenne stared in wonder at the thick smoke and leaping flames to the south. Holovision teams had switched their cameras from traffic jams to the battle. Bars overflowed as customers crowded in to watch the free show. The streets emptied as residents and bona fide tourists headed for homes and hotels to watch their holovision sets.
   A comradeship of bewilderment bound strangers clustered around the same holovision set, which gave a much better view than they could hope to obtain with their own eyes of the events just over a mile beyond the city limits. Those in the south who opened their windows acquired a five second echo between explosions on their screens and real life at the Duke's castle.
   A tall, black-skinned Centraller who called himself Captain Sam Smith raised thick eyebrows at Major Rufus Tarpigan. They were jammed into a corner of what had seemed a decent-sized bar until a few minutes earlier.
   "Going rather well, isn't it?" muttered Captain Smith through a white-toothed grin.
   "Our Satanist friends always did have a flair for theatre," returned Tarpigan without taking his eyes from the screen of the thirty inch holovision set.
   Traffic police and holovision units zoomed around the castle, trying to make sense of the spectacle. The holovision picture failed for a moment when a stray rocket smashed into the camera helicopter over the keep. The rest pulled back to a safer distance and concentrated on long shots and zooms.
   Supreme One of the Church of His Aweful Satanic Majesty took his eyes from a holovision screen long enough to find out why Supreme Five was nudging him. He accepted a generous glass of Brivauche cider and returned his eyes to the entertainment. Supreme Two handed him a fat cigar and clicked his lighter into life.
   "You know, vreitei," remarked Supreme One, expelling a jet of smoke, "it's times like this that reaffirm my faith in what we do."
   There was a general rumble of agreement from the other eight Supremes, who were packed into a room at the aptly named Hotel Kirlan in the expensive district of Cavenne.
   Huge transport helicopters arrived, bringing troops, more police and the Civil Guard to the scene. All roads leading to the castle were jammed solid. The surviving NeoKirlans found themselves trapped. Demirell's security force had established itself in parts of the inner bailey and was on the advance. Fire swept through much of the wreckage. The invaders could only advance to the keep, retreat towards the uniformed tide boiling up the hill towards the castle, or stay where they were and burn.
   "Kir-Laaan!" Screaming their battle cry, three hundred smoke-blackened, blood-stained, mind-blown, plume-helmeted NeoKirlans exploded from the shelter of the buildings lining the inner bailey to the climax of their first and last Big One.
   Swearing continuously but without passion, Gary Mortlake crouched on broken glass behind a window of the Duke's map room and fired track after track of explosive shot at the last remnant of the invading army. Colleagues opened fire with every available weapon, spraying whole magazines without thought of aim. They cast aside over-heated and jammed weapons as they failed. Those without riot helmets began to succumb to asphyxia as the air filled with raw propellant fumes. Until there was no one left to kill.
   The Great Adventure, the storming of an ancient castle in modern times, ended there, in the open space between the inner bailey and the keep of the Duke of Atmain's castle. Dead and near to death sprawled gracelessly where they had been cut down. Not a one had penetrated to within ten yards of the keep. Half an hour had passed since sunset.
   Intermittent shots still coughed from the battlefield as injured NeoKirlans suicided, or were given summary justice by the forces of law and order. Troops and police streamed into the castle to assist with fire fighting and the removal of the dead.
   The night was long and unpleasant. A smell of roasting meat clung to the city of Cavenne until cleansing rain came, several days later.

71. Information And Anticipation

It bad been an odd sort of day in Camer – overcast since first light, but uncomfortably muggy and clinging out of doors. It was unpleasant physically and disturbing because of the strangeness of greenhouse warmth and humidity on a dull day. Devrel Sovershend had been travelling all day and he was feeling worn out. The day's importing venture had been a success. He had placed five samples of illegally imported wines in his refrigerator. A sixth stood corkless on a small table beside him, within easy reach of his pouring hand.
   Katuishann was curled up beside him on the two-person lounger. They were half-watching the holovision news. Despite Katuishann's fears, Sovershend had met neither the Duke of Atmain's employees nor any members of the fringe groups which formed their allies, witting and unwitting, during his travels. Thus he had not fulfilled her prediction of appearing on the News At 22.
   "Just who do the PSF think they're fooling anyway?" remarked Sovershend. "Apart from themselves, that is."
   "Are you going to preach at me?" scoffed Katuishann.
   "Sarcasm is the lowest form of twit, korolan."
   "Is that right?" Katuishann asked with a worried frown. "That wasn't how my Ferran program put it."
   "Only in our filthy, fractured patois. But look at them!" Sovershend gestured towards the holovision set, which was showing a taped report shot at a ‘secret location'.
   Two of representatives of the Popular Socialist Front were trying to convince the nation that their members were not mindless terrorists, and that they had had nothing to do with recent attacks on Refuse Reclamation Centres – either in Camerland or at Cavenne, half an hour earlier.
   The fact that two members of their organization had been captured just after the explosion at Cavenne had been dismissed as irrelevant and a plot to discredit the PSF. Both spokesmen had denied individually and in chorus that the prisoners in Belldon were members of the official PSF or in any way connected with their movement.
   "I mean," said Sovershend, "take him in the mask and the shades. The district chapter leader, or whatever. Can you imagine him as the Prime Monster if his ‘popular revolution' comes off. How would he look in a morning suit at the airport, waiting to meet foreign dignitaries?"
   "With his red scarf tied to one arm and a sub-machine gun under the other?" laughed Katuishann.
   "Exactly!" nodded Sovershend.
   "He'd be different, Dev. You have to give him that."
   "That's it. Different. Too bockan different. Did you know, most people still see the Prime Monster as a respectably dressed man or woman of about fifty or sixty?"
   "I don't think he'd be comfortable in a suit, Dev. Not enough pockets for his spare magazines and gas grenades. And the rest of the stuff that makes him bulge like that."
   "Not that he'd ever get the job, anyway. The first thing his maccars would do after the revolution is cancel his membership for this plane of existence in case he started another revolution and got rid of them. Did you notice how many times he used the word ‘democracy'?"
   "Surprise me," invited Katuishann.
   "Nine times in two minutes. Of course, what he means by ‘democracy" is doing what he says in his capacity as self-elected representative of the people. Anyone who disagrees with him is automatically undemocratic and therefore a festering blot on the landscape. And a fair target for anyone with a gun and time on his hands. Beware of people who spout about democracy, Tish. It's usually one of its enemies speaking."
   "Don't you approve of the PSF?" laughed Katuishann.
   "Does anyone? They're just a bunch of 'lensters. But because they're flying a political flag, the bunch of soboks we call a government are too scared to dig them out and get rid of them. Scared of disapproving noises from our enemies in the rest of the world. They want to change the system for everyone's benefit, so they say. Get their grubby hands on a lot of well-paid jobs, more like."
   "You're taking it very personally, Dev," said Katuishann. "What have they ever done to you?"
   "They cost me money," returned Sovershend. "The taxes I pay are wasted on tracking then down, repairing the damage they cause when they blow something up and keeping them in gaol for years on end."
   "Oh, you pay taxes?" scoffed Katuishann. "Since when?"
   "Watch it!" growled Sovershend.
   "I'm not afraid of you, pal. I'm no jelly, maccar."
   "Bet that wasn't in your programming."
   "Creative verbal construction, it's called."
   "Tell 'em anything as long as it sounds good," laughed Sovershend. "Oh, I don't think we need this."
   The news program had extended into the inevitable discussion. A group of talking heads, which included a psychologist, a military historian, Camer's Chief Director of Police and a celebrity professor, was busy trotting out pet theories on the NeoKirlan Syndrome, the challenge of storming a castle and necessary modifications to tactics when modern weapons of offence and defence were available. It was all very academic and detached, and it seemed to bear little relation to the events of a little more than an hour earlier and 125 miles distant.
   Three and a half minutes later, everything stopped for a commercial break. Sovershend switched his attention away from the holovision set but he retained a thread of contact. Some of the commercials for fortbeer and carpets were fairly entertaining.
   "That's fifty pounds I owe you," remarked Katuishann.
   "Oh, yes. Your insurance bet," laughed Sovershend.
   "It works, doesn't it? Every time I bet you'll get caught, you come home safely." Katuishann was having increasingly frequent doubts about Sovershend's route to an early retirement and she planned to make him change his ways – if that was humanly possible.
   "Safe, thanks to your rotten luck."
   "Or until it changes. Or until my money runs out. I don't have any in my pockets. Do you trust me?" Katuishann added with a dishonest smirk.
   "Tell you what, let's change the bet. You do me a small favour like getting another bottle out of the fridge and we'll call it straight."
   "A simple thing like that isn't worth fifty pounds, Dev." Katuishann struggled to her feet, taking care not to knock her glass from the wide arm of the chair.
   "You can have the rest as a tip."
   "Such generosity!" Katuishann disappeared into the kitchen. Glass scraped on a metal shelf. A muted humming noise began. Katuishann returned with a rapidly frosting bottle. "Watch out, it's slippy," she told Sovershend over a buzzing noise.
   "Front door," said Sovershend. "Will you have a look while you're on your feet, korolan?"
   Katuishann looked around for her shoes but failed to spot them. With a small shrug, she headed for the intercom. The screen showed a man in a red-biased flame suit and a strawberry blonde woman against a background of part of the mews.
   "Flat two, Sovershend," said Katuishann, giving the standard identification and asking a question.
   "Is that Tish?" beamed the man in the flame suit. "It's Cal and Lynn."
   "Who is it, korolan?" called Sovershend, busy with the bottle. The cork had a tendency to break apart and it required careful handling.
   "Someone called Cal. I think he's a Ferran."
   "Better let him in or he'll kick the door down."
   Katuishann checked the rest of the mews automatically before she pressed the door release. The outer door opened. Calvin Laurence and his wife Lynn advanced into the entry porch. The outer steel door closed behind them. Katuishann released the inner door. Footsteps sounded on the concrete floor. Then there was a click and a humming noise rising towards the room.
   "Just like a Ferran," shouted Sovershend. "Too lazy to use the stairs."
   Two heads came into view, looking for the source of the insult. The cork popped from the wine bottle.
   "Could we have a couple more glasses while you're over there, please, Tish?" asked Sovershend.
   "Yes, Master." Katuishann changed course.
   "Nice to have a slave running after you," remarked Cal. "Whatever happened to that little redhead?" He began to drag another two-person lounger across the room. "And when are you going to do something about this lot?" He gave the room's impossible object décor a general nod.
   "Feel free to rearrange the furniture," Sovershend invited, ignoring the penultimate question. "Actually, I was thinking of getting some flame walls put in."
   "Hell in a bucket!" moaned Cal. "That would be even worse."
   "That's great!" laughed Sovershend. "Coming from a bloke in a flame suit."
   "What redhead?" asked Katuishann, holding out glasses to be filled.
   "Just ignore him, korolan," advised Sovershend. "He's just mixing things. Ferries are well known for it. Even ones born in Norland. She was long before our time, anyway."
   "Lynn, meet Tish, which is short for something I can't get my teeth round properly," said Cal. "And I see Dev still hasn't learned how to fill a glass properly."
   "Barbarian," muttered Sovershend, topping Cal's glass to within an eighth of an inch of the rim. "Cal's also known as Cool Cal – for a reason that escapes me for the moment."
   Katuishann handed over the glasses with smiles of welcome. The women weighed each other up with typical wary, female caution deciding that neither posed a threat to the other. Katuishann reclaimed her place beside Sovershend.
   "Have we met before?" she asked Cal with a frown. "I'm sure your face is familiar."
   "No, he only stays over here during the football season," said Sovershend. "But you've probably seen the odd picture of him in my photograph collection."
   "Known him long enough to find out all his disgusting and despicable habits, Tish?" remarked Cal.
   "Only most of them," said Katuishann innocently.
   "Thanks!" said Sovershend indignantly. "How the cradle of civilization, you two? Still there?"
   "Santana is," replied Lynn. "We've been down south to the hills visiting some of Cal's relatives. Most of them seem to be female."
   "Nothing to do with me," laughed Cal. "One of them's thinking of coming over here. Fed up of going to other people's weddings and all the heavy hints about when she's going to take her turn. Remember Diana, Lynn?"
   "She's the one mad on flying, isn't she?" replied his wife. "And she was in that science fiction film, Hermes."
   "Correct," nodded Cal. "The nurse and part-time film star."
   "We saw that film," said Katuishann. "Who was she?"
   "She was one of the passengers on the shuttle," grinned Cal. "They found themselves with an empty seat and she was handy. She only appears for a couple of minutes. Blink and you've missed her."
   "So we've got another of the Laurence clan invading us, have we?" remarked Sovershend.
   "Nope, a Kilvey," replied Cal. "One of the Springfield Kilveys. We have a mutual uncle who's supposed to be worth about a hundred million lobrons. I think Diana's about fourteenth in line. I'm seventeenth."
   "You'll have to get some of your disreputable maccars to arrange a few assassinations," laughed Sovershend. "And what does Ferran Intelligence want with me? Or is this a purely social visit?"
   Katuishann frowned at Cal. "Are you really a spy? Or is it just Dev being Dev?"
   "Not particularly," laughed Cal.
   "He says he works for an airline that no one's ever heard of," remarked Sovershend.
   "We both do," explained Cal, giving his wife an affectionate squeeze. "And part of our job is keeping an eye on the competition to see what they come up with. But certain of my so-called friends like to think I'm a spy to make them glamorous by association."
   He chose not to mention that he was indeed a part-time agent for the Ferran Overseas Intelligence Agency. Part of the strength of his cover lay in the fact that so many people called him a spy that logic demanded that he could be nothing other than an ordinary citizen.
   "Just don't tell him anything, Tish," warned Sovershend.
   "I dropped in partly to see if you knew anything about what happened across the Straits," insisted Gal. "The travel business doesn't like waves of that magnitude. And I heard a whisper that you importers are involved somehow. So here we are, ears agog."
   "He was also muttering something about spoiling your evening, Dev," added Lynn. Her Norlish accent had a distinct South-Ferron shading. Cal's accent was very much that of a holovision detective from the streets of Yortan, the capital.
   "I suppose I could always spoil his evening by keeping my trap shut," decided Sovershend.
   "We also brought something to help the party along," Cal added, producing a bottle of marivodka from a flight bag and dumping it on the table, beside the wine bottle. Then he nodded towards a holographic projection of a burning castle. "Well?"
   "Let's just say someone isn't the innocent victim he appears to be," said Sovershend guardedly. "He had it coming to him."
   "If you don't want to talk in front of witnesses, we can always go into the kitchen," Cal suggested.
   "Oh, no!" said Katuishann firmly, clinging to Sovershend's arm. "If you can tell a Ferran spy, you can tell me too."
   "I agree," Lynn chipped in. "I want to hear it first-hand."
   "Well, I heard it was CHASM," surrendered Sovershend. "That's a sort of secret society over here. They call it a church as a sort of tax dodge, but their real interests are assessing the potential of the human mind and having a good time. They're behind a lot of surveys of psionic potential. Trying to spot telekinetics, and so on..."
   "Yes, they've got gangs of them like that where Cal comes from," Lynn remarked.
   As yet another showing of the Duke of Atmain's personal tragedy began on the holovision set, Devrel Sovershend launched into a web of fact interwoven with conjecture and sheer invention.

72. Afterwards

The Duke of Atmain's castle burned through the night. Over five thousand bodies were recovered from the wreckage, a mere handful of them the fallen of the defenders. The Belldan authorities decided not to take the time and trouble to identify the dead of the invading army. Live NeoKirlans were a curse, dead ones a costly nuisance. A plan to use Cavenne's Refuse Reclamation Centre as a crematorium came to nothing when a massive explosion destroyed the incinerator plant half an hour after the conclusion of the battle.
   Two men were arrested at Morency as they were about to board a train for Camerland. They remained silent when questioned but they were identified as members of the PSF by the Fingerprint Section of the Camerlish Civilian Security Police. There were more explosions at Reclamation Centres at Virren, Ilseux and Valgarne. No arrests followed these outrages. The perpetrators made their way to the neighbouring department of Brivauche and the coastal town of Trentec. After toasting the success of their operation in real coffee at the town's most popular bar, they boarded a unit of Ambrose of Nottridge's new fleet for their journey of eighty-five miles back to a quiet spot on the south coast of Camerland.
   Having returned from Camerland in haste, the Duke of Atmain and Mrs. Chatelle took up residence on the top floor of the Hotel Atmain, an imposing modern building in the southern quarter of Cavenne. Elsewhere in the city, the management of the Hotel Kirlan met to decide whether to change the name of their establishment. Shocked beyond emotion by the sight of his home being destroyed over and over on the small screen, the Duke listened to a preliminary report from his security executive, puffing mechanically at his pipe. Charles Demirell's uniform was artfully disarrayed and there was a larger than necessary dressing on his right cheek. He was enjoying being the hero of the hour.
   Among the messages of sympathy came one from the Camerlish Refuse Barons. Their chairman called the Duke to tell him that his troubles resembled those being experienced by his colleagues across the Straits. With a hint of a smirk on his large face, Sir Nigel Grantby suggested that all of them were victims of a ruthless gang of international terrorist, who had an interest in halting refuse reclamation.
   The Duke could only agree as Grantby called him ‘Norm' in an excessively friendly fashion and suggested that a bright lad like his security executive ought to be able to tell the Duke why his castle had been attacked and by whom. Grantby concluded his call by hoping that the terrorists had achieved their targets, or that they would have to go into hiding for a long time. Then he suggested that ‘Norm' would be too busy to leave Belldon for some considerable time.
   When the videolink screen had swirled into a mirror after the call, the Duke borrowed Demirell's sidearm. He demolished the offending instrument with a well-aimed burst of explosive shot. Then he borrowed one of his wife's sleeping pills and retired to bed.

Acknowledging messages of sympathy, receiving visits from friends and colleagues and the eternal hoverings of the world's news media kept the Chatelles occupied for several days. The loyal citizens of Atmain could not do enough for their wronged Duke. Their gratitude knew no bounds as holiday hordes flooded into the area, pockets full of money, to view a modern battlefield.
   The Adventure of the Century became firmly woven into the fabric of history by an industry spawned to cash in on public fascination with the hopeless, foolhardy courage of the NeoKirlan. Every age needs its heroes – no matter how misguided. The original Kirlans had sailed from Kraagen as warriors in search of loot. Many of them had settled in new lands to become farmers and traders, and they had died peaceful deaths in average old age. Their modern imitators sought only death, but that fact was never stressed.
   Film companies, publishing houses, magazines – all leapt into the race to be the first to bring the story and the spectacle to a waiting world, to glorify the concept of throwing oneself into a battle which one cannot hope to survive as an alternative to an empty existence. A beach of fiction swamped a few sand-grains of fact.
   NeoKirlan badges, fan magazines, board games, tee-shirts, ice lollies, posters, stickers, helmets, jackets, socks, NeoKirlanburgers, and fizzy, blood-red NeoKirlanade – every cashing-in imaginable flooded onto the market.
   Tourists flocked to Cavenne to stand on the borders of the castle's grounds to see what they could of the battlefield and the rebuilding work, bringing with them reminders of the Big One. Much as he would have liked to, the Duke of Atmain was not allowed to escape the holovision eyes of the world, or those of children wearing NeoKirlan tee-shirts and helmets with brilliant, dancing plumes.
   Charles Demirell received a photograph of a bullet through the post, which prompted him to retire to distant parts with the contents of two secret Camerlish bank accounts. Terry Bleiler took over the role of the Duke's security executive on the strict understanding that he would be deposed by Louise Liston when she had recovered from her wound.
   Neil Pinder found that the sight of white concrete wearing a limestone facing wound him up to a state of unbearable tension. He moved to the grey stone of a conference castle on the River Zinder, near Ostag. Life continued very much as before for the other survivors, but in different living quarters.
   When the initial pressures had ebbed, the Duke of Atmain found himself beginning to enjoy being a celebrity, almost a national hero in his adopted homeland. He learned that appearing on holovision to express carefully rehearsed views could be quite exhilarating. But with the arrogance of fame, and the caution of a guilty conscience, he fought off a plague of writers, all offering to ghost his life story for a very modest share of the profits.
   The rich and famous of Belldan society, elevated beings who had refused previously to have anything to do with a glorified dustman, no matter how far he was removed from actual contact with their cast-offs, flocked to Cavenne to be seen and photographed with the most important man of the moment. Following the instincts of a true politician, the Belldan President joined the parade and, at a magnificent banquet at his summer retreat, he created the Duke of Atmain a Commander of the Order of Belldon as a tribute to a public benefactor and a private contributor to his party's funds.
   But Norman Chatelle's happy smile was forced occasionally when he accepted the respect and adulation due a person of his standing. On the afternoon before his glorious occasion at the president's summer home, he received a message from the Camerlish Refuse Barons. Honour would be satisfied and Demirell's misdeeds excused, he learned, if he dissolved and surrendered his Camerlish empire. The Duke could only agree to the terms on offer and accept that reparations were the price of peace – of an end to a struggle that could no longer bring commercial advantage to either side.
   Thus the war ended, as most do, having touched many lives at great cost, and having achieved very little.

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