Boz & Co – Rise of the Lizard Kings

BOOK IV

Rise of the Lizard Kings

Chapter One

The Little Matter of the Coleyfish Pirates

‘Put a star-shell across her bows.’

As the flare hissed into the North Sea ahead of the erstwhile whale catcher, rust dribbling over matt-black, death’s heads on the funnel, shark’s jaws painted on the prow, it opened up from a 37mm twin barrelled Soviet V-11 AK-AK cannon that was mounted on the foredeck. With a staccato of thunderclaps the sky around the hot-airship above peppered with shell bursts, shrapnel rattled on the hull of the gondola and tore into the skin of the canopy. Ferdy spun the elevator wheel as he banked the dirigible hard to port. Pumps screamed as ballast was forced to the stern, the great hot-air burners roared and the sixteen triple-bladed large diameter propulsion screws whined. The Lady Æthelflæda, almost standing on her tail, powered towards the stratosphere, out of range of the corsair’s gun. The flack would not last long. Most corsairs used reloads for ammunition and a miss-fire or jam was inevitable.

There was crashing and banging from beyond the bridge door as everything not secured took off towards the stern, and a hideous screeching when Ginsbergbear tumbled from his armchair in the rear saloon and landed on Phoebles’ tail.

‘Make black smoke.’ A veil of black oily smoke poured from the funnel to hide their ascent, it poured from seams and joints in the engine-room, it poured from the galley stove.

‘We may have detected a bit of the refurbished system that’s not been thoroughly tested till now, eh?’ Boz blew hard down the gunnery deck voice tube and the whistle was answered with an, ‘Ey ey captain?’

‘Run out the stern chasers and fire when ready.’

During the refit the Lady Æthelflæda had acquired two massive F-Off howitzers in the stern to deter pursuers. The violent recoil, partially absorbed by giant springs, shuddered the gondola’s framework; the gun ports spouted cordite-smoke and flame. The large-bore shells purred towards the pirate vessel and, just as Ginsbergbear struggled onto the command deck, the first one exploded in mid air showering the craft from stem to stern in vivid Day-Glo pink paint.

‘Paint bombs?’ enquired Boz.

‘Well? Suddenly being spray-painted pink can be very demoralising in a macho situation,’ explained the bear. The second shell had clanged, unexploded, onto the deck of the corsair and was ticking. As the crew cautiously approached there came a clockwork whirr and a tink. Something brown and treacly oozed out across the newly pink deck and began to evaporate. The pirates fled. From the dirigible they could be seen scrambling in a panic across the stern, holding their noses, clawing at their eyes and desperately trying to launch the life rafts. The foc’sle gunner threw himself into the sea.

‘Second round will have been a stink bomb then,’ laughed Phoebles triumphantly, as he too arrived on the bridge, still cradling a throbbing tail.

‘Drop down to sea level and prepare to take on survivors,’ instructed Boz.

Much had changed since the early days of the Coleycorsair Wars. The Lady Æthelflæda had recently had a major upgrade. She bristled with assorted weaponry and her eight newly modified, light weight, yet ultra-powerful Stanley Steamer engines drove three twin, contra-rotating propellers each. She was fast and agile. The top half of her canopy had been painted a North Sea slate-grey and below she was a light sky-blue. Ginsbergbear and Phoebles felt they had greatly enhanced the effectiveness of the camouflage by painting waves and an albatross into the dark grey and adding fluffy clouds to the blue underside. The aluminium outer casing of the gondola was streamlined and starkly functional. In the pilot’s seat the once affable dodo appeared drawn, thin beaked, his cold eyes fixed on the distant horizon. Boz sported an eye patch and the empty right arm of his reefer jacket was safety-pinned to his breast.

Phoebles was unimpressed, ‘You might find the controls easier to manage if you stopped mucking about and used both hands – put your jacket on properly,’ he muttered, somewhat scornfully, ‘And if you don’t take that silly eye-patch off you’ll go blind. You don’t look rugged, just daft.’

Boz sighed, ‘This war’s not much fun any more… And that bruised tail is making you insubordinate.’

The Lady Æthelflæda descended and Ferdinand straightened her up to hover a few feet above the swell, midway between the abandoned pirate vessel and its intended victim, a Belgian sidewinder coleyfishtrawler that wallowed and rolled as only a Belgian built trawler can. The entire crew lined the rail in enveloping oilskins and sou’westers and a cheer went up.

“Hoera! U hebt ons opgesiagen.”

“Hourra! Vous nous aves sauvés.”

Ginsbergbear and Phoebles waved to the fisherman whilst Boz turned his field glasses onto the corsair pursuit craft. A bilious green mist rolled along the deck to tumble through the scuppers and drift down wind along the surface of the sea. A little further away orange life rafts bobbed at the mercy of the waves. Gradually the gang became aware of a distant, gnat like whine and Boz spotted two indistinct dots in the sky to the northwest. Ferdy took up the 20×60 binoculars that were housed in a box by the bridge windows. Through them he could make out two gaudily painted Grumman J2F Ducks sporting CSAAF insignia on the wings and tail. Each had twin ring-mounted 50 calibre machine guns to the rear of the cockpit and they had additional machine guns Gaffer taped to the wings. The Corsairs and Reivers utilised prodigious amounts of gaffer tape and controlled by far the largest Gaffer tape factory in the northern counties.

“It’s Les Chats Souterrains,” shouted Ferdy.

“Bugger,” groaned Boz, “Is there no let up?

“Take her up again, Ferdy. Those crates can’t out climb us. And, Phoebles, get the Kronstadt Fleet Air Arm on the radio. We need back up.”

*

There was frantic activity at the Naval airstrip on Hessle foreshore. Within the suite of offices that occupied the upper floor of a concrete blockhouse, beneath the concrete control tower, an operator rushed from the radio shack to the desk of his Comrade-Squadron-Leader. Seconds later an adjutant ran along the corridor, down the stairs and out into a surprisingly sunny Indian Summer to ring urgently on a large brass bell whilst shouting, “Scramble!”

Boiler suited engineers were already removing the protective quilted jackets from the engine cowlings of three Polikarpov I-16 fighters parked expectantly on the tarmac as the Comrade-Pilots pulled sheepskin flying-jackets over their telnyashkas and clasped their parachute harnesses into place. Each clambered over the wing of his aircraft and into the cockpit. There was an irregular chuck, chuck, chuck as the Shvetsov M-63 9-cylinder (900hp) supercharged air-cooled radial engines fired up and soon settled into an even drone. Props twirled faster and faster. The three planes sang in unison, Comrade-Pilots waved, “Chocks away, tovarisch.” Gathering speed in single file down the runway, they lifted, banked and, forming up wing-tip-to-wing-tip, headed out to sea.

*

The radioed call for assistance had also reached Consuella Starcluster at the Cirque des Absurdités in The Land of Green Ginger and she immediately headed for the docks, riding pillion behind Snowdrop on her unicycle and with two of the Kittens of Chaos crammed into the sidecar. Now they were standing on the quayside looking at ninety metres of what could be taken for a gigantic flying boat were it not for the wholly inadequate stubby wings. Its white paint was pealing and the red star on its tail was faded. There were two formidable rows of missile launchers along its back. A Kronstadt Starshina stood beside them holding a large cardboard box.

“The finest ekranoplan ever to take to the air. We bought her on e-bay from a scrap metal dealer in Kaspiysk. He had her deconstructed and shipped flat-pack on an IKEA container vessel bound for Immingham Docks. We’ve followed the instructions to the letter putting her back together, but we’ve got this box of bits left over and some of them look as if they might be important.”

“¿No iba a estar listos para el combate de cualquier momento pronto, entonces?” (It will not to be combat-ready any time soon, then?) sighed Consuella.

“Nyet.”

“Oh, but…” from two very disappointed Kittens, “…we wanna go in the big planey thing!”

“With the rockets!”

The Petty Officer smiled down on the pair as if they were cherubs, in their battered straw boaters, micro skirts and laddered black stockings, “Not today, little ones. For now, she goes nowhere.”

Snowdrop had wandered over to another large cardboard box sitting on the quay close to a stocky cast-iron bollard. From it she had selected three suitable yet random items of an aeronautical nature and was honing her juggling skills.

Consuella looked concerned, “Joost how many ‘beets’ do hyou haav left oveer, Comrade-Starsheenarrr?”

“Er… quite a lot.”

“Hand what exactly does work on thees wonderfool vessel of yoors?”

“It floats.”

*

The Lady Æthelflæda was struggling to gain height. The crew of the Belgian trawler observed the hot-airship preparing for action and disappeared off the deck. Pouring smoke from its funnel the fishing vessel quickly made its best speed away from the area. As the dirigible banked, a young rating, who must have lied about his age, manned the port waist gun and opened fire towards the Chats Souterrains’ Ducks. They were not yet within range, but were closing fast.

Ferdy turned to his comrades; his wide, pale eyes flashed cold resignation and a small muscle on his right temple twitched. “She’s sluggish. That flack must have done more damage than we thought. It’s ruptured a gas cell.”

“Dump the ballast, Phoebles.” Boz spoke quietly but with dark determination,   “Ferdy… just get us above those fighters.”

The Gruman J2Fs came in, broke away left and right, and circled the wallowing dirigible like wolves around an abandoned biryani takeaway.

With the aggressors closing in, Ginsbergbear puffed and wheezed his way up the spiral staircase that climbed through the belly of the airship, eventually reaching an open machine gun turret just aft of the funnel. He clung to the sides for a while, gulping air, back bent and shoulders drooping while his breathing steadied and heartbeat returned to normal. He cocked the four 0.303 Browning machine guns, tested the swivel mount and pressed the throat mic to his larynx.

“Dorsal gunner ready. Nothing to see up here. Wait…” Something was diving out of the sun.

He took aim at the lead aircraft, saw there were three of them, and then recognized the silhouettes. He quickly panned the guns off the target. “The Ratas have arrived. We might be alright after all.”

As the Polikarpovs roared overhead they opened fire towards the corsair fighters with 20mm ShKAS wing mounted cannons. The crimson fuselage of the lead aircraft flashed in the sunlight and as it banked Ginsbergbear could make out a red star outlined in white on the tail and a scarlet winged anchor on a blue rimmed white roundel below the cockpit. All much more flamboyant than was usual for the chromatically conservative Kronstadt sailors who regarded a plain red star against a complementary green ground amply adventurous. Through her gun-sights the pilot of the lead Rata could make out a rear gunner in one of the Ducks speaking urgently to his pilot and then standing up, gilded pickelhaube glinting, waving to the other seaplane and pointing into the sun. Shells exploded around him. The floatplanes veered away, looped and corkscrewed; the Ratas rushed in. Planes waltzed together in ever tightening circles. The ensuing dogfights were short – the Polikarpov Ratas were faster and more manoeuvrable. But once the J2Fs of Les Chats Souterrains broke off, their rear facing machine guns kept the pursuers at bay.

Job done, the red Polikarpov I-16 pealed away to fly over the Lady Æthelflæda, dipping its wings in salute, Wing-Comrade Polly Karpova, open cockpit, her strawberry blonde hair streaming in the wind, giving an OK sign with one raised hand. The remaining sea green Ratas followed the Ducks at a respectful distance. They only turned back when they reached the limit of their range, certain by then that the Ducks were heading for their base on the Tyne.

The dirigible turned to limp for home, leaving the abandoned gunboat and corsairs in the orange life rafts to sort out their own problems. A CPO, his sleeveless summer telnyashka exposing an impressive array of tattoos, appeared on the bridge.

“We have stemmed the leak, tovarisch, but we’ve lost a lot of helium…” The Aethelfleda was a composite airship, with gas bags fore and aft and a hot air chamber amidships. “…We should make it back OK – just.”

Phoebles slumped on the deck, his face blank and no hint of his customary inane smile. Ginsbergbear arrived at the bottom of the spiral staircase. Boz removed his eye patch and gripped the chart table with his one free paw.

“This is not an adventure any more, we just keep going ‘cos there is no alternative. Where will it end? When will it end?” He nodded towards the helmsman, still rigid at his post. “Ferdy is strung so tight something has to snap. He’s running on catnip and Red Bull. We’re making such little headway in this war, it’s just endless attrition.”

“I’m fine,” snapped the pilot.

“No you’re not.” Phoebles, wrinkling his brow, spoke almost in a whisper; “It was all so gentlemanly at the start. There were rules, unwritten rules, but everyone understood them. Somewhere it all changed and we barely noticed. We do what we have to, because we have to win.

“I wonder if we have lost sight of something. We try to prevent these pirate raids without considering what makes the Corsairs tick. We outwit them when we can. But have we stopped trying to understand them? Has anyone thought of making sandwiches? It’s been a long time since second breakfast.”

“Chins up,” said Ginsbergbear, “It’s not two months since we escaped the caverns in Castleton. I’ve written a poem…”

THE SEVERN SEALS

I

Kt – Q3 ch

It is a petty triumph, black plays

The long game.

Black Death tossing pawns into

The fray, pinning, forking.

Mein fahrer hat vom blitz getroffen.

Blitz und Donner, fork

Lightning.

Noir de la mort comme la nuit

Peste Noire and Quixote, silent, still

On the pebble strand.

Sea creatures, Kraken chicks

Whisper, “QxKt.”

A high price to pay

For fish.

II

“Is that you, darling?”

“No, it’s someone else.”

Dog Days’ vindictive caresses, sweating

Over dead Odysseus, drowning

In Leviathan’s aquatic grotto, rotting

Pelagic cargoes.

Beleaguered White King scorns ransom.

III

The bowler hats and brollies, departed after…

High heeled, high hemmed, thrawen thighs (with thwongs attached) typing

Endlessly.   “The copier’s out of ink.”

Had to get a proper job,

Down the Co-Op.

While the brazen Geordie,

Embracing Superman,

“Careful Ducky!” holds:

He who fights monsters should beware

He does not become a monster too.

Gaze long enough into an abyss and

The abyss will gaze back into you.

IV

Moonbeams and blue jeans,

Selkies gambolling off the sandy shore.

Feed me mooncakes and I’ll sing some more.

Boz wondered if he had ever been this depressed before. However, everyone’s mood lightened considerably when the poem ended and the flags and wind socks of the Kronstadt Fleet Air Arm aerodrome at last came into view. And the gang were bordering on cheerful once the Lady Æthelflæda was on her pylon and repair crews were swarming all over her. Larry’s personal runabout was tethered to a neighbouring pylon.

On the tarmac they bumped into Barrymore. She had been tinkering with one of the Porsche engines on Larry’s dirigible and was removing a tiny speck of oil from her bottle-green, crotch length chauffeur’s jacket.

“Hi boys,” she straightened the fur on the longest tortoise-shell legs this side of Paradise, “Larry’s waiting up stairs. He wants to discuss developments. I’ll just hang around down here, see if I can catch one of these delicious sailors.”

Larry had made himself comfortable at the Comrade-Squadron-Leader’s desk in the Comrade-Squadron-Leader’s chair, the Comrade-Squadron-Leader, tapping at his tin leg with a walking stick, was perched on the edge of his adjutant’s desk trying to look only slightly put out, and the adjutant was fetching teas and coffees. Kronstadt Fleet Air Arm Wing- Comrade Polly Karpova, in navy-blue flight suit and sheepskin flying jacket, goggles hung round her neck, was rolling a fag by the window.

Larry started talking before tedious formalities could delay him. He addressed Boz and waved a general indication towards any Kronstadt personnel within range, ‘I’m putting these boys in charge of trawler protection for a bit.’

Polly looked up, ‘boys?’

Larry ignored her, ‘Boz, a spot of R and R for you and your gang whilst The Lady’s in drydock. And we have another piccolo problema. No-one has heard from the Lord Ancaster since they radioed that they had arrived at the Antarctic ice shelf.’

 

Chapter Two

Beryl

A diversion for those breathless readers who are finding the relentless action somewhat exhausting. Cats may wish to skip this chapter.

Beryl Clutterbuck had taxied her Dragon Rapide almost to the gates of the little Arab Legion fort. She was taking coffee with a gathering of Desert Patrol soldiers beneath an awning outside the walls. Their camels grumbled nearby and they chatted irrepressibly, switching without effort into English when Beryl’s Arabic proved inadequate. Shining black Bedouin curls peeped from under their scarlet keffiyahs, rakishly held in place by the cords of the agal. Their flamboyant uniform robes tumbled about them, long white sleeves turned back from the wrists.

Beryl spun round at the sudden sound of giggling, to see four youngsters running gaily by. In the lead were two barefooted lads, their grubby thawbs flapping around their shins. A girl in a cotton frock, with a tiny flower print, and a worn thin cardigan lagged closely behind and was overtaken by a skittering lamb that bleated in time with their laughter. The self-absorbed coterie rounded the corner of the fort and was lost to view.

The Desert Patrol sergeant took Beryl’s tiny cup and refilled it from a traditional brass coffee pot with an unnecessarily prominent beak like spout. The hot liquid was thick, dark and bitter.

“The lad, Abdulla, will be along in a moment. He will take you there.”

Beryl nodded her thanks.

She had barely started to sip the latest serving of coffee when a battered, white Toyota pick-up drew to a halt with a short skid, scattering loose stones. A young, cream coloured camel sat placidly in the back. The wiry youth who clambered down from the cab was unusually dark, with a mass of unkempt black hair and dazzling white teeth. His blue-grey shirt was buttoned at the wrists and up to the neck and tucked into baggy cargo pants. Dusty toes protruded from leather sandals. The sergeant approached him and they spoke for a while, glancing occasionally towards Beryl.   When they came over the lad was grinning, his face in shadow and only those teeth and the whites of his eyes distinguishable against the ebony skin.

“Madam, I will gladly take you to that place. If we might go straight away you will have plenty of time before it gets dark.”

The Toyota sped across the wide, flat wadi floor, twitching off half buried rocks and trailing a long cloud of dust. The blistering heat was sticking Beryl’s sweat drenched bush shirt to her back as she braced herself in the seat next to Abdulla, his expert hands dominating the jerking steering wheel, as he concentrated on keeping to the rough contours of their track. Ahead towered a lonely outcrop of rock, never seemingly any closer for all their speed.

In time, however, they were at the foot of the rock cliff and parked in its shade.

“First I must attend to Zenobia.” Abdulla dropped the tailgate of the truck and set his camel free, but hobbled, to graze on the sparse, coarse vegetation. Then, signalling Beryl to follow, he led her into a deep cleft in the rock. The chasm was barely wider than her shoulders and irregular under foot. In places she could see scratches or drawings on the vertical walls, but they were too weathered to make out.   It was cooler now, deep within the outcrop. After what must have been fifty yards or more the narrow gorge opened out into a grotto enclosing a still, deep pool. On the walls were pictographs – abstract circles, dots and triangles by the entrance, but deeper inside lively oryx, ibex and flocks of wild birds populated the rock and reflected in the water.

“I will go and prepare chai,” said Abdulla. “Be free, and enjoy yourself.”

Alone in a magic space, Beryl untied her laces, put the desert boots to one side and removed a very sweaty pair of socks. She discarded her bush shirt, dropped her knee-length khaki shorts and, unhooking a plain white cotton bra, she dipped a slender foot into the pool. The water was satisfyingly cool. Casting off a delicately lacy pair of Brazilian knickers she sank, naked, into the cistern. The silky water caressed her tanned, dry skin. Floating on her back, weightless, golden hair fanning out around her head, gentle ripples tantalising those intimate areas that had been imprisoned within too much perspiration soaked clothing for too many days, was exquisite. Without moving she studied the wall paintings. Among the desert animals there were cattle too, and a giraffe. When was there ever giraffe in this region? There were also stylised human figures in red-brown ochre. They were depicted floating horizontally in space, matchstick men with exaggerated erect penises. Anonymous and faceless they had extended arms and flexed knees as if they were swimming.

Beryl closed her eyes and allowed her long-tense muscles to relax, stress fleeing from her body as the calming stillness penetrated her being, visualising the brown bodied swimmers silently drifting around her.

She could have lain like this for several hours, or it may have been only minutes; she could not guess. But when she opened her eyes the boy was watching her from the pool’s edge. He was motionless except for the subtle rise and fall of his breast – statuesque, remote. He studied her with a detached curiosity, his eyes betraying no hint of lust. Yet, under his gaze Beryl felt her nipples respond. There was a stirring across the surface of the pool.

“You must come in,” she spoke in his native tongue, “the water is wonderful.”

 

Chapter 3

Antarctica.

The Coldwarspyship Lord Ancaster was holding position off the coast of Antarctica, surrounded by growlers and bergy-bits in a heaving swell of slush. Icebergs as big as a house or the size of a small principality surrounded them – white, ice blue, ultramarine, thrusting pinnacles, towers and cathedral spires skywards. Tall arches perched on tiny rafts of ice, sculpted by wind and sea, drifted by, escarpments stretched out towards the horizon. The trawler inched up to the pack ice, pushing forward till the crunching frozen sea no longer gave way. On deck a shore detail of Kronstadt sailors lined the rail, white parkas over their winter weight telnyashkas, AKS-74s slung, skis at the ready. The expansive ice flow brought to mind the last days of Kronstadt One – Trotsky’s assault across the frozen sea in 1921 and the fall of the fortress to the Red Army – the day that the revolution was finally lost. They began to hum a tune from the film Specnaz, haunting and baleful, whilst a lone tenor sang out lyrics that told of betrayal, lost hopes and exile in Finland, his mournful tones reverberating across the grumbling, crackling ice.

With grey clouds the sky is veiled


Nerves tensed like balalaika strings


Snow falling from morning to night


Frozen time seems an eternity


We are assaulted from all directions


Infantry, machine gun and artillery fire


The Reds are killing us, but some will survive


Once again, we sacrifice ourselves on waves of attack

We are few in number, but we are wearing our stripy t-shirts…

Skipper Harold Entwhistle scanned the shelf from the bridge-house. They were enjoying a welcome break after a succession of squalls. Spring was well on the way and the weather could only improve. Through his 7×50 watch keeping binoculars he could make out the cliffs where ice met the land. Beyond them was New Swabia, mystery and, without doubt, adventure – but not for him. Generations of Entwhistles had found adventure enough on the sea, someone else – these irrepressible Russians – could battle blizzards and Nazis, and who knew what else, down here on the wrong side of the world.

The capstan clanked and derrick groaned as two NK-26 propeller driven sledges were winched onto the frozen sea. The Comrade-Starshina leaned out of the open bridge window and shouted down to his lads below.

“Over the side, boys. Time to get cracking.”

Drivers and Petty Officer machine gunners clambered into the aerosanis whilst the ratings knelt down to attach their skis. The M-11G aircraft engines revved and gunners’ heads popped up behind the snowmobiles’ 7.62mm DT machine guns. The Chief Petty Officer, standing on the aft starboard ski of his lightly armoured sledge raised an arm and waved the group forward. As the sledges picked their way slowly and noisily across the ice, with the shore detail towed behind, it began to snow, flakes whipped into swirling tunnels by the whirling blades. Harold Entwhistle watched the party disappear as the weather closed in.

He rang for Half Astern on the engine room telegraph and spoke to the third hand without looking his way, “We’ll break free from this ice, Billy, and pull back to Stromness on South Georgia for a while, give the Ruskies time to do their thing.”

As they slowly backed up the bergs swirled. Some way off their stern the flows began to heave upwards and the sea churned. Slowly a huge dark grey conning tower rose from the depths, water pouring down its sides. Once at the surface the imposing submersible dwarfed the trawler. It was almost three times their length and the crew of the Ancaster watched as a group of sailors ran along the after deck to man a 14 cm/40 11th Year Type naval gun and target the radio room just aft of their bridge. Several officers appeared on top of the conning tower and their commander raised a megaphone to his mouth.

“Stand your men down, captain, and cut your engines. Touch the radio and we fire. For you, Tommy Atkins, this expedition is over.”

Several semi rigid inflatables detached from the submarine and sped across the narrow stretch of sea towards the trawler. As they approached Harold handed a weighted oilskin package containing the ships papers to his second in command.

“Dump this over the side where those buggers can’t see you, Smurthwait.”

Taking the packet the mate, a rough and ready bruiser with the unlikely and exotic name of Easter Smurthwaite, scuttled out of sight behind the accommodation, tossed it into the sea and watched it sink. He returned to the cluster of trawlermen as a large St Bernard dog padded nonchalantly across the deck to slip unobserved down the foc’sle scuttle. Moments later a heavily armed boarding party swarmed over the rail, formally arrested the crew of the Lord Ancaster and manhandled them firmly into the rubber ducks. A Prize Crew took charge of the trawler and it was underway towards an undeclared destination before Harold and his fellow prisoners had been ferried half way to the submarine. As they came alongside the hard, curving hull smart darkly uniformed matrosen (seamen) efficiently caught painters, made the inflatables fast and reached down to help the hostages in clambering up the side. Others pointed “Schmeisser” MP40 Maschinenpistolen down at the little group. Once on deck and still eyed warily by the armed sailors they were greeted politely by the vessel’s captain. He was tall and amiable with the easy air of a European aristocrat.

“I am Kapitänleutnant Felix Graf von Luckner and you, I believe are Kapitän Harold Entwhistle. Welcome aboard the Seeadler. She is, as I am sure you have observed, an ex-Japanese Sen Toku I-400-class submarine aircraft carrier.”

Harold had observed no such thing. At about 400 feet long with a large tube shaped aircraft hanger amidships and a fortress-like conning tower above and to port of the hanger he had never in his life seen any thing like this vessel. She sported eighty-five feet of compressed-air catapult along the forward deck, triple one-inch anti-aircraft guns around the conning tower, the 5.5-inch naval gun aft of the superstructure and exuded menace. Before he could register anything more about the warship Harold Entwhistle and his crew were escorted below. Billy Tate paused for one more look around him and was jabbed in the ribs with one of the Schmeissers.   Kapitänleutnant von Luckner scowled.

“That will do, Heinrich.”

From the bottom of the ladder they were ushered into the main saloon and from the trawler crew there came a communal gasp. The room was palatial. There were leather chesterfield sofas and armchairs bolted to the floor, a full size snooker table in the middle of the room and, in one corner, a grand piano.

“If you could find your way to giving me your parole and that of your men, Kapitän Entwhistle, we will not need to chain you all in the brig.”

The lads all looked pleadingly at Harold.

“Not much hope of us escaping from a submarine. I expect tunnelling would be impractical. While we are aboard, you have my word we will not try anything.”

There was a joint sigh of relief and his crew having rushed the cocktail bar were soon having a sing along round the grand, where young Tate vamped Ilkley Moor Bar T’at.

“You and I need a chat, Kapitän.” Kapitänleutnant von Luckner leaned in conspiratorially, “Do you drink single malt? I have a particularly fine Talisker Storm in my cabin.”

Von Luckner’s ‘cabin’ was a suite of rooms with a desk, daybed, coffee table and lounge chairs in the sitting room and doors leading off to a bedroom and to a shower/toilet. The captains were facing each other across the coffee table sipping at generous tots of Scotch from heavy cut-glass whisky tumblers. The Kapitänleutnant reluctantly opened the conversation.

“I am afraid I must ask you what you are doing here.”

“Just a fishing trip.”

“And you expect me to believe that? What exactly were you dropping off when we caught you? What are you up to?”

Harold thrust forwards, his nose aggressively close to von Luckner’s face.

“Look matey, I don’t give a toss what you believe. We’ll accept your hospitality, ‘cos we don’t have a choice. But you took my vessel in international waters and that’s piracy in any Yorkshireman’s book. If I say I’m fishing then fishing it is and if you don’t like it you can stick it in your bloody gesteckpfeife and smoke it.”

“International waters?”

“Do I look like I give a fuck?”

Von Luckner was halfway to his feet, red faced, white knuckles clenched round the arms of his chair…

“Blut und eisen, sie übermütig fischer…”

…when he hesitated and, letting out a long sigh, slumped back into his chair.

“Pax, Kapitän, I have to ask these things, it is expected. You are too few and too far from home for any of it to matter. Let us not spoil this fine whisky or miss the rare opportunity for stimulating conversation. Tell me, have you strong views regarding Kirkegard?”

Entwhistle had read little in his life other than the Racing Times and his dad’s hand written diaries entitled Where to Fish When, 1867-1972.

“Bit skittish last season, but she’s steadier now and could hold her own on the flat.”

Von Luckner took a large swig from his glass.

“And this song of your men, explain to me the meaning of Bar T’at.”

 

Chapter 4

At Aunty Stella’s House

Ferdinand Desai was having tea with Strawberry. It was a long time since he had been home and they were out in the garden, even though it was turning a little chilly. In the kitchen they could still hear Aunty Stella preparing cream scones. She seemed to have been at it for hours despite the best efforts of Mouse to lend assistance. The tubby little cat had been mixing the ingredients with a relatively clean paw and her tabby coat was hidden under a fine covering of greyish flour.

The rest was doing Ferdy good – sure, he still had that distracting tick below his left eye, and his stubby wing shook when he tried to handle the large stoneware teapot, but he was a lot better than when he first arrived. For three days all the pent up tension that he had kept suppressed, nurtured to enhance his combat awareness, came out and all but paralysed him. The days had been hell and the nights far worse. Now he was on the mend. He had been recounting some of his reasonably exciting, yet not too lurid Coleywar adventures and was getting some funny looks from his old friend.

“…and now Larry seems to think we’re going to sort out this mess in Antarctica. Do you know how far it is to Antarctica?”

They agreed that they did not.

“Well it’s a long way.”

Ginsbergbear joined them on the patio. He was wearing a loose fitting and stylishly shabby corduroy suit and was lighting a compact vulcanised meerschaum Peterson pipe. Aunty Stella and mouse followed him carrying trays with the first batch of warm scones.

“Are they going to join us?” Aunty Stella nodded towards the slumped figures of Boz and Phoebles, stretched out on recliners by the pool. “Tea’s up, you two.”

There was a stampede for the food and Phoebles had cream all over his nose before the others could get the top off the jam pot.

“Save some for me.” A tall figure slunk from the shadows by the wheelie-bins, the mole-grey fedora shadowing a face hidden behind a Lone Ranger mask and the wide striped zoot-suit instantly recognisable to the assembled company. The yellow MacDuck tartan pashmina scarf was new.

Ginsbergbear was the first to address him. “Slasher McGoogs as I live and breathe, and what brings you to leafy Surrey?”

“You do, your gang and Larry and this whole bloody mess you’ve got yourselves into. Stir things up a bit I says, and you start a war.

“I’ve been up north of the wall, amongst the Reivers, gathering intel. And nothing I’ve heard so far is good.

“Boz, you’re going to have to get hold of Larry and dissuade him from all that Antarctic rubbish. We need to defuse this powder keg in the Autonomous Northern Territories before there’s the biggest bang since Krakatau. And we may have to curb the Kittens of Chaos. They appear to have directed their undoubted if random enthusiasm towards some freelance offensive of their own devising.”

“Me? Why don’t you go and see him?” Boz was not in the mood to be taking orders, “I have to admit though, Blackpool does sound more attractive than some snow swept continent in the middle of the Southern Ocean.”

“Larry and I don’t meet. You can’t exactly be the shadowy antihero one mi nute and lunch with the Acting Prime Minister the next. And it’s not exactly going to be Blackpool, old pal. I want to introduce you to the Gilnockie of Gilnockie. See if we can’t get the Reivers back to cattle thieving, rape and vendetta amongst themselves, on their own patch – and something similar for the Corsairs. There’s a time factor though – rumour has it Les Chats Souterrains are moving a Vril-1 Jäger Class Foo Fighter up there and if any one gang gets their hands on that there’ll be all hell let loose.”

“No pressure then? As usual.” chipped in Ferdy, who was developing a disturbing glint to his eyes, “And the Kittens are raising Cain up there too. Walk in the park.”

“The Kittens,” said McGoogs ominously, “are laying siege to Berwick-upon-Tweed.”

 

 Chapter 5

Sea Dog Bamse

As the Lord Ancaster was hailed from the submarine, Bamse the Norwegian St Bernard, had concealed himself in the foc’sle paint locker and managed to remain undetected.

After two days at sea the Lord Ancaster arrived at a small, ice free whaling harbour in Neuschwabenland and the Acting Kommänder of the prize crew, wishing to demonstrate his seamanship and impress onlookers, steamed his charge at her top speed of ten knots towards the quay. It had been his intention to ring Full Astern and spin the wheel at a precisely judged moment so that the Ancaster turned sharply, lost momentum and drifted alongside the jetty in a single and elegant manoeuvre. Sadly, he was unused to the quirky character of his newfound command, and to the unreliability of the ship’s telegraph. The command Full Astern never reached the engine room, in fact the pretty brass handle of the telegraph came away in his hand and the trawler charged full pelt into the quayside, destroying the wooden jetty, rupturing the bow water tank and scattering paint pots around Bamse’s hidey-hole. Stevedores on the quayside were showered in drinking water, which froze instantly, and a rainbow coloured St Bernard appeared briefly on deck before bounding ashore and disappearing into the shadows.

At the same time as Oberleutnant Wilhelm Cremer was contemplating the fickleness of fate and his suddenly diminished chance of commanding so much as a turd in a piss-pot any time soon, Bamse had slipped into the ratings’ changing rooms. Rubbing in a liberal coating of Swarfega and following up with a hot soapy shower he had managed to remove the worst of the paint. He emerged cautiously from the shower and walked straight into a New Swabian seaman.

“Gott im himmel! Einen Hund. Was machst du hier?”

Bamse ducked back into the shower and pulled the curtain across while the sailor screamed, “Alarm!”

The changing room’s steel watertight door banged and a muscular figure in singlet and shorts, hard blue eyes below a severe blonde crew cut, burst in.

“What’s all this racket?”

“Oberbootsmann, there is a dog in the shower.”

“Do not be ridiculous Herman, there are no dogs on the base. There have been no dogs here since the last sled husky died in 1956. See.”

He threw back the curtain to reveal Bamse, with the expression of a startled owl and holding a towel in front of his body to preserve his modesty.   The petty officer ignored him.

“It would be impossible for a dog to be here without me knowing it. Now report to sick bay and get this hysteria nipped in the bud.”

“But…” Herman twitched his head towards Bamse.

“Now, Matrosengefreiter!”

“Aye aye, Oberbootsmann.” And, switching off the light as they departed, the pair left a stunned Bamse to contemplate his newfound fortune in the dark. There were no dogs in Neuschwabenland. Bamse was a dog. Therefore Bamse could not be at the whaling station. He defied logic and so he did not exist. He was invisible to everyone on the base… well, everyone not on the verge of a nervous breakdown anyway. He headed straight for the canteen, piled high a bowl with as many Bratwurst sausages as it would hold, made himself comfortable at an unoccupied table and tucked in. He was not acknowledged by any of his fellow diners. There was Ampelpudding for desert so Bamse had two generous helpings washed down with a stein of Bockbier. More than adequately nourished, Bamse took a turn round the harbour. The Ancaster was tied up on the quayside, in darkness and apparently deserted. Across the water the old sea dog recognised the auxiliary cruiser Pinguin, which must have docked while he was eating and was moored over on the mole. Originally named the Kandelfels, she still looked like the harmless freighter that she had once been – she was converted into a commercial raider during the winter of 1939/40 in Bremen. He knew that she had two six-cylinder diesel engines delivering 7,000 hp, half a dozen 150 mm L/45 C/13 guns taken from the obsolete battleship Schlesien and discretely concealed behind her bulwarks along with a 75 mm cannon, one twin 37 mm and four 20 mm anti-aircraft guns, and two single 53.3 cm torpedo tubes. She could also carry two Heinkel He 114A-2 seaplanes, all of which made her a lot more formidable than she appeared and the most successful of the Axis raiders. What was she doing down here? No one had seen anything of her for decades and she had been presumed lost at sea. No matter, Bamse left off musing and turned to locate the radio transmitting station. Whilst the Oberfunkmeister was at supper he would have to get a message off to Larry back in London.

 

Chapter 6

Aqaba

 Beryl was naked under her voluminous indigo thobe, reclining on rugs and cushions within a traditional Bedouin black tent. An embroidered and tasselled wool camel bag nearby was playing As Time Goes By. She concentrated, hard. Phone. That’s my iPhone. I’m… I’ve got a phone call! Beryl dived for the bag, rummaged about in it and found the phone just as it stopped ringing. She was cursing fluently in Arabic, English and Swahili when it rang again. This time she answered.

“Agent 160? Can we talk freely?”

“We can,” she replied, “The boy is with his sheep.”

“Get down to Aqaba as quickly as you can,” it was Larry’s factotum, Barrymore, on the other end of the phone, “There will be a Loening Air Yacht down at the waterfront and Dark Flo will be joining you. She has all the details for your mission.”

“OK…” Beryl paused as if to say more.

“That’s not a problem is it?”

“Not a problem. I’ll be there sometime this afternoon.”

Beryl felt a weight lifted from her mind – action at last, and an excuse to move on. She really had enjoyed her time with Abdulla, but his affair with the blond English woman was doing much too much for his confidence after a short lifetime with nothing but his goats and camels. Before long he would have become a pain. It was better this way. Quickly changing into her flying kit and throwing a few necessaries into a threadbare carpetbag she wrote a hasty note of thanks and regret and left it on the brass tray under a coffee pot. It was but a short stroll to her Dragon Rapide. Beryl checked the fuel gauge, waved goodbye to the cluster of Bedouin children that had gathered around and, buckling her flying-helmet under her chin, taxied to the makeshift landing strip. She was airborne when she noticed Abdulla’s Toyota kicking up dust as it sped towards the camp. She banked the Rapide, flew low over his pick-up truck and dipped the wings in salute before heading south.

Beryl found the seaplane swinging gently at its buoy as the tide turned. She selected a café on the Aqaba Corniche, sat at an outside table, ordered a strong Turkish coffee and the fill of a shisha pipe. She would wait for Dark Flo to contact her, and pulling a well-thumbed Penguin paperback copy of Freya Stark’s Valleys of the Assassins from her canvas knapsack, she settled back in the uncomfortable plastic chair.

She had reread a chapter and a half and was beginning to drift when the winsome figure of Dark Flo appeared in front of her. The thick black hair was plaited into a single pigtail down her back and a thin, sleeveless frock exposed pale bare arms and legs, blushed by a hint of sun-burn and glistening damp in the heat of the early afternoon. Flo sat, took a long drag on the mouthpiece of Beryl’s hookah and waved to a waiter.

“A glass of mint tea, if you would be so kind.”

“So…” Beryl beamed and leaned in close to her willowy companion, “What have you got us into this time?”

“We’re going to Antarctica. Well I am. You’re to overfly New Swabia and I will bail out over some whaling station or other. Larry’s heard from Bamse at last and it appears they’ve made a right hash of things. So good old Ninja Flo gets to don a wingsuit and do her Wonder Woman act.

“Larry reckons it’ll be easier to find places on the way to set down and refuel with the amphibian than your Dominie. So he’s lumbered us with that crate over there.”

“Great.” The pair giggled together.

They took a room in a family run, backstreet hotel for the night. Throughout the nocturnal hours there was no let up in the clamour from the street and the fragrant air hung hot and humid. They did not sleep much. Next morning they had a breakfast of croissants and grilled halloumi cheese before setting off for the waterfront. After some hard bargaining Beryl secured the services of a local felucca skipper and they were ferried out to the air yacht. Flo produced the keys to the Loening and balanced on the felucca’s thwart as she reached for the door. Beryl passed up their luggage and they clambered, without much dignity, into the seaplane. Giving them an appreciative leer, the boat skipper sheeted in the large lateen sail on his skiff and veered away.

Within the fuselage most of passenger seats had been ripped out to make room for additional fuel tanks. An Elsan ‘Bristol’ chemical toilet and pipe cots had also been installed so that the duo would not have to go in search of accommodation every time they stopped for the night.

“How far is Antarctica? This is going to be real fun, I don’t think,” muttered Dark Flo as Beryl climbed to the open cockpit to begin flight checks.

“Don’t know. Check the charts. And can you make sure they cover the entire journey? I don’t want to be trying to track down a copy of ‘Admiralty 4075’ in some one horse South American back water.”

 

Chapter 7

Andromeda Geräte

“All crew to their stations. Prepare to surface.” The distorted voice of Felix von Luckner crackled over the ship’s Tannoy system.

“Kapitän Entwhistle, if you would like to join me at the periscope.”

Minutes later Harold appeared on the Command Deck accompanied by his Chief Engineer, Albert Fleck, short and skeletal in a boiler suit that had once been white, hob-nail boots, a dish-rag round his neck and a woollen tea-cosy on his head.

“Ah Kapitän, and you have brought your stoker. Would you like to take a look at our destination?” Von Luckner ushered the trawlermen to the periscope and Harold peered into the eyepiece. He could see ice and snow – pretty much like all the ice and snow they had been surrounded by since coming south. Dead ahead was a low black rectangular orifice sheltered beneath an overhang in the cliff.

“Can I see too?” asked Albert. As he surveyed the desolate scene a lonely wandering albatross waddled over to the funny stick protruding through a hole in the lightly frozen ocean and blocked out the view. Distorted goggle eyes peered in at the startled artificer.

“What the f… …is that?

“The entrance to our U-Boat pens,” replied the Kapitänleutnant, blissfully unaware of the bird’s antics. He turned to his ensign, “Take her up.”

“Bow planes ten degrees, rudder amidships, blow all tanks.”

The Seeadler surfaced, breaking through the thin layer of barely formed ice and startling the inquisitive seabird into panicked flight.

A queue of ship’s officers formed at the bottom of the conning tower ladder whilst the Oberfähnrich climbed up to open the hatch. Von Luckner took two paces back and, with a hand pressed against Harold’s chest, indicated that the trawlermen should do the same. Seawater showered through the hatchway onto the up-turned faces below.

“This happens every time. They never learn.”

The submersible’s deck officers were clustered outside on top of the conning tower when Harold and Albert joined them and the Seeadler was gliding silently towards the cavernous entrance. As they entered the submarine pens the crew lined the deck to take a salute from stevedores gathered on the nearest floating quay; a small brass band with a glockenspiel played ‘Edelweiss’. While Seeadler navigated alongside and was made fast Bert Fleck observed a Cuban, Foxtrot Class submarine and a Type VIIC/41 Flak U-Boat on neighbouring pontoons. The sleek Cuban vessel’s cargo of crates and steel drums was unloaded and stacked on shore. She was taking on the last of the supplies for her return journey and appeared to be making ready to sail.

“Stop engines. Prepare to disembark.” Once the trawlermen had been rounded up Easter joined Harry and Albert with von Luckner, Billy Tate remained with the crew who were quickly escorted ashore.

“Your men will be treated with respect, Kapitän. You may check on their wellbeing in a little while. But I wish to be with you when you first set eyes on our establishment here.” The Kapitänleutnant indicated the gangway. They proceeded along the pontoon to a short ramp and then ascended a long escalator. Globe lamps on patinated bronze mounts lit their way, the architecture was modernist with a severely Teutonic twist.

They emerged into a spacious concourse. Half-moon skylights, pierced through the sea-green ceiling high above, cast shafts of daylight into the scene below, the polished Carrera floor shone like water, the walls glowed with warm beige marble cladding. A mahogany cased clock dominated the far end of the hall and dwarfed figures scurried purposefully wherever the Yorkshiremen looked. Just ahead a sulky line of king penguins shuffled past, heads down and shoulders hunched.   Intermittently each in turn would squawk a mumbled complaint. Nearby stood a group of self absorbed men in tall orange hats, with faces of wrinkled, walnut leather; their saffron robes all but hidden by too large, wrap around yak-skin coats, secured at the waist by string.

“Lizard men?” enquired Harold Entwhistle of his host.

“None of us will ever meet the Merovingian Lizard Kings, my friend. That is not their way. These men of the Himalayas are envoys.

“Let me show you to your quarters, and on the way I will point out the officers’ mess.   I will meet you back there in…   Shall we say one hour?”

The officers’ mess was done out with a great deal of chrome and had the feel of an outsized American diner. Harold, Easter and Albert were sat at a cramped Formica table and by the time they were joined by Kapitänleutnant Felix Graf von Luckner had given a food order to a well-rounded fraulein in a short blue gingham dress and dinky, matching forage cap. Albert removed his tea cosy, stuffed it in a pocket and ran his fingers through his greasy hair. The waitress appeared with three All Day Breakfasts.

“Good, you have ordered. I will have an Americano, two shots of espresso, not too much water… and a small piece of your excellent schwarzwälder kirschtorte, if I may, my dear.”

Easter scowled at his surroundings, “All seems very clean – for a secret Nazi UFO base. Where’s the Storm Troopers.”

Felix sighed, “To business then. First I must explain to you our situation, we will postpone the small talk, pleasant as that would be, till later.

“There were never many Nazis here; our original expedition was, after all, a scientific survey. Those first comers were not intending to become colonists. There were not many women on the original expedition either but somehow, three generations later, we are still here. Our ancestors established a small base on this spot, claimed the land for the Greater Germany, began surveying the area and then made a discovery that changed everything. You had better come with me and I will show you… The secret you have come to uncover… The reason you can never leave.”

“Never… What?” Albert shot to his feet, banging his knees on the table, which was, fortunately, securely bolted to the floor.

Easter joined in with, “Now look here, captain…”

“Please. Just come with me. We can discuss your future circumstances later.”

The Yorkshire trio were still protesting vehemently as they crossed the concourse to one of a number of departure gates. Four of the mysterious, saffron clad orientals formed up silently behind them. A discoloured sign in a Gebrochene Schrift black letter typeface indicated AG Gate23 and below it an attendant, inspecting von Luckner’s pass, nodded them through. They entered a tube-like chamber lined with benches and settled down together whilst the mute envoys sat nearby, yet pointedly apart from the sailors. The doors slid shut with a whoosh, there was a sharp Plop, a hiss and a sensation of rapid acceleration.

“We are travelling in a pneumatic tube subway. First proposed, I believe, by your excellent Herr Brunel, though it has taken German vorsprung durch technik to make it work.”

“Not Isambard, for once, George Medhurst, a Kentishman,” muttered Bert Fleck, “but I bet he half inched the idea off a Yorkshireman.”

The travellers were contemplating the engineer’s observation as their transport stopped with an uncomfortable suddenness and the doors slid open. Otto stood back to let the Himalayan envoy disembark first, then he and the trawlermen followed along a gently downward sloping ice tunnel. At its end the oldest and shortest emissary, with the tallest hat, approached a small glowing tablet, placed his right palm upon it and a door swung open. The four monk-like beings entered first, followed reluctantly by Easter and Albert Fleck. Harold and the Kapitänleutnant brought up the rear. They found themselves inside a bare reception area. The curved outer walls were comprised of an alloy that Harold could not identify. There was no corrosion or decay, though there were signs of wear and an impression of great age. The inner bulkheads and floors were transparent and, disconcertingly, they could see down through several floors beneath their feet. In the room below were parked two foo fighters under plastic sheeting.

“Schoonfryder,” whispered von Luckner, “but there are many different types of what you would call UFO in neighbouring bays.”

“Great,” said Albert, who was pressed against the only wall that looked solid and was very deliberately not looking down.

The diminutive monk turned to address the company, “Discovering this the great grandfather of young Felix was. Lying here undisturbed for many millennia it had been. Under the ice. A secret it was, and must remain. The Andromeda Machine. Within a UFO mother ship you are.”

 

Chapter 8

Berwick-under-Siege

Under Consuella’s guidance the Kittens of Chaos assumed responsibility for reconstruction of the second hand Lun Class ekranoplan that they had seen in the docks. Refurbishing the eight Kuznetsov NK-87 turbojet engines proved way beyond the enthusiastic amateurs’ abilities, so they were removed by a particularly diminutive Kitten in possession of a welder’s mask and thermal lance. A local marine engineering firm was engaged to install the largest Bolinder single cylinder hot-bulb diesel to be found on eBay. Eight foot of twelve inch bore exhaust pipe protruded from the top of the fuselage, topped with a hinged cap that flicked up and clacked every time the piston expelled exhaust gasses. It blew blue-grey smoke rings with a reverberating Donk-Donk-Donk.

Rectangular holes had been cut (by the same enthusiastic Kitten) into the winglets in order to accommodate independently geared paddle wheels enclosed within ornate paddle boxes that had been put together during several of the Kittens’ Rehabilitation Carpentry Classes. The interior had been done out in Boudoir Red plush with a variety of chaise-longues and bean bags, a row of performance poles ranged down the middle of the cabin. Externally, in an attempt to avoid inevitable disharmony, each Kitten had been given a section of the vessel to paint. The result was a riotous mishmash of hues and styles, from painstakingly intricate art nouveau swirls to Jackson Pollock drips and sploshes. n unflattering portrait of an enraged Cthulhu decorated the nose of the plane and Consuella Starcluster had managed to get the colours of her venerated Spanish Republic striped onto the tail. Any possibility that the strange craft could achieve the velocity necessary for ground-effect flight was beyond expectation. She had become a somewhat unwieldy boat.

Armed with four ZU-23-2 “Sergey” 23mm twin-barrelled anti-aircraft autocannon, she was well defended, but without missiles the six fixed-elevation SS-N-22 Sunburn missile launchers, whilst looking impressive, were redundant. Not wanting to waste them, or give the Kitten with the thermal lance an excuse for more destruction, Consuella had them transformed into cannons of the type familiar to fans of Rossa “Zazel” Richter, The Human Cannonball. Powerful springs required teams of Kronstadt sailors with block and tackle to tension them and they would be able to project Durex water bombs, potatoes, grape shot made from real grapes, or even Kamikaze ninjas should any be found, high above the defensive walls of towns like Berwick.

“Is the paint dry yet? Can we go now? ‘Cos we is ready.”

Consuella looked down at a tiny fur ball under a tricorn hat, festooned with bandoleers of assorted ammunition and dwarfed by a Spas combat shotgun. Behind her ranged her compatriots in an imaginative variety of leather outfits (mostly highly inappropriate), harem costumes, saucy nurses and super heroes. She could see at least two Xenas, three Tank Girls and a Bo Peep. Their arsenal was infinitely varied and terrifyingly lethal.

Donk… Donk… Donk-Donk-Donk-Donk.

“Well, eet does sound as eef the Krronstadt sailorrs have herr rready foorr thee off. Come along, girrls. Get yourrselves aboarrd.”

There followed an unruly rush accompanied by much squealing.

“Señora Starcluster, can we give it a name – a proper name like Buenaventura’s Revenge?”

“Destroyer of Worlds!” squeaked the tricorn hat.

“I theenk that weell suit admirrrably, Fifi-Belle; thee Autonomous Battle Crrraft Destroyer of Worlds eet ees. Now, let’s get going. A lust foorrr carrrnage stirrrs weetheen my brrreast.”

Two steam tugs assisted the ABC Destroyer of Worlds through the lock gates and into the river Humber. She lumbered out past Spurn Point to face the North Sea swell, rolling, pitching and yawing at an agonising snails pace towards the northern horizon.   Waves broke over the bows and washed past the cockpit windows. Windscreen wipers strained to keep the pilot’s view clear of spume, and failed. Many of the Kittens fell untypically silent, whilst others puked noisily into buckets, bowls or flower vases.

“Will this typhoon never end?” barfed Trixie de Montparnasse to the Tovarishch-Matros who was valiantly swabbing down the slippery and malodorous cabin.

“I fear little one, that we are experiencing unusually calm weather. If our good luck continues we shall reach our destination before the winter storms set in.”

“Aaaaugh!” she replied, clutching her zinc pail to her bosom like a slumbering lover.

For two weeks they wallowed up the east coast. Seagulls stood in a line along the roof of the fuselage watching puffins paddle past and a family of grey seals basked on the starboard winglet. Barnacles colonised the underside of the hull. Then, one fine, crisp dawn they found themselves in the Tweed estuary, beneath the towering ramparts of the Berwick upon Tweed city walls. They could discern no flag of surrender at the signal mast so with a call to arms, silent efficiency from the Kronstadt crew and excited pandemonium on the part of the Kittens of Chaos, the bombardment began.

Throughout the day the barrage was merciless; as night fell it became spectacular. Tracer streamed across the night sky from the 23mm water-cooled AZP-23 cannons. A gaunt pyrotechnical officer, with wire rimmed glasses and fewer fingers than normal, on loan from the Snake Pass Zapatistas, had joined before departure with boxes of Liuyang Thunder Dragon Fireworks Co Ltd Chinese fireworks, obtained at cut price in Hamleys’ summer sale. He skillfully mixed crossettes and mines, fish, Catherine wheels and Bengal Fire with the fruit and veg.

“Ooooooooooooh!”

“Aaaaaaaaaaaaah!”

The Kittens of Chaos, emphatically banned from the powder room, were lined up on the Destroyer of Worlds’ winglets to witness the assault. But the pirate citadel did not fall.

On the second day a small inflatable with a Comrade-Starshina and two of the less irresponsible Kittens was dispatched to the shore to procure mercenaries. There was no let up in the assault on Berwick. To the joy of the Kittens of Chaos, Kronstadt sailors, stripped to the waist and drenched in sweat, toiled at the ropes.

“Two, six, heave! …Load! …Fire! …Two, six, heave!”

The shore detail was seen to return after several hours.

“There are no ninjas for hire. Not kamikaze ones. Not even in the pubs, after we’d bought them several pints, and us doing our wiggly dance. What are we going to do? That mob in Berwick is very resilient.”

“Hwell, they arrre corrrsairrrs and buccaneerrrs, dearrr.” Consuella had been giving the matter much of her attention, “We cannot affoord a long siege. We’ve burrrnt theirrr boats, but ourrr ammo ees getting low and prrretty soon they weell come up weeth a plan to counterrr attack.

“Petticoats off girrrls. We weell fashion them into parrrachutes. Hyou arrre all going eentoo action.”

Fluffybum pulled back the bolt on her StG 44 assault rifle, “Lock and load!”

“No dearrr.   Hyou weell be exerrrcising yoor uniquely individual skeells to underrrmine barrrbarrrians unused to such subtlety, frrreebooterrrs amongst whom turrrning down the sound on MOTD and shouting Brace yerself! ees rrreegarded as forrreplay.”

And so it was that the Kittens of Chaos, dressed as for a Tarts and Vicars party without any vicars, though there were plenty of nuns in suspenders and fishnets, were packed in pairs into the missile tubes and projected over the walls to parachute into an unsuspecting Berwick.

“Niiiiinjaaaaaah!”

“Geroneeeemoooooooh!”

Next morning the gates of the historic burgh opened and a sheepish group of spiritually broken and severely hung-over councillors emerged to surrender.

 

Chapter 9

Dark Flo

“Kommänder, an aircraft has been spotted flying over the base.”

“Stand the anti-aircraft crews to, but don’t do anything to attract attention. It’s probably just the Yanks doing some stunt to get in the Guinness Book of Records again.”

At last, thought Bamse, this must be Larry’s response to my call for help.

The day after sending out his radio message, not being one to waste time waiting, he had climbed onto the plateau above and behind the whaling station and had marked out a landing area with a large yellow X in the snow. For good measure he had drawn a prominent yellow arrow pointing to the cross and written ‘Over here’ in joined up writing. Each day he had revisited the spot and refreshed the markings. And now help was at hand. The Norwegian sea dog made his way through the back alleys, out of the camp and up to the landing site.

*

Beryl flew the Loening in a wide circle round the New Swabian whaling station, satisfying herself that they had reached the correct destination. She could see the coleyfishtrawler Lord Ancaster in the harbour below. Then she commenced a straight run directly over the harbour, trailing Red-White-and-Blue smoke. Throwing the bi-plane into a series of loops and tight turns she sky-wrote “Hi Folks’ across the heavens.

“Might as well be obvious. They’re bound to have seen us,” Beryl called down to Flo who, was kneeling over the Elsan.

The Loening turned south, heading towards the pole until Beryl was reasonably sure their audience would have lost interest. Then she climbed to ten thousand feet and turned back towards the coast. In the cabin Dark Flo had changed into her new Class A1 16TOG ninja outfit. It was dyed Mountbatten Pink – a Greyish-mauve all but invisible to simian optical sensors. Over it she pulled on an X-Bird 3 wingsuit of mottled blues. Her minimalist katana, devoid of decoration, and her Fukiya blow pipe were across her back, daisho and feather duster tucked in her waistband, and she carried a haversack filled with assorted Shuriken throwing stars, darts for the blowpipe, her war fan, and Happo eggs filled with Metsubushi blinding powder.

“Ready to go, Flo?”

“All set.   Keep her steady.”

Flo clambered out onto the wing, there was a loud crack as her wing suit stretched out in the slipstream, and without a word of farewell, she was gone. As the Loening continued northwards Flo swooped over the polar terrain, a tiny blue dart invisible from below. Her speed sucked the breath out of her and an icy wind pressed her goggles into her face. Looping above the barren land she took stock of her surroundings, spotted a line of despondent emperor penguins trudging inland and then noted a group of men – sailors, judging by their visorless caps – a few miles from the whaling station, proceeding in an open, skirmish formation. Back tracking, Flo identified Bamse’s fresh yellow X and dove towards the landing area, deploying her chute at the last possible moment and ploughing into the snow with a thud. She quickly wound in the parachute, unzipped her wing suit and buried the ensemble.   For good measure she kicked clean snow over the landing markers. When she looked up Bamse was strolling across the snowfield towards her. Being a dog, he could just make her out despite the camouflage pink. Canine rods and cones differ significantly from those of monkey descendants and are less likely to be confused by weird colours.

“Let’s get under cover and out of the cold. I’ve built a bit of an igloo back there amongst the drifts. It’s fairly cosy.” He had also brought a thermos of builders’ tea and some pickled cabbage sandwiches.

The igloo was compact, inconspicuous, beautifully crafted, a handy bolthole and sufficiently warm for Flo to feel the need to remove much of her ninja kit. While they drank their tea, Bamse launched into his report.

“We got the shore detail away before we were captured so I don’t think anyone knows they are here. The Lord Ancaster’s down in the harbour, but a bloody big sub took Harold and the crew off somewhere. This whaling station is just an outpost – from what I’ve gleaned in my time here the main operation’s elsewhere.   And they all think it’s something special”

“I believe I saw your Russians down the coast,” said Flo, “I wonder if the New Swabians have a submarine base over that way. We need to locate the rest of the crew and find out what’s going on. Whatever it is it sounds every bit as big as Larry reckons.

“Don’t suppose we could manage the trawler on our own so it looks like we’re on foot for now. Best save the sandwiches in case we need them later. Let’s go and explore.”

 

Chapter 10

The APD Airship of State

Wow man, like…

That Larry, he’s the man. That’s some pad he’s got. And we talked… and drank… and smoked… and drank… and ate… Those mooncakes… out of this world. Some quality catip in the mix. Bet Barrymore made them. Not much she can’t get hold of.

Sky. I can see the sky. Sky’s all around?   Wow!

[Ginsbergbear wakes, or ‘comes down’ as some would say, on the upper observation deck of the Airship of State, beneath a geodetic Plexiglas observation dome. We will discover why he is there before too long.]

Woah! Sky up ahead. Sky up above. And fluffy clouds… And birds. I like birds. But what’s that behind me? Behind me there’s… funnels. Big bronze smoking smokestack funnels And this is? A spiral staircase… that goes… Wayhay! Down and… down and… down and…

Round and… round and… round and… round and…

The gang were gathered in The Airship of State’s sumptuous lounge. Boz, Slasher and Phoebles were huddled in a circle of light-weight armchairs discussing McGoogs’ plan, Ferdinand was studying the Scotland double page spread in The New Pictorial Atlas of the World, Odhams Press Ltd., 1926 Edition, and Barrymore was doing something mildly erotic with a cocktail shaker whilst chatting to Wing-Comrade Polly Karpova. Polly had been overseeing the tethering of her crimson warbird within the dirigible’s midships aircraft hangar, before coming forward and joining the others.

“Woah-haaay!” There was a protracted rumbling bumping sound and a bear rolled out from the bottom of a spiral staircase to halt with a thud against the leg of a coffee table.

“Mr Bear, how good of you to join us.” Barrymore and Ms Karpova advanced sinuously upon Ginsbergbear, the contents of their uniforms animating the coarse fabric like eels in a flour-sack. Barrymore proffered a glass containing a raw egg, Worcester sauce, Tabasco, vinegar, and a generous measure of Balkan vodka. “This will pep you up.”

Ginsbergbear took the glass and drank the contents without looking. His eyes opened wide, then opened wider. “Ay carajo! That smarts – what is it, distilled aviation fuel?”

Barrymore smiled and patted his shaggy head. Polly sashayed over to the others and collapsed into a vacant Lloyd Loom armchair next to Phoebles. She swung her army booted feet onto the intricately inlaid rosewood coffee table, flashing bare legs and thighs smooth as a barrister, taut as banjo strings. She removed her officer’s cap and dropped it on the deck, copper-red hair cascading about her shoulders. As she lounged back her jacket fell open to reveal a body hugging, telnyashka-striped, thermal teddy. Suddenly the temperature in the cabin felt uncomfortably warm and sweat began to form on Bozzy’s brow.

“So gentlemen,” she purred, “What have you in store for us?”

Ferdy joined them, still holding on to his atlas; his dodo cool untouched by the provocative antics of the young air ace, “We’re going north from Carlisle, following the A7 deep into Reiver territory. Larry has lent us the Airship of State in the hope that it will impress the natives. We are wholly and deliberately unarmed so let’s hope he is right.”

The SL102 Airship of State was Britain’s most impressive dirigible, 978 feet long, with a polished aluminium skinned canopy embellished with bronze tracery and powered by four 1200 horse power in-line Stanley Steamer aero-engines with a funnel each.

“Our destination is Gilnockie Tower, ancestral seat of the Gilnockie of Gilnockie. He is nominally the Reiver Head Honcho and has agreed to meet us to discuss an acceptable way out of the current impasse. That’s if The Kittens haven’t already set the Lowlands ablaze.”

Ferdy paused as Polly took a catnip roll-up from the tin that Phoebles was offering round. She struck a Swan Vesta on the hobnailed sole of her boot and set light to the end of the spliff.

“And I don’t get to shoot anyone?”

“Not unless the whole exercise turns to cold custard,” interjected Slasher McGoogs. “But if we find ourselves up to our bum holes in angry crocodiles you’re the only hope we’ve got.”

 

Chapter 11

A History Lesson

Within the entrance chamber of the Andromeda Machine the Merovingian Lizard Kings’ diminutive ambassador was in full flow and warming to his subject.

“Back then the grandparents of these people here were investigating a magnetic anomaly on the plateau above and mapped out a shape beneath the ice.   Huge it was, and not of a natural form. Tunnelling down they were, until they reached the outer hull of the structure within which you stand. Their proximity triggered a response from the Andromeda Geräte. It sent a distress message.

“Received the message was, by the Lizard Lords. Tell you I cannot, of what the Merovingian Lizard Kings already knew regarding the Mother Ship. But tell you I can, that there is little that the Lizard Kings do not know. One with The Chaos they are, and The Chaos is aware.

“Instantly dispatched was I, with my companions, to contain the situation. Neuschwabenland was isolated and the expedition to disappear was made. A busy time in Europe this was and a few missing scientist soon forgotten were. The descendants of those with the foresight to embrace our mission are still here.”

“And those without the foresight?” enquired Easter Smurthwait.

“The Merovingian Lizard Kings see only the bigger picture. Those who did not embrace did not continue. They were of no consequence.

“You earthlings think you are so important. You strive, and it is noble to strive, right that you strive. But you influence nothing. The weirdy web is spun. It warps and quivers, pulled and shaken by dark tides – glistening dewdrop universes dancing on its threads. And you, tiny animated specks on one tiny rock, circling one tiny star, on the outer rim of one tiny constellation, in a cosmos so vast that it is beyond your comprehension think that you can hang on, get noticed? All is The Chaos, everywhere is The Chaos. It carries you along or tosses you aside without reason. It is tumult, and the Lizard Kings embody its deepest nature.”

“You are all servants of evil,” spluttered Albert.

“Servants of the Lizard Lords we are, and the Lizard Lords are The Chaos.   The Chaos is not evil or good, it is what it is.

“Homo Credulous – programmed to see patterns in the turmoil. Everywhere you little men find order and purpose, discover rules and laws and think this is how the universe works, but deluded you are. You marvel at fractals that derived can be from a tiny equation yet are infinitely complex, you puzzle over a π without end. You invent Æther to carry your light and radio waves, postulate Dark Fluff in the vacuum of space to make a random universe conform to your sums.”

Harold was not convinced that he did any of these things; he had not really grasped algebra at school. He could find a shoal of coleyfish in the vast Arctic ocean and navigate his aging tin tub through mountainous seas that should swallow the 500 ton sidewinder whole, but maths…

“Wanting it all to make sense you are. But it does not. Not your kind of sense, anyway.”

One of the saffron men coughed and leaning in to the sage’s ear he spoke quietly to him. The old man turned to von Luckner. “You must return to the complex, Kapitänleutnant. Be gone quickly. You are about to be attacked. We will follow directly.”

 

Chapter 12

The Destroyer of Worlds

Flushed, nay ecstatic, with their unprecedented success at the siege of Berwick, and having extracted guarantees of future good conduct from the pirate captains, the Kittens of Chaos reassembled upon their waterborne battle craft and headed back out to sea. The Destroyer of Worlds wallowed south on a mission to reap havoc amongst the Tyne ports. The hours crawled slowly one behind another like zombies queuing for a brain handout at an NHS Autopsy Surplus Store. As autumn turned to winter the weather deteriorated and seas rose. The Kittens retrieved their buckets and retreated to their couches. Tovarishch-Matros Petrichenko readied his mop and pail.

As they passed the citadel of Bamburgh flares went up ashore and signal fires followed them down the coast. Warnings of their progress dogged them every fathom and league till they were pitching some way off the Fiercely Independent Pirate Republic of Craster. Braving the mounting swell a flotilla of sturdy cobles, tiny piratically decorated vessels, churning foam and bucking the waves, swarmed from the fortress harbour intent on surrounding the monstrous ekranoplan. Kittens manned the ZU-23 Sergeys, prepared to sell their honour dearly. Consuella took the helm and began to turn the Destroyer of World towards the oncoming fleet. They had a jolly good ramming coming to them.

“Hold fast, señora,” said the Tovarich-Starshina, putting down his binoculars and turning from the cockpit window, “The lead craft is displaying a flag of truce.”

“Parlé!” came the cry.

The Destroyer of Worlds heaved to and Consuella Starcluster stood by the Starboard paddle box, flanked by two heavily armed Kronstadt seamen, to receive their visitors. The lead coble was approaching the wing stub a little too quickly.

“Gan canny or we’ll dunsh summick,” a sturdy corsair addressed his helmsman from the bow and then called out, “Hoos ya fettling, hinny? Hey ya git the

Kittens aboard? We waad leik te hev a crack wiv t’wi bairns.” He heaved the boat’s painter to one of the Kronstadt crew. Consuella did not move.

“Stay een hyourrr boat. Eef hyou want to talk hyou can shout frrrom therrre.”

“Wi heerd aboot they rumpous in Berwick. There’s a hiring on offer fre they sonsy kiddars ashore heor. Can Ah na come abooard? Hit’s aaful rough oot heor in this wi booat.”

“Hyou’ll do fine as hyou arrre, señor. Speak hyour pieze.”

“Oh bugger! Give ower, y’a kiddin. Ah weel a’s ney huffed… They’s a bit o’ sorta cabaret woerk. T’Alnwick Empire ay putting on a performance o’ Les Miserables on Ice, bun th’entire chorus o’ revolutionary virgins hez gan doon wi chicken pox. Wi wore hoping ter tice yer lasses in te standing in fer a few weeks.”

“I ham not so surre about that, meesterr. I hwould haff to come along too, as chaperrrone.”

“Tha’d be fine, canny lass, the hintend o’ Dobbin hez bin caal’d fre jury duty, so wi’s getten a job fre yee sel tee.”

There were squeals of, “Please, please, miss, miss please, señora,” from the doorway behind Consuella.

“Hokay meesterr, hyou haaf ay deal. Lead the way.”

Thus the bobbing flotilla turned to escort the Destroyer of Worlds into port and yet again the Kittens of Chaos disappear from our tale to pursue adventures of their own.

 

Chapter 13

Ambush

Flo passed her 8×30 field glasses to Bamse, “Do you see the Kronstadt sailors approaching in open order?”

He did. Frosted faces hidden behind goggles and scarves, bodies hunched against the Antarctic weather, their lower limbs engulfed in a haze of windswept snow powder.

“And the New Swabian ski patrol, half way between them and us, hunkered down for an ambush?”

Yes, Bamse saw them too; hidden behind wind carved pinnacles of ice either side of the path that the approaching sailors must take. The Neuschwabenlander Hauptmann, pointing the 9mm parabellum pistol in his right hand skyward, was waiting for the precise moment to signal his troops to open fire.

“We must warn them… but they’re well out of ear shot. If only I’d brought the flare gun.”

“I could try barking very loudly, or a wolf like howl,” suggested Bamse.

He had just coughed to clear his throat and was taking a deep breath in preparation for his record-breaking yowl, when Flo shouted, “What’s that?”

The Hauptmann dropped abruptly to the snow and almost instantaneously an Oberjäger collapsed nearby. Gone, without so much as a ‘Kiss me, Hardy.’ Moments later two loud reports echoed across the landscape.

“That sounded like SVT 40 Tokarev rifles,” said Flo, “The Kronstadt troops have snipers out. Cunning little buggers.”

There was a puff of snow close to one of the ski troopers’ ear and he slowly raised his hands as the delayed crack of the rifle shot rang out again. Cautiously his comrades stood up and followed suit. Soon the Kronstadt Unit had them disarmed and kettled into a submissive huddle, the snipers were trudging in from their hiding places and Flo and Bamse were walking in towards the group whilst waving white hankies.

“Comrades?” enquired the doubly puzzled Starshina; puzzled at the unexpected appearance of a Saint Bernard with a flag of truce and equally bemused by the accompanying, vague, pink shape that he could not quite make out.

“Long story,” said Flo, removing her headgear so that her face suddenly popped into view; not a reassuring sight as it floated in space with a black grease-paint slash across the eyes and Yves Saint Laurent Rouge Pur Couture #101 Violet Singulier defining her lips, “Your support ship and crew is taken. Bamse you know from the voyage down. He’s been sort of spying, I’m a spy too, a proper one, with a code name and everything, but today I’m a one-woman International Rescue, and you’re going to join in and help. I have authorization from Larry and from here on in I am in charge. I should think one of your prisoners would be willing to tell us where we have to go, if you ask nicely. What happened to your transport, by the way?   Bamse said you had snowmobiles.”

“They were rubbish,” said the Comrade-Starshina, “One never made it off the sea ice, threw a con rod. Mine was so noisy the whole continent must have heard us coming. So we detached the machine gun and ditched the aerosled.”

Bereft of their officer and sergeant, it took only a little persuasion for the Ski Troop grunts to co-operate with their captors and provided a detailed description of the location and layout of the Submarine Base. Relieving them of their weapons and skis the Kronstadt shore detail left the New Swabians to make their own way back, their slow progress hampered by the deep snow. Bamse had made a sketch map from their description of the terrain and was prepared to lead the way to their target. The sailors checked their equipment, oiled their weapons and hung bandoliers of ammunition across their chests. A brisk march soon brought them within sight of the sprawling base.

“Bamse and I will go in first and create a diversion. Give us ten minutes and then you bring your men in via the submarine pens. Disable what you can on the way through, spike the guns and booby-trap the subs. Let’s create a bit of mayhem,” said Flo to the Comrade-Starshina.

 

Chapter 14

Gilnockie Tower

I (Phoebles) was the first to spot the Gilnockie Tower on account of I was looking out the bridge windows with the big spyglass.

“Left hand down a bit, the tower is over there,” I says to Ferdy, who is doing the driving. And he gives me a stern look, as if I’s criticising his navigation or summat. I do have very keen eyesight, ’specially when I got the spyglass.   But Ferdy’s being OK too.

Polly sticks her head round the door.

“Are we nearly there yet?”

So I says, “Yup, we’ll be landing within the hour.”

And she says, “In that case I am going to bugger off in my little red plane. If things don’t go to plan you all may need back up later.”

She’s dead good in that thing. It’s a Polikarpov I-16 fighter, red all over with yellow stars and two 7.62mm ShKAS machine guns and two 20mm ShVAK cannons mounted in the wings. And it’s dead manouverable.

She stops off at the officers’ canteen to pick up a pre-ordered packet of Catapano goats cheese and Coln Valley smoked salmon sandwiches and to refill her hip flask with cheap vodka.

“No point using the good stuff,” she says, “in the middle of a dog fight I spill more than I drink.”

“You should get one of those Beerbelly™ WineRack bras for hands free drinking,” suggests the Pusser.

“What’s a bra?” asks Polly.

The best things about the Airship of State are deffo the food. She has chefs instead of cooks and three-Michelin-star gourmet restaurants instead of mess decks and there is all day breakfasts available ALL DAY!

Anyway, back to the story. Polly gets in her plane and starts up the engine and stuff, while the crew are lowering it out of the hangar, unbolting things and hammering and swearing at the release mechanism. Then there is a clunk and the red Rata drops away from beneath the airship. And she is whizzing off towards the horizon doing barrel rolls as she goes.

And I has another look through the spyglass. It’s dead good, made of brass tubes that slide inside each other and when you stretch them out it’s really long and makes things look ever so close even when they’re not. I’m looking at Gilnockie Tower again. It’s grey and stony and has a little flag on top.

The dour, granite, crenulated pile had been sturdily built with defence high on its creator’s agenda. It stood in solitude amidst the wooded hills of the Scottish Marches, bearing the battle scars of centuries of conflict, family feuds, power struggles and border wars.

We approach slowly from down wind and come in over the croquet lawn.   Lots of ghillies (sort of Scotch servants) in greeny-bluey tartan kilts and matching bonnets rush out to catch our mooring lines as we cast them down, and we are dragged and guided over towards the stables, where we are tethered close to the laird’s Silver Ghost.

Once we have all tumbled out onto the gravel drive a window in the tower opens and someone shouts, “Come on in and get yourselves out of the cold,” ‘cos it is quite nippy out. There’s a flight of narrow stone stairs on the outside of the tower, up to a small doorway on the first floor and the door is really heavy, three layers thick of oak planking laid at right angles to each other, which is called axe proof, and lots of iron strapping. Inside, the reception hall is stark stonework, but we are met by a homely little woman in an apron and ushered into what she describes as the library.   The walls are lined with bookshelves and the shelves filled with books. There is a tiny window, a huge inglenook containing a miserably weedy fire and a few stubs of candles scattered about for lighting. Drawn up close to the fireplace is a large leather wing-backed armchair.

“Come and warm yourselves by the fire,” says the chair. Only it’s not the chair talking. A tabby, greying-whiskered face appears round the side and a short, rather portly cat rises to great us. He wears a maroon fez on his head, a crushed-velvet smoking jacket, a dress kilt of the same green and light blue, with a little bit of red, tartan as we saw on the ghillies, bed socks and carpet slippers. His turquoise eyes survey us through wire-rimmed pince-nez.

“I am the Gilnockie of Gilnockie,” and he shakes all our hands, and Ferdinand’s wing stub, vigorously. We grab what seating we can and draw up to the fire. Boz and Slasher have wobbly stools, Ferdy, Barrymore and Ginsbergbear are cosied up on a wooden bench and I found a beanbag that looked really comfy, but it has just swallowed me and I don’t feel very dignified.

“Catriona will be in shortly with porridge and mugs of malt whisky.   No point wasting time, while we wait we can start the negotiations.”

Slasher was the first to speak. “Has there been any follow up to our chat last time I was up this way?”

“Ah well… There have been meetings. The Moss Troopers are Felis Silvestris Grampia, like myself, and will follow their own inclinations regardless of what I suggest. But for the most part the Border Reivers are fed up to the back teeth with your aggressive policing. It is getting in the way of commerce and legitimate cattle thieving. They are willing to sign up to a truce while they see how it pans out. I have also been in touch with the pirate king. Do you know him, Captain Rotskagg Blenkinsopp? He doesn’t have quite the authority his title suggests, but the Corsairs can’t move in the North Sea at the moment without one of your airships turning up, so they’re willing to talk.”

There is a commotion at the door and the lady in the apron, who it turns out, is Catriona, wheezes into the library pushing a rattly old catering trolley. It’s got steaming bowls of thick, dishwater-grey porridge, a huge bottle of Bunnahabhain single malt whisky and a blowtorch. She pours the whisky over the porridge and then flambés it with the torch. There is a scary whump of flame and some of the nearby books catch light. She calmly throws the burning tomes to the floor and stamps them out.

“There’ll be haggis for tea, if the Gillies have managed to bag one, with champit tatties and bashed neeps.”

“Thank you, Catriona, we can barely wait.”

Then we all tuck in to our porridge, which is REALLY salty, not like at home, and I’m not liking it much, but you got to be polite. Conversation is replaced by munching for a while and then Boz pipes up:

“I’ve got an idea. It’s the Tamworth Ranters’ Gala coming up soon, and that’s always good for a laugh. Lets all meet there and after the fun we can have a conference. If you sir…” he addresses The Gilnockie, “ …bring some of your chaps and this pirate king along, we’ll get Larry to join us and we can thrash out a deal.”

“Sounds good to me,” says The Gilnockie of Gilnockie, “Will there be booze?”

“Good Burton ale,” says Ginsbergbear, puffing quietly on his Peterson briar.

“But no weapons,” chips in Barrymore, “and that includes bagpipes.”

“What about Les Chats Souterrains?” asks Ferdy, “No one’s mentioned them yet.”

“Ah…”

That’s when I become aware of a whirry buzzing noise from outside.

“Last time I heard a sound like that we were running for our lives in Castleton,” says I.

“Oh no,” groans Boz. And we all rush up onto the battlements in time to see the metallic Frisbee glinting pink and mauve in the setting sunlight.

“Is that a real flying saucer?” shouts The Gilnockie.

“Les Chats Souterrains’ foo-fighter,” says Ferdy, “We really don’t need this right now.”

It’s got revolving, flashing lights and flies straight over the croquet lawn level with the battlements, and it is so close we can see the pilot’s face, all white and demented in dark goggles. The flying saucer whizzes right past us, cranks its death ray round and targets The Airship of State. And it doesn’t do the dirigible any good at all. There are a series of explosions and a sort of crumpling metal greeouch noise and our airship transport collapses in on itself in flames.

“Bugger.” Says Slasher McGoogs, looking pointedly at Boz, “Someone’s going to get that stopped out of his pocket money.”

“If they’ve scorched my Roller,” screams The Gilnockie, “I’m going to get really cross.”

The foo fighter is just beginning to train its death ray onto the upper floors of Gilnockie Tower when a stream of bullets is pinging off it’s hull. Out of the majestic, orange disc of the sun races a little crimson Rata, and it will be opening up with its cannons any moment. The saucer recoils and then hurtles off towards the east at an incredible speed, enthusiastically pursued by Polly, shooting as she goes. But there’s more…

“Hens’ teeth!” exclaims Slasher McGoogs as he peers over the parapet and his Mauser Red9 materialises in his right paw.

A wraithlike army is pouring out of the deciduous woods that border the castle grounds. White cats in brass goggles are forming up to surround the tower, their white leather greatcoats conspicuous in the flickering firelight of the ravished airship.  They are carrying scaling ladders and grappling hooks, and as the sun goes down Les Chats Souterrains are pushing their dark goggles up onto their pickelhaubs or down to hang round their neck. There are Moss Troopers in the ranks as well, large, fierce tabbies in dented tin-hats, a motley assortment of mismatched armour, basket hilted broadswords and targes. And there are a few mercenaries from the continental wars too, distinguishable by their flamboyant wide brimmed hats with ostrich feathers, slashed jackets and vicious Tua handit swerdis (That’s the local name for two-handed swords).

“That’s the Overmighty Black Douglas down there,” growls The Gilnockie, “treacherous dog.” Black Douglas glances up and they wave to each other. I can make out the uniforms of Le Régiment Étranger over by the ornamental carp pond where cats are checking the magazines on their PPSh-41 Machineguns. A sea of frowning white faces with beady pink eyes stare up at us.

The Gilnockie’s ghillie-weetfit rushes onto the battlements with his master’s brace of Purdy shot guns. “We’ve shuttered the windows and barricaded the door. Have you seen that mob down below, sir? They don’t look very friendly.” Several ghillies appear with arms full of pikes, halberds and scimitars that had, until minutes ago, decorated the walls of the dining hall, and others have brought the contents of the gun cabinet. Catriona is the last up with a bundle of tweed country jackets to keep out the chill.

I am just starting to feel a bit better about our chances when another bunch of ruffians emerge to form up behind Les Chats. These are huge ginger haired highlanders in kilts and Borderers in scraps of ancient, ill-fitting armour, cuirasses and plackarts, mail, greaves and vambraces. Mostly they are carrying old Sten Guns and assault rifles, Czech Sa vz 58Ps, Enfield Bullpups, Sturmgewehr 44s, Cristobal carbines and stuff I can only guess at; trophies from countless raids and conflicts, passed down from father to son.

“Those were my boys,” says The Gilnockie, “Looks like they’ve sided with the opposition. Sorry. We could be out on a bit of a limb, here.”

But the newcomers aren’t exactly mingling or being welcomed. Les Chats are starting to look uncomfortable and mumbling amongst themselves. And now the cavalry has arrived, in olive green fatigues and balaclavas, hefting AK-47s. I can see a tall white horse ridden by a slim chap in a flamboyant hussar uniform with his face hidden behind a ski mask under his shiny black shako.

That’s, Subcomandante Everyman,” I shout. And Boz looks quizzically at Slasher McGoogs:

“I thought you were Subcommandante Everyman.”

“Not this time old chap,” he replies. Because it is the Snake Pass Zapatistas and there is their black banner with a scull and crossbones, and Snowdrop canters out of the woods on her tachanka with Strawberry manning the Maxim Model 1910.

Les Chats Soutarrains have split into small groups, with their hands in their pockets, staring at their feet or whistling innocently. The scaling ladders have been abandoned on the lawn and are being avoided by their erstwhile owners. The white menace is melting away with the cats of Le Régiment Étranger covering their retreat whilst trying hard to look as if they are not, and the Zapatistas strike up a merry La Cucaracha to encourage the departure.

We are all rushing down stairs and wrenching away the heavy timbers that brace the outside door and are dashing out to meet the Zapatistas. Les Chats Souterrains are all gone, Black Douglass and his Moss Troopers have disappeared and the mercenaries are trying to negotiate a change of paymaster, without much success. Subcomandate Everyman springs down from his charger. He strides over towards us, removing his shako and ski mask. And it is Aunty Stella!

Byline: Phoebles (mostly)

Somewhere north of The Wall

 

Chapter 15

Aunty Stella’s Tale

 “That was a fine haggis supper, Catriona, you excelled yourself. Are we all here, has anyone seen Slasher McGoogs?”

“He took off after Overmighty Black Douglass, through the rhododendrons.”

“OK. So, where shall I begin? Googleberry had been away visiting rich relatives in Derbyshire, again. He’d been gone a few days when I received a text from him:

OMG A STLLA ∑:>{+’ LDY C’S FNCY DRSS BBQ WSHD OUT COS GUSTING WND SWPT FOUNTAIN AX PATIO! SOCIAL BUMMER = LHK 4EAE GOOGLEBERRY XX = PS LDY C SEZ 2 TELL U LES YT CTS MOBILIZING = LLAP ∑:o3 LOL WUSS *

…closely followed by this Basildon Bond gilt edged letter, delivered to my door by a uniformed dispatch rider on a Brough Superior:…Obviously urgent and not much leeway for discussion. I only hoped someone along the way would have the where-and-when missing from Larry’s redacted letter. I scrawled a quick note to the family, Lasagna in the fridge, PE kit in airing cupboard, that sort of thing, and left it on the kitchen table. Then Strawberry and I chucked our tooth brushes, clean knickers and a spare pullover each into overnight bags, fired up the Blue Chevy and hit the high road bound for the Dales.

That Chevy needs some work on it. The engine’s clapped out, the seats are incredibly uncomfortable and it is a long haul from home into the upper reaches of Derbyshire. By the time we made the A6 I had progressed from aching all over to being numb from the neck down. Strawberry announced that he was getting rather stiff too. So we parked up in Cromford and visited the local bookshop for soup and builders’ tea. It has a world-renowned Vegan café on the top floor. Vegan soup is not generally regarded as palatable since the flora and fauna on Vega is invariably slimy and tentacly. This facsimile vegan soup, however, was made with nettles and mushrooms and things picked from local hedgerows and was barely slimy at all, with virtually no tentacles. It was delicious.

‘That girl behind the counter, the one with the rasta hair and sandals that gave us the long stare; she got on the phone to someone soon as she’d served us,’ observed Strawberry.

‘I’ve had a tingly feeling for a while, like we’re being watched,’ I replied, ‘Drink up and we’ll crack on.’

Halfway down the stairs we met a middle-aged lady coming up. We stepped back into a room, labelled SATIRE & SURREALIST FICTION, to allow her to pass and were immediately grabbed from behind. Sacks were pulled over our heads; we were bundled out into the street and into the back of some sort of van.

When the sacks were removed I found that I was sitting on a hard wooden chair, nose to nose with an inquisitive lurcher.

‘Let them be, Spike, they may be friendlies.’

We were in a dimly lit barroom surrounded by ruffians in ski masks. One of them rose after studying my face and took off her balaclava.

‘It’s OK, it really is them. I’ve met them before,’ said Snowdrop. ‘Sorry about the rough treatment, Les Chats are watching the roads north of Matlock and we had to grab you quick. It’s important no-one knows you’re here.’

‘They may know already,’ said Strawberry, ‘the girl in the café rang someone.’

‘She’s one of ours. That was our signal to move in.’

The door burst open and in walked a chattering group of hikers.

‘No coach parties,’ snapped the tall, dishevelled landlord, from behind his row of beer engines.

‘But…’

‘We’re closed. What do you think this is, a pub?’ The hikers left, disappointed.

‘Isn’t it a pub?’ I asked.

‘Yes,’ replied Snowdrop, ‘but not always welcoming to strangers. Makes for a perfect hide-out.’

‘So, what now,’ said Strawberry.

‘Manchester, but first we need a willing volunteer to wear the Subcomandante Everyman costume,’ she was talking to Strawberry, but looking at me, ‘and you, Strawberry, are a bit on the short side. Come on Aunty Stella, it’s not as if you’d really be in charge or anything.’

I didn’t exactly feel inconspicuous travelling through Manchester astride the tallest grey I’d ever seen, its bells and harness jangling loudly. I was disguised behind a Mexican Rose knitted balaclava and kitted out in white jodhpurs, four ply woollen submariner’s telnyashka, a silver-grey hussar’s jacket trimmed in reddish brown fur and an excess of gold frogging, black patent leather boots to above the knee and topping the ensemble, a tall, French Marines’ shako, with a Burgundy plume. All around me were the Zapatista cavalry. There was a bronze painted 1952 Ford F1 van support vehicle, Strawberry driving the blue Chevy, packed with camp followers waving red and black flags, and Snowdrop’s tachanka bringing up the rear. My standard bearer trotted up alongside me, the black banner with its skull and cross bones fluttering in the biting, early morning wind. Her eyes smiled through the slits in her ski mask.

‘What’s your name?’ I asked.

Eunice Aphroditois, after the Mongolian Death Worm. Neat innit? Take the next left; we’ll enter Piccadilly Station through the goods yards. No point attracting too much attention.’

When we reached the railway and eventually found our remote and rarely used platform, Larry had done us proud. There stood a majestic, streamlined Mallard locomotive with a string of horse-box cars, one still had BERTRAM MILLS’ CIRCUS painted on its doors, a flat bed for the vehicles, two LC&DR third class carriages with varnished coachwork, a Pullman ‘Kitchen Parlour’ Car and a pillbox break van. Strawberry demanded to ride in the break van and no one was going to dissuade me from travelling at least some of the journey on the steam engine’s footplate.

Enticing the horses into the boxcars and loading the flat bed took some time but eventually we were ready for the off.

‘You’ll not be about to shovel coal in that outfit,’ said the engine driver as I clambered into the cab and eagerly eyed the array of pipes, valves and levers, ‘best sit back and enjoy the ride. We’ll be shifting at a rate of knots once she gets the bit between her teeth.’

Two hours later we parked up in the sidings in Carlisle and Strawberry and I left Snowdrop to supervise the unloading whilst two Zapatistas guided us down Lowther Street to our rendezvous at the Howard Arms. The lounge was packed. Wildcat Moss Trooper Commanders had stacked their tin hats by the door and lodged weaponry behind the bar, a gathering of minor clan chiefs was clustered around a cast iron radiator and representatives from several Border Reiver families sat around a table already cluttered with half downed sleevers of 70/-.

‘Ahaah!’ We were greeted warmly on our arrival. ‘Sit yer sells down and we’ll get to talking. Pints of heavy all round.’

We sat, and a huddle formed around the table.

‘Ye have here the cream of the faithful and we’ll pick up a few more before this evening. We’ve lost a few families to the dark side, but no so many. Have another pint. We’ll be away north of the wall soon as your gang is ready. May even liberate a few coos on the trip to Gilnockie Tower.’ And so we did.

The rest of the story you know, we apparently arrived in the nick of time. Shame about the airship. Has anyone put the kettle on?”

* Translation for those unfamiliar with Googleberry’s version of text speak:

‘Oh My God, Aunty Stella, catastrophe, Lady C’s fancy dress barbecue washed out because gusting winds swept fountain across patio! Social bummer. Love, Hugs and Kisses for Ever and Ever, Googleberry, Kiss, Kiss. P.S. Lady C says to tell you Les White Cats mobilising. Live Long And Prosper. Smiley face. Laughs Out Loud With Unintentional Snort Sound.’

 

 Chapter16

The Raid

 A hearty group of Kriegsmariners had come into the concourse from the Unterseeboot Pens and was indulging in manly horseplay when the glass in one of the skylights shattered. If the sailors could have made out more than a vague mauve blur they would have seen Dark Flo running down the marble wall, paying out a climbing rope with one hand and frantically casting throwing stars with the other. They scattered, rallied and returned fire with their Schmiesser MP-40s. Bamse was abseiling, noticeably more slowly and cautiously than Flo, towards the distant floor, and the bullets chipping off chunks of stonework all around him were not making for a happy St Bernard. To his amazement he was still whole when he reached the ground. His survival was probably due in part to the distracting effect of an indistinct pink whirlwind that pirouetted through the ranks of mariners. Sailors doubled over with an “Oooff!” or flew backwards, crashing into disintegrating furniture. The disgruntled emperor penguins who had, until this moment, still been waddling around the vaulted hall, turned, gave out a communal squawk of disapproval and trudged towards the double doors of the main exit. Bamse headed off to locate and liberate the crew of the Lord Ancaster.

An alarm siren wailed, almost immediately Neuschwabian reinforcements burst onto the scene and the machine gun fire intensified. Dark Flo became pinned down behind a Coca Cola dispenser. The situation was looking decidedly desperate when there came the muffled sound of several explosions from the direction of the Submarine Pens and the Kronstadt sailors arrived. They reached the top of the escalator already firing and immediately fanned out. The battle was intense, and destructive. As more and more lights were shattered by ricochets an increasing gloom descended on the vast hall, smoke billowed from the escalator tunnel and spread in undulating layers above the warring bands. Dark Flo’s camouflage began to suffer from the Purkinje effect. In low light simian eyes become more sensitive to the blue end of the colour spectrum, this is Purkinje shift, or dark adaptation, her Plymouth Pink Ninja outfit was no longer working efficiently. She was becoming visible.

Meanwhile Bamse was having difficulty rescuing the trawler crew. They did not want to be rescued. The third hand, Billy Tate teamed up with the St Bernard and they ushered the crew into an elegant, Art Deco wardroom. Plans to organise a second front disintegrated. The trawlermen were divided into two, almost equal factions. One group wanted to sit it out in the wardroom, perhaps get a cup of coffee, and wait to see which side won. The others had enjoyed their stay so much that they were all for joining the fray on the side of the Neuschwabenlandians. Billy was weeping with frustration.

“T’ skipper seems pally enough wi’ that Kapitänleutnant chappy. Thy squabble’s nowt te do wi’ us,” argued a scrawny stoker, self elected spokesman for the reluctant crew.

“Look,” barked Bamse, “Flo and I have gone to a lot of trouble to get you ingrates out of this mess. Don’t you want to see your Yorkshire homeland again?”   He paused for dramatic effect, “The stigma of mutiny could get you all exiled to Grimsby.”

“…”

“Ay, and ‘tis starving cold here.”

“Bleaker ‘n a February afto’ on Top Withens.”

“C’mon lads, lets stick it to the Hun.”

Bamse took a nifty step back to let them pass, but the unsuspecting young Tate was knocked to the ground and trampled in the rush.

Von Luckner and Harold emerged from the subway tunnel as the firefight was reaching its peak. The hall echoed to a cacophony of swearing (in German and Russian), cries of anguish and anger, the percussion of small arms fire; and it was filling with clouds of smoke and dust. Glass shattered and bullets zipped through the air like gnats. The duo instantly drew fire from both sides and dove behind the check-in counter, where they were joined, cowering, by the first mate and chief who were crawling on their hands and knees.

Moments later the Ancaster’s crew burst into the foyer, roaring out a battle cry:

“Tigers, Tigers, burning bright!” all bravado and slightly squeaky apprehension.

The Kapitänleutnant glanced disbelievingly towards his companions.

“It’s a Hull City supporter’s chant,” replied Easter Smurthwait, “…Football…   I’ll explain later, when things quieten down a bit.”

Albert Fleck leaped to his feet, “Go the three-day millionaires!”* and then ducked down again as rounds from a Schmeiser plucked at his tea-cosy hat.

The trawlermen fell upon the Neuschwabenlander troops with fist flailing.

“This’ll ney tek long. ‘Sney rougher’n a Satdi-night scrap in Rayner’s on t’Hessle Road.”

Taking advantage of the added confusion, Dark Flo ducked out from the cover of the bullet riddled soft drinks dispenser and tucked in behind the wave of fishermen. She skipped lightly up the back of the nearest deckie, tripped across the heads of three successive Kriegsmariners, became airborne and tossed a Happo egg into a light machine-gun nest as she passed overhead. Her three Inch diameter, hollowed out black egg contained a disabling mixture of itching powder and concentrated Naga Ghost Chilli sauce. Flo adopted the ‘Flailing Squid’ pose as she hung briefly in the air then plummeted, feather duster in hand, into the midst of the battle.

“THIS WILL END… NOW!” A voice like an intervention from the patriarch of all thunder gods reverberated above the crouching combatants. The hunched and wizened oriental master had materialized in the open no-man’s land that separated the warring factions. He drew himself up to his full height of four feet two and a half inches, shoulders back and ramrod straight. His eyes glistened and his tall orange hat quivered as he glared about the room. The shooting slowly petered out until only the intermittent crack of a sniper’s round broke the silence. Otto von Luckner broke cover and approached his men.

“Nicht mehr! Aufhören zu schießen!”

The Himalayan envoy waited patiently for a bleakly expectant peace to descend across the scene.

“This is intolerable… and futile. A machine that is secret, a truth that is hidden, are now known to all. The Andromeda Gerät will depart. WE will depart. And it would be wise for you to be not here when we leave. I recommend the high-speed pneumatic tubes to your whaling station you should utilize and there take ship. Not long, you have.” He stalked over to his colleagues who turned and followed him back into the subway.

[*Here we shall pause momentarily for an explanation.

As soon as a trawler docked at the end of a three to four week fishing trip the crew would disperse ashore, each would be met by his personal cabby, who would stay with him until the ship sailed again. Next morning, the catch having been sold in the very early hours, they would reassemble at the company office for their share of the profits. As they would be sailing again after five tides each was, for the moment, very well off – they were ‘three day millionaires’. Despite their macho image, the trawlermen had a surprisingly dandyish streak. First stop was a visit to their tailor to pick up the suit they had ordered last time they were in port and to be measured for the next, something stylish – high waistbands, wide bottomed trousers, jackets with half-moon pockets and pleated backs, in a garish range of colours, from sky blue to shocking pink. Billy Tate had a white one once, with that many pockets he could never find his loose change. Then to Rayners’ public house for two days of drinking, fighting and, for the lucky few, fornicating. After this all too brief spell ashore, and often with the latest suit all but ruined, their cabbies would discharge them back onto the trawler and they would head for Bear Island once more.]

 

Chapter 17

Leaving Antarctica

“Where is my Oberfunkmeister? Ah, there you are. Get a message to the whaling station, right away. I want the Pinguin readied for sea by the time we arrive, and they’re to get steam up on the trawler too. Matrosenfeldwebel, get everyone into the tubes. Don’t forget the frauleins in the canteen, and make sure you bring my radio officer with you when he’s done. Oh, and find the ship’s cat.” Felix von Luckner turned to Harold, “If you would come with me gentlemen, please.”

The Kapitänleutnant led the trawler officers across the ravished concourse towards a set of check-in desks labeled Walfang-Hafen, gathering trawlermen as they went. Kriegsmariners were already lining up neatly, and slightly less disciplined groups of New Swabians in lab coats or boiler suits were gathering near the sliding doors to the pneumatic tubes. The Kronstadt shore detail, led by Dark Flo, appeared from behind a pile of rubble, they laughing and joking, she sporting a puffy, almost closed eye. She was limping and the left sleeve of her shinobi shozoko was torn away to reveal an angry graze on her elbow and purple bruising to the shoulder.

“Thanks to one of your overzealous fishermen. Took a swing at me from behind, with a barstool. Can’t tell a ninja from a submariner.”

Bamse, as was his wont, had rounded up the last of the stragglers. With the company assembled the tube doors opened and embarkation began.

“Once you reach the whaling station get your people aboard your trawler and be ready for the off.” Von Luckner was cradling Fotzenkatze, the lithe tabby mascot of the now crippled submarine Seeadler. “I will be along soon as I know everyone is safe.”

The bow and ruptured freshwater tank of the Ancaster had been repaired in their absence, the boiler was nearly up to pressure and springs taken in so that only shortened bow and stern lines held her to the quay. The crew stood, alert, at their stations. Harold stood by the bridge window, his hand placed lightly on the highly polished new telegraph, its dials disconcertingly labeled in German. Billy Tate held the spokes of the enormous ship’s wheel, awaiting instructions. An Aldis lamp on the wing of the Pinguin’s bridge began to flash morse at high speed. Easter Smurthwait and the Ancaster’s sparks eyed the twinkling light, then each other, and shrugged.   Yes, the trawler did have a radio officer. Sparky, a lad hailing from suburban Dudley, had spent the entire adventure locked in his radio room trying unsuccessfully to contact Wick Radio, blissfully unaware and, as usual, totally forgotten.

“’Spect he’s telling us to get going,” said Easter to his skipper.

“OK. Cast off fore and aft.” He rang ‘Halbe Kraft Voraus’ on the engine room telegraph, “I hope that means what I think it does,” and Ancaster’s single screw began to churn the water into a fury beneath her stern. She moved slowly away from the quay, picked up speed, was steered deftly around the breakwater by the third hand, and belching black smoke from her Woodbine funnel, the trawler proceeded out to sea.

On the bridge of the Pinguin Otto von Luckner turned to his Signalsmaat, “Are you certain you sent Follow us… in English? Ficken!” He rang down to the engine room and the mighty diesels thumped into action. He sprinted to the wing of the bridge and shouted, “Abwerfen der Liegeplatz-Seile. Cast off fore and aft.” Back in the wheelhouse he addressed his helmsman, “Follow that boat.”

With her thundering pistons producing nearly eight thousand horse power and her twin screws rapidly accelerating her up to seventeen knots it did not take the Pinguin long to outstrip Ancaster. Von Luckner was on the VHF radio to Harold.

“Follow us, captain. Best speed. We want as much open water as possible between us and Antarctica when whatever it is happens.”

Easter had been looking astern, “I think it’s happening now, skipper. You’ll want to see this.”

Even at the distance of two miles they could see the ice plateau on the continent behind them begin to dome. The hump rose slowly at first and then burst in an explosion of rock and ice fragments. There was an incandescent flash. As their vision slowly returned to the momentarily blinded observers a hemisphere of boiling, glowing atmosphere was visible, expanding at an incredible rate. A rumble grew to a roar and to a screaming shriek that paralysed the onlookers. The pressure wave tore fittings from the deck and cracked window glass. The accompanying tsunami, however, passed them unnoticed. In the open sea, travelling at 500 miles per hour it barely raised the fleeing vessels a foot or two. As it approached the shoaling seabed around the southern tip of America it would pile up into a destructive wall of vindictive ocean, but out here it was benign. Back on the Antarctic mainland snow clouds gathered above ground zero and lightening bolts flashed across the sky. The trawlermen watched as powdered snow billowed and swirled; and out of the turmoil rose a vast, polished metal cylinder, its mirror surface reflecting the chaos that surrounded it. The Andromeda Machine climbed serenely through the storm into the quiet sky above, performed a leisurely pirouette and accelerated away. Within moments all was calm.

“Well, that was different,” said Easter to no one in particular.

A tinny voice crackled from the bridge loud speaker, Kapitänleutnant Otto Graf von Luckner was back on the VHF.

“We will be heading for the Rio de la Plata in the Pinguin, but are more than willing to escort you across the South Atlantic, captain. It will give us chance to compare notes and discuss the recent events. I expect you will be wanting to proceed to the Ärmelkanal, your English Channel. We may well catch you up on our way to the Baltic. It rather depends on how long we loiter in Montevideo.”

A wandering albatross tucked in behind the stern of the Lord Ancaster, skimming low over the restless swell of the Southern Ocean. Sunlight glistened off the heaving rollers and dolphins played in the bow-waves of the two vessels as they pointed their prows towards the New World.

 

Chapter 18

The Tamworth Ranters’ Gala

Almighty Cod created the universe and all that is in it. It created cats and men and tortoises. It anointed kings to enforce its laws and appointed bishops to interpret its words. And all was right with the world.

This proved very lucrative if you happened to be a bishop or a king, but was not necessarily regarded as a good thing by everyone else. Then, after eons of malcontent, the English Civil War and Almost Revolution happened and the world turned upside down. The scum on top of the placid lake that was the class system within this sceptred realm lost cohesion, began to break up and loosen its grip. And out of the silt at the bottom rose up every kind of fanatical crank and loony demanding equality, emancipation, universal suffrage. Pacifists and feminists, naturists, atheists and suffragists felt empowered to speak out; compelled to cry from atop soapboxes and from the backs of carts the length and breadth of the country. Out of this turmoil emerged The Ranters. Almighty Cod, they asserted, was not an omnipotent being somewhere out there. A little piece of Cod (a piece of Cod that surpasseth all understanding) existed, in equal part, in every living thing. They reasoned, on the strength of this revelation, that no individual had more claim to represent the laws of Cod or man than any other. Every man, woman, cat or carrot had an equal right to rule, and therefore no right over others at all. Every man, woman, cat and carrot had sovereignty over its own existence and wellbeing, unfettered self-determination.

Over the intervening centuries The Tamworth Ranters came to believe that the Piece of Cod was not a thing in itself; it was a metaphor, it was the spark of Life. All living things were free and equal. They also embraced the golden rule of philosophers and prophets to do to others what they would have done to themselves, and to love one another as they loved them selves, enthusiastically and often.   They tended to throw a good party.

June had been damp and dreary. Not that this was noted to any degree by the people of Tamworth. In Tamworth June was almost always damp and dreary. However, on this festive day the sky was clear and the morning sun already warming the recreation ground, though the overnight drizzle was still puddled on the tarmac of the vehicle park, reflecting silver-cerulean against the dark grey clinker. Boz glanced back as the gang strode out across the disused landing strip. Several airships swung gently at their pylons. Lady Æthelflæda, freshly painted, was dwarfed next to the looming black vastness of Rotskagg Blenkinsopp’s brutal Queen Anne’s Bounty. The corsair’s flagship bristled with quick-fire cannon, rocket launchers and Gatlings, her canopy emblazoned with the crimson crowned skull (crowned with a papal coronet) that was the Blenkinsopp sigil. It even had a hangar and launch port for its complement of armed ornithopters.

“The pirate king’s here then,” he said to the others, “wonder who he’s brought with him.”

“I noticed Larry’s dirigible back there too,” replied Phoebles.

“I reckon we’ve missed the parade,” chipped in Ferdy, pushing his goggles up over his flying helmet. “Told you we shouldn’t have spent so long over breakfast.” But the bird was wrong. As they reached the row of Portaloos and temporary litter trays by the road gate they could hear the trumpets and guitars of the Massed Zapatista Marching Mariachi playing La Valentina, and see the tops of wavering crimson union banners above the heads of the spectators. The annual Gala parade always drew a large crowd.

They squeezed through as near to the front as they could manage and Dark Flo lifted the vertically challenged Ferdy onto her shoulders. They were in time to see Snowdrop’s techanka wreathed in flowers with Consuella in her most exotic Carmen Miranda outfit, letting rip on her tambourine. The techanka was followed by the prancing cavalry of the Snake Pass Zapatistas led by Aunty Stella, in her Subcommandante Everyman outfit, sans ski mask, but wearing a delicate feathered purple half mask that perfectly matched her hair. Each caballerro lofted a fluttering black SPZ flag. Next came the Catnip Growers Association rainbow float, swathed in a purple haze. Bringing up the rear, with the Kittens of Chaos crammed on the roof rack, came the Vicecream van booming out the Slasher Theme from Psycho. As the last of the parade passed, the crowd spilled onto the road and followed into the Recreation ground.

Just inside the gate there were Hoop-La stalls and coconut shies and Hook-a-Duck, all the fun of the fair for thruppence a go. Beyond these they approached an inflatable paddling pool and soggy cleric beneath a sign proclaiming Dunk the Vicar. A target was contrived, by utilising a cunning arrangement of levers and gears, that when hit it would trip a precarious chair, tipping its occupant into the water below. The local boys were very good at throwing. Flo had travelled down with Boz and Co on the Æthelflæda, trusting the public bar at the Den into the care of one of the more reliable regulars, a trustworthy, conscientious and only slightly undead connoisseur of the golden nectar. She took one look at the forlorn and bedraggled priest, strode over and stepped into the pool.

“Go and get yourself a cup of tea, Pops,” she said swinging herself up into the chair and smiling sweetly at the queue of teenagers. “Come on, brats, I don’t mind a little water.” Somehow, under Flo’s withering gaze they found themselves utterly unable to hit the mark, several broke down before they got to their turn and one optimistic urchin, having thrown up on the grass, tried unsuccessfully to demand a refund.

Boz smiled, “Best crack on, she’ll be there for a while.”

As they moved further in amongst the booths and stall they were enveloped in a cacophony of sound.

“They playing Charles Ives in a fairground?’ queried Ginsbergbear. But no. As they approached each booth they could tell that it had an accompanying tune. And each tune mingled with that of its neighbour’s. The musical jumble was punctuated by tings and boings and the squealing of infants, underscored by the incessant rumble of generators. They had to shout to be heard. The irresistible scent of chips frying wafted on the air.

“Is it lunchtime yet?” asked Phoebles.

They were passing side isles cluttered with jostling fast food stalls, Egyptian Koshari, Vietnamese Pho, Bakewell puddings, Welsh cawl, Hairy Tatties from Strathbogie and, of course Harry Ramsden’s Guisely fish and chips.

“Hokey pokey penny a lump. Have a lick make you jump.” An Italian hokey-pokey man had parked his ice cream trike close by the Kittens’ Vicecream van and was attracting a queue. Within the forbidding gothic interior of the Vicecream van a plot was being hatched to remove the unwanted competition, whilst one of the less scary Kittens leaned out of the serving hatch and beamed a smile at the unwitting Latin.

Overhead the Kronstadt Fleet Air Arm were giving a heart stopping aerobatic display in their little Ratas. As the gang looked up Polly broke away from her squadron to skywrite Hello Boz within a heart across the clear blue. At a lower altitude, Beryl was taking kids on flights round the town in the Dragon Rapide.

The boys had not gone much further when they heard the soulful strains of Scottish bagpipes.

“Come on.   Sounds like we’re missing something good.”

They emerged onto a grassed plaza where, shadowed beneath the looming presence of Tamworth Castle, erstwhile seat of Æthelflæda Myrcna hlæfdige, legendary feminist and war-leader, the piper, kilted and clad in Darth Vader helmet, droned out Motörhead’s March Ör Die, blasting flames from the chanters and swirling tight circles on his unicycle. A small torti-shell was hurrying towards Boz and his pals.

“Hi, you’re here then. We made it too. Anna’s just over there with the ambulance.” Anna Alban Pyromatrix travelled with Bui her cat in and old ambulance converted to a mobile home. It was more cramped than a Winnebago, but cunningly kitted out to provide all their basic needs. “This,” Bui pointed at the piper, “is Wee Hamish. He came down with us.”

As Hamish segued seamlessly into We Are Sailing, Bui grabbed Phoebles’ paw and dragged him towards a cluster of ghers, tipis and festival tents. Boz and Ferdy hurried along behind.

Near the centre of the encampment they found the ambulance. Close by a small group of pirate captains, Reivers, Moss Troopers and clan chiefs lounged around a roaring campfire. A black iron kettle hung precariously above the flames and a slight, wild haired blond crouched where a tablecloth had been spread out on the ground with a chipped teapot and collection of miss matched mugs. Anna stood up when she saw them approach.

“Mr Boz, Ferdy …and Phoebles! We’re off to find Rotskagg in a wee while, but there’ll be time for a brew first. You’ll be setting yoursels doon?”

A short while later the entire group was clambering up the slope onto a grassed earthen platform of approximately one hectare in area. On it stood two, singular buildings. To their left a three-story timber frame hall was raised up on Doric columns of black and white oak. A colourful market was spread out amongst the pillars and a sweeping stairway led up through the floor to a Georgian doorway. The dun coloured lath and plaster infill between the dark frames was pierced wherever possible with leaded windows. This sober building was the Moot Hall, the place where serious issues were thrashed out and important decisions made. Facing it, and far more jocular in nature was the Mead Hall. Entirely constructed of heavy, deeply carved oak, the main structure was windowless with a steeply tiered shingle roof out of which sprouted a tower and flying grotesques. It was decorated with intertwining ravens, deer, boar and dragons, and painted in earthy reds and yellows and a vibrant electric-blue. Smoke seeped through gaps in the roof and a great deal of noise issued from its dark interior. On the green between the two buildings our merry gang found at last the Tamworth Ranters, dancing and carousing, a motley, unkempt band. Exposed skin, of which there was a great deal, was painted and tattooed, their scant clothing, brightly coloured and patterned, hair unruly, or elaborately entwined with ribbons and feathers. Many of the aged amongst the groups, wrinkled, sagging and tanned, seemed to shun clothing almost entirely. A manic hoop dancer twirled past, her plaited hair writhing like a medusa on speed. There was a hurdy-gurdy and a flautist in a huge floppy hat, standing on one leg. Several Ranters waved and called out, laughing and grinning.

“Come, Come and join us.”

Ferdy spread out his stubby wings in apology, “Later, we have business… in the hall.” He smiled sheepishly.

With Anna taking the lead, they approached the Mead Hall. At once a slender girl burst into the open like a faun breaking cover and came prancing down the wide steps that led up to its entrance. She was stained with red ochre and decorated in strange black Cabalistic symbols, an ankle length heavy woollen, tiered and pleated skirt hung from her hips and she had tiny bells on her toes. She was towing a golden youth, a naked youth, gilded from blond hairline to the tips of his toes, He was lithe, physical perfection with cornflower-blue eyes, yet unnaturally passive. The girl winked at Anna on her way past, bound for a small orchard down by the river.

“Isn’t he just too gorgeous?”

Anna smiled back without comment. Ferdy looked stunned and, ever so slightly, bemused.

Obvious within the Mead Hall, even from the imposing doorway, despite the jostling crowd, was a massive bulk of bulging muscle beneath a covering of sun blackened hide, criss-crossed with livid scars and almost entirely covered in tattoos, a red beard, plaited and bowed, a stub of clay pipe, a third hand black leather Saint Laurent biker jacket, scuffed and stained with sump oil, over a pink, Eric Bloodaxe t-shirt, striped Bermuda shorts, Doc Martens 14 eyelet Black 1914s, a red headscarf and black felt hat with blacker ostrich feathers and an extra wide brim turned up and pinned at the front. It was seated on a straining Windsor oak chair with a Ranter lass on each knee and a quart pewter tankard in its gnarled fist. This was unmistakably Rotskagg Blenkinsopp the pirate king. He stood up with a roar, letting the two girls fall, giggling, to the ground.

“Anna, miri feely yog chavi, sastimos. Y kon shee deze bold ryes?”

(“Anna, my young fire child, greetings. And who are these daring gentlemen?”)

“Tooti vada kushti, skipper. Mira compañeros, o famosos Boz, Ferdinand o vlieger y Phoebles kon shee nossa martini constante,”

(“You look well, captain. My companions, the famous Boz, Ferdinand the aviator and Phoebles who is our steadying hand,”) replied Anna.

“You polari’s improving,” boomed Rotskagg, now in thickly accented English. He lurched forward, lifted Boz by the shoulders and shook him in a companionable way. Dropping the Boz, he grabbed Ferdy’s wing stub and shook it so vigorously that several feathers had to be straightened, once the bird had freed himself from the crushing grip. Advancing jovially towards a horrified Phoebles the corsair swept his hat from his own head and dropped it over the rotund ginger tom. It buried him. As Phoebles battled to escape, the hat twitched and it’s black plume quivered, and Rotskagg clung to the furniture, overcome with mirth. Deeming introductions to be at an end the captain turned his attention to the ragged band of wild cats, wilder Scots and scurvy sea dogs that were shambling into the hall.

“Mira wortacha, pralas, avela y schlumph, y xa. Mandi wil parlé. Eğlence daha yeni başlıyor.”

(“My confederates, brothers, come and drink, and eat. We must talk. The fun is only just beginning.) Rotskagg retrieved his hat and Phoebles rejoined his companions, blinking.

“What’s all that jabber?”

“The Pirate King prefers to communicate in a bastard form of Lingua Franca. It is the common language of the corsairs,” explained Anna before she turned her attention to the ruffian band. Rotskagg had scooped up Bui and was tickling her behind one ear. Ale was ordered.

“Have we been dismissed?” asked Ferdy.

“They do seem to have forgotten us,” replied Boz.

Phoebles was edging towards the food. A long table was piled high with ornately displayed snacks. Multi-coloured catnip muffins vied with mooncakes and neat little triangular fish-paste sandwiches for the attention of prospective diners. There were exotic flans and trifle and, at the centre a life-size ice sculpture of Lady Æthelflæda in full armour and winged helmet, already melting into the brocade tablecloth. Almost before he could grab any of the refreshments there was a commotion and Snowdrop wobbled her way through the crowd on her unicycle, juggling three white mice who were squeaking Rule Britannia, not very well as they were a little nauseous.

“Come on,” she shouted, spinning round and heading for the door, “The brass band competition is about to start.”

Ferdy pulled Phoebles away from the food table, just as he was starting on his third mooncake.

“But I’m in the middle of… Do those pink things look like prawn cocktails to you? I’m very fond of prawns.”

Outside, a stretch of lawn had been cleared, and groups of bandsmen were polishing their instruments, shaking out the accumulated spittle and setting up music stands. Each Brass Band was similarly uniformed, somewhat like bus-conductors, with peaked caps, but distinguished by colour. There were mills’ bands in maroon or navy, miners’ bands in scarlet, charcoal or green, and a Sergeant Pepper tribute in shimmering pink, yellow, sky-blue and crimson satin.

The SPZ and Brick Lane Zapatista Massed Marching Mariachi were on the brink of being disqualified for not being Traditional and were being defended vociferously by The Megadeath Morris, already barred on account of not remotely resembling a brass anything. The resultant loud squabbling had drawn a crowd. Eventually it was agreed that the trumpet section from the Massed Mariachi along with a small contingent of buglers from the West Surrey Mounted Makhnovchina could compete, but there were to be strictly no guitarrón mexicano or fiddles.

Unseen behind one of the moot hall’s open windows, and with his back to it so that he would not be influenced or prejudiced by any prior knowledge regarding the contestants, the competition adjudicator sat waiting to pass judgement on each performance. The order of play was determined by the drawing of lots from a venerated cloth cap, donated by Keir Hardie himself in times gone by – and, after much fumbling and faffing, the competition was under way.

By the third rendition of Mull of Kintyre Phoebles was becoming fidgety and Boz had dozed off. He woke with a start as the Zapatista Mariachi launched into The Birdie Song. Their chances of winning were looking slim, but Snowdrop was wolf whistling and shouting “Encore!” While he slept they had been joined by Anna and Bui. Aunty Stella was there too, having changed from her Subcommandante’s uniform into denim jeans and a salmon-red and black bee-striped fuzzy jumper. She had Googleberry with her and he had acquired a large Italian ice-cream cone.

“Some foreign chap with a black eye was giving them away before they melted, from a Galatia tricycle with a bent wheel and defunct freezer. Looked like it’d been blown apart by a minor explosion.”

As the competition results were announced over the Tannoy system there was loud applause from the crowd, and some grumbling from the competitors.

“Look. Over there.” Ferdy had spotted Barrymore striding jauntily towards them across the green. She was beckoning furiously for them all to meet her half way.

“Larry wants every one out front of the main stage as soon as you’re finished here. Who won?”

Phoebles shrugged, “That bunch with the tubas and trombones and stuff, I think. Or that other lot with trumpets and French horns and a drum. Or maybe…”

“Never mind.”

Behind them a fight had broken out. Two bandleaders were at war over the competition trophy, grasping a handle each and tugging in opposite directions. More and more bandsmen joined in, swinging their instruments like halberds.

“Jocks awaaaah!”

There was a sudden surge as a wave of screaming Reivers and wildcats plunged into the fray. And then, scattering combatants in all directions, Rotskagg Blenkinsopp was in the midst with an ululating Dark Flo balanced precariously on his shoulders.

“Someone is going to get hurt,’ said Barrymore. As Boz and Co watched the spreading mayhem the Ranters moved in.

“Peace and love, man.”

“Group hug.”

“Karma.”

Ducking fists the Ranter menfolk distributed flowers and spliffs. Girls, wriggling in between the grappling factions, handing out catnip mooncakes and kisses, began to calm the situation. As the violence subsided Rotskagg and Flo emerged from the crowd.

“Well that ended a bit disappointingly,” she said to Boz, “Blenkinsopp and I barely got started. Who are those hippie kill-joys?”

Barrymore resumed, “Larry. Main stage. All of you. Don’t hang about too long. Oh, and Mr Boz, Larry says someone has to pay for that airship he lent you. Have any of you seen Slasher McGoogs. The acting PM would like a word with him too.”

Googleberry started to whistle innocently, which is not easy with a mouth full of ice-cream.

“Not really his kind of scene, this,” said Boz, “Doubt we’ll see anything of him today.” He tried to put a conspiratorial arm upon Barrymore’s shoulder, but couldn’t quite reach that high. “Erm… About that airship…” he almost whispered.

Up on the pyramid stage The Kittens of Chaos, accompanied by Consuella Starcluster the tambourine virtuoso, were performing a selection of their favourite bits from ‘Prestupleniye i Nakazaniye the Musical’, in which the nihilist Raskolnikov is encouraged to get out more and is introduced to vodka and fornication by the 6th Form students of Madame Sofia Semyonovna Marmeladova’s Academy for Young Kittens. Following on from the conclusion of their act the bemused audience was subjected to a poetry reading by Ginsbergbear.

“I have written a haiku,” he announced:

Haiku

Cake out in the rain.

Prince Albert teapot; it nev

Er reigns, but it pours.

…and, oh so much later:

Your Mum and Dad

They muck you about

With a bottle of stout

And a pig in a poke

Like the funny old bloke

That Mummy said to call uncle

And Dad with his fags

After nocturnal shags

They’re wondering why

You’ve contracted a sty

Or forged on your bum a carbuncle

“The fault isn’t ours”

Your old pater glowers

“We had parents too

Addicted to glue

And fans of the songs of Garfuncle”

After a long and embarrassing pause there came a dramatic fanfare from the recently bruised Massed Pit Bands of Federated Nottinghamshire joined by the Brick Lane Zapatista Mariachi Walking Wounded, and Larry stepped up to the mic.

“Ehem…”

Before he could speak he was surrounded, silently, by the serene men of the Himalayas, their yak skin coats dragging on the floor. The group moved to the front of the stage, parted and revealed, to everyone’s astonishment, Mad Jack Belvoir (Bart) with his ward, the fair, and now heavily pregnant, Pricilla. Gone was the up-tight uniform of the 3rd (King’s Own) Hussars, his once magnificent handlebar drooped into a bushy Zapata mustachio and he wore a loose, grubby Kurta shirt over baggy candy striped trousers. He appeared unkempt, undernourished, and yet he was fire-forged steel, tempered in the acid bath of global perambulation.

“Friends, we have all come a long way since you and I faced off against each other on the Cable Street barricade. Pricilla and I have travelled far, crossed desert and mountain, swum in turquoise seas, basked on crystal beaches, begged in shit-strewn shanties. We have studied at the feet of masters. I want to talk to you about the future. We are (most of us, I hope) groping towards an ill-defined anarchist utopia, an earnest utopia with co-ops and federations and communes and unions and autonomies and endless discussions at the Street Moot and the Factory Moot. It is a worthy utopia for born-again socialists, reformed capitalists and the recently oppressed. But remember, just a short stride across the green from the Moot Hall is the Mead Hall. The sailors and ships’ cats and corsairs and doxies, these Ranters and punks, won’t be content with such seriousness alone. There must be fun, and dancing and a little mayhem too. One day when we have our Anarchy, modified and reshaped from our earliest visions, when we have our justice and fairness, we will look out towards a new utopia, a utopia for anarchists, for men (and women and cats) who are already free, already fulfilled. With joy as of little children and unfettered imaginations we will lust for a glorious future without limits; what a vision that will be.”

As Mad Jack paused for breath Larry stepped quickly back up to the mic. He was still somewhat put out and prickly.

“Friends. It is possible that Citizen Belvoir has a point… or two. I was about to suggest that we representatives of diverse groups, many of whom have travelled far to hammer out our differences, adjourn to the Ranters’ Moot Hall and forge a concord that would guarantee peace and prosperity for all time. It is what we had planned, why we are here. But I, for one, am having too much fun. Who cares about differences? It is a glorious day; let us celebrate our commonality. Return to the beer tent and the dance floor; strike up the Mariachi. Sod tomorrow, we are surrounded by friends.”

A great roar of approval from Captain Rotskagg Blenkinsopp caused several small children to burst into tears. There had been little in Mad Jack or Larry’s adjurations that had not rung true to the philosophy of the gaily-coloured Tamworth Ranters. They began to saunter away to continue enjoying their gala. The Scots and Corsairs however had travelled a great distance, prepared to argue forcefully for their ancient and traditional right to pillage. They had come down with the intention of debating long and hard, winning concessions and drunkenly conceding as few privileges as possible. Were they really going to go away and just get on with each other? They hung around in small groups shrugging and mumbling.

‘Well, it sounds good enough to me,’ boomed Rotskagg. ‘Gué fatu, Camaradas? You Reivers be masters of animal husbandry, though in the past they have tended to be someone else’s animals. You will prosper. And us corsairs will find noble outlets for our seafaring bravado. Here is ale and women and I shall have exhausting of both. Vadu dal lavutana, fetch me a fiddler, I have a mind to Hornpipe. Anna, wildling, put those matches away and teach me Stripping the Willow.’

The stage was cleared and the Massed Mariachi, taking up position at the microphones, began to play La Cucaracha with the Kittens of Chaos doing a daring can-can in the background. Barely into the second chorus the music tailed off, black clouds covered the sun and the sky darkened. A large group of heavily armed Chats Suterrains materialised onto the stage all in white leather coats, purple-glassed goggles and pith helmets. They brushed the band aside whilst the Kittens of Chaos seethed. Outnumbered and outgunned they sat heavily on Kiki la Berserker before she could start a scrap. Her boggle-eyes fired imaginary thunderbolts and her spittle ate corrosively into the smoking floorboards. Several sturdy Chats dragged two heavy campaign chests to the front of the stage and opened one of them out to reveal a Tesla coil on a copper coloured pylon. A polished metal cage was bolted in place around it and heavily insulated high tension cables were run out to the second crate. Le Chat-in-charge threw a large knife switch and the contents of the box set up a wild humming that ascended in pitch until it achieved a nerve-shattering whine. Lightning crackled outwards from the Tesla coil and an eerie green ionised mist began to spread from around the arcing electro-magnetic discharge. Slowly an image formed within the billowing cloud. It was a holographic figure, convincingly life like except for being green, transparent and a bit wobbly. It was bipedal, bulky and scaly. An angular reptilian head hissed and flicked out its tongue and Phoebles felt he could discern something a bit tentacley around the upper lip. Piercing, bilious eyes with narrowly slit-pupils seemed to grow and grow until they were all that the onlookers were aware of. They appeared to glare disconcertingly into the soul of each individual in the audience.

“MEDLING EARTHLINGS. WE KNOW WHO YOU ARE. WE KNOW WHERE YOU LIVE. AND WE KNOW WHERE YOUR CHILDREN GO TO SCHOOL. WE WILL REMEMBER!”

Pause… then a dramatic crack as the coil discharged and the plasma cloud dispersed. Les chats packed up their equipment and departed without a word.

“Bugger me!” exclaimed Dark Flo.

Everyone seemed to be looking around at once, some scared, some bemused. A search for Les Chats Souterrains was rapidly organised, Polly Karpova flew her Red Rata in low-level sorties over the fair ground, but no trace of their presence could be discovered. Slowly the skies cleared and daylight returned; for the moment the prophetic threat was put to one side and the Mariachi struck up once more.

Much later the gang were having a romantically lantern-lit picnic supper spread out on a luscious vintage tangerine/red, Chiadma goats wool rug that Beryl had picked up in an Essaouiran souk. Scrumpled napkins and greasy paper plates of discarded chicken wings and sandwich crusts littered the carpet and surrounding grass.

“Did we actually fix anything?” asked Phoebles.

“Doubt it.” Googleberry looked up from his bowl of pyrotechnical bread-and-butter pudding, with custard. “It looked a bit working class, so I stuck a sparkler in it,” he explained as he reclined, sucking noisily between mouthfuls on an Iznik porcelain hubble-bubble pipe.

“And the Lizard Thing’s threat?”

“Oh, probably just the prelude to another adventure.”

Boz watched a white plume moth carelessly spiralling in towards the guttering, spluttering Tilly lamp that illuminated their repast, and he sighed.

 

 

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