The Analytical Engine Speaks

It was gone teatime when Zelda and Master Dorje appeared wheeling a shopping trolley piled high with junk. Dorje cautiously isolated the readout mechanism and digging out a box of gears and worms began to ferret around in that section of the Analytical Engine’s mainframe immediately behind the blue boy. Meanwhile Zelda, utilising a watchmaker’s screwdriver, detached the lad’s writing hand. She then produced a medium sized tea chest, the contents of which were to remain a mystery to the surrounding, fascinated company.

“What does all that stuff do?”

“What’s in the box?”

“Is it safe?”

A large Papier-mâché ‘morning glory’ gramophone horn protruded from the top of the box and a twangy spring steel strip stuck out of a hole in the side. Zelda donned Chat-style goggles and pulled a welding torch from the supermarket trolley.

“What haven’t you got in that workshop of yours, Dorje?” asked Augusta with a mixture of exasperation and admiration.

Soon Zelda had firmly affixed the steel strip to the wrist tendons of the automaton. The resultant fire damage to its blue sleeve and the writing desk were deemed to be repairable if and when the opportunity presented itself.

“Ready,” she announced.

Master Dorje threw the Readout lever again. An unnerving whirring and grinding emanated from the mainframe, the lad’s arm quivered and a tinny voice issued forth from the trumpet.

“WOW…TK…AN…OY…DOF…OR…YOW?”

“Hm, just needs a little tweak,” said Zelda delving into the tea chest.

“…YEOW

“…YIEW

“…YOU?”

“There,” she said, “ask it a question.”

“How?”

“Ah, you’ll have to type into the teleprinter input port.”

“But that’s ten minutes walk away, round the other side,” said Lady Augusta.

“Am I supposed to think of everything?” The geek was becoming petulant.

“With me, your ladyship.” Slasher stepped up. “We’ll be in charge of the input. Zelda, you and Master Dorje look after your contraption. The rest of you spread out, shouting distance apart, relay messages back and forth.” The exact positioning of the gang round the perimeter of Augusta’s machine was hotly debated, resulted in one minor scuffle and was finally resolved when Aunty Stella took charge. All were in place by the time Slasher and Mrs King had reached the teleprinter terminal.

“What shall we ask it?”

“Something straightforward,” suggested Slasher.

Augusta typed, WHAT HAVE YOU FOUND OUT SO FAR?

The machine whirred. “DO YOU WANT THE GOOD NEW…S OR THE BAD NEW…S FIR…ST?”

“It’s being sarcastic,” shouted Phoebles.

“Just relay the message, Phoebs,” shouted Aunty Stella.

“Is that the message?”

“No.”

“Look,” shouted Augusta. “Can we have some discipline please?”

GOOD NEWS FIRST.

“THE…RE IS NO GOOD NEW…S.”

“Great!” AND THE BAD NEWS?

“YOU A…RE ALL GOIN…G TO DIE.”

“This is going really well,” muttered Slasher.

“Can we junk your machine and go back to making it up as we go along, please?” shouted Phoebles.

“When? Where? Why?” shouted Boz.

COULD YOU BE A LITTLE LESS APOCALYPTIC? typed Augusta. MAKE A SPECIFIC PREDICTION.

“OK. PREDIC…TION: TOMO…RROW LUNCH…TIME – E S T – FOXNEW…S WILL RE…PORT THAT – IN AN AMBI…TIOUS EXPERI…MENT, A 70,600 TONNE…S, 280 METRE…S (920 FT) LONG DRONE CAR…RIER LA…DEN WI…TH LAS…ERS, CAME…RAS AND OTH…ER SEN…SORS – BUT WITH NO ONE’…S HANDS ON THE WHEEL – HAS BEEN DE…PLOYED BY THE WEB-BASED UB…ER TECHNO…LOGIES INC ON…TO THE CHA…LLENGING SEAS OF THE NOR…TH ATLAN…TIC – STEE…RING ITS…ELF TO PRESEL…ECTED CO-ORDI…NATES OFF THE EURO…PEAN SEA…BOARD — AUTON…OMOUS DRON…ES – PRE-PROG…RAMMED FROM THE SAFET…Y OF UBER’…S SAN FRAN…CISCO HEAD…QUARTERS WILL BE DIREC…TED AT STRA…REGIC TAR…GETS WI…THIN THE ROGUE AN…ARCHY.

“THEN …YOU …DIE!”

Everyone rushed round to join Slasher and Augusta.

“What on earth is it this time?” said Boz.

“CIA black ops again,” said Slasher. “They’re still in with Les Chats.”

Ginsbergbear puffed on his briar. “Zelda, can you hack an aircraft carrier that’s on autopilot?”

“Not remotely,” replied the geek. “I’d need to be onboard.”

“Good as done,” said Dark Flo. “I’ll alert Beryl.” She took out her smart-phone, looked disappointed, tried holding it above her head. “No signal. We need to get back to the Den.”

“How will we possibly find this drone carrier in the middle of the Atlantic?” said Ferdy.”

“No problem,” said Lady Augusta. “I’ll get Mr Doom and Gloom here to calculate a Latitude and Longitude for it.”

Save

Save

The Blue Boy

“What just happened?” Aunty Stella tried to straighten her turban where it had tipped forward over one eye and dislodged her spectacles. “What’s this place?”

Lady Augusta took a deep breath and began to blurt out an inadequate explanation. “It’s not really a tunnel as such. It bends space-time back on itself so that where you are and where you want to be are next to each other. That results in a bit of a multidimensional vacuum that kind of sucks you in and spits you out again. Not entirely unpleasant.”

“Mostly though…”

“Yarrooo!”

Boz was ejected onto the Carrara floor, with Phoebles clinging to his knees. They were closely followed by Phoebles’ waders and a strong smell of catnip. Ginsbergbear emerged holding his deer-stalker on with both hands, his Peterson glowing flame red and pouring out more black smoke than a Greek tramp steamer.

“I’m flying!” Ferdy shot out of the tunnel and into the far wall. “Oh.”

Unruffled, Master Dorje and Zelda, old hands at spacetime travel, stepped into the room. Slasher McGoogs was on his hands and knees heaving noisily. He coughed up a huge fur ball. “Oh dear.”

“Is Flo here?” asked Boz.

“I am.” She was squatting, panther-like, where she had landed by the Analytical Engine.

“Welcome to my bubble universe,” said Augusta. The little party gathered their wits whilst the great engine loomed over them, clattering, whirring and clanking as it continued to analyse the data Zelda had fed into it on her previous visit. “Let us see what the miraculous beast has to tell us. Come round to the output terminal.” The countess patted the bronze framework affectionately as she led them to the far side. Five minutes walk down the length of the machine a small boy in a blue velvet suit sat at a vintage school desk. With expressionless face and vacant stare he held a cheap Biro poised above a scroll of printer paper.

“Would you do the honours, please, Master Dorje?”

The monk threw a lever labelled ‘Readout’. With a jerk the child put pen to paper and painstakingly inscribed a copperplate ‘a’. Its hand moved along and wrote another letter, and another, and another. Unseen within the torso of the automaton a programmable wheel, with the alphabet inscribed about its rim, began to rotate. A column of irregular discs stepped up and down to align with steel arms, sprung to follow the contours of each disc as it turned. Each time the scribe reached the end of a line the paper inched up and the process continued.

“Is this as fast as it goes?” Phoebles was looking concerned. “Les Chats will be ruling the world long before we get an answer at this rate.”

“It’s very elegant though, isn’t it,” said Ferdy.

“Aesthetically pleasing,” added Ginsbergbear. “Does it do poetry?”

“Bloody useless,” said Boz.

“Oh…” Lady Augusta was downcast.

“I might have an idea.” Said Zelda cheerily. “Have you got a box of bits?”

“In my workshop.” Master Dorje replied.

“Come along then, Master D. You lot stick with this antediluvian contraption while me and the magus work on an upgrade.”

Sailortown

Barrymore dropped Boz and his companions off in Whitechapel. The entrances to Aldgate East station were heavily barricaded and guarded by an armed contingent of Brick Lane Zapatistas who were clustered around a brazier. The gang exchanged pleasantries with the troopers and then walked briskly down Leman Street. Just off Cable Street they could hear Wilton’s Music Hall in full swing. Underneath the Arches was being sung above the accompanying Wurlitzer organ and periodically drowned out by heckling from an enthusiastic, mostly inebriated audience. When they reached Ratcliff Highway it was alive. Sailors and their doxies lurched in huddled groups about the pavements, cursing costermongers wheeled their barrows through the crowds, a dozen different accents and languages sang out. Barrel organs vied with each other in the middle of the thoroughfare, pop music blared from the jukeboxes of every pub and bar, squeals from every brothel. Fast food vendors shouted enticements to passers by and the scent of fish and chips made Phoebles’ mouth water. Pulsating, pastel coloured neon signs directed the unwary to strip joints and tattoo parlours.

“Hullo deary, fancy a quick one? Oh, sorry Mr Boz. I didn’t recognise you straight away. You been in the wars?”

“Hello Mavis. Just singed. Things nearly got on top of me a bit back, but I’m fine now. Thanks for asking.”

There was a good deal of squawking and not a few growls as they passed Jamrach’s Pet Emporium.

“That place always depresses me,” said Ferdy.

“Oh it’s not so bad nowadays,” Ginsbergbear replied, “Jamrach Jnr has abandoned the sale of exotics and runs an endangered species breeding program. He even has a Bornean Orang-utan working the counter.”

“There is a rumour he also runs illicit interspecies porn shows on the side,” added Phoebles.

Narrow Street was quiet, all but deserted, smelling of Stockholm tar and cinnamon, and appearing reassuringly normal at first. Yet, unusually, there was a Palomino pony tethered to the hitching rail outside Bozzy’s Den. Inside, Dark Flo perched on top of the saloon’s upright piano, her bare right foot pressed gently against Sam’s chest. The left dangled, beating time with her big toe. She was wearing a bowler hat and singing The Ballad of Sexual Obsession. Several local girls were standing in, without much enthusiasm, for the absent Kittens and an aging wizard wielded a cocktail shaker behind the bar.

“Aunty Stella!” cried Ferdy.

Aunty Stella sat in the bay window, in the full-dress uniform of a captain of the Hampshire Light Horse, midnight blue knee length top coat trimmed in gold, crimson paisley cummerbund, an ultramarine and mellow yellow striped turban, white jodhpurs and black patent leather cavalry boots complete with spurs. A Persian style sabre and SMLE .762 bush carbine rested on the table and she was smoking a hookah. She beamed at the bird.

Most of the clientele wore grubby raincoats, trilbies and reflector shades. As Boz led the way towards Aunty Stella one of the punters rose. His gabardine trench coat was not grubby and his homburg neatly brushed. He came over.

“Hello Slasher,” said Aunty Stella.

“So,” he asked Boz, “what’s Larry got to say for himself?”

Phoebles and Augusta pulled up a second table so they could all sit in a group. They parked. With her set concluded Dark Flo came over, wrapping a silk Liberty print kimono about her slender body. She retained the bowler. Sam vamped an extended improv on Blue Rondo à la Turk.

“Nothing new,” said Boz in answer to Slasher McGoogs. “The city’s hanging on by the skin of its teeth and I’m beginning to think Mrs King might be right. We need to gain access to her computer thingy.” He looked over at Aunty Stella. “What’s the situation here?”

“We have deliberately allowed Les Chats Souterrains to infiltrate Sailortown. Specialist units of the Autonomous Revolutionary Insurrectionary Limehousesailortown Irregulars, in mufty, have them under close surveillance. At least that way we can keep an eye on what they’re up to. We have thwarted several attempts to gain access to the docks, but so far they seem unaware that they are being exploited.” Aunty Stella turned to Dark Flo, addressing her in a discrete, concerned tone. “I couldn’t help noticing during that last number, you have some nasty bruises, Flo.”

“They’re fading now,” replied the chanteuse barmaid. “Anyway the punters enjoy a subtle suggestion of off stage S&M. We’ve had a few narrow squeaks since I saw you last. I don’t think anyone’s come out of Jersey totally unscathed.”

“Does one ever?” mused Ginsbergbear.

Save

Save

Save

Wee Hamish

March Ör Die SThey 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.”

 

Aunty Stella’s Tale (Part Two)

AuntyStellaSRendezvous in Carlisle

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?”

Aunty Stella’s Tale (Part One)

CromfordLarry’s Letter

“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:Larry Doc

…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.’”

* 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.”

 

Gilnockie Tower Part 4

The Tower Besieged

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.SC Everyman Colourised S

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