Kristijan had a sofa brought out on to the lawn of his retreat, and was looking amused as the preparations for the duel were carried out. Three of his four pet boys were sitting next to him, knees drawn up to their chins, wide-eyed. Little blond ‘Georgie’ was on his lap, being cuddled close. Willy couldn’t maintain his air of sensuous boredom, and he was leaning over the back of the sofa, grinning and whispering to the children.
Swords had been brought across from the palace, and Ruprecht was testing his blade, exchanging passes with Gilles, whose talent for fencing under the tuition of Lieutenant von Altstadt at Blauwhaven had burgeoned. Gilles was deliberately pressing Ruprecht hard. On the other side of the lawn Anton was idly swishing his blade around without taking up the colonel’s offer to warm him up, he was however using the opportunity to size up Ruprecht’s style and method. He was faintly smiling. Ruprecht recognised the fencer’s gambit of projecting confidence. So he retaliated with a trick of his own by allowing himself to be disarmed by Gilles, who was very apologetic about it. It served its purpose however, for out of the corner of his eye he saw Anton’s smile broaden.
Ruprecht went over to Joerg, ‘You know why I’m doing this?’
‘To p-p-piss me off?’ The little man was not happy.
‘It’s honour, Georgie. I’ve not forgotten what that asshole did to Ludwig and Erwin at Blauwhaven. It’s also to make sure the Baron loses his one ally in the military; though the honour thing comes first, of course.’
Joerg was no happier. ‘Do me a favour and just get wounded: that I can fix with luck. Oh, and take your shirt off. Duelling in white linen gives your opponent a better mark.’
Ruprecht took his hand and met his eyes. ‘Georgie, if I survive this I want us to go through Schuleneheit. It’s time we married. Please say yes, I love you so much, never more than at this moment.’
Joerg just stared open-mouthed, his eyes filling with tears. He gave a silent nod, which was enough for Ruprecht, who leant down and kissed him.
Eventually Kristijan clapped his hands and signalled that he wanted the duel to begin. Ruprecht removed his shirt and gave it to Gilles. The colonel was chosen to commence the meeting, and raised a sabre for the pair to touch. He dropped it and the duel commenced. Ruprecht soon discovered they were more evenly matched than he had expected. He may not have been a professional soldier, but he had practised a lot on the lawns of Blauwhaven with his two boys and the lieutenant. Anton may have been a professional, but his swelling belly under his waistcoat told its tale of the downside of prosperity.
Within three minutes, Anton’s slowness had earned him a blade through his left shoulder. The colonel separated the pair and looked at Kristijan.
‘Oh, get on with it! If the prince wants to stop Rupe from going to Hartland, he has to kill him, that was the deal.’
The colonel looked at a sullen Anton, who shook his head. The duel recommenced. Anton resumed aggressively, pushing Ruprecht back and seeking an opening, but he rapidly flagged and after two more minutes he laid himself open to Ruprecht’s blade, which ran him through his waistcoat above the right hand pocket. He was down.
‘You may slit his throat, Rupe,’ Kristijan called over cheerfully. ‘The boys would like a show.’
Ruprecht put the tip of his blade to Anton’s neck. ‘Do I and my seneschal get our apology?’
The man growled up at him. ‘Yes, yes. I was wrong. Now, can I have the doctor?’
Joerg was quickly at work, stripping the man’s upper body. Kristijan wandered over with his boys, so they could stare at the blood. ‘Will he survive, doctor?’ he asked.
‘Yes, sire. Rupe ran him through in just the right spot. He’s missed the arteries and at worst nicked a kidney.’
Kristijan shook his head. ‘That was a deliberate mercy strike, Rupe. You’re bad. There I was hoping you’d kill him. So now I have to go through the fuss of getting him to hospital and sending flowers. Oh well, I’ll retire him since he’s in disgrace. He’s managed to gather enough loot to live comfortably enough. Maybe the Bernicians will have him back now he’s stood his duel. So perhaps you’ll be good enough to clear off to Hartland, Rupe, you and your friends. Keep me up to date. I imagine if the Terrible Twins do their magic I’ll know soon enough anyway. Come on kids! Willy and I want to play herd games in the woods.’
Erwin was smiling as he loaded their bags into the back of the six-horse carriage he had somehow managed to hire. He was still looking amused as he climbed on to the box next to the driver and the carriage lurched off, taking the country roads northwards.
It was not an easy ride, and Joerg was looking green with the swaying of the vehicle before they left the outskirts of Ardheim.
‘Hans should be here,’ he groaned. ‘I feel seasick.’
Gilles looked sombre again. ‘Hans is where he needs to be, with Mutta and Kreech. My husband’s course is almost run now.’
‘I’m sorry, Gillot. My stomach was doing my thinking.’
‘No, Dr Joerg. Don’t apologise. Nothing can stop it, but I can best live up to my prince’s memory if I follow this expedition through to the end. And against the odds we have a chance to finish our work, thanks to a mad and distracted emperor.’
‘No,’ Ruprecht asserted. ‘It’s thanks to the Great Mind. We should be at the frontier with the Republic tomorrow. We need to sleep tonight. I wonder what the Mind will show us?’
‘I have hopes,’ Gilles said, with sudden passion. Ruprecht could imagine what he meant. If he could no longer see his Kreech in this world, maybe he could find him in the world of the Mind.
François too understood this. Sitting next to him, he took Gilles’s brown hand in his own and pulled his head on to his shoulder, kissing his hair. ‘My brother,’ he whispered. ‘We’ll find him on the Great Plain together.’
By nightfall they were at the small town of Kenstatt some miles south of the frontier. There was a decent coaching inn still functioning, for the railway north to the Republic ran some thirty miles to the west, and no branch line had as yet been constructed in the Kenstatt direction.
The host was impressed by their equipage though a little puzzled at to why four obviously superior guests wished to share one chamber, but he shrugged and assigned them the largest suite in his inn. Erwin Wenzel, who had not experienced any night-time visions, had an ample room all to himself, like the colonel.
After the host had done scratching his head at the eccentricities of the gentry, he observed that he had enjoyed a full hostel the previous night. ‘Many folks are heading towards Sint-Andrasborg to see the Holy Father pass by. This town’s empty today; so many folks gone to watch him on his way and ask his blessing. They say twenty thousand are following him, but none are going hungry or without shelter. The cardinals are meeting him at the frontier with the Montenards, for it is now obvious that His Holiness is going to cross into the Republic. The Protector himself will be at the border to greet him, they say, with all the Montenard bishops.’
When they got to their room and began taking turns with the bathroom they discussed this latest development with the colonel.
François and Gilles had finally decided it was time to shave, for there were now definite dark whisps on both their upper lips, and Gilles wanted to shape François’s thick hair. So the former Francien emperor was sat in a chair with a towel around his neck while Gilles wielded the scissors and razor. ‘You have to look your best if we meet the Holy Father, Fran. He still recognises you as the rightful emperor, so you need to be smart.’
‘We’d better get ahead of him if he’s really going to end up in Hartland at Yorck,’ Ruprecht reflected from the sofa. ‘That’ll still be two days’ walk for the old fellow. We need uninterrupted access to the site. I’ve sent Erwin to telegraph Rancher Simonsen to expect us tomorrow and have a crew ready. He’s also going to reserve rooms in the Blue Stallion before the inevitable rush.’
The colonel mused on this. ‘It shouldn’t be too difficult to resume work at Yorck. When I was there earlier this year I had the two shafts you dug last year revetted and roofed, so it will be possible to resume work on them, but from what I gather, you’ll be more interested this time in the tunnel from the control room to the hill housing the Oracle. It’s intact and clear. It’s still early autumn, and the weather should be mild for several weeks yet.
‘By the way, young man,’ he added in Gilles’s direction, ‘I’d appreciate a trim if I could persuade you.’
‘Certainly, colonel,’ Gilles smiled tightly. ‘My rates are very reasonable.’
Ruprecht and Joerg went out into the market place as the sun went down to watch the Three Sisters rise in the south, and they were not the only ones staring up at the sight, one or two individuals had large telescopes mounted.
Joerg observed, ‘The starships probably have hulls made of the white ceramic substance we encountered at Yorck, so no surprise they shine so brightly. I wonder if that fellow would let me take a look through his eyepiece?’
Joerg walked over and negotiated access to the telescope. Its young owner turned out to be a dedicated amateur astronomer. ‘I always thought there was something odd about the Sisters,’ he said, ‘even before they moved in the sky. They were so uniform in appearance and brilliance, and you could definitely see through the lens that their disks were the same size, which is very odd if they were the planetoids common wisdom maintained they were. The seven planets orbiting round our sun all look so different. Then of course they moved, and it must now be evident to all people of education that the objects are artificial and possessed of an ability to power their own motion.’
‘So what do you think they may be, sir?’ Ruprecht inquired.
‘Why, fireships, minheer! What else could they be? This must be the Second Landing!’
‘But they’re not actually landing, just taking up a new station in the sky.’
‘Maybe so, but they are closer in. A fellow I know who is good with mathematics has calculated that they must now be within 20,000 kilometres of our atmosphere, ten times closer than they were before. They’re surely poised for something.’
Ruprecht could not disagree with that observation, so thanking the man for allowing access to his telescope, they returned through the crowd to the inn. The colonel had by then retired for the night, and Gilles had finished his barbering. They retired to their respective beds, but not before Gilles had asked them to sit for a while in silent prayer for Felix and his safe passage to the Eternal Herd.
Ruprecht and Joerg woke hopefully in a woodland glade, bright with morning light. They were as ever in the form of pubescent boys, and another smaller boy was dozing between them; it was Kris as a child. He sat up and rubbed his eyes, then grabbed Joerg around the neck and kissed him, grinning all over his sweet little face. Ruprecht got the same treatment.
‘Are you going to help me, Robby?’
‘Help you do what, little Kris?’
‘Help me find Kreech of course! He must be here somewhere, but I can’t see any herd.’
They all three stood, the older boys each taking one of Kris’s hands. They led him through the wood, occasionally allowing him to swing between them, an amusement that made the child giggle. Eventually they came out of the trees and in the distance they saw a large human herd trekking across a plain; there must have been thousands of them. A handsome bull loped towards them, sized them up and silently indicated that they should join the herd as it moved slowly on its way. Several blond children danced out of the crowd towards them, stopping and staring before getting close enough to chat.
The bull led them to a group of females excavating for grubs, and Kris joined a small band of expectant little ones watching for results. One by one, each child was offered a mouthful and finally it was Kris’s turn. A beautiful human woman looked up from where she was crouching and smiled at the boy, brushing his tangled blond hair from his smooth forehead. Then she gathered him into her body and offered him a grub, which he swallowed with evident delight.
‘You’re the prettiest little fellow,’ she said, ‘but then I always knew you would be.’
Kris looked wondering into her face. ‘Grandma?’
‘Yes, sweet one. The Great Bulls have allowed you to come to me at last. This is our herd, and all these humans you see are our family, down to the Connors who were the originators of our line.’
‘Because here you’re loved as you should be, despite all you’ve done. Do you wish to walk with us?’ He nodded vigorously. She picked the child up and placed him at her breast. He took her teat and fell quickly asleep as he suckled on it, his mouth still moving though his eyes were closed.
‘Why’s he still here, my lady? Why’s he not returned to the material world?’ Ruprecht asked, and then bowed to her, for he knew that in life this woman had been one of Ardhesse’s greatest queens, the force behind forging the Allemanic Alliance after her husband’s murder.
She smiled down at the two boys. ‘The great Jean-Charles has ordained it so. Kristijan will take the milk from my breast and when eventually he awakes, he will be healed by it and fully sane, and then he will have choices to make. His living body will not wake in his palace in the morning, and his spirit will not return to it. So the Great Mind has determined.’
‘But that means …’ Joerg began.
‘Walk along with us, children. This herd is not yours, but you have kin here. So go amongst us and play with the other children, they’ll be delighted to have you join in their games.’
‘Is Felix walking here, my lady?’ Ruprecht blurted.
‘He has passed, Robby. He is on the celestial Plain, if that is what you wish to know. But he is not in this herd.’
She smiled and strolled off, nursing Kris as she did, other females coming up to admire the child. But the boy slept on, his mouth now disengaged from her breast, smiling gently as he slumbered.
Joerg and Ruprecht awoke with the dawn. François and Gilles were still sleeping in each other’s arms, a moving sight. Joerg padded across to them and looked closely at their faces as they slept, then returned to the warmth of Ruprecht’s arms.
‘Their eyes move under their closed lids in their sleep, as if reacting to what happens in their dream world.’
Ruprecht’s own mind was elsewhere. ‘So my little brother is dead. May he walk in peace with the Herd.’
‘He was a gentle soul, and a great loss to Ostberg and the world. He was so gifted with people of all ranks and degrees, at ease with the humble and the great. Those are rare talents. I’ll get dressed and have a word with the village priest before we leave. His name should be included at mass.’
‘What about Kristijan? Is he dead too?’
‘The Queen didn’t say exactly that. She just said that his consciousness would not return to his body in the morning but be kept in the Herd. I’ll bet there’ll be panic at the Waltherborg Palace when Willy can’t wake the emperor up.’
Ruprecht mused. ‘They may be keeping him out of the way while the next few days’ events unwind. It’s one way to stop him meddling. A bit devious really.’
A rustling of sheets opposite announced that François and Gilles had returned to the world. They kissed on the mouth and both sat up, François placing his arm round Gilles’s bare shoulder, and kissing his cheek. He looked across. ‘We didn’t find Kreech. How about you two?’
Ruprecht related their own nightime experience. ‘So the Queen told us that Felix is now walking the plain, and his life is done in this world, but she had nothing more to say other than that the Herd has, in effect, taken Kris’s consciousness prisoner. What about your experience?’
Gilles answered. ‘It was different this time. We woke as boys our own age in New London before it was attacked. We could see downriver beyond the town a big white dome: the complex containing the Oracle.’
‘Our clothes were really odd, shiny and tight,’ François added. ‘It was morning and other kids, boys and girls of all ages, were heading off to school with packs on their backs. But we went across the river to fields where there were paddocks full of horses. We joined men shifting bales of hay into the paddocks so they could feed, and we petted them. We then saddled up several and mounted them, placing rifles in the saddle holsters. It was then that someone noticed spires of black smoke from down the river, so a party of us rode hard a kilometre downriver to find a cluster of farmsteads on fire and dozens of erdbeesten bulls driving naked and weeping humans, women and children, away from the settlement back towards the town. The countryside was alive with the beasts. Our leader and several others drew their rifles and began picking off the bulls. The rest of us rode hard into the erdbeesten and used our mounts’ weight and hooves to drive off the rest.
‘The women we liberated told us that the bulls had appeared with the dawn, surprised the settlement, killed the men and older male teenagers and set light to their homes, stripping the survivors naked and herding them north. We left them to follow after us as they could and rode hard back to the Colony. New London was burning. It was swamped with hundreds of bulls, who had already rounded up the human males into one group, and the rest of the colonists into another, where they were silently and efficiently processing them, ripping the clothes off the females and boys. They were assessing the boys’ physical development, hauling the older ones towards the group of mature males, ready to be executed. Several boys our own age were screaming and struggling in the bulls’ arms, one was killed as I looked. We unshipped our rifles and began picking the bulls off again, though there were too many of them for our weapons. But I and Gillot went down to the paddock , broke it and stampeded dozens of horses towards the erdbeesten, who scattered, which allowed the human males to begin fighting back with anything to hand. I picked up a long iron spike and rode among the bulls braining or spearing them as I passed.
‘The erdbeesten seemed unable to react to the unexpected resistance and were bemused by the use of horses. Many began lumbering off northwards. But a party of them had already forced an entry into the comm centre and killed the duty crew. Several colonists with guns pursued them along the tunnel and we could hear shots ahead of us, that and the echoing hoots of the bulls as they stampeded up into the control centre and the Oracle chamber. The bulls seemed to have some inkling as to the importance of the place, and we could hear shattering and wrenching as they devastated the equipment. Then there was a silent, white flash from up ahead and the sudden claxon for a radiation alert. Gilles and I stumbled back down the tunnel but by then it was already too late. We knew we were dead men. That’s when we awoke.’
Silence followed François’s account of the last days of New London. Eventually Ruprecht said, ‘That may have been your final briefing from the Great Mind. What we saw when we breached that tunnel was as the English left it. The poisoned humans had been pulled out and stacked in the cellar, perhaps because it was too dangerous to move their bodies outside. Volunteers had donned protective suits to try to penetrate and repair the damage in the Oracle chamber, but had failed. So the chamber was sealed and left to time to clear the poison while the settlement above it was abandoned. When we get inside I have no doubt we will find erdeesten bulls and human engineers within, left where they had died.’
The party had no difficulty in crossing into the Republic. As soon as they reached Lindern they made for the telegraph office. After an hour’s wait, Ruprecht emerged and took Gilles in his arms as the others looked on. ‘He died last night at the fifth hour; Mutta and Grossmutta were with him. He was peaceful at the last. They’re taking him home to Ostberg to lie in state at the Residenz. There’ll be public mourning for two weeks followed by the state funeral. We’re required home as soon as possible.’
It was a quiet drive north into Hartland. Gilles sat at the window of their carriage, indifferent to its lurching over the less than perfect road surfaces of the rural roads. He just stared out on the world as it went past. He only came round when François pointed out where the burning homesteads had been in their vision of the night before. Joerg observed how field boundaries seemed still to mark where the ancient farm had been.
They entered Yorck soon after, and unloaded at the waiting inn. The landlord was delighted to see them and happy to make arrangements with his ostler to return their equipage back to Ardheim. Though evening was approaching, Gilles and François were not going to waste any time. They hired mounts and and headed for the stables, taking lanterns with them.
‘No delay, Rupe,’ said François before he went, ‘this has to be done quickly, for all our sakes.’
Colonel von Ampfeld protested that they should not go alone. ‘Then come along with us, colonel. But we have to go. There’s no danger other than what we create ourselves. Come along later, Dr Joerg, if you must. But we can’t wait till tomorrow.’
‘Joerg will bring some refreshments with him when he gets to the site. As for me, I had best report to Grossmutta and find out where the Patriarch has got to on his pilgrimage. He must be approaching the border of the Republic by now. I’ll join you when I can.’
It took over an hour before Ruprecht had completed his tasks. He found Joerg still waiting for him at the inn, saddlebags ready.
‘The patriarch was irritated at the fuss on the border, and was apparently quite cross with the Protector of the Republic about it. He walked right past the reception committee and on to the road leading to the Saberndaal. He’s coming directly here, Georgie.’
‘That’s a bit irritating really. It means we only have today and tomorrow before His Holiness arrives. What on earth will he do or say when he gets here?’
‘In other news, Grossmutta has brought Felix home. A special train took his body to Ostberg and he’s lying among flowers and candles at the steps to his throne in the Residenz. The coffin will be open for two days. The queue to pay respects is already half way down the hill. The whole city is turning out.’
‘Time to see what’s under the hill, Robby. Despite the circumstances, I have to confess to a thrill when I think of what may happen next.’
They mounted, and rode across the darkening moors to the low rise that marked the site of New London. The horses kept to an ambling pace, for they did not like night riding. They dismounted at the entrance to the cellars, and found the colonel there with a cigarette.
‘They sent me out,’ he confessed. ‘They thought the smoke might cause a problem with … what did they call ‘em? The sensors.’
‘Any progress, Otto?’
‘Plenty, Excellency. They went up to the box at the side of the inner door, tapped in a combination of letters and numbers and the damned thing slid open without so much as a creak, just a hiss of escaping gas.’
‘Did you go in?’
‘We did. It smelled very odd too. As you suggested, within the first chamber were the mummified corpses of a dozen erdbeesten bulls and several human males. The outer chamber had been smashed up and there were signs of an explosion, though nothing as dramatic as I had expected. They had me take the bodies out. An unpleasant job, but the remains were not weighty, and I could roll them on to a sheet then drag them along the tunnel. They’re stacked below. You might wish to see what a royal erdbeest bull looked like, professor.’
‘We’ve seen enough of them in our dreams, Colonel,’ Joerg said, ‘but they’ll be a thrill for any zoologist to dissect.’
‘Very well then, gentlemen. Follow me.’
They clambered down the steps and into the familiar gloom below. Lamps were lit along the tunnel, at the entrance to which were the colonel’s pile of salvaged corpses from within the control chamber. Joerg paused to examine a colonist, still in his uniform jacket. Another was in a green protective suit, which had nonetheless been unable to preserve his life. After Joerg had satisfied his curiosity, they headed along the tunnel, to reach the end and find only a blank wall of white polymer. The control complex had been sealed against them, but Gilles and François were within.
After an hour they gave up. The handle on the outer door had been disabled from inside.
‘Do you think they did this, or is it the work of some internal system?’ he asked the colonel.
‘When last I saw them,’ he replied, ‘they seemed perfectly confident in what they were doing. They cleared away the trashed machinery and began excavating under some consoles. They said their first objective was to restore the power which the Ancient engineers had shut off while they tried to contain the poison seeping out of the complex.’
‘It could be that they succeeded and an automatic system has begun carrying out a programmed series of instructions,’ Joerg concluded. ‘It may be a defence mechanism of some sort.’
‘That’s not too reassuring,’ Ruprecht observed. ‘that would mean that the artificial mind within has taken control away from them, and they’re trapped. But waiting here will do no good. It must be the fifth hour by now. We’d best return to the Blue Stallion and get some sleep, who knows but the Great Mind may try to contact us?’
So they quit the hill and rode slowly back, leading the boys’ mounts with them. It was well past midnight when they finally got to bed. Ruprecht and Joerg lay in each other’s arms brooding about the day’s events. Sleep was elusive, but eventually came. They awoke in the early morning with the sunlight flooding their suite. Their sleep had been entirely dreamless. It seemed the Great Mind was no longer communicating with them.
The Blue Stallion was bustling when they met the colonel in the parlour for breakfast.
‘It’s as well you gentlemen arrived when you did,’ the landlord observed. ‘We heard this morning that His Holiness’s pilgrimage is passing this way. The Protector himself will be staying here this evening. People are renting out rooms in the town at sixty thalers a night! I’ve tripled my rates, though obviously not for you gentlemen, being as how you’re already here.’
Rancher Simonsen arrived before they reached the bottom of their teapot. He joined them in a cup. ‘You gentlemen going out to the hill? I’ll accompany you. How d’you do, colonel? A pleasure to see you again.’
It seemed the two elderly gentlemen had made good friends during the colonel’s last visit to Yorck.
The rancher had the Francien morning paper from Sint-Willemsborg, which Ruprecht borrowed off him. The Hiraut des Montagnes was well-respected as the quality paper in the Francien language, much read across the Empire, where journalism was kept under a degree of state control. The Hiraut benefitted from the Republic’s free press and from Sint-Willemsborg’s place as a southern hub in the railway and telegraphy system of Terre Nouvelle.
Ruprecht was rapidly absorbed in what the Hiraut’s correspondents travelling with the Patriarch had to say about his pilgrimage. It covered the front page. Turning the page, he was equally struck by reports from the Empire about the withdrawal of Allemanic troops from the northern and central provinces, and their abandonment of Aix. The Imperial flag was again flying in the capital and the reign of François XII had been proclaimed as restored, but there was no news from Hochrecht as to when His Imperial Majesty would cross back into his realm. It occurred to Ruprecht that François needed to know all this as soon as possible. His oppressed people were counting on him.
The third page carried a report from the Ardhessian correspondent, reflecting on curious happenings at the court of the Allemanic emperor, who had not been seen in public for a week now. There were rumours that he had been immobilised in his summer palace by a stroke or an epileptic fit. But he quoted sources in the Chancellor’s office as saying that the Emperor-King was at his desk in the Hendrijksborg Castle planning the retaking of Zuidholm from the Easterners and scheming to recover control of the Francien Empire.
‘Here’s an odd thing, Georgie,’ he remarked when the colonel had disappeared to the toilet. ‘The sleeping spell on Kristijan’s been broken or lifted. He’s back in circulation in Ardheim, if this paper’s to be believed.’
Joerg shrugged. ‘It’s the Baron I’ll bet. He’ll be leaking false reports so that the true situation isn’t discovered for a while. Without his patron, he’s a dead man and he knows it. Were I him I’d be planning a long stay across the sea in Athalante.’
They rode out of the small town and took the familiar road to New London, Rancher Simonsen riding along with them. There had been no change in the night. The site was empty and all was quiet. The Rancher left them at the entry to the comm centre, much to their secret relief. He said he had some stock to move to take advantage of the approach of the pilgrimage.
All was quiet below, but not dark. Strips of ambient light now illuminated the tunnel approach to the white door, which was still closed against them. They stood a while at a loss, because banging on the impervious surface was a clear waste of time. Eventually Joerg suggested they go back and make some arrangements about the corpses found within the control hub. It took an hour to shroud them and stretcher the remains of each erdbeest and human to a storage shed belonging to the excavation. Scientific as ever, Joerg made neat notes about each individual as he was shrouded and numbered each body.
Once they had finished they stood in the bright morning light and surveyed the hill. The earthquake took them unawares, and they fell as the ground shifted beneath them. They stayed down as the earth did not so much tremble as shudder and then vibrate.
‘Look!’ the colonel cried. The temporary roofs over their excavations in the hill collapsed and fell into the shafts. Then great cracks opened in the mound, and with a huge groan the grass and earth simply slid off the vibrating surface beneath, and a great cloud of dust obscured the sky. When it had cleared they stood on the once more stable ground staring at the result. A great white dome now stood shining in the sun to their south and, as they watched, six tall metal spikes of aerials emerged with a metallic whine from the top and climbed dozens of metres above it.
They picked their way south towards the featureless ceramic wall, and as they reached it, a previously invisible hatch was outlined in front of them, and then opened inward. A grinning head poked out. It was Gilles. ‘Morning all!’ he called cheerily. ‘Want to come in and meet our new friend Charlot?’