For the next hour or so it proved quite impossible to leave the square. Fitz may have melted away as soon as his speech was concluded but, with all patrols cancelled, the crowd in general showed no inclination to move on. Various bottles, barrels and jugs of home brew were swiftly produced from Lord-knows-where and Central Square became the scene of a vast outdoor party. Situated as we were in the very midst of the throng we found our every attempt to escape blocked by hordes of exuberant citizens, singing and dancing with joyful abandon. For the time being there was nothing for it but to join the celebrations.
Eventually however, when the sun had long since set and the moon hung brightly in a clear sky, the party thinned out a little and I sensed, through something of a home-brew induced haze, that our opportunity had come. Not without some difficulty I managed to extract Mo from the midst of an enthusiastic sing-song and prised Michael off the end of a conga and we headed away to look for Ash.
Mo led us into a tightly packed residential district in the west of the city where the neat rows of identical terraced houses had been given an unwanted splash of individuality by the random intervention of Viborg bombs. The atmosphere of jubilation appeared to have radiated outwards from Central Square and all along our journey we encountered small bands of people gathered to share their delight at the news. We came across one such grouping huddled cheerfully around a bonfire at the end of the street where Ash lived.
“Ash? Yeah, she’s home,” responded a particularly rosy-cheeked man when questioned by Mo. “Least-ways nobody’s seen her emerge from her burrow.” The man took a swig from a bottle and hiccuped gently. “She never really was one for joining in much though,” he added with a sigh. “Care for a drink?”
Michael and I both politely declined the peculiarly murky looking brew on offer, aware that we had perhaps already imbibed a little too much in Central Square. Mo also declined the drink but expressed a wish to stay and catch up with the gossip from this part of the town so Michael and I were directed alone to a rather battered looking house in the middle of the street. “You won’t get any answer there,” remarked our red-faced guide when we tried knocking at the smoke-blackened front door and he directed us instead towards a set of steps leading downwards by the side of the house. “She pretty much lives in that basement,” he advised before turning back to rejoin the party.
We negotiated the twisted course of the stairs, weaving our way past a couple of carelessly stacked piles of sandbags, before a final turn saw us emerge abruptly into the basement beneath. We found ourselves looking into a single large room, much wider it seemed than the narrow house above it, and looking something like a cross between a particularly untidy junk shop and the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. Vast heaps of random furniture tottered between and alongside towers of shiny, high-tech computer equipment. Enormous coils of wire and cable snaked all around the room, trailing from ceiling to floor and back again like the vines of some technological jungle.
“Hello?” I called out tentatively. “Anyone there?”
“I’m sorry, we did knock but there was no response,” added Michael apologetically.
“Go away,” snapped back a surly female voice from somewhere deep within the chaos.
I shared an anxious glance with Michael. This was not quite the welcome we had been hoping for.
I tried again. “We’re looking for Ash.”
“Congratulations, you’ve found her,” the voice, carrying the barest hint of a slur, returned. “Now sod off – like I said already, I’m not interested in joining the party.”
Michael, never one to be easily deterred, stepped cautiously forward. “We haven’t come about the party,” he responded in a deliberately light tone. “We’d like to talk to you about another matter.”
There was a pause before a rather pretty young face topped by a mass of frizzy black curls suddenly popped up from behind a tower of equipment. “What sort of matter?” it demanded suspiciously. “Who are you?”
I stepped forward beside my colleague. “I’m Natasha, this is Michael,” I said brightly. “We’re new to Marksville – we arrived by train last night.”
“Oh that was you was it?” Ash staggered forth to get a better look at us. She looked to be no more than a year or two older than myself, dressed casually in a jumper and jeans. In her right hand dangled a half empty bottle of a distinctly cloudy hue. “Interesting journey was it?” she added sardonically.
“You could say that,” replied Michael.
“You should have waited a couple of days and saved yourselves some bother,” remarked Ash, sinking sullenly onto an old worn sofa in front of us. “Or haven’t you heard? The Viborg are packing up and heading home.”
“That’s good news, isn’t it?” I said uncertainly, a touch unnerved by the bitterness in her tone.
“Oh yes, brilliant. Hooray for bloody peace!” Ash lifted up her bottle and took a hearty swig.
“You don’t sound altogether pleased,” remarked Michael lightly.
“Oh I’m thrilled, really I am,” insisted Ash, not entirely convincingly. “I mean I won’t miss the bombing or the food shortages or having to get by on this poor excuse for a drink.” She glared accusingly at the bottle in her hand. “Only…”
“Only that’s me out of a damn job now, isn’t it?” complained Ash. “I spend months developing this,” – she waved a hand at the banks of computer equipment – “designing the most sophisticated and cohesive anti-Viborg defence system ever contemplated… and now what? They’ll probably be round to reclaim all my tech before long. No doubt the council will have it broken up and used to calculate parking fines. So yeah, it’s hooray for bloody peace!”
I edged forward, adopting a sympathetic expression. “But at least it did its job,” I offered. “You defeated the Viborg – that’s what matters, isn’t it?”
“Ha! Now that’s what takes the bloody biscuit,” snorted Ash. “The truth is none of this made the slightest difference. Do you know what really did for the Viborg in the end? Do you?” Michael and I could only look back blankly. “They’ve had an infestation of argentabugs out on the plains.”
“An infestation of what?” asked Michael.
“Argentabugs,” repeated Ash. “They’re a special breed of beetle that feed on bio-metallic nerves. They’re entirely inert under most conditions but bring them into contact with anything with a bio-metallic central nervous system and – whoosh! – they spring into life.”
Michael and I exchanged a significant glance.
“Fitz was good enough to call and let me know on account of the services I’ve rendered to the city,” continued Ash sourly. “He was very complimentary of course about all my efforts with the defensive system but, let’s face it, at the end of the day, it was the bugs that did it.” Ash shook her head disdainfully. “The thing is, you’ve no idea how long I’ve been trying to get my hands on a colony of argentabugs. They say that a single argentabug can tear out the entire central nervous system of a Viborg within twenty seconds.”
I gave her an embarrassed smile. “Less than ten, I’d say.”
“You’ve seen them in action?” asked Ash sharply. “Where?”
“Out on the plains,” I replied. I hesitated. “In fact,” I added awkwardly, “I think we may actually be the ones responsible for the infestation.”
“What?” Ash staggered to her feet, gazing wonderingly at us.
“Funnily enough, we were actually trying to bring them to you,” Michael endeavoured to explain. “We hoped you might accept them as payment for some work we wanted you to do.”
“Only our train got stopped by the Viborg,” I added sheepishly. “And they kind of… fell out.”
“You idiots!” spluttered Ash. “You had hold of argentabugs and you just let them go? What were you thinking?”
“To be fair, it wasn’t really our fault,” I protested, a touch miffed at the line Ash had chosen to take. “The Viborg made us open the box.”
“And surely the main thing is that they’ve forced the Viborg to sue for peace,” suggested Michael reasonably. “However they got released.”
“We’ll still tell everyone they were your bugs,” I offered. “You can take all the credit.”
“I’m not bothered about who takes the credit,” retorted Ash haughtily. “The point is, I had plans for those argentabugs. A few bugs out loose on the plains might temporarily put the wind up the Viborg but in the right hands they could be so much more. You see, I found this…” She turned and dug for a moment amongst a pile of papers before emerging triumphantly with a printed pamphlet which she thrust into my hands.
“Macmillan’s paper on the effects of electro-conductivity on argentabugs,” explained Ash as Michael and I stared incomprehensibly down at a blur of equations and scientific diagrams. “It’s Macmillan’s contention that with the manipulation of certain electrical waves you can actually control the movements of argentabugs.”
“Really? How interesting,” was all I could think to say.
“It’s one thing to have them running loose on the plains,” Ash added impatiently, “but imagine if you could actually direct them? What terms would the Viborg be prepared to come to if they knew we had a force of argentabugs under our control, ready to strike wherever we chose?”
“Oh, I see.” I handed back the pamphlet with a self-conscious shrug. “Sorry about that.”
Ash glanced mournfully at the report before throwing it back onto the pile. “Oh well, it’s all unproven anyway,” she muttered, sinking back onto the sofa with a morose shrug. “Still, it would have been nice to give it a try.”
There was a brief pause whilst Michael and I stood awkwardly before her, neither of us quite able to think of anything positive to say in response. Finally Ash looked up with a mildly curious gleam. “Anyway, you said something about wanting me to do some work for you,” she said. “What kind of work?”
Eagerly grasping the opportunity to change the subject, I reached down into the small satchel that Mo had leant me from her extensive bag collection and drew out the inter-dimensional travel drive. Unwrapping the protective cloth, I passed it to Ash. “We wanted you to take a look at this,” I advised.
Ash turned the device over in her hands, an intense gleam of curiosity awakening in her eyes. “What is it?”
“It’s an inter-dimensional travel drive.”
Ash looked up sharply. “It can’t be. The Explorer’s Club have the monopoly on that technology.”
“Let’s just say this is one that got away,” said Michael casually.
Ash turned her gaze back to the device, examining it closely again. “Does it work?” she asked after a moment.
“Not as such,” I confessed. “But we were hoping you might be able to help us with that.”
Ash gave a low whistle. “Now, if you’re asking me to fix this…”
“Not fix it,” I corrected. “Modify it.”
Ash looked at me curiously.
“We have a friend who’s suggested that it may be possible to adapt the object into a tracking device,” I explained. “He thinks it could be used to trace inter-dimensional movement right across the landscape.”
Ash raised an eyebrow. “And just who exactly might this friend of yours be?”
“Well…” I began.
“What I really mean to say,” interrupted Ash, “is does he know what he’s getting himself into – taking on the Explorer’s Club?”
I shrugged. “I guess he thinks he does.”
“Can you do the work though?” asked Michael.
Ash looked thoughtfully down at the device again for a moment. “Maybe,” she replied slowly. “But what do I get in return?”
I hesitated. “Well, we did bring those bugs for you…” I tried.
“And then promptly lost them on the plains,” countered Ash. “Oh no, that won’t do. So what else do you have? Cause this looks like a tricky job and as I’m about to become severely under-employed in the anti-Viborg business I can’t afford to take on any charity cases.”
I looked blankly at Michael and he gazed uncertainly back at me. It didn’t look like a Shakespearean recitation or a bit of impromptu poetry would be enough to settle the bill this time.
Eventually Michael turned to Ash. “I’m sure given time we can come up with something,” he suggested confidently.
“Then you’d better get thinking,” returned Ash with a smile. “I tell you what, seeing as tonight is an official holiday, why don’t you come back in the morning?” she added, laying the device down on the sofa beside her and picking up her bottle once more. “That gives you about eight hours to find something suitable by way of payment or you can look for some other mug to do your work.”
To be continued…