“We’re lost now, aren’t we?” I said with a sigh.
Ever since we’d exited the square with the inanimate soldiers the buildings seemed to have crowded ever closer together and the paths had narrowed until the apartment block that had been our guide star had been somehow lost from view. Our pace had gradually slowed with each uncertain turn and now we had finally come to a complete halt between a row of overhanging Tudor houses and a crumbling medieval Abbey.
Michael looked one way down the path, then the other and then shrugged. “Well, it’s not exactly a new phenomenon,” he replied unhelpfully.
“We shouldn’t have taken a left at the Chinese pagoda,” I suggested.
“If we’d gone right we would have ended up in that ornamental pond,” pointed out Michael.
“I’m sure we should have hit the centre of the barracks by now,” I said, glancing anxiously up at the ever darkening sky.
“Perhaps we should try to retrace our steps,” suggested Michael. “If we could find our way back to the last spot from which we could actually see the apartment block we might be able to recalibrate our sense of direction.”
I hesitated. That ‘if’ seemed to hang very heavy in the air. There was no guarantee, after all, that going back would prove any more enlightening than going forward. But, forwards or backwards, it seemed certain that there was nothing to be gained from staying where we were.
“Alright then,” I eventually agreed. “Let’s give it a try.”
So we turned around and headed back the way we had just come, trying all the time not to countenance the prospect that we might yet end up simply going round in circles until the sun set.
Valentine paid no attention to the thumps, the thuds and the muffled cry that trailed after him as he hurried back down the stairs of the apartment block. If Sturridge wanted to find out the hard way just how effective his Sentient Soldiers could be at carrying out their orders that was his look out. Valentine had fresh commands to issue to the rest of his battalions and this required a certain level of concentration. He paused in the entrance hall and carefully emptied his mind of all extraneous matter before summoning up that precious link. Once he sensed the connection had been established he ran through in his mind the following instructions:
Find the intruders and destroy the device in their possession.
Secure the perimeter and let no-one through.
There was the briefest of pauses before he felt that satisfying shiver that told him his orders had been received. As he strode lightly down the steps of the apartment block on his way back to the Black Tower he was rewarded with the first ringing crunch of footsteps that let him know his army was on the move.
The sound flowed across the silent barracks like a wave, the sharp crunch of a hundred feet snapping simultaneously upon the ground. Michael and I instantly froze in our tracks as it was followed by another crunch, then another and another. We stood there for a moment in an agony of uncertainty. But it wasn’t long before it became painfully clear that the steadily marching footsteps were headed in our direction. We exchanged a brief look of concern and then, before the first of the identical faces could appear around the corner of the Chinese pagoda ahead of us, we turned and ran.
The trouble was that we had no idea where we were running to. As we breathlessly careered around each twist and turn it felt like we were only being sucked further and further into the centre of the spider’s web. The sound of the footsteps divided and spread like molten lava flowing down a hillside, echoing off walls and along paths and alleyways until they seemed to be coming at us from every direction. And, sure enough, we were sprinting desperately along in the shadow of those Tudor houses we had passed earlier when we were suddenly confronted by a phalanx of soldiers rounding the corner up ahead of us. We skidded to a halt and turned, just in time to see another phalanx turn the corner behind us. Suddenly we were trapped in the middle of the narrow passage with soldiers closing inexorably in from either end.
I looked up and down and muttered a brief prayer. Michael, hoping for something more practical to do, looked from side to side. He first tried the door of the nearest Tudor house but it was locked and the heavy wood showed no inclination to give way under the pressure of his shoulder. So he turned to the right where our path was flanked by the remains of a crumbling medieval Abbey. The stone walls looked impenetrable enough but sitting high up was a large window. Once presumably filled with dazzling stained glass, the frame was now empty. It might well have been out of the reach of a shorter man but with a running jump Michael somehow succeeded in getting a grip on the ledge. Having scrambled his way up onto the wide stone sill he swiftly turned around and offered down his hand. “Come on, quick!” he urged.
I didn’t need a second invitation. Grasping hold, my feet scrabbled against the stone wall as Michael heaved up with all his strength. I had just managed to hook my left arm over the sill and was pulling myself across in an effective if ungainly manner when my progress was abruptly impeded by a sharp tug on my right shoulder.
The Sentient Army had closed in on their targets with a ruthless precision. There was no emotion in the pursuit, they did not feel the thrill of the chase. Their hearts did not quicken and they felt no obligation to hurry their step when they saw the intruders attempt to escape through the window of the Abbey. The precise layout of the barracks was imprinted in the mind of each and every one of them and in an instant they were swarming out to cover every possible exit. Yet the first soldier in the column calculated that the objective was still within reach. As the girl threatened to disappear over the side of the wall he reached up and just caught hold of the bag that was hooked over her right shoulder.
She slid backwards. But her companion grabbed tight hold of her and for a moment she was suspended between the two, caught in a painful tug of war. Then the strap of her bag was torn free and the foremost item within came tumbling out. Everything froze for a second as both the soldier and the girl’s companion stared down at the device lying helplessly on the ground by the soldier’s feet. Then the soldier simply stepped backwards, crushing the device mercilessly into the dust. The girl, freed from his grasp, finally scrambled over the window ledge and slithered, together with her companion, into the shadows of the Abbey below.
We landed upon the cold stone floor of the Abbey in our customary heap. Picking myself up, I gazed down in dismay at my torn bag and the realisation of what was lost hit me. “Fuck! They’ve got the…” I began.
“It’s no good,” said Michael with a sorrowful shake of his head. “It’s mulch.”
I swallowed hard, trying not to give in to an overwhelming sense of despair.
“It could be worse, it could be you or I crushed underfoot,” said Michael in a forced effort at optimism.
I smiled weakly. With the sound of footsteps continuing to echo all around, it wasn’t entirely clear that we shouldn’t soon be crushed anyway. However, moping around inside the ruined Abbey was not likely to much increase our prospects of survival. “We’ve got to get out of here,” I said, summoning up my courage as I slung what was left of my bag back over my shoulder.
Michael nodded. “Let’s see if there isn’t another exit we can use,” he said determinedly and, taking my hand, led the way into the shadowy depths of the Abbey.
The completion by the Sentient Army of the first part of his orders was sensed by Valentine just as he re-entered the circular room in the Black Tower. He paused just briefly to enjoy the sensation as he felt them smoothly switch their focus to his second objective before turning his own attention to matters in front of him. Kenneth, who had been fiddling impatiently with buttons and dials when he entered, was looking up at him expectantly.
“Are we set?” asked Valentine crisply.
Kenneth nodded. He pointed to a small, rather insignificant looking button set in the midst of a halo of dials and monitors. “It just takes a flick of that switch,” he said.
Valentine acknowledged his words with the merest inclination of his head. He looked carefully at the button for a moment but, instead of approaching, he turned and began thoughtfully pacing once more between the windows on the opposite sides of the room.
Kenneth drummed his fingers lightly on the table-top. “I’ll bet Sturridge’s face was a picture,” he said after a moment.
“A veritable masterpiece,” replied Valentine without breaking stride.
“They never learn, do they?”
“No, I’m afraid they don’t.”
“Nobody ever gets the better of the Explorer’s Club,” murmured Kenneth.
Valentine continued to pace. Finally, after a minute or two, he paused by the window on the right hand side of the room and turned back towards Kenneth. “Well then, I think it’s finally time, don’t you?”
Kenneth nodded eagerly. He carefully checked over his dials and monitors for one last time before looking up. “Would you like to do the honours Val?” he asked deferentially, indicating the button.
Valentine shook his head. “Oh no, this is your show Kenneth,” he replied graciously. “Please go ahead.”
Kenneth may have smiled gratefully at the honour but the truth was that Valentine preferred his view by the window. That way he could watch with satisfaction when Sturridge’s prison disappeared on its way to 273 different locations in the landscape.
We were groping our way through the darkness of the Abbey towards a sliver of light when we heard the deafening crack. Barely a second later a dense pulse of air shot past us, juddering our bones and setting a ringing in our ears.
“What the hell was that?” I asked, startled. But Michael could only shrug in reply.
We continued forward. The sliver of light turned out to be flooding through a crack in a doorway. The heavy wooden door was locked and bolted but edging along the wall we came upon another empty window. Michael again somehow succeeded in scrambling up and, having ascertained that there were no soldiers awaiting us on the pathway beyond, he helped me up and we both slithered down into the open air outside.
Since they had taken what they wanted from my bag the soldiers appeared to have lost any direct interest in us but their footsteps continued to echo across the paths and avenues as they marched onwards, threatening to trample into the dust anything or anyone that got in their way. Our plan was to try and make our way back to the hole in the fence and thereby out of the barracks altogether but it was a task that was complicated by the moving army, steadily flowing out from the centre.
Having somehow regained our bearings in the passages around the Abbey, we tried to outrun the avalanche of men, jinking this way and that and flattening ourselves into nooks and doorways as they passed. But, as we finally came into sight of the Italianate palazzo by which we had entered, we were confronted with the awful realisation that the avalanche had beaten us to it. There was already a thin line of soldiers stretching all the way along the length of the fence and it was being reinforced all the time. As another squad of soldiers swept by to take up their posts, Michael and I ducked behind the steps of a Georgian townhouse.
“Christ!” muttered Michael, gazing unhappily out at the implacable row of heavily armed men guarding the fence. “We’re never going to get through that lot.”
I stared pensively out myself, my eyes sweeping helplessly around until they suddenly caught a glimpse of fabric stretched taut over a steel framework.
“Well, if we can’t go through them,” I found myself murmuring, “maybe the only option is to go over them.”
“What?” said Michael.
“Okay, you’re not going to like this,” I said, gently nudging him forward until he had the same view as I did of the nose of the airship poking out beyond the palazzo. “But I’m afraid this may be our only option.”
For some time nothing changed. Valentine continued to stare out of the window upon the empty site where the apartment block had so recently stood. Kenneth remained seated in his chair, gazing with an expression of undeniable pride over his dials and monitors. Only gradually did they both become aware of a new sound drifting across the barracks above the final distant echoes of marching footsteps. It started as a low hum, slowly gaining in depth and intensity.
For a few seconds Kenneth peered more closely at his instruments, half-convinced that this was a signal of some fault emanating from within. But as the noise continued to rise he realised that it undoubtedly came from outside, not inside, the room and with a sharp cry he leapt up from his chair and darted over to the left hand window. Valentine, who prided himself that he retained rather more grace under pressure, turned calmly and walked in a somewhat more restrained fashion across the room.
For a moment, as the steady mechanical growl continued to drift across the air, there was nothing to be seen but then suddenly it appeared, rising majestically from its moorings by the palazzo. The airship was taking to the skies.
“Of all the…!” Kenneth exclaimed, grasping his hands anxiously.
Valentine merely raised an eyebrow.
The Zeppelin jerked and bucked as it rose, as if struggling against the unseen hand that controlled it. At one stage the rear of the balloon scraped along the edge of the palazzo, dislodging a section of the cornice and sending it crashing down to the floor below. Finally though the ship succeeded in lifting itself clear of its surroundings and hovered uncertainly just above the rooftops as though not quite sure of its next move.
It was at this point that Kenneth, finally stung into action, hurried back over to his desk. After scrabbling for a moment amongst his instruments and papers he discovered, with a gasp of triumph, a small remote-control device tucked behind a monitor. Clutching this item tightly in the palm of his hand he hurried back to the window. “I can take care of them,” he told his colleague confidently, flashing the device before his gaze. “Just you say the word.”
But Valentine did not say the word. Instead he continued to watch with an expression of intense curiosity as the airship performed its erratic manoeuvres. The nose edged first one way, then another before eventually completing a 180 degree turn which left it facing out towards the forest. With the very last of the sunlight glinting off the tiny silver gondola it then began to sail slowly forwards.
“Shall I?” prompted Kenneth anxiously, his finger hovering eagerly over the trigger of his remote control device.
But Valentine casually stretched out a restraining hand which he laid over the other’s arm. “Relax Kenneth,” he said soothingly as he watched the Zeppelin sail haltingly over the perimeter fence, the protective circle of soldiers standing immobile beneath.
“But Val, you do want me to take them out, don’t you?” said Kenneth.
Valentine sighed. “Their device is destroyed, their friend scattered to the four winds,” he said. “They have no weapons, no back-up, no clue. What possible harm can those two insignificant idiots bring us?”
Kenneth’s face flushed a peculiar colour as he glanced from his friend’s face to the gradually departing airship and back again. “But Val,” he said, his voice urgent with frustration, “you can’t really mean to let them escape.”
Valentine said nothing. Outside the airship began to gradually pick up a steady speed as it gently soared over the surrounding treetops. Finally Valentine turned to Kenneth with a smile. “Of course I don’t mean to let them escape,” he said calmly. “But you don’t think I was going to let you fire a shot at them whilst they were still over the barracks, do you? We don’t want to bring a whole heap of burning wreckage down on top of ourselves.”
“Oh,” said Kenneth. “Oh, I see.”
“Now you may fire.”
With a heavy sigh of relief Kenneth pressed down upon the switch of his remote control.
The missile shot up from the hidden artillery square and flashed across the perimeter fence in an instant, catching the airship directly across the tail. The rear end of the Zeppelin immediately exploded in a great ball of incendiary gas. A sheet of flame flooded remorselessly along the exterior from tail to nose. Within seconds the whole ship was aflame and the tiny silver gondola beneath had disappeared in a cloud of smoke. The shattered skeleton tipped backwards, reaching its nose up to the sky like a drowning man gasping for air, before it sunk down in a roar of flames.
Kenneth’s face flushed once again as he triumphantly clutched his remote-control. “Well Val,” he said in a voice almost squeaky with the thrill of what he had just done. “I guess that’s that.”
Valentine watched with a certain artistic satisfaction as the last of the flaming wreckage settled beneath the forest canopy. “Yes,” he said calmly. “I suppose that really is that.”
To be continued…