‘We're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad.’
‘How do you know I'm mad?’ said Alice.
‘You must be,’ said the Cat, ‘or you wouldn't
have come down here.’

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.
Lewis Carroll

Reviews for The Drune

And the story itself is the most remarkable blend of sci-fi, fantasy, the self-defeating effects of bigotry, power, control, love, self-sacrifice - and the ending is simply perfect. Reading this book is like taking a careering, perception-altering voyage of discovery into an entirely new (and slightly disconcerting) world. Jane has the rare ability to write the completely impossible and make it perfectly believable. Highly recommended!
Joules Taylor WordWrights

As in her 1985 debut novel The Planet Dweller, Jane Palmer likes to confront wildly eccentric but plausible humans with alien weirdness, producing offbeat SF comedy containing the occasional serious barb ... Palmer's narrative bubbles with frivolous inventiveness and unhinged dialogue, and has a gentle sting in the tail.
David Langford Amazon.co.uk

A creation of madness, audacity, and whimsy that seems too far-fetched to be only a product of Palmer's imagination. But, then, that's the twisted path her imagination takes. Everything is greatly out of whack in Palmer's universe; that's what makes it so entertaining ...Yes, it all seems like madness, but this is madness with a message. Palmer has some points to make about humans, civilization, and civility. The fact that she works them in to a wild, through-the-looking-glass adventure eases the lessons into the most resistant brain, with little or no pain. Lisa DuMond SFF Site

The Drune is a witty and original science-fiction novel. The author's imagination takes the reader to a fantastic and surprising world of which she has studied every detail to make it real. Jane Palmer's fabulous and complex universe is pleasantly refreshing … [this] lively, bubbling and buzzing universe is a gentle call for a more harmonious, tolerant and generous society.
Martha Fumagalli WiPlash


First published as THE DRUNE


Jane Palmer


First published as The Drune
by Swift Publishers in 1999

Copyright © Jane Palmer 1999

This edition published by Dodo Books 2008

All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction and any resemblance to persons living or dead is
purely coincidental.

The author asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.

ISBN 978-1-906442-07-1

All right reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

Other science fiction books by this author





A crack appeared in the iron-hard permafrost. A couple of reindeer looked at each other to make sure it was nothing to do with them. The crack deepened and the couple padded away to find less active pasture. They didn’t bother to turn and see the massive, black diamond teeth break surface to get their operator’s bearings, then vanish just as rapidly again. They probably knew that it was impossible to burrow through permafrost at that speed. At least that would be what the unfortunate commander of the plundered missile base would duly protest, later…

‘Pulled though a shaft chewed out of solid granite?’ the general repeated in amazement. ‘Nothing on Earth could burrow at that speed.’
‘Nevertheless,’ his aide-dc-camp faltered, ‘the shaft is still there, though obviously the lower part of it must have caved in under the pressure shortly after it happened.’
‘What about the Other Side?’
‘It’s now taken four of their warheads as well.’
‘A matching set, then!’ The general leant back. ‘We’ll have to maintain a news blackout. At this rate we won’t have anything left to negotiate arms reductions with. Have Security turned up any suspects yet?’
‘They’re getting little co-operation from the police. They want to know what it’s about.’
‘Tell them we’ve had intelligence that there’s a plot to burrow into our gold reserves. If they think bullion’s involved that will gee them up.’
‘Right, sir. When are we going to tell the President?’
‘Which one?’
‘This country’s, sir.’
‘Oh, him! His advisers know. Let them do it, but better make sure the Kremlin knows. Don’t like the thought of the Russians finding out before we get round to telling them. They’ve been a bit touchy since we cancelled that joint scheme for a missile to deflect comets.’
The aide-de-camp laughed. ‘Can’t make them out. How many comets do they think are on collision course with Earth?’
‘Must be something to do with the one that flattened Tunguska.’ The general tossed his pen onto the desk. ‘With the number of satellite signals blocking astronomical observations we probably wouldn’t know about it until it was too late anyhow.’
The aide-de-camp pondered on the crater in good old Arizona, the state where his mother lived, and hoped Superman was up there somewhere, watching.

Walton once again lifted the chalk in an attempt to put the final touches to his diagram explaining the Doppler Effect, but it wasn’t to be. From beneath the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram of main sequence stars, a thin voice, like that of a thoughtful mouse, piped up.
‘If the Galaxy is throbbing with life, sir, why is it so unlikely to pay us a visit?’
At that moment Walton’s powerful fist would rather have been raised threateningly at the bright art historian who decided her students’ horizons should be widened by lectures on astronomy. It didn’t help to know that his group of mathematically minded pupils was enjoying her drawing instruction more than his customary chemistry classes.
‘We’re hardly on the road to anywhere important,’ he assumed his most charismatic smile to explain. ‘For the inconvenience it would cause another civilisation to come here, the return would be very small.’
‘That’s supposing they only know as much as we do. If there are so many life forms out there, some of them must know how to get here in a couple of days.’
‘That depends on the length of their day, and anyone with technology that advanced would more than likely dismiss us as we would a microbe.’
Why couldn’t these dotty, plastic-spangled pupils have the same docile outlook as his brain stormed students? They got their kicks from small, uncontrolled explosions and misaligning computer space bars with war games. Walton decided that art was not good for the stability of the human psyche if taken as seriously as equations. Though had he voiced the sentiment, one of this motley crew would have been bound to point out that nobody had ever been blown up by the iconoclastic power of a work of art. He may have had the authority of middle age, a second class honours degree and several diplomas in physics, chemistry and mathematics, and have been built like Ataturk’s tomb, but there was no way he could intimidate this class with rampant hormones and too much imagination. At times Walton wished he could have erased all reference to the sixties; they had to be generating their ideas from somewhere, and their usual teacher wasn’t even old enough to have been influenced by the seventies. It was probably something that happened to the young once they had managed to live without television for a day and removed their MP3s.
Through his annoyance, Walton heard a quiet voice from the back of the class.
‘My uncle saw a UFO.’
The voice clearly belonged to a girl, and so he hoped he could intimidate her out of the delusion.
‘Has he any proof?’
‘Took a picture of it,’ Poppy admitted reluctantly. She hadn’t intended him to hear her.
‘Yes,’ joined in a chorus. ‘It’s a good one.’
‘Where is it?’
Poppy shrugged. ‘Here.’
‘On you?’
‘Can I see it?’
‘He wouldn’t like...’
‘Why not?’
‘He don’t like scientists. They made him move off his old farm so they could test some weapon.
The girl’s reticence fired Walton’s curiosity. ‘If he’s got proof, surely he would like to have it confirmed?’
‘Says he don’t care what poxy scientists say. He says that the UFOs don’t bother him, so why should he bother them?’
‘If he were right...’
‘He is. That’s why he don’t want to be bothered.’
‘Show him the photo, Pop,’ her bespectacled friend insisted in a plummy accent. ‘We don’t want the Doc to think we’re wasting his time.’
‘I won’t bother your uncle, even if I do think it’s genuine,’ Walton assured her, wiping the elegant logic of Doppler and Hubble away with one stroke of the eraser.
‘Oh! All right.’ Poppy pulled a much folded and thumbed photo from her purse.
Walton reached over several spiked hairdos to take it. A cursory glance at the evidence made his professional cynicism waver. He was compelled to swallow hard. He often had cold, clammy nightmares about this moment. His third wife had put it forward as one of the reasons for divorce.
‘It’s very good,’ he commented too casually to be convincing. ‘Have you had it analysed?’
‘What for? We know it’s real.’
‘You were there when it was taken?’
‘I saw the marks where it landed.’
‘Where was this?’
‘I ain’t saying.’
This Poppy was a tough little blossom so Walton indulged in a little elementary psychology. ‘All right.’ He handed the photo back as if disinterested.
‘They don’t bother him, and they’ve locked the likes of us away on the say-so of people like you,’ she added defensively.
‘Not me. I’m an astronomer, not a Witch-Finder General.’
‘You’ve spent half the morning telling us we’re nuts if we believe in flying saucers,’ protested the student under the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram.
‘I was just saying that it is possible for wishes to be converted into a sort of reality when one is not aware of the different things these sightings can be attributed to.’
‘What if Pop’s Uncle Arthur is right though?’
‘I can’t compel Poppy to talk about it. She isn’t obliged to prove anything to me.’
‘Why don’t you phone him, Pop?’ rose a chorus. ‘Show Dr Clarke he’s wrong.’
‘He wouldn’t like…’
But the timid girl was soon overwhelmed and Walton silently said ‘hooray’ for elementary psychology.


Janice turned the television off. ‘What are you thinking about darling?’ she asked for the fourth time.
Aware of what could exasperate a wife, and particularly wanting to keep this one, Walton raised his thoughtful gaze from the road map. ‘I’m trying to fathom the quickest route to Green Willow Farm.’
‘Because I don’t trust those two dotty art students to drive me there in their clapped out buggy.’
Janice entertained a faint hope that her husband’s dedication to logic might at last have begun to mellow. ‘You’re not taking up sketching are you?’
‘No. The uncle of one of them took a very convincing photo of a strange aircraft.’
‘You mean an unidentified flying object?’
‘It was obviously airborne and a craft of some sort, but if I manage to track it down it will not be unidentified.’
‘Well, do be careful all the same, dear.’
‘You don’t really believe in those things as well, do you?’
‘I don’t know - you do talk about them quite a lot in your sleep. Two nights ago you were orbiting Uranus in a spaceship.’
‘You should have woken me up.’
‘There’s more action on Venus.’
‘You’re working too hard.’
Walton sat back. ‘Am I?’
‘What else?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I sometimes wonder if we’re living on the same planet.’
He stared at his wife. ‘Why?’
‘Your mind’s always wandering off. I wouldn’t be surprised if you had an alternative existence somewhere else. You should slow down before you really do start seeing UFOs. I can’t afford to have you put away just yet.’
Walton knew what Janice meant, but didn’t want to admit it. It wasn’t the students getting to him, just life in general. He was fifty and hadn’t even managed to have some small asteroid named after him. Soon he would be too old to visit observatories at the top of the Earth’s breathable atmosphere or South Pole where he could discover some rogue comet or be savaged by a Weddell seal. It was all downhill from now on, he reflected despondently.
Walton gazed at his wife as though she were some point in the distance.
‘What is it?’ Janice demanded. ‘Don’t you like this dress?’
‘Must be hormones.’
‘Yours or mine?’
‘Is all this real?’
‘It was when I got up this morning, though I have the feeling someone’s going to turn into a pumpkin before midnight.’
‘Why doesn’t the Universe make more sense? How could it all have exploded into existence from nothing?’
‘Fax God for an explanation.’
Walton ignored her. ‘How do we know it’s real? I sometimes get the feeling that the molecules in our minds are conspiring against us.’
‘It’s probably your age, dear.’
‘Thanks.’ Walton didn’t like to be reminded that he was twelve years older than his wife.
‘We all have that feeling at some time or other.’
‘What do your mean? Why?’
‘Why should we? It doesn’t serve any evolutionary or self-protective purpose.’
‘It doesn’t seem that odd to others because they don’t have brains like logicians. There is such a thing as a romantic imagination, you know.’
‘What’s romance got to do with it?’
‘Look, if you’re going to be a pain!’
‘No, really. Why should anyone be regularly struck in the face with the wet fish of futility?’
Janice sidled down onto the arm of his chair. ‘Those daft kids have been giving you a rough time, haven’t they?’
‘I keep thinking they know what it’s all about.’
‘So that’s why you’re going to hunt UFOs at Green Willow Farm?’
Walton carefully folded the map. ‘I’d feel happier if I could prove them wrong.’
‘I always suspected you were a kill-joy.’ Janice went to the table and started to clear plates away. ‘Your turn to do the dishes.’
‘I’ve had a heavy day. You stack them in the machine and I’ll mow the lawn later.’
‘It’ll be too dark and you might get carried off by a UFO.’
Walton chuckled. ‘Would it bother you?’
‘Of course. How would I prove that to the insurance company? At least your other wives ended up with alimony. We can’t even afford an au pair.’
Walton stretched. ‘Oh well, you make enough to support the both of us.’
There was a clatter as Janice loaded crockery into the dishwasher. ‘And buy presents for your brats.’
‘Oh spare me! There hasn’t been a birthday for months.’
‘Maybe not. Suppose I’ll have to buy you a present instead.’
‘You’re fifty tomorrow, darling.’ Walton groaned. She didn’t hear. ‘Don’t forget the party.’ Walton groaned even louder and she came back in. ‘Helen’s bringing the poodles as well. You’d better do the lawn before you go out tomorrow - you know what Genghis Khan is.’
‘If we hadn’t already agreed to separate, I would have divorced her over that animal.’
‘That was his sire.’
‘Attila was the one who used to go for your ankles. Genghis is his son.’
‘I’ve always suspected that she bred them to attack me.’
‘Stop whining. Helen’s the only one who wouldn’t take money from you when the marriage broke up. If she hadn’t given you a loan you wouldn’t have been able to marry Lettice.’
‘They were both mistakes. Neither of them really understood me.’
‘Women usually divorce their husbands because they do. What wife wants to understand the principal of receding galaxies and the possibilities of the ion drive at two o’clock in the morning in a warm bed? Look what you did to Lettice. She must have been a happily dim girl before you married her.’
‘That was an innocent experiment.’
‘You knew she was dim when you married her and should have been happy with the arrangement. That woman had enough sex drive to launch Apollo. But no, you weren’t satisfied, were you.’
‘I thought it was for the best.’
‘What on earth made you play her tapes, explaining how to cope with every mathematical problem thought up since the pyramids, while she slept?’
‘It didn’t do any harm.’
‘Well, since she took up that professor’s chair of higher mathematics, it’s improved her prospects no end. I don’t suppose she earned much as a manicurist. Served you right, you big blob. You should have known your ego wouldn’t be able to stand the competition.’
Walton took the mug of coffee Janice pushed at him. ‘I wish you women wouldn’t get on so well together. It gives me the feeling I’ve been passed around.’
‘So what are we meant to do? Fight for you?’
‘Might seem more natural.’
Janice laughed. ‘Oh come on, Walton. Meet the twenty-first century. Women don’t need to fight over men any more. Stop living in the past.’
‘My ego needs the break every now and then.’
‘I just worry about you when you’re late home or go on some bizarre field trip.’
‘You’re more worried about me treading on the wildlife.’
She ruffled his hair. ‘Well don’t frighten any little green men you may run into tomorrow. We’ll probably need to get on good terms with the rest of the Universe sooner than we think.’


Akaylia Jackson wondered why she could never find a hole accommodating enough to let her through to the more interesting geological discoveries. Even a fifteen stone, middle-aged poet deserved some breaks from life. Tucking her tattered map back into the wallet commemorating a lifetime of failed romances, she breathed deeply and pushed until either the basalt or her bottom had to yield. The wallet in her waistcoat pocket erupted out the photos of her lost loves and they littered the darkness below. They had all talked too much anyway, besides claiming special privileges because of a midget chromosome. She concentrated her effort on saving her shawl and satchel of tools. If she wasn’t able to chip herself out of the crevice, she was going to need to keep warm until rescue came. After promising herself to diet for the twentieth time, her flesh eventually relented and released her back into daylight.
Akaylia was certain that there was a way into this extinct volcano’s fumaroles. Cursing in rhyming couplets, she pecked at the implacable pumice with her pick. It had swallowed her boyfriends, now in return it might have presented her with a fissure large enough to accommodate her backside.
Hunger pangs persuaded Akaylia to stop and break her promise about the diet. Munching her way through her last sandwich, she gazed over the deserted landscape. There were the usual trees, grass and a few flowers, of course, but it was hardly a National Park. Even her pet passion, that stubborn volcano, was not deemed by any others to be worth the chippings that she regularly brought back from it. It would never prove the theory of continental drift or point the way to a gold mine, yet Akaylia was a dewy-eyed romantic as far as rocks were concerned. They could tell you the history of the world without having to utter one word - or would do so if you could get at them. Let the ambitious find their oilfields and intellectuals their proofs and theories; they would only produce more pollution and more words. Let them poke around Surtsey and Kilauea: Akaylia had the feeling that this was the place. Once inside those volcanic depths she knew there were wonders they would never encounter.
Something white bobbed through the long grass below her. An albino deer perhaps? But deer didn’t wear bright red tartan waistcoats, even in the rutting season. For a while, all she could make out was a mop of snow-white hair and the vivid suit. Akaylia supposed it to be bipedal, and moving fast because it intended no one should see it.
Tiring of its excursion through the grass, it turned back to the volcano. Akaylia knew every unyielding inch of that natural structure. The creature may have been half her size, but was not likely to have access to any nooks and crannies she didn’t know about. Feeling irrationally protective towards the volcano, she decided to follow it. Perhaps the government wanted to cart the thing away for landfill and he was surveying it for them. There had to be better ways of discovering its composition. Nobody was going to lay violent hands on her volcano.
Stealthily Akaylia descended, trying to keep the bobbing head in view. With a quick cautious glance about and flurry of red tartan, its owner disappeared beneath an overhang. That led nowhere. She had it cornered. Shawl streaming behind her, she bounded down and was just in time to see the obsidian wall beneath the overhang moving. With accuracy in throwing a grappling iron learnt at potholing classes, she hurled her satchel into the crack before it could close. Something crunched loudly, probably her thermos flask, but the gap remained. Not stopping to wonder what manner of tribe lived beyond it, Akaylia eased her shoulder against the slab and started to push. There were occasions when her bulk came in useful. The obsidian was no match for it and groaned open.
Beyond a dark stretch of passage was a complex of illuminated corridors. Spotlighted at their junction and staring at her in disbelief was a small man. He stepped back in alarm and fell off the narrow path. After retrieving her satchel, she carefully picked her way towards the accident.
‘Are you all right little fellow?’ she called tentatively into the darkness below.
‘No!’ an irritated voice snapped back. ‘I’ve twisted my ankle.’ The white hair appeared from the gloom.
Akaylia grasped the extended hand and, with careful ease, pulled its owner back onto the path. Then she inspected the bundle of annoyance in amazement. He was wittering curses in an unrecognisable tongue as he glared back at her.

‘Wonder of wonders to ever be true.
I am Akaylia. What are you?’

‘I’m called Rabette,’ he snapped.
She knew of no place on Earth where this splinter of humanity, or herbivorous mammal, could have originated from. Lack of exposure to daylight must have been responsible for the total absence of pigmentation in his skin and hair and, quite possibly, his height of less than five feet. Why someone with such a startlingly bleached complexion should want to wear vibrant red tartan trousers and waistcoat was a mystery.
Even after the murderous tumble he had taken, Rabette seemed more concerned about his hair than his injured ankle or the rhyming interloper, and tried to comb it back into place with his fingers. As the fine fluffy thatch was as tightly curled and luxuriant as hers, Akaylia could hardly see what was wrong with it. She handed him her large-toothed comb and he carefully teased out some tangles until he was satisfied the cotton white locks were correctly arranged.
‘You don’t seem very keen on visitors, little snowflake? Or are you an optical illusion planted by omnipotent powers to keep mischievous mortals away?’
Rabette gave the large black geologist a penetrating glare. ‘No,’ he said.
‘I would offer to leave you in peace, but your ankle may not appreciate that.’
‘We don’t allow visitors in here. Unfortunately the entrance is controlled by a time switch.’
‘A mechanically bolted burrow for a very rare robotized rabbit.’
‘I’m not a robot!’ he snapped.
‘Sorry. Figure of poetic licence. What are you then?’
‘I’m not telling you.’
‘A hibernating herbivorous hermit?’ Akaylia looked at the regularity of the tunnels. ‘A megalomaniac motorised mole? An anthropoid alien acquaintance of Alice?’
‘I’m not an alien!’
‘Ah!’ Akaylia decided. ‘A neurotic non entity not necessarily of nature’s intention.’
He could see that she wasn’t going to give up. ‘You would probably call me an Atlantian.’
‘I was afraid I might.’
‘We sank with our continent.’

‘In the best possible tradition,
Humanity has a second edition.’

‘Despite what you prissy geologists say, we did once have a continent.’
‘Not so much as a petty protest passed my pursed lips.

‘If the flight of the bumble bee must be true,
What’s to stop me believing in you?’

Then something more immediate occurred to her. ‘What happens now?’
‘Anyone who manages to find their way in usually stays. You are going to be very conspicuous though.’
‘Even if I pull in the paunch and bleach the bonnet?’
‘With skin that dark? It would look very odd. You really are a problem. Perhaps I should give you a memory erasing drug and let you out when the time lock opens the entrance.’
‘I refuse to be fobbed off so easily.

‘It’s taken me years to find a way in here.
‘Now I’m going to look around, my precious little dear.’

‘Have it your own way.’ Rabette shrugged. ‘I don’t suppose it matters that much any more.’
‘Why not?’
‘Hardly any of us left in here. I’d sooner live outside anyway.’

‘What? With your absence of suntan?
I’ve seen more colour in a vanilla meringue.’

‘I could educate my dermis.’
‘I could teach mine to sing the Stars and Stripes. Forget it, little Munchkin. We live at opposite ends of Nature’s shade-card. This place doesn’t have any food, does it?’
‘A few hours in here, and you’ll soon lose your appetite.’
‘You underestimate the urgency of my digestive juices. If provoked, they could break down jute matting.’
Rabette believed her. ‘Well I hope you’re a vegetarian.’
‘I eat anything. Why?’
‘There are no animals down here.’
‘Why not?’
‘They’ve got better sense.’
‘What is down here then?’
Rabette smiled artfully, knowing what sudden drops to vast depths could do, even to her digestive juices. ‘How far down do you want to go?’
‘Show me continental drift - from underneath.’
‘All right.’ Beckoning her to follow, Rabette limped off.
Slinging her satchel over her shoulder, Akaylia ambled after him until they came to a large shutter in the floor. Rabette pushed a button on its rim. The shutter opened to reveal a tunnel. Its sides were padded and fell away so steeply it was impossible to tell where it ended.
‘You came up that?’ Akaylia gasped, more apprehensive about going down it.
‘Only way in and out. Used to be a ventilation shaft. I worked out the air pressure needed to take my weight.’
‘What about my weight?’
‘By the time you reach the bottom you’ll probably be kilos lighter.’
‘Now look, little egg white…’
‘It’s not wide enough for a capsule. Anyway, there would be hell to pay if the others found out I regularly come up here. Just follow me.’ With a knowing smile, Rabette leapt into the centre of the hole.
Akaylia watched as his white locks rapidly shrank to a small dot before disappearing completely. Normally, there wasn’t much that would make her hesitate, but plummeting down a bottomless shaft on nothing more than a cushion of air did give her pause. She removed her shoes and pushed them into her satchel then tied her shawl round her thighs to stop her skirt blowing over her head; as it was a once in a lifetime experience she might as well see where she was going.
She sat on the lip of the hole then, taking a deep breath, pushed off.
Travelling as fast as Newton’s apple, Akaylia passed lights, fossils, marble, granite, coal seams, gold seams, other tunnels and some very intriguing wall carvings, until eventually she hit the pressure barrier Rabette had activated to brake her fall. The shawl spun off and her voluminous skirt reared over her head like a mauve poppy bursting angrily into flower.
Rabette never even noticed her arrival. He had believed she wouldn’t have the nerve to follow him.
Collecting her shawl and her dignity, Akaylia found herself in a large strange room that had the faint aroma of the seaside.


Green Willow Farm was one of the most featureless places Walton had ever seen. Bland acres of a single crop, hardly broken by a hedge, spread out from the road leading to Uncle Arthur’s equally humdrum chalet bungalow. Walton couldn’t help wondering what improvement war games had made to his old farm.
A squawk of starlings swung on the solitary telephone line, only to explode into flight as the car approached. At least this island in the ocean of nodding yellow had a phone. Even Walton would have felt intimidated at the thought of meeting the owner of this bleak prospect without giving him prior warning. Uncle Arthur did have the intelligence to operate an SLR camera though, so perhaps he was viewing the old fellow in an unfair light. Poppy and her up-market friend, Bryony, seemed so convinced of the man’s benevolence he should have been reassured.
The first living creature they set eyes on was Uncle Arthur. It was easy to tell that this stringy man with features pinched by suspicion was not an animal lover, not even of ones fattened up for slaughter. He jabbed his thumb at a space between a mud spattered Landrover and rusty ploughshare. With extreme trepidation for his E Type’s paintwork, Walton managed to ease it into the gap without damaging anything. The girls slid out easily enough but Walton had to move over to the opposite side to avoid impaling the door on the ploughshare.
‘That the nosy bleeder then?’ Arthur growled.
‘That’s right, Nuncky. You will be nice to him won’t you?’ said Poppy.
By the grunted reply, Walton was unable to tell whether Arthur agreed or not.
‘Coffee in kitchen,’ he announced as Walton joined them. ‘No milk. Bleeder never delivers on Sundays.’ Then he turned and walked back inside before the astronomer could introduce himself.
The bungalow was as ramshackle inside as it was out and twice as brown, like a panelled rabbit warren. It looked clean enough in the frugal light percolating through the half drawn curtains, though the visitors apparently weren’t grand enough to be invited into the front room with its umbrella plant and lace antimacassars. They were ushered through a hall of Victorian prints and faded marble lino into the kitchen.
‘It comes out of lake,’ Arthur grudgingly volunteered after he was satisfied the others had been sufficiently subdued by coffee corrosive enough to descale a kettle. ‘Circles a bit, then goes back.’
Walton had to double take to realise he meant the UFO. ‘How often?’ he asked.
‘I don’t have time to keep watch, and I never learned to count. Often enough.’
‘How large is it?’
‘Large enough.’
‘Any military installations around here?’
‘Not them bleeders! They’ve already had one farm off me. That’s enough.’
‘On the other side of the hill ridge?’
‘Only the lake.’
‘Shall I take you there?’ asked Poppy.
‘You gals stay here. I’ll point the way out for him.’
‘Thanks.’ Walton sensed that the old man’s intractability was provoked by more than congenital tetchiness.
‘Oh, Nuncky!’ groaned Poppy.
‘We can run if anything happens,’ added Bryony.
‘Them as wants the glory can take the risks, and I’ve got a couple of curtains you can help me hang. Me fingers’re rheumatic again. I’ll take the gun out and look for him if he don’t come back in a couple of hours.’ Arthur scooped up the mugs and threw the remaining dregs into the grate where he had been burning some rotten sacks.
The smoky stench that sizzled from them made Walton relieved to step outside before he could discover what colour the curtains were.
The range of hills, which prevented Arthur’s monotonous fields sprawling even further, were strangely bland, as though a superhuman mason had flattened out their features. Walton stood stock still for a few seconds. He had an irrational suspicion that they were expecting his arrival.
Arthur turned back wearing a well-do-you-want-to-come-or-don’t-you? scowl.
Putting his uneasy sensation down to overwork and too much red wine, Walton followed the farmer up a natural path worn in the granite of the hillside. When they reached the top, the lake on the other side stretched below them like a deep grey puddle of decomposing fish broth.
‘Mostly sheer drop, but stroll along a bit and you’ll find the way down to a stretch of shore.’
‘Thanks,’ said Walton. ‘The girls said they weren’t in a hurry to get back, so I might be a couple of hours.’
‘Be back by three o’clock.’
Before Walton could protest that he was a big boy now, Arthur had turned and was walking back down to the bungalow.
As the astronomer descended to the wide lake, he discovered that the water was even murkier than he expected. Anything attempting to survive in it would have needed the constitution of a Polaris submarine: the evil grey bubbles breaking its surface were certainly not filled with oxygen.
Walton cautiously made his way to the shoreline. After several near tumbles, he discovered a sizeable flat area gently lapped by the murky ripples. The hills on this side were quite craggy, as though the geological forces couldn’t make up their mind whether they were icing a cake or popping corn. There were crumbs everywhere; even the shore was composed of shattered granite.
Walton scrutinised the encircling hillside for any sign of potholes or crevices. For all their unevenness, the rocks seemed to have closed ranks.
He stumbled over a small heap of pebbles covering an undulation on the beach. It was strangely out of place. Something beneath the pile crackled in anger. UFOs he might have been prepared for, but lake dwelling monsters he was not. Half expecting a reptilian tail to lash into the air, Walton backed to the cover of the hillside. The noise soon died down.
Then, behind him, something else started to move. It sounded like boulders grinding on one another. Fearfully he turned to look. The thunderous noise was coming from inside the hill, as if he had disturbed the Troll King. He felt sweat on his brow and his heart thudded. If there were such unlikely phantoms, he would have much preferred to meet The Lady of the Lake. The grinding eventually rumbled to a halt as if a slice of the hill had been lowered, or raised, inside it.
Walton didn’t like to admit he was intimidated, yet would have been a fool to deny it. Arthur’s brain was probably not as addled as his manners suggested. The astronomer took out a handkerchief and mopped his forehead. He wondered how long it was to three o’clock and looked at his watch. Over an hour: its holographic face seemed to be telling him to dash back up the hillside while he still had the chance, but the recalcitrant logic of the scientific mind is a formidable thing. Something extraordinary was about to happen. Walton would never have forgiven himself for turning his back on it, even if his sense of self-preservation would.
He didn’t have long to wait. The rock face started to move, and a hairline crack appeared.
What infernal trigger had he stumbled onto? The crack widened to a fissure and filled with intense light. Momentarily transfixed by the sight, he became aware of something behind him, something huge - watching.
Prickling in terror, Walton slowly turned to face the entity. The monster must have risen from the lake, and it was certainly no lady. It might have been spherical, but was giving off too much illumination to tell.
Before he could order his shaking legs to run, something struck Walton with the sticky force of a ten-ton candyfloss. Glued to its invisible magnetism, he was drawn slowly up into its web like a giant jigged squid. He just had time to wonder how Arthur’s shotgun would deal with this spider before he fell into a deep, dreamless coma.


Akaylia secured the bandage that was supporting Rabette’s sprained ankle. ‘There you go, a work of art.’
‘I suppose it will have to do. I can see to it properly when you’ve gone.’
‘Why the anxiety to get rid of me? I want to prove continental drift before I go back up, at the very least.’
‘Oh that’s real enough. It causes no end of bother down here.’
‘Go on, basalt baby?’
‘All our cities were originally built on this level.’ Akaylia estimated they were at least a mile down. ‘The same tectonics that pushes the planet’s crust carries them deeper and deeper, much faster than the plates on the surface move. The shells of the first cities were only several yards thick when they were up here. As they descended, we had to add to them. Eventually some became half a mile thick.’
‘No lack of energy down there anyway.’
‘That was the main reason they had to be abandoned. There was too much of it. Some of the underfloor refrigeration couldn’t cope with the heat.’
At the mention of heat, Akaylia realised she was uncomfortably warm and took off her shawl. Though the air-conditioning was an improvement on the polluted atmosphere above ground, she was having trouble in adapting to it. With practised accuracy she tossed the garment over a pipe snaking above their heads.
‘If you must look around you might as well leave your satchel here. You have nothing in it that can match our equipment.’
‘What equipment do you have, you sensuous seismologist?’
‘Anything needed to plug a crevice or divert a magma flow.’
Akaylia hummed in bemusement at the powers of the tiny mortal. No longer able to contain her curiosity, she began to tour the alien display of magnetometers, seismographs, P and S wave monitors and other equipment that defied her experience. Rabette’s burrow, though not aesthetically successful - it was furnished with the same taste that encouraged him to wear the tartan suit - was quite cosy considering the functional fittings. In the centre of the ceiling was the shaft they had descended, and partly hidden amongst the clutter on the far wall was an entrance. That intrigued Akaylia most of all.
‘Why don’t any of your cities collapse? No normal buttressing could hold apart the sort of pressures down here.’
‘An energy field. All to do with switching molecules to line up, and then holding them still. Acts as a heat barrier as well. The Drune, Olivanda, knows more about that than I do.’
‘“Drune?” What dreadful dichotomy of parts goes to make up a “Drune”?’
‘Oh, I shouldn’t have mentioned it. As I never meet anyone else to talk to, it slipped out. Forget I said it and I’ll show you round this complex.’
‘All right little bleached blossom.’
For a moment he regarded her critically. ‘I’ll have to call up my larger capsule. Apart from having plenty of room inside, it’s much more buoyant than the smaller one. I wouldn’t fancy driving you over an ancient ventilation shaft in that. Gravity can behave in very strange ways the nearer you get to the mantle.’
‘Don’t you have any overweight Atlantians?’
‘Balancing the capsule is very important.’
‘I’ll be worth it though. Most of me is very talented.’
Rabette tapped out a code on a panel to call up a capsule.
‘Stand over there on the weighbridge, will you.’ He pointed to a raised grating near the entrance.
Akaylia obeyed and a dial above her head spun round several times to tell the capsule of the load to expect. She used the indignity as an excuse to take a look out of the entrance.
‘Don’t step off the platform,’ warned Rabette. ‘I never did get round to mending that railing.’
Peering over the platform into the dimly lit depths, she noted that the hazard was a drop of a thousand feet. A natural fold in the planet’s crust had been buttressed apart until a chasm three times its depth had been formed.
‘It was engineered to relieve the stress on the living complex below,’ Rabette called out from the room.
‘What about the stress you’ve caused by interrupting the fold?’
‘It was diverted out and up into the adjoining folds. That’s what caused the volcano. The pressure melted the rock.’
Akaylia looked up at the vast ceiling and saw it was supported by jacks spanning distances that would give a swallow vertigo.
On the far side of the huge cavern a huge machine glittered into life. A vehicle that size should have made a horrendous noise. The reverberation would have been unbearable down there, and dangerous. Instead, it faintly whined like a tired puppy. At the front of the vehicle, teeth the size of a two-storey house yawned in anticipation as it quietly rumbled on its way to satiate its appetite somewhere in the crust.
‘How do you buttress the tunnels as you excavate them?’ the geologist called back over her shoulder to Rabette.
‘Oh we don’t dig tunnels any more. Only that creature I haven’t mentioned knows how to do that now.’ So somewhere in the mobile Christmas tree was Olivanda. ‘Can you see the capsule yet?’
Akaylia spotted a small pod shape cutting across the bows of the hungry mechanical giant. ‘I can see something on the far side. It seems to be coming this way.’
The excavator faintly thrummed off into blackness.
Rabette obviously hadn’t heard it. ‘Oh good. I’ll just put everything onto automatic. Don’t step into it until it’s right up to the dock.’
Akaylia looked at the bottomless pit below and agreed it was good advice.
The capsule was shaped like a cocoa pod, wrinkles and all. In its clear-shelled upper half were several seats and an assortment of equipment in the rear. The lower hull must have contained its engine and buoyancy tanks.
‘How fast can these things travel?’
Rabette joined her. ‘Oh very.’ He unbolted the safety seal and lifted the doors to the front seats.
‘What sort of gas do you use in the floats?’
‘It’s quite inert. No need to worry. The engine doesn’t have an ignition that can cause sparks either. There isn’t too much hazard from gas down here because of the shielding, though we obviously don’t light fires or invite in any active volcanoes. We keep the atmosphere well oxygenated, so the complex has safety shutters and automatic sprinklers installed everywhere. Step in. Step in!’
‘Which side shall I sit on?’
‘Both if you like.’
Aware of the usual rowing boat’s reaction to her sudden boarding, Akaylia climbed very gingerly into the rear of the capsule where she was confronted by a console duplicating the controls in the front. She carefully tucked in her knees and sat back to avoid knocking anything. With much more agility, Rabette bounced into the driver’s seat before her. From his console he ran a quick inspection of the engines and the equipment in the back of the capsule, and then he switched on the propellers.
Akaylia experienced an odd sensation as they started to move. With no road, wind, or waves offering resistance, the only thing indicating motion was the distance growing between the capsule and the dock. It didn’t help to know that she was suspended over a thousand foot drop by little more than a modest tank of inert gas.
‘Can I see the complex below?’
‘You can if you want. There’s no one living down there though.’
‘Why not?’
‘We’re nearly extinct.’
This took the geologist by surprise. ‘How come?’
‘Same reason anyone becomes extinct I suppose. One’s genes cannot compete with the fatigue of staying alive.’
‘Then why bother to maintain this place?’
‘About twenty of us still live down here.’
‘Twenty? And in a place this size? Seems odd no one else has colonised it?’
‘What creatures in their right minds would choose to live down here?’
‘You don’t strike me as round the bend, just small and perfectly formed. You speak our language extremely well. Why not try living upstairs?’
Rabette laughed. ‘Just look at me! How many of your kind would be prepared to accept us? You said so yourself.’
‘I’ve got used to you though.’
‘As much as I would like to live above ground, I’m afraid the selfish unpredictability of the people there worries me too much.’
‘Worries the hell out of me at times as well.’
Rabette spiralled the capsule down to the entrance of a tunnel at the bottom of the chasm. A dial on the console in front of Akaylia began to register a slight thinning of oxygen. She was sure they were heading into daylight despite being nowhere near the surface. They entered a chamber filled with a jungle of vigorous, fruiting vegetation, and running water cascading into a central lake surrounded by several cultivated plots. The only thing missing was bird song, though a few fluttering insects did dance in the rays of an artificial sun.
‘We bred the insects as pollinators,’ Rabette explained, ‘and the solar lamp is radiating all the necessary wavelengths - barring ultra violet - and chemicals of the natural sun. This farm used to supply a city at one time. Gone a bit wild now though. It’s a shame there’s no one to export to.’
After circling the verdant chamber they entered an even deeper tunnel to a dimly lit town. Akaylia was used to urban landscapes growing upwards and found the level buildings incongruously flat. They looked as though they were crouching in anticipation of a thunderstorm.
‘Our most modern architecture. A little dreary isn’t it.’
Akaylia said nothing. She didn’t like to admit it was nowhere as bad as her local town’s.
‘The grander styles are further down. The further down you go, the grander they get.’
‘Can we go down there?’
‘I can’t travel too far from the control. I’m responsible for this sector.’
Rabette steered the capsule over the town that had probably been constructed with the movement of the Earth in mind. With no weather down there, they scarcely needed to worry about hurricanes or tornadoes. Akaylia wondered what it would be like to live without the odd breeze or hailstorm. Things should grow leggy and limp, yet the stems of the foliage in the farm looked robust enough and there wasn’t enough of Rabette to reach the top shelf in any supermarket.
A siren and flashing light on the capsule’s consoles shattered her silent musings.
‘Oh no!’ cursed Rabette.
‘What’s up?’
‘Another magma leak. The wretched volcano sitting over us has the unpleasant habit of erupting upside down.’
‘That volcano’s extinct.’
‘Not down here it isn’t.’
‘Well what d’you know!’
‘I’ll have to plug it.’
‘It could erupt upstairs then.’
‘That’s what volcanoes are meant to do. We have enough trouble controlling the stresses down here without needing to worry about neurotic volcanoes which don’t know which way to erupt.’
‘Your entrance tunnel leads through it.’
‘I’ll get Olivanda to make another one. As long as it never finds out about you, it might agree to do it.’
‘This scary creature can do the odd favour, then?’
‘Yes. I don’t know why. I’m sure it has better things to do.’
‘Why not ask it to deal with the volcano?’
‘That’s my job.’
‘When are you going to operate?’
‘Now. Everything I need is on board and it can’t wait.’
‘You’re kidding!’ Akaylia took a deep breath. ‘How?’
‘Bring down the roof of the magma outflow and divert the lava away from us.’
‘Where can I get out?’
‘You can’t. There isn’t time. I thought you wanted to look around?’
‘Not inside volcanoes! How will this capsule behave out of the shielded tunnels anyway?’
‘I’ve pressurised the hull.’
Akaylia now realised that the wrinkles in the capsule, which she had thought were part of its supporting skeleton, had been ironed out from the inside. The hull now resembled an armoured pufferfish.
‘It’s not the pressure that’s the danger up there, though,’ added Rabette.
‘Surprise me?’
‘We lose more operatives through having the heat shields buckle.’
Akaylia didn’t have time to be terrified. To the geologist’s astonishment, her weight suddenly doubled as the capsule accelerated like a bullet through a vacuum.