‘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.
Reviews for The Drune
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
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
Martha Fumagalli WiPlash
First published as THE DRUNE
published as The Drune
by Swift Publishers in 1999
© Jane Palmer 1999
edition published by Dodo Books 2008
rights reserved. This is a work of fiction and any resemblance to persons
living or dead is
The author asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this
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
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…
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
‘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?’
‘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.
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
‘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
‘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.’
‘Can I see it?’
‘He wouldn’t like...’
‘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
‘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.
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
‘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 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
Walton gazed at his wife as though she were some point in the distance.
‘What is it?’ Janice demanded. ‘Don’t you like
‘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
‘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
‘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,
‘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
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
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
‘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
‘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.’
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
of wonders to ever be true.
I am Akaylia. What are you?’
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
Rabette gave the large black geologist a penetrating glare. ‘No,’
‘I would offer to leave you in peace, but your ankle may not appreciate
‘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.’
the best possible tradition,
Humanity has a second edition.’
what you prissy geologists say, we did once have a continent.’
‘Not so much as a petty protest passed my pursed lips.
the flight of the bumble bee must be true,
What’s to stop me believing in you?’
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.
taken me years to find a way in here.
‘Now I’m going to look around, my precious little dear.’
it your own way.’ Rabette shrugged. ‘I don’t suppose
it matters that much any more.’
‘Hardly any of us left in here. I’d sooner live outside anyway.’
With your absence of suntan?
I’ve seen more colour in a vanilla meringue.’
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.’
‘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
‘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
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.
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
‘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?’
‘I don’t have time to keep watch, and I never learned to count.
‘How large is it?’
‘Any military installations around here?’
‘Not them bleeders! They’ve already had one farm off me. That’s
‘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
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?
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
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.
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
‘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
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
‘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.’
‘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
‘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
‘Oh no!’ cursed Rabette.
‘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
‘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
‘Where can I get out?’
‘You can’t. There isn’t time. I thought you wanted to
‘Not inside volcanoes! How will this capsule behave out of the shielded
‘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,’
‘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.