Reviews for The Watcher.

A delightfully witty story blending farce, black humour, a strong thoughtful plot and rich characterisation into a gourmet novel. Star Dancer has a draining presence and, to the inhabitants of the planet Ojal, this is a life threatening situation. Earth is identified as the planet from which Star Dancer comes. The Ojaliens, with expert help, produce an android, Kybion, and send it into the past to wait for the rise of Star Dancer and prevent it from draining Ojal’s power. Excellent.

SFF Books

Refreshingly devoid of any serious social, moral, human or extra-terrestrial issue, Jane Palmer’s The Watcher (Women’s Press, £2.50) flips lightly around the adventures of an Asian teenage girl with no nerves, helped along by a Benson-from-Soap character and an ugly baddie who gets fried by the power source he is trying to steal. If the baddies succeed then an entire planet of one-parent families with wings will perish; but, fear not, most of the action takes place in English villages by the sea. It has the tone of early Eric Frank Russell and a style reminiscent of Enid Blyton.

Josephine Saxton New Statesman

…Jane Palmer’s The Watcher turns some of these clichés around and her cast list features a middle-aged black android who falls in love with a middle-aged female humanoid. The watcher of the title is a benevolent 17-year-old young woman, which knocks your aging male warlords into the box marked ‘disposable’, methinks.

Adele Saleem 7 Days


First published in 1986
by The Women’s Press as

Jane Palmer


First published in Great Britain
by The Women’s Press 1986
As The Watcher

This edition by Dodo Books 2008

Copyright © Jane Palmer 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 978-1-906442-17-0

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




The stars sparkled through the dense atmosphere as the yellow sun set. It would be a few moments before the other sun appeared above the horizon. Controller Opu shut down the refractor that had been concentrating the nutritional radiation into the energy pool below. The rising sun’s pink light had no nourishment value. Its luminosity was just as great, bathing everything in a pretty pallor, yet it was the yellow binary star that had given the ancient races the energy they needed to evolve and create their civilisation.
The first refractor able to collect and store the sun’s energy had been built three million years ago; or so it was believed, because any trace of it had vanished long ago. Since then the efficiency of these technological temples had increased a thousandfold. Unfortunately, Ojalie ambition had not. To them, the greatest delight of these gigantic silver domes was the way in which they spangled the planet like a pomander studded with pearls.
Opu tucked her wings comfortably by her sides. Looking over her blunt beak that ran seamlessly down from her cranium, she pondered on the glinting shields that were slowly closing as the pink sun rose above the horizon. She wondered where the Ojalie would be now without the light energy from those massive pools to bathe in when they needed the occasional boost. Perhaps soaring above the cloudbanks to collect their nourishment on the wing when the yellow sun disappeared behind them, or maybe chewing different plants to see if they could digest them. That would have been pretty pointless. The Ojalie had never developed the bowels to cope with solid food. Intestines and other internal organs would just increase the weight this species had to get airborne. The only other nutrition their digestive tracts required was a mineral-rich fluid that bubbled from the crust of their planet, though over the millennia some other potions had been invented. These were responsible for more mid-air collisions than freak air currents.
Most of the space inside the short, wide-hipped bodies of the Ojalie was to allow their large-skulled offspring to grow. Their pelvic girdles were so wide they were unable to walk very well, but their huge wings more than compensated for this until the last stages of pregnancy when they were grounded. It had never occurred to anyone that there was pleasure in walking very far anyway. As the Ojalie were hermaphrodite, this shape was pretty standard, even between different racial types that hadn’t interbred. Without that exchange of genes, and the ability to both inseminate and give birth, they would have probably evolved back into the pigeon like creature found in ancient fossils.
Opu looked down at the chattering bundle of uncoordinated wings, arms, and legs tumbling about the floor beneath everyone’s feet, and wondered what pitch of evolution she represented. Her child had just managed to escape from the play-pen that was supposed to be child-proof for the fifth time, and was about to bite the leg of another controller to discover the different things a beak could be used for. If Opu had known how lively Opuna was going to be, and how many friends she was going to alienate, she would have thought twice about having her.
Her gene partner, Anapa, had not so long ago looked thoughtfully at the antics of the bundle of disruption and observed, ‘How does she manage to be so active? Mine hardly moves about at all.’
‘Swap?’ Opu had suggested hopefully.
‘Not now I’ve got my home just how I like it,’ was the prompt reply. ‘I might let you visit us when she runs out of energy and has more control over her hands and beak’
‘A fine parent you are.’
‘Maybe, but I’m sure she has more of your genes than mine.’
Anapa’s disposition was about as vivacious as the grey-skinned, fungus eating slow-worm, so Opu had to agree.
The unfortunate controller let out a shriek as the monster child’s beak found her leg and she turned, only to find an innocent Opu looking in amazement at her child’s behaviour.
Finishing the shift under the frosty disapproval of her colleagues, Opu tucked her squawking offspring beneath her short arm and leisurely flew back to the devastation of her own home. As things would immediately be dislodged and flung about as soon as they had been tidied up, she had long since stopped bothering and only invited in the most broad-minded of her friends. She had thought about cutting down the amount of light nourishment Opuna received. Many, who claimed to be more responsible, had frowned severely at the idea. All growing children needed at least five meals every sun. Without it they would shrivel up to nothing as their ancestors, so deprived, had done. Or just fall to pieces, like the pioneering astronauts when they had travelled too far from the sun. The Ojalie were one of those species dependent, like most vegetation, on their sun. They had given up trying to leave their planet, but the old stories of what had happened to the early astronauts still made Opu shudder.
Perhaps her offspring wouldn’t be a pest forever. A long walk to try and tire Opuna into flying only exhausted her and left the brat as ebullient as ever. They watched a golden backed reptile disembowel an unsuspecting mollusc, and then spit out its shell. Opu felt ill, while Opuna pondered the need to fly when such wonders could be seen on the ground.
Opu asked herself what she had been like at that age, and had to believe the horror stories her parent had told about her juvenile behaviour.
They next came upon an automatic cleanser scraping up the remains of some poor pulverised creature that had fallen from the sky. Opu decided Opuna’s flying lesson had lasted long enough. She scooped the brat up and flew back home where she placed the child in the cubicle to be bathed in the life-giving sun’s light, while she sprawled out and fanned herself with a wing. The one positive thing about having a monster for an offspring was that it took her mind off other problems.
As Opu fanned her cares away she recalled the wispy shape that had hovered over the refractor two shifts ago. She had put it down to the exhaustion brought on by parenthood. That was it! She could make a reasonable request for a temporary parental swap. Anapa had been avoiding it for ages, now she could face a fine if she refused.
So Anapa was compelled to ensure the rigors of Opuna’s delinquency while Opu took the other child of the union, Anop. At last there was an offspring she could place in the control room playpen without having to worry about what disaster she was about to engineer. Opu felt relaxed. Her colleagues began to speak to her again, and she was no longer tired.
Then the energy level indicator dived for a second. She glanced out at the open shields and saw a menacing shape hovering over the refractor. This time it was blazing intensely, like a small sun. Inside the flaming shell a shape slowly revolved, growing brighter and brighter with the power it consumed from the energy pool.
One of the controllers jumped in alarm. ‘Vian Solran! Star Dancer!’
Opu instinctively hit the lever that opened the power bank to the other stations dotted about the planet before the level could fall dangerously low.
The usually laid-back Ojalie were thrown into a panic that made worldwide gossip. The controllers would have liked to blame Opu for the power drain, but on this occasion her conduct was too efficient to fault. However despicable her brat, she was the only one with the know-how and presence of mind when it was needed.
‘Vian Solran, Star Dancer,’ Opu mused to herself when the emergency was over. It was strange how such ancient race memories could surface when someone was under stress. Given the circumstances, it was probably the most logical thing anyone could say about the energy vampire. For all their knowledge and expertise, it might as well have been that star-devouring deity.
Legend had it that Vian Solran was a born from a quasar at the centre of the Galaxy when it was young, and developed the rapacious appetite of a collapsar. It was believed the entity could appear anywhere in space and perform a deadly dance from one star to the next, devouring each in turn.
That was the first visit of the energy vampire to Ojal. As yet, it hadn’t become as dangerous as Vian Solran, but the unspoken fear that it was only a matter of time grew. Long before the Star Dancer turned its attention to their suns, the planet’s energy pools would be bled dry and the Ojalie doomed. Despite their technical competence, no one had yet dared put that fear into words. Like a blip on the solar scan, or disease in the digestive tracts of the perverse creatures that decided to survive off vegetation, it first had to be investigated.
The controllers had been so stunned by the sighting they weren’t able to describe it when making out a report. Even the children watching from their playpen couldn’t invent words to express what they had seen, though Opu didn’t doubt for one moment that Opuna would have found several.
When she returned for the next shift, inventive suggestions from every source had been pouring in to explain the apparition seen by the staff of Main Base Station 93 - usually such a lucid bunch. No convincing explanation could be found amongst them. On Ojal, monsters were things of the remote past. They knew of no hostile civilisations wanting to attack their planet, yet the Star Dancer must have been alien.
The only good thing to come of the traumatic event for Opu was that Anapa now had to look after both children while she waited with the other controllers for the Star Dancer to appear again. Even a small drain on an energy pool caused a planet wide imbalance, and there was a limit to how much the other stations could compensate for it.
As though it knew they were waiting, the Star Dancer’s next appearance was at a refractor on the other side of Ojal. Although the staff had been prepared for a drain on the energy pool, they were watching for something terrifying, not beautiful. To their amazement a huge ghostly butterfly floated over their open shields, sucking power from the energy pool like nectar from a blossom. This time the power drain was serious.
From then on the lives of Opu and her gene partner became even more complicated. Anapa’s, because she was obliged to look after both children, monstrous and docile, indefinitely, and Opu’s because the computer, which took no account of anyone’s delinquency, decided that she was the best controller to take charge of the situation. A sudden promotion her easy-going nature could have done without.
Space travel might have been biologically impossible for the Ojalie; transmitting signals at tachyon frequencies was not. Unable to visually observe the sky because their suns permanently lit the planet, they had designed spacecraft that could carry satellites far beyond Ojal to orbit with the comets. They achieved this not long after constructing the first refractors about three million years ago. Since then they had developed the technology to see and track anything within the known Galaxy. Something many species accomplished at space travel weren’t able to do. This Ojalie expertise, and a willingness to share it, had made them popular with other civilisations, which was just as well. They were going to need help as the Star Dancer’s visits increased and their life giving power was drained away.


Opu, as new controller-in-charge, was still unable to make sense of the multi-form Star Dancer after its sixteenth visit. She decided, because it was energy, they would be able to pinpoint its origin. By the time a way was devised of attaching a tracking signal to the tail of the marauding manifestation, the situation had become critical. When the opportunity to use it arose, the signal only managed to follow the apparition as far as the edge of the binary star system, and then the entity accelerated beyond the speed of light and shook it off. No one had been expecting this. Though the Ojalie could talk to the other side of the Galaxy in real time, not many manifestations with mass were known to travel at the speed of thought.
Opu was beginning to feel like a wrung-out beak warmer. She sent a message around the planet to rally the technicians to generate enough power to create a tachyon “tag” that could pursue the Star Dancer at the speed of thought. If it travelled any faster than that she resolved to give it in her notice and fade away with everyone else.
As Opu waited, it didn’t help to receive a hysterical message from Anapa. Opuna had succeeded in alienating most of her friends, and sent the remainder into a near frenzy as they tried to relieve her of the menace for a few hours. The controller-in-charge had other things on her mind, though.
Opu felt a relieving numbness creep over her as they waited for the thirsty apparition’s next visit. At least it made the waiting easier. She checked that every available satellite was programmed to track the tachyon tag, across the Universe if need be. It would have been pointless to ask assistance of any world until they knew where it led them. All they could do was wait.
Without warning, the Star Dancer was there, hovering above Station 30 at the planet’s equator. This time it was shaped like a long-legged insect draped in swirling robes. While the controllers topped up the energy pool from other stations, Opu transmitted the tag. It tracked the intruder as it rapidly retreated into space. To her relief, it worked this time.
By the time the Star Dancer had reached the other side of the Galaxy, snippets of information began to filter in. There was no sensible time sequence to their arrival and the jumble was fed into the computer to unscramble: it produced data measuring a planet’s location, density, size, and atmosphere. More data produced images, some easy to comprehend, and others that had to be electronically translated before they made sense. At least they could be sure that the Star Dancer came from another world and wasn’t an emanation from some freak star - the name stuck anyway. Now it was possible to contact the planets in that region and glean more specific information about the solar system.
As they could make instantaneous contact across light years with anyone who had receivers capable of picking up their signal, the Ojalie had given up using electromagnetic radiation waves for communication millennia ago. Opu soon learnt that their quarry inhabited the third planet of a yellow sun that appeared to have a small, dim red companion. The world’s landmass was verdant, and filled with a multitude of life forms.
An aquatic species on Taigal Rax, in a neighbouring solar system, had long been interested in the Star Dancer’s world. Taigalians were more concerned about the large body of water that covered most of the planet, which they had named Perimeter 84926, than the creatures that had managed to crawl out of it. As they believed the oceans of the Star Dancer’s home would eventually cover the remaining landmasses, just as they had done on Taigal Rax, their priority was to learn more about the evolving species in the water than the eventually-to-be-drowned ones out of it. They did send Opu some useful data, however.
A precocious land animal had rapidly evolved to become reasonably intelligent. Unlike the Ojalie, who had six limbs, this animal and other larger life forms had only four and there, mostly, appeared to be two sexes. On the verge of space exploration, this planet had launched a vehicle carrying odd information about their world and a small plaque representing one of the larger sex making a sign of some sort with an upper limb. The creature was known to have a fear/aggression response, and to be terrified of anything out of its immediate experience.
Opu groaned. ‘Very helpful. Contacting them is definitely out.’
‘No chance they could be sending the creature deliberately, if they are aggressive?’ somebody suggested.
‘With their backward technology?’ Opu didn’t even bother to turn and see who had spoken.
She sat back and thought. Their only chance lay with the aquatic species on Taigal Rax. They may have been more interested in this planet’s oceans, but knew about the terrestrial creatures inhabiting Perimeter 84926, and were closer to it than any comparably advanced civilisation. They even had laboratories deep in the planet’s crust and could activate slumbering service robots at the bottom of its oceans.
Hardly aware that she had come to a decision, Opu transmitted a detailed summary of their predicament to Taigal Rax. She next sent out for engineers to design an android to track the Star Dancer on its own planet.
As soon as the others knew what she was about to do, the chorus of controllers, who secretly believed they could do the job better, arose. ‘There isn’t time for that.’
‘There will be.’ Opu didn’t have the patience to elaborate. ‘Somebody find me Technician Controller Annac.’
‘She’s dead - or retired.’
Unable to breathe in the hothouse of objections generated by little more than controlled hysteria, Opu stepped out onto the balcony, unfurled her wings, and took off into the cool pink sky without a word of explanation or apology.
Below, amongst the spacious gardens, rambling, twisting homes punctuated the skyline in a haphazard fashion. The older Ojalies lived here, out of the flight paths of the younger more reckless fliers, and whiled away their time doing anything that age, advanced technology and their fancy allowed.
Opu’s purple-scaled tunic was impossible to miss as she hovered over the flat roof of one home, catching the attention of the figure seated on it.
Controller Annac glanced up as though not really amazed at the visit from the senior controller who held the fate of the planet in her hands. ‘Thought it about time you retired too, young Opu?’
Opu touched down beside Annac. ‘I’m tired of promotion, children, and monstrous apparitions that drop in from the other side of the Galaxy.’
‘So you should retire. Though I thought you went in for a youngster? What’s she like?’
‘A brat.’
‘Oh. Some are you know.’
‘Problem with retiring, though, is that...’ Opu took a deep breath, and stopped.
‘Is that?’
‘Is that nobody else will be living to retirement age if you can’t help me with a small problem,’ Opu managed to say without sounding too overcome at the thought of it herself.
Annac put aside the plan of the force field bubble she had been working on. It looked as though sending goods by sunbeams would have to wait. ‘I wouldn’t call that a small problem. What do you want me to do?’
‘A long while ago you devised a system for transmitting matter from one place to another. It could be sent faster than light without the need for a receiver.’
Annac gave her a long, hard look with her large orange eyes. ‘You mean the one that used the Kybini particle?’
‘That’s it. The elementary particle without any mass.’
‘I withdrew the proposal for the Kybini System.’
‘I know,’ said Opu.
‘Then you know why.’
‘I do. But it’s not my intention to transmit people with it.’
‘Even if I’m sure you won’t, how can I be sure no one else will? Mineral matter was what it was intended for, not us.’
‘We’ve run out of options. Delicate sensibilities are for the unthreatened and comfortable. The Ojalie have never confronted extinction. The Star Dancer isn’t a comet we can deflect.’
Opu’s tone had enough gravity to make Annac bend her moral stance.
‘Is it really that bad?’
‘A few more energy drains and the whole system will bleed to death. We’re all three million years too evolved to go back to basking in the sun. Come and see for yourself if you don’t believe me.’
Annac sighed. So much for a peaceful retirement. ‘All right. But if you want to reach the source of this thing on the other side of the Galaxy with my system, you’re not going to have much success. It’s only effective under distances of two hundred light years. Over that, it’s impossible to select the time matter arrives. It could take ages.’
‘Our computer signal doesn’t though,’ Opu hinted. She could see Annac would remain unconvinced until she explained her plan.
The controllers weren’t surprised to see Opu and Annac stroll in from the balcony and go to the plans the android engineers had produced.
‘We’ve got enough data to make a transmitter. We’ll use its energy imprint to create a signal that will attract the Star Dancer on its own planet. The data can be sent with the components for an android.’
Annac pointed to the blueprint. ‘What’s this machine going to look like then?’ There was something aesthetically unpleasant about it. ‘There’s no outer casing,’ she complained,
‘Doesn’t matter. Will its components transmit on your system?’
‘Of course, but not at this range.’
‘Good.’ Opu smiled beneath her blunt beak. ‘Let’s hope that any favours Ojal has done in the past were appreciated. The Taigalians have already promised to help.’
‘How far away from this Perimeter 84926 are they?’
‘One hundred and fifty light years.’
‘Then if they transmit the android, it’ll arrive far too soon, even with compensations for different space time.’
‘Over one of Perimeter 84926’s centuries before it actually happens here,’ Opu explained, ‘This will give the android time to orientate itself and be established when the energy source manifests itself there - I hope.’
‘You’ll have no control over the machine,’ Annac warned. ‘We can only transmit it back into their past because the signal will bisect the time curve Perimeter 84926 has travelled through.’
‘Of course we won’t have any control over it. The first thing we’ll know about it intercepting the Star Dancer is when it stops appearing here.’
‘And how will that pile of metal and crystal manage to do that?’
‘We intend our aquatic friends to build into this expensive pile of metal and crystal a sense of what the creatures on Perimeter 84926 look like, and then use your Kybini system to transmit it. They can supply it with power units and any data needed about the planet. The android will be able to change its appearance whenever it needs… and develop living tissue if necessary.’
The other controllers froze in horror.
‘Living tissue!’ Annac blurted out. ‘If you’re sending something like that back into anyone’s history without any control over it, you’d better pray the Watchers never find out.’
‘We’ll double-check it, and Taigal Rax shall do the same. It’ll only activate the biological process if they instruct it. We have to take the risk. We’ve got everything to lose if we don’t.’
However tedious she found retirement, Annac knew she had no right to obstruct other Ojalies from having a future. ‘So we’ll only know whether it has been successful when the entity stops attacking the energy pools?’
‘Assuming I start transmitting the data before things get out of hand here, just so.’ Opu started to transmit the program to Taigal Rax.
Annac cursed as her old wings fluttered her unsurely home into the pink sunrise. ‘What a way to spend retirement.’


A heavy mist rolled across the inky sea washing against the treacherous rocks. The moon lit the grey chalk cliffs where the breeze had pushed the mist back, and they glowed like a sinister silver ribbon.
Above the fuming waves an eerie, swishing noise echoed about the top of the cliffs. It was followed by an unlikely tinkling sound as something hit the ground. A couple of seconds passed. Another swishing was followed by the tinkling sound. Then again and again until there was an untidy heap of diamond-metal, crystal, and gold tendons on a cushion of sea thrift and twitch-grass.
Delivery complete, the glinting components began to arrange themselves. Some stood erect as though trying to take their bearings and others rolled towards their adjoining members. Each piece knew where it should fit, like a mechanical chromosome. Clicking and whirring, they assembled themselves into a glittering, faceless machine. It sat twinkling on top of the cliff for several moments, checking its components and circuits, then lifted itself erect on two stick-like legs in imitation of a human frame.
It picked its way unsurely over the unfamiliar ground towards the edge of the cliff and sent out signals in every direction to make take its bearings, then stood pondering for a few seconds.
Satisfied, it sprang forward and plunged into the dark churning sea below.
An ominous rumble echoed from the bowels of the ironclad ship as its cargo slid across the hold. The vessel tilted so far over the deck was partly submerged. The sails and the steam-driven paddles of the merchantman were useless in the teeth of the storm that was trying to capsize it. The crew were well rehearsed for such a disaster. They had been expecting something like it for their last eight voyages. They didn’t begrudge the owners their insurance money, but they were damned if they were going to drown for it. Before the order to abandon ship could be given, the lifeboats were launched and passengers and crew loaded into them. When someone yelled across the bows to ask the inebriated captain if he was going down with his ship, he sobered up with remarkable alacrity and slid across the deck to join his first mate in the nearest boat.
‘Sheer off! Sheer off!’ he yelled. ‘Sheer off or we’ll all be sucked down with her!’ as though that hadn’t already occurred to the sailors battling with oars.
‘My cargo! My cargo!’ rang out a despairing cry from one of the smaller boats being rowed away from the mêlée towards the cliffs looming out of the spray.
‘Better to be alive and have the insurance,’ a young man hauling at an oar tried to reassure Mr Humbert.
‘I don’t need your insolence, you young pup!’
‘Well shut up then you old fool, and sit down,’ snapped an older woman. ‘If you can’t help row the boat you might stop rocking it.’
Mr Humbert was obviously not used to being spoken to in such a manner and would have stood resolutely at the bows glowering if a wave hadn’t thrown him down to the bottom of the boat.
The young woman pulling at the other oar snatched a glance over her shoulder. ‘We’re heading straight for the cliffs, Toby! We should have taken a sailor on board with us.’
‘You’re right, Tasmin!’ The young man was exhausted and panicking. ‘We’re being dragged towards them! I’m more used to holding a pen than an oar.’
At that the older woman placed herself between the struggling younger couple and, seizing the end of each oar, tried to add her weight to their efforts. Humbert meanwhile sat facing them, staring stonily at their exertion as though his Victorian affluence had given him some immunity against drowning.
Soon all the other lifeboats with sailors on board were out of sight and in safer waters. As much as the three battled with the waves, the cliffs were soon towering above them and the boat was sucked towards their craggy walls.
One of the oars snapped against the jagged rocks. ‘Get down!’ yelled the older woman. ‘Lie flat!’
All four clung to the slats in the bottom of the flooded boat as it banged against one rock after another. At any moment they expected it to disintegrate and pitch them into the swirling water.
Then the hammering suddenly stopped. The roaring torrent was left behind and they were swept into a world of muffled darkness. Ahead was the gushing of water being forced into a large chamber. For a few seconds they were spun round, and then the boat travelled along a straight channel.
‘We’re in a tunnel,’ the older woman eventually murmured.
‘I’m scared, Mrs Angel,’ whispered Toby. ‘Are you all right, Tasmin?’
‘I’d rather be in here than outside.’ Tasmin rose from the bottom of the boat to see if she could glimpse anything through the pitch-blackness and banged her head on the cave roof.
‘Be careful,’ Mrs Angel warned. ‘We could be travelling into a dead end.’
‘What can we do?’ asked Toby helplessly.
‘It depends on how narrow the tunnel is. We may be able to wall-walk our way out once this storm has abated.’
‘You mean like the canal bargees?’
‘Yes, like the canal bargees.’
‘Goodness. My legs would never be long enough.’
‘You’re an inadequate sort of creature aren’t you? What made you think you would be a suitable husband for my assistant?’
‘Please, Mrs Angel, it’s hardly the time and place to discuss that,’ remonstrated Tasmin.
‘This is the sort of situation that will prove how worthy he really is.’
‘But you can’t expect Toby to be the one to rescue us.’
‘Then you might have at least considered a more suitable specimen to break your vestal vow for, young lady - a ledger clerk indeed!’
‘How can I keep that vow forever?’
‘You will for as long as I employ you. Our class of clientele will not want to listen to their departed loved ones through the mouth of a housewife or scarlet woman.’
‘I’m sure I wouldn’t do anything to dishonour Tasmin, Mrs Angel,’ protested Toby.
‘Fortunately, so am I.’
The argument would have continued if an eerily glimmering light hadn’t appeared ahead of them. They were swept out of the tunnel into a large dimly lit cave. At the far end was a wide platform. The boat came alongside it and was nudged to a stop.
Gratefully, the sodden passengers clambered out. Before them was a wall studded with small lights and knobs. Some of the rock was transparent and inside it were cavities holding strange machines, spinning, and clicking in time to some tuneless rhythm.
Astonished at what they had accidentally transgressed into, no one spoke. They gingerly examined their surroundings, careful not to touch anything. The thought crossed their minds that they could be trapped here for a long time.
A sickly light appeared in the water lapping the platform. A shape was walking towards them from its depths. Although the creature carried itself like a human being, its movements were mechanical. As it rose from the water the travellers shrank to the far end of the platform. The entity wore a long shroud, like a monk’s habit, which instantly dried when the air touched it as it walked up some rough steps and onto the platform, cutting off their only chance of escaping in the boat.
Even the indomitable Mrs Angel was daunted by the strange hooded figure. ‘Who are you?’ she demanded tremulously.
‘Who are you?’ the figure asked in a metallic, clicking voice.
‘I am Mrs Angel.’ Despite her apprehension, she formally introduced the others in turn as though she were at a dinner party, ‘This is Tasmin, and Mr Humbert. And we call this fair-haired young man Toby. He’s only a ledger clerk.’ She turned back to the figure. ‘Now, what is your name?’
‘I am the Kybion,’ it replied.
‘Rum sort of name,’ muttered Toby.
Only one thing concerned the entity. ‘What are you doing here?’
‘Why ask that?’ snapped Mrs Angel. ‘You must already know.’ She wasn’t sure what made her say it.
‘You are right, Mrs Angel,’ the voice clicked in what might have been surprise. ‘You are perceptive.’
‘I am a medium.’
The Kybion didn’t seem to register the meaning of the word, so she explained, ‘I can see into the future and contact spirits from the world of the dead.’
As that revelation met with stony silence, Tasmin added, ‘Mrs Angel and I were coming back from France after an important séance when our ship foundered.’
‘Wretched ironclads,’ snorted Mr Humbert. ‘How can anything stay afloat with all that metal riveted to it?’
‘Remember the insurance, Mr Humbert,’ Toby dared to remind him, and received a hefty clip round the ear for his advice.
Before real violence could break out, the Kybion’s voice resonated about the cave. ‘You should all be dead.’
‘Probably so,’ agreed Mrs Angel. ‘But the Good Lord in his infinite mercy spared us.’
‘Your “Good Lord” had nothing to do with the matter, Mrs Angel. I made the inlet you were swept into. It was pure chance your boat found it. You should have all been killed on the cliff-face. Events cannot be moved out of time sequence.’
‘What do you mean, sir?’ Humbert strode towards the mysterious gowned figure. ‘Do you know who I am?’
‘You should be dead, Mr Humbert,’ was the clinical reply.
At that, Humbert’s heavily-jowled face glowed red with fury. ‘Now let’s see who you are, sir! This mumbo jumbo has gone far enough!’ He reached out and snatched off the Kybion’s hood. Its habit fell open.
Mr Humbert reeled back in terror and toppled from the platform.
The other three looked on in horrified disbelief, ignoring Humbert’s calls for help as he splashed about in the shallow water. Standing before them was a faceless jumble of tangled wire tendons, and winking crystal arteries. The creature was a metal skeleton entwined with gold nerves, and supported by clear muscles filled with fluorescing fluid. Not even Mrs Angel could think of anything to say to that.
‘I am the Kybion,’ the machine announced. ‘I am not yet whole.’
‘You’re really going to kill us, aren’t you?’ said Tasmin as the trembling Toby wrapped his short arms protectively about her.
‘The fault that you did not die is mine.’
‘We don’t mind - really we don’t,’ blurted out Toby.
‘I am from a future time. I cannot interfere with the history of this planet, even to let you live.’
‘You are a scoundrel, sir!’ spluttered Humbert, dragging himself back onto the platform. ‘Not only a scoundrel, but as twisted a piece of machinery as is ever liable to be assembled by a madman.’
‘And no one can travel from the future,’ snapped Mrs Angel. ‘It would be ungodlike if they could.’
‘I am the Kybion. I have no gods. This God of yours is part of your own inadequacy in working out existence for yourself. Many stars away, people can achieve what you call miracles. They do not need gods. I come from them.’
Tasmin disengaged herself from Toby to square up to the machine. ‘Why?’
‘I was sent to stop a creature they call Star Dancer from sucking the life energy from another planet. At some time in the future it will originate from this world. I am here to wait for it.’
‘Why not let us help you instead of killing us?’ pleaded Toby. ‘What possible harm could we do to the future if you were to let us live?’
The Kybion hesitated. ‘If I were to let you help me, I would have to prolong your lives for longer than is natural to your species. How can I be sure you would not try to disrupt the future of this world if I did that?’
‘We could only give you our word,’ Tasmin reluctantly admitted.
‘On this cross,’ Mrs Angel pulled a large crucifix from her sodden blouse.
‘Yes, yes,’ begged Humbert. ‘We couldn’t do any more than that.’
Toby was silent. He wanted to live more than anything else, but knew Mrs Angel and Humbert were lying. He wasn’t sure whether the Kybion knew it.
Without warning, it jabbed a spiked finger at Toby. ‘I will select you. I shall administer a longevity process that will increase your life span. The others will die.’
‘No!’ Toby found himself protesting against his better judgement. ‘How could you expect me to help you if you kill the others?’
The Kybion hadn’t taken that into consideration and was silent for a few seconds.
‘At least let them live their natural life spans,’ Toby suggested.
‘No,’ gambled Mrs Angel. ‘You cannot half trust us. We would know the clerk has longevity. There is no reason why we should not be treated in the same way.’
The Kybion sensed the deceit in the older woman and man but, despite its threat, was not programmed to take life.
‘I won’t help you unless Tasmin is able to live for as long as I do,’ insisted Toby. ‘I don’t care how powerful you are.’ Realising his mistake before he had finished speaking, he added, ‘And Mrs Angel and Mr Humbert as well.’
‘Very well,’ the Kybion said eventually. ‘I will administer a treatment that will slow down your ageing process. You will grow older, but at a much slower rate than is natural. You will not be able to carry on your normal lives. Those who know you must believe that you are dead.’ Humbert winced at the thought of having to give up his insurance money, and was soon plotting some way round it. ‘I will be watching you.’
‘What is it you want me to do?’ Toby inquired, half afraid of the answer.
‘You shall carry a small transmitter that will draw the Star Dancer to you. The planet it threatens recorded its energy pattern and they devised a signal to attract it. The transmitter was going to be installed in a fixed position but, over the passing years, the human species could dig up the unit or build over it. I cannot carry the device because the power in my circuits would disrupt its signal.’ The Kybion detected that Toby was having severe doubts. ‘It will not harm you, and it is unlikely the Star Dancer would. If you do this, you will save a whole species of creatures like yourself from extinction.’
‘I suppose if I should be dead anyway... I’ve nothing to lose.’ Toby was no longer sure which was the better arrangement. ‘What will happen when I do meet this “Star Dancer”?’
‘Do not worry. I will be here.’ The Kybion turned to the others. ‘I will always be here. You three will carry markers; ones that will let me know where you are at all times to ensure that you do nothing to subvert future events. Your lives must now be spent unobtrusively, for neither power, nor gain.’
Toby’s conscience overwhelmed his terror, and he gave in. ‘All right. I’ll do it. Where will I carry this trans... mitter then? How big is it? What happens when I’m not wearing pockets?’
‘You will not need pockets. There are many cavities inside your body into which it will fit quite easily.’
Toby almost fainted. The Kybion was unaware of the fear any surgical procedure held for a Victorian, otherwise it might have explained it would be totally painless.
The others certainly showed no signs of discomfort when it gave them their longevity treatment that consisted of nothing more than impregnating the skin with a needle. The process was quick. To Toby it felt like hours. The machine may have been incomplete, yet had sense enough not to let the three realise how it had fitted the tracking devices. Each marker was minute and would cling to their skeletons for as long as they lived - and after.
Tasmin, Mrs Angel, and Mr Humbert were completely re-costumed from a wardrobe in a cavity behind one of the chamber walls. At any other time it would have seemed a strange facility for a machine to have, but even Mr Humbert no longer felt inclined to question the Kybion about its odd behaviour in case it changed its metal mind. They were also handed enough to cash and bonds to ensure they could invest well and idle the years away in luxury. The Kybion’s more comprehensive understanding of human nature would come later - when it was too late.
‘Be brave, Toby. I’m sure we’ll meet again,’ Tasmin told him.
Even that affectionate reassurance couldn’t revive his good humour. The clerk’s life, prospects, and worldview were about to change forever.
‘Take care of him,’ Mrs Angel told the Kybion imperiously, having to acknowledge that the ledger clerk had saved their lives. ‘Remember that his intelligence is no more than matches his station.’
The machine hadn’t a clue what she meant, so Tasmin added, ‘Don’t hurt him.’
‘Let us out of here,’ Mr Humbert demanded impatiently.
Toby found the presence of mind to give Tasmin a self-conscious hug.
Mrs Angel quickly parted them. ‘Remember your vow, my girl,’ she chided with consummate bad timing.
‘There is a tunnel running under these cliffs. It leads to the nearest town,’ said the Kybion. ‘Remember, wherever you are, I will always know.’
With that warning ringing in their ears, they hastened away to freedom and new lives.
Apparently unconcerned whether they reached the other end of the dimly lit tunnel or not, the Kybion returned to the trembling Toby who was desperately wishing he had been able to go with them. The ledger clerk couldn’t believe what was happening to him. The more he thought about it, the more his senses became numbed, until the clammy air and prospect of what was about to occur made him faint away.


The urban brick and Tarmac receded and the train sped through the June countryside of velvet-green fields rippling with new corn. Gabrielle gave a deep sigh of relief. She felt better already. The bright lights and candyfloss company of her student friends would have just made her worse, and probably diabetic. Too many exams and too much study and had frayed her usually resilient composure.
Out here it was possible to see things with a clear perspective that would enable her to unwind. Gabrielle was confident of passes for every paper she had sat over the last two months, and probably wouldn’t have worried too much if she weren’t. Not many orphans had her assured future. Not many children grew up to retain the intense confidence of adolescence once they learnt what life was really like. There was something else making the teenager restless.
Gabrielle was a strong, healthy girl, and had overcome the severe injuries from the car crash that had killed her parents when she was four. No next of kin could be found, even in India, their homeland, but she didn’t regret being put into a children’s home. They had been very indulgent, and her foster parents over the past nine years had doted on the precocious and demanding girl. They knew that the child was exceptional. Although not particularly pretty, her looks were striking and expression thoughtful, as if she were always pondering something, and her eyes intelligent enough to belong to a woman twice her age.
Smuggler’s Halt, the small community that had built up around the railway station, was just remote enough, without a road on the way to anywhere interesting.
As Gabrielle walked down the path to Smuggler’s Row, the terrace of cottages where her foster father’s sister lived, she watched the swifts and seagulls circling over the cliffs. The air carried the smell of seaweed and fumes of a bonfire.
Gabrielle was fond of her foster Aunt, Penny, and her ten-year-old daughter Paula, and almost regretted that they would be taking a morning train to go on a holiday of their own. Everyone she knew thought the student had been mad to want to live in her aunt’s cottage without company for over three weeks. Gabrielle had never seen the place before, yet inexplicably knew that this was where she needed to be. The door opened as she entered the front garden and the pixie like face of Paula beamed a mischievous welcome.
‘It is remote here,’ Penny told her as she poured the tea with one hand and rapped Paula’s knuckles with the other when she tried to sneak another piece of fruitcake. ‘But with the train and the occasional bus you can get almost anywhere. Even walk to the village if you want. It’s not far up the coast path.’
Gabrielle yawned. ‘I just want to rest. Doing all the things adolescent girls should do must be tiring enough. Trying to avoid doing all the things adolescent girls are expected to do is even more tiring.’
Her aunt smiled. ‘Don’t waste your life away. You’re no adolescent and will be old soon enough.’ Penny was in her forties, and still attractive, so the advice didn’t ring true.
‘Is there a library in the village?’ Gabrielle asked suddenly, as though remembering the reason she was there.
Penny wondered if her foster niece had really turned into the swot her brother and his wife proudly claimed. ‘A small one. The main library is in town. I’ve got tickets for both.’ She went to her handbag and pulled two cards from her purse and handed them to Gabrielle. Why shouldn’t the girl study? If Penny had possessed half her brains she would have probably done the same when she had the chance.
‘Thanks a lot. I might take a walk into the village tomorrow.’
‘Good idea. We’ll need to be off early, so you’ll have all of the day to yourself.’
Gabrielle spent that night in fitful sleep and was visited by the turbulent dreams that had haunted her for as long as she could remember. They had become worse with the exams. She had hoped they would subside with some peace and quiet.
The next morning Gabrielle saw Penny and Paula onto the train then returned to the cottage to unpack a pair of stout walking shoes from her suitcase.
It was threatening rain as she strode out over the glistening shingle, untouched by holidaymakers’ feet. Walking on the pebbles was tiring, so she climbed some crumbling steps braced by railway sleepers and continued along the top of the cliff. The only other people she saw were a plump woman being taken for a walk by her dog, and the motionless figure of a fair-haired man watching her intently from a distance.
‘Good morning,’ said the dog owner.
It took Gabrielle a moment to realise that people out here were more relaxed about talking to strangers. ‘Good morning. Looks like rain.’
‘At least there’s no wind. Even the seagulls hide when it blows through Wrecker’s Cove.’
Gabrielle indicated the man watching them. ‘He’ll get soaked without a coat.’
The woman laughed. ‘Oh him. He’s always out here watching for something. It’s about time he found what he was looking for after all these years.’
In the village library, Gabrielle found a volume on 18th century politics. It was in good condition, and last withdrawn by a researcher nine months ago. The librarian cast her a glance of admiration as she checked it out.
The student’s striking looks and billowing black hair soon caught the attention of the locals, as though an Indian girl in mackintosh and walking brogues was a novelty in those parts. Curious to know more about her, some people went out of their way to be friendly, while others kept their distance. This was a world away from the brash melting pot of college campus and home.
Not wanting to appear stand-offish, Gabrielle managed to supply them with enough information about her to satisfy their curiosity and, in an attempt to show interest in their small world, enquired about the man who spent so much time standing on top of the cliff. Two older women she had struck up a conversation with smiled, secretly flattered by the attention of the well-spoken young woman.
‘He’s been looking out for goodness knows what on top of them cliffs for as long as I can remember,’ one of them said. ‘And I’m seventy.’
‘He doesn’t look a day over forty-five though,’ joined in the other. ‘And my old dad said he could remember him too.’
‘Mind you, Dot,’ the other woman reminded her, ‘your old dad’s brain did go eventually. My Ma reckoned it was his father he saw.’
‘Might have been, but I don’t remember his funeral. I’ve been to the funeral of everyone who died around here, and I can’t remember him ever dying.’
Whatever the vagaries of the two women’s memories, Gabrielle’s curiosity had been fired. She could picture the man watching on the cliff above the village as she stood chatting. He hadn’t appeared to be very old, and she wanted to know how a seventy-year-old could look no more than forty-five. ‘Why doesn’t somebody ask him?’
The two women were silent for a moment, ‘It probably hasn’t occurred to them,’ Dot said.
‘He never gets near enough to anyone to let them,’ her companion added. ‘Even his groceries are put on his back doorstep where he leaves a cheque and list for the next week.’
‘You going to ask him then, dear?’ Dot suggested, half in humour and half in hope.
‘I could do.’
‘He’ll run off before you can, but I wouldn’t stop you trying. A sturdy girl like you could probably catch him.’ At that, Dot and her friend fell about laughing.
Gabrielle took the opportunity to escape, and made her way to the top of the cliff where her quarry still stood. Although she hadn’t really intended to, the teenager felt compelled to speak to the strange figure. Even from fifty yards away, she could feel his pale grey eyes observing her determined approach. He didn’t run off as the women had suggested, and remained stock-still.
As she came closer, Gabrielle sensed the coldness of the man’s penetrating gaze. His hair was fair, nearly white, and his skin wan. It was difficult to believe this face belonged to a man of forty-five, let alone seventy. His features were unlined, and a polo-necked sweater concealed his neck where telltale signs of ageing could usually be found.
‘Good morning,’ Gabrielle said cheerfully.
The expression in the pale eyes became suspicious, if not hostile. ‘Go away.’
Despite his frosty response, she remarked in spite of herself, ‘Why, you’re not that old at all.’
‘Go away,’ he repeated then turned on his heels and almost ran from the edge of the cliff towards a flat-roofed bungalow nestling in a gully.
That should have been enough to convince Gabrielle he didn’t want to hold a conversation. However, there was something so magnetic about the mysterious stranger she couldn’t resist following him down the slope. He stood in the porch of the bungalow watching her approach.
She called out before getting too close and scaring him inside, ‘What’s the matter? I didn’t mean to alarm you.’
‘You didn’t. Who sent you?’
Encouraged by the odd question, Gabrielle walked down to him. ‘Why, nobody. I was only trying to be sociable.’
‘No one round here tries to be sociable with me,’ he retorted flatly. ‘Are you sure no one sent you?’
‘Of course they didn’t. I only arrived here yesterday. Why should anyone have sent me?’
He replied with a cool, accusing look.
‘The truth is,’ Gabrielle admitted, ‘two women in the village were trying to kid me you were seventy, and I didn’t believe them.’
‘You are right, I am not seventy.’
‘I can see that now. Don’t you let anyone talk to you?’
‘Not if I can avoid it. You aren’t English?’
It almost sounded like an accusation. ‘Yes, I am. My parents were Indian, but I was born here. I can’t remember them. I was brought up in a children’s home. I couldn’t even pronounce my own name if you were to ask me.’ What on earth made her tell him all that when he would admit to nothing? She was usually good at mind games. Something else was going on here.
‘What are you called now?’
‘Gabrielle. What’s your name?’
‘Never you mind,’ he said firmly enough for her not to ask again.
Gabrielle was unable to make him out. ‘You’re an odd sort of person. I’ll leave you alone if that’s what you want.’
The man said nothing. It was obvious his frosty manner didn’t intimidate the eighteen-year-old as it did other people. As she walked back to the cliff path, his gaze followed her. There was a tinge of fear in the tight expression.


That night Gabrielle quickly fell asleep and didn’t have any dreams vivid enough to disturb her. The next morning she woke early and lay in bed looking out at the gulls circling over the cliffs. Random thoughts flowed through her mind.
Still drowsy, Gabrielle noticed the ghostly figure of a young man standing by the bedroom window. He was slightly built and had a friendly, mobile expression. Strangest of all, he was wearing nineteenth-century clothes; a frock coat and trousers that were almost threadbare and chisel-toed shoes that had all but lost their original shape. By comparison, his frilled cream shirt, which was set off by a faded maroon waistcoat, looked quite expensive. He was hatless and his smiling face seemed to sit on a wide cravat tied with meticulous care.
Gabrielle lay watching the apparition, wondering what part of her fancy had conjured him up. He pulled a newspaper called The Daily Bugle from under his arm. When he held it out towards her, she could see the date. There was something peculiar about it. History was Gabrielle’s strongest subject; though he was obviously Victorian, the date of the paper was 1st, April 1917. Her overloaded mind must have been playing practical jokes. Feeling ridiculous, she sat upright to make sure she had only been dreaming.
All through breakfast, Gabrielle couldn’t help smiling to herself about the unlikely visitor and his wrongly dated newspaper, and then started to wonder whether The Daily Bugle ever existed. As she showered and idly sorted out what clothes to wear, a forceful urge to go to the town library and find out struck her. There was a bus in fifteen minutes. She finished dressing and dashed out, combing her long hair on the way to the bus stop.
Gabrielle told herself she was mad to travel eight miles on a silly whim like this; but the buses were infrequent, and the trains didn’t pass through the town, so she would have had to fight back her curiosity for two hours before another opportunity arose.
Gabrielle didn’t need to consult her map. She had been given specific directions to every place of importance by her fellow bus passengers, happy to encourage visitors to explore the nooks and crannies of their town. The area had never been a great tourist attraction. It lacked the places of amusement and architectural splendour other resorts possessed.
The library was still housed in its Victorian monument dedicated to the education of the lower orders and, despite the unobtrusive PC stations and electronic databases, had not allowed its shelves of books to be decimated to pay for them. This library either had a private sponsor or managed to vanish from the cost cuts of the county council. This was Gabrielle’s hands-on sort of place. She preferred the musty smell of old book to electronically generated pages that stunned the optic nerves and turned the concentration to mush.
The listed building had the faint aroma of disinfectant and the austere silence due it. Gabrielle felt her muscles tense as she noticed for the first time that her new shoes squeaked.
Being able to request a specific paper with an exact date meant the librarian didn’t have to ask her embarrassing questions about what she was looking for. This was just as well, because she wasn’t sure herself. Gabrielle was amazed to learn there was once a local paper called The Daily Bugle, and not only that, it hadn’t yet been stored in the vaults of the town hall, also Victorian and already filled to capacity. The trainee librarian scanning records into electronic format had only got up to The County News before taking leave to have twins.
The 1st of April 1917 was apparently a Sunday, so Gabrielle was brought the next day’s edition. Something at the back of her mind said that a date as ordinary as the 2nd of April would have easily been forgotten. It seemed that the apparition had an uncanny reasoning about it. She could feel her hands shaking as she took the newspaper in its Perspex cover. This was getting too eerie. The student thanked the librarian and carried it to a stand where she carefully turned the discoloured pages, scouring every last detail.
Reaching page five, Gabrielle was unable to believe her eyes and gave a small gasp. The man reading opposite glanced up to give her a concerned look. Under the heading of ‘Man proves he is sixty-seven years old. Court upholds decision he is not eligible for conscription’, was a picture of the subject, who couldn’t have been over twenty-five. Then the cold, clammy truth dawned. It was, without a doubt, the face of the stranger she had accosted on the cliffs. His name was Alfred Tobias Wendle.
Stunned at the discovery, Gabrielle quickly glanced through the rest of the paper. She had a rational, thorough mind and would have cursed herself for missing something else of importance. Then she took the paper to the photocopier to make a record of the front cover and the article. This was where a little technology would have come in handy. The machine swallowed four coins before printing anything reasonably like the original. Gabrielle put its malfunctioning down to the fact it must have been Victorian as well and didn’t bother to ask for her money to be refunded. She was in too much of a hurry to catch the bus back to grieve over forty pence.
There had to be an explanation for the picture. As Dot had suggested, he could have been the man’s father. Gabrielle doubted it. It was unlikely a face would have inherited the same features so exactly. There was only one thing for it. She must confront him again. After yesterday’s encounter it might not have been a very promising idea, but it was either doing that or forgetting she had ever met him.
As Gabrielle changed into her walking brogues, she wondered about the ghostly Victorian who had presented the paper to her. Who on earth was he?
When she reached the cliff top, her quarry was nowhere to be seen, so she went down to the bungalow and knocked resolutely on the door, half expecting a bucket of water to be tipped over her head from the flat roof.
To her surprise, a voice from inside called out, ‘Come in. The door is open.’
It was his voice all right; cool, without any trace of cordiality.
She went inside, through a small hall, and into a large room. Everything was immaculately tidy; even the man in the polo-neck sweater sitting at the table over a mug of coffee was groomed like a schoolmaster supervising an exam.
‘Do you take sugar in coffee?’ Wendle asked.
Gabrielle nodded.
He added a large spoonful to another steaming mug. ‘You can come in and sit down if you like. Standing around like that looks untidy.’
‘You like everything tidy?’
‘I have a very tidy mind. The curse of the Victorian clerk.’
Gabrielle sat in the chair facing him, clutching the photocopies she had taken that morning. ‘How old are you?’
‘One hundred and twenty-seven,’ he replied, not moving his gaze to ensure he didn’t miss her reaction.
She half believed him. ‘You’ve worn well.’
‘It’s not a blessing.’ He paused. ‘How much are you capable of believing?’
‘How much do you want to tell me?’
‘I cannot tell you part of the truth. I must tell you everything. I am not good at talking to other people. It is unlikely they would believe anything I have to say.’
‘People in the village think there’s something strange about you. Why not confirm their suspicions?’
‘Because people will only believe what they have been taught is plausible. What is out of their experience becomes impossible.’
‘I was going to ask you about this.’ Gabrielle put the photocopies on the table. ‘You seem to have anticipated me.’
‘I was a young man once. Quite a lively good-natured fellow in a naive way. I was an impoverished ledger clerk, and wore the same suit and shoes for years. The only new garment I was able to afford for a long while was a frilled cream-coloured shirt.’
‘What was his name?’
‘He was called Toby?’
‘Alfred Tobias Wendle?’
‘Then you are Toby.’
‘No,’ he said sharply. ‘Don’t call me that.’ He rose abruptly and went to the window.
‘Why did you want me to know about this after you’ve kept everything to yourself for so long?’ Gabrielle enquired carefully.
Wendle gazed out at the sky. ‘Because you may be intelligent enough to believe me.’
‘And?’ prompted Gabrielle.
‘Now there is a problem. I believe I could carry on growing old at this tortuously slow rate if I can’t find someone to help me.’ Wendle turned and saw her puzzled expression. ‘Longevity is not the marvellous thing it is made out to be by those who have never known it. It is a living death. Though your brain hardly ages, it becomes tired of the same old thoughts. Nature designed the human mind to have a certain span. You have to sleep for days at a time to escape the boredom of it. Your real self has to escape from the body for fear of going mad.’
‘So that’s who Toby is?’
‘I hardly know him.’
‘Why aren’t you able to age at the same rate as everyone else?’
Wendle returned to the table and sat facing Gabrielle again. He gave her one last long look as though to reassure himself he wasn’t making a mistake. ‘I made a commitment that I would never tell this to a living soul. I now believe that the party I made the pledge to is not keeping to its side of the agreement. If I am right, I must tell someone.’
Gabrielle listened to his extraordinary tale in silence, her rational mind astounded at what it heard. It was difficult to take in. A planet on the other side of the Galaxy, an energy vampire called the Star Dancer and a faceless robot capable of doubling human life spans? It was obvious Wendle was no practical joker. Both fascinated and alienated by him at the same time, Gabrielle was totally convinced of his integrity. Behind his brittle exterior there was a vulnerable creature she was willing to help. Perhaps the greatest assistance she could provide, though, was not to think him mad.
Gabrielle made the formidable mental leap and decided to believe him. ‘Can I help?’
‘Probably not.’
‘I would if you’d let me.’
‘There is nothing you can do.’
‘Why not?’
‘The other three, Tasmin, Humbert, and Mrs Angel contacted me recently. They had somehow managed to remove the markers the Kybion had impregnated them with to keep track of their movements. This enabled them to amass fortunes; Mr Humbert by collecting ship insurances and Mrs Angel and Tasmin by setting themselves up as mediums again. I believe Tasmin was always a genuine physic, yet can no longer be the woman I knew.’
‘You were fond of her?’
Wendle ignored the question. ‘They were not content with the fortunes the Kybion had enabled them to make, and knew I was being used to attract an energy source of immense power. What could be more profitable nowadays, than energy?’
‘But if even you don’t know what form it takes, how on earth will they manage to control it? If a highly advanced race on another planet can’t deal with it, how could they hope to?’
‘Greed can make people blind to the obvious. I am not afraid of losing my life: I am afraid of what they might try and do if they were ever to meet this Star Dancer. They could well prevent the Kybion intercepting it, and let it loose on this planet as well.’
‘Then the Kybion must be warned.’
‘If I knew where to find the machine, it would be. It should have contacted me a long while ago, when the Star Dancer was due to arrive. I haven’t seen either of them. I’m afraid of being left like this, but dread what could happen to this other planet. I have only one advantage.’
‘What’s that?’
‘You believe me. Even if you aren’t able to help me find the Kybion, it’s a relief someone else now knows.’
Gabrielle was puzzled. ‘Why don’t the other three have the same problem with longevity as you do?’
‘Because they have materialistic minds and are now able to move about as much as they want. If I were to travel from this area, the transmitter is bound to encounter interference that would stop it functioning.’
‘Perhaps that’s happened already, and is why the Kybion hasn’t been able to contact you.’
‘The Kybion was incomplete when I first met it. That was long ago. It must have overcome that problem by now. And I would feel it if the transmitter stopped. If Humbert or the other two were to try and move me from this place, I don’t know what would happen. I only know it would not be pleasant.’
‘At least they wouldn’t get the Star Dancer.’ She could see he wasn’t impressed. ‘Yes. I suppose that could be pretty disastrous as well.’
‘Especially if they tried to cut the transmitter out of me. At least, I wouldn’t be very happy about it.’
‘Don’t suppose the police would be any use?’ Wendle gave her an even cooler look. ‘No, they wouldn’t believe even part of it. There’s only one thing for it then.’
‘What’s that?’
‘Toby will have to let me know if anything happens to you.’
‘No!’ Wendle snapped.
‘Why not? The other three aren’t able to conjure up alter egos in the same way, are they? Even your Tasmin doesn’t have that ability, does she?’
‘It’s unlikely.’
‘Then they can’t find out what we’re up to, can they?’
‘Not as far as I know. But I did not intend you to take any risks.’
‘Who says I will?’ Gabrielle replied innocently.
Wendle paused for a moment, and then seemed satisfied. He poured out two more mugs of coffee. They sat in silence drinking until the grandfather clock struck. It looked oddly out of place in the uncluttered room. The hollow chime urged Gabrielle to move. Obediently she gathered up the photocopies and her shoulder bag, and left with a brief farewell to the preoccupied Wendle.
That night she slept unusually deeply. Her subconscious needed time to digest the revelations before the next strange day arrived.
Wendle remained seated at the table in his bungalow, not daring to fall asleep. He heard the breeze catch the kitchen window and blow it open but he was too exhausted to go and close it. If he had been his usual vigilant self, he would have sensed the figure standing behind him.
A quick hand pressed a pad over his nose and mouth. After a brief violent struggle, all the cool breezes of the Channel couldn’t have roused him.


With a sharp crack, the screen measuring the level in the energy pool shattered. Opu didn’t turn to see how it had happened. She was busy keeping the power as constant as possible. It was either that or shutting down another refractor, and with five other stations out of commission that wouldn’t have been a good idea. Everyone’s consumption had already been rationed and the energy giving yellow sun was about to enter its short phase. By the time it was at its regular meridian again, it could well be shining down on a world minus intelligent life.
‘Damn evolution,’ swore Opu. ‘Why the heck can’t we go without perpetual nourishment, like our ancestors?’
There was a familiar voice from the balcony. ‘Can’t invent anything to shift us back in time.’
‘Come inside, Annac. You might as well be in here as anywhere else when we all drop out like spent meteors, one by one, round the globe.’
Annac joined the harassed controller-in-charge. ‘Your little plan not working, eh?’
‘You invented the system. What went wrong?’
‘Did it arrive there?’
‘So Taigal Rax says.’
‘Then my end went all right. Must have been your machine or the fancy bits they added to it.’
‘But it must have worked,’ insisted Opu. ‘It was faultless. It was repeatedly checked.’
‘Has the Kybion contacted them?’ asked Annac.
‘Not yet. They can’t raise it.’
‘Then they must have given it a mind of its own. After all, we don’t understand enough about the creatures on the Star Dancer’s planet to know what idiosyncrasies it needed.’
‘The Kybion may have become faulty.’
‘Don’t let it cross your mind.’
‘The thought has been trampling through my mind ever since we should have been receiving results.’
‘You need a short break.’
‘You must be joking.’
‘Believe me,’ said Annac, ‘I did a permanent shift when those solar flares shattered eleven refractors and, if I hadn’t taken a short break, I wouldn’t have thought my way out of it. Don’t worry, the problem will still be here when you come back. You could go and see your youngster if you want.’
‘That I would not survive at the present time.’
‘If you don’t change your mind about that child soon, it could grow up with a complex.’
‘If that bundle of circuits and crystals doesn’t do something about this Star Dancer soon, nobody will have the chance to grow up.’
‘Still, I want you to meet someone.’
‘It’s not far. Looks as though the Star Dancer is through with you for this shift anyway.’ She pointed to the remains of the energy level.
Opu saw that it was still and sighed with relief. She handed over to another controller and went to the balcony with Annac.
‘Where to?’ Opu asked.
‘Just follow me.’
‘Well, don’t swerve about, will you. My reflexes aren’t up to avoiding mid-air collisions.’
‘My wings are as steady as they ever were,’ Annac assured her with the arrogance of old age, and lurched from the balcony into the air.
Many near collisions later, Annac and Opu were circling over an untidy clutter of spherical homes. They had become stacked, higgledy-piggledy on top of each other over thousands of years and looked an eyesore from the air. Some were so old no one bothered to demolish them because they thought it was only a matter of time before they fell down of their own accord.
Annac spiralled towards one of the lowest in the stack and Opu followed at a safe distance. Alighting on a narrow balcony and passing through a curtain of light beams, they found themselves in a large round room littered with antique apparatus.
‘Hey,’ Annac called to a recess, ‘don’t you know there’s an emergency on?’
‘Then how did you manage to find time to come here?’ came back a voice. ‘I always thought your input was so invaluable - unlike us poor seers.’
‘Because I’ve come to consult a seer,’ Annac shouted back, and in so doing woke a lounging figure who rolled over onto her back, crumpling a wing. ‘What a way to spend an emergency,’ commented the old Ojalie contemptuously.
‘I was trying to conserve energy until you lit in here like a miracle from the moon,’ retorted the recumbent visitor. ‘I’m very energy conscious at the moment.’
‘Aren’t we all,’ agreed Opu wryly.
‘Come on Anaru,’ called Annac. ‘We haven’t got all this sun. It was your idea after all.’
‘I’ve just finished setting it up,’ Anaru flitted from the alcove. She immediately threw her arms about Opu in greeting and completely ignored Annac. ‘I’m sure it might help if we give it a chance,’ she bubbled. ‘Now everyone clear the loop please.’ She ushered her reclining guest out. ‘We need all the room we can get for this.’
Opu recognised the equipment. ‘But this is an old-fashioned mental loop.’
‘That’s right! That’s right!’ Anaru fluttered her wings in excitement. ‘And you’ll never guess who I got through to only a short while ago?’
‘Who?’ asked Opu, just managing to be polite.
‘The Water Planet.’
‘She means Taigal Rax,’ Annac explained.
Opu had already guessed that. ‘We are able to contact them at the speed of thought, you know,’ Opu reminded her.
‘Ah,’ Anaru lifted a stubby finger, ‘but are you able to contact the planet where the Kybion is?’
‘Of course not. If the android built a receiver that powerful, it would be more than a little conspicuous. At the moment the wretched thing won’t even contact Taigal Rax.’
‘But what if you could contact it?’
‘The Kybion is a machine; it doesn’t have a mental link you can raise.’
‘But humans have!’
‘Oh no, I’ve got all the problems I need for one lifetime.’
‘Why not?’ asked Annac, who hadn’t been known for flights of fancy.
‘This is an evolving species. Even if we could contact these humans, it’s unlikely they would understand us.’
‘Is that what they call themselves?’ asked Annac.
‘We’re still evolving. Any species that isn’t is an extinct one.’
‘If we make a bad contact we can easily break off,’ Anaru insisted. ‘We only have to shut down the power. Let me show you how it works.’ Opu lowered her beak in disapproval. ‘Please...’
‘Oh, all right,’ Opu said somewhat disagreeably.
Anaru was already connecting the equipment before the words were out of her mouth. ‘I’ll just let them know I’m coming through.’ She dashed into the alcove.
‘Hey,’ called Opu, ‘that’s cheating.’ She turned on Annac. ‘How did she manage to get a link into the computer signal?’
‘Stop complaining, it doesn’t make any difference to your transmissions.’
‘Get on with it then,’ Opu snapped as Anaru reappeared.
‘Now don’t rush me,’ the seer protested. ‘I must concentrate.’ She sat upright on the floor with her wings outspread, looking like an ancient statuette. ‘Don’t interrupt, and look at the screen.’
Annac and Opu joined her on the floor and did as she said. With a beam of power playing about her broad skull, Anaru’s thoughts were projected onto the frequency selected on the screen. Within seconds, an image began to flicker before them. The distinct features of an aquatic Taigalian appeared.
‘You can speak to her if you become part of the loop,’ Anaru told Opu. ‘There’ll be no language problem as long as you don’t move out of it.’
Unexpectedly impressed, Opu moved into the loop and studied the amphibious features on the screen. They were shimmering silver and framed with white-edged scales. Double lids protected the eyes, and a nostril in the centre of the forehead occasionally opened and closed.
‘My name is Controller Opu,’ she thought.
The response was immediate. ‘I am Healphani-Kioyono. I know of you, but am not connected with the transmission of the Kybion. We hope your problem is resolved soon.’
‘So do I,’ Opu absently thought. It was instantly transmitted across the Galaxy.
‘Anaru told us she would like to link with the planet, Perimeter 84926. If you permit it, I can find out the co-ordinates of the Kybion. She may be able to pick up a human sensitive in its vicinity.’
‘As long as it doesn’t interfere with its function, anything’s worth trying.’ Opu was becoming more impressed by the minute. ‘Though all official contact will be made through my control.’
‘Of course. This is purely experimental. We could boost Anaru’s signal should she need it.’
‘We must conserve the power now, Healphani. Reception’s getting erratic,’ Anaru cut in. ‘Many thanks. I’ll be back to you as soon as I can.’ She slapped the disc that shut down the equipment.
‘Well?’ said Annac.
It was obvious Opu had changed her mind about seers. ‘Yes,’ she admitted. ‘You’re not often wrong.’ Then she turned to Anaru. ‘Even if you can reach a human on that planet, how will you make them understand, let alone help us?’
‘We talk through thought, so won’t need a translator. It’s purely a matter of selecting the right sensitive,’ explained Anaru.
‘Forgive me,’ Opu said, ‘it’s my job to be sceptical. I’m not handed prizes for believing in miracles.’
Annac pulled herself up. ‘I’m not surprised you had a brat for a child,’ she commented dryly. ‘I’ll see you later Anaru.’
Anaru fidgeted herself out of her statuesque position. ‘Well, don’t come back and interfere until I tell you. Your ideas have too many angles to be of any use in here. Goodbye, Opu. I hope we see each other again.’
‘You’re the seer. You should know whether that’s going to happen,’ Opu reminded her somewhat unkindly.
Anaru just chuckled and returned to her alcove.


It was dawn when Gabrielle half woke and turned to see the familiar figure of Toby standing by the window. He was holding something out to her; an address written on a sheet of paper. Reaching for the pencil and notepad she always kept beside her bed, Gabrielle copied the words before he faded from sight.
As she shook herself awake, Gabrielle realised that his expression had been tense and unsmiling. Something was wrong. She tumbled out of bed and went to the bathroom to splash water on her face, then returned to the bedroom to read the address written on the pad. ‘High Acre Grange, Haymaker’s Green’ it read. Wondering whether her mind was playing tricks again, she pulled out her local map. There actually was a place called Haymaker’s Green.
After what he had told her, it seemed probable that Wendle had been kidnapped and taken to that address. Gabrielle had no idea what to do next. Even if she told the police, no one at the Grange was going to admit it and let them search the place without something better than her suspicion to go on.
What to do? The address was a good twelve miles away. Then she remembered Penny’s bike in the backyard. It was under a primitive lean-to shed, and fortunately not padlocked.
Gabrielle snatched a quick breakfast, showered, and then dressed in jeans and T-shirt, trying to look as inconspicuous as possible. Armed with her map, she peddled furiously along the path to Wendle’s bungalow.
The door was ajar, and when she entered it was obvious that a struggle had taken place. She worked out the quickest route to Haymaker’s Green and jumped back onto Penny’s bike.
Gabrielle cycled non-stop for those twelve miles and hardly had enough energy left to circle the wide green to find the right address. When she found it, the sight of the long drive leading to the house almost filled her with despair. And what was she going to do when she did reach the door? The only thing she could think of was to apply for a job as a scullery maid. The place looked as though it needed a large staff to keep it going. Having the sense not to go to the huge front door at the top of two flights of wide steps, she peddled over the courtyard of pale, pink granite chips to the tradesman’s entrance.
Before Gabrielle could dismount, a tall black man who looked as though he must have been in charge of something crossed her path.
‘Hello,’ she sang out. ‘Friend of mine says you need someone to work in the kitchen.’
The man’s clean-shaven features were immobile for a moment as rapid thoughts, and possibly astonishment, passed behind them. Then his face lit up.
‘No, no - she meant a laundry maid.’
‘Oh.’ Gabrielle was glad it was a cleaner job. ‘Got no references.’
‘That’s all right. Nobody stops here long anyway. You probably won’t either. When can you start?’
‘Now if you want,’ she told him like a diffident teenager, trying not to sound suspiciously enthusiastic.
‘You’re a big girl. Uniform won’t fit. You’ll have to borrow a black skirt from Alice, and that’ll be too large... But nobody’ll notice. Still, I can show you around today. Got your cards?’
‘Cards?’ Gabrielle queried with convincing innocence.
‘Yes, young lady. And P45.’ He was obviously used to the problem. ‘We have to pay stamps so you can get tranquillisers on the National Health after working here for a couple of days.’ Her blank expression spoke volumes. ‘Oh, don’t worry, I’ll show you how to apply for them. Stow your bike over there and come inside.’ He bounced into the staff entrance. It was just as well he never asked for her CV; she hadn’t yet been to university, and it was already a little too accomplished for a laundry maid.
The servants’ quarters were impressive and, in the subdued light, Gabrielle’s escort looked even more imposing, or would have done if it weren’t for that nonchalant bounce in his step. As he passed the occasional maid, secretary or thinly disguised guard, he greeted them with the same quick, insincere grin and flourish of the hand. By the time Gabrielle had been shown all the rooms she needed to know about, she seriously began to wonder how anybody, even a crook, could have managed to employ this unlikely, irreverent man in the patterned, satin waistcoat as a butler. Finally she was shown to a large bedroom with curtained bed, wall tapestries, and marble fireplace.
‘Linen in this place will have to be changed every day,’ her escort announced. ‘Got a special visitor coming tomorrow. Be your first job.’
‘Oh? Must be a fussy sort of geezer,’ she said, angling.
‘Well, I suppose surgeons are.’
Gabrielle gulped back an exclamation of horror and said instead, ‘What’s your name then?’
‘Weatherby. What’s yours?’
‘Jennifer,’ she answered quickly.
Weatherby looked disapprovingly down at her faded jeans, T-shirt and long, tangled hair, and pondered. ‘No... You couldn’t be a Jennifer.’
‘No?’ Gabrielle felt a cold sweat round her neck.
‘Scheherazade,’ he decided. ‘Probably wrong continent, but old man’ll like that better. Might even suit you when you’re tidied up.’
‘Oh...’ Gabrielle sighed with relief, hoping she wouldn’t have to know a thousand and one tales as well. They’d all have been about Florence Nightingale, Disraeli, and the Ming Dynasty, if she did. ‘When do I have to start in the morning then?’
‘Seven thirty.’ Gabrielle grimaced. ‘Or whenever you like. Could live in if you want. Can’t be too fussy in this place. As long as things get done we aren’t bothered by anyone. It’s his heavy boys Mr Gunn keeps tabs on.’
‘Heavy boys?’ Gabrielle exclaimed.
Weatherby grinned cynically. ‘We have trouble with the mice. They won’t bother you. He keeps them on short leads.’
Gabrielle followed Weatherby back down the stairs, trying to remember the layout of the mansion.
‘Don’t suppose there’s any chance of stopping here tonight is there?’ she asked tentatively.
Weatherby threw a quizzical glance back over his shoulder at her.
‘Only I got trouble at home y’see. Brother don’t like this boy I’m seeing.’
‘No problem, if that’s what you want. You’ll have to get your own meal today, though, if you want to eat. The cook’s going through one of her emotional phases. Mr Gunn’s been playing her up something awful and she’s a bit sensitive at the moment.’
‘Oh thanks. And I don’t mind where I sleep.’ But Weatherby had bounced too far ahead to hear.
In the large kitchen Gabrielle was introduced to the emotional cook. The delicate frills of her blouse sleeves and collar beneath the white overall, and the heavy mesh stockings clung awkwardly to the contours of a very solid-boned frame.
‘Call me Alice,’ the cook said in a husky voice, reaching out to take Gabrielle’s hand.
‘Her real name’s Arthur, but call her Alice,’ Weatherby quipped.
The cook cast him a warning glance. ‘Don’t pay any attention to him, my dear. Because this place finds it difficult to keep staff it attracts all sorts of riffraff. Though it’s not surprising. You’ve no idea what a dreadful man Mr Gunn can be.’
‘That’s right,’ said Weatherby, ‘now she’ll really want to stay.’ He turned to Gabrielle. ‘Just how serious is this problem with your brother?’
Alice turned on him. ‘It wouldn’t hurt you to do the laundry once in a while. You’re always interfering in everyone else’s jobs.’
‘I’m paid to. I am the head butler.’
Alice sneered. ‘Head butler indeed. You’re the only butler who’s ever been here since you rolled up three month ago.’
‘Is Mr Gunn really that bad?’ interrupted Gabrielle before Alice could get really worked up.
‘Only if you meet him,’ Weatherby said reassuringly.
‘I won’t need to, will I?’
‘Oh, you shouldn’t worry,’ Alice told her. ‘He’ll like a handsome young thing like you. Only don’t go and make the mistake of throwing up the first time you set eyes on his face.’
Gabrielle’s eyebrows must have risen sufficiently for Weatherby to explain, ‘Mr Gunn’s facial attributes are not all that attractive.’
‘He’s grotesque,’ Alice declared.
This certainly sounded like the Mr Humbert Wendle had described, and the house and guards could have easily concealed a prisoner without anyone else knowing.
Gabrielle only met two part-time housekeepers, a handyman, two gardeners, and a kitchen maid, and wondered how they managed to maintain the place by themselves. She also discovered that Mr Gunn’s bodyguards were the only ones allowed near him. They even escorted an older woman and her companion who were visiting Mr Gunn that afternoon.
The next day Gabrielle managed to busy herself convincingly by running backwards and forwards along the long landing that overlooked the main hall carrying bundles of laundry. Most of it went into the huge washing machines and was hung on lines in the back yard. She helped one of the housekeepers with the ironing then made the beds.
Although quite exhausted by the evening, Gabrielle had noticed the much used door to a lower floor opening and closing automatically to let the guards pass through. Because she could only see the tops of heads from the landing, one of them might have been Mr Gunn for all she knew. Gabrielle had better sense than to arouse suspicion by asking what was down there and waited until the place was quite deserted.
Being the new girl, she found it difficult to break away from the gossip in the kitchen. Inventing an elaborate family saga to back up the story about her bully of a brother was more taxing than putting the cover on a king-size duvet. When she eventually managed to break free, she was at least sure where everyone else was.
Gabrielle knew that there must have been an easier way to get down to the lower floor than through that automatic door, and wandered round the pink gravelled backyard looking for an outside entrance. She carefully picked her way round the house in the slowly descending summer dusk. As though he had read her thoughts, a familiar shape stood waiting for her by an ivy-covered alcove beneath some large windows. Toby pointed down. At first she could only see the blanket of ivy. He remained resolutely where he was, so she pushed the tangle of leaves with her foot.
There was a door under the ivy. With a hollow crack, the rotten wood fell from its hinges and crashed down a short flight of steps. Gabrielle froze at the noise, sure she would be discovered. There was nothing else for it but to flee down the steps after it. She fought her way through the ivy, pulled it back after her to cover the entrance, and then waited a few moments to make sure she hadn’t attracted attention. When nobody came out to investigate, she groped her away along the rough wall at the bottom of the steps.
As her eyes became accustomed to the dark, Gabrielle realised she was in an ancient coal cellar. She didn’t need a degree in ancient buildings to know that if she reached up she would find the slanting doors that should have been on the outside of the coal cellar. But that was wrong. The coal chute should have been on the outside of the house and the steps on the inside, unless it was constructed by a builder with a grudge against the owner. On the opposite side of the cellar, Gabrielle found the coal chute above a pile of ancient coke from a century old delivery. She carefully climbed on to it in the gloom and gingerly reached up to push the doors open. It led to a tiled pathway lit by skylights in the top of a wall. The extension had been built over the demolished remains of another building and part of its garden. She nearly tripped over stacks of ancient flowerpots that had been left there.
Although she could now see where she was going, Gabrielle didn’t know which way to turn. Then Toby reappeared. He led her along the enclosed tiled garden path until they came to a rusty grating at a dead end. It was possible to see through into a dimly lit corridor below. It was long and quite deserted. Not thinking for one moment that she could wrench the grating out with her bare hands, Gabrielle half-heartedly shook it. To her amazement it came free. This was too much of a coincidence and she turned to look accusingly at Toby, but his fancy cream shirt and fading frock coat were nowhere to be seen.
Things were going too well for Gabrielle’s rational mind. The very fact that she was able to get this far so easily made her suspicious when anyone else would have put it down to luck. She pushed her way through the hole and lowered herself down.
Although it was below ground, the air felt warm and dry, and there was the faint whirr of an air conditioning fan. Gabrielle moved cautiously up the corridor. The door at the end of it opened without difficulty. Someone had very conveniently forgotten to secure the heavy bolt on the other side. Ahead was the motionless figure of Toby waiting for her to catch up. He must have been the one making her progress so easy, yet how could a ghost draw back a bolt or loosen a grating?
Gabrielle hesitated for a moment. Was someone expecting her? Gunn could only know that Wendle had spoken to her if he’d told him. It wasn’t possible, she decided, and followed Toby once more. He stopped by a grille at the bottom of the wall. She looked down into a white-walled room. Inside were four men. Two were guarding a door, and an obese figure was standing over someone lying on a table. It was Wendle. From the grotesque, bloated features of the man by him, it was easy to deduce that this was Mr Gunn. He was frantically trying to wake Wendle up. Gabrielle noticed that Toby was getting fainter and fainter. He vanished as Wendle was brought to his senses by Gunn’s hefty smack to his face.
‘At last,’ Gunn growled. ‘Don’t think you can get out of this by staying unconscious forever. I’m not going to have you killed just yet.’
‘Why not?’ murmured Wendle, ‘Haven’t you taken out any insurance on me?’
Gunn clearly didn’t like this accurate reference to his method of amassing a fortune, and hit out again. By this time Wendle was fully conscious and managed to roll from the table before more damage could be done. He obviously preferred to be asleep, with or without the aid of chloroform.
‘I’ve told you, I don’t know anything about this Star Dancer,’ Wendle pleaded. ‘The Kybion didn’t tell me any more than you already know, I swear.’
‘Of course you know, you lying pup!’ Gunn bellowed. ‘You never did have any respect for me, but I’ve got too much to lose to put up with your bloody-mindedness now.’
‘What’s the difference if you’re going to get a surgeon to remove the transmitter anyway?’
‘The difference is whether you get an anaesthetic or not when he does it.’
Gabrielle could see Wendle stiffen. The nausea in the pit of her stomach told her she would have to do something before the surgeon arrived the next morning.
Gunn continued to rail at his victim like a sadistic toad for as long as his body had the breath, adding a few more threats worse than the one he had already made. Then he stormed out, leaving the two guards with Wendle. There was no way to get to him from where she was. The grille would have needed more than Toby’s supernatural powers to shift it without alerting the guards. There was nothing Gabrielle could do but return to the servants’ quarters before she was missed.