The box flying towards us was very high and bobbed through the air as the wings flapped up and down.
“What is it?” I asked Loran.
He shook his head sorrowfully. “A palace transport. They usually send them out to gather the summoned. It is considered a great honour to be sent for in such a manner.”
“Should we make a run for it?” asked Maurice. “If it’s just a big box, maybe we can give it the slip.”
I wasn’t sure there was much chance of that. The surrounding area was mostly flat grassland. There wasn’t really any cover and we wouldn’t be moving very fast.
I hooded my eyes with a hand and tried to figure how it worked. Perhaps it was being carried by a large bird we couldn’t see because of the angle.
“There’s got to be some troops or something inside, right?” I said.
“Most likely the Palace Guard,” said Loran. “ They are vicious beasts with low intelligence and large teeth. I wouldn’t recommend fighting them.”
“What should we do?” Jenny asked me.
“I don’t know,” I said in a very non-leaderly manner. My feet were rooted to the spot and my neck had iced, preventing any signals getting in or out of my brain. How the fuck was I supposed to know the best course of action? If we ran, the box would easily outpace us and we’d have to fight whatever was inside after already exhausting ourselves.
On the other hand, if we stayed where we were, we’d be giving up without putting up a struggle. More energy efficient, for sure, but capitulation didn’t feel very British. Mind you, I did have a few distant French relatives on my father’s side.
“Well,” said Jenny, “it is Colin they want. We could keep them distracted while the rest of you get away.”
It was hard to know if I should be angry that she would offer my services as a decoy without asking, or grateful that she had elected to stay behind with me.
“What’s this ‘we’ business,” I said. “Since when did you get to decide who does what?”
She smiled at me. The worst kind of smile—dismissive. “You amuse me, Colin. You really do.”
“She is a good woman,” said Loran. “Loyal. Smart. I don’t think you needed to brand her like that.”
The stinging rebuke I had all lined up for Jenny died on my lips. It took me a second to realise he meant the burn on her face. Apparently, he had assumed it was a mark of ownership, and not a surprising one at that. It explained why his wife and kids hadn’t reacted to it, either.
“Yeah,” I said, “but some women need to be reminded who they belong to.”
“True, true,” said Loran wistfully. His gaze returned to the box which was gliding in to land.
Jenny rolled her eyes but didn’t say anything. From the corner of my eye, I could see Claire fuming. Just before she was about to explode, I turned to her.
“What did you expect? A world run by demons would have progressive gender politics?”
Her mouth opened and then closed again. “You didn’t have to agree with him. You don’t always have to run with the dicks.”
“No,” I agreed. “But it’s so much more fun when I do.”
Loran looked back at us, not really understanding what we were arguing about. “If some of you wish to escape, you should leave now.”
The box was on its final approach.
“We aren’t going anywhere,” said Claire without consulting the others; not that they objected. “I’m going to make it my goal to save your life, Colin. And when I do, you’re going to say, ‘Thanks, Claire, I owe you my life. If there’s anything I can do in return just name it.’ And believe me, I’ll have a list of ways for you to repay the favour.”
I did consider pointing out that even if she saved my life, it would hardly make us even. But it seemed a shame to spoil her triumphant declaration.
“Not sure it’ll be worth it,” said Jenny. “I saved his life and all I got was this scar and my tits occasionally groped while I sleep.”
“Fair exchange, if you ask me,” I muttered to myself.
Having decided to stay and face whatever was about to emerge from the box, our attention returned to Flight 666. The wings, which were definitely attached to the box and nothing else, slowed to longer beats that brought the box down in a cloud of dust.
The box was shoebox-shaped and appeared to be made of wood, painted red and blue. A grate in the front allowed anyone inside to see out, but it was too dark to see in.
The wings folded along the side. They didn’t look mechanical or artificial in any way.
The front fell forward, slamming into the ground and sending up more dust. When the cloud cleared, a very fat man walked down the ramp.
He looked like he might have been forty. A big broad forehead, a long straight nose and a mouth full of brilliant white teeth. He would have been quite handsome if his cheeks weren’t so thick and jowls so baggy.
He wore a robe, coloured a deep red and made of heavy velvet. Unlike Loran’s simple jerkin and trousers, the new arrival’s clothes suggested wealth and luxury.
No one else emerged from inside Thunderbird 2.
“Loran,” he bellowed in a deep voice. “How did I know you would be mixed up in all this?” A headshake made chin and jowls wobble.
“Bibler,” responded Loran in a way that suggested he knew the man but didn’t like him. “Why are you here in that?” He pointed at the box.
“Ah, I borrowed it.”
“You mean stole.”
“Obviously I mean stole. You are as pedantic as ever, I see. Being banished to the wilderness has done you little good. Poor Terry must be ruing the day she agreed to marry you.”
“I’ll thank you not to speak ill of my wife.”
“I wasn’t. I was speaking ill of you!”
We were mere bystanders as the two locked horns. For a second I thought perhaps this had nothing to do with us. The fat man perhaps had a beef with Loran and was here to have it out with him. But then he turned around and swept the rest of us with a hard glare.
“So, which of you is the Colin we have all heard so much about?”
“What have you heard?” I asked.
His gaze intensified as he looked me up and down. “You don’t look very dangerous. Rumour has it the Masters are in pursuit of a mighty sorcerer, capable of laying waste to whole cities. But rumours tend to be exaggerated.” He cocked an eyebrow at me.
“What do you want, Bibler?” Loran interceded.
“What all proud men want. Freedom.”
“And you expect to find it here, do you?” said Loran.
“Surprisingly, yes. In this young man.” He pointed at me. “Whatever it is the Masters need him for, we would benefit from preventing him from falling into their hands. I was sent to see if you had seen anything of this one. Little did I know he would be sitting pretty in your lap!”
I felt there was some kind of dig being made at my expense, but I didn’t think it was worth making a fuss over. At least he thought I was pretty. What did seem clear was that Bibler was not on the side of the Masters.
“Are you a heretic?” asked Claire.
“Indeed,” said Bibler. “I am on the Council, a member of note. I can take you to safety, at least for the time being. Safer than you’ll be here, in any case.” He turned back to Loran. “Have you informed the Masters? That is your job, after all.”
“I have only just revived,” said Loran. “And I would not, in any case.”
“Would you not? Has he told you what it is he does out here?” Bibler sneered. “I see from your expressions he has not. He is the lighthouse keeper for this coast. When portals open and Visitors arrive, he sends word to the Palace of Laughter so they can be scooped up and taken away. And in return, all the goats he can eat, isn’t that so?”
Bibler looked around.
“Goats out grazing are they?”
“You know full well we are struggling to survive. The Masters are punishing us all because of your activities.”
“Don’t you see?” exploded Bibler. “They are weakening. This is the perfect time to strike them down. To think you are Levrik’s brother...”
“Leave him out of this. He fights his fights, and I fight mine.”
“Really? And what do you fight out here, Loran? Boredom?”
During this exchange, Maurice had disentangled himself from Claire and stepped away. She gave him a stern glare but something unsaid passed between them and she shifted slightly to cover his movements.
He sidled towards the flappy-box and then snuck inside. Once in, he began taking long steps like he was in the Ministry of Funny Walks. Then he came back out and repeated the bizarre walk around the outside. He took out his notebook and wrote something down.
“I want you to come with me,” said Bibler. “I came here alone to show you I mean you no harm. Whatever power you hold, I am not your enemy. Return with me to our stronghold where you can meet the rest of the Council.”
“Er, can I ask something?” said Maurice. All heads turned towards him. “I measured the box here, and it’s clear the inside is a lot shorter than the outside. Is there a secret compartment?”
“What?” exclaimed Bibler all flustered. “No. I mean, you must be mistaken.”
“How does the box work?” I asked Bibler. “How do you make it fly?”
Bibler produced a small box from the folds of his robe. “It is a complex mechanism. A trained pilot is required—”
I snatched it out of his hand. There were two knobs. I spun them both.
The wings jerked open. One wing flapped like mad, spinning the box around. The other wing slammed into the ground and the box jumped up, tipping forward. It almost took off, then it came down. Then up. Then down. It was fun.
“Stop that! You’ll break it. It isn’t a toy!”
There was a crash. The rear wall inside the box fell forward revealing a hidden compartment. Four men came tumbling out. They were armed and would have looked quite threatening, if they weren’t lying in a heap, moaning.
“I thought you came alone to show good faith,” I said.
Bibler ran a sandy tongue over leathery lips. “They are for my personal protection. We did not know what kind of man we would find. If you are dangerous to the Masters, you could be dangerous to us, also.”
Something strange struck me about Bibler’s protectors. They all had limbs missing. One had an arm cut off at the elbow. Another had a peg leg. I couldn’t see the one at the bottom of the pile, but the one top had an eyepatch. Between them, they would have made one decent pirate.
“Why did you bring disabled men?” I immediately felt the judgemental glare of my party. I hadn’t said it was a bad thing, I was just asking a question, so the hostility was unwarranted.
“The Cycle is not beneficial for all,” said Bibler. “Many are left in a worse condition. A hard life is made harder. I myself am not like this because of gorging myself on large dinners. As a child, my corpse was left out in the summer heat for five days. Bloated and rotting, my body never recovered.”
A tremor of anguish made his rolls of fat wobble.
“And what kind of child takes five days to revive?” said Loran in an accusatory tone.
“Do not bully me!” screamed Bibler. “Bully then and bully now. You do not change, Loran. For shame.”
Bibler’s squad slowly got to their feet (those that had them). Despite their missing parts, they looked pretty tough. By which I mean they could have beaten the crap out of us with one hand tied behind their backs. Even the one with only one hand.
“I apologise,” said Bibler. “You have to understand, I did not know what to expect. You can’t blame me for taking precautions. The offer still stands. Meet is a turbulent and corrupt city, and your safety cannot be guaranteed, but we are your best hope. And you, ours.”
“As loathe as I am to admit,” said Loran, “he may be right.”
“I’m not sure we can trust either of you.” I turned to the others. “What do you think?”
“Can I have a go with that?” Maurice pointed at the controller. I handed it over. Maurice was clearly more interested in that than our life and death predicament.
“We were headed for Meet, anyway,” said Jenny. “It would be quicker to go with them.”
“Ah don’t think it looks very safe,” said Flossie as Maurice got the box a couple of inches into the air only for it to crash back down.
“I think he’s not telling us the whole truth,” said Claire. “Let’s face it, both sides are full of loonies. They might just sacrifice us to their gods and drink our blood. ”
Bibler frowned. “I assure you—”
Claire raised a finger to indicate he should shut up. He looked annoyed. Probably not used to women giving him orders. She was a pain, but she had her uses.
“We could just take the box,” said Maurice. He had it hovering a few feet off the ground. “It’s like one of those mini remote control helicopters. I had one I could pick up Monster Munch with and drop them in my mouth.”
“Ah,” said Dudley, “I think something’s coming.”
I followed his gaze into the endless white but couldn’t see anything at first. Then I saw it. Another flying box.
“They have found you,” said Bibler. He glanced over at Loran. “Did you contact them after all?”
“Of course not!” said Loran indignantly.
“And what about your wife?”
Loran hesitated. “I do not know.”
“Listen,” said Bibler, “we still have a chance. If Colin gets in the transport I can set it to self-flight and it will take him to the city.”
“Why only Colin?” said Claire.
“With only one person inside it will be able to move much faster. They won’t be able to catch him. We can also provide cover. If they stop to capture us, he will have an even better chance to get away. You are his followers, surely you would do all that is possible to aid him.”
The looks on their faces didn’t suggest they were keen to prove him right.
“Of course they would,” I said. “No sacrifice is too great, right Claire?”
She scowled at me.
Maurice, in the meantime, had sent our box soaring into the air.
“What are you doing!” cried out Bibler.
The box flew up to meet the one approaching. It came up from below and smashed into the rear, tilting the back up. The door fell open and half a dozen small figures fell out.
“Do you think they’ve invented parachutes in this world?” I asked nobody in particular.
The figures plummeted straight down.
“Nope,” answered Maurice.
“I think,” said Dudley, his eyes squinted, “a number of those chaps were missing limbs.”
I turned to Bibler. “Really? You had a backup lie in case the first one didn’t work? Panic us into going along with your plan and split us up so you can deal with me somewhere nice and secluded, that the idea was it?”
Bibler blushed. Or perhaps he was just angry. He glanced over at his men who had shifted to more aggressive postures.
“And you lot can calm down, too.” I pointed a finger in their direction. My hand lit up in blue flame. Not particularly dangerous to anyone, but effective as a bluff. Fake power, best power.
“You may have bits missing, but I treat everyone the same. You’re all scumbags.” The flame flared and for a second I worried I might set fire to my clothes, which would probably not have the effect I was hoping for.
The men backed away. Bibler, eyes wide, moved in the other direction. No point getting caught in the crossfire.
“More to the point, why is nobody scolding Maurice for murdering a bunch of handicapped people. If I’d done it—”
“It’s not handicapped,” said Flossie, “it’s differently-abled.”
You can’t win.
“I didn’t mean to murder them.” Maurice sounded very remorseful. “They’ll come back to life, won’t they?”
Loran nodded. “Eventually.”
“Can you bring the box back?” I said to Maurice. I turned to Bibler who flinched. “I think it would be best if we make our own way to the city, with the aid of your contraption. I don’t feel entirely comfortable with you around, so…”
“But how will I get back?” said Bibler, now genuinely upset.
Loran smiled. “The walk will do you good.”
Maurice brought the box down without raising even a slight dust cloud. We climbed in and pulled up the door. Bibler looked distraught to be losing his ride.
We rose into the air in a series of jerks that sent us all falling to the floor except for Maurice.
“Ah miss my dragon,” complained Flossie.
Once we levelled off, the flight smoothed out and we soon got used to the gentle rise and fall.
“Worked out okay, in the end,” said Jenny.
“Why did you have to say that?” I put my hand over my face. “Now we’re doomed.”
“Don’t be such a pessimist,” said Claire. “At least we’ll have a couple of hours before the next disaster.”
Fools. They were all fools.
“Um,” said Dudley from over by the grate. We all gingerly moved closer to where he was standing.
Through the opening, I saw the dark shapes in the distances. Four more boxes flying towards us.