The Tale of the Bone Janitor
If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance.
- George Bernard Shaw
"Mandrake fire systems lit, the terminal eleven lie waiting, slow and crimson-lidded, but alert, black dogs receding, twenty feet, thirty, fourteen thousand, now counting in light years, exponential dilation of spacetime spiked and gravitational insistence permanent."
The ragged bridal gown hung off her hips forlornly, stiff and caked in dried black matter, brittle like charred paper.
"Green shift has occurred, Suprahelion opening wide, Hyperiotic Malouche status accorded with honour and longing, the waters break."
She arched and flexed her skeletal feet inside their felt slippers, exposed tendons tensing against the insoles.
A thick and enveloping blue light spread from the arched doorway, colouring the paintings on the walls. Shadows danced in the hallway of cabinets.
She adjusted the chrysanthemum wedged haphazardly in the thick, black nylon strings of her hair.
A hazy form grew in the light. Blue shapes jigged across the surfaces of the mirrors, drunken water patterns bobbed up and down around the sides of the hall like volatile wallpaper.
The doorway screeched and shuddered.
Myrtle Bound pressed her hand to Rapley's cheek as he stepped from the azure glow. Her fingers were nothing but bones and the memory of skin.
"Welcome to the Exhibition.", she chattered through the immense dead smile of her exposed skull. She had clumsily applied pale green lipstick to her gum line in a display of conviviality.
Rapley nodded curtly and planted an affectionate kiss on the bone of her left cheek.
"Myrtle, you never fail to surprise me. You appear to have lost weight once again."
She emitted a girlish giggle which startled them both.
They settled down to tea and sandwiches. Myrtle poured from a stout porcelain pot with the nervous mania of the reluctant recluse, asking questions about life back on Earth. Rapley lounged in a wicker chair and lit a cigarette as he gazed around and passed on gossip regarding acquaintances, wars and fashions.
"And how are they wearing their hair?" Myrtle giggled.
"Dull variety spans the globe,", drawled Rapley, "No one has the wit to let an idea settle."
"And Mr Violet", she ventured casually, "Does he ever mention me..?"
Rapley leaned forward and patted her knee bone.
"Often, and with great tenderness."
For a second, an unruly wetness smeared her eyes, but it was blinked away by the remnants of her Kohl-ed eyelids.
Rapley leant back and basked in the warm glow of strangeness that the Exhibition never failed to radiate.
To one side of him stood a brass casket containing the body of Ola Gjurdson, the cat princess of Norway. Under the impetus of her occult studies and her delusions of being a feline deity, she had had her own skeleton removed whilst she was alive and replaced with the disassembled skeletons of seventeen Manx cats. The science was obscure and doomed to failure. She had survived for ten minutes during which time she had whispered a series of terrible secrets regarding regeneration and the soul. The black box recorder holding this last dictation lay in a separate cabinet beside her.
Ms Bound kept up a trickle of mild but insistent enquiry.
"..and hem length always dictates philosophy so I simply must know that too, Pasha. .."
He murmured an answer as his eyes wandered across the hall.
In a domed glass case sat the ever-evolving musical object created by Hercules Brabazon Brabazon. A series of interlocking stocky rectangles of a dark and protean substance, like blackened honeycombs, shifted over and slid through each other, creating a muezzin call of voices and vibrating strings. Brabazon Brabazon, a Victorian portraitist of little note, claimed to have plucked it from his houseboy's dream one calm summer night. A collection of his perpetual motion still lives hung on the opposite wall, their clockwork frames ticking and whirring as if full of crickets, churning the claggy oil paint brush strokes on the canvasses into slow-dripping waves of animation.
And spread along walls and hung from golden girders, propped against cabinets and stacked in piles lay the accumulated detritus of the Exhibition: the cast death mask of a miniature sun at the point of supernova; the Tharnassian Bible, with its fifteen commandments for forcing the Devil to slough off his skins like a snake until you reached the gentle, damaged boy beneath; the hulking chassis of Youngman's Bathysphere, with its patented "Intelligent Riveting"; a film titled "The Reddest Cleft", which purported to be pornography from the very molten core of the Earth; the putrefying head of a Mermaid recovered from the "Kursk".
"..which brings me to why I called you here, Pasha. Why I asked for your help."
Rapley swivelled round to face her.
"Hmm? Terribly sorry, the place got the better of me for a moment. You were saying?"
Ms Bound stroked the white twin caverns of the bridge of her nose. With only the merest of brows to furrow, this was her preferred method of expressing a pensive mood.
"My tenure here is at an end, as you know. It's time for me to step aside and slide into Vanishment. But the Exterior has permitted me an indulgence for my service."
"Well,", drawled Rapley, "Indulge away. What's on your mind?"
She paused, clicked her neck decisively and said in a low and conspiratorial voice: "There are three men: Mr Gielgud, Mr Venus and Mr Wilkinson. I have them suspended in the Observatory, and I would like you to find out which of them murdered me."
After a moment's silent reflection, Rapley exhaled cigarette smoke and tapped the ash over his creased suit. He leant in close and whispered.
"Sometimes I truly believe that life is a conspiracy against the idle. The Observatory beckons."
And so it was that a svelte young skeleton barely patched up with residual tensions of tendon and purpose, and that listing and ever so slightly crumpled young man with a fine haystack of mousy hair traipsed through the corridors of an exhibition floating in deepest space, the perfect storeroom for all the fluff discovered over the centuries down the back of history's sofa.
With the interferometers bleeping their manic overtures, sweeping the densely packed quadrant for Einstein rings and the shockwaves of binary stars, Rapley and the janitor walked into the Observatory.
A vast panoramic window opened onto the underside of the planet Pollonia, and Rapley, in this sputnik moon, felt a little light-headed and dizzy. It was as if the planet were balanced smartly on top of them, kept apart only by the merest of invisible buffers.
The Observatory floor was a broad marbled stage, and there lurked areas of shadow in the wings. It was to one of these shadowy strips that Myrtle led him. She walked ahead, clattering all the while, holding his hand as he trailed behind, still gazing at the livid red of the planet with its surface mesh of black hurricanes and molten rivulets.
It took Rapley a few moments to process that the hollow clinking in his ears was the sound of Ms Bound clapping her hands together.
"Rapley!" She jabbered, and he turned with a profuse apology upon his pursed lips.
"The matter in hand." He acknowledged.
Before them was a thick green curtain hanging from a rail. From the other side he could hear an electrical sizzle and what appeared to be the low static murmurs of late night radio broadcasts.
"They are behind this curtain, Pasha."
A faint glow could be discerned through the thick material, a strange heat emanated from within. Rapley noticed that the fine hairs on the backs of his hands had stood to attention as a gentle pulse of electricity wafted through him. He arched his eyebrows and coughed lightly.
"Then reveal the legends behind the façade!"
And with a sudden swish, there they were.
Three tall columns of blue light glowed with a fierce and barely caged electricity. Encased within the columns stood the images of three men. The images fizzled, warped and flexed as if they were signals in a constant state of fine-tuning.
"Ah", said Pasha, understanding less of the world than he had a minute ago.
"We have beamed them from their own time streams, Pasha," said Ms Bound, "It takes great power and is somewhat unstable, but we have them. Securely, for the moment."
He had attracted the attention of the three men, who turned to him with all the clamour and complaint of commuters greeting an extraordinarily late omnibus.
Myrtle leant close to Rapley and whispered: "To their own times, they appear to be mimes caught in non-existent boxes, the boxes being changing rooms between now and then. The rooms come with bars, thankfully."
The first gentleman was round, small and of advanced middle-age. He wore a broad checked three-piece tweed suit and balanced a shiny bowler hat atop a thick white head of hair that culminated in a sweeping fringe. The fringe sashayed across the left half of his face, where it met one end of his equally white moustaches a fine pair that sprang past his cheeks like sprigs of snowy heather. There was something jocular and ironical about his small black eyes and pursed little grin of a mouth that put Rapley in mind of a man at a card table who cannot maintain a poker face due to the splendid excellence of his own Royal Flush.
"My name is Gielgud, sir," chirruped the man in a Southern drawl, "Entrepreneur and showman, and I do not take lightly to this intrusion! Being incarcerated like an ape is not on the menu for Hiram Louis Gielgud, I can assure you of that!"
"Nineteen oh two.", whispered Myrtle in Rapley's ear.
Rapley bowed with respect. "A pioneer of the huckstering arts, Mr Gielgud? You"ll find no rubes here. Behave yourself and we may even show you a curiosity or two."
The round man snorted through his mysterious little smile and kept his own counsel.
The second column contained a hulking brute of a bestial hirsuteness. A spillage of greasy black hair fell across a broad, flat face embellished with spiralling eyes. The mouth hung open, cackling and muttering glamours to itself, bracketed by a pair of mutton chop whiskers so thick and entangled they seemed like two oil-slicked crows. He was wrapped in a ragged poncho and wore leather trousers with some sort of stained military cap perched atop his wretched crown.
Ms Bound regarded him coldly and whispered: "Benji "Venus" Krestfellen. We dredged him up from Ladbroke Grove, nineteen sixty-eight."
The apparition smashed a sizable forearm into the wall of electricity around him and the marble floor shuddered. His hands were heavy with rusting metal rings.
His husky Midlands accent crackled through time.
"I got a bird and a bathtub fulla speed back 'ome so get to the fuckin" point.."
"When I have one, I"ll let you know," sighed Rapley with mild despair. Mr Venus growled a blackened hex and licked a salty residue off his thumb.
The third and final column held a stick-thin individual dressed in a green skin-tight cat-suit. He bobbed in mid-air with his legs crossed, murmuring into a slender headset of gold and wire. His gaunt grey features spoke of artificial light and long hours, of a lack of hydration. His papery eyelids slowly opened and closed like tiny pumps as he turned his head towards the peering face of Pasha Rapley.
"Rakshasa Wilkinson. New Delhi, two thousand and sixty-nine." said Bounds.
Wilkinson's movements were slow and with an oddly subaquatic mixture of grace and deliberation. The voice, when it spoke, was a featureless monotone. "Fusion is my policy. Seven pieces of information when split into each other may yield a cold reality otherwise neglected or dormant. Select and share your first datum."
Rapley grinned as if to a child or an idiot and took half a step backwards.
"Well, Myrtle, the gang's all here. Explain yourself."
The Story of Myrtle Bound:
I was an aggravating and curious child. Delicate and robust in equal measures, I would scale the highest branches of the trees in Hyde Park and lie, cradled by wooden arms, reading Mary Shelley and folk tales from continental Europe. The scientific romances of the Scotsman G_____ M__________ also fed my imagination. I would recline for hours gazing into the heavens from my arboreal crow's nest waiting for some sense that such voyages were possible for a child of twelve years from Crystal Palace. The year was eighteen ninety when I saw my very first spacecraft. I had taken to living amongst the thick tree cover in the park, dismounting during the night to raid bakers' shops and mills for provisions. In the early hours of a warm spring morning I was feasting upon a wholemeal loaf when I happened to catch something in the upper periphery of my vision. A red disc hung in the sky, as if someone had quietly placed it there upon a hook. Larger than our own moon, it seemed somehow sheer and perfectly round, the red more of a glow than an even colour. I gazed at it. It gazed back, and I felt a very vivid sense that it was gazing directly at me and at no other soul in London.
I fell fast asleep but woke some time later inside a white and sterile hall, vaster than that of the Prince Consort. My crinolines were mildly singed and I became aware of my thoughts multiplying into a chattering animal choir of barks, yelps and insect scuttle. I felt something physically alive inside my brain, something snaking through my memories and rustling through my imagination and dreams. There was, inside me, a sudden snuffling and baying, and then a voice. It said, "You will do."
The voice continued to rifle through me but, sensing the discomfort in my mind (though not, I may add, noticing the tears upon my cheek, the puddle of urine collecting upon the floor at my feet, or the sobs of fear falling in ragged breaths from my mouth), it stopped and glowed outwards through my bones, my muscles and my skin, until it enveloped me in a wild white heat haze. It whispered through my nerve endings, through my teeth, through the strands of my black hair, through the tips of my fingers and of my toes. It said I could call it "Jumble", and in a singsong voice began to tell me about the billions of galaxies beyond our own, of our hidden second moon, of the Veil Nebula and its transmission Mantas, of the roaring sonar melodies of binary stars, of the plasma soups remaining from the very first centuries of the universe's existence, and of lunar piracy, the glory boxes of Saturn, and of Sodiat of Betelgeuse and other such doomed romances.
I fell asleep that night with my wholemeal loaf dried and stale, clutched in white-knuckled hands.
I have been with The Exterior ever since.
The events leading up to my death have been documented elsewhere, mainly in the papers of Charles Fort, the pages of the Paddington Mercury and the flash-bulletins of New Delhi's Echelon societal strata.
Suffice it to say that I had been entrusted to explore and archive a series of artefacts of particular interest to The Exterior. These artefacts were strewn over several centuries and had a common thread: an uncommon acceleration of contemporary technology and a deceptively frivolous purpose.
The Victorian age offered up a freestanding brain made from organic and self-repairing components. The material was of unknown origin and hummed riddles aloud. I discovered it several years after the turn of the twentieth century, and subsequently stole it from the travelling "Cavalcade of Mercurial Delights" run by Mister Hiram Gielgud. The brain, or "Whispering Mystery of Xanadu", spoke riddles pertaining to the discovery of the newer sciences, such as radiography and anaesthesia. None of these riddles, to my knowledge, were ever solved by the eager queues of the general public who paid a dollar a time to put their ears to its shifting surfaces as if to a sea shell.
A narcotic substance of particular interest was detected in the late nineteen sixties. Again, I was dispatched to investigate by my curious employers and benefactors. I duly arrived in West London and, by guile, initiative and fortitude inveigled my way into the confidence of the narcotic's accidental possessors - a band of musicians, damaged in their bodies, minds and souls by a volatile lifestyle comprised of stimulants and violence. They composed their mechanical dirges under the name of Die Wunderkinder, and their chief architect, the man known to his cohorts as Mr Venus, did not take kindly to my theft of his product and of his logbooks. The narcotic agent in question was in both powder and pill form, and allowed all those who took a dose to telepathically connect to all other current users. It was a networking device enabling communication beyond the detection of all outside agencies. However those denizens of Ladbroke Grove under the guidance of Mr Venus had been using it for the purposes of intimidation and gratification.
The third of these pertinent excursions into acquisition and curatorship occurred in New Delhi in two thousand and sixty-nine. Having received my instructions from my benefactors, I stepped through the azure doorway into the shining many-tiered multiplex mezzanines and flyover parkways of that city, a perpetual twilight of pollution smudging the skies. Having no wish to linger as a tourist, I took a QuadRail to the offices of the noted industrial giant Mechgnosis and effected an undetected entrance. The Exterior, as you know, has skeleton keys of all sizes and methodologies.
Here, deep in the basement laboratories, amongst the basalt circuitry and saffron-driven telecommunications devices, I found my objective: a sealed glass tray of a thick, crimson liquid. So thick and full of sediment it seemed like some unholy marmalade, or perhaps like bloodied water from the murkiest depths of the ocean. The tray was round, several inches in height and with a circumference approximate to that of a bicycle wheel. But the weight of the thing was the trick. I found it impossible to lift it from the solid block of steel upon which it rested. All logbooks and diagnostic notes downloaded, my cargo and I were hurriedly teleported home, alarm bells and warning lights announcing that we had been discovered by the Mechgnostic patrols. I need hardly add that the CEO of Mechgnosis will be one Rakshasa Wilkinson.
The purloined logs revealed to me the function of this miraculously heavy liquid. It is a parasitical fluid in such a condensed state that it thuggishly challenges the genteel physics of the century in which it was discovered.
Its parasitical nature is such that it has the ability to suck up all properties and strengths of an item over which it laps. This is believed to include the intentions, thoughts and motives of carbon-based life-forms, though here the logs become coy and vague, hinting at an experiment or proof of this ability without true confirmation. The conclusion of the logs is that the fluid can act as an engine, absorbing power and storing it. The properties of the glass container which holds this fiery liquid engine are, alas, totally unknown.
"And that," said Ms Bound, "is that."
Rapley chewed his bottom lip.
"What a caper, I"ve always wanted to be part of the jet set..but I can"t help feeling that you"ve glossed over the small matter of your untimely death. What exactly reduced you to bones, my dear?"
At this, Mr Gielgud chuckled without warmth and tipped his hat to the back of his head. "If I might interject, I believe this addled doxy to be "The Flaming Maid of Kentucky". Is my aim true, ma'am?"
"It is indeed how I was referred to in the popular pennyworths of your time."
Mr Venus paused from the inspection of his left nostril and growled: "Burning corpse lights up carnival. Possible tart."
Ms Bound stiffened and her voice lost half an octave somewhere. "Charmingly put," she growled.
"The lady starlight phenomenon," said Mr Wilkinson, "it induced copycats for weeks. Little lemming parcels of carbon and electricity," he sneered, "and bone, naturally."
Myrtle Bound lowered herself to the floor as quietly as she possibly could. There were hollow clunks and a muffled scraping as she settled.
"I was back aboard The Exterior Excelsis some weeks later when it occurred. The evening had fallen hushed and heavy, and I was in need of a reviving nap when I became aware of a warmth upon my skin. A blush spread up my neck and across my cheeks. Thinking myself feverish I put aside the field log that I was updating and moved to the bathroom to splash some water upon my face. Halfway across the study floor I was caught in a whiplash of pain and cramp. I felt my heart searing my chest and my brain burning behind my eyes like a sack of hot coals. I began to rise off the ground, my feet scrabbling uselessly in the air, heat searing through me as I floated six feet off the rug like a saint crucified on a cross of fire. And I began to burn."
Ms Bound paused and gave the three suspended fellows a glare of granite and purpose.
"My Jumble came to see me, examined my physical deterioration and told me that looks weren"t important in The Exterior. He also told me that this was fortunate, as I was now a collection of bone and membrane kept together by what he termed his 'Geradeaus Science'. However, as my physical condition was now so conspicuous, it was deemed that field service was quite out of the question for me. Hence my tenure as Janitor and Curator."
"And the three stooges here?" inquired Rapley.
"My assault didn"t issue from the time I was in. A residual backwash from the moment of my immolation was sucked through time and spurted out into three separate manifestations."
"A flaming maiden on a cross," snickered the rotund Mr Gielgud, "appeared above Werther's Field in Kentucky during one of my show days. The screams were heard across the State line. "Course, I claimed it as one o' my retinue. Wonderful act o' advertising, ma'am."
Mr Venus hawked up a wad of green and broke wind like a baboon.
"She rose from the canal in Ladbroke Grove during the Carnival! The flames turned the water into steam, then she sank back under the waves. Quite some hullabaloo and the filth never found 'er body."
He grinned, showing teeth the colour of ale.
Wilkinson gazed blankly at Ms Bound.
"A human flare in the sky. A star issuing sound waves of distress. An elegant beauty of pain and crackling skin. It became fashionable to emulate over the following weeks, such is the trade and turnover for new lifestyles in my time. The population thinned, but to a miniscule degree. Fools, mostly."
Rapley walked slowly in a circle, staring at his shoes and waggling his fingertips.
"So am I to take it that these three manifestations led your employers to believe that the attack issued forth from one of those particular locations?"
"And hence the electrical zoo?"
She nodded again.
"A moment" stated Rapley.
He walked a metronomic scissor-legged walk away from the crowd and stood there, leaning his head to one side, eyes upturned beneath the vast spinning ball of petulant volcanic geography that was Pollonia.
Strange murmurings drifted back from him, too low for their meanings to be discerned.
A minute passed, then two. The natives, caged in their sizzling columns, grew restless.
Words like "farcical", "unChristian", and "geweltschmerz" flew his way. The planet boiled and bubbled above.
And then, with a click of the fingers and a sooty cough, Rapley turned to face them.
"I have questions to ask each of you."
(Somewhere, blue bullets were being hurriedly loaded into a matte black revolver. Somewhere a creature was unfurling itself from a field portal in south London, shaking its wild mane into a state of acclimatization, mouth yawning like a hot, wet tunnel.)
Rapley stepped towards Mr Venus.
The hulking wretch glared through the wild blue fire of his cage as Rapley peered into his blitzed eyes. Whatever was inside that mind of his had gone feral years before. Scraps of humanity and decency were just stains on his character now.
Rapley leant back. He could smell the man's breath through the decades.
"The ignoble and squalid first. My question for you, Mr Krestfellen, is this: What did you do with the magic chord?"
Benji Krestfellen, bass player, mauler of the flanged saxophone and abuser of the analogue Moog, froze. Krestfellen, haranguer and damager of flatmates, stealer of wine, women and song, criminal and advanced experimenter with and archivist of bodily filth, raised a slab of meat with wart-infested fingers on the end of it and tried, in a slight but perceptible daze, to prod at Rapley through the hissing blue sparks.
"There ain't no fucker left to talk about that.." he muttered darkly.
(A telephone rang in a greasy café in Herne Hill. A quite ludicrously tall and broad-shouldered individual covered in a capacious sack-like mackintosh and a sagging hoodie which more than covered his face, bellowed "LEAVE IT!" and swayed and padded over to the 'phone from his corner table. The individual growled a sentence or two, cracked the receiver back onto its cradle and threw a handful of change at the chef to cover the massive two gallon dish of mulligatawny that he had managed to spread over most of his table. The hand that threw the coppers was suspiciously square and hairy. The chef scratched his head. How peculiar, he thought. This coarse and bristling brute had appeared to be talking about violets...).
"Au contraire," corrected Rapley, "There is you, and there is me. Tell me all, if you ever wish to be discounted from this gallery of rogues and thrown back into the stagnant waters of your own time."
The erstwhile Mr Venus rolled his bloodshot eyes and sighed like a punctured tyre.
"Winter, sixty-seven, it was. Delmark'd told me the story before, but only when pissed, so I figured he'd been spinning yarns for the birds, y'know, impress 'em and that. He knew a harpist. Some puff, up Kensal Rise. Said he had knowledge of a certain chord. A certain combination of chords, I should say, that when played together at the same time would begin to lap over each other, sloshing like paint in a bucket til they were all mixed together. And when they were all mixed and sloshing and splashing around and volatile enough, then they'd burn through the bucket and make of it something very fuckin' odd indeed." Venus looked around, wiped sweat off his upper lip and continued.
"The bucket, in this particular case, being our reality."
"So you took a trip to Kensal Rise." encouraged Rapley.
"Can't resist a novelty, that's my problem. 'Specially when it comes to burning holes in the world. So. There was me, Delmark (straight, I made sure he was off the rum by breaking his elbows), Betty the snake, Carnegi and Sailor Wilhelm. We turned up on the harpist's doorstep armed with a tuba, my Steltron six string with the incapacitator pickups, a bag of may I say fuckin' strong weed and the usual box full o' analogue goodies and flutes. A few bottles of pop an all, just to get the atmosphere conducive, like."
Mr Venus braced himself against the electrical bars with a massive, sweaty outstretched hand. He wiped his chin clean of spittle and looked down at his shoes. Rapley noticed that they were wooden clogs with metal spurs spiked into the back. Dark stains on the wood, dark red stains on the metal. Venus kept his eyes turned down and continued in thickened tones. "Well, we pootled around for a while, y'know how it is with tunesmiths, Mr Rapley. All diminished and suspended and minor for an age. Til we could find a groove, is what it was... Well, must've been an hour into it, this harpist geezer just swung himself into a major progression and kept on going, blew the roof off the dump, and everything he jangled and plucked, we matched, and this progression turned into one chord, the notes inside just rising, you could 'ear 'em, just rising inside this behemoth of a chord, and it just encased us, we were right in it then, inside it and we started to change..."
Ms Bound sat unmoved by the story. Venus's fellow inmates had turned to glance at him with something very much like interest. Rapley tapped a nail experimentally against the cage before inspecting his finger for mild burns.
"Continue," he said quietly, and glanced behind him casually. "Take your time."
Venus laughed up some phlegm and carried on.
"I turned to look at the fella on the harp, by now he was playing his own nerves, strung tight between the frames of his instrument. The more he played, the more he seemed to be weaving these new harp strings from his insides. Must've hurt like buggery, but he couldn't stop, none of us could. Delmark was playing a ropey synth with his club foot, stomping and stamping like he was crushing beetles, but with every stomp something chipped off his skin, he was all leather underneath, last I saw one of his eyes was just a slit in the leather and he had no mouth. Betty the snake just flickered once and then strobed, her whole body just glittering, you could only see her every half second. Carnegi and Wilhelm were the worst. They both backflipped and coiled into themselves like one o' them moebius strips, both just flowing into themselves and out again all mercurial and screaming, bellowing jets of coiling flesh. They both dropped what they were holding, a flute and a tuba went clattering to the floor, must've been what gave me the strength to get out of there. I went straight through the second floor window and never looked back..."
Mr Venus wiped a cat's cradle of snot and tears away from his downcast face.
Ms Bound merely cricked her neck and huffed.
"This show of contrite melancholy hardly fits your vile character. I don't buy it for a second."
Venus smashed his flat face against the bars and growled at her.
"I ain't contrite, you daft sod. It's just that chord was fuckin' beautiful, and I've not been able to find it since!"
(Outside a lock-up garage, down a winding back alley just to the south of Brockwell Park, a small and compact man shook the rough paw of an enormous animal in a dangerously stretched mackintosh. The creature lifted his soiled and reeking hoodie and grinned something to which a keen zoologist could possibly attribute the word 'smile'. The small man evidently said something of a sarcastic or insulting flavour, causing the larger figure to flick the very tip of his club-like tail in his direction, once. The compact man was now upside down against a rubbish bin twenty feet away, and chortling merrily. The words "no time for this" were muttered and they walked abreast into a nearby garage. A bulky luggage trunk was opened and two sets of eyes were shielded from a fierce azure blue light. The grimy walls around them swam with a subterranean dizziness. Then, one after the other, they hopped into the trunk and disappeared out of sight, as if they were walking down a set of attic stairs. There was a shudder, and there was a screech, and then the garage was quite empty.)
Myrtle glared indignantly at the spluttering psychopath with his glazed, pitted skin and the shaving rash on the palms of his hands.
She turned to Rapley.
"This man's identity is surely without doubt, such excrescence is remarkable by its very uniqueness."
Rapley dipped his head once and moved on to the second captive.
Mr Hiram Gielgud held up a fat hand to silence the question forming on Rapley's lips.
"Let us dispense with the formalities," he barked with surprising cheer, loosening his spotted neck tie. "I'm afraid to say that I see where this deceitful little sortie is leading us."
Rapley demurred with a shrug and a grin, whilst Mr Gielgud tugged off his cherry red brogues and yanked his shirt open. Buttons pinged around his cell like grapeshot.
Ms Bound and Rapley exchanged glances. Ms Bound's rang up confusion, Rapley's displayed a flush, now busted.
"The game's up, fellas," chortled Gielgud from the corner of his mouth. Low growls arose from the hulking Venus and the reposed Wilkinson. "Our coat tails have been tugged quite long enough!"
And with that, the portly huckster squatted with his legs bent and his body low and balanced, and ripped off his checked trousers with a fearsome grunt.
"Wrestling..?", Enquired Rapley, throwing an eager look behind him, "Oh dear, that was never my sport..."
Ms Bound sprang to her feet with a clatter and looked at the three figures in their cages.
Gielgud, now quite naked apart from his dashing little bowler hat, was leaping up and down like a baby on a bouncy castle, moaning and hissing as if he'd swallowed a boiling kettle. Next to him, Mr Venus was jabbering and smacking his wet fists into his chest, attempting to regurgitate something. Wilkinson blew and blew in one huge never-ending jet of breath, the air around him filling with a green mist which seemed gritty and mineral-rich.
Myrtle turned to Rapley.
"What is this?", she said, her strained voice retaining some admirable calmness despite the caterwauling menagerie in front of her.
As they spoke, they both stepped away from the columns of fizzing light, columns which appeared to be getting fizzier by the second.
"My questions were merely a bit of time-killing while we waited for the cavalry."
The fizzing edges of the three adjacent columns began to spread and bleed into each other, sparks burring like chainsaw thrashes where the boundaries of the columns met.
"What we have here" yelled Rapley above the crackling din, "is one distinct entity, something of a rarity, a celebrity among the more élite planes of evil where it normally dwells."
The figure of Benji Krestfellen began to bloat and swell, the throat expanding in response to some terrifying eruption within himself. There was the trace of an obscene grin upon the stretched features of his face, a smile scrawled on an expanding balloon.
"Perhaps you can fill in the many blanks while we run," hissed Ms Bound through her ever-gritted teeth.
Rapley and Ms Bound turned on a brace of sixpences and dashed away from the explosion of distorting flesh.
Behind them the three columns of light and heat were fusing together into one churning, molten morass of activity. A sheet of yellow heat waved out towards them like a whipped blanket, and an orange shower of sparks splashed onto the marble floor.
At the very centre of this localized volcano a face was beginning to edge into being, features etched by flicks of flame and the tiny shadowy undercurrents of heat haze shimmers. It was a leering, gurning, asinine face, too long in the muzzle and too high and far apart in the eyes to be human, and yet too expressive and smooth of skin to truly be a beast. It was as if a human face was hatching something dumbly evil from inside itself and had been caught in the act by a changing wind.
Myrtle and Rapley skidded to a stop by the Observatory door and chanced a look back. A broad, shining wall of flame and heat stood where Gielgud, Venus and Wilkinson had once been. The great idiotic and brutal face like that of a shaved donkey was slowly emerging from the fiery curtain, followed by two stubby arms with long, sharp fingers tensed and segmented like spiders' legs. The flames dripped off the muzzle and claws like water.
"Ms Bound!" yelled Rapley above the clamour, "Meet a monster of many names! In Norwegian legend they called it Grisoya Undergang! The Czechs knew the old chap as Kuzostrov Bolest, while those mellifluous Frenchies favoured the rather more poetic Monstreux peau île de la douleur!"
A pair of hooved legs burst through the wall of flame like muscled creatures surfacing from the deepest realms of the oceans.
"In England," said Rapley in a low, dark voice, "We called him Splitskin."
The beast in flames took heavy steps forward, the sound of sizzling meat greeting every footstep as his flesh hooves slapped down against the marble.
"YES, MISSTER RAPPLLEY," blared the foghorn of his voice, "I SEEE MY REPPUTATIONNN PRECEEEDESS MEEE!"
It paused and stumbled slightly then shook its wild head, the skin around its mouth tightening as it readjusted tendons and muscles, reconfiguring them for the clarity of its speech.
The imbecilic eyes of the creature swivelled inwards until the irises had quite disappeared.
"ALL ABOARD?" boomed Splitskin, still dripping licks of flame. Then the eyes popped back into view and wobbled into some semblance of binocular focus. And with a feverish waggle of its lean claws, the beast began to run after the fleeing humans.
"It is, in essence, a Chronoleviathan!" exclaimed Rapley as they dashed through the corridors of the Museum. "That lumbering form is truly graceless and not a fair reflection of its mental agility or cunning!"
He skidded to a stop by a brass fifth-dimensional telescope.
"You see, when it settles in time on its own for any extended period its flesh tends to corrupt. Consequently it favours using a host or hosts to house its appalling self for shorter periods of time - several years at a pop, normally."
From behind them came a slurp and a roar and a crackle of burning flesh. The floor and walls vibrated with fear.
"Rapley!" urged Ms Bound, tugging at his elbow.
"Yes, quite," said Rapley, still deep in explanation, "The hosts tend towards mental disturbance and disintegration before their bodies putrefy and fall away like crumbling masonry."
Ms Bound gave his elbow an urgent heave and he flew after her, momentum turning his stumbling steps into long bouncing strides. Splitskin squelched and lumbered after them, giggling threats.
"Then those three men..?" said Bound, breathing in spurts as the chase continued.
"Real people,", replied Rapley as his long legs blurred below him, "But hijacked by Old Mister Splitskin at one time or another for their proximity to those succulent attractive fruits strewn through the years!"
They rounded the last corner before the hallway at a lick, knocking over a fishbowl of primordial swamp as they did so.
"And the significance of those objects I collected? The brain, the drugs and that frightful red matter..?"
"Aha!" grinned Rapley as they hurried down the aisles of the hall, "The cavalry!" At the very end of the hallway an aquatic blue light had begun to spread from the entry portal.
"What did it want them for?" yelled Myrtle as display cases and scrolls crashed and scattered behind them, rent and cracked by sharp claws and heavy, square teeth.
Rapley turned to face her with a disappointed sigh.
"A brain, a nervous system and a powerful, physical force that acts as an osmotic, parasitical engine. He was making a body. A new one which wouldn"t wear out, and which doesn"t stress like this crumbling monstrosity he's reverted back to."
A shockwave of immense disturbance rumbled through the floor beneath their feet and a shower of gilded debris rained down upon their heads. Rapley and Bound threw themselves to the ground, scrabbling a path through the detritus towards the glowing blue gateway.
The dread, just-boiled features of the fiend loomed into view above them. A heavily sweating flesh hoof thumped the floor in front. Sharp and segmented claws knitted the air by their faces.
Splitskin slowly hoisted a grin onto his muzzle and his booming voice sent slews of drool smacking against them.
"I THINK WE SHALL END THE DANCE HERE, MISS BOUND." He sniffed the air with the nozzles of his nostrils. "MY NEW BODY AWAITS. HIDDEN IN INSTALMENTS LIKE A CHEAP STORY, BUT I HAVE THE SCENT OF THEM NOW, IT SHAN'T BE TOO LONG A BATTLE TO RESTORE THEM TO A WHOLE."
He stamped his other hoof and a sharp, horizontal rip appeared in the flesh above the knee. Another tear fell loose and ragged over his ankle.
He sighed a small hurricane and an easel on the south side of the hall splintered with the force of it.
"SEE? IT IS HAPPENING ALREADY. I APPEAR TO BE ROTTING MYSELF THROUGH." Splitskin settled onto his haunches and angled his head at Rapley and Ms Bound.
"I HAVE HIGH HOPES FOR THIS NEW PHYSICAL SELF I PLAN TO BUILD. AND THIS TUB DOESN"T SEEM SO BAD, A FRIGATE FOR MY FLEET... AND EVEN A PLANET ABOVE TO TASTE - LET US HOPE THEY HAVE SOME RIPE SPECIMENS OF LIFE UP THERE TO FEAST UPON!"
Rapley rose to his feet as Bound stared at him with some alarm.
"Whilst it's always good to have ambition, my friend, I rather think you're taking this makeover of yours for granted. One thing at a time, after all."
Splitskin's heavy head lowered itself to face Rapley, and the mouth mooed its heavy syllables.
"I SEE NO SIGNIFICANT BARRIERS, FRIEND. ONE BITE AND THE TROUBLESOME MISS BOUND LOSES MORE THAN MERELY HER OUTER COVERING. AND YOU, I SHALL USE AS A TOOTHPICK."
The gateway behind them expanded like a soap bubble, shivered and screeched, and then popped monstrously. Splitskin rubbed the afterglow from his eyes with the end-spines of his claws and blinked slowly. There stood a small, tidy, squareish human with a face full of dark ginger bristles and a scowl of determination. He aimed a blunt, fat revolver and spoke from the side of his mouth.
"Say the word, Mr Rapley." muttered Mr Violet.
Such a tiny man, thought Splitskin, and such a tiny gun.
The gateway issued forth a more tumultuous belch and an immense shadowy form shot through into the hallway, tumbling like a blurred landfall of rough hay and rougher leather.
"Good Lord..." chattered Ms Bound from her position prostrate upon the floor.
The new arrival smashed through a suit of armour fashioned from supernova-iron and rolled heavily to a slumped halt in front of Rapley.
Splitskin peered at the vast mass of muscle, horn and shank, all rolled up into a protective ball. He gave the side of it an experimental poke with one of his claws.
"A FURRED CANNONBALL? REMARKABLE THOUGHT. BUT QUITE INEFFECTIVE NOW IT HAS MISSED ITS TARGET."
Rapley winked at him.
"Meet the cavalry."
A gap sagged open in the fur, then another. Two bloodshot yellow orbs stared up at the terrible Mister Splitskin, pinpricks of black at their centres. Something long, grey and full of wet, slobbery mass slumped from beneath the eyes, nostrils twitching at the end of it. Sharp tufted pyramids sprang to attention somewhere atop the matted pelt.
Then the noises began.
A deeply muffled growl reverberated from inside the blinking furball, decibels massing and rising until they had reached car crash volumes. The whoosh of a harshly whipping wind accompanied the growls, and was almost immediately joined by a braying honk, the three noises settling together into a three pronged attack upon the very idea of aural tolerance. The balled creature shook, bristled and drummed with a ferocious heartbeat before it unfurled, stretching strong limbs fore and aft from the dense block of fur and hide at its centre. It stumbled to its clawed hooves, revealing itself to be almost as tall as Mr Splitskin. Upright, its face seemed almost to make sense: those bulbous eyes, blunt tusks of chipped ivory, a long, sagging grin and a stout trunk leaking spurts of mucus.
It spoke, and the voice was more like weather than a tool for speech.
"Fucking... travelsick..." its stomach gurgled, "Shouldn't have had the soup..."
Rapley bowed deep and low.
"Thank you, Fangles. Many apologies for the emergency call."
Splitskin stomped his way between Rapley and the new arrivals.
"YOU," he said, appraising Fangles, "WILL BE MORE FUN TO DISEMBOWEL!"
Rapley winced. "May I present Mr Violet, my accountant and amanuensis, and Pompodour Aloysious Fangles the third, ravenous major in exegesis of the Hyperiotic Space Malouche, and large hairy mammal with a magnificent kill-rate." He turned smartly to face Ms Bound, "Run!"
Splitskin and Fangles smashed into one thrashing block of activity, fur and teeth and spurts of blood whipping out as they rolled across the Museum floor. Rapley, Violet and Ms Bound dashed to the far end of the room, searching for shelter from the rain of debris caused by the duelling beasts.
Mr Violet scudded to a stop in front of the hulking body of Youngman's Bathysphere.
"Into the sub!" he yelled, yanking the heavy front hatchway open with both hands and no little effort.
With a foot-up from Violet, Rapley and Myrtle scuttled up the narrow ladder and through the high oval hatch, toppling into the cramped iron interior. They scrabbled to their feet and hauled Violet up after them.
Outside, the two beasts swept across the museum locked in a snarling duel, sending cresting waves of splintered wood and metal, shredded flesh and fur whirling throughout the hall.
Rapley kicked away the ladder and pointed to the cluttered control panel.
"Upwards and onwards, Violet, old pal!"
Violet huffed over the controls, clicking and flicking as the localized war raged away and shook the Bathysphere on its cast iron tether.
Mr Violet depressed a thick, square button of brightest red, and the walls gave a stuttering cough and chugged rhythmically.
Violet grinned through his moustache.
"Good to go, Mister Rapley!"
Ms Bound joined Pasha at the hatchway.
"Charge!" they yelled in unison.
A bank of tiny rockets fired into life on the rear of the Bathysphere as the engines kicked into full power. The vehicle began to shudder forward, straining against the chain that secured it to the ceiling.
Rapley and Bound held onto the lip of the open hatchway as the Bathysphere lurched and broke free of the tether, links of steel chain fluttering in the wake of the engines like sycamore leaves. A shock wave of rushing air flew through the hatchway, sending Pasha and Myrtle flying against the back wall. Violet clung onto the control panel with that grit and determination which were such core elements of his soul, tweaking directional controls with his vibrating fingers.
The Bathysphere shot through the air, shearing Malthazar's N-Zone Antenna from its moorings; decapitating a Titanian wicker man statue; turning glass cabinets to fine, abrasive, swirling clouds of dust.
Fangles and the creature known as Splitskin drew apart for a moment as they reached a momentary lull in their furious battle, blood and hanks of flesh dripping from their claws and teeth.
Mister Splitskin was momentarily puzzled by a quick flash of alarm and panic on his adversary's face. But the expression was gone as soon as it had arrived, along with the animal itself, who was now scrabbling away into the far corner of the Exhibition, its muscular rump quivering with the effort of such a speedy retreat.
Splitzkin's muzzle curled with victory and pride. Not such a challenge for one as mighty as myself after all, he thought, as he sensed a change in air pressure around him, Was that the noise of engines? he asked himself, coughing blood and turning his head with slow, dazed movements in the direction it seemed to be coming from...
The Bathysphere smacked into him at seventy knots, his bulbous head popping neatly through the open hatchway on impact. Violet's body smacked into the instrument panel but he held her steady as best he could as the vehicle crunched into the Exhibition's far wall, turning Mister Splitskin's body into a far wider and thinner form than it had ever been before. Rapley and Bound rattled around inside the craft, bumping off the curved walls and landing heavily in a crumpled heap upon the floor. The impact rang the Bathysphere like a vast iron bell and sent tremors through every circuit and rivet.
Splitskin's head hung in the opening for a moment, his idiotic eyes wide and disbelieving, his thin lips twitching and trembling. Mr Violet clambered to his feet and cut off the engines. The Bathysphere dropped ten metres to the floor with a hollow thump, and the head in the hatchway slid down the curved interior wall of the craft leaving a viscous red trail behind it. The nostrils snorted once, emitting a thick vapour, then all was still and quiet.
Fangles was keeping one eye on the jumbled heap of flesh and head which used to be Splitskin. He growled at it occasionally through the mouthfuls of porridge and ketchup which he was slurping enthusiastically from a metal trough.
Around him, Mr Violet was sweeping up as best he could, forming mounds of shattered glass and wood and bent brass in the middle of the Exhibition. Any loose artefacts which had been found were stacked carefully against one wall like lost property.
Ms Bound and Pasha Rapley stood in the Observatory, a scene of burnt mayhem. The three columns stood cracked and vacant like the burst test tubes of some violent experiment. Rags of clothing hung disconsolately from the splinters of glass: a swatch of leather, a hank of checkered tweed, a filmy shred of lycra.
On the floor sat Mr Gielgud's natty little bowler hat, balanced sideways on its brim. Rapley stooped and picked it up. Brushing the dust off the crown, he turned to Myrtle. "Case closed, dear heart. Though, purely out of curiosity, I wondered if I might be permitted to see these items which our recently departed guest was so exquisitely keen to make his own."
Ms Bound smiled with her eyes and led Rapley away from the Observatory with its glaring and fiery sentinel spinning far above.
They walked back into the Exhibition, past the freshly fed and recuperated Fangles who grumbled to himself, peering out of the nearest porthole and shivering with space sickness. Violet whistled hello and went back to his clearance operation with its orderly and systematic (but to Rapley and Ms Bound utterly impenetrable) checklist of priorities and logistics. Violet threw a dented iron sheet onto a pile and marked "153a (three eights of a singe)" in his notebook with a yellow pencil.
Myrtle clanked her way over to one of Hercules Brabazon Brabazon's ever-churning paintings. It was eight feet high and encased in a frame of golden curlicues. She touched one side of the frame and depressed a tiny gilt effigy of a micturating cherub. The entire painting swung open like a door to reveal a shallow, shelved room. Myrtle rummaged among some dusty ledges and came away with two large boxes wedged haphazardly under her arms. She reversed out of the narrow room, plonked the boxes on the floor next to Rapley and slammed the painting shut on its hinges.
Rapley bent down and popped open the lids. Inside one was a gleaming wet brain, the cortices and nodes of which seemed to be writhing against each other, turning and slapping like eels in a bucket but still maintaining the exterior integrity of their shape. The brain was encased in a glass bell jar, and Rapley removed it from the box carefully, setting it down on the floor beside him.
In the other box he found hundreds of sealed blister packs and three or so dozen small plastic medicine bottles. All contained sickle shaped pills of a beige hue, or grains of some white substance.
"Murky and underwhelming," sighed Pasha as he turned to Ms Bound, "And that sealed tub of parasitical muscle? Whither the red stuff?"
"Ah" said Myrtle, pointing to the devastated Exhibition. "It was right there, at ground zero."
Mr Violet's smudged face popped up from behind a mound of broken easels. "The red stuff, you say? Sealed tub? You'll be meaning 421/L." He flipped to a page in his notebook. "Some wear, bugger all tear. can't shift the bloody thing, though, it's absolutely pig stubborn!" And with that he took a broom and brushed away a patina of dust and splinters from the ground to reveal a broad, flat sealed container of bright red liquid.
Rapley grinned, hoisted the two boxes under his arms and picked his way over the hillocks of detritus towards the red disc. Myrtle scuttled after him, wafting her hollow hands at the clouds of dust in the air.
"Rapley!" She tutted. "Come back here! Those artefacts are itemised!"
"Time to introduce them back into the wild, Ms Bound.", he smirked as he let the boxes drop to the floor and knelt by the container.
He gently tugged at the rim of the lid, but there was no give.
"Violet, old pal? Lend a hand."
Mr Violet wiped his moustache clean of dust and squatted next to his good friend. They each took a side of the lid and, after a count of three, leant back and tugged with all their might. The container stayed still and untroubled. The two men may as well have been butterflies for all the effect their efforts made. Rapley sprang to his feet and huffed sulkily.
"Thought as much!" he said, handing Violet one of the boxes.
Rapley nodded to the sealed container and Mister Violet popped pill after pill onto the top of the lid and upended medicine bottles of salty grains on top of them. Rapley held the bell jar containing the snaking brain in both hands and brandished it like a trophy.
"This"ll be a lark," he muttered. He raised the jar high above his head and brought it crashing down on top of the grainy container lid. The bell jar cracked and fell to either side like an egg shell, the slithery brain settling down with a gloopy flop onto the see-through lid.
Rapley scampered behind a bric-a-brac pile of bent metal struts and Violet jogged backwards ten yards or so. Ms Bound cocked her head to one side and watched from behind a cracked display cabinet.
Fangles raised one immense hedge of an eyebrow and stayed exactly where he lay.
For a moment, all was quiet. Then, with a reverberation which they all felt through the soles and pads and bones of their feet, the lid of the container turned anticlockwise and unscrewed itself. The pills on top of it bounced like jumping beans and the slithery brain spasmed and twitched. As the lid rose clear of the container it seemed to turn milky like some immense cataract. There was a hiss and a flash of white light and the circular lid imploded into a disc of quickly thinning smoke. The pills and the brain sploshed and splattered into the red soup, where they sank slowly until they were encased in the substance, as if suspended in aspic.
The white smoke had ebbed away into a ghostly halo, vague threads of mist gently turning, expanding and growing ever fainter. Rapley counted seconds in a hushed murmur. Ms Bound's finger bones tapped against the cabinet as they shook with anticipation. Mr Violet ground his teeth as he kept his nerve firm and steady. The moist panting of Fangles filled the air with the smell of mulligatawny.
As they watched, the atmosphere grew increasingly heavy and charged, as if they were all encased in their very own suspension of the unknown.
Then the red liquid stood up.
It calmly drew itself vertically out of the container like a column of blood. The surface shimmered and waved briefly, and then formed into a rough approximation of a human being. Currents inside the column caused a split in the lower half forming vertical columns; the thickness of liquid above it thinned slightly into a waist; jets of red spouted from the block of liquid above the waist like shoots of projectile vomit which then froze in mid-air, finessing themselves into graceful arms. As the body formed itself, the capsules and pills dissolved into the molten fluid, spreading a gritty texture throughout the trunk and limbs.
All the while the slithery brain rose through the liquid with purposeful deliberation. When it reached the surface of the torso, it bobbed briefly and then continued its upward journey, a bubble of the viscous fluid surrounding it and carrying it upwards until it sat in a wobbly crimson cranium.
The red fingers flexed and the apparition performed a brief jog on the spot, springing athletically from foot to foot. The liquid inside the form briefly effervesced with the effort.
Then it stood quite still and glared around the hall with the bulbous pastiches of its newly formed eyes. The eyes, like the rest of its facial features, were blank and characterless. They held no attempt at lids, irises or pupils. They merely existed, impassively aware.
The apparition stepped sideways out of the bottom half of the container as if it were exiting a shower cubicle. It stared down at the mess of wood and metal and dust through its shimmering feet. The brain slithered like a reptile inside that bubbling head. The form looked at Rapley and its liquid features broke into the lopsided crescent of a smile.
"Ah," said Rapley, taking a step backwards. The red figure walked towards him with long, fluent strides, feet slapping heavily against the ground.
Fangles cocked an ear and began to growl, his haunches tensing with the anticipation of a fresh fight.
The red figure was now only a half dozen yards from Rapley, and approaching with alacrity.
"Run, man!" hissed Violet.
"No need for alarm," muttered Rapley as he took another half step back, "He's merely made of sentient jelly, no matter how heavy he may be." He took a deep breath and closed his eyes tightly as the figure of liquid crimson walked into him.
Just for a moment, as Rapley shut his eyes, the world was a warm and freshly fizzling world of amniotic peace. A gentle but firm wash of pressure blushed his cheeks and sucked his clothes against his body. His hearing closed into a muffled swallow of bass and after a few seconds he snorted bubbles. Eyes still closed, Rapley experimentally waggled his fingers. They dragged in the embrace of a thick fluid. He blinked one eye open, then the other. The world was shot through a swimming red grainy prism, and the visual effect was not unpleasant. Lungs beginning to tingle with panic, he flicked his eyes left and right and found himself standing upright, arms stretched out to the sides of him, encased entirely within the living suit of crimson liquid.
Rapley lowered his arms half a yard. The suit followed as if reading his nerve impulses. Rapley lifted a leg and hopped, and his wobbling red suit bent and hopped with him. Rapley would have chuckled if he had had sufficient breath. Through his swimming vision he saw the solid figure of Mr Violet standing in front of him, fists curled tight by his sides, mouthing stern words and looking for something to remonstrate with. Ms Bound stood beside him prodding the bones of her fingers against the amorphous yet unyielding sides of the liquid form. There was a a blur of fur as Fangles sped around him, trotting in circles with murder in his yellow eyes.
Rapley gave a hesitant wave and showed his thumbs, but his heaving chest belied such optimism. He staggered backward slightly as a sense of fidgety desperation seared his airways. As he staggered, he cast his eyes up and caught sight of the slithery reptile brain bobbing above him in a stretched bulb of the red suspension. At least I'm going with dignity, he thought to himself as his lungs were squeezed within the passionate grip of suffocation. Rapley's eyes closed and his conscious thoughts fluttered away like leaves on the wind
He sat up, as quick as the snap of a mousetrap, choking and gasping for breath. A great cough of red liquid splashed from his throat and arced perfectly through the air. He watched as it curved in front of him and spattered onto the dusty, wreckage-strewn floor. The droplets stayed still for just a moment and then regrouped into a fat puddle, as if an invisible net had been drawn around them. With a loud "ping", they disappeared entirely.
Rapley wiped his mouth and watched the red froth on his hand bubble and pop into nothingness in the same manner.
Mr Violet lay atop a mound of rubble to his left, shaking off a thin residue of the crimson fluid from his hair. It flew through the air like a slung handkerchief, vanishing before it hit the ground.
Fangles was shaking his mad pelt free of thousands of red drops, sneezing great gobs of the stuff from his nostrils at the same time. The air around him buzzed and glittered with countless rubies which suddenly coagulated into one cricket ball-sized jewel. It bobbed above him, wobbling with viscosity, and then took its leave with a louder, more bassy pop which made their eyes swim.
"..it tried us all.." spluttered Violet, "..one after the other, surrounding us and..tasting our thoughts.."
Rapley shook off his disorientation. "I felt it frolicking inside my mind, leaving its mucky little pawmarks on the furniture." He made a face like a cat exorcising a ball of fur. "Most impudent!"
He glanced up at Mr Violet, who was staggering towards the nearest porthole.
"Rapley. Come and see."
Rapley hopped to his feet and took his place next to Violet at the glass.
"He seems to have found what he was looking for." sighed Violet.
Outside, scant metres from the hull, bobbed the reclining figure of Ms Myrtle Bound, encased in a shining, undulating, transparent spacesuit of purest crimson.
Tiny circles appeared on the surface of the red suit as if droplets had fallen into it, dripping as they arrived from the Exhibition.
Ms Bound saw Rapley and Violet watching her, and she gave a little wave, waggling her limbs in the fashion of a delighted child.
Her voice shimmered through the hall suddenly loud, distinct and as if spoken close up against a microphone.
"I have a new skin, new nerves which no longer ache with the sting of fresh air, the coarse rub of rough clothing, the acid burn of fresh water in the mornings. The beauty of the stars is reflected in my red, red skin. I'm surrounded by a billion living, burning objects which shoot through the cold vacuum on their own secret missions. And now I am one of them - a tiny shining ember of curiosity with no boundaries and no pain and no vanity to speak of. It says we can play forever, or until I fall asleep. Though I don't know how I shall ever sleep with forever in front of me. Oh, Pasha," here, the voice faltered briefly, "Oh, Violet. I shall see the fashions and the feasts of countless new worlds. And I will never have to worry about having to explain them to a single soul."
Mr Violet lowered his head and walked away from the porthole.
Rapley pressed his nose against the glass.
"Will there be tea?" Said Rapley.
The booming voice of Ms Bound laughed.
"Silly," she giggled, a hint of distortion crackling the broadcast.
"And will you write back sometime?" said Rapley brightly, "About wars and alien hemlines?"
Ms Bound giggled again, a static sizzle running heavily through the sound. "If time allows. There is so very much to see."
The red suit bobbed away into the void. They heard another burst of static, followed by tinny laughter, and then the line went dead.
One by one, they walked into the azure doorway. Fangles disappeared with a mighty boom and an overpowering smell of burnt fur. Mr Violet took a last look at the porthole and muttered "Cheerio, old girl." Then he too strode through the shivering door.
Rapley wedged a couple of manuscripts under his arm and stuffed a box of Krellian teabags into his capacious jacket pocket. As an afterthought he picked up Mr Gielgud's singed and ragged bowler hat. He wiped some blood off with his sleeve and wedged it on his head.
Rapley frowned as he looked around the debris of the Exhibition. He lit a crumpled cigarette, cleared his throat and addressed the hall. "If there is anything alive in here, be you a brainy microbe with bat ears, an invisible Banachee Merrigob, a clump of sentient cloud formations drifting through the corridors. Be you a zincworm with a language translator or one of those vile empathetic sponges from the sump seas of the UMth dimension. If you're a Congealer of the Sygn, a Vanishing Smiler... whatever you are, I can hear thinking."
Rapley flicked the cigarette against the wall.
"Well, look after the place, that's all. You're in charge."
Turning towards the doorway, he caught sight of himself reflected in a porthole. The bowler hat looked idiotic so he took it off and kicked it high and hard to the other side of the hallway. He noticed the heel of his right shoe was dangling like a broken jaw.
"Oh, go home, Rapley." He sighed, turning out the lights.
The door gave a blue burp and he was gone.
Drifts of dust settled like snow upon the orderly stacks of wreckage. The ship's hull creaked and hummed, the air ducts sighed, creatures stopped holding their breath and stepped out of the air.
The true exhibits, finding themselves alone at last, blinked as they spread into the light.
© Tom Davies 2013 All Rights Reserved
Date and time of last update 15:46 Mon 02 Sep 2013
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