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Night had fallen, shakily righted itself and balefully glared
down at the Martian landscape, muttering and rubbing its bruised
elbows all the while.
In direct proportion to the increasing gloom a strange
radiance burst forth from the cover of Merlyn's fil-a-hex,
lighting the way ahead. Even a magic book, however, could not
enlighten Sir Bastable's confusion. The bulky knight was
experiencing an uncomfortable clash of loyalties This new mystical
companion did not speak much and the few words that he had spoken
had been abruptly contemptuous of Sir Bastable's garbled detailing
of their location. However, a goodly knight did not take umbrage
at the opinions of such an obvious stranger. Apology would, no
doubt, shortly be made, once their relative stations in life were
made clear. The problem was that the Knight was bound by two
oaths; a promise to his Squire to return by night-fall and another
to Alexander the Great to play a game of chess. It was
dishonourable, unheard of in fact, to break a promise, and yet he
tarried, fascinated by the mysterious man at his side, anxious to
As the distance between the travellers and the Knight's home
shrunk, the size of his quandary increased. At last, Sir Bastable
could take no more. Pausing only to shout, 'The city lies just
over yon rise,' he rapidly made off in the indicated direction,
moving with startling speed for one of such impressive girth.
Squire Abel would need to have advance warning of this coming.
Merlyn halted, slightly startled by his companion's abrupt
departure. Nothing made sense; he had been awake now for some
time and nothing, not one thing, made the slightest sense. He
struggled to remember whether they had ever made sense in that
previous time. He seemed to think that they mostly hadn't, but
things were vague. He had a slight recollection that this
nonsensical aspect of life, the "stuff happens" aspect, had been
the reason for his slumbers. He had become more and more confused
by daily existence. Belief in magic had been waning and most of
the reputable mystics had given up, retired. But retired to
where? He anxiously searched for an answer.
"Mystic kings, buzzard wings, wizard's things. No! Wizard
Springs." That was it, he realised with grateful relief. They had
all retired to Wizard Springs on Alpha Centuri. The lucky so and
so's had all got condominiums at the "Runespeakers Rest". The
But something was unclear. Questions I were raised by this
recollection. What had happened to his condo? Why had he not made the
journey? He struggled to pierce the cobwebs that enshrouded his
mind. Some things were so clear, others so nebulous. He could not
"Wait a minute! That was it. He could not remember."
Remember the spell. The retirement benefit claim spell. The one
spell not in a fil-a-hex.
Merlyn was cheered by the knowledge. At least now he
remembered what he had forgot. He had been suffering from absent-
mindedness. Someone had hexed his late night liquid pick-me-up,
addled his memory and appropriated the relevant spell. Merlyn had
not been able to remember how to claim his retirement benefits and
get to Alpha Centuri. That was the reason why he had chosen the
elixir of sleep, substituting one type of rest cure for another.
The plaid enshrouded druid looked around at the red desert.
It was beginning to seem as if he had also been rather vague about
the correct dosage of the resting spell. He started to follow the
Knight's deep footprints, all the while, as he neared Shepard
City, the wizard tried to recall who had stolen the spell. But
all he got for his pains was blankness, and an orange blankness at
The Orange Thingy chuckled foully. It had forgotten the
wizard, about stealing the spell. Mind you, when you have done as
many awful and horrific things as an Orange Thingy, it was not
that hard to forget. It had just been part of the Thingy's
galactic unfitness regime: Do ten thousand unwholesome things
before breakfast. Far more satisfying and good for you than push-
Merlyn had been only one that morning. There had been
another 9,999 pointlessly evil or spiteful incidences galaxy wide;
easy to overlook, simple to accomplish. It had been amusing
though, and had cheered the Thingy up all day. Merlyn, the last of
the real Druid folk on Earth, had decided to celebrate his final
night on the planet with a farewell drink, a cosmic cocktail with
that little extra Thingy something, then to sleep with a mind full
of brochure images and anticipation. The look on the poor dolt's
face when he had awakened with no spell, no brochures and a
defective memory had been worth treasuring.
With fetid breath the 0range One permitted itself an acid
tinged, Thingy-style, happy sigh, secure in the knowledge that, on
the way to the MADID, there would be many more such hapless
expressions to look forward to.
'So, what do you think?' said Will, abruptly changing the
subject from his lengthy whinge about walking, tiredness and the
'What?' replied Sulphur, caught unawares, having stopped
paying attention several miles back .
'What sort of approach should I have to leading a group of
'A cautious one. I should think,' muttered Sulphur.
'...on an adventure?'
'Probably,' Sulphur said, after brief but weighty
'In this case, definitely.'
'Downwind is the best bet.'
'I mean style of approach, Maggot-ronic brain,' Will said
testily, 'I fancy a sensible one.'
'Sensible. You?' the dragon struggled valiantly to remain
'Yes, conservative, corporate and businesslike.'
'All concepts synonymous with your name.'
'I've given it a lot of thought.'
Will was oblivious. In a strange world of his own,
'It just keeps echoing in my mind. Be businesslike, be
"It would echo, with the amount of space you've got in
there. The acoustics must be great." Sulphur dourly thought to
'I think this approach can only help to make it FUN!' Will
was on a roll.
'FUN? Interesting choice of word there Will.' Sulphur
grimaced, staring straight ahead. The dragon' s weary shake of
the head was purely mental, It grimly concentrated on putting one
rounded leg in front of the other.
At top speed. Sir Bastable Fitche barrelled into town,
Looking neither right nor left, the Knight's sure-footed progress
directed him straight towards the Bar. So single-minded was his
approach that, not even the solid legs of a war-horse pointing
stiffly towards the stars were permitted to divert his attention.
Sir Bastable did not seem to see the remains of his original
beloved Leonidas as, with a mighty leap, he cleared the authentic
western hitching post in front of the bar and landed with an
impact that severely shook the front of the fragile building.
As Bastable eagerly rushed in, the dealer, Abel Surd, looked
up with irritation, his good eye twinkling brightly in that
shrivelled walnut of a face.
'Not now, Fitche.'
'I said, NOT NOW!' Abel said emphatically, adding a
ferocious whinny just to be sure.
Moving from foot to foot, like a bear tap-dancing on a
barbecue, the Knight restlessly quietened, brim full of news that
he could not deliver. Aside from a few sidelong curious smirks,
the assembled group of historic or fictional celebrities paid the
armoured figure scant attention. All senses were directed towards
It was getting tense. Al Capone, Richard the Third and
Cardinal Richelieu were out. It was just Wyatt Earp and Abel.
The atmosphere was almost palpable, one move could spell disaster.
Wyatt paused, unsure, eyes narrowed, his fingers caressing the
tips of his cards. At last, the marshal made a decision.
Throwing down a card with a contemptuous flourish, saying the
words through gritted teeth.
'Mr Bun, the baker.'
Thrilled and mesmerised by the frontiersman's audacity, the
onlookers tensely waited for Abel's response. Savouring the
moment, he picked up the discarded card, delaying his false-
toothed smile of triumph until he said the words.
'Happy families. The dealer wins again.'
You could almost play tiddly-winks with the audience's
disappointment - it was so real.
'Dealer wins again." Recited Al Capone, giving the tally.
Big Al always got the job, he had a reputation for being good with
'Abel wins forty-seven thousand, six hundred and seven
games. The rest win - seventeen.'
'It's lucky he lets us win one at Christmas," said Wyatt,
'or it would be plain embarrassing.'
'I wish held get us a new deck for Christmas,' replied Al
As the dealer excused himself. Julius Caesar took his place
at table and the Same recommenced.
Abel pointedly indicated his office with a gnarled finger.
A silent path was cleared by the knights embarrassed peers. With
head held high and tread a good deal firmer than he felt, Sir
Bastable followed, passing through the door just beyond the bar.
Inside, the room was huge. In previous years, if what
remained of the faded velvet hangings and Victorian style wall
decoration were to be believed, it had obviously once functioned
as a plush private salon. Perhaps the very room in which the long
departed mining magnates had wined, dined and luxuriously
entertained themselves, whilst plotting to expand their economic
domination of the third and fourth planets. Now, however, like
everything else in this terminal terminus, the room had fallen on
It was a shambles. Who-ever had been responsible for its
tidiness could have almost challenged Grendella for the
intergalactic bad housekeeping award. Not that the objects
scattered about could really have been classified as litter.
There seemed to be a purpose, an analytical mind at work behind
the disorganisation of cogs, bolts, micro-chips and body parts
that lay strewn over every available surface. There was so much
of it; an arm here, a leg there, would not perhaps have been so
bad, it was the sheer quantity that rendered things unmanageable.
Mountains of mutilated machinery, filling every nook and cranny,
compressing the room's size and looming threateningly over
the fragile seeming figures of Abel and Fitche. It was no wonder
that Sir Bastable's defunct horse had not made it to this office.
There was just no room. The cannibalised carcass had been left
outside to take its chances in the dust storms, although Fitche's
first-generation personification mind had been programmed not to
notice his ex-mount as a slight concession to decency.
Abel Surd had been the creator of this crisis, and like Sir
Bastable Fitche, was partially a product of it. Now at an age
when he had outlived his human confederates, the wizened 107 year
old had only one real interest left; apart from telling awful
jokes and moaning about the good old days. This little old man
with the leathery skin and the twinkling eye had raised the level
of his tinkering with scrap machinery to an art form.
Abel was unique in many ways: The last of Mars' miners and
the last native-born Martian left, he had an impressive local
lineage. The illegitimate son of Phineas Shepard, named in honour
of his fathers assertion that: "The mere thought of having
children is an ABSURDITY."
Abel had inherited little from his father besides a
crotchety temperament. He had, however, been left one portion of
the paternal estate that had changed his life.
Back in the far off days when COMS had first set about its
business and had yet to develop its full powers. Phineas had
bartered them some much needed Martian mining rights in exchange
for a rag-bag collection of outdated mechanical parts and a motley
crew of disinherited first-generation Personifications. These
models had been surplus to COMS requirements after the abandonment
of plans to extend its range of Educational Prototype Interaction
Centres/ Services. People had laughed at Phineas and his
ludicrous swap, but Phineas had not cared. The wily multi, multi-
billionaire had a two fold motive for his actions, reasoning that:
(A) Even basic robotic staff were cheaper to keep and easier on
the intellect than their self obsessed human equivalents, and (B)
Machines could not control things, because they would eventually
break down or go wrong, and spare parts would one day be as
valuable as diamonds.
Phineas had never got the chance to prove the validity, or
not, of theory (A). However, he must had been posthumously
consoled by the knowledge that at his first attempt to use one of
his new mechanised acquisitions, the carpet cleaner had gone
wrong. As a result of this mishap, the ownership and care of
"Shepard Scrap Enterprises" had passed to his illegitimate son,
mainly because none of Phineas' legitimate heirs had wanted them.
In the way of such things, what had started as a small part-
time hobby for the curious youngster had gradually crept up on
him, piece by piece, to become his life's work. For decades, Abel
had toiled, upgrading and developing possessions that became
friends, unregarded by COMS. He had given the personifications
sight instead of mere retinal recognition, individual behaviour
patterns instead of pre-programmed responses. He had become their
father, their mentor, their king even, and they had repaid him
with a companionship and loyalty that went far beyond anything
their original creators had envisaged.
When the ageing Abel's energy and health had begun to fade,
the personifications had reacted in emulation of their role model.
"If a part is faulty, fix it. If unfixable, replace it". As a
result of these sundry efforts to protect him from the grim
reaper's advances, Abel had become a slightly more customised
version with each passing year. His right arm, both legs,
digestive system, right eye and ear, all owed more to modern
alloys and technology than to human cell reproduction. The latest
addition had been made necessary by the sudden arrival of a
determined throat cancer, intent on doing Surd in. Desperate, or
rather, destrier measures had been called for. Abel's larynx had
been replaced with a shiny new system, hardly used, with only one
careful owner: Sir Bastable's horse. Abel now spoke through a
tasteful little grid in his neck and was reasonably happy with the
arrangement, but had to admit that he could to without the whinnys
and neighs that now punctuated his conversation.
There was an additional point of interest about all Abel's
add-ons, a certain reverse snobbery at work. Despite the fact
that all the extra parts could have been seamlessly matched to the
ex-miner's own skin tones, Abel had insisted on an obvious shiny
chrome finish. As a result, he looked like Isaac Asimov's worst
nightmare; the baggy, aged wrinkles and bright smooth metallic
plate tended to clash.
This contrast of coverings was not, it had to be admitted,
uppermost in Fitche's old model XXO1 Magatronian mind, as Abel
turned on him, his "good" eye glittering with a furious
illumination almost equal in brightness to his red round
'Why are you late Fitche?'
'Methinks Squire, that I will not tell you, as punishment
for your unseemly impertinence.' Sir Bastable haughtily replied,
his moustache struggling to appear brave and bristling.
'Impertinence?' Abel was astonished.
'Aye, sir, impertinence, I am a knight of noble bearing and
degree. I am not accustomed to being kept waiting whilst my
squire finishes a game of chance.'
Surd mentally cursed. Of all his companions, this plump and
dotty knight with the outmoded courtly hallucinations was probably
his favourite. Certainly, Sir Bastable had received more work on
his character development than most, perhaps a little too much.
The odd disappearances, in search of the grail or to chase
invisible dragons - these were acceptable, within limits. Even
this business of believing that Abel was a squire had at first
seemed amusing. Lately, however, like all jokes or affectations
that had outstayed their welcome, it was becoming a right royal
pain in the derriere.
'Listen, Fitche,' Abel said impatiently, sounding almost as
menacing as his shiny bits made him lock, 'If you don't tell me
why you're late this instant. I'm going to switch you off and
then, I'm going to take a chainsaw and...'
'The quality of today's staff is an outrage,' Bastable shook
his head with pompous regret, 'you never would have been
acceptable as a squire in my young days.'
As Abel started to reach for the threatened chainsaw.
Bastable quickly changed his conversational emphasis.
'I'm late because we have a visitor.'
'Visitor?' Abel was stunned, stopped in his tracks, The bar
had not been visited in years. Then Abel remembered who he was
talking to. 'You're not imagining this, are you ?'
Sir Bastable's unimaginary visitor had reached the outskirts
of the city. Pausing on a slight promontory, Merlyn threw some of
the red soil into the air with a dramatic gesture and abrupt
incantation. Light briefly flared all around him as he raked the
city with a keen searching gaze, taking every advantage offered by
his raised position, his mind hungrily feeding on every detail
offered by his vision. As gloom returned, Merlyn remained still,
bathed in the strange lights and shadows provided by the glowing
cover of his book.
Thoughts of displacement, of culture-shock, came tumbling
unbidden into his brain, mingling uncomfortably with a feeling of
wonderment. The tall, smooth buildings, the wide thoroughfares,
architectural opulence and grandeur reminiscent of Rome in its
heyday - all these mighty buildings, lifeless, rundown, empty?
What plague, what pestilence or foul enchantment, was capable of
driving away the populace? He had to know.
Approaching the nearest building, Merlyn brought his long
fingers into play, outlining shapes and lines on the wall,
chanting an accompaniment from the fil-a-hex, his speech patterns
eager and energetic. At last, the wizard stood back, breathing
heavily, waiting, watching. Part of the wall seemed to clench,
then become fluid. Features started to become distinct, following
the pattern outlined by his fingertips, pushed out and remoulded
by the solid surface. Eventually, the spell's work was finished.
The wall had grown a face, and a grumpy looking one at that.
'Is this some sort of sick joke?' The building queried
'Joke?' Merlyn was puzzled.
'Yeah, joke! I'm sick to death of you cells, making cracks
about "Walls having ears" or "if only they could talk." It would
get on my nerves, if I had any.'
'What are "cells"?'
'You don't know much do you? Cells are part of a larger
shell. They mostly exist, breed and function inside that shell, I
know my Masonic biology. I'm a larger shell. Therefore you are a
'But, I'm not inside you,' replied Merlyn warily.
'You are obviously very stupid,' the building said
disdainfully, 'I will therefore explain this slowly. Cells are
part of larger shells or organisms. A shell such as myself is
like a body part, encased in the larger shell of the city. The
city, in turn, is encased by the larger shell of the planet, which
is encased in the larger shell of the solar system. Just as your
cells move through your system from organ to organ, or body to
body, you cells move freely between shells of different volume.
Now have you got that?'
'Yes.' Merlyn conceded.
'Well! WHAT DO YOU BLOODY WANT THEN?'
'You are a very rude wall.'
'You think this side's rude! You should see the graffiti on
Merlyn ignored the quip, walls graffiti-Ed or otherwise were
not renowned for the subtlety of their wit.
'What happened to all the .... Cells?'
'They all got sick.' replied the building sullenly.
'No home-sick. They got fed up and went home.'
'But where's home?'
'Home is where the heart is.'
'WHERE'S THAT?' roared the wizard.
'Earth, of course, Terra. The home-ward of the Cells.
Ungrateful, I call it. I give them a place to live, a shelter,
years of faithful service and what do they do? Smash my windows
and cover my innards with their moronic daubings.'
Even with the smooth translation afforded by his linguistic
spell, it took a while for the building's words to register.
Merlyn's voice was almost a whisper but something about its
delivery demanded immediate answer.
'This isn't Earth?'
'No, this is Mars, Where have you been?
'What year is it?'
'I don't know for sure. I've been here a long time. My
foundation stone's over on the left. That should give you an
'Merlyn locked to the left of the graven face. He read the
words that said: This foundation stone was laid by Phineas T.
Shepard, 2nd November 2161. Above it was a sign that read: This
Property is condemned as unfit for human habitation. By order of
COMS. lst January 2245.
With misted, unseeing eyes, the wizard turned and walked
away, moving unsteadily towards the centre of town.
Ignored, the building blurted, half-indignant and half-
'You can't leave me like this!' It tried persuasion.
'Look, if you come back, I'll give you more information.
There's a group of cells in the bar at the centre of Main
Street - the cute little number with the raunchy architectural
features. Please come back! I'm sorry I was so testy. I've been
alone for a while. I've forgotten how to be sociable. COME BACK!.
Let's talk...I can speak any language you want: Swedish, Urdu,
The building strained its newly-acquired aural senses. It
seemed to hear the wizard repeating the same word, over and over
again, as he walked away into the distance.
'Ages... ages.... ages.'
Ashton. Iowa : Early 21st Century, August.
'Not our sort of people at all.'
Cecil Bland said, in the sort of adenoidal voice usually
reserved for politicians in ancient newsreels, train spotters and
other assorted in British comedy shows.
Cecil's wife, Primrose, distantly agreed. Having honed and
developed her inattentive agreement skills to their peak, she
managed to remain completely absorbed in her copy of "Cosmo".
'I mean, look at it,' Cecil waved the paper about the
breakfast nook for the umpteenth time. Trying to look really
stern and disapproving and instead looking rather like a gerbil
with PMT, ' ... its embarrassing.'
'Yes, dear,' responded Primrose on cue before turning her
attention to the ungainly-looking child behind her husband.
'Camilla, will you please stop drawing in that Gideon Bible?'
The child scowled up at her, threatening mutiny.
'I've told you already Camilla - it's pointless to edit the
'King James the First did,' pouted Camilla.
'Well, dear. King James the First probably had parents with
absolutely no sense of discipline.'
'It's culture, innit.'
Primrose closed her eyes with a look of infinite pain.
'Must you talk like a guttersnipe? Camilla.'
'But Mummmm! I wanna be a writer.'
'Well don't start there, Camilla. It's not our property.'
Primrose tried to sound sensible, 'However many times you write
it, you won't alter the fact that there isn't an llth commandment:
"Thou shalt not smuggle." Go to your room and play writers!!"
'See what I mean?' Cecil voiced his outrage once again as
Camilla skulked dramatically away.
'Embarrassing. Even our daughter knows our shame. Look at
He pointedly jabbed the paper's front page with its pictures
of Leicester Square, and of Casper and Blossom, standing in
handcuffs, their faces registering almost total bewilderment. Once
again, Cecil read the familiar textual highlights aloud.
' "Ashton couple held at centre of major British furnishings
smuggling investigation... Charged with vandalism of Central
London landmark..." How will we face the neighbours?'
'You've argued with most of them dear. They're not talking.
Besides, I'm sure the papers over here exaggerate just as much as
the ones in England. No one can smuggle that much without someone
noticing. Two beds, three sofas and the rest of it, they're
hardly the sort of things that fit into a handbag...'
Cecil refused to be placated by his wife's words.
'They're Americans, Primmy; Weirdo's! They're probably devil
worshippers. We've swapped our home with Satanists. We're like
as not go home to find gory circles on the walls and dead cats in
Primrose calmly interrupted, speaking as if to a small
'Really, Cecil, you've got such a lurid imagination. I can
see where Camilla gets it from. The Titwillegers have been very
nice to us. They've booked and paid for this motel, they hired us
that lovely car...which has been stolen.'
'Losing the car wasn't my fault. I normally leave the keys
in the ignition at home.' Cecil said defensively.
'That's because nobody wants our Trabanth, dear.'
Cecil would not be distracted
'They only paid for the motel because their house was full
of rocks. They're already a national scandal.'
'That may be true. However, there's no point getting worked
up about it now. Mrs Titwilleger's brother is flying all the way
from California to explain things and we should wait until he
Cecil gradually calmed from boiling to slow simmer. He
started munching a piece of toast distractedly.
'You're right as usual, Primmy. I'll wait for this
evangelist chappie to arrive. What was his name again ?'
Merlyn could not believe it. He had obviously slept for
centuries and awoken on a strange world. How much had he missed?
How many generations? Why had he really been awakened after so
long? There were so many unanswered questions. So many puzzles.
He registered the light in the distance and resolutely
steeled himself to face whatever was to come, whatever had been.
A light meant life, it meant possible solutions. Although still
in a state of mild shock, he approached the illumination with the
eagerness of a moth let out of a coal cellar. Ignoring the worn
dark shells of the other buildings on Main Street, his attention
focused totally in one direction. Soon he could take in every
detail of his destination. Merlyn's first reaction was that the
building he had just spoken to had possessed lamentably poor
taste. Whatever else this place was, it certainly was not "cute".
It was obviously one of the oldest buildings in the city.
Large, ramshackle and rambling, paint-work faded that had once
been startling, crumpling advertising hoardings making wildly
extravagant claims about the quality of the entertainment held
inside, arbitrarily chosen and positioned plaster statues
sprouting everywhere, coated in a dozen hectic hues.
He was captivated by the large neon sign that pulsed over
the door. The sign said "MA_S BAR", it had once been "THE MARS
BAR" but a previous owner had had the "R" removed. He was
suitably impressed by Mankind's progress; it was his first
exposure to electric power and it was thrilling to learn that
humanity had harnessed the lightning for its purposes. Merlyn
curiously drew nearer, lengthily scrutinising the remains of Sir
Bastable's horse, fascinated by its innards, by the tangled
profusion of mechanical parts. Here was great magic indeed. This
solid simulacrum had been designed to mimic a flesh-and-blood
creature. Merlyn's mystic soul exulted at the knowledge of the
new enchantments that could be learned. Abandoning all cares and
trepidation, he boldly strode towards the murmuring voices, into
On the outskirts of the city, Balidare squatted on his
haunches. Touching the soil with those thick fingers, hazily
sensing the nearby presence of his fellow pilgrims, feeling their
power. He slowly opened his eyes, his vision making a nonsense of
the gloom as they easily picked out the remote bar. That tall
figure in the plaid seemed strangely familiar, but it was
impossible; "He" had retired to Wizard Springs centuries before.
Balidare slowly rose and made his way into town. There was
time enough for answers and they would not be provided by that
curious building over on the left, whatever loud-mouthed claims it
might make to the contrary.
Merlyn entered the bar. Its interior was as multi-coloured
and over ornate as its exterior. Having been asleep at the time,
he was not to know that the bar's decoration was an attempt to
recreate an American Wild West saloon, even down to fake
bloodstains on the floor and the spittoons.
owever, he felt that it was a bit much for his taste.
Drawing on his new-found stores of language Merlyn could see why
the place had been christened Ma'e Bar. Every wall, every free
surface was decorated with baby photographs of the most saccharine
kind, all depicting the same sickly looking child.
Having scrutinised the environment, the Wizard turned his
attention to its inhabitants. The large group around the card
table had silenced as he had entered. They watched him now with
wary eagerness. Merlyn stared back, most of the faces were
unfamiliar but there were a few that he recognised: Alexander,
Mark Antony, Cleopatra, Augustus, Julius Caesar - Britain's first
real tourist. Merlyn smiled as he remembered: "I came, I saw, I
skirmished, I littered, and left as quickly as possible."
Was this Caesar? Was this Augustus? these creatures
certainly resembled them. They had both been dead for centuries
by the time he'd slept. Merlyn had to concede that claiming to
conquer death was par for the course for the self-important Roman
propaganda machine. There was always the chance that those pesky
Latins had been right about "Jove" and having friends in high
places. Still, something was not quite right. It was more as if
someone had restored their statues to life than the actual men or
women. Gone were their warts and their paunches. Gone were their
scars and imperfections. They were finally fully-qualified to
serve as leaders. Merlyn came of a culture that had once asserted
that only one who was physically perfect was fit to lead, but he
had grown flexible since, he had had to.
Conscious that the silence was becoming strained. Merlyn
stepped forward with a friendly smile.
'Hail Caesar, It's been ages.'
The Roman stared back, There was no recognition in his eyes
and uncertainty in his voice
'Do I know you ?'
Merlyn grinned his appreciation of the jest.
'Does he know me, indeed. He asks does he know me?'
'Well, does he?' the puzzled personifications asked the
wizard in unison.
Merlyn paused. Even allowing for changes wrought by the
linguistic spell, this was wrong. Their voices ware not the
voices of his far-off friends and foes. Why did they all have,
like Fitche, the word "CANCELLED" stamped in red across their
foreheads? These creatures were impostors, someone was trying a
joke at his expense. If there was one thing Merlyn hated above
all else, it was cheap satire. He reached for his Fil-a-Hex;
someone was going to pay for this.
A door opened and a familiar voice arrested the wizard's arm
in mid movement.
'There! I told you so, you poxy varlet! Greetings
Magician, we are well met.' Sir Bastable Fitche stood grinning in
the office doorway while a strange little man struggled to get
Muttering curses, Abel tired of his futile efforts to
squeeze past Fitche. He pressed a hidden button, and neat little
wheels lowered out of his mechanised feet. With a hefty shove and
a stylish, flowing movement, he encircled the gabbling Knight and
skated gracefully up to the astonished Wizard,
'Greetings, Sir. Please ignore my assistant. How can I
'Merlyn was totally bewildered by the situation, It was not
every day that, even he, was approached by a small, wizened
apparition, who appeared to be half coated in perfect shiny
armour, on wheels. All the while, the large knight kept burbling
about "Crusades and Grails", whilst the crowd of others in their
wildly clashing costumes, looked as bewildered as Merlyn felt. It
was all a bit much to take.
'CAN YOU PLEASE,' he bellowed, 'TELL ME WHAT'S GOING ON?'
It took some time. After Sir Bastable Fitche was banished
to the corner, and placed, like the rest of his personified peers,
under strict instructions to say nothing, the Martian and the
Mystic sat down to talk. At first, when Merlyn had explained his
situation, Abel had thought that he was a Personification gone
wrong. A little physical examination had reassured him on this
point. Of course Surd had not fully discounted the possibility
that he was dealing with a mad man, but the aged miner liked a
good story and a good chat and had been deprived of both for a
very long time. He was content to humour the imposing figure in
They talked of much. Merlyn spoke of his past; Abel told
the story of COMS, explained about machines, about how his
Personifications had been cancelled stock. As he went on, Abel
started to really enjoy both their conversation and the wizard's
incredulous exclamations. He felt he was just warming up, filling
in the merest of gaps by catering for the wizard's millennia-
consuming hunger for historical knowledge .
Outside, concealed by the window's dusty grime, Balidare
watched the vibrant discussion. He had been right, It was Merlyn.
This was no synthetic creation with a cancellation stamp on his
head. Those, dark weathered features were all too familiar.
How had he managed to return from Wizard Springs? It was
supposed to be a one-way trip. Come to think of it, why had he
ever wanted to go there in the first place? Balidare's phenomenal
powers of recall stripped aside the upper layers of a memory that
went back through millions of years. It was as if it were
yesterday, when Matholug had told him of the Druid's plans.
Balidare had cursed his old friend for a fool; not believing he
was capable of falling for the hype put about by the "Druid's Union
Even when Balidare's sense of imprisonment, when the hatred
of Earth and its confining solar system had been at its worse, he
had never thought of using that tired old spell. Back in the days
just after Atlantis, there had been a saying: "Better death, than
Wizard Springs!". The place was rumoured to be synonymous with
senility and boredom. There was only so much galactic golf and
sunbathing a being could take. Eternity without remission seemed
Balidare almost smiled, suddenly touched by the silliness of
it all. Here he was, condemning Wizard Springs, sight unseen,
whilst standing an this red world, where golf was a faded memory
and sunbathing a dusty trial. Most planets only had to die once;
it was Mars' misfortune to have to enact a repeat performance.
Well, he thought, attracted by the theatrical metaphor, the drama
cannot proceed unless we actors respond to our cues. Time for a
"Time for more than one", The Purple Thingy slimed
impatiently, way past time. "Never again!" It putridly promised
itself; working with these outmoded creatures that used actual
physical effort to travel.
It was pathetic. The whole thing seemed to take forever.
The Thingy had evolved life-forms in the time it took these beings
to get to the city, and a lot more efficient life-forms at that.
The whole process was ridiculously slow, like trying to construct
a skyscraper out of rice-pudding. The Thingy wanted to give vent
to its temporal frustration; it wanted to howl and shriek, but it
controlled itself, aware of the disastrous consequences, the
shredding of reality, the resultant implosive black holes. Not
for nothing was it said that: "In space, nobody can hear a Thingy
scream." Nobody lives long enough, nobody or nothing for light
years around. The Thingy exercised gallant restraint; it waited
and fumed in reeking silence with every one of it plentiful acid-
soaked intellects soundlessly shouting: "Get on with it!"
Ashton, Iowa: Early 21st Century, August.
'Get on with it!'
Cecil Bland said testily, putting on his best abrupt civil
service manner. He was resentful of the ease with which Prince's
seemed to charm Primrose,
Wilbur Prince stiffened in the midst of a smile, turning his
dynamic gaze onto the weedy Englishman, speaking in that rich,
deep melodious voice.
'Maybe you're right.'
Cecil visibly quailed as Prince came towards him. This
reaction was not prompted by Primrose's poisonous glance in her
husband's direction; rather, it was a natural consequence of
sharing space with such a presence. Clothed in a lurid Kaftan,
Wilbur was hugely commanding, with a voice made for the Gospel
(courtesy of several thousand dollars worth of acting lesson )
and a grey-tinged beard of Biblical proportions. The founder
and chief evangelistic spirit of California's: "Church of Mystic
Enlightenment via the Fundamental Freak-Out and the Love of
Christ's Glory." He was massive in bulk and massive in
It was almost as if God himself, or at least Orson Welles,
were present in their breakfast nook. Some wild, divinely
inspired pilgrim with an unkempt mane of carefully arranged hair
extensions, a John the Baptist style crowd-pleaser of the hellfire
variety. Feet hidden by the kaftan, Wilbur seemed almost to slide
along the floor. Everything about him seemed to signify the rough
piety of the prophet, a man who had given up all the pleasures and
properties of the flesh.
This was a quite a feat for someone who, at the last count,
owned a forty-million dollar Bel-Air mansion, plus other property,
fifteen limos, six yachts, three planes and kept a score of
mistresses. God, with a little help from modern marketing
methods, had indeed been good to his "humble" servant. Blossom
had inherited all the family bad luck.
Wilbur took his time, secure in the knowledge that he had
overwhelmed this petty bureaucrat and his wife. With becoming
grandeur, he lowered himself daintily onto the sofa, offering
Cecil and Primrose a seat in their own space, without any hint of
discomfort, waiting with seemingly divine patience as the Blands
hurried to comply.
The Preacher prided himself on being more than adept at
handling minor officials. He paused, fixing the British with his
most dazzling smile, building up the importance of the words that
would follow with practised theatricality,
'....name is Brimstone.' The delivery of the brooding
angular child was muted, self-conscious.
'Seriously?' Camilla Bland was suitably impressed.
'Yeah, My dad was on this big damnation kick at the time.'
They sat under overcast skies. Two frail children,
momentarily excluded from the mysterious world of the adults
upstairs. They had been told to go out and play, and play they
had,listlessly tossing pebbles into the Motel's deserted pool as
they discussed matters of great import to nine-year-olds.They had
both come to the conclusion that it must be really "neat" to be a
grown up. No one could confuse you or tell you what to do. As an
adult you had everything under control. Of course, this concept
of their elders was about as faulty as their concept of the
existence of Santa Claus; adulthood has a way of puncturing the
most convincing notions.
Everything about her companion thrilled the impressionable
Camilla, even the kaftan he wore an his father's instructions,
although it made him look lost and pathetic, like a stick insect
wrapped in a tent. Nothing, however, had prepared her for the
sheer "coolness" of his appellation. She could see it now, going
home to St Albans and telling them about the friend she'd made. A
friend with a twin sister called Brimstone and an incredible name.
If the girls at school believed her, they might even stop beating
her up. It was essential to get some kind of proof.
'No. Call me Sully. Me and Sis prefer it that way, Sully
Camilla stared at him hard as her mind ingested this latest
gobbit of information. Sully stared back, his eyes full of an
habitual penitence, a consequence of the overbearing Wilbur's oft-
stated expressions of disappointment in him.
'It's only a name, like "Prince"; you can take it or leave
it. Father took it because it sounded classy. He says no one
would go to a church run by Wilbur Pimpleknocker.'
'PIMPLEKNOCKER!' Camilla chortled her childish glee and even
Sully managed a modest smile. Eventually, as her mirth subsided,
she plunged into thought. After a while she spoke, saying with
all the gravity and seriousness a nine year-old could muster.
'Sully, I luv you!'
The boy reacted with a start of alarm that almost propelled
him into the pool. Camilla took this as a sign of encouragement.
'Let's be pen friends.'
As the sky darkened and the sun disappeared from view, the
future Mr and Mrs Prince sat, side by side, gazing into a pool as
mysterious and murky as the future.
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