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Illustration Update 19 June 2006
Update 6 April 2006
The Coral Curtain
An Entertainment by Simon Barber
|The Coral Curtain
by Simon Barber
Characters by S. Barber, free for Spontoon usage!
Illustration by Kjartan
Nancy Rote awoke with sunlight streaming on her face, in the turret room of the Madston Hotel. She yawned, stretching as she mentally catalogued her various bumps and bruises, a legacy from the rather rough party at The Devil’s Reef the night before.
“Alpha?” She looked around, but apart from the depression and musk scent in the bed she was alone in the room. She smiled, reminding herself that her Cranium Island mate had leased the opposite corner tower of the hotel for her research and experiments, which frequently needed to be done at particular times of the day or night. Standing in a buzzing high-voltage Electric Pentacle and chanting from ancient books hoping to get a response from Elsewhere was not conducive to the other inhabitant of the room getting much sleep.
“Nancy!” Just then the floor hatch popped open and Alpha Rote (neė Zarahoff) shot up the ladder like a furry rodent rocket, evidently having finished her morning experiments. “Nancy! I missed you so much! Yes!” The shrew hardly touched the floor before landing in Nancy’s arms.
Nancy Rote smiled, hugging Alpha back. “I missed you too. It’s been, what, two waking minutes for me?” Her eyebrow rose. “We’ll have to be a long time apart at Songmark. I know first-year dorms don’t get many passes, and we’ll be in different dorms. It might be quite awhile before they coincide.”
The shrew nodded earnestly, her whiskers drooping. “Yes! And we can’t even talk in Songmark. Except officially. It’ll be difficult.”
“There’s a few days yet. But we’ve got a lot to do in them, too.” Nancy stretched, wriggling and smoothing her abundant tail fur. She slipped into her blue dressing gown, reminding herself that Alpha needed to buy something like it. It had been a shock to discover that the only clothes Alpha had worn were a series of almost identical flight suits. Her wedding dress had been the only clothing she had ever had made for a strictly social occasion; it seemed that what social occasions cropped up on Cranium Island were entirely subject to scientific interruptions. Guests often hurried in dressed according to whatever experiment they had just been working on, and after working with a million volt Rhumbatron or helping with a child’s first beloved sulphuric-acid throwing machine, style took second place to function.
“Ten o’clock. Meeting the other girls. Three hours including breakfast. If you have to sit down for it.” Alpha looked up at the squirrel, her eyes gleaming. “Nancy! I can work on high-efficiency foods for you. Pocketable, yes, nutritious too! You’d never have to waste time to sit down and eat a meal ever again!”
Nancy suppressed a sigh. Some things were hard to explain to her bride, such as the necessity to keep a respectable set of table manners. “Alpha,” she said firmly “I’d like that, to use when we’re hot on the trail sleuthing, or adventuring. It could be very useful. But we’re going downstairs for breakfast now to dine on a white tablecloth-spread table, with napkins and the proper cutlery. I know you can’t see the sense in it. And yesterday, I don’t think the waitress really appreciated being told how all the staff could be replaced by a single “pneumatique” system centrally serving every hotel on Casino Island, with an automatic kitchen and telegraphic menu system on each table. It may be efficient, but that’s her job you’re talking about.”
The shrew’s ears drooped. “I’ve done it again. Haven’t I.”
Nancy reached out to stroke Alpha’s newly permed had-fur, a triumph of the coiffurer’s art considering the available material. “We all keep learning! Taking longer over something isn’t always a bad idea.” She stood up, and glanced at her wristwatch. “And now, a shower before breakfast, I think. Going down in public scented like this might not shock an automated pneumatic feeding system, but the Madston is a respectable hotel.”
Alpha nodded, her mercurial mood instantly brightening. She had estimated beforehand that a shower for two would take only 70 percent of the time and water of a solo effort. The experiments so far pointed to things taking three times as long – but somehow, she found herself not minding at all.
“And now,” Nancy announced an hour later at the breakfast table, as the things were cleared away, “to business. We both want to try and pick who goes into our dorms. Our tutors may not let us do that – but then, they might. It’s worth a try.” She pulled out her dossier of portraits and character sketches, and spread them out on the table between them. “Hmm. Not a good start. Rosa Marquetta, the Anarchist. I don’t want her.”
“Well. She must have something going for her. Or the Tutors wouldn’t let her in.” Alpha’s long snout wriggled. “People say Cranium Island is an Anarchy. Really we’re all too busy with our own experiments to worry about governing anyone else. She might not be too bad.”
“And everyone on your island has the blueprints for disintegration cannon on the shelf if their neighbours get too pushy, I expect.” Nancy laughed.
“Well … yes, actually.” Alpha looked at the next dossier, one that had Nancy’s tentative approval on it. “Eva Schiller. Well. You want her. I don’t.”
“Why ever not?” Nancy looked down at the sketch of the Arctic Fox. “She said she’s a scientist, much the same as you. She’s been out to odd corners of the world with her Uncle, investigating all sorts of strange artefacts, some of them your own type of occult science. Sounds exactly the sort of person you’d get on with.”
The shrew’s nose wrinkled. “I don’t study politics, generally. No. It doesn’t usually count. But hers – she’s a strong supporter of her Government. Junior league Thule Society member, she won all the rune badges, she said.”
“So she’s a hard-working girl, and loyal to her country. I still don’t see what’s so wrong with that.” Nancy probed.
Alpha looked appealingly into her mate’s eyes. “Nancy. It’s been in all the papers. Do you know what her Government are doing, in Germany? They’re outlawing vivisection!”
Nancy took a deep breath, and held it for five seconds. “I can see where that would be a problem for you,” she conceded. “But she’s an Investigator, and of good family. I’ll invite her to join me.”
Alpha shuddered. “Good! If it keeps her away from me. Still. Next one, this Meera Sind. She’s nice.” She looked critically at the sketch of the young mongoose. “Her birthday is this week! Lucky! Just gets in. A week later and she couldn’t qualify for Songmark this year. A keen chemist, and in her school ‘Congreve club.’ I heard about that.”
“Congreve Club?” Nancy’s ears perked up quizzically.
“Yes. Scientist, Inventor, William Congreve. About twelve decades ago, worked on reliable rockets for the British Army and Royal Navy. Also interested in urban remodelling. I assume.”
Nancy looked hard at the wriggling shrew. “What’s urban remodelling got to do with fireworks?”
“Well. Not fireworks really. Plenty of fire though; he helped places like Copenhagen and Washington with a lot of slum removal and such. Anyway, when they had to rebuild the cities afterwards they were probably much, much better.”
“Nice looks, but rather suspect hobbies,” Nancy made a note on the record. She turned to the rest of the dossiers, and they sorted through them. At the end, a separate picture fluttered out and fell to the floor. Nancy blushed as Alpha picked up the portrait of a tall and handsome zebra stallion, drawn from memory.
“I recognise him!” Alpha’s whiskers twitched. “From your memory. In Creekside you said. When we used the mental projector back home, before …” she shuddered in embarrassment.
“Yes, that’s Mr. Simmons,” Nancy said quietly. “The last person who was kind to me for a month. I drew this picture when he first wrote to me, before you and I met. He said he had hopes of winning the Salesman of The Year prize.” Inwardly she winced slightly. The chances were her first letter had not even reached Mr. Simmons at his sales job out on the road; by the time his company forwarded the letter to him it could be a few weeks before he could reply back to her even by airmail. How was she going to tell him that he was too late, that she was already married?
Alpha stared long and hard at the picture, her tail and whiskers twitching. “If he wins the prize … if it’s a free holiday or a lot of money … are you going to invite him out here?”
Nancy’s tail went rigid. “No! I mean, not now. I really hadn’t thought that far ahead, even when I first heard from him.” She paused. “Well, not as a definite plan. I can hardly do that now, anyway. I’ve got you.”
Alpha hugged her. Suddenly a gleam came to her eyes. “He’s handsome. Nancy … he really is.” She paused. “You said …. I ought to …” She broke off, her tail twitching.
Nancy thought hard for a second. Then her eyes went wide open; for some mind-reading one could get by without Cranium Island technology. “You want to meet him? Yes, he is very handsome.” Her own tail twitched, looking at the diminutive shrew. Alpha was shoulder-high against her; she would just about come up to the zebra’s waist. “Alpha … you might have some problems with that idea. Like … a novice pilot with a Schneider Trophy aircraft. You’re not very well matched.”
“Oh. Well. Then I’ll need some more flight hours first.” Alpha’s expression lit up. “Nobody starts with big projects; you have to lead up to them.”
Nancy hugged her. “If you want –and if he comes here we’ll try and arrange that for you. But today – we’ve a sleuthing team to assemble.”
Mid-morning saw seven furs assembled in Tower Hill Park, outwardly a keen band of well-matched tourists enjoying one of their last days before the ‘Skookum City’ departed, last tour boat of the season. It was a wonderful disguise, Nancy noted – real detectives or secret agents did not hang around park benches feeding wild ducks from paper bags.
“So, that’s my idea,” Nancy finished up, having spent half an hour making her case. “We’ll be busy enough with the Songmark courses, I know. But they’ll give us cover and opportunities to solve mysteries and track down crime. What do you say?”
“And if we can, we’ll stick together,” Isabella added. “It must be hard for the Tutors to decide who to put in together. Maybe, they are grateful for us choosing for ourselves, and maybe they will let us.” She had arranged herself to be as far from Alpha as the benches would allow.
“Exactly. So, how about it?” Nancy looked from one snout to the other.
“And to be sure, ‘tis why you didn’t invite Rosa to our little picnic?” A bulldog muzzle wrinkled. “Not an Anarchist thing, at all. Worst thing in the world to them, polis and jails. In Spain, the Anarchists shoot prisoners rather than jail them.”
“Quite so, Maureen. I don’t think she cares much for the forces of Law and Order, even as little as there is around here.” Nancy looked at the Ulster hound. “You were saying at the party, your family has a tradition?”
Maureen nodded. “To be sure, an’ we have. Father was a policeman before the War, then was pulled back Home to deal with the rebels, he was. Six years wi’ the Black and Tans, he’s got special medals they nivver gave out more than a pawfull of. I’ve a mind to do as well.”
“Yes! I’d be happy to help with that.” Nancy asserted, making notes. She turned to the Persian feline. “Seria? “ The white-furred girl was almost impossibly fluffy; for an instant Nancy imagined what she would look like having crawled out of a swamp. No doubt the Songmark course would show her.
“I’m not interested, myself.” The Persian’s voice was smooth, her accent flawless. “We’re here to be Adventuresses, yes – not police furs. My Aunt investigated Songmark; it is a very hard course on its own. Passing it will take everything we have. It will take things we don’t even have yet! Hobbies and side-shows are not something we can afford.”
“I see your point,” Nancy conceded. “How about you, Meera?”
The mongoose’s alert ears twitched excitedly. “It sounds quite a lark! What, roof-top escapes and top-speed chases across the islands? That’d be jolly fun! We could all wear masks! Have secret codes and everything!” Her accent was faintly Indian, but evidently a public-school education entirely in England had left its mark in thought and word.
“I’ll make a note of that,” Nancy promised. Inwardly she winced. I can just see Sergeant Brush gloating as he hauls in a pack of masked desperados, laden with spy kit, she told herself. And ten times more when he finds out whom he’s got. No, not Meera.
“Eva?” She turned to the arctic fox, who was looking on in amusement.
A fine silver-white tail twitched. “It should be interesting. If last night is anything to go by, there’s plenty of scope.” She rubbed the back of her head, exploring a bruise. “I don’t know about masks, steel helmets might be more practical, if hardly fashionable. My head still rings.”
“Have you tried exploratory surgery?” Alpha’s whiskers twitched with undisguised glee. “I mean, you have to take the cowling off an aircraft engine and look around inside to fix it. Same with people. We do it all the time back home, unlike some places.” She fixed the fox with an unfriendly stare.
“Now, now, Alpha.” Nancy resisted the temptation to take her mate’s paw in her own; certainly she had no intention of hiding their status, but this was not the time to announce it. “I’m sure Eva will be a great help.” She turned to the last girl, the Russian wolverine. “And Svetlana? What do you think?” From what she had gathered, the inhabitants of Vostok liked to be simply called Russian, as from their point of view they were the genuine article and any pieces Ioseph Starling currently ruled were just temporarily occupied, as had happened to parts overran by Germany and Austro-Hungary in the Great War. All those areas had become Russian again, and so one day would be Moscow and St. Petersburg. So said the official story.
The stocky mustelid nodded. “Da! Count me in!” She declared. “Hunting crooks got me my place here. Even if it’s not a crime to be a Red on these islands. We know what to do with crooks of all kinds, in Vostok.”
“You should, yes!” Alpha nodded. “Vostok was a criminal colony. At first, yes. If Siberia wasn’t far enough from Moscow, there was always Vostok.”
Svetlana cast her a pained expression. “We had one or two camps, yes. That was a long time ago. Those exiles are all gone now, back to Mother Russia or settled in our countryside.”
“And you needed the camps for captured Reds, anyway?” Alpha Rote might not have specialised in people sciences, but she had studied the nations of the Nimitz Sea and surroundings for Cranium Island’s needs. “We buy some off you. One of your Counts is in charge of it.”
“Alpha!” Nancy looked at her mate, horrified.
The shrew shrugged. “We’re a small island. Need to bring in resources, for experiments. You know that.”
“Yes. But I don’t have to like it.” Nancy turned her attention to her notes. “That’s five of us want to go in together; the Songmark dorms are only in fours. I know Alpha isn’t going in with me. She’d be an asset to any detective force, with her talents.”
“Like threatening to send a crook one-way to Cranium Island if he will not confess, ja?” An Arctic fox and a shrew glared at each other.
“Now, now,” Nancy said smoothly, looking from snout to snout. ”We need to stick together. Unity is strength, isn’t what your Chancellor says, Eva?”
Eva’s raised fur went down a fraction. “Yes, that is true. Given the right kind of people to unite in the first place. At least if I am in your dorm, Miss Rote, I will not be in hers.”
“Well now.” Nancy stood up, brushing the crumbs off her blue summer frock. “That’s settled, as far as we can right now. We’ll find out if we can go in together when term starts. That’s five days time. Who’s with me in tracking down this crook before then? Isabella has the notes.” She nodded graciously to the star-nosed mole. “Our third-year friend Beryl was good enough to give us some clues to start with.”
Maureen gave a quiet growl, pulling out the brochure they had all bought off the mouse. “To be sure, and have you looked at what she’s been writing? Looked hard, I mean?”
“I have. There’s certainly some very surprising things in there – we’d never have guessed it ourselves.” Nancy looked over the bulldog’s shoulder. “When an oriental fur in the Nimitz Sea area bows to you, it means they want you to rub the top of their heads for good luck.” She quoted. “I’ve already found out, Spontoon is a very unusual place. And yes, I have read the national anthem on the back.”
“Do you believe it?” The bulldog was as blunt as her muzzle.
Nancy paused. Beryl had been friendly and helpful, and despite the party the previous night turning into a street riot, she had been the one to arrange the venue in the first place. Plus, neither Beryl nor Piet had even been there when the fight started. Still – a nagging sensation in her sleuthing sense was still there and refused to quite go away.
“I’ll believe it until proven otherwise. That’s the way of a detective, innocent till proven guilty. Some of it is sure to be true – that bit about keeping your equipment in oiled silk bags with enough ping-pong balls sealed in to make sure it all floats. I believe the part about our Tutors billing us for dropped tools too – we’ll be working on seaplanes sometimes, and a dropped tool is a lost tool.”
“Maybe.” Maureen looked unconvinced. “But this “Temple of Continual Reward” she goes to, ‘tis a den of thieves, is what I’ve been hearin’ from me neighbours at the hotel. And why would an honest lass be goin’ there, will ye be tellin’ me that?”
”I’ve been there myself,” Nancy countered smoothly. “If you want to find exotic wild animals, you look in a jungle rather than your own backyard. That’s an underworld jungle, certainly. And as for crooks – we have to be very sure what they’re doing is illegal here, under the local laws. What few they have.”
“Si! Selling Nootnops Blue would be a crime in Mixteca,” Isabella supported her. “Not here.” She pulled out her dossier. “Smuggling is illegal, of weapons and counterfeit money. This Senor Farrell, Beryl says, is doing both. Here is what I have found.” With that, she opened her dossier and the other six gathered round.
“That’s the advantage of having a team, Alpha,” Nancy pointed out an hour later, when they sat at a restaurant table on Casino Island, enjoying dainty nut-paste sandwiches as well as a steaming bowl of bouillon with just a speck of nutmeg. “Shadowing suspects, we can change the followers so they do not get suspicious.” They had first visited Mahanish’s, spotted the target then handed the job over to Eva and Maureen who were still on Eastern Island, having stayed with “Swift Shamus” and made themselves inconspicuous as a pair of obnoxious tourists. Eva had loudly demanded stewed pork knuckle “done in the Berlin style” at Mahanish’s, which had nothing similar on its menu and would need a couple of hours of preparation time if they had. As Nancy had pointed out, it was better to be conspicuous and identifiably something other than a detective. Folk who were worried about being followed tended to look for furtive figures in the shadows, and straight past anything glaringly obvious.
“Yes! I was looking at that.” Alpha had been doodling in her notepad, and showed Nancy her results. “You say people look for distinguishing features, say a couples’ species. So the subject suspects he has a hound and a fox tailing him. Well. We use a different pair, yes. Then we rearrange the pairs.” She had drawn a grid, with seven names on each side. “Look! That’s twenty-one different permutations of pairs of the seven of us, and if we sometimes go solo it’s twenty-eight. That’s just pairs, there’s more ways you can combine in threes. There’s also disguises. Like Eva dyeing herself as a black-furred jackal. Real Miss Anubis!”
“I don’t think Eva would approve of that idea, so much,” Nancy laughed. “She’s very proud of her species. Probably has a pedigree going back to the Middle Ages, too. A lot of her country-furs are digging out their family trees these days, I hear. But I get the idea.” She scrutinised the page. “Yes, Alpha. Even basic disguises will help even the odds. He’s seen us two together, so next time it’ll be me and one of the others.”
“Or disguise,” Alpha’s snout twitched.
“As long as it’s a good disguise. Not Meera’s idea of black domino masks! Anything but that.” Nancy shivered delicately. “That girl has read too many pulp comics. You need a real disguise, not something everyone can spot is fake. That’s worse than none at all. It’d be like the police pulling you in and finding out you’ve a reversible jacket and three different passports with you. Then they’d know you were up to no good.”
“Some of those comics are true, though,” Alpha reached into one of her many pockets and pulled out a finger-length prism- like crystal of a purple hue so dark it was almost black. “There’s three that I know of that we use to spread information around the world. You can say anything as long as you say it’s fiction. The right people know where to look. Mainstream science journals are so stuffy! They’d never know what to make of this.” She handed the crystal over to Nancy. “Careful.”
Nancy gasped, almost dropping the unexpected weight. “Alpha! This is much heavier than solid lead! What is it ?”
The shrew wriggled. “Trautonium sulphide. Only found on Cranium Island that we know of, and only in the oldest rocks. Most crystals are microscopic. Our island isn’t constituted like other Pacific islands, it’s more like a tiny piece of one of the very first continents. Rocks you only expect in the middle of Australia, or up in Greenland and Canada.” She looked down at the strange crystal. “Trautonium metal doesn’t appear in the regular periodic table. It’s not just unknown, there’s no place it ought to even fit. Strange stuff, but useful. We use the silicate in our radios. The tiny ones.”
“That’s something that’d be very useful,” Nancy conceded. “A lot more so than having to stay by a public telephone all the time, like this.” “Even two pocket-sized radios would quite transform things – if the batteries weren’t the size and weight of a house brick.”
“Lead-acid batteries? Oh no. Don’t use those.” A dreamy expression came over Alpha. “That’s what some of us research on Cranium, lots of power applications. The year after Marie Curie discovered Radium, we had a working Radium Transmutation Furnace working. But that’s too rare to use for fuel. Wasteful. We’ve lots of Thorium though, Herr Doktor Wurstel says he can make an artificial sun with six hundred and nine kilos of it – properly ignited.”
“An artificial sun? Sounds dangerous. Mister Wells wrote about that sort of thing in “The Shape Of Things To Come”. I saw the film this Spring; it was a disaster for everyone there.” Nancy’s fine tail twitched. The radium-fuelled fireballs were inextinguishable, and had the effect of turning a city into a volcanic crater.
“Well … he doesn’t think it’ll set the atmosphere on fire when it ignites.” The shrew looked up appealingly. “Not all of it. That would be a worst-case event. Nobody ever made progress if they worried about worst-case events really happening.” Her whiskers drooped. “Anyway, he’s been working with Thorium for years now, the experiments haven’t been too successful. Maybe he should try another metal, like that allotropic liquid iron that Doctor Smith discovered. It’s unusual stuff – chemically it’s iron, but it’s denser despite being liquid at room temperature. Looks exactly like a red mercury.”
“Radios. Think about radios,” Nancy urged, trying to steer her volatile mate back on track. “I don’t mind how you power them, as long as the battery doesn’t weigh ten pounds.”
“I can do that! Just a matter of sending home for the components. I always bring my tools with me.” Alpha smiled, a dreamy expression on her muzzle. “Nancy. I love doing this for you. I’d have done it at home before, for the challenge. But it’s much better now. I want to use everything we have on Cranium to help you – everything.”
Nancy squeezed her paw, hidden under the table. Just then the public telephone in the call box on the pavement next to them rang. She sprang over the low fence and was in the box before the third ring tone started.
“Hello? Nancy Rote, yes.” She hurriedly made notes as she pressed the receiver to her ear. Then her tail drooped. “Oh. I see. Well, it can’t be helped. You did very well.” She put the phone down, and returned to Alpha. “Maureen says our Mister Farrell just left the island. That Fokker amphibian taking off, that’s him. Filed a flight plan for Kou Han. Maybe we scared him off.”
“We were very careful!” Alpha objected. “He has to travel a lot anyway, in imports and exports. Even legal ones.”
“True, true,” Nancy conceded. “But whether or not he suspected me, he did see me this morning. That’s a problem.” Her expression brightened. “Still – we’ve all day to investigate this end of his operations now, without worrying about running into him.”
Alpha looked up at her, the shrew’s eyes gleaming. “I love investigations!”
Nancy stood, stretching, and paid the bill for their lunch. “And if you want to use every tool of forbidden science to help us – go right ahead.”
The next day dawned bright and early, with the sun rising on South Island above the shoulder of Mount Tomboabo. Nancy yawned, her eyes still closed as she felt the warmth through the window. Her nose twitched; the familiar rodent musk of Alpha filled her snout, and she smiled as she explored and found the shrew’s warm fur next to her.
It’s amazing what you can get used to, she told herself, wriggling slightly. She remembered her month of awful captivity, with the equally demanding stallion and mare making every possible use of her. Some things are bad, some good – but I’ve survived it all, and kept going. When term starts, I’ll have to get used to waking up alone again. A lot earlier than this, I’m sure. Although she normally was straight out of bed and ready for the new day, she let herself luxuriate a minute longer. I never expected to be on my honeymoon before even starting at Songmark. I’d hardly gotten used to being called Miss Rote when suddenly – I’m not.
She opened her eyes, smiling. That lasted about half a second. Alpha was there, curled up contentedly asleep. But it was the sight of herself that made her ears and tail go rigid. “Alpha! What have you done?”
Nancy Rote was no longer a pale-bodied, yellow head-furred squirrel. Her fur was a complex pattern of stripes, wrapping round all over her, even to her tail. Her muzzle was jet black, as were her paws.
Alpha woke up, looking at the evidently mixed girl next to her. “Good morning!”
“Alpha!” For a few seconds Nancy was quite lost for words, a rare thing for her. “What happened?”
“Oh. That.” The shrew looked slightly embarrassed. “Well … you were saying … yesterday. About needing a disguise that isn’t fake! It got me thinking…”
“And?” Nancy’s eyes were wide, as she stroked her new patterning, eyes wide in shock.
“Oh. I thought … you see, back home Doctor Von Pichelsdorf’s been messing with a time machine. I can reach him by radio. And I remembered you told me your birthday. Where and when. I counted back, you see. I worked out the location. Of where your mother was, the day before you, umm, started.”
“Alpha. What. Have. You, Done?” Nancy pressed her black snout to her mate’s narrow, twitching one.
“I thought … well, I would only change one thing. Just one little detail. You liked zebras. I thought, maybe it ran in families? Doctor Von Pichelsdorf’s good at arranging things. He could arrange things given a working time machine too. Just one meeting. Wouldn’t change history very much.” Her ears drooped. “I thought you’d be pleased.”
Nancy’s eyes were wide in horror. But even more disturbingly, her tail twitched excitedly. Although she had the same shape, anyone looking at her would know she was a mixed-species fur, with no pedigree. She had never believed that such folk were more highly charged with hybrid vigour or looser moralled, socially having nothing to lose – but she knew a lot of people did. Being of reduced fertility as all mixed furs were would make some things easier, she found herself thinking.
She sat down heavily on the bed. “So this is now the way I’ve … always been.” She whispered to herself. “Nancy Rote, the half equine. Everybody has always known me this way.”
Alpha kissed her shyly. “You wanted a disguise that wasn’t a fake.”
Suddenly her ears twitched. She had noticed two physical clues, and realised three errors in the story. There was a scent in the room that she was unfamiliar with; she had assumed it was her own, but now the unfamiliar scent of a part equine girl. “Alpha … she said slowly “If I’ve always been like this – then it’s no disguise relative to yesterday, is it? There’d be no point, it’d make no difference. And how is it that I remember myself as being a pedigree squirrel? Plus you keep saying you “could” do this and that, or you “thought” it – not that you actually DID. Finally there’s this.” Her paw touched a faint mark on the bed sheet, like a reversed impression of stripes. “I don’t think real half-zebra girls have markings that come off on the sheets.” Her eyebrow rose, a hint of a smile on her muzzle. ”I take it that scent is fur dye.”
Alpha looked into her eyes, then giggled and sprang into her arms. “Twenty seconds! That’s all it took you to work it out! You’re wonderful!”
Nancy hugged her back, and looked sternly down. “Alpha. You have far, far too much energy for your own good.” She saw her mate wilt like a lettuce in the sun, under her gaze. Then her tail waved, and she touched the shrew gently on the tip of her nose. “You must have spent all night on this. Waiting while I turned over in my sleep, so you could get to all my fur piece by piece, and all without waking me up.”
A drooping shrew nodded, tears in her eyes. “I did. It all washes off with ethyl alcohol and hot water. I’ll take it off you. I’m sorry.”
A squirrel eyebrow raised. “Oh, I don’t think I’ll waste it. Not today. I can find a use for it. We’ve got until Mr, Farrell gets back, our time is our own. And there’s one thing I did promise I’d arrange for you, if you wanted.” She whispered something into the shrew’s ear.
Alpha’s whiskers stood out like wires. “Today?”
“Oh yes.” Nancy stood before her, now appreciating her display of stripes. “You wanted to be seen with a mixed-species girl. I can do that. Let’s see if it really does add to my appeal. I can see if anyone else appreciates the view.” She raised an eyebrow. “By the way, this time machine on Cranium Island?”
“Umm. Yes. Doctor Von Pichelsdorf’s been working on it for ages, really. I said he’d been messing with it. He has!” Alpha scratched an ear, contemplatively. “He’s one of Eva’s country-furs. We keep telling him the equations of Albert Beerstein mean time travel’s impossible, but he just mutters darkly about getting it done by “rejecting decadent Jewish Science and all its works.” It doesn’t do him any good; I don’t think science really cares who it’s done by. He hasn’t got it working yet, anyway.” She paused. “Last time I visited his lab, he said he still had hopes of one day meeting an older version of himself come back from the future to tell him how to do it properly. Then he, the 1936 version, can go further back in time to tell himself in 1925, when he arrived on Cranium and save all that effort.” She paused, her long nose twitching. “I admit it could make things rather complicated.”
Nancy sighed. She was sure the locals had a fund of stories about Cranium Islanders – although not all of them were clinically insane (by the standards of a Cranium Island clinic) the phrase “insanity-friendly” sprang to mind. “Come on, Alpha,” she swung herself off the bed and prepared to start the day, “we’ve got an expedition to plan.”
From one of the Main Island slopes above a definitely Oriental looking village, the central waters of the Spontoon group looked like an amethyst setting for the scattered handful of emerald islands. A thousand feet above the beach, Nancy and Alpha relaxed to get their breath back as their native guide pointed out the features of the islands below.
“Sacred lake, she over that hill,” the young lepine guide announced proudly. “We go one mile, see most holy part of Main Island. No swimming.” He was a tall grey-furred buck, dressed in a grass skirt loincloth with a severely practical machete in his bark belt, and the shell necklace that labelled him as an official Guide hung around his brawny neck. “Lady picks good time, few tourists here now.”
“I know.” Nancy Rote wore the same respectable sun-dress she had on arrival on Spontoon less than two weeks earlier, though in her dyed fur would have been unrecognisable to the others on the outward trip. She hesitated; she disliked actually lying (except to crooks in the course of duty) but there were many ways of misdirecting people. “The Skookum City, it leaves tomorrow – that’s the boat I arrived on.” She did not add that she would not be leaving on it. “We’ve so little time! Soon we’ll be back at work. It’s so … respectable back home, it’s so … cloying.” She did not speak for Alpha. “We’d love to see everything, Mister Tempano.”
Alpha nodded silently but gleefully; she recognised Nancy’s skill in this.
The buck smiled, exposing teeth that quite matched Nancy’s own. A rabbit might be rather short-changed in the tail department compared with a squirrel, Nancy decided, but the ears made up for it. The rest looked decidedly similar. “Compatible”, was a word that had sprung to mind.
“Ladies have rested?” He enquired carefully. “Trail is smooth now, she follow hill side.”
“Oh, yes.” Nancy agreed. To be honest, the climb had been nothing very tiring, though she and Alpha had made deliberately slow going of it. Instead of her high Songmark nailed boots she wore a pair of sensible but manifestly street shoes that were now showing signs of wear. Alpha had taken awhile to accept they would be deliberately making things difficult for themselves for the sake of style; the water taxi folk who had ferried them over had probably reported two tourists, one of whom was new to them. Nancy recalled the company on the tour boat, and could quite believe that some of them had never gone further afield than Casino Island.
The September breeze was cooling at a thousand feet above the beach, despite the bright sunshine, and Nancy kept her sun-hat pressed close to her head rather than risk losing it over the ridge. “What’s Sacred about this lake?” She asked artlessly. “Is there a mission church there?”
Their guide looked his charges over with a gaze that was more searching than Nancy had hoped to be up against. “No! Euros never came there, or built anything. No furs build there, not even priestesses. It is a holy place from ancient times. Was holy even when islands were empty for twelve long lifetimes of furs. Cannot take Misses to lake shore – but can show you from afar.”
“That would be splendid,” Nancy assented. She stretched, then followed the surefooted buck as he set an easy pace along the mountainside. Apart from the rather large sun hat, part of her disguise was to carry her Kodiak camera tourist-style, swinging around her neck on its strap rather than her usual and more practical belt system. She had accumulated a few bruises on her ribs already, but cheerfully told herself even that was being carefully noted and put it down as a necessary sacrifice. Guides naturally had to watch over their customers, keeping them from danger while a long way from help – but as a sleuth she recognised the extreme level of observation she and Alpha were kept under. She nodded, impressed. Her first thought of needing to travel without a guide if she wanted to peer behind Spontoon’s “Coral Curtain” was being amply confirmed.
Half an hour later the ridge came to an end. Before them they could see the curving cliffs of the far side of a great hole in the island, a sheer walled pit nearly a quarter mile across. The bright sunshine pierced deep into the clear water, showing them that at least on one side the vertical cliff plunged straight down underwater at least a hundred feet before being hidden in the depths. Waterfalls cascaded sheer down the cliffs from streams on the opposite slopes.
“Nice!” Alpha could no longer restrain herself. “Vertical magma chamber collapse, might go clear down to the mantle!”
Nancy cast her a sharp glance; Alpha’s skills did not as yet include staying in character. “She reads those pulp fiction books all the time,” she explained to the guide dismissively, as if they were beneath her. “The Lost World, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, and she saw the newsreel of that German Tibet expedition that found the lost kingdoms of Agharti and Shamballa miles under the Himalayas, last month.” That last part was certainly true, Alpha had mentioned it and Nancy had watched it with interest herself at a cinema in Hawaii when her outward voyage had taken a stop there.
“Edge of holy area!” The guide waved expansively. “Few of even Spontoonies set paw on its shores. Only Priestesses may drink the waters. No can take tourists further.”
Nancy had been making a keen study of the Spontoonie language, and noted that the Guides did not actually speak an English version of it to their customers. It was far nearer the rather contrived Hollywood “Red Indian” speech, she reflected – though admittedly some of the Main Island natives did follow an Amerindian tradition rather than a pure Polynesian one. “It’s SUCH a wonderful, darling view,” she enthused, taking out her camera and snapping apparently randomly. “Are you sure we couldn’t get just a teensy bit closer?” Inwardly she cringed; as Nancy Rote she had never used that sort of phrase in her life before – but there was more than one kind of disguise. “There’s nobody watching us. And we won’t tell, honest.”
The buck looked troubled. His tail and ears twitched, as he looked around.
Nancy smiled, discreetly waving Alpha forward. “We’d be ever so grateful. After all, the boat leaves tomorrow. It’s our last chance for – oh, everything. And it really is such a wonderful sight. There’s really nothing like it at home.” Her eyes were downcast, but she glanced up shyly at the guide. Alpha’s local knowledge had proved useful in spotting that he did not have one of the shell lockets or braided fur rings that were the local equivalent of an engagement ring. “People here are really … very different to back home. It’s been such a lovely holiday, for both of us.” A fictional half-squirrel girl, she decided, had no reputation to lose; tomorrow the last tour boat sailed and there would be a good explanation as to why the striped squirrel had vanished forever from the island.
“Fifty more paces,” Tempano conceded. “No further. Cliff edge dangerous, even to Spontoonie.”
“Oh, that’d be just so wonderful.” Nancy clearly recalled how her friend Bethany back in Creekside spoke and acted; she had always secretly thought it rather silly but had to admit it brought results. She followed him to a sheltered scoop in the hillside overlooking Sacred Lake; it was a small dip filled with jewel-bright flowers and soft green grass, a small spring keeping the ground soft and cool. She fired off the rest of her film, then sat down on a tussock and patted the ground next to her invitingly.
Tempano looked around warily, but the hillside was otherwise empty. “Ladies want to rest? Is fine place for it.”
“Oh, I’m feeling quite absolutely, thrillingly fine.” Nancy noticed Alpha coming up on the far side; the shrew’s whiskers were twitching like an electrical trembler coil as she looked the buck up and down. “In fact, I think we both are. And as I said – we’re both of us prepared to be VERY grateful.”
“Being an Adventuress has its advantages.” Four hours later Nancy was back in the Madston Hotel, a half-hour shower aided by rubbing alcohol having sent her stripes down the drain. She had made a mental note of the pattern, and resolved to wear it again someday. “What do you think, Alpha?”
Alpha looked up at Nancy wide-eyed, and nodded vigorously. “I see why you used the disguise! For a one-time treat. Even your scent changed for the day.” Her gaze was contemplative. “Umm. Thank you! I did ask you. I don’t think it could have been better. As it goes. But he’s not you.”
Nancy hugged her. “Would you like me to … arrange that sort of treat again? I don’t think we’ll manage it in Songmark term time. But there’s always holidays. It’s really too far for me to return to Creekside for Christmas, even by air.”
“Thankyou thankyou!” Alpha bounced. “As long as you arrange it! That’d be quite all right.” She suddenly cocked her ears, and rushed over to look out of the window. “Nancy! I recognised that engine frequency. It’s the only Fokker tri-motor with cropped propeller tips on the island. He’s back!”
Nancy took a deep breath, then reached for the telephone. It had been an excellent day, and one to keep in her memory – no more than any other tourist on a spree, and no doubt less than some. Some Guides carried and used other useful safety devices than a compass and a first aid kit, much to her relief. She would not have to be worrying about how compatible rabbits and squirrels were in the long-term.
“I’m glad we had this day, Alpha,” she asserted, after warning Maureen and Eva to head to Eastern Island and putting the phone down. “It might be the last treat we get in a very long time. We’ve a crook back in our reach, and only a few days to reel him in. Whether or not your friend on Cranium Island ever gets his time machine working – our clock is definitely ticking!”