Spontoon Island
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21 December 2016


By Simon Barber

Red Alert

by Simon Barber

Songmark Aeronautical School for Young Ladies.
Autumn 1937; Red Dorm’s third and final year at Songmark

When the Tutors posted on the notice-board the details of the third-year Survival exercise that late October Friday afternoon, the various dorms reacted in the way their comrades had come to expect. One was exited at the challenge, one immediately rushed off as a group to research in Songmark’s small library. And as for Red Dorm…
    “Same old,” Liberty Morgenstern sniffed disdainfully, as she read the brief note “So, we’re going to spend a few more nights digging for clams and gathering driftwood. We’re Red Dorm. We have our principles, and our training. We win.”
    “Da!” Tatiana nodded, grimly. “We have done all this before. The Tutors must be running short of ideas – until our big trip. The Aleutians, that will be a challenge. But the Kanim Islands? Not an hour’s flight for the slowest seaplane in Spontoon.”
    “Ah, and ‘tis not even full Winter,” Brigit Mulvaney assented, the Irish setter’s long red ears bobbing. “We’ve had some fine days this week, with the weather. Wouldn’t scare a tour-boat tourist, to be sure! A few nights sleeping on beach sand, why’ ‘tis a luxury after these beds of ours!”
    Only Wo Shin had her doubts. “One of my Father’s bodyguards, Clarence, survived a whole career in the British Army, all through the Great War and six years in China,” she said. “He taught me a lot. If it looks too good to be true – it probably is. And If your advance is going really well – you’re probably walking into a trap.” She nodded meaningfully as Miss Devinski came into view. “Here’s our dear Tutor come to give us the good news, I expect.”
    Red Dorm rapidly checked each other over, and there was a brushing of fur and hasty smoothing of clothing before they drew themselves up smartly in front of their Tutor.
    Miss Devinski looked them up and down, without any sign of pleasure or otherwise. “Well, girls,” she said, her voice even. “I expect you’re eager to know exactly where we’re going to send you for this little excursion.”
    “’Tis the Kanim Islands, the note says, Ma’m,” Brigit pointed out.
    “Yes. And you’ve been to many of them.” The yellow-furred Labrador paused, choosing her words. “There’s still plenty you’ve not visited yet, I believe. And I think this trip we’ll send you to Gunboat Island.”
    Three of Red Dorm took this calmly. And Shin did not step backwards in alarm, gasp for breath or anything so obvious. But the tip of her long, banded tail twitched very slightly, and none of her dorm missed that. They were Red Dorm – they knew about these things.

“And so, what is it that’s got ye so het up, Shin?” Brigit asked ten minutes later when they were up in their dorm room. “Faith, anyone’d think they were sending us to Cranium Island!”
    “Da. What is on Gunboat Island?” Tatiana asked, the sable sitting down on her bed and brushing her long tail. “I have seen it on the map. No harbour, no villages marked.” All Songmark third-years had memorised the Nimitz Sea maps and charts well enough to draw them accurately from memory, left or right-pawed.
    “No villages is right – these days.” Shin nodded significantly. “Nobody lives there any more. But they used to. It was as thriving as anywhere, before the Gunboat Wars. When it changed its name from Nutmeg Island, after the spices the Plantation owners tried to grow there.”
    Liberty Morgenstern frowned, the half-coyote remembering her long researches into the socio-political ramifications of Spontoon’s strange lack of revolutionary history. “When the agriculturalists were oppressed by Imperialist aggressors from several nations. The island was evacuated?”
    “The few survivors left, yes. Never to return. Troops were running riot, just massacring the locals,” Shin said flatly. “Palm-thatched huts against Maxim guns and six-inch warship shells isn’t much of a contest.”
    Tatiana nodded. “There is another like that we know, Komako Village, by the river delta on Main Island, that had the same fate. The place the Spontoon Militia use for training, and the other Spontoonies keep as a memorial. That never was re-settled either.”
    “And so? ‘Tis ancient history now,” Brigit yawned. “Means we’ll have the place to ourselves. Unless there’s smugglers, slavers or such furs around. That must be why Miss Devinski’s lettin’ us be carryin’ whatever weapons we want.” Her eyes gleamed. “Anything! There’s even that tank-killin’ T-Gew rifle the English milady and the gangster left wi’ Songmark, we can take if we wish!”
    Liberty gave a harsh bark of laughter. “Forty pounds of rifle! You can carry that one. And its ammunition, at three rounds to the pound. And the saw-backed bayonet that Molly used to fit on it for gate guard and scare the delivery furs with. I don’t think anyone’s been dumb enough to want to carry it since they left – but go ahead. I could use a laugh.”
    “It is strange,” Tatiana mused. “How often have our Tutors let us choose any weapon we want, no limits? There has always been a good reason. And Miss Devinski said, ‘any from Songmark or any other source you may find.’ I wonder why they are so generous.”
    “Generous? To be sure, that’d be a first, from them!” Brigit agreed. Her expression was thoughtful. “’Tis the next weekend we go there. I’m to thinkin’, ‘tis best we start askin’ some people about just what’s on this Gunboat Island.”

The next day being Saturday, Red Dorm lost no time after breakfast heading out on Passes towards Casino Island. Shin waved farewell to her dorm at Market Ferry Dock and headed away from the Casino side along the Northern shoreline. It was a fine day for October, she noted – the wind in the South and three-tenths cloud cover, visibility clear to ten miles.
    “Been a while since I went through those doors,” she mused, looking up at the Casino Island High School. No students were around today – but she noticed working furs were busy on a new extension to the Science labs. Possibly the Goddard Club and its supporting services were getting some quiet funding from the Althing, she thought.
    A few minutes’ walk brought her over to the small Chinese temple just up from the new Number Seven dock at the Western side of the island. She paused for a moment at the sight of the smallest, and oldest (but still well-maintained) Old China Dock. Back when Nutmeg Island had changed its name, Casino Island had been called Accounting Island and that one wharf its only landing aside from the open beaches. There were furs who had arrived from her homeland before even then, and she knew just where to look for them.
    “Honoured Sing,” Shin bowed to the Muntjak deer priest at the entrance to the temple, her nose taking in the familiar scent of joss sticks. “This unworthy person seeks audience with any of our elders – if they are in?”
    The priest chuckled. “They are indeed. And you are a day early for your usual game?” From within came the click of Mah-jongg tiles, and a wheezy shout of victory. “The August Heavens have guided your steps with your usual good timing. I believe Master Chang has scooped the pot.”
    Shin brushed through a coral bead curtain, away from the Euro streets of Casino Island and into a room that might have been in a wealthy city of Canton a thousand years before. Lacquered bamboo panelling was harmoniously enhanced by painted silk scrolls of mountain and cloud scenes – in one of them a classical dragon was playing chase-tail among the peaks, symbol of prosperity and fertility.
    Shin supressed a grin, remembering the Lucky Dragon sign of her family’s casino – that one had substantially more anatomy on display. If the furs within recognised it for its traditional meaning – well, the girls working there were very keen on prosperity but as to fertility, generally hoped its gaze would alight on someone else.
    “Wo Shin,” came a breathless chuckle from a stout boar who was currently stuffing a bundle of banknotes into a capacious silken sleeve, and setting up the tiles for another game. “You will take tea? And after, perhaps a little game with my esteemed friends and myself?”
    Shin bowed. “This humble person will be honoured.” Mentally she counted the money in her pocket, and steeled her wits for the contest to come. At the Casino the gamblers joked about avoiding high-stakes game with anyone called “Doc” or named after a state – but Master Chang could walk off with not just the shirts but the fur off the backs of any of them.

“So, and did ye find much out, Shin?” It was four hours later, and Red Dorm met up for lunch at a restaurant in Ferry Square Market, looking down over the water-taxi ranks. Brigit Mulvaney was looking pleased with herself.
    Shin snorted. “I didn’t learn that trying to pump our Elders for hard information was likely to cost – because I knew that already.” She paused. “But yes, I found out a few things.” Her long tail swished. “Master Chang told me he worked on what was Nutmeg Island for a few years, at the turn of the century. The Plantations brought in quite a few Chinese, and most of them stayed on to make a go of it after. He wasn’t there when the place was raided, though. Though he came – as soon as he heard.”
    “Hoping to pick up a fancy Ming dynasty rice-bowl or two, ‘previous owner no longer having need of’, like the newspaper ads say?” Liberty sneered.
    Shin’s eyes narrowed. “There were only nineteen survivors from the whole island, Master Chang said, and none of them our country-furs. He was a priest even then – he went to make burial arrangements. But he couldn’t.” She frowned. “There were a lot of landing parties from different ships – some more or less took our side. In one village all Master Chang found was a neat plot, just labelled “Thirty-eight civilians” in English. Neatly done, too – looks like some naval working party came and found the bodies and – tidied up.”
    Tatiana shrugged. “So, that is the job done.”
    “No.” Shin growled. “We have traditions! Every poor coolie digging ditches saves enough money to send at least his dried bones back to China. And there was nothing Master Chang could do about it. My country-furs are improperly buried somewhere, without the proper ceremonies, without even their names. And that’s a very terrible thing for us.”
    Liberty sniffed. “Well, there’s nobody left behind to grieve, by your account. The dead are nobody’s business. Anything more useful?”
    “Only that some Spontoonies tried to settle the island the year after the war,” Shin said. “They didn’t stay long. Said the place was cursed.”
    “Ha! I’ll bet. Well, if that’s all, we’re in for a relaxing weekend. Catch up with some sleep, that’d be good,” Liberty said. “You, Tatiana?”
    “I have talked to Mother, on Main Island” Tatiana said. “She has said before, there are no ghosts on Spontoon Island. But there are curses, that we know of. And the Kanims are not Spontoon.”
    “And I’ve been pumping Patrick for news, he works at the Daily Elele,” Brigit said brightly.
    “I wondered what you were pumping him for,” Shin winked. Leaning over, she untangled a small red rooster feather from Brigit’s curled head-fur, that she held up on display. “Exhibit one, m’lud!”
    The fearsome four all laughed at that, even Liberty.
    “Patrick’s found some news reports of the time – there wasn’t a Spontoon newspaper active then, but in the archive we’ve copies of the Hawaiian papers, they were the nearest,” Brigit said. “I’ faith, t’was a bad time in the islands. Some of the governments wi’ ships in the Gunboat Wars didn’t count Spontoon as a country, at all, at all. So to them the Spontoonies resisting were just pirates, or revolting Natives – and there’s no court likely to haul you up for putting down an uprising. Leave no witnesses, and there’s nobody left to point the finger at ye.”
    “I’ve seen some pretty revolting tourists, let alone Natives...” Shin mused.
    “’Tis true.” Brigit nodded. “But Patrick found a rare piece – a line from a Priestess. ‘Tis somethin’ she told a reporter, of how she had gone there and helped some of the spirits find peace – them as she could find.”
    This brought a snort from Liberty. “Religion is the opium of the people.”
    “And less production or distribution costs than opium,” Shin said, practical as ever. “Anything else, Brigit?”
    The red-furred girl shook her head. “Patrick he’ll keep scratchin’ away, says he, and send over anythin’ important he finds before we go. But there’s little written of an island where nobody goes to.”
    “Except us,” Tatiana said.
    “And how’d your part of the work go, Liberty?” Shin asked. “I’ve been busy all morning losing my precious shells to…” she paused, choosing her words. “If there was a Mah-Jongg team in the next Tokyo Olympics, Master Chang would be on it. Tatiana’s had to trek half way up Main Island and back to get some information, and Poor Brigit here had to sacrifice all her innocent, maidenly virtue.”
    “Again?” Liberty asked dryly.
    Brigit looked up innocently, humming softly in pleased tones.
    “So, did you get us anything?” Shin continued. “Or did you spend the morning at your consulate relaxing with fellow Red missionaries, denouncing each other for kicks and moaning about the non-revolutionary state of Spontoon?”
    “Maybe the People’s revolutionary council should fire the people, and bring in some better, more revolutionary ones,” Brigit said lightly. “Faith, ye should ‘a been a Missionary, wi’ a hellfire preacher’s  spirit like yours.”
    Liberty cast her a dirty look. “It so happens Comrade Belkin at the Consulate was around the Nimitz Sea at the time, working like an honest proletariat on local tramp steamers. They called at all the islands for cargo, got all the news. And he’s not forgotten those days.”
    “And?” Brigit prompted her.
    “And yes, he confirmed it was Nutmeg Island that’s now Gunboat Island, and how the Imperialist forces massacred the locals. And the ships stopped calling at the island after.” Liberty paused. “The last time his ship called there, he also remembered picking up a family of Spontoonies who’d been farming after the Gunboat Wars. Said they’d just left with what they could carry – in a hurry.”
    Tatiana’s long sable tail swished. “We’ve seen the longhouses on Main Island, and in the Kanims. What have they got? Few pots, some tools, a bed roll that any Spontoonie can replace in a morning’s work. A family can carry all that anyway. Not as if they need a moving van for the furniture.”
    “We know. And so does Comrade Belkin, he remembers these islands before the longhouses had gramophones and radios to hide when the Tourists come around.” Liberty paused meaningfully. “If he remembers Spontoonies leaving the island like refugees all those years ago – it must have made some impression.”
    There was a pause. “Anything else?” Shin asked. When Liberty shook her head, the red panda nodded significantly. “Then – we’d best make sure we’re ready for whatever Gunboat Island can throw at us.”
    Brigit gave an uncomfortable chuckle. “I’ faith, you’re to thinkin’ we really should take the anti-tank rifle?”
    Shin made an equivocal gesture with her paw. “Maybe. I’m saying, when our Tutors tell us we can take any precautions we can, no limits, ‘from Songmark or any other source you may find’ we really should think about that.”

The third year at Songmark Aeronautical School for Young Ladies was not noted for having plentiful time to relax and contemplate. There were lectures and workshop practice, hours of flight time and sailing time, and if anyone looked too relaxed Miss Wildford was liable to order a few quick four-mile laps of the sand dunes of Eastern Island carrying packs loaded with wet sand, while she cycled around the coast track keeping up the pace and calling encouragement.
    It was the Tuesday, an extremely wet afternoon when Red Dorm were staggering in dripping wet from just such a ‘healthy nature ramble’ as their ever-cheerful Tutor insisted on calling it, that Shin noticed they all made straight for the post room by the gatehouse.
    “Letters from home?” She asked innocently, while pocketing a bulky letter addressed to her, with a particular Chinese calligraphy on one corner.
    “Not so far afield,” Brigit said, hefting a padded envelope that she similarly slid into the capacious pocket of her Songmark tunic and buttoned it securely – but not before Shin noticed the Spontoon local delivery stamp.
    Shin turned, just in time to see Liberty pulling out of an envelope a crumpled grey forage cap of coarsely sewn wool. On its brow was the enamelled Red Fist insignia of New Haven’s revolutionary government, in chipped thin red enamel over tarnished brass. “Paris fashions get stranger every year,” she marvelled.
    Liberty sniffed, checking no Tutors were in sight and reverently setting the cap on her head. It did not fit well. “This was my Father’s; it was kept at the consulate. He wore it all through the Revolution, on the barricades, at the storming of the bourgeoisie Palace of so-called Justice.” She paused, and a far-away look came into her eyes. “I don’t know what we’ll be facing – but I’ll face it under our flag.”
    “’Tis hardly a flag,” Brigit pointed out.
    Liberty’s canine teeth showed in a half-snarl. “It’s good enough for me. And just what did you bring for the picnic?”
    Brigit’s green eyes flashed. “None o’ your business. Nothin’ that’d do ye any good.”
    “And the same goes for me.” Shin said smoothly, patting her pocket. “Tatiana? Anything useful?”
    Tatiana waved a postcard. “Good advice, from Mother. And like any other medicine – it won’t do you any good if you don’t take it.”
    In their first year, Red Dorm would have been reaching for their kilikiti bats by now in a vigorous ‘self-defence practice’ as they would later try to explain it to their Tutors. But Shin just nodded slowly. “We’ll see. Friday to Sunday night, we’ll see just who’s best prepared around here.”
    The other three cast each other sharp glances. “Yes…” Liberty said thoughtfully. “I expect we will.”

The rest of that week passed in its usual strenuous blur, until after the evening meal on Friday when the third-year dorms picked up their assorted loads from the floor outside the dining hall and headed out Westwards towards the seaplane slips.
    “That Lockheed Lamprey again,” Brigit cursed at the sight of the blunt-nosed amphibian currently part-beached on the slips just South of Superior Engineering, with its front loading ramp open revealing the dark, cavernous interior. “That’s an ugly shape I’m getting’ tired of.”
    “Not many aircraft for hire that fly around here all year have space to carry a whole Songmark year, plus kit,” Shin pointed out. “Good thing it’s only out to the Kanims today – a rough ride again, unless they’ve finally put some seats in.”
    “No such luck,” Liberty caught sight of the bare cargo deck. “Sitting on the packs as usual.”
    Shin nodded resignedly, and unrolled her tail cover – a four-foot long tube of fine green tent fabric that she laced onto her belt at one end and with more built-in laces compressed her long banded tail-fur to a quarter its usual volume. “Sometimes I envy moles and bobcats – they can come out of a swamp without twenty pounds of mud in their tail-fur.” She smiled, remembering the sight of the annoying sleuth Nancy Rote crawling out of a mod-hole on South Island, the squirrel’s long tail and fur one black mass of dripping glutinous ooze. Only that white-furred Persian cat in the same year had it worse.
    “’Tis hardly Paris fashion, but saves ye an hour o’ combing after,” Brigit agreed, tucking her long red ears under the flaps of a flying helmet. “Best step lively now – here’s Miss Devinski.”
    Their Tutor slowly walked up and down the five dorms, occasionally stopping to ask what was in a pack or pockets. In the first and second years Miss Devinski had been swift with advice and criticism; now she simply made notes. A Songmark Third-year was expected to know what they needed, and if they were wrong, to live with the consequences.
    “Very well.” Miss Devinski said curtly, a very different style from the average, typically friendly yellow Labrador. “You have three nights’ survival training, with what you carry and whatever you can find. Scheduled take-off is in five minutes; I suggest you get on board.”
    Five dorms grabbed packs off the ground and filed aboard through the nose ramp. Nobody hurried to secure a favourite seat or the most comfortable spots of the cargo deck – from painful experience they all knew there were none.

“So, ‘tis nothn’ to be scared of.” An hour and a quarter later, Red Dorm were standing on the beach listening the receding echoes of the amphibian. It was a calm evening, but the sun was setting and Brigit reckoned they had forty minutes of usable  light left. “Time to gather driftwood and look for a likely spot for the night.”
    “You’re the boss – today,” Shin shrugged, looking around. She had studied the maps and charts of the island thoroughly, and spotted a landmark, a long rocky spit of land pointing towards the setting sun. “There should be a stream crossing the beach about half a mile that way.”
    “Ah, an’ we’ll find it.” Brigit hoisted her pack on her shoulders, shook free her long ears from under her flying helmet and led the way, occasionally stopping to pick up a likely-looking piece of driftwood from the sand.
    “Da – this island is looking truly abandoned,” Tatiana said, twenty minutes later when they had set up a hasty camp by the stream under the cover of tarpaulins roped to the trees around. “No smoke from fires, no paths or roads into the forest.” From the beach the palm trees grew in a solid undergrowth-tangled wall, ‘three-yard jungle’ as the Spontoonies called it.
    “Whatever was there, twenty-five years is enough time for the forest to swallow it,” Shin agreed. “This stream looks like our best way inland.” They all turned and looked at the tunnel of deepening gloom leading away into the dark interior. “Tomorrow.”
    “Definitely tomorrow. It’s going to be dark soon. Not much moon tonight,” Liberty said, matter-of-factly. “New moon on Sunday night.”
    “Yes. For tonight – usual precautions?” Shin asked, one eyebrow raised.
    “And then some. It’s the less I’m likin’ the feel o’ this place, the more I’m here” Brigit agreed. “So, we’d best get busy.”
    By the time it was fully dark, Red Dorm’s camp was surrounded with a double tripwire of fishing line, rigged to jangle aluminium mugs inside their mess tins (French Great-War surplus, for some reason lost to history in Songmark’s earliest years.) There were four sleeping forms by the fire – which were bundles of reeds and palm leaves swathed in spare tarpaulin; their real sleeping bags were thirty feet away from such obvious targets, hidden in the deepest shadows.
    “Ah. A fine camp, an’ all,” Brigit nodded in satisfaction. “Near enough to the beach the wave noises cover our noise, an’ the wind’s blowing our smoke and scents out to sea. I’ll take first watch, two hours till ten. Then Shin, Tatiana, Liberty.”
    There was the usual grumbling at that, but Brigit’s turn as leader expired at dawn, and she would probably get picked for the ‘dog watch’ the next night. The best nights’ sleep were unbroken ones, with watch duty at the start or end of the night rather than having to wake then get back to sleep in the small hours.
    Shin settled down, forcing herself to relax and telling herself this was Red Dorm watching out for trouble – with any of the others of her year, she would not have trusted her eyes to close. Something her Father’s bodyguard had said came back to her – ‘never stand when you can sit, never sit when you can lie down, never lie awake when you can sleep.’ Fifteen years in the Army had taught Clarence that, and three years at Songmark had taught Shin to appreciate it.
    “Could be worse,” she told herself, wriggling to get comfortable on the six-inch layer of cut reeds and palm fronds she was lying on. “Could be trying to sleep on one of our dorm beds.”
The dawn came, after an uneventful night. Shin had kept watch her allotted two hours with nothing much to report when she gladly handed over to Liberty at midnight. Her fur was still dry under the tarpaulin, keeping her warm enough, though she shivered in anticipation of the December Aleutian trip that was already looming on their timetables.
    “This is a tradition I could do without,” she grumbled as all four of her dorm sat very still and watched the growing light picking out more details of the scene by the minute. “Early morning ‘stand-to’. We’re not in the trenches.”
    “Ah, but at least then they knew the enemy, and where they’d be a-coming from” Brigit whispered, her green eyes wide in the dim light, and her nose twitching for scents of danger. “First light’s the time for anythin’ to happen.”
    “Bring it on,” was Liberty’s half snarled response. The canine patted a ten-bore shotgun she had signed out of Songmark’s small armoury ‘for hunting use’ though the solid lead slug loaded in the right-hand barrel would have left precious little of a wild game bird to eat.
    “Be careful what ye wish for, you might get it,” Brigit replied lightly.
    The light grew, the concealing shadows shrank, and with a sense of relief Red Dorm stood down from full alert and started to think about breakfast.
    “One decent meal, and iron rations we lose marks for eating,” Brigit examined the contents of her pack. There were four of the wax-paper and cellophane wrapped Song Bars a junior dorm had invented for such trips, when cooking fires might not be possible.  “Best start with a good breakfast, I vote.”
    “Seconded.” Taniana nodded. “And I am leader today, anyway.” She busied herself with reviving the camp fire that had kept alight as buried coals overnight. Their Tutors had given no restrictions on tea and coffee carried, and in twenty minutes the four were sipping half-pint mugs of the refreshing brews in the chilly morning as they munched their hard-baked grain and fruit Song bars. Her ears dipped as she looked at the unopened cans of ancient Maconochie iron rations that made in one way an excellent Emergency food – it would have to be a real emergency before anyone wanted to eat it. Though as a test of willpower over temptation, she mused, bars of chocolate would be better…
    “So,” Brigit said as they took down their camp, scattering the vegetation cut for bedding and hid the traces of the fire. “What’s the plan? Do we stick to the beach, look for clams and driftwood all weekend, or take a look inland? The whole isle ‘tis barely three miles across.”
    Tatiana considered. “I say we take a look inland,” she pointed at a rocky hill some five hundred feet tall that could be seen through the trees. “Should get to see anything there is to see, from up there.”
    “Hold the high ground, good move,” Shin nodded. “Another thing Clarence taught me. He was at Gallipoli, and he says if they’d just pushed inland full speed on the first day, grabbed the hilltops instead of hanging around the beach waiting for reinforcements…” she shook her head.
    “And on this island it’s never far to get back to the beach, if there’s nothing else of interest,” Liberty mused. “A decent enough plan.”
    In ten minutes they shouldered their packs and for a minute stood at the entrance to the forest, letting their ears and noses work. Shin looked up the ten-foot wide tunnel that the stream made through the overhanging forest. Though it was a bright enough day with the Autumn sun starting to break through the clouds, for some reason a shiver ran down her spine.
    Tatiana tapped her muzzle and gave a paw gesture like closing jaws for silence; the other three signed back their assent. She pointed ahead and signaled them to follow, and cautiously Red Dorm began to work their way inland.
    For half an hour they made their way up the shallows of the stream, stepping on rocks and sand-bars just underwater, where the running current would soon erase their track. Tatiana led, her ears right up and her nose dilated, scenting for danger as her eyes roved from animal holes in the stream bank to the treetops in a never-ending search. Shin likewise scanned the jungles to the left, Brigit to the right, and Liberty covered their tails with her shotgun ready on its sling, the safety off.
    The light ahead began to grow, and Tatiana signaled a halt as she saw the trees ahead thinning. While the rest kept their eyes open she left the stream bed and slowly moved forwards through the bushes, the lithe ermine seeming to flow around the close-packed stems like a stream of silken water. If the stream was the only way inland, walking silhouetted out of its entrance into the open would be as blatant as knocking on the front door.
    In two minutes she was back, her eyes wide. “Is clearing, two hundred yards wide maybe, open ground,” she panted. “Maybe old village? Some old fruit trees, not local forest plants. No sign of anyone around.”
    “Right,” Liberty nodded, setting the safety on her weapon. “Lead on! A coconut grove laden with nuts, that’s just what we want right now.”
In half an hour, Red Dorm cautiously surveyed the open area – which was mostly knee-deep in grasses and local vegetation – and met back at the stream.
    “Definitely a village site, a good place for one with the stream handy,” Shin announced. “There’s crushed coral roads buried under the shorter grass, and I found what’s left of a cast-iron stove. There wouldn’t be much else you’d expect to find of wood and palm-leaf huts after all this time, especially if they were burned down first.”
    “I found charcoal, old charred timbers still lying around in the grass. And these aren’t native to the Nimmitz Sea!” Brigit opened her pack to show a dozen ripe apples. “There’s six laden trees over there. ’Tis a good thing it’s October, not May.”
    “Half a dozen sorts of fruiting plants, that I counted,” Liberty agreed. “Definitely gardens and plantations run wild. Not seen any coconuts yet. But we won’t go hungry.”
    “Da. We mark this site on the map, carry on and return to it later,” Tatiana decided. “First – five minutes at those apple trees, just in case we can’t.”
    Five minutes later they moved out, their water bottles refilled at the stream and half a dozen or so apples apiece in their packs plus the ones they were munching. From the clearing they could see the slopes of the hill rising ahead of them, a rocky crag on top. The going was easier as they climbed, with fewer bushes and more open ground – but Shin felt the fur on the back of her neck rising as they came out of shelter under the staring skies.
    “I’ faith, but I feel like we’re being watched,” Brigit whispered, as they rested in the shade of a four-yard boulder and looked around. “But I can’t see where anyone could hide, out here.”
    “That’s the worst of it,” Liberty said grimly. “Someone suitably dressed, could be in one of those treetops a mile away watching us with high-powered binoculars, and we wouldn’t see them. Unless they were clumsy, and the lenses caught the sun.” She stared down, eyes alert for a tell-tale flash of sun on glass.
    “We will get a better view from the summit rocks,” Tatiana looked up, gauging time and distance. “Ten minutes, I estimate.”
    Eleven minutes later, having taken a longer route to avoid thick thorn bushes, Red Dorm were at the top. Not standing silhouetted on the peak like triumphant mountaineers or gawping tourists, but lying amongst the boulders’ shadows, passing their one telescope from paw-to-paw as they took turns to scan all sides of the island below.
    “Reasonably sure there’s nobody but us on this peak – it’s too open, we’d have seen them following us,” Shin mused after ten minutes careful scanning. “Unless of course they came up the far side. Or were already up here waiting for us.”
    “A nasty thought, Shin,” Brigit muttered.
    “Objective reality is what it is,” Liberty said.
    “Hmm. Looking at those clearings, I’d say three villages, one of them by the island’s only natural harbour, there on the South side” Shin continued. “Pass me that map, we need to plot all this.”
    “An’ I can see clearer bits where the roads used to be,” Brigit pointed as Shin rapidly sketched the view from the summit. “Should make for easier travel, if we use them.”
    “If we do. It’s exactly where folk would expect us to go,” Liberty nodded meaningfully. “Shin. Do smugglers, slavers use this island?”
    Shin shrugged. “I may have been brought up on Krupmark, but it’s not like our Casino hands out brochures on ‘101 useful places to cache the loot’, you know. Furs in that trade don’t hang around bars boasting about their secret lair. You’ve been watching too many Hollywood thrillers.” She paused. “It doesn’t look a bad place for it, no locals to watch you, a decent harbour and enough forest to hide in. But I never heard of anyone using it.”
    “Cursed, eh?” Liberty sniffed. “Superstitious lot, by the sound of it. You pray to a Goddess of Luck at that Casino Island joss-house, don’t you?”
    Shin just sighed and shook her head. Liberty might have mellowed a fraction in the three years Red Dorm had been ‘knocking each other’s rough edges off’ as their Tutor Miss Blande put it, but she was still hard to live with at times. Most times. “Who better? There’s a lot of luck needed around a Casino.”
    “Or when you’re walkin’ down the street on Krupmark Island and stray rounds are bouncin’ off the buildings, from some fight down the road a piece,” Brigit nodded. “You could get real unlucky, out there. Faith, Libs, aren’t our Tutors forever tellin’ us to cover all the angles?”
    A half-breed coyote just snorted in disgust.
    “Right.” Tatiana made her decision. “It you are done mapping, Shin, I think we have seen all there is here. Down to look at the next village site, see if there is good place for camp.”
Although they could have walked briskly straight down to the second clearing in thirty minutes, a cautious stalk keeping in whatever cover offered took three times that long, with many a double-back on their track in the woods to catch potential pursuers. But there was nobody, and eventually they stepped out into another clearing.
    Shin’s nose twitched. “Perfume? No – spices.” She followed the scent to a grove of gnarled trees. “Cinnamon, unless I miss my guess.” She scratched the bark with a claw, sniffed it delicately and nodded in satisfaction. “Definitely.”
    “Cinnamon tea, baked apples with cinnamon, tasty,” Brigit’s ears went up in delight. “’Tis an old plantation, to be sure. Look, more apple trees over there.”
    “Da! Is better than Maconochie. We are the last year, I think, to eat that,” Tatiana’s long tail twitched. “There is only one case left in Songmark kitchen store room, and what tins our year are carrying as emergency food.”
    “Which I’m planning to take back.” Shin said. She pulled a face. “I don’t know what’s worse, losing points for eating it, or – eating it. Lose-lose situation.”
    “My Uncle Declan, he was in the Connaught Rangers back in 1914,” Brigit mused. “An’ he did tell as how the peace-time, and early war tins weren’t so bad, at all. ‘Twas after the shortages hit, wi’ U-boats on the seas and everythin, that the sub-contractors they were puttin’ just anything in the tins. Turnip swapped for potato, boiled bone broth not proper gravy.”
    “Typical capitalist profiteering,” Liberty nodded.
    “Like it or not, you can’t put prime beef in a tin if you haven’t got any,” Shin pointed out. She pulled out one of the aged tins and inspected it. “War department issue, 1918 vintage. Not a good year.”
    Brigit’s ears drooped. “We’ll not starve in three days, and there’s fruits around. And if we can’t find anything to eat on the beach, it’s us as deserves to be hungry.” She studied some broad-leaved plants that were growing as a tangled thicket. “What’s these? I’ve seen them growin’ on Main Island.”
    “That’s Kava,” Shin said. “You can pound or chew up the roots, the locals get a kick out of it. I tried some once. Tastes awful.”
    Brigit looked thoughtful. “We’ve a flask of medicinal brandy allowed us, but we’d lose more points for drinkin’ that than eating all the Maconochie. If we can’t have that, how about a go at the Kava? Not something we’ll get at Songmark.”
    “It’s not as if we have to fly back,” Liberty said. “If there’s really nobody living here, we might risk it.”
    “Not for me!” Tatiana said. “There must be someone with sense around here. I have heard of this Kava – there are many types, weaker and stronger, and we do not know what this is.”
    “Ah, we’ll live,” Brigit said brightly. “An’ if it tastes as bad as Shin says, we’ll not be eating too much of those roots anyway.”
    “It does – the one I tried,” Shin said. “But first – let’s look for a good campsite and see what else there’s to eat around here.”
    “I’m the leader today, Shin,” Tatiana growled, the ermine’s long tail swishing dangerously.
    “And so you are. What are your orders, mein Fuhrer?” Shin gave a mock bow.
    Tatiana considered. At last, she shrugged. “Campsite and foraging for food is good, da.”

    Three hours later, Red Dorm had set up their tarpaulins in a dense thicket, fifty yards away from their cooking site near the stream. Shin was picking through a pile of freshly picked fruit, having the luxury of choosing the least insect-ridden ones. There were many exotics surviving around Spontoon from the Plantation era, she mused – she had seen tea bushes and dog roses growing feral on Main Island, escaped from abandoned fields and gardens. There was a big difference between a plant being able to survive and for a field of it deliver a reliable commercial yield, as the plantations had discovered to their cost (which had exceeded their profits).
    “That’s all the water-bottles filled, and the cooking pots,” Liberty came over from the stream and set down her load by the fire-pit.
    “An’ enough wood for the evening’s fire, breakfast and all,” Brigit was putting the finishing touches to a palm-leaf lean-to structure designed to keep their firewood dry enough if the rains came in the night.
    Tatiana stood, looking around as she stood sentry for her comrades – one could not concentrate on harvesting and watching the horizon at the same time. “Nothing to report. No wild animals bigger than a palm rat – not even many birds.”
    “A very empty island,” Shin noted, looking up at the mid-afternoon skies. “It looks like rain tonight.”
    “Could be worse – in the Aleutians it’ll be snow,” Brigit shivered at the thought.
    “Then you can make an igloo or snow-hole, which you can’t do with rain,” Shin pointed out.
    “Best get the fires lit before the rain comes down,” Tatiana said, pulling out a box of Extreme-Danger matches as she pondered their food situation. “Ash-baked apple with cinnamon, everyone?”

That night, the rain came down just after dusk, hammering down in sheets over the island. Red Dorm sat in the dark, snug and dry in the shelter of their tarpaulins as they munched half a dozen baked apples apiece – not exactly a steak dinner, as Brigit pointed out, but better than beach lugworms and much better than nothing at all. The fire had been banked up and covered with slabs of stone, then earth piled over it to hopefully keep the embers glowing all night.
    “There’s no need to be quiet, with this comin’ down,” Brigit said over the noise of it hitting the tautly stretched oilcloth. “An’ the rain’ll wash our scents out of the air in twenty yards.”
    “Well, I didn’t bring a harmonica with me, so if you want to start singing ‘It’s a long road to Tipperary’ you’re on your own,” Shin joked.
    “We could have a song,” Liberty mused.
    Shin snorted. “All the ones you sing are Revolutionary hymns, or dirges about mining disasters.” She paused, remembering the start of one Liberty had regaled them with through interminable verses. And sang, mournfully:
    “In the town of Coalville, East New Haven
    Down in the dark of the Lucky Strike mine
    There’s blood on the coal, as the miners die
    And the bosses’ profits tell you the why
    The bosses’ profits they tell you the why...”
    “It’s a perfectly correct song,” Liberty sniffed. “I suppose you’d rather sing ‘Hard-hearted Hannah, the vamp of Savannah’ again.”
    “It’d be a sight more cheerful,” Brigit said. “I vote for it. Seconds, anyone?”
    “I second it,” Tatiana said.
    Shin started the song, and the rest joined in, even Liberty. All around, the rain lashed the woods and beaches of an island where apparently nobody else lived.

“Just because we’ve not seen any trace of anyone – yet – no reason to be complacent.” It was just showing the first light of dawn, and Red Dorm were on full alert peering through the dripping trees. Shin had been awake on guard since four, and roused the rest as soon as she could make out the trunks of trees in the gloom.
    “’Tis so, an’ we’re not tourists. Wouldn’t do for our Tutors to make a surprize inspection and find us all fast asleep an’ snoring,” Brigit agreed.
    “And a surprise inspection…  I wouldn’t put it past them. Even here,” Shin said. She looked around. The rain had stopped, but the forests would be dripping for hours. “That’s two nights out of three finished. Just one more, and we’ll be back at Songmark.”
    “With beautiful three-finger poi, and tasty pastefish to eat,” Tatiana said gloomily. “It is dawn nearly, and your turn as leader, Liberty.”
    “Right.” The half-coyote nodded determinedly. She waited till the light grew, then cautiously moved out to inspect the fire-pit. She pulled a face. “Flooded out. An inch of water in there.”
    Even with the dry wood from under shelter and some extreme_danger matches, it took half an hour before a fire was burning cheerfully and the spare roasted apples from the night before were warming, along with four canteens of tea.
    Liberty looked up at the clouds, gauging the weather. “I say we leave the camp here, and see what we can get on the beach, come back here tonight. Apple and clam chowder would be good,” she decided.
    “Nice idea – first catch your clams,” Shin said.
    Liberty stood up, drinking the last of her tea. “We won’t do that sitting here. Let’s get moving.”

All that day they worked their way along the beaches, finding some very good harvests of shellfish; evidently few people even landed to forage here. The shellfish were put in a rock pool to keep fresh, and to hopefully wash some of the sand out of their systems. It was an hour before dark when Red Dorm returned to their camp, their harvest carefully carried in a spare tarpaulin tied at the corners.
    “Nobody’s touched the tripwires,” Liberty declared, examining the telltale twigs linked with fine cotton that were randomly concealed in the long grass. “No trace in two days of anyone around. So – after dinner, I vote we try some of that Kava. If it’s good enough for honest hard-working peasants, it’s quite good enough for us.”
    Tatiana rolled her eyes, but said nothing.
    “Better keep a baked apple or two for afterwards,” Shin advised. “I promise, you’ll want something to take the taste away.”
    Brigit’s eyes gleamed. “In Vikingstown I’ve tried that Icelandic fermented fish, hakarl – they say it’s traditional to drink that with shots of brennvin’, the local potcheen. To be sure, and you want something like that!”
    They busied themselves with the fire and in half an hour had a gallon pot of bubbling clam chowder, which they thickened with sliced apples till Liberty declared it was ready. Chowders were a North-Eastern coast speciality, apparently. Eating it was an exercise in “smart teeth” and tongues  getting the meat out of the opened shells, but hunger was a great source of innovation.
    “Not bad. Not bad at all,” Shin finished her share and sat back, contented for the minute. “Though in a week like this I could get tired of apples.”
    “Ah, an’ back home it’d be time to open the whiskey,” Brigit said. “Out here, it’s the improvising we’ll have to do.” She bowed, picking up her empty pack, now carrying it like a society hostess with a tray of refined liqueurs as she offered peeled Kava roots around. “Would you fine ladies care to partake?”
    Both Shin and Liberty took a root, sniffing it cautiously, but Tatiana shook her head.
    “To be sure, an’ you don’t know what you’re missin’”, Brigit said lightly, and took a bite.
    Tatiana laughed at the expressions on her comrades’ faces as they coughed and gagged at the taste. “I think I’ll live without it,” she said.
    Liberty chewed stoically. “It was a brave fur who first ate an oyster,” she declared.
    “Or a chili-pepper,” Shin added. “Told you it was bad.” She chewed mechanically, trying to think of fine roast meats and fish. “This is stronger than the one I tried before,” she said. “Different strain of plant maybe, different time of year. It makes a big difference in things like refining catnip oil, that I know.”
    “And in your family trade, you’d know all about that,” Liberty said. “Feline girls working upstairs at your ‘casino’ use it a lot, do they?”
    Shin shrugged. “We get all kinds. It works best on felines, but some other species are more or less affected. Nobody takes it unless they want to – it’s expensive, we don’t just hand it out. It helps a working girl enjoy her work more.” Her eyes went dreamy for a second as she thought of home. Suddenly she laughed.
    “What’s the joke, Shin?” Tatiana asked.
    “I was just thinking of some of the girls who’ve worked for us. There was one a couple of years back, Shanga I think they called her. Only bonobo chimp who ever worked for us.” Shin shook her head. “No catnip needed. There was a girl who really loved her trade.”
    “Sounds the kind you’d like to exploit,” Liberty said.
    “Believe it or not, we didn’t need to. That wasn’t the problem.” Shin chuckled. “Have you seen a chimp up close, when they get ‘interested’? Not a pretty sight.”
    “Unless you’re another ape, I’m to thinkin’,” Brigit said.
    “Or into exotics, or plain not fussy. When her contract was up, she moved to one of the other houses down on The Beach. Could have gone back to her homeland, but liked the job too much.” Shin relaxed. “Hmm… is the Kava doing anything for you?”
     “Aside from tasting like rotten ginger salvaged from a compost heap? No.” Liberty said. “I think I’ll have that apple now, clean my mouth out.”
    “’Twill never replace pineapple brandy as a tourist experience, in the waterfront dives,” Brigit agreed.
    “I’m on first watch. I’ll wake you at eleven, Shin,” Tatiana said. “If I have to pour a bucket of water over you.”
    Shin gave a rude gesture. “I’ll be fine. I’ve tried a lot of stuff before, and I’m alive and sane.”
    “Alive, yes. Sane? The jury is out still.” Liberty said dryly.
    Shin just laughed, and launched into a tale of some of the other ‘exotics’ who had worked for her family, such as the hedgehog girl who had made a point of proving she could do something her species was reputed not to be able to do at all.
    With Tatiana watching them, one after another the members of Red Dorm fell asleep.

Shin woke up suddenly, with the feeling that she had overslept. She moved cautiously, looking around – it was a dark night, the dark of the moon, and there seemed to be a dense mist around her.
    She frowned. The mist seemed to be glowing slightly, as if there was moonlight shining through it – which tonight was impossible. “Tatiana!” She hissed. “Can you see this?”
    There was no reply. Her eyes wide in the dark, she looked around – Liberty and Brigit were sleeping nearby, but no sign of Tatiana anywhere. Urgently she shook the sleepers awake.
    “’Tis not time for my shift already?” Brigit grumbled, Then she sat stock still, her nose twitching. “There’s something dead around here,” she whispered. “Long dead. An’ I should have scented that afore when we searched all round.”
    Liberty sniffed cautiously, and nodded. “You’re right,” she declared. “But something’s not right here.” She reached for her shotgun, did a rapid check all was in order, and patted her pocket where a half dozen shells were sitting securely.
    Three sets of eyes scanned the mist. Then Shin gasped. Dimly moving were figures, not walking but moving with an odd, hopping gait as if their legs had been tied together. Their arms were held out stiffly, and there was a suggestion of tattered robes. She remembered with a shudder the stories of ancient China her mother had told her, of what could happen to the dead who were not given proper funeral rites. “Jiangshi!” She gasped.
    “Say what?” Brigit whispered.
    “It’s an old legend. I’ve seen the films with your Western vampires. Ours… aren’t like that. They don’t drain your blood, their touch can drain your Chi force – your spirit,” Shin felt her tail bottling out like a chimney-sweep’s brush.
    “Ha! It’s some smuggler gang, thinks they can scare us away. Last mistake they’ll ever make.” There was a click as Liberty switched off the safety of her shotgun. “We take them?”
    “No prisoners, no witnesses!” Brigit’s eyes flashed in sudden anger. She pulled her small-bore hunting rifle from its bag. “An’ nobody ever comes here, so who’ll know?”
    “Right.” Shin pulled her revolver. “You! Halt or we fire!” She shouted in English and Cantonese.
    More figures moved in the mist, bouncing oddly towards them. Shin counted a dozen of them. “Open fire!” She called, and took aim.
    Liberty’s shotgun spoke first, with a hollow boom. The nearest figure staggered back – and then came forward again – now in clear view.
    Shin gasped. The shape was a bear, but most of his fur had rotted away. Tatters of once-blue robes hung from his gaunt frame, and a constellation of fresh holes showed where the heavy-gage shot had hit. There was no blood. She knew something of film special effects, but knew deep down this was no disguise.
    Liberty screamed something unintelligible and let fly with the second barrel, at five yards range. The solid lead slug hit the bear straight in the chest – like a stone thrown hard into a soft mud-bank, gouging a fist-sized crater. The bear was thrown back a pace, but kept coming.
    “Holy Mary Mother o’ Christ, save us.” Brigit had been steadily firing her rifle, aimed shots at targets she could not miss. Her rifle clicked empty.
    “An’ now see you ye like this!” Plunging a paw into here pocket, she pulled out a three-inch silver crucifix that she held in front of her, slowly walking forward. In her other paw was a glass vial like a test-tube. Scarcely a yard from the outstretched arms of a mildewed panda, she threw its contents into the thing’s face. It did not even blink. She thrust the crucifix at one rotting paw and yelped at the contact, as if she had touched red-hot metal. “It’s freezin’ the life out o’ me!” The crucifix fell from her nerveless fingers.
    “Holy water and crucifixes – against a Chinese vampire?” Shin shouted in disbelief.
    “‘Twas blessed special for me by Father Merino himself, so it was!” Brigit almost wailed, jumping back to avoid the stiff but grabbing arms.
    Shin shook her head. Holstering her pistol after emptying it uselessly into the hopping corpses, she fished in her secure inner pocket and reverently brought out what looked like a pack of cards, wrapped in red silk. On each could be seen flowing Chinese calligraphy written by the brush of a master.
    “This is how you deal with Jiangshi!” Shin stepped forward – dodged the clumsy grab of the lead-riddled bear – and stuck one of the cards on its face, right between the eyes.
    The rotting bear shuddered, as if an electric shock was running through it. For a few seconds it stood locked rigid. Then Shin’s look of triumph turned to horror as it angrily shook its head, the prayer scroll coming loose and fluttering to the ground.
    “But – Master Chang said this prayer would work…” She said, eyes wide in disbelief.
    “’Tis not just the prayer, ‘tis the one as says it!” Brigit shouted as she reloaded her rifle. “An’ were you not the one who told me, you mostly go to your temple for the gaming? A fine and devout priestess ye’s not!”
    “And you’re hardly a recruiting poster for the Vatican, are you?” Despite the situation Shin could not resist getting her barb in.
    Shin looked around. She turned to run, but all around more hopping figures were surrounding them in the glowing mists, thirty at the least. They were trapped.
    Just then Liberty stepped forwards. Just as Brigit had held up her crucifix, Liberty held out her father’s cap, the Red Fist symbol on it seeming to glow somehow. Her expression was a locked mask of concentration, teeth bared in a snarl.
    “Get you back.” Liberty snarled, advancing towards the shot-blasted bear. “Back to the fog of heathen superstition you crawled from. There is no place for such as you in the world of Objective Reality.”
    Time seemed to stand still. The chipped enamel star suddenly glowed as bright as an ember, as Liberty thrust it into the undead bear’s face with a noise like water sizzling on hot coals. In seconds it was as if years of decay had caught up with the dead – its flesh shrivelled and it collapsed, a crumbling pile of bones. From out of the mist there was a loud wail, fading into silence.
”And the same for all of you.” Liberty turned, but the mists were empty. The light faded from the Red Fist badge and her eyes, and she staggered. “That...  takes it out of you,” she gasped.
Shin and Brigit leaped forwards to grab her before she fell. But as they touched Liberty it was as if her exhaustion was contagious by touch – they felt their senses failing and collapsed together, in the mists of moonless night.

    She awoke to bright sunshine. Eyes snapped wide open, as she looked round at the blue skies of an early morning. The camp seemed perfectly normal, with the first thing that registered was Tatiana busy at the fire-pit.
    Shin leaped up and strode over to her angrily. “Tatiana! Why didn’t you wake me up? And where the hell were you last night?”
    The ermine looked at her with a weary amusement. “I couldn’t wake any of you Sleeping Beauties up. In end I gave up, and watched over you all night.” She yawned. “Nu, you owe me big-time for that.”
    The noise had woken Shin and Brigit, who were staring around in baffled surprise.
    “That Kava’s bad stuff, Shin,” Brigit shuddered. “The dreams it gives ye! Nivver again. Chinese Vampires an’ all.”
    “Jiangshi,” Liberty said thoughtfully.
    Shin blinked. “That’s not a word I’d expect you to know, Liberty,” she said slowly.
    “I should, you said it last night, and we fought enough of them,” Liberty snapped.
    “You were fast asleep all night, didn’t even talk in your sleep,” Tatiana said matter-of-factly.
    Three of Red Dorm looked at each other in shock. “But – it happened! We all saw it!” Liberty bent over to examine her shotgun, sniffing the barrel and breaking it open to count the cartridges. “It hasn’t been fired,” she said in a hollow voice.
    Brigit checked her rifle, and counted out the rounds. “Nor mine.”
    Tatiana picked up one of the .22 cartridges, inspecting it critically. “Silver bullets with a cross cut in the tip? Oh, really, Brigit.”
Brigit checked through her clothing. “My crucifix is gone. And the holy water as Father Merino blessed when I told him where I’d be going.”   
Shin felt in her pocket, and pulled out an empty red silk wrapper. “And the sacred prayer scrolls, they’re gone.”
“The ones as you stuck on that Jiangshi like a parking ticket,” Brigit said. “It happened, we all saw it. And Miss Materialist Missionary here turned them, wi’ more faith than either of us had.”
It was Liberty’s turn to look horrified. “I did. I wasn’t dreaming, or hallucinating. I knew for a fact it had to be. But – it was true.” She held her head in her hands.
    “I think her Objective Reality just took a battleship shell below the waterline,” Shin whispered.
    Brigit nodded. “And if ye sent her back she wouldn’t win Round Two, says I.”
    Liberty suddenly straightened up. “I have it! It is all scientific after all. The Kava unlocks telepathic powers, such as are being investigated by serious People’s Scientists – even in Ioseph Starling’s benighted land.”
    “Da, I have heard of such tests,” Tatiana conceded.
    Liberty pointed an accusing finger at Shin. “It was your superstition-riddled dream we saw – and you transmitted it to us. Of course we all saw the same thing.”
    “So. Where did Brigit’s crucifix go to? Or my prayer scrolls?” Shin asked reasonably.
    Liberty hesitated. “Tatiana took them while we were unconscious,” she declared. “No point in searching – she’s had plenty of time to conceal them.”
    “What would I want with them?” Tatiana asked, more amused than annoyed.
    “There’ll be a motive, somewhere,” Liberty stated. “It is the only logical explanation,”
    Shin chuckled. “I remember a story they told us in High School,” she said. “Back before 1800, some Yankee professors witnessed a fall of meteorites, and took them to their President. He patiently explained ‘stones cannot fall from the sky because there are no stones in the sky’. When they protested, he showed them out, saying ‘I would prefer to believe that two reputable Professors are lying, than to consider the alternative.’”
    “We shall never speak of this again,” said Liberty firmly.
    Four hours later they were picked up on schedule on the beach they had arrived at, and made their first brief report (leaving out the controversial bits) to Miss Devinski. Although when they squeezed onboard the Lockheed Lamprey Shin expected Tatiana to fall asleep immediately, it was Liberty who threw her sleeping bag over her head and almost at once was fast asleep.
    “She’s had a hard shock,” Brigit looked down on their comrade, almost sympathetic. “Her Red reality isn’t as she thought it was.”
    Tatiana shrugged. “My people are Otzovists, we could be Red with spirit – or see spirits, not only vodka like the rest.”
    “You’re the only one trained in this sort of thing,” Shin said. “What do you think really happened last night?”
    Tatiana thought hard. “From what Mother has taught me – there is this world and the spirit world. Priests, shamans, they train long before they can walk freely there. There are dangers there unlike anywhere else. In some times and places the barriers are… thinner.”
    “Dark of the moon, in a village where many of my country-furs were killed,” Shin mused. “Died knowing they’d never get home to China.”
    “Da. Buried near our camp likely, with no marker we found. Kava has deep roots. Eating that I thought was a bad idea, and I told you so.”
    “You did,” Shin said ruefully. “So when we all ate it …  and it was probably twenty year old Number One Top Shaman Special Reserve quality….”
    “You went to a place you had no right to be, or training to survive in amongst the walking spirits. You could see them – and they could see you,” Tatiana said. “And touch you.”
    Shin winced. “How much of this are we going to put in our report? Miss Devinski sent us there. I bet she knew we’d do something like this.”
    “Liberty... she’ll not put her name on any such document, you bet,” Brigit nodded towards the sleeping figure half-buried amongst the piled rucksacks. “Faith, if it ever got back to her people! She’d nivver live it down.”
    “Would they complain? After all, she proved her faith was stronger than ours,” Shin asked, interested. “She’s as much a missionary as any of the missionaries you see ranting on Casino Island.” Spontoonies tended to consider such as free street theatre.
    “And in winning a fight on the spirit plane, she just proved hers IS a religion.” Tatiana said flatly. “What would they say to that? They fought a revolution to abolish all religion, what does that make Liberty?”
    “A Heretic?” Brigit’s long tongue lolled out, the Irish Setter evidently liking this. “An’ if she’d failed she’d have been lost, but by winning… ‘tis one o’ those lose-lose situations, Shin.”
    Shin gave a happy sigh, relaxing as they headed back towards Songmark and what passed for normality. “And you know what? It really couldn’t happen to a better person.”

the end

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