All weekend long the delegates of the Caretaker Council had been arriving, close relatives of the family being put up in the specially reopened west wing of the oak-timbered and limestone manor house whilst others found rooms at the village inn and at Mrs Murphy's guest house, much to the bemusement of the largely elderly residents of High Langton. Not since the outbreak of the First War had the sleepy hamlet seen such a level of organized activity, and given the secrecy surrounding the meeting, wild rumours were rife, further fuelled by the deliberate release of disinformation by Miss Crawford, the council's honorary secretary.
In her early to mid forties, Mary Crawford was a slight figure, standing no taller than five feet six inches in her sensible heels and tweed two piece suit. Her unfashionable, mousy, permed appearance and eagerness to please fooled many a stranger, but not those who'd come to know and ultimately admire her. The councillors and co-opted dignitaries might have been masters of waffle and debate and have the final say when it came to a vote, but it was the unassuming, organized and efficient Mary Crawford whose hard work brought them all together in the first place and made the event possible. The woman had the worthy gift of being able to attend to fine detail without falling into unnecessary pedantry.
Word of the gathering had already reached the capital and all manner of ruses had been attempted to gain entry to the council meeting by government officials, sundry civil servants and members of the media to no avail. And the village had more than its share of unseasonably raincoated visitors, some of whom were alleged to be representatives of the Establishment, as the security service was called, all curious to find out what possible business the Caretaker Council could have on its agenda that demanded such extensive and clandestine organization and drew such a cosmopolitan mixture of eminent and common or garden folk from far and wide. All the people knew was that the group referred to themselves as “custodians”, though custodians of what exactly was anybody's guess.
It was maintained by the lunatic fringe that the caretaker council, these dupes of Klingsor1, was actually a front for a secret, crypto-Luciferic organization of Illuminati: bloodsucking alien reptilians whose aim was the enthralment of the masses, which were referred to as cattle, and total domination through the establishment of a New World Order. As yet, however, only one man knew the real truth of the matter – and not least could bear to shoulder the burden of that truth – whilst others could only wildly speculate. That man was Hamish Lightwater, the oft-debunked chair of the council, and his lips were firmly sealed.
For years, Dillon Lightwater, Hamish's youngest son, had watched from the wings as council attendees came and went, without knowing one jot about the business that went on behind the closed doors, but this was the first time he'd witnessed a full gathering, so it must be pretty important. Not only that, now that he had finally come of age, he had been invited by his father to join the delegates for the very first time.
Five minutes before the meeting was due to be convened, a shiny black diamond, limited edition Rolls Royce Phantom drew up the wide gravel drive to stop by the marble steps at the front of the manor house. A chauffeur in a smart grey uniform and peaked hat held the car door open as a rather twee, middle-aged lady emerged, then scurried around to the passenger's side to assist the other, somewhat portly occupant. That would be the one-time scrap metal dealer and now self-made millionaire, Sir Randolph, or 'Roley Poley' as Dillon's elder sister Marie referred to him. As for his mother, she was less charitable and used to say that, with the exception of his rotund build, he was the spitting image of Steptoe, a degenerate and lecherous character from an old television sitcom.
With an effort, the man huffed and puffed up the steps to the front door with his wife Lady Jane in tow, followed by the chauffeur and two attendants groaning under the weight of several bulging suitcases and a large cabin trunk.
“This had better be worth it, Lightwater: had a devil of a job getting here. I say, this had better be worth my while,” Sir Randolph grumbled, ignoring Dillon entirely, giving his host a cursory handshake and brushing past him through the entrance to make a beeline for the cocktail bar before everyone was ushered into the committee room. “A malt whiskey, my good man, and make it a double. No, no, no: not the small measure, that's for women, nancies and the riff-raff, not for the landed gentry. Oh, for heaven's sake, just give me the bottle and I'll do it myself.”
“Would you like anything else, sir?”
“A small sweet sherry for Lady Jane.”
“Very good, sir.”
“Oh, and you'd better pour a glass of ale for my driver. Only the one, mind, I shall be requiring his services later.”
“That'll be seven shillings, sir,” the bar steward said calmly, weighing up the generous quantity of whiskey that the man poured into his glass.
Sir Randolph's stood there, mouth agape for a moment. “Seven shillings? Have you gone stark crazy, my man?” he demanded, his eyebrows twitching. “What do you mean seven shillings? Why, I've never been so insulted in all my life ...”
If you think that, you should hang around a while after you've gone and listen to the gossip, then mate, Dillon smiled to himself.
“Do you know who I am? Clearly not.”
Unruffled, the bartender pointed to a hand-written notice on the counter which read: “All proceeds of this bar to be donated to the High Langton Silver Circle.”
“Today's bar takings are in aid of charity,” the steward explained in measured tones.
“Yes, yes: I can read,” huffed Sir Randolph, casting his arms about in exasperated resignation, then abruptly turning away. “Oh, very well. Smythe: pay the man, would you? There's a good chap. Here's a sherry for you, Lady Jane. Shall we?” He motioned towards the open door of the committee room and, straightening his tie and taking his wife by the arm, like the emperor with no clothes, Sir Randolph prepared to make his stately entrance.
Mother intercepted them. “Hello Jane, Randolph. We're through in the hall. More room in there,” she explained.
As Dillon scanned the rows of expectant faces and sat down, careful not to make too much noise on the squeaky leather seat, tempting as a good, long, rasping fart may be, his father approached a dais at the far end of the hall and Mary Crawford brought the assembly to order with a light tap-tap-tap of a gavel. That's it, pull yourself together, lad: no tittering in the ranks.
Again Mary Crawford brought her gavel down, with a little more gusto this time. “My lords, ladies and gentlemen, thank you, thank you. Your attention please. There is no set agenda for this morning's extraordinary meeting, so without further ado your chair, Hamish Lightwater, will address you and the grave purpose of our gathering here today will soon be made apparent. Hamish ...”
Brushing the arm of his tweed jacket a little self-consciously, Father took the floor and cleared his throat. “Thank you, Madam Secretary. Welcome distinguished guests and friends. You'll forgive me if I spend some time broadly outlining the crisis that looms over us, but let me first firmly set the tone. I cannot emphasize strongly enough the dire necessity of our gathering here today, which is due to unforeseen events which have no parallel in the custodians' history.”
He paused for a moment to allow the words to sink in. “Unforeseen events which, I might add, are unrivalled even by the undoubted tragedy of the First and Second Wars.
“And before continuing, I must warn you that not one word of what I have to say and what we discuss here today is to leave these four walls, no matter how tempting that might be given the media interest in our proceedings.”
“Spit it out, man,” called Sir Randolph who was sitting in the centre of the front row to Dillon's right. “And perhaps we might dispense with the rhetoric and hyperbole?”
“All in due course, sir, all in due course. I can assure you that your time here will not be wasted, though by the time we adjourn for lunch you may wish it had been to the contrary. I hope you have a good stomach, my friends.
“Very well.” Father relaxed his grip on the wooden dais, drew a deep breath and stood up straight. “As some of you may know, the entirety of existence from the spiralling of galaxies and the life-giving of individual stars such as own sun; from our highest human endeavours and capacities all the way down to the metabolism of single celled organisms is entirely dependent on a subtle, hidden contact with what some call the Source, with a capital 'S'.
“You may know of the realms which are in planes beneath our own, yet more remote from the Source. For some time now, due to a cosmic catastrophe, the link between the Source and that realm which was formerly known as the Eden Project and in latter days as the Shadowlands, has been somewhat attenuated, and that has brought with it all the degradation, decay and suffering that attends such a loss. It was for this purpose that the Caretaker Council was originally instituted. Though the Shadowlands might be largely cut off from the Source, we are not and we are still within reach of the Shadowlands, so that we might act as a go-between until the time comes when there is a realignment with the Source. Were it not for that contact, mostly maintained by the caretaker system Psi; were it not for the representatives that we have sent in times of crisis, and were it not for the everyday work of the field agents, the human race in the Shadowlands would by now be extinct. And believe me, it has been pretty much touch and go on several occasions in the last century alone.
“Alas, of late, there has been a gradual build-up of negativity and disharmony emanating from the Shadowlands and this has begun to have a detrimental effect not only on the visiting representatives sent down to the Shadowlands and resident field operatives, but also on life here, too. In fact I would go so far as to say that this negative energy will eventually overwhelm us and threaten our very survival, turning our own realm into another Shadowlands.”
A hand was raised in the audience, followed by a polite cough, and Father paused. “Pray tell me, do you know what is causing this change, Mister Lightwater?” asked a lady sitting behind Dillon in a rather prissy tone.
“We're currently researching the cause of this new setback, Joan. Of course it's early days and there are several hypotheses to follow up on, but we suspect that rather than being a further weakening of the linkage with the Source, it may be a malfunction in the caretaker system, Psi, on which the Shadowlanders are almost wholly and even we are to an extent reliant. For one thing, we rely on Psi to get our people back to safety here, which is becoming more and more difficult. And for a second: our workers can only do so much: without Psi running we would have no option to pull them out altogether, thus wrecking projects which have taken more than a century to plan and implement.”
There was an awkward moment of stunned silence until finally someone else spoke up and broke the spell. “So what are our options?” asked a second lady behind Dillon, apparently unphased by the revelations.
Father ran his hand through his thinning hair. “Now that's a good question, Ruth. I'm very glad you asked me that.”
Dillon smiled. That's what Father would say, tongue in cheek, when he hadn't got a clue as to how he might answer.
“Indeed, it's the 64 trillion credit question. And that's what we're all gathered here today to discuss. No pressure, mind,” he smiled, taking a sip of water. “So over to you, friends.”
“You say this may be due to faults in Psi. Can you elaborate on this and perhaps be more specific?” enquired Aunt Bettie from the back of the hall, raising her voice above the general hubbub of private exchanges.
“Well, this is all very speculative at this stage,” Father pointed out, raising his hand to politely request an end to the conversations, “but it does seem to coincide with recent software updates.”
“In that case, all one would have to do would be to wind back the updates, surely? If for no reason other than to discover if this alleviated the problem.”
“Alas, it's not as simple as that, Bettie. For some time now, Psi has been groaning under the strain of its workload. Matthew, perhaps you might add to this?” He turned to the tussle-haired chief systems administrator who sat fidgeting in his chair on the front row.
Matthew stood up and turned to face the audience, his cheeks growing red with the embarrassment of the spotlight on him. “I would tend to agree with Hamish. You see, it was never envisaged that the system would be on-line for this length of time nor that it would have to cope with a population in the Shadowlands now numbering over six billion. The fact is, the system simply could no longer cope in its previous configuration.”
Sir Randolph stroked his chin thoughtfully. “What you mean to say is that there can be no going back to previous versions of the software?”
Matthew shook his head. “No. It would be impossibly overloaded. And the last thing we can afford is to lose Psi altogether.”
“So what makes the new version of the software different that might account for the detrimental effect it's having? You must have changed something. What did you change?” probed Sir Randolph. Matthew flushed bright crimson and wiped away beads of sweat that were forming on his furrowed brow.
“We ... um ... looked at several options designed to reduce the amount of load placed upon the processors and we were forced to discount most of them. In the end, after much research and technical consultation, what we settled on was to reduce the processing time of one key procedure.”
“And what procedure would that be?”
“It's known as 'look ahead'.”
“And the purpose of this procedure is ...?”
“May I?” enquired Father. Matthew nodded vigorously and he continued. “Most of you will be familiar with the game of chess. In this board game, before a move is made, an assessment must be made as to the viability of such a move. 'If I move my pawn to this particular square, what will be the consequences? Will it advance my position? Will any of my pieces be placed in danger in my opponent's next move as a result. Or perhaps two or three moves hence?' Whilst a novice may not be able to see more than one or two moves ahead, the grandmaster will not only be able to calculate several moves in advance, he or she will almost instantly recognize the pattern of the pieces on the board and be able to draw on the experience of perhaps hundreds of thousands of games that have gone this way before, knowing the eventual outcome of these strategies.
“In short ...”
“In short you've reduced Psi's processing power from that of near-genius to that of an educated baboon,” Sir Randolph interrupted.
“In short,” Father concluded, ignoring the man, “by and large the people of the Shadowlands are little more than novices at the game of life and Psi the grandmaster. In order to prevent the foolhardy, mischievous and malicious decisions they make many times daily throughout their lives from wreaking havoc in the Shadowlands and beyond, though they are of course unaware of any intervention and believe the decisions they make to be their own, through the use of a series of procedures which Matthew refers to as 'look ahead', Psi quietly guides their choices based upon either best outcome or least harm. And if that cannot be achieved through the exercise of free will, then the visiting representatives and resident field agents will be prompted to corrective action.”
Sir Randolph laughed out loud. “Well, that's a very nice theory, Hamish, but clearly these wretched beings seldom follow Psi's counsel, judging by the mayhem they've wrought in the Shadowlands over the centuries!”
“I concede your point, Randolph, though I do wish you'd resist the urge to heckle. Such communication has been fraught with difficulty. But sufficient of them do take heed of the message to make a difference, with our assistance. Were it not for Psi, the consequences would have been unimaginably more dire, even catastrophic.”
Father cued the systems administrator: “So, this 'look ahead', Matthew ...?”
“Of the countless number of procedures, look ahead accounts for by far the most processing time and resources. So, after other strategies were found to be to no avail, it was decided that we should reduce the look ahead.”
Sir Randolph raised his bushy eyebrows. “What you're saying is, mistakes in decision making are being made through short-sightedness. And now everything's gone pear-shaped as a result?” It was a rhetorical question. “More to the point, perhaps you yourselves might have enquired of Psi the efficacy of such a myopic plan before its implementation?”
Matthew could do no more than flush with embarrassment and shrug his shoulders.
“Besides which, wouldn't it have made more sense to leave the software more or less as it stood and instead increased the capacity and capabilities of the processors running that software?”
Father shook his head. “If only it were that simple. You see, though we have access to terminals with which to monitor and manipulate the software on Psi, we do not have any access to the hardware on which it is running. So that is not an option.”
“The technology was established by the Sirians shortly after the catastrophe and they have since beat a hasty retreat from this sector, leaving us holding onto the reins with no notion of where the blessèd horse is. Rumour has it that the processors are located in deeply hidden power houses in each of the seven continents, but that's all we think we know and what little we do know is rapidly passing into legend and folklore.”
“OK, so supposing it actually is a malfunction in the dream machine, what could be done to rectify the situation?” asked another.
“We're working round the clock to find solutions,” Matthew offered.
“I'm sure you are, but what if your best efforts are to no avail. Shouldn't we be looking at alternatives rather than putting all our eggs in the one basket, as it were?” asked Aunt Bettie.
Father nodded gravely. “Yes, and that's precisely why we're here today. To brainstorm any potential solution, no matter how outlandish it may at first appear.”
Sir Randolph puffed out his chest. “On one of my many jaunts into the Shadowlands I spent some time as an inspector in a foundry. And one of the things we always stood by was the concept of 'right first time.' It's no use treating the side-effects of a defect way off down the production line. The real fault has to be rectified at source, and all the side-effects disappear of their own volition.”
“So what are you saying, Randolph?”
“Well, it seems to me, Lightwater, that the key element here is sheer weight of numbers. As your systems administrator pointed out, it was never envisaged that the population of the Shadowlands should expand to over six billion ...”
He paused to take a sip of his malt whiskey before continuing.
“So one suggestion would be to reduce the number of the critters. After all, they do it to their own: culling foxes, badgers, rabbits, seals; waging wars; committing acts of gross genocide ...”
“Good Lord, Roley,” gasped Dillon's sister Marie, “I cannot believe that you just said that. Equating the Shadowlanders – many of whom are fledgling Arcadians, our own bloodline, I might add – with the likes of cattle. If the press got to hear of this, they'd have a field day and the conspiracy theorists would be thoroughly vindicated. You should be ashamed of yourself.”
“We're just throwing ideas around here, Marie,” Father was forced to concede. “It wouldn't be right for us to censor those ideas.”
Sir Randolph was unrepentant. “You may be outraged, little one, and you may scoff. But take away the weight of numbers and there's no longer any problem. What could be simpler? Now how exactly said numbers are to be reduced, well, that's a whole different ball game in which you may indeed be free to air your righteous indignation. You'll forgive me, I hope, but I spent some time in the Shires of the Shadowlands and like my fellows I grew to invariably call a spade a spade.”
“What kind of figure did you have in mind?” called a voice from the far right of the hall.
“Oh, I think we could get by with 10%.”
“You mean do away with 10%.”
“No, no. I didn't say that.”
“You mean ... we could adequately do away with the other 90%?”
Lady Jane spoke up: “Well, it strikes me that if we could isolate the gene for gross stupidity amongst the Shadowlanders – and let's not forget the even more abhorrent masses of the Outlanders – that we might be able to manufacture a biological agent that targeted only these dregs of society ...”
“Well, 'Zieg heil!' to you, too! You fascist.”
“Saints preserve us ...”
There was uproar at this remark, and it took Father some time to restore order in the room.
“I should be careful what you wish for, as the saying goes, in case it should come true,” responded Mother as the hubbub subsided. “Gross stupidity is not something solely confined to the Shadowlanders and Outlanders – as clearly evidenced by remarks made in this very meeting of alleged Elders and betters today.”
“Hark who's talking, Jessica Lightwater. I seem to recall that at one time you thought Communism would be a good thing down in the Shadowlands ... at least until that wretched despot Streiker came to power.”
“That's a little unfair of you, Lady Jane: even Regional Command advised in a memorandum that we should roll with 'the experiment'. And to go back to Randolph's suggestion of running our own decisions past Psi, unlike the Shadowlanders we still have contact with the Source, and we all – even they – have the inalienable constitutional right to exercise free will and learn through trying things out and making mistakes.”
Prompted by these words, Dillon decided to speak up himself: “Talking of getting things 'right first time' as Sir Randolph suggests, can nothing be done to at least partially restore the Shadowlanders' link to the Source?”
Father shook his head and smiled benignly. “Sorry, Dillon, but that's way beyond even the competence of High Command. It's a problem of cosmic proportions rather than something that can be simply 'tweaked' or manipulated by installing technology – at least technology as we know it.”
“Do the Shadowlanders know what's going on?”
“I would say that some have inklings or intuitions of their true state, yes, Dillon. The link to the Source waxes and wanes and some are still sensitive to the Necessity and to what we might call the inner-tuition. And of course there are a few, in whom our representatives and field agents seed ideas, who have gone on to found groups and even mass movements which serve a purpose for a time.”
“I mean, shouldn't they be told?”
“From time to time, yes, our representatives inform the Shadowlanders about their state and – in general terms – about their plight. They help individuals and groups escape from the mesmeric identification with the ego, to awaken to reality, and to transcend the cycle of death and rebirth in the Shadowlands. But as for the mind blowing specifics, of present circumstances for example, our hands are tied by Regional Command, just as theirs are tied by High Command, and theirs by the Source Herself. We are licensed to say and to do only so much, given the present primitive evolutionary stage of the Shadowlands.”
“And there are no exceptions to these rules?”
“There are always exceptions, yes, but none that apply in this current situation, as far as I can see. Which is not to say that from time to time the Source doesn't make things known of Her own volition and using her own informal channels of action and communication. Some of the great mystical teachers, such as the Uwaysi, emerged in this fashion without themselves being formally taught, though such a thing is a rarity.”
Sir Randolph sat there shaking his head. “In my humble opinion, it's high time we came clean and they learnt the truth. The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”
“The truth would blow their beady little minds,” someone countered.
“No, no. To them, the truth would seem so outlandish that they'd laugh the truth teller off the stage or suggest he sought professional psychiatric help,” opined another.
Sir Randolph continued unabashed. “For one thing, they should be made aware of the fact that even we, in this elevated station, can only dream of heaven and that by and large, they're destined to become nothing more than food for the Demiurge. You see there are two distinct streams of development: on the one hand, the Liberational which is the path we follow and on the other, the Demiurgic, in which the masses are enthralled. And this, many call God. They must be told that they are up Shit Creek without a paddle.”
“Oh, Randolph!” It was Father's turn to shake his head. “The matter has been appealed before, without success. And High Command have made it abundantly clear that the Incentive must be maintained at all costs.”
“Well, at least they backed down and allowed us to dump the Disincentive. That was a mistake from the outset,” Mother reminded them.
“It did serve some purpose at the time. 'Right time, place and people' and all that jazz,” Marie chipped in.
“Excuse me,” enquired Dillon: “What do you mean by incentive and disincentive? I don't quite follow.”
“The Incentive is life everlasting in heaven by God's side, for the obedient believers, Dillon,” Mother explained. “And the Disincentive is brimstone and treacle and eternal damnation in the fiery bowels of Hell for the hapless sinners. Such a stick and carrot approach was all the rage in the mass moral and fear religions down in the Shadowlands, but it really doesn't have a place in cosmic religion or in spirituality. Or perhaps I should say that the mistake is in believing in the literal interpretation of such things as opposed to actually knowing the ... what can I call it? ... the symbolic, technical or functional reality of such things and also knowing when, where and with whom they apply or – equally – do not apply.”
“Speaking of brimstone and treacle,” Uncle Arthur ventured, looking furtively around him before continuing, “I know that we sent the Dread Lord Develin packing at the end of the First War, but you don't think it could be a resurgence amongst his followers and admirers, do you?”
That was the first time that Dillon had heard that name before and he could only presume that they were talking about the warlord the Shadowlanders referred to as Duval.
At that precise moment, as Aunt Bettie was ritually crossing herself at the mere mention of that accursèd name, the lights of the chandeliers in the ceiling of the grand hall flickered and dimmed momentarily. “Speak of the Devil and he's sure to appear,” she warned them.
“Gremlins in the works?” pondered Father. “Well, I suppose it could be. We'll have to look into that possibility. Thank you, Arthur.”
“Is there any merit in sending down another representative?” asked cousin Elmo in his characteristically squeaky voice.
Father pondered for a moment. “Well, I really don't see his or her presence making much of a difference as far as finding a solution to the problem of the growing negativity is concerned, Elmo. However, an observer and guiding hand at the coal face might not go amiss in such difficult times. The representative would also be able to help pull a few more worthy individuals out of the Shadowlands. On the negative side of the scales, as I mentioned earlier, it's becoming more and more problematic pulling our own operatives out when their work is complete. It would take a hardy soul not to get sucked in.”
“As you know, I've worked in many diverse settings over the years from the Lords and Ladies in the halls of government to the destitute in the gutter,” piped up Sir Randolph. “If you're looking for hardy volunteers, I'd be willing to give it another bash.”
“I'm sure you would,” whispered Lady Jane. “Another chance to pick up more floozies from the gutter to satisfy your animal urges, more like.”
“The Good Lord works in mysterious ways, my dear, and it not for us to question the tasks he sets before us, however onerous they might appear.”
Well, that was a new take on the old joke “I know, it's dirty work, but someone has to do it.”
Aunt Bettie wasn't convinced by the idea. “Perhaps we should be thinking of pulling all our people out of there whilst we still can, rather than sending more lambs to the slaughter?” she suggested.
“Perhaps in due course, Bettie. Rest assured that contingency plans have been drawn up.”
“I'm ready,” chipped in Dillon. “Get me a ship and I'll go.”
An unrestrained wave of laughter echoed round the hall.
“What's up? Did I say something funny?”
Father smiled and ran his fingers through his hair. “It doesn't work like that, Dillon. How can I put it? Imagine that your consciousness is represented by an elevator in the lift shaft of a massively tall building. Towards the top are what we might call the 'United States'. That's our goal.”
“Let's say that at the moment the elevator is on the second or third floor and that for the large part, the Shadowlanders' consciousness resides in the sub-basement, at best in the basement, at worst in the dark, amongst the rats, cockroaches and maggot-infested crud of the sub-sub-basement. Believe me, you do not want to go there.
“To reach them requires a descent. The descent or immersion as we call it is not a physical journey, it involves a change in your state of mind – well, change of heart and soul or being might be a more appropriate phrase – together with a loss of some higher consciousness and the adoption of grosser levels of consciousness. Imagine a ballet dancer descending into the depths of the sea on the end of a rope and an air pipe, wearing a confining leaden diving suit. It takes a great deal of specialist preparation to be able to live and work under such adverse conditions and still stay tuned into the Design, and so easy to become utterly identified with the mesmeric pull of the lower self.”
“Ah ... Thanks, Dad. I think I see what you mean.”
“Little one,” Sir Randolph Higginbottom pointed out, “the fact that you say such a thing is evidence enough that you merely think and do not see.”
Father waved his hand in the direction of the door. “You've seen all those portraits in the hallway? Well, those are the valiant guys and gals who've gone before us. The ones on the left are the friends who descended and made it back. And the ones on the right are the friends who gave their lives for Us, out of love more than a sense of duty, and have yet to make the return journey, many of them being lost themselves whilst on missions to rescue their comrades in alms. And that's A.L.M.S, not A.R.M.S, I hasten to add.”
At that moment, Father's attention was distracted. There was a tentative knocking at the door, the door opened a fraction and his private secretary, Valerie, poked her head round the door, waving a sheet of paper in the air to quietly attract the Secretary's attention. Mary Crawford beckoned her in and the two met halfway down the hall and exchanged hushed words. Dillon had the hots for this curvaceous, auburn-haired beauty and his eyes were riveted on Valerie. Having read the contents of the document, Mary thanked her and went back to Father and drew him aside. He scanned the sheet of paper and returned smartly to the dais.
“Friends, forgive me. Thank you, friends. If I may have your attention for a moment. I've just received an important memorandum from Regional Command which I'll briefly relate to you and then I suggest we adjourn to the dining hall where Mrs Hadley and her capable staff have laid on a magnificent standing buffet for us.”
“The message, which I shall read verbatim is as follows:
“To: Mary Crawford, Honorary Secretary, Caretaker Council, Sector ARK-A-41.
From: Regional Command, Area ARK.
Subject: Re. The Shadowlands, formerly known as the Eden Project.
Message: Thank you for your caretaker council's recent report concerning the deteriorating condition of the Shadowlands (referred to by the Sirians as Sher Point) and the effect this is having at higher levels in your sector. Your findings are largely confirmed first-hand by our visiting observer and also by investigations carried out here at Regional Command.
We have given serious consideration to your preliminary proposals aimed at rectifying the growing crisis in the Shadowlands and the Secretary General and regional committee would like to extend their thanks to the caretakers for their good work not only now but over many years. In view of the serious nature of the crisis, a collated report was sent to the Directorate at High Command, containing our combined recommendations and we recently received a reply from them which also made a special point of commending you all for your sterling contributions.”
At this point, his voice beginning to waver with emotion and clutching hold of the dais for support, Father paused and drew a series of long, deep breaths before continuing.
“It is with deep regret, therefore, that I have to inform you that the matter is now out of our hands. In their wisdom, High Command has decreed that there will be a period of grace during which you will be able to retrieve as many of your visiting and resident agents as you are able. That period shall be no more than five years as measured in the Shadowlands and should be long enough to enable some of the more advanced students amongst the Shadowlanders to make their own escape with the assistance of their Arcadian mentors. High Command appreciate the difficult and complex nature of such an evacuation and ask only that you do what you can, without unduly jeopardizing the life of others in the process and without coercing those who, through forgetfulness of their mission, refuse to leave.”
“Holy cow!” gasped Marie, unable to contain herself any longer. “This can't be happening. Tell me it's all a bad dream.”
“So what now?” asked cousin Francesca.
“Oh, I would imagine that they'll simply nuke the planet, my dear. Get it over and done with. There's no point in causing unnecessary and prolonged suffering. It'll all be over in a flash.”
Father continued without comment.
“After that period of grace, the caretaker system Psi is to be taken permanently off-line and the experiment is to be terminated. High command has not as yet furnished details of how such a termination will be carried out and have asked us to stand by to await further instructions. Contingency plans will also be drawn up in case it should become necessary to evacuate your own sector, ARK-A-41.
God bless each and every one of you, friends.
Signed: G.M. Ronson, Secretary.”
“Thank you again,” Father concluded gravely, brushing back a strand of grey hair that had fallen out of place. “And on that less than happy note, we'll reconvene in an hour's time after the buffet, for those of you with a stomach for it.” He turned to his wife and took her arm, clearly shaken by this event. “Jess, I think given the circumstances that a good stiff drink would be in order. I'm having a brandy. And you ...?”
“A Black Russian,” she nodded. A few short minutes ago, Mother had looked radiant despite what she'd had to endure, her eyes sparkling, her face so fresh and her long, shiny raven locks tumbling over her shoulders, every bit the good and glamorous hostess. But now she, too, was looking a bit flustered, nibbling her bottom lip nervously, and desperately trying to bear her share of the burden and put on a brave face.
“And what about you, Dillon?”
This was the first time he'd been invited to a drink since he'd come of age, though he'd sneaked the odd drink from the cocktail cabinet whilst his parents were otherwise engaged. He couldn't stand spirits like whisky or brandy, though.
“A Black Russian sounds interesting,” he said at length. “What's that?”
“Vodka, coffee liquor and cola,” Mother informed him. “It's a drink I discovered on my first mission to the Shadowlands. In fact that's when I met your father, wasn't it, my sweet? I think you'll like it.”
“Well, it'll certainly blow the cobwebs out of the lad's ears,” Father replied, forcing a smile. You could tell that the news from Regional Command had gone down like a lead balloon in his stomach.
“Might as well give that a try. Thanks.”
“Okay, you dig into the buffet and get a plateful for me and I'll go and fix the drinks,” Mother replied, heading for the bar, giving Father a cheeky pat on the backside as she went.
1. The Descent
As Dillon was leaving the buffet, feeling suitably stuffed with ham sandwiches, chicken legs, sausage rolls and vol-au-vent and ever so slightly squiffy after the Black Russian, Marie caught hold of him by the arm and tugged him down the hallway towards Father's study. Once inside, she closed the stout rosewood door behind them and pressed her finger to Dillon's lips. Her hand smelt of cheese and onion crisps.
“Marie, what are you doing? You know we shouldn't be sneaking around in Father's private study behind his back.”
“I've decided,” she told him.
Marie puffed out her chest and wagged her finger in the air. “I've decided, Dillon, that I'm not going to stand idly by and let those inhumane buffoons at High Command 'terminate the experiment' as they call it without doing my bit to help. What they really mean is that they are going to consign over six billion mortal souls to a fate worse than death. And I'm not going to let that happen. As far as I'm concerned, if one isn't part of the solution, then one is part of the problem. Now what I want to know from you is whether you're going to help me.” …
You can get hold of Escape From the Shadowlands by Etienne de L'Amour from Amazon US, Amazon UK and their European web sites (ASIN: B0079Q8WZ8).
• By Etienne de L'Amour ~ Google+