Chapter 1: When in Bristol…
This, thought George nursing his umpteenth cup of tea, was the final piece of evidence that he had no life. Normal people went out on a Saturday night. He could even remember how it was supposed to go. You’d go out, have a few drinks, have a few more drinks, and then when satisfactorily drunk go to some dive with a sticky floor and dance awkwardly until they put the lights up and everyone left dancing alone skulked home via the kebab shop to nurse the hangover. Sometimes you might get lucky and a nice girl might take pity on you and then there was the careful dance of the coffee invitation and the hoping that this time your flatmate hadn’t thrown up in your bed again. Staying in, slumped on a second hand couch watching “Total Wipeout!” on BBC1 whilst waiting for Casualty to start so that you could snark bitterly at the behaviour of the nursing staff just didn’t compare.
“My life is over” he informed the other two occupants of the room.
Mitchell as usual ignored him but Annie looked around, worried and he was forced to reach out and grab her arm to prevent her getting up to make him another cup of tea. At that moment the TV picture juddered, the digibox on the blink again and he swore, nudging Annie to nudge Mitchell to go and fix it. Normally he would be wiling enough to fiddle with the wires, reassuring connectivity appealing to his geeky side, but tonight he was in such a foul mood that he couldn’t be bothered. So it was Mitchell that was crawling forward to reach round the back of the unit and jiggle wires when the flash of blue light ripped through the flat with an unpleasant tearing sound.
When they blinked away the white dots they saw sprawled on the floor before the TV, where Mitchell had been just a minute before, a figure in an unfamiliar uniform. For all the androgynous appearance George’s nose and the still untamed wolf libido told him it was definitely a female. She seemed to be carrying something.
“Oh My God!” George leapt to his feet pulling his arm from Annie’s terrified grasp (and hoping no-one had heard his girly scream when Mitchell had vanished before their eyes). “There is a woman in my house! And she has a cross bow!”
The intruder just stared at them, the confusion they were all feeling written large across her face. Then, as though suddenly recollecting what she was carrying, she carefully put the crossbow down, ensuring it wasn’t pointing at anyone.
“How is this even possible?” George appealed to Annie but she could offer nothing but a shrug.
"Mitchell was there! And now he’s gone and you’re..,” he waved in a derogatory manner “...here. And you have a crossbow. Why do you have a crossbow? And, Oh My God, what looks like a very efficient sword!”
He swallowed in an attempt to collect himself.
What the, excuse my language, FLYING FUCK is going on?”
The young woman sighed and rubbed the bridge of her nose. When she spoke her accent startled them. The words were perfect English, but with an unfamiliar lilt, perhaps Russian George thought.
"Do you have any coffee?" They both stared at her in total incomprehension. “Coffee? Made from roasted Coffea Arabica or Coffea canephora beans, ground and infused in hot water?”
“Yes, thank you, we know what Coffee is!”
“We’ve got tea.” Annie offered brightly.
“No. It has to be coffee.” She looked at them and realising they spoke the truth shook her head. “You don’t have any coffee in the house? At all?”
But George stopped halfway to the kitchen as the idiocy of what he was doing sunk in.
“Hang on a minute. You came here, out of nowhere, disrupting a nice quiet evening let me tell you, and we’ve not had many of those lately...” He caught himself rambling. “Anyway! You come here out of nowhere and you get me looking for coffee for you? Well, I’m not doing it!”
He drew himself up and adjusted his glasses.
“We’re not making you coffee until you tell us what’s going on! If that’s ok. No! Even if it’s not ok!”
nnie looked over to him in gentle exasperation. “It’s only coffee George. It’s not a major demand.”
The young woman made a ‘what-she-said’ face.
“Besides” Annie added, “we can easily kick her butt if she tries anything. You are, after all, the worlds gayest Ninja and my powers are quite strong in this house, I’ll throw the sofa at her or something.”
“Not the TV.” George held out his hands in a pleading gesture. “We’re still making payments.”
The stalemate continued in silence, the girl’s gaze flickering from one to the other of them as each wondered what to do next. George could feel the nervous sweat prickling down his spine and castigated himself for being such a wuss. Straightening up and pushing his shoulders back in an attempt to at least appear butch he determined not to let her dominate him. It was his house after all, his territory. She moved at last tilting her head to one side as though she’d just picked up on something interesting. Her face passed through a number of expressions and the one it eventually settled on worried him. She sniffed deeply, snuffling at the air.
“You’re a werewolf?” Her lip curled.
“Maybe! How did you know that?”
He inhaled in turn and caught the scent of something familiar and yet unfamiliar at the same time. An image of Mitchell the first time he’d met him flickered across his mind. Why would she remind him of Mitchell?
“Wait a minute. You’re a vampire?”
“A vampire?” Annie vanished, reappearing in the kitchen. “I thought Mitchell was finished with all that!”
“Hey, hey.” She held up placating hands. “It’s all cool, see?”
The evil she vampire who had invaded his house pulled forward the lapel of her jacket, showing them something there. It was a folded ribbon, held on a pin, like an AIDS ribbon but black. It didn’t ring any bells.
“What’s that then? You’re against prostate cancer? Campaigning for better rights for Goths?”
She sighed, exasperated. “No you idiot. I’m off the stuff. A Black Ribboner. You’ve heard of us right? ‘Not Vun Drop’?”
Two puzzled faces stared back at her. Comprehension was not making house calls today.
“I’ve done the programme. I’m officially certified as no longer a danger to women posing on balconies in under-wired nightdresses.” They still weren’t getting it so she continued in quiet statement. “I don’t bite people any more and I don’t suck blood.”
They persisted with the staring.
“Anyway, you live with a vampire.”
How did she know that? George asked the question and in reply she swept a hand around the room explaining that the carriage clock and style of ornament placement were obviously vampiric in origin.
“Plus it stinks of vampire. I’m surprised you can’t smell it. Guess you must have got used to it.”
Ok, yes” George gave up, there was no arguing with her. “A vampire does live here. But Mitchell is our friend!”
The vampire lifted her hands and shrugged, the ‘whatever’ as clear as if she had spoken it. Either vampires and werewolves lived together in perfect harmony where she came from or she just couldn’t be bothered to judge.
Rubbing the bridge of her nose again she asked plaintively, “are you sure you don’t have any coffee?”
Mitchell opened his eyes and then quickly closed them again in the hope the vision would go away. When he cracked open an eye he was disturbed to see that they were still there. It wasn’t so much the large number of lads in uniform holding him down, rather the annoyed looking young woman currently aiming what looked like a loaded and cocked crossbow at the anatomically correct portion of his chest.
“Er. Hello?” He dragged up his best conciliatory smile but that only made them tense further.
The woman leant a worrying few inches closer, the arrow tip now skimming his breast bone, and asked him an incomprehensible question.
"Are you a Black Ribboner?"
He gazed up at her in confusion. She sighed at his stupidity and tried again.
"Are. You. A. Black. Ribboner?"
Women asking incomprehensible questions were something he was perfectly at home with, he’d been living in the same house as Annie for a year after all.
“He’s definitely a vamp Sarge. Look at the teeth.”
Mitchell pulled his lip down over his fangs and wondered if he could survive another stake to the chest without George and his 999 skills.
It seemed they all had something to say.
"Maybe we should just stake you now to save trouble.”
The exceedingly frightening young woman slid her finger purposefully from where it had been resting along the shaft to hover over the trigger.
Mitchell felt he had to do something. There was no way he could raise his hands any higher, or adopt a more submissive position (which incidentally his ego wasn’t that happy about).
“Look, you don’t need the crossbow. Ok I’m a vampire; you’ve got me there love. But I’ve been off the stuff for over a year now, on my mother’s life!”
The crossbow was being to get rather personal. His patience was running thin and he wasn’t sure he wanted to play this stupid game anymore. Plus the “scruffy” comment had rankled.
“I’m not from round here, I don't know who the feck you are and I don't know anything about this ribbon shite!"
The crossbow twitched and in that instant he saw his life flash before his eyes. A lot of it had been very boring. His eyes, aching from staring at the bolt-tip cross-eyed jumped up to her face and he saw her expression relax as she accepted that he was probably telling the truth. She stepped back and his shoulders slumped in relief, though he noted she was still holding the crossbow rather more in his direction than he would like.
“Ok. Fair enough. So where did you come from and where’s my vampire gone?”
He quickly waved conciliatory hands again as the crossbow swung back. It became abundantly clear that the woman was not in any way joking at this moment in time.
“Where. Is. My. Vampire?”
Mitchell promoted this day to his worst. Even above the day he got vamped. Even above the day he asked the girl next door for a kiss before he went away to war and had to walk down the high street with what felt like the whole village laughing at him. He was going to die in a muddy clearing miles away from home by the hand of an insane power-mad bitch with a crossbow fetish and no-one would ever know.
“I don’t know!!”
He hadn’t meant to wail, but the strange place and the multitude of angry people with weapons was getting to him.
“I was sat at home with my friends, minding my own business and watching crap Saturday night TV when there was this fizzle of light and I opened my eyes to find you lot staring at me and the uncomfortable end of a crossbow attempting to make friends with my breastbone. I swear. I don’t know what happened!”
He suddenly thought of George and Annie left back there wondering where he had gone. What would they be doing? Would they worry? George would work it out. George could always work anything out given enough encouragement, generally a boot up his arse.
He looked up to see his attacker put the crossbow up, flicking the safety catch on and sighed in relief. Maybe the maniac wasn’t going to kill him today.
"They have coffee where you come from?"
Mitchell blinked, confused. She might have decided not to murder him in cold blood, but it appeared she was still unable to stop asking incomprehensible questions.
The woman smiled, relieved, and seemed to be pondering something. Whatever it was it seemed to have distracted her from her homicidal crossbow tendencies and she turned to the lads holding him down and indicated they should let go.
“Wherever Mal is, I’m sure he’ll be ok.”
A man Mitchell recognised as a Corporal received the crossbow from the disturbed bitch with a reassuring smile. Stripes on uniforms were a long ago learnt skill though now he looked, Mitchell thought these uniforms seemed worryingly familiar in their unfamiliarity.
“I’m sure.” She rubbed the bridge of her nose as if she wasn’t that sure actually. “Take over Corporal. There are some people I need to talk to.”
Mitchell thought he heard her mutter: “I can’t be doing with this” as she walked away.
George and Annie were hiding in the kitchen. George would argue that they weren’t hiding, they were just talking in an area of their house that they had every right to be in considering they were up to date on the rent and possession was 9/10ths of the law. But the quick looks he kept sneaking at the figure hunched on the sofa cradling a cup of instant coffee belied his protests.
She’d given her name as ‘Mal’ but nothing more, where she came from or what she might consider doing next were still a mystery. Annie was whispering in his ear that they should really develop some kind of plan, possibly regarding exorcism when a heavy knock at the door resounded through the apartment. Three heads perked up. Mal looked across the expanse of space at them and George realised that as the only person legally living in the house he had to do something. Pulling himself together he walked briskly over to the door, feeling Mal’s eyes on him every step of the way. Sliding back the Yale he opened the door a crack, and jumped back as he saw who was there. It was one of Mitchell’s vampires. That lot from the undertakers, he’d never caught all their names. One of the clever ones by the looks of him, not merely a thug but one involved in planning.
“Er. Mitchell’s not here,” he stuttered and jumped again as he felt a light touch on his arm.
Mal had come up behind him and was looking around his shoulder with curiosity. On seeing her, their unwelcome knocker perked up, recognising her as vampire immediately.
“I don’t think that’s any business of yours.” She stepped out from behind George, seemingly unafraid of the teeth in the doorway. “Why are you here?”
“Friend of Mitchell’s are you? We could always do with fresh members.” He smiled unpleasantly. “Welcome to Bristol darlin’, can I come in?”
George heard Annie’s intake of breath behind him at the same time as her hand tightened on his arm. Mal had heard them too and frowned.
“I don’t think so.”
She was all politeness but non-the-less reached past George to grasp the edge of the door in preparation to shutting it in his face. The outer vamp stepped forward, almost crossing the threshold, but not quite. His eyes turned pure reflective black, his teeth more prominent than ever as he leaned in.
“Don’t cross me little girl. I’ve got more power than you’ve had hot dinners, you don’t want to throw your lot in with these losers.”
Mal stepped back, lips curling upward at the edges slightly and removed her hand from the door. Thinking it was capitulation she was offering he smiled in return and made as if to come in. But her free hand had dropped to the hilt on her hip and before he could raise a foot to cross the step she had drawn the sword. It made an unpleasant ringing noise as it was released from the scabbard and their visitor stepped back, allowing her to loom over him with the added height of the doorstep on her side. As the blade hung there before all their gazes, vibrating slightly, George could see that it was indeed a very efficient sword. She didn’t brandish it, merely held the blade steady, her stance screaming a warning of coiled tension ready to explode into action.
Then she smiled and, cooperating fully, the evening sunlight glinted off razor sharp incisors in that no-longer friendly face. Still smiling, she tapped the now perspiring aggressor on the shoulder and murmured quietly that she wished to inform him of something.
“This is a very sharp sword.”
As she spoke the tip traced a delicate line across his throat, gathering sweat droplets in its path and came to rest in the hollow where his collarbone drifted away from his neck.
“It is customary I know to use a stake in these situations, but I understand complete removal of the head from the body generally works just as well. Now sir, I have but one simple question for you. Are you going to continue bothering me, or is this the moment at which you take yourself off and find something more pleasurable to be doing?”
It was only after George had shut and bolted the door and Mal had returned the sword to its scabbard that Annie reappeared, poking her head through from the kitchen to remark:
“At least she's better than Mitchell at actually getting things done!”
Mal gave a small smile, unfastening the sword belt and laying the whole ensemble carefully to one side before collapsing back into the sofa and picking up the coffee again. George was still hovering in the vicinity of the kitchen with Annie skulking behind him and finally Mal snapped at them to stop fidgeting and come and sit down. It took a few minutes of nervous shuffling but eventually they settled, George at the very far end of the sofa with Annie at his feet. The silence stretched on uncomfortably and then George, unable to bear it any longer, took the plunge.
“Do you know where Mitchell is?”
“I think he’s back there.”
Mal put down her coffee cup and turned to face them, drawing up her knees and hugging them to her chest.
That was Annie, George still thinking through the full connotations of her words.
“Back where I came from. Borogravia, well, not Borogravia per se, he could have landed anywhere. I mean he’s back there on the Disc.”
“The disc?” Annie shuffled round so that she could participate more in the discussion.
“You mean you’re from a different planet?”
George’s brain was starting to tick over at last. The removal of sharp implements from the vicinity of the person he was talking to tended to help with that.
“Which planet is this?”
“Earth of course” Annie explained, confusion beginning to draw down a frown in her smooth forehead.
“Third planet out from the sun or Sol,” George added. “Stable rotational orbit. Rocky crust over molten iron core. Mostly Harmless.”
“Then yes, I’m from a different planet.” She reached out for her coffee again. “Flat spinning disk supported on the backs of four elephants standing on the back of a turtle that swims through space. Mostly Magical.”
“Oh” said Annie. There wasn’t really anything else to say.
Considering the situation, George concluded that they could either assume the woman was mad and recently escaped from a mental institution, or that all this was in fact real. Bearing in mind that Mitchell had recently disappeared without trace under their very eyes he was currently leaning towards the second option. Just because you didn’t believe in things didn’t mean they were polite enough to stop existing. He was proof enough of that. If you’d asked him three years about the existence of vampires and werewolves he’d have laughed in your face. Or possibly smiled politely and saved his laughter until after you’d gone, but still. And now look at him. Looking back over the conversation he found there was something still niggling at him. He just had to ask.
“Really a turtle...?”
Three un-drunk cups of tea later Mal had had enough. The odd couple were kindness itself, the three un-drunk cups of tea bore witness to that, but as she slipped out into the street drawing the door behind her she wondered how it was this Mitchell person hadn’t strangled them already. They did like to talk and seemed unable to prevent themselves wandering around in conversational circles. Added to that was the girl’s seemingly insatiable interest in the minutiae of life in Borogravia when all Mal wanted to discuss was how this Snafu had happened and how the blazes they were going to fix it.
She’d listened carefully (ignoring the way their accents grated on her ears) and managed to make (for her) some helpful comments as they’d attempted to make sense of what had happened. From what the boy (and she couldn’t think of him as a man, not with those ears and that physique) had said it seemed she’d crossed instantaneously between parallel dimensions and the bridge had vanished behind her. What that meant in terms of getting home she couldn’t face up to contemplating at that moment in time. He’d said something about reversing the polarity and she’d recognised he’d been bullshitting himself as much as her. It was at that point she’d shot up from the settee, muttering something about needing some air and made for the door. Annie had appeared at her side holding a dark jacket as she struggled with the locking mechanism and she’d taken it gratefully.
That reminded her, she thought as she watched a lone figure pass by on the other side of the road; she must ask if all the people on “Earth” could move from spot to spot instantaneously without passing through the air in between. If so this place was even weirder than she’d already accepted. Taking a deep breath of the chill air she leant back against the scrappily painted wall and allowed herself at last to wonder what Polly was doing.
Vampires are good at staying immobile in one place, it helps when waiting for the perfect nightgown/balcony moment and it was a good while later before she moved again. Giving up on her search for a familiar constellation in the strangely fuzzy sky she lowered herself to the steps, finding a comfortable dip in the stone that indicated a parade of people had sat in this same spot over the years. Pulling the borrowed jacket up around her ears against the chill she felt something solid in a pocket and after some difficulty with the zip managed to slip her hand inside and found a packet of cigarettes. Bless that Mitchell. Not only did he have decent clothes but he had the good sense to leave some smokes lying around just in case a random dimension hopper should drop by unexpectedly. She opened the packet and sniffed appreciatively at the contents.
She was sitting on the doorstep, smoking, when Annie stepped through the door without opening it and perched beside her. They sat in silence for a moment before Mal broke the quiet.
The girl turned towards her with a friendly smile.
“Does everyone here walk through walls?”
Mal indicated the door with her cigarette hand. The other was fully occupied holding the lighter she still hadn’t got the courage to return to her breeches pocket.
“I’m a ghost.”
“My fiancé pushed me down the stairs. This was my house then.”
Mal couldn’t think of anything to answer that and in the silence looked down to see she’d been doing it again, unconsciously caressing the engraving on the lighter with her thumb, running it back and forth over the words. Unbidden a memory surfaced, Polly’s worried face hovering as she’d opened the box, the burnished steel nestling in the dark velvet, the words clearer then. Across the dimensions she felt the tug of home and swallowed a sudden lump in her throat.
Stubbing out the remains of the smoked cigarette on the edge of the step she pulled another from the pack. But having lit it and consciously placed the lighter back in her breeches pocket out of sight she realised she now had nothing to do with her other hand. Plunging it deep into a pocket, she hoped Annie hadn’t seen the hint of tremor or if she had she would attribute it to the low temperature.
“This hasn’t happened before then.”
“No.” Annie decide not to comment on the distress visible in the way the girl held herself. “But don’t worry, George is smart, we’ll fix this.”
She caught the unconvinced look Mal flashed in her direction before her gaze stuttered away, staring straight ahead across the street. The vampire sat unmoving apart from the hand lifting the cigarette now and then to her lips. Whatever she was thinking about she wasn’t sharing. Annie desperately tried to think of something to reassure her. But what was there to say? Sorry you’ve been dragged across the dimensions to a place you don’t understand, shoved in front of strangers (one of whom is dead) and left to cope?
Mal abruptly took a last drag on the fag and flicked it into the street. Annie watched the sparks fly as it hit the tarmac and felt the decision being made in the tense body beside her before she saw it. Hauling herself to her feet Mal began to walk away but halted at Annie’s concerned enquiry.
“I need better coffee than the crap you’ve got here. No offence meant.”
“None taken.” Annie thought for a moment. “There’s an Italian café down the road. The cabbies hang out there so they’re probably still open and I’m pretty sure they’ve got an espresso machine. You could try them.”
Shoving her hands deep into the pockets of the borrowed jacket Mal slouched away.
“What about money?” Annie called after her, but she was out of range.
Mal had got lost. Ironic really, considering how her day was going so far. She hadn’t meant to, but she’d obviously taken a wrong turning and now she was walking down one quiet residential street after another, with no sign of any sort of shops open or closed. How big was this town anyway? The houses all looked the same and she was beginning to doubt her internal sense of geography as it continued telling her she’d never been down this particular road before.
As she came round yet another identical corner into another identical street of houses she saw them. Halfway down the road were three gents in long coats wandering towards her. Vampires. She didn’t need the screaming alarm her nasal passages were letting rip with to tell her that. Why did the arrogant ones always think an off-the-peg long coat sufficed for style? There was more to exuding an air of faint menace under the delicate auspices of perfect attire than merely throwing on a trench coat. Catching a glimpse of herself in the window of the strange carts these humans filled their streets with Mal’s lips twitched in the smallest smidgeon of a smile. Even after a composure-ruffling non-consensual yank across who knew how many dimensions and attired in a borrowed jacket, she still had it.
They’d come to within hailing distance as she’d been musing. The smallest one stepped forward, leaving the two overly large ones that even Mal could identify as Brawn without Brains to hover behind. Ah. It was going to be one of those conversations.
“Look what we have here boys, a new vampire...”
"Sodoff," she replied creatively.
Where are you from then lad? Don’t seem right to me, a nice boy like you out without protection.”
“Oh, I have protection.” She smiled nastily, raising her lip and allowing her teeth to be seen.
“Oh those… we’ve all got those. I meant real protection. This can be a scary world for little boys.” He scented the air and then a nasty smile, mirroring her own, broke out over his face.
“Little girls on the other hand, well we’ve all got to do what we can to look after them don’t we?” He took a step forward. “A nice thing like you really shouldn’t be out on your own.”
She shrugged and tried to move past him but his earlier step had brought him close enough to lay a hand on her arm.
“Don’t touch me.”
He laughed but it was abruptly swallowed as she threw off his hand and turning grabbed him around the neck to slam him hard against the nearest garden wall. The two mammoths stepped forward and she held up a hand to stop them.
“You Stay There.”
She leant in so she could whisper in his ear, feeling his pulse twitch under her hand.
“You are keeping me from my coffee. The last fool who attempted to deny me caffeination ended up in pieces. And they didn’t even find all the pieces.”
He whimpered, his feet scrabbling.
“Now, are you going to indicate the direction of the nearest purveyor of coffee, or would you prefer to continue wasting my time?”
He pointed a wavering finger down the road.
“Thank you. Your co-operation has been noted.”
Released from her hold he slid down the wall to crouch shivering in a heap at her feet and she turned and left him there, the large two stepping aside to let her past.
She found the cafe easily enough, the one lighted shop front in a street of darkness. It was quiet, a couple of gents sat alone and a small group clustered around a table in the corner. Squinting up at the terrible script on the board on the wall she was relieved to find she recognised some names there, though much of it was incomprehensible. What was s [ploughman’s] anyway? She ordered an espresso and felt for her money purse on her belt, before remembering that her coin would be no use here. Thinking quickly she ran her fingers through the many pockets in the borrowed jacket and heaved a sigh of relief as she heard something chink in one of the inside pockets. Looking down at the small collection of coins she held she realised she had no idea which ones to hand over. But the owner looked reasonably kind so she merely proffered the handful of coins over the counter and waited for him to pick through and take what he wanted.
He looked from the handful of change to her face and back before shrugging and picking out a couple of coins. “That accent, not from round here originally are ya Luv?”
“Borogravia” she offered and looking down realised she still had a reasonable number of coins left.
“Oh, one of them Baltic States? Yeah, we get a lot of your people in here.”
She smiled at him, careful to keep her teeth hidden and proffering the change again enquired if she could get another with the money she had left. He checked, nodded and took another two coins leaving her some small copper tokens and some silver. Dropping the change back into the original pocket she made a note to check with Annie or George as to how money worked over here.
The sounds of a coffee grinder drew her out of her reverie and her nostrils flared as the scent of fresh ground drifted over the counter. This was the real deal. She watched the familiar mechanics of coffee brewing, her need rising until eventually the paper cup was placed on the top in front of her, steam rising and carrying the beautiful aroma to her waiting senses. She couldn’t stop her self reaching out and grabbing the cup, lifting it and inhaling deeply before taking that perfect first sip. Ah coffee.
Careful! It’s hot.”
Her eyes met his over the cup and she shrugged, indicating that she hadn’t burnt herself and wasn’t intending to sue.
“Thank you,” she threw over a shoulder as she turned to go and heard him call “come again” over the closing of the door behind her.
Retracing her steps back to the house she let the aroma of coffee wrap itself around her and carry her onward. Every now and then she took the smallest sip from the cup held so carefully. However, she wasn’t so absorbed that she didn’t realise she’d picked up a trail. Glancing back over her shoulder as she turned a corner she noted the two massive shapes following her and the small weed stumbling along in their wake. She ignored them, but it was too much to hope they would do the same. They came up on here heels, the two large ones beginning to talk between themselves about how terrible things occasionally happened to random loners out and about unprotected on the Bristol streets and what a shame it was that the Police seemed unable to do anything about it.
“Go home boys, before you do something you’d regret.”
She took another sip from the rapidly cooling coffee, slowing her pace just a smidgeon but not enough that they realised they were coming up on her shoulder. They didn’t take the hint, choosing instead to describe the condition of a body found recently in a dark alleyway in this area. They were approaching the back of a takeaway and she noted with interest the large waste bins jutting out into the walkway.
Making her decision she halted abruptly, the thug behind stumbling into her elbow and collapsing to the ground in pain whilst the other drifted to a stop alongside her. Changing the cup of precious coffee from her right to left hand she punched out sidewise, watching in admiration as the waste bin folded gracefully around the second thug, confining him in its folds. Turning she ignored the groaning remains of a man currently introducing his lunch, dinner and tea to the gutter, to address the only remaining upright member of the trio.
“And that, gentlemen, concludes our business I believe. Enjoy the rest of the evening.”
She turned and walked away unruffled, sipping delicately.
Mitchell was not having a good day. They’d eventually came to collect him in a group and hustled him over to the main building. Mitchell had co-operated as best he was able, but not knowing at times in which direction they wanted him to walk meant that he was more pushed into the room than led. They’d sat him in a chair in front of the most cluttered desk he’d seen in a while, and that included some he’d seen in the hospital. The chair was a plain wooden one but he wasn’t complaining. It was better than the cold stone he’d spent the last couple of hours attempting not to come into contact with in that chill cell. He was worried he’d never be able to feel his butt cheeks again.
He tried to look around, take note of the situation, see if there was anything he could use to get himself out of this hole, but his thinking was clouded. For some reason he could hear his heartbeat pounding in his ears and the stuttering thumping of the young lads stood behind him were only beating a crazy counterpoint to his thoughts. He was hungry. Man, was he hungry. Like really hungry. What was happening to him? He hadn’t been this needy for ages. It must be the stress. Getting kidnapped at bolt-point would put a spoke in the wheels of anyone’s positive thinking technique. He tried to concentrate on something else, anything, and was immensely grateful as the door opened behind him providing a new distraction.
The crazy she-devil who’d captured him came into the room and from the way she walked in like she owned the place he guessed he’d been plonked in her office. She was finishing off a conversation with the Corporal he’d seen when he’d first opened his eyes and he heard her tell him to “get the Sergeant on it smartish as it looked like they didn’t have much time”. What did she mean “not much time”? Mitchell hoped and prayed it meant that his ambassador would be turning up shortly to get him out of the hands of these crazy people with their fetish for ancient weaponry.
Sending the Corporal away she shut the door calmly behind him and crossed the room to deal with the next problem on her list.
I’m Lieutenant Perks,” she rested a hip on the desk. “What’s your name son?”
“And what are you doing here Mitchell?”
He looked up as she leant back on the desk, following up her slim form, hearing her heartbeat, slow and steady, not afraid of him. Hot blood pulsing through her. The shameful tug of need. He tried to ignore it. She was still talking.
“You are indeed a problem. The Igor’s say they have no idea what happened this afternoon, all their clever machinery threw a widget about the time you appeared to us. They suggest I have a go at shaking the tree higher up and see what falls out, what do you think?”
Mitchell fought to hear what she was saying through the haze of hunger. She leant forward, snapping her fingers under his nose.
“Mitchell. Mitchell !”
He could see the beat in her throat when she leant forward. Warm blood pulsing just under the skin, if he just reached out…
“What the Fuck?!!”
She leapt back swearing. In the next few seconds he learnt a whole new vocabulary as she kicked over his chair and planted a foot on his neck as the crossbows of the guarding pair swung toward him with intent.
“I thought you said you were clean? !!“
She waved to one of the guards, and when he handed her his crossbow she flicked off the safety and had it hovering over his heart in one clean movement. While he was still digesting his new position she jerked her head and the now free guard moved over to a filing cabinet and pulled out some thick chains from the top drawer. Mitchell swallowed.
“I am! I was! But sometimes it's an effort!”
His muscles bunched, wondering if he could throw her off, but she just leant a little bit more of her weight onto his neck and smiling in a not very nice way at all suggested that he didn’t bother trying that.
“What's your transference?”
“Your thing - you know - that you transfer the need onto? What’s yours?” She rolled her eyes and continued as though explaining to a child. “You tell me, I tell them and we send out and get you some.”
“I don’t know what you mean.” His face fell. “I failed again. Lauren was right, there’s nothing that can help me.”
She snorted and he saw her lips twitch as though she were trying to hold back a laugh.
Somewhere behind his head he could feel the guard hovering with the chains and above him he saw the crossbow twitch for a moment as the she-devil seemed to be getting ready for something. She leant down a smidgeon, and he could noticed dispassionately that she was careful to strike the perfect balance between looming over him and maintaining her balance as a precaution should he try something. The calm authority in her voice held his attention.
“Now, we are going to do this nice and quick and you are going to behave. Ok? Firstly because you are a gentleman and thus would never consider offering harm to a lady. But secondly because I am vastly experienced at combating vampire reflexes and should you think of trying anything you will find yourself a heap of dust before you can say Plogzive! Do we have an agreement young man?”
The next few seconds went past too quickly for him to ever be exactly sure what she did. But the result of all the efficient activity was that he was tied to the chair, unable to move and she had the crossbow back in her hands, pointing once again at his breastbone.
“Damn emo vampires.”
She put up the crossbow, flicking on the safety catch and with a wave of her hand at the guards he felt himself lifted up in the chair and settled back in an upright position.
“No Ribbon. No transference. No skills.” She shook her head almost in disappointment. “We are used to a better quality of vampire around here let me tell you.” She noticed him testing the chains and added, “Don’t bother, they’re specially designed to hold vampires.”
He looked up in enquiry.
Placing the crossbow on the desk – still pointing at him he noted – she moved round solid piece of furniture and settled into her chair. Stuck out in isolation in the middle of the room under that appraising gaze he felt more exposed than a man fully dressed (including natty fingerless gloves) should. He knew that one of the guards behind him still had his crossbow and couldn’t help thinking that this was when they skewered him fore and aft before throwing him out onto the dust heap.
But she merely picked up her pen and selecting a piece of paper from the untidy heaps in front of her, began to make some notes. Looking up she met his eyes and produced a kind smile.
“Well Mitchell, you’ve taken the decision out of my hands anyway.” He froze but she continued regardless. “We’ve got to get you to Ankh Morpork and we’ve got to get you there fast.”
She returned her attention to her paperwork, scribbling away on various different forms and signing here and there with a flourish. He sat before her in silence, twitching faintly. He couldn’t care less about Ankh Morpork, whatever that was. The heartbeats in the room were thundering in his ears, her slow steady pulse before him and the faster, more uneven beats of the guards behind him. He couldn’t prevent a whimper escaping though he clamped his jaw shut. She didn’t look up but her pen halted, her head cocked at the sound. There was a moment of tense silence and then she put down her pen, pushing back her chair with a sigh. She crossed the room and opening the door behind him, spoke quietly to the private stationed outside. Closing the door again she didn’t return to her desk, instead moving calmly around the room, collating loose papers into a file while she waited. There came a knock at the door.
Mitchell’s brain screamed at him (fresh meat!) and he leapt up in his chair to be brought up short by the chains. His captor was moving across to greet the new arrival but turned back to put a hand on his shoulder and settle him back in the chair. It surprised him that she wasn’t angry, concern instead in her eyes as she reminded him that she had told him so before switching her attention to the Sergeant who had just arrived and enquiring “are they fresh?”
The haze cleared momentarily and he could see now what the man was holding. It was rats. Two rats, freshly killed if his senses were anything to go by, hanging by their tails from the man’s fingers. Did they expect him to feed on that? He’d never considered rat, never considered animals other than human as temptation. What were they planning to do to him?
He realised she had taken one of the rats and was walking cautiously towards him. Behind him he heard a heartbeat speed up as the guard with the crossbow levelled it in his direction again but his attention was glued to the woman standing in front of him. She held up the rat, unafraid of him for all she was poised to jump back the minute he made any kind of move. He looked up at her in confusion.
“Bite you idiot.”
He made a noise of incomprehension and she reached forward to yank at his forelock. It hurt and he pulled away but as he opened his mouth to protest she stuck the rat in and tapped him on the head, forcing him to bite down. It tasted as disgusting as he’d always thought it would but as the still warm blood gushed over his tongue and down his throat he felt fantastic. She patted him on the shoulder murmuring “good boy” and turning to the sergeant indicated with a jerk of her head that a private conversation over by the window was requested.
“What about him?”
“Oh he’ll be fine for a bit. We’ll take the other rat for the trip. I can always pick something up along the way.”
The guard was still hovering and for all Mitchell worried about his crossbow handling skills, he was glad there were others in the room apart from the crazy rat feeding woman. Now that his brain was able to process information other than his need to feed, he was remembering what she’d said earlier. If he could have spoken around the hairy gag she’d seen fit to inflict upon him he’d have asked where this Ankh Morpork was and what she was planning to do to him when they got there.
The next half hour was decidedly unpleasant. Let us draw a veil over the scene of a group of strong young men manhandling him to the coach still wrapped in the frightening chains. They didn’t at least throw him to the floor, but instead propped him up on one of the seats. Facing backward he noted, and hoped he wouldn’t throw up. He’d been unable to spit out the rat, she’d forced it in so hard, and he didn’t want to envisage what would happen if he threw up around rat and had to inhale that for the remainder of the journey.
They left him there to wait. He was just completing the last points in a highly complicated plan of escape when he heard quick footsteps and the door was wrenched open to reveal his captor. She was still in conversation with the Sergeant and paused with her foot on the top step – half in and half out of the carriage.
“That should be all the stuff for the next few weeks. I’ll be back as soon as it’s done, keep an eye on the Hubward Sector, I’m not sure we’ve seen the last of that trouble, and try and make sure the lads get some Melee training, Thursday was just an embarrassment.”
“And you’ll send news should Mal turn up back here?”
She nodded, banging on the roof as he shut the door behind her with a “Good luck Lieutenant.” A whip cracked and the coach took off at high speed, throwing Mitchell from his seat. She caught him and put him gently back in his place. He muttered something around the rat and saw her lips twitch again before she relented and helped him spit it out, throwing it out of the window. They sat in silence for a while and then taking her calm demeanour as a good sign he broached the subject of the chains. He tried to explain that he gave his parole and wouldn’t harm her, he was just so uncomfortable. She refused him and when he began to plead (putting his pride to one side) she leant forward let him see the seriousness in her eyes.
"You're an untransformed vampire, count yourself lucky you're not staked n buried at any or all of the crossroads we've driven over."
Sitting back she took a crossbow (what was it with these soldiers and their need to stake him whenever possible) and placed it to hand on the seat next to her. Ignoring him she opened one of the pile of files she’d brought with her and began to make notes in the margin. They drove on in silence as the countryside darkened into dusk outside the window.
Chapter 2: Do As The Bristolians Do…
“I see you’ve not moved then.”
George shut the door behind him and sliding the heavy bags into the corner went to remove his coat. Mal and Annie managed to drag their gaze away from the screen for a second to acknowledge his presence but were swiftly reabsorbed into what they were watching. He sighed. He’d left them curled up on the sofa three hours ago, just settling into the second episode of the BBC mini series of Pride and Prejudice and from the looks of it, apart from refreshing their individual beverages, they’d not moved.
Has he jumped in the lake yet?”
“Shh!” Annie waved a frantic hand at him. “She’s just got the other letter from Jane! He’s gonna catch her crying.”
“So he has jumped in the lake then.”
hey both studiously ignored him and he left them to it, slipping into the kitchen to make himself a cup of tea seeing as Annie was otherwise occupied. He still wasn’t sure it was such a good idea leaving the two of them to entertain themselves while he went to work and lied about Mitchell having the stomach flu. Not that explaining in great detail how exactly Mitchell was coping with explosive diarrhoea wasn’t funny in itself, but in his absence Annie seemed to have taken it on herself to introduce Mal to British culture through the medium of chick flicks and he wasn’t sure the world would be able to cope with the outcome. As he slipped in between them, cradling his steaming mug, Darcy was nowhere to be seen and instead it was the scene of veiled hints by candlelight with associated shawl and disbelieving elder sister. Assuming they would let him talk now, as nothing much plot related was happening, he began to describe the complicated bureaucracy he’d had to fight through at the library to get his borrowers card. Unfortunately they had other ideas, he’d never realised an elbow to the ribs from both sides could be so painful. Nursing his bruises, he sat in silence until Elizabeth blew out the candle and the credits rolled.
“Now can I talk?”
“If you’re quick.” Annie reached for the DVD remote, discovered it wasn’t co-operating for her today and handed it over his head to Mal. The vampire, for all her recent arrival from another world/dimension/universe (they still weren’t sure) had quickly become savvy with modern technology. Without prompting she found the buttons to get back to the menu and selected the next episode. He looked at them both in disbelief.
“You’re going to keep watching?”
Mal’s attention was glued to the episode summary so it was Annie that turned to him with a shrug, perfectly expressing her disappointment in his inability to realise the self evidence of this course of action.
Women! He had to take off his glasses, clean them and put them back on (his version of counting to ten) before he could speak again.
“Yes thank you, I had a lovely time at the library, working my socks off in the few hours of free time I have in this life, being the only person in this house with a job and thus completely responsible for our meagre income stream...”
George dispassionately observed the dancing spots at the corners of his vision and dragged in a much-needed breath.
“Anyway! The Library. Full of annoying people but I persevered to find some books that might get her out of this mess and Mitchell home again. Mitchell? Who used to be our friend? Does anyone but me remember him?”
It’s the last episode George.” Annie put an explanatory hand on his knee. “Let us see them get their happy ending and then we’ll be more than willing to hear about your shitty day.”
“Fine! I’ll get the tea on then shall I? I doubt you’ve done anything to get it ready while I’ve been out.”
He stormed up out of the comfortable confines of the sofa and vanished into the kitchen.
“There’s mince in the fridge,” Annie called after him, settling in as the embroidered credits began to weave their way onto the screen.
“And George?" Mal looked over and gave him a smile. “Thank you for going to the library.”
As he clattered around the kitchen George couldn’t help thinking how well she’d slotted into their odd little group in the time she’d been here. It was like having a another Mitchell around, someone to constantly occupy the most comfortable seat in the house, their untidy slapdash debonair attitude messing up George’s system, continuingly interrupting conversations with perfectly balanced wit to distract Annie and make her laugh. Curled up on the sofa like she owned it, coffee in one hand, she even managed to make Mitchell’s two-t-shirt-with-shirt-combination look somehow chic. He had to admit that wasn’t her fault though. They’d had to find her some clothes to wear. Her uniform may have been all the rage where she’d come from, but they couldn’t have her walking the streets in those breeches and jacket. People would laugh and then take notice. If there was one thing they didn’t need at the moment it was people taking notice.
It had had been a difficult conversation. Annie had handed the task over to him, thinking for some insane reason that he would be able to do it better. After instructing him be tactful (like he was really intending on doing it any other way – their visitor was on edge already and he liked his jugular vein inside his neck) she had left him to it. Climbing those stairs would list most frightening thing in his life if they hadn’t already had such an interesting year.
They’d let her sleep in Mitchell’s room that first night as she obviously had nowhere to go. Mitchell wouldn’t be needing it and it was against everything George was trying to hold onto in terms of his humanity to kick a needy stranger out into the cold streets. Looking at the problem in the cold light of dawn, the caffeine in the steaming mug in front of him only just beginning to weave delicious tendrils through his brain it was clear that she would have to stay with them until they got Mitchell back. She couldn’t live rough, the other vampires would quickly find her, and from what she’d said when she got back from the café she had no money and no knowledge of how money worked over here. The concept of paper notes had entertained her for a good fifteen minutes. She would have to stay, and she couldn’t sleep in his or Annie’s room, Annie was quite clear about that.
So she had Mitchell’s room and by extension it was easier to conceive of offering her Mitchell’s clothes. The solution was, after all, only for the interim. He’d not been overly keen, an illogical disgust creeping over him at the mere thought, as though one were wearing the clothes of the dead, but Annie had said “it’s not like she’s going to stretch them anyway“ and it was decided.
He’d hovered in the doorway for a good five minutes that next morning, the courage he’d gathered to climb the stairs having left him the minute he raised his hand to knock. Mal had gazed out of the window and refused to turn to face him though he knew she’d heard the door. Eventually he’d had to say something, the minutes were ticking past and if he were late for work again Nina would kill him (possibly for real considering what had happened last month). He’d stuttered something about how she was welcome to stay, as long as it took. How he was sure there would be some books in the library that could help them, but he couldn’t get time off to look for a couple of days and maybe she should just hang about till then. That Annie would show her the sights; take her shopping so she could get decent coffee. And then taking a deep breath he’d ventured at last to cross the boundary and enter the room. She’d felt him enter, he saw her shoulders tense and as he reached the chest of drawers she’d finally turned to face him.
Her face was perfectly calm and he would have believed the façade she was presented had he not had to fight down the werewolf instincts warning him to run and run now. Not wanting to look into her eyes and have to admit that everything wasn’t a-ok he’d kept opening drawers at random until he found where Mitchell stored his t-shirts and indicated in more of a muttered undertone than a clear statement that she should help herself and Mitchell probably wouldn’t mind. He’d then legged it, leaving Annie to explain the bathroom rules and other personal matters. Cowardice? Yes it probably was, but being alone in a room with an emotionally unstable vampire made his skin crawl and hair break out in places he really didn’t like to think about. Knowing that being around him probably made her teeth ache didn’t make it any better.
Jolting back to the present he finished browning the meat and, his tired back opting for the path of least resistance, threw in a jar of bolognaise sauce, clapping the lid on the pan and leaving it to simmer. He was perfectly capable of producing a beautiful spag-bol from scratch, but not tonight. Looking over to the great viewing public he noted they were still glued to the TV. If he slid in between them now he was optimistic he would be able catch the visit from the old hag, he’d always liked that part. Gathering up his cuppa he crept in and without looking up Mal swung round, lowering her feet to the floor to make room for him. Annie snuggled into him on the other side with a whispered thank you, whether for starting the tea or not forcing them to miss the weepy ending he didn’t know.
That night, once Mr Bingley had got his Jane, Mr Darcy had got his just deserts, Mrs Bennet had been pushed into the village-well somewhere behind the scenes and the two girls had eaten and then complimented George’s cooking, they all went to the pub. This was something Mal was good at. She didn’t seem to ever get overly drunk and though she’d never touch beer, preferring to stick to some Polish brandy she’d discovered hidden behind the bar, she wasn’t that expensive a guest. The main reason for this was her skill at darts. She swore she’d never played before, but the first night they’d taken her she’d ended up beating the entire pub, winning them free drinks for the night. Since then she’d become something of a local attraction and though she didn’t win all the time now (a little talk with George about fitting in had put paid to that) she still won enough drinks that they generally came out on top at the end of the night.
She didn’t play much that night, preferring instead to nurse her glass and pump George for as much information as he could remember about wormholes and parallel universes. Being as he’d not had long enough in the library to do anything much more than gather all the suitable books up, and any documentary he’d caught on the subject had generally put him to sleep, he wasn’t much use to her. The fact he’d been drinking steadily all night didn’t help either. Eventually she gave up on him, grumbling that she’d read the dratted books instead as they’d be more help. After this the conversation turned to a lighter path as she and Annie deconstructed the idiocy of men as revealed in the persons of Bingley, Darcy, and Collins, whilst reminding the company present that though Wickham was a jolly bad sort they’d do him in a whisker. George did his best to keep up, as usual not mentioning that he thought Lizzie quite a frightening character and had never understood why every woman he met identified with her so strongly – even the obvious Janes.
“What’s your friend like?”
They’d been travelling for three days now in this silence and Mitchell had passed through boredom over 24 hours ago. They hadn’t stopped; even to sleep, only halting when necessary to change the horses. He’d nodded off from time to time despite his bonds, but it didn’t make the time pass any quicker. Lieutenant Perks had fallen asleep late each night curled up on the seat opposite him and though he’d noted that at times her dreams distressed her she’d not actually said anything to him since that first day. She spent all the daylight hours lost in her paperwork and once the sun set she retreated into her thoughts leaving him to stare out of the window and the dark countryside. He repeated his question.
“What’s that?” She looked up from the file she was attempting to read, though he knew for a fact she’d not turned a page for at least a quarter of an hour.
“What’s your friend like, you know, the one I swapped with. Mal wasn’t it?”
She shot him a shielded look over the file.
“How do you know you were swapped?”
“I’ve been thinking.” He saw her brow rise and spoke quickly before she could butt in. “You don’t ever talk to me and I had to entertain myself somehow. I think that something reached out between dimensions and changed us around. Him and me. Two vampires in two different worlds. That’s why we’re going to Ankh Morpork isn’t it? To find someone who knows about this kind of thing and can change us back?
“You’re a clever lad.”
“We’re going to Ankh Morpork to get you some help with this problem you seem to have with regard to snacking on the general population. While you’re there I may have a small chat to some people I know and some people I’ve only heard about and see if I can’t work out what’s going on.”
“And kick some butts.”
“And possibly kick some butts,“ she agreed with a tired smile.
They travelled in silence for a moment before he said “so what was he like?”
Polly gave him a Look.
“Underworld,” George shifted uncomfortably on the sofa.
“And she’s meant to be a vampire?”
“Why does she wear that? It’s not exactly the most comfortable attire for sitting around on cold stone in the rain.”
“Cos then people like George will spend good money on the DVD widescreen version with special features.” Annie popped her head around from the kitchen and then disappeared again.
“Ah.” Mal went back to her book. She was slowly getting the hang of this wormhole theory, the pad next to her covered in scribbled notes and diagrams. But understanding the maths and working out how to reverse the procedure were two very different things. According to the best (and also craziest) mathematicians on this planet such things were just not possible with the resources available to the human species. There must have been magic involved; it was the only way she could see that certain unbreakable equations could be balanced. She turned a page, sighing as she realised she would have to ask George to go back to the Library again.
Polly stood in front of the gates of the Unseen University and like anyone else standing in that spot felt extremely small and insignificant. In the past the High Wizards had paid someone a great deal of gold to put a complicated spell onto the gateway to do just that and would have been pleased at this evidence that they were still getting their moneys worth. She rubbed at the bridge of her nose, tired suddenly. The headache she’d been avoiding for the past week popped up again and, as if in sympathy, aches spoke up all over her body. Obviously with carriages you could either have speed or comfort, not both. Something else to chalk up against whoever was currently playing silly buggers with her personal vampire.
Her plan had been to get here, and here she was. She’d got Mitchell to the city without him eating anyone and deposited him thankfully in the tender hands of the League. After filling out a pile of paperwork, including more insurance forms than she wanted to remember, they’d eventually accepted his skinny person and promised to take good care of him, on pain of extremely detailed scenarios should any harm come his way. She sent a swift thank you to Mal, wherever she was, for those scenarios. People should remember that sometimes other people knew more things than people thought they did. Or something like that. Now she was alone and though she didn’t miss Mitchell or his persistent curiosity he had been a link to the world that had taken Mal and as such she felt somewhat lost without him. Ankh Morpork was a big place, with important people and when it came down to it, she was only a low level Lieutenant in the scrappy army of a small and not very powerful country. It looked like the world was going to have to be reminded what Borogravian women were capable of.
Sighing she drew the remnants of her energy together, put on her army face and knocked on the small door within the main gate.
It took a lot of explaining, some badgering and at one point an in depth conversation - once side of which consisted only of variations on the word Oook, but eventually she found herself talking to a tall thin wizard in glasses who introduced himself as Ponder Stibbons. He, like the others, made the mistake of talking down to the mere woman he saw in front of him, only to be forcibly reminded that the Borogravian Army didn’t promote prime idiots to officer status out of the ranks and a good point is a good point however or wherever it is made.
Once he had ascertained that she wasn’t the one playing silly buggers he condescended to take her to his laboratory and set about talking gobbledegook to the minions that gathered around him like ants to a sugar source.
She looked down to see the Librarian had slipped a hand into hers. He tugged gently. She tried to explain that she had to stay, she needed to get them to understand… but he merely tugged again.
“Oook” he said in explanation and she thought she understood most of what he was implying.
Besides he was right, they did have access to the largest library on the disc and she might as well make use of that information whilst the others were arguing over precedence and departmental reach.
ater, munching steadily through a banana she ran a hand over the spines as she made her way down the shelving, gliding past volume after volume as her mind flittered from possibility to possibility. What they really needed was something more specific. Something more explicit to their needs. Ah yes, here it was. “Weirdness, plot holes and how to resolve your crack!fic when you run out of steam”. She cracked open the heavy tome and began to read.
“Chapter 1: Adventures through the wardrobe and other domestic furniture wormholes. No... not really.
Chapter 2: Falling down the rabbit hole, fairy rings and other freaks of nature. Again, not really.
Chapter 3:... No.
Chapter 4:... Ew No. What is that anyway?
Switching tactics she opened the book to the index and ran her finger down the list of choices. This looked more like it. Inter-dimensional switches, temporal resonance, rift through time causing connecting bridges between narrative paths, there might be something here they could use. She hurried back to the issue desk gathering up the string as she went.
Looking through the book Ponder got so excited his glasses steamed up. Taking them off and wiping them with shaking hands he pointed at a page in the book his assistant was now holding for him.
“I think Hex can formulate something based on this idea here, and if we can get him to do these sums here we might, just might, be able to get something.” He slipped the glasses back on his nose. “Where did you say you were again?”
“Just out on patrol.”
“Going about normal business, yes, here it is. Wonderful. And what colour was the light?”
“Blue light.. blue light. Not red?” He looked up to see Polly’s emphatic shake of the head. “Ok, blue light it is then.” He turned a few pages, muttering to himself. “Aha! Adrian come and look at this. D’you reckon if we back flush the BTG we’ll be able to get these numbers?”
The spotty faced youth shrugged.
Well let’s give it a go anyway. I think we could really push back the boundaries of knowledge here!”
“I’ll make a note to get a cartographer in then Mr Stibbons, we should have records if you’re going to be discoverin’ new lands in the realm of knowledge.”
They all spun round to see a large Wizard who seemed to think himself important, and from the way they all behaved around him, maybe actually was. Ponder Stibbons introduced Polly to the Archchancellor and on sight of her his eyes brightened.
Would ye do me the honour of dinner, m’dear? Been a while since I had dinner with a gel, would be a great service you’d be doing me.” He noticed she was about to refuse and continued reassuringly. “The lads will take forever getting the thing set up. There’s nothing we can do here, lots of high falutin’ nonsense. We’d be getting in the way most likely.”
Behind him she saw Ponder Stibbons making gestures of encouragement, his version of a baboon finding its bottom with both hands much less clearer than The Librarian’s. Producing a polite smile she indicated that she would, of course, be pleased to accept such a delightful offer, seeing the younger wizard breathe a sigh of relief at her words.
Ye can come back later and check on progress I’m sure.” Ridcully raised an enquiring eyebrow in Ponder’s direction and at his nod she let the Archancellor lead her away.
It was much later that Polly knocked quietly on the door to the High Energy Magic building. Dinner had been fun, the Archchancellor was nothing if not a generous conversationalist and having been out in the field for a while there wasn’t much she wouldn’t be willing to put up with for the spread of food on offer. When they’d finally risen from the table she’d excused herself with the idea of going for a short walk to aid digestion. The university never went to sleep it seemed and she’d found the Bursar awake when she snuck into his department in a quest for paper. He’d been most helpful, letting her use the university clacks system and advising her who in town might be able to assist her in some of her other needs. All that done, it was now time to deal with the last item on her list.
Opening the door, Adrian looked confused that someone as normal as her would be awake at this time and reminded her in a whisper that Hex would take another 6 hours at least to finish working through all the calculations.
“I know, I just thought I could come in and watch?”
He shrugged, leaving other people’s complicated motives to those said other people and stepped back to allow her in.
“I’ve got to update the Glouper  so I’ll have to leave you to it. You won’t touch anything will you?”
He left her to it, vanishing around the back of another piece of machinery, almost but not quite as complicated as HEX. Looking around to check she was unobserved she crossed quietly to the thinking machine humming quietly to itself.
"HEX? Are you awake?"
The quill stuttered its way to the inkpot and returned to the parchment board.
“Can I ask you a question?”
“Does it, er, matter, if the subject of your search is male or female? I mean in regard to the potential of finding them?”
+++GENDER IS ESSENTIAL+++
+++INTRODUCE NEW INFORMATION AND RECALCULATE. QUERY?+++
“Er, yes. I think so.”
She looked at the complex of wires, twisted metal and other things surrounding the thinking machine.
“HEX? How do I tell you stuff? I mean, Introduce New Information?”
+++AUDIO INPUT ONLINE+++
Does that mean I can just say it?”
“Right. Ok. Here we go. Hex. This person you’re looking for. Mal. Well, he is. I mean she is.. Damnit, Mal’s A Girl. Ok?”
+++NEW INFORMATION RECEIVED. RECALCULATING+++
“But if you tell anyone else this I will personally disconnect your Input from your Output without taking your sensors offline. Do you understand me?”
+++I WILL COMPLY+++
“Thanks. I owe you one. If a machine can need favours that is.”
+++ANTS LIKE HONEY+++
She stared at the parchment in surprise before smiling and promising that she’d see what she could do. Hex produced something approximating a beep and she left him to his calculations.
Six hours later Polly wasn’t feeling quiet as optimistic. HEX, as Ponder kept emphasising, had cut down the number of potential dimensions massively, but they were still left with a long list of potential planets Mal could be stranded on.
Polly had shouted and stormed out, slamming the door.
Resting on her forearms on the railing set up to prevent portly Wizards stumbling down the shallow five steps outside the High Energy Magic building, Polly watched the sun rise over the city. The university grounds were quiet at this time of the morning. All the students not already abed would be crawling in by various back entrances in a hurry to get out of the dawn sunlight. Kind of like vampires in a way. She cursed again dropping her head into her hands. Someone slipped through the door behind her but she didn’t look up. Ponder spoke quietly to that miserable back, explaining that they were running a reduction algorithm, trying to cut down the list based on more precise parameters.
“It won’t get rid of many, but it might help. Shouldn’t take long this time, half an hour max we think. Then we’ll need to talk about what we do next.”
“What do you suggest?” Her voice sounded odd even to her ears but he didn’t comment.
“We can sniff around in the ones we’ve got, see if we get any kind of response. Hex suggested we put the two of you together, he thinks you’ll be some help in sensing whether Mal’s there or not.”
Polly almost smiled but couldn’t quite remember how. Clever HEX. The machine had been able to see what a gaggle of humans were completely oblivious to. Mind you, these humans were walking around with Wizard brains so perhaps it wasn’t as surprising as all that. Behind her she realised Ponder was still talking.
“Lieutenant, I think you need to consider, what if we can’t make it work? What if we don’t find him?”
Polly knuckles whitened on the railing but she said nothing. In the quiet morning the sound of Modo chasing down a rogue compost heap drifted over the perfect lawns.
“We will find her. We have to.” She straightened up and went back inside.
BTG: Big Tank of Goo – basically does what it says on the tin.
 Not currently working as well as the original (Making Money). This depressing state of affairs worried Ponder somewhat but made a certain Mr Lipwig extremely thankful.
The light from the TV flickered over the sleeping form of a vampire uncomfortably lying half curled up on the sofa. Mal hadn’t meant to go to sleep, she’d been trying to get to the end of “100 Greatest Adverts!” as part of her scheme to learn as much as possible about this weird planet, but the quiet of the house and the banality of the viewing material had been too much.
That voice didn’t come from the TV. Mal moved in her sleep, the voice entering her dreams, bringing her a host of images and memories.
She sat up with a start, eyes darting about the room to find the source of the sound. Apart from the TV encouraging her to “Shake and Vac-to put the freshness back” there was nothing. She swung her feet to the floor and rubbed her face with a tired hand. After sitting there for a long moment, considering, she appeared to come to a decision and rising to her feet made her way quietly upstairs.
George was asleep when the quiet knock came at his door. He was asleep when the door creaked open and a slim figure slipped through. He was still asleep as the figure silently crossed the floor to his bed and perched on the edge. He was no longer asleep however, when it leaned over and poked him urgently in the shoulder.
“Shhhhhh. It’s only me.” He looked up into dark eyes. “Mal,” she added in explanation.
“What are you doing here? In my room? In the middle of the night? When I’m not dressed?”
I came to ask you something.” She got up off the bed and walked to his window, turning her back to him as she pulled aside the curtains and stared out into the street.
“What is it? Is Annie ok? Are we in trouble again? Are the evil vampires here?”
“That’s a matter of opinion,” she turned and flashed him her grin, but it didn’t stay, her face falling into something more serious.
“Then what is it?”
He reached for the shirt he’d dropped on the floor the night before. At the time he’d worried about the untidiness, but he was grateful now. Slipping his arms into the sleeves and buttoning it up tight he felt dressed enough to sit up and shuffle back until he was leaning against the headboard, the covers pulled up to his chest. She still hadn’t said anything and looking over he could see the tension in her posture. He couldn’t see her face, backlit as it was by the window. He waited.
“George, do you believe in ESP?”
“I don’t know what I believe in any more.”
“Yeah.” He could hear the tiredness in her voice. “But do you think if someone was thinking of you, across the dimensions, you could hear them?”
“What’s all this about?”
She turned away from him to examine the street again. “I think I heard something, I heard her call my name.”
“Are you sure? It was likely just a dream.”
At his easy dismissal she spun round from the window and though he couldn’t see her face he suddenly felt the hair itch on the back of his hands.
“George, don’t be more of an idiot than you need to be.”
Protesting that it could be possible, it could be just a dream, he scrambled back in bed as she pushed away from the window, crossed the room in quick steps and loomed over him out of the shadows.
“George, dear stupid George. I will tell you this once and once only. Yes I dream of Polly, I miss her more than any of your stupid words could ever express, it’s killing me. I’m going insane at the thought that I may be stuck here in your shitty world separated from her forever, it’s tearing my heart apart and there are some days I don’t think I’ll be able to bear it. But if you dare to insinuate again that I would ever allow my emotional state to affect my decision making I will put you through that wall without a moments thought. Do I make myself clear?”
“Good. And if you ever tell anyone that I said any of that mushy stuff I will ensure that the contents of your sock drawer become so untidy you will never be able to sort them into pairs though you work from here to eternity.”
She chucked him under the chin, easing the tension in the room and stepped back. He thought hard, trying to kick start his brain out of its sleep befuddled state. Taking off his glasses, polishing them and putting them back on again he felt his synapses begin to fire again. They’d gone over what she’d gleaned from the books together, at times him explaining it to her and vice versa. He thought back to those long conversations, struggling to apply the knowledge to this new information she’d brought him.
“It could be a different wave length. If they’re trying to open the portal from their side, they might only be able to get it open enough to send through a short burst or a really thin signal – voice only for example. Did you reply?”
“No.” She looked down. “I only just woke up – there wasn’t time.”
“What? What is it?”
He’d tried to wipe the look of worry from his face but like all vampires she had that ability to see in the dark thing and she was starting to loom again.
“It’s just we assumed that there are shed-loads of dimensions, thousands, maybe millions. If they’re out there sweeping, trying to find a response, hunting the right dimension as it were…”
“Then I’ve just scuppered my chances of getting home.”
She stumbled back, falling away from him like she’d just been sucker punched in the stomach. George tried to protest, to say that it was only an idea and he’d been wrong before. But he knew he couldn’t lie, had never been able to lie really. His eyes always revealed the truth, even when he’d give anything to hide it so as to avoid hurting someone like today.
“I’m going out.”
That was all she said. She walked away from him, closing the door quietly behind her and he heard her moving down the stairs and across the floor, pausing only to pick up Mitchell’s jacket that she’d worn so often they were starting to refer to it as hers. He heard the door open and close behind her and in the quiet followed her footsteps down the street until they faded into the silence. He sat there for a moment, thinking about Mitchell on the other side of nowhere, waiting for George to work it out and bring him home. That was how they worked, Mitchell came up with the ideas and George worked out a way to make them happen. But however many books they read, however many scenarios they calculated he hadn’t been able to come up with anything and sitting there he hugged his knees up to his chest as reached out with his mind into the aching emptiness, hoping against hope that somewhere someone would hear him. Then he got up and knocked on the door to Annie’s room.
They were waiting for her when she came back. George had fallen back to sleep against the arm of the sofa but woke at the scratch of her key in the lock. She walked in with the remains of a takeaway coffee in her hand and stopped, surprised to see them sat there.
“I am so sorry” and Annie was there without crossing the floor, enveloping her in a hug.
The woman stood unresisting but unresponsive in her arms and eventually Annie was forced to release her and step back. Dredging up a smile that couldn’t lie any better than George Mal indicated with a tilt of her head that she was going to sit in the kitchen for a bit and they could do as they pleased. Left alone in the sitting room they exchanged glances for a moment before following her in and settling around the table. The vampire was turning the paper cup in her hands and couldn’t or wouldn’t look up.
“It’s not the end of the world.”
George immediately thought there were so many ways he could have phrased that better.
She raised her gaze to pin him to the wall with one elevated eyebrow before returning her attention to the revolving cup. It was empty and Annie began to brew some more, grinding the beans carefully in the way Mal had taught her what seemed like so long ago now. The familiar sound of the grinder that usually caused those tensely held shoulders to relax did nothing tonight. George began to burble as he laid before her the fruit of his thinking while she’d been out. He’d done the maths and he thought he could offer her some hope. He began to expand on his theory, explaining that bearing in mind how long they transmitted for, the number of dimensions they could probe in 24 hours and how eventually they’ll go all the way round and start again he really thought they were in with at least one more chance.
“So I only have to wait however many years it takes to knock on every door in the universe and find nobody’s home?”
“You are immortal.” He’d thought she’d look happier than this at the news.
Her face twisted. “Yeah – but she isn’t.”
Mitchell knocked at the gates of the Unseen University and presented the chitty they’d given him as he left the League building that morning. As he waited nervously for the little hatch to slide back he reached into his pocket for his packer of mints, his other hand fingering his brand new ribbon, wanting to make sure it was properly displayed.
“Oh you want Stibbons?”
The unfriendly face in the gap disappeared and he heard a number of bolts slide back before the face returned in the small gap created by the opening wicker gate.
“He’ll be in the High Energy Building. Round the back. Follow the signs and you can’t miss it, big ugly new building it is. Keep off the grass please sir.”
Mitchell stepped through the gap, straightened his jacket once more (they’d given him some useful tips on style during his stay with the League) and flicking another mint into his mouth wandered off in the direction the porter had pointed. As he approached the building he could make out a figure standing at the top of the stairs by the entrance. It resolved into Lieutenant Perks and he found himself smiling to see a familiar face.
“How’s it going?” He took the steps lightly, shooting a quick glance through the open door at the confusion within before coming to a rest on the railing beside her. Now he was close enough he could see the frustration coming off her in waves and his heart sank.
“Well, if it was going anywhere, which it’s not cos some IDIOT can’t put his hand to 2 bloody cc of mouse blood, it would be going to hell in a hand basket.”
“I said it would probably work ok with an egg,” came a muffled cry from the depths of some complicated machinery.
She ignored the comment, merely rubbing a hand over tired eyes as she dragged her mind back to more sociable territory. “How was the league?”
“Oh, so-so. I survived.”
“I noticed.” She reached up and flicked at his Ribbon. “Well done. Now let’s see if we can’t get you home.”
“How’s it going? Really.”
She sighed and leant on the railing. “It’s not so good. They’re having to write the equations as they go along. Sometimes it looks like its working and then pfft, black smoke and we have to put all the ants back into the machine again. Do you know how hard it is to pick up an ant that doesn’t want to be picked up?” She grimaced. “Try that with 280.”
“But you can do it right?”
She dropped her head into her hands for a moment. Straightening up again he could see the lie forming in her eyes and put his hand on her sleeve to stop her from speaking.
“You can do it. I know you can.” He gave her his best reassuring smile and was pleased to see it worked as well on her as on Annie when she was miserable and struggling. “I heard some things about you Ms Perks, when I was with the League, you’ve got quite a reputation. Apparently when you put your mind to something getting done, it gets done. And I’ve always been known as a lucky one. It’ll be alright you’ll see.”
He offered her a mint.
A depressed vampire is not a pretty thing. George and Annie thought they’d seen something of what the breed was capable of when Mitchell got his low spells but this was worse. Mal had spent the two days since the incident in the night slumped on the sofa watching daytime TV and working her way through their DVD collection. That was all well and good until she ran out of anything decent to watch and reaching the back of the cupboard began to run through Annie’s Disney videos. George had been forced to stage an intervention, hiding the worst ones but she was still left with enough to be annoying. Tonight she was watching Beauty and the Beast, with the sound turned down so as not to disturb the others sleeping upstairs.
“Tale as old as time
True as it can be
Barely even friends
Then somebody bends... Unexpectedly
Just a little change,
Small to say the least
Both a little scared
Neither one prepared...”
She started as a miniature lightning storm appeared before her, earthing itself in the TV. The screen went dark. George came down the stairs at a run and appeared in the living room tying his dressing gown.
“I don't know. I was just sat here and then that…” She broke off as the lighting storm re-appeared.
The intensity of light got brighter, a ball of glowing blue and for some reason a strange smell of wet washing. Behind George, Annie’s head popped round the bottom of the stairs her eyes wide with fright. The tiny focussed light spread out into a full lightning ball and then shrank again to a shiny glowing hole about the size of a tennis ball with a 3ft halo of lightning rim.
“Well that is definitely going to put our rent up.”
George heard the quaver in his voice and tried to stand straighter. After all, Annie was hiding behind him and he had to at least pretend to be manly. Sliding off the sofa Mal warily approached the glowing ball, ignoring the pleas for sense from the more sensible occupants of the house who were backing into the kitchen.
A voice was heard, presumably coming from the light, though it had a strange acoustic to it.
"Mal? Mal, are you in there? Mal, honey?"
“Polly? Polly is that really you?”
Her voice shaking, Mal crawled over to the light, putting her hand out to touch.
Polly put everything into that cry.
“I’m ok. Pol, it’s ok.” She paused but nothing came through. “Polly, what the hell happened?"
“Gods, it’s a long story.” The relief was still evident in her voice. “I’ll tell you when we get you over here. We’ve just got to set up some stuff this end. Hold on, ok?”
“I’m not going anywhere, lieutenant.”
There was a smile George had never seen before twitching at the edges of her mouth.
“You mind you don’t, sergeant.” Silence fell, interrupted only by the crackling of the tiny hole. “Oh and Mal?”
“You owe me two dollars. Those sheep were taken by a TreeCat, confirmed by clacks this morning.
“A mere technicality. TreeCat / WoodsTiger. They’re the same thing. I’ll appeal to the board in the morning.”
A voice broke in. “We need to clear the area, Miss Perks”
Mal smile got wider as sound of her partner explaining the finer points of how to properly address a Lieutenant of the Borogravian light infantry faded into the distance.
“That’s your Polly?”
George found himself wondering how Mitchell had got on with this dragon and whether they would be getting him back in pieces or even at all.
“That’s my girl.”
Mal sat back on her heels, the smile now stretching from ear to ear.
On the other side of the glowing swirling magical cat-flap Polly, having dealt with the rudeness of wizards was attempting to get Mitchell to stop hiding behind the potions cabinet.
“Are you sure this will work? I may be immortal but I don’t want to find my self in pieces scattered to the four winds.”
“The chances of discombobulation are really quite low in calculated scenarios.”
“That’s not helping, Mr Stibbons.” Polly pushed Mitchell toward the portal. “Stop blithering, it will be fine. Just stand there and when we say go you step through. Ok?”
“I you please Miss, I mean Lieutenant, we don’t have long.”
Polly’s voice came through into the Bristolian living room.
“Mal? Mal, we don't have long. You have to step through on three. Ok?”
“That’s an Affirmative, Lieutenant.”
“Will Mitchell come back?”
As George stepped forward to call through the glowing hole, he struggled with feeling not unlike a bit of an idiot.
“Well, we aint planning on keeping him!”
Polly stepped back waving Mitchell to move forward. In Bristol Annie was trying to hug Mal goodbye as the vampire disentangled herself carefully. She stood up, offering a hand to George with thanks for the coffee and clothes and food and everything they didn’t say but her eyes said for her. Looking over to where the beautiful leather jacket hung she shrugged and waved it a sad goodbye.
“Have you got everything?”
Mal reached inside her pockets and pulled out the lighter. Around her George had heaped the spoils of his mad rush through the house collecting everything he could remember that she’d arrived with. Annie helped her gather up the uniform, sword and crossbow and wondered if now might be the moment to ask what was engraved in the metal of that little trophy she wouldn’t be parted from. Her thoughts were interrupted by a shout from the sparkles.
“Yep! We’re ready!”
Mal took on the stance of a runner waiting for the off and then straightened up, laughing at the absurdity of it.
“3… 2… 1…”
She grinned, saluted them and walked through the light. The glow folded around her, carrying her away in a rush as the circle shrank. They held their breath and then saw it grow again, fizzling and sparkling as before until it spat out a figure they recognised with joy.
They fell on him with cries of glee, closely followed by cries of un-glee as they realised he was as naked as the day he’d been born.
“You’re Ne... ne... ne...” George stuttered.
“Fine!” Annie completed the sentence for him admiringly.
On the other side, back in Ankh Morpork, Mal fell through the light and noise to collapse in a dazed heap onto chill stones. She felt the impact as Polly dived forward and gathered her close in what seemed to be an attempt to squeeze the life out of her.
“You damn stupid vampire! I thought I'd lost you!”
Mal held on, rejoicing in the rough uniform under her fingers, the heartbeat beneath her ear telling her over and over that she was home.
“I’m sorry, I heard you, when you were calling, I heard you.”
Polly’s hand was gentle on her back, gliding in soothing little circles.
“I tried to tell you, I tried to call out, but I couldn’t wake up in time.”
The low voice meant the endearment was audible only to her, as per their longstanding agreement on pet names.
“Two nights ago? I heard you. I heard you, but we couldn’t get it stable enough to send anything but voice through. We’ve been working since then to boost the signal.”
You heard me?”
Ridcully coughed behind them the noise bringing them back to their surroundings.
Mal didn’t blush because vampires were not prone to that sort of thing, and besides Polly was blushing enough for the both of them. Recollecting suddenly she opened her hand and heaved a sigh of relief to find the lighter still there. One thing at least had come back with her. Looking up again she saw the wizards to a man had turned their backs and her lips twitched as warm pride blossomed at another example of how kick ass her woman was.
“Your cloak please, Mr Stibbons?”
Polly had stood, and was walking over to one of the wizards. He shrugged out of the cloak and handed it over without question, and without turning round. Returning Polly wrapped Mal delicately in the warm folds and crouched beside her again. She smoothed down an errant lock of hair that had been disturbed in the trans-dimensional leap (the only time Mal would ever have hair that wasn’t perfectly coiffured) and smiled.
“Shall we go and get you some clothes then sergeant? You appear to be not attired in the manner befitting your rank and I, as a superior officer, would be remiss in my duty if I allowed that situation to continue.”
I do believe we could find someone in Ankh Morpork who could brew you a cup of coffee, yes.”
She leant in and pressed her lips for a moment to her forehead, eyes promising future contact of a more desperate nature once they were out of sight of nosy wizards.
“Welcome home, Mal.”
Meanwhile, back in Bristol...
“George? Do you think you could stop screaming for a moment and hand me my jeans and then take Annie and pop down to the Londis to get me a pack of SMints?”
Lyrics taken from the Disney Film Beauty and the Beast (1991). From the song “Beauty and the Beast” heard within the film.