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Hordes of Doggerland, Part 3

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The lyrics of the next song twisted at Susie's eardrums as she followed Elle along an abandoned passageway. The lights were dead here and the only glow came from the glass portholes, from the deep dark emerald shade of the sea.
'Strangers in the niiiight ...'
Whoever was running the central audio feed in this place sure had a thing for Swing.
'Two lonely peeeeople, we were strangers in the niiiight ...'
Susie caught herself glancing through the series of coral-encrusted portholes as they passed them by, and watched the sinking wreck of nearby building as it rolled slowly from its foundations and then tumbled into the oblivion chasm below. It was like watching a mountain fall. Elle noticed too.
"One of the duties of the League of Iron was to maintain the city," she said sadly. "But they're too busy scrapping with each other to realise that Doggerland is collapsing all around them. You've seen it yourself. The rubble, the ruin. This place was built for majesty. Now look at it."
Susie listened. A thick watery cloud of dust engulfed the building as it smashed into something down on the sea bed, filling the submerged skyline (if you could even call it that) with a strange misty hue.
'Love was just a glance away, a warm embracing dance away ..."
Elle followed the passageway around to a couple of papery-wooden doors. Compared to the plaza of Blue Moon Street this whole section was very claustrophobic. There was no telling what it used to be. There were desks and upturned chairs lying around with papers and posters, although the shadows guarded their content closely. The air was colder too. Susie felt as if she was meandering through the catacombs again and wondered just how many ghost were meandering down here with her. The very thought of which was suddenly making her remember again. She suddenly had one of those excruciating moments where she forced herself to stop thinking. For one terrible second she thought she could see his face in the darkness.
'Lovers at first sight, in love forever ...'
Bits of wood and something small and wispy crunched beneath her feet as Susie came to the next doors and helped Elle shift them apart. A cold breeze escaped. Susie tucked her duster around her tightly.
The following chamber was lit up in a dim lantern light, one of which flickered irksomely and buzzed like a wasp trapped in a stupor. The room was largely rounded and the walls (mostly bookshelves) towered over them and up to a domed glass ceiling. There were books and newspapers lying all over the place, as well as signs covered in graffiti. Someone had been busy down here. Susie realised that most of the walls were covered in splashes of paint.
The majority of the words were unintelligible, but one of them read: 'She is here!'
Another line: 'When the sinking happens there will be no remorse, no guilt, no liability...'
There was a final warning, this time scratched with fingernails onto a stone pillar which stood the centre. It read: 'On that day, the day the city drowns in its own rings of treachery, the invisible queen bee will at last reveal herself to her servants.'
"What does this all mean?" Susie asked Elle as she ran her fingers over the scratches on the pillar.
"Josef Koch likes to experiment with all sorts of paranormal forces," Elle said as she searched the desks for anything useful, "he's very big on telepathy."
There were a couple of bodies in the room too: a man in a sharp suit and a woman in a posh frock. The man was hunched over the woman with his fingers down her blouse, an action which had no doubt led to his death, and the woman was lying at rest, but still clutching the pair of surgical secateurs into the man's throat. Her frock had once been green, but now it was just a dried brownish-red. It wasn't clear what had killed her but the wide-eyed look on her face, staring towards the doorway, the one with her mouth open as if she was shouting out from her grave ... Susie had seen it too many times. It was just fear. Pure fear.
It didn't take long to put this tragic story together. After the woman had killed her attacker something had obviously spooked her, something big. There was a huge crack in the wall where such a something had stumbled into, leaving a giant engraved outline. It was rounding, muscular.
"One of Valculga's mutants no doubt," said Elle as she walked around the bodies carelessly. "It probably followed them here from the plaza."
"These people look pretty normal to me," Susie observed as they walked past. She was right. Ever since coming here all she had seen on people were stitches, cuts, bruises, hacked-off limbs, and the like. But these two were different. "They don't look like they've been experimented on."
"Well just look what Wonderboy here scratched all over the walls. I look at those writings and see a prophecy. Not a very good one mind you, but a prophecy none the less. It's a foretelling by someone unused to using their telepathy, like these two poor hapless creatures right here. Yeah the man was experimented on and yeah he managed to escape, but not before he got too horny one day and tried it on with probably the only girl he's ever made more than two seconds of eye contact with." Elle leant over the bodies. "And look at her hands."
Susie did. One of them was horribly disfigured. It was hairy for one, and clawed. Her fingers were sharpened like paws. Susie raised her eyebrows.
"It reminds me of Wolfax," she said thoughtfully, "he's an old friend of mine."
"I know."
All that had happened since the ferry had made Susie forget that Elle was from her future. "You know a lot about the Cantina don't you?"
Elle just nodded. "I think that's exactly what it is."
"What?"
"Wolfax," she simplified, "those claws of hers are just like his."
"You think that Wolfax has something to do with this place?"
"Not at all," Elle told her, "I'm sure he's off somewhere else in Time and Space without a care in the world. In fact I know he is."
Susie looked down at her, baffled. "Then what's your point?"
"Oh God. You're as hapless as they are," Elle nodded to the bodies, "her hands, Susie, her claws... Look at them. Properly. They're not just like Wolfax's. They are exactly like Wolfax's." Susie saw again.
"They are."
"Now do you realise the point of Koch's experiments? He knows who you are. He knew who CJ was when she got here."
Susie ran the implications over and over in her head. "Genetic replication, you said that back in the plaza about Koch and the others. You said that he was experimenting in genetic replication."
"Exactly."
"So what," Susie added two and two together, "they're replicating Cantina members?"
"Only their abilities," Elle held up a finger, "because the League of Iron knows that the thing about the crewmen of the Cantina is that they always, always survive. And why? Because biologically, they're so well-armed against any threat. Let's run through the Cantina crew quickly shall we? You have the regenerative abilities of a Time Lord, you have the strength, instincts and speed of a wolf, and you have a stream of telepathic power at your whim and an ability to summon the undead to do your dirty work. You have the goggles of feline, the piloting skills of a unappreciated genius, and the gut instincts of a new mother. Splice all of these things together and you get something perfect."
"Perfect?" Susie shook her head. "Put all of those things together and they'll fall apart. That's why the Cantina works, because everyone has ... had their own strengths. We bounced off each other, trusted each other. That's how we survived. But we all learnt that in the end it wasn't enough. The crew fell apart. It didn't work out."
"Because you guys didn't get on, sure," Elle continued, failing to take aboard Susie's criticism. "But you can't deny that the combined abilities of all of you would make something of unbeatable power."
Susie folded her arms and stared.
Elle shrugged. "Well you're right of course. As of yet Koch is still trying to perfect his super soldier serum. That's what all of this is about, all of those victims out there, the stitching, the wolf-hands, the people with telepathy they don't rightly know how to use. They're all just prototypes in the end. But they've all have had their DNA merged with those of Cantina members, DNA found from places all over the world, places where you have adventured before.
"But so far after months and months of experiments and genetic failures, the mutants, the stitched-up monsters, only one of them has survived every procedure completely intact." She followed the chamber around to another set of doors and shifted a poor barricade of tables out of the way using little to no strength at all. "Koch calls the poor bastard his star pupil. Subject 12."
She opened the doors into the next passageway. It was just as ominous as the previous. Another series of portholes guided their path through the shadows.
"Subject 12?" Susie asked. "Just another victim taken from the surface I imagine?"
Elle stepped across the threshold and into the cold of the passageway as the sound of the radio rang in her ears again. She seemed to hesitate on the answer. "I hear it's some poor son of a whore who fought with them once, the Cantina crew I mean. Err ... You guys I mean. Uhm ... You know what I mean. I heard that the pitiable bastard was kidnapped from his own time back when the Countess had a fully-functioning time travel device and brought here to Doggerland ..."
Susie followed her into the darkness, but then stopped when she caught the distant light of another doorway up ahead. "Elle. You know a scary amount about this place, you know that?"
"I told you," Elle waved her to follow, "I've been here a long time."
"But how long exactly?"
"Does it matter?"
Susie stood her ground. "How long have you been here?"
Elle finally stopped and faced Susie again. She sucked in two lungs full of frosty, bitter air and then slowly puffed it out. "Susie."
"How can you know all of this?"
"I'm from the future," she said, "obviously. I'd be a pretty shoddy time traveller if I didn't do my research." But on its own that simply wasn't enough. Susie blinked at her and waited for a proper answer. Taking chances just wasn't on the menu anymore, not with the life of her newborn on the line.
What aren't you telling me, she thought. You're hiding something.
"Alright!" Elle threw up her arms like a child. "Look. I knew you'd be here. Okay? I locked onto you on purpose. But my thingy ... vortex manipulator ... It got the date all wrong, sent me here about a year in advance."
Susie's jaw dropped. "You've been here a year?"
It was unbelievable. A whole year trapped in this nightmare?
"How... How come you've not got ... like ..."
"Scars? Stitches? Cuts?" Elle rolled her bottom lip. "I'm that good."
"But you were in captivity," said Susie. "You were in Celestial Heights..."
"Yeah so I got myself captured. I thought you'd be up there. Turns out I was a bit early. Did bump into CJ though didn't I?"
And with that Elle swung around and opened up the next door. The next chamber was smaller than the previous and was lit up vividly. There were stalls and posters, all with blessings from the City of Doggerland that never was, and there in the middle was an elevator. Above it hung a sign, which read ...
"Shades Alley?"
Elle nodded. "It's a rough place. There's a whole commune down there, mostly men folk. Unlike those prunes back in the Blue Lagoon the guys in Shades Alley aren't afraid of facing off with one of Valculga's mutants. They're fighters. They even have a few in captivity. They've been fighting the League of Iron since they escaped Celestial Heights."
The elevator doors hissed open upon their approach. It made Susie think.
"Could we make an alliance with them, d'ya reckon?"
"Let me tell you something, love," Elle patted her empathetically on the shoulder, "if there's one thing worse than the League of Iron it's the residents of Shades Alley. They're cold hearted, vicious and most of all very, very lonely. It's like a warzone down there. I'd call it the most unruly place in Doggerland. Fortunately for you I've been there before."
"Make any friends?"
The question had come from inside Susie's coat pocket. Susie watched the expression on Elle's face change when she realised that she was going to answer back to a book.
"Not a one. Did kill a few of them though and get a good feel for the place."
"Good," said Laski. "Because I don't have a clear route through to the other side. Shades Alley was scratched off all the maps CJ and I encountered during the escape to Blue Moon Street."
Elle tapped her head. "You don't need one. Just stick close-by. I know the way."
They stepped onto the elevator. Susie was clearly nervous. She gripped the handle to her combat knife tightly. "So the Bathory Courts are just on the other side, yeah?"
"That's right."
"Good," she said as the doors shut. "Do what you want to her guards. Just let me deal with the nurse."
Elle considered this as she punched the floor number. She was right. She had gotten the layout of this place. "You got it," she finally said.
And then the elevator began its descent.

***

Meanwhile on the other side of the city another, similar elevator jolted to a stop. The doors screeched apart and a tide of sea water rushed in. It yanked CJ and all of her followers out into the darkness of the next walkway. The walls were heavily cracked and splintered and the freezing ocean water ran up to their waists. CJ grabbed onto a nearby lantern and ordered the others to do the same, but the water was pulling at them relentlessly. The water moved fast. The currents were hungry. The lantern light was trapped in a continuous loop, glowing and dimming, glowing and dimming, which made it impossible to focus. Beyond the walls CJ caught sight of the black ocean fighting to get in. There were all manner of creatures floating out there in the shadows, some which looked more alien than anything she had ever encountered before. They were watching, waiting for the glass to give way. This was the other world at the bottom of the sea, where they lived. The rest of the city towered over them like an enormous castle, each skyscraper like a vast silhouette, needles stabbing up into the heart of the ailing North Sea. There was a giant mouth of energy spiralling at the very apex of the darkening underwater sky. The maelstrom, CJ remembered, the thing stopping my powers! It was swirling and swirling in huge deadly currents, protecting Doggerland like jaws protecting the ocean's throat.
The group had arrived right at the bottom and on the rocky shoulder of the underwater cliff side, the eastern edge of Doggerland. This was the ill-fated entrance to the Constantine Wharfs, which were drowning in the aftermath of a gruesome battle, the one that Elle had mentioned back in the Blue Moon Street plaza. CJ tried to ignore the bodies as they mingled between the rocks and the rubble, faced down, meandering towards the elevator by the ravenous currents as if they were trying to escape.
The other survivors of Celestial Heights looked to her, and one of them decided. He turned back.
"Where will you go?" she yelled as a number of them followed his example.
"We were safer upstairs," one of them shouted back to her, "this place is lost! We'll be dead before we get halfway to the core!"
"You'll be no safer up there! What if those things come back?"
"I'd rather face off with a mutant than die down here!"
CJ watched as the rest of the group abandoned her and fought back towards the elevator. It struggled but closed behind them all. She made a dangerous scowl towards one of them before it happened, and then watched as the box started to ascend. Something burned inside her but instead she turned and faced the darkness. "Cowards."
The lanterns glared, on and off, on and off, all around her. Her legs were going numb. This place may as well have been under the arctic. But she had to keep breathing. She had to hear herself breathing. It helped convince her she wasn't alone down here, and it was better than the constant gush and gurgle of the conquering waters. She finally moved, launching herself from one lantern to the next, zigzagging down the flooded tunnel and pushing through the thick tide even as the walkway slanted near the end.
Her feet were tiptoeing along the cobbles now and it didn't take long to realise that, by the time the water had risen to her chin, she was going to have to stop breathing. The pathway sloped down to the next door, which had been completely submerged as it angled against whatever lay on the other side.
CJ shivered anxiously. Minutes had gone by since the others had fled and time was slowing. Her body was already frozen. Everything was going blank. The lanterns at this joint had all but burnt out and the only things which prevented her from sinking were a couple of old ceiling pipes. They were warm to the touch, which provide some comfort. Everything was so dark now, darker than she had ever seen. It was deep space and filled with drenched, mouldy corpses. And this of course was only the entrance. The battle would have no doubt destroyed the others. This way, this hell, was the only means to get though.She had to, so she sucked in all of the remaining air of the hallway and then, with a final ounce of gallantry, she let go of the pipes.
CJ stabbed down through the winter water, opened her eyes and pushed forwards towards the door on automatic. She couldn't think about the cold. The cold would get her killed. When she got there she wrenched at a faulty keypad and then slid her fingers beneath the frame, then hauled the entire thing up. As the water filled her body and stung icily at her limbs her mind focused on one thing. It was something Draygon had told her once whilst on another mission for the Cantina Initiative, in a sunken palace just off the coast of Rhodes.
"Don't think about the water," her voice resonated inside like a mother's warning, "just focus on the goal!" CJ shoved the door with all of her strength and, at long last, it chinked and came loose. Bubbles escaped. She thrust the frame up as another push of sea water coursed in through the new gap, and then she tugged herself through to the other side and plunged up. She gasped as she surfaced and clutched another set of piping. It was hotter than the one before. Her fingers burned with triumph.
The next walkway was almost completely flooded and the water was rising more quickly now. She had bought some time by wrenching the door open, but it was simply gushing past her legs and into the first walkway. Wherever it was coming from was still gaping and feeding the tide. CJ pushed forwards, throwing herself along in the direction of the piping again as she felt stray hands tap the soles of her boots. These were the decaying-fleshy fingers of the recently deceased that flailed out at her artlessly from the gorge of the walkway's submerged floor. How many were there, she wondered. How many had been left to drown down here by the League... She dared not look down. Their incessant glares were following her every shove. Even the cries of their ghosts were stifled by the hostile waters. In all of her years, nothing compared to this.
Another door sat up ahead with 'Welcome to Constantine Wharfs' engraved beautifully into the ironwork in a unique art-deco style, along with a series of accompanying bullet holes.
She reached it within seconds but just as the water had risen up to her mouth, and made another dive for it. The frame was completely sealed this time, which served to both give her hope and take it away again. It either meant that the chamber beyond was full of ocean water, which would kill her instantly and completely deluge the rest of the walkways, or it was free of water and had been sealed to preserve it from the rupture out here. Either way it needed opening.
She came even with it and focused as the bubbles from her nose ran up over her eyes. She clutched the valve and forced it to turn. It screeched, even through the heavy whirr of the water in her ears, and twisted left. She forced it again and again, winding it around fully, until something clicked.
And then, as her arms started to ache under the demanding pressure of the ocean, she barged into the door and pushed.
It came free, and was escorted by a vast rasp of hot air.
The contents of the walkways was sucked out into a huge chamber. CJ reached out as the waters dragged her under the door and managed to grab something, some kind of wiring. She used it to swing around and steady against the other side. There was no time to check the area. She had to stop the flood. She grabbed the matching valve and twisted it back around and watched as the frame lowered and slammed shut, sealing the ocean off. She sank to her feet and finally breathed again, long, loudly, resting everything. Barely enough had followed her through to drown this place. It was too huge.
It was a battlefield, or had been during its last use. Shadows guarded the far corners and the lanterns hung over from a distant ceiling, dimming the whole place like a powerless cargo-hold. Soon enough and she forced herself to stop the breathing again. The only thing living in here was a hive of flies. There were toll booths and ticket cubicles all around, and they were littered with corpses. The stench was suffocating. Their voices tingled softly inside her head. Their souls had been trapped here since the final battle.
"Hello," said one of them sharply amongst the whispers. CJ had to check her ears. "No, you heard me right." It sounded English, with a proper Londoner twang to it. "I suppose you're the one who's been causing the League all sorts of trouble up there?"
"You're mistaken," CJ said miserably. "The League ditched me in the city to fend for myself. I haven't had time to start the retaliation effort yet..."
"Ah," said the man's voice, "I'm still getting used to telepathy. I guess what I've seen hasn't happened yet then." For some reason CJ took that as a personal insult.
"You guys shouldn't have telepathy" she said. "You'll just end up abusing it."
"The League seem to think differently, my lovely."
"The League are coming down," she said. "All of them."
"Ha," the man continued. "I take it you're on your way to the Vertigo Core then, eh?"
CJ got up and explored the chamber. It was some kind of welcome centre. All sorts of signs hung overhead, most of which were in pieces from the battle. "Who are you?"
"A survivor, like you. I've been down here for a long time, kid."
"You don't sound like a typical survivor," CJ observed as she stepped over a series of mutilated bodies, one of which caught her eye. It was the same as the drawing Laski had depicted for her. She knelt down for a closer look.
"You've seen one of those before haven't you?" said the voice.
She turned over the remains. "It's from the future."
"The design is, but the victim they shoved into the exoskeleton was from this era, some poor son of a bitch from Belgium. It's a gift that the Countess brought back from the future."
"Last time I encountered one it was trapped in the middle of deep space," CJ reflected, "on a ship."
"A spaceship?"
"Yes."
And then she stood up again. "So who are you?"
"My name's Finchy."
"Ah," she smiled as she slid through a burnt-out booth and headed towards the nearest door, "they think you're dead y'know."
"I was hoping to keep it that way."
CJ shrugged. "So what did you do? Abuse your power?"
"Such is a requirement to join the League of Iron," Finchy's voice echoed inside her head. "No, no. My actions were much more severe. I tried to start a revolt against the Countess. The others didn't take kindly to that. This was my part of Doggerland before they combined their armies and stormed it. What you see is what they left behind."
"Sad," said CJ desolately as she ran her eyes over the wreckage again. "I've got no time to help you get your revenge. You were exiled for a reason. Now tell me how to get to the Core!"
She sensed a change in his voice. The tone became lighter, more hopeful. "Well maybe we can help each other out a bit." CJ rolled her eyes.
"Oh come on!" Finchy argued. "You're planning to bring down the League anyway. You'll need my help. I know all of their dirty secrets. At the moment they're vulnerable ..."
"Where are you?"
"In the Wharfs," he said. "There's a few of us left, perched off the radar. I managed to tap into their communications from upstairs. I've been spying on their movements for some time now. You know it's a good thing you decided to make a move when you did. It's a nightmare up there. Professor Valculga has just made a violent takeover of Celestial Heights and has declared a public cleansing of all of Koch's followers right across the city. Its mass panic on a scale Doggerland has never seen. Were you up in the Blue Lagoon by any chance?"
"Yeah," she said suddenly, "why? Are the survivors still there? What's happened?"
"They've scattered quickly," Finchy explained. "Escapees are being rounded up and returned to the cells, but Bathory's soldiers aren't as generous. They've flooded two whole sections already. With Sammi and Koch gone there's more land to dish out but less room for people. They're removing about twenty percent of the population."
"That's madness! Those people aren't residents! They're prisoners! They were dragged to this Hell from their homes! They can't just kill them!" CJ's instincts were turning. There was more to it. There was always more to it. She had to block all of that out. The Core, she told herself. Focus on the Core. "How have you survived down here for this long?"   
"Listen kid. In this world sometimes you gotta do things you're not proud of to get by."
It was then that she spotted a chunk of rotten flesh missing from several of the bodies, as well as certain limbs. In their place were bite marks and signs of struggle. "Follow the eastern perimeter," Finchy added. "It'll lead you to the old storage facility. It's where we've set up camp. There's a way to the Core from here. I'll explain more about my plan when you get here."
"So am I right then? Do you plan on starting a riot against the League?"
"They've already gone from four to two in less than an hour," said Finchy confidently, "if we're going to strike then the time is coming up fast! We have to be ready. We have to work together."
"So it's just Koch and Bathory left?"
"According to my observations, they've formed an alliance. It won't last. It never lasts. They needed to work as one to ditch the other two."
CJ had listened to him intently. He knew an awful lot about this place, so she thought she'd chance it even if she knew what his answer would be. "Who is the Countess, Finchy? What is she doing in this time period?"
"Oh you," he said, "she was tracking someone, on a mission for the Empire I think. It was all very secretive."
"Who?"
"A girl."
"What girl?"
"Someone who pissed off the Empress."
"What. Girl."
"Someone who managed to get away," he clarified. "I don't know much more about it."
"But you know some."
"When I was initiated into the League I shared brainwaves with the others. We all shared information on the Countess, to keep us in line really. The Countess was chasing a girl through time, but the device she was using to hop along the time vortex failed her. She got trapped here in the 20th century. That's all I know, I swear. We're wasting time."
"And the girl?"
"What?"
CJ stood her ground. "The girl, Finchy. The girl who got away?"
"I don't know," he said. "Are you coming or not?"
CJ exhaled, having reached a decision. "The eastern perimeter you say?"
She sensed his smile. "I'll be waiting."

***

Every city in the world, whether hidden underwater or floating out in space, has a place like Shades Alley. Most places like Shades Alley are places the rest of the city avoids, but in Doggerland everything tends to expand on normalities by tenfold. It is where society's delinquents are sent to and, in the case of Doggerland, is ruled solely by men. Shades Alley is a self-imposed prison run by its inmates, a locked-down segment of the city situated in an unhinged subsection between Blue Moon Street and the Bathory Courts, where the worst of the worst are sent by the League of Iron to die.
Elle had just finished explaining this to Susie when their elevator slammed to a stop and the doors creaked eerily apart. They were met by an empty brick walkway with barrels on fire, which led to a vast and open slum. Elle grabbed Susie and pulled her down behind a large pile of rubble as she caught sight of a passing shadow on the distant wall.
Elle was whispering.
"OK," she said. "We take no chances down here."
"And this is the only way to the Courts?" Susie whispered back, fondling her knife nervously. "You're sure?"
"Well we were hardly going to walk through the front door were we?"
"How long will this take?"
Elle poked her head out and inspected the area. "Not long if we're careful."
"Are there any mutants down here?"
"Not that I know of," Elle added. "Just ... men. Sometimes that's more dangerous. Men can be sadistic, like animals, if exposed to the right environment. This place is pretty rotten. It's the pit of Doggerland. There's no promise of hope for the men trapped here."
"Why though?" It occurred to Susie. "Why men?"
Elle thought about it and shrugged. "Your guess is as good as mine."
She stopped talking as if she had spotted something moving in the slums, and pulled a short sword off her belt which was just slightly longer than Susie's combat knife. "OK," Elle said uncertainly. "I'm going to scout ahead. I've been here before. I just want to make sure the route hasn't changed."
"How likely is that?"
"I don't know. That's why I'm going to check. You better stay here in case we have to make a dash for it."
Susie didn't argue. It was pretty solid logic. "What's the signal if something happens?"
Elle looked at her funny. "What?"
"The signal? The noise? In case you get compromised?"
"If I get compromised I expect you to come and get me," Elle stated.
"Seriously?"
"Yes," she said absolute. "Don't you dare think about leaving me alone down here. Anywhere else in this city and I'd crawl my way out, but Shades Alley ... I don't even want to think about it."
Susie couldn't help but smile a little as Elle got up and disappeared down a nearby passage, just across from the rubble. She listened to the sound of a ventilation cover coming free and knew what Elle was doing. In a way Elle reminded her of herself ... In a weird, weird way. She wondered why Elle had volunteered so upfront about this mission. She had offered to help out without even a degree of hesitation. What was she hiding?
Something ruffled the inside of her duster coat. Susie opened it up.
"I don't like her," said Laski.
"Why?"
"I don't know," he said to her. "I just have a sense about these things. You shouldn't trust her. I know when someone's hiding something, and she's hiding something big, and dark, and ... big."
Susie shook it off. Thoughts of her baby came forward, reminding her of the task. She hadn't even got to hold her, her squeeze her hands, or kiss her face ... Oh Bathory was going to pay.
And then she stopped thinking, because there was movement behind her, from the slums. There was a scuffle of footsteps and voices of ... men. There were two of them. They looked like the kinds of people Susie had seen sleeping at bus stops or in car parks back home. She stayed hidden.
One of the men was tall, thin and shivering even under a long sandy overcoat. The other was small and fat and bearded, wearing little. The temperature was clearly affecting them both very differently. Susie made note of one thing though. These men were horrifically ugly. They couldn't blame the League or Iron for that. Some people just didn't know how to look after themselves...
"S-Stupid King!" said the tall one as he rubbed his arms briskly.
"Shh Scoldy," said the fat one, "sumwun might 'ear ya."
The tall one, Scoldy, looked around suspiciously. "N-N-Nah," he said quietly. "S'not like t-there's anywun 'round 'ere, Nucks."
The fat one, Nucks, looked around too. "Never know."
"Just c-can't believe King," Scoldy insisted. "We deserved us a fine piece of that bitch."
Suddenly Nucks grabbed Scoldy by the collar and yanked him down to his level. "Careful. D'ya know who that was?"
"The bald girl?"
"Yes," he said. "That was One-Shoe Sammi."
"W-What?"
"Yes."
"But w-what was she doin' down 'ere?"
Nucks released him. "That's the thing right there. Looks like King didn't want anywun of us touchin' 'er. He wants her all to ... to 'imself."
"Not fair," said Scoldy miserably. "She's fine. She's such a s-s-s-screamer."
"They're all screamers, but King said summut had happened with her. Did you see her ... her arms?"
"All twisted n' the like?"
"They'd been broken right off," said Nucks. "Snapped like twiglets."
Scoldy gasped a little. "Like twiglets?"
Nucks bent down, picked up a small charred shard of wood and then cracked it in two in front of him. Susie gripped the handle of her combat knife, ready to make a move if they got closer. She'd killed before, and this time she didn't have a couple of indecisive Time Lords holding her back. She'd attack without structure. She'd maul them both to the ground if it meant getting to the Courts quicker.
"You don't think," started Scoldy, "that the Iron League has fallen d'ya?"
Nucks slapped him. "It's League of Steel you idiot."
Scoldy rubbed his head. "S'what I meant."
"I think it's just another one of them ... revolts, like with Finchy. Remember him? He was one of them before they crippled him and left him to die in the Wharfs. 'Ain't nothin' but rocks and ocean down there now." Susie felt her heart sink as she thought of CJ. Maybe there was a way through. Elle wouldn't have sent her there to die...
"I miss Finchy," Scoldy nodded. "He had it right. Had the right idea, did Finchy. He knew the way of the world and its workings."
Nucks agreed. "Finchy was a good kid. Those bastards upstairs should've given him another chance. Besides all he said was what we was all thinkin' at the time."
Scoldy opened his ears.
"Know what I mean?" Nucks continued without a care in his little narrow world. "About the Countess-lady?"
"Y-Yeah."
"I mean have you ever seen her?"
"N-No."
"No, me neither. S'cos no one has. No one's seen her. So it got Finchy thinking ..."
"Them's dangerous words there, Nucks. I've heard things about the Countess. I've heard she's everywhere, always listening."
"Now see, that right there. How's that even work?"
"I've heard she hides amongst the people," Scoldy added. "I've heard that she uses other people's faces and walks amongst 'em. I've heard she can alter her voice, make herself appear to be sumwun else."
Nucks went to slap him again, but Scoldy flinched and dodged it. It was obvious that these two had spent much time together. Susie tried not to feel sorry for them. Something told her that if they spotted her, they'd do anything to ... well she tried not to think about it. Her knife shone brightly against the firelight. "I've heard horror stories," Scoldy added finally, "about how she manipulates people. She t-tricks 'em into thinkin' she's a friend."
"What was the old story, hmm?" Nucks said. "About her home? They say that she came from the future. For one, that's bollocks. Time travel isn't possible. For two, why? Why come here?"
"S-She was chasin' sumwun I 'eard. Sumwun who did somethin' real bad in a future time. But the Countess's time-mathingy got stuck, and she got trapped 'ere, so I guess she just moved in and made Doggerland 'er home."
Nucks didn't seem convinced. "Bollocks I tells ya. Whatever happened to the one she was chasin' hmm?"
"Must-a got away," suggested Scoldy as he moved near to the barrel and warmed his hands on the fire, "s'what I 'eard."
"Got away where?"
"Through time, p'raps," Scoldy put forward "I 'eard it drove the Countess mad, b'cos she was stuck 'ere. I 'eard it messed with her mind, sent 'er over the edge. I 'eard that all of them experiments she's got that Koch workin' on, I 'eard thems was just ... wossaword ... prototypes."
"Prototypes?"
"Y-Yeah, b'cos her time-mathingy broke n' she was unable to make it work again, so she started creatin' monsters instead."
Nucks just stared at him. "How does she go from workin' on time travel to workin' on monsters? That's quite a leap. I'm not sayin' I'm surprised or 'nything, but c'mon."
Scoldy held up a finger. "Well it's b'cos, I 'eard, that it's what she used to do before she was enrolled in some big fancy future empire. The Countess was wunce a scientist, with a talent for biology-stuff."
"Thems some quite big words there, Scoldy."
"I 'eard t-that when she got stuck 'ere, and couldn't fix her time-mathingy, she started doin' what she used to do, and that was to find out weaknesses in the enemies of 'er empire. In the case of 'er empire ... wossaname ... sumwun mentioned the name ... the ... the Rectangle I think ..."
"An empire called the Rectangle?"
"I t-think."     
"That's bollocks Scoldy. I'm sorry but's that bollocks."
Scoldy kept his finger straight and to the point. "I'm jus' sayin'. I 'eard the Countess went back to makin' bio ... bio ... log ..." he gave up, "bio-weapons, made of people. The Rectangle wanted to make 'em perfect warriors to battle their enemies. They'd make warriors made from their enemies. DNA strands n' the like. She went back to doin' that. See, that's all them things are, even Valculga's mutants, thems all come from enemies of the Rectangle."
Frighteningly Susie made perfect sense of this. It was Elle had said upstairs, back in the room with the two bodies and the writing on the walls ... Monsters, put together out of bits of her friends, of Cantina crewmembers. It meant that whatever empire lay in the future would one day hate the Cantina, and would create monstrosities in order to counter them. A part of her wanted to warn Mapp.
Not that she could of course.
And not that he even deserved the heads-up.
It was Mapp's fault P90 was ... was ...
"Oi!" A third voice came from the slums. Nucks and Scoldy looked over and twitched at the sight of a much larger man. The temperature didn't seem to be affecting him at all. "King's makin' a speech. I think he's gonna make a public execution of the bald girl from upstairs. You comin'?"
They nodded and followed.
"What are you thinking?" asked Laski quietly as Susie looked at her reflection in the blade.
"You've been here longer than me, Laski," Susie whispered. "What do you know about her?"
"The Countess? Not a lot, unfortunately. Those two geniuses pretty much hit the nail on the head, although I didn't know about the face-altering stuff, but if it's true then you can't trust anyone, except CJ of course. I can confirm that she is not an evil warlord from the future. She's too sweet for that."
"But why would the Countess need to hide amongst the people?" Susie considered it. "I mean surely she could rule Doggerland with an iron fist if she wanted to."
"Hmm," Laski saw her point, "well maybe it's something else then. Maybe she was waiting for something. Maybe that's why she came to Doggerland in the first place, because she knows what is supposed to happen here."
"Supposed to happen?"
"Well ... yes."
"You're saying that I was supposed to be abducted? That my baby was supposed to be cut out of me?"
"Err ... yes?"
Susie wanted to hit him. "Look," he said, "I'm sorry but I usually get fluctuations when things happen out of sync with the rest of time, like that whole business back on Kryson III and how we played it safe in pre-revolutionary France, so close to the mark, but I'm not getting them here. Susie, this ... event ... This thing with Doggerland. Every Prisian instinct of mine is telling me that this is supposed to happen. You were always supposed to come here. You were always heading for this."
"Is your Prisian instinct telling you anything useful," she muttered, "like how this ends?"
"I can't tell the future. Sorry. Anything could happen."
Susie shook her head.
"My point," Laski returned to the topic, "is that the Countess is from the future, right? And if she's an enemy of the Cantina crew in the future then maybe she had heard about Doggerland as an event in either your life or CJ's, and after she got trapped in this time chasing ... whoever ... around time and space, she came to Doggerland because she knew that, eventually, you would be brought here."
"So now all of this is about me?"
"Either you or CJ," he illuminated the suggestion and fluttered his cover. "But to be honest, CJ wasn't the one who the League were so desperate to get their hands on."
"They were after my baby ..."
She suddenly found herself staring off into space, and cut it short. "That still doesn't explain why the Countess would hide amongst the people of this city. I mean why would she need to? Even if she knew I or anyone else was eventually coming here. Surely the best way to get to me is by using the League. She has whole armies at her disposal."
"Hmm," Laski murmured as he thought about it. "Unless ... she doesn't trust them, the League I mean. Well why would she? They're always fighting amongst themselves, right? And now with the baby ... unless ..."
"... Unless what?"
"... Unless the baby ... unless she's after the baby ... Maybe the League don't realise how important the baby is and so haven't told the Countess?"
But Susie suddenly had a brainwave. "Or maybe they have realised, and they know that the Countess knows too, and they've refused ..."
"... To hand the baby over to her," Laski concurred. "So they've betrayed her. The League of Iron have lied to the Countess."
"And she can't trust them," Susie clenched her fist, "so she's hiding amongst the people of Doggerland, waiting for the perfect time to strike them down."
"But Susie," warned Laski, "Oh Susie, you can't trust anyone. The Countess could be anyone. You wouldn't know."
Susie and her guide begin their journey to the dreaded Bathory Courts, as CJ explores the flooded underworld of the Constantine Wharfs where she discovers the true brutality of the League of Iron...
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© 2012 - 2021 mappalazarou
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