The story so far: in an alternative history where Queen Victoria's British Empire has survived until the turn of the twenty-first century, the Vault is a repository of terrifyingly potent plot-devices which Her Majesty's Government has locked away for the protection of her subjects. However, in an utterly shocking twist, someone's sneaked in and stolen something anyway.
Now read on...
Some hours later, Private Percy Hoskins of the Royal Archivists was feeling terribly uncomfortable.There's only one more of these, and it isn't very long or particularly exciting. Still, Vivat Regina, eh?
Unlike most of his fellows, Percy found that the Vault made him nervous at the best of times. The rumours about the stuff hidden away down here were lurid, colourful and almost universally derided. Of course Percy, like his mates, affected to pooh-pooh them all, but sometimes, when he walked these crated alleys late at night, he couldn’t help thinking he heard things.
Things like a whistling sound, that could have been a distant voice or flute. Or a quiet ticking, as of some machinery whose timer had been accidentally activated by the self-immolation of a curious insect. Or the frantic scrabbling of claws or fingernails...
Percy had come to realise that he might, just possibly, have too much imagination for this job.
As an enlisted Archivist he had no choice but to take his monthly turn of duty in the Vault, of course, but for some time now Percy had seriously been considering applying for a transfer to another unit. Of course his mates would have a field day taking the pee, and Doris would – at the very least – look at him scornfully, but still, for the sake of his peace of mind, it had to be done.
It would have to be as far away as possible, of course. Even without him having to patrol the place personally, he’d know the Vault was still there. Some posting in the Colonial Police would do, somewhere hot. Venus would do him nicely, or perhaps Mercury.
The Moon, he thought, would feel a little close for comfort.
‘Are you still with us, Private?’ Lieutenant Flackson’s tone was curt and sarcastic.
‘Yes sir,’ said Percy, coming back to reality with a jolt. ‘Still here, sir.’
‘Perhaps, then,’ Flackson drawled, ‘you might comply with Sir Malcolm’s very reasonable request, and tell him what happened? If it isn’t too much trouble for you, Private.’
Percy was bright enough to see that the Lieutenant was scared witless – not that there was too much wit to lose, in Flogger Flackson’s case – and making up for it as best he knew, by taking it out on Percy. Shoot the messenger, that was old Flogger.
If he was honest – and Percy’s honesty was one of many things that held him back in his chosen career – he could hardly blame his superior for having the wind up. Sir Malcolm Myers was not a reassuring person. The civil servant’s high forehead was liver-spotted, and his black eyes glittered with impatience. His beaky nose jutted forward from his face as if he fancied pecking Percy’s eyes out. He reminded Percy of the ravens they’d seen when he took Doris on a day out to the Tower.
‘Well, sir,’ Percy began. ‘I was on routine patrol with Ginge –’ (he looked across at Private ‘Ginger’ Grainger, but received no support there) ‘– with Private Grainger, sir, when I hears this... creaking noise. Like...’ Like a coffin lid being lifted from the inside, he wanted to say. Like a door opening onto an ever-descending staircase down to Hell. He settled for something less controversial: ‘...like nails being levered out of a crate, sir.’
‘And this was when?’
‘Five, six hours ago now, sir. Round eleven o’clock.’
‘I see. And what did you do?’
‘Well, sir,’ said Percy again. He shifted uncomfortably and tried again to catch Ginge’s eye. As before, he failed. ‘At first, sir, I just sort of ignored it.’
‘Ignored it,’ Sir Malcolm repeated, without any special emphasis.
‘That’s right, sir. Sometimes, down here, you... hear things. Crates settling, I expect. Or... the ventilators going on the blink. Sometimes it’s the other blokes mucking around, trying to scare you.’
‘I see.’ Sir Malcolm’s voice was grim. ‘Go on.’
‘Yes, sir. I didn’t do nothing about it for a bit, for the reasons I just outlined, sir. But it went on, so I says to Gin– to Private Grainger, “Do you hear that?” And he says, “Hear what?” and I says –’
‘Sir Malcolm doesn’t require the minutes of your conversation,’ Flackson snapped.
‘No, sir. So he says, “No, I can’t hear nothing,” sir. So we went and looked. It sounded like it came from the next aisle –’
‘The aisle we’re in now?’ Sir Malcolm indicated the double-wall of crates surrounding them.
‘Yes, sir. We couldn’t see nothing amiss, though, so we reckoned it was just my ears playing tricks on me.’ Ginge had taken the pee out of him for it, obviously, but this bigwig didn’t need to hear about that. ‘It was only later, when I come back this way again with Bedford –’ (‘Beggar’ Bedford, who up to this point had been listening intently to Percy’s account, now shifted his focus abruptly to the same piece of middle distance as was occupying Ginger’s attention) ‘– that I noticed.’
‘Indeed,’ Sir Malcolm said, turning his beady eyes towards the Travers crate.
Each nail – and there were perhaps a dozen of them to an edge – stood out an inch or so proud of the crate’s closest surface. Thus loosened, the wooden face had slipped to one side very slightly, tracing a narrow line of ominous blackness. ‘And what did you do then?’
‘Orders says we ain’t ever to open up the crates, sir, not under any circumstances, unless there’s a senior officer present. So the Sarge called Lieutenant Flackson, sir, and he got hold of Captain Henshaw. And then the Captain put a call through to the Major, who got in touch with –’
‘Yes, thank you,’ said Sir Malcolm absently, ‘I am familiar with the chain of command.’ The mandarin stared across to where a sizeable proportion of it was standing, from Captain Henshaw right up to a bushy-sideburned General. ‘And during all of this time, it occurred to nobody to look inside the Travers crate and ascertain whether the contents were missing?’
It seemed the officers had all joined Grainger and Bedford in their middle-distance-watching club. Each face – pallid or florid, smooth-cheeked or white-whiskered – held an expression that implied that somebody here was in very serious trouble, and by Gad the face’s owner was glad it wasn’t him.
‘Well, sir,’ said Percy yet again, wondering how it had fallen to him to act as spokesman for the entire British Army, ‘nobody knew what was supposed to be inside, sir. It could have been –’ there didn’t seem to be any more delicate way of putting this ‘– it could have been something really bloody dangerous, sir. Pardon my French.’
Sir Malcolm’s upper lip twitched. ‘Hoskins,’ he said balefully, ‘I think that may well be the first sensible thing anybody’s said to me this morning. The contents of that crate could, indeed, be something bloody dangerous.’
He turned towards the Travers crate. ‘Let’s have a look at them, shall we?’
‘Come on, then, man,’ Flogger barked behind him, ‘we haven’t got all day.’
Percy stepped forward and gripped the side of the crate. He lifted it away, keeping the wood between his body and whatever was inside the box. Behind him, as it came away, he felt Bedford, Grainger and the assembled officers flinch as one man.
He peered across the rim of his improvised shield at the crate’s interior. Some ancient strands of dried-up packing straw wafted free into the light, leaving behind them nothing but a yawning wooden emptiness.
Whatever it was that the Government had confiscated from T G Travers a century before, it seemed that someone else had taken it into their own safe-keeping.
[Pax Britannia series elements © Abaddon Press 2005.]