Sorry for delay. Should be back on track now.
Delia wasn't jealous of U. Not really. After all, it was Alfred we were talking about, wasn't it? And a drop-dead gorgeous twentysomething blonde was not likely to have been interested in Alfred with his cardigans and comb-over.
(Except that he looked a little dashing in his black blazer. And the comb-over had given way to a buzzcut that made him look like a short, fat Patrick Stewart except with a moustache.)
"So run this by me again," Alfred said. "We are in…"
Alice Hertling topped up Alfred's tea. The four of them – Delia, Alice, Alfred and U – sat in the crinoline-draped tea room of Alice's spaceship, hovering over the Suburb. Delia sipped her lapsang souchong, while U tossed back jam-and-cream scones like there was no tomorrow. By great effort of will, Delia refrained from thinking something stereotypical about U's figure and the future thereof.
"We are in North Hertling, Mr Pilbrook," Alice said.
"There is no North Hertling," Alfred said. "Only South."
"Why?" Alice said. "Why not just call it 'Hertling'?"
Alfred sipped at his tea and scratched his head. "There is no North Hertling," he said. "Only South."
Delia stood and walked to the window. Was she pleased that Alfred's eyes followed her as she walked? She tried not to be. Her official policy was that nothing had changed between her and Alfred since last they met. Tentative early stages of romance. No reason for pleasure at his attentiveness nor jealousy at his… new friend.
She stared out of the chintz-curtained porthole down onto North Hertling. However else she felt about Alfred, she did not envy him. When Alice had finally managed to force past the mental blocks and convince her that North Hertling was… well, not just real, but an actual concept that her mind could envisage, it had been…
There we go! Alfred had come to accept matters faster than she had. But then again, he had actually been living in North Hertling, so perhaps it wasn't such a stretch for him.
"How? How?" Alfred was demanding.
Delia let the matter tend to itself, instead looking down on the Suburb/North Hertling.
The computer centre that Alfred had blown up was still blazing merrily. A crew of men in black martial arts costumes were fighting the blaze, but since they seemed to lack water they were throwing jars of honey into the blaze. It did not seem to be helping, but the fire seemed to by dying out of its own accord. Delia could not smell anthing through the hermetically sealed hull, but felt that it must surely smell like some delightful artisnal toffee.
"Never send a Dadaist to a housefire," she muttered.
The operation offended her Olympian sense of order. The whole Suburb did, from its self-conscious wackiness to the fact that it was in a completely different dimension from where it was supposed to be, to the fact that learning about it was making Alfred smack his head on the table.
Delia had refrained from smacking her own head on the table when she'd learned. Just barely. But she had.
"You don't seem troubled by the news," Delia said to U, who had wandered over to the window.
"No, I never heard of South Hertling, but," she said. "I'm from Rockhampton."
"You must be Delia," U said.
"Oh, F told me all about you."
Well, that was something of a relief. Probably.
"'F?'" Delia said.
"Yeah, we all have letters instead of names. I mean, all names have letters, but…"
"But you have only one letter each. Hm. That at least seems orderly."
Below them, the fire seemed to have been doused. Five firemen formed a rough circle and cheered. As they did so, a larger circle of five men in grey tracksuits appeared behind them. Each grey man raised a cosh an knocked out a fireman.
"We call it The Suburb," U said. "I don't know how long I've been here, being interrogated in increasingly byzantine ways."
Delia frowned. "Did they torture you?"
"Torture!" U exclaimed, snapping her fingers. "Oh! Yeah, that would have worked, I bet. Lucky they didn't think of that one."
"Who are they?"
"An agency that the Australian government pretends does not exist," Alfred said, walking over. He held a thick linen serviette against his nose to staunch the flow of blood. "And when you consider some of the agencies that they're proud of… well…"
"No, I don't think so," Delia said. "Maybe that was the way it was to begin with, but it's spun so far out of control…"
"Oh," Alfred said, looking crestfallen. "Are you sure? Because I was quite proud of figuring that out."
"She's right," Alice said. "North Hertling was folded outside of space/time. Your government might have found a bridge to it and used it as an intelligence installation/performance art piece, but the bridge has long since been severed. North Hertling is in its own pocket dimension in orbit around Mars."
"That was my next guess," Alfred said, peevishly.
"My guess is that it was the removal of North Hertling that weekened the dimensional fabric of South Hertling," Delia said. "Allowing, amongst other things, the Pyramid."
"Oh, you'll fit right in, here," U said. "Not that you're here for long, I guess. You're here to rescue F, right?"
"No, U, rescuing Alfred is more of a lucky coincidence," Delia said. "We came here for…"
An eerie howl filled the room. It started low and clawed into a higher register, seeming to rattle every vertebra as it went up and down Delia's spine. Alfred and U both panicked, but fortunately didn't grab each other for support
Delia squared her jaw. "We came here for that," she said.