The fight was long and hard and, to Donna's supreme annoyance, indecisive. She checked her watch as she swept the legs from under a screaming Barnling minion. An hour! They'd been fighting for an hour. You'd think someone would have won by now. Or at least the police might have shown up?

To make matters worse, the four-way battle kept changing directions. Inevitably, the Pyramid cultists had betrayed the Pavilion to the Barnlings, but Donna had managed to negotiate a deal with Nalda's AI troops. Then the Barnlings had betrayed the Pyramidists, who'd sough help from the AIs, forcing the Pavilion to fight side by side with their old enemies in the Barn. That had been about a quarter of an hour ago, and Donna was no longer certain as to who was fighting whom.

Partly, she noted, the problem was that this battle was a good deal less lethal than the first one. Perhaps because the Barn and the Pavilion had lost too many people that day, this time around they were fighting with fists and sticks, rather than guns and chainsaws. It was probably a good thing in the long run. But seriously, how long does it take to beat someone just by punching? TV made it seem so quick, so efficient, but…

The Barnling that Donna had tripped slowly struggled to his feet. Sighing, Donna punched him in the kidney. He fell over again, but Donna just knew that he was going to be up again in a minute. So unfair!

"You only need to hold the line."

It was Sadie McGregor. Or her ghost. Do dead angels leave ghosts? Donna was unsure, and didn't really care anyway.

"Hold the line? Against the Barn, the Pyramid cultists and the coming of frikkin' Skynet? Fine. We can do it. But to say we 'just' do it?"

"You can fool the others, but you can't fool me," Sadie said.

"What did we agree last time?"

Sadie's ghost rolled its eyes and  started glowing blue. "Better? Okay. Anyway, I saw what you did. What your real plan is. Who you stationed by the Pyramid. I know you're just holding here until he does his job. Well, if you're holding, then hold."

"I'm afraid, Sadie. I'm afraid… Shit. Hold on."

The Barnling was standing again. Donna picked a heavy piece of debris from the ground and dropped it on his head. The Barnling collapsed again.

"Leave your troops to fight a while," Donna said. "You're needed elsewhere. A terrible crime has taken place at Emile's…"

Donna blinked, kicked the stirring Barnling and blinked again. "What? The fate of the world is in the balance!"

"The fate of the world is always in the balance," Sadie said. "Every act of wrongdoing, no matter how small, threatens to hurl us into the abyss."

"Literally?"

"Well, no, I guess… Look, please, go talk to Emile. It'll help the big fight, I promise."

Donna glared her anger at her dead, supernatural mentor and stomped off through the battle to see Emile at Emile's House of Fine Wines. The doors were closed, but a stray piece of spaceship debris had cracked a window. A garbage can had come loose of its single steel leg. Donna picked it up and hurled it through the cracked window, spreading glass everywhere. It should have seemed satisfying. It was anything but.

Behind the counter was a trapdoor leading down to a cellar. Donna paused. This was odd. Emile's liquor store was, like most big-box liquor store, a cellar in name only. There was only a ground floor, and the climate control of the building provided the equivalent of 'cellaring'. And yet, here was a rickety wooden ladder going down between stone walls, coated with damp and nitre.

"For real?"

She took a last look at the battle outside. Emile's storefront was at the edge of the warzone, so all she could see was a Barnling and a Pavilionite trading weary punches while some local teenagers egged the on. Even so, she felt a traitor going down the hole.

There was no light in the cellar. Donna found a candle and a box of matches in a little alcove by the entry. With this small light, she ventured down, past vast wooden shelves full of bottles and casks. At one end of the darkened room, was a newly built wall, and before that sat Emile Montressor.

"Emile? Is that you?"

"Donna?" Emile said. "Wh-what are you doing here?"

"I was warned that there was a crime going on."

"No, not at all. Harry Fortunado left here hours ago, alive and well."

"I didn't mention Harry."

"No, you didn't." Emile tried a little 'how silly!' sort of laugh, but it turned into a mad cackle. He bit down on his lips to silence himself.

"Emile… Is everything alright? I mean, obviously everything is not alright… But is it alright here?"

White faced, Emile nodded  as if he was trying to shake his head off. "Fine, everything is fine."

A muffled voice emanated from behind the wall. "Thufferin' thurfboards, thith ith a predicament!"

"What was that, Emile?"

Donna hadn't thought it possible for Emile to get whiter. "Nothing! It is nothing!"

"That'th a thretch, buthter!" the voice said.

"Ahhh! I have walled the cat up with him!" Emile said. He rushed past Donna for the ladder, and the breeze of his passing extinguished the candle.

Once Donna had relit it, she found Emile gone. She was alone, other than lisped complaints from behind a wall. Searching around, she discovered some building supplies – old cement bags and some tools – hidden behind a wine shelf. She hoped to find a crowbar among them, but the best she could find was a large trowel. Ordinarily, there was little a trowel could do against a wall, but the cement was barely solid between the bricks on this one. She painstakingly cleared the mortar out from around a brick, then pried it out of the wall. The empty space was immediately filled with two large round yellow eyes.

"Thanks, thithter!" the eyes said. Donna removed another brick, and saw that one of those weird cats was there, a black and white one. She'd seen it before, though she'd never noticed that the white patch on the thing's chest was in the shape of a noose. Behind the animal was Harry Fortunato from Harry's House of Ethanol based beverages, looking very pale indeed.

"Is he…" Donna began.

"Ath a doornail," the cat said. "But you have thaved my life. How can I repay you?"

"Do you have an army?" Donna sighed.

"You want the army?" the cat said. "Thure! I'll go get it mobilithed."

Donna's jaw dropped. She shook her head, then looked upwards. "Sorry, Sadie."

"No need to make fun of my voice," the cat said.

Next -- Part 47: Edge

Previously -- Part 45: Friends

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As Donna expected, the Barnlings attacked in the early evening. In their silver ranks, they marched down Wellington Road, singing as they came.

“When you’re the Barn,
You’re in Barn all your life,
‘Cause we don’t give a darn
When we’re cooking up strife

“When you’re in Barn,
You’re the fightingest goons!
We’ll mess up our foes
We don’t think there’s no spoon.

“We don’t know a lot,
But that does not distress us.
Whither the plot?
Wherefore the Pyramid oppresses?
We have no guesses!

“Here comes the Barn with the strength of a tree,
And in these silver pants
It is quite hard to—“ ...continue reading "Clocks and Boxes — Part 43: Tonight"

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Donna tried not to think about what Donna had told her. Or what Delia had told her. Or Alfred, or Christian or Fanaka or basically anyone. She was doing something that she suspected anyone would argue her out of. But she was doing it anyway, because it needed to be done and there were few people around doing what needed to be done.

"One chicken and beef kebab, extra cheese, chilli sauce, Mr Theopoulos," she said, striding into the kebab shop.

Stavros Theopoulos smiled and paused in his restocking of his ice-cream fridge. He gestured Donna to a seat, and waved at his counterhands to serve her. "Donna, isn't it? Not usual to see any of the Handy Pavilion crowd in my shop. You don't like me, or something?"

"You're a ringleader of a weird cult that worships the Pyramid," Donna said.

"Am I?"

"We have witnesses."

"Do you? So what if you do. It's a free country."

"Is it?" Donna said. "I haven't checked today's news yet. Good to hear. Anyway, you've probably heard that the DIY Barn people have been making a comeback?"

Theopoulos shrugged, straightened his back and collapsed an empty Paddle Pop box.

"Yes?" ...continue reading "Clocks and Boxes — Part 40: Yeeros"

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The Babbage engine that Donna had retrieved from the carpark was just a little larger than a fridge, so it had been easy to find space for it in the backroom of the Storage Universe. Donna's understanding of computing was fairly decent, but her understanding of mechanical AIs was basically nonexistant.

Fanaka was the obvious person to examine it, but he'd had to go and open the watch repair shop. Nalda, as an AI herself, was also a good choice but her shift had begun at the disposals store. That meant that the task was in the hands of Axel Platzoff and Vincent Pizaro.

Professor Devistato and Captain Stellar. A former supervillain and a former superhero, working together. Donna wondered whether Sadie would have appreciated this, or considered it an unfortunate compromise.

"Nothing," Axel said. "I can't see any obvious problem, but it's shutting down anyway."

"Hang in there!" Vincent said. "Don't give up now, damn it!"

"How does that stop something from dying?"

"I don't know. It just does." ...continue reading "Clocks and Boxes — Part 36: Future"

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The morning sun was shining over the Super Centre carpark. The earliest retail workers were arriving as best they could with the entire Easter parking area occupied by the massive form of the great metal bird. Mostly, they avoided looking at it. The people of South Hertling were becoming adept at not seeing things.

Fanaka yawned wide as he kicked the bird’s landing gear. “It’s an ornithopter,” he said.

“Yes,” he added.

“Is that all you can say?” Donna asked.

Fanaka shrugged.

“But you’re an engineer from planet Steampunk, right?” Donna said. “This should be right up your alley.”

Fanaka scratched his head, kicked the landing gear and made a ‘maybe-maybe’ sort of gesture. “Well,” he said. “There are giant steampunk ornithopters, and then there are giant steampunk ornithopters, if you follow me.”

...continue reading "Clocks and Boxes — Part 34: Ornithopter"

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It was night, and a nearly full moon hung in the sky and/or orbited the Earth. Donna had been checking the potted shrubs near Carpets! Carpets! Carpets!, when the gunshot rang out. She raced across the tarmac of the carpark towards Harry's House of Ethanol Based Beverages. As she ran, she was joined by two or three of the fugitive Pavilionites, armed with sticks and crowbars.

At the door to Harry's, a silver-clad Barnling was running away from Harry Montressor, who was throwing bricks at the man. The air was scented with gunsmoke and there was broken glass across in the doorway, but Donna could see no sign that anyone had been hurt. She gestured for her colleagues to chase the Barnling, and went to talk to Harry.

"He had a gun," Harry said, in between heaving breaths. "Tried to rob me."

"Is anyone hurt?"

"Some bottles. Mostly I broke them. When he fired the gun, I think the bullet went into the ceiling."

Donna poked her head into Harry's shop. It was a large, brightly lit shop, with four aisles in the middle and beer and wine fridges around the walls. A couple of scared customers stood here and there, to shocked to move. Harry had been right – a chunk of the ceiling had been shot away and a pile of bricks stood behind the counter. ...continue reading "Clocks and Boxes — Part 32: Robbery"

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"Donna, I have to hand it to you and your Grampy," Carol said. "That massive prison break went like clockwork."

"Of course it went like clockwork!" Grampy Erik said.

"No offense meant," Carol said. "It's just that you see prison breaks on TV, you read about them in the paper, and it seems like there's usually some exciting incident during the escape that raises the tension and drama."

"Not with me in charge!" Erik said, squaring his skinny shoulders beneath his brown cardigan.

Donna nodded in satisfaction as she looked around the assembled Pavilionites. They were all there – mostly the ones whose names she couldn't remember, but also a very uncertain looking Laura Cho, and Axel Platzoff who was still strapped into his Hannibal Lechter gurney, in spite of being catatonic.

"Zorbar still have doubts about Zorbar's role in whole affair," Zorbar said, adjusting his silk ballgown.

"If your plan A is good, you don't really need a plan B," Erik said. "And yet, a sensible man still has a plan B ready to go. You were plan B. If the guards had found that gun made of soap that I baked into the cake, or noticed any of those bedsheets I made out of rope, you would have had to make the warden fall in love with you, then drug him and steal the keys."

"But there several actual attractive women in our group, so why Zorbar dressed…"

"So did we get everyone?" Donna said. It was good getting the whole Pavilion together, but on the other hand she knew it would surely lead to a vast uptick in the number of rambling conversations that didn't really drive events.

Carol and Zorbar began counting everyone. It looked like it was going to take a while, because Zorbar's counting skills were a little rudimentary. But it gave Donna time to think. ...continue reading "Clocks and Boxes — Part 28: Accompli"

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Later, Donna realised that things could have gone very differently. She could have left the South Hertling Super Centre by the Wellington Road exit, seen the plume of smoke and intervened in the conflict between Fanaka and Karl Wintergreen before it was too late. But in trying to avoid after school traffic by Local High School, she took her out the back way through Bideford Lane, past the Cal Meechum Memorial. Donna drove. In the passenger seat sat Belinda. On the rear seat were Belinda, Carol and Zorbar.

A killer cyborg from the future, an irritating woman who was into cosplay, hipster barista, a woman of deep (albeit eccentric) Christian beliefs and an ape-man who had to bow his head and shoulders just to fit in the back of a Subaru hatchback. It shouldn't be enough to organise a jailbreak for over a hundred people, Donna knew. But maybe if she prayed really hard...

"Here we are," Donna said, pulling up about outside of a nursing home, half a kilometre away.

"This isn't Long Bay," Carol complained.

"No, this is where we're getting the guy who can help us break everybody out," Dona said. "Our secret weapon. I've been keeping him in reserve in case we needed him: my great-grandfather." ...continue reading "Clocks and Boxes — Part 24: Grampy"

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Following the incident at the courthouse, Donna was held at the hospital for a while for observation. She discharged herself as soon as she was able, and hurried down to the South Hertling Super Centre to warn everyone that the DIY Barn was back on the march.

She went to warn Ms Shan, but found her gone from her hiding place. Delia was also nowhere to be seen. Neither was Christian, nor Fanaka, nor that weird old guy who Fanaka worked for. She considered dropping in on Belinda at the art supply shop, rejecting the idea after barely a second. It wasn't that big an emergency.

That left one person to talk to. Nalda.

It wasn't that Donna didn't like Nalda. She neither liked not disliked her. Sadie's mentorship had taught Donna much of human nature but surprisingly little about killer cyborgs from the future. As a result, Donna tried not to think about Nalda more than necessary. As bad luck would have it, Donna found both Nalda and Belinda at the disposals shop but -- cursed with being a decent person -- she smiled instead of sighing deeply. ...continue reading "Clocks and Boxes — Part 21: Plot"

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"Faith, ye know oi'm surprised this worked," Seamus said. He wore a black robe and barrister's wig, and a harness around his waist. From a wire on the harness dangled a mobile phone with a picture of the full moon on it, the light of which glinted strangely off of Seamus' glazed hat. "Artificial lunar light, keeping me awake even in the daytime. Truly, this is an age of wonders."

Donna glared at the little fellow. She was in two minds about the little creature. On the one hand, she was still annoyed at him for getting the Dark Brownie acquitted. On the other hand, she needed good legal representation herself if she was going to avoid prison. If there was anything she'd learned from the gnome's utter dismantling of her seemingly solid case against the Brownie, it was that the little fellow was a first-rate lawyer. ...continue reading "Clocks and Boxes — Part 17: Barn"

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