March 25th, 2008
March 3rd, 2008
February 25th, 2008
It consolidates not only much of what VM seemed to be about, but also the whole Osaka Quartet. "Osaka And Santa Rin In The Bayou" is a little too mannered and controlled, too lush; "Praxis Is No Word For It: Codename O.S.A.K.A." too cynical and abstruse; and "The Navy Versus The Night Osakas" is a clearly the work of a man going off his rocker. In "The Ayumu Kasuga Holiday Special", though, we find VM at the peak of his form. It is one of his most successful novels and is, by any measure, a masterpiece.
( The Ayumu Kasuga Holiday SpecialCollapse )
September 23rd, 2007
April 9th, 2006
OH DEAR GOD I OWE RAGU BIG
April 7th, 2006
CRITICAL ACCLAIM FOR O.C.T.O.P.U.S.! THE ROLLERCOASTER NEW HISTORICAL THRILLER THAT'S JUST DYING TO CATCH ~YOU~ IN ITS TENTACLES!
"...boring and painful to read. Very little character development. Instead of being emotionally drawn in, paragraph after paragraph was descriptions of silly girls and their fetishistic outfits." ~The Daily Telegraph
"I thought that the book was no good and it was very slow to read. I never really got one hundred percent into it. I would find myself thinking about alot of other things while I was reading. Once I even had to backtrack almost fifty pages because I couldn't remember a single thing that I had read in the past two or three hours. I had to really focus to be able to comprehend and remember what it was that I was actually reading. Of course, like all stories, this one has a happy ending." ~The Times
"oh for christ's sake was this written by a fucking 19 year old? SERIOUSLY: FUTURE DYSTOPIA DISTRUSTING THE MAN, CHARACTERS NAMED AFTER PROMINENT MODERN THINKERS FROM EUROPE, CLOSING CREDITS WITH RADIOHEAD. WHAT ELSE COULD EXPLAIN IT" ~Haaretz
"This book is filled with unwanted details, i.e. a whole chapter on female anatomy, and an obsession with alcohol, (Throughout the book the characters are drinking booze, looking for booze or fighting over booze.) and a very uninteresting storyline. There are no battles for freedom, making the human race seem like it has no dignity." ~Völkischer Beobachter
"Its attempts to head off any criticism of its emotional adolescence and lack of imagination through a series of sly winks at the audience only serve to highlight how shallow and tired it is. A moving scrapheap." ~Die Zeit
"Dull, dull, dull. Yes.. And it's boring! So very, very boring. The author writes like a passionless, uncaring observer. A thing which strikes one is the rigidity of his mind, the way his world view ~doesn't~ develop. It is the fixed vision of a monomaniac. Who really cares? I sure don't. Call me gauche but it might have been better if they centered it in one of the major cities in the United States. And also if the president of the United States was invoved in it. They should have done it something like 1997 number one movie of the summer 'INDEPEDANCE DAY'." ~Le Monde
( Read the first chapter of O.C.T.O.P.U.S.! entirely free for the next 24 hours!Collapse )
June 26th, 2004
Csenger emerged breathless from beneath the altar, dragging herself halfway out of the hole before flinging herself down, her arms outstretched. Rosalba took hold of the girl under her shoulders and pulled her clear of the opening. The ammunition Csenger was carrying rattled against the stone. A pair of bandoleers crossed over her shoulders, each one glistening with bullets; as she stood up they reached almost to her knees. Rosalba pried a handful of drum magazines from under the girl's arm. The metal was cold to the touch, making it feel damp. She frowned, glancing up at the nearest of the windows before turning them over in her hands and scrutinising them. She thumbed a bullet out of the magazine and into her palm, holding her breath as she lifted it up to the light. After a moment her breath hissed out, she shrugged and slid the bullet back home.
"Can't tell if they're damp," Rosalba admitted, settling on her haunches and picking through the rest of the munitions.
"They shouldn't be," Csenger said, lifting one bandoleer off her shoulder. She stepped out of it and let it fall to the floor. The bullets clattered on the stone with a dull, mute sound. The other bandoleer coiled on top of it, marked out by the constellation of metal it held. "The crypt is supposed to be bone dry."
"Where were they made?" Rosalba asked.
"Czechoslovakia," Csenger replied.
Ingrid smiled with embarassment. Seeing Cseke had stopped playing with Schurenberg's grapefruits and was blinking up at her she gave a hollow cough. The smile disappeared.
"Some of them are three or four years old," Csenger went on, "I can't tell you which. It's pitch dark down there, and I don't remember any of it being organised when it was put in."
"I don't think it was," Cseke said, "after the bandits were driven off we just piled it down there. There wasn't any light then, either."
"Pot luck," Rosalba said, gathering up the magazines.
"Better pot luck under the Kriegsmarine today than human stew under the Khaganate tomorrow."
"Well," Ingrid said, sighing and facing Schurenberg. "You're the captain. What are your orders?"
Schurenberg scooped the grapefruits into her arms. Cseke placed the last of the fruit she was holding on top of the pile and hopped down off the altar.
"Yes," Schurenberg said, nodding, her bunny ears bowing emphatically.
"I trust my enthusiasm is clear. Yes, proceed!"
Before anyone could answer Rosalba had swung the gun up into her shoulder and aimed it at the nearest of the windows. The sound of the shots came like a physical blow, bursting in the others' ears loud enough to make them flinch. Cseke clapped her hands over her head and ducked into one of the pews. Schurenberg and Ingrid winced and forced themselves to stand still while they watched each of the windows in turn shatter and crumble into the body of the church, the sheets of dark glass falling onto the stones loud enough to make them start. The gun fell silent, the echo persisting for a moment before disappearing as suddenly as if the floor had fallen out of the chapel. In a single movement Rosalba tore the spent magazine out of its housing and hurled it into the air, clipping another into place. Cowering and clinging to her jacket Csenger gave a quiet cry of fear as Rosalba vaulted onto the altar and levelled the gun at the crucifix suspended above her. For a moment Ingrid forgot the noise. The smell of propellant was keen in her nostrils, reminding her of incence. Even with the light pouring through the shattered windows the atmosphere seemed heavy, the gunfire so loud it dazed her and gave everything a silent, dreamlike quality. As she watched the crucifix shuddered, dropped a foot or so, stopped and began tilting forward. Rosalba swung the gun down at her side, the blue smoke streaming out the barrel like oil spilling into water, stepping off the altar as the crucifix collapsed onto it with a single leaden thud. There was no sound as Rosalba stood over the fallen cross and pressed the hot barrel into the wood. A thin ribbon of white smoke rose up where she guided it, becoming lost in the sunlight. In a few seconds she was done. She turned and walked though the others to the door.
Inside the helicopter Ingrid found her ears still rang from the gunfire in the chapel. The noise of the engine and the gunfire here seemed distant and muffled in the wind by comparison. Across from her Rosalba seemed unaffected, drumming her feet against the floor and furiously working the bolt on the machine gun when she wasn't shooting. Ingrid clutched the seat underneath her as the aircraft banked and Schurenberg leaned against her, the open door at her shoulder tilting towards the ground, revealing a crowd of horsemen half-buried in a cloud of dust. An arrow arced up and passed under the runners. Rosalba squinted down the gun's barrel and squeezed the trigger. A horse reared up, its rider leaning back and falling out of his saddle before the horse dropped on top of him. She reached over her shoulder for a fresh magazine, her eyes still following the scene below her. Csenger leaned forward and pressed the metal drum into her fingers.
"That's the last one," the girl shouted.
Rosalba said nothing, reloading the weapon and firing again immediately. Two more riders toppled from their horses before the helicopter banked away. Rosalba clutched at the doorframe with her left hand, her knee trembling as the ground swung into view beneath her again. A single figure was walking through the melee of bodies, heavy set, clothed in grey. His steps were slow and deliberate, his arms swinging at his side as he moved. Rosalba rested the gun on her knee and pulled the trigger. The figure twisted, his knees dropping to the ground, his grey face turning toward to the passing light aircraft. Before he could stretch his arm out he had fallen forward and become still. A circle of figures on foot began to close around him like a jaw.
"I'm out of ammunition," Rosalba said, inspecting the empty magazine before hurling it out of the door, "what do we do now?"
Cseke looked at the grapefruits Schurenberg was cradling in her arms. Out on the runners a coil of rope was shaking in the wind. She scrambled across to Rosalba.
"Hold on to me," she shouted, pointing at the rope, "I've got an idea."
"Wait, what are you-" Rosalba replied, lunging at Cseke's legs when she saw the girl crawl to the door and lean out. A moment later she waved her hand and Rosalba hauled her back in. The girl turned over and sat up, holding the spool of rope to her body. She found one end and held it up, grabbing one of the grapefruits from Schurenberg's lap with her other hand.
"We can use these as a weapon!"
Nobody spoke for a moment.
"How?" Ingrid asked, leaning forward.
Cseke placed the grapefruit in her lap and reached between Ingrid's knees. Beneath her seat a compartment folded out to reveal a heavy brown backpack. Cseke tugged at it for a moment before Rosalba took hold of one of the handles and dragged it into the centre of the helicopter.
"Take the parachute out of the bag, we can fill it with the grapefruits and lower it out of the helicopter with the rope."
"Ah-ha!" Rosalba clapped her hands and seized Cseke's head, laughing. "It just might work!"
June 25th, 2004
"We have to get to the chapel," Csenger said, ushering the others out of the kitchen and down one of the corridors. Schurenberg plucked a handful of grapefruits off the table and carried them with her, chewing pieces as she went.
"Why the chapel? What are they going to do?" Schurenberg asked.
"Who are they, anyway?" Rosalba said, turning and standing in the middle of the passage. A stained glass window loomed up over her, drowning her in red light.
"Please," Csenger pushed at her, her feet slipping, "you have to go. They'll be here soon. The chapel is the only fortified part of the monastery."
"They're going to attack us?"
"She's right," Cseke said, tugging at Rosalba's sleeve. "They must have heard that Feno is dead. The monastery is theirs now, that's part of the agreement that Feno made with them to stay here."
Rosalba began walking again, letting Csenger lead her. They passed through the courtyard, the twins hopping over Feno's charred body. The other three walked around it. Twisted and blackened it reminded Ingrid of a tree root coiling out of a shady patch of earth.
"Through here," Csenger said, joining Cseke and pushing the wooden doors to the chapel open. They shut them once the others were through, heaving a heavy iron bar into place with a noise that echoed through the dark space. Narrow, knife-like windows glowed high up in the walls. Rosalba took several steps forward and staggered into a pew, cursing under her breath. A faceless, metallic knight stared down at her from one of the windows, wreathed in banners; his gauntlets closed over the hilt of a sword. Csenger caught her sleeve and ran with her down the side of the church, behind the pillars which lined both sides of the chapel. When they were level with the altar she stopped and pushed a curtain aside. A stairwell spiralled up inside the wall. Without pausing she pulled Rosalba up the steps after her. Once Ingrid had followed Cseke saw Schurenberg looking around in the darkness, still cradling the grapefruits.
"What is it?"
"The grapefruits!" Schurenberg replied. "I don't want to carry them up there."
Cseke caught Schurenberg's elbow with her hand, looking around the church.
"The altar," she said at last, pointing. Schurenberg craned her head forward, squinting.
"Come on," Cseke said, leading Schurenberg between two pews and up the steps to the altar. Schurenberg leant over it, opening her arms and allowing the grapefruits to roll onto the stone. Satisfied, she stepped back, regarding the dim crucifix hanging above her. Cseke tugged at her arm. She wondered whether she should salute it, decided against it and allowed Cseke to guide her to the steps.
Csenger pushed a trapdoor open ahead of them and climbed the short metal ladder to the roof. The ringing of the metal under her feet echoed through the empty stairwell. It was swallowed up by the sound of the wind as she disappeared through the gap, leaving only a bright square that dazzled the others. Her head appeared, silhouetted.
"Quickly, you can see them," she said, reaching down and pulling Cseke through.
Ingrid let the other two climb up, pausing and glancing once down the stairwell before she followed. The surface of the metal rails crumbled under her hands, when she squinted at them in the light her palms were covered in dark flakes of rust. She brushed them off against her jacket, straightening up against the wind and letting her eyes adjust. In front of her Csenger was leaning on the waist-high masonry and pointing out into the plains. Ingrid could barely make anything out, instead turning her face down and pressing her hand against the tiles of the chapel's spire behind her. Gradually she edged her way around the narrow platform until she was in the building's shadow. The stonework barely came up to her thighs. She leaned on it and stared down at the slanted roof of the chapel. The dark shape of the spire reached halfway across the courtyard. Looking up she could see the stone cross at the pinnacle had been shorn off.
"Decapitated," she whispered to herself before walking back around to rejoin the others.
"So the Bosphorus Khaganate used to own this?" Schurenberg asked.
On the plain the crescent of horsemen continued towards the monastery, half hidden in the dust the wind was driving with them.
"Yes. Before the period of the crusades all this land belonged to the Khaganate; a warlike tribe of nomads who fought entirely on horseback. They were allowed to appoint their own rulers as long as they agreed to remain part of the Byzantine Empire. They survived like this for almost two centuries until the first Catholic orders arrived, using this area as a staging post for their invasions of the Holy Land to the south. The Byzantines, not wanting to draw the ire of the newly militant Church, ceded this land for use to any fighting order. That was how this monastery came to be built, used to house wealthy crusaders, and as a means to defend the land which they now came to consider their own. As the crusades gradually faded away many knights elected to stay rather than return to their native lands. At the same time the Byzantine Empire was declining in power, losing its grip on the territories it held. The result was that the knights who had settled here more and more had to do business with the Khaganate, paying their taxes not to Constantinople but to the Khaganate's tribal chiefs. Over the years the owners of this monastery have changed many times, but the arrangement with the Khaganate never has. That's why the chapel no longer has a bell, years ago it was given to the Khaganate so they could cast cannons from the bronze. That was just after they were betrayed by the Swiss traitor Urs Meier." Csenger spat. "He offered to sell the Khaganate a shipload of Portugese weapons, taking a third of the payment in advance and telling them he'd have the ship with the goods through the Bosphorus in three months. Exactly on the nintieth day the ship he had promised entered the Black Sea, where it burned and sank. Urs claimed that it must have been agents of the monastery that did it. In fact, the boat was empty, he had already sold the weapons in Lisbon, then he sabotaged it to try and start a war between the Khaganate and the knights. They cut the fucker's balls off and buried him upside down while he was still squealing for his miserable Swiss life when they found out; which was quickly, because he was stupid too, and ugly. And now..."
"Now they have come for the monastery itself, no matter what we say or do." Cseke admitted, her head bowed.
Rosalba braced one foot against the stonework, the gun perched on her knee. Her lips worked silently for a moment, ending as she grit her teeth and sucked a breath in over them. She stepped back down, reaching out with one hand and cradling Csenger's face. Her thumb traced the black mark on the girl's cheek.
"Do you want total war?"
Csenger answered was like a reflex. There were tears in the girl's eyes.
"With all my heart."
"Warm up the helicopter. I've got a plan."
June 24th, 2004
Chapter IV : Neo-Muscovy
It was day when Ingrid woke up. The heavy curtains at the window were only half-drawn, flooding the far side of the room with light. Stretching, she forced her fists into her eyes, working her knuckles into the sockets until the dull pain reached back into her head. When she took her hands away the light didn't seem as bright. Her arms splayed out above her head, swollen with fatigue.
"Christ, I felt like I slept for seventeen days," she groaned, stretching her legs before collapsing onto the bed.
Her head rolled to one side. She was alone. Even the cats had gone. From the light she tried to work out what time it was, unable to rouse herself to walk to the window; the urge to further entwine herself in the grimy sheets and expire in a blaze of sleep becoming unanswerable. Her long, ungainly limbs, as heavy as steel cables, had become snared in the folds of the bedclothes. If she could stand up, she thought, she might be able to walk by swinging her long, stiff arms out at her sides and staggering forward each time her centre of gravity changed. With her knees bent to absorb the excessive torque and some kind of hardened carapace to protect her vital organs she might just be able to live like that, but the fate of any person caught in the path of her tentacles would be too horrible to contemplate. No, the only solution for such a creature would be to live at the bottom of the ocean with the rest of its strange kind. The last vital part of her was already sunk in the mass of her body, a face looking up from a sunken ship, only her bunny ears breaking the surface of the water and bowing accusingly at passing vessels. From somewhere in the castle she could smell food cooking. Her belly squirmed, she remembered how long it had been since she had last eaten. Smacking her lips she swung her legs over the side of the bed and made her way out into the corridor.
In the kitchen she found everyone already assembled. Schurenberg and Rosalba were seated at the table, Csenger sitting in Rosalba's lap and watching, rapt, as Rosalba went about dismantling a gun on a piece of cloth. Cseke was tending to pans crackling over a gas stove.
"Ah, good morning," Schurenberg said, still slicing up the food on her plate. Cseke looked up from their work and smiled. Rosalba glanced up long enough to see Ingrid was in one piece and went back to her work. "It's all fresh, you have to eat some of this."
"Just the one machine gun for breakfast?" Ingrid asked, sitting down, visibly pleased with herself.
"I thought the cooking would get your attention quickly enough," Rosalba said, still concentrating on the screwdriver she was holding. Within seconds she had gone back to talking to Csenger in hushed tones while pointing with the head the tool. As she did she knocked one of the springs and sent it rolling across the table. Her ears flattened against her head as she watched it, waiting until it was at the lip of the table before reaching out a hand and batting it back towards her. She did this several times before lunging at the spring with both hands, squeezing Csenger against the table until she uncupped her hands and replaced it on the cloth. She toyed with the grease on the end of her fingers for a moment before grinning and smearing it across Csenger's cheek. Csenger blushed and said nothing.
"Are you all right? You look really tired," Cseke said, sliding the plate in front of Ingrid and setting a knife and fork beside it.
"I'll be fine once I've eaten this," Ingrid said, dividing up the bacon.
"Overdosing on opium can lead to a coma-like sleep which can last several days. Weeks, even!" Cseke said, returning to the stove.
"Really?" Ingrid replied, puzzled.
"What's this?" Schurenberg asked, settling her knife and fork against her plate, "opium?"
"Mmm-hmm!" Cseke said, kicking up her heels. "Or opium derivatives."
"Opium derivatives?" Schurenberg asked. "Like... morphine?"
"Ja! The poppies grow, the poppies flower, the flowers return to seedpods, the seedpods are opium, basically; of opium we make morphine," Csenger recited in a sing-song voice, pushing her hands up behind her head and flicking the fingers intermittently, "which bunny eared nurses inject into their healthy, bouncy young heart-sacs!"
"You," Schurenberg turned back to Ingrid, the nurse halfway through a mouthful of mushrooms, "you haven't been abusing the ship's supply of opium derivatives, have you?"
"What?" Ingrid choked on her food, pounding her chest with her fist before she could swallow and continue. "What the hell makes you say that?"
"I don't know," Schurenberg pressed a finger against her bottom lip, her gaze drifting above Ingrid's head for a moment, "you do look rather sleepy, like you're operating on a different plane."
"Jesus Christ," Ingrid whispered, breaking a piece of grapefruit off with her fingers and popping it in her mouth. Across the table from her she could see Rosalba sliding the gun back together, regarding Ingrid from under her brow. While Ingrid was still chewing she prised an oyster's shell open and inspected the contents. The grapefruit felt sticky and lumpy in her mouth. She closed the shell and fought the mouthful she already had down her throat, distracting herself by poking at a block of cheese with her fork. It was as dark and inscrutable as Asia and just as hard to digest.
"Uwa!" The pan Csenger was holding rang as it struck the floor. Everyone looked up. Cseke hopped out of Rosalba's lap.
"What did you do that for?" Cseke asked.
"Look!" Csenger said, pointing at the window.
Cseke hopped up onto the worksurface, her rear end shifting from side to side as she peered through the yellow glass. Quickly she jumped back down, turning to Cseke.
"They must have heard about Feno."
"Mmm!" Cseke replied, nodding. "I didn't think they'd be so quick, though."
"Who are you talking about?" Rosalba said, standing up with the gun and leaning at the window.
Csenger answered, her voice faltering. "The Bosphorus Khaganate, they are coming!"
June 7th, 2004
|06:39 pm - Delayed by bad weather|
This specially extended episode of "The Entrance To Eternity" is in tribute to the heroes of D-Day:
The sun was up, making the steel hiss and gleam in the dark water. Schurenberg was collapsed in a deckchair, steeped in heat, a book dangling at the end of one arm as heavy as lead, trying to ignore the noise. A group of the younger crewmembers went running behind the row of seats, knocking her chair and splashing her with water before they hurled themselves squealing into the Bosphorus. There must have been twenty of them already in the water beside the hull for all the noise they were making. Schurenberg shifted in her seat, placing the book in her lap and watching them for a moment, wondering if there was any of the safety equipment they weren't playing with. The hum of the deck gun moving caught her attention. It had been covered with towels and was being swung out over the side of the boat. As she watched one of the figures at the base clambered up and lay herself against it, her arms and legs dangling either side of the barrel. The others gathered in the space made on the deck. Schurenberg recognised them as being from the engine room, her attention rapt as they shucked off their uniforms to reveal their red and black bathing suits. The German eagle was clearly visible on each one, perching on a swastika clutched between the swell of their breasts. They stood for a while, rubbing each other's exposed skin with lotion until they glistened. One of them began peeling the strap of her costume off one shoulder. At this they lay down and she lost sight of them behind the other crewmembers gathered along the length of the ship. Frowning, she turned, glancing up at the castle ramparts behind them, just able to make out the guards peering out from behind the battlements. The brightness of the sky hurt her eyes.
Schurenberg sniffed and opened the book in her lap, finding the glare of the white paper no less uncomfortable, flicking through the pages for something to catch her attention, finally coming to a chapter on merchant navy countermeasures. One of the pages folded out, revealing a propaganda leaflet that had been found circulating among German sailors in foreign ports which exhorted their submariners not to put their torpedoes where they weren't wanted. Schurenberg laughed, flashing a single white fang, before sinking back into the canvas of her seat with the effort. It was madness, she thought, her cheek resting against her shoulder. She pictured the other creatures which shared the deep: the mighty whale for instance; warm blooded, breathing air with lungs, having babies and not eggs, and nursing them with milk. She remembered well from her studies that the whale's greatest enemy was the swordfish; as if its blade was welcome in the exposed flank of its prey. The girl in the seat beside her moved, her smooth arm brushing against Schurenberg's face. Instinct brought a necessity all of its own. Before there had been brains there had still been blood.
She felt she was about to fall asleep, struggling under this foreign sun to hold her thoughts together. Was this how the first Europeans felt standing on the alien soil of the Americas? The blood of a few thousand men had pacified that earth and made it fit for habitation. A hundred years ago the same had been true of Africa. Schurenberg opened her eyes. Was it now the turn of that hybrid Asia? And what answers would they receive, out of that dark continent?
Someone was walking behind her. She felt something batting at the back of her head.
"Uwa!" Schurenberg leapt out of her chair, clutching at her bunny ears with one hand. "Oww! What was that?" she asked, turning around, finding Rosalba standing behind her with the ship's cat cradled in her arms. She wasn't sure which of them looked more pleased. "What do you think you're doing?"
"I was just taking Solar Flares out," Rosalba replied, stroking the cat under its chin. It closed its eyes, supremely content. "You know how he likes to be on top."
"And attack me," she frowned and pulled the tip of one ear in front of her face, inspecting it. A red mark stood out vividly against the white.
"He can't help it!" Rosalba laughed, "he just wants to bat at them, you can't blame him, they are rather tempting the way they bounce about like that," her eyes focused on the remaining ear. She crouched down, reaching one hand out before swatting at the tip.
"Hey! Get off!" Schurenberg stepped away, folding the ear back above her head and smoothing it out several times. She let it go and it tipped forward, the end exaggerating every movement she made. "Hmpf, well..."
"Oh, come on," Rosalba knelt down, letting the cat jump out of her arms and go scampering down the deck, weaving its way between the forest of legs, "it's not every crew that gets a posting like this. Try and enjoy it a little," she reached out, tugging Schurenberg's collar, "hmmn?"
She prised the fingers from her collar. "I'm the captain."
"You mean you forgot your bathing suit!" Rosalba needled, as content as the cat had been a moment ago. She folded her arms under her bust, creasing the swastika. Her own triangular cat ears flicked in glee.
Schurenberg said nothing, turning and staring at the far end of the ship, letting her gaze wander out over the still waters of the Bosphorus.
"Yes, well," she said at last, noncommittal, before looking up at the wilting form of one ear.
"By the way, are there any free chairs? I've been stretched out on a towel for the past hour but the heat just comes right up from the deck."
"Have mine," Schurenberg replied, squeezing past her neighbour to join Rosalba behind the row of seats. She winced, finding her foot on bare metal and jumped to the edge of the nearest towel. "Wow, I see what you mean."
"Why, are you off?" Rosalba asked, settling herself into the chair.
"Mmm, I think I've had enough sun for now."
Rosalba said nothing, turning her face away and leaning back in the chair. Schurenberg watched her for a moment. The catears on Rosalba's head flicked once. Grinning, Schurenberg leaned forward. She pinched the nearest of Rosalba's ears and ran off, ducking under the deck gun and the arms hanging from it as she made her way towards the conning tower. Rosalba called after her and she laughed. She scaled the tower, almost landing on several of her crew as she jumped inside. They were collapsed in a pile of twisted limbs, looking up at her with half-lidded eyes, their mouths half open, pink tongues faintly stirring inside. Far away Rosalba was still sitting in her chair, glaring at her.
Inside the submarine Schurenberg found her stomach was rumbling. Aside from the hum of the air compressors it was the only noise. In spite of the feeling in her belly she walked once around the bridge, resting her hand on each of the empty stations as she passed as if she were blessing them. She went to the canteen, and, seeing that she was alone, began rooting through the refridgerated supplies. At last she came upon a melon, green and taut and ripe, drops of condensation running over its smooth surface. It felt deliciously cold against her cheek. Gingerly she applied the scratched tip of one ear to it, sighing as the throbbing was soothed. The thought occured to her to get another melon so she could nestle the afflicted ear between them, but several minutes' searching turned up nothing useful. Despondent, she rolled the watermelon back and closed the heavy door. When nobody walked by in the corridor after a moment she stepped out and, after looking both ways, slowly began to make her way around the empty ship.
The nurse was resting on the back of a chair in her office, leaning into the breeze from an electric fan, her eyes closed, two fingers toying at the neck of her uniform. The swastika on her armband was white on a red background, reminding Schurenberg of the mark on her ear. Hearing Schurenberg at the door Ingrid looked up.
"What happened?" she asked, taking the bunny ear in her hands and turning it over.
"Solar Flares scratched them!"
"Hmmmn," Ingrid opened one of the cabinets that lined the room, taking out a thin metal cylinder. "You know, it's very dangerous to have that cat on board."
"Solar Flares, why? Ow!" Schurenberg cried out as Ingrid sprayed an antiseptic on the wound. The whole ear tingled, the sensation making Schurenberg's toes curl.
"Not just him, any cat." Schurenberg tilted her head back, her puzzled expression showing through her discomfort. "I'll explain. Alone, only a harmless pet. One thousand strong: they become a man-eating machine!"
Schurenberg looked out from behind the chair.
"You... you think?"
"I'm sure of it!"
"Wai, but... he's here now. It'd be sad to have to make him go."
"We'll just have to keep a close watch on him, make sure he doesn't go around clawing anybody else's ears."
"He doesn't claw Rosalba's ears!" Schurenberg said, accusing.
"Off course not, she has cat ears. They flick! As for the crewmembers who have kitsune ears or android ears, they're pretty safe too, it's only us," she pointed at her own bunny ears, "who are at risk."
"Wow, I wonder why that is." The nurse motioned for her to turn around.
"Some animals see bunny-ears and think that we're part of a rabbit-family who are only good for being clawed."
"Hmmm," Schurenberg pressed her hands together between her knees, fidgeting in her seat as Ingrid wrapped a bandage around the wound.
"Anyway," she clapped Schurenberg on the shoulder, "there. It should be healed within a day."
Schurenberg stood up and thanked her, making her way to the door and pausing.
"Um," she turned around. Ingrid looked up. "Have you seen Lentz at all?"
"Lentz?" Ingrid thought for a second before nodding. "Ah yes, since when?"
"Since we arrived in Istanbul, really."
Ingrid shook her head. "No. Why, is there something wrong with her?"
"Oh no, I..." Schurenberg shifted the weight on her feet, "I was just checking."
"This isn't about..." Ingrid's voice trailed off, her eyes narrowing. She cocked her head.
"Shh," Ingrid said, walking up to the doorway and listening again.
"What is it?" Schurenberg asked, straining her ears.
"I'm not sure. Sounds mechanical though," Ingrid said, her voice quiet. She began walking towards the bridge.
"Inside the ship? Wait, I can hear it now." They stopped, listening to the distant trembling hum get louder. There was a scream from above them. Schurenberg bolted for the ladder, quickly followed by Ingrid, emerging onto the conning tower to find a helicopter wobbling above the Bosphorus. Along the deck the crew were talking excitedly amongst themselves. Most of those in the water were climbing back on to the hull and drying themselves off while glancing at the aircraft. The three girls who had been lying at the top of the tower were now standing beside the flak gun. One figure on the deck began waving a towel over her head at the pilot.
"A helicopter?" Ingrid asked.
"Pillows?" Schurenberg murmured, her attention caught by the waving crewmember.
"Do the Turks even have helicopters?" Ingrid went on.
"Captain!" It was Rosalba, striding down the deck, shouting over the thump of the helicopter's rotors.
"Yes, Rosalba, what can you tell me?"
"One second," she said, clambering up to join them before continuing. "The pilot's already signalled to us."
"Did you catch what he said?"
"Most of it. He said he's a wealthy European batchelor who has a castle not far from here."
"That's it," Rosalba answered, shrugging and turning to face the craft. "I don't understand it either."
Inside the helicopter it was too loud to speak. Schurenberg was seated next to the pilot, her hands pressed up against the window as she watched Anatolia sprawl out beneath them. Behind her Ingrid and Rosalba were uninterested in the scenery. Rosalba, now in her uniform, had her arms crossed, occasionally turning her head and trading a disapproving glance with Ingrid. Within minutes the U-boat and Istanbul castle had disappeared behind them, the scenery giving way to a succession of undulating hills, split by the blade of the Bosphorus and smothered with low, dun-coloured buildings. They followed the waterway for several miles before the helicopter turned north, making its way over increasingly tall hills until the pilot was compelled to weave between them.
The further the pilot took them the more Ingrid felt a strange sensation overcoming her. Out of the corner of her eye it seemed as if the interior of the helicopter were changing. The pilot was shrinking in his seat, his waistline expanding, his dark hair creeping back across his head like in a stop-motion nature film. From under it a bald, shiny scalp emerged. His neck fattened out, flesh collecting in rolls around his collar. Even his clothes were altered. His cream-coloured suit turned black as if it were charred, coalescing into a single garment which shrank against his skin in patches. In the sky there was a man approaching, a golden face burned onto his chest. His hands closed around the helicopter's door, tearing it open. The wind howled through the opening as he leaned in, struggling with the pilot, the aircraft turning over and over in the sky until it struck the ground and burst into flames.
Ingrid woke up with a start. They were in the shadow of one of the hills. Below her she could make out a cluster of buildings surrounded by a high wall. Schurenberg turned in her seat, smiling and pointing at the scene below them, shouting something that Ingrid and Rosalba couldn't hear. The helicopter descended into the shadow, eventually coming to rest in the middle of a wide courtyard overlooked by squat stone towers. In every direction low hedges stretched out, forming pathways between flowerbeds full of dark earth. Most were empty, only a handful having anything growing in them. Ingrid saw one flower twisting in the wind from the helicopter; it was a rose, stunted and woody, a cluster of dark blooms huddled at its tip. The whine of the engine died.
Clasping her bunny ears to her head Schurenberg hopped out and ran from underneath the slowing rotors. Ingrid and Rosalba climbed out after her, both of them still wincing from the noise.
"Wow, it's almost as big as Istanbul castle!" Schurenberg said as the pilot walked up to them. He smiled, embarassed, and looked around.
"Yes, it used to be a monastery, one of the greatest in the East. The thousand nuns would tend the ornamental gardens when not in prayer," he stepped over to one of the bushes, plucking a flower between his fingers. It slipped from his grasp and fell to the cobblestones. He went on, his voice weary. "Off course, that was three hundred years ago. A lot has changed since then." He sighed, his attention seeming to drift. Remembering his guests he turned to face them, smiling. "But I'm being rude, excuse me, and allow me to introduce myself. My name is Feno, my family have owned this estate for nine generations, but now I am the last of my bloodline."
"What will happen to this place when you die?" Schurenberg asked.
"I really don't know," he answered, slowly, "but anyway, I shouldn't keep you outside, please," he motioned towards the open door of the largest building, "make yourselves welcome in my home. I've instructed my two retainers, Csenger and Cseke to see to your every need. Simply ask and they will get it for you. And please don't be alarmed by their appearance, it's a small family tradition they feel bound to keep up. I would much rather they dispensed with it, but they are unswayed. Nothing will sway them."
"And where will you be going?" Rosalba asked.
"I'm sorry, there are several small matters I have to attend to before I can join you. I will be brief," he bowed and walked to the door of one of the smaller towers. It closed abuptly, the noise echoed around the courtyard and they found themselves alone.
"I don't like him!" Rosalba muttered, her arms crossed, her catears flattened against her head.
"Certainly is strange of him to be living here all by himself." Ingrid said, taking in the surroundings. She walked over to one of the low, trimmed hedges, studying the rose she had seen through the aircraft's window. Outside the walls the wind howled once; a low, musical piping noise, then silence. Beside the towers and the broad, rocky hill that blocked out the sun everything was an expanse of luminous blue. Schurenberg's stomach quailed to look at it; even the open ocean, though cold and dangerous, was not as disorientating as this. She remembered she was still hungry.
"What about those retainers he talked about?"
Ingrid didn't look up from the flower. She slid her hand around its buds. "You know what I mean, hired help doesn't count."
"Maybe that's why he has this helicopter," Schurenberg ventured after a moment.
Ingrid straightened up, dusting her hands off. She frowned at the black loopholes that peered out at them. "It certainly is a lonely place."
"Can we just go inside?" Rosalba said, impatient, stepping through the flowerbeds as she made her way to the open door. Brown stems crackled underneath her boots. Behind her the other two navigated their way through the low maze.
The room they entered was dominated by a wide staircase which split in two and spiralled up to the adjacent floor. It was flanked by two statues on plinths, their features vague in the half light, the only illumination coming from a row of dim windows set high up in the wall facing the courtyard. The wind murmured again. Schurenberg looked back, something urging her to close the door and hide them from the wailing, empty space.
"Look," her thoughts were interrupted by Rosalba, pointing at the stairs. As her eyes adjusted she could see two figures, side-by-side, walking towards them.
"These must be the retainers he talked about," Schurenberg said.
None of them spoke as the two figures moved out of the shadows, revealing themselves buried under heavy cowls, their faces hidden. Ingrid noticed they were shorter even than Schurenberg, although the way their cowls hung about their bodies made it hard to tell whether they were standing upright.
"You," Schurenberg stepped forward, "you must be Feno's retainers."
The foremost of them nodded deeply, the other walking around behind the group. Ingrid saw it stumble over the portion of the cowl that trailed around its feet as it pushed the door to. The darkness knitted up around them, the faintly glowing windows far above making it feel like they were at the bottom of a pit. Schurenberg could just make out the first retainer motioning for them to follow, leading them up the stairs, its twin following behind the group. There was a scuffle of feet halfway up the steps, the noise muffled by the heavy carpet. Ingrid turned and saw the second figure had tripped again and was frantically gathering up its robe under one arm. It hopped up the remainder of the steps and rejoined the column, dropping its cowl back to the floor. They went on in this fashion up several more flights of stairs, the wind breathing though dark vertical slits in the walls, coming eventually to a low-ceilinged room with a single round window at one end. The light here was stronger, casting shadows behind the dark, heavy furnishings. The two retainers silhouetted themselves in front of the window, bowed as one, and left by a side door.
"I suppose that means we should wait here," Rosalba said, testing the seat of a high-backed chair with one hand. Leaning with all her weight she could sink her arm in up to the wrist. She sat down, running the polished wood of the arm rests beneath her palms.
Ingrid thought about mentioning the retainer tripping up, deciding against it and moving over to the window. It was just possible to see beyond the walls, the sunlit rolling landscape beyond dazzling her. A hundred and twenty in the shade; and no shade. She took refuge in peering at the brown, damp-looking stones that stretched away to the ground. There were supposed to be sunken cities beneath the oceans. She'd read about such things; ancient carved megaliths a mile beneath the light, half buried in mud, waiting for some cataclysm to hurl them back to the surface and sear men's memories with the mere sight of them. Looking on the brooding, forgotten tenements she was inclined to believe it.
Schurenberg had said something. Ingrid turned around.
"What?" she asked, noticing Rosalba had stood up out of her chair.
"I thought I heard something," Schurenberg said. "It sounded like a cat."
As they were listening the door they had come through opened. Feno stepped in, approaching Schurenberg.
"There," he said, satisfied, "now I can explain to you the reason I was sent. I have been working for German intelligence for some time, they told me to expect your arrival in Istanbul and have given me certain documents which I am to pass on to you. However, I am ordered only to hand them over to the captain of the boat. So, if you'd care to accompany me," he pointed to the door.
"Please, it won't take a moment, and I've been told it's vitally important."
"Well, if you put it this way, no problem!" Schurenberg said, letting him lead her out. The door closed behind them.
"That was sudden," Ingrid said.
Rosalba shrugged and sat down in her chair. "Where did those retainers go, anyway?"
There was a thud at the far door and it opened a fraction. Ingrid could just hear the sound of whispered voices before it swung open and one of the cowled figures stepped into the room. It paused, looking back. Ingrid could make out the shape of the other one beckoning for it to go forward. The foremost one shook its head, turning, birdlike, as Ingrid took a step towards it. Suddenly the one in the doorway leaned out, shoving its twin, sending it staggering into the middle of the room. Its feet snagged on the bottom of its cloak. A high-pitched cry filled the room and it toppled over, the cowl slipping from its head. The frightened face of a young girl looked out, framed by blonde hair.
"Oh no," she murmured, "oh no." Tears were streaming down her cheeks. She gathered her knees up against her chest and began sobbing, her face hidden in her arms.
Before either of them could say anything the other one had rushed into the room and seized the blonde girl by the neck.
"What did you go and do that for?" it hissed.
"I didn't mean to! Why did you push me, Csenger?" she replied, sobbing.
"Do you know what this means? If he finds out about thi-" the words were cut short as Ingrid knelt down and placed her hand on the crying girl's shoulder.
"It's all right, I'm a doctor," she said, smiling as the girl looked at her. She stopped sniffing, blinking the tears from her eyes. "My name's Ingrid."
"I..." the girl sniffed again, glancing at the figure beside her, "I'm Cseke. This is Csenger."
The figure sighed and pulled its hood back, underneath was another girl, the same age as Cseke, her hair black. She was about to speak when her eyes focused on Ingrid's bunny ears. Her mouth hung open for a second as she watched the tip of one bounce up and down. Rapt, she reached out a hand, running her fingers along the smooth shape. A smile spread across her face and she pressed the end of the ear against one palm, stroking it with her other hand. Seeing what Csenger was doing Cseke extended a trembling hand, taking the other ear and drawing it between her fingers. Immediately she stood up, fascinated.
"Well you've certainly calmed her down," Rosalba said, fighting the urge to laugh. "You'd think they'd never seen bunny ears on a nurse before."
Cseke looked up at Rosalba.
"Wah! What are those?" she asked, dropping the ear she was holding and pointing.
"What? These?" Rosalba replied, pushing her breasts together.
"No, above them! Those!" Cseke pointed again, gathering at Rosalba's feet with Csenger.
"Hmmn?" Rosalba looked puzzled, flashing a fang.
"She means these," Ingrid replied, standing up and pinching Rosalba's ear.
"Ow! Oh, these?" Rosalba flicked her ears.
"Wow! They can do that too?" Csenger asked, her hands clasped together.
Rosalba laughed and flicked each one independently.
"Fun, aren't they?" she asked. "Haven't you seen cat ears, eith-"
"What?" Csenger's voice was loud in the enclosed space. Ingrid could see the girl had turned pale. Cseke shrank back, her hands feeling for Csenger's. "What did you say?"
Rosalba perched one hand on her hip. "I asked if you hadn't seen cat ears before. Why, what's wrong with that?"
Cseke's hand clutched Csenger's; she was shaking her head in quick, small motions.
"It's... it's nothing," Csenger said at last. Cseke started, squeezing Csenger's hand and turning her head to face her. Csenger avoided her gaze. She shook her hand free of Cseke's.
"And what's that?" Csenger asked, standing behind Ingrid and pointing at the fluffy white shape which was offset just behind one hip.
"This? This is a battletail," Ingrid said
"A battletail?" Csenger asked. "And she's got one too!" she continued, stepping behind Rosalba and brushing her fingers over it. It was feathery to the touch, tickling her fingers.
"Well off course she has. We're both fighting girls, so we both have the battletail." Ingrid replied.
The girls said nothing, Csenger went on squeezing the battletail.
"So," Ingrid began at last, looking down over her shoulder, "what was the problem just now? About us seeing your faces?"
"And where's Feno taken our boss?"
"You..." Cseke began speaking, her voice dying in her throat as Csenger turned and stared at her, battletail still dancing between her hands. Cseke stared back for a moment before looking up into Ingrid and Rosalba's confused faces. Her jaw worked soundlessly. She squeezed her eyes shut, when she opened them again a tear was running down her cheek. She sucked a breath into her tight chest.
"Cseke," Csenger said, her tone threatening.
"You..." Cseke started again, faltering.
"Cseke!" Csenger shouted, running towards the girl.
"Your friend's in danger!" she cried out as Csenger struck her and pushed her to the floor.
"What?" Rosalba grasped the back of Csenger's cowl and dragged her to one side. "What do you mean?"
"It's true! You have to save her! Feno is going to kill her!"
"Jesus Christ," Ingrid whispered. She looked over at Csenger, collapsed on the floor, her face downcast, lifeless as a puppet with its strings cut. "Is this true?"
Csenger nodded once, her whole body sagging with the motion.
"It's true," she replied, her voice barely audible over the blood pounding in Ingrid's ears.
"Why the hell didn't you tell us this before?" Rosalba shouted, taking Cseke in both hands and shaking her.
"We couldn't! We couldn't!" the girl was wailing. "He'd kill us!"
"Forget it," Ingrid caught hold of Rosalba's collar and pulled her off the girl, "we don't have time for that. Where has he taken Schurenberg?"
"His trophy room," Cseke said, getting to her feet, her legs trembling underneath her. "Quick, I can guide you," she made for the door though which Feno had left, Ingrid following her.
Rosalba was in the doorway before she looked back, seeing Csenger still sitting in the middle of the room.
"Oh no," she ran back in, taking the girl by the wrist and dragging her to her feet. "You're coming with us."
Cseke led them back down to the room by which they had entered, heaving the door open and running out into the courtyard.
"Over there!" she pointed at the first tower Feno had entered after their arrival.
At the door she held herself in their path, stopping them.
"We have to be quiet once we're inside," she warned, "otherwise he might hear us."
"What about her?" Rosalba said, hauling Csenger up by the wrist until she was on her toes. Her head still hung down lifelessly. "Can we trust her?"
"I'm in just as much danger as any of you," Csenger replied, her voice distant.
"You just remember it," Rosalba bent over until she was looking into Csenger's dim eyes. The girl didn't look back. "If you try anything in there I'll snap your neck with my bare hands."
Cseke closed her fingers around the iron doorhandle, easing it open and stepping over the threshold. A stone staircase spiralled in either direction, up to the right and down to the left.
"The trophy room is up here," Cseke said, pointing up the stairway.
"What's down there?" Ingrid asked, peering into the darkness below them. She thought she heard something hiss in the shadows.
"Quickly, come on," Cseke disappeared around the curve of the stairway, stopping in front of a door cushioned with red velvet. Two locks were set into polished metal beneath the handle. "This is his trophy room," she pressed her ear against it, "he might be in there right now."
"With Schurenberg?" Rosalba whispered, several steps below.
"If he's there he'll have her with him. He loves to show off his trophies, before..." she frowned and went back to listening.
"And if he's not there?" Ingrid asked.
Before she could reply Cseke had seized the handle and thrown her weight against the door, knocking it open and staggering into the room beyond. She tripped, landing on a thick red carpet, her face inches from a stone pedestal. At its top was a glass case just large enough to accommodate the severed human head inside.
"My God," Ingrid picked the girl up, mesmerised by the row of heads which were arranged against one wall. The display ran the length of the room, guarded by a low metal bar. Walking past them Ingrid could see that most had belonged to women, their expressions blank. With their hair drifting about their faces they looked like jellyfish swarming in a red ocean.
Rosalba let Csenger's arm slip from her fingers, reaching out to touch one of the glass cases. "Did he..."
"All of them," Csenger said, emotionless. "I think he enjoyed stuffing them more than killing them."
At the end of the row of plinths a heavy red curtain was drawn, matching the one which ran the length of the opposite wall. Ingrid hesitated, her fingers twitching at the heavy material before she wrenched it down. The cloth gathered at her feet. Behind it were three more pedestals, each with an empty case placed on top.
"Where's Schurenberg?" was all she said, stepping away, her gaze still fixed on the empty cases.
"Quickly," Cseke grabbed Ingrid's wrist, leading her down the steps, "there's only one other place they can be!"
Their footsteps echoed against the stone, it reminded her of the U-boat. As they travelled deeper another noise became clear, bleeding out of the walls, closing in from every direction; a drawn-out wailing and hissing from hundreds of voices. It seemed to be shifting, as if its source was moving around.
"Here!" Cseke shouted over the din, pushing on an iron door. "In here!"
Ingrid braced her shoulder against it and heaved. It swung open, slowly, the noise from inside so loud it drowned the whine of the hinges. Inside she saw Schurenberg suspended over a cage which took up half the room. Inside it a multitude of dark shapes were writhing; turning and wheeling together like a swarm of bees. As her eyes accustomed she realised she was looking at a thousand hungry cats heaving beneath the wire like muscle under flesh.
"A man eating machine!" she murmured.
"Ingrid!" It was Schurenberg, her voice barely audible.
Beside the cage Feno turned, his eyes wide. Before he could speak Ingrid had been pushed to one side by Rosalba, holding one of the glass cases above her head.
She hurled it at him, the case shattering against the wire cage as he leapt out of the way. Laughing, Feno brushed the shards of glass off his suit and stood up, drawing a pistol from his pocket. He nudged the head with one foot, rolling it over so he could see its face.
"A pity," he shrugged, "I was rather fond of that trophy. Still," he raised the gun, smiling so his teeth showed. Rosalba stepped in front of Ingrid. "I think I shall enjoy my three new ones even mo-" his jaw dropped open, he staggered forward. A black cat had sunk its claws into his left leg.
"Shadow, what are you-" he screamed briefly, his face twisted in anger. Another cat had leapt up and was clinging to the small of his back. "Hunter, stop!"
He spun around, prising the animal off him and hurling it into a crowd of others which were massed at the base of the cage. It landed, spun onto its feet and joined them in hissing at him, their backs arched. As they watched more were pouring out of a gash in the wire and gathering at the edges of the group, their attention fixed on Feno.
"You fool!" Feno shouted, glancing over his shoulder at Rosalba, "you broke the cage! You've killed us all!"
A single smoke-grey cat emerged from the crowd, its expression placid, its ears pricked up. It cocked its head, watching Feno. Their eyes met for a moment. Feno's lips moved, no sound coming from his throat.
"Who are you?"
"No!" Csenger pushed her way in front of Rosalba. "You have killed yourself!"
Feno looked up, finding his voice again.
"You! You betrayed me!" he stepped back, levelling the pistol at Csenger. "I won't forgive you for it!" He closed one eye, aiming the weapon. "At least I will have the satisfaction of seeing you die fi-"
Before he could finish the grey cat had leapt across the room and closed its jaw around his hand. It hung there for a moment, blood dripping onto the stones, Feno's arm trembling. The gun clattered to the floor. Feno screamed and staggered back, whirling his arm about his head, the cat hanging on, trailing behind the hand as fluidly as a flag. He collapsed against a table, sweeping his hand across it, knocking several beakers to the floor where they shattered. Flames shot up to the ceiling, casting everything in a flickering yellow light.
The pitch of the wailing changed, becoming at once a single exultant, rising note. Feno clapped one hand to his ear, his other arm hanging at his side, cat still attached, and drove headlong through the group at the doorway. Moving as one the cats swarmed after him, sweeping between the gathered legs and up the steps like a rising tide. Ingrid clutched at the front of Rosalba's jacket, pointing at Schurenberg. The girl nodded, taking hold of Ingrid's arm as they stepped through the heaving carpet of bodies, the room echoing with the sound of animals' cry. Schurenberg's body was limp as they lowered her, Ingrid bent double with the weight, her eyes stinging from the smoke which was filling the room. Rosalba took hold of Ingrid's collar, her own arm pressed to her eyes, guiding them to the doorway, hacking and struggling for breath. The smoke seemed to be settling in Ingrid's stomach and spreading out though her body. She stumbled, striking her knee against the stone. Her leg went numb. Her throat was burning. Her eyes stung too much to open. Schurenberg was holding her down. The noise of the cats was fading away, replaced by the fire crackling and licking between the stones. It must have reached the trophy room by now. She could see the pedestals rising out of the flames like towers in a burning city; the trophies boiling inside their cases. Her head lolled to one side, her whole body feeling as if it were floating. The air opened up around her. There was a circle with a burning figure thrashing around at its centre, a field of stars, then darkness.
Ingrid awoke to the bitter smell of cigarette smoke. There was something soft underneath her head. Her eyes still stung as she opened them, squinting and finding the room dim, lit with streaks of faint blue light against one wall. A streamer of smoke uncoiled over her head, turning over in the light and dissipating. She blinked twice. Her pillow moved underneath her.
"So you're up then."
She turned over, groaning, her body aching. She was lying on the edge of a bed, her head resting on Schurenberg's stomach. Beside her Rosalba was sitting up and smoking, the duvet pulled up to her waist, Csenger laying in her lap.
"Where am I?"
Coughing, she pushed herself upright. The moon was up outside the window. By its light she could see the floor was entirely covered in sleeping cats.
"What happened back there?"
"The cats," Csenger smiled at Ingrid's puzzled expression, Rosalba's fingers toying with her hair. Ingrid could see Rosalba's Iron Cross hanging around Csenger's neck, unsure what it meant. "They rescued you."
"Umm, why am I still tied up?" Schurenberg asked, testing the rope wrapped around her wrists.
Rosalba smiled as she drew on the cigarette, her catears flicking. She brushed a bright strand of hair out of Schurenberg's face with two fingers.
"I think he enjoyed tying them up more than stuffing them," Cseke said, kicking her heels up and rubbing one of Schurenberg's bunny ears against her cheek.
"I know, but... OW!"
Cseke blushed and took the tip of the ear from between her teeth. "I'm sorry, it just felt so good!"
Ingrid was about to speak when she felt something light leap up onto her legs. The grey cat was standing there, its head tilted to one side, entirely still except for when it blinked. She smiled, reaching out with one hand.
"I remember you," she said, fondly, stroking it under its chin.
The cat closed its eyes, lowering itself on its front legs, its hindquarters swaying from side to side.
"I guess we should be getting back to th-"
The cat leapt forward, flattening itself between her breasts and purring intently. She hesitated for a moment, sighed and began stroking it. Schurenberg was warm under her head.
"To the U-boat?" Rosalba laughed and pinched Csenger's cheek as the girl looked up.
"We should probably go back tomorrow," Schurenberg said.
Before she closed her eyes Ingrid turned and looked out of the window. There were no stars; apart from the moon the sky was empty. A wisp of smoke rolled across the darkness, turned over like a card and vanished. Csenger reached out and stroked one of her ears.
"There are many things left for tomorrow."