A sound brought Col out of a deep sleep. Something was happening out in the corridor. Urgent footsteps, orders and questions, the clangs of many doors opening and closing. Cabin by cabin, the disturbance came closer.
His own cabin remained in darkness – until suddenly the door was flung open. Two menacing shapes stood silhouetted against the dim blue light of the corridor.
‘Room light on!’ came the order.
The figures sprang forward into the room, flourishing their weapons. Col switched on his bedside lamp.
In the warm yellow-pink glow, the figures diminished to a pair of ordinary warrant officers. The pounding of Col’s heart eased. Warrant officers were responsible for security and their heavy wooden batons were for his protection. But what were they doing in this part of the ship?
'Ah, Master Porpentine, isn’t it?' The senior officer fingered his grey walrus moustache. ‘Sorry to disturb you, sir. We have to search your room.’
Ignoring the question, the officer went on. ‘How long have you been awake, sir? Have you seen or heard anything unusual in the last few minutes?’
Col raised himself higher on his pillow. ‘Doors clanging, and you clumping along the corridor.’
‘She must have run on,’ the junior officer whispered to the senior. ‘We’re wasting our time on this deck.
’Who’s she?’ Col demanded.
‘A Filthy,’ the junior blurted – then clapped his hand over this mouth. ‘I mean…’
‘Hold your tongue, Jull!’ The senior officer swung his baton and gave Jull a cracking blow on the wrist. Col was shocked.
The senior officer turned to him again. ‘You didn’t hear what he said, did you, sir?’
‘Yes I did. What’s a Filthy doing on the Upper Decks?’
'You wouldn’t want to know. My colleague got carried away.’
‘I’ll forget about it if you answer my question.’
‘She…’ The senior officer’s cheeks were red and he was visibly sweating. ‘Well, she escaped. That’s all I can say.’
He prodded Jull with his baton and pushed him towards the doorway. ‘So, if you’ll just forget about it, thank you, sir … ’
Out in the corridor, he began an angry whispered conversation with his junior. Col caught the words ‘grandson of Sir Mormus Porpentine’. Then the door closed behind them and they moved off down the corridor. More clanging doors, more questionings.
He still couldn’t believe it. A female Filthy running around on the Upper Decks? Inconceivable!
He looked around at his own safe, civilised bedroom. Green carpet, brown velvet curtains, cream wallpaper … On the walls were framed pictures of the most dignified creatures: The Wise Owl, Noble Lion and Brave Bear. A metal plate above the door was stamped with the name Worldshaker and the date 1945, which was when Worldshaker had been constructed, one hundred and fifty years ago. The washstand, bookcase and full-length mirror bore similar stamped plates. Only the massive wardrobe cupboard lacked a plate: it was an antique of carved oak from earlier times in the Old Country.
All proper, all normal – like the distant thrum of Worldshaker’s turbines, driving the great juggernaut forward. Time to go back to sleep.
He reached out to switch off the lamp – when a sudden thought set his heart pounding again. The sound that had woken him up wasn’t the clang of a door! Something much closer.
Don’t panic, he told himself. There was no one else in his room. Where could they hide? Unless in the cupboard … or under his bed …
He twisted over, lifted the fringed edge of the bedspread and looked under his bed.
Two eyes looked back at him.
The female Filthy!
For ten long seconds, he couldn’t move. So close, so separated only by the thickness of his mattress! He was lying almost on top of her!
The eyes studied him, sizing him up.
Then she moved first. Quick as a whip, she slid out and knelt at the side of his bed. Nostrils wide and flaring, hollow cheeks below sharp...