After escaping from the doomed airship Cloudclipper, following a failure at High Altitude Gateway Three, Ben Zero and his party have boarded the steam train Spitfire. Ben, along with his companions are being pursued by an enraged wizard and have a division of the UFO Army hot on their heels. Their only forlorn hope is a journey across country to reach the next Gateway. Ben still has no real idea of where the Gateways go or whether he is Ben Zero, Prince Ben or someone else entirely. His computer training as a steam engine driver has now become critical......
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Ben woke in what he first thought was his "home" ie inside his cell in the Underground Prison Complex. He was currently wrapped in a blanket and he had his head on a pillow. It was quite warm. But there was a faint smell of furniture polish mixed with damp mildew, an unusual aroma in the prison. But...where was he?
Ben sat up and looked around. He immediately realized that his "bed" was actually a long, leather covered seat. He was inside an old fashioned, long room with polished dark woodwork. There were tables coming out from one side. Each table faced a bench type seat, similar to the seat he was lying on. A faded blue carpet covered the floor. There were curtains at the windows. The curtains were drawn and secured with leather clips.
The windows were covered in white paint. A few small holes were scratched in the paint. And three dwarves were nearby, looking through some kind of tubes. This was certainly not the Underground Prison Facility.
Recent events came flooding back.
He had been on an airship and tried to open a Multiverse Railway Station.
He had been in the company of three dwarves, the elf Alaric, robot FIDO and know all computer CLEO. The Multiverse Railway station was thousands of metres in the sky so he had used an airship to reach it. But the Gateway had refused to open! His sword Sting had been thrown out of the cabin, puncturing the airship gasbag. But he had escaped via a daring parachute jump. And then slept in this railway carriage. Now he was awake and on the run, chased by the UFO Army and a freelance wizard. But was he dreaming the whole mad adventure?
Ben noticed a tube sticking down from a nearby window.
He crawled across his long seat, screwed up one eye and peered into the tube. It was apparently some kind of long distance telescope. Ben could see the oak which stood above what had been the Underground Prison Facility. But the oak was no longer simply a majestic tree standing proudly among a row of houses. There was a considerable level of activity around the tree. It was apparent that the UFO Hunting Group had not given up the chase. They were still trying to get more info about the prison!
His former comfortable home, which had been blown up by stop-at-nothing Prison Computer Warder CLEO! Right now, the oak tree was surrounded by a low plastic barricade colored orange. Coils of electrical wire led into a black van parked nearby. The rear doors of the van were open and Ben could see rows of instruments inside. Green and yellow lights were winking away. The van was manned by white coated techs who were busily monitoring something. Across the road from the oak tree a battered panel van was parked. It was marked Tree Protection Unit. Several people stood near the van. One carried a placard which read: We Protect Trees.
With a start Ben realized that he was virtually back where he had started! He was only a very short distance from his former prison sited under the oak tree. His entire daring, extensive and scary getaway had left him within spitting distance of his starting point!
Prison Computer Warder CLEO suddenly spoke, her voice coming from inside his back pack, currently stowed on a luggage rack above his head. "The oak tree you are looking at is the actual oak tree which you stupidly attempted to defend! We are some six kilometers from that site but by using a speciall laser aerial with a differential telescope I am able to provide a view of events."
Ben peered through the tube: "What are they doing?"
CLEO: "The techs are attempting to electronically map images of the various rooms, the emergency exit staircase and the underground railway tunnel associated with your former Underground Prison Facility. Unfortunately, destruction of the facility left a chemical imprint which they are attempting to map. The techs believe something unknown to science resided under the tree." Something unknown to science? Surely that could not be him, Prisoner 001, Ben A Zero. He was absolutely and definitely human, or at least most parts were human. His ears were probably not human but they had been stitched n by alien surgeons! Anyway, he was mostly human and he would be certainly and definitely known to science! However, the elf Alaric was very probably unknown to science.
He might not even be real. He might even be a hollowgram (hologram) like the fake railway CLEO had constructed in the area about the prison. A totally fake railway, which had made Ben's collection of namers a joke! The railway had been a hollowgram but was Alaric real? That was the theoratoretical (theoretical) question. But if he asked CLEO for an answer it would instantly bring on a spelling quiz. In any case, he could not trust the computer--a computer who had tricked him into believing that her fake lasertronic railway was the real thing.
He decided to ask CLEO a more practical, non spelling question.
"How long will the men be here? When can I go home?"
CLEO answered each question in sequence. "First, the techs will be occupied for at least 73 days. That estimate is based on my analysis which indicates that the techs have not made any progress. They have failed to melt an aperture through my barrier. No laser they have can even make a dent in my barrier! And the Greens will not allow them to rip out the tree. Thus the techs cannot see much at all. It is certain that they will never be able to map the various portions of the Underground Prison Facility," said CLEO. "That fact is, of course, thanks to my brilliant design abilities! As for going home, which I assume means the Underground Facility, that is impossible."
The computer voice paused and then continued:
"You can never return!" said CLEO inexorably. "If you were spotted even approaching the site, the UFO Hunting Group troops would stun or kill you instantly. Over the entire length of Kingswood Drive, soldiers are on full alert. They are carrying charged lasers which can be fired in an instant and do not require warming up. The soldiers will not wait for approval a second time. They will flatten you instantly! You would then be taken to a top secret facility for processing. It would mean starvation, torture and execution! There would be a post mortem investigation of your remains! And you would not be treated according to the Geneva Convention because the UFO troops believe that you and your companion Alaric are alien spies. They believe you are spying on their planet as part of a future invasion plan. In this horrible alien plan all humans would be enslaved!"
Ben: "But I am not an alien! I am human! I have been kidnapped and I have had alien ears grafted on!"
CLEO: "Rubbish! Nonsense! You are the notorious elf criminal, Ben A Zero! Once again you are trying out your stupid alibi! In any case, I remind you that your former abode has been blown up! It is no longer available. And there is no point in fretting because you will not be here!"
"Not here? Where will I be?" cried Ben.
"You will be on your great Quest--which you have already begun!" said CLEO, switching to Sweetly Reasonable Voice 22, a voice intended to calm the nerves of a listener. "Ben A Zero, you are seeking a retrial!"
These words did not have a calming effect on Ben. They did not alter the fact that his underground home had been destroyed by this horrid alien computer warder. He was on the run, pursued by trained killers who were equipped with dreadful weapons. And the killers were his own kind, humans! He was in the bad books of a crazy wizard who would be plotting revenge. And he could not escape and go to his real home. Even if he could somehow get past the soldiers, go to a barber and get his ears trimmed to a normal size he could never go home! Because he could not even remember his address!
Ben choked back a sob.
His thoughts rushed on. Would his former train spotting records count at all? He had spent many hours of patient spotting in the garden above the Underground Prison Complex. Had it all been for nothing? He could not be the Lad Who Copped the Lot because he had been spotting on a fake holographic railway!!!! But...but would
holograms still count in some way? Maybe there was some special category for spotters who watched holograms? If so he could at least salvage something. He must check his ABC. Ben shouted: "Where is my Locomotive ABC? I want to look at my fake cops!"
"Unfortunately, your old ABC was lost during emergency withdrawal from the Underground Prison Facility. But it has been replaced with a brand new ABC replicated from historical records kept by the Steam Preservation Society. It lists all LNER locomotives from 1902 to the present."
"Great! All real locomotives and I have NOT copped any of them! Nothing! Zero! Zilch! My cops were all stupid holograms!" cried Ben. "And it was all your fault! Horrid trickery! You are a harsh, nasty computer warder! How can I ever fulfill my simple, wholesome,convict ambition to be the lad who copped the lot?"
He lay back on the long seat brooding.
CLEO replied hotly: "I have never ever been harsh and nasty. Never,never ever! I have always been gentle and considerate. I was and am the perfect warder! But you are a rotten, horrible criminal guilty of a foul crime!!! When we reach E Base you will definitely be found guilty by the court. They will extend the original sentence. You will probably face instant execution (to save costs of future imprisonment.) In that event you may choose to be hung, electrocuted or to inhale poison gas! Alternatively, you may possibly get a massively extended sentence. You will be in pokey forever!! And it is highly unlikely that your new warder will be as gentle and considerate as I have been! No more train spotting for a creep like you!"
Ben considered this reply and then moved on to more current matters. "What are the odds of success in this stupid Quest you have got me involved in?"
"The odds are currently 3,329 to 1 against a favorable outcome," said CLEO. She returned to her theme. "You were incredibly lucky to have me as your Computer Warder. I am amazingly kind and thoughtful! I am also an outstanding creative cook. You definitely liked my cooking. Look how big you are around the waist. You are enormous!"
There was no point in arguing but Ben thought of a new practical solution.
Ben: "I may be slightly overweight because I constantly ate your meals to avoid getting punished! But I can escape right now! How can you stop me getting out of this train and asking the soldiers for santimony? (sanctuary?)
CLEO (still annoyed): "If you succeeded in getting out of this carriage, despite the fact that it has locked doors and specially reinforced shock proof windows, your total stupidity would mean you would probably try to run towards your old prison. You would be instantly spotted by the human sentries who are constantly sweeping this entire area with long range binoculars. Once in sight you would be instantly knocked down. You would then be transported to Area 13. No one ever comes out of Area 13! Alternatively, if you ran in the opposite direction and avoided the sentries you will certainly be caught by that mad wizard. He has offered a huge reward for your capture! Once caught you would be forced to clean his latrines with a toothbrush. You would get only scraps to eat. No more delicious Cordon Bleu meals from gentle, considerate, kindly, wonderful Prison Computer Warder CLEO!"
A carriage door suddenly opened and FIDO entered. The gleaming, golden robot moved over to a small molecular cooking stove and began cooking operations. In a short time he had assembled various dishes on a trolley.
Finally, he laid out glasses, plates, knives, forks, bottles of Twisty Water and the cooked food. Completing his task, FIDO rolled back down the carriage, opened the same door and disappeared. CLEO generated the sound of a bell. The three dwarves immediately turned away from their window peepholes and moved to the table. It
bore somewhat utility fare. Hard tack biscuits, compressed fruit, a heaped plate of dried bacon bits, a large bowl of steaming hot baked beans and five bottles of Travelers Twisty Water. In order to appear friendly, Ben wished the dwarves a cheery: "Good Morning!" He was rewarded with three muttered replies. They were all busy with the serious business of eating. Ben noticed a towel and soap lay out on his seat. Then he saw his sword Sting. He immediately asked: "How did Sting get back? Is it a bamerang? (boomerang ?).
"Bamerang?" said Grumpy, with his mouth full.
"I think he means boomerang!" said Little Sam.
"Correct!" said CLEO. "A boomerang returns to its thrower when cast at an angle between x and y degrees. The correct angle depends upon the velocity and strength of the wind in addition to the speed of the boomerang. Flight is affected by atmospheric conditions and the distance of the target from the thrower! However, even a boomerang would not return to its thrower if dropped from an altitude of several thousand feet! Sting is not a boomerang. It is a homing sword. After falling from the airship, Sting initiated on board Return to Site Two Program. The sword descended to a suitable point where it would be retrieved by robot FIDO."
"My knife followed the sword down," said Stumpy. "I found it next to my bed."
Ben decided to follow his normal routine. He would first wash and then order his own breakfast. The dwarves were obviously assistants, presumably on cheap hard tack. He
picked up his towel and made his way towards one end of the coach. "It's the other way!" said Grumpy without looking up. "The thunder box is at the other end of the carriage."