The chosen location for the peace talks the following morning was the shell of a bombed out house in the Marksville suburbs. Sitting as it did almost directly halfway between the city walls and the Viborg lines it had presumably been selected as a neutral location, though the charred wallpaper still clinging to the shattered walls and the pathetic bits of broken furniture piled up in one corner proclaimed it as anything but. By the time I was escorted by my two burly minders to take my reluctant seat at the conference the principle players were already in place.
A large oval table had been salvaged from who-knew-where to form the focal point of the negotiations. On one side of the table a blank-faced Viborg, designated their chief negotiator, had been somehow squeezed into a chair, flanked by a small platoon of identical warriors. On the other side sat Fitz, backed up by a modest collection of variously arm-banded citizens. It didn’t surprise me in the least to find Biggins hovering between the two parties, having adopted the role of chief translator. He struck me as the kind of man capable of turning any situation to his own account. Rather more surprising was the presence of William’s mother in the thick of the Marksville negotiating party.
“I didn’t expect to find you here,” I said when she momentarily extracted herself to check on her son, who had been settled upon a small table in the corner of the room and was occupying himself with some paper and coloured pencils.
“No, well, Mr Fitzgerald was kind enough to say that he had heard something of my reputation and asked if I wouldn’t mind lending my expertise to his team,” she explained modestly in reply.
“You’re an expert at peace negotiations?” I said, somewhat surprised.
“Well, not peace negotiations per se,” conceded William’s mother, “but in my work as a lawyer I have travelled rather extensively, handling all manner of disputes.”
“So, er, how do you see things going here?” I hardly dared ask.
“From your point of view, not altogether brilliantly,” she admitted. “The Viborg are rather resolute in their demands. Though, by reference to Sections 8 and 9 of their own Combatants Code, we have been successful in striking disembowelling, flaying and boiling alive from the list of authorised punishments.”
“Gee thanks,” I muttered.
“Don’t worry, we’ll stick at it,” insisted William’s mother with a sympathetic smile before she turned away to rejoin the fray.
The negotiations plodded fitfully on. Though the Viborg had professed to only one primary demand – the surrender of yours truly – they nevertheless seemed to find a seemingly inexhaustible procession of minor points of etiquette on which the talks continually snagged. I’m afraid to say that, despite my keen personal interest in the outcome, I rather rapidly lost interest in the minutiae of the talks.
I had in fact drifted right away from the main table, minders still in tow, to give William a hand with his drawing when my interest was perked up by the sight of Mo slipping quietly into the room. I’d been anxiously awaiting her arrival but, transfixed by the ongoing squabble around the central table, she hovered by the doorway for a minute or two before she caught sight of me and sidled over.
“Well?” I asked her eagerly in a low voice.
Unfortunately, it was immediately evident from her expression that Mo did not bring good news. “I’m ever so sorry,” she said unhappily, “but I can’t find him anywhere. I’ve searched the hotel from top to bottom.”
“But he does know what’s happening this morning, doesn’t he?” I clarified.
“Oh yes, I told him everything last night,” insisted Mo. “Just like you asked me to.”
“And how exactly did he take the news?”
Mo paused a moment as she cast her mind back. “Well, he seemed a little bit uncertain at first – he asked me to repeat it all. Then he said he thought he needed some air and just walked off out of the bar. I’m afraid that seems to be the last anyone has seen of him.”
“Brilliant,” I muttered. It seemed that in my hour of need Michael, my friend, colleague and designated guide for my journey through the landscape of the imagination, had somehow contrived to get himself lost somewhere in the city of Marksville. Personally, I blamed the hooch. He was probably right at this moment laid out beneath some blast-scarred tree in Central Square, snoring contentedly. Well, he’d feel pretty damn silly when he woke up to find I’d already been ritually decapitated by the Viborg.
“I could go back and have another look for him,” suggested Mo optimistically.
“Where exactly?” I returned. “You can’t search the whole city for him – he could be just about anywhere.” I shook my head resignedly. “No, you may as well stay and enjoy the floorshow.”
Mo threw an eager glance across at the oval table. “It would be nice to be here for the historic moment,” she admitted shyly.
Unfortunately, from my point of view the ‘historic moment’ came rather sooner than I would have liked. There had been about another half-hour or so of general wrangling, punctuated by high-pitched shrieks from the Viborg and weary protestations from Fitz, before a rather sudden and unexpected hush fell over the room. For a few seconds all that could be heard was the steady click-clack of the keys from the typist stationed at one end of the table. Then that too came to a sudden halt and the typist swept the paper from his machine and laid it on the table between the two factions.
“If both parties are in agreement then all we need are your signatures,” announced Biggins portentously, producing a pen from his jacket pocket.
The Viborg negotiator jerked his head forward, his red eyes blinking furiously as he scanned the paper. Then he leant back and gave a short, sharp whistle which could be recognised as a signal of assent even without the aid of Biggins’ translation services.
All eyes turned to Fitz as he slowly picked up the paper and read carefully through the wording. Then, for the first time since I had arrived, he turned and cast a swift glance in my direction. I felt my stomach plunge as my eyes caught his remorseful expression. Whatever was in the paper was clearly not to my benefit. Fitz turned back to the table and reluctantly took hold of the pen offered by Biggins.
Before he had chance to inscribe anything however the door to the room abruptly swung open and two new figures unexpectedly burst onto the scene. My attention was inevitably drawn at first to the tall figure of Michael, sporting a fine five o’clock shadow and looking not unlike he might well have been sleeping all night beneath that tree under which I had pictured him. His eyes swiftly swept the room, his features breaking into a broad smile when he caught sight of me.
Accompanying Michael came Ash, her halo of black curls bouncing merrily as she charged through the door. Her gaze immediately sought out Fitz and it was to him that she addressed herself as she marched directly up to the oval table in the centre of the room.
“You haven’t signed anything yet, have you?” she asked urgently, throwing an anxious glance towards the pen he still held in his hand.
Fitz had already leapt to his feet and gazed in mute astonishment at the intruders for a moment. “Ash, what the hell are you doing here?” he demanded when he had finally recovered his senses.
“Please tell me you haven’t got around to actually signing any treaty yet,” repeated Ash, ignoring his question.
“I’m just about to,” replied Fitz. “It’s all been agreed.”
“Thank goodness for that,” responded Ash. “Then there’s still time.”
“Look, I don’t know what you’re up to but I can’t allow you to interfere with this peace treaty,” insisted Fitz sternly. “There are too many lives at stake.”
“It’s alright, the treaty can still go ahead,” replied Ash. “We just want to make a few amendments.”
I glanced at this point across to Michael who had halted a few feet behind Ash. He caught sight of my bewildered gaze and offered me a discreet thumbs-up, apparently intending to reassure me that everything was under control. I can’t say I felt entirely comforted.
Ash meanwhile had turned towards the Viborg on the other side of the table. “Alright then, who’s in charge?” she demanded loudly, brushing away Fitz’s attempt to lay a restraining hand on her. “I want a word.”
The chief Viborg negotiator, who had apparently up till now been as stunned by this unexpected intervention as everyone else in the room, suddenly found his voice and the air was abruptly pierced by a succession of sharp whistles.
“The Viborg wish to know upon who’s authority…” Biggins obligingly began to translate.
“I don’t give a damn what they wish to know,” interrupted Ash. “They’re just going to have to shut up and listen for a minute.” She glared fiercely at the chief Viborg for a second before, apparently feeling herself at something of a height disadvantage, she reached out and pulled Fitz’s empty chair towards her, climbing up onto it. This still left her an inch or two short of actual Viborg eye level but she seemed satisfied with the new arrangement for, after taking a deep breath, she continued.
“Now then, I don’t know what agreements you might already have made but you’re just going to have to tear them up and start again cause I’ve come here to tell you that circumstances have changed. You need to know that the people of Marksville are now in possession of this…” She reached down into a canvas bag she had nestling against her hip and pulled out a small bright gadget which she held up high in the air for everyone to see. It took a moment or two before I recognised that the item was in fact our inter-dimensional travel drive, looking as though it had been patched up and cleaned somewhat since last I saw it.
I threw a baffled glance in the direction of Michael, trying to figure out just what the hell was going on, but his eyes were now fixed firmly on Ash, following her with all the supportive concentration of a parent watching their small child perform in the school play.
The Viborg leader, his flashing red eyes blinking manically at the gadget, let out a long low screech.
“What is it, you ask?” said Ash before Biggins could even attempt a translation. “This, my friend, is an Argentabug Control Panel. It is a device which, when activated, emits a sequence of high-frequency electro-magnetic pulses which tap directly into the central nervous system of any argentabug within a two hundred mile radius. By manipulation of these pulses the operator is then able to regulate and direct the movements of said argentabugs.” She paused and smiled. “You might like to think of it as a kind of argentabug remote control.”
The Viborg let out a fresh sequence of high-pitched whistles.
“Not possible you say?” Ash retorted, again dispensing with any need for translation. “But I suppose you haven’t read Macmillan’s paper on the effects of electro-conductivity on argentabugs. It’s a fascinating read. My colleague here has a copy if you’d care to peruse the details.”
She indicated towards Michael who drew from beneath his jacket a well-thumbed printed pamphlet. As he held it up momentarily before placing it on the table in front of the Viborg I recognised the paper that Ash had shown us in her basement last night.
“It’s all there in detail,” continued Ash. “I’ve been dying to try out the theorem but just couldn’t get hold of the parts. Then – what do you know? – the technology I needed just happened to fall right into my lap. Perhaps you’d like a demonstration.” With a sly smile Ash flicked the charging switch on the device and a low hum of electricity suddenly filled the room.
This brought a particularly high-pitched shriek from the chief Viborg and instantly the cohort behind him raised their right arms toward Ash. One or two members of the Marksville delegation behind her dived for cover but Ash stood tall and unmoved upon her chair. Both Michael and Fitz had instinctively darted towards her but Ash calmly waved them both away. Instead, she simply turned slowly to reveal her thumb hovering over the large red button on the gadget in her hand.
“Shall we see who has the fastest trigger finger?” she challenged the Viborg. “Because once I press this button there’s no stopping it. If you think a few argentabugs roaming randomly across the plains are bad then try to imagine hundreds of them marching in formation right through your ranks.”
There was a brief moment of almost unbearable tension. Then the chief Viborg issued a short blunt whistle and his colleagues promptly lowered their arms. The whole room – well, the human element within it at least – seemed to breathe out as one.
“Right then,” said Ash. “Let’s get down to business, shall we?” There was a distinct tone of relief to her voice, suggesting that perhaps she hadn’t been quite as cool throughout the stand-off as she had appeared. Still holding tightly to her precious device she turned and glanced down towards Fitz. “Perhaps this would be a good moment to issue some revised terms,” she suggested.
Fitz hesitated for just a moment, his dark thoughtful eyes passing unhurriedly from Ash to the Viborg before coming to rest upon the piece of paper still lying in the centre of the table. He leant forwards, picked it up and slowly tore it in two. “Alright then, let’s start again,” he said.
He nodded towards the typist. “Can you take this down?” The typist hurriedly slotted a fresh piece of paper into his machine and readied his fingers on the keys.
“The City of Marksville demands a complete withdrawal of all Viborg forces from its lands and territories,” announced Fitz, the clickety-clack of the typist swiftly following as he took down his words. “We require the maintenance of a perpetual two hundred mile exclusion zone from the city walls within which no Viborg may enter. We also demand a pledge from the Viborg that they will never again perpetuate any act of aggression against either Marksville itself or any neutral citizen travelling to or from the city.”
Fitz paused and threw a brief thoughtful glance in my direction. “Furthermore the city of Marksville demands that the Viborg guarantees safe conduct to any citizen travelling under her protection, regardless of any personal grievances they may hold.”
The clacking of the typewriter ceased and the typist drew out his freshly typed page with a flourish, handing it directly to Fitz. Fitz read carefully through the wording before, with a nod of satisfaction, he laid the page down in front of the Viborg negotiator. “Your call,” he said simply.
There was another moment of agonising tension as everyone in the room held perfectly still, awaiting the Viborg decision. The red flashing eyes remained fixed on the amended treaty for a minute or so, burning down upon the new words. Then suddenly, with a jerk, the chief Viborg stretched out his right arm towards the page. There was a blinding flash and for one terrible moment I feared he must have blasted both the treaty and the table upon which it sat to atoms. But when the smoke cleared both were still in place and a small, neat V had been scorched onto the bottom of the treaty.
It took a second or two for the Viborg capitulation to sink in and then there came a spontaneous burst of applause from the Marksville delegation. As Ash climbed down from her chair to receive a congratulatory pat on the back from Michael, her fellow citizens joyfully embraced one another and I found myself quite unexpectedly wrapped up in an enormous bear hug by my two beefy guards. The Viborg stood as still as statues on their side of the table, expressionless as ever.
It took a few minutes before Fitz was able to extricate himself from the congratulations of his colleagues and add with a flourish his own signature to the paper on the table. This brought about a fresh wave of cheers.
“Peace is now declared!” Biggins called out in a somewhat surprised tone.
Fitz looked across at his opposite number. “So it is,” he said. “And by the terms of the treaty it would appear that you are now trespassing,” he told the Viborg with a wry smile. “So I suggest you’d better hurry up and get off our land!”
It wasn’t until a little later, in the bar of the Hotel Majestic, that I got the full story of what would go down in history as The Argentabug Treaty. At about the same time as Fitz was standing on the steps of City Hall, conveying the joyous news to the anxious citizens of Marksville, I had retired to the familiar watering hole to hear Michael and Ash relate how they had managed to pull off the diplomatic coup of the century.
“I realised as soon as Mo spelt out the situation that it was going to require something pretty spectacular to bring the Viborg to heel,” explained Michael over a glass of the hotel’s finest home brewed liqueur. “But I have to confess it had me stumped at first. I wandered around the city in a bit of a fog for a while before it suddenly occurred to me that Ash was the girl I needed.”
“My first instinct was to tell him to go to hell,” remarked Ash cheerfully, “but he was remarkably persistent.”
“She did take a bit of persuasion,” conceded Michael, “but eventually I convinced her to get to work on the inter-dimensional travel device.”
“Then it was your idea to convert it into an argentabug remote control?” I said, trying not to sound too surprised.
“For some reason that bit about the chap and his idea of directing the bugs just stuck in my mind,” said Michael. “It occurred to me it would be just the thing to frighten the Viborg into accepting our demands.”
“I really wasn’t sure we could make it work with the technology to hand,” confessed Ash. “But then I thought – what the hell, it’s got to be worth a try.”
“Well, I’m certainly glad you did,” I said. I gazed down thoughtfully upon the device that now sat on the table between us. “I’m not sure what Sturridge is going to say when he finds out what you’ve done with his precious device though,” I added in a more worried tone. “I don’t suppose there’s any chance it could be turned back into an inter-dimensional travel device at some point?”
Michael and Ash shared a conspiratorial smile. “Actually, my dear Everingham, there’s no need,” replied Michael.
“Your inter-dimensional travel device still is, and in fact always was, an inter-dimensional travel device and nothing more,” explained Ash.
“Just a minute, you’re saying this doesn’t control argentabugs?” I clarified.
“Of course not,” replied Ash with a laugh. “I mean, don’t be silly, there’s no such thing as an argentabug remote control.”
“But what about What’s-his-face and his paper on electro-thingummy?”
“Absolute hokum,” responded Ash breezily. “I knew it all along really. The electro-magnetic equations were all sound but there was no way of applying them to the central nervous system of an argentabug. Macmillan may have been a fine physicist but he knew sod all about biology.”
“So all those things you told the Viborg…” I began.
“Pure bluff,” announced Ash triumphantly. “To be honest I never thought I could pull it off but your pal here gave me a few pointers. Turns out he’s one hell of an acting coach.”
“It’s all down to confidence really,” advised Michael modestly. “Just know your lines and say them with conviction, that’s always been my method.”
“So you didn’t actually do anything with the inter-dimensional travel device?” I confirmed, glancing uncertainly again at the gadget.
“Well I restored the power and reset a couple of connections,” said Ash. “Just enough to make it look authentic.”
“We knew we’d need a credible prop,” added Michael.
“And more importantly, now that I’ve had a good look at it, I’m fairly confident I can make those modifications you wanted,” added Ash, picking the device up and turning it over in her hands. “It shouldn’t be too difficult.”
“Twenty-four hours I think we agreed,” said Michael.
“Absolutely,” responded Ash. “In fact,” she added after a moments consideration, “I might go and make a start on it now.” She paused just long enough to down her glass of Hotel Majestic vodka in one before tucking the device under her arm and standing up. “Pleasure doing business with you,” she said and wandered off with a cheerful wave.
I watched her weave her way somewhat unsteadily towards the exit for a moment before turning back to Michael. “Blimey, you really have got this one all wrapped up, haven’t you?” I said with a slightly begrudging admiration. Michael made a vain effort not to look too smug. “I mean, after all that you’ve even found a way to persuade Ash to do the work we need on the device.”
“Now that did take a fair bit of bartering,” admitted Michael. “If you think negotiating a treaty with the Viborg is hard…”
“Just what exactly did you offer her in exchange then?” I asked curiously.
“Ah, now that,” replied Michael with a triumphal smile, “was probably my finest flash of inspiration yet.”
Michael’s flash of inspiration was illustrated in full two days later when we returned to Marksville railway station for our journey back to Marston. The platform was absolutely crowded with well-wishers eager to see the train off. I like to think that they had come to say goodbye to us in recognition of our role in bringing peace to the city but was obliged to concede that most of them had probably turned up simply for the thrill of seeing a regularly scheduled train depart the station for the first time in months.
The rusty old diesel engine that had been pressed into service for the Marston run wasn’t in fact the only train waiting to leave the station that morning. Pulled up alongside the opposite platform was the engine in which we had arrived, its battered nose bashed more or less back into shape ready to take Charters and Caldicott on to Budapest in the hope of reclaiming Charters’ golf clubs in time for the R&A Annual Tournament. And standing on the footplate, ready to depart with those two intrepid travellers, was none other than Ash.
“You offered her Charters and Caldicott?” I had rather incredulously remarked when Michael had first attempted to explain the nature of the bargain he had struck with Ash.
“It occurred to me when I looked around that dark basement where she had been holed up for the last five months that what Ash needed in her life now more than anything was a new adventure,” reasoned Michael. “Fresh air, the open road, new challenges. And there’s nobody in the whole of the landscape who’s more likely to bring those things than Charters and Caldicott.”
“And are you sure Charters and Caldicott had no objections to this?” I asked.
“If they did they were far too polite to say so,” replied Michael with a smile.
“And did you fully explain to Ash just exactly what she’s getting herself into?” I added. “I mean, I’m not sure she’ll be thanking you after the first hundred or so miles of cricketing talk.”
“So, sooner or later, they’ll go their separate ways.” Michael shrugged lightly. “By then she’s already on her way, that’s the main thing.”
As we stood on the platform waiting for the off now I was perhaps a little more optimistic that Michael’s bargain might just work out after all. For, having perhaps somewhere got wind of the reputation of Charters and Caldicott, the accountant had added his presence to the Budapest party. Watching him and Ash fuss together over the engine whilst Charters and Caldicott supervised the loading of supplies it occurred to me that as a foursome their little travel party undoubtedly had potential.
I didn’t have long to ponder such matters however as the woman in the navy jacket whom we had first encountered upon our arrival at the station several days ago suddenly came pushing through the crowd, calling out, “Five minutes! The Marston train will be leaving in five minutes!”
There was just time for a few frantic final goodbyes – to Mo, to William and his mother, even to Biggins. I took Fitz’s proffered hand and gave it a hearty shake to indicate there were no hard feelings. He had already sought me out earlier to say how glad he was the treaty had eventually been settled without any ‘unpleasantness’ and had re-expressed his desire to return to a quiet life now that the war was over. Though, watching the people as they pressed eagerly around him wherever he went, I very much doubted he would be allowed to simply return to his parking tickets and his pot holes. There was after all a city to be rebuilt and, like it or not, everyone now looked to Fitz as their leader.
A sharp whistle from the guard indicated it was time for Michael and I to scramble aboard, alongside the other few passengers who had opted to make the trip. As the train pulled away I leant out of the window and waved to the cheerful crowd.
It was only when everyone had long since disappeared out of sight and the train had slipped through the city gates and out into the devastated suburbs that I finally sat down. I turned and patted the small satchel containing the inter-dimensional travel device that nestled alongside me before settling back into my seat and closing my eyes. All we had to do now, I reflected as I prepared to doze away the journey, was deliver this safely into Sturridge’s hands once we reached Marston and then I could start to seriously think about going home.
Travels Through An Imaginary Landscape will return shortly with Episode 12…