I stood with my back pressed up against the wall of the palazzo for a full five minutes before my heart rate returned to something like normal. All the way across the narrow strip of open ground that lay between the trees and the fence I had been tensed for the sound of a shout or even a shot to signify some opposition to our attempted intrusion. But there was nothing, just a gentle breeze rippling through the leaves and the urgent pounding of my overwrought heart. Michael and I made our way through the gap in the fence and into the shadow of the palazzo without incident.
Having paused just long enough to regain our senses, we set off once more, creeping our way cautiously round the edge of the building. We hadn’t taken the time to consider anything in the way of a strategy for exploring the barracks and in fact the apparently random alignment of the buildings discouraged any notion of a systematic reconnaissance. Instead we merely made a general aim for the apartment block we had recognised sitting in the centre of the site as we wove our way along the twisted paths and alleys.
We had barely turned the first corner before we found ourselves passing directly beneath the nose of the Zeppelin airship I had spotted from the trees. This elicited an impressed, “Whoa!” from me as I craned back my neck to take in the full expanse of the sleek structure, the softly billowing canvas stretched over the taut steel skeleton somehow serving to make it look both bloated and emaciated at the same time.
“Hmmm,” murmured a decidedly less enthusiastic Michael.
“Oh, you’re not going to bring that up again, are you?” I said, throwing him an accusatory glance.
“Bring what up again?”
“I do not have a phobia,” retorted Michael, peering dubiously at the narrow silver gondola hanging from the balloon. “Just a healthy respect for the limitations of imaginary air travel.”
I sighed. We had been through this before. Michael insisted he had never, in real life, been a remotely nervous flyer but here in the landscape of the imagination he had developed a distinct aversion to all forms of air travel. After a good deal of delicate probing I seemed to have traced the root of his antipathy to some fifties movie he’d starred in involving a plane crash. This seemed to have left him with the worrying notion that a disturbingly high proportion of airplane journeys in fiction existed solely for the purpose of putting the passengers in peril. It was all a question of statistics he insisted. No matter what the safety record of airlines in reality, between disaster movies and Twilight Zone episodes the probability of any airplane in the landscape of the imagination reaching its destination was not good.
And now it appeared he was extending this theory to cover airships as well.
“But look at it,” I cajoled. “Doesn’t it fill you with romance and excitement?”
Michael’s eyes had now passed beyond the ship itself and were gazing in dismay upon a cluster of large gas tanks arranged in a circle just beyond. “It fills me with dread,” he said with a shudder.
“You have no sense of adventure,” I threw at him, turning away with a sigh.
“And you’ve clearly never seen the fate of the Hindenburg,” Michael retorted, carefully skirting one of the many guide ropes that seemed to be all that prevented the ship from floating off right then and there.
We pressed on, slowly gaining in confidence as we turned further corners and skirted more buildings without meeting any hostility. In fact, my stride had just about relaxed into something like a saunter and I was beginning to rather enjoy our unlikely sight-seeing expedition when Michael, turning a corner just ahead of me, suddenly jumped back with such alacrity that he landed squarely on my foot, drawing forth an anguished “Oof!” from my lips.
He immediately hushed me with an urgent gesture and pressed us both back up against the wall of the square, Egyptian-style temple that we happened to be passing. We stood there anxiously for a few moments, Michael apparently scarcely daring to breathe whilst I was itching to ask the obvious question that his anxious signals for silence unfortunately forbade.
Eventually, after a minute or so of absolute stillness, Michael reluctantly acquiesced to my increasingly inquisitive looks and, with a nod of his head, wordlessly acknowledged that I might take a peek around the corner. It took just the briefest of glances for me to recognise the cause of his agitation.
For on the other side of the temple lay a broad open square, about fifty feet across. And lined up within that square, standing smartly to attention with rifles resting against their shoulders, stood row upon row of neatly uniformed men.
It appeared that this barracks came equipped with soldiers after all.
Though his face was calm Valentine walked the short distance from the Black Tower to the apartment block in a mood of growing anticipation. It had been an irksome wait through the long afternoon but he had to concede that the lateness of the hour with its lengthening shadows now added a pleasing theatricality to the scene. Entering the building he paused for a moment in the entrance hall, listening carefully, before he began to slowly climb the stairs. He stopped briefly on each landing, still listening intently. He’d reached the third floor before he finally heard the muffled sounds he had been listening for. Here Valentine turned and entered the apartment to the left, treading noiselessly along the hallway and then opening the door to the room beyond.
The figure he had been searching for was standing by the window. He was using a strange heavy tool which he carefully ran along the wall, searching every inch of plaster with an intently puzzled expression upon his face. Valentine coughed lightly and the figure whirled around. The guilty expression of a schoolboy caught out of bounds by the headmaster briefly flitted across his face before it settled into something harder and more determined.
Valentine smiled. “Well, Sturridge,” he said lightly. “I suppose I ought to scold you for breaking and entering but, under the circumstances, I suppose it’s only natural that your curiosity should get the better of you. I hope your examination has proved enlightening.”
“Somewhat,” replied Sturridge evasively.
Valentine’s glance passed briefly to the unusual instrument in Sturridge’s hand. “You’ve at least equipped yourself for the task,” he continued in the same casual tone. “Another item purloined from the Explorer’s Club stores I suspect.”
Sturridge glanced down at the item and shrugged defiantly. “We’re all magpies in this landscape.”
“So what does your stolen gadget tell you?” asked Valentine.
Sturridge hesitated, the better perhaps to gather his thoughts and judge precisely how much he ought to reveal. “It tells me that this whole building is encased in an inter-dimensional field,” he eventually remarked in a casual voice. “It’s now ready to be moved in the blink of an eye to another destination in the landscape.”
Valentine waited, carefully watching the other’s expression. “And?” he eventually said with a hint of impatience.
A puzzled frown fell across Sturridge’s face. “There’s something else,” he said. “Something running right through the building. It gives off a signal like the inter-dimensional field but it’s not quite the same. It’s…” Sturridge searched hard for the right words for a moment before reluctantly ending with, “it’s something new.”
Valentine broke into another of his satisfied smiles. “Ah well, I’m glad to hear we still have one or two secrets we’ve managed to keep from you.” Now it was Valentine’s turn to pause and judge his words carefully. “You’re right, of course, about the building being ready to move. Kenneth is just making the final calculations now.” Another pause. “Oh now don’t pull that face. I know you don’t much care for Kenneth but he really is an invaluable help to me.”
Sturridge made a concerted effort to remove the scowl from his features. He shrugged lightly as if to say it was entirely Valentine’s business what company he kept. “If you really are ready to move the building then hadn’t you better start loading it up,” he said instead.
“But the cargo is already loaded,” replied Valentine.
Sturridge glanced around the room with a baffled look. There was nothing here but a couple of old chairs and he knew from his earlier explorations that the other rooms held little more.
Valentine laughed, clearly enjoying Sturridge’s discomfort. “I’m talking about you my dear chap,” he said. “You are the cargo.”
“I really thought you might have worked it out by now,” said Valentine. “You see, when this building is transported from these barracks in less than an hour’s time it’ll be taking you with it.” There was a pause and the brilliant smile was briefly tinged with sourness. “And I’m afraid you won’t ever be coming back.”
Pressed back up against the wall of the Egyptian temple, Michael and I dared not utter so much as a whisper for fear of being overheard by the men in the square and so were obliged to discuss our predicament without recourse to actual words. Conducted purely in pantomime gestures and exaggerated facial expressions, the dialogue went something like this:
“They’ve got guns!”
“What are we going to do?”
“I don’t know!”
“We should probably get out of here.”
“That sounds like a good idea.”
“Right then… You go first, I’ll follow.”
“Okay… No wait.”
“What’s the matter now?”
“I’m not sure. There was something strange about those soldiers. I just want to take another look.”
“Are you insane?!”
“I’ll only be a second.”
“Don’t come crying to me if you get shot.”
I ignored this last, rather melodramatic gesture of Michael’s and, leaning past him, I tentatively poked my head back round the corner of the temple for a second before withdrawing it. I paused, thought for a moment, and then poked it back round again for a few seconds more.
“What do you think you’re doing?” hissed Michael as I paused again to consider what I’d seen.
“There’s something not quite right about those soldiers,” I whispered. “They’re not moving.”
“They’re standing to attention,” murmured Michael. “They’re not supposed to move.”
“No, there’s something more than that,” I said and I poked my head back round the corner once again, only this time I left it there. Eventually Michael felt compelled to lean his head out alongside mine. As we looked across the close ranks of soldiers it had to be conceded that there was something unnaturally immobile about them. Their peaked caps were pulled down low, masking their eyes, but from the angle of their heads it seemed impossible that those in the nearest row at least wouldn’t have spotted us by now. And yet there was not the slightest hint of a reaction.
“Where’s the C.O. or the Sergeant-Major?” I added. “Who’s in command?”
Michael considered this point for a few seconds. Then he leaned down, picked up a handful of gravel from the edge of the path and tossed it into the square. It landed in a noisy shower right in front of the nearest few men.
Not a flicker.
Slowly we unfurled ourselves from the edge of the temple and stepped cautiously into the square itself. Every single soldier remained fixed in position. I walked up to the nearest soldier and stood face to face with him. His eyes stared blankly forwards. I held up my hand and clicked my fingers several times directly in his face. He didn’t even blink.
“Look at their faces!” exclaimed Michael, passing curiously along the front row. “They’re all identical!”
I gave another soldier a tentative prod in the cheek. He certainly felt like flesh and blood but there was nothing else about him to suggest that he was actually alive. “Do you suppose they’re actually human?” I asked Michael uncertainly.
“If not this is one hell of a set of toy soldiers,” replied Michael, continuing to move cautiously amongst them. He stopped and peered closely at one of the rifles they carried. “The guns certainly look real enough,” he concluded.
“Perhaps they’re like some kind of terracotta army,” I suggested, now making my own way through the ranks. “Intended purely as a deterrent.”
“Perhaps,” murmured Michael thoughtfully. “But then what are they guarding?”
Meeting up in the middle of the parade ground, we both stopped and looked around. Casting my eyes across to the rear of the square, I could see an archway leading out and, somewhere beyond that, the apartment block loomed up from the centre of the barracks. “Should we go on then?” I asked nervously.
“I don’t see why not,” replied Michael after a moments hesitation.
Slowly, keeping a watchful eye on the unnervingly identical faces all around us, we made our way out of the square. Passing beneath the archway I was glad to leave the lifeless parade behind me, although, as we emerged into a fresh warren of pathways on the other side, I couldn’t quite shake the feeling we were being sucked deeper and deeper into a maze from which there was no escape.
“I don’t understand,” said Sturridge, shaking his head in an effort to dispel the fugue of confusion. “I thought you had acquired this building for transportation. Pile it high and send it flying off through the landscape by means of inter-dimensional travel, wasn’t that the idea?”
“Yes, well, I’m afraid you do seem to have an unfortunate knack of jumping to the wrong conclusion,” replied Valentine with a sarcastic smile. “I always suspected it would get you into trouble one day.”
Sturridge ignored the jibe. His eyes flashed around the room as he struggled to make sense of the situation.
Valentine took to pacing a small arc as he spoke, his head tipped in that absorbingly thoughtful manner of his. “You know, I remember when you first came to us,” he remarked in a tone of nostalgic reminiscence. “All fired up you were with talk about the original idea at the heart of the landscape and eager for our help to find it.”
“Yes, well, that was before I found out precisely how you people operate,” replied Sturridge uncomfortably. “You’re not so much an Explorer’s Club as a den of thieves.”
“You can’t apply real world rules of morality to this landscape,” returned Valentine with an imperious raise of the eyebrow. “What was it you just said yourself? We’re all magpies here.”
“That doesn’t justify your treating this landscape like a free-for-all,” insisted Sturridge hotly. “You can’t expect to keep on taking whatever you fancy and stomping over anyone who gets in your way.”
“Great ideas belong in the hands of those who can utilise them best,” remarked Valentine disdainfully. “What is the use of something like an inter-dimensional travel device in the hands of a two-bit inventor in a one-horse town at the arse end of the landscape?”
“You don’t know what people are capable of until you give them a chance,” replied Sturridge.
Valentine gave a snort of derision. “Oh please, that’s the kind of line that belongs in a third-rate daytime soap opera,” he snapped. “The good should end happily and the bad unhappily, is that what you think fiction means? I’m afraid the imagination doesn’t subscribe to constraints like that.”
“I think you’ll find the imagination was built on constraints like that,” insisted Sturridge quietly.
“Now, you see, that is precisely the kind of remark that let me know in the first place that you would never be Explorer’s Club material,” retorted Valentine impatiently. “You can talk all you like about the original idea at the heart of the landscape but someone like you can never truly comprehend the power inherent in a spark like that. I mean just exactly what would you do if you ever did find it? Sit around, making daisy chains and contemplating the meaning of it all probably.”
Sturridge simply smiled, indicating this wasn’t a debate he was going to be drawn into.
“I thought as much. No, it was always obvious that for all your wild-eyed enthusiasm you never quite had what it takes to cut it as a member of the Explorer’s Club. And unfortunately, as so often, it transpires that if you’re not with us then you’re against us.” Valentine paused and shook his head sadly. “No, it was clear to me very early on that sooner or later you would need to be eliminated.”
“So why didn’t you?” said Sturridge, his voice sounding a genuine note of curiosity. “Eliminate me sooner, that is. It’s not as though you haven’t had opportunities.”
“I would have liked to, believe me,” returned Valentine. “But things are not always quite so simple in this landscape. Naturally, if we were in the real world I could simply have shot you at the first opportunity and had done with it. No more meddlesome Sturridge.” Valentine allowed himself a gentle smile at this pleasant prospect. “Unfortunately, here one is obliged to be a little more inventive when it comes to disposing of unwanted intrusions,” he continued, his face darkening. “In this landscape you can never be entirely sure that dead men will stay dead. Do what you like with them – shoot them, stab them, throw them down a waterfall – there’s always a chance that a major character will contrive to have himself resurrected somewhere down the line.”
Sturridge felt his fingers involuntarily grip a little tighter around the heavy instrument he held in his right hand.
“Better then not to kill the troublemaker at all,” continued Valentine. “Better instead to find somewhere to put them out of the way.” A pause and another of those gentle smiles. “Permanently.”
Sturridge looked around, a light of recognition dawning in his eyes. “Oh, I see. So the plan was to lure me in here before sending it off to some distant corner of the landscape?”
Valentine acknowledged the theory with a gracious nod.
“Bit of an odd building to be making a prison out of, isn’t it?” asked Sturridge, glancing around him. “What’s the matter? Were they all out of proper dungeons at the estate agents?”
Valentine smiled. “Actually this building was very carefully chosen in order to make the most secure gaol imaginable,” he said. “Do you have any idea how many separate rooms there are contained within this one apartment block?”
Sturridge shrugged. “I’ve no idea.”
“Two hundred and seventy-three,” announced Valentine. “It’s quite remarkable, isn’t it? There are very few other structures that contain so many distinct rooms within such a confined space.”
Sturridge gave another light shrug, still unable to see any relevance.
“The number of rooms is the key, you see,” explained Valentine. “That something new that you couldn’t identify in the walls is actually a very clever little piece of technology we’ve acquired called an External Relativism Modulator. It’s not a very inspiring title, I know, but you can’t expect much poetry in the furthest reaches of the sci-fi heartlands.”
Valentine paused thoughtfully. “Now, let me see if I can put this in layman’s terms. The External Relativism Modulator operates by dislocating the internal dimensions of a building from its external dimensions. From the inside the building will remain whole and you may step as easily from one room to another as you do now. But externally each separate room exists in a completely different location. So, when Kenneth very shortly sends this apartment block spinning off into the landscape via our inter-dimensional travel device, each room will be headed in a different direction. There are 273 rooms, therefore you will simultaneously exist in 273 different locations across the landscape.”
Sturridge remained silent, slowly processing the extraordinary idea.
“So you see if you ever want to get out of this building again you would need to somehow escape from 273 separate points in the landscape at the same time,” added Valentine with a distinctly triumphal smile. “Which is a task that I think might just baffle The Count of Monte Cristo, never mind you. Rather ingenious, don’t you think?”
“Very clever,” murmured Sturridge distractedly.
“And even, one might say, rather humane,” said Valentine. “After all, you’ll at least have 273 different views to look out on whilst you’re locked away.”
“I’m touched you’ve gone to so much trouble,” muttered Sturridge sarcastically.
“Personally, I wouldn’t have said you were worth half this effort,” flashed back Valentine, “but someone out there clearly thinks you’re a special case. Only a fool would ignore the signs.”
“What signs?” said Sturridge curiously.
“Well, those mysterious powers-that-be clearly think something of you,” growled Valentine with a hint of genuine irritation, “or they wouldn’t have sent your little student pal, in the company of that overrated theatrical ham, trailing after you.”
Valentine paused for a moment to enjoy the reaction precipitated by his words. “Those two really are an annoyingly dogged pair, aren’t they?” he continued. “I had thought that the landscape would have finished them off by now. But it seems that, in spite of my, and even your, best efforts – sending them off into the middle of a Viborg war, what were you thinking? – they keep on turning up like a bad penny.”
Valentine watched as Sturridge’s eyes widened slightly. “Oh, you didn’t realise they’d arrived?” he noted. “Oh yes, they came trotting up this afternoon, right on cue. Planning, I believe, to deliver that patched-up inter-dimensional travel device you’ve been so anxious to get your hands on. Don’t worry, we’ll soon relieve them of that. And then, I’m afraid, we’ll probably be obliged to relieve them of their lives.” Valentine couldn’t resist a smile. “Fortunately, one can be rather more direct when it comes to the disposal of minor characters.”
For a second a whole array of conflicting emotions flickered across Sturridge’s face, then suddenly he sprang forward in anger. He’d advanced no further than a couple of steps though when two identical-looking men wearing peaked caps and carrying rifles over their shoulders marched swiftly into the room, seemingly from nowhere, and placed themselves either side of Valentine. Sturridge halted in his tracks, looking in frustrated bewilderment from one indistinguishable guard to the other.
“Allow me to introduce you to another little toy the Explorer’s Club have picked up on their travels,” said Valentine smoothly. “They call it the Sentient Army. They’re a company of soldiers bred quite without any mind or will of their own. They react solely upon the orders of their designated commander, remaining entirely inanimate until instructed. And do you know what the really clever thing about them is?” Valentine didn’t wait for a response. “They are activated by brainwaves. One need only think of an order for it to be carried out. Ingenious, eh? They really are the most efficient army ever devised.”
Valentine took a step backwards. “These two already have their instructions,” he announced. “I’ll leave you to take a wild guess as to what those are.”
Valentine paused just a moment, determined to wring all the enjoyment he could from the expression of fear, frustration and bewilderment on Sturridge’s face. Then he smiled one last smile. “Now if you’ll excuse me,” he said just before turning to leave, “There are two more meddlesome intruders whose time in this landscape is most definitely up.”
To be continued…