It was just over an hour since he had watched the Zeppelin descend in a roar of flames and Valentine was sitting, deep in thought, in his favourite armchair. By every calculation the day had been an absolute success; Sturridge had been put out of the game with real ingenuity and, he dared to think, a little style and, as an added bonus, his two followers had all but dispatched themselves. The Explorer’s Club could now go about its business free from unwarranted interference.
Yet as he sipped slowly at the fine single malt he had poured himself Valentine could not prevent the hint of a frown from settling over his handsome brow. Something nagged at the back of his mind. He sensed a fly in the ointment, though what possible shape or form this theoretical fly might take he couldn’t quite figure out. He had no doubt that he could handle it, whenever ‘it’ came and whatever ‘it’ might be, but the mere fact of its existence, lurking somewhere deep within his subconscious, was enough to take the sheen of what would otherwise have been a most significant triumph.
Valentine’s mood was not improved when a few minutes later there came a sharp rap on the door and, without waiting for a response, Kenneth hurried into the room. It was clear he was bursting with news but, catching sight of the expression on his colleague’s face, Kenneth hesitated, preferring to wait with a barely disguised degree of agitation by Valentine’s chair. Only when Valentine had reluctantly drawn his gaze from the middle distance and acknowledged Kenneth’s presence with a weary nod did he dare to open his mouth.
“I’m very sorry for interrupting you,” the words flooded eagerly out, “but it seems the wind has changed. The fire from the wreck of the airship has caught hold amongst the trees and, well, it’s headed this way.”
Valentine casually diverted his gaze towards the window where a bright orange glow could be discerned beyond the edge of the forest like a second, yet more brilliant, sunset.
“We need to take action now if we don’t want the barracks to be engulfed,” prompted Kenneth.
“What do you suggest?” asked Valentine calmly.
“Well, we’ve got some equipment we could use for tackling the blaze,” began Kenneth hesitantly, “but we really need more hands. I did think that perhaps the Sentient Army might…”
“No,” said Valentine, cutting him short. “Not the soldiers. They’re much too precious to be risked fighting fires.”
“But without them the whole barracks could go up in flames,” protested Kenneth.
“Then we abandon the barracks,” replied Valentine simply.
“But Val!” spluttered Kenneth. “You can’t…”
“It’s served its purpose,” said Valentine. “We have no particular need for it.”
“But Val, think of all the time we spent putting it together,” said Kenneth. “All this magnificent architecture.”
“We can build a new barracks,” insisted Valentine calmly. “With even more magnificent buildings.”
“But really…” Kenneth began, though unable to articulate any sort of coherent argument he soon tailed off.
“Never become too attached to your possessions Kenneth,” Valentine said, turning to look him directly in the eye for the first time. “Remember, they’re not the things that count here. Ideas are what matter in this landscape.”
Kenneth nodded humbly. “Sorry Val. You’re right, of course.”
“Now then, why don’t you take twenty minutes – I presume we’re safe from the flames for that long at least – and pack up anything you feel you really need,” suggested Valentine. “I’ll meet you by the gates. The army will escort us off the premises.”
Kenneth nodded once again and hurried towards the door. He had hold of the handle before he thought to turn and ask one final question. “Where are we going to now then Val?”
For the first time since he had sat down Valentine’s brow cleared and he allowed himself a slight smile. “Back to the very dawn of the imagination, of course,” he replied.
We waited a full thirty minutes after we had heard the last of the marching feet fade away into the distance before we dared peep out from our hiding place. By that time the heat from the approaching forest fire was uncomfortably severe, particularly for two people who had elected to conceal themselves in the hollow formed by a circle of airship fuel tanks. Still, once we had stepped tentatively out into the empty space left when we had cut the Zeppelin free from its moorings, we were careful to ensure that the barracks had indeed been fully abandoned before making our way over to the open gates.
By this time night was fully upon us and it should have been pitch black as we headed into the trees but the deep red glow from the conflagration to our backs provided a dull light and it wasn’t long before we picked up a track running through the forest. Our only thought at this stage was to put as much distance between ourselves and the creeping inferno as our tired, cramped legs would allow.
We must have been walking for about an hour or so, the scorching heat had just about faded to a warm glow and the fierce crackle of flames had receded to no more than a whisper, when I became aware of something new. It was no more than a slight change in the atmosphere, a barely perceived presence that seemed to dog our weary footsteps. At first I was inclined to put it down as a figment of my over-tired imagination but the sensation continued, and indeed grew, until finally I felt I had to say something.
“Is that you Bob?” I finally asked the ether in a rather uncertain tone.
How many times do I have to tell you that my name is not Bob? Kindly do not address me in that fashion.
“Well why don’t you introduce yourself when you’re back on the scene?” I demanded. “It’s creepy, going around sneaking up on people like that.”
I was waiting for the right moment. There’s a very picturesque little clearing just a short way up the track where you’re bound to stop for a rest. That seemed like a perfect moment to weave myself back into your narrative.
Sure enough, a few more strides and the clearing of which he spoke came into view. It consisted of a shallow semi-circle of open ground beside the path where a few trees had been felled. The low tree stumps formed themselves in our tired eyes into very appealing seats and both Michael and I immediately took the opportunity to rest our weary limbs.
“Are you going to tell us where you’ve been all this time?” asked Michael. “We thought you must have abandoned us for a better story.”
Oh no, I wouldn’t do that. Sometimes though a narrator is obliged to adopt a different viewpoint for a while in order to get the full picture.
And whilst Michael and I gladly stretched out our aching legs the Narrator filled us in on his side of the story. There was a moment of stunned silence when he had finished.
And now I hope you won’t object if I accompany you as far as the nearest town. I realise that our previous agreement expired once we reached the barracks but I thought that, under the circumstances, you might be prepared to stretch a point.
“Of course,” murmured Michael. “We’d be glad to.”
Actually, once we reach civilisation I’ve been thinking of trying to hitch my way across to the fabled realms. I hear they’re always on the lookout for good narrators down that way.
“Didn’t you find yourself tempted to stick with the story of Valentine and Kenneth when they left the barracks?” I asked curiously. “That sounds like quite an epic.”
Oh, I don’t know. I think that kind of single-minded lust for power is a little old hat, to be honest.
“Quite exciting though,” suggested Michael.
And, well, the truth is they would never have had me. Valentine was prepared to tolerate my narration at the barracks where he thought an additional perspective could be helpful to him but he would soon have found a way to drop me once I’d outlived my usefulness.
“You mean Valentine was aware of your narration the whole time?” said Michael.
Of course. Any organisation as sophisticated as the Explorer’s Club would never allow a narrator to simply fade into the background.
“Well, I suppose we ought to be thanking you for saving our bacon,” I said after a thoughtful pause.
Not at all. I was merely an observer of events, it was you who effected your escape. I could never have interfered. Though I must confess I was mightily relieved when you abandoned the airship. For one terrible moment even I thought you were actually planning to fly off in it.
“To be perfectly honest, if it weren’t for Michael and his crackpot theories about flying we might have tried,” I confessed.
“I’d like to think that the events of today have gone some way towards vindicating my so-called crackpot theories,” responded Michael, a touch huffily.
In any case, it’s a good thing those ships come fitted with an auto-pilot.
“True,” I conceded. “But that wasn’t really what I was talking about anyway. When I said we ought to thank you I meant for the little deception that drew the Sentient Army off our tail.”
Deception? I don’t know what you’re talking about. I would never deceive my audience. Such action would run entirely counter to the Narrator’s Oath.
“In your narration you said that the soldier who grabbed my bag destroyed the inter-dimensional travel device,” I pointed out. “I’m afraid that counts as a deception.”
Correction – I said that he destroyed a device. And so he did.
“He stood on my Tupperware sandwich box.”
Well, that’s a device for keeping sandwiches in.
“I think even you have to concede that probably qualifies as a bit misleading,” said Michael with a wry grin.
Well, the truth is I didn’t like being used. Valentine thought he could take what he needed from my narration and then toss me aside like a broken toy. And frankly, I think that shows a fundamental disrespect for the narrator’s art.
“And you thought you’d pay him back with a bit of misdirection?” I said lightly.
It was his own fault. If he’d been more specific in his directions to the Sentient Army there would have been no room for misunderstanding. He should know better than anyone that the devil lies in the details.
“Well, whatever your reasoning, we are extremely grateful for your help,” said Michael.
The important point is that you remain in possession of the inter-dimensional travel device. In view of its significance within your story I felt that the loss of a few sandwiches was a small price to pay for its retention.
There was a deep gnawing hole in the pit of my stomach that might have disagreed with the Narrator there but I was curious enough to pull the tattered remnants of my bag up onto my knee and fish the device out for inspection. “Obviously I’m glad Valentine didn’t get hold of it,” I said, turning the device over in my hands, “but now that Sturridge is gone I’m not sure what use it is to us.”
It’s precisely because Sturridge is gone that the device is vital to you. How else do you expect to find him?
“Find Sturridge?” I echoed uncertainly.
Of course. The modifications you had done in Marksville were designed to allow the device to track inter-dimensional travel across the landscape, weren’t they? Well, I imagine that apartment block must have left a pretty big footprint.
I flicked the switch to turn the instrument on and instantly the dial began to light up. “Bloody hell! It’s registering co-ordinates,” I remarked. After staring at the rapidly filling screen for a few seconds I handed it over to Michael to allow him to see for himself.
“A lot of co-ordinates,” said Michael with a low whistle as the dial continued to spin.
“So each set of co-ordinates will relate to the place where a different room of the apartment block landed?” I said.
So it would seem.
“Wait a minute,” said Michael, peering at the device with a puzzled expression. “Didn’t Valentine say there were 273 rooms in the apartment block?”
“So why has the device registered 275 different sets of co-ordinates?” asked Michael, passing the instrument back so I could see. Now that the dial had stopped spinning the screen was indeed indicating that it had a total of 275 different locations stored in its memory.
“Was Valentine lying about the number of rooms?” I said.
I don’t think so.
“So why the difference?” asked Michael.
It would seem that the apartment block isn’t the only thing they removed from the barracks.
“What else would they need to transport like that?” I asked curiously.
I really couldn’t say.
Look, I can’t be expected to keep a track of everything that’s going on. Too many sub-plots spoil the narrative. The important point is that now you have the means to find Sturridge.
“Across 273 different locations of the landscape,” I said doubtfully, struggling to take in the enormity of the task. I glanced over at Michael but even his normally optimistic disposition seemed slightly daunted by the prospect.
Best get a move on then. No sense in hanging round here all night.
I thoughtfully flicked the switch to turn off the device and slid it back into my torn bag. “It’s just that if we’d met up with Sturridge in Marston,” I said slowly, “then I was going to explain to him that I think it may be time for me to head back to reality. You know, just that, well, I have got a life of my own to be going on with. And now…” I tailed off, not really sure how I felt any more, let alone how to articulate such feelings. “Not that we even know if there is such a thing as a way out of this landscape,” I finally added with an exasperated shrug.
Of course there’s a way out of the landscape. If you came from reality then it stands to reason that you must be able to get back to reality.
“That’s easy enough for you to say,” I muttered.
It’s simply a matter of finding the right doorway. You found a door in the wall to bring you here, didn’t you? Then you simply need to find the correct door in the wall to take you back.
“But how?” asked Michael. “It could be anywhere.”
Not quite. Granted, the door’s location is uncertain but you know at least that it will be linked to the door that brought you here. Where were you when you found your door in the wall?
“We were taking a tour of Michael’s old school, Clifton College,” I said.
Well then, there you are.
“You mean to say that there ought to be a Clifton College somewhere here in the landscape?” asked Michael.
Every location in the real world has a reflection, a kind of echo, within the landscape of the imagination. It may not take quite the same form as the original but you’ll know it when you come across it. And there you’ll find the door in the wall to take you home again.
There was a moment of silence whilst both Michael and I mulled over this unexpected piece of information. The Narrator made it all sound so simple.
But you wouldn’t really think of going home now, would you? Not before you’ve found Sturridge at least. That is, after all, the reason you came to the landscape in the first place.
“But we did find him,” I protested. “I mean, we had coffee with him in Marston and everything.”
But he wasn’t lost then.
“He’d been lost to us,” pointed out Michael.
Yes, but I mean he wasn’t lost, if you know what I mean. You can’t find somebody before they’re actually lost.
As I didn’t actually know what the Narrator meant, I merely muttered, “I wish we’d bloody known. Then maybe we could have stopped him from getting lost in the first place.”
It doesn’t work like that. It spoils the story if you peek ahead to the final chapter.
I wasn’t entirely sure I agreed with the Narrator on that point but, unable to think of a cogent reply, I simply issued a derisive snort.
But don’t you see, this is where your story starts. This is your adventure. You wouldn’t want to quit before your story has even begun, would you?
“Ha! Our story hasn’t begun, has it?” I spluttered. “Do you have any idea what we’ve been through just to get this far? We’ve been chased up mountains by zombie nuns, attacked by temperamental castles, been mistaken for spies…”
“Caught up in Cuban love triangles,” chipped in Michael, “locked up by corrupt mayors and obliged to go prospecting down deadly mines…”
“I’ve been psycho-analysed by Freud,” I added, warming to my theme, “condemned to death by the Viborg and drugged by a mad woman with a robot butler in a Gothic mansion. Now what would you call all that if, as you say, our story hasn’t even begun?”
There was a brief pause.
I’d call it one hell of a prologue.
Travels Through An Imaginary Landscape will return (possibly) at an unspecified date in the future…