Part X – The Tip Of The Rabbit’s Ear

©2020 William A. Lasher

January 17, 1883 – Aboard the Fiery Crimson Messenger, Bombay Airship Station, India

The airship squadron departed Cairo on Christmas Day, bound for the Indian sub-continent and Bombay. We flew high above the Arabian Desert and its Empty Quarter, Rub’ al Khali,  the largest expanse of sand desert in the world. Even drier than the Sahara, annual rainfall in the Empty Quarter was limited to trace amounts.

Following his acquittal, Private Delone was now on permanent latrine duty, and Molly assigned the forward gunner position to Dorian Queensbury. Did he have the mettle to handle a Longstone? It was my job to find out.

“What’s your background, Queensbury?” I said as we climbed down the ship’s ladder to the gun emplacement.

“My background? What do you mean?” He sounded nervous.

“Your personal background. You’re from London?”

“Yes, London. I grew up in an orphanage. I never knew my parents. No family except for the nuns who raised me.”

An orphan. Maybe I shouldn’t have asked, but I had to find some way to break the ice. No wonder he was always so quiet. Just twenty years old, he had only been in the MEF for a few months.

“What about you?” said Queensbury, “you’re from the Western Territory?”

“Yeah, though actually, Captain Abbotsford and I grew up in a small town in western Virginia.”

“So your hometown was destroyed in the Hydrogen War?”

“Yup. It was called Leacock Corners, but it’s gone now.”

“Sorry to hear that, sir.”

“You don’t have to call me sir, Queensbury. If you can learn how to run this Longstone, you’ll be promoted to corporal at the least.”

“I’ll do my best.”

I lowered myself into the compartment and showed him how the machine gun worked, much as I had done with Delone a few weeks before. After going over the basics, I let Queensbury take over. He seemed to have enough mechanical aptitude to operate the weapon, and he cranked up the spring loaded mechanism, and fired off a number of the blank rounds. His demeanor changed almost instantly, from anxious to confident. He appeared comfortable behind the controls of the Longstone.

Young Queensbury did better than I thought he would. Maybe Delone’s failure made me too pessimistic. We moved over to the flamethrower, and I showed him how to sight in the weapon and turn on the gas. The flamethrower was simpler to operate as compared to the Longstone, and we didn’t actually fire it up. There was no reason to waste our limited H gas supply.

“So let’s say we’re coming up behind a winged croc, and Captain Abbotsford orders you to roast the mutant beast. What do you do, Queensbury?”

“Sight in my weapon and turn the control knob to high.”

“With no doubts or second thoughts about what you’re doing? No conscientious objection to killing a winged croc?”

“None at all. I can do it.”

“When we get back to the Western Territory, it’ll be your job to mow down hundreds of human zombies with the Longstone, and then cook them with the flamethrower. It’s an ugly job, Queensbury. The machine gun rips the zombies to pieces. You think you can handle that too?”

“Yes, I’m sure I can do it.” He paused for a few moments and then, “You know what I don’t understand? If Delone was afraid to hit the mutant with the flamethrower, then why is he able to free climb on the dirigible. That takes some real guts.”

“It wasn’t fear so much as he didn’t want to become a killer. It was a moral objection.”

“I suppose you’re right, but personally, I have no objection to killing a mutant beast. And human zombies? Bring ’em on, I can do it.” Young Queensbury sounded cocky now.

“You’ve never been outside the gondola when we’re airborne, have you?”

“Nope.”

“Let’s go up on the roof and I’ll show you how we climb up and over the rigid balloon.”

“That’s one thing I’m not sure I can do.”

“I’m not asking you to, I just want you to see how it’s done. You can stay on the roof and watch.”

We returned to the main deck, and I showed him how to put on an oxygen suit. I called Scribbens over so he could learn the procedure too. It was something every crew member needed to know, in case the gondola’s pressurization apparatus ever failed at high altitude. I showed them both how to snap an oxygen bottle into place and adjust the controls so just enough oxygen made it to the helmet. Not too much, or the bottle would be exhausted too fast.

Once we had on our suits, Queensbury and I went up the spiral stairway that lead to the airlock. The hatch on either side had air tight seals, and after an atmospheric sailor climbed inside and secured the interior door, he could open the exterior door without compromising the pressurized atmosphere inside the main cabin.

“Whatever you do, don’t open both doors at the same time,” I said as I unlatched the first metal door. “When you come back inside, make sure the exterior door is closed and locked before you even think of opening the inside door.”

In truth, it would be virtually impossible to open the interior door with the exterior still open, because as the pressurized air inside escaped, it would force the interior door shut. The engineers in London had designed the airlock that way intentionally.

I went through first, and waited outside while Queensbury repeated the procedure. He made a show of making sure the interior hatch was adequately secured, and then he opened the air pressure equalization vents as I watched through the window. Finally, he opened the exterior door and stepped through the threshold.

“How high above the surface are we?” said Queensbury. He had a tight grip on the brass railing that surrounded the airlock entrance.

“At least 30,000 feet.” I spoke loudly so he could hear me through the thick glass on my helmet.

We could see the tops of wispy cirrus clouds beneath us, and the Amelia Snavely about 100 yards off our starboard side. Sunlight refracted by ice crystals gave the cloud deck a dreamlike appearance. The sky above us was a cloudless royal blue, and to our aft, we could see the Constantina flying at a slightly higher altitude.

“I’m going to climb over the dirigible and check on the sailing crew,” I said as I moved towards the bottom of the rope ladder. “Stay put and I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

I didn’t have to say it twice. Queensbury had a death grip on the railing, and it was unlikely he would be venturing far from the airlock entrance.

Sunarko was right about mastering the free climbing. It was all in your mind. Once I developed enough self confidence, and overcame the fear of falling, the rest was easy. Queensbury watched wide-eyed as I casually climbed up and over the rigid balloon.

The climb put me on the walkway towards the front of the ship. High above me, Sunarko was in the crow’s nest at the top of the center mast. He was communicating with a fellow Morpurgo on the Amelia Snavely by flashing Morse code on a small handheld mirror. At the base of the center mast, Delone was seated inside the dinky cabin.

We were sailing into a strong headwind – the prevailing trades were blowing from almost due east. Attempting to tack, or come about, was impractical in a bulky airship, so the sails would remain furled on all three ships. It slowed our progress considerably.

As I made my way towards Delone, I saw Moonblade at the far end of the walkway. He had just finished some type of maintenance work on the aft end of the dirigible. He smiled and waved when he saw me approaching.

Moonblade began to walk towards the center mast too, from the opposite direction, and with no warning, the strangest thing happened – a walking corpse suddenly materialized on the walkway a few steps in front of him. The partially decomposed ghoul was brandishing a sword, and dressed in the same fashion as the others. By that, I mean the same as the mummy in the Red Pyramid, and the same as the eerie aberrations that had accosted us in the alley in central Cairo. Like a swordsman from the Middle Ages, in tall boots and pantaloons, and this one wore a purple beret.

The ghoul stopped Moonblade dead in his tracks. Johnny looked anxiously from side to side, knowing he was in trouble. The walking corpse had him cornered, and it began to advance on him. He was unarmed and trapped. The ghoul raised the sword over its head menacingly, and grinned as Johnny slowly backed away.

I thought back to the attack in Cairo. In the dark alley, the ghoul’s sword had been deadly, it drew blood.

Moonblade looked down now, towards the surface of the earth. It was a 30,000 foot free fall to the windswept sand dunes of the Arabian Desert.

Delone watched the confrontation unfold from his seat in the pint-sized cabin. He sprung up out of his chair, and grabbed a rifle from the rack by the door. Taking a few steps towards the rear, he shouldered his weapon and fired. It was an extremely risky shot, because Moonblade was on the other side of the ghoul, and thus within his line of fire. From the look in Johnny’s eyes, I could see that he knew it too, and just as Delone squeezed the trigger, he dove for the deck.

When the slug made contact, the ghoul disintegrated into a cloud of dust, like the others had done before. In the wink of an eye, it was gone. Moonblade was a bit dazed at first, and as he slowly got back to his feet, I hurried my pace down the walkway.

It was the first time Delone had ever used a firearm under duress. He had learned how to handle a rifle in practice sessions at Fort Greyling, but this was the one and only time he had ever shot at an enemy target. He was standing by the cabin looking down at the rifle with a confused look on his face, and upon reaching him, I gently took the rifle from his hands.

“You did good, mate,” I said.

Moonblade came up to us and buried Delone in a bear hug. “You saved my life!”

Later that evening, Moonblade and Delone became blood brothers. Johnny used a sharp knife to lightly graze both of their palms, just enough to draw a small trickle of blood, and when they joined hands, Delone became an honorary Shoshoni. That was what Johnny said. Through his act of bravery, Delone had become Moonblade’s blood brother for life.

Delone had redeemed himself. The incident over Lake Victoria was in the past now, and when he took out the ghoul and saved Moonblade’s life, he regained his standing as a key member of our crew. Pierpont busting him down to private was irrelevant. Delone was back with us again.

 

 

We landed at the airship station in Bombay after an eight day voyage from Cairo. The elevated mooring platforms rose above the waterfront at the edge of the harbor. It was a busy port, and ocean going clipper ships flew a multitude of flags including British, Greek, and Portuguese. Some of the ships were loaded with cotton bound for European markets by way of the Suez Canal, others took on loads of freshly processed opium bound for China.

Bombay was located on a large island, with the Arabian Sea to the west, and the harbor to the east. The site had once been seven separate isles, but by 1845, British engineers and an army of Indian laborers had connected the archipelago.

The Indian sub-continent had two tropical seasons. In January it was as dry as Cairo with scarce precipitation. In the summer months, a strong monsoon developed, producing heavy rainfall on a daily basis.

The political climate was more stable than it had been in Egypt. The British Raj had a secure foothold, so the airship crews would be allowed to take some liberty, though it would be brief. We wouldn’t be on the ground for long – just two days, and then we would continue on with our journey.

Molly and I spent a few hours exploring the city the day we arrived. It was the first time we had worn civilian attire in a couple of months, since the night of the aqua wolf emergence in London. Our stylish English street clothes were plenty warm in the Indian heat.

“These wool trousers are awfully heavy for the tropical conditions,” I said as we prepared to depart.

“Do you think this mid length dress will be proper?” Molly checked her looks in the mirror in her quarters.

“I think it will be fine.”

“I was going to wear the full length red evening gown I bought in Mayfair, but I thought it would be a bit extravagant for the circumstances.”

“Also too warm. I’m going to look into acquiring short pants. The weather in Borneo is likely to be even hotter.”

“I don’t want to show too much of my legs, I’m afraid I’ll draw too much attention to myself here in this foreign land.” She lingered in front of the mirror striking various poses.

“You’re looking more beautiful than ever, my love, and I shall defend your honor to the death.” I put a dab of dressing in my hair and sneaked in behind her so I could comb it straight back in the mirror. “I’ll do my hair up like Colonel Chadway, he’s quite a dashing fellow, don’t you think?”

“Oh yes, a handsome chap indeed, but honestly, I think you’re better looking, Bertram.” Molly caught my eye in the mirror with a slight look of alarm at having spoken my real name instead of my alias. “After seeing how harshly Delone was treated,  we should be careful about divulging our true identities.”

“Let’s stick to the plan – wait until we get back to the Western Territory and think about it then.”

“I agree. We’ll talk to Major Saxby first, before we let the cat out of the bag with anyone else.”

“We’ll bribe him with the Tutweiller cookies. You still have the case we bought, right?”

“Yes, hidden under my bed and untouched.”

We descended a lengthy stairway that connected the mooring platform to street level Bombay. To the south, there was a long line of docked clipper ships, their tall masts rising up as far as the eye could see.

Close to the docks, there were warehouses loaded with bales of cotton for export. Prior to the Hydrogen War, much of the cotton sold in Europe had come from America. In the years following the war, production had shifted to India, and barges moved the bales from the growing regions to the busy seaport.

Beyond the warehouses, there was an extensive open air bazaar that ran parallel to the waterfront. It was crowded with indigenous Indians and a variety of international sailors who spoke a number of different languages. We walked by stalls where merchants sold bulk foodstuffs such as lentils, barley, and rice. There were also fresh vegetables and live sheep for sale.

We paused for a moment to watch two Portuguese sailors haggle with an Indian over the price of a lamb. It was amusing because the bargaining was rather heated, and it all took place in sign language. Neither side could understand a word of what the other side was saying, and the sailors became annoyed when the Vaishya merchant refused to lower his price.

There were street performers further along. A bearded man wearing a blue turban played a droning raga on a stringed instrument called a sitar, and he was accompanied by another who kept the rhythm on a drum known as a tabla. Belly dancers in colorful skirts sashayed about in front of the seated musicians, scantily clad with tiny cymbals on their thumbs and fingers.

The dusty avenue’s main attraction was a sword swallower. A large crowd gathered around as the performer recited what sounded like a lengthy story or poem, it was hard to tell because he spoke in Hindi, a language Molly and I were unfamiliar with. Finally, he concluded his recital, and with a dramatic flourish, he cocked his chin skyward, and gradually consumed the entire length of the fancy silver sword. The crowd was speechless. He concluded his act by swiftly removing the blade from his mouth, and then striking a showman’s pose. Applause and cheering broke out among the gathered onlookers.

We gave a snake charmer and his cobra a wide berth as we continued our trek through the crowded marketplace. A fortune teller claimed he could predict our destinies by reading our palms, and he sat in front of shelves that had incense and spices for sale. In the next stall, a man sold opium and hashish amidst more shelves loaded with hookahs. 

Molly and I were stunned to discover a man and his wife selling a two headed baby. An apparent attempt to profit from a grotesque birth defect, and a reminder that we were visiting a culture far different than our own. Feeling slightly shocked, we continued our walk, and at an admittedly brisker pace.

Bombay was the most densely populated place we had ever visited, and when we ventured a few blocks from the harbor, the city deteriorated into squalid slums. The residents appeared to be ill-fed, and the overwhelming stench of open defecation was enough to make me wretch. There were pigs and cows running wild among the dilapidated shacks, and the vast majority of the people were barefoot, dressed in a style of clothing that could be best described as rags. It appeared that simply bathing was a luxury that many could not afford.

Rebekah told us later that the slum dwellers were the Dalits, or untouchables, and they were in a majority in India’s cities. She said the rigid caste system relegated the Dalits to a life of poverty at birth.

At one point, we were approached by a trio of Indian soldiers. They were sepoys, loyal to the British Raj. The soldiers spoke English, and when we told them we were MEF, they became friendly and advised us to stay near the waterfront. They said we were headed into a dangerous part of the city, and it wasn’t a safe place for visitors from the west.

I was sure that I had never seen so many people packed into one place before. The crowded conditions in London had taken some getting used to, but Bombay was far worse. Molly and I stayed close as we threaded our way through the mobbed streets, and I kept a grip on my wallet after the sepoys told us to watch out for pickpockets.

There were a number of rickshaws for hire, small carriages that were pulled by hand, but it appeared walking was probably faster. We stood out from the crowd because we were taller and better fed, and our western looks made us a target for street hustlers. There were legions of hawkers, con artists, and beggars.

We made it back to the waterfront by sunset, and found a Chinese restaurant within sight of the airship station. There was a prominent sign on the roof of the ramshackle building that said Chao Zeng’s Food & Spirits. The name was written in English, and seeing it in our own language encouraged us to go inside.

Heavily weathered vertical siding made the outside of the building look rundown and neglected, but the inside was clean, and the simple decor appealing. A few of the windows were open, and a pungent onshore breeze tempered the lingering afternoon heat.

The bar was crowded with a variety of international sailors, and it looked as if there was heavy drinking taking place. The dining area was practically empty. We found a quiet table towards the back, and a Chinese waiter named Huang brought us a ceramic pot full of green tea, piping hot and plenty strong.

“Huang left us fortune cookies,” said Molly cracking one of them open. “Let’s see. Mine says, land is always on the mind of a flying bird. Sounds prophetic doesn’t it?”

“For an airship captain, I should say. Let’s see what mine says.” I cracked it open and read it aloud: “A wise stranger from faraway will visit you soon.”

“Well I’m hardly a stranger, but here I am.” I looked up, and was startled to see a man who had appeared out of thin air standing next to our table. It was Winterborne.

“Henry!” exclaimed Molly. “You made it. We were wondering if you would find us.”

Dressed to the nines with a dark red carnation pinned to his lapel, Winterborne eased himself into one of the empty chairs at our table. “I received your telegram and contacted Frédéric Rémi. He would like to see you again, as soon as possible he said, to discuss the walking corpse you described.”

“There’s been more since Molly wrote you,” I said.  “A whole crew of them in central Cairo, and then one on the airship.”

Molly poured more of the tea. “Would you like a spot of tea, Henry? I can ask the server to bring another cup.”

He made a face. “To tell you the truth, hot tea disagrees with my constitution. Instead, would you care to join me in a snort of my famous caramel flavored crab apple whiskey?” He thrust his open palm towards the table top, and a sterling silver tray appeared. We had, of course, seen this particular Winterborne trick before, and the tray bore a dark brown quart bottle and three crystal tumblers.

“If you insist,” said Molly with a small smile.

Huang reappeared and did a double take when he saw Henry and the whiskey tray. “Would you like to order food now? We have fresh fish.”

“Maybe later,” I said, “but let me pay you for the tea.” I began to reach for my wallet.

“Allow me,” said Winterborne. He turned his hand over and opened his palm to reveal a gold coin. “This should cover it quite adequately.” He handed the waiter the coin.

“Yes, sir. I will take this to Mr. Zeng and get you change.” Huang examined the coin fairly wide-eyed. It appeared to be valuable, worth more than a simple pot of tea.

“You may keep the change my good man. Consider it a gratuity for a job well done.”

Happy as a bird with a new song, the waiter hurried off to leave us in peace.

Winterborne opened the bottle and half-filled each of the glasses. He reached inside his tuxedo jacket and produced a tiny jar. “A spoonful of Dr. Helgenberger’s Miracle Perception Powder?”

I was beginning to wonder what would happen if we said no. Did Winterborne’s magic rely on us ingesting the unusual psychoactive substance? I certainly didn’t want to be a spoilsport, nor did Molly, and we both said yes.

“Of course you would,” said Winterborne smiling. He unscrewed the cap on the petite jar, and sank a tiny measuring spoon into the odd looking powder, “Dr. Helgenberger’s unique formula enables us to see, to see the more than one way we can be, or in some cases, the more than one way we already are – it allows us to perceive intra-dimensional consciousness.” He carefully measured a level spoonful for each glass, and as he sprinkled the powder into the whiskey, a tiny plume of purplish-green smoke rose up from each tumbler.

Molly took a sip of the dangerous looking concoction. “So how did you become acquainted with Duke Archambeau?”

“He sought me out in Dunkwell a few years back. Wandered up to my clock shop much like you and Bertram.”

“He sought you out because of your magic?”

“Yes, he became aware of my unusual abilities, and he tracked me down to form an alliance. He was concerned that De Vreese might get to me first.”

“Did he tell you who he was when you first met? That he was a super intelligent alien life form?”

“Yes.”

“And you took him at his word?”

“Well, I’ll admit to having my doubts, but when he gave me a demonstration of his extraordinary abilities, I was quickly convinced.”

“It’s hard to understand how an illusion can seem so real, and I wonder what he looks like in his true form.”

“I think, as Frédéric Rémi explained it, in his true form, he would be beyond our comprehension.” Winterborne paused to stir his whiskey with the measuring spoon. He took a sip and continued: “When you look up at the stars at night, Molly, do you ever wonder how many other worlds there might be out there?”

“Yes, I’ve thought about it quite a bit, and more so since our first meeting with the duke.”

“To think we’re the only intelligent life in the universe seems awfully narrow minded to me, and it would also seem naive to think we’re the most advanced. If it’s true that man evolved from the apes as Darwin wrote, it would occur to me that we haven’t evolved that far. Even with our steam locomotives and hydrogen powered airships, we’re still quite primitive in our behavior.”

“I see what you’re saying, and I shall say I must agree.”

“Let’s go have a few words with Frédéric Rémi. I think he’s waiting for us to join him.” Winterborne picked up his fancy walking stick, and lightly tapped the brim of his tall top hat with the handle. “Alright now, both of you, close your eyes and count along with me … one … two … three … now open your eyes.”

We found ourselves still sitting at a table with Winterborne, but the location had changed. I immediately noticed that the air was more humid. It was warmer too, an oppressive sticky heat, similar to the climate at the military base on Kilimanjaro.

The interior finish of the room was much more luxurious than the waterfront Chinese restaurant we had just left. It was furnished as a study, with expensive looking woodwork, well stocked bookcases, and original paintings on the walls. Looking through the large picture windows, I noticed it was much greener than Bombay had been too. Palm trees surrounded an elegant fountain, and an East Asian man dressed in all white was working in one of the colorful flower gardens. There was a prominent statue of a sitting Buddha at the edge of the fountain.

Duke Archambeau was seated across the table from us, with his back to one of the picture windows, “Molly and Bertram, it’s wonderful to see you again my friends.” He was dressed more casually than the last time we had met.

Doucet was cat napping on a braided oval rug, and when he saw Molly appear, he sprang to his feet. Wagging his tail, the droopy eared basset hound waddled over to her chair, and began to pant heavily in the sticky heat. She reached down to pet him on his head. “Where are we? This couldn’t be Paris in January.”

“No, not Paris. We’re in Saigon, the capital of French Indochina. You’ll be passing over this part of Southeast Asia in your airship in another few days. Oh, and by the way, congratulations on your promotion to captain.”

“Thank you.”

“Henry told me about the demon you encountered in the Red Pyramid.”

“There’s been more of them since Molly sent the telegram,” I said. “A whole gang of them attacked us in an alley in Cairo, and then another appeared on the Fiery Crimson Messenger.”

“Henchmen of De Vreese. He knows that I’ve contacted you.”

“The demons, as you called them, all carried swords, and were dressed like they came from medieval times.”

“Yes, they came from the construct.”

I had never heard the word before, and I wasn’t sure what he meant. “What do you mean by that – the construct?

“Let me show you.” Archambeau rose up from his chair and motioned with his hand for us to follow. He led us to a tall door. He opened it, and one by one, we all walked through the doorway. First Archambeau, then Molly and I, and finally Winterborne, with Doucet trailing close behind.

As each of us walked through the doorway, the setting changed once again – or at least our perception of the setting changed once again. We were outdoors now, on a balcony surrounded by low walls built from stone. We were high atop a balcony on a castle, and not only had our surroundings changed, but also our clothing.

My bricky girlfriend wore a multi-layered tunic, and in her wimple hat, she looked like she could have been a catholic nun! I had on an exceptionally billowy sort of short pants that stopped above the knee, and below, a pair of bright purple stockings that made me feel exceptionally strange. On my belt, I wore a leather scabbard that carried a long sword.

Winterborne was dressed as a wizard, in a black robe and an odd conical hat, and Archambeau as royalty, in colorful multi-layered robes, with a gold festoon draped around his neck.

There was a tremendous view from the high balcony, and we could see thick broadleaf forest and a wide muddy river below.  It looked like summertime in Western Europe. A farmer’s plow drawn by two oxen was working in a field beyond a moat with a drawbridge, and in the distance, there were two more castles and a village visible upstream.

“Where are we now?” said Molly.

“This is precisely how my estate in France appeared in the year 800 AD. On the day that Charlemagne was crowned Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, this is what it looked like in Courbevoie.”

“Then we’ve traveled back in time?”

“No, this is a construct, or alternate reality.”

“Where did it come from?”

“I created it. The construct is a playing field of sorts, and I’ve used it to lure Baron De Vreese into my game. Let me explain – you could look at our conflict as a chess match, but on a much larger scale. There’s an element of sport in our rivalry, and fighting in a world with primitive technology will make the battle for control of your planet far more intriguing.”

“So if you fight De Vreese here in the construct, you’ll be limited to the weaponry of 800 AD?”

“A good question, Bertram, and the answer is not quite. Look at the construct as a canvas with the background already painted in. The details of the painting will be up to the individual artist, and there will be an element of one-upmanship in the conflict. If I were to say, introduce an automated battery of cannons from the 1880s.”

Archambeau walked to a raised semi-circle of stone that created a shield of sorts. Within it there was a secondary layer of iron, and protruding from the flagstone deck, an array of metal levers. As he worked the levers with both hands, I heard the groaning sound of mechanical apparatus springing to life. A number of concealed doors on the tall walls of the castle dropped open, and the barrels of cannons popped out through the openings – rows of them at a number of locations to our left and right.

“So in our hypothetical scenario I’ve decided to add futuristic weapons to the medieval construct. Seeing what I’ve done, De Vreese might counter with-” He thrust his right arm towards the sky with a dramatic flourish. “A trio of giant bats.”

The sky suddenly turned black as night, and three giant bats appeared, flying low along the river. In the distance, I could see field hands running for cover. It was a terrifying perspective, and the lead bat swooped down and scooped up one of the fleeing workers in its claws.

I could see flashes of lightning and hear the rumble of thunder as dark thunderstorms blew up all around us, much faster than one might normally expect. If the scene was an illusion, it was a convincing one.

“Let’s step back inside before the rain starts,” said an unworried Archambeau.

On the construct side, the door appeared more primitive, built from rough vertical planks with a heavy iron ring for a handle. As we followed Archambeau through the doorway, we found ourselves back at the duke’s villa in Saigon, and the passageway had returned to its previous form, a finely crafted panel door built from an expensive bird’s eye maple.

Molly spoke up, “So you want us to help you defeat De Vreese?”

“I was hoping you would agree to it, yes.”

“Can we see what you look like in your real form?”

“Impossible. My true physical form is beyond your comprehension. Your view is too limited.”

The notion that Archambeau’s human form was an illusion was difficult to fathom. As difficult to understand as der Wasserwolfe’s shadowy existence. If the aqua wolves were an illusion, then how could they become killers in the real world?

“One of the ghouls in Cairo cut Johnny Moonblade with its sword,” I said, “and the wound drew blood. If the walking corpse was only an illusion, how could its sword draw blood?”

“Because once Moonblade perceived the illusion, he was part of the illusion you might say. There’s more than one plane of reality in the universe, and more than one way to perceive reality. As a human being, your ability to perceive any plane of existence beyond your own is hindered by your earthly physical form, and your presence at a single point in time. When a more advanced life form draws you into an alternate reality, then you become a part of that alternate reality. And there is in fact, more than one reality in the universe.”

“I’m not sure I’m even capable of understanding what you’re saying, but let me ask you this – if I die in the construct, do I die in the real world?”

“In your real world? The answer is yes. Your ability to survive in any construct is limited by the mortal constraints of your own existence here on earth.”

“How can we help you to defeat De Vreese?” said Molly.

“Continue on with your journey, and as I said before, I will contact you when you return to the Western Territory.”

Winterborne had been conspicuously silent. Perhaps he felt it better to let Archambeau do the talking. Molly turned to him. “We were about to order dinner. Will you return to Bombay with us, Henry?”

“Actually, I’m already partway home, but I thank you for the offer, my dear, and I will look forward to seeing you back in Dunkwell Heights at some point in the future. So now let me return you to the same time and place where I found you. Close your eyes and count along with me … one … two … three …”

When Molly and I reopened our eyes, we were seated at the same table at Chao Zeng’s. There was a fresh pot of green tea on the table with two new cups.

Huang sauntered up to our table smiling broadly. “Mr. Winterborne said you would be returning soon, and he asked me to bring you menus and a fresh pot of tea.” He produced the gold coin Henry had given him, and he used his thumb to flip it high in the air.

To Be Continued …

 

©2020 Surreal Science Fiction

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