(From the papers of John Watson, M.D.; transcribed)
by Patricia Bow
On glancing over my notes of the scores of cases in which my friend Mr. Sherlock Holmes has been involved, I find many that were out of the common run of things. Some few might even be described as bordering on the fantastic. If, however, I were pressed to name the one case which presented the most singular features, I would after the briefest consideration choose the adventure of the Captive Sleuths.
The events in question occurred in November of the year '97. They began tamely enough, but before they were concluded Holmes and I had made odder acquaintances, and travelled farther from home, than we had ever done before, or might reasonably expect to do in future.
It was late on a dark, foggy November afternoon that I stood looking out into Baker Street, on the alert for Holmes's return. I glanced at my watch -- not for the first time that hour -- and wished that he would soon conclude his business and come home, since I was eager to have my tea. At this moment Mrs. Hudson tapped at the sitting room door and entered. "Two visitors for you, sir. A young lady and a gentleman."
"Clients for Holmes, no doubt. Very well, Mrs. Hudson. Show them up: I will entertain them until he comes."
When the two visitors were seated by the fire, I apologized for Holmes's tardiness.
"Quite all right," said the gentleman agreeably. "We were not expected. As a matter of fact, we weren't really hoping to find Mr. Holmes in. It was you we came to see, Dr. Watson."
"Then pray tell me how I may be of service," I replied, surprised but not at all displeased at the chance to act as substitute for the eminent detective. Here was a rare opportunity for me to demonstrate my own abilities as a sleuth, which I venture to say are not inconsiderable.
"First, let me introduce my adopted daughter, Fayette Calonne. I prefer to be known simply as the Doctor."
I nodded, intrigued but not unduly so. This discretion on my visitor's part was not uncommon among Holmes's clients, among whom have numbered some of the noblest personages in the land.
The Doctor was a man somewhere in his thirties, tall, lean and dark-haired, with clear-cut features. Indeed, he bore a slight resemblance to my noted associate, a likeness that was intensified by his faint air of benign remoteness and the incisive glance of clear grey eyes. He was dressed in dark clothes of an unusual but subdued cut. From this I deduced -- I was attempting to duplicate Holmes's methods -- that the Doctor was a visitor from overseas, possibly from one of the Dominions. Try as I might, though, I utterly failed to place his accent.
Far more striking, to my eye, was the appearance of Miss Calonne. She was of the tall, graceful and spirited type which I most admire. Like her father she was dark, and like him her dress suggested the eccentric, consisting of a simple, almost antique white gown beneath a flowing cloak. I surmised that she was no native to bustling, grimy London, an impression born out by her unaffected manners and look of glowing health. I would have guessed that she had been raised in some remote outpost of civilization, but that her confident and polished bearing was that of the well-travelled cosmopolitan lady, not the provincial Miss.
"I am one of your admirers, Dr. Watson," she said with a pretty smile, after I had greeted her. "I have read, I think, every one of Mr. Holmes's cases, as recorded by you." I noted that her English, though excellent, still bore the imprint of her French heritage. The effect was charming.
"Surely you mean you are an admirer of Holmes," I returned: for such is generally the truth.
"Not at all. Where would Holmes be without his Watson? I am surprised, though, to find you seem such a young man. I had thought you were older."
"You are not alone, Miss Calonne. Strangers often expect me to be an old duffer. I suppose it is a natural assumption, since all they know of me is that I am a retired army surgeon. But in fact I retired due to wounds at age 32 and I'm now barely in my mid-forties. And now," I added, "how may I be of service?"
A silence fell upon us. The Doctor hemmed once or twice, apparently at a loss for words. This matter which he wished to broach must, I thought, be an exceedingly delicate one. As he paused, Miss Calonne broke in brightly. "We have lost -- "
"We fear," the Doctor smoothly cut her off. "That is, we're afraid we have been the cause of Mr. Holmes becoming lost."
"Lost? Holmes?" I gazed at them in astonishment. I could hardly imagine Holmes becoming lost in any corner of the globe, much less his own well-trodden and thoroughly familiar London. Then another possible meaning of the word "lost" occurred to me and I felt myself growing pale. "You do not mean he is dead!"
"Mais non!" the lady cried.
"At least, not so far as we know," the Doctor added.
"Not so far as you know?" I gazed from one face to the other, unable to disguise my bewilderment and dismay. "I beg you, tell me what you mean!"
"I see," the Doctor said, "that I'd better begin at the beginning."
"Please do so without delay!"
"It happened while Fayette and I were in conversation with Mr. Holmes on the Strand. You see, we're on a flying visit to dear old London, 1897 - " (This I thought at the time merely an odd turn of phrase. I was soon to discover how odd.) " - and I happened to recognize the famous detective. He was kind enough to let us make his acquaintance and spare us a few minutes of his time. It was while we were discussing the recent case known as the Reigate Puzzle, that Mr. Holmes was -- er -- abducted."
At this I sprang up and went to the table where I kept my old army revolver in a drawer. "You must take me to the place. Surely they can't have gone far!" As I snatched up the revolver I was mentally scanning a list of possible assailants. "Professor Moriarty and Colonel Moran are both long gone, but London swarms with villains who harbour a vengeful resentment against Holmes."
"Better put the gun back, Watson. I doubt it'll be much use. I don't think the abductor was a local man. Certainly he wasn't native to this time..." The Doctor delivered this last sentence in a musing tone, as if to himself. It was a strange thing to say, indeed almost nonsensical, and I began to think this visitor very fishy indeed.
"Well, then!" He suddenly rose energetically from his chair. "It's time for action. No, Watson, you needn't disturb yourself. Fayette and I will handle the matter."
"But surely -- "
"No, the obligation is mine. I feel that since I failed to prevent the abduction, I ought to put things right. Besides," he added with a peculiar smile, "I'm probably the only man in London -- at the moment -- who can do it."
He would not explain himself further. "At least," said I, "you might tell me what you propose to do!"
"We will track him, using a very special hound. All we need is some of his DNA."
This term was so much Greek to me. "What do you mean?"
But the Doctor was roving about the room, and appeared not to have heard me. Suddenly he cried, "Aha!" and, pouncing on the pipe-rack, abstracted Holmes's favourite cherrywood pipe. "The very thing!"
Miss Calonne had risen from her chair to join him. "But, Papa! A pipe is wood, not DNA."
"Yes, but Holmes often used this pipe, and all we need from him is a molecule or two."
It occurred to me then to wonder how the Doctor, certainly a stranger to this household, knew so much about Holmes's domestic habits. Cautiously, I only observed that this hound of his must have a very keen nose.
"It certainly does." His eyes twinkled as he glanced at me, though whether in amusement, malice or benevolence I could not say. "Take it easy, Watson. We'll have him home in no time, if not sooner. Tell Mrs. Hudson she can start setting out the tea things!"
My visitors then took their departure so briskly that I knew I had been purposely shaken off. I had to wonder now if these two were enemies rather than allies, and whether all their talk of rescuing Sherlock Holmes had been a sham. What purpose such a fabrication might serve, I could not begin to guess; but there was a mysterious air about the Doctor which made me look upon him with suspicion. I found it more difficult, though, to cast the delightful Miss Calonne in the role of villainess.
Of course I had no intention of kicking my heels by the fire till my visitors returned. I waited a few minutes, long enough to give them a short lead. Then I pocketed my revolver, ran down the stairs and emerged into the foggy dusk, in time to see the oddly garbed pair turn the corner of Baker Street.
They kept up a brisk but not hectic pace, and gave no sign that they were aware of any pursuit. A moist and murky night drew in as I followed. Presently I found myself in a seedy district of immense, looming, unlit warehouses, interspersed with gin-shops of the vilest sort, like scabs upon a filthy body. By this time I was certain they were far from the respectable citizens they pretended to be, since I could think of no good reason for a gentleman to bring a young lady to such a neighbourhood as this.
By the light of a guttering gas lamp, I watched them turn into a narrow lane. A moment later I had gained that same corner and peered around it. The lamplight was yellow and fitful, and at first I saw nothing but brick walls shining black with soot and drizzle. Then, as my sight penetrated to the rear of this blind alley, I spotted my quarry, splashing through puddles across the uneven cobbles.
Against the rear wall stood a tall blue closet-like affair which was like nothing I had seen before, though it bore some resemblance to the old type of London watch box, as well as to the new police boxes which had recently been introduced from America. Staring in amazement, I saw them pass, the lady first, through the door of this remarkable object.
Why a police box -- if that indeed was what it was -- should be standing at the end of this dismal alley, was a mystery. At the moment I had no time to spare for speculation. However, an idea did spring to my mind, suggested by Holmes's accounts of his forays into London's criminal underworld. I guessed that the anomalous blue box was a false front, a disguised entry to some secret warren, and that the Doctor and his adopted daughter were members of an organization devoted to crime.
Swiftly I reached the spot, pulled open the door and slipped inside.
It was as I suspected. After one or two turns I found myself in a large, irregularly shaped chamber which must have been fashioned out of the bowels of the warehouse behind the box. Some of its furnishings were ordinary enough: a leather-covered wing chair, a hat stand draped with hats and coats, and a sofa upholstered in shabby brown brocade. Piles of books, papers and other unidentifiable objects lurked in the dimmer corners.
But there the commonplace ended and the extraordinary began. The walls of this immense room were pale and glowing, and formed of hundreds of sunken discs. Pieces of complex machinery stood about, the purpose of which I could not begin to guess. The most striking piece occupied the centre of the room. It was an hexagonal-shaped structure which flashed and twinkled with small lights and the movement of glass and metal dials, evidently a marvel of modern science put to the most nefarious uses.
My surroundings mystified me, but they told me one thing with certainty: that I had stumbled on no ordinary thieves' den. Rather I found myself at the hub of some powerful organization such as Moriarty himself might have commanded.
When I first slipped into this amazing room, I found it deserted. Then, hearing a voice which rapidly grew louder, as if the speaker were walking toward me, I cast about feverishly for a hiding place. It went against my grain not to confront the criminal on the spot, but prudence advised me to wait for a better understanding of the situation before acting. I darted behind the shabby sofa and crouched down just as the Doctor and Miss Calonne walked into the room from some inner corridor.
From this vantage point I watched, fascinated, as the Doctor busied himself about the central structure. A glassy cylinder rose from the machine's core and began a steady up-and-down motion, accompanied by a peculiar mechanical groaning sound.
As I gazed I speculated on the purpose of the thing. I had got so far as to conclude it must be for some form of illegal manufacture, and the machine must be a sort of press, when a sharp, shrill whistling erupted from it.
"Intruder alert?" said the Doctor in a surprised tone. "That hasn't happened in a while."
"Intruder!" Miss Calonne sounded nervous. "But where is this person? I see nobody."
"Umm... let's see. Should be... " Footsteps sounded close to my hiding place. "Right here," said the Doctor. Looking up, I saw his face gazing down at me over the back of the sofa. I stood up at once, determined to keep his advantage to the minimum.
To my surprise he produced no weapon and made no aggressive move. He did not even look angry. A brief, startled widening of the eyes, then he sighed. "I should have known," he muttered.
"Oui, we should have known!" Miss Calonne came up beside us, linked her arm in mine and smiled up at me in an impish yet friendly manner which went far to set my mind at ease. "Doctor Watson might often be baffled, but he is like a bloodhound once he is on the scent! You shadowed us here, did you not?"
"Can you blame me?" I returned. "Forgive me, Miss Calonne, but I do not trust you -- you or your companion! I owed it to Holmes to see what you were up to, and stop you if I could. And I still mean to!"
She bit her lip at this speech, then shrugged. With a slight pressure of her slim fingers on my sleeve she urged me to sit beside her on the sofa. "Tell him," said she, turning grave eyes up at the Doctor. "He will not be put off, that is easy to see."
"Yes," I seconded her decidedly. "Whatever it is you're doing, whether for ill or good, I must know!"
The Doctor shook his head. "He won't believe it even if I do tell the truth," he said to his daughter. "And if he does believe it, the result will amount to time-meddling. We can't risk it."
"But someone else has already badly meddled with time, Papa. Is that not so?"
"True," he said reluctantly.
"And if we are to put things right we must do it as quickly as possible, oui?"
"So! To move quickly, now that Watson is here, we must have him on our side, not against us. Unless you want to lock him up!" Here she gave him a stern look.
I held my breath through this exchange. Why Miss Calonne should have appointed herself my champion I could not fathom, but it was to my advantage to discover as much of the truth as possible. I watched the Doctor narrowly. He paced a moment, evidently debating the matter in his own mind. Then he swung around with a smile.
"You're right, Fayette. Watson's a shrewd fellow with a lot of common sense, and we could probably use his help. I just hope he's capable of listening with an open mind."
"I am listening," I said calmly. "Please proceed."
"Very well." The Doctor resumed his slow pacing back and forth. "First of all, Watson, that police box you saw outside is not a police box at all."
"I thought as much."
"Please don't interrupt: hear me out. It is a vessel called a TARDIS, designed to travel through time and space." At this he paused and cocked an appraising eye at me.
The notion of a time-travelling machine was not new to me. Mr. H.G. Wells had described such a device two years previously. However, like most of his readers I had placed little credence in the tale, and I was prepared to be equally skeptical in the present case. "Pray continue," I said, as dryly as possible.
"Well, to get to the point: Holmes has been abducted by someone who must also be a time traveller. The person was certainly not of this time, because he was dressed in a style which will become fashionable only in another three centuries, and on another planet. Also, the trap used to abduct Holmes was some sort of force field chamber, resembling a large glass box. And you don't have force fields here on Earth, yet."
Again he stopped and waited for my reaction. I did my best to remain impassive, as I now feared I was shut in with a lunatic, or possibly two lunatics. After a moment he went on: "I intend to locate Holmes using a new tracking program -- a program I myself recently devised. I shall trace him through time and space using the spoor of his DNA, his unique organic makeup. In fact," he said with growing enthusiasm, "we are at this moment hurtling through the cosmos, hot on the trail of the missing sleuth, and soon..." (Here he crossed the room to the central machine, where he inspected a screen filled with streaming figures.) "Yes, very soon we will be landing smack-dab in the right spot."
He turned and shot a triumphant look at Miss Calonne, who returned a tolerant smile. "I hope so, Papa." From this I gathered that, whatever might be the enterprise which engaged them, the Doctor's efforts had not always met with unqualified success.
The Doctor looked at me, then, and must have observed some trace of expression on my face, for he grimaced wryly. "Watson doesn't believe a word of it, I see."
"You will grant," said I, rising to my feet, "that this talk of 'hurtling through the cosmos' is hardly convincing. The floor is motionless under us: I feel no pitching, no vibration. In fact, I cannot feel that we are other than solidly at rest -- which indeed is no more than one would expect of a well-founded London warehouse!"
The last word had barely left my lips when, as if to give me the lie, the room began to shudder and jolt around me, nearly throwing me off my feet. At the same time a nauseating sensation flowed through me, which I could liken only to what a mould of aspic might feel while being squashed between two plates, and then permitted to rebound into its proper shape.
The Doctor muttered curses, and clutched at the central machine to keep his balance. Miss Calonne cried out and lurched against me, and would have fallen had I not supported her. Within moments, fortunately, the sickening sensation had passed and the floor lay quietly beneath us as before.
"What happened?" gasped Miss Calonne.
"An earthquake, perhaps," I offered, unlikely as that seemed. But I could think of no better explanation.
The Doctor was busy at his machine, where the instruments were whirling, beeping and flickering as if in a frenzy. He darted to and fro adjusting them, and after a few moments they calmed down. "More like a spacequake," he retorted over his shoulder. "We've just passed through a dimensional shift, something I hadn't been expecting. I'll have to work out a method of forewarning if I'm going to use this program again."
"Dimensional quoi?" inquired Miss Calonne, having regained her poise.
"A barrier between one dimension -- or universe -- and another. In other words, we've not only travelled in time and space, we've also passed into an alternate universe. The big question is, which one?"
This wild talk of alternate universes further confirmed me in my conviction that the Doctor was mentally unhinged. Undoubtedly he was a man of some learning, but his science appeared to be of the most unsound and even fantastic variety. However, I no longer suspected him of being a criminal. It seemed wisest to appear accepting of whatever he might say, especially as his daughter was listening to him with every appearance of serious attention.
"Papa," she said now, reproachfully, "have you any idea where we are?"
"Not the slightest, but we'll soon find out." He peered at a dial. "There, that's encouraging! At least the atmosphere is breathable, and there seems to be nothing that will kill us out there, not right outside, anyway. The scanner doesn't help much, I'm afraid." He indicated a blank grey screen.
"Papa, you have landed us up against a wall again!"
"We'll see. Ready, Watson?"
"Certainly," I replied, though I had no idea what he meant. He gave me a smile, which seemed to convey that he knew more of my thoughts and feelings than I had intended to reveal. Then he led the way toward the door by which we had entered.
"Ah!" he said in a tone of satisfaction, as he pushed open the door. "I didn't navigate so badly after all. There's just enough clearance. And, yes, the tracking program worked!" I heard his voice now from outside. "Mr. Holmes, I am glad to find you unharmed."
Knowing Holmes's resourcefulness, it would not have surprised me in the least to find him waiting for us in the blind alley outside the warehouse. As I stepped out the door after Miss Calonne, I fully expected to smell the river fog and feel cobbles under my boot soles. Despite the Doctor's ramblings about alternate universes and time travel, I was not prepared for what did meet my eyes, and at first I could only stand and stare.
We were not in the alley outside the warehouse. We were in a small room, grey and featureless but for the outline of a narrow door without a handle. The only furniture was a cot attached to one wall, where Holmes had just invited Miss Calonne to take a seat. He then sat down at her side, for there was barely enough space for the four of us to stand on the floor.
Now I began to wonder if perhaps I, not the Doctor, was insane. The most disconcerting element was that the greater part of the cell was occupied by the blue police box which I had thought was the disguised entry to a criminal warren.
I found that I could now walk all around the box, though on two sides there was very little space between it and the cell wall. Nevertheless, there could be no doubt. The police box was free standing, and there was no door in the back.
But how could it be possible that that huge room, with its furniture and machines, should be enclosed in this small structure barely half the size of the wardrobe in my bedroom in Baker Street? I took hold of the door, meaning to go back inside and make sure of where I had been. Then I hesitated and at last decided not to put myself to the test. I was not prepared to deal with what I might find in there.
"Well, Watson! Not even a word of greeting?"
The crisp, rather strident voice of Sherlock Holmes recalled me to myself. I leaned across the Doctor to shake my friend's hand, at the same time running my gaze over his face and person. He did appear to be unhurt, though I detected a pallor and strain in his aquiline face which had not been there when he left our quarters that morning.
He was evidently not in a cheerful mood. "It amazes me, Watson," he said caustically, "that in our long association you should have learned so little of the science of detection."
"I beg your pardon?"
"You may well do so! Were our positions reversed, and were in charge of an investigation to determine your whereabouts, I doubt very much that it would take me all of five days to effect a rescue!"
"Five days! But my dear Holmes, you've been gone no more than an hour or so."
Now it was his turn to stare. "Oh, come!" he said at last. "You are joking!"
"Non, it is true," Miss Calonne put in. "I am sure it has been not quite two hours since we spoke with you on the Strand."
"Have you any clear memory of your abduction?" the Doctor asked. "Who did it, and why?"
Holmes placed his fingertips together and tapped them gently against his pursed lips, as was his wont when in deep thought. Finally he shook his head. "I recall nothing of what occurred after our conversation, until I found myself in this cell. I assumed I had been drugged; and," (here he gave the Doctor a penetrating glance) "it seemed reasonable to assume as well that you, Doctor, had been the agent."
"I assure you, I had nothing to do with it."
"I am inclined to believe you. If indeed you were the kidnapper, you would have had no good reason for seeking out Watson, here."
"But what," I asked, "makes you think you've been away five days?"
"In this place it is impossible to be sure of exactly how much time has passed. Each hour wears away as tediously as the next or the one before. However, I have been obliged to sleep at least four times despite my efforts to stay alert. And just as telling, my watch, which you know is perfectly regulated, has run down and had to be rewound five times."
"So, in this universe," the Doctor said, "time moves quite a bit faster than in your own. Interesting! Oh, and by the way... " He reached into a pocket of his coat. "I thought you might like to have this." He placed the cherrywood pipe in Holmes's hands.
"Ah! I thank you. Yes, I have missed it sorely." As he lit up, Holmes watched the Doctor keenly across the bowl of the pipe. "You did say, 'in this universe,' did you not? With how many universes are you familiar?"
The Doctor sighed, then launched into his speech about time travel and dimensional shifts. Holmes's eyebrows rose as he listened. His immense intellect, of course, was as always proof against astonishment. At the end of the Doctor's discourse he pondered a moment, blew out a ring of smoke (to Miss Calonne's evident amusement) and nodded.
"I confess, even before your arrival I had begun to suspect I was very far from London, anno domini 1897."
"How can you be so cool about it?" I demanded.
He shrugged. "You have heard me say it before, have you not? When one has eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. And there is no point in protesting against the truth."
"And you have no idea why you were taken?" asked Miss Calonne.
"On the contrary, I know perfectly well why I was taken." Holmes scowled. "I have been confined by some hack publisher who has demanded the contents of my memory as the price of my freedom."
"Your memory!" I exclaimed.
"I have been ordered to dictate my professional memoirs to that devilish object." He pointed to a small black cube which sat on the floor in a corner, and which until that moment I had overlooked. I picked it up and turned it over in my fingers, puzzled as to its purpose. It might have been a child's building-block, except that it was metallic, and colored an unrelieved black.
"Why do you call it devilish?" I asked. "It seems quite harmless."
"That appearance is deceptive. It has been the source of endless irritation to me!" Holmes took the cube from my hand and angrily hurled it against the side of the police box. It fell to the floor. Then, with a mechanical beep it began to jiggle and vibrate, and a voice issued from it.
"Give it up, Sherlock. The transmitter is indestructible, so you might as well stop trying to mangle it. Have you seen reason yet?"
Now it was evident that the cube was a sort of microphone or telephone, though it resembled no device of which I had heard, no matter how advanced. But there was no ambiguity about the role of the speaker. I opened my mouth to demand Holmes's release in the most vigorous terms, when the Doctor touched my sleeve and silently held a finger to his lips.
I saw his meaning. The speaker was unaware Holmes was not alone in his cell and it was to our advantage to keep the enemy in ignorance. We all, except Holmes, kept very still.
"I would return the question," Holmes snapped, "were I not certain that you are incapable of reason."
"Now, now." The cube adopted a soothing tone. "Aren't you supposed to be a man of cold, clear logic? I know -- we both know -- that you solved many more cases than the few dozen Watson published. All I want is the details of those unrecorded cases, and then you'll be free to go. Where's the problem?"
"You may save your breath, sir, to cool your porridge. I do no business with blackguards."
The cube emitted a snarl. "Listen, Buster, you better change that attitude. Are you going to deal or not?"
Holmes smiled coldly. "I'll see you in perdition first!"
"Make yourself at home, then, because you're going to be in that cell a long, long time." The cube emitted a loud, angry-sounding beep and stopped vibrating. Almost immediately it beeped again and added, "One more thing. Exercise period has started, so I want you to go out there and mingle with the others. I suggest you have a word with Dupin. He's already seen the light and he'll soon be on his way home."
The box uttered another beep and fell still. We watched it a moment. Then Miss Calonne rose from the cot, stepped to the police box and put her hand to its door. "Now we can leave," she said in evident relief.
But to our collective dismay, Holmes shook his head. "We shall leave, by all means, but not yet. We must first secure the release of the others."
"How many others are there?" asked the Doctor.
"I estimate that there are thousands."
"Thousands!" cried Miss Calonne. Her dark eyes flashed with horror. "Thousands like you, kidnapped from their own worlds? But how can we rescue them all?"
"That we have yet to discover. But it must and will be done!" Holmes's features sharpened to their most hawk-like.
"Hm," said the Doctor in a dubious tone. "What's this about an exercise period?"
"From time to time the prisoners are all sent out of their cells and into a large open yard, ostensibly for the taking of fresh air and exercise, but really, I suspect, to encourage them to betray themselves through rash talk. You will see what I mean in a moment."
The cell door sprang open as he spoke. One by one, with Holmes in the lead and the Doctor in the rear, we passed out into a smooth-walled grey corridor. As soon as the Doctor had crossed the threshold, the door clashed to behind us like the snap of a mastiff's jaws.
Miss Calonne looked back regretfully, and with a trace of fear. I understood her dread and could share it. We were cut off from the Doctor's time-travel machine, and through it from all that was safe, familiar and homelike. Now we faced the unknown.
I gave her a smile which I meant to be encouraging. "Don't worry," I whispered, "I will see no harm comes to you." But underneath my brave front I felt a quaver of fear such as I had never felt in my life before, not even in the Afghan campaign. I suspected at once that Miss Calonne was not deceived, for the twinkle in her eye as she thanked me was quite distinct.
This prison was a bleak, soulless place. The corridor walls, the colour and texture of steel, were broken only by identical rectangular cracks, outlining knobless doors like the one by which we had just emerged. This grey slot stretched off into such a distance that its farthest reaches were lost in a haze of shadows.
We were alone. Besides ourselves we saw no-one, neither guards nor inmates. The only sounds we heard were the echoes of our own footsteps and, beyond those, an almost imperceptible, all-pervasive soughing whisper, like the sound one hears when a sea-shell is held to the ear. I gradually absorbed the impression that I and my companions walked through a structure that was unimaginably vast and of a soul-deadening regularity: a beehive built for humanity. I would not have been surprised to learn that a thousand other corridors exactly like this one lay about us on all sides.
Then, at last, at the end of the corridor we glimpsed a sudden prick of light, not yellow-white like daylight but only a brighter greyness. A door had swung open. As we approached, a murmurous clamour of many voices came to our ears and grew in volume until we emerged from the door.
Beside me, Miss Calonne checked and breathed, "Sacre ciel!" Wordlessly, I agreed with her.
It was a scene which even Piranesi never captured in his pictures of vast, looming and fantastic palaces. The exercise yard was in fact a vaulted room rather than a yard, but a room so large that St. Paul's, with its great dome, would have seemed a dollhouse in it. I could not discern the opposite wall. When I looked up, searching for a glimpse of sky, I saw vapours drifting like clouds high overhead. Yet they were not natural clouds, for above them, barely to be seen, arched the buttresses of a far-off ceiling.
Such a structure should have been magnificent. But the place was so grim, so swathed in ash-grey hazes, and loomed so menacingly about us, that the mood it inspired was rather one of despair.
Here at least we were not alone. Thousands of men and women, but mostly men -- some in contemporary European costume, others outlandishly garbed -- walked disconsolately about the yard, or stood in pairs or clusters, murmuring together, occasionally disputing or gesticulating. The general mood was depressed rather than animated. Few of the prisoners had retained enough curiosity to do more than give us a passing glance.
Gazing at this scene, I could easily believe I was dreaming, or suffering some hallucination... except that I could never have drawn from my own imagination, no matter how fevered, the sight which confronted me. For among the thousands of figures were some which could never have been described as human.
One of these now ambled past. It walked upright on its hind legs like a man, while two clawed appendages which might have been arms were clasped behind its massive reptilian back. A ferociously fanged head hung low between spurred and armoured shoulders. Yet as I gazed in amazement and not a little fear, it struck me that despite its brutal appearance, the creature conveyed, more than anything else, an air of gentle melancholy.
The Doctor drew in a quick breath of astonishment and uttered a word which sounded like, Mhryrragth!" (I cannot hope to duplicate the actual sound.) The effect on the reptile was instantaneous. Its head swung around, it stopped short, gasped and took a step back.
"Doctor! Not you too!" it cried, in a rather high but pleasant and well-modulated voice, much at odds with its appearance. The accent was pure Oxford.
"Not exactly, Mhryrragth. Not if you mean, have I been kidnapped. No, I came here of my own accord. Let me introduce you to my friends. First, my adopted daughter."
As Miss Calonne placed her small hand within the scaly paw of the monster, I admired her as much as I have any woman of my acquaintance. Only the slightest tremor in her voice betrayed the fact that she was not entirely at her ease. When my turn arrived, I hope I played my role as well, for it was truly disconcerting to gaze up into those yellow, slit-pupilled eyes and watch those razor-sharp fangs exposed in what must be meant for a cordial smile.
The monster, it developed, was Detective Chief Inspector Mhryrragth of Vgethh, on Eridani 2, well known to the Doctor as the hero of a long string of dramatic criminal investigations. He (for despite all he is a gentleman, and I cannot continue to call him "it") pursued post-graduate studies in criminology at Oxford, or will have done so at some time far beyond my future, in some other but similar universe.
"I was abducted six weeks ago," he said, "only to find that my captor will not free me until he has rifled my memory."
"Six weeks!" Holmes exclaimed with dismay. "I have been here only five days, and already it seems an eternity! How have you held out so long?"
"I credit a stubborn streak in my nature. The fellow wants to grow rich on the fruit of my labours, and that offends me. It has become a matter of self respect, not to give in. Mind you, I have observed many other arrivals -- and departures -- over the weeks. Too many have succumbed, too quickly."
Mhryrragth turned and waved his clawed paw in this and that direction, pointing out some who had resisted the exploiter. The Doctor uttered an "Ah!" of recognition. "Look, it's Dupin!"
"Yes," said Mhryrragth very dryly. "I hoped at one time he would lead the way to a solution of our joint predicament, but unfortunately he has not proved one of the more resistant. It is rumoured he leaves us tomorrow."
"What! Auguste Dupin?" I gazed at the man with the liveliest interest. His heyday was, of course, decades before my time, and I had never met him, but the memory of his brilliance lingered on both in Paris and in London. It was saddening to learn that such a mind could be so humbled.
"Our abductor does not do things by halves, does he?" murmured Holmes. "Not only Holmes, but Dupin!"
"He's cast his net on the other side of the Atlantic, too," the Doctor commented. He nodded to our right. There, leaning against the wall and smoking cigarettes, lounged several ineffably American-looking men with hard faces and soft hats.
"Oh, don't I wish I had the time to talk to them all!" The Doctor was clearly enthralled. "There stand three of the finest in the hard-boiled tradition, Holmes. Your American rivals: Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade and Lew Archer."
Holmes sniffed. He has never admitted rivals, much less equals, though he has always had a weakness for the American people.
Taking our leave of Mhryrragth, we began to walk slowly across the prison yard, studying the nearby faces and attempting to put names to them. It would have been impossible, of course, to identify each one of the thousands who thronged in that dreary place. I contented myself with listening to the Doctor's low-voiced commentary. As we strolled on, my wonder grew at the extent and variety of his acquaintance.
Here, a youngish gentleman, impeccably turned out and swinging a monocle on a ribbon, engaged in sharp debate with a hugely fat man who sported a withered orchid in his coat lapel and growled out his replies in an American accent. A second fat man thundered at them through an unkempt bandit's moustache and waved his crutch-handled stick in a manner that looked positively dangerous.
"Lord Peter Wimsey, Nero Wolfe and Dr. Fell," the Doctor whispered. "And Archie Goodwin." He indicated a young man who stood listening to this trio, hands stuck in pockets and a derisive grin on his face.
A little further on our eyes were drawn to a middle-aged man in a rumpled suit, smoking a pipe. His worn, cynical face creased into a smile at some sally of his companion, a short man with a receding hairline. "Jules Maigret and Benny Cooperman," said the Doctor.
We walked on, passing a fussy-looking little man with a noticeably egg-shaped head and the largest, most dandily groomed moustache I had ever seen. He was holding forth in heavily accented English to a sweet-faced, eagle-eyed old lady who listened with tolerant contempt. "Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple," the Doctor whispered.
Two clerics strolled by in the opposite direction, arm in arm: a short, plump little priest in a black cassock and shovel hat and a leathery-faced tonsured monk. They were conversing amicably in a mixture of Latin and English.
"Father Brown and Brother Cadfael. You see, of course," the Doctor added, "what they all have in common."
"I confess I do not," Holmes said irritably, for he was accustomed to being master of any situation and it galled him to yield that place to the Doctor. "These people differ on the counts of race, age, social class, physique and personal habits. Many are not of the same species, still others are not of our time. Where is the similarity?"
"I think I see it," announced Miss Calonne. "Though I cannot be certain, for I am not so well read as you, Papa. Are not these all famous detectives?"
"Quite right!" He beamed at her. Then half under his breath, so that perhaps only I heard him, "All the heroes," he said. "None of the authors." This remark puzzled me a good deal. After a moment I understood it to mean that the captives were all practicing investigators, there were no mere scribblers among them.
"But where are all the women?" Miss Calonne looked about and spotted a group who had seated themselves on the dusty ground, the better to hold conversation. One was a lovely young lady with mahogany-coloured hair, who by her dress must have been snatched up from my own place and time. The second wore a coat resembling the Doctor's, and her face, under short blonde hair, was strong and plain. The third, tall and not young, produced ironic answers in the flat accent of the American Midwest, while the fourth was a mere girl, with golden hair cut to shoulder length.
"Who are they?" I inquired of the Doctor.
"Charlotte Pitt, Jane Tennant, V.I. Warshawski and... Hm. I don't recognize the girl, though there is something familiar about her."
"Oh, that is Nancy Drew, of course." Miss Calonne smiled her satisfaction. "For once, Papa, I know more than you do! But I still don't understand why I see so few women here."
"It surprises me that there are any women here at all," I remarked. It was perhaps a rash comment, for Miss Calonne's fine eyes at once flashed with anger. I hastened to explain. "When engaged in the investigation of crime, one cannot avoid contact with the meaner sort of people. And even when the case takes one into the higher ranks of society, one often ends by dealing with cheats, thieves, murderers and blackmailers."
"And so?" She did not appear mollified.
"Well, the role of detective requires a certain sensitivity, you see, as well as high intelligence and the understanding of human nature. Undoubtedly many such women exist. But I cannot conceive of such a woman -- wise, sensitive and intelligent -- being able to tolerate contact with the baser sort of person I have described."
"And yet a man could tolerate this?"
"My dear Miss Calonne, a lady's delicate nature -- "
"Delicate! Mon Di eu!" She emitted what I can only describe as a snort.
Holmes chuckled. "I believe we have here a disciple of Mrs. Pankhurst, Watson. You had better prepare to retreat in good order, before you are forced into a rout."
"Come on, Fayette," the Doctor said to her mildly. "Remember what I told you about seeing everything in its historical context?"
"Ah, oui." She shrugged. "After all, Watson, you are only a man, and a Victorian at that. I must respect your limits."
I sensed an obscure slight in this tolerant remark, but was glad at least to see her scowl replaced by a smile. I offered an apology, she accepted, and we walked on, returning toward the wall by a circular route.
At this point we became aware of the presence of some hundreds of the eavesdropping black cubes, fixed to the walls of the prison at intervals of a yard or so. Others hovered in the air above our heads without any obvious means of support, and just beyond the reach of an up stretched arm. As soon as Miss Calonne noticed these she pointed to them and put a finger to her lips, but the damage was already done, if damage there was. Our jailer must now know that Holmes had received visitors, and that one of them at least must be a time traveller.
"Well, Doctor?" Holmes halted and faced our new friend, with something of challenge in his manner. "You have seen the extent of the outrage. What plan have you formed to put it right?"
As he spoke, the sound of a struck gong reverberated through the yard. A series of doors flew open in the prison wall. The shifting crowds of inmates halted all at once, so that it seemed all movement in that vast space had frozen. A mutter of protest swept across the throng, yet simultaneously they began a general wall-ward drift. Those nearest to the doors were already filing back inside, followed in long lines by the others.
I could not contain my indignation. "What is the matter with them? Why do they submit to being tamely herded about like that?"
"What else can they do?" Holmes asked bitterly. "Can you see any means of escape from this yard? Are there guards to be overwhelmed, gates to be stormed? No, they have no choice but to return to their cells."
Holmes could have escaped easily now. We had only to make our way back to his cell, where the Doctor's vessel awaited us. But true to his nature, he was still adamant that he would not leave until he could devise a way to free his fellow captives.
"But that is impossible!" cried the young lady, and I found myself in agreement with her.
"Perhaps not." The Doctor was smiling. "Holmes, you asked if I had a plan. Well, I haven't. But I do know that we won't accomplish anything either here or in your cell."
"Then you think, as I do... "
"... that we must confront your jailer, yes. He controls this complex, so he's the man we want. Let's get to the centre of this web!"
Executing this manoeuvre, at least, proved to be an easy matter. Presumably the black cubes had passed on the information that an unscheduled visit had been made to the prison, for as soon as we set foot inside and started back along the corridor, Holmes, in the lead, exclaimed in surprise.
"Some obstruction," he said. "It must be glass, but if so it is the clearest glass I have ever... not seen."
The Doctor ran his hands across what seemed empty air. I followed his example and felt a strange sensation, as if I had tried to force my fingers into a wall of hard rubber.
"Not glass," the Doctor said. He clucked in annoyance. "It's a force field. This corridor's blocked off."
"How shall we return to the TARDIS?" demanded Miss Calonne in alarm. She turned to walk back toward the prison yard, and abruptly lurched backward. I quickly put out a hand to steady her.
"A second force field," said the Doctor. "He's got us in a cage. Now what?"
Then, as we stood there, I saw the walls of the corridor beginning to slide past us. I received a brief but terrifying impression that the whole huge building was being pulled away from around us by some giant hand. Then I understood what was happening. Our invisible cage had become a carriage. We were being transported.
The Doctor turned his palms upward. "Well, we did say we wanted to find the man in charge. It looks like that's exactly what we're going to do, sooner than we'd hoped."
A door slipped past, then another. Then faster and faster they whipped by till we lost sight of all markings, and were encased in a dizzying blur. Curiously, I felt no sensation of movement, and our passage created no sound. Once or twice we were jerked suddenly to one side, which I guessed meant that we had turned a corner.
After perhaps five minutes of this strange mode of travel, the blur to either side slowed down, the racing walls reappeared, and we saw we were approaching a brightly lit doorway. It appeared as a slot of distant light, grew steadily larger, and suddenly engulfed us. Once within, we came to such a sudden halt that we were all flung against the front wall of the carriage. Abruptly, the "glass" was gone, and we found ourselves tumbling in an undignified heap. I scrambled up and offered a hand to Miss Calonne, who gave me an oddly long-suffering look as she took it.
The room was large, high and lined with flickering machinery. It reminded me of the room inside the TARDIS, and I noted that the Doctor looked about him with an air of more than passing interest. For my part, I was more interested in the individual who sat behind a utilitarian steel desk, gazing at his visitors across its bare surface. I wondered what sort of man was this, who had the arrogance to hold captive the finest criminological minds of the known cosmos.
He was far from what I would have expected. I looked upon a weedy little fellow with badly cut, thinning hair and an uneven moustache. As if to make up for his unimpressive appearance he wore an outlandish, loosely flowing costume of garish gold and scarlet silks, which I supposed must be the current fashion. This gorgeous garb was stained down the front with what seemed to be the debris of several meals.
The fellow had made no move to help Miss Calonne to her feet. Instead, he leered at her so offensively that I wished he were within reach of my fist. He then swept the rest of us with a triumphant grin, and waved a hand.
"Welcome to the head office of Star Pulp Classics," he announced in an unpleasantly high, nasal voice -- the voice of the black cube. "Stan Babbage here. So, Sherlock, you've decided to see things my way, have you? Good thinking!"
Holmes ignored him, turning instead to the Doctor. "As I thought, a hack publisher."
"Mm, yes. You can tell by the shirt front," the Doctor replied with the ghost of a smile. "Star Pulp, eh? I've heard of this outfit."
"And have you heard anything to their credit, Doctor?"
"Not much. They aren't known for straight dealing, and they've been accused of pirating books before this. But surely this is taking the concept of literary piracy a bit too far!"
"Times are tough," said Babbage, with a shrug. With a bored glance at the Doctor he added, "I don't know who you are. Which means, of course, that the reading public won't have heard of you either, so you're of no interest to me. But since you're here, you and the girl, you'll have to stay, just like all the others."
I could contain myself no longer. "You ought to be horsewhipped! Release these people at once!"
Babbage smirked. "Not much you can do about it, is there?"
Goaded beyond measure, I started forward, intending to pick up the disgusting little man and give him the shaking of his life. I had come within three feet of the desk when I bounced off an unseen wall and fell backward onto the floor.
As I lay there a moment, stunned by the suddenness of the fall and struggling to draw a breath, I heard Babbage's high-pitched giggling. I felt a fool. I felt worse when I saw Miss Calonne bending over me, holding out her hand.
"Turn and turn about," she said with a smile that at once teased and sympathized. "Let me help you up, Dr. Watson."
"Thank you." I climbed to my feet. "I think I can manage..."
"Mais non, allow me!" She made a business of brushing dust from my coat and as she did so she murmured, "It was another force field. Even that big gun in your pocket would not hurt it, I think. But do not despair! I know the Doctor. The chance for action will come, so be prepared."
Babbage had not even flinched when I strode toward him. "Did you think I'd be fool enough to let you in without some protection?" he sneered. "In this business I have to be careful. And don't bother trying to break the barrier. It's been kicked, punched with brass knuckles, stabbed with stilettos and knitting needles, shot with Smith and Wessons, blasted by phasers, burned with cigarettes, had acid thrown at it... No go. Like everything else around here, it's indestructible. So let's cut the guff and get down to business, okay?"
Miss Calonne's lip curled. "And just what business would this... this espece de salaud do with his captives?"
"Can you not see it?" Holmes asked ironically. "What would the public not pay to read of a new, so far untold adventure of Sherlock Holmes?"
"Not to mention a new Philip Marlowe, or a new Maigret. All fresh, never before published, yet guaranteed the genuine article." Babbage sounded smug. "It'll be the publishing coup of the century! No, the millennium! And what's even better, the supply of new, original classic stories is almost inexhaustible! All I have to do is keep nabbing these mugs and hauling them in."
"And why do you not simply buy books from writers, the way normal publishers do?" the lady demanded.
Babbage leered at her again. "Times are tough. The industry is horrendously competitive. And people don't read as much as they used to, in case you haven't noticed. The kids are only interested in playing computer games and watching videos. Up to now Star Pulp has survived by reprinting the genre classics, but we can't keep doing that forever. We need fresh classic material, if you get my drift."
He gestured up at the twinkling wall. "Look, I'm anxious to get Sherlock on side, so I'll indulge you guys a little. See up there? That's an enlarged sample of a recent reissue."
High on the wall behind him I observed an enormous screen covered with print, which even at this distance could be read. Slowly the lines of type slid upward, and I realized that I was being shown a book, or what passed for a book in this strange world. I strained my eyes to focus on the actual words, and gasped.
"It's one of mine!"
"Sort of." Babbage lounged back in his chair and watched us with an insulting air of boredom. "A Study in Scarlet. It was Conan Doyle's first Sherlock Holmes story. We've also done -- "
I interrupted furiously. "Who is this Conan Doyle? How dare he put his name to my work?"
"Curious," commented Holmes. "Watson, have you taken a pen-name?"
Babbage chuckled nastily. "Never heard of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the immortal Holmes, eh? Well, that series has made millions for Star Pulp. And with Sherlock's new input, it'll make us billions more."
Now I found myself confused as well as outraged. I could not make head nor tail of this Doyle person. Creator of Holmes? What could he mean?
"All you fictional detective types make me laugh!" Babbage indulged in a prolonged fit of merriment. "You're so full of yourselves -- worse than real people! I've had almost exactly this same conversation with dozens of the others. It's always the same. Ellery Queen never heard of Manfred B. Lee and Frederick Dannay, Spenser never heard of Robert Parker, and on and on. Well, it makes no difference to me whether you're real or not. All I want is your story."
I directed a flabbergasted look at Holmes. "I see," he said in a thoughtful tone, tapping his fingers to his lips. I was still stunned, but I had gotten a glimmer of the fellow's meaning, and the mere suggestion was appalling.
I turned to the one among us who might know. "Doctor, that disturbance we passed through on the way here, what you called a dimensional shift... We really did enter another universe, didn't we?"
"That's right." The Doctor wasn't looking at me, though. His eyes were running over the complex machinery which surrounded us, and meanwhile he was playing with something in his pocket.
Holmes filled in the gap with cool clarity. "And in this universe, my dear Watson, you and I are fiction."
We were fiction. Existing in no real sense, except as a mental image summoned up in a reader's mind by words printed on paper. And those words not my own, the deeds not those of Holmes, but all of it the product of some writer's imagination!
This notion was almost impossible for my shocked mind to encompass. Even half grasped, it filled me with such horror that I felt my knees weaken and my stomach turn. I kept my composure only with the exercise of the sternest self-discipline.
Looking up then, I found Miss Calonne's eyes upon me. Their sympathetic glow held no trace of irony. She grasped my hand warmly. "Of course you are real. Never doubt it!"
As I gratefully returned the pressure of her hand, I resolved to accept the evidence of my senses. A renewed self-assurance flowed through me.
"But," said the Doctor, "I should say that what is even more to the point... " His manner was distracted, as if he were thinking of several things at once (as I now believe he was).
As he spoke, he removed a small device from his pocket and idly tinkered with it. It appeared to be some sort of clockwork toy, and Babbage did not even spare it a glance. "What's even more to the point, Watson," the Doctor went on, "is that in your own native universe, you are undoubtedly real, and Conan Doyle doesn't exist. The two universes complement each other like opposite faces of a spoon: they were never meant to meet. And you -- " He jabbed an accusing finger at Babbage -- "you have bollixed up the two with a truly criminal carelessness. All for your own profit!" He continued to tinker with the little toy.
Babbage sat back, shrugging. "You're all making a big fuss over nothing. Face reality! Publishing is an industry, and my aim is to make money. Now, Sherlock, if you've got all that out of your system, how about cooperating, huh? Look, it's quite simple." He swung around in his swivel chair and pointed at the wall behind him. As soon as his back was turned, the Doctor extended his toy and moved it back and forth in a sweeping motion. Then he darted a smile at the rest of us and put the object back in his pocket.
"All you have to do," Babbage said, "is tell your story. It goes in here." He pointed to a grid in front of him. "As soon as it's all in, it's instantaneously edited and distributed. Then it appears on screens all over the cosmos." He swivelled back to face us. "As soon as the subscribers have paid, of course."
"Am I to understand," Holmes said slowly, "that as soon as I have dictated my memoirs to this machine, the entire publication process will be complete?"
"Now you get it. No booksellers, no printing press, no quill pens. Go ahead, talk. It's all set to go."
"Very well." Holmes bowed his head. He looked -- as I had never before seen him look -- defeated. "I will do it."
"Holmes, no!" I cried. Then I caught the Doctor's eye and saw him shape the words, Get ready. I understood that the crisis was approaching, though what I might be called upon to do, I could not imagine. My heart swelled with excitement, and by the flush in Miss Calonne's cheek, I knew she shared my feeling.
As Holmes raised his head to speak, it was obvious to me that he was very far from being defeated. A demure expression masked his face, but in his eye lurked a gleam which I knew well. It was a sign that some game was afoot, and Holmes was on the trail. Babbage, who knew him much less well, fastened eager eyes upon him.
As Babbage's attention was so engaged, the Doctor gave me another significant look and unobtrusively lifted his hand, the forefinger extended. I observed that his hand was able to cross the line of the invisible barrier, which previously had stretched some three feet in front of the desk.
It seemed the Doctor had not been toying idly while he tinkered with that oddment in his pocket!
"I shall begin, " said Holmes, "with a tale which I fancy Watson would entitle The Case of the Captive Sleuths."
"Recent, I hope?" Babbage inquired.
"Oh, quite recent. In fact, it began not five days ago. I was in the Strand, in conversation with an acquaintance, when I was suddenly abducted by a miserable little toad of a publisher, whisked away through time and space -- "
"Hey!" Babbage jumped from his chair, scowling.
" -- then locked up and subjected to an extortion of the most vicious kind!"
"This isn't what I want!" Babbage turned and ran toward the wall of machinery, a hand outstretched.
"Now, Watson!" the Doctor shouted. I flung myself joyfully at the little man, who was too flummoxed by the sudden absence of his force field to do anything but gape. In a moment I had him in a wrestler's choke hold, with the muzzle of my service revolver nestling under his chin. He struggled wildly at first, but grew very quiet as he felt the touch of cold steel.
Meanwhile, Holmes continued to tell the story of Babbage's plot to extort the memoirs of the imprisoned sleuths. When he had brought the story up to the present moment, he paused.
"It's not finished, though, is it?" prompted the Doctor.
His daughter had been looking on with a puzzled expression. "But, I do not understand. We know all this. Why is Mr. Holmes telling it?"
I was equally puzzled, but meanwhile I kept a tight grip on the publisher. "It's really quite simple," the Doctor explained. "Holmes has spotted the correspondence between the two universes. Here, Watson's reality is Conan Doyle's fiction. It follows that what is fiction here becomes reality in the other place."
"Then this story Holmes is feeding the machine... " I saw the light.
"Is a developing reality in your own world, just as it becomes published fiction in this."
Holmes added, "But I must be sure to supply an appropriate ending." Lips pursed, he cogitated a few moments, then nodded briskly. "Ah! I have it. It seems that due to a breakdown in the machinery which we see before us, all the cell doors of the prisoners sprang open at once. They quickly discovered that they were free, and in their thousands they made their way to the main door of the prison, where they congregated in the great entrance lobby."
"Only to find the gates locked!" shrieked Babbage defiantly. I wiggled the revolver in a menacing manner and he fell silent again. The Doctor whispered in Holmes's ear.
Holmes continued smoothly: "The fugitives were, however, not deterred for long by this obstruction. The Doctor simply piloted his vessel to the lobby and hospitably offered safe passage to every one of the freed captives. Soon they were all safely returned to their proper homes and times..."
As that last word fell from his lips, everything went black about me. I then experienced a sensation which I hope will never be repeated. It was like the squashed-aspic feeling which accompanied our passage of the dimensional shift, only worse, and with some excruciating points of difference. I might have been turned inside out like a suit of clothes, wrung this way and that, then snapped back into my proper shape and alignment.
After a measureless time the feeling passed.... "Where am I?"
"Open your eyes, Watson," Holmes said. "We're home!"
I opened my eyes upon my own parlour, which I confess I had at times given up hope of ever seeing again. The four of us were standing around the carpet in front of a cheerful fire. Miss Calonne subsided with a contented sigh onto the sofa, while Holmes gazed around at the familiar setting with evident appreciation.
The door swung open and Mrs. Hudson bustled in, burdened with a huge tray laden with heaps of pastries, cakes, lavishly buttered toast and a pot of steaming tea. She seemed not at all surprised to see us, though we had certainly been away some hours by our own accounting. When I glanced at my watch, however, I saw that to Mrs. Hudson barely fifteen minutes had passed.
I pulled myself together and helped her carry the heavy tray to the table. We drew up chairs; the young lady consented to pour out, and we all helped themselves hungrily. Never had Mrs. Hudson's excellent cooking tasted so delicious!
The Doctor bit into a scone which dripped with butter and quince preserves. "This," he announced, wiping butter from his chin, "is what I really came to London for. A real tea! You don't know how I miss it sometimes."
"Yet I think, after our ordeal, we all need a touch of something stronger." Holmes tipped a dram of whisky into each cup of tea. Then, lifting his steaming cup, he proposed: "Confusion to Babbage and all his ilk!" After we had joined in the toast he added, "My only regret is that I was prevented from writing an epilogue dealing out a fitting punishment to that miserable creature."
"Ah, oui." Miss Calonne frowned. "How is Babbage to be stopped from doing the same thing again, perhaps to a new set of people? To romantic heroines, say, or western heroes?"
"Yes, I suppose we must deal with him." The Doctor gave his daughter a wry look. "Another unpleasant job for you and me, Fayette."
I thought of the TARDIS, and the Doctor's cosmic breadth of knowledge, and his acquaintance with the lizard-man Mhryrragth, and my mind teemed with questions. I attempted to voice some of them, but the Doctor grew vague and seemed loathe to answer. I decided not to press him.
He and his adopted daughter -- surely two of the strangest clients who ever appeared on the hearthrug in Baker Street -- took their departure soon after tea. I never learned the Doctor's true name or nature, and I do not expect to see them again.
My greatest regret is that I never had the opportunity to squire Miss Calonne about some of the better parts of London. Her parting glance at me was both cordial and affectionate.
"Well, John," she said. "You may truly call yourself a traveller now!"
"If only every journey were blessed with such charming company," I returned. And reading permission in her sparkling glance I added, "Farewell... Fayette."
This concludes my record of the case. I doubt, however, that I will ever dare submit it to the scrutiny of a critical reading public. Who would believe such a fantastic rigmarole?
The Case of the Captive Sleuths will never see print, then, in this universe. Perhaps in the other, Sir Arthur's readers will prove more receptive. I hope I am magnanimous enough to wish him all success.