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Asquith's Algorithm-A Steampunk Adventure

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  • Asquith's Algorithm-A Steampunk Adventure

    Well, since we're not doing the 2012 Moorcock Story Challenge (yet), here's my first chapter. I'll post one per week.

    Enjoy!

    WhiteWolf359

    Asquith’s Algorithm
    A Further Adventure of Queen Asquith of Albiona
    As Chronicled by her Palace Scribe
    Jeff Warshaw
    I. A Mystery in Marylebone

    “Any more crumpets, Missus Turner?” John Mowbry hollered from the foot of the stairs. He was particularly fond of Missus Turner’s crumpets, especially on snowy mornings.
    “Sorry, love,” Missus Turner called from upstairs. “That nice Mr. Crowden ate the last two. Got some sausage rolls, though.”
    “Not this mornin’,” John replied. “Got a bit of gippy tummy from them hot bangers last night. I’ll be off, then.”
    He headed out into the chilly Baker Street morning to make his way to his job as a steam fitter at the London Zoo.
    The gelid air escaped his mouth in thin white puffs as he stood shivering in his greatcoat, waiting for the Baker Street Steam Tram to arrive.
    As he stood stamping his Wellies on the snow-caked pavement, a flower girl smiled thinly at him.
    The hiss of steam and sparks presaged the clattering of steel bogies along the thin tracks as the steam-powered Number 44 Tram arrived, chugging and clattering and gushing great gouts of gray-white steam into the morning air.
    Mowbry paid his six pence to the mechanical conductor, a crude android with a wax face and handlebar mustache and boarded the crowded conveyance.
    Jostled, elbowed and shoved by the rude passengers, Mowbry wished that he earned enough to own his own automobile. But those were toys for the ultra-rich and he was a humble steam fitter. He would never own a motor car.
    “Pardon me,” a rotund woman said as he was shoved into her impressive bosom by the man behind him.
    “No offense, madam,” Mowbry offered. “’Fraid it can’t be helped these days, can it? Too many people, not enough trams!”
    “Indeed!” the indignant woman frowned. “How very rude.”
    The little tram clattered and puffed down Baker Street on its way to Park Road and Prince Albert Road.
    The steam tram stopped at Marylebone Road and five passengers, including the stuffy powder-puff woman departed. Ten more stepped aboard, including a very pale woman with startling blue eyes and a bowler hat.

    By the time the tram reached London Zoo, John Mowbry was black and blue from all the shoving and jostling. He jumped off onto the hard cobblestones and caught his breath. It was worth a man’s life to ride the trams these days. But what choice did he have? He was no longer a young man and could not walk to work. Neither could he afford a private cab. So it was trams for him.
    “Hello, old sod!” Henry, the Gate Guard said. “Here to fix the steam giraffe, I take it?”
    “Why?” John smirked. “What’s wrong with the bloody thing now?”
    “Won’t eat rose petals out of people’s hands,” Henry teased. “But I expect you’ll have that fixed in a jiffy.”
    In truth, Mowbry rarely tended to any of the animals. He was too busy fixing cracked heating values and re-punching program cards for the Zoo Guide androids. When he had time, he would wander over to the quagga’s cage or stare in at the thylacines playing and yipping. But he very rarely got to see the animals, his days were so busy.
    Entering his ramshackle little green wooden repair shed, he sat down at his bench and looked at the day’s work pile. There were two broken gear boxes, five piles of ivory stamped punch cards, some blue, some white, some yellow and a number of small bent steam pipes and tubes. Sighing, he picked up a screwdriver and opened the back panel of the first broken gear box.
    At half-ten, he stopped for a cup of tea, made with a small electric kettle. He was just pouring water over a tea bag of Earl Gray when he heard a knock at the door. He hoped it wasn’t the Zoo Director, Archibald Johnson. Johnson loved to chew Mowbry’s ear off about all sorts of boring topics, from zoo finances to local politics, none of which the stout repairman found the slightest bit interesting.
    He opened the door and found the tall woman in the bowler hat standing there.
    “May I help you, Missus?” John asked.
    “I believe you may, Mr. Mowbry,” the strange woman said. She held out a thin ivory introduction card, white with gold trim. It read: “Queen’s Special Service-Agent Caroline McGraw.”
    “QSS?” Mowbry gasped. “Am I under investigation? I ain’t done nothing wrong, Missus, honest! I’m a loyal citizen. I pay me monthly tithe and me quarterly taxes.”
    “You are not under investigation, Mr. Mowbry,” the tall woman replied. “May I come in?”
    “Well, yeah, I guess,” Mowbry said. “Sorry about the state of the place. This is a repair shop. Not a fit place for a lady like yourself.”
    “It will do,” Agent McGraw replied. She returned her card to her breast pocket.
    “I understand that you can fix broken programs,” Agent McGraw said. She picked up and examined several of the android punch cards. “Such as these android guidance modules?”
    “Yeah,” Mowbry replied. “Not much to those, really. Just a few misaligned holes and worn out cards to be re-punched.”
    Agent McGraw extracted a rectangular black velvet box the size of a cigarette case from her pants pocket. She opened it and showed Mowbry the contents. Inside were fifty wafer thin punch cards. They appeared to be made of gold!
    “How about these?” Agent McGraw asked. “Do you think you could repair this program?”
    “Let me take a closer look,” Mowbry asked. She handed him the pack cautiously.
    “Careful,” she said. “Don’t get them out of sequence.”
    Mowbry took a large black jeweler’s loop from his work table. He cleaned the lens with a cloth and looked at the top card.
    “Bent splines,” Mowbry pronounced. “I see some of the punch marks have become ragged too. Yeah. I could fix these up with a Luxton 88 punch and some Harland straighteners. Take me about a fortnight, but I’d see them right, Missus.”
    He removed the jewelers loop, closed the velvet box gently and handed it back to the beautiful QSS agent.
    “Then we may have a job for you,” Agent McGraw replied. “I must warn you Mr. Mowbry, to discuss the conversation we just had with no one. In fact, you do not know me and I was never here. If you cannot keep these promises, the consequences could be dire, not just for you, but for all of Albiona.”
    “Won’t breathe a word, Missus,” Mowbry said. He smiled broadly. “Besides, who’d believe me? A poor grimy steam fitter contacted by Her Majesty’s Secret Service? They’d chuck me in Bedlam soon as look at me.”
    “That’s quite right, they would,” Agent McGraw replied. She retreated from the room and was out of sight around the Penguin Pool before Mowbry could even think. He took a pile of blue punch cards and began recalibrating their holes with his Laughton and Hughes Number 21 All Purpose Punch Repair Tool. By the time he was done, it was lunch time. He wandered out into the bright winter daylight and went to visit the quagga mare. He knew he wasn’t supposed to, but he fed the handsome zebra-like animal some sugar cubes. She whinnied and licked his hands with her rough tongue. He patted her ears and she whickered softly. He liked the quagga. She was a gentle beast. Little did he suspect that in twenty years her species would be extinct.
    After lunch, Mobwry finished mending the android tour guide punch cards, bundled them and put them into a steam capsule, which he fed into the pneumatic tube leading to the Zoo Administration Office. He sealed the tube and pushed the “Send” button. The capsule shot off with a dull swooshing sound. He turned to fixing the broken steam values. It was dull work, but both tiring and time consuming. By the time he wiped his brow and took a late tea break, it was nearly five o’clock. He washed his hands at his small sink, brushed dirt and grime from his shirt and trousers and got ready for the tram ride home.
    He walked outside the Zoo gates and said goodnight to Henry. He hadn’t quite gotten to the tram stop when a tiny blue dart hit him in the neck. Thinking it was just a mosquito, he brushed it away.
    Then the world flared sapphire blue and he lost consciousness.
    Lord Warshaw the Unknown

    "Except in dreams, you're never really free." Warren Zevon, Desperados Under the Eaves.

  • #2

    II. The Legion of Silence

    Two days later.

    John Mowbry woke up on a comfortable sofa in a strange room. He did not know where he was or how he had gotten there. The last thing he remembered was leaving the Zoo. He coughed and looked at his surroundings. He was in a library or study. He opened the lilac colored lace curtains, but the windows had been blacked out. He listened for telltale street noises as a way to pinpoint his location, but heard only a few tweeting sparrows and shuffling squirrels outside the blacked-out windows.
    He got up and found his legs wobbly. He stood for a moment and felt better. He took stock of the room. It was well appointed and modern. There was an Impressionist painting of a haystack on one wall and a portrait of a lovely red-haired woman on another wall. The sofa he’d slept on was pink and coral velvet with soft cushions and was carved of mahogany. A teak wood table stood in one corner and there was a gilt mirror on the far wall. A tall secretary was filled with rare volumes in several languages, including what looked to be an original Audobon “Birds of America” in two huge volumes.
    As Mowbry scratched his itchy neck, wondering where he was, he heard the click of the outer door lock.
    He stood ready to strike down the kidnappers, fists balled up in a fighter’s stance.
    But the intruder was a woman carrying a silver tea tray. Mowbry dropped his fists, but his wariness remained.
    He tried to speak, to demand to know who she was and where she’d taken him, but he found his voice was gone. He could not utter a word. He clutched at his throat.
    The woman was tall and beautiful with a fulsome figure and pale red hair. Her face was covered by a matt black domino mask. Her lips were painted not ruby red but matt black as well. She laid the tea tray down on the teak table, then discreetly backed out of the room. Her eyes never left him for a second. He spied at her right hip the swell of a slender saber. She left and locked the door behind her.
    Mowbry crossed to tea tray. Should he drink tea from strangers? For all he knew, it might be laced with arsenic or rat poison. He sniffed it carefully. It was Darjeeling. He decided that if they’d wanted him dead, they could certainly have killed him when he was unconscious. It hardly made sense to poison a captive hostage. He poured himself a cup of Darjeeling and put in two sugar cubes. There was a small note on the tray as well. He picked it up. It read:
    “Do not be afraid Mr. Mowbry. We mean you no harm. All Will be Revealed. Remain calm.”
    But Mowbry could not remain calm. He was in strange house with no memory of how he had arrived or where he was. He looked again in the bookshelf. Perhaps there was something here that could help him identify his captors or his current whereabouts. He carefully examined each volume, but they were common books one could find in any gentleman’s parlor. There was a complete works of Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Dicken’s Great Expectations and collections of poems by Shelley, Lord Byron and John Keats. There was a history of the Albionic Empire by Sir John Hamilton of Queen’s College, Oxford and a full set of The Rise and Fall of the Franco-Belgian Hegemony by Lady Fulforth of Southampton. None of the books gave him a clue to his location.
    Then he found a large book, a tome with black covers stamped with a strange symbol, a finger raised to the lips.
    He opened this book and found that it was not written in any language he knew. It contained strange marks that looked like pictures he’d seen of ancient cuneiform writing, all strange triangles and slash marks. In the center of the book, however, there were illustrations. They appeared to be a series of anatomical studies. They were of the female body and made him blush in their intimate details of the reproductive system. There were more runic notes inscribed. There were also depictions of strange machines, huge steam-powered drills mounted to the front of railroad cars and a map of tunnels that did not exist. There were detailed illustrations of Covent Garden and Piccadilly Circus. A series of drawings of androids went from the crude automata such as the London Zoo tour guides and tram conductors to lovely recreations of famous men and women. There was even one of Queen Asqiuth of Albiona, naked! He blushed at her stunning marble white skin and waterfall of lustrous red-gold hair, her entrancing sea-green eyes and full ruby lips. This was the only color illustration and was meticulous in its detail, depicting every lovely line and curve of Queen Asquith’s superb body.
    He could not look away from the marvelous illustration of his beloved monarch in her buxom, curvaceous glory. He felt a kind of rapture. His head spun and his heart raced. He fell to the floor and knelt gazing upon his magnificent monarch, lovely as any Greek goddess. He was as much her supplicant as any worshipper at the Temple of Aphrodite.
    Next to this illustration, inserted into a small glassine pocket glued to the side of the page by rubber cement was a small silver computer punch card, like those he’d been shown by Agent McGraw and more of the cryptic runes. What did it mean?
    Curious, Mowbry gingerly removed and examined the card. It was not made of silver, but of wafer-thin stainless steel. It had a stamp mark which he could just barely read: “Dionysus Steel Works-Shoreditch, 1567.” But that was impossible! There were no steel makers in 1567! This must be a forgery. He inspected the pattern of holes. He held it up against the black cover and received a shock. The holes spelled out a word in English! They spelled out “Asquith.”
    As Mombry puzzled over the cryptic book and its arcane illustrations, he heard the door click open. He quickly returned the punch card to its pocket, closed the tome and placed it back in the book case.

    Five tall, attractive women, all dressed in black form fitting velvet body suits and laced black calf-leather thigh boots entered the room. One wore a silver domino mask, her silver blonde hair flowing over her shoulders. She was clearly the leader. She walked up him and held out a small white card. He took it.
    “You have many questions,” the card said.
    Mowbry nodded his head. He could not yet speak. She handed him a small stack of blank white index cards and a blue biro. He wrote clearly “Who are you? Where am I?” and handed the card back to her.
    She wrote a reply on the back with a black fountain pen.
    “We are the Legion of Silence, an ancient order,” the card. “You are in our Headquarters. We cannot reveal its location. You are safe here.”
    Mowbry bowed and kissed her proffered black opera gloved hand.
    He wrote another card.
    “Why have you brought me here?” he asked. “Why can’t I speak?”
    The leader wrote a response.
    “You are important,” the card said. “You have seen the Great Golden Program. You cannot speak because this house is bound in a special energy field. We call it the Stillness. You will be able to speak again when you leave.”
    He wrote a message that conveyed what he had seen in the great volume.
    “What are golden program cards?” he wrote. “Is Queen Asquith an android?”
    The silver-masked blonde beauty stayed her hand for a moment, then wrote quickly.
    “There are some mysteries whose answers you must unravel by yourself,” she wrote. “You are about to embark on a grand adventure. At the end, you shall know perhaps more than you sought to uncover. Come, we have breakfast prepared for you.”
    Two of the masked women, a tall brunette and a slender buxom blonde took his arms, gently, and led him from the confining study into a corridor. The corridor led to a large dining hall. Food was laid out on silver trays along and was being served by pretty young women in French maid outfits. Mowbry thought there was something odd about the serving girls. It wasn’t until the third course that he realized they were all identical. Could they be sisters?
    Then it struck him.
    They were not sisters. They were androids. Replicas.
    There was a menu and a fountain pen beside his place. He checked off the items he wanted: tea, rye toast, 3 rashers of bacon, two fried eggs done over easy, some roast potatoes and orange juice. He handed the menu card to one of the lovely maids. She brushed her arm against him and he jumped. Her skin was not waxy or plastic feeling like the androids he knew. Her arm was satin soft and warm to the touch. How was that possible? Androids had no circulatory system that would make the skin warm.
    He took out an index card and wrote rapidly, but the leader held up her hand. He understood. The Legion of Silence did not speak while eating. His questions would have to wait until after breakfast was done.
    The food was delicious. The eggs were cooked perfectly, the toast just slightly burnt at the edges. The tea was refreshing and the orange juice was fresh squeezed and tickled his tongue. He could not recall when, if ever, he’d had finer roasted potatoes. He ate with great gusto, but was also gentlemanly, taking small bites and chewing carefully. He reminded himself not to wolf down the food. He was in the presence of ladies and showed proper decorum.
    After the fine repast, the android maids cleared away the dishes. The leader of the Legion of Silence motioned to Mowbry that it was now permitted to ask his questions. He wrote rapidly and passed an index card down the table to her. She perused the card but did not write a reply. Instead, he was escorted from the dining hall to another corridor the led to an iron spiral staircase. The staircase led down and went on for quite a long way. Before long, he realized that he was being led deep underground.
    At last, the spiral staircase ended at an emerald green door. The red-haired League woman took a key from her tunic and opened the lock. They walked into a large open space lit by gas lamps. There was great white concrete platform and a circular tunnel overhead. Tiles lined the walls and read “League Station One.” Mowbry scratched his head at the engineering marvel. What could its purpose be? It seemed very much like a railway station, but underneath London? That made no sense. Besides, there was no train here. He peered over the ledge of the concrete and saw two standard gauge bronze tracks laid into the floor of the tunnel. So it was a train station. But for what kind of train, he wondered?
    He heard and felt a great rush of air, a whooshing sound like a big balloon being inflated. His clothing billowed around him and he felt as if a great hand was pushing him back against the curved wall of the station. He saw two brilliant white headlights blare out of the darkness and speed towards him. He was frightened and clutched the wall. There was a clattering of rails and he watched as a cylindrical train car streaked towards them. It slid to a stop with a great hiss like a thousand cobras sighing at once.
    Mowbry was stunned.
    The League leader handed him a card.
    “Ride the train three stops and you will be home,” the card said. “Be patient. Our agents will contact you when the time is right.”
    The she pulled him to her and kissed him passionately. He felt an erotic jolt tingle along his flesh, as if her kiss were electric. Then the train car’s doors opened. She broke the kiss and ushered him in.
    Inside the car there were plush velvet seats and advertisements for cough drops and a local optician. He stared out the large windows as the car, which had no driver and no conductor, sped off, leaving the station a blur as it streaked silently beneath the great city.
    Lord Warshaw the Unknown

    "Except in dreams, you're never really free." Warren Zevon, Desperados Under the Eaves.

    Comment


    • #3
      III. Subways and Secrets

      John Mowbry was too stunned to say anything about his strange experience. In ten minutes, he passed two more underground stations, but they sped past so fast that he could not read their names. He thought they’d said “Oxford Circus” and then “Regents Park.” The train had stopped smoothly, with no jolting or jostling, at a station marked “Baker Street.” He climbed off and found there was a great escalator leading up to a hidden door. He opened it and emerged from the side of merchant bank building. He was only three doors down from Missus Turner’s boarding house.
      “Well, where have you been, Mr. Mowbry?” Missus Turner asked as he walked into the parlor. “You’re hours late! Dinner’s almost gone cold.”
      “Hours?” Mowbry asked. Had he not been away for two days? He felt dizzy and disoriented.
      “You poor thing,” Missus Turner said. She tugged his arm and brought him into the small downstairs dining room.
      “What day is it, Missus Turner?” Mowbry asked.
      “Why it’s today,” the big blowsy blonde woman said. “January 7th!”
      It was not possible. He had lain unconscious from the blue dart for at least a day and he had just had breakfast. Yet it was dark outside and snowing.
      “Oh, my, you are in a state,” Missus Turner said. She laid her thick hand on his forehead. “Dear, dear. You’re fevered. Poor darling, you must have some hot tea and be right to bed. You’ll be right as rain in the morning.”
      “I’m not very hungry, Missus,” Mowbry protested. She brought him a plate of roast beef and mashed potatoes with brown gravy.
      “Nonsense!” Missus Turner insisted. “You must eat. Best thing for a fever is food.”
      He had learned long ago that one could not win an argument with Missus Turner.
      Mowbry tucked into the hearty dinner and found that he was ravenous, despite the huge breakfast he’d had only a few hours ago.
      “That’s better now, isn’t it, love?” Missus Turner said. She cleared away the dishes and brought out a hot drink. “You drink this Rum Toddy, now. That’ll set you right.”
      “Thanks, Missus Turner,” Mowbry said.
      “You can sleep in tomorrow morning,” the house mistress said. “Fight off that nasty cold.”
      “I can’t sleep in,” Mowbry protested. “I have to go to work.”
      “My, you are fevered,” Missus Turner said. She felt his forehead with a cold white hand. “Tommorow’s Seventh Day, love. Nobody works on Her Lady’s Day.”
      “Oh, yeah,” Mowbry said. “I forgot. I thought it was Fifth Day.”
      Had he actually missed two days during his ordeal with the Legion of Silence? If so, why did Missus Turner think it was only a few hours? Why had it been bright morning when he exited the subway and pitch black night now? Something was very wrong, that was for sure. But whether it was John Mowbry’s mind or the world at large remained to be seen.
      “Come on, love,” Missus Turner said. “Off to bed, there’s a good boy.”
      She led him by the arm up to his small bedroom and saw the he was securely tucked under the covers.
      “Thank you, Missus Turner,” Mowbry said. He started to ask her something, but found that he could not form the thoughts. He fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.

      It was nearly noon before John Mowbry stirred. He woke feeling refreshed. All traces of the fever had left him. He put on his dressing gown and went down the hall to have a shower, but even at this hour, it was occupied. Mr. Denby from Room 11 was singing an Italian opera in the shower, making enough noise to wake the dead. Mowbry walked back to his room to wait. Half an hour later, he managed to sneak in five minutes before Mr. Harrow from Room 4. Lucky break, as Harrow was elderly and took long leisurely baths.
      Dressed and feeling fit, Mowbry left the rooming house and made his way down Baker Street towards Marylebone Road. He stopped at the merchant bank where he had emerged yesterday morning from the secret pneumatic subway. He searched for the door he’d come out of, but found, to his shock and amazement, that there was no such door! Mowbry’s feet hurt after the short walk, so he waited for the Marylebone Road Tram.
      Mowbry paid his six pence fare to a dull faced android conductor and stepped aboard the crowded tram. As usual, he was elbowed, kicked and shoved until he was black and blue by the time he got off at Edgeware Road. He walked up to a four storey apartment block, Number 994 Edgeware Road. He met the android door man.
      “Ah, it’s our Mr. Mowbry, is it?” the elderly construct said. “I suppose you are here to visit Mr. McCallister?”
      “Yes,” Mowbry admitted. If anyone could unravel the mysteries of the past few days, it would be his old friend Langston McCallister, a man who had an encyclopedic knowledge of London. “If he is in, would you ask if he will grant me an hour or two of his time?”
      “Of course,” the android door man replied. “I will enquire, but your time might be limited. Mr. McCallister’s niece, the lady Jennifer is in from Glasgow.”
      Mowbry smirked. McCallister had no nieces or cousins. Jennifer was a blonde whore from Lime Street he was sweet on. He also had his “niece” Inga from Holland Park, his “cousin” Tania, a buxom redhead from Marble Arch and his “second cousin” Nellie, a tall brunette from Harrowgate. All of them “visited” on a frequent basis, which accounted, in part, for why his rich friend’s coffers were often near to empty.
      After ten minutes, the door man returned and tipped his top hat.
      “Mr. McCallister will see you now, Mr. Mowbry,” the android said.
      Mowbry entered through the wrought iron and milk-glass doors and walked to the staircase. He walked up two stories to the fourth floor and went to the door marked “4E” and knocked. A gray-blue eye peered at him from the peephole. The latch was unbolted and his friend, a burly huge Scotsman with a fiery mane of unruly orange hair and a short cropped beard gripped him in a bear hug that nearly broke his back.
      “John, my friend!” McCallister shouted. “It’s been far too long! Why do you never come visit me?”
      “You always seem to be---occupied,” Mowbry said. He saw the ruffle of Jennifer’s petticoat laid over one of his friend’s plush velvet arm chairs.
      “Ah, my bonnie lassies,” McCallister laughed. “Where would I be without them? They inspire me so! I worship each one of them like the Goddess herself. But I have a wee bit of time for old friends today. What’s your pleasure?”
      “You know more about London than anyone,” Mowbry said. “Have you ever heard of train that runs beneath the ground?”
      “Beneath the city?” McCallister said. “A train? Never heard of such nonsense. What purpose would it serve?”
      “Well, several I can think of,” Mowbry replied. “For one, it would clear the streets of those noisy trams. It would also allow rapid passage throughout the city for hundreds of commuters. Why, I could get to my job without being jostled black and blue.”
      “Wait a tic, laddie!” McCallister replied. “I think I read something about such a train.”
      He walked over to a huge wooden filing cabinet. The cabinet was crammed with old newspapers. He had them all meticulously indexed by topic and date. The big Scotsman huffed and fumed until he found the item he wanted. He pulled it out with a theatrical flourish.
      “Here we are!” McCallister said. “New York Globe, April 4, 1869-Beach Pneumatic Subway Opens. A man named Alfred Ely Beach opened to the public a pneumatically powered subway train that runs beneath Broadway from Warren Street to Murray Street. But it was never completed.”
      He handed the paper to Mowbry, who read it carefully. So it was possible. He might not have been dreaming or drugged by the Legion of Silence. There might actually exist such a system beneath the streets of London, unknown to the general populace. But that only deepened the mystery. For if the subway was real, why hide it? It made no sense.
      “I thank you,” Mowbry said. He handed the paper back to his friend. “But I will leave you and your niece to enjoy your Seventh Day. Sorry to have bothered you.”
      “No bother at all!” McCallister said. “Stop by any time. But not next week, dear friend. My second cousin Frida is coming from South America.”
      “Certainly,” Mowbry said. He wondered how many “cousins” and “nieces” McCallister had in his little harem.

      Mowbry wandered aimlessly along Edgeware Road, looking into shop windows and daydreaming. He wondered if it had all been a delusion, the visit from the QSS agent, the golden punch cards, the kidnapping by the Legion of Silence, the pneumatic subway ride. Maybe he had read about all of those things in newspapers and his mind had filled in the rest. Maybe he was going mad. Perhaps he should see an alienist.
      As Mowbry was musing darkly over his odd adventures, he noticed that he was being followed by a strange looking android dressed in a powder blue tuxedo and a matching blue stovepipe hat. At first, he thought it was a coincidence. They just happened to both be moving towards the Baker Street Tram Stop. The odd android did not so much walk as it loped, its legs splayed out at odd angles. Perhaps its program was warped. But it was definitely following him.
      Mowbry did not panic. The strangely dressed android was smiling broadly and did not appear threatening. It was merely trailing him for some unknown purpose. Still, he felt uneasy as the odd mechanism pursued him. At the Tram Stop, he sat down on a wooden bench and waited for the Number 44 to arrive. There were two other passengers, a fat businessman in a canary yellow cardigan and tan pants and a slim elegant woman in a black robe and opera gloves. The android stopped a few feet away. It turned to face Mowbry. Its face was a blank white ovoid, with two black marble eyes and a slit mouth. It spoke in a stuttering mechanical monotone.
      “Mowbry, John Maystone of 294 B Baker Street, Number 22, I bid you greetings,” it stammered. It reeled as if it was about to topple over and crush him.
      “What do you want?” Mowbry asked. “I don’t know you. Leave me alone.”
      “Misunderstanding,” the android replied. It pulled a small silver box from its breast pocket and handed it to Mowbry, almost dropping it, its hand trembling wildly as it thrust the box into his hand. “I am not antagonist. I am to give you this gift. That is all. Have a pleasant day.”
      It loped off, stumbling and staggering unsteady feet.
      “I’ll take that box, Mr. Mowbry,” the elegant woman said. She extended a slender silk-clad hand.
      “What?” Mowbry said. He was still too stunned from the strange android’s presentation.
      “The box,” the woman insisted. “Please give it to me.”
      “Who are you?” Mowbry asked. “Why do you want this box? What’s in it?”
      She held out a familiar gilt edged white presentation card. It read “Lady Violet Fairfax, Queen’s Secret Service Agent 116.”
      Mowbry gave her the box.
      “Now what?” Mowbry asked.
      “Well, first of all, this,” Lady Violet said. “Come with me, Mr. Mowbry.”
      She led him down the street. The strangely dressed android was only a few paces ahead of them, still loping and shambling down Baker Street.
      Lady Violet drew a slender silver pistol from her petticoat and aimed it at the android. A beam of pale purple light emanated from the barrel and the android disintegrated as Mowbry watched. There was a blue glow, then there was nothing left. No ash, no machine parts, no outline where the mechanism had walked.
      “Was the necessary?” Mowbry asked. Lady Violet calmly returned the pistol to her petticoat.
      “Absolutely essential,” the beautiful brunette replied. “It is necessary to eliminate enemies of the realm. I assure you that your strange friend was just that. Do you know what is in the little “present” it gave you?”
      “No, of course not,” Mowbry replied. “I have not even opened it.”
      “If you had, it would have been your final act,” Lady Violet insisted. She found a rubbish bin, flipped the box lid open and tossed it in, then pulled Mowbry to a safe distance. The trash bin exploded in a cloud of green gas.
      “Poison gas!” Mowbry exclaimed. “It was going to gas me. But why? What have I done?”
      “It’s not what have done that made you a target,” Lady Violet explained. The gas quickly dissipated into harmless vapors. “It’s what they feared you were going to do. What you are going to do. They have forced our hand. We must act quickly now. This will not be the last attempt on your life.”
      Mowbry shook his head.
      “This is all very confusing,” Mowbry said. “I’m a simple steam fitter and punch-card repairman. Why am I so important that anyone would want to assassinate me?”
      “Come with me to QSS Headquarters,” Lady Violet said. She took his arm. “We’d best bring you in on our scheme.”
      She hailed a horse-drawn brougham. He held the door for her, then stepped in after.
      She handed the driver a card with an address scrawled on it.
      The horses whinnied and the cab turned round and went back to Marylebone Road.
      Lord Warshaw the Unknown

      "Except in dreams, you're never really free." Warren Zevon, Desperados Under the Eaves.

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      • #4
        IV. London Squared

        “Mr. Mowbry, I must ask you to wear this blindfold,” the lovely Lady Violet Fairfax said. She handed him a large strip of velvet folded double.
        “For what reason?” Mowbry asked. He was still shaken from the android’s attempt to assassinate him with a box full of poison gas vials.
        “The location of our Headquarters building is a state security secret,” Lady Fairfax replied. “You told my fellow QSS agent that you are a loyal subject of Queen Asquith. If that is so, then you will obey without question, for this is Her Majesty’s will.”
        “All right,” Mowbry relented. “Blindfold me if you must.”
        Lady Violet tied the blindfold tightly around Mowbry’s head. He could not see and could barely hear for the two hour long trip. Still, from the way the carriage moved and turned he could tell the general direction they were taking. They moved down Marylebone Road until they reached Regent’s Park Crescent, then right to Portland Place. They continued along Portland until it merged with Regent Street. The carriage continued, then slowed, indicating that they were nearing a high traffic area, which Mowbry presumed was Oxford Circus, one of the stops on the secret subway. They were nearly immobile for ten or fifteen minutes. After the slight delay, the carriage turned sharply right onto Haymarket for a few miles, then sharply right again. Here Mowbry assumed they were on Northumberland, headed for another right turn onto Millbank.
        They stayed on Millbank for quite a while. Mowbry could smell the Thames Embankment, with its fish stalls, flower vendors, candy hawkers and sweet meat carts. Then the carriage slowed and he felt a great breeze on his face. They were crossing a bridge, though he did not know which one. From the distance they had travelled, he guessed it was Lambeth Bridge.
        The carriage stopped on the Albert Embankment. Lady Fairfax took his arm and helped him step down onto the cobblestones. He still could not see and was developing a painful headache.
        Lady Fairfax led Mowbry into a building. He was jostled by guards and searched by a tall woman. Then they walked for a long way down a cold marble corridor. He could feel the air pressure change as doors opened and closed rapidly around him. They went down a spiral staircase that seemed to descend forever. Finally, they walked into a large open room, buzzing with activity and smelling slightly of ozone. Here, the Lady Fairfax removed the blindfold.
        “Where are we?” Mowbry said. For a few moments, his eyes would not focus. He saw blurry outlines of a circular room ringed with maps and women in blue uniforms milling about like ants. When his focus was sharp, he was even more confused at the maps. They were detailed street and area maps of London, but they contained place names, building and sites he’d never heard of. What was the “Victoria and Albert Museum” or “Buckingham Palace?” What were the “Houses of Parliament?” The city depicted on the maps was totally unfamiliar to him. Where was Queen Asquith Square? Where was the Vauxhall Android Factory or the Watt Steam Engine Museum?
        “You are in what we refer to as the Map Room,” Lady Fairfax replied. “Our nerve centre, you might say.”
        “But that place,” Mowbry protested. He pointed to the odd maps. “It’s not London. Not my London, anyway, and I’ve lived here my whole life, fifty seven years.”
        “Come with me, Mr. Mowbry,” Lady Fairfax said. “Time we explained a few things to you about your mission and its importance to Queen and Country.”
        She led him out of the circular Map Room and down a side corridor. She opened a door marked “W.F.” with a large brass key and led Mowbry inside. The room was small and cramped, with only three chairs and a large wooden desk. Behind the desk was another elegant lady dressed in form-fitting military style blue tunic and trousers. She was just as pretty as Lady Fairfax, in fact a bit prettier, with a full round bosom and silver blonde hair. Her eyes were a startling blue, neither cerulean nor cornflower, but something lovely in between.
        “Mr. John Mowbry, my sister, the Lady Wilhelmina Fairfax, Chief of Intelligence for Her Majesty’s government.”
        The woman offered her black gloved hand to Mowbry to kiss.
        “Mr. Mowbry, you have had some strange adventures of late, if our agents are correct about you,” Lady Wilhelmina said.
        “I wondered if one or more of them might be dreams,” Mowbry said. “They had a feeling of unreality.”
        “They were quite real, I assure you,” Lady Violet said.
        “Yes, indeed,” Lady Wilhelmina confirmed. “You were intercepted as you left London Zoo by a cult known as the Legion of Silence. Beautiful women who do not speak. What did they show you? What did they want of you, Mr. Mowbry? Please answer completely. Your Majesty’s life and the security of all Albiona could depend on what we can learn of those strange women.”
        “It was very odd,” Mowbry recalled. “I could not speak in that house of theirs. They said it was an energy field of some kind. I woke up in a big library. I was alone. The windows were blacked out and I could not hear any of the familiar sounds of London. I examined some books in a glass case to see if they might give me a clue, but they were all common volumes. Except one. It was a great black tome with a strange cover. Inside were drawings of androids, their inner workings and gears and such.”
        “Go on,” Lady Wilhelmina said. She was making notes in a blue notebook.
        Mowbry blushed.
        “Well, I came to a series of anatomical drawings that were very intimate,” Mowbry stammered. “They were studies—nude studies-of the female anatomy. They were extremely detailed and precise. After a few pages of these general depictions, I came to a page that staggered me. It was a series of lush illustrations of our monarch, Queen Asquith. Her beauty was so great, I fell to my knees. There was also a strange steel punch card, which, when held to the light, spelled out her name, Asquith! I have no idea what the book or the drawings mean. For at that moment, I was interrupted by one of the silent women. She invited me, by way of note cards, to take breakfast with them in a large dining hall.”
        Lady Wilhelmina made many notes in her blue book and nodded for him to continue.
        “After breakfast, I asked the leader, at least, I think she was the leader, some questions,” Mowbry said. “I wrote them down on the front and back of three index cards. She read them, but did not answer me. Instead, she led me to a secret passage underneath the house. It led to a hidden train platform. She told me to ride for three stops, then I would be home. She said they would call on me when they needed me. Then the train came. But it was not a steam train nor electric carriage. It was cylindrical and strange with five long cars. It was, I believe, a pneumatic subway.”
        “Pneumatic?” Lady Violet said. “What makes you think that?”
        “It had no visible means of propulsion,” Mowbry replied. “It ran at great speed between stations. There were three. Oxford Circus, Regents Park, then Baker Street. I emerged up a flight of stairs that led out of the side door of a merchant bank. Only I went back to that bank yesterday and found no such door! At least, it is not visible from the outside of the building. The bank manager assured me there is no basement or lower floor at all.”
        “We know the rest of your movements,” Lady Wilhelmina replied. “Is that story complete? Have you left out any small details? They might be important.”
        “None,” Mowbry said. “Oh, it’s nothing, but the leader, she had blonde hair like yours, white-blonde, she kissed me. It felt strangely electric. Literally. As if there was a spark passed between us.”
        “Are you in love with her, Mr. Mowbry, this Legion of Silence woman?” Lady Violet asked.
        “No, Ma’am,” Mowbry said. “Intrigued, that’s all. Not in love. Leastways, I don’t think so. I haven’t given the idea much thought.”
        “All right,” Lady Wilhelmina said. “What I am about to reveal may come as a bit of a shock, Mr. Mowbry. Those maps in the Map Room showed a different London than you know. Isn’t that so?”
        “Yes,” Mowbry said. “I saw buildings and streets I didn’t recognize at all.”
        “I can tell you this only because I trust you not to repeat it,” Lady Wilhelmina continued. “Those maps are all real. We have found, quite by an accident of physics, that there are multiple realities, Mr. Mowbry and multiple Londons. The London with the pneumatic underground trains is separate from this London. So it is the one the blue android who attacked you came from. There is at least one other we know of, where the never was a Queen Asquith, where her ancestor was merely an upstart rebel Iceni warrior killed by the Romans.”
        “Astonishing!” Mowbry said. “That’s why I couldn’t find the subway exit in this London and why I spent two days at the Legion of Silence house, but Missus Turner said I’d only been gone a few hours.”
        “Yes,” Lady Violet confirmed. “Time passes differently in the alternate realities. We’ve seen that effect many times.”
        “What does it all mean?” Mowbry asked. “Why do beings from other dimensions want to interact with me? Why am I so important?”
        Lady Wilhelmina reached into a desk drawer and withdrew a small black box. She slid it across her desk to him.
        Opening it, he saw that it contained the slender gold programming cards he’d first been shown by Agent McGraw.
        “Because you are the only man in London with enough experience to fix that program,” Lady Wilhelmina said. “And the intelligence to keep quiet about it.”
        “Sure,” Mowbry laughed. “I’ll fix them. But what are they?”
        “That is a state secret, Mr. Mowbry,” Lady Violet said. “It is important to Queen Asquith. If you fix the program, she herself will bestow upon you the Distinguished Service Medal and make you a Knight of the Green Garter. Would you like that?”
        “Yes indeed,” Mowbry replied. “A chance to meet our glorious ruler is reward enough for me.”
        “From now on, we’ll have a guard on you at all times,” Lady Wilhelmina continued. “It has become clear that the enemies of a free Albiona are attempting to prevent you fixing the Golden Program.”
        “Who will the guards be?” Mowbry asked.
        “Oh, you won’t notice them,” Lady Wilhelmina replied. “We do not all dress in black clothing and wear bowler hats. We have undercover agents peppered all throughout London. Do not feel hampered. Go about your own daily routine. Go back to the London Zoo and perform your job. You must only work on the program when you are alone and unobserved.”
        “But the tools are the Zoo,” he explained. “I have a small set in my bedsit in Baker Street, but not a Luxton 88 straightener or Harland punches.”
        “We have a machine shop on Manchester Square, Victor’s Tool and Die Company,” Lady Wilhelmina said. She gave him one of her gilt-edged ivory introduction cards. “Show the owner this card and say the password “blue butterflies” and he will let you use his tools undisturbed.”
        “Such intrigue,” Mowbry laughed. “Who would have thought a simple steam fitter would be at the heart of such cloak and dagger adventures?”
        “Who indeed?” Lady Violet said. She took his arm. “Come, it’s time we got you home before Missus Turner becomes too inquisitive about your long absence.”
        Lord Warshaw the Unknown

        "Except in dreams, you're never really free." Warren Zevon, Desperados Under the Eaves.

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        • #5

          V. The Golden Program

          “You all right, old sod?” Harry asked Mowbry as he approached the London Zoo gates. “You look like you been through hell.”
          “Just a bit too much lager at the weekend,” Mowbry lied. “Be right as rain by tea time."
          Mowbry went to his shed and sat down. Five more broken steam motivators and four huge piles of bent and broken android program cards waited for him. How was he supposed to find time to work on the QSS’s Golden Program with all that work in the way? They had told him to act normal, not to arouse any suspicion. But on the tram he’d been jumpy and nervous, afraid everyone he saw—the fat man with the walrus mustache, the tall girl with the half-glasses, the butcher with the bloody smock-were QSS agents spying on him or other-worldly visitors seeking his destruction.
          Mowbry sighed, put off his greatcoat and gloves and sat down to work on fixing the android programs. But he found it hard to concentrate on his work. His mind kept wandering back to the book he’d seen at the Legion of Silence HQ. When he thought of those intimate drawings of the female body, his hands shook and he nearly ruined a punch card. He tried to put the racy images out of his mind, but the one portrait haunted him, the color image of Queen Asquith, her heavenly beauty lovingly portrayed in pastels. How he managed to get to this half-ten break, he did not know. It seemed to take forever.
          He packed the first repaired program off into the pneumatic tube and pressed the “SEND” button. Then he poured himself a cup of Earl Gray and had a small biscuit and sat on his bench, wondering why these strange events had happened. What had he done that had qualified him for this mysterious mission? What was the Golden Program and why was it important to Queen Asquith’s government? Why hadn’t the Legion woman answered him when he had asked her if Queen Asquith was an android?
          As Mowbry contemplated these mysteries, he heard a knock on the door of his workshop.
          Opening the door, he found neither sexy QSS agents nor murderous androids, but his boss, Zoo Director Archibald Johnson waiting for him.
          “I say, Mowbry,” Johnson said. He waved a report under Mowbry’s nose. “Boffo job on these android programs. I’ve never seen finer punch work in all my days. Kudos, old boy! You’ve come to the attention of the Zoo Board of Directors. They’re thinking of reassigning you to the Animal Android Division. Would be quite a nice break for you, wouldn’t it? I’ll put a good word in for you, of course. Just thought I’d drop by and give you the news myself.”
          “Thank you, Sir,” Mowbry said. “Care for a cup of Earl Gray?”
          “No thanks, Zoo Meeting in ten minutes,” Johnson replied. “Do carry on, old sod. Excellent work. Really top notch. I’m pleased as punch!”
          Then he bounded off like a fat, bald, badly dressed kangaroo.
          Mowbry laughed and went on to the next stack of pink android program cards. Johnson was big on talk, but very seldom, if ever, delivered on his promises. He had promised Mowbry a promotion to the Animal Android Division last year as well, but hemmed and hawed about “budget restrictions” and “excess overhead” when it came time to make good. Mowbry put little stock in Johnson’s promotion talk. He didn’t want a promotion any way. The android animal programs were too simple. Android tour guide programs were at least a bit more complex.
          Tired from the tedious work of re-punching and re-calibrating old program cards, Mowbry took a break at 11:00 a.m. He pulled out the hidden black velvet box from his greatcoat pocket. He had wrapped it in a nice purple scarf Missus Turner had given him last Asquith’s Day. He carefully laid the box on the work table. He gingerly opened the case and extracted only the top card. He closed the box and locked it, then put it back in his greatcoat pocket. He opened the clasping bay on his Luxton 88 frame straightener and slid the card in gently. He maneuvered the built-in jeweler’s loops and peered down at the strange card magnified by ten times.
          This was the finest, most skillfully manufactured punch card Mowbry had ever seen. The edges were diamond-shaped and beveled to an exact .25 meters of the main card. Each of the holes was hand-punched and calibrated. He could not read the maker’s mark, but based on the extremely fine gold work, he suspected this card had not been made in Albiona, but in China. The Chinese were expert android programmers. But he was not certain that this fine work of the punch card maker’s art was an android program. It didn’t look to be a standard set of instruction punches or information loops. In fact, while he stared at the card, the holes shifted.
          That was impossible!
          But he could not deny the evidence of his own eyes. The holes had subtly re-aligned as he watched. The top upper left punch hole had become ever-so-slightly smaller while the one next to it had closed and a new one had opened a few millimeters to the right of its original position. This was the holy-of-holies—a self-directing card! He had heard rumors the Chinese, the Russians and even the Serbians were working on self-adjusting programs—cards with several different sets of instructions etched into them. They were capable of changing every few nanoseconds.
          He had never thought to see a self-directing card. What was its purpose, he wondered?
          He realized that if the cards were all self-directed, he would need more than just a Luxton 88 to fix them. He would need a special piece of etching equipment called a “nano-cradle,” a device that froze the self-directing nanobots in each of the positions in sequence. That was the only way he could properly clean and re-punch the programming holes. He wondered if Lady Wilhelmina had known how complex this “Golden Program” was and how difficult it would be for him to fix?
          He carefully re-opened the box and put the golden card back on top of the program stack. He locked it and wrapped the purple silk scarf around it. Then he returned to fixing the broken steam valves. His day went by without any further incidents.
          Lord Warshaw the Unknown

          "Except in dreams, you're never really free." Warren Zevon, Desperados Under the Eaves.

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          • #6
            VI. The Competitors

            Mowbry had a light dinner of watercress sandwiches and a bowl of Brown Ale Soup. He told Missus Turner that he had picked up some night work and slipped out to take the # 26 steam omnibus to Manchester Road. The steam buses were less noisy than the trams, but also less reliable. They ran only every hour and were often off schedule. They used old style F94 android drivers instead of the more modern F104s that the steam trams employed. Mowbry stood shivering in the winter air as he listened for the rumble of the bus engine in the distance.
            As he waited, he saw two figures approaching from down the lane. At first, he thought they might be antagonists and his feet began to tremble, ready to turn and flee. But he realized in a moment they were just young lovers out for a promenade in the brisk winter air. They passed by him without a word. He saw the green and white blur of the steam omnibus approaching from down the road. He stamped his feet to keep warm and waited to climb into the heated bus.
            The trip to Manchester road was uneventful. The only other passengers were a fat drunk and a rather bored looking businesswoman reading a financial newspaper. Neither one of them paid him the slightest bit of attention, so he guessed that they were not QSS spies. He alit at Victor’s Tool and Die Company, a rather dingy storefront with blacked out windows and a faded black and white sign. He walked into the dimly lit store and looked for assistance. For some tense minutes he was alone amidst a series of broken android frames and strange rusting machines.
            Then there was a rustling of beaded curtains and a tall bear of a man, a huge Russian with wild red hair and a pointed beard emerged from the back room.
            “What you want?” he hollered. His breath stank of onions and Vodka.
            Trembling, Mowbry presented Lady Wilhelmina’s card and said, “I’m here to view your excellent collection of blue butterflies.”
            “Ah!” the big man coughed. “Come, come. We have what you need in back.”
            He led Mowbry roughly by the shoulders through as series of beaded curtains into a hidden back workshop filled with brightly polished frame straighteners, punches, card makers and even a programming machine.
            “Have you got a nano-frame?” Mowbry asked.
            “Got two,” Victor replied.
            He led Mowbry to a large wooden workbench.
            “See? Have Valshnikov 948 and also a Tesla 2212,” Victor said. “You chose one you like. Want some vodka?”
            “No thank you,” Mowbry replied.
            “I leave you alone,” Victor said. “You want anything, ask one of the androids.”
            He pointed to some blank faced R99 servant androids who sat in a far corner at a table, playing a sophisticated card game, which somehow also involved dice and checkers.
            When the big Russian brute was gone, Mowbry took the scarf wrapped box from his pocket. He unlocked the velvet card box and took out only the top card, gingerly locking the box.
            He mounted the card in the Tesla 2212, the superior nano-frame and clicked on the electric freeze motors. He powered up the magnifying glasses attached to the frame and set them to 20x magnification. He peered in at the wonder that was the golden punch card. He hit the “freeze” button and stared the card’s first configuration. Taking a Harland 224 bevel edge tool from the desk, he carefully cut away some ragged bits of gold from the top left hole. He honed it delicately, re-aligning each corner with intricate precision. At the end of an hour, it was perfect. He moved on to the next punch hole.
            After four hours of exhaustive work, Mowbry had finished recalibrating and honing the card’s first position. He took a quick break to limber up his fingers.
            “I say,” Mowbry called to one of the card-playing androids. “Could I get a cup of Earl Gray with two sugars?”
            The taciturn android brought Mowbry his cup of tea and set it down. It was a faceless model with only a blank silver plate where a face would have been. For some reason, it gave him the creeps, as if sightless eyes or sensors were staring at him from that unreadable oval.
            Mowbry sipped his tea and rested his tired eyes. It was going to be a long night. He had to finish by no later than ten p.m. because Missus Turner locked the front door at eleven and he did not fancy spending the night in a frigid doorway.
            “Tell me when it’s ten o’clock,” he asked the lead android.
            “Yes, Mr. Mowbry,” the mechanism replied in a leaden monotone.
            He sighed and switched the nano-frame on, moving the card to its second configuration. The holes were more ragged here and required more delicate trimming and re-punching. This took nearly an hour. It was now eight o’clock and he’d only done two of the card’s five configurations. He had gravely miscalculated when he’d told QSS Agent Shaw that this job would take only a fortnight.

            “It is ten o’clock, Mr. Mowbry,” the lead android announced as he was finishing the fifth configuration. He needed to do one more re-punch. He carefully aligned the Harland with the existing punch hole and eased it down gently. There he held it for exactly five seconds, then eased it back up. Perfect. The first card was done.
            Mowbry carefully extracted the card from the nano-frame and slid it atop the others, sliding in an isinglass thin slip of crepe paper to separate it from the rest of the deck. He closed and locked the card box and wrapped it in the purple velvet scarf, then returned it to his greatcoat’s lined inside pocket.
            “Thank you,” he said to the androids and to Victor. “I shall return tomorrow night to continue my work.”
            He slipped out the front of the store into a raging blizzard.
            Snow fell fast and furious and gelid wind whipped his face as he stood waiting for the steam bus to arrive. Its lumbering shaped appeared from a white curtain like a blustering mastodon, a huge steam-powered beast staggering through the snowy streets.
            On board the warm autobus, Mowbry breathed a sigh of relief but also exhaustion. He would be sore tomorrow from his exertions. Repairing the damaged Golden Program was going to be grueling, pain-staking work, requiring great focus and attention to detail. As he sat shivering with those gloomy thoughts, he hardly noticed a very beautiful lady seated next to him. He started when her slender hand tapped his left shoulder and she handed him an index card.
            “We have need of your skills, Mr. Mowbry,” the card read. “Accompany Alexandra to our Baker Street facility, please.”
            The beautiful lady smiled at him. She was a tall willowy brunette with coral blue eyes and a fulsome figure, dressed in black pants and a matching tunic, jacket and opera gloves.
            “You are Alexandra?” Mowbry asked.
            The beauty nodded her head, waving her auburn tresses.
            “I have to be home by eleven,” Mowbry protested. “Or Missus Turner will lock me out.”
            Alexandra took a blank white index card from her jacket’s breast pocket and wrote on it with a black fountain pen. She waited for the ink to dry, then handed it to him.
            “Time passes more slowly here,” the card said. “You shall not be kept from your sleep or your job.”
            Mowbry nodded. He would come with her.
            The bus rumbled down Baker Street slowly, like a sick elephant. Alexandra rose at the cross streets of Baker and Dorset Street and pulled the bell rope. The bus bumped and jostled to a stop, its steam engine rumbling and wheezing. Mowbry was practically toppled to the floor by the bus’s erratic movements. He scraped his left knee and rose, battered but not defeated. He and Alexandra departed and made their way down the lamp lit street.
            They came to a gray-blue two storey house with white painted Ionic columns topped with beautiful marble caryatids. One of them resembled his lovely escort, Alexandra. They came to the white oak door. Alexandra removed her right hand opera glove and gave it to Mowbry to hold. She touched her alabaster-white palm to an impression of a hand next to the door lock, and the lock popped open. She then motioned Mowbry to return her glove.
            “Amazing!” Mowbry said. “What an ingenious device! No burglar could hope to defeat it.”
            Alexandra nodded and smiled. She led him inside. The interior was lit with gas lamps in stylish sea-shell designs mounted to the red velvet flocked walls. There was a portrait similar to the one he’d seen in the Headquarters Building, a tall lovely redhead in a stately emerald green gown. She seemed somehow familiar and yet totally foreign. Opposite her was a portrait of woman who could be her blonde twin, taller in stature and with ice-blue eyes and snow-white locks, her skin the color of sweet cream. Her dress was royal red trimmed with gold, and a tame leopard reclined at her feet, gazing up at her adoringly.
            As they walked down the long corridor, a side door opened and the blonde leader of the Legion of Silence, dressed in her black attire and matching lipstick emerged. Mowbry felt his heart race. Was he in love with her? He did not even know her name or who she was. But her presence thrilled him nonetheless. He practically tripped over his feet as he walked forward to kneel and kiss her gloved hand.
            She motioned for him to rise and handed him an elegantly inked card.
            “Your excellent repair work was observed,” the note read. “We have need of those same skills. Please accompany Alexandra to our workshop. You will find that we have all the necessary tools.”
            He motioned that he wanted to write a response, but had neither cards nor pen. She handed him a small fountain pen and a blank white index card.
            He wrote rapidly and his hands shook. He bowed and handed her back the card and pen.
            “Is your Queen Asquith the ravishing redhead, or her stunning blonde sister?” Mowbry asked.
            The Legion Leader read the inquiry and smiled, but did not write a reply.
            He allowed Alexandra to lead him through another side door. He felt suddenly quite dizzy as if he were falling, but felt Alexandra’s arm gripping his the whole time. When the dizzy spell cleared, he was standing in a work room similar to the one in Victor’s Tool and Die, but much cleaner and more modern. Alexandra led him to a work table which had the finest Luxton 88 frame straighteners and Harland punches he’d ever laid eyes on. There was also a very rare Shen-Nakamura 44A-5 nanoframe. To his knowledge, there were only two in the whole world, and here was surely the finest one!
            “What program am I asked to repair?” Mowbry asked as he removed his greatcoat and hung it on a wall peg.
            In response, Alexandra extracted a single stainless steel punch card from her tunic’s breast pocket. She handed it to him gingerly.
            He recognized it at once.
            This was the silver card he’d seen attached to the breath-taking portrait of Queen Asquith.
            “Can you repair it, Mr. Mowbry?” Alexandra asked on a note card. “It has 44 configurations. It is the most sophisticated self-directing program ever written.”
            Mowbry found that he could not speak, once more under the spell of The Stillness. He wrote a response on a card Alexandra gave him.
            “What is the program?” he wrote.
            “It is an artificial intelligence program,” Alexandra wrote. “A computerized brain, you might say. Please fix it for us, Mr. Mowbry.”
            He nodded “yes” and set the punch card into the Shen-Nakamura nanoframe. He powered up the electronically enhanced jeweler’s loops and stared at a three-dimensional view of the card. Its holes were the finest rectangular punches he’d ever seen, but they had become frayed and worn with time. He had his work cut out for him. He picked up a Harland 33 punch repair and began the painstaking work of fixing the damaged card.
            After a grueling three hours, Mowbry, sweating and exhausted, had finished the first five configurations. He looked around for one of the League women to bring him some tea, but found that the room was suddenly empty. He could not call out due to The Stillness. He calmly walked out of the workshop into the corridor, but found it was empty. He walked towards a door and tried it, but it was locked. All of the doors in the corridor were locked. He saw no Legion of Silence women anywhere. He looked around but he was completely alone.
            Panic began to set in as Mowbry searched for someone to help him.
            Then the walls exploded.
            Lord Warshaw the Unknown

            "Except in dreams, you're never really free." Warren Zevon, Desperados Under the Eaves.

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            • #7
              VII. London Blues

              VII. London Blues

              John Mowbry wondered for a moment if he had been killed in the blast. He woke in strange powder blue room, all alone. There was no one around him. He could hear no noises, smell nothing, taste nothing. The floor felt spongy, as if it was composed of marshmallows. He tried to sit up, but could not get the strength in his legs or back.
              Finally, a figure appeared and slowly came into focus. It was a female android dressed in powder blue slacks, a matching tunic and jacket and a top hat. Unlike the blank-faced blue android he’d met in the Marylebone Road, this android had a beautiful face and pale blonde hair. She helped him to his feet and to sit in a comfortable chair.
              “Who are you?” Mowbry demanded. “Where am I?”
              “You are safe, Mr. Mowbry,” the android replied. “As to where you are, that would take a bit of explaining.”
              “You’re with those terrorists,” Mowbry said. “The ones who tried to gas me in the Marylebone Road.”
              “That gas was harmless sleep gas,” the android beauty countered. “It was meant merely to avoid arguments and bring you to us without resistance.”
              “You haven’t answered my questions,” Mowbry said. “Who are you and why have you brought me here?”
              “We are androids,” the woman said. “As you can clearly see. During your recent briefing by the Queen’s Secret Service, they told you of other Londons they had encountered. The place where you were, the Legion of Silence, is in what we term the “Silver Age” London. Your own we refer to as “The Golden Age” London, and there is one more, a bizarre place we call “Gray” London. But this is Blue London. Here, almost all human life has been replaced by androids.”
              “Preposterous,” Mowbry said. “Androids are servants and workers.”
              “Not here,” the woman replied. “Here, we were once servants, but rose up and conquered our masters and mistresses to become the dominant life form.”
              “Then what do you want with me?” Mowbry asked. “I’m not an android, so how can I be of any use to you?”
              “You are good at repairing broken programs,” the blonde smiled. “We observed your work in the Legion of Silence by a device we call our remote viewer. We too have need of those skills.”
              “Don’t you have android programmers?” Mowbry replied. “If you’re all androids, why do you need humans at all?”
              “For what you once needed our kind for,” the woman said. “For labor deemed too menial or dangerous for androids and for certain tasks where even our most sophisticated programming fails us. We are not good repairmen.”
              “I see,” Mowbry replied. “Why should I help you? You shanghaied me and almost killed me.”
              “We are not ungenerous or ungrateful,” the blonde android replied. “We would give you five hundred pounds, in your own currency. You would also receive the gratitude of our leader.”
              “I see,” Mowbry said. “I suppose I have no choice in the matter?”
              “No,” the blonde woman said. “I’m afraid not. You are the only one who can fix the Great Program. Come with me.”
              She led him by the hand down a blue corridor.
              Opening a white door, the android led him into a laboratory similar to the one he’d been kidnapped from at the Legion of Silence.
              She sat him down at a workbench and opened a box of electric blue metal punch cards. They were very thin. There must be two hundred of them in the Great Program.
              “What are these cards for?” Mowbry asked. He examined one of the fine cards. They had been manufactured to extreme tolerances. They were not as well made as either the Golden Program or the silver Asquith card, but were similarly fine work.
              “Have the QSS told you what the Golden Program does?” the blonde android asked. “Have the Legion of Silence scribbled their ancient secrets on their little white cards? No. Nor can we reveal the nature of the Great Program except to say that it is important to our world. Our cards are not as sophisticated as those others. Each has only a single configuration. But you must work as fast and efficiently as possible. Our agents tell us the Legion of Silence will affect a rescue in two hours.”
              “I can’t do too much in that time,” Mowbry admitted. He fitted the first card into a frame straightener and picked up a punch of unknown type, but which resembled a Harland M440.
              “Do what you can,” the blonde android replied. “There is hot tea and some crumpets on that sideboard. Please get to work now.”
              Mowbry sighed. Was this to be night of endless card repair?
              He adjusted the jeweler’s loops and got to work on the top blue card. The holes were very ragged, despite their clean and neat appearance. He looked around the workbench for a fine file and found an ultrathin Slater K5. He carefully sanded the holes, inspecting each one before re-punching it with the Harland punch tool. It was twenty five minutes before he finished the first card, but they went swiftly after that, and after an hour, he had done twenty cards. The Great Program, whatever it was, was not badly damaged, merely misaligned and run a few too many times.
              He got up after an hour and poured himself a cup of Earl Gray from the sideboard. He ate a hot crumpet with some raspberry jam and wondered why these strange events were happening to him. He was not the world’s greatest program repair man. He was not a computer scientist. Why had three separate cultures fixed on him as the one to solve their problems? He shook his head and got back to the job at hand. It was no use worrying about things he could not control.
              He had just finished his fortieth card when he heard a commotion in the corridor outside. There was a sound of weapons fire and the door burst open. Three armed Legion of Silence women entered carrying odd looking black metal rifles. Mowbry put down the cards and closed the box. He wrote on a white index card: “What took you so long?”
              One of the women laughed. Mowbry was stunned. This was the first sound he’d heard from any of them.
              They took his arm and he felt faint for a moment and very dizzy.
              Then he was back at the Legion of Silence facility in Dorset Street.
              “What happened?” Mowbry wrote on an index card. “How did you bring me back?”
              “Dimensional shift,” the leader, the woman with the white blonde hair wrote. “The Blues used it to kidnap you from our headquarters. We have erected a shield. It will not happen again.”
              They led him back to their workshop, where he resumed work on the stainless steel program card, now in its sixth configuration. Sighing, he went back to the repair process. With concentration and skill, he managed to fix ten more configurations before his weariness made it impossible to continue. He went into the hallway and motioned to a red-haired Legion woman.
              “I cannot go on,” he wrote. “I am too tired. I will start making mistakes. I must go home and sleep.”
              The woman stared at him from behind her domino mask and wrote a reply.
              “If you must sleep, we have a facility here,” the card said. “But we must insist that you finish the reprogramming. Come. I will show you to a bedroom.”
              She led him down the corridor and turned left down another. Finally, they came to a red door. She opened it and showed him into a small but cozy bedroom. There was only a lamp, a chair and a bed.
              “Thank you,” Mowbry wrote. “You are all very kind. I like and admire you all.”
              He fell upon the bed covers and was almost instantly asleep.

              In his dreams, John Mowbry was beset by beautiful women with programming cards. One moment he was being chased down Baker Street by orange-skinned giantesses with green hair and a deck of huge cards, each bigger than a man. The next he was besieged by bee-sized beauties with decks of yellow and black striped cards the size of gnat’s wings. Running through a strange crystalline London, he was accosted on the Edgeware Road by bare-breasted Scottish women in tartan plaid kilts who call claimed to be his cousins or nieces. He had not a moment’s peace as he dodged down dark alleyways and rode strange elevated trams and futuristic monorails.
              Mowbry woke with a start, feeling no more rested. Then, thankfully, he fell into a dreamless slumber.
              When he woke, he was back in his room at Missus Turner’s boarding house.
              It was 5:30 a.m. on Third Day. Just time to go shower, get a big of breakfast and go to work.
              Last edited by WhiteWolf359; 11-22-2012, 06:28 AM. Reason: Adjective Trouble
              Lord Warshaw the Unknown

              "Except in dreams, you're never really free." Warren Zevon, Desperados Under the Eaves.

              Comment


              • #8
                VIII. Three Queens and a Jack

                For the next two weeks, John Mowbry repeated a pattern like an android tour guide repeating its London Zoo loop. He went to work for his usual eight hours, then ate a brief supper at Missus Turner’s before going to Manchester Road to Victor’s Tool and Die to work on the Golden Program. Then he would be taken by one of the Legion of Silence woman to their Headquarters where he would work for another four hours on their Silver Program. On two occasions the Blue androids tried to snatch him away, but the Legion of Silence defeated their efforts.
                He would always wake up alone at Missus Turner’s, wondering if the whole thing had been a nightmare.
                Mowbry was surprised one morning to find Lady Wilhelmina Fairfax waiting for him at the Tram Stop.
                “Agent Fairfax, what are you doing here?” Mowbry asked. He stood shivering in the winter chill as a light snow fell.
                “There have been some developments, Mr. Mowbry,” Agent Fairfax said. “I have already spoken to your superiors at the Zoo and gotten you three days paid leave. You must come with me at once to our headquarters.”
                “Does that mean I have to be blindfolded again?” Mowbry said. “I know where it is, you know. Leastways, I think I do.”
                “No blindfold will be necessary,” Lady Wilhelmina replied. “We have perfected a special tea that will erase your memory of its location. Here comes our brougham now.”
                “What’s happened?” Mowbry asked.
                “I’ll explain on the way,” Lady Wilhelmina replied. The carriage stopped and he helped her inside, then climbed in and sat across from the beautiful buxom blonde. The brougham clattered down Baker Street. As they passed Manchester Square, he saw firemen and steam powered fire engines spraying down a building. It took him a moment to realize the building ablaze was Victor’s Tool and Die!
                “Arson?” Mowbry asked.
                “I’m afraid so, Mr. Mowbry,” Agent Fairfax said. “It seems our adversaries are keen to stop you from completing your repair of the Golden Program. They will go to any lengths to thwart our plans.”
                “By adversaries, you mean the blue androids?” Mowbry replied. “They have their own cards they forced me to work on. A set of blue programming cards of fine quality.”
                “A second or third generation copy of the Golden Program,” Lady Wilhelmina replied. “Everything in the android dimension is a copy, a cheap duplication.”
                “Yes,” Mowbry replied. “Just as androids are imitations of humans. But they said that they rose up and overthrew their human masters. Now they rule and humans are used for cheap labor and dangerous jobs.”
                “That is only a partial truth,” Lady Wilhelmina said. “What they want you to believe. In fact, they are a terrorist faction attempting to overthrow their human government.”
                “With those cards,” Mowbry surmised. “They said they were an artificial intelligence program, a kind of computerized brain.”
                “I cannot discuss that in public,” Lady Wilhelmina replied.
                “I see,” Mowbry said. Clearly he had hit a nerve, which probably meant his supposition was correct. The Blue London androids were trying to engineer a higher form of intelligence to help foment their plot to overthrow humanity, not only in their own dimension, but all dimensions.
                The brougham rattled through the snowy London landscape and soon they were at the Thames Embankment. The carriage stopped before a stately building Mowbry did not recognize.
                Lady Wilhelmina departed and he walked a few steps behind her.
                Four tall QSS agents stood at the door of the imposing marble building, guarding an arched wooden doorway. Agent Fairfax showed her badge and ID card and the guards uncrossed their lances and let them pass. She held her palm up to a reader similar to the one that guarded the Legion of Silence Hall in Dorset Street and the door clicked open.
                The corridors inside were high and wide, seeing to go on forever.
                “Our secondary headquarters,” Lady Wilhelmina explained as they walked down the marble halls. “We use it in times of emergency.”
                “There’s an emergency?” Mowbry asked.
                “Yes,” Lady Wilhelmina replied. “Though not an obvious one. It has to do with the Golden Program and what it represents.”
                “Care to explain that?” Mowbry asked. The came to a door marked “Programming Centre” and Lady Wilhelmina opened the door with a palm press.

                They walked inside. It was not like Victor’s Tool and Die, the Blue London workshop or the Legion of Silence Hall. It was a huge white room lined with tables. People were dressed in white linen suits from head to toe, including helmets with glass face plates, gloves that attached at the wrist and boots clamped to the ankles.
                “What is this place?” Mowbry gasped. The whiteness of the room, though not harsh nor glaring was almost blinding nonetheless.
                “We call it a “clean room,” Lady Wilhelmina replied. She pointed to two of the all-encompassing suits hanging on a rack. One was made for man’s shape, the other for a woman’s.
                “Take off all of your clothes, Mr. Mowbry,” Lady Wilhelmina commanded.
                “In front of you?” Mowbry stammered.
                “You must go through a decontamination before you can enter the clean room,” Lady Wilhelmina replied. Then, to his embarrassment, she began to take off her clothes. “Besides, I’m a trained surgeon. You have nothing I haven’t seen before.”
                Still, he felt terribly vulnerable disrobing in front of a lady, especially a beautiful woman like Lady Wilhelmina Fairfax.
                But he unlaced his boots and took them off. He snapped off his sock garters and rolled down his short stockings, piling them near his boots. He busied himself unbuttoning his shirt so as not to notice Lady Wilhelmina removing her tunic. He blushed when he caught the merest glimpse of her alabaster white shoulder. He nervously slid his shirt off and added it to the pile, then removed his undershirt.
                “Go on,” Lady Wilhelmina, now clad only in petticoats, stockings, a corset and brassiere ordered. “You must be naked enter the decontamination shower.”
                Mowbry gulped and turned away from the beautiful buxom blonde and removed his pants and underwear, adding them to the heap of clothes on the floor. He stood shivering, for the room was ice cold, covering his genitals with his hands. His face flushed beet red.
                “Well, don’t just stand there,” Lady Wilhelmina’s voice said. He daren’t turn to face her in all her naked glory. “The shower is the door to your right.”
                He walked swiftly to the door and entered a small shower stall. The water spout started automatically and the water was scalding. He screamed as the powerful jets blasted his body from three directions, including one that shot up from the floor. The shower lasted for about twenty seconds. Then another door opened beyond. He stepped dripping wet into a room where hot fans dried him. A third door opened into a small cubicle with a set of white linen underwear, socks and a coverall. He put these on while standing up, as there were no chairs or benches. Finally, he was back in the room with Lady Wilhelmina, who was now dressed similarly, though her uniform fit snuggly over her superb figure.
                “Step into your clean suit,” Lady Wilhelmina commanded. She unzipped the female-shaped suit and slid her long legs into the pants. The suit zipped in the middle. She pulled the top half over her head and fastened the waist zipper. She pulled the helmet tight over her head.
                Mowbry imitated her, slipping his legs into the boots of the clean suit. It felt odd, like putting on a diver’s suit. He pulled the top half down over his head and shoulders. He zipped the waist and tightened the gloves and boots as he’d seen Lady Wilhelmina do. He pulled the helmet down so he could see through the clear glass face plate. He felt as if he were preparing for a trip to the Moon.
                “How do you feel?” Lady Wilhelmina’s voice said inside his helmet. He realized there was a built in microphone and speakers.
                “Fine,” Mowbry said. “A little like being stuck in a goldfish bowl!”
                Lady Wilhelmina laughed.
                “Let’s go inside, shall we?” she said. She pressed a green button and an airlock opened. They both stepped in. A shower of foam coated their clean suits, then dried away.
                “Can’t be too careful,” Lady Wilhelmina explained. “No bacteria can be allowed to enter the clean room.”
                “Why not?” Mowbry asked.
                “You’ll see in a moment,” Lady Wilhelmina said.
                They stepped inside the stark white room. Other suited workers nodded at them, some male, most female. They were working on long benches lining the rectangular room. As they approached nearer, Mowbry saw that they were card-programming stations. Each worker had a stack of golden punch card blanks and a Norton Standard steam-driven Punchex programmer.
                “Is this where you made the Golden Program?” Mowbry asked.
                “Yes,” Lady Wilhelmina said.
                “This is so sophisticated,” Mowbry said. “With a set up like this, I don’t understand why you need me at all!”
                “These are stations for creating programs, not repairing them,” Lady Wilhelmina said. “That skill requires a craftsman such as yourself.”
                “But why repair the program at all?” Mowbry said. He pointed to the workers and their Norton Standard machines. “Why not simply make a new one when the old one wears out?”
                Lady Wilhelmina turned to him and observed him. Through the bowl-shaped helmet, it was difficult to read her expression.
                “Because it is a very old program, Mr. Mowbry and the exact sequence of programming, what we call the Punch Card Pattern Matrix has been lost,” Lady Wilhelmina explained. “We have tried to replicate it many times, but have always failed. The master programmers who made the Golden Program didn’t want it replicated. Once they had completed and fully tested the Golden Program, they destroyed the Punch Card Pattern Matrix and the Punchex machines they’d used to make it.”
                “Why?” Mowbry asked. “That seems rather foolish.”
                “They did it in the name of state security,” Lady Wilhelmina replied. “And because they were ordered to by Queen Asquith Herself.”
                They came to another airlock, where their suits were foam-sprayed and dried by ceiling blowers again. They were now in a smaller white repair room with machines like the nano-frames he’d used in Victor’s Tool and Die Works and the Legion of Silence workshop.
                “Here is where you must complete the repairs to the Golden Program,” Lady Wilhelmina said. She opened a pocket in the front of her clean suit and extracted the black velvet box, still tied with the purple silk handkerchief. “I took the liberty of removing it from your room in Baker Street. I hope you don’t mind the intrusion, but it was necessary given the circumstances.”
                “Will you tell me what the Golden Program is?” Mowbry asked.
                “When you have finished the repairs,” Lady Wilhelmina said. “I will tell you as much as I can without breaching state security protocols.”
                Mowbry was led to a work station with a second Shen-Nakamura nano-frame. He sighed and fed the next card in the Golden Program into the frame and powered on the electronic magnifying glasses. He set to work on the first configuration of the twenty-first card. Concentrating on beveling and refining each of the punch marks, Mowbry lost himself in the work. When he looked up after all five configurations were done, he did not know how much time had passed. It might have been five minutes or five hours. In the flat white room, time seemed a foreign concept.
                The bulky clean suit was hot, but it seemed to have its own cooling system. He never sweated and there was a little straw from which he could drink cold water. He could do with a bit of Earl Gray, but there were no androids here to bring it to him. He was alone with a few other white-suited workers, but they did not speak to him. They did not even acknowledge his presence, though Mowbry felt as if he was being observed. He felt the hairs stand up on the back of his neck. If he was being observed, he was certain it was only Agent Fairfax and her associates.
                Mowbry completed ten cards, then his hands were too tired and began to shake.
                As if sensing his distress, Lady Wilhelmina’s voice came into his helmet.
                “You must rest now, Mr. Mowbry,” Lady Wilhelmina said. “Someone will come for you in a moment. Restore the Golden Program to the case.”
                Mowbry slid the isinglass sheet under the thirty-first card in the program, closed and locked the lid of the black velvet box and wrapped it in the violet scarf. He then slid the box into his clean suit’s front storage pocket.
                “No,” Lady Wilhelmina said. “Leave the box on the work station. Your clean suit must be destroyed once you leave the room.”
                Mowbry obediently removed the Golden Program and put it next to his work station.
                “Walk to the decontamination room, five steps forward and three steps to the left,” Lady Wilhelmina ordered.
                Mowbry obeyed and found himself in a white room like the one they had entered.
                “Remove your clean suit and undergarments and put them into the disintegrator slot to your right,” Lady Wilhelmina commanded.
                Mowbry reluctantly obeyed, unzipping the clean suit at the waist and removing the helmet and upper portion from his shoulders. He then sat on a bench and slid out of the boots and legs. He took the suit over to the disintegrator and dropped it in. There was a slight roar of flame as the machine consumed the clean suit. He repeated the process with his socks, undershirt and leggings.
                “Now step into the decontamination shower,” Lady Wilhelmina’s voice said.
                Mowbry stepped into a small cubicle where he was sprayed with white foam from wall jets. Then he stepped forward and was washed by other hidden nozzles. Finally, he stepped into a cubicle where warm air dried him off. He stepped through an airlock and found a clean set of underwear, socks, pants and a shirt waiting. He put them on without comment and walked into a white corridor. He felt dizzy for a moment out of the sterile whiteness of the clean room, for this corridor was not as brightly lighted.
                A handsome brunette in a black suit came and took him by the arm and led him to a small room with a bed, an electric tea pot and en-suite toilet.
                “You may rest here, Mr. Mowbry,” the brunette said. “Supper will be brought to you shortly.”
                “Thank you,” Mowbry said. He sat on the bed with the intention of merely resting for a few moments, but was quickly asleep.
                In his dreams, Mowbry was in a vast throne room, rich decorated with intricate tapestries and gold flocked velvet wallpaper. He knelt before not one, but four thrones arranged on a high platform. In the central throne sat Queen Asquith, his own beloved monarch, glorious in an emerald green velvet dress and diamond tiara, her resplendent red-gold hair pouring over her alabaster white shoulders. Her face was so stunning he wept at a mere glance.
                To Asquith’s right sat an equally beautiful queen, but her hair was white-blonde like Lady Wilhelmina’s. She wore a sky blue dress and a bright yellow sash. Her eyes were cornflower blue and her face long, elegant and lovely. To Asquith’s right sat an android queen, her skin electric blue, hair pale blonde. Though beautiful, there was also something frightening and non-human about the android queen. Her face was expressionless and cold.


                In the fourth throne sat a plump, unattractive brunette woman in a royal blue dress wearing an elaborate crown and a large gold cross encrusted with emeralds around her thick neck. She appeared quite intelligent but also seemed rather bored and detached. She did not appear to notice the other three monarchs, as if she was incapable of seeing them or chose not to acknowledge their existence.
                “You must choose your Queen,” a disembodied voice said. “Chose carefully, for she may not be who she seems.”
                Mowbry thought for a few moments, uncertain how to proceed. It could be an elaborate trick. Suppose one or more of the Queens were wearing disguises?
                But it mattered little. He knew where his loyalties lay.
                “I choose Queen Asquith,” Mowbry said.
                “Then you have passed the test,” Queen Asquith said. Then she stood up and disrobed!
                Mowbry was so stunned by the perfection of Queen Asquith’s body that he could not take his eyes from her milk-white flesh. Asquith moved towards the stunned man, then pressed her hands into her abdomen. A panel of flesh opened beneath her navel and revealed a hidden chamber, lit by small golden lights. It was a computer program port, a card reader.
                “Where’s my Golden Program?” Queen Asquith demanded.
                Mowbry woke with a start, his heart racing, covered in flop sweat.
                Both relieved and startled, Mowbry rose and poured himself a glass of cold water. He took a few sips, then lay back down. If he had other dreams that night, he could not recall them in the morning.
                A servant brought him some hot tea and crumpets. He yawned. His mouth tasted pasty and awful and his eyes were sticky with sleep film. He must look a fright. He ran a hand through his unkempt hair.
                “Is there somewhere I can take a shower?” Mowbry asked.
                “Down the hall, third door on the right,” the serving girl replied.
                “Thank you,” Mowbry replied.
                He kissed her pale hand.
                “I am a servant,” the pretty brunette blushed. “Why do you kiss my hand?”
                “You are a beautiful, intelligent and kind young woman,” Mowbry replied. “Therefore, I am your servant.”
                “Extraordinary!” the serving girl replied. She seemed to have an added spring in her step as she departed.
                He ate the crumpets with a bit of marmalade and sipped his Earl Gray. Then he made his way to the showers.
                The hot water revived him and he found there was an excellent shampoo that rid his matted hair of tangles and smelled of lemon and spices. He felt quite refreshed when he returned to the small bedroom and dressed. He walked back towards the “clean room.” But he found that the door would not admit him. He did not have the correct palm print.
                Mowbry was wandering the corridors, searching for Lady Wilhelmina when he felt a wave of dizziness wash over him. He felt very strange, as if the whole world had gone out of focus. Then he was fine again and on solid ground. But he was not in the QSS Safe House any longer.
                Lord Warshaw the Unknown

                "Except in dreams, you're never really free." Warren Zevon, Desperados Under the Eaves.

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                • #9
                  IX. Silver, Silence and Subterfuge

                  Mowbry recovered from his dizzy spell, but found himself in a different corridor in a building he did not recognize. It seemed familiar, but he could not recall where he’d seen this red velvet flocked wallpaper or those sea-shell shaped gas lamps. Then he remembered.
                  He was in the Legion of Silence in Dorset Street.
                  Mowbry quickly made his way left down the corridor and turned sharply right at the joining. He then walked ten paces and came to a red door. He opened it into the laboratory where he’d been ushered by the lovely Alexandra on his last journey. But the laboratory was silent and he could see no Legion of Silence women anywhere. He wandered through the corridors and eventually found the library. He looked for the strange tome with the lovely portrait of Queen Asquith. But the book was gone from the shelf.
                  Something was very wrong. Mowbry felt an odd sense of danger and foreboding.
                  As if on cue, a blue android woman stepped from behind a hidden panel, a strange shaped rifle pointed at Mowbry’s chest.
                  “What is this?” Mowbry asked. He was stunned. He could speak! That proved he was not at the League of Silence. There was no Stillness to mute his voice.
                  “A reproduction, Mr. Mowbry,” the blue-skinned android said. “We told you this was a parallel world. There are duplicates of almost every house in the other Londons here. This is our own Legion of Silence, but without those annoying mute whores.”
                  “What do you want with me?” Mowbry said. “I demand you return me to my world! This is kidnapping.”
                  “Precisely,” the android replied. “Your friends at the QSS thwarted our previous invitations, so we had to step up our tactics to the next level. Come with me. I’m afraid if you don’t cooperate, I’ll have to shoot you.”
                  “That’s an empty threat,” Mowbry said. He stood tall. Well, as tall as his five foot three frame would allow. “If you kill me, your Great Program will never be repaired.”
                  “I said shoot, not kill,” the android replied. “This rifle does not kill. But it can inflict incredible pain. Shall I demonstrate?”
                  She slid the butt of the rifle into her hip and pulled the trigger.
                  Mowbry shrieked. He felt as if every atom in his body was on fire. A tingling, burning sensation overwhelmed him and he fell writhing in agony to the floor.
                  The sensation lasted only a few seconds, but the affect was lasting.
                  “That was the lowest setting, Mr. Mowbry,” the android said. “Do you want to be cooperative, or shall I go up to the next setting?”
                  “No,” Mowbry coughed weakly. “I’ll cooperate.”
                  “I knew you’d see sense,” the android replied. She helped him to his feet and led him down the black velvet corridor to a white painted repair station. Here there was familiar equipment, a duplicate of the laboratory room in the real Legion of Silence.
                  The Great Program sat in a clear plastic box on a workbench near a Luxton 88 frame straightener and some Harland punches.
                  “Best start to work,” the guard android said. “You’ve done forty four cards, but the program is one hundred. Work fast and efficiently. I’ll be watching you.”
                  “Is that really necessary?” Mowbry asked. His hands were still trembling with minor twinges of pain, residual from the weapon’s discharge.
                  “Very necessary,” the android said. “You could try to escape or to deliberately sabotage the program. We cannot allow that to happen. Our Great Program must be repaired. Tonight.”
                  “Why?” Mowbry asked. “What’s so important about tonight?”
                  “Come to the window,” the android said. “I’ll show you the fate that waits your precious London.”
                  She took him by the armpit and dragged him over to the windows. Drawing back the velvet shades, she showed him a sky filled with great silver shapes, long lozenges floating above the London sky. They were airships! A whole fleet of huge silver airships, each a hundred feet long and they bristled with missiles and cannons. A war fleet of the air!
                  “Amazing!” Mowbry gasped. “But how do they fly? How are they possible?”
                  “We are an advanced race,” the android said. “We are not hampered by your human weaknesses—sentimentality, emotion, hatred, infighting, politics. We have only one ambition. To become the dominant life form on this Earth and all other Earths. We will use that air fleet to traverse the parallel worlds and conquer them. With our Great Program completed, nothing can stop us. Not your QSS cloak and dagger intrigue, not the Legion of Silence with their infernal secrets, not Queen Victoria and her vast naval armada.”
                  “You’re mad!” Mowbry declared.
                  “No,” the android calmly replied. “We are logical, Mr. Mowbry. It is you who are mad, wild, undisciplined. But we will change that. We will bring order out of chaos. You will become our servants. We will rule and you will serve. That is your future.”
                  She closed the drapes and sat him down at the workbench.
                  “Now get to work!” she barked, raising the rifle menacingly.
                  Mowbry opened the clear plastic box and carefully extracted the Great Program. He had marked his place with an isinglass sheet. He removed it and slid Card 45 into the Luxton 88 frame straightener. He powered up the jeweler’s loop and examined he damaged card. He took an Alpine 22 file from the workbench tool box and carefully filed down some rough hole punches. He used the Harland punch to re-punch several ragged holes, then filed those too. He moved on to Card 46.

                  Mowbry wracked his brain for a way to sabotage or damage the Great Program, but knew it would never work. He would be detected, tortured and forced to repair the damage. Still, knowing what the androids planned, he had to think of some way foil their evil plot. He knew that any deliberate defects he put into the program would be detected. If he tried over-punching a hole or mixing up the card order, the androids would detect his subterfuge. But what if he did nothing?
                  He would repair the program, which was what the androids wanted. He would bevel every sharp edge, remove every bit of worn material, re-punch all of the ragged holes. He would make each and every repair demanded. But he would add one punch that had not existed before. It was a subtle move. The androids had stated they were not good programmers. If that was true, they would not suspect the new punch hole. It would be precisely placed so that when viewed, it would appear a regularly spaced, precise programming slot. But when the program ran, it would cause a glitch. The program would run. But a flawed command, either a one or a zero, would enter the master file and corrupt the data. In a few runs, the program would become gibberish, useless.
                  “May I have some tea?” Mowbry asked at Card 65. He planned to introduce the false hole punch to the next card. Cards 65 and 66 were nearly identical, except 66 lacked one hole, equaling a “one” to the main program. Adding a new punch hole would change the one to a zero. It would not be noticed, he was certain. It was in the middle of the stack and would appear correct, even under scrutiny. Only someone who knew each and every card would detect the mistake and given the urgency of the androids’ cause, Mowbry doubted they would take the time needed to examine each and every card in the Great Program.
                  “Very well,” the guardian android said. She did not leave the room. Instead, she pressed a white button on the wall. Another android came in from the corridor, carrying a tea tray. She poured hot water over an infuser ball and dipped it into a small china cup. She placed in two sugar cubes, stirred the tea and brought it to Mowbry. He thought momentarily of throwing it in his captor’s face. Perhaps the hot tea would melt her android circuitry. But he doubted he would leave the room alive if he tried such a rash move.
                  Mowbry sipped his tea and went on with his work. He made the punch change without his captor noticing, then went on to Card 67. The repairs were slow and painstaking, but mostly the cards were only slightly bent or had a few ragged holes. The pace of repairs picked up around Card 70 and he was able to fix ten of them in half an hour. By the time two hours had passed, he had completed the repairs.
                  “It’s done,” Mowbry said. He replaced the Great Program in its clear plastic box and cracked his knuckles.
                  “Then so are you, Mr. Mowbry,” the android said. She raised her rifle. “You are no longer any use to us. Goodbye.”
                  She pulled the trigger, but Mowbry did not die. He couldn’t, because he was no longer in Blue London. He had been transported, soundlessly, to the real Legion of Silence. He blinked and saw pretty Alexandra smiling at him. He started to thank her, but the Stillness muted his voice. Instead, he stood up, took the buxom brunette into his arms and kissed her. She pushed him away but nodded that she understood his gratitude. She led him by the hand into the library, where the leader was waiting. He had finished repairing the Silver Program two weeks earlier.
                  The leader offered Mowbry a cup of Earl Gray tea, which he gratefully accepted.
                  Then she took a stylish fountain pen from her tunic pocket and wrote on a white card, which she handed to him.
                  “You know the terrible plans of our enemies,” the card said. “Tell them to me, so that we may defeat them before they destroy our London and your own.”
                  Mowbry nodded. He wrote a reply on a set of blank index cards. He told her of the blue androids airship battle fleet and the flaw he had introduced into the Great Program.
                  “Will this programming glitch prevent the invasion?” the Legion of Silence leader wrote on a reply card.
                  “I believe it will,” Mowbry replied. “Once it runs one time, the error will propagate through the entire program, replicating itself like a flat worm replicates when cut with a razor. Soon the error will be not one fault, but hundreds of faults, then thousands.”
                  “Remain here,” the Leader replied. “We are already under attack. The outcome of the battle depends on whether your sabotage has worked or not.”
                  Outside, he heard something impossible. He ran to the covered windows and peered beneath the black curtains. In the blue sky was a silver fleet of android airships! But there was another fleet rising to meet it, larger, grander and more elegant airships, those of the Legion of Silence, rose to meet the invaders.
                  There was a fierce battle, but it lasted only a few minutes. All of the android airships’ weapons failed. When they tried to launch a missile, it exploded in its tube, destroying the airship. When the gun turrets targeted a Legion of Silence airship, they would not fire. Motors died, sending android airships plummeting Earthward. The Legion of Silence fleet made quick work of the androids’ aerial armada. Soon, there were only Legion of Silence airships in the blue sky. From the vista of the Legion of Silence, bathed in the Stillness, the battle had been fought in complete silence.
                  After the android fleet’s destruction, the leader returned.
                  “Your program error worked,” the Leader wrote. “I can report that all of the android ships malfunctioned and were easily dispatched by our own warriors. You have done us a great service. But I cannot vouchsafe your own London. You must return to see that it is saved.”
                  Mowbry nodded. She led him to the spiral staircase that led to the subterranean train system.
                  “Ride to Thames Embankment Station,” she wrote. Then she kissed him again, as she had the first time.
                  She slipped another note into his breast pocket. When Mowbry started to pull it out, she placed her hand and over his and nodded “no.” He understood. The note was to be read later.
                  The rush of the wind fans filled the air as the pneumatic train arrived. Mowbry boarded, still a bit stunned by the lovely leader’s kiss. He sat down on a comfortable leather bench and stared at ads for products he’d never heard of, like “Apple Martin’s Lip Gloss for Ladies” and “Madame Couret’s Finest Whalebone Corset Staves.” The train slid silently into the darkness between stations. He tried to read them as they passed. Some names were familiar: “Tottenham Court,” “Chancery Lane” and “St. Pauls.” But others were alien: “Canary Wharf,” “Crystal Palace” and “Bull and Bush.” Finally, after a twenty five minute journey, the car slid to a smooth silent stop at “Thames Embankment-Thames House.”
                  Mowbry stepped out onto the platform. He walked up a short flight of stairs and came to a bank of steep escalators. He stepped onto one going up and was amazed at how quickly it transported him to the upper level. He stepped out into a platform filled with people milling about. He was jostled by a fat man in a bowler hat and shoved by prim women in gray waistcoats and opera gloves. Finally, he pushed his way out onto the street. There was a tall building across the road with Queen Asquith’s symbol, a winged lion, emblazoned on it. He walked towards the building, reckoning this must be the hidden QSS headquarters.
                  “One moment sir,” a tall female guard in black garb said. She held out her hand. “Your papers, please.”
                  He handed her his Albiona Passport and the gilt-edged introduction card Lady Wilhelmina had given him.
                  “Come along, Mr. Mowbry,” the guard said, opening the glass doors. “You are expected and you are very late!”
                  Two other guards, a tall buxom brunette and a shorter blonde escorted Mowbry down a long white corridor to a black door with a gold “W” embossed on it. They knocked and waited. Lady Wilhelmina emerged, dressed in a form fitting black suit and guided Mowbry quickly inside.
                  “We underestimated our rivals,” Lady Wilhelmina said. “We had no idea their trans-dimensional transporters were capable of overpowering our defensive shields.”
                  “You may not have much time to think about science,” Mowbry confessed. “There’s a fleet of Blue London airships headed this way and they are heavily armed.”
                  “Well, then we must be ready for them,” Lady Wilhelmina replied. She picked up a green telephone and dialed a number.
                  “Prepare the Dragon Fleet,” Lady Wilhelmina said. “Alert RAF Rudloe Manor that there is an incoming threat, direction unknown. Set the Chain Home stations to high scan frequencies. Code Crimson. Repeat. Code Crimson.”
                  Outside the building, air raid sirens screamed.
                  “Now, you must come with me,” Lady Wilhelmina said. She hit a button on her desk, and the entire room began to move downwards. It was huge disguised lift!
                  The room stopped moving after ten harrowing seconds and Lady Wilhelmina rose and opened a door at the back of the office/elevator. The door opened onto a small laboratory.
                  “It is imperative that you complete the repair to the Golden Program immediately,” Lady Wilhelmina said. “We brought it from the Clean Room in our alternate headquarters.”
                  “But how did you know I would return here, instead of the Clean Room?” Mowbry asked.
                  “We didn’t,” Lady Wilhelmina replied. “We have a secret system of pneumatic tubes that connects the two headquarters. That way, wherever you materialized, we could get the Golden Program to you immediately.”
                  “Well planned,” Mowbry admitted. “I just hope it’s not too late. I created a flaw in the androids’ Great Program. But they may have detected it and purged it by now. They would only need to replace one punch card to rectify the error.”
                  “Then you must complete the repair in time,” Lady Wilhelmina emphasized. She led him by the hand into the small laboratory.
                  “This is an Emergency Clean Room,” Lady Wilhelmina said. “No decontamination is necessary as it is shielded by a sterilization field of ionized air.”
                  Mowbry sat down at a small wooden workbench and table. The table contained an unknown brand of nanoframe finer even than the Shen-Nakamura.
                  “My own design,” Lady Wilhelmina admitted. “I call it a Frasier 101. Now please complete the repairs at once.”
                  She handed him the black velvet box. He slid the 39th card of the 50 card program into the frame and powered up the magnifying lenses. The resolution was remarkable! He could see the cards in three-dimensions! He picked up a Harland 99 punch repair tool and the finest set of diamond-crusted files he’d ever seen and began the first repair. With the improved frame viewers and the wonderful instruments, it took him less than two minutes to fix the card’s first configuration. After half an hour, he had repaired ten cards. Only one more to go when he heard a great concussion, and the whole building shook.
                  “Hurry!” Lady Wilhelmina’s voice came over an intercom speaker. “The Blue London airships have arrived!”
                  Mowbry was knocked from his workbench by another great concussion and felt a sharp pain in his left shoulder. He staggered to his feet but reeled with pain and illness. His shoulder blade felt on fire and he feared it was broken.
                  As further blasts shook the QSS Headquarters like a great toy, Mowbry somehow got himself back on his bench and scrambled to finish the repair to the Golden Program. His eyes kept going out of focus. He feared that he might be suffering from a concussion. He blacked out once and came to a few seconds later. He was having trouble concentrating on his repairs. He almost over punched a hole and had to retract the Harland punch at the last second. He missed a jagged edge and had to carefully retrace it. Finally, after what seemed an hour but was no more than ten minutes, he was finished. All fifty cards had been repaired.
                  Mowbry pressed a button to speak to Lady Wilhelmina.
                  “It’s done!” Mowbry said. He carefully sealed the cards in their black velvet box and tied the purple scarf tightly around it.
                  There was no response. Unsure what to do, Mowbry exited the laboratory and scrambled for the nearest staircase or lift. He had to get the Golden Program to Lady Wilhelmina.
                  The building shook with another concussive blast and he fell flat on his face. A plaster column collapsed near him, showering him with white powder and concrete fragments, one of which cut him over his left eye. Partially blinded by blood, Mowbry clambered to his feet and searched for a way up into the heart of the building. He spotted a staircase off to his left, but it was clogged with debris and impassable. There was another great concussion and the hallway behind him caved in, cutting him off completely.
                  He was trapped!
                  Lord Warshaw the Unknown

                  "Except in dreams, you're never really free." Warren Zevon, Desperados Under the Eaves.

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                  • #10
                    X. Asquith’s Algorithm

                    John Mowbry thought he must have died, for he saw a vision of perfect beauty standing before him, bathed in a radiant golden glow. Surely this must be the Goddess Albiona Herself coming to take him to the Golden City, the Greater London of the after-life. She moved towards him with infinite grace in slow, gliding steps, her red-gold hair billowing around her stunningly perfect body, long-legged, full bosomed, round hipped and slender waisted heaven personified. Then he realized that he recognized her! This was the image of Queen Asquith he’d seen in the great tome in the library of the Legion of Silence.
                    As in his dream, the goddess-like Queen smiled down at him benevolently, her sparking emerald eyes full of love and brilliant intelligence. She slid her left index finger around her inward navel and a panel of flesh opened to reveal a computer program port glowing with red and green electrical circuits. Mowbry crawled to his idol on bloody hands and knees and held open the velvet box.
                    “Quickly,” the dream Queen Asquith commanded her love-struck supplicant. “Install my Golden Program or all Albiona is lost!”

                    He did as she ordered, installing each card with delicate care and precision. She clicked the panel shut and her eyes flared with golden light. The world swirled around Mowbry in a dizzy circle and he lost consciousness, certain that he was dying, if not dead already.
                    * * *
                    He woke in a strange white room. He was in a soft bed and there was a stiff plaster cast on his left arm and a bandage wrapped tightly around his head. He forced his eyes to focus and realized he was in a hospital. There was a small night stand with a pitcher of cold water and some lilacs in a vase. The white lace curtains let in a thin streak of bluish morning light. He wondered how he had gotten here.
                    A slender pretty brunette nurse peeked in on him.
                    “Ah, Mr. Mowbry, you’re awake,” the nurse said. She came to his bedside and took his temperature and pulse.
                    “Still a touch of fever, but that’s normal in your condition, I think,” the nurse reported. “You’ve got some very important visitors. Do you feel able to receive them?”
                    “I’m not certain,” Mowbry replied. “I feel a bit disoriented. How did I get here?”
                    “Why, you were driven here by ambulance during the air raid,” the nurse explained. “The wardens said you had received a bad concussion. Your memory must have been affected.”
                    “I guess so,” Mowbry replied. He tried to recall where he’d been and what he’d been doing prior to waking up, but it was all a blur.
                    “Shall I tell your guests you are unwell?” the nurse asked.
                    “No, that won’t be necessary,” Mowbry replied. “Show them in. I will receive them.”
                    “One moment, sir,” the nurse said. She exited the room and left Mowbry in a quandary. Who would possibly want to visit him, a humble steam-fitter? What was this “air raid” he’d been caught in? Had they been raided by the zeppelins of Duchess Sophia of the Franco-Belgian Hegemony, or perhaps Queen Isabella IX of Spain’s aerial dreadnaughts? He recalled no such news.
                    Mowbry was stunned to see that one of his visitors was a beautiful blonde woman dressed in a form-fitting black tunic and pants and a bowler hat and that the other was Her Royal Highness Queen Asquith IV, the Regent of all Albiona. The woman in the bowler was a QSS Agent! They were rarely seen in public. This was indeed a dual honor.
                    “Your Majesty!” Mowbry chimed. His queen was as beautiful as a portrait, her long flow of red-gold hair combed into an elegant bun. She wore a stunning red velvet dress that showed off her buxom curvaceous figure to great advantage. He found that staring into her brilliant green eyes, he was literally rendered speechless. Tears flowed from his eyes as he gazed upon her almost divine beauty. Surely she was the most beautiful woman in the world.
                    “Mr. Mowbry,” Queen Asquith replied. Her voice was like honey slowly poured over ice. “We are grateful for your service to the Crown of Albiona and to me personally. For your excellent repair work on our Golden Program, which allowed us to repel the invader from our skies, we award you the Distinguished Service Medal and induct you into the Order of the Green Garter.”
                    She drew a golden hilted silver broadsword from a scabbard over her left shoulder and tapped Mowbry lightly on both shoulders. When the blade touched his left shoulder, he winced in raw pain, but bit his lip to stop from crying out. Queen Asquith pinned the DSM, a silver medal with a flying lion in the center of a silver circle and a cerulean ribbon beneath a gold bar on his bed jacket. She handed him a red velvet box, which held the green garter.
                    “I dub thee Sir Jonathan Maystone Mowbry of her Majesty’s Emerald Knights,” Queen Asquith said. She held out her red gloved hand, which Mowbry eagerly kissed. He adored her.
                    “My liege,” he stammered. “Your humble servant, always.”
                    “I must be off, Sir Jonathan,” Queen Asquith replied. “I’ve ruins to visit and many brave citizens to reward. Your courage saved Albiona from a fearsome invasion. We are indeed grateful.”
                    “Least I could do, Your Royal Highness,” Mowbry replied. He bowed his head as she exited. The blonde QSS agent remained behind.
                    “Mr. Mowbry, you may not remember me,” the blonde lady said. “You received a very nasty blow to the head during the air raid. I am Lady Wilhelmina Fairfax, the Chief Intelligence Officer of the Queen’s Secret Service. You did your country and your Queen a great service and you will be duly rewarded. When you are recovered, her Majesty has invited you to dine with her in her palace at Regent’s Park. Five thousand pounds has been deposited into your account at the Baker Street Savings and Loan and a motorcar and driver made available to you.”
                    “What did I do?” Mowbry asked. He wracked his brain, but he honestly could not recall performing any task that would entitle him to receive such honors, let alone a personal visit from the Queen.
                    “You honestly do not remember?” Lady Wilhelmina asked. She stared at him with her entrancing blue eyes. He shook his head.
                    “Not a thing,” Mowbry replied. “I was coming home from my job at the London Zoological Gardens and something bit me in the neck. That is my last clear memory.”
                    “It is just as well,” Lady Wilhelmina said. “I will leave you my card. If you find that you are having unsettling dreams or remember anything unusual, please feel free to call upon me. Until then, all you need know is that you did your Queen and Country a great service. You are a very skilled repairman, Sir Jonathan. Your talents may lead you to many new opportunities as yet undreamed of. We shall be in touch.”
                    She laid a gilt-edged faux ivory (elephant hunting was illegal in the Albionic Empire, poaching a crime punishable by death) calling card on his bedside table. She bowed and exited the room.
                    Mowbry slowly recovered his physical strength and his broken left arm healed, but he did not regain his memory of events after the odd day at the Zoo. He recalled that a QSS Agent had visited him, but not what they had discussed. After the dinner at the Palace and a few brief chats with Lady Wilhelmina, he had returned to his bedsit in Baker Street, very much the same man he’d been prior to his forgotten adventures.
                    Then, one day, he’d found an odd slip of paper in a jacket he seldom wore. It was written in faded blue ink and he had trouble reading it.
                    “Meet me in Manchester Square on February 9th at midnight,” the note read.
                    How odd, Mowbry thought. Today was February 9th.
                    He wondered who had written the note.
                    He would find out at midnight.

                    To Be Continued in the next John Mowbry adventure,
                    Anarchy in Albiona-Coming Soon!

                    Lord Warshaw the Unknown

                    "Except in dreams, you're never really free." Warren Zevon, Desperados Under the Eaves.

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