Hoping I was wrong about Rose’s objective, but knowing that the universe wasn’t that kind, I shuffled out towards the fence.
By the time I reached a spot that would, in my estimation, correspond to somewhere under the other side of Prince Philip Street, I actually found some footprints. I was no tracker, but I guessed they were Rose’s. It’s surprising how the soles of an olde-worlde boot matched those of a middle-aged woman’s nice sensible shoe, but I couldn’t imagine anyone else walking out towards the fence this way. Maybe someone inspecting the fence for holes …
I stopped at the terminus of the little trail of shoe-prints, looked down, and shook my head. Doubty time was over.
There, just on this side of the fence, was another trapdoor. This one was a tightly-nailed-together rounded-edged square of planks with a smooth wooden handle, like something you’d see on the deck of a tall ship. It was sun-bleached, and had a fresh dusting of sand that made it almost impossible to see from more than about ten feet away. I wondered briefly at that – there wasn’t a breath of wind, and Rose hadn’t been that far ahead of me – but decided it didn’t matter. The prints ended here, and that meant Rose must have gone into the trapdoor. Maybe there was a mechanism. Maybe the act of departing one time-stream and entering another one cause a little local disruption that blew some sand around. Maybe the Dirt Fairy came and hid the trapdoor again.
I leaned down, winced slightly at the heat of it as I grabbed the handle, and hauled it open. A little tumble of incongruous sand fell into the darkness on three of the four sides of the trapdoor, and its hinges rasped grittily on the fourth.
Darkness. Blessed cool darkness.
Feeling like a very long-suffering vampire, I clambered down an almost identical steep ladder-stairs thing into the gloom, and pulled the trapdoor closed behind me.
The shift in temperature was slightly surprising, even for someone accustomed to evading the heat and light of an unforgiving sun. I descended into what was evidently another unexpectedly dank basement, stood at the foot of the ladder-stairs-thing, and waited for my eyes to adjust. It took longer this time, because the light from the trapdoor was absolutely minimal – its edges, after all, were sealed with sand that may or may not have been delivered behind me by the Dirt Fairy. Still, I was able to see a faint glimmer of something up there.
Have to remember, I told myself, I’m now even deeper underneath modern ground-level.
I was also, I abruptly realised, already somewhere else. I’d assumed that the doorway had been what had brought me into the sunny pipe-smokin’ afternoon of Colonel McOldentimes, and that was true … but it was only part of the truth. I wasn’t underneath olden-times Barnsley Prison Yard now, any more than I’d been under L&E tower lost and found once I’d descended that ladder-stairs thing.
The basements seemed to be sort of intermediate spaces. The basement under the lost and found hadn’t been the real L&E tower basement, not really. Its structure and composition had been all wrong. I’d seen that immediately, even though I hadn’t been able to see. And it hadn’t been an underground room in yesteryear either, because it had opened directly into the Barnsley Prison Yard administration office. It was as if I’d entered the trapdoor in the L&E tower, descended into some region that was neither of the above, and then stepped through into the Colonel’s cupboard. Now, I’d descended into another neither of the above space – not really in the Colonel’s backyard, not modern times, and if there was a door down here there was a good chance it wouldn’t open onto any area that matched the space in which I was now standing …
So. What did this tell me?
Well, obviously, that the door – assuming there was such a thing in this basement, or cellar, or whatever you called an underground structure that was sort of on the edge of a prison camp but wasn’t really – would send me to somewhere different again. Maybe a modern-day sub-basement, or maybe somewhere deeper in the past, or maybe somewhere in the future. Rose clearly knew her way around, so my best bet was probably to go on following her. The best way through was forward, after all.
This time, in the apparent absence of a handy tentacle-pointing fungal soothsayer, I decided I’d better circumnavigate the entire cellar before going through any doors I found.
I tried not to think about what I was going to do if I found more than one.