“What,” I asked, fascinated in spite of the fact that I needed more complications in my life like I needed a rising salt lake full of extradimensional convict carcasses, “is an e-sig? You mean like the little chunk of text you put at the end of a … ” I realised this was only adding to the complications, so I spread my hands. “Okay, obviously that thing is an e-sig,” I said, pointing. “I’ve just never seen one so … blocky before.”
“It’s short for electronic cigarette,” Colonel McOldentimes said, and puffed again. The device made a sad little straw-noise and another brief cloud of vapour engulfed the Colonel. “Not altogether sure what it means.”
“Oh,” right, I thought, e-cig. Not e-sig. “Um, well. Hey, anyway, have you seen an elderly lady? She might have come walking out of your equipment cupboard like she owned the place.”
“Are you quite mad?” Colonel McOldentimes asked in that polite way only people from the Olden Days could ask such an inherently rude question.
“Probably, from your point of view,” I said, “yeah.”
It had just occurred to me that, unless he really had forgotten me in the time between now and whenever I emerged from the office to pursue Rose across the yard, or in the time between then and now if it had already happened, there was really no way he ought to have behaved so calmly towards me on both – or either – occasions. And at the same time it occurred to me that, sometime in between, he’d gone from puffing a pipe and having mildly anachronistic views about kewpie dolls, to puffing an e-cig and not being sure what electronic meant even though he somehow knew that the word existed.
And that, strictly speaking, wasn’t right at all.
In fact, the more I thought about it, the more it made my concern about why he didn’t either remember me now or hadn’t remembered me the last time I was here seem like I was worrying about the wrong thing.
“I haven’t seen any elderly ladies, in my equipment cupboard or otherwise,” Colonel McOldentimes said. “Largely, I rather suspect, because I don’t have an equipment cupboard. If you could put in a good word for me ‑ ” he puffed, expelled nightclub vapour, and reappeared over the course of the next four seconds, “ ‑ I suppose I could requisition one. Although I don’t suppose a good word from a barking mad sunstroke victim is going to do me the least bit of good.”
I spun, and looked at the place where the cupboard had been. There was a peg on the wall where Colonel McOldentimes had hung his coat, and his rifle rested against the wall next to it. I didn’t look too closely at the rifle, because I had a horrible suspicion it had turned into a big musket of some sort. But either way, he was right – there was no cupboard.
There was, however, a trapdoor.
“Back in a jiffy,” I said, and stepped quickly over to the battered door inset in the boards of the floor. I leaned down, grasped the scuffed brass ring, and pulled the trapdoor open. Colonel McOldentimes didn’t object, just went back to puffing unspeakable alien steam all over his side of the room in four-second-duration wisps, and writing on a sheet of A4 photocopy paper using an inkwell and calligraphy pen.
I shuddered, and clambered down into the cool darkness.