I got up from my chair when the doors to the library swung open and a 27-foot long reptile, supported by 18 thick limbs, entered the room. It’s large head was similar to that of an angler fish and it’s bluish skin was almost translucent. It was covered by what looked like an emerald green tarpaulin that had been knitted using iridescent yarn.
“It’s about time,” I said. “Are you finally done with your meeting? Feels like I’ve been here forever!”
“All right for you, Mr. Gentleman-of-Leisure,” said the serpent, “but some of us are on the clock. Pass me my things, would you?”
I was not in a country manor house. I had not been browsing through books in a fashionably appointed private library, surrounded by pricey antique furniture. I hadn’t been served tea and cake and sandwiches by a butler with the most unnaturally wrinkle-free clothes I’d ever seen. However, since I was a guest of the Congress of Cosmic Egress, their Office of Hospitality and Xenospecies Accommodation was sparing no effort to create and maintain the illusion.
My bulky, excessively-limbed visitor slipped behind a row of Japanese-style screens. I waited in front of them with a pair of braces, a pair of shoes and a number of expensive-looking garments on wooden hangers. A minute and a massive molecular tango later, the serpentine creature from the planet Prylos was gone, replaced by a portly, bearded London solicitor.
Mr. Caythun stuck an arm out from behind the screens and I handed him his clothes. He had been helping me settle some of my unfinished business throughout the Steamlands when his TAU-5 warp carriage received an ultra-high-priority message from his superiors at the CCE. Almost immediately upon our arrival at their assembly chambers, Caythun disappeared into his meeting and I was ushered into my custom-made, alpha-deluxe holding cell with valet service.
“Tell me something,” I said, “just out of curiosity, do you think humans are ugly?”
“Well, you’re not pretty,” he said attempting to sound politely rueful, “but you do get used to looking like one. Hard adjusting to having only two prehensile appendages. But I do *love* the clothes.” (I was pleased Mr. Caythun didn’t ask me what I thought of Prylothian aesthetics.) “Of course, everyone knows the Neufaxids are far and away the sexiest species in your part of the galaxy… *and* they have great clothes. In fact, Fashion Week on Neufaxilon 4 is so popular that the Pentoglian Emperium nearly went to war with them when the fashion editor for the Pentog Cyclical News couldn’t get a press pass for the prête-à-porter tent show. True story.”
“Oh, you mad extraterrestrials!”
“Now I have a question for you, Arkright: That apartment-or-whatever where you live… it’s not actually *in* New Babbage, is it?”
“It’s actually *above* New Babbage, yes?”
“Several thousand kilometers above. Why?”
“Well, it’s just that there’s been quite a bit of discussion about that city lately. Some very odd things going on in Babbage.”
“The hell you say!” said I in the most mocking manner I could muster. “‘Odd things are going on in Babbage.’ You do know those very words are printed at the top of the city hall stationery? What’s that got to do with where I live?”
“It’s just that there has been talk around here about the possible need — and it’s still just in the discussion phase — the possibility that, perhaps, New Babbage needs to be neutralized.”
“‘Neutralised’? What does that mean, ‘neutralized’?”
Mr. Caythun adjusted his cravat as he came from behind the screens. “There’s nothing to fret over. I doubt it will even happen. I’m sure it won’t. It probably won’t. Maybe. Remember Miss. Lisa and Mr. Tabby? The CCE agents stationed in Babbage? They’re in the chambers right now arguing for the rescinding of a ‘stand by’ order.”
“‘Stand by’ to do what?”
“Oh, will you relax. It’s not as if they’re going to kill anyone. They’ll just seal the place off from the rest of the universe in a bubble of perpetual chrono-stasis. But like I said… it’ll never happen. Probably won’t happen. Maybe.” I’m sure I looked extremely skeptical and slightly alarmed. “Look,” said the part-time human, “I know your initial encounter with the Congress wasn’t exactly amicable, but they really aren’t the villains you seem to think they are.”
“Maybe I should say something to your superiors. I am from Earth, and I could certainly give them an earful!”
“Bad idea. They hate you. A lot.”
“Oh… well, does this means I won’t be ending my summer on the beach in Clockhaven?”
“Summer? It’s November in Babbage now.”
“November? What do you mean November? How can it be November?!?”
“This place is sort of a temporal null-zone. Time passes differently here. Sometimes faster, sometimes slower…”
“Are you trying to tell me I’ve been sitting here waiting for you for three [EXPLETIVE] months?!?”
“You did say it felt like a long time.”
“THREE MONTHS!?!? I’ve had one pot of tea, a couple of sandwiches, a slice of cheesecake and I’ve only been to pee once since I got here — how is it possible I’ve been here for three months?!?”
The reptile-in-disguise apologetically shrugged his expensively-clothed shoulders. “I could show you the mathematics on that, but you’d just be here another three months figuring them out.”
“Wait,” I said, “you people know all sorts of time tricks. So you can take me back to last summer, right?”
“Ummm… no. Going back to Babbage now might not be the best idea anyway. But I can take you to see your friend Colin before we make that last stop in London.”
“In Arkham? In America? You were telling me about him? Your friend — Colin? We could be in New England in — dare I say it — no time at all.”
“Hmmm… Colin. Been ages since I’ve seen Colin…”
I knew it was simply a cunning distraction, but I had to consider the situation. We weren’t talking about Declan or Bernard. Or Hugh. Or Reese. Or Lord Bunbury. Or Mr. McGovern, or Quincy, or Beau, or Aaron, or Jerrod, or Sullivan, or Kai, or Magnus, or Captain Easy, or Mr. Roundabout… this was Colin.
Best of luck, Babbage! See you later if you don’t get neutralized!