something new under the sun
by
david england

[We were introduced to Edwardian aristocrat Lady Penelope Botelier in The Lifeblood of Worlds.  Now we follow her story as seen through the eyes of a chance-met youth...]

PART 1

It rained the day we met.  Of course, it rained pretty much every day on this sodden planet.  The difference lay only in how hard it fell: from a light, drizzling mist to curtains of wet.  Only rarely would the perpetually-clouded sky hold the water to itself in the thick green-grey that forever rolled overhead.

            But because it rained nearly every day, the city had been built accordingly.  Instead of open streets, which I have now seen on other worlds, covered traffic lanes and roofed walking paths connected buildings like a delicate crystal lattice.  Arching pavilions shielded parks and the occasional forum.  Massive culverts and well-maintained storm sewers directed rainfall out of the city and into the broad bay below.  

            At the time, of course, I knew nothing of open-sky streets or crystal lattices, nothing but the persistent rain and cloud-covered sky over my part of Aphrodite, nothing but the gnawing hunger that came with the continuous struggle for survival on the streets of that city.  I was a scrawny, lanky thing, suspended somewhere between a boy and a man.  If I lived that long.

            To this day, I’m still not sure why she caught my eye.  She seemed out of place, but not outwardly so.  In the Borderlands, that in-between realm of the city at the boundaries of the respectable areas and the slums, one often encountered a mingling of the classes.  This is where modest merchants hocked their wares and mixed with poorer types hoping to make a more honest living.

            Or not, as in my case.

            Perhaps it was the manner in which she carried herself, a power in her bearing that one might not match to her very feminine stature.  In dress, she was not unlike others among the well-to-to.  Loose, dark blue pantalons billowed as she walked, her well-polished black boots sporting silver buckles.  A smart-looking jacket of dusky grey covered an off-white blouse.  Her midnight hair was pinned up neatly beneath an ivory-colored hat with a narrow brim and a wide blue ribbon.  But she moved with a focus unlike most women one saw here, who flitted from cart to cart across the market like so many delicate, brightly-colored insects.  In local style, she sported a slender walking stick, a more elegant variation on the gentleman’s walking cane.  I understand that in the Old World, the fashion was for women to carry dainty fabric umbrellas, called parasols, to shield themselves from the sun.  Since the sun never showed its face on Venus, fashion had adapted to produce the woman’s batonette.

            Whatever the reason, I spotted her among the crowded walk as she made her way past the mushroom vendor behind whose cart I was hiding at the time, having just tucked a meaty cap into my somewhat threadbare shirt for a meal later.  Wanting to distance myself from the cart quickly but discreetly, I slipped into the stream of people just behind the lady and followed.

            It took only a few minutes for me to realize that she was heading toward the warehouse district, where the Borderlands butted up against the aerodrome and spaceport.  The port was a sprawling, open space where a fair number of dirigibles were arriving, departing or anchored on any given day.  (Again, this is later knowledge.  At the time, I knew them only as the strange-looking balloon-like craft that took people to other parts of the planet and into this mysterious thing called “space.”)

            As she continued toward the warehouse district, the crowd began to thin.  More to the point, the district was outside of my territory and if there was one thing that had kept me alive on the back-streets of Aphrodite, it was knowing where I belonged and where I didn’t.  The time had come for me to part ways with my lady here and for her to part ways with that small silver pocket watch I’d seen her glance at when she’d first passed by.

            I increased my pace to pass her on the right just as a large cart rolled by in the street to her left, stacked high with thick slabs of peat and pulled by a harnyl.  The thickly-muscled animal plodded steadily along the street on its stump-like legs, the hammer-shaped head swaying slightly from side to side in the rhythm of its gait.  In a well-practiced move, my left hand slipped into the hip pocket of her pantalons, the clasp at the end of the chain giving way to my quick finger-work.  My hand was returning to my own pocket even as my stride stretched out to take me past her when a firm grip seized my wrist and pulled me to a halt.

            “As admirable as your technique is, young man, I am afraid that I must ask you to return my father’s pocket watch.”

            My normally-sharp wit failed me at that moment, lost as I was in the vast green expanse of her eyes.  No anger showed there, only a solid strength of will that permitted no rebuttal.  I was still trying to formulate a response when a rough hand came down hard on my shoulder. 

“This lad giving you trouble, miss?”

            Since we were in the English Quarter of Aphrodite, I knew it was a British bobby and not a French gendarme who stood behind me.  Not that it made much difference.  My goose was well and truly cooked, no matter what language the cooking was to be done in.

            The lady blinked as her gaze rose past my shoulder.  “Not at all, Constable.  I had unknowingly dropped an article of mine a few steps back and this young man was gracious enough to return it to me.”

            I opened my hand.  The pocket watch, delicately detailed and about two inches across, glinted even in the dull light of the sodden afternoon.

            “Petty larceny is it then?  Don’t you worry, miss.  This one’ll bother you no longer.”  The bobby’s grip dug into my shoulder painfully and I winced in spite of myself.

            The lady’s hold on my wrist didn’t slacken, however.  “Perhaps you misunderstood me.  As I said, this young man retrieved my property for me and for this I will be rewarding him.”  The silver timepiece was removed from my palm and a shilling put in its place.  “There was no theft involved.  There are no charges to be pressed.”

“Miss, you may think you are doing the lad a favor, but you aren’t,” the bobby persisted.  “This one here needs a good lesson by a strong hand.  The courts and the working house are the best ones to give it to ‘im.”

I hadn’t turned to look at the man, as my eyes were locked on those of the woman in front of me.  As he finished speaking, however, I could hear uncertainty creep into the bobby’s voice.  The woman’s eyes hardened, narrowing dangerously.

“I am unaccustomed to having my statements doubted, Constable.  Perhaps I ought to express my views on the state of colonial policing to Lord Ashbury the next time I dine with him?”

Sweet holy fuck!  Even the low-down likes of me knew the name of the King’s Viceroy of the British Venusian Concession.  Who in the deep hells was this lady?

The bobby was equally shaken.  “Not at all, my lady.  I...I was mistaken in my impression of the situation here.  My apologies.”  The hand let go of my shoulder and I felt the presence behind me disappear.

The woman’s gaze seemed to follow the bobby as he retreated.  A moment passed before her attention returned to me.  “He shouldn’t be bothering you again for a while, at least.  But nonetheless, I’d make a point to stay out of his way if I were you.”  She released my wrist and walked away as if nothing had happened.  I stood there dumbly, in the middle of the walk with a whole shilling in my hand.

Now, the street-smart thing to do would be to take that shilling and my mushroom cap dinner back the way I came, to thank God or whatever forces ran the universe for my narrow escape, and to let the lady be on her way.

She was not a half a block gone when I made up my mind and began tailing her from a distance.  I never said I was smart.

            As I’d guessed, she was angling toward the warehouse district.  A few turns later, we were well off the main routes and traffic had thinned to the point where I was following along the side of the walk, a good block or more back, in order to remain inconspicuous.  When she made the turn down the side alley running between the Bersheim Bros., Ltd warehouses, I knew that things were likely to go south in a hurry.  I quickened my step to close the gap between us.  As I came up to the alley entrance, I heard voices confirming my earlier premonition.

            “...have no quarrel with you gentlemen, but I do have business to which I must attend and so I ask you to let me pass.”

            “D’you ‘ear that, boys?  We be gentlemen now.”  An unpleasant chorus of laughter followed.  “An’ I must be tellin’ you, miss, that you’s goin’ nowheres in this neighborhood.  If’n you know what’s good for you, you best be goin’ back the way you came.”

            With great care, I peeked around the corner.

            The alley was perhaps eight feet wide and she stood midway between the two brick buildings, maybe twenty feet from where I watched and about five feet past a stout but weathered-looking door in the far wall.  Her back was to me, but her stance was alert somehow.  Looking back, I remember noticing how lightly she seemed to rest on her feet, as though she were dancing while standing still.  Her batonette was nestled in the folds of her pantalons, the three-foot rod gripped in her right hand like a pointer and angled along the length of her thigh.

            “As I said, good sirs, I have business here and I will be attending to that business with or without your kind permission.”  Her stance shifted ever so slightly, her right foot sliding backward perhaps a half-step.  Her three adversaries, intent on her words, did not notice.

            Noiselessly, that door behind the lady opened and a fourth man stepped into the alley. A blackjack hung from his hand, raised overhead.

            “Behind you!” I shouted.

            The lady pivoted, her left foot snapping backwards and upwards as she twisted impossibly sideways.  Her right hand, still wielding the battonette, rose above her head to interpose itself between her and the others.  The man behind her fell with a grunt as her heel connected with his solar plexus and she resumed her original stance facing the three men before her.

            “I see that we must do this the hard way.  Very well.”  Her right hand flexed and a narrow six-inch blade slid from the far tip of the battonette with a quiet snick.  She stepped backwards over the groaning man.  “Now, you have two choices.  Take your friend here and go.  Or else we can settle things in a less pleasant manner.”

            The men’s faces slid from shock to confusion to wariness.  One of them inched forward to his prone companion, helping the man to his feet.  With a final rueful glance, the group beat a retreat down the alley.

            The lady stood before a back door to one of the warehouses further along the alleyway as I approached cautiously.  Without a glance in my direction, she spoke as she examined the door before her.

            “I want to thank you for that warning,” she said in a matter-of-fact tone.  “Your shout made him scuffle in surprise.”  She paused.  “I must gain entry to this warehouse, preferably before another welcoming party arrives.  You wouldn’t happen to be a lockpick as well as a pickpocket, would you?”

            “Yes, ma’am, as it happens.” I gave a wry smile.  Stepping to the door, I pulled two pieces of stout wire from my sleeve and set to work on the lock.  It was a small challenge, but not an extraordinary one, and a few moments’ worth of effort were rewarded with a satisfying click as the tumblers rotated.

            “A most capable young man,” the lady commented as she opened the door and stepped into the dim light of the warehouse.  I remained at the doorway, uncertain.  “Well, come along.  We haven’t much time.”  I followed her in.

            She stood a few feet inside, scanning the rows of neatly stacked crates.  Not turning as I approached, she asked, “Do you know your numbers?”

            “Yes, ma’am.  I can read tolerably well, too.”  Before we’d lost our home, my mother had made sure that I’d gotten a basic education.  Even on the streets, I’d taken every opportunity I could to read while staving off hunger and generally trying to stay alive.

            The lady shifted her gaze to me.  “A most unusual street dweller you are.  Very well, we need to find a specific crate.  They are usually organized by nationality, then by an alphanumeric code: letters and numbers.  We are looking for the crate H19020531C.  It is American, so the crate will have an eagle crest, but not a double-headed eagle.  Do you know what an American crest looks like?”

            I nodded.

            “Below the code will be the words ‘Hephaestus Corporation’ -- with a ‘ph,’ not an ‘f,’ and with an ‘ae’.”  Do you understand?”

            I nodded again.  “Yes, ma’am.  Hephaestus, ph not f, ae.  H19020531C.  American crest.”  A sharp memory had saved my neck almost as many times as my mouth had gotten it into trouble to begin with.

            She cocked her head slightly, but then replied, “Let’s be about it then.  I believe the American crates are over here.”

            I started at the nearer end of the American section, while she made her way to the far end and began working her way towards me.  I moved as quickly as I could, scanning the fronts of the crates along each side of the aisle.  Fortunately, they appeared to be arranged by code even within the sections and shortly after I had begun my search, I fathomed the system.  Rapidly scanning as I went, I trotted to where I suspected the crate to be and felt a jolt of pleasure when I found it.

            I turned to call the lady over, only to find her standing next to me, a crowbar and small wooden mallet having appeared in her hands.

            “Spotted the cataloguing system, I see.  Now, let’s get the lid off this crate.”  A few sharp blows wedged the tip of the crowbar between the lid and side, and a bit of levering induced the lid to separate with a small groan as the nails were pulled from the wood.  Once the gap was sufficiently wide, the lady slipped her arm inside, a look of concentration showing on her face as she felt around within the straw packing.  All at once, she froze and her expression shifted.  When she withdrew her arm, a cylindrical object lay in her grasp, a bit more than a foot long maybe three inches across.

            “We’ve got what I came for.  Now, help me get the lid back on and let us depart.”

            We exited the warehouse as we had entered, a brief glance out the doorway ensuring that no one was nearby as we slipped into the alley and made our way toward the main thoroughfares.  The cylinder had disappeared into the lady’s right-hand pocket, its form lost within the loose fabric of her pantalons, and I noticed that she kept to my left as we entered the busier streets.  Not sure of what else to do, I remained by her side and followed her lead as we navigated the walk-lanes without further conversation.

            After several blocks and several turns, she paused to hail a passing cab drawn by an orla.  (These creatures are not uncommon on the streets of Venusian cities.  Picture a four-legged ostrich with blue-green feathers and you’re not too far off.)  The driver gently reined the beast to a halt and moved to dismount in order to open the door, but the lady waved him back to his seat with an impatient gesture, opening the door herself.  I took this as my cue to depart and began to step away when a pointed cough caused me to look back.  The lady stood outside the cab yet, still holding the door open.  She looked at me, then inclined her head toward the cab.  I nodded in understanding and climbed into a hansom cab for the first time in my life.  She settled herself next to me, pulled the door shut, and called out the window: “The Queen Elizabeth Hotel please, driver.”  And we were off.

            We rode in silence.  The orla clicked along the street and the cab-wheels rolled smoothly over the roadway.  Not wanting to say anything to undo what appeared to be at the very least a good meal or perhaps another payment, I kept my trap shut and tried not to jinx myself.  The lady, for her part, shared nothing of her thoughts, staring out her window wordlessly.

            After a journey of modest length, maybe a quarter-hour, the cab came to a stop.  The view from my window showed the streetside: full of cabs, carts, neatly-clad workmen, and folks in finer dress than I’d ever seen.  The lady’s door was opened by a fancy-dressed man in what I later understood to be the hotel livery.  She exited the cab and turned to pay the driver.  I hesitated briefly before stepping out of the cab myself.  The hotel valet looked at me once, said nothing, then closed the cab door before turning to the lady.

            “May I be of further assistance, my lady?” he inquired.

            “Thank you, Simon,” she replied.  “I’d like a word with Mr. Hastings, if you wouldn’t mind.”

            “Yes, my lady.  Shall I escort you to one of the drawing rooms?”

            “That will not be necessary,” she responded, shaking her head.  “Just ask him come to the front desk.  I have some arrangements to make.”

            “Yes, my lady.  If you would proceed to the front desk, I will notify Mr. Hastings.”

            Simon gestured to another valet, who stepped forward to take his place as he moved with purposeful strides towards a nondescript door set off to one side of the main entrance.  The lady walked toward the prominent glass double-doors, which were opened as she approached by a pair of doormen.  I followed a short distance behind.

            A cavernous hall of white stone opened before us.  The ceiling had to be thirty feet high at least and the polished walls reflected light from the many glass fixtures hanging down from above.  A long counter of richly-stained wood ran along the right-hand side and clerks moved about, attending to customers.  We neared the counter as another man approached us from the other side.  He moved like one with authority, not like the clerks scurrying about.

            “Lady Botelier, how may I be of service today?”

            “I need to make a few arrangements, Mr. Hastings.”  The lady produced a pen and a small writing pad, drafting a brief note in flowing script.  “Please have this message sent to the vessel noted, which is presently in orbit.”  Mr. Hastings took the folded note from her hand.  “Secondly, please have the kitchen send up a supper for two.  Soup and sandwiches would suffice.”

            Mr. Hastings eyed me even more unobtrusively than Simon had as he wrote down the lady’s request.  “Is there anything else, my lady?”

            “Only that I will be departing tomorrow morning.”

            He nodded.  “Thank you, Lady Botelier.  I will see to your requests at once.”

            “Thank you, Mr. Hastings.”  She turned from the counter and headed for the sweeping staircase which dominated the hall.  As we mounted the steps, she commented, “I prefer the stairs to the lift.  Good for exercise.”

            I nodded in silent agreement as we climbed the flights of stairs to the fourth and highest floor, following as she turned left and made her way to a door at the far end of the hallway.  Unlocking it with a brass hotel key, she held the door open.

            “In you go.  Supper will be here shortly.  We need to have a talk in the meantime.”

            I stepped into the foyer of her suite and stopped short, trying not to gawk at the space around me.  As I’ve learned since, her tastes are far more understated than many of her class, but what I was seeing was beyond anything I’d ever known to that point.

            I heard the door shut and a small click as she slid the deadbolt closed.  Striding past me, she moved to the couch set against the far wall of the central sitting area and settled herself on one side.  After a moment, she patted the cushion next to her and I took the hint.  I tried not to muss anything as I sat, my back rigid.

            “Well, I suppose we should take care of first things first,” she began.  “May I ask your name?”

            “Elias, ma’am.  ‘Lias Conner.”

            “Very good to meet you, Elias.  I am Penelope Hillcrest, Baroness Botelier.”  She held her hand out, but as a man would.  I shook it and returned my hand to my lap.

            “Please relax, Elias.  You needn’t worry about disarranging the cushions.”

            “Yes, ma’am.”  I tried to relax.  Even succeeded a bit.

            “I will be direct.  I was very impressed earlier, both by your various...skills of dexterity, shall we say, as well as by your intervention in a confrontation in which you had no personal stake.”

            “I figured you was heading for the docks and you’d been nice to me when you didn’t need to be.  An’ I didn’t want you to run into trouble with the gang over there.”  The words just tumbled out.  “But I guess I didn’t need to be worried none.  You handled those boys real nice.”  My face heated as I stumbled awkwardly to a stop.

            The lady smiled.  “I appreciate the compliment, but the truth is that I only knew of the man behind me because of your shout.  So in a very real way, I owe you a debt.  That confrontation would have proven much trickier had you not intervened.  And that does not include your assistance afterwards.  My, ah, locksmithing skills are not quite as good as yours have proven to be.”

            I watched her speak and heard her words, but I couldn’t quite grasp the idea that I’d actually been useful.

            “And so, Elias, I have a few more questions for you, if you don’t mind.”

            “Yes, ma’am.  I mean, no, ma’am.  Go ahead.”  I blushed again.

            “I understood what you meant, Elias.”  She settled back against the cushions and watched me carefully as she spoke.  “Do you have family?”

            “No, ma’am.  My pa was killed in a police raid when I was little.  My ma died a few years later.  I’ve been on my own for a while now.”

            “On the streets?”

            “Yes, ma’am,” I nodded.  “After the raid that killed Pa, me and Ma were kicked out of our place.  We kinda drifted about for a while after that.  Then she took sick and died.”

            “And you’ve been alone on the streets since?”

            “Yes, ma’am.”

            She paused.  “Do you know how old you are, Elias?”

            “I’m not rightly sure, ma’am.  I do remember having a birthday right before Pa was killed.  I was nine.”

            “Your family kept the standard -- I mean, the Old Calendar?”

            I nodded again.  “Yes, ma’am.  Ma insisted.  She said God expects us to keep the holy days no matter what planet a body is on.”

            “Very good.  Now, this raid you mentioned.  Do you remember anything about it?”

            I shook my head.  “Not much, ma’am.  I just remember Ma tellin’ me that the labor hall had been raided by the police and that Pa was dead.  The landlord came by a few days later, sayin’ we was troublemakers and kicked us out.”

            She sat silently for a few minutes, then spoke softly.  “I do seem to recall that there were reports of labor troubles here some six or seven years ago, around ‘96.  Based on that and your appearance, I’d guess you to be about fifteen then.”  She nodded, as if coming to some conclusion.  “I can work with that.”

            She fixed her eyes on me again.  “Very well, Elias.  I have one more question to ask you and I want you to think very carefully before you answer.  Would you be interested in entering into my service?”

            I just stared, my mouth hanging open.  “As what, ma’am?”

            She laughed lightly.  “For the sake of society’s sensibilities, perhaps as a task-boy or else as a very, very young butler-in-training.  I am known for my eccentricities.”

            Then her face grew more serious.  “But in a very real sense, you would be my assistant.  My life is a rather unconventional one, as you have seen.  It is not a safe life.  I could use someone like you, Elias.  And while I cannot promise you safety, I can promise you adventure, good food, and a warm place to sleep.  What do you think?  Are you interested?”

            “Yes, ma’am!” I nearly burst out.

            She laughed again as a knocking sounded at the door.  “Excellent.  Now, if you would be so good as to open the door, Elias, I believe our supper is here.”

 

###

 

            She referred to our meal as a “simple supper,” but it was by far the most delicious food I’d ever tasted.  When the hotel staff wheeled the cart in and uncovered the dishes, I could hardly believe my eyes (or my nose, for that matter).  A thick, red soup full of flavors I couldn’t even begin to describe filled a large serving dish and several sandwiches of crisp vegetables and a light smear of some kind of cream were stacked neatly on a platter.  Needless to say, it took some effort for me to keep what manners I thought one should have in the presence of a lady and not scarf down the food wholesale.

As I ate with a barely-controlled ravenousness, the lady did so with a refined yet no less formidable gusto.  While there were definite manners in her bearing, there was equally a groundedness and a directness.  Although I’d already given my answer to her question, I found myself confirming that decision.  Yes, this lady was somehow quite real. 

We finished our meal.  She stood from the small breakfast table where we were dining and walked over to a buffet table, pressing a button on a small box with a wire running from it and disappearing into the wall.

“There,” she said, returning to her seat on the couch.  “Now that we’ve taken care of our supper, I’d like to lay things out for you, Elias.”  I joined her and she leaned back against the arm of the couch, gesturing with one hand.  “First, a few ground rules.”

“Yes, ma’am?”

She nodded.  “First ground rule, then.  I realize that you are being polite in your own way, and I do appreciate it, but I am not “ma’am” nor should I be addressed as such.  When speaking to others, you may refer to me as ‘my lady’ or ‘Lady Botelier.’  When addressing me directly, it is ‘my lady.’  Do you understand?”

“Yes, ma’am--I mean, yes, my lady.”

“Very good.  When we are alone, you may address me simply as ‘Lady Penelope’ or even as ‘Lady P.’  Yes, I rather like the sound of that.”

“Yes, my lady,” I repeated, taking no chances.

She smiled at that.  “Now, the second ground rule is a bit more subtle.  There will be times when a matter is open for discussion, in which case I would welcome your input, and there will be times when it is not.  You will need to learn to distinguish between the two situations.  And when I give you an order, it is to be obeyed immediately and without question.  More than your life or mine may be at stake.  Is that understood?”

“Yes, my lady,” I replied, more somber now.

“Excellent.”  Lady Penelope leaned forward and looked at me with a serious expression.  “Now, Elias, let me tell you what you have signed up for.

“I am an independent woman of some means, though not exceptionally wealthy by the standards of the nobility.  I was blessed to be raised by a father who managed that wealth prudently and who saw no reason for my gender to constrain my education.  My mother, God rest her soul, died at my birth and my father chose not to remarry.  His influence was therefore the most formative of my youth.

“Much to the dismay of many matrons, I accompanied my father on his travels and served as his assistant in his studies, developing a firm grasp of the sciences, world affairs, and the management of our family estate.  My father left his lands to me in their entirety, and as I had already reached my majority at the time he...passed on...to join my mother, I took possession of my inheritance immediately.”

A light knocking at the door interrupted her.  Lady Penelope gestured toward the door and I rose to open it.  A member of the hotel staff entered and began clearing the remains from our supper.  Lady Penelope waved the waiter over and engaged in a brief, whispered conversation.  The man glanced quickly in my direction and nodded before departing.  I closed the door and returned to my seat.

“I am my own woman, Elias,” she continued, “and I pursue my own course.  I am, however, also His Majesty’s loyal subject and my interests do on occasion support specific aims of His Majesty’s government, for whom I am periodically commissioned as an agent.  My present endeavors, in which you have become involved, are one such case.

“As my assistant, there are going to be issues of which you will need to be aware, though there will be many details about which you will not.  Anything you do learn in the course of our doings, it goes without saying, must be kept in the strictest confidence.  You understand this point?”

“Yes, my lady” I replied.

“It is imperative.”

“I understand, Lady Penelope.”

Another knock sounded at the door and I moved to answer it, but she waved me back, rising from her seat and walking to the door herself.  Opening it part way, she spoke softly with someone I could not see, taking a small bag and an envelope in her hands.  With a polite “thank you,” she closed the door again and turned to me.

“Well, Elias, your life is about to get much more interesting.”  Returning to her seat, she placed the small bag on the side table and opened the envelope with deft fingers, extracting a small, folded sheet of paper.  Unfolding the note, her eyes quickly scanned its contents before looking up. 

“I need to get the object we retrieved from the warehouse to London as soon as possible,” she stately plainly, “and the next available passenger liner for Earth doesn’t leave for another five days.  We will be taking passage instead on the freighter Lorelei’s Remembrance, which is presently in orbit and will be departing for Earth tomorrow.  I have sent word for us to be expected mid-morning.”

            “You can do that?” I asked, awed by the powers of the nobility.  “You can just show up an’ they take you aboard?”

            Lady Penelope laughed lightly.  “No, not normally.  I’m a baroness, not a queen.”  She gave a small, knowing smile.  “In this case, however, I happen to know the vessel’s owner quite well.”  She placed the note aside and reached for the bag.  “Now, let us see what we have here.”  Looking inside, she withdrew several folded garments.

            “I asked the hotel staff if they might have any abandoned or found clothes which might fit you.”  She held one of the shirts up and examined it critically.  “These are a bit rustic for your station, but they will serve for the time being.  We ought to have at least one or two suitable outfits among these garments which will suffice until we arrive in London.  In any event, they are a vast improvement over what you are wearing now.”

            I nodded, uncomfortably aware of my threadbare clothes.

            “We have a long journey ahead of us,” she said.  “So it would be a good idea if both of us got some sleep.  I’ll have linens brought and we can make up the couch here for you for tonight.  We’ll be departing in the morning.”  She stood and looked at me.  “I don’t know why, Elias, but something tells me that you and I are going to have a long and storied journey together.”

            Despite a bewildered excitement at my sudden change in fortune, I fell asleep quickly after yet another member of the hotel staff had seen to Lady Penelope’s request.  I’m sure the soft couch cushions had something to do with it.  Morning came very quickly, however, and it seemed that I’d only just lain down when I woke to my new employer’s gentle prodding.

            “Time to rise, Elias.  We have a busy day ahead.”  I nodded and sat up, rubbing the sleep from my eyes.  I went to the bathing room to quickly wash up and change into one of the sets of my new-ish clothes.  I felt much less bedraggled as I joined Lady Penelope in the sitting area.

            Breakfast had already been set and we ate in silence, even though a flood of questions threatened to burst from me.  After our meal was done, Lady Penelope rose from her seat.

            “Well, Elias.  Adventure awaits.”

            We descended the stairs and exited the hotel.  Her baggage had apparently already been sent along to the aerodrome.  I recognized Simon as he summoned a cab at our approach.  Lady Penelope gave a silent nod of thanks as he held the door of the cab open for the two of us.  After he shut it firmly, she called out, “The airfield, please” and the driver nudged the beast forward.

            The journey was brief.  I followed Lady Penelope as she stepped from the cab at the edge of the vast open field, dotted with dirigibles of various sizes.  She led us to a vessel off to one side however, set apart from the others.  It was noticeably smaller, but even to my untrained eye, I thought there was something different about it.  (Later, I learned the technical difference between a blimp on the one hand and a dirigible or zeppelin on the other; namely that the former lacks the rigid body construction of the latter and is more akin to a powered balloon.)

            A young man in the black uniform common to the merchant marine of the cargo lanes stood by the undercarriage of the vessel and addressed Lady Penelope as we approached along the covered walkway, the retractable awning extended to hold off the day’s drizzle.  He had apparently been informed of my existence as my presence fazed him not all.

            “My lady, if you and your guest would take your seats, we may depart immediately,” he stated in a respectful tone.

            “Thank you, Ensign,” she replied.  “Let’s aboard, Elias.  And be sure to take a window seat.  I’m sure you’d like a good view of your first trip into space.”

            I nodded and took her suggestion.  We fastened our belts as the ensign took his seat at the pilot’s station after securing the hatch.  I saw the ground-crew release the lines restraining the vessel and we began to rise, the propellers kicking on just a moment later.

            I watched in awe as the surface of the planet fell away, though my view was quickly obscured as we entered the thick cloud layers that enshrouded Venus.  My disappointment must have been obvious, as Lady Penelope nudged me and said, “Just wait.”

            Sure enough, perhaps ten minutes later, we broke through the first layer of clouds and for a few brief moments were rising through the clear boundary between the opaque lower and upper atmospheric layers of Venus.  A vast expanse opened up and I saw the mottled grey-green below us mirrored by a ceiling of similar color above.  Then we ploughed into the underside of the upper layer and all was obscured again.

            After another interval, as the clouds began to thin, I noticed the sound of the engines shift.  The whirring of the propellers died away, replaced by a low, steady hum.  I looked over at Lady Penelope, puzzled.  She caught my eye and replied to my unspoken question, “The pilot has shifted over to the aether engines, now that we’ve gained sufficient altitude.  The propellers are needed for navigation in the thicker atmosphere.  We’ll be on aetheric-propulsion for the rest of the trip.”

            Outside my window, we’d cleared the upper edge of the second cloud layer and the dark tapestry of space opened wide above us.  The stars stood out clearly against the black and the sun blazed gloriously off to my right.  I sat, entranced, and almost missed another sound, this time from above us.

            “Pumps,” Lady Penelope said.  “Deflating the gas bag.  This craft is properly the Captain’s dinghy and is part of the Remembrance.  Space is quite valuable on cargo vessels and the gas bag isn’t needed beyond a planetary atmosphere.  This way, the dinghy consumes less of the ship’s hold.”

            I nodded, not that I understood much of what she had said at the time.  Later, I was to become much more well-acquainted with such things.  I could just see the cargo vessel we were nearing, though our angle of approach prevented a good view.  After some more time maneuvering, I felt a small jolt and heard a clank as we entered the docking bay and anchored.  Our pilot spent a few minutes checking over his controls before rising from his seat and opening the hatchway.

            “Welcome aboard, my lady,” a gravelly voice greeted us as we stepped onto the floor of the bay.  I looked up to see a tall man wearing a captain’s uniform, with grizzled features, bushy eyebrows, and hair and beard much more white than not.  “And who might this be?”

            “Captain, let me introduce you to Elias Conner.  Elias, this is Captain James O’Rourke, master and commander of this vessel.”

            “Her commander, anyway,” the captain replied.  “Another stray pup for the kennels, your ladyship?”  My consternation must have shown plainly on my face because the captain winked at me.  “Meant no ‘arm by it, lad.  You and me, we’re of a kind.”  He turned back to Lady Penelope and continued.  “Your suite has been prepared.  We’ve another load to transfer and then we’ll be ready to leave orbit.  Say, two and a half, three hours.”

            “Very good, Captain.  I can see my own way.  I’ll leave you to the cargo.  Come along, Elias.”

            I followed as she led us down one gangway and then another and then another, until I was completely lost.  “If’n you don’t mind me askin’, my lady,” I spoke up as we walked, “what did the captain mean ‘bout not bein’ master?”

            “That‘s his idea of a joke, Elias,” she replied.  “The captain owns a one-fifth share of this vessel.  The other four-fifths is owned by Themis Holdings, Ltd.”

            “So this company is the master then?”

            She stopped at a doorway and produced a key.  “Not master,” she said simply, unlocking the door.  “Mistress.”

            The suite was impressively sized and even included a small bed chamber for me.  Lady Penelope explained that she had originally balked at the size of the suite when the vessel was being constructed.  “The architect, however, explained to me pointedly that there were certain Things That Are Just Not Done.  Modesty in an owner’s suite, and most definitely an owner’s suite without a proper servant’s quarters, fell squarely in that category.”

            I was still orienting myself when our baggage (or, I should say, Lady Penelope’s baggage) was brought to the suite.  She directed the crewmen to place the bags in her private rooms and that she would manage from there.  The men disappeared into the further reaches of the suite and emerged a few moments later.  After they had left, she turned to me.

            “Well, Elias.  We’ll get situated here in a little while, but first I think we should take a good look at our prize here.”  She reached into the small bag she’d kept with her and withdrew the cylinder from the warehouse, which I had completely forgotten about in the excitement of the dramatic turn my life had taken.  Moving to the dining table, she removed a cap at one end and slid what appeared to be a scroll from the hollow tube.  Carefully, she unrolled it on the table.

            The scroll itself seemed to be made of a thick parchment or prepared hide, an uneven and mottled brown-grey in color.  Certainly, it looked nothing like ordinary paper.  In height, it was short of a foot, perhaps eleven inches; in length I guessed it to be less than double that, maybe a foot and half.  A single large symbol dominated the surface: a circle surrounding an X, made with strong, broad strokes in a dark red ink.

PART 2

The captain had decided, apparently, to take it upon himself to instruct me in the workings of an aethership and in the ways of aetherfaring in general.  As a result, much of my time during our journey Earthward was spent in his company.  One day not too long after our journey had commenced, the two of us were standing over a small table in his ready-room, several charts depicting the inner solar system littering its surface.  A.T. Mahan’s hefty The History and Fundamentals of Celestial Navigation lay open to one of its many pages of dense mathematical tables.  (The captain, having observed my puzzled expression as I first glanced through those numbers, had commented, “I’ll speak with her ladyship about gettin’ you to work on your spatial trigonometry, lad.  A man should know how to navigate.”)    I was to become extremely familiar with that particular book in coming years.

            “But why is it so ‘portant,” I asked, “that we stick to the ‘Cliptic?”

            “It is a dangerous place out there, m’boy,” the captain responded, eyeing me across the table.  “Space is not a gentle mistress.  Aetheric storms rage in her vast depths, storms the likes of which you never want to see and wouldn’t survive if you ever did.  Aethermen learned quickly that the best way to survive a journey was to stick to the Ecliptic Plane, where the regular movement o’ the inner planets, combined with their closeness to each other, helps to calm the aether.”

            “So no one has survived one o’ these storms?”

            “No one is foolish enough to try,” he responded.  “Folks have stuck to the routes of the Plane for well over a half-century now, and for good reason.  The last case I heard of a body wanderin’ outside it were some Mormon settlers from the Belt who got caught sideways in an aetheric convergence and swept off course.  That was some twenty years ago.  They were never heard of again.”

            I nodded in understanding, tracing my finger along Earth’s orbit on one of the charts.

            “You’ve not asked, my lad, ‘bout what I meant that day you and her ladyship came aboard.  About you and me bein’ of a kind.”

            “No, sir,” I replied, looking up a bit surprised.  “Not thinkin’ it was my place to ask.”

            The captain smiled kindly.  “You’ll find your place soon enough.  Her ladyship is an odd one, not like most of nobles.  Stick by her side an’ keep your eyes open, m’boy, and you’ll learn more’n most people could in several lifetimes.”

            I nodded.  It had only been four days since my life had been so dramatically altered and my brain was already full to bursting, it felt like.  “If’n you don’t mind then, sir, what did you mean by it?”

            “I first crossed path with her ladyship just over three years ago.  Actually, our paths had crossed before that, but neither of us knew it at the time.  Some months before she and I met, her father had taken passage on a freighter I commanded, on a run from Ceres to Luna.  A few days into that journey, we were attacked by pirates -- fought ’em off, but we were badly hurt and limped toward Luna as best we could, Mars bein’ on the far side of the Sun at the time.  We ended up taking shelter in a small aether eddy, what we call a Lagrangian node, just before reaching Luna because an aether wake convergence was sweeping towards us an’ we were’n no shape to ride it out.

            “Her father, the Baron, was a gentleman scientist and asked to don an excursion suit to take readings of the aether as the wake washed over us.  What I didn’t know was that he also hid somethin’ he was carryin’ on that rock in the node while he was out there.  That somethin’ was what her ladyship hired me to help her find those months later.”

            The captain’s eyes narrowed slightly.  “Has she told you ‘bout her father?”

            “Only a little,” I replied.  “I know that he died.  ‘Passed on to join her mother,’ she said.”

            “Well, lad, I may be speakin’ out o’ school, but if you’re goin’ to be ridin’ shotgun with her ladyship, there are some things you need to know.”

            I nodded, waiting.

            “The Baron didn’t just die, lad.  He was murdered.  Struck down in broad daylight on the streets o’ London shortly after he returned from Luna.  And she’s been hunting the assassin ever since.”

            “Does she know who it is?” I asked.

            “She does and she doesn’t.  She’s actually met the man once.  Introduced himself to her at a cafe on Ceres, bold as brass.  She knows what he looks like and that he’s an American.”

            I shook my head.  “I saw plenty o’ blood feuds on the streets of Aphrodite.  I’d never have guessed she was carryin’ one.”

            “Her ladyship is a tightly-battened vessel,” the captain responded.  “Perhaps too tightly battened.  It’s not good for a body to have so much packed away inside.  I should know -- she found me lookin’ through the bottom of a bottle myself.”

            He looked over at me again.  “So I’m glad that you’re going to be ridin’ with her, Elias.  She needs a companion.”

            Then his gaze returned to the table between us and he pointed to a region on the topmost chart.  “Now, right here was where my former ship got ambushed by that swarm o’ pirates…”

 ###

             The days fell into a regular rhythm.  When I wasn’t applying myself to the course of studies Lady Penelope had started me on, much of the time was spent with the captain, who continued my instruction after his own manner.  Lady Penelope encouraged this, commenting that it was an excellent opportunity to learn during otherwise idle time.  She seemed pleased that I was putting our travel time to productive use.  I certainly wanted to do anything I could to please her.

            We were less than a day from Earth when it happened.  That particular day, we were on the bridge and I stood next to the captain, watching in fascinated anticipation as the tiny blue-green marble that was our destination slowly grew larger in the forward viewport.

            The captain looked up at the chronometer overhead and then to the bank of dials and gauges by the helmsman’s station.  “If you’d like, lad, you could inform her ladyship that we’ll be arriving in Earth orbit in five hours and her transport to London will be ready within a half-hour of that.”

            I grinned broadly.  “Yes, sir!” I responded, taking off through the hatch and down the gangway at a brisk trot.  Having followed the captain about the Remembrance constantly over the last week and a half, I now knew my way about her fairly well and soon found myself at the door of the owner’s suite.  Letting myself in with the spare key Lady Penelope had given me, I stepped into the entranceway and quietly shut the door behind.

           To this day, I do not know why I didn’t simply call out for her.  Whether it was by accident or chance or some deeper twist of fate, I said nothing as I looked about the empty chambers.  Lady Penelope was nowhere in sight.

           Then I noticed the door to her private rooms, at the far end of the main chamber, slightly ajar.  Had it been closed, I’d have paused, but seeing it open and brimming with the message from the captain, I moved quickly to the doorway and stepped through.

           “My lady, the captain says…”

           In the time we’d been travelling, I’d not had occasion to enter Lady Penelope’s personal chambers.  Seeing them now for the first time, I could appreciate the modest elegance that was her style.  The rooms were certainly spacious: a large bed, neatly made, lay to my left; a sitting area consisting of a pair of armchairs with a low table between set against a wide viewport occupied the far end of the rooms.

           It was what lay to my right that stopped me dead in my tracks.

           The bathing area was laid in with stone tile, brightly lit, with a raised tub set against one wall of the alcove.  A vanity with a good-sized mirror, additional lights, and a sink occupied the opposite wall.  Two doors set in the remaining wall led to a closet and water-closet, respectively.

           Lady Penelope stood on the decorous bath-rug in the center of the bathing space, drying herself with a large white towel.  Her hair was drawn up off her neck, a few stray strands escaping bondage and laying just behind her right ear.  Droplets of water glimmered on her skin as she rubbed herself dry, oblivious to my presence for those merest of moments.  Her naked form was turned sideways to me, a graceful hip curving from behind the folds of the towel.  I stood and stared blankly, transfixed by the vision before me.

          At the sound of my voice, she looked up.  Her eyes widened momentarily, then her expression slid into a careful neutrality as she straightened and moved to cover herself with the towel.  I could not speak and as the realization of what I’d done sunk in, I felt my face heat.  But I could not, would not turn away.

           “Elias,” she said softly.  “Elias.”  I blinked, as if emerging from a trance.  “Please turn around for a moment.”  I did as she instructed, the gears of my frozen brain slowly beginning to move again.  Less than a minute later, she spoke again.  “You may look at me now.”

           When I did, she stood as she had before, but now clothed in a long bathrobe, cinched securely about her waist.  I did manage to close my mouth, which had been hanging open until then.

           “Well, that was as much my fault as yours, I suppose,” she commented.  “Another ground rule: always knock before entering my private rooms, or those of any lady.  I will try to remember to keep my door closed and that I am not working alone any longer.  It seems we both have adjustments to make.  Do you understand?”

         I nodded mutely.  She walked over to me and looked into my eyes.  “If you will allow me a short time to get dressed, you can convey the captain’s message.  But remember, Elias.  I am your mistress, not your mistress.”  A soft hand touched my cheek and a small half-smile formed on those lips. “At least, not yet.”

 I managed to get through the next hours without any more embarrassing incidents.  Lady Penelope, for her part, made no further mention of it, something for which I was incredibly grateful.  It was a relief when I was able to busy myself with our departure to the surface.

            It was a bright morning in London when our airship landed at the aerodrome outside the city.  Having never been beyond the city walls of Aphrodite, much less to other planets, I tried not to gawk openly as we disembarked and made our way to a waiting cab.  The driver apparently knew Lady Penelope and nudged the horse forward as soon as we settled in our seats.  She said nothing as we rode and I took the opportunity to absorb the sights as we moved smoothly through the streets.

            After a time, including one snarl of traffic as we entered the city proper, we came to a stop.  I followed Lady Penelope as she exited the cab and paid the driver, then onto a walk leading through a low iron gate and up to the front door of the white stone townhouse.

            “I’m afraid our stop here will be very brief,” Lady Penelope explained as she introduced me to her other house staff.  “Mrs. Porter, we will be back for supper, but away for luncheon.  Please prepare a room for Elias in the meantime.”  She held out an envelope.  “Mr. Porter, please deliver this to Mrs. Southwaite.  If at all possible, have her come by this afternoon.  It is a matter of some urgency.”

            Mr. Porter nodded.  “Is there anything else, my lady?”

            “No,” Lady Penelope shook her head.  “Elias and I have a train to catch.”

            Without further ado, we left the townhouse for the train station and were shortly rumbling along the tracks westward.  The landscape sped past beneath the late morning sun still climbing into the sky. 

“Where are we going, my lady?” I asked, my head still spinning at the whir of activity since we’d landed

            “Sunningdale, Berkshire,” she replied.  “Doctor James Dalton is an old friend of my father’s, as well as being a noted biologist.  I am hopeful that he can tell us something about this artifact from the warehouse.”

            Our journey was uneventful.  After Lady Penelope presented her card to the butler, we were shown to a modest study.  The doctor’s face was lined with age, but he was immediately intrigued by the scroll.  His eyes lit up as Lady Penelope placed it before him.

          “Most interesting,” the doctor said, almost absently.  He ignored the glyph and bent close to the scroll with his glass lens.  First, he examined a portion of the scroll toward the center, above the glyph; then he shifted his attention toward another region in the lower right-hand corner.

            “Most interesting,” he repeated.  “Lady Botelier,” he straightened.  “May I be permitted to take a small sample in order to prepare a slide for examination?”

            “By all means.”

            “Thank you, my lady.”  With deft motions belying his age, he produced a small pair of scissors and carefully snipped the corner he had been examining.  A small sliver dropped to the surface of the table.  Using a pair of tweezers, he placed that sliver onto a glass slide.

            After peering through the microscope for several minutes, his fingers adjusting the focus knob periodically, he murmured.  “Most fascinating.”

            “Doctor,” Lady Penelope interrupted his contemplations.  “Is there anything definitive that you can tell us?”

            He looked up from his instrument.  “Very little, I’m afraid, with such a cursory examination.  What I can say is that while at first glance, the scroll appears to be made of fungoid material of Vulcan origin, it turns out to be a Venusian-Vulcan hybrid of some form.  The distinct characteristics of both planets are quite evident.”

            “Interesting,” she commented.  “What of the writing on the scroll?”

            Our host sat back in his chair, assessing Lady Penelope carefully.

            “The field of alien societies and languages is extremely small,” the doctor explained.  “You must realize that we have only two known cases of alien life attaining the level of what we would properly call ‘civilization.’  And only one of those cases is extant, namely the Vulcans.  Given the dominance of that planet by the Americans and their strict control of access, most who conduct studies of the natives must do so at something of a distance.

            “The other known case,” he continued, “is, of course, the Ancients of your native Mars, who disappeared -- as best we know -- tens of thousands of years ago, leaving behind deserted stone ruins, mysterious cavern temples, and practically indecipherable glyphic writing.  Few reputable scholars have attempted to challenge their mystery, leaving the field in the hands of -- what is the term young people use these days?  Ah, yes.  ‘Cracked pots’.”

           “I see,” Lady Penelope replied and I saw her suppress a smile.  “However, in the event I were in need of information regarding Vulcan writing, whom would you recommend?”

            Doctor Hooker thought for a long moment.  “Understand, my lady, that I know no one in the field personally, only by scholarly reputation; but were you to press me for a name…”

            “As I am afraid I must,” Lady Penelope interjected.

            “In that case, I would suggest you speak with a relative newcomer to the field who has published several well-received articles and monographs on the subject in these last few years.  A certain Professor Franske at Frederick William University on Mercury.”

             “Professor Reinhold Franske?” Lady Penelope asked, apparently surprised.  

             “Indeed,” he replied.  “Do you know the gentleman?”

             Lady Penelope nodded.  “As a matter of fact, I do.  Thank you very much, Doctor.  You have been extremely helpful.  We will take up no more of your time.”

            Doctor Hooker rose as we did.  “You are most welcome, Lady Botelier.  I wish you the best of luck in your search.”

            We took lunch before boarding the train back to London.  By the time we’d returned to the townhouse, my room had been aired, with fresh linens on the bed and my meager collection of clothing neatly folded in the dresser drawers.  Lady Penelope asked me to join her in the study, where she began selecting a number of texts from the many shelves.  It was then that Mr. Porter appeared at the doorway.  “Mrs. Southwaite, my lady.”

            Mrs. Southwaite turned out to be a short, rotund woman with a stern expression.  She was neatly dressed in plain but functional clothing.  Behind her stood a tall, willowy girl, possibly my age, who looked as nervous as her companion did fierce.

            “Ah,” Lady Penelope replied.  “Thank you, Mr. Porter.  And thank you, Mrs. Southwaite, for coming on such short notice.”

            “Trade is trade,” the woman responded.  “Makes no difference to me, your ladyship.  You understand a rush job is extra?”

            Lady Penelope nodded.  “It cannot be helped.  If you could manage three sets within as many days, I would be willing to pay that fee.  As well as commissioning many more for future delivery.  We are rather starting from scratch here.”

            “I can see that,” Mrs. Southwaite agreed, eyeing me critically.  “Let’s be about it then.  Liza?”

            The nervous girl moved forward and placed the hollow box she had been carrying on the floor.  Removing a notebook, what appeared to be several folded garments, and a small bag, she turned the box over so that it made a small platform.

            “What’s this about, my lady?” I asked, intensely curious.

             “You, young man,” Mrs. Southwaite motioned to the box.  “Up you go.”  She then proceeded to pull a measuring tape from the bag.

             “I’ll be in the parlor,” Lady Penelope smiled.  “Join me there when Mrs. Southwaite has finished with you.  Hopefully, we’ll have some decent clothes for you in the next few days.”

           When I entered the parlor some time later, having been thoroughly measured in every possible dimension and playing the dressmaker’s dummy while loose-fitting clothes were pinned and chalked, I found Lady Penelope sitting at a writing desk, the pen in her slender fingers flowing effortlessly over the surface of the paper.  After some moments, she placed the pen down, holding the several sheets of her letter up as she read through its contents.  With a curt nod of satisfaction, she folded the letter and slipped it into an envelope, which she proceeded to address and then seal with wax.

            “Elias,” she turned in her chair, extending the letter to me.  “Have Mr. Porter see that this is delivered to the Foreign Office immediately.”

            “I can take it for you, my lady,” I responded, eager to get out of the house after my experience with the formidable Mrs. Southwaite.  “Just point me in the right direction.”

            Lady Penelope shook her head.  “No, Elias.  Have Mr. Porter see to it.  I have more important business for you this afternoon.”

            “Yes, my lady,” I acquiesced, my hopes for new adventure rising somewhat.  “What sort o’ business?”

            “Latin,” she replied.

 ###

             “We have less than a week until we reach Mercury, Elias, and a few days from then until our appointment with the American embassy.  Once we depart for Vulcan, however, we will be under the watchful eye of the Americans and our ability to speak freely -- even within the confines of our quarters -- will be limited.  Before that point, there are a number of things which you need to understand if you are going to know what to watch for.”

            We were in the small but tastefully-appointed sitting area of our suite of rooms aboard the liner Zarathustra, having departed Earth earlier that day. My new clothes had been delivered the afternoon before, along with Mrs. Southwaite’s bill which Lady Penelope had promptly paid. In what had appeared to become our usual arrangement, Lady Penelope was seated on one end of the couch and I was seated on the other.

            “Yes, my lady.”  An excitement bubbled within me.  My first assignment!  It was enough to turn a body’s head.  But I quieted my enthusiasm and tried to focus on Lady Penelope’s words.

            “There are two aspects of the situation which you need to understand, Elias.  The first involves the political and economic background of the system of worlds as they stand today.  The second -- well, the second is more personal, but no less important.  If you are to serve effectively as my assistant, there are certain things you need to know.”

            I nodded, waiting for her to continue.

            “As to the broader situation, the simple fact is that the crystals from the mines of Vulcan power our civilization.  Without them, the speed and volume of travel and trade would fall dramatically and the system which binds the worlds together would become increasingly untenable.”

            “So the aethership can’t work without the crystals?” I asked, a bit puzzled.  The captain had shown me the lenses and the crystal matrix, but had not been able to go into too much technical detail at the time.

            “No, they can,” she replied.  “But at greatly-reduced power.  Effectively, this journey we are taking now to Mercury, which will require six days, would take two months to complete in absence of the crystals.”

            I nodded in understanding.  “So it’d take so much longer to get from one planet to another that things won’t work proper no more?”

            She smiled.  “More or less, Elias.  Now, the system we have today hasn’t always been.  Vulcan wasn’t even discovered by astronomers until 1838, as the planet was obscured by its closeness to the Sun; even then, no one dared attempt a landing until the first American expedition in 1845.  But since that time, and since the discovery of the potency of the vulcanite crystals shortly afterwards, our civilization has grown exponentially in size, pace, and complexity.

          “The Americans are central to this entire issue, in more ways than one.  Remember that the era of space travel began over a generation earlier; the first successful demonstration of an aether engine was made by James Henry in 1821.  Within a decade of that, however, the various empires had launched explorations and staked their claims to the inner worlds: the Franco-Spanish empire claimed Venus, the British empire Mars, the Austro-German empire established itself on Mercury, and the Russian empire dominated the Belt.  It was in 1832, with the Treaty of Geneva, that today’s system of primary claims and national concessions was established.”

          “What about the ‘Mericans?” I asked.

          “Americans,” she stressed.  “We do need to work on your enunciation, Elias.  As to your question, the United States were still a young nation in the 1830s.  A growing nation, and incredibly ambitious, as anyone could see, but they were not a Great Power, not a member of the inner circle of empires.

          “Moreover, they had considerable internal issues at that time, most notably their conflict over slavery.  Understand that by 1820, human slavery had been effectively ended -- except in the United States, where it still flourished in its southern region.”

          “You mean folks owned other people?” I asked, incredulous.  Even my pa, treated like scum like the other laborers, hadn’t been owned, like a piece of machinery or a head of cattle.  Even when I hovered at the edge of starvation on the streets of Aphrodite, I’d been free.

          “Yes, Elias, they did.  It was a source of intense conflict within that nation, with one region increasingly opposed to the institution and another region increasingly dependent on it.  Had fate not intervened, many historians believe that the tension would have eventually broken out into civil war.

          “But fate did intervene, and Captain Perry’s expedition to Vulcan was a turning point in American history.  By claiming Vulcan in toto for the United States, the captain gave Americans a rallying point of unity.  One of their more farsighted statesmen, a member of their upper legislative house, seized on that opportunity when the value of the vulcanite crystals became known a short while later.  Under his stewardship, the United States forged the Grand Compromise of 1846, a landmark piece of legislation which accomplished several things.”

          My curiosity was well and truly piqued by this point.  “What sorts o’ things?”

         “Well,” she continued.  “First, the Compromise abolished human slavery in the United States, thus diffusing the tension that had threatened to tear the young country apart.  Secondly, it established the Hephaestus Corporation, a company whose majority owner was their federal government, but whose other shares were distributed equally among their states.  The manufacturers of one region were able to apply their industrial expertise to the mining and processing of vulcanite ore, while the plantation owners were able to transfer their skills in managing large numbers of slaves to the management of the Vulcans, who were made property of the company.  And so the situation remains to this day, with the various factions of American society sharing in the wealth generated by the operation.”

         “So the Vulcans work the mines and the ‘Mericans -- Americans -- get the crystals and the money,” I observed, absorbing all that she had thrown at me.  “That don’t seem right somehow.”

         She shook her head.  “As much as I personally disapprove of the treatment of the native population, it is the desire of His Majesty’s government to maintain the balance of power in the present state of affairs.”  She took a deep breath, exhaling slowly.  “Which brings me to the second point.”

         I said nothing, waiting for her to continue.

         “You may remember during the conversation in my hotel suite that day we met, Elias.  I mentioned, I believe, that I had inherited my father’s title and estate when he passed on.”

         I nodded.  “Yes, my lady. I ‘member that.”

         “Remember,” she emphasized.  “While that statement itself is true, it veils by omission certain information which is significant given our present mission.  Namely, Elias, that my father was in fact murdered, struck down by an American assassin.”

        I allowed my eyes to widen appreciatively, not wanting to let on that I had already known that fact.  It was a relief to no longer know something secretly; I felt a warm glow inside, too, as I realized what it meant for her to share this part of herself, particularly so soon after we had met.

         “Do you know why, my lady?” I asked after a moment.  “Or who?”  A small deception on my part, blending a legitimate question with one I already knew the answer to.  But it would be best if she were to have told me everything I already knew.  That she might convey something more to me was merely a bonus.

         She said nothing for several moments, and I wondered if I’d said something wrong, but then her eyes refocused on me and her expression took on a deep sorrow.  “Yes and no, Elias,” she replied.  “To both of your questions.”

         I remained silent, allowing the quiet to sit in the room.

         She took another deep breath and smiled sadly.  “Pardon me, Elias.  I have not really spoken of this to any great degree and it is...difficult.”

         I cannot say what possessed me, having been plucked from the streets by this woman barely a fortnight before, but I reached across the space separating us and put my hand on hers.  “It’s alright, Lady P.  I know what it’s like to have someone kill your pa and not be able to do nothin’ ‘bout it.”  For a single, eternal moment, we were two souls joined by a common grief and I felt the stirrings of a deep something that I could not describe, even to myself, until I was able to put a name to it many years later.

         Then the moment passed and I let go of her hand, suddenly mindful of my station.

         “Thank you, Elias.  You are a sweet and kindly young man.”  Then she shook her head slightly, as if to clear it, and her characteristic focus returned. “My belief is that my father was murdered because of research he was conducting on alternatives to vulcanite crystals in aetheric propulsion.”  My eyes widened again, for real this time, and she continued.  “That research, however, proved to have been something of a false trail.  As to your second question: I know what my father’s murderer looks like, although I do not know his name as anything but ‘X’, which is how he signed the one piece of correspondence I have received from him.  We spoke briefly on Ceres shortly after my father’s death, and he revealed himself to me at the conclusion of that conversation.  I can tell you that he is an elegant man, unfailingly polite, a witty conversationalist...and a man I am sworn to kill.”

         I nodded again.  As I’d told the captain, I’d seen plenty of blood-feuds on the streets.  I knew what Lady Penelope carried on her heart.

         “You might wonder what my purpose is in telling you all of this,” she continued, bringing my mind back to the present.  “The reason is quite simple, Elias.  I am unsure of what we may see when we reach Vulcan.  This will be my first visit.  My feelings regarding the Americans are understandably complicated and my history with them may result in my missing something that may be of use to His Majesty’s interests.  It would be extraordinarily helpful if there were a second pair of eyes and ears to notice things that I might not.”

         “You can count on me, Lady Penelope,” I replied earnestly.

         This time it was she who reached over to me, placing her hand on mine.  “I know I can, Elias.  And thank you.”

 ###

             “I must admit,” Lady Penelope said as we were seated in the professor’s corner office.  “That I was surprised to hear your name mentioned in conjunction with Vulcan philology, Professor.  Not to mention your considerable upgrade in location here.”

            We had arrived on Mercury the previous day and even before settling into our rooms at the hotel, Lady Penelope had dispatched messages to the American embassy and to the professor’s office at the University.  The former had returned an acknowledgement of our appointment two days hence, while Professor Franske had responded with an invitation to visit the following morning.

            The professor smiled offhandedly, his blue eyes bright behind his spectacles.  “I took our last discussion to heart, Freiin, and sought to expand my fields of study.  In emulation of a certain Baron whose talents I had observed and whose company I had the pleasure of experiencing all too briefly.”

            She nodded at his words.  “You are most gracious, Professor.”

            “Not at all,” he replied.  “Your observations were well-made.  I merely decided to act upon them.  And so,” he gestured.  “You see that the academy has not completely lost sight of its purpose.  I have been made dean of a small but innovative college within the university, a college where interdisciplinary studies are not only tolerated, but encouraged.  I hope that it is seed from which a new renaissance may grow.”  His attention shifted to me.  “Perhaps you would consider enrolling, young man.  We are always looking for new minds and new ideas.”

            I did not know how to respond, but Lady Penelope came to my rescue.  “Elias is undergoing a course of private tutoring at present, Professor, as his duties do not presently permit attendance.  I will keep the offer in mind, however.”

            “Of course, Freiin.”  The professor settled back into his chair.  “Before we turn to the artifact, a brief review of Vulcan language and its structure would be useful.  The most import thing to understand is the sheer simplicity of the Vulcan mind and how that simplicity is reflected in their language.  Take the concept of number, for example.  The symbol for ‘one’ is a single dot.  The symbol to ‘two’ is a pair of dots side by side.  Now, consider the following symbol.”  He produced a sheet of paper and quickly draw a trio of dots arranged in a triangle, two below and one centered above.  Placing the paper before me, he asked, “Elias, given what I’ve told you already, what would you suppose that symbol means to a Vulcan?”

            “Three?” I offered.

            The professor smiled.  “A logical conclusion.  But incorrect.  To a Vulcan, this symbol carries the meaning of ‘many’ or even ‘uncountably many.’  Why would you suppose that might be?”

            “I don’t know,” I replied.

            “Consider that the Vulcan has only three digits on his hand.  To him, that could be a natural limit at which point a specific number becomes a conceptual ‘many’.”

            I nodded.  “Yes, sir.  That does make sense.”

The professor looked down at the scroll that lay on his desk, unrolling it and securing the corners with small paperweights.  “Now, let us examine this lovely specimen you have brought to my attention.”

            He looked over the surface, examining the substance of the scroll itself for several minutes, then sat back and appeared to consider the glyph itself.

            “This is not one symbol, but two,” Professor Franske noted finally.  “Again, one must keep in mind that Vulcan mentality is extremely primitive.  Their ‘sentences’ are collections of two, at most three symbols.  But instead of working left-to-right or right-to-left, their writing works from the outside in.”

            “So this is a sentence?” I asked.  “A circle and an X?”

            “Exactly,” he agreed.  “So in order to parse its meaning, we need to look at the two symbols distinctly first, then consider their pairing.”

            Lady Penelope spoke up.  “In that case, what do the two symbols mean individually?”

            “I’m afraid even that question is not quite so simple, Freiin,” the professor replied, shaking his head.  “Once more, remember that the Vulcan mind is an incredibly simple thing.  Their symbols are at best loosely-defined ideas and collections of concepts.  There are no tightly-defined meanings in the manner we would think of such.”

            He pointed to the outer circle as we leaned over the parchment.  “Let us take this first symbol.  The circle, for Vulcans, is a symbol of inclusivity and totality.  ‘All’ might be one meaning.  But it also can refer to their world, which they perceive as ‘the all around them.’  Or it can refer to the totality of the inhabitants: ‘all of this world’ or as we might phrase it, ‘all Vulcans.’  Or it might refer to totality in the abstract or religious sense, ‘The All.’  As you can see, while related, these are very different meanings.”

            He then moved his finger to the center of the glyph.  “Now, this second symbol has its own collection of meanings.  For Vulcans, thinking simply, an X can mean ‘crossing’ or ‘together’ or possibly ‘coming together.’  But it could also mean ‘merging’ or ‘melding’ in a religious or esoteric sense.”

            My body tensed as a sudden memory washed over me.  I saw my eight-year-old self watching my father speak to a large crowd of his fellows in the labor hall, the atmosphere thick with anger.  My father stood at the podium, his fist raised high in defiance.

            “Unite,” I said.

            “What do you mean, young man?” the professor examined me over his lenses.

            “The X means ‘unite.’” I looked from the professor to Lady Penelope.  “My pa once shouted words just like this.  ‘Workers of the world, unite!’  That’s what this sentence says.”

Vulcanian polar opening

PART 3

            Our appointment with the American embassy was for the next afternoon.  We took our lunch at a cafe, our luggage having been retrieved from the hotel by embassy staff earlier that morning.  Unfortunately, the professor’s class schedule prevented him from seeing us off, but Lady Penelope assured him that we would visit again on our return trip.

            For reasons both practical and political, Mercury served as the primary staging point for vessels en route to and from Vulcan.  As a young nation, Lady Penelope had explained to me, the United States had gravitated toward the Austro-German Empire as the latter had consolidated power in the early 19th century, coming to an uneasy but surprisingly stable compromise between its Austrian and Prussian contingents.

            The practical reasons were more readily apparent.  Travel to Vulcan required specially-constructed aetherships designed to withstand the intensity of the infra-Mercurian Sun.  Once beyond the orbit of Mercury, however, those precautions and that equipment were no longer needed.  Hence, Mercury became a natural transition point.

            We rode to the embassy in a cab, but one unlike any cab I’d ever seen before.  Instead of a harness for some appropriate kind of beast, the cab sported a low deck stacked with rectangular blocks, thick wiring running from one to another.  Lady Penelope said something to me about an electric motor, but I was frankly too awed by the sight of a beastless carriage to pay attention.

            The desk clerk at the embassy greeted us politely, summoning an attendant to escort us to a small parlor.  The room was tastefully decorated in shades of blue, furnished with a small couch and several comfortable-looking armchairs.  Lady Penelope sat in one of these as I wandered the perimeter of the room, examining the oil paintings displayed on the walls.  One portrait in particular drew my attention, a life-size standing portrait of a thin but powerfully-present man with a high forehead and piercing blue eyes.  A brass plaque at the base of the painting stated in bold lettering, “The Great Compromiser.”  Below that, in somewhat smaller print, it read “Henry Clay -- Twelfth President of the United States.”

            “That is the statesman I spoke of on our journey here, Elias,” Lady Penelope commented, observing my actions.  “Many American historians credit him with saving that nation from a terrible civil war.”  I nodded silently as I took the man in, then continued my tour of the room, looking over several more paintings bearing their own small plaques.  I had nearly completed the circuit when the parlor door opened and a smartly-dressed man in a dark-blue military uniform stepped into the room.  Lady Penelope rose from her seat as the man approached.

            “Lady Botelier, welcome.  I am Lieutenant Commander Wright, your pilot today.”

            “Thank you, Commander.  Allow me to introduce my assistant, Elias Conner.”  She gestured toward where I stood beneath another life-sized portrait.

            The commander turned towards me, his eyes lively.  “And welcome to you as well, young man.  I see that you have been examining some of my nation’s statesmen.  Tell me, how do you find President Davis?”

            I looked up at the portrait.  A gaunt man towered above me, his eyes sunken and almost sorrowful.  The brass plaque at the painting’s base read “Jefferson Davis -- Thirteenth President of the United States.”

            “Tall,” I replied, drawing a sharp laugh from Commander Wright and a small smile from Lady Penelope.

            “I have taken the opportunity of our excursion,” she said to the commander, “to acquaint Elias with some aspects of your nation’s history.”

            Commander Wright nodded.  “Practical education is a fine thing for a young man.  I am something of an amateur historian myself.”  He turned to me again.  “Did you know, Elias, that the President following Mr. Davis was even taller?  Even more interesting is the fact that Mr. Lincoln was only the second sitting Vice-President to succeed to the Presidency due to a death in office.  The only other...”

            The commander stopped himself short, shaking his head.  “But however much I might enjoy spending the day discussing episodes of the past, we do have a schedule to keep.”  He gestured toward the door.  “If you would kindly accompany me, I will escort you to our ship.”

            I’d expected that we’d leave the embassy for the aetherport at the edge of the dome covering the Mercurian city, but the commander instead led us down a series of steps to a small lobby.  A door on one wall slid open, revealing a strange, tube-like room with bench seats along the walls.

            Commander Wright waved us in.  “This is a pneumatic car which will take us to the embassy’s docks.  A rather clever invention, I think.”

            Lady Penelope and I followed, sitting on a bench opposite the commander.  The doors slid shut and I felt a gentle push as we accelerated soundlessly.

            “We Americans are notorious tinkerers,” the commander commented as we rode smoothly along the tubeway.  “Particularly the Yankee contingent.”

            “Beggin’ your pardon, Commander,” I said, my brow furrowing.  “Aren’t all Americans ‘Yankees’?”

            He laughed.  “You’ve come upon one of the nuances of my nation’s internal politics, young man.  Yes, those of other nations do refer to Americans by that term, but we use the label ‘Yankee’ to refer to those Americans from the North.  My family hails from there.  Ohio, if you are familiar with our national geography.”

            “Cleveland?” Lady Penelope asked, apparently naming a city.

            “Dayton, actually,” he responded.  “My brother and I built bicycles with our father before I decided to go into the service.”

            The commander looked back to at me.  “As we depart, Elias, you may wish to keep an eye out your port window.  You’ll have an opportunity to view a sight few have a chance to witness -- the fire-side of Mercury.  But,” his hand rose in caution, “you’ll only have a few minutes to observe, as I must then close the visors over all portals.  They will remain closed for the rest of the trip.”

            “For our own protection, no doubt,” Lady Penelope commented.

            The commander blinked once and then replied.  “Of course.”

            Our car slowed and stopped, the doors sliding open again.  After mounting a short flight of steps, Commander Wright led us to our ship, anchored at the end of the connecting walkway.

            “Our journey will take approximately five hours, so please make yourselves comfortable,” he said as we stepped aboard.

            Lady Penelope looked at him, her expression puzzled.  “I had anticipated a somewhat longer interval, Commander.”

            Wright smiled brightly.  “Being a member of the Special Courier Service, I rate one of our better engines.  As I said earlier, we are notorious tinkerers.”  He winked.  “Usually, when ferrying foreign diplomats, we are required to restrain ourselves, but I have been given leave to let loose a bit.  I don’t have any notion of who you may know at the Company or what the nature of your visit might be, but I do thank you nonetheless.”

            Lady Penelope nodded in reply.  “I cannot say, Commander.  But you are most welcome.”

 

###

 

            Upon our arrival, we were led by the commander directly from the docking bay to a small, windowless conference chamber, apparently bypassing the usual customs process.  (Later, Lady Penelope would explain to me the concept of “diplomatic immunity.”)  Commander Wright left us at the door, nodding to a well-dressed man who stood within the room, a neatly-arranged table behind him.

“Lady Botelier,” the man greeted us as we entered.  “I am Simon Legris, Foreign Liaison for Vulcan Affairs.  On behalf of President Elihu Root and the United States of America, welcome to Vulcan.”

“Mr. Legris,” Lady Penelope nodded.  “His Majesty’s government appreciates your nation’s willingness to cooperate on issues of mutual concern.  I would like to introduce my assistant, Elias Conner.”

The man’s eyes assessed me rapidly before his gaze returned to Lady Penelope.  “My associate, Mr. Dubois, will be joining us momentarily.  The security issues of which you speak are more properly his area of expertise.”

Even as Legris finished speaking, the door behind him opened and a second man stepped into the room.  He was finely-dressed in a well-tailored suit of charcoal grey and carried a cane with a polished brass top.  With almost feline smoothness, he moved with an elegant but masculine grace.

The effect of his appearance was immediate.  The air around me chilled precipitously.  I glanced at Lady Penelope, who stood rigid, her face without expression.  Legris must have felt the change in atmosphere, too, as he cast a quizzical glance at his companion and then at Lady Penelope.

“Xavier,” he said, “this is…”

“Lady Botelier,” Dubois interrupted him. “Thank you, Simon.  We are acquainted.”  He gave a polite bow, his eyes never leaving us.  “Baroness.”

“Monsieur,” she replied, her voice flat.  “X.”

Dubois gave a tight smile, but said nothing.

“You are most fortunate, monsieur,” she continued, “in the circumstances under which we meet again.”

“Do not think that I am unaware of that fact, Baroness,” he replied.  “Or that the circumstances of which you speak are merest happenstance.  I have the utmost respect for your capabilities.”

            “Please, Lady Botelier,” Legris interjected, gesturing to the circular conference table.  “Let us discuss the business which has brought you here.”

            Lady Penelope nodded to the man and took a seat at the table.  After a moment’s hesitation, and a brief glance from my employer, I sat next to her.  The two gentlemen joined us.  With a steely calm, Lady Penelope began.  Dubois’ eyes narrowed, though only briefly, as she described the outline of our theory, his expression returning to the polite mask he seemed to wear.

            “We have certainly noticed symbols of the kind you describe,” he stated calmly.  “But we thought little of them, given the limited mental capacity of the natives.  If, however, they are indeed being directed by an external agitator, that casts a completely different light on the matter.”

            It was an unsettled tableau: Lady Penelope’s detached recitation our observations, Dubois’ unflappable grace, Legris’ puzzlement of the interplay between the two.

Dubois continued.  “We’ll begin tomorrow after breakfast, I think.  Allow the men rest and a decent meal before a good day’s work.”  He looked over at Legris.  “Two companies should suffice.  We’ll send 1st Company to the mines and 3rd Company into the villages.”  Legris nodded, but cast a concerned glance in our direction.

Dubois appeared to have understood an unspoken inquiry and his attention returned to Lady Penelope.  “I have seen to accommodations for you and your young assistant here, Baroness.  If you would be willing to join me for breakfast in the morning, I’d like to extend an invitation to the two of you to join our little expedition tomorrow.”

Legris’ eyebrows shot up in alarm and he leaned toward his companion.  “Xavier...procedure.”

Dubois waved one hand dismissively.  “I’m quite aware of the procedures, Simon,” he replied.  “But let us all be frank with one another.  Each of us knows what trade he,” Dubois paused and smiled at Lady Penelope, “or she is engaged in here.  While our nations’ long-term interests, or even our personal interests, may be in contestation, at this particular point in time at least, our goals mutually align.  I find it rather refreshing that we might take this opportunity to speak plainly.”

Legris reddened slightly, but then shrugged his shoulders in resignation.  “It’s your head, Xavier,” he acquiesced.  “I, for one, wouldn’t be so casual with it.”

“If McKinley has another of his fits,” Dubois responded, “I’ll ask Theodore talk some sense into him.  The man has to realize that we cannot operate without change forever.  We need to adapt to the times and seize opportunities when they present themselves.”

He looked to Lady Penelope again.  “Forgive us, Baroness.  As I’m sure you are aware, Hephaestus Corporation is something of an odd creature, being a corporate entity wholly owned by the various governments of my nation.  As such, we have collected our share of stuffed shirts who cannot see beyond the well-worn ruts of the past.  Our current chairman of the board is a fine man, but somewhat entrapped by procedure and tradition.  Our vice-chairman, fortunately, is a bit more broadminded, if somewhat flamboyant.”

Lady Penelope nodded in agreement.  “Mr. Roosevelt’s reputation is not unfamiliar to me.  His exploits as a game-hunter on the various worlds are...expansive.”

Dubois smiled at that.  “A most politic way of putting it, Baroness.”  He looked over to Legris once more.  “Consider the diplomatic angle, Simon.  Given the service that our guests have rendered to us by bringing this information to our attention, we would not want to be inconsiderate hosts.”

            The meeting adjourned and we were shown to our quarters by an attendant.  The suite was generous, consisting of a small foyer, a central sitting area with a small bistro table, a rather large bathroom with a decorous claw-footed tub, a small water-closet off the bathing space, a large bedroom for Lady Penelope and a smaller bedchamber for myself.  Our baggage had already been delivered.  The attendant departed quietly after taking our dinner requests and informing us that we should remain in our suite until morning.  Lady Penelope acknowledged the restriction with a nod of her head.

After the door closed, she stood very still and let out a long, slow breath.  A few moments later, seeming to gather herself, she sat down on the couch after retrieving a small handbag from her luggage.  Setting it on the low coffee table in front of the couch, she produced a small writing pad and a pen.

“Well, Elias,” she said casually, the pitch of her voice somewhat at odds with her demeanor.  “It appears that we have some time to ourselves.  Perhaps you ought to put that time to better use.  Your lessons have been suffering”

I looked at her quizzically as she wrote without looking at me.  Raising her eyes to mine, she held up the notepad, which stated simply: Walls have ears.  I nodded my understanding.

“But Lady Penelope,” I protested in my best whiny schoolboy.  “I’ve been stuck in those dusty old books for days.  I mean, we’re on Vulcan.  Can’t I have a break?  I’m up on my lessons, I swear I am.”  She smiled as she saw I caught onto the game.

“I very much doubt it, young man,” she replied in a stern tone clashing with the grin she bore.  “I haven’t seen you so much as crack your Wheeler’s Latin since we left for Mercury.  Give me an example of a declarative sentence, third person singular, with a direct object properly modified by an adjective.”

I was glancing about the walls, looking for some sign of the listening devices she believed present, and responded absently.  “Antonius amat multae magnae nautae.”  Lady Penelope snorted in a most inelegant fashion as she choked on a laugh.  I looked back at her.

She was shaking her head, a rueful smile remaining.  “That will not do at all.  I will make you a proper young man fit for civilized society or else kill you in the process of trying.  I want you to spend the time after dinner on the exercises from the third and fourth chapters.  I expect you to provide these to me before we leave for breakfast in the morning.”

I grinned at the thought of the joke we were playing on our observers and waited for Lady Penelope to continue, only then realizing that she was holding out my Latin text, her eyes gleaming mischievously.

 

###

 

            A different polite but firm attendant greeted us at our door the next morning.  Guiding us through the corridors without comment, he delivered us to a finely-appointed dining room.  Dubois had already arrived and rose from his seat at the head of the table as we entered.

            “Baroness, Mr. Conner.  Good morning.  I hope that you found your accommodations acceptable?”

            I gave no response, but Lady Penelope replied with a nod and a curt “Quite.”

            “Excellent,” Dubois continued unfazed, waving a hand over the table.  “Please, do have a seat.”

We sat opposite one another in the chairs nearest our host at one end of the long rectangular table.  Waiters entered with our meal.  Cooked eggs, slices of bacon, toast with jam, bowls of a yellowish-white meal Dubois referred to as “grits” well-seasoned and topped with butter -- all in generous portions.   Needless to say, it was delicious.

“It looks to be an excellent morning for a bit of exercise, don’t you think?” Dubois inquired lightly as we began to eat.

Since my mouth was full at that moment, I simply nodded.  Lady Penelope’s brusque “So it would seem” spoke her mind eloquently.

Dubois merely smiled.  “You will see, Baroness, that we run an effective operation here.  We have a civilization to maintain, after all, and that is no small responsibility.  I can attest that the oversight in our security will be remedied, a fact you might wish to convey to your government.”

“I will make my government aware of the situation here, monsieur,” Lady Penelope replied.  “You may be assured of that.”

“I can ask little more,” Dubois responded.  Then he leaned forward slightly, speaking with a certain frankness.  “Except perhaps, Baroness, that you consider our circumstances here.  At the risk of being unseemingly blunt, I fully appreciate the particulars of your situation.  We are both agents of our respective governments and as such, we are bound by a certain code in the course our of official duties.  There will come a time when the personal matter between us will be settled; but today, far more pressing issues weigh upon our nations.  In view of that fact, let us enjoy a fine meal and allow me the honor of extending my country’s courtesy to representatives of the British Empire.”

I watched as Lady Penelope’s shoulders braced and then relaxed as her expression shifted.  An air of calm settled about her.  “You cannot be faulted for your manners, Monsieur Dubois.”  I watched as his eyes widened ever so slightly at her use of his name.  “Very well.  I accept that we are under a flag of truce for the time being.  Is that sufficient?”

Dubois nodded.  “Quite.” 

            We finished our meal.  As the wait-staff began to clear the table, Dubois led us from the dining room and through a series of corridors.  Stopping at one door in a row of several, we entered a small chamber with a single door on the opposite wall.  Dubois stepped over to that door and paused, turning to us.

            “Lady Botelier.  Mr. Conner.  May I present: Vulcan.”

            We stepped from that unpretentious room into a riot of color and sound.  The atmosphere was unlike Earth’s and most certainly unlike what I’d known on Venus.  The air itself seemed crystalline.  Every image was sharper, almost painfully crisp.  Every sound was clear and bright.  My senses tumbled into each other, overwhelmed by the supreme clarity.  I could hear the red-orange slash of crystal in the sapphire-blue ridge to our right; I could taste the sound of the river gurgling in its course to our left.

            “The worst of the synesthesia passes after a few hours,” Dubois commented.  “It takes several weeks to become fully acclimated, however, so expect residual effects for the duration of our outing here.”  He glanced over the scene before us.  “The effect is induced by such close proximity to raw, unprocessed ore,” he explained.  “The main compound is shielded by design.  We cannot have visitors and dignitaries distracted by the taste of the wall color, after all.”  He smiled to himself, as if amused by the thought.  “Please realize that few if any visitors are permitted to see what you are seeing now.  Much less witness anything like our excursion today.”

            After a few moments, the initial wave of assault on my senses began to wane slightly and the intertangled sensations started to resolve themselves into something more understandable.  The sheer crispness of everything still assailed my brain, as though I might cut myself on the sharpness of perception, but I could at least begin to define the pieces.

            “Are you not affected, sir?”  I asked in my best diction.

            Dubois shook his head.  “Those of us who have spent considerable time exposed to its effects have developed a tolerance.  If I am away for extended lengths of time, I might need a short adjustment period, but nothing like what a normal visitor would experience.”

            Lady Penelope was either less impacted by the synesthesia than I was, or else she was much better at hiding its effects.  She turned to our host and inquired, “What does our excursion, as you call it, entail exactly?”

            “The men will be marching to the mines and villages,” Dubois replied.  “We, on the other hand, will have the luxury of somewhat less tiring means of transport.”  He gestured as an open coach drawn by coal-black honest-to-goodness horses appeared from the entranceway of a carriage-house and came to a stop next to us.

            “You have horses here?” Lady Penelope asked, her surprise evident.

            “These are fifth generation,” Dubois replied casually.  “Entire herds were lost in the early years -- driven mad by the synesthesia, you see.  We learned, at great cost, that imported horseflesh needed shielding as much as humans, if not more so.  Between an extensive program of controlled acclimation and careful breeding, we’ve succeeded in producing serviceable beasts fully adapted to native conditions here on Vulcan.”

            Lady Penelope shook her head.  “In spite of myself, monsieur, I must admit myself to be rather impressed.”

            “Thank you, Baroness,” he responded, opening the half-door to the carriage.  “Please, allow me.”

            We rode along at a leisurely pace for a good while, the troops having set off on the march some time before. Dubois sat across from us, his back to the driver.  A young corporal managed our steeds, his attention kept carefully forward as Dubois discussed the passing scenery, pointing out various features.

            “Aside from the synesthetic effects,” our host observed, “the most significant adjustment to Vulcan life is the perpetual daylight.”

            I glanced around, noting the steady, if diffuse, orange-yellow light bathing everything.  The lack of horizon bothered me as well, I decided, as the landscape curving upward and inward in the distance felt unnatural and freakish.

            “Where does the light originate?” Lady Penelope inquired.

            “It is sunlight reflected inward by the crystals lining the polar openings,” Dubois replied, pausing at our puzzled expressions.  “But you would not have seen those openings on your trip here, of course.  Procedure.”

            Lady Penelope quirked an eyebrow.  “I had assumed there were natural caverns supplying access to the interior, but I was unaware that the planet was open at the poles.”

            “It is a not-terribly-guarded fact,” Dubois responded.  “So I am betraying no state secrets by telling you of them.  Yes, the truth is that the poles of Vulcan are more or less open, although our scientists have discovered evidence that they were more open in the past; there is speculation that the closure of the polar openings is a natural process.  There is even more speculation that this process is not unique to Vulcan.”

            Lady Penelope nodded.  “The Eisenhopf Progression.”

            “That is one of the contending theories among our researchers, yes,” Dubois agreed.

            It was at that moment that I had the uncanny sensation of being watched.  I looked to my right and stared in fascination.

            He stood in the middle distance, well off the road, atop a small ridge which ran roughly parallel to our course.  It was difficult to judge his size without a frame of reference, but I knew the natives were frequently referred to as “green pygmies,” and so guessed his height to be about three feet, perhaps a bit more.  “Green” was certainly an apt description, but failed to convey the utter alienness of appearance.  The torso was barrel-shaped, slightly wider at the top than at the bottom, its surface a lighter green with darker striations of that same color.  A trio of legs sprouted from the base, evenly spaced, each with an angular joint halfway along its length.  Similarly, three “arms” extended from the midsection of the torso, likewise spaced and jointed.  A bulbous head rose from the upper end of the barreled body, supported by what I could only think of as a neck of slightly narrower proportions.  A fleshy ridge of deep violet encircled the upper edge of the barrel, where the neck joined the body.  A single large eye, its iris red like blood, was set above a thin, lipless mouth.  The creature watched silently as we rode along.

            Dubois must have seen my expression.  “Ah,” he said, following my gaze.  “Your first Vulcan, Mr. Conner.  That is one of the elders.  T’ka, I would guess, though it is difficult to be sure from this distance.”

            “How can you tell?” I asked.

            “A Vulcan’s collar changes color as it ages,” he replied.  “Newborns’ collars are a bright red, shifting into orange and yellow as they move through childhood and into adolescence.  When a Vulcan’s collar becomes green, it is deemed to have reached adulthood.  Those who survive into old age -- something which occurs with more frequency since our arrival, as we’ve put a halt to the inter-clan warfare -- have collars in the blue end of the spectrum.  We estimate their natural life expectancy to be around thirty standard years.”  He nodded toward the Vulcan, now behind us.  “T’ka is one of the more long-lived elders.  Up close, one can differentiate individuals by the pattern markings on their bodies, but that is very difficult at any distance.”

            Our carriage crested a low rise in the road and what appeared to be a modest settlement came into view, with large fungal structures that turned out to be dwellings clustered about a small clearing in the center.  A group of soldiers was already at the site and a lieutenant saluted as our vehicle came to a halt and Dubois followed us in disembarking.  He nodded to the lieutenant in response, the latter dropping his salute.

            “What happens now?” Lady Penelope inquired.

            “This is the main village,” Dubois replied.  “And the court of the clan elders.  The soldiers here and at every other village will search for copies of the symbols you described, or anything else which appears similar, and destroy them.  Other squads at the mines will be doing the same thing.  I am here to explain to the elders that the symbols are the work of evil creatures who are not to be trusted.”

            “And that will work?”

            “Most assuredly, Baroness.” Dubois informed her.  “Vulcans are like children, you see.  They respond to immediate stimuli, but once those stimuli are removed from a native’s sphere of attention, they are quickly forgotten.  Treated appropriately, Vulcans respond to instruction rather well.  Rarely do we have to take any drastic measures.”

            “I see,” Lady Penelope said quietly.  “When do the elders arrive?”

            “Any minute now,” he responded, looking about.  “Several are here already.”  I saw that the gathering crowd of natives did indeed include several with the deep blue collars.  “We seem to be waiting for...ah, here he comes now.  That was T’ka we saw earlier.”  I turned and saw a solitary Vulcan entering the village commons from another path, his three-legged gait oddly smooth.  His lone eye held my gaze for a long moment and I felt something brush against my awareness.  A sense of caution?  A warning?  Then he turned his attention to his fellows, the other elders having now stepped from the crowd, and the sensation drifted away.

            The elders stood to one side as Dubois addressed them directly in a strange clicking language, occasionally turning to the larger group and projecting his voice to be heard be all.  After some minutes, the elders’ heads lowered briefly, as though in acknowledgement.  In the background, the soldiers began systematically going through the various dwellings, periodically emerging with an object.  These were tossed onto a low heap in the commons for burning.

            The tableau at that moment is clear in my memory.  Dubois had turned to speak with the lieutenant.  Lady Penelope was observing the group of elders.  I happened to be looking into the crowd of natives, else I wouldn’t have fully understood what occurred next.

            One native, near the edge of the crowd and sporting a collar of yellow-green, lifted what had appeared to be a walking stick laying on the ground next to him with one of his three “feet,” transferring it cleanly to the two “hands” on that side of his body.  I hadn’t comprehended how incredibly quick native reflexes were and I watched in horror as I realized that the tip of the stick had been sharpened to a wicked point.

Time slowed to a crawl as the Vulcan hurled the spear at Dubois, who stood only yards away.  The native’s aim was deadly accurate.  Lady Penelope must have caught the motion in the corner of her vision; I watched as her eyes widened in alarm and her arm swept upwards to intercept the missile, all the while knowing that she would be too late. 

            Then a blur of green flew across my vision and in front of our host.  Time jerked as everything resumed normal speed.  T’ka lay at our feet, the makeshift spear skewering his body.  Silence lay over the scene and for a long moment, no one moved.  Then, reflexively, I knelt down beside the dying Vulcan.

He reached up, his three-fingered hand spread wide against my chest.  A thick liquid, the color of yellow ochre, oozed from the fatal wound.  His single eye blinked once, the red iris narrowing as the lone pupil widened again.  Slowly and deliberately, he traced a circle on my chest with what I understood to be the equivalent of his forefinger, then he repeated that motion.  A small “X” followed, and the finger pressed into my chest once at the very center.  Then the red eye looked into me before closing a final time.

            The crowd had by this point stepped well away from the assailant, who now stood alone in the clearing.  His single eye flashed angrily as soldiers descended upon him, binding his hands and chaining his feet.

            Dubois remained very still as the Vulcan was led away, his gaze following the prisoner detail as it disappeared over the crest in the road along which we had come.  Only then did he speak, his voice terrifyingly calm.  “As I said, only rarely do we need to take drastic action.  But on occasion, it is called for.”

 

###

 

            We sat quietly in our stateroom on the Siegfried as Mercury fell away behind us.  I stared out of the heavily-glazed port window, watching the ochre orb grow ever smaller.

Our visit to Vulcan had ended with a somber atmosphere, but thankfully without further incident.  Shortly after our return to the main compound, Legris had joined Dubois and Lady Penelope, the three of them engaging in a brief conversation regarding the mutual assurances between the two nations.  Then we were escorted to our ship and Commander Wright.  His demeanor on the return trip to Mercury had been somewhat more restrained than previously.

True to her word, Lady Penelope had brought us to visit with the professor at the university prior to our departure for Earth.  I’d attempted to describe T’ka’s last act.  “Two circles, an X, and a single dot,” I’d said, mimicking the motions.  “Perhaps ‘all worlds together as one’?”

The professor had shaken his head.  “A four-symbol construct?  Of that level of abstraction?  Impossible for such a primitive mind, Elias.  Undoubtedly what you witnessed were the final, confused moments of a dying creature.  No, I’m afraid there is nothing new under the sun, my boy.”

The silence of the stars beyond the viewport glass echoed quietly.  A vague, nagging sense of doubt hung at the edge of my mind. 

“You did well, Elias,” Lady Penelope said, breaking into my thoughts.  I looked away from the port to see her intent gaze resting on me.  “Particularly for your first mission.  Ours is not an easy path.”

“I can’t help, my lady,” I offered, “but think it would be better for the Vulcans to throw off the American yoke.”

Her eyes flashed with a sudden fire.  “If you wish to remain in my employ, Elias, you will do well to keep such thoughts to yourself.  I serve His Majesty’s government, and by your service to me, so do you.  If His Majesty’s ministers determine that it is in the best interests of the Empire that the mining on Vulcan continue, then it is not for you nor me to question that decision.  Do you understand me, young man?”

“Yes, my lady,” I replied, chastened.

Her eyes softened.  “The universe is a complex place, Elias.  There are any number of aspects of it which you will learn must be accepted as they are.”  Then her gaze shifted to the window.  “At least, for a time.”

>>  continued in The Sons of Eris