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.