Following on from The Sons of Eris, the Baroness and her new spouse set out upon the track of the Prometheans... and face a stark dilemma
A Secret of the Ages
“Penny, my love,” the young man commented off-handedly. “We really must do something about these drapes.”
Lady Penelope Hillcrest-Conner, Fifteenth Baroness Botelier, looked up from the book she was reading. Slanting orange-gold sunlight of an autumnal afternoon filtered through the fabric coverings of the study windows of her London townhouse, casting dappled shade on the far end of the couch where husband of seven months reclined casually in the corner.
“Elias, my dear,” she said with a bemused look. “Those drapes sufficed for my grandfather and for my father. I am quite sure that they will suffice for you as well.” The curtains in question, a gift to her paternal grandmother from one of the tenant villages of her family’s Martian estate, had weathered the years well. The vaguarity of fashion notwithstanding, the native yurga fibers from which the fabric had been woven were notorious for their durability, a characteristic which had suited her father’s sense of frugality when he’d inherited the family properties many years later.
“I am quite aware of the arrangement of power in this marriage,” Elias Conner rejoined playfully, “without your underlining of that fact. I had only thought that you might allow me to be in charge of something.” He placed the back of his right hand against his brow and closed his eyes in faux anguish. “Even if it were only the drapes.”
Penelope laughed, picking up a throw pillow from the armchair next to her end of the couch and chucking it her husband. “You, good sir, are being an ass.”
She found herself smiling, too, at his dramatics and verbiage. Despite the radical alteration of their relationship and its drastic shift from employer and employee to wife and husband, those years of ingrained habit had proven themselves a challenge for him to break at first. His “my ladys” had become “my loves” in an effort to ease that transition, though by now she was fairly sure he’d accommodated the change. Its continuance made her somewhat suspect that he simply enjoyed the flowery language.
Shockwaves issuing forth from their sudden and unexpected union were still propagating through social and family circles, although the intensity of the initial reaction had subsided to a great degree by this point. Its public presentation as fait accompli certainly hadn’t softened the blow, but it was the shattering of tradition and decorum which had shocked observers most. Some of her family, with many of whom Penelope’s relationship had already been strained, were so scandalized by her marriage to a member of her staff, much less the orphaned son of a Venusian laborer slain in a police raid, that they had sworn never to communicate or associate with her again. One particular letter from her Aunt Margaret had been especially lengthy in its condemnation of her marriage and equally specific in regard to the nature of their future relationship. Penelope admitted to herself that she was not entirely displeased by this turn of events.
Elias grinned broadly as he swatted the pillowy projectile aside with a casual sweep of his arm. “Be careful, my good woman,” he chastised her amiably. “This ass is your lawfully wedded husband, whom you swore to love and to cherish--”
“But not obey,” Penelope pointed out.
“No,” Elias admitted, his brow furrowing in exaggerated thought. “I do believe that bit got left out somehow.”
Penelope swallowed another laugh with a most unwomanly snort, shaking her head in mild exasperation as she considered her youthful husband. Nearly thirteen years her junior, Elias was still months away from his twenty-first birthday, but had been forced to mature early in life. The issue of his survival as a child on the back streets of the Venusian capital city had allowed nothing less. As she looked at him now, though, she saw the man that boy had become. A thick mop of cinnamon-colored locks gave him a rather dashing air and his deep brown eyes, warm and kind, frequently glinted with a devilish wit.
And he loved her. This was a fact she knew in her bones. He loved her. Not Penelope, Baroness Botelier. Not Penelope the mistress of a Martian estate. Not Penelope the owner of Themis Holdings, Ltd. But Penelope the woman.
She remembered so very clearly how, less than eight months ago in this very room, she had proposed to him after their return to London, in the wake of their near-disaster in the more remote regions of Martian space and Elias’ desperate confession of love in those minutes which both of them had been so sure were going to be their last. The moment of her question had assumed a veil of surreality. She recalled rising from her seat, not quite within her body yet every sense heightened as he stepped over to her. She recalled the scent of his skin, the electricity of his touch as he had caressed her cheek, as he had brushed her hair behind her ear, and then leaned in to kiss her.
Penelope had never been one to abide by the strictures of tradition in other aspects of life and their passionate embrace had quickly escalated to the point of retiring to her bedchamber. Neither of them had been particularly well-versed in the practical aspects of physical love, as their mutually-awkward fumblings soon revealed, but they learned in short order. Both had found their release far too soon, but the evening had only yet begun and they managed to satisfy their ardor several times before drifting off into a contented sleep, cradled in one another’s arms. If Mrs. Porter had been shocked to find the two of them entwined beneath the sheets that next morning, she said nothing of it, rolling in a cart laden with coffee, juice, and sliced fruit as though it were the most normal thing in the world.
Penelope’s longtime housekeeper had halted her cart at the foot of the bed, picking up a small plate of orange slices, strawberries, and grapes, then proceeding to place that plate on the side-table next to her mistress. Penelope had sat up against her pillows, covering her breasts with the bedcovers, but had kept her expression just as nonchalant as the older woman’s. Mrs. Porter returned from the cart and held out a steaming cup. “Your coffee, my lady.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Porter,” Penelope had replied casually. Sipping her drink, she’d watched out of the corner of her vision as Elias’ eyes widened when the housekeeper had repeated the process on his side of the bed and had nearly choked with laughter at the shock on his face when Mrs. Porter had similarly offered him a cup with a prim “Your coffee, sir.”
And then with a curt nod of satisfaction, her housekeeper had departed, but not before Penelope had plainly heard the woman mutter under her breath: “Finally.”
“I do suppose we’ll work it out,” Elias continued, breaking into her thoughts. He settled back against the couch again. “After all, now that we’ve survived our honeymoon, the challenge before us is to figure out how to get through the humdrum of everyday existence without the excitement of being caught up in interplanetary intrigues, stumbling across cults bent on the domination of space, or escaping madmen who are trying to kill us.” He gave her a lopsided, rakish grin. “How ever shall we manage?”
It had been on an inspiration of hers, with which Elias had enthusiastically agreed, that the two of them had travelled to Mercury, there catching up with Lorelei’s Remembrance and Captain O’Rourke. Then, on the final leg of the carrier’s cargo run as it returned to Mars, the captain had married them on his authority in a maritime tradition stretching back centuries to the wet navies and merchant fleets of Old Earth. She had seen to the filing of the appropriate registrations and newspaper notices in Barsoom, allowing news of the event to spread from there on its own. The effects of that news among the chattering classes of the worlds had been interesting to observe. More than one comment about the breakdown of society’s structure had been mentioned: that the son of a common laborer might wed a peer horrified many. Her husband had taken the whispers in stride and she could not have been more proud of how he blithely ignored rumors as well as any aristocrat.
From there, the newlyweds had embarked on round-circuit tour of the settled system, partly to remove themselves from the environs of Martian society, but also as a true celebration of their nuptials. Penelope, always prudent in the management of her funds, had felt that her father would have would have approved of the expense. But that honeymoon had, by what influence of the stars she could not tell, turned into yet another one of their adventures as the two of them had stumbled upon the malevolent plot of an old adversary of hers and had barely escaped with their lives. Such had been her birthday.
She smiled softly at her husband, considering his question in a much different light than he had intended it. An unease fluttered in her gut as she thought of the secret she carried and wondered at the challenge of finding the best time to tell him. The voice in the back of her mind chided her quietly. Was there any best time, in the end?
Quietly, she took a breath, resolving herself. “About that humdrum life--”
A subtle clearing of the throat interrupted her and she turned to see Mr. Porter standing in the study doorway. A quiet amusement danced in the older man’s eyes, along with something that Penelope could only read as approval. The Porters, who had served as stewards of the family’s London townhouse since her very early childhood, were well into their sixties now, yet gently deflected any notions of retirement or pensioning whenever Penelope had attempted to raise the subject.
“Yes, Mr. Porter?” she inquired.
The amusement in Porter’s eyes became clouded over by a look of perplexity. “There is a gentleman here to see you, my lady. At least, I believe he is. Shall I show him in?”
“Of course,” Penelope replied, wondering at the odd phrasing. “Thank you.”
“Very good, my lady.”
“I wonder what that is about,” Elias commented after Porter had left.
“Likewise,” Penelope responded. “In any event, we will find out momentarily.”
Porter reappeared. “Professor James Talbot, my lady,” he announced as he stepped aside to make way for their visitor.
The professor proved to be an elderly gentleman dressed after the fashion of a previous generation. Though obviously cared for, his jacket had nonetheless seen better days and the cuffs showed a light fraying. White wisps of hair flew in all directions, despite an apparent attempt to impose order. His face was well-lined with age and his dark eyes were lively, though he looked about the study in a slightly confused manner. While Mr. Porter had relieved the man of his top hat and overcoat, he had retained his walking cane which he used as apparent support. Penelope guessed him to be in his seventies at the very least.
Penelope stood as their guest entered, Elias mirroring her. “Thank, Mr. Porter,” she said to the butler. “That will be all for the moment.” Porter gave a polite bow of acknowledgment before departing, gently closing the study door behind him.
Turning to their guest, she gestured to an armchair. “Please have a seat, Professor Talbot. I am Baroness Botelier. I understand you wished to speak with me?”
“I thank you, my lady,” the professor replied in a surprisingly robust voice as he crossed the room. “But I am afraid that there must have been some confusion. I had asked to speak with your husband.”
Penelope and Elias exchanged a puzzled glance. “I must admit that I am indeed confused, my dear sir,” she said slowly, gesturing toward Elias. “This man is my husband: Mr. Elias Conner.”
Now the professor looked more perplexed than ever. “My apologies, my lady,” he responded. “I am thoroughly puzzled. I thought I had been told that Botelier was in residence.” He looked from Penelope to Elias and back again. “Is Lord Charles not about?”
“I bear the title Botelier,” Penelope said carefully. “My father has been dead for nearly ten years.”
A look of shock spread over the older man’s visage. “Oh dear,” he murmured as he sank into the vacant armchair. “Oh dear, oh dear. I suppose that explains why my messages were not answered.”
Elias and Penelope exchanged another questioning glance as they, too, took their seats. Elias leaned forward. “Pardon me, professor,” he queried. “What messages?”
Their guest did not answer immediately, but continued to stare forlornly at some point in the distance. “Professor?” Penelope prodded gently. “Professor Talbot? Could you please explain to what messages you were referring? I certainly have not received any communications from you.”
Talbot’s eyes refocused on her. “I do beg your pardon, Lady Botelier. I’m afraid that your news came as something of a shock.” He shook his head. “No, you would not have received any communications from me, for none were sent to you. At least, none were sent in the conventional manner.”
“I confess I do not understand, Professor.”
“Lord Charles had requested my assistance on a most fascinating but equally secretive project,” their guest explained. “It was some time ago that we last spoke--ten years, it would seem--and he had suggested certain avenues of research that I might explore. These avenues proved to be extraordinarily fruitful and I fear that I became so intrigued that I lost all sense of time.” He looked between his two hosts. “If either of us wished to contact the other, he was to place an advertisement in the agony pages of the Times in reference to a Mr. Alfred Peabody of Gloucester for the first issue of the month. I posted such an advertisement several times over the years, as I wished to provide Lord Charles an update on my progress, but I never received any reply. My estate is a humble one in the Hebrides. Its remoteness is ideal for a certain solitude and freedom from distraction, useful in my researches, but that isolation does come at a cost.”
Penelope motioned for him to continue, her curiosity well and truly piqued at this point. “What of this secret project of my father’s?”
“Oh, it is indeed a great secret, my lady” the professor replied. “A secret of the ages.” He leaned forward conspiratorially. “Atlantis.”
Penelope’s disappointment was palpable. “I’m sorry, Professor,” she said shaking her head. “I served as my father’s assistant for many years and know something of his studies and, in particular, of his final projects. Given the avenues he was exploring, I simply cannot see how he would have been investigating a mythical island, no matter how famous the legend.”
Talbot’s eyes practically twinkled. “Who said anything about an island, my lady?” he replied with an impish smile.
“I am confused, Professor,” Elias spoke up. “Were you or were you not referring to the island of Atlantis and the fragmentary legend mentioned by Plato in his writings?”
The professor nodded. “That is indeed the legend of which I am speaking, Mr. Conner. But I would propose to you that the legend does not pertain an island. Rather, it is a masked reference to a planet.”
“Come now, Professor,” Penelope responded. “With due respect, I cannot see how that is a reasonable interpretation.”
“If you understand the symbolism--” Talbot began.
“With sufficient allegory,” Elias cut in, “anything can be made to represent anything.”
The professor smiled knowingly, shrugging off the interruption. “What you say is quite true, sir. Yet one must approach legends such as this with a certain flexibility of mind, shall we say, in order to make allowances for the imagery and language having passed through countless generations and human epochs. Please understand that the fragmented references we possess are themselves echoes of a story which was already an ancient legend in Plato’s time.”
Penelope considered their guest with a growing curiosity. “In that case, please explain.”
“The most important element to this kind of interpretation,” the professor replied, launching into lecture mode and raising a forefinger indicatively, “is to find the proper key that will unlock the knowledge trapped within the imagery. We must imagine ourselves as ancient peoples receiving stories from our past that we cannot fully comprehend, yet attempting to preserve those stories to the best of our ability by retelling them in forms and with images more understandable to us.”
Talbot paused for a moment to verify that his audience was following the thread of his argument, then continued. “Consider how you might explain the aether to one who had no conception of such a thing. Even in our own language, we speak of ‘currents’ and ‘waves’ in aetheric space, drawing on familiar imagery of sea-faring.”
“So you are suggesting,” Elias commented, “that the waters of the ocean beneath which Atlantis was said to have sunk refer instead to the aether of space. Not as allegory, but rather as imagery used by a people who knew nothing of space travel.”
“Exactly,” the professor agreed. “And yes, Mr. Conner, I do realize the full implications of that assertion: namely that there were those who did know of space travel in those most ancient times.”
“However,” Penelope observed, “Plato’s reference clearly indicates that Atlantis lay ‘beyond the pillars of Herakles.’ I do not see how one can transport the Strait of Gibraltar into the aether.”
“You have a quick mind, my lady,” Talbot nodded approvingly. “I can see now why Lord Charles spoke so highly of his daughter. What if I were to say that the pillars to which Plato referred were in fact Herakles’ shoulders?”
“I fail to see how that changes anything.”
“If I may,” the professor coaxed. “What did Herakles once bear upon this shoulders?”
As Penelope paused in thought, Elias’ eyes suddenly widened. “The vault of the sky,” he interjected. Penelope looked over to her husband with a puzzled expression. “The eleventh labor,” he reminded her. “Herakles was charged with gathering the apples of the Hesperides. Entering the sacred garden was death to any mortal, however, but Herakles convinced the titan Atlas to perform the task while he held the dome of the sky in Atlas’ stead.” Elias turned to the professor. “By saying ‘beyond the pillars of Herakles,’ the legend is placing Atlantis somewhere in the heavens, in the aetheric ocean of space.”
“Excellent!” Talbot beamed. “Now I ask to the two of you: of what planet do you know which is said to have been destroyed in a great cataclysm thousands upon thousands of years ago?”
Now it was Penelope’s eyes which widened in comprehension. “Prometheus,” she said quietly.
“I believe, my lady,” the professor nodded, “that you are beginning to see the direction in which my research has gone.”
“My father was exploring the possibility of alternatives to vulcanite crystals when he was murdered,” Penelope observed thoughtfully. “The theory of Prometheus as the progenitor planet of the Belt figured prominently in his investigations.”
“Yes,” the professor agreed.
“But how does the legend of Atlantis tie into the crystals of Vulcan, Prometheus or not?” Elias inquired. “I don’t see the connection.”
“The answer to that question, Mr. Conner,” Talbot responded, “goes directly to the nature of the avenue of research which Lord Charles suggested those many years ago.”
“And what might that avenue have been?” Penelope asked, guessing that she knew the answer.
“Why, the vanished Ancients of your native Mars, my lady.”
Penelope nodded at the professor’s reply. During those first explosive years of the space age, British explorers on Mars had discovered the mysterious and haunting ruins scattered across the vast northern lowlands of the Red Planet. Largely eroded by countless dust-storms and other ravages of the elements, only fragments of a strange, glyphic writing survived, tucked away in sheltered corners of a ruin or engraved on a buried stone marker. No one had ever been able to decipher these symbols, nor did anyone have a notion of what the Ancients looked like as no remains were ever located. Some decades ago, most scientists had come to adopt the position that the engravings represented a proto-writing system at best, most likely primitive pictorial representations akin to cave drawings. Few respectable researchers expended any effort in further investigations these days, leaving the field open to amateurs and those of a more speculative mindset.
It was, to be sure, precisely the kind of puzzle which would have proven irresistible to her father.
She looked at Talbot squarely. “Don’t tell me that you alone have been able to decipher the meaning of the Ancients’ glyphs, something which has repelled the efforts of generations of previous researchers.”
The professor smiled off-handedly. “Only in part, my lady. But in essence, yes.”
“I was armed with a tool those generations of researchers did not have.” He gestured broadly. “In true scientific method, I proposed to myself a working hypothesis, a base from which to build, and then labored to assess from the data available whether my hypothesis was supported or contradicted.”
Talbot paused for a moment. “Or, to correct myself, I posed a different working hypothesis than the one those prior researchers had unconsciously adopted.”
“What hypothesis would that have been?” Elias asked.
“I considered an alternative possibility of how that writing system came to be and whom the vanished Ancients might have been.”
“You certainly have a flair for the dramatic, Professor,” Penelope observed. “While I appreciate the suspense, please explain.”
“I do apologize for that, my lady,” Talbot acknowledged with a somewhat sheepish grin. “It is unusual for me to have an audience so interested in my work.” He settled back into the armchair. “In essence, the difference was this: rather than assuming that the glyphs were the primitive, proto-writings of a native Martian population climbing from the darkness of prehistory into the light of civilization, I considered the possibility that the engravings were a vestigial and degraded form of writing from an immigrant population of a higher culture which had slid into ignorance and decay.”
“Prometheans,” Elias said carefully.
“Exactly, Mr. Conner,” the professor nodded. “Imagine the scenario described by the fragmented legend come down to us, both through Plato and other mystic writings. A powerful people; a great land--by which we understand to mean the planet Prometheus; a titanic cataclysm which destroyed that planet, ‘sinking beneath the waves’ of aether, as it were. The vast majority of the inhabitants killed in that destruction, but a small, scattered remnant surviving, fleeing into space.”
He looked to Penelope. “Some must have found their way to Earth, for how else could the legend have reached us? But I’d suggest that others, perhaps even most of those survivors, found their way to the Red Planet, settling there and becoming the ancestors of those we know as the Ancients.”
Penelope felt an excitement rising within her. “That is a most fascinating supposition, Professor,” she said. “If I may ask, what insights were you able to gain from it?”
“I cannot take full credit, my lady,” Talbot demurred. “Your father provided the impetus for the pursuit of that line of inquiry. I merely followed up on the questions which he had the insight to pose.”
“That is very gracious of you,” Penelope replied.
The professor acknowledged her compliment with a small nod. “Using the hypothesis I described as a starting point,” he continued, “I was able to guess at the possible meanings of a small subset of glyphs. While this was a mode of trial-and-error, and most certainly resulted in a number of false trails, I was able over time to construct the barest outline of the writing system, even if a good many of the characters remained a mystery. Based on the various drawings of the known artifacts and the rudimentary grammar I had developed, I uncovered fragments of a story of unimaginable breadth: fantastic technologies, unbound hubris, tragic consequences. If my notes are at all an accurate representation of the Promethean saga, the inhabitants of that planet had discovered a means of harnessing a power which lay at the heart of the planet itself.”
“How?” Elias asked.
Talbot shook his head. “My translations were quite limited in scope and I am unsure that the Ancients themselves understood much of what they wrote by the time the engravings were made.” He looked back to Penelope, his expression intense. “But this brings me to the crisis which compelled me to seek your father out, my lady. For my research, my data, my notes have all been stolen!”