the lifeblood of worlds
david england

part 1

[A nineteenth-century ether-drive has extended the Balance of Power onto a vaster stage...  Readers of the forthcoming anthology, Vintage Worlds, will learn more of David England's alternative history.]

Lady Penelope Hillcrest, Fifteenth Baroness Botelier, stared into a distance far beyond the upholstered wall of the single-horse coach that carried her along the lane at a steady clip.  Hard green eyes the color of emeralds contrasted with the raven black of her hair, the sharp angles of an inverted bob paralleling a feminine but firm jawline.  Her head was bare, her face unadorned.  A riding jacket of deeply-tanned leather, cropped short at her waist, covered a loose off-white blouse.  Buff riding breeches, cut close to her form, disappeared into dark riding boots of hardened leather that rose over her calves.

She had only received the news of her father’s death -- her father’s murder, she corrected herself -- days earlier.  That news was now nearly two weeks old.  The notification had come by Royal Courier to the family estate in the martian highlands and she’d insisted that the ship take her on the return journey, however spartan the accommodations would be.  Making hasty arrangements for her luggage to be packed and sent on the next available passenger ship, she’d grabbed the outback gearbag that she always kept at the ready and left for Earth.  Her fieldwear would be considerably out of place in London, but she cared little for social convention at the moment.  And there were clothes enough at her father’s townhouse in the city.  Her townhouse now.

The smaller martian sun had been low in the dusty sky as she’d ridden back to the main house from her day out on the sands.  Her father had never really enjoyed riding the six-legged jornju, but she had taken to it quite young.  The beasts were magnificent, standing five feet high at the shoulder and covered with a loose, shaggy coat that ranged from a slightly rusted ochre to a deep auburn, with all manner of variations in between.  She’d seen a mare once that sported a rare bright orange hue and was the prize of her owner’s stables.  Penelope’s family estate had only a modest stable housing three of the beasts.  Myra was her favorite, and the two of them often spent a day out on the farther reaches of the family lands.  A fully developed jornju could reach upwards of twenty-five feet from nose to tail, with a thickly-muscled body in between, but their size belied the grace with which they negotiated the martian terrain.

Rider and mount had just crested the last of the low hills that lay to the north of the main household on their return that fateful day when she spotted the dirigible-shape of the courier ship anchored a short distance from the estate house.  This was an unusual occurrence, to say the least, and her concern had grown as they neared and she spied the royal crest displayed on the vessel’s hull.  She’d handed Myra over to the stable hands for care, a task she usually reserved for herself after these rides, and moved quickly towards the main house.  The courier, a Navy lieutenant, had addressed her gravely: “Baroness,” handing her the elegant envelope embossed with the seal of the College of Arms.  The crisply worded communication had given a summary of what was known of her father’s demise and acknowledged her inheritance of his title. 

She swayed slightly with the rhythm of the coach, her calm demeanor disguising the tempest of emotions which tossed her thoughts about like a small craft on a raging sea.  She’d taken time to grieve on the journey earthward, keeping to the minimal stateroom available to her on the small courier vessel and allowing the tears to flow in private.  She had been fortunate -- if such a word could even be applied to the circumstances -- in that Mars had been near its perigee with respect to Earth.  The five-day trip could easily have been a month if the two planets had been on the far side of the Sun from each other instead. 

Memories played themselves in her mind like one of the new cinematographs she’d seen.  Her father, the Fourteenth Baron Botelier, had been the defining figure in her life, Penelope’s mother having succumbed to illness following the birth of her first and only child.  Despite considerable pressure from society and family alike to remarry and provide his daughter with “a suitable female presence,” the Baron had chosen instead to remain loyal to the memory of his love and had raised his daughter himself.  As a result, Penelope’s upbringing had been rather less than conventional.  Among other attributes, the Baron prized a well-informed mind, independence of spirit, and strength of character.  He saw no reason to instill different values in his child merely because she happened to be female.

“Penny,” he would say to her, “let the world judge you by what you do, by the nature and character of your deeds, and not by who you are.  Neither title, nor class, nor gender make a person.  Each of us who defines who he is by what he does in this life.  It is your task to create yourself.  It is my task to give you the tools to do so.”

And so she was educated as he saw fit for one who would someday inherit his title and lands.  The sciences, business, and practical engineering -- all necessary in the management of a large estate – were taught to her alongside the languages and the cultural and historical disciplines expected of one of her social class.  In short, he treated her just as any of his peers would have treated an only son.  This was commented upon in social circles, but an estate in the highlands afforded some insulation from the judgement of society.  During their occasional visits to the capital in Barsoom, she and her father had blithely ignored the whispers which fluttered about them.  After some years of failing to raise any reaction, the gossips wandered in search of tastier prey.

The coach slowed as they reached the city proper.  The areodrome was situated on the outskirts of London to allow sufficient maneuvering space for the incoming and outgoing air- and aether-ships and their dockage.  The townhouse was closer to the center of the city, but not ostentatiously so.  Her family held only a barony, after all.  She had time yet before she reached the house and had to confront the building in the absence of its lord and to take possession as its new mistress.  How could she ever see any of those rooms -- the parlor, the study, the solarium -- as belonging to anyone but her father?

The last time she’d seen him had been six months prior when he’d come to the estate to “check in” on her work.  He’d handed over the reins of estate management to her when she’d turned twenty-one, much to the consternation of martian society.  And she’d managed the lands and tenants for four years thereafter.  His visit was as much his way of underlining the statement he’d made those years previously as it was for the occasion of her twenty-fifth birthday and subsequent attainment of legal majority in her own right.

The visit had spanned some weeks as he both fêted his heir and inspected her work.  Some of her innovations drew questions, but more to the goal of understanding their rationale than for criticism, and he’d pronounced himself more than satisfied.  The sly wink he’d given her as he made that statement made it clear that he’d not expected any other outcome.

And then he’d left, off to pursue his various projects and political endeavors.  Almost in passing, he’d made mention of a “fascinating new challenge” which had presented itself.  Penelope had thought nothing of it at the time, for her father was always finding new puzzles into which to delve, but now she wondered if he hadn’t found himself involved in something more than he’d let on.  Her brain dismissed the thought, but her gut said otherwise.

The coach slowed further and then came to a stop.  She did not look up as she exited the carriage, keeping her gaze cast downward as she avoided the edge of a large puddle left over from a late autumn rain and stepped onto the walk.  The familiar iron gate stood before her.  Steeling herself, she lifted her eyes to behold the townhouse that was just as it had always been and yet would never be the same again.  All that was mine is now yours, Penny, a voice whispered in the back of her mind.  Keep it well.

“I will, Father,” she said quietly.  She paid the driver for his services and took her bag in hand.  Her chin rose slightly as she lifted the latch on the gate and walked toward the front door, which opened as she approached.  The frazzled features of a woman in her early fifties greeted her.

“Miss Penelope -- I mean, your ladyship -- thank goodness you’ve arrived.  They’re here again.  Mr. Porter’s in the study, doing the best he can, but they’ve got a writ and keep wavin’ it in our faces when we protest.”

Penelope’s face flushed with concern and confusion.  She stepped into the foyer as the door closed behind her, turning to the housekeeper and cook she’d known for most of her life.  “Mrs. Porter, I’m afraid I don’t understand.  Who is here exactly?  And what is this about a writ?”

Mrs. Porter opened her mouth to reply, but a burst of noise from deeper in the house cut her off.

“...I must protest in the strongest terms, Lieutenant!  You have no right to go through the late Baron’s papers.  The magistrate…”

Penelope was already moving down the hallway, her confusion dissolving into anger.  The hard soles of her riding boots clacked on the stone floor as several quick strides brought her to the doorway of her father’s study.  The tableau before her eyes brought a simmering anger to full boil.

Mr. Porter, her father’s butler and valet, stood in the center of the room.  Three additional men accompanied him, dressed in dark business suits.  One stood apart from the other two, as though supervising their activities.  This was apparently the man whom Porter was addressing.  The other two men were in the process of methodically going through the few files and many books of her father’s study.

The lieutenant was replying to Porter.  “As I’ve said, our writ…”

“What is the meaning of this outrage?”  Penelope kept her temper in check, barely.  Porter turned as she spoke, his eyes showing relief.  The lieutenant also turned toward her, but he appeared confused as much by the interruption as by the woman standing before him in most unwomanly clothing.

“I’m sorry, miss, this is a police matter…” he began.

She looked at him levelly.  “I am the mistress of this estate and you will address me in a manner appropriate to my station, sir.”

The lieutenant swallowed.  “I beg your pardon, your ladyship.  I did not know.”

“Now, Lieutenant, you will tell me why you are here and by what authority you are violating the rights of a peer of the realm.”

The other two men stopped what they were doing as it became clear who she was.  The lieutenant reached into his pocket and withdrew a folded sheet of paper.  “We have a Writ Extraordinary, your ladyship, granting us access to the late Baron’s effects in this property.  It is a matter of imperial security, authorized by Lord Salisbury himself.”  He presented the writ to her and turned back to his men.  “Carry on.”

“You will most certainly not carry on.”  Penelope glanced over the paper before her.  She was familiar enough with legal matters to see that the writ itself appeared authentic.  But this violation would not be countenanced.  “You will discontinue your activities and depart these premises until I have a full explanation.”

One of the men opened another file from her father’s desk and began leafing through its contents.  Penelope strode towards him, her eyes flashing.  “You will cease…”

That was when the lieutenant made the reflexive, but altogether poor decision to attempt to restrain her.  As his hand closed about her wrist, Penelope’s muscles responded instinctively, following well-worn routines ground into her by many grueling hours in the practice salon.  Her arm flexed, twisting her wrist against his thumb to break his grip. The second half of the pattern, unfortunately for the lieutenant, quickly followed as her body turned and her other hand snapped upwards in a heel strike to his solar plexus.  He crumpled to the floor, gasping for breath.  It all happened in the blink of an eye and before Penelope had fully fathomed what her body had done on her behalf.

“Lady Botelier,” the lieutenant wheezed as he attempted to sit up.  “I’m afraid that I’m going to have to ask you to come with us.”  Shakily gaining his feet, he stood before her as the other two men left off their activities and moved to positions on either side.

“Very well, Lieutenant,” she replied, her anger firmly under lock.  “Mr. Porter, please see to my bag.  My other luggage will be arriving in a few days.  If Mrs. Porter would prepare cold-meats and perhaps a salad in a little while, that would suffice -- I do not know how long I will be.”  With that, the three men escorted her from the townhouse and to the police coach that waited further down the lane.

Penelope was surprised when the coach stopped, not in front of Scotland Yard, but instead before the edifice of the Foreign Office. She exited with the three men and mounted the steps.  Out of the corner of her eye, she saw passers-by on King Charles Street stop and stare, matrons averting the eyes of young children in their charge.  Hushed gasps and whispers of “shameful” reached her ears.  She kept her gaze steady as the small group passed through the entranceway of the building.

The lieutenant guided his entourage to a small side chamber.  “Please wait here, my lady.”

She nodded and sat in one of the armchairs.  The other two men remained standing.  An unsteady quiet settled in the room, disturbed only by the occasional muffled conversation in the hall beyond the door.

After some time, though she could not say exactly how long, the lieutenant returned.  “Please accompany me, Lady Botelier.  Men, you may return to your other duties.”  Penelope stood and followed the lieutenant as he led her further down the hall to a staircase, then up to the third landing, before taking her down yet another hall.  He opened a door that led into small room, with a young man typing at a desk off to one side and another door on the wall opposite.  The young man looked up as they entered and paused as he spied Penelope, but then returned to his task.  The lieutenant led her across the room and opened the far door.  “Lady Botelier, my lord.”

“Thank you, Johnson,” a deep voice replied.  “Send her in.  You may go.”

With a gesture, the lieutenant waved her past.  Penelope stepped into the office as the door clicked shut behind her.

Lord Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, Third Marquess of Salisbury and prime minister of His Majesty’s government looked up from the papers on his desk and stood as she entered.  “I understand that your upbringing in the outback of Mars has been less than traditional, Lady Botelier, but I am compelled to state plainly that your form of dress is most disconcerting.”

Penelope smiled thinly.  “I assure you, Lord Salisbury, that you would find it far more disconcerting if we were in the martian highlands and a strong wind blew my quite-traditional skirts over my head.”

A brief fit of apoplexy struck the prime minister, which he covered with a clearing of his throat.  “You are blunt, my lady.  Unwomanly, but I am one to appreciate frankness -- when it is called for.”  He shook his head.  “I have heard of how your father had you educated.  I cannot say that I agree with his choice.  There are ways that are not proper for the fairer sex.”

“It is 1898, my lord, not 1798.  Ways do change.”

“I do not like change,” the prime minister responded.  “Change is inevitably for the worse.  It is therefore in our best interest for things to change as little as possible.  Please have a seat, Lady Botlier.”

“Thank you, my lord,” she replied, stepping forward to the chair he indicated.

“I would like to ask you directly,” Salisbury stated as he took his own seat, “with what manner of fisticuffs you pummeled duly-authorized officers of His Majesty’s police forces?”

“I do apologize for that, my lord.  Lieutenant Johnson attempted to restrain me and I reacted instinctively.”  He motioned for her to continue.  “As you may be aware, my family estate produces a considerable amount of ginseng -- there is a particularly potent variety well-adapted to the martian environment which is highly prized -- and we have a sizable community of Chinese among our tenants.  My father took advantage of that fact to have certain traditional skills included as part of my education and training.  Master Wu is a most capable instructor.”  Penelope leaned forward slightly.  “And I would ask you directly, my lord, by what authority and for what reason were men under your orders trespassing on my property and raiding my father’s papers?”

The prime minister did not answer immediately, but held Penelope’s eyes with his own.  “Your father was engaged in pursuits that touch on the security of His Majesty’s government of the Empire,” he stated flatly.  “I am at liberty to say little more.”

“And what would the House of Lords say to a formal complaint lodged against His Majesty’s government?”

Penelope sat stone-faced as the man behind the desk stared at her for a long moment before shaking his head.  “What is becoming of womanhood these days?  Very well, Lady Botelier.  I must inform you, however, that our conversation from this moment on falls under the Imperial Secrets Act and any unauthorized release of the information I am about to convey can and will result in the severest of penalties.  Do you understand?”

She nodded.  “I do, my lord.”

Lord Salisbury rose from his desk and stepped over to an elegant wooden chest that sat atop a table against one wall.  The chest was perhaps a foot and half wide, a foot deep and of a similar height.  The front was of a piece with the lid and when he opened the chest, the three-walled interior was revealed to hold a large, blood-red crystal that looked to be just over a foot long and perhaps eight inches across.

“Do you know what this is?”

“As I’m assuming that it isn’t an exceptionally expensive ruby,” she replied, “I would guess it to be a vulcanite crystal.  An impressively-sized one, I might add”

“This crystal serves as a reminder to me of the precarious balance which rules the system of power in place across the worlds.  The various greater powers and the many lesser ones compete for advantage, but all are served by a certain amount of cooperation.  The flow of commerce is the lifeblood of this balance.”

Penelope nodded.  “I understand, my lord.”

“As you are aware,” Salisbury continued, “the United States hold a monopoly on Vulcan.  While this arrangement is rather at odds with the pattern established among the other great powers, the United States were not a recognized great power at the time, either.  The brashness of their national character, however, produces certain other qualities -- a daring, even to the point of foolhardiness -- which serve them well on occasion.  Their expedition to Vulcan a half-century ago was one such instance.  No other nation had considered the risk of venturing so close to the Sun worth the taking, but their gamble has paid off handsomely.  And now, they control a mineral resource of incredible worth.”

“Other nations, in their place, would have demanded a princely ransom for access to that wealth,” Penelope commented.   “The Americans require a price, but the terms they have held out do not seem excessively onerous.  Even if their enslavement of the Vulcans is to be rightfully condemned.”

“If there is one thing an American knows, it is the element of profit,” Lord Salisbury agreed.  “They have kept their eye on the longer term, most certainly, and not sacrificed over-all gain for short-term wealth.  And their treatment of the native population is an unfortunate aspect of humanity’s burden in the civilization of space.  However, the conditions of their monopoly do set forth certain challenges for the Empire.  Most significantly, their secrecy.”

“My lord?”

“The crystals are a mineral resource mined from the habitable, hollow interior of the planet.  And Vulcan is a very small world.  No one, other than the Americans, has done a comprehensive survey of the crystal deposits.  Science doesn’t even know why the crystals enhance the Henry-Germain lenses to the degree that they do.  All that is known is that their inclusion in the matrix provides power output of an order of magnitude greater than without them, reducing what was once a month’s journey to a mere three days.  And we know that crystals deplete over time, losing their augmentative power.  There are theories as to why this all occurs, but no real knowledge.”

“I see.”

“Do you, Lady Botelier?  All we have as to the condition of the long-term supply of this most vital resource are the statements of the Americans as to what their discovered and estimated reserves are.  And those numbers have remained suspiciously steady over these many decades.”

“You believe the Americans to be lying?”

“I do not know what to believe, frankly.  What I do know is that we are dependent on a resource over which we have no control and of which we have little knowledge.  I have made it a priority to seek a solution to that dilemma.  Your father was apparently exploring one possibility.”

“What possibility?”

The prime minister resumed his seat behind the desk.  “That is my very quandary, my lady.  I do not know.”

“You don’t know?”

“Your father told me little of his line of pursuit.  He kept no notes in his study, it would seem, which has been gone over with a certain thoroughness.”

Penelope grimaced.  “My father possessed a prodigious memory, my lord.  Are you acquainted with the mnemonic techniques of Giordano Bruno?  Father’s library includes a 1783 edition of De Umbris Idearum annotated by the French philosopher Jean-Michel Vigilant.  Perhaps if your men had been better informed of my father’s capabilities, they could have avoided the fruitless ransacking of his household.”

“I acknowledge your displeasure, Lady Botelier.  Please understand that the steps that were taken were for the good of the Empire and its interests.”

“So what is known of his activities?”

“Other than his itinerary of the past five months, we have only the passport that was on his person at the time of his death.  He had made an appointment with my office for that afternoon and just taken tea at a street cafe.  As he left, someone among the passing throng struck him down and escaped notice in the ensuing confusion.”

“I’d like to see that passport,” Penelope said evenly.

“I would advise against it.  It is your family property, of course, and you are within your rights, but I caution you that it may be upsetting.”

“I understand, my lord, but I insist.”

“Very well,” he replied and opened a drawer to his right, removing a small object wrapped in cloth and placing it on the desk before her.  The cloth proved to be a man’s handkerchief, darkly stained.  She unwrapped the cloth slowly to reveal the thin passport book, browned and stiff with the dried remains of her father’s lifeblood.  A precise incision pierced the center of the booklet, neatly cut by a blade of considerable sharpness no more than an inch wide.

Penelope took the passport in her hands, controlling the emotions that welled within her.  On the page most recently used were the stamps denoting her father’s journeys to German Mercury and Russian Ceres.  Next to each of those stamps, nearly lost in the bloodstains, were a pair of short rows of squiggles and dots.

“It was noted that your father made some kind of inscription in his passbook,” Salisbury commented.  “Would you happen to know what those symbols mean?”

After a moment, Penelope shook her head.  “I cannot make any sense of them, my lord.”  She examined the remaining pages, then looked up.  “I would like to take this with me.”

“I am sorry, Lady Botelier,” the prime minister replied.  “That is still evidence in an open investigation.  I will see to it, however, that the passport is returned to you along with your father’s personal effects as soon as practicable.  Now that you have arrived from Mars, we are able to release your father’s body to you for burial.  The coroner’s office was forced to prepare the body promptly after the examination, due to the time required to notify you.”

“Thank you, Lord Salisbury,” she said, more quietly now.  “It is appreciated, and I do understand your position.”  She rose from her seat, Salisbury standing a moment later.  “If I am permitted to leave, I must tend to family affairs.”

“Of course, my lady,” he answered, bowing slightly.

As she left the office, Penelope felt a twinge of guilt -- but only momentarily.  She had not told Lord Salisbury the entire truth, for she could indeed read her father’s code.  She was not lying, however, when she had said that she could make no sense of what he had written.

The inscriptions were as cryptic as they were poetic, true to her father’s form.  The first had read:

Fleet-footed Frederick Wilhelm

Franske, Eisen Prog

The second had been no less mysterious:

Haughty Janus

Selene, South Branch, Depository 217-A

Once she had attended to her father’s burial, she would begin retracing his final journeys.  She was going to have to resign herself to long stretches of inactivity while doing so, given the distances he had traversed.  She brushed the annoyance aside, however, as the image of his bloodied passport so neatly incised by the assassin’s blade arose again in her mind.  There were no lengths -- no lengths whatsoever -- to which she would not go to unravel her father’s final puzzle and to bring his killer to justice. 

Her justice, if necessary.

To be continued in the September 2018 issue
of Tales To Astound