the lifeblood of worlds
by
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.


part 2

Two weeks later, she watched as the ochre sphere of Mercury grew steadily larger in the heavily-glazed viewing portal of the Gottfried.  The six-day journey had passed by quickly for her, lost as she had been in remembrances of her father and speculations of what lay ahead.

He had been interred in the family crypt at St. Matthews in Westminster.  Her own faith aside, the family was staunchly Anglican and she had seen fit to honor her father’s final wishes in that regard.  The service had been arranged within three days of her arrival and scheduled for two days prior to her departure.  That she was leaving the city, much less the planet, so soon after the burial was seen by many of her relatives as an abject failure on her part.  That she had delivered her father’s eulogy was nothing short of scandalous.  The studious silence of the vicar had spoken volumes when she’d insisted on that arrangement; the shocked expressions on the faces of her relations during the service spoke even more eloquently.  She was in little mood to care.  Mindful, however, that she would be moving about in broader society in the course of her travels, and not the dunes of her Martian estate, she had acknowledged that some deference to conventional sense of decorum was necessary and had packed appropriately.

As the passenger ship began its spiraling descent toward the northern pole and the imperial German territorial capital of Dämmerung, she considered the planet below her.  Mercury’s nearly non-existent atmosphere necessitated the domed enclosures over the capital and other settlements, but also permitted the direct docking of aether ships, whose aether-engines would otherwise be rendered inoperable by atmospheric mass.  (On other planets, people and cargo were shuttled from orbiting aether vessels by smaller, atmospheric-capable dirigible craft.) The capital city was aptly named “Twilight,” as the human settlement of the planet was essentially restricted to the half-lit belt that encircled Mercury from pole to pole, perched on the balance between the equally inhospitable ice-world and fire-world of the planet’s two hemispheres.  Tidally locked with the Sun, one side eternally faced the solar furnace and the other was eternally turned away.  The planet matched the German character very well, she observed before turning her thoughts to her next steps.  Lodgings first, then she’d see if her gamble had paid off. 

Some hours later, she entered the main administration building of Frederick Wilhelm Universität and approached the clerk at the front desk.

The woman looked up from her paperwork.  “How may I be of service?” she asked in German.

Penelope paused, uncertain how to phrase her question.  “I am trying to find an individual who spoke with my father before he passed away.  I belief that the person in question might be a faculty member at the university.  Is there a Professor Franske on the science faculty?  Planetology perhaps?”

“I am very sorry, Fräulein,” the clerk replied in English.  “There is no member of the science faculty by that name.”

Penelope’s spirits sank.  Her guess had been mistaken, it seemed.

“However, we do have a Professor Franske in the history department.  Might he be the individual you are looking for?”

History?  She’d assumed that anything dealing with vulcanite crystals would have been in the sciences, or engineering on the outside.  But she was in no position to dismiss a possibility, no matter how remote it might appear.

“Perhaps.  Could you direct me to his office?”

Penelope made her way to the building indicated by the clerk and climbed the broad stairway to the second floor.  The third door on the right bore a small brass plaque which read “R. Franske, Geschichte.”  The door was closed.  Her knock received no reply.

“May I help you, Fräulein?”  A voice behind her inquired in German.  She turned to see a thin, middle-aged man with sharp features.  Bright blue eyes inspected her over small, wire-rimmed glasses.  His hair was dark with a touch of grey beginning to show at the temples.

“Professor Franske?”

“At your service,” he replied, switching to English.

“I am Baroness Botelier.  Would you happen to have time available?”

“As it happens, I am free for the rest of the afternoon, Frei--?” his voice trailed off into a question.

“Freiin,” she responded, understanding his unspoken inquiry.  “I only recently inherited the title from my father.”

“Ah, yes -  I do remember now.  Baron Botelier!  A most interesting gentleman.  But you speak of inheritance.  Am I to understand that the Baron is no longer of these worlds?”

Penelope shook her head.  “That is why I am here, actually.”

“My most sincere condolences, Freiin.  But where are my manners?  Please, step into my office.”  He produced a small key and opened the door with a polite bow.

The office was not a large space, accommodating a desk, two chairs and a pair of bookcases overflowing with contents.  Penelope made herself comfortable in the wooden chair the professor gallantly positioned for her before taking his own seat behind the desk.

“I am honored by your visit, Freiin, as well as most curious.  How may I be of assistance to you?”

“I am attempting to trace my father’s last activities prior to his death,” she replied.  “The first link, it would seem, is his visit here to speak with you some months ago.  I found a notation of his with your name and the words ‘Eisen Prog’.  Can you shed any light on what that phrase might mean?”

“As a matter of fact, I can.  A few years ago, I published an article discussing a number of the discarded scientific theories from the latter part of the 18th century through the first half of this century.  It was a most fascinating research project - no matter how outlandish some of the theories might seem to us today, they were all given serious consideration when they were proposed.  My aim was to show how trial and error can eventually reveal truth.”

Penelope nodded politely and gently prodded.  “How did this concern my father’s visit?”

“In my article, I touched on theories from several scientific disciplines,” the professor responded.  “The Baron was interested in discussing particular theories from the fields of physics and astronomy.  Did you know, for example, that one scientist had suggested in 1803 that the aether did not exist and that there was no absolute frame of reference for motion in the universe?  Quite ridiculous, of course, but again, it was a considered a reasonable proposal until the first space flights confirmed the existence of the aether in the early 1820s.”

“Quite fascinating, Professor,” she replied.  “But how did my father’s interest relate to this phrase I mentioned -- ‘Eisen Prog’?”

“That was one of the theories your father wished to discuss.  His notation refers to the Eisenhopf Progression, a theory of planetological development first proposed in the early 1830s by the Austrian astronomer Franz Eisenhopf.  Briefly, he suggested that the known inner planets of his day -- Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars -- represented various stages of development in a process through which all four planets were progressing.  Mercury and Venus each show what Earth once was, while Mars shows what Earth will become in the future.”

“What of Vulcan?” Penelope inquired.  “Was it not taken into account?”

“Your father’s question was along similar lines, Freiin.  Interestingly enough, the discovery of Vulcan in 1838 was one of the reasons that Eisenhopf’s theory fell from favor.”

“What specifically did my father want to know?”

“Just before his death in 1840, Eisenhopf had drafted a revised version of his theory which, he claimed, accounted for both Vulcan and the asteroid belt.  I had made mention of this revised theory in a footnote in my article and your father was interested in learning more about the details of that revision, which Eisenhopf never published.  I had obtained copies of private correspondence in the course of my research in which the new proposal was described.”

The professor paused and Penelope sat silently for a moment as she considered his answer.  “And what information were you able to give my father regarding this theory?”

“Everything I knew, which admittedly is not much, Freiin.  The correspondence I mentioned provided only a basic outline of the addenda to the original theory, which apparently was kept largely intact.  The core premise of the progression, however, was extended in each direction.  Vulcan now represented the earliest phase of planetary development and the asteroid belt represented the final death phase in which the rocky inner planets crumble into fragments.”

“I recall something about that last part,” Penelope commented, her brow furrowing briefly in thought.  “A debate pertaining to the origin of the Belt, I believe.”

“Yes,” the professor agreed.  “I did not include that particular theory in my article because the matter has not yet been settled in scientific circles and the debate is very much alive with respect to the Prometheus theory.”

“Prometheus?”

“That is the name given to the hypothetical asteroid-progenitor planet.  It has long been speculated by one school of thought that the Belt is rubble from the disintegration of a former planet which broke apart in the distant past.  The opposing school holds that the Belt is debris left over from the formation of the solar system which never coalesced into a planet in the first place.”

“So this revision of Eisenhopf’s theory dovetails nicely with the current debate regarding the origin of the Belt,” Penelope observed.  “Did my father bring this point up as well?”

“He did refer to it briefly,” the professor confirmed, “toward the end of our conversation.  It appeared that he had done some significant research into the discussion of the Promethean theory already.  From the calculations he showed me, he’d also spent time analyzing the possible dispersion patterns that a disintegrating planet like the one hypothesized would exhibit -- an obscure mathematical problem, to be sure.”

“Did he speak with another professor at the university on this?” she asked.

“I do not believe so, Freiin.  The Baron appeared to have performed the calculations himself.  He struck me as an astute man of many talents.”

Penelope nodded.  “My father was a generalist in a society which increasingly devalues such a thing.”

“I cannot disagree,” Franske concurred.  “Particularly in the academy, we have become more and more specialized in our respective fields.  I fear that we do not realize the cost of such behavior.  The Baron seemed a true renaissance man.  It is a pity that we see so few of his kind.”

Penelope stood.  “I will not trouble you further, Professor.  Thank you for your assistance.”

The professor stood a moment after her and gave another polite bow from behind his desk.  “It is my honor, Freiin.  If I can ever be of service to you in the future, please do not hesitate to ask.”

Moments later, Penelope descended the stairs and exited the building into the perpetual twilight diffused by the dome arcing overhead.  Her next step was fairly clear.  Following her father’s trail meant heading to the Belt, specifically to Ceres, where the Russian Empire maintained its territorial capital.

 

###

 

            The thirty-two day journey aboard the Golden Fleece was not an uncomfortable one, though Penelope found the social obligations tedious.  The vessel was a stately passenger liner, well-equipped with all the amenities and modern comforts one would expect and the restricted first-class decks offered fine accommodations, excellent dining facilities, and a well-administered staff.  Several lounges with expansive viewing ports and a high-ceiling ballroom completed the ensemble.  The social calendar was well-populated with dances, various productions of chamber music, and a final gala scheduled for the journey’s end.  She had considered claiming ill-health, but realized it would be difficult to feign a headache the entire journey, so she settled for keeping her social engagements to the minimum necessary while devoting most of her time to reviewing the outlines of the Prometheus debate.

The Fleece proceeded smoothly along the well-worn routes that had been mapped out by initial explorers decades ago.  One of the more significant discoveries of early space exploration had been the importance of keeping to the fairly thin wedge of space around the ecliptic plane -- defined by Earth’s orbit but common by varying degrees to all the inner planets and the Belt.  The constant, rhythmic sweep of those bodies through the aether produced a stabilizing effect on the medium.  Ships that strayed outside of this stable zone, however, ran the risk of encountering powerful aetheric storms that raged through less-tame regions of space.  Many early explorers learned this lesson at the cost of their vessels and their lives.  The vastnesses beyond the Belt remained unexplored, partly due to the risk of these storms and partly due to the immense distances against which even the vulcanite crystals were of little aid.  The main risks remaining for those who travelled known aether-space were brigands and the occasional aetheric disturbance caused by a convergence of wakes propagating through the medium.  The various imperial navies dealt with the first, while skilled navigators and advances in detection technology managed the second.

Reaching Ceres without incident and passing through customs, she made a few inquiries after first settling herself in a hotel.  It took far less effort than she’d expected and within an hour found herself in one of the administrative buildings.  She followed the sergeant’s directions, the two of them managing to communicate effectively enough between her very basic Russian and his rudimentary English.  Down the hall he had indicated, she found herself in a small lobby not unlike that of a bank.  A narrow counter separated the space, running through the middle of the room.  A bearded Russian in the same blue uniform of the Gendarme sat at a desk set on the far side.  He looked up as she entered and rose from his chair to meet her at the counter.

“I am Baroness Botelier,” Penelope began without preamble.  “The sergeant at the front desk informed me that this office would be the appropriate place to find information regarding my father’s visit here some months ago.”

“Welcome to Ceres, Well-born,” the man replied.  His accent was thick, but his English was far superior to her Russian.  “Indeed, this is the correct office for your inquiry.  I am Sub-lieutenant Vasily Filatov, at your service.”  His heels clicked as he gave a crisp, shallow bow.  “If you would be kind enough to provide more details of your father’s visit, I will locate the appropriate records.”

She responded to his concise, efficient questions with equally concise, efficient answers.  The sub-lieutenant took notes on a small pad as she spoke.

“Thank you.  If you will wait one moment.”  Penelope assumed that he would either summon a subordinate to search the archives for the files or else he would leave to perform that task himself.  Instead, he turned to face the back wall, reaching for a large panel of knobs which she had not noticed until that moment.  With several deft movements, he twisted knobs at various locations on the panel and then pulled a large lever set off to one side.  Penelope heard a series of distant clicks, followed by a whispered swish as several packets of paper slid down a metal chute into a bin protruding from the wall.  The sub-lieutenant took the files and quickly glanced over them, separating several from the others and laying the rest on his desk.  The remaining files he brought to the counter.

“What an ingenious device!” Penelope could not help exclaiming. 

The sub-lieutenant’s face brightened and he stood a fraction straighter.  “Many thanks, Well-born.  We are quite proud of her.  And as impressive as Olyssia is, Kira is even more so.”

“I do not follow your meaning, Sub-lieutenant,” she replied, perplexed.

“I beg your pardon.  We have taken to giving names to our devices, not unlike the navy and its vessels.  Olyssia is our archival engine whose operation you just witnessed.  Her name means ‘one who protects the people.’  Her sister Kira is much more ambitious, what you would call a difference engine.  Her name means ‘far-sighted one.’  She is an incredible sight to behold.  We are employing her to calculate and catalogue the orbits of the bodies of the Belt.  It is an effort of many lifetimes.”

“Astonishing.”

“The Tsar himself is a strong supporter of our project.  It will allow us to conduct our responsibilities with much greater efficiency.”

The sub-lieutenant looked down at the files he’d placed on the counter.  “Now, Well-born, it appears that we have three files pertaining to your father, all of which relate to his most recent visit.”

“Are you permitted to give me the information they contain?”

“Under normal circumstances, the request would be carefully screened and would generally be restricted, barring a presentation of legal authority by the government of the individual in question.  However, if I understand correctly, the Baron is deceased?”

“Yes.”

“And you are his sole heir -- this is correct?”

“It is.”

“Then our information is accurate.  Thank you for the confirmation.  Please accept my condolences, Well-born.  I will pray that your father’s murderer be found and punished.”

“Thank you, Sub-lieutenant.  I do appreciate the gesture.”

“God’s justice will prevail, though we do not always see His workings,” he stated solemnly.  “With regard to the files, the first is your father’s visa and biographical record, similar to that maintained on all foreign visitors.  His record shows sporadic visitation, mostly corresponding to various academic or scientific conferences.  The final entry relates to the visit with which you are concerned.  This second file is a police report filed by the Baron near the beginning of that visit, in which he lodged a complaint that his rooms had been broken into.  The investigation was inconclusive, as nothing was found to have been taken.”

“And the third file?”

“This last file is the most interesting of the three.  Apparently, your father applied for, and was granted, a prospector’s claim.”

“What does that mean?”

“As you may be aware, Well-born, our management of the Belt is somewhat different from the system of dominant claims and national concessions on the other settled worlds.  Partly, this is due to necessity -- the dispersion of the Belt over so much space cannot be administered in so direct manner such as the British administration of Mars, for example.”

“That makes a good deal of sense, I agree.”

“Instead, the Russian government administers settlement activity and mining claims, with the Tsar being, of course, the major property owner and with certain preferences being given to his subjects.  But people of all nations are free to apply.  In return for the payment of certain royalties and taxes to the Imperial treasury, the Tsar’s government maintains a police and military presence, protects settlers and prospectors from brigands and pirates and one another, and adjudicates disputes.  There are no distinct territorial concessions in the form with which you would be familiar.”

“I see.”

“The claim granted to the late Baron lies in this sector of the Belt.  The identification number of the body is…”

“217-A?” Penelope asked, hopefully.

“10-RH-8137-B. It is among the smaller objects, but catalogued already due to its reasonably close proximity.  Why do you ask of this other number?”

“It is another part of the puzzle,” she replied, trying to hide her disappointment.  “For a moment, I’d thought I might have found the beginning of an answer.”

“I am sorry that I could not have been of more help, Well-born.  The only other notations in this file are that your father presented a valid pilot’s license qualifying him to operate a British Mark I class aether craft, which corresponds to our Malenkiy class.  These are small, single-person craft.  He leased a vessel and left to explore his claim.”

“My father was a pilot?” Penelope asked, amazed.  “I had no idea.”

“According to our copy of his license, he had obtained his certification seven months previously.”

“And you say he then left Ceres.  Did this occur before or after his police report?”

The sub-lieutenant glanced quickly over the two files.  “According to these records, the reported break-in occurred prior to his departure for his claim.  He checked out of the Tsar Peter Hotel where he’d been staying and did not acquire new lodgings prior to his departure earthward.”

“Wait.”  Penelope thought through the sequence.  “So according to your records, he went to explore this prospecting claim, and upon his return, he left immediately for Earth?”

“Indeed,” the sub-lieutenant agreed.  “This is what appears to have occurred.  Your father did not depart directly for Earth, however.  He obtained passage on a cargo carrier -- these vessels sometimes provide passage for one or two travelers to supplement their revenues -- to the Moon.”

“What vessel was this?”

“The Janus’ Pride.”

 

###

 

Penelope decided that Ceres was a civilized enough place, even though her personal preferences tended otherwise at the moment.  She settled herself at a cafe table at one of the more casual establishments just off the main promenade.  This one afforded a fine view spaceward, the clear dome that sealed the crater arcing high overhead.  The dark view suited her mood.  She ordered a strong tea -- undiluted Russian chifir -- and gazed at the black tapestry of space.

Her father had been chasing a puzzle.  This surprised her not in the least, knowing how he was.  And he left as much of a puzzle as the trail he had been following, it seemed.  Here, too, she was unsurprised.  But this puzzle had proven to have had a deadly sting and he had paid for his curiosity with his life.  Now it was up to her to unravel what he had discovered, as well as to avenge his death.

No small order for an only daughter, baroness or not.

Her tea came and she declined anything further, settling her bill and giving the server a reasonable tip.  The tea was strong and its bitterness agreed with her.  She had picked up a few tantalizing hints, but was no closer to the reason for her father’s murder than when she’d left earth so many weeks ago.

“Pardonnez-moi, mademoiselle.  Is this seat taken?”

She looked up at the unexpected interruption.  An elegantly dressed man in a dark grey suit with lapels of a slightly lighter hue stood before her.  His hair was dark and neatly arranged beneath a top-hat.  A thin, neatly trimmed mustache adorned his upper lip.

She glanced around.  The cafe was indeed rather busy, the empty chair at her table being one of only a handful scattered unoccupied among the patrons.

“It is not, sir.  Feel free.”

“Merci beaucoup.  You are most kind.”

The words were French, but the accent was wrong.  The gentleman sat with a certain grace, leaning back in the chair slightly as he rested his right hand on the top of his walking stick.

A server materialized and inquired if monsieur would care for some refreshment?

“I will have a cup of what this charming lady is having, if you please.”

Penelope did not hide her surprise.  “Are you acquainted with Russian chifir, sir?  It is something of an acquired taste.”

The man smiled.  “My work takes me to many worlds, mademoiselle.  I have acquired a taste for a great many things.”

His manner was light, but not irreverent.  Her youth and lack of wedding band would justify his form of address, of course.  He looked to be not too many years older than she, perhaps in his early thirties.

“And what, if I may be so bold as to inquire, would the nature of that work be?”

His head cocked slightly to one side, as if he were examining her, but his smile remained.  “It is difficult to describe.  One could say that I am something of a problem-solver.  It is an occupation which requires a rather eclectic combination of skills.”

“I must confess, sir, that you are most intriguing.  Upon what sorts of skills are you required to call?”

“The ability to drink chifir, for one,” the man laughed pleasantly.

Penelope smiled.  “And another?”

“You play the inquisitor with gusto, mademoiselle!” he replied.  “Secondly, the ability to engage in witty conversation with charming ladies at a moment’s notice.  Third,” he continued, raising his left forefinger indicatively, “the ability to observe.”

“To observe.  Most curious.”

“Indeed.  For example, mademoiselle, from your posture and complexion, I would surmise that you were raised off-Earth.  Given your accent, I would say that your family estate was on Mars, most likely in the highlands or further outback.”

“You are quite perceptive, sir.”

The server reappeared, setting the gentleman’s tea on the cafe table.  The man passed the server a gold coin and took the cup in hand, his eyes never leaving her.

“As I said, it is a necessary skill.”  He sipped his tea.  “Most robust.”

She smiled again.  “An understated description, to be sure.”

“You are a most interesting woman, mademoiselle -- if you would pardon my boldness.  Travelling unaccompanied, even today, is an unusual thing for one of your sex.  In foreign territory, no less, and far from home.  You hold pleasant conversations with a complete stranger while maintaining poise and decorum.  Quite impressive.  Your father would have been most proud.”

It took almost a full heart-beat for his last statement to register.  Her smile disintegrated.  “Explain yourself, sir.  How do you know my father?”

“Ah, yes.  The resemblance is most striking.”  He stood.  “Why, I was the last person to see your father alive, Baroness.  Good day.”  With a deft tipping of his hat, he gave a polite bow before melting into the passing throng of pedestrians.

By the time she’d recovered from the shock of his revelation, the man had completely disappeared.  Fighting the urge to race into the crowd, Penelope sat back into the chair from which she’d half-risen, replaying the details of their brief conversation in her mind.

As she’d first noticed, the accent of his French was peculiar.  It was not Parisian, nor was it the Venusian equivalent -- she’d been educated in both variants.  She let the memory of his phrasing echo in her mind, letting go of the meaning of the words themselves and focusing on the sounds of the words instead.  No, definitely not the French she’d learned.  Creole, perhaps?  From one of the colonies?  The colonies.  Her brain snapped pieces together.  No, not imperial colonies.  His creole was Louisiana delta, she’d bet her life on it.  He was American.

She felt herself torn in three directions simultaneously: to hunt down the American; to examine her father’s mining claim, now hers; or to follow her father’s trail to the Moon and locate the cargo vessel whose name her father had included in his cryptic notation -- and whose importance he’d obviously sought to emphasize.

She sat quietly as the pedestrians bustled by on the promenade, closing her eyes and walking through the breathing exercises she’d learned years ago.  She found her center and rested there, listening.  When her eyes opened again several minutes later, her path was clear.


part 3

For one inclined to action the five week journey chafed, particularly when she felt herself on the trail of her father’s clue regarding Janus.  According to Sublieutenant Lavitov and the amazing Olyssia, Janus’ Pride was a lunar registry, common with vessels seeking to avoid any particular national affiliation.

She forced herself to leave her stateroom and mingle with the other passengers of Zephyr’s Path.  Part of her awareness kept an eye out for her French-speaking quarry, though she was quite sure that he’d not trap himself in her company so soon after having revealed his existence.

The vessel was a modest passenger liner, much smaller than the Fleece, lacking the social rigidity and refinements typical of her larger sisters.  Staterooms were classed, of course, and being titled afforded her access to the better accommodations, but the common spaces aboard the vessel were unrestricted.  The dining facilities, lounges, as well as the small but well-stocked library, were open to all passengers, regardless of class.  She had never been one for the social scene in London or in Barsoom and the interaction here had a genuineness which she appreciated.  There were no other nobles on board, although several of the other first class staterooms had been procured by well-to-do merchants; the remaining passengers were a fair mix of what she thought of as “normal folk.”

She shared a dinner table one evening with the Sullivans, a family returning to Munster from visiting relatives who’d settled on Vesta and had done well enough to pay the way for the journey.  Another day, she’d encountered a bookish young man in the library.  Somewhat off-put by her title at first, he had given his name as Leon Davidson and explained that he’d just completed his first contract in the merchant fleet but had decided to travel to his next contract as a passenger rather than a worker.  The two of them seemed to be the only passengers inclined to the library, so they encountered one another with some frequency during the journey.  Despite his initial wariness, the young man thawed somewhat over the weeks and they managed to converse amicably enough.

On the final day, Penelope spent most of her time in the forward lounge, watching the Moon swell as the liner approached.  Earth hung off to one side in the background.  Her thoughts wandered to what her father might have been thinking at this same point.  What had he found?  Had he suspected that he was being followed?  Did he believe that his very life would be in danger?

As the landing sequence commenced, Penelope returned to her stateroom to retrieve her luggage.  On a whim, she decided to disembark through the common port, rather than using the private first class gate.  As she moved along with the other passengers, she happened to notice Leon, the young man from the library, looking at her curiously.  She caught his eye and gave a brief nod of her head, which he returned a moment later before looking away again.

After a few minutes, she was in the main concourse.  Diane was the primary port city of the semi-autonomous Moon, and so would be the most likely starting place for her inquiries.  After finding rooms at a modest hotel, she set off for the port registration office.

“The whereabouts of the Janus’ Pride, you ask?” the clerk responded to her question.  “I can tell you that right off, my lady.  That ship has been consigned to scrap by its owners and is in the process of being dismantled.”

“Why is that?”

“She limped into port months ago, barely surviving an attack by pirates.  The damage was so extensive that the owners decided that she wasn’t worth repairing.”

“And her captain?  What became of him?”

“Captain O’Rourke?  He’s about.  Until the investigation of the incident is complete, he’s been put on half-pay and restricted from another merchant command.  He does local work as a pilot, but as I hear it, he spends most of his time in Murphy’s down the way.”

Murphy’s was a small public-house with low lighting and a melancholy atmosphere.  It was, Penelope supposed, exactly the sort of place a down-on-his-luck aetherman would seek out to nurse his wounds along with his drinks.  The bartender stopped his glass-polishing when she stepped over the threshold, but recovered quickly, putting the glassware away as she approached.

“I am looking for Captain James O’Rourke,” she stated quietly, the air of the pub seeming to call for hushed tones.  “I am told that he is a frequent patron of this establishment.”

“Aye, ma’am.  That he is,” the bartender replied, inclining his head towards the far corner.  “You’ll find him right over there.”

“Thank you.”  She glanced over his shoulder.  “Please pour me a pint of your best stout and bring it to me at the captain’s booth.  I’ve had a long journey and could use a decent drink.”

The bartender’s eyebrows rose at her request, but he replied, “I will see to it, ma’am.”

Penelope nodded and made her way to the back.  He might have stepped of any wind-beaten seafaring vessel, she thought, for he certainly looked the part: grizzled features, full beard, bushy eyebrows and once-dark hair well into the peppery-salt stage men of a certain age exhibit.  A dark blue overcoat remained on, but unbuttoned.

“Captain O’Rourke?”

“Who be askin’?”  His gaze remained on the half-empty glass of scotch before him.

“I am Baroness Botelier.  I believe that my late father was a passenger of yours on the Janus’ Pride.”

The captain looked up with a start.

“May I join you?”  Penelope asked.

“Of course, er, ma’am,” he responded after a moment’s hesitation.  Penelope slipped onto the bench opposite, noting his choice of honorific.  Inhabitants of the Moon tended to be an egalitarian lot.  A server appeared with her drink, placing a dark pint with a thick head of foam on the table before disappearing again.  She took a drink from the glass, relishing the rich texture of the brew.  “Thank you, Captain.  Please pardon my presumption -- I was rather thirsty.”

“No offense taken,” the captain replied, regaining his composure somewhat.

“I’d like to hear of that last voyage, if you would not mind.”

The captain shifted uneasily on his bench.

“Perhaps it would help you to be more comfortable if you just thought of me as one of your fellows.  Tell me a yarn, as you might say.”

“I don’t see how I can rightly do that, ma’am,” the grizzled captain replied.  “You look nothing like my fellows.”

She thought for a moment.  “Tell me, Captain.  In your travels, have you ever had the opportunity to witness a martian sandstorm?”

“Yes, ma’am.  I’ve seen one or two from orbit in my time.  Huge devils, they can be.”

“Imagine yourself on the ground, out on the highland dunes, riding a jornju bareback while racing for the nearest outcrop of rock to shelter before the blowing sand strips your bones bare.  Can you picture this?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Excellent.  Now talk to me just as you would to a person who has done that.”

He looked at her oddly for a moment, but then began.  “We left on schedule, more or less.  Your father was a last-minute accommodation.  The owners always look kindly upon a bit of extra revenue, particularly when there’s no additional expense involved, so I saw no reason not to take him aboard.

“It was supposed to have been a straight run into port here on Luna,” the captain continued.  Penelope noted his use of the alternative name for the Moon that had been gaining currency of late, particularly among certain pro-independence factions of lunar society.  “Mars was on the far side of the Sun at the time, so our route was wide open.  Usually, this makes our run a bit speedier.

“We were two days out of Ceres when they hit, coming in on a perpendicular trajectory from further along the Belt and arcing up out of the ecliptic plane so that they struck from ‘above’ our position.  They caught us with our pants down right and proper -- if you’ll pardon me, ma’am.”

Penelope suppressed a smile and nodded for him to continue.

“We were dead in the aether, no two ways about it, with a blown aether flux-tube and no one within reach.  Our gunners did their best to fight off the pirates.  One of the greenhorns in the engine-room worked some kind of miracle and patched the flux-tube enough that we could make headway again.  When they saw that we weren’t going to be quite the easy-pickings they’d first thought, the pirates pulled out.  Left to ourselves, with a broken and leaky hull, we fell inward, but behind the intercept trajectory for the Earth-Luna system.  I was afraid to push the engine too hard, given the patch-work repairs, so we adjusted course the best we could and came in from behind.  Luna was on the outer portion of her orbit, which helped our approach.  I was never so happy to see her.

“But just as we thought we were in the clear, our instruments showed an aether-wake convergence sweeping toward us.  It wasn’t a large one, but with the shape we were in, it was enough to potentially give us trouble.  Given our speed and bearing, there was no way we were going to be able to make lunar space before it hit, where we’d have been sheltered by Luna’s mass.  Normally, we’d tried to maneuver around it, but our reduced capability didn’t give us much of an option there.  Your father, who’d joined us on the bridge to watch our progress as we approached, was the one who suggested we make for the Lagrangian node.”

“I beg your pardon, Captain,” Penelope interrupted.  “What is a Lagrangian node?”

“I don’t know all the fancy numbers behind it myself, ma’am, but in a two-body orbital system, the dynamics set up these nodes -- there are five of them, but only two are stable -- that form something like eddies in the aether.  The two stable nodes lead and lag the orbiting body by sixty degrees along its orbit.  We made a run for the one trailing Luna.”

“How would that help you?”

“What we needed was mass to buffer us from the convergence.  The two stable nodes have collected debris over time, kind of like leaves swirling in an eddy of a stream.  Most of this debris is made up of small particles, but there are some larger bodies as well.  If we could get in the shadow of one of the larger ones -- or even better yet, anchor on -- then its mass, plus the collective mass of the node, would help us ride through the wake.  Not without risks, with rocks milling about in such close quarters, but in our situation, easily worth the gamble.”

“I see.”

“So that’s what we did, ma’am.  We got the to the node with perhaps fifteen minutes to spare and were able to anchor up to number 217 as…”

“What did you just say?” Penelope sat upright.

“We sheltered from the wake,” the captain repeated, a bit confused.

“The number,” Penelope said.  “What was that number you just said?”

“217?  That’s the catalogue index for the rock in the south node that we anchored to.”

Puzzle pieces snapped together in Penelope’s brain with a suddenness that sent an electric current through her body.  Her father’s interest in the problem of Vulcan, the Eisenhopf Progression, the prospecting claim in the Belt so carefully selected, this reference number in his mysterious notations, the American assassin.

“Not 217-A?”

“No, ma’am,” the captain responded.  “The system is numerical.”

A moment’s doubt crept into her thoughts, but she quickly brushed it away.  No, this was the right path; she was sure of it.  “Tell me, Captain, did my father do or say anything unusual while you were anchored?”

“As a matter of fact, he did,” the captain replied.  “Being a scientist gent, he wanted to get information for his research on the aether.  ‘Take readings,’ he said.  The convergence offered an opportunity he wouldn’t normally have.”

“And what did he want to do, exactly?”

“Well, he wanted to step outside and set up some of his instruments on the asteroid while the aether wave broke over us.  We were still in the process of anchoring when he brought this up and I was none too pleased with the prospect, but he showed me his pilot’s license with full excursion qualifications.  Between that and bein’ titled, I had a hard time tellin’ him no.”

“And what happened?”

“Not much, to tell you the truth.  The Baron suited up right and proper and stepped out a few minutes before the wave hit.  I had one of my boys suited up and ready to help if he got into trouble -- I didn’t need a noble dyin’ on my watch -- but he handled himself just fine.  From what I saw, he got some of his instruments out of the bag he had with him, set some things up and waited.  After the wake passed, we all got busy preparing for the last leg and getting the ship’s anchors ready to retract.  Your father came back inside and we got underway.”

“Captain, it is my understanding that you retain your pilot’s license.  Am I correct in this?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“And you are qualified for atmospheric operation as well as aether-space?”

The captain snorted.  “Any pilot worth his salt would be.”

One corner of Penelope’s mouth quirked upward in a half-smile.  “Be assured, Captain, that I meant no offense.”  She sat back against the booth.  “I would like to hire you for a charter.  Would you have access to an atmospheric-capable vessel that would be suitable for the two of us?”

“I suppose I would be able to do that,” he replied.  “Dependin’ on where you’re intendin’ for us to be going’”

“To the asteroid in the south lunar node at which you anchored and then directly to London.”

The captain’s bushy brows lifted slightly.  “Aye, that can be done.  That be a fair charter, though.”

“How much if you can arrange this for tomorrow?”

He named a sum which Penelope felt was a bit high of the mark, but she kept her expression blank.  “Very well.”  She produced her chequebook and wrote out a draft.  “Here is 25% as a down-payment.  You will receive another 25% tomorrow when we depart and the final half when we arrive in London.  Agreed?”

The captain took the draft.  “Agreed.”

“Where shall I meet you?”

“Docking Bay 12-C.  Eleven-hundred hours.  Look for the Lorelei’s Song.”

Penelope assessed the man, then nodded.  “Good.  Now if you will excuse me, I will prepare for tomorrow.  Please enjoy the rest of your drink, but not another.  I need a clear-headed pilot in the morning, not one fighting a hangover.”

The captain muttered something under his breath about busy-bodied women but a faint smile touched his eyes.  “Aye, ma’am.”

“Thank you, Captain,” she said as she stood.  “Until tomorrow then.”  She settled her tab at the bar and then with purposeful strides and a hope she hadn’t felt for months, Penelope left the pub.

She checked out of her lodgings the next morning following a hearty breakfast at a nearby cafe.  It was going to be a long, day, she was certain, and it would be wise to have fed herself well beforehand.  The signage easily directed her towards the docks and shortly before the appointed time, Penelope found herself at Docking Bay 12.  She quickly located sub-bay C.  Through the viewports, she could see that three of the four slips were occupied, two by small aether-only vessels.  The last had the distinct dirigible-construct of an atmospheric-capable craft.  Moored at the far end, looking rather weathered and worn, was the Lorelei’s Song.

“She may not be much to look at,” O’Rourke commented as Penelope approached.  “But she’s as solid a craft as they come.”

“Are you leasing her?” she asked.

“No, she’s mine,” the captain replied.  “Had her for a long time, I have.”

“And the name?”

“My late wife, ma’am.  Fifteen years past, now.”

“Captain,” Penelope responded with a small smile.  “You are a most surprising man.  Your gruff exterior does not do your heart justice.”

O’Rourke coughed uncomfortably.  “Let’s get your belongings stowed.  We cast off in a few minutes.”

Penelope stepped through the connecting tube and onto the craft, luggage in hand.  While she was half-expecting it, the sudden shift in gravitational pull as she passed outside the field of the port’s Edison generators and into natural lunar gravity caused her to adjust her footing slightly as she reoriented her balance.  The cabin was not a large space, consisting of the forward cockpit, an open area amidships with a water-closet, and the aft engine-room and emergency airlock.  She noted the hand-bars strategically positioned about the cabin which offered confirmation that this vessel was too small to accommodate a gravity-generator.  Moving as gracefully as she could in the lower gravity, she secured her larger bag, keeping the smaller one in hand.

Turning, she saw the captain closing the hatch behind him and checking the tell-tales.  “Was that truly necessary?” she asked.

He replied to her query with a knowing smile of his own.  “A small test, I’d like to say, ma’am.  It does a body good to know what sort of passenger he’s dealing with.”

“Fair,” she acknowledged as she handed him a cheque.  “Captain -- on another point -- regulations require that all aether-going vessels be equipped with an excursion suit to facilitate emergency external repairs.  Can I assume that this vessel is in compliance?”

“You plannin’ to go for a walk?  The suit isn’t exactly accommodating of your kind of outfit,” the captain said, eying the skirts billowing lightly about her legs.

“I will manage that issue,” Penelope replied.  “I take it then that you have such a suit on board and it is in working order?”

“Aye.”

“Excellent.  Let us get underway then.”

The captain looked at her for a moment, then nodded.  He motioned to the chair beside the pilot’s and then took his own seat.  Penelope sat, fastening her belt and placing the handbag on her lap.  The captain strapped himself in and after a quick glance over the control panel, tapped a quick message on the telegraph key.  Moments later he received an equally brief chattering response.

“We are cleared,” he said simply and pulled on a lever that rose from the floorboard at his right hand.  Penelope heard a clank as the anchors which held them to the dock retracted and they rested free on the lunar surface.  A brief moment later, the nearly inaudible hum of the aether engine commenced as the lenses began to focus and direct the aetheric flow.  They began to drift upwards, then forwards as well, as the captain adjusted the direction and magnitude of the flux by means of the knobs and dials on his control panel.  Then they were clear and the lunar surface fell away behind them.

“How long?” Penelope asked.

“Six hours or thereabouts,” the captain replied.  “The Song isn’t fast, but she’ll get us there.  And I can’t afford the Americans’ prices.”

“Very well.”  She unfastened her belt and floated free of her seat, her bag in hand.  “I’ll be right back.”  With some modest grace, she made her way amidships to the water-closet.  Several minutes later, having noted and then politely ignored some of the gender-specific no-gravity lavatory equipment, she re-emerged in her outback fieldwear.  After securing the handbag with her other luggage, she returned to her seat.  The captain gave her a brief glance, then turned his attention back to the instrument panel before him.

They rode is silence for a good while.  Penelope looked over at the captain, who kept his gaze forward.

“Aren’t you going to ask why?” she said finally.

“It’s your charter, ma’am,” he replied.  “And you’re paying good coin for it.  Why is not any of my business.”

“What if what I were doing were illegal?”

“Then it would definitely not be any of my business.”  His eyes cut over to her.  “Is it?”

She smiled.  “It is not, Captain, I assure you.”  After a moment’s pause, she continued.  “I only want to retrieve something of my father’s.”

“So his experiment was more than it appeared,” the captain commented.  “What do you expect to find, if you don’t mind me askin’?”

“To be honest, I’m not altogether sure.  I feel like I’m working with a puzzle and can only see the outlines of the picture.  I have a guess -- but I’ll find out shortly, one way or another.”

“Yes, ma’am,” O’Rourke nodded.  “I suppose you will at that.”

Quiet settled in the cabin.  The low hum of the Song’s engine played in the background.  Penelope sat in silence, her hands folded on her lap, one leg crossed over the other -- her “thinking pose” as her father used to call it.  The captain kept his eyes on the instrument panel and the front portal window, occasionally adjusting a setting or trimming the aether flux, but the course along the Moon’s orbit was a smooth one.

“If you don’t mind me asking,” Penelope said, breaking the silence.  “What will happen to you at the conclusion of the investigation into the Janus?”

“I don’t rightly know, ma’am,” the captain responded after a moment.  “The owners requested an investigation by the full Board, rather than just an Administration Judge.  I don’t see how the Board could find me criminally negligent or strip me of my captaincy -- which a Board finding has the power to do -- but if the owners press for it hard enough, my contract could be voided.  I’d still be a captain, but without a contract or a freighter, and burdened with a record that would keep it that way.”

“I am sorry to hear that, Captain,” Penelope said quietly.  “I hope that the Board’s findings are not so unfavorable.”

O’Rourke shrugged.  “If’n they are, who am I to fight against the tide?  A good sailor knows when to ride out a current that’s too strong for him.  I’ve got the Song and the open aether.  What more could a man ask for?”

Penelope took that in as she gazed into the dark beyond the forward viewport.  The silence returned and remained until a small yellow light on the panel began to blink.

“Proximity alarm,” the captain said simply.  “The edge of the node is not too much further ahead.  Another fifteen minutes perhaps to find our rock, if you’d like to suit up.”

“Thank you, Captain.”  She unbuckled and floated free in her seat.

“Foot locker by the airlock hatch,” he called back to her as she swam aft.

She found the locker and lifted the latch.  A brass helm with circular ports on three sides sat atop a neatly folded tan excursion suit.  She unbuckled one of the straps securing the helm to allow her access to the suit beneath, leaving the other strap in place so that the helm would not float free.  Slipping into the thickly-padded suit, she fastened the chest-flap and its triple seals.  Gloves and boots were next, fastened by locking rings at the wrists and ankles.  The suit was unisize and built for a range of body types, so while it was on the large side for her, it wasn’t excessively so.  She was making the seal on her second glove when another clank and a slight shudder let her know that the Song had anchored.

The captain swam aft to join her and looked over her suit, checking the connections and seals.  “Not bad for a greenhorn.  Maybe you won’t die out there.”

She smirked at that.  He continued, helping her with the air tank slung across her back.  “The tether will reach for a hundred yards or so.  I placed us as best I could guess where the airlock of the Janus had been, so hopefully whatever you’re looking for will be within range.  The air supply will last for thirty minutes, plus a bit of reserve, so don’t dally about.”

Penelope nodded.  “I understand.  And thank you, Captain.  I promise not to die on you.”

He barked a harsh laugh.  “Don’t make promises that you can’t be sure to keep, ma’am.”  He settled the helm over her head and gave it the quarter-turn needed to lock the neck ring.  Opening the inner hatch of the airlock, he took one end of a heavy rope spooled on a wheel and clipped it to a ring at the waist of her suit.  After she stepped into the small chamber, he shut the hatch and spun the locking wheel to secure the seal.  A thumbs-up signal in the small portal window gave her leave to bleed the air out into aether.  Opening the outer hatch, she stepped out into space and onto the rock she’d been hunting, unknowingly, for months.

Electric torches blazed from the Song, supplementing the smaller pair mounted on her helm and illuminating a pitted and rugged surface.  The vessel and the asteroid, locked in an unequal embrace, spun slowly in the aether.  The sun burned in the distance and the Earth hung like a misted ball off to her right.  She quickly scanned her immediate surroundings for anything that looked unusual -- as if the entire scene wasn’t unusual enough, she thought to herself.  The captain had said that her father hadn’t been outside long, and indeed had been in sight the entire time, so whatever she was looking for ought to be nearby, if the captain’s guess of location had been accurate.

“Number 217” was very modest as asteroids went, but was one of the larger bodies captured by the aetheric eddies of the node, which was no doubt why the captain had anchored with it to ride out the wave of the aetheric convergence.  It was many, many times the size of the Song, however, and still even more impressive from the standpoint of a lone human figure.  Given that the Janus’ airlock could have easily faced a different direction, she began to pick her way across the surface in an increasing spiral as best she could, keeping solid hold in the nearly-absent gravity, having to loop back and forth behind the vessel due to her tether.  A small chronometer in the lower wrist of her left glove ticked off her allotted time.  After twenty minutes, she had worked her way out about half the length of the tether, having looped behind the Song, when a brief silhouette against the Earth’s disk caught the corner of her vision.  She made her way over carefully, another twenty yards on, and found a rough spheroid, perhaps two feet in diameter, wrapped in what appeared to be a heavy burlap and tightly corded rope.  A short length of chain anchored the object to the surface, linked to a bolt that appeared to be driven into the rock.

Working quickly, Penelope examined the chain and found a connection near the object to be a classic D-ring and clasp set-up.  She took the object in hand and disconnected the chain.  Her grip on the handful of remaining links was firm, as she was not about to let her prize escape so close to the end.  Placing the object in the airlock first, she climbed into the small chamber and pushed the hatch closed, securing the seal with a spin of the locking wheel.  The captain watch through the port window as air slowly filled the airlock again.  With a look of relief on his rugged face, he swung to inner hatch open and helped her into the cabin.

“Found what you were looking for?” he asked as he lifted the helm.

“I believe so, Captain.  If you will be so kind as to get us underway, I can manage from here.”

“Aye, ma’am.”

He swam forward as she first secured the helm while holding her prize as best she could.  The gloves came off next and were shut in the footlocker.  The rest could wait.  Trying to keep her hands from trembling, she worked the cordage, finally succeeding in loosening it.  As the layers of burlap unfolded, the mystery revealed itself to be a slightly obloid rock, a little over a foot and half across.  It had been neatly sawed in two at some point previously and Penelope was both astonished and yet not at all surprised as the halves drifted apart to reveal a hollow geodic interior that sparkled darkly in the cabin lights with the deep blood-red of vulcanite crystals.  

 

###

 

The hansom cab turned onto Piccadilly Lane.  Penelope observed the elegant residences as they passed by, but her thoughts were elsewhere.  It had been three weeks since her return.  She had left Captain O’Rourke at the aerodrome with an invitation to write to her at the close of the investigation into the Janus, but had departed straightway to the Foreign Office and the prime minister.  A brief but pointed conversation with the desk-clerk had gained her admittance.  Upon delivering the specimen into his care and a providing an outline of her theories, she had left for the townhouse with a promise to provide a more detailed written account.  Salisbury had said little, but accepted the rock her father had found as well as her explanation in studious silence.

Her hand touched the breast pocket of the overcoat she’d donned to ward off the chill of the early spring evening, mindful of the two letters it held.  The first, which she’d received some days ago, was the polite summons for the meeting to which she was now en route.  The second had been delivered with the morning’s post.

That letter had been addressed simply to “The Honorable Lady Botelier” in elegant, flowing script.  The paper on which it had been inscribed was of high quality, though of an understated variety, unlike the flamboyance of Salisbury’s missive.  The contents were as potent as they were brief:

 

Baroness,

I must congratulate you on your success and commend both your persistence and your ability.  You have proven yourself to be a most proficient adversary and one worthy of great admiration.  Until our next meeting.

                                                                             Adieu,

                                                                            

 With great flourish, the letter had been signed “X”.

“We will most certainly meet again, monsieur,” she said quietly.  “I can assure you of that.”

The cab came to a stop before the impressive edifice that was Burlington House, the home of the Royal Society.  Penelope stepped onto the walk and settled her fare, then strode toward the entrance. A presentation of the Lord Salisbury’s invitation gained her admittance and a clerk was dispatched to escort her to the designated salon.

As the door to the chamber opened, two men rose from the chairs they had been occupying.  The first was the prime minister.  The second man Penelope did not know.  He had snow white hair and a bushy beard of the same color.  Having completed his assigned duty, the clerk retreated, closing the door behind him.

“Lady Botelier,” Salisbury greeted her.  “I am pleased to see that your sense of decorum is more appropriate to the setting on this occasion.”

Penelope smiled.  “I am glad to accommodate you, my lord.”

“This is Sir William Thomson, First Baron Kelvin, and past president of the Royal Society”

Penelope inclined her head.  “Lord Kelvin.”

The man gave a polite bow.  “Lady Botelier,” he responded in a sonorous voice.

 Salisbury continued.  “Lord Kelvin, this is the *ahem* enterprising young woman who provided the specimen.”

“For which I am most grateful.  Please, do have a seat.”

The men settled into their chairs.  Penelope sat on a comfortable chaise positioned opposite.

“I asked you here, Lady Botelier,” Salisbury stated, “because I deemed it proper that you should be informed of the results of your efforts.  Lord Kelvin is not only the former president of the Society, but is also a physicist.  Given the highly sensitive nature of this endeavor, it was necessary that the analysis of the crystals you obtained be conducted with the utmost discretion.”

“I understand, my lord.  I am appreciative of your consideration.  And of your trust.”

The prime minister nodded at that.  “Lord Kelvin?”

“Lady Botelier, I must first congratulate you on a most stupendous and intriguing find.  The crystals you provided have resulting both in answers and in new questions regarding our understanding of the universe.”

“That sounds most fascinating, Lord Kelvin.  I must say that you have piqued my curiosity.”

“To summarize, my lady, the crystals that your late father found and that you retrieved are identical in every way to freshly-mined vulcanite crystals.  Chemical composition, physical structure, color, physical properties.  In every single test, save one, the crystals performed identically to a vulcanite specimen.”

“All tests but one?  And which test was that?”

Kelvin glanced at the Salisbury before returning to Penelope.  “The crystals you found augment the aetheric flow of the Henry-Germain lens in no way whatsoever.  Despite their identical structure and composition, the crystals provided no benefit to the aetheric propulsion system.  It is as if they were not even present in the matrix.”

Penelope looked at the two men.  “So my father’s theory was both correct and wrong at the same time.”

“It would appear that way, Lady Botelier,” Salisbury confirmed.

“Your efforts, however,” Kelvin interjected, “are not without their fruits.  We now have confirmation that the benefits presently derived from the vulcanite crystals are due to some quality yet unknown.  That is, there is something else which is the motive force to the augmenting capabilities of the crystals.  Something perhaps inherently different between the two worlds from which the crystals came: a living Vulcan and the fragmented remains of the asteroid predecessor planet.  That information itself is beyond value to science.  I would like to personally thank you for the knowledge that your actions have made possible.”

“I am honored, Lord Kelvin.  You are most welcome.  It is a suitable legacy for my father.”

“Indeed, my lady.  Indeed.”  Kelvin rose from his seat.  “If you and the prime minister will excuse me, I am most anxious to return to my laboratory.”  With a polite bow, he turned and exited the salon through a second door.

“An equally disappointing and fascinating outcome, Lord Salisbury,” Penelope commented after the door had closed.

“Our path in this life is seldom laid straight, Lady Botelier,” Salisbury replied.  “The unexpected lurks around every corner.  And it is on a subject of that nature that I would like to speak with you further.”

“My lord?”

“You are a most extraordinary woman.  While your attitudes and perspectives are what I would consider most unfeminine, your capabilities are undeniable and I would be a fool to ignore the opportunities that you present.”

“To what opportunities does my lord refer exactly?”

“I would like to you to consider, Lady Botelier, an offer of periodic assignment as an agent of His Majesty’s government on matters requiring the kind of persistence, intelligence, and bold action you exhibited in the course of these last several months.  You embody a unique blend of talents that could be of considerable use in the interests of the Empire.  What would you say to such an offer?”

“I am surprised, my lord,” Penelope responded.  “This is most unexpected indeed.  And from an unexpected source.”

Salisbury gave a small smile.  “I may be a conservative, Lady Botelier, and I may have fixed ideas as to the organization of society and the roles of the sexes, but my duty to His Majesty’s government and to this Empire is paramount.  And I am not blind.”

“I will take that as a most sincere compliment, Lord Salisbury.  Very well.  I accept.”

“Thank you, my lady.  The equilibrium of the worlds is a precarious one and we must be forever vigilant.  Forces, both human and natural, swirl about us.  The balance on which we depend can too easily be lost.”

He rose from his seat, as did Penelope a moment later.  “If you will now excuse me, Lady Botelier, I must return to other affairs of state.  Please allow me to escort you out.”

“Thank you, my lord.”  Penelope offered her arm, which Salisbury took as the two of them walked through the door and down the hallway.

As her coach pulled away from the walk, however, her thoughts returned to Lord Kelvin’s remarks.  A quiet voice in the back of her mind asked: But what is the difference between a living world and a dead one?