the sons of eris
by
david england

[Following The Lifeblood of Worlds and Something New Under the Sun, the redoubtable Penelope and her assistant discover a secret unknown to planetary governments...]


Part I

An Unsettling Development


 The young man gazed over the current’s soft folds as the pilot smoothly maneuvered the canal ferry out of the central traffic lanes and brought it toward the end of the dock projecting from the right-hand bank.  Thoughtful brown eyes considered the scene from beneath a mop of hair the color of dark cinnamon.  He was well-built, though not heavily-muscled.  Broad shoulders were offset by a certain wiriness, the product of both physical labor and regime of exercise.  The pilot’s task completed, the ferry sidled against the edge of the dock, secured to the moorings by the efficient actions of the crew, and he bent to gather his belongings from where they sat at his feet.

“Ahoy, lad!” a deep voice called out.

            Elias Conner looked up as he stepped from the canal boat onto the wide dock jutting into the slow current.

            “Captain!” he responded, his face brightening.  “What brings you here?”

            “Waiting for you to get your lazy carcass back from Barsoom, my lad,” the older man laughed.  “Let’s get a move on.  Her ladyship had thought you’d have been back before luncheon.”

            Elias began moving down the length of the dock toward the man he’d come to know very well in these last several years.  “The bankers took their time,” he grimaced.  “I returned as soon as I could.”

            His employer, Lady Penelope Hillcrest, Fifteenth Baroness Botelier, had sent him to the Martian territorial capital of Barsoom several days earlier on what ought to have been a fairly simple errand: to direct the transfer of a certain sum from her personal accounts to those of Themis Holdings, Ltd, the cargo carrier corporation she owned.  He’d been given a travelling allowance for passage and lodging expenses, as well as a letter authorizing him to act on her behalf.  Elias had been extremely proud to have been given the responsibility.

            But the teller had balked and Elias had been required to speak with a senior clerk, who had desired to refer the matter to one of the junior partners.  This delay had forced Elias to return to the bank the following day, when he’d planned on an early departure.  He’d forced himself to remain calm that next morning, standing straight while keeping a neutral expression on his face as the partner, a middle-aged man with a narrow mustache, carefully read and then re-read the letter as he periodically examined Elias over the top of the paper.  Finally, the man had pronounced everything to be in order and directed the transaction to be carried out forthwith.  Elias had heaved a sigh of relief as he’d exited the bank and caught a cab to the aeroport at the edge of the capital city.  Somewhat later than he’d intended, he then boarded the canal ferry for the final leg of his return journey.

            The contrast with his previous life could not be greater.  It had only been four years ago now that his mistress had plucked him from the back-streets of Aphrodite, where he’d managed to survive by petty theft in the years since his parents had died, two steps ahead of starvation and a half-step ahead of the constabulary.  But with their encounter that soggy Venusian afternoon, his life had changed forever.

            Elias shook himself from his reverie as he walked the length of the dock toward the man waiting at the landward end.  James O’Rourke was a merchant captain who’d lost his vessel, his contract, and his reputation in a pirate attack nearly a decade ago.  He now commanded Lorelei’s Remembrance, the primary cargo vessel owned by Themis Holdings, Ltd. and thus by the baroness herself.  Over their frequent encounters, Elias had come to look upon the captain as something of a second father.  The captain, for his part, had reciprocated the relationship and taken Elias under his wing.

            For the last two years, he’d been training with the captain, working toward his initial pilot’s license.  Six months ago, he’d applied for the required examination, but had been turned away by the attending clerk for lack of adequate documentation.  Applicants were required to have attained the age of eighteen years and while Elias and his employer, who was herself licensed to operate modest craft on open-aether journeys between worlds, were both certain he was at least a year beyond that minimum, he possessed no records to demonstrate that fact.  In the end, O’Rourke had formally vouched for his student, using his standing as a merchant captain to satisfy the clerk’s requirements.  Elias had then proceeded to pass the written examination and the subsequent practicals with solid marks. 

His license had arrived in the post two weeks prior to his trip to Barsoom.  While he now had the ability to lease and operate a small atmospheric-capable aether-vessel independently, the next step in his plan was to acquire a ship of his own.  But this milestone was still many years off, despite the savings he’d squirreled away so far.  Even a small vessel did not come cheaply.  Meanwhile, Elias’ vision had continued to develop and during his trip, he’d finally settled on a name.  The thought made him smile, though he wondered if he’d actually have the courage to declare it when the time came to put pen to paper on the forms.

            As he reached the stone-lined edge of the broad canal channel, the gruff captain clapped him hard on the shoulder.  “Good to see you, my boy.  Now, let’s not keep her ladyship waitin’!”

            The two men headed up the switchback path that climbed the embankment.  Stairs would have been more straightforward, but the sloped path enabled the movement of cargo-laden carts and were standard features along the canal system.  As they crested the embankment several minutes later, the estate lay spread before them: the main estate house in the middle distance, the stables and several storage buildings scattered over the terrain.  To the north, low hills rose, segregating the nearer grounds from the broader holdings of estate lands beyond.

            It was about a twenty-minute walk to the estate house and the two followed the level roadway leading from the canal.  As they approached the estate house proper, Elias was struck by the unusual quiet.  The typical bustle from the stables and the kitchens was notably absent.  He glanced over at the captain, but the other man seemed oblivious to their surroundings, chatting amiably about the most recent cargo run of the Remembrance.  O’Rourke opened the front door himself, which Elias also thought odd.  The unusual quiet extended into, even seemed to emanate from, the interior of the house.

            “I believe her ladyship said that she would be waitin’ in the parlor,” the captain indicated, waving Elias ahead.  Mentally shrugging, Elias stepped forward and led the way down the hall after setting his travel-bag off to one side of the entranceway.  He knocked lightly on the closed door.  “Lady P?” And pushed the door open.

            “Surprise!”

            A flood of light and sound assaulted him and he took a step backward involuntarily.  The entire staff seemed to be crowded into the room, every face bearing a broad smile.  Elias looked around, perplexed, as the captain prodded him forward.

            “Come along, lad.  Step lively now.”

            “What is going on?” Elias looked over to the other man, who said nothing. 

            “Elias.”  There was only one voice which carried that rich, melodious tone.  Only one which struck his heart in that peculiar and impossible way.  Penelope stepped from the crowd.

            “Are you surprised?” she asked.

            “I am, Lady P,” he replied.  “I am also very, very confused.”

            She smiled brightly.  “Of course you are.  The explanation is actually quite simple.  This is a birthday party.”

            “For who?”

            “For you, silly.”  She rapped him lightly on the arm.  “And it’s ‘for whom.’  I’ve taught you better than that.”

            “But we don’t know when my birthday is,” he countered.  “We’ve never been able to find…”

            “I’ve had researchers combing through Venusian census records for years now, ever since our Vulcan mission,” she replied.  “Two months ago, they found this.”  She handed him a thick sheet of vellum, heavily creased from having been folded quarto.

            “This is your baptismal certificate, Elias,” she continued.  “Your date of birth is noted on it.  Today.”

            He looked down at the document, forcing his hands not to tremble as he read and reread the words.  Date of Child’s Birth: Eighteenth Day of January in the Year of Our Lord Eighteen Hundred Eighty-Six.

            “I’ve been planning this day for weeks,” Penelope said.  “The entire staff has been in on the plot, as has the captain here.”

            Elias fought back the tears welling in his eyes as he said quietly, “I am twenty years old today.”

            “Yes,” Penelope agreed.  “That you are.”

            “Drinks are on the house!” the captain roared and everyone laughed.  “Food’s a-wastin’!”

As everyone began to mill about and sample from the buffet Elias had just then noticed set up against one wall of the parlor, he turned to his employer.  “Thank you, Lady P.  For everything.”

“You are most welcome, Elias,” she replied warmly.  “Happy birthday.”

The gathering went on for some time, but even birthday festivities begin to wind down after a while.  When it had become apparent that everyone had had their fill of the delicious spread that the cooks had prepared, Elias figured the evening was coming to a close.  But then Penelope stepped to the center of the room and clapped her hands loudly.

“Your attention, please!”  The bustle in the room quieted as all eyes turned towards her.  “It is now time for the final part of today’s little celebration.  If you would all accompany me outside.”

Elias looked over to the captain, his eyes full of questions, but the older man only smiled innocently and motioned toward the doorway.  Elias followed as everyone filed out of the parlor and the estate house, making their way as Penelope led them towards the storage barns.  Because these were set off a distance from the main house, and at an angle to the approach he and the captain had taken from the canal docks earlier, Elias only now saw that a wide canvas sheet had been strung up between two of the barns, like a sail some stories high.

Penelope stepped to the corner of one barn, where a rope hitched to a stay fastened to the barn wall held the canvas in place.  The captain mirrored her on the opposite side.

“And now,” she announced, “with the good captain’s assistance, I’d like to give Elias his birthday present.”

Elias watched, stunned, as Penelope and the captain released the ropes and the canvas sheet dropped to the ground to reveal a weathered-looking but solidly-built dirigible.  It took him all of two seconds to recognize the craft he’d trained in these past years.

“You’re giving me the Song?” he sputtered, incredulous.

O’Rourke grinned.  “She’s not the Lorelei’s Song anymore, lad.  She’s yours now.  Bought and paid for.  When you’ve got a name for her, we’ll get that filed and it’ll be all official.”

“Oh, I’ve got a name,” Elias blurted before he could stop himself.  “But I don’t know--”

“Nonsense, boy,” the captain replied.  “What’s it to be then?”

“Her name…”  Elias trailed off, suddenly uncertain.  It appeared that his moment of truth had come far sooner than he’d expected.  What was that old saying?  In for a penny, in for a pound.  Looking straight at O’Rourke and not daring to watch the woman in the corner of his vision, he braced his shoulders and stood a fraction straighter.  “Her name,” he repeated, “is Penelope’s Promise.

A sudden hush fell on the assembly.  Then the captain broke into a loud guffaw and slapped his thigh.  “I tell you, a heart of pure gold and balls of solid brass!”  The tension broke and everyone began to laugh and cheer.

Amid the commotion, Elias risked a glance at his employer, who was laughing and smiling along with everyone else, but whose eyes bore an expression he could not read.  

 

###

 

            The next day found Elias and Penelope settling into their suite aboard the liner Jason’s Quest, en route to Earth.  While he’d barely unpacked from his trip to Barsoom, over the many years of working alongside his mistress, Elias had learned that sudden departures and frequent alterations of schedule were more the norm than the exception.  And so, he’d taken Penelope’s announcement of their pending travel to London in the aftermath of the party in stride.

            “The new Hephaestus chairman is certainly making a splash,” Elias commented as he handed his employer the newspaper he’d brought from Barsoom.  A photograph of the man, with trademark mustache and pince-nez, dominated the front page.  In characteristic form, his top hat was held in one hand, his arms frozen in mid-gesture.  The moving-picture newsreels were the better medium, Elias thought, for capturing the man’s powerful presence and the robust movement which punctuated his addresses.  Since his elevation at the sudden death of his predecessor several months ago, the man had been everywhere.  “Barnstorming,” some in the press had come to call it.

            “Mr. Roosevelt’s preferred approach,” Penelope replied, “to use his version of the traditional saying, is to ‘take the bull-moose by the horns.’  Subtlety is not exactly his style.”  She took the paper from Elias’ hand.  “Any other stories of note?”

            “Not much, Lady P,” Elias shrugged.  “A wire-service story about another pirate attack near the Belt.  The financial markets are holding steady.  Ginseng futures are up.”  He paused.  “There was another open letter from that Leo Populi.”

            “I understand that he writes a number of such letters, sent to numerous editors.  Most major papers seem to be receiving them.”  Penelope’s brow creased slightly.  “I can’t say that I agree with the man’s theses, but he constructs his arguments well.”

            Elias nodded.  His sympathies lay more with the laborers whose blood and sweat supported the system of the worlds than with the industrialists who ran it.  His own father had been slain in a police raid on a Venusian labor hall over a decade before, many years before he and Penelope had met, but he could also understand his employer’s perspective.  “Utopian visions are well and good,” she’d commented to him in the course of his studies.  “But they can also get a great many people killed.  Reality is not so clear-cut as these writers would have one believe.”

            “What do you think of his arguments, Elias?” she asked, bringing his mind back to the present.  She looked up at him from her armchair, her eyes curious.

            Her question was not an idle one, Elias knew.  Unlike many of the well-to-do, Penelope had a certain sympathy for the laboring classes.  She never treated anyone, from her household staff to the maid of a hotel she might only stay at once, with anything less than respect.  Elias nodded to himself: she was a rare one, and that only cemented his own admiration for her further.

            “I can understand his ends,” he replied after a moment.  “The betterment of the lives of the workers is a very necessary thing.  I cannot agree with his means -- or at least, the means he appears to advocate.  The violent overthrow of the current order will do no one good and could bring much harm to many.  A peaceable alteration of the structure of power would be preferable.”

            Penelope nodded, gesturing for him to continue.

            “On the other hand,” Elias said, “I can understand his frustration.  Those in power are generally reluctant to relinquish a portion to those whom they deem inferior.  Even the so-called ’progressives’ seem more interested in telling the workers how to better themselves than in giving them the means and the freedom to do so.”

“An interesting observation,” she replied.  “And one that I’m afraid is all too accurate.”

Elias had a question of his own.  “He argues that there are those among the pirates working to the benefit of the laborers of the worlds,” he pointed out.  “Freedom-fighters, he calls them.  Could piracy ever be in the right?”

            It was her turn to shrug.  “Right and wrong are concepts which depend very much on one’s point of view.”  She waved toward the companion armchair and Elias took the hint.  “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom-fighter.  Take the Americans’ war for independence from the British Empire over a century ago: from the rebels’ side, their leaders were patriots; from the Crown’s perspective, those same men were traitors.  Who was correct?”

            Elias nodded.  “That makes sense.  Of course, the outcome of the war decided that question.”

            “In many cases,” Penelope agreed, “you’ll find that the line between patriotism and treason is defined by who wins that fight.  Now, take this new band of pirates that has appeared on the scene in these last years, these ‘Sons of Eris,’ as they call themselves.”

Elias pointed to the paper, still folded on his employer’s lap. “The story I mentioned refers to them.”

“So you’ve been keeping abreast of things,” she smiled approvingly.  “Very good.  Now tell me, what is it about these Sons of Eris that sets them apart from their brigand brethren?”

Elias considered the question for a moment.  “They appear less ruthless, for one thing.  Generally, their victims tend to not end up dead.  The Sons seem more interested in cargo and crystals than killing.”

“A fair point,” Penelope agreed.  “Anything else?”

“There are rumors,” he responded, “that they recruit from among their victims’ crews.  Only rumors, though.”

“The very existence of those rumors is itself suggestive, however,” she pointed out.  “That together with their peculiar interest in the vulcanite crystals make for an interesting picture.”

“How so, Lady P?” Elias inquired.  “Pirates would naturally loot their victims of anything of value, crystals included.  The only peculiar part about the Sons is that they leave their victims alive and their vessels more or less intact, if sorely underpowered.”

“I suspect,” Penelope replied, “that our coming appointment with the prime minister may shed some light on that very question.”

 

###

 

            The late winter afternoon was bright and clear when their ferry from the orbiting liner docked at the aeroport outside of London.  A cab-ride later, they arrived at Penelope’s townhouse in the city, where her loyal house-staff, the Porters, had prepared for their arrival, a fine supper being ready only a short while later.  Elias slept well that night, but wondered what the next days would bring.

            After brunch the following morning, Penelope received a message from Lord Salisbury confirming their appointment the next day.  Penelope looked up from the brief letter at Elias.  “Well, that sets our schedule for tomorrow.  I’d like to make another visit today, however, if you’d care to accompany me.”

            “Of course, my lady,” he replied, suspecting he knew the destination she had in mind.  “I’ll fetch a cab for us.”

            A short while later, the cab came to a gentle halt; a request for the driver to wait for their return was confirmed by a silent nod.  As the two of them stepped through the lich gate and onto the cemetery grounds of St. Matthew’s, Elias looked over the monument-laden landscape for the structure to which the two of them were headed.  He’d been here only once before, two years prior, but the experience was memorable enough that he recalled it with ease.  It had been spring on that occasion, and as the light snow and heavy frost crunched underfoot, he considered the contrast.

            The structure itself became visible only a short way through the grounds.  Penelope’s great grandfather, the Twelfth Baron Botelier, having been caught up in a resurgence of spiritualism near the beginning of the last century, had become convinced that he had been Xerxes the Great in a prior life.  He therefore had constructed a mausoleum suited, as he saw it, for such honors.  His imagination had been stronger than his scholarship, however, and the resulting building was a mishmash of Persian, Egyptian, and Greek influences: bearded sphinxes, marble columns, and stone braziers flanking the entranceway of the marble structure.  Fortunately for his descendants, the Baron’s budget had been more limited than his fantasies, and the mausoleum, while ornate and somewhat gaudy, was of only modest size.  Nonetheless, not to allow the extravagance to go to waste, it was deemed by following generations that the bearer of the title would be interred within so long as room remained.

Elias recalled the engraved marble block on the exterior identifying the mausoleum’s most recent inhabitant and his employer’s somber face as she gazed upon it at their previous visit.  Half the niches within had been filled; three remained open.

“Hold there!” Penelope commanded, her voice echoing in early winter morning air.  Elias caught sight of a boy standing beside the mausoleum, a circular wreath in his hands.  The boy looked up, startled, but set the wreath against the stone wall and turned toward them as they approached.

            “Who are you and what is your business at my family’s crypt?” Penelope challenged the boy, her voice low and hard.

            “My name is John Williams, my lady,” the boy replied nervously.  “I’m a florist’s apprentice.” 

            “And why are you here?”

Young Williams indicated the wreath.  “It is a commission, my lady.  One wreath of white magnolia blossoms is to be placed by this here marker at or around noon every 30th of January.”

            “A commission?” Penelope pressed.  “Established by whom exactly?”

            “I cannot say, my lady,” he replied.  “I know only what Mr. Fenworth, the shopkeeper, told me.  This is the seventh wreath, I do know that.  And Mr. Fenworth once mentioned it was a foreigner, a French gent, I believe he said.”

            Penelope said something under her breath that Elias didn’t catch and stared intently into the distance.  Several minutes later, suddenly remembering the boy’s presence, she looked back at the apprentice.  “Thank you, young man.  That is all.”

            “Yes, my lady.”  He gave an uncertain bow and scurried away.

            Elias watch him depart, but he noted that his employer’s gaze had returned to the circle of green boughs and white blossoms resting against the granite.  “My lady?” he inquired.

            “Dubois,” she said quietly.  “It is something of an apology, I think.  Or an honoring of my father.”  She exhaled slowly.  “It is the symbolism, you see.  Magnolia flowers reference nobility and dignity.  The 30th of January is the feast day of Charles, King and Martyr.  And,” she indicated the engraved marble block, “Charles was my father’s given name.”

            Elias pondered the meaning of that encounter as he stood slightly apart to allow his mistress space to sit with her father.  The sun was well past its peak and beginning its descent toward the horizon when he heard Penelope come up behind him.

            “Thank you, Elias.  We can return now.”

            He let her be the rest of the day, busying himself in his own studies.  Over the years, he’d learned when it was best to let her alone.

            The following morn, shortly after breakfast, Penelope and Elias departed for their appointment.  Elias found himself surprised, however, when their cab delivered them to a private estate rather than one of the numerous government buildings. Elias looked questioningly at his employer, but she said nothing as the two of them stepped from the cab and made their way to the ornate doors of the residence, which opened at their approach.  A tall, thin man in the austere dress of those in the service of the upper classes greeted them with a curt but courteous welcome and bid them to enter.  After closing the door, he turned to them and gestured toward a wide hallway to their right.

            “Please follow me.”

            The butler led the way in silence, his face carefully devoid of all expression.  Traversing the length of the great hall, its arched ceiling high overhead, he stopped before a brace of doors at the far end.  With the unspoken eloquence and quiet grace of one long in service, he opened the doors and announced them.

            “Lady Botelier and guest, my lord.”

            A surprisingly weak voice answered.  “Thank you, Samuels.  That will be all for now.”

            Elias followed Penelope into a voluminous study.  Lord Salisbury reclined on one end of a small couch flanked by two sitting chairs, this ensemble occupying one end of the room and set before a massive stone fireplace in which an equally massive fire blazed.  On the far end of the room, an impressive desk sat before a large window overlooking the gardens.  Floor-to-ceiling bookcases framed that window, just as a pair of large oil portraits framed the mantle of the fireplace.

            “Come in, Lady Botelier.  And you as well, young man.  You must forgive me for not rising, my lady.  I fear that my health is none too well these days.”

            Elias considered the man, arguably one of the most powerful individuals in the Empire and one of the significant players in the great game of chess that encompassed entire worlds.  And yet, regardless of that power, ashen and weakened by illness and age.

            “Do not trouble yourself, my lord,” Penelope replied, her voice laden with concern.  “I hope your recovery will not be long in coming.”

            “My death will not be long in coming, I am afraid,” Salisbury responded with a shake of his head.  “That may be the only recovery in my future.  But I will do my duty unto my end.  Even now, my nephew chomps at the bit, awaiting my exit from this stage.” His mouth tightened.  “Well, he will just have to wait for a little while longer.”

            “My lord…” Penelope began, but Salisbury waved her into silence with a weak gesture.

            “It is the way of things, my lady.  But before we discuss affairs of state: step forward, young man, and let me see you clearly.  What is your name?”

            “Conner, my lord,” Elias replied with a bow.  “Elias Conner.  It is a great honor to meet you.”

            “A dubious honor, in some circles,” Salisbury quipped, a wry gleam in his eye.  “So, Lady Botelier, this is your man?”

            Elias glanced over at his mistress, whose face wore the same unreadable expression it had the evening of his birthday party.  “Yes, my lord.  Elias is, as you say, my man.”

            “Well, Mr. Connor,” Salisbury said, returning his attention to Elias.  “I am quite sure that it is unnecessary to remind you of your duty, but as prime minister of His Majesty’s government, I charge you with the protection of this woman; she is one of the Empire’s most valuable assets.”

Elias did not know how to respond.  Then he saw something deep in Salisbury’s intent gaze and an unspoken understanding passed between the two men.  “Yes, my lord.  With my very life.”

“With all due respect, my lord,” Penelope interrupted with more than a hint of exasperation in her voice.  “I am quite sure you summoned us for reasons other than inducing my assistant to swear noble oaths of chivalric daring.”

“Allow an old man his indulgences,” Salisbury replied.  “But you are correct, Lady Botelier.  Matters of great import press upon us.  Please be seated, both of you.”

Penelope sat in one of the armchairs, while Elias took its companion opposite.

“You may recall, Lady Botelier, at the time our arrangement began that I spoke to you of the precarious balance and the various forces, both human and natural, which have the ability to destroy that balance.”

            Penelope nodded.  “I do recall that conversation, my lord.”

            “I summoned you here to tell you, my lady, that the balance of which I spoke is in grave peril, perhaps even to the point of being beyond saving.”

            Elias swallowed.

            “You may also recall,” Salisbury continued, “the problem of Vulcan on which I elaborated at our first meeting.”

            “I remember our first meeting quite well, my lord.”

            Salisbury nodded.  “The problem of Vulcan remains unresolved.  Vulcan is in many ways the fulcrum on which this balance rests.

 “What I am here to tell you, Lady Botelier, is that we have detected a very small but nonetheless extant decline in the augmentative power of vulcanite crystals.  This prompted a review of historical samples; we have confirmed the presence of this trend of decline.  Most concerning is the fact that this trend, while still nearly negligible, appears to be accelerating.”

“Has this ever been observed before, my lord?” Penelope inquired.  “This variance in crystal power?”

“According to Lord Kelvin, no.  To some degree, this makes the phenomenon suspect.  The first question in my mind was: by what means could one diminish the performance of a sample of crystals?”

A knowing silence seemed to settle in the room, though Elias felt as perplexed as ever.  He looked across at his mistress as she said slowly, “If a small portion of the crystals in the sample had no augmentative power whatsoever, then the performance of the overall sample would be diminished by a proportional amount.  If the supply were be contaminated in some manner...”  She trailed off.

“You understand my thoughts exactly, my lady,” Salisbury agreed.

Elias glanced back and forth between the two in the quiet which followed.

“I see, my lord,” Penelope said finally.  “It seems that the arrangements I’d begun to put into place will prove useful here.  May I assume that I have authorization to proceed?”

“Indeed,” Salisbury replied.  “I will direct the necessary transfers and provide you a letter of authorization.  Expect that letter by tomorrow’s post.”

“Thank you,” Penelope nodded as she rose from her chair.  Elias stood a fraction later.  “With that, Elias and I will take our leave.  Our best wishes for good health, my lord.”

Salisbury waved one hand dismissively.  “Godspeed, my lady.”

            Salisbury’s coach waited from them outside the residence, a courtesy of which Elias took silent note.  But he could not refrain from interrogating his mistress as they took their seats facing one another and the driver nudged the horse forward.

            “Where are we going, my lady?” he asked.  “What arrangements were you talking about?”

            “All in good time, Elias,” Penelope assured him.  “At this point, though, I’ll tell you this: I’ve come to the conclusion that the Sons of Eris are more than they seem and I intend to find out what exactly is going on.”

            When Elias’ perplexed expression remain unchanged, she leaned forward slightly in her seat.

            “You see, Elias,” she said.  “I believe I know where the Sons are hiding!”


Part II

In Plain Sight

 

            Elias held his tongue until their return to the townhouse, respecting his employer’s thoughtful gaze out the cab window, but once they’d settled themselves in the study, he did not refrain from peppering Penelope with questions.

            “I’ve actually been working on this puzzle for some time now,” Penelope explained.  “And corresponding with the Foreign Office regarding certain assistance.  This last discussion with the Lord Salisbury was merely the final piece.”

            Elias gave a small smile.  “I am relieved,” he replied.  “I was beginning to wonder if I needed to ascribe uncanny powers of prescience to you, my lady.  And so I find this all rather comforting.”

“Comforting?  In what way?”

            “You remain human.  Still incredibly intimidating, to be sure, but human.”

            Penelope laughed.  “Silly.”

            “The view is different from where I stand.”  He shrugged.  “Where then are we bound?”

            “Luna,” she replied.  “I have a purchase to finalize and a few arrangements to make before the next step is taken.”

            They departed for the moon two days later, Penelope desiring to have the letter Salisbury had referenced in hand.  An uneventful ferry trip consumed less than four hours, the majority of which was spent in the departure and arrival maneuvers.  Penelope arranged for rooms at one of the city of Diane’s many hotels after assessing the cargo carrier schedules and seeing that Lorelei’s Remembrance was still nearly a day from port.

            The captain met with them for dinner the following evening after the ship had docked and the transfer of cargo had begun under the watchful eye of his first lieutenant.  O’Rourke nodded as Penelope described her intended purchase and the captain’s role in the process.

            “When would you be available?” she asked as their meal wound to a close.

            “No time like the present,” the captain responded, tossing his napkin onto the table.  “Saunders can manage the cargo for a while yet.  If’n you’re ready, your ladyship, we can do this now.”

            Le Fey d l’Eau was a well-wrought craft, though very modest in size.  An aether-only craft, she was a good thrice the size of O’Rourke’s old (and Elias’ new) vessel.  With this additional space, she was able to accommodate a number of luxuries which the Promise could not: a more powerful aether propulsion system, a separate stateroom, and Edison gravity generators, among others.

            “Of course, I wouldn’t trust Captain Morgan any further than I could throw the man,” O’Rourke commented.  “But she seems to be in good enough shape.”

            Elias nodded at the captain’s assessment of the vessel’s soon-to-be-former owner.  He and Penelope had had dealings with James Morgan, an independent merchant captain of considerable wealth, some years before.  The man was cunning to a fault and prone to sharp business practices, a slippery ally at best.

            “The inspector gave a very positive report,” Penelope replied.  “But it never hurts to have multiple sets of eyes looking her over.”

            “Oh, she’s a solid craft,” O’Rourke assured her.  “There’s nothing that I can see that makes me doubt the inspector’s assessment.”

            “Thank you, Captain,” Penelope replied.  “I feel better having you and Elias walk through her before I depart.”

            “We should manage the expedition nicely,” Elias commented as he glanced about the cabin.  “Wherever it is that we are going.”

            Penelope followed behind them.  “My primary concern is her suitability for longer journeys,” she explained.  “And what is this about ‘we’?”

“So your ladyship’s plan,” the captain commented, shifting topics, “if’n I’m to understand correctly, is to sail straight down the gullet to where you suspect the headquarters of these brigands to be, then to wave your arms about while shouting ‘Here I am!’?”

            Penelope nodded.  “More or less.”

            “Aren’t you courtin’ death a bit much that way?”

            “I’m banking on my hunch being more correct than wrong,” she replied.  “And on their curiosity overpowering their aggressiveness.”

            “Still, my lady,” the captain protested.  “It is a good way for a body to get herself killed.”

            Penelope smiled tightly.  “I’ll do what I can to avoid that outcome, rest assured.”

            “Good.”

            “However,” she continued.  “In the event of my death, I want both of you to know that you are provided for in the settlement of my final affairs.”

            “Now…”

            “You and Elias both.  No,” Penelope cut him off.  “You should both be made aware of this.  My title and the real property of the estate will pass to my cousin, Gerald, as provided by law.  I have no control over that aspect.  However, the balance of my possessions are mine to dispense as I see fit.

            “All members of the staff, including Elias, as well as yourself, Captain, will receive legacies of varying amounts.  Moreover, you and Elias will each receive half-interest in Themis Holdings.  In the event that Elias and I perish together, Captain, the shares go to you in their entirety.”

            “My lady…” Elias began.

            “Your ladyship…” the Captain protested.

            Penelope waved them both to silence.  “The provisions are non-debatable, gentlemen,” she said firmly.  “I only wanted to make you aware of them.  Let’s move on.  I have a mission to commence.”

            “As though,” Elias interjected almost huffily, “you would be allowed to undertake such a mission alone.”

            Penelope’s left eyebrow quirked upward slightly.  “Oh, really?  So that fact that I am a baroness and the mistress of this estate has no bearing on the matter?”

            Elias felt a sudden resolution solidify within him and he made a curt bow with his head.  “With all due respect, my lady,” he replied firmly.  “It does not.”

            He could have sworn he saw one corner of her mouth twitch into the ghost of smile.  “I see.  Very well, then.  In that case, your companionship on this mission would be welcome.”

            “Thank you, my lady,” Elias responded.  And meant it.

 

###

 

            Having confirmed her own assessment of the craft with the captain’s opinion, Elias’ employer lost no time in completing the sale and filing the necessary paperwork to transfer ownership.  Less than a week after their arrival on Luna, the two of them had moved their belongings on board and Penelope was supervising the delivery of supplies for a journey of several weeks.  She had not yet, however, shared their destination with Elias and he wondered for what section of the Belt they were bound.

As they settled their chairs in the forward cabin and began to work through the pre-launch checklist, Elias noticed a small box, roughly eight inches square and half again as high, strapped to the console in an open space midway between the pilot’s and co-pilot’s controls.  A pair of wires extended from one side of the box to a junction on the control panel.

            He pointed.  “What is that, my lady?”

            Penelope smiled knowingly.  “A newer gadget I obtained which I believe will come in handy.  In essence, it is an auto-repeater wireless device.  Press the button here,” she pointed to a red button beneath a glass cover on the upper portion of the box, “and this device will send out a wireless SOS repeatedly.”

            “Like a beacon,” he commented.

            “Exactly,” she agreed.  “It isn’t exceptionally powerful nor is the battery life very long, thus the linkage to the main power supply here, but it should be strong enough to get the attention of any ships in our immediate area once we are close enough to the Sons’ base.”

            “How did you get this one?”

            “I have an understanding with the inventor developing it,” she replied.  “I send Mr. Marconi funds periodically and he sends me copies of his working prototypes.  I expect that devices like this will become standard equipment in the not-too-distant future.”  She smiled again.  “And let us just say that I will be in a position to profit handsomely should that come to pass.”  

            Elias nodded at that very sensible notion and turned his attention back to the console.  Their pre-launch checks were completed a short time later and Penelope exchanged final communication with the control tower via the chattering telegraph key.

            She looked over the Elias.  “Mr. Copilot, adventure awaits!”

            He snapped off a salute.  “Aye, aye, my lady Captain ma’am!”

            With her characteristic half-smile, Penelope released the landing gear by manipulating one of the levers on the console between their seats and the craft rose gently from the dock.

            Slightly less than an hour later, the lunar sphere was falling steadily behind them and they were clear of the threads of incoming and outgoing traffic converging in lunar space.  Penelope adjusted several settings on the command console before her, then toggled a switch set off to one side which locked those settings in place.

            As she sat back in her chair, Elias finally asked, “Do I get to find out exactly where we are going now?”

            “Before I tell you where I believe the Sons to be,” Penelope replied, “I’d like you to tell me what more you know about them.  Why are they so different from the others?”

            “Well,” Elias began, “aside from what we’d discussed before, namely their tendency to leave their victims alive rather than dead, I’d say that the most unique characteristic is their longevity.”

            “How so?”

            Elias looked at his employer levelly.  “Now I know you’re testing me, Lady P.  As if you don’t already know everything I’m going to say.”

            Penelope smiled and gestured vaguely.  “Call it the Socratic method.  Regardless, the question remains.”

            “These pirate bands are nothing new,” Elias replied.  “They’ve been around nearly as long as space exploration.  Give outlaws an opportunity to hide away among the rocks and debris of the system and they’ll do it.”

            “But…”

            Elias nodded.  “But the bands have a brief life-span.  Either they fall apart on their own, blow up into rivalries, or else get hunted down by the various imperial navies.  And in the Belt, the Russian Navy has become quite skilled at doing exactly that.  Most bands manage a few raids and then stop, if they’re smart.  Others keep at it, get tracked down, and are stopped more forcibly.”

            Penelope smiled.  “Very good.  And now we have these Sons of Eris.”

            “Who defy that pattern,” Elias stated.  “Not only are their operations of a different nature, as we’ve already discussed, but these operations have continued for some time -- years now -- and yet the Russian Navy cannot find them.”

            “And why do you think that is?  The Tsar’s naval forces have become quite adept at flushing out brigands over the decades.  Why would the Sons prove the exception?”

            Elias shook his head.  “I cannot guess, my lady.”

            “I’ll tell you why,” she responded with a small smile.  “The reason that the Sons have not been found is that everyone is looking in the wrong place.”

            “The wrong place, Lady P?”  Elias couldn’t hide his puzzlement.  “What do you mean?”

“Consider the situation from the perspective of a logical proof,” Penelope prodded.  “If the logic of your sequence of reasoning is valid, but your end result is falsified, what conclusion would you draw?”

Elias nodded.  “Standard proof by contradiction,” he responded.  “The logical conclusion is that one or more of the premises is invalid.  But how would that apply…?”  He trailed off.

“Exactly,” Penelope agreed.  “The Russians’ methodology is sound and has been proven so again and again.  Yet, in this instance, they are coming up empty.  This suggests that one of their key assumptions is incorrect.”

She looked at Elias, her emerald eyes gleaming.  “Namely, that the Sons are hiding in the Belt at all.”

            Elias looked at his employer, his astonishment evident.  “What do you mean, my lady?  The Sons are Belt pirates.  Every attack has occurred within or in close proximity to the Belt.  Everything says they are located somewhere in the Belt, like every other band of pirates since the establishment of asteroid settlements and mining.”

            Penelope smiled.  “Exactly.  Everything points to them being just another band of pirates, with the exception of some of their peculiar behaviors, which are generally glossed over as a minor aberration.  However,” she continued, “that is precisely why I don’t think that the Sons are a usual band of pirates and why I believe they are hiding elsewhere.”

            Elias shook his head.  “All of the analysis I’ve read…”

            “All of that analysis is wrong,” Penelope cut him off.  “The Russians haven’t found the Sons because the Russians have been looking in the wrong place, which is exactly what the Sons want them to be doing.”

            Elias raised his hands in defeat.  “I give up, my lady.  Where do you believe the Sons to be, in that case?”

            Penelope stood from her seat and motioned for Elias to follow.  She pulled out a high-level chart of the inner system and lay it on the low table at the back wall of the compartment.  Numerous marks within the region of the Belt were accompanied by dates in small, precise handwriting.  From each of those points, a line extended sunward, halting at the interception with Mars’ orbit.  The lines did not show a particular pattern, some angling one way and some the other, with a few being drawn roughly parallel to a system radius. 

            “Here we have the known incidents attributable to the Sons to date.”  Her fingers pointed out in rapid succession the notations in the Belt.  “What you can see, as has been noticed by others, is that the attacks are not clustered in any significant way.  Clustering is one the first things that one looks for when attempting to locate a pirate’s home, as they tend to work within a limited radius of their base.  Despite the fact that the more intelligent operators know this and take great care to disguise their course, over time the clustering reveals itself.”

            “Except in this case,” Elias observed.

            “Except in this case,” Penelope agreed.  “Despite the passage of time and the accumulation of incidents, no clustering has emerged.  Why would that be?”

            “The Sons are operating differently?” Elias suggested.  “That they’ve found a means of disguising their pattern after all?”

            Penelope shook her head.  “The limitations remain.  Pirate ships attack swiftly and then disappear.  They cannot afford long voyages through highly-trafficked space like the Belt.  Consider how these incidents occur in all regions of the Belt, not even being restricted to one quadrant.  No, there is something else at play here and I believe I have found the answer.”

            She pointed to the markings along the Martian orbit.  Each bore a notation: the astrological symbol for Mars followed by “L4” followed by a date.  Elias noticed that the pair of such markings were associated with each pirate incident in the belt, the connecting lines forming something of a cone.  The dates along the Martian orbit preceded and followed the date of the associated pirate incident by roughly three weeks.

            “There’s a pattern,” she said firmly.  “It just isn’t the pattern that everyone has been looking for.”

            Elias examined the map intently, then looked up as understanding struck him.  “Are you suggesting what I think you’re suggesting, my lady?”

            Penelope nodded.  “The Sons have been using the leading Martian Lagrangian node as their base, which has the effect of scattering their attacks all along the Belt as the faster orbit of Mars moves along the Belt’s length.  They launch as the node is approaching the target area and return as it passes.  But the Sons themselves are hiding in Martian space, right under the Royal Navy’s nose!” 

 

###

 

            According to the orbital tables in his updated edition of A.T. Mahan’s Celestial Navigation, Elias determined that the Earth-Luna system was approximately 57 degrees ahead of Mars and separating.  This would have made for a trip of just about 14 days, had the Red Planet been their intended destination.

            “However,” Penelope observed, “since the leading Martian Lagrangian node is sixty degree ahead of Mars, our present position actually puts us at a nearly optimal point for minimum travel time.”

            “I agree, my lady,” Elias nodded.  Their course would take them to the node in a little less than five days.  Assuming that they would then travel onward to Mars afterwards, a journey of just over two weeks, they’d being in space for about three weeks plus however long they remained at the Lagrangian node.  “How long do you anticipate we’ll be at the node, assuming we make contact with anyone there?”

            “I can’t say, Elias,” Penelope replied.  “I purchased stores for five weeks, but that was more out of an abundance of caution than anything else.”

            They settled into a routine, alternating sleep-cycles while also overlapping their watches so as to keep one another company during the otherwise-lonely vigil at the command console.  On the third day, Elias asked a question that had been sitting at the back of his mind for many days now.

            “If you don’t mind, my lady,” he inquired.  “What was that bit at the end of our visit with the prime minister and that letter of authorization?  Authorization for what, exactly?”

            Penelope smiled.  “I may be a baroness, Elias, and reasonably well-off, but I’m not excessively wealthy.  As I’d mentioned, I’ve been working on this problem regarding the Sons for a while now and a trip along these lines was a part of my proposal.  However, I didn’t have a smaller, private vessel suitable for a longer-distance voyage, nor the means to afford one myself.  My discussions with Lord Salisbury were on the terms by which I might be able to obtain funds for our craft here.”

            “And those are?”

            “His Majesty’s government provided the majority--eighty percent, to be precise--of the purchase price on the condition that ownership of the vessel reverts to the Crown on completion of this mission, at which point my share of the cost would be refunded.  I deemed that acceptable.  My portion of the purchase was an incentive to bring her back in one piece.”

            “I see,” Elias replied.  

“What plans do you have for the Promise?”  Penelope’s sudden change in topic caught Elias off-guard and he shifted uncomfortably in his seat.

            “Well, my lady,” he responded after a moment.  “I’ve been training in her for years now, from when she was the Song, so I don’t need to spend time getting to know her at all.  But seeing as how I don’t need to save for my own ship, I figure that I’d use my savings to refit her.  Give her a bit o’ love.”  He grimaced inwardly as that last thought slipped out.

            Out of the corner of his eye, he saw his employer nod approvingly.  “A sensible use of your funds,” she agreed.

            Emboldened, Elias continued.  “And with your leave, my lady, I’d like to hire out as a pilot: short run ferry work, sightseeing, that sort of thing.  I need to start logging hours if I want to qualify for the next level’s examination in a year.”

            “You have plans for yourself, I see.”

            Elias’ eyes cut over to Penelope.  “I do, my lady,” he affirmed, more forcefully than he intended.  “You’ve gifted me an incredible opportunity.  Yes, I have plans and hopes and dreams.  I will pursue them as far as I am able, to make something of myself, to become a better man.”  He flushed slightly, shocked at his own daring.  The brief, passionate speech settled into silence.

After a moment that seemed to last forever, Penelope spoke, her voice light.  “I cannot argue with the notion of a man seeking to forge his own path in life,” she stated.  “I do hope, however, that I figure somewhere in these plans of yours?”

Elias blinked.  What there another layer in that question, something tucked away beneath those words?  For the briefest of moments, he allowed himself to peek inside that small box secreted away in the remotest corner of his heart--to see himself a successful merchant captain, as a man of consequence and reputation, as one who might be worthy of the hand of a baroness--before clamping the lid tightly closed once more.  He did not trust himself go any further, having already reached the limits of his boldness.  “You most certainly do, my lady,” he replied.  “You may be assured of that.”  And he let the matter rest there, praying that she’d not probe any further.

            His companion appeared satisfied with his response, however, and the two of them sat in silence, observing the stars beyond the forward viewport.  Their conversation the next day, after another round of sleep shifts, touched only on general matters pertaining to the estate, until Penelope glanced at one set of indicators on her side of the console.

            “We’ll be approaching the outskirts of the node in just a few hours,” she observed.  “Things will get a bit trickier at that point.  I am admittedly rolling the dice here, in more ways than one.”

            Elias nodded at that.  Lagrangian nodes were a regular feature of two-body orbital systems and had captured the imagination of the public when their theoretical existence had been confirmed as fact.  Nominally five in number, only the two which lay along the orbital path of the secondary body--Mars in this case, Sol being the primary--were stable enough to perpetuate themselves. And even these, which led and lagged the orbiting body by sixty degrees, were too chaotic to amount to any real practical use.  Rather like eddies swirling in the aether, these nodes tended to collect debris over time.

            While each of the inner planets had a corresponding pair of these nodes, as indeed Luna had with respect to her orbit around the Earth, those of Vulcan, Mercury, and Venus had collected less debris, though still enough to cause trouble.  Earth’s, as well as Luna’s, had collected a more substantial amount of material.

            Mars, however, being in much closer proximity to the Belt than any planet of the inner system, had more opportunities to encounter and capture wandering rocks and rogue asteroids within its nodal eddies and both Lagrangian nodes sported a healthy collection of material, including a number of sizeable bodies.  And the crowded eddies swirled with activity as those rocks and debris rolled and milled about like marbles in a jar.

            The theoretical possibilities of these more stable orbital points in the aether had resulted in early attempts at colonization in the initial decades of the space age, but those attempts had universally failed.  The chaotic environment of the nodes had proven too dangerous for long-term habitation and so, while the more substantial bodies of the nodes had been observed and catalogued, no prolonged settlements had been attempted for many decades now.

            Yet, if his employer’s hunch was correct, Elias considered, that was exactly what the Sons of Eris had done.

            “What is your plan, my lady?” he inquired.

            “Well,” she replied, “I’d first thought of attempting to maneuver into the node itself, in order to search their base out.  However, given our lack of familiarity with the region, not to mention not knowing precisely what we’re looking for, that course of action seemed rather foolhardy--even more so than us trekking out here to begin with.  As it is, Elias, I am grateful for a co-pilot on this little adventure.”

            He nodded.  “Of course, my lady.  It is my duty, after all.”

            Penelope’s eyes narrowed ever so slightly.  “Of course it is.  But I thank you nonetheless.”

            Her gaze returned to the forward viewport.  “My plan, at this point, is for us to anchor onto one of the larger bodies at the periphery of the node and to send out our signal here.”  She motioned toward the box fastened to the console.  “My hope is to make the Sons curious enough that they’ll take a peek at us and perhaps give me a chance to parley.”

Elias nodded.  Anchoring onto an asteroid at the edge of the node would provide some shielding and generally reduce the danger from the debris swirling within the node itself.  But another aspect of the plan puzzled him.

“Why would they be willing to talk with us, my lady?”  Why make themselves known to us at all?”

“Curiosity,” Penelope replied.  “As well as something else that I truthfully cannot pinpoint just now.  The Sons are certainly not your garden-variety pirate band, that much we’ve established already.  But I suspect that there is far more going on here than meets the eye.”

Elias pondered that thought as their focus shifted to the approaching node.  After a period of observation, Penelope pointed toward a region of space off to their right.

“That one,” she said simply.

He followed her gesture and spotted the slowly-rotating body, half-shadowed and looking rather like a bulbous root vegetable of some kind.  Yes, that could work, he thought to himself as his hands moved to the co-pilot’s controls.  Penelope gently nudged them forward.  While she focused on the maneuvering, his job was to monitor and maintain the aetheric flux flowing through the Henry-Germain lens and its associated matrix of vulcanite crystals, ensuring smooth power flow for her piloting.

It took some time for them to close the remaining distance, but safety and precision were far more important than speed at this particular juncture.  Elias smiled inwardly at the seamless manner with which he and Penelope coordinated their movements with a minimum of conversation and he felt no small amount of satisfaction as he extended the grappling gear from the belly of the craft just as Penelope’s last nudge brought their ship gently into contact with the rocky surface.

Their immediate goal attained, the two of them sat back in their respective chairs, a moment of relaxation following the focused efforts.  Elias turned toward his companion.  “Now what, my lady?”

“Now we wait,” she replied and pressed the button on the wireless transmitter.

 

###

 

            And they waited.  The asteroid and vessel, locked together, spun slowly in the aether and the stars in the upper portion of the front viewport slid past the ragged horizon.  They ate a simple meal in silence.

            Elias found himself unsurprised, for if the Sons were indeed lurking somewhere in this node, it would hardly make sense for them to rush out at first notice of the transponder.  More likely that they, too, would opt to wait and to observe.

            So it would be a game of patience.  He mentally reviewed the inventory of their supplies.  Assuming a direct return to Mars along the shortest possible route, made slightly more rapid by the fact that the planet would be moving towards them, rather than away, and allowing for a day’s safety margin, he estimated they could afford to linger here for another two weeks.  He sincerely hoped it would not take that long.

            The first day passed without incident.  They slept in shifts so that there was at least one person manning the equipment at all times.  During those overlapping periods when they were both awake, Penelope asked him more details about his plans for himself and his future, which he answered as honestly as he felt he could without crossing the boundaries with which he guarded his dreams.

            It was early on the second day that disaster struck.

            They had tucked the vessel into an obtuse angle where the asteroid bent inward, like a slightly malformed potato, in an effort to further shield themselves.  Despite remaining on the periphery of the node, there was still enough debris flying about to cause trouble.  The odds were in their favor, but there was no guarantee.

Penelope had risen an hour before and Elias’ mind was turning toward retiring for his bunk-shift when a rapid series of bangs and an explosion sounded from the stern of the vessel.

“Suit up, my lady!” Elias shouted over the blaring alarms as he sprinted toward the foot-lockers which held the ship’s two excursion suits.  Penelope was right behind him and they proceeded to don the gear as rapidly as possible, double-checking each other’s seals as the vessel’s atmosphere whistled out into the aether.

After what seemed like an eternity, but was in actuality only a few minutes, both Elias and Penelope secured their helmets with the quarter-turn necessary to lock the neck-ring.  Penelope leaned inward and touched her helm to his.

“Well, let’s see what the damage is, Elias,” she said, her voice echoing about his ears.  He gave a thumbs-up to signal his agreement as their helms disengaged and the two of them made their way toward the stern compartments.

Elias’ heart sank as they assessed the situation.  The damage was extensive, though ironically precise.  A small piece of debris, likely no larger than a cricket ball, had punched through the hull, passing through several compartments and compromising the integrity of the entire vessel.  Of vastly more concern, however, was the fact that the trajectory of the object had taken it directly through the engine room and the Henry-Germain lens.  Both the lens and the aether-engine itself were shattered.

They touched helms again.  “I don’t see how we can field-repair this, my lady,” Elias said glumly.

“Unfortunately, I think you are right,” Penelope agreed.  “I can only hope that I haven’t been horribly, horribly wrong here about the Sons.”

Elias did some quick mental calculations.  “We have air and food and water for some time, but we can’t eat in our suits.  If we can set up the emergency shelter, perhaps tucked back in one of the crevices nearby, we can survive for a while.”

“A good idea,” she replied.  “The Fey’s best use right now is her battery power.  If we shut everything else down, those batteries can power the transponder for a long time.”  She slapped him on the shoulder.  “Let’s get that shelter set up.”

The emergency shelter was standard issue on longer-range aether vessels, consisting of a small inflatable space suitable for two or three people and a semi-rigid airlock to provide ingress and egress.  Between the two of them, they’d be able to carry the collapsed components to a suitable site nearby.

Penelope made her way back to the main control panel and proceeded to shut down the majority of the ship’s systems.  As the Edison generators went off-line, Elias felt his body begin to drift and quickly reached for a handhold.  They were going to have to watch their step in the micro-gravity of the asteroid.  With the shelter components slung in packs over their air tanks, the two of them stepped carefully from the ship onto the rocky surface, keeping firm hold of the handrails as they surveyed the scene.  Penelope pointed to their right and Elias gave another thumbs-up as he spotted the shallow crevice she’d indicated.  Fortunately, it was only a short distance from the ship, reducing the treacherous crossing of open ground.

They picked their way along, moving slowly and testing each handhold as they went.  Elias trailed a guide-rope behind him, which once secured in the rock at their shelter site would provide a safety-line for future trips to and from the ship.  It took some time to reach their destination and erect the shelter, but then it was done and they stepped through the airlock to the interior.  It was with some relief that Elias removed his helm.

“Are you all right, my lady?” he inquired.

Penelope nodded.  “Yes, though I’m afraid I’ve gotten us into a dire situation here, Elias.”

He shook his head.  “I recall someone telling me, quite specifically, that this was not a safe life.”

She did smile at that.  “True.”

Elias looked about the small enclosure.  “The first order of business,” he suggested, “would be ferrying some of the spare air tanks and a portion of the food and water from the Fey.  If you’d wait here, Lady P, I can manage that.”

“Nonsense,” she replied.  “We can do this in one trip if we both go.  You’ve secured the safety line.  There’s no need for you to be taking multiple trips.”

He had a hard time arguing with her logic, though something made him wish he could convince her to remain at the shelter.  But in the end, they’d refastened their helms and made their way back through the airlock.

The return trip to the ship went much more quickly with the help of the guideline and the two of them moved efficiently about the ship’s interior, gathering foodstuffs, water canisters, and several air tanks.  The remainder of their supplies could stay aboard until needed.

They were not halfway along the line on their return trip when fate dealt them a second blow.  The ground beneath them shuddered violently as their asteroid collided with another sizeable body.  Elias clutched at the rope, desperate to maintain his hold.  And looked ahead to where Penelope had preceded him along the guideline.

To his horror, he saw her thrown upward as her grip failed, her limbs flailing in slow motion as she flew away from the rocky surface and into the void of space.

            Elias did not think, but pulled hard on the line, using his momentum to swing him back around to plant his feet against the rock.  Immediately hunching into a crouch, he aimed by instinct and launched himself into space, his arms spread wide.  An instant of panic seized him, but his aim was true and moments later he grappled Penelope’s flailing form.  Sorting their tangle of limbs, he pressed his helm against hers as they spun freely, uncontrolled through the aether, consigned now to the same fate.

            “Of all the stupid, noble, selfless, idiotic things to do,” her exasperated voice echoed around his head.  “Why?”

            There were so many proper answers he could give.  That it was his duty.  That his place was by her side.  That she should not die alone in the darkness of space.  These were the proper responses of a loyal servant to a worthy and honorable mistress.  But what drove him, he knew, was something far deeper and richer and more beautiful than loyalty.  And here, now, in these final minutes of his life, he could be honest. He swallowed hard and crossed the Rubicon.

“Because...Penelope...I love you.”

The stars rotated about them in silence.  Long moments passed; the only sound in Elias’ ears was the thudding of his own heart.  The quiet stretched and stretched and stretched until he thought he would break.  And then, quietly:

“Elias--”

Her reply cut off abruptly as something ensnared them, tugging them to a tumbling halt.  It took Elias a moment to realize that the film-like substance entangling them was actually the fine metallic mesh of a net.  He looked past Penelope’s helm into the lights of the aether-craft that was slowly drawing them in.

They were not going to die after all!  Elias’ heart soared, then plummeted just as quickly as a sudden realization hit him.

“It seems,” Penelope stated matter-of-factly, “that we will have to discuss this later.”


Part III

Changes

 

            They were pulled into the cargo bay of the unknown ship, the large doors slowly sliding shut.  Settling on the floor of the bay as the Edison generators ramped up to normal strength, Elias worked to untangle himself and his mistress from the net.  By the time he’d done so, helping Penelope to her feet, several men had entered the bay, their sidearms prominently displayed on their hips but still holstered.  As they were unencumbered by excursion suits, Elias took this to mean that the atmosphere in the bay had been restored.  He gave his helm the quarter-turn necessary to unlock the neck ring and lifted the brass helm from his head, inhaling deeply.  The air was clean, with a faint odor of machinery.  He turned to assist Penelope with her helm, only to see that she had already removed it.

            “My lady,” he began, but she raised a gloved hand and shook her head.

            “Later, Elias.  There are more pressing issues at the moment.”

            He turned toward the group of men as they approached, stepping in front of his mistress to shield her.  The group stopped several paces away and a single member of their company stepped forward, a tall man with short, sandy-blond hair and dark, piercing eyes.

            “Your man is quite protective of you,” the man said.

            “My man,” she responded, “is a good and loyal friend.”

“You will not be needing your excursion suits,” the man stated calmly.  “And I expect the two of you would be more comfortable out of them.”  He paused and waited patiently as Elias and his mistress took the broad hint.  After their suits and equipment had been taken aside, the man gestured.  “If you would follow me.”

They were led through a series of nondescript corridors without further conversation.  Elias noted the hum of activity going on around them, however, as well as the stoic expressions of the three armed crewmembers who trailed behind them.  After several minutes, their guide stopped at a door.  “Please wait in here.  Someone will be with you shortly.” 

            The room turned out to be a crew’s quarters of some kind.  Roughly twelve feet by twenty, a pair of steel-frame bunk beds were set against each of the longer walls, solid-looking trunks set at the foot and head of each.  Near the door by which they had entered, a square table sat in the open end of the room, four simple chairs gathered around it.  A single door occupied the center of the far wall which, upon further inspection, led to a toilet and shower.

            Elias and Penelope had only just completed an initial circuit of the quarters when the door opened again to admit a young woman with fair skin and hair the color of bright flame.  In her hands she carried folded garments that appeared to be versions of the tan coveralls she was wearing herself.

            “You’ll be puttin’ these on,” she said as she tossed the clothes on the table unceremoniously.  “An’ you’ll be puttin’ them that yer wearing in this.”  A grey canvas sack with a corded drawstring landed on top of the small pile.  She looked at the two of them with an expression that bordered on disgust.  “An’ you’ll be stayin’ put.”  Green eyes flashed. “On account o’ the guards outside.”

            “We don’t exactly have anywhere to go,” Elias commented, more sarcastically than he’d intended.

            “An’ we’ll no’ be havin’ any of yer gob!” The woman wheeled on him, her left hand coming up sharply.  “Donna think we don’ know about the two o’ yew.”  She glared at Elias.  “Abandonin’ yer own kind, trailin’ after ‘er majesty here.”  The hand flicked dismissively towards Penelope.  “Like some spineless sop…”

            Anger surged in Elias’ chest as he recovered from the ferocity of the unexpected verbal assault and he stepped toward the woman, a sharp rebuke on the tip of his tongue.

            “That’s enough, Syb,” a voice to his left said coolly.  “Why don’t you see how John is getting along and I’ll tend to our guests here.”

            All eyes went to the doorway where a man leaned casually against one side of the frame, his arms folded across his chest.  He was of medium build with a scholarly face and an unruly mane of wavy black hair.  Bright blue eyes observed the room from behind wire spectacles.

            The woman’s mouth shut with an audible snap and her face flushed, but she gave an abrupt nod, exiting without further comment.

            “I must apologize for my comrade there,” the man said as he shut the door behind him.  “Sybil Brennan is one of the more passionate members of our little band.  The man who brought you here is John Clark.  My chief lieutenant, you might say.”

            “Who are you?” Penelope asked.

            “Do you not remember me, Baroness?” he inquired.  “Granted, it was only a passing acquaintance and many years ago.”

            Elias saw Penelope’s eyes narrow in thought, then widen again a few moments later.  “The library,” she said softly.

            “Exactly,” the man smiled.  “I’ve gone by any number of names.  Lev Bronstein, Lev Davidovich, Leon Davidson…”

            “Leo Populi,” Elias interjected.

            Sharp eyes cut over to him.  “You are quite perceptive.  Yes, that name, too.  As to your question, Baroness, ‘Leon’ should suffice for now.”

            “What are your plans for us?” Elias queried.

            “Nothing for the moment,” Leon responded.  “Given your narrow escape just now, I’d suspect you’d want to relax.”  He gestured toward the garments on the table.  “I’ve some tasks to attend to.  Why don’t the two of you clean up and put on some fresh clothes.  I’ll have food brought in a few hours and we can talk further then.”

            After their host left, Elias and Penelope looked at one another briefly before she gathered the garments that appeared sized for her and went through the other door.  Elias sat on the lower bunk of one of the beds, trying to process all that had occurred.  When Penelope emerged a little while later, he took his turn.  While the hot water cascaded off his body, he focused very hard on not seeing in his mind’s eye that same water cascading off the body of the woman who had been standing in that space only minutes before.

            “Why don’t you lie down for a bit, Elias,” Penelope said when he stepped back into the main room.  “You’re well past your sleep-cycle now.  It would do you good.”

            He couldn’t argue with her logic.  “Yes, my lady,” he replied as he stretched himself out on the bed he’d been sitting on earlier.  Slowly, his eyelids closed and sleep took him into a dreamless dark.

 

###

 

            “Your interference in the Vulcan project caused me a considerable amount of trouble, Baroness,” Leon said as he took a bite of a roll.

Elias had slept harder and longer than he’d intended and it was many hours later that he woke to Penelope’s gentle shaking.  A meal of bread and soup was set on the table and Leon sat in one of the chairs.  After a few groggy moments, Elias had risen and joined them.

            Elias observed Penelope’s eyebrows rise sharply.  “That was you?”

            Leon nodded.  “It was.  I find myself somewhat surprised that you would have acted as you did, given your views on the Americans generally and the condition of the Vulcans in particular.” 

            “The ministers of His Majesty’s government seek to maintain the balance among the worlds,” Penelope replied.  “And the crystals of Vulcan are a vital component of that balance.”  She paused.  “A fact of which you are obviously aware.”

            “Yet, I’d have thought that their liberation would have been something you would have favored,” he countered.

            Penelope looked at him squarely.  “You seem to know a good deal about me, sir.”

            “We have quite a dossier on you,” Leon concurred.  “And it does make for fascinating reading, I’ll admit.  Attempting to save your father’s assassin from an assassination attempt, for example.  Extraordinary.”

            “It was…”  Elias felt Penelope searching for the right words.  “A matter of honor, one might say.  I reacted instinctively.  As it was, I’d have failed.  The Vulcan chieftain was the one who prevented the attempt from succeeding, at the cost of his own life.”  She paused and looked at Leon pointedly.  “What else does my dossier say?”

            Leon shook his head.  “You can hardly expect your opponent to willingly display the cards in his hand, Baroness.”

            “We are opponents, then?”

            “Perhaps.  I do wonder if we need to be.  However, to the extent that you serve the forces of the present arrangement of power, then it would appear that it must be so.”

“You mentioned trouble that we caused you,” Elias pointed out.  “What did you mean by that?”

“The Vulcan project was my brain-child,” Leon replied, “which I put into motion over the objections of certain authorities I worked under at the time.  I’d been already pondering the idea when you and I encountered each other those years before, Baroness, but was only able to fully develop the plan later, after I’d had experience with cargo runs to Vulcan and the opportunity to witness the Americans’ security at close quarters.”

“You spotted the flaw,” Penelope commented.

“I observed an underlying assumption which I recognized as something I could use to my advantage, yes,” Leon replied.

“Clever.”

Leon nodded in acknowledgement.  “Thank you.  It nearly worked.  The Americans’ assessment of Vulcan mentality was, and remains I’d warrant, extremely low.  Until you had pointed out to them what was going on, they were quite oblivious to the force building against them.”

“The Vulcans would have been slaughtered.”

“The Vulcans would have been free.”

Penelope shook her head.  “You would seek to destroy the balance of these worlds with nothing but chaos to replace it.”

“And you would seek to preserve that balance without understanding the inevitability of its collapse and the price that will be paid when that occurs.  I say that it is better to control one’s destiny than to have it dictated by circumstances.”

“Is that what you are doing here?” Penelope gestured.  “You are controlling your destiny?”

“To the extent that we can,” Leon replied, “that is precisely what the Sons of Eris are doing.  In the immediate aftermath of the failure on Vulcan, of course, my main goal was simply to not be dead.”

“Dead?” Elias asked.

Leon nodded.  “One of my more well-positioned comrades--former comrades, I should say--was extremely displeased that the project I had forced on him had failed so spectacularly, causing him no small amount of embarrassment.  His political ambitions survived, but suffered a definite setback as a result.  As a consequence, he decided that it was time for our relationship, and my life, to end.”

“I see,” Penelope said.  “Yet here you are.”

“It was quite the disappearing act, certainly,” Leon replied.  “You might have heard about a fatal crash during a routine cargo transfer in lunar space some years back.  It was a small bit of news at the time.”

“I remember that,” Elias spoke up.  “It was the first such accident in a long while, which is why I took note of it.  But I thought it said there were two crew-members aboard that transfer shuttle.”

“I and my purported assassin were crewing that shuttle.  I made it off alive.  He did not.  It was easier to allow the news to report us both dead and I took advantage of the opportunity those circumstances offered.”  Leon shrugged.  “I left for the Belt shortly thereafter, figuring I could at least tuck myself away and out of sight for a bit.  As it turns out,” he gestured about them, “it would seem that I make a fairly decent leader.  And so the Sons of Eris were born.”

“Has your old comrade figured out that you are still alive?” Elias asked.

 “Quite possibly,” Leon replied.  “He has to suspect at the very least.  But I stay well out of his way and pursue my own course.  His political stature has revived considerably and he continues to rise within the ranks of the Committee.  We are working on the same problem, to some extent, but from very different perspectives.”

“And what problem is that?” Penelope inquired.

“The demise of the present political and economic system of these worlds, of course.”

            Elias stared at their host with unmasked astonishment.  Penelope, however, did not hesitate to voice her reaction.

            “You speak of that so casually, good sir,” she observed.

            “Change is necessary, Baroness,” Leon replied.  “The status quo is unsustainable.  How would you address the matter?”

            “There has been detected,” Penelope said evenly, “a small but verifiable decline in vulcanite crystal performance.  There is suspicion that someone may be mixing dead crystals mined from the Belt, which are physically and chemically identical but which possess no augmentative power, in with crystals from Vulcan in order to degrade the overall quality of the supply.”

            Leon appeared thrown by the apparent non-sequitur, but then threw his head back and laughed.  “I wondered what story would be concocted when the inevitable happened.  And I suppose you suspect the Sons of being involved in this nefarious plot?”

            “Yes, as a matter of fact, I do.”

            “It stands to reason,” Leon nodded.

            “I take it,” Penelope replied, “that you claim no such responsibility?”

            “No, as it happens.”

            “Then what, may I ask, is the reason for your raids on aether vessels and the theft of their crystals?  What reason would you give for the reduction in crystal performance?”

            Leon looked at Penelope squarely.  “The decline in crystal quality, Baroness, is a natural consequence of the extractive process.  The higher quality veins were mined first, leaving the lower quality resources for later.  ‘Later’ has begun to arrive, and I believe, will make its presence known with accelerating force in the near future.

“As to our actions,” he continued.  “The answer is quite simple: we are stockpiling.”

“What do you mean?” Elias asked.  “Stockpiling for what?”

“For the time of change which is bearing down upon us even now,” Leon responded.

“Perhaps the better option is to stay the present course,” Penelope argued, “to maintain stability while we seek an alternative that can keeps the benefits of what we’ve gained as a system intact, rather than tossing all aside?”

            “Change is inevitable,” Leon shook his head.  “It is merely a question of the form that change takes.”

            “You presume much,” Penelope replied, her tone level.  “By what right do you decide what path humanity takes?”

            “By the same right as any other member of our species, Baroness,” Leon responded.  “To do nothing is still a choice.  I choose to act.  And I choose to work in favor of the path I see as most beneficial.”

            “Despite the risks you incur on humanity’s behalf?” she pressed.  “Despite the potential cost?”

            “Each of us does what he can with what he has on the basis of the knowledge he possesses at the time.”  Leon quirked his head to one side ever so slightly as he considered her.  “I wonder, Baroness.  If the time came that you held the fate of humanity in the palm of your hand, what would you choose?”

            And he left them with that thought. 

 

###

 

            “What has happened to the Fey?” Elias asked their host.  It had been three days now since the accident on the asteroid and their arrival on board the pirate vessel.

            “We have salvaged everything of value from your craft,” Leon responded.  “The Sons of Eris thank you for the contribution of your supplies to our stores, as well as your vulcanite crystals, of course.  The rest can be used as scrap.”  He looked at Penelope.  “I also thank you for that most intriguing device on your command console.  Sybil has rather a knack for electrical mechanisms and wasted no time dismantling it.”  He smiled.  “I even think that the prospect of reverse engineering a new toy makes her slightly less sour toward you, Baroness.  Which is saying something.”

            “What then is to become of us, Elias and I?” Penelope asked.  “Surely you don’t expect us to join your ranks.”

            Leon smiled.  “I remain open to the possibility, Baroness, as you continually defy the typical creatures of your class.  But no, I’d expect no such act from you.”  He shifted his gaze to Elias.  “Your man here, however, is something of another story.”  He looked at Elias intently.  “Mr. Conner, you come from a very different background, as I understand it.  One much more attuned to the cause for which we fight.  While the Baroness here is truly an exception to her class, you must be aware how very much that is true.  We, on the other hand, are a growing force, a gathering storm on the horizon of these worlds.  I ask you directly: would you join our cause?”

Elias felt his employer’s eyes on him, but he looked squarely at his questioner.  “You do make a compelling argument, sir, and the death of Pa -- my father, I mean -- was certainly in the cause which you support.  Joining you would honor his death and his labors.”

He took a deep breath.  “But however much I believe in the broader goals of your efforts, and I very much do believe in them, I must decline your offer.”

Leon nodded.  “Your devotion to your mistress is noted.  There are those among our ranks who would label you another working-class fool with misplaced loyalties.”  He cocked his head slightly to one side, examining Elias.  “I think, however, in this instance I would be inclined to disagree with that assessment.”

Penelope spoke again.  “In that case, my original question stands: what do you intend for us?”

“You need not fear, Baroness,” Leon replied.  “We are not barbaric.  There are no short walks out the airlock in your immediate future.  Our intention, as you put it, is to let the two of you go.”

Penelope quirked an eyebrow.  “I must confess that you surprise me, sir.  How can you trust us not to betray what we have learned of you?”

“You know little which poses any direct threat,” Leon responded.  “This vessel will be renamed shortly after you depart -- we have no shortage of alias registrations, I assure you -- and what information you may have gathered by observing its identity will no longer be relevant.  As to our greater purpose, at this time we have decided that it would not be undesirable for certain information to be more broadly known.  In fact, it may serve to further our endeavors.”

“Where will you leave us?” Elias asked, curious.

Leon looked over to him.  “A suitably neutral territory under no specific jurisdiction where a lone vessel would not be noticed.  One of the more modest port-cities of Luna should do nicely.”

Penelope nodded.  “Understandable.  How long will it take us to reach Luna, in that case?”

Leon smiled.  “We’ll arrive the day after tomorrow, Baroness.  We’ve been underway for Luna ever since the two of you were brought aboard.”  He stood.  “While I was open to being surprised, I was under no illusion as to the probable answers the two of you would give.”

 

###

 

            Their arrival on Luna was anticlimactic.  The vessel settled into its berth at the smaller port of Selene.  Penelope and Elias had been returned their original clothes, which had been cleaned in the interim.  Leon escorted the pair through the short connecting gangway to the port dock.

            “It has been a pleasure to see you, Baroness,” he said with a curt bow.  “I hope that encounter one another again and on less adversarial terms.”

            “It has indeed been...interesting,” Penelope replied, taking his proffered hand. 

Leon then extended his hand to Elias.  “Until then.  Farewell, Elias.  Baroness.”  And with a final nod, he returned to his ship.

            “What now, Lady P?” Elias inquired.  His gut twisted with uncertainty, but he kept his expression as neutral as he could.  Perhaps the incident in the node could just be forgotten, written off as a reaction to their impending demise.  Perhaps a quiet return to the old relationship would still be possible.  Perhaps they could just say nothing and ‘later’ need not ever come.

            But if his mistress’ mind was consumed by similar thoughts, her face did not show it.  With characteristic focus, she took charge in a brisk, business-like manner.

            “We need funds,” she replied.  “And arrangements to return to London as quickly as practical.  But before that, I need to find a telegraph office.”

            That latter task was accomplished in short order and Elias watched in some fascination as Penelope addressed the telegram to the Foreign Office but then proceeded to write out what he could only describe as an unbroken string of seemingly-random letters.  The telegraph clerk looked at her, the man’s puzzlement evident, but her grim expression quelled any questions and he accepted her payment without comment.

A brief visit to a branch bank provided necessary travelling funds and a short shuttle-ride brought them to the major port city of Diane.  After a meal at one of the port’s many cafes, they boarded the next available ferry vessel to London.

Penelope’s telegram had obviously been received, as a cab and driver were waiting for them when they stepped from the ferry at the aeroport.  As they rode into the city, Penelope scanned the message that had been left for her. 

“It seems that there have been a few changes since we’ve been away, Elias,” she said in that flat tone of hers that warned him something was amiss.  He started to ask her to explain, but a brief shake of her head kept him silent.

The hansom cab stopped, not before the Foreign Office, but instead on Downing Street.  The two of them exited the cab and the door to Number Ten opened as they approached.

“Lady Botelier,” a man in a dark brown business suit greeted them.  “Please come in.  The prime minister will be available shortly.  If you would be so kind as to wait here.”  He indicated a lone armchair set off to one side .  Elias stood beside as Penelope took her seat.

“Shortly” turned out to be a good thirty minutes later.  Elias felt the heat from his employer’s slow-burn fuse, although her expression remained unchanged.  Clerks and assistants scurried about the offices, oblivious.

Finally, a door further in opened and the man who had greeted them earlier approached again.  “The prime minister will see you now.”

Penelope rose from the chair and Elias followed her into the office.  The door shut behind them with an audible click and they stood waiting as the thin man seated at the large desk at the far end of the office continued to review the papers before him.  After several minutes, he looked up.

“Your man may leave us, Lady Botelier.”

Penelope’s eyes hardened.  “With all due respect, Prime Minister, Elias stays with me.”

Arthur Balfour, prime minister of His Majesty’s government, looked affronted.  He began to object, but then appeared to change his mind.  He waved his hand in a dismissive gesture.  “Very well.  It is of no importance.  Have a seat, Baroness.”

Penelope took the seat indicated.  Elias, having been offered no chair, took his position off to one side, where he could observe both of them.

“I will be blunt, Lady Botelier.  I was most dismayed to receive your telegram and to discover that you had taken it upon yourself to interject yourself into affairs of state.  Not to mention squandering government funds on foolish adventures.”

Penelope replied evenly.  “The purchase of the vessel was fully authorized by His Majesty’s government, Prime Minister, and your predecessor considered my initiative to be one of my more valuable qualities.”

“My uncle was a man of the past,” he responded.  “Trapped in a world of great men, dramatic action, and individual daring.  This government looks to the future -- method, analysis, and practical policy.  The time for heroics is gone, Lady Botelier.  This is the industrial age.”

“Nevertheless, Prime Minister,” Penelope pressed.  “I would ask that you consider the information that I have obtained.  The interests of the Empire…”

“The interests of the Empire are well in hand, Lady Botelier,” Balfour cut her off.  “Your services are no longer required and any understanding that you might have with His Majesty’s government is at an end.  I must therefore ask that you relinquish your codebook to me immediately.”

“I have no codebook, Prime Minister,” Penelope replied carefully.

“Nonsense.  You sent your telegram in code; ergo, you possess a codebook.  I order that you surrender it to me at once.”

“You are mistaken, sir,” Penelope corrected him.  “I possess no codebook.  I have the code memorized.”

“Impossible.”

Penelope smiled thinly.  “A man of letters once postulated what he referred to as the Law of Possibility: it is invalid to argue that something is impossible when it is actually happening.”

“What man was this?”

“The 18th century French philosopher Jean-Michel Vigilant,” Penelope replied.  “But then he was a man of the past, as you would say, and certainly not relevant in this industrial age.”

Balfour harrumphed.  “No matter.  We will have the codes changed.  Needed doing anyway.”

“Am I to understand, then,” Penelope asked, “that His Majesty’s government does not intend to pursue the information I provided?”

“As I indicated,” Balfour responded flatly, “His Majesty’s government has the issue well in hand.”

“And what does this government intend to do about the decline of vulcanite crystal quality?”  Elias found himself secretly glad that she had pressed on the question which had been nagging him since this meeting had begun.

“You skate too close the edge, Lady Botelier,” Balfour warned.  “But as you are already appraised of the situation, as I assume your man is as well, I will tell you, but only after binding both of you by the Imperial Secrets Act.  You have been duly warned.”

Penelope nodded.  “So noted.”  Elias nodded as well, but Balfour paid him no attention.

“Very well,” the prime minister replied.  “As it so happens, while you were gallivanting about the solar system, we were approached by the Americans on this very issue.”

“They openly admitted to the problem?” Penelope replied, astonished.

“In confidential conversations, but yes.  This is how actual state craft takes place.”

“And what did they propose exactly?”

“Cooperation, naturally.  The problem the Americans face is one of method: they have been using 19th century techniques to produce 20th century goods.  They seek to industrialize their mining operations so that a greater quantity of crystals can be produced, offsetting the per-unit quality decline.”

“And what of the Vulcans?”

“They will no longer be necessary, of course,” the prime minister replied, as though the answer were obvious.

“And what role does His Majesty’s government play in all of this?”

“In order to make the transition, a considerable influx of capital is needed.  The Americans have agreed to sell His Majesty’s government a 5% stake in the Hephaestus Corporation in exchange for a contribution of that capital.”

Penelope stared at the man.  “I cannot believe, sir, that you do not see what this means.”

“It means, Lady Botelier, exactly what I said earlier: true statesmen using modern methods have solved the problem, just as we will continue to solve every problem with which we are confronted in our civilization of space.  The universe is merely a machine, Baroness, and man is the master of that machine.  Good day.”

He returned his attention to the papers on his desk.  After a long moment, Penelope rose from her chair, cast a last rueful glance at the man, and left.  Elias followed behind and a few moments later they emerged into the grey afternoon.

They rode to the townhouse in silence.  As they stepped through the front door, Penelope only nodded to Mr. Porter, but turned to Elias and uttered a single word: “Study.”  Without further explanation, she made her way to that room.  Elias followed, quietly shutting the door behind him.

“That man is a pompous ass and a fool,” she vented as soon as the door clicked shut.  Penelope paced vigorously back and forth across the study floor, her strong gestures expressing her frustration.   “The balance of the worlds is at risk and I cannot believe that he does not see what is right in front of his very nose.”  Suddenly, she halted, her back to Elias and the door, and lowered her hands slowly to her sides as she let out a long breath.  “Well, things are as they are.”  She turned around to face him.  “Sit down, Elias.”

“Yes, my lady,” he answered, fighting back a rising sense of foreboding.

Penelope sat in a facing armchair, her expression maddeningly neutral.  She looked at him silently for what seemed to him an eternity.  “We need to talk about your confession.”

Later had now arrived.  Elias’ chest tightened.

“I am sorry,” he blustered.  “I never should have--”

“Elias?”

“Yes, my lady?”

“Be quiet for a moment.”

“Yes, my lady.”

“You must understand, Elias,” she began, her hands clasped firmly on her lap, “the world in which we live.  I am a baroness, titled, a peer of the realm.  You are my assistant, my employee, and the son of a venusian laborer.  Our society, for good or for ill, is built on class, on its members knowing their place and accepting that place.”

She gestured with her right hand now, emphasizing her points. “You must understand, too, how our difference in ages makes such a thing infeasible.  I am thirty-three; you are not yet twenty-one.  If I were the man and you the woman, perhaps.  But even then, our differences in station would be a scandal.

“Finally,” she continued, her logic ruthless and unyielding.  “I am destined for spinsterhood.  This is something I accepted long ago.  To find a man whom I could love and respect, whom I could see as my equal and who would also see me as his…”  Her focus slid past him and she looked off into a distance somewhere beyond his left shoulder.  “A childish dream which I have known for some time now must be given up.”

Her eyes returned to his, intense.  “So you have to see, Elias, the sheer impossibility of it all, no matter how sweet and honest and heartfelt your feelings may be.”

Elias’ gaze fell to the carpet between them.  All of his dreams, his fantasies, his visions of proving himself, of making himself worthy of her, had been broken in a single moment of desperation.  He closed his eyes against the painful cracking of his heart.  “Yes,” he replied, grateful that his voice did not crack as well.  “I understand.”

“Thank you, Elias,” he heard her say softly.  “It is very important to me that you do.”  A pause.  Then: “Please look at me.”

The air around him changed in some indefinable way as he opened his eyes and lifted his gaze, immediately falling into those emerald pools that were now so vast and open and vulnerable.

             “Elias Conner, would you marry me?”