Curiouser and curiouser it became...
|The acrid smell of smoke and ozone swirled around Pandora's gun deck after the battle. Gloriosky and Spaulding sat side by side on the deck, leaning back against the charging sphere centered between the two rows of guns. I sat in the chair, staring at the controls, thinking about what had happened. We were all silent in the aftermath of our ill-fated victory.
Spaulding had been shocked when HMA Cloudwitch opened fire on us without warning. Clearly that was not the proper order of things, and he had defended the Pandora without hesitation once the battle began. The larger vessel's guns had set us bouncing and swaying, sending our first volley of harpoons off into the mist. But that flexibility, combined with her heavy timbers, had kept Pandora from suffering crippling damage. The Cloudwitch, on the other hand, had proven much more vulnerable than we could have guessed. Her great size and firm-style military design made her a solid gun platform, but that stability had also made her a steady target for us. Our second and third volleys struck her hull with near-perfect placement.
As Gloriosky triggered the lightning guns, the electricity arced out across the sky in a blue-white web, reaching greedily for the harpoons anchored in our opponent's hull. The gunpowder and shot meant to feed her 60-odd guns erupted in a huge orange and black fireball that raced through Cloudwitch like a great spinning storm. Awestruck, we had watched the conflagration engulf her from the lower hull, across the upper decks, and up to the skyhull as she fell earthward, disappearing into the clouds below.
As we sat in silence, Granddad came below and leaned against one of the port-side guns, puzzlement in his expression. "I don't understand it, gentlemen. I've NEVER been fired upon by any vessel without warning, not even pirates!" He worked to control his anger as he went on, "I had a feeling, though. The way they pursued us was relentless, with no communication at all. No hails, no flags. Truly Providence sent you here in the nick of time, because we couldn't outrun her, and I haven't had a gun crew aboard in months." Gloriosky stirred at that, "Why haven't you had gunners? Surely you know better than that, John!" Grandad shrugged, "Doctor, we carry no cargo. I've been working as a diplomatic envoy for the Grand Vizier of Khartoum and Duchess Catherine Van Helsing. They assured me I would be safe under their combined flags, especially out here near Hy-Brasil."
The wheels in my brain lost traction and the look on my face must have given it away, since the three of them fell silent as I looked at them. "Guys, I'm pretty well-travelled, and I got all 'A's in geography. Now, I don't want to come across a fool, but I have to ask: Just where in Hell is Hy-Brasil?" I then received instruction in an oddity of the reality in which we reside. It seems that some places are not so much oriented in "where" as in "when". Hy-Brasil and New Praetoria are two of those places that exist between space and are reached when travelling the Aether as we were. Oddly, that all made sense to me, and it immediately provided me with a variety of new theories about a great many mysteries.
Spaulding sat forward suddenly and asked how close we were to Hy-Brasil. Granddad pulled a device from his pocket that appeared to be a combination of watch and compass. He looked at it a moment, doing the math in his head, "I suppose we're about 90 miles away now. We were nearly directly overhead when we engaged the Cloudwitch." Gloriosky and Spaudling sprang to their feet, each pulling out some version of the same device. They stepped away a few feet, whispering excitedly and comtemplating their respective devices as my grandfather approached me with a conspiratorial smile. He looked closely at me for a moment, then whispered," Your name is Vincent, isn't it?" I didn't know how to answer him, but he saved me that decision with a raised hand, "Your father's in junior high school right now, but he has already told me that he intends to name his first-born in honor of his favorite horror movie star. Be thankful he wasn't infatuated with Dracula or Frankenstein, or you'd have to face the world as Bela or Boris."
Before we got any further, Dr. Gloriosky interrupted us. "We need to delve into this mysterious breach of the rules of engagement, gentlemen." He turned to me, "Are you willing to take the risk?" I looked over the doctor's shoulder at Spaulding, who was now looking out the gun port into the swirling mist. I tried to imagine what was going through his mind even as I answered, "In for a penny, in for a pound, doctor. Whatever I can do." The colonel turned towards us as we approached, but before he could speak, Constantine floated across the deck and stopped between us, waist high, sitting on whatever law of physics he had chosen to defy at the moment. "I guess it's decided then," I said as I reached out to the others. Granddad stepped into our little group as we touched Constantine, and we were all transported in the blink of an eye to Hy-Brasil.
We stood on a hillside surrounded by blue-green trees, ovelooking a meadow of red grass that stretched away from us towards a bay of dark blue water. There in the bay was the smoking hulk of Her Majesty's Airship Cloudwitch. Lines of men were moving between the wreck to the beach and back, salvaging all they could. The colonel produced a spyglass and looked over the activity below. His expression hardened as he gazed at them closely. He turned and handed me the telescope. "Tell me what you see, Vincent." I took the glass and focused on the bay. It took me a moment to take it all in, then I was chilled by what I saw. They couldn't fairly be called men anymore. Their gray skin and tattered garb hung loosely on them, like shabby 3XL clothes draped on medium size mannequins. As one of them would approach the rail of the Cloudwitch, he would simply step off into the bay, sinking below the water with whatever burden he carried. A few minutes later, he would emerge closer to the beach with his load, oblivious to all around him. They all moved in this mindless fashion, one after the other claiming what they could from the wreck, like insects scavenging a corpse.
"They look like dead men to me," I said as I passed the glass to the doctor, "Is it some kind of zombie salvage team?" Spaulding replied somberly, "That is the crew of the Cloudwitch, and they were dead long before they fired on us." Gloriosky spoke as he glassed the scene below, "There are two of them who are definitely not dead." He pointed out two men standing separately from the lines of aniimated corpses picking the wreckage clean. It was apparent by their demeanor they did not share the affliction of the crew they commanded. I stood staring at the spectacle as Gloriosky took Spaulding aside. Granddad came to my side, taking it all in. "This will have to be reported to the Queen as soon as possible," he said. "The Cloudwitch might not be the only victim of this, and we can't let this abomination leave Hy-Brasil." We looked at Spaulding as he approached us, and I immediately noticed Gloriosky was not at his side. He spoke to Granddad first, "We'll need you to assist us with conveyance aboard the Pandora, sir." Then he turned to me, smiling broadly, as I sensed Gloriosky suddenly close behind me. "So sorry, old chap." His face swept into grayness as I slowly sagged to the ground.
My eyes opened in the dim lighting of the storage room. I was laying with the top of my head against the sliptube, looking straight up into Constantine's soft yellow eyes, as he lay on top of the sliptube looking down at me. His clockwork was a low murmur as I sat up, finding a note pinned to my chest:
My Dear Vincent:
Thank you for coming to get me at Hastings, you certainly kept me from creating an anomaly that might have been disastrous. It seems to me that you share the enviable traits of flexibility of mind and vigorous spirit with your grandfather. Keep going through that box as he instructed and you will likely earn your place, as he did, among the great travelers on the Aether.
Spaulding and I must report to Her Majesty with reports of our latest adventure, but we will be in touch very soon. In the meantime, we have taken the liberty of doing some shopping for you. It's all in the car, which we must insist you drive home. The operations manual is behind the passenger seat, but it shouldn't need to be refueled for quite some time just yet. Go home, Vincent, and continue your investigations, and we will surely see you soon.
Thanking you I remain,
Elias F. Gloriosky, Ph.D.
PS- Don't forget The Cat-- EFG