Mary Morstan wore her best, albeit tiring, social smile for the occasion.
The young man at whom her attention was currently directed, wearing the scarlet tunic and dark blue facings of a lieutenant in the Coldstream Guards, took and lifted her hand to his lips, arresting the motion a required half inch before touching. It was all so very proper.
“Lady Mary, it has — as always — been a pleasure!”
They were standing, amidts the rattle and dust from a myriad of steam coaches, clockwork messengers and wobbling, two–legged hansom cabs outside a tea–room in Northumberland Avenue, right around the corner from Thomas Harlan’s work–place at Horse Guards Headquarters. London, as was her habit, wore a smoke–coloured veil.
An appropriate response came easily these days; Mary lowered her eyes for a mere moment, soundlessly acknowledging the compliment, then withdrew her hand and pitched her voice higher than its natural contralto.
“The pleasure was all mine, Thomas. You know how I enjoy your company. You will convey my regards to your dear mother?”
The tall, flaxen–haired, utterly unremarkable young man swore that he would, asked her to return the compliments, made a few other well–scripted responses and finally left.
Walking slowly and demurely away, Mary’s mind was reeling. She had a healthy distrust of Horse Guards and the War Office, but if what Tom had let drop was true, they had finally taken leave of their senses.
The information was almost worth having to take tea with the good Lieutenant. Almost. There was after all only so much piffle one woman could stand — at least of the whiny, insepid sort Lieutenant Harlan did so very well.
Mary walked faster, lifting the hem of her sky–blue gown to avoid stepping on it and straightening from the very slight crouch she affected around Thomas Harlan. She wouldn’t have much time.
Leicester square was, as it is to this day, a gentile and central area. It is home to a number of low noble and high middle class of studious habits and very firm ideas.
It was in these surroundings Mary found herself the same evening. Wearing a suit of perfectly modern, yet classical cut, conservative top–hat and downright archaic spats — as well as other, less obvious atrouments to make her face and figure more masculine – she, or rather well–known dilettante Sir Henry Morstan, was busy cajoling, lying and bribing her way past two bored looking soldiers in Rifle green.
Here, as so many times before, six feet of height aided tremendously to the illusion.
The knowledge that the house owner had a daughter “Sir Henry’s” age, and a gold sovereign each, was sufficient to gain access to the grounds. It was clear that a somewhat rambuctious dinner–party was under way; the presence of not only the expected four–wheelers, but also numerous horses, both mechanical and otherwise, velocipeds, and a palanquin suggested that the guests were both young, adventurous and plentiful.
Moving with a rapid gait, taking pains to adopt a suitable swagger, Mary quickly passed the grooms and steam–mechanics waiting along the driveway, and aimed for the darker part of the house. A well–worn set of servant’s stair–case and the noise from the proceedings at the front of the building got her unnoticed up to the second floor study.
The safe was behind the portrait of the Queen.
No top marks in imagination for our friend the Colonel — Mary thought as she bent to the task of opening it. Numerous hours spent with a master cracksman paid dividends; the safe yielded easily enough.
There was, she concluded after a moment of rifling, nothing there. It was the tidiest safe she’d ever cracked; the content was well organized, but it was devoid of interest. Nothing pertaining to the case at hand, anyway, and with select curses she put the letters from the Colonels late wife back — taking great pain to exactly replace what she had removed.
The door behind her squeaked ever so gently, and the warm light from an uncovered lantern spilled across the floor. Mary ceased her work and stood dead still; the scent of heated metal and lamp–oil reached her nostrils. There had always been a risk involved.
The voice was however not quite what she expected.
“I advise you to turn around very slowly, ruffian, and keep your hands well away from your body!”
Mary turned, carefully, her hands as instructed, toward the voice. Even now, raised in anger as it was, she knew that melodious timbre well and thought it sweet. She felt little surprise at looking into an old–fashioned flintlock pistol. The owner of the delicate hand gripping the weapon without hesitation was nothing if not efficient.
Grinning, she trailed the hand that held it up to a pair of slim shoulders and the face she remembered so vividly.
“Why, Anne MacDougal, as I live and breathe!”
Anne — oldest daughter and heir to Colonel the Laird MacDougal — was made of stern stuff; she merely blinked. Then she drew a quick breath as the voice registered on her, and she recognised the one person it was unlikely she had expected to find burglaring her father’s safe.
With her best lopsided grin in place, Mary took a step forward and put her hand very gently on the pistol, lodging her thumb between the flint and the hammer before taking the weapon away, uncocking and slipping it into a pocket.
Knowing Anne as she did, the gun would be well cared for, freshly loaded, primed and ready to fire.
“What … are you doing here?” — Anne was clearly not believing her own eyes.
“The term is ‘doing a pannie’ , I believe, luv … or, to be less coarse, I have sneaked in to go through your fathers safe. Not that there was much to be found” — Mary pushed the hinged portrait of the Sovereign back to cover the green metal door, smiling all the time.
Anne, her hand still held as if the pistol was in her grasp, was blinking rapidly for a moment. Intense green eyes then started taking it all in, from the scuffed boots, the trousers and shirt, the top–hat set jauntily on copper hair cut short.
She was a Prefect back at school. I had forgotten … — Mary dismissed the feeling of being caught after lights out, and puckered up her courage as she watched her old friend rapidly get to grips with the situation.
“You’ve dressed up as a man, sneaked into my father’s house the night before the regiment embark for Mars, and gone through his very personal safe?”
Mary nodded, and grinned wider. Seeing Anne so flustered was worth the entire evening — “Under the alias of Henry, or so I told the boys at the gate.”
“You always were thorough. There is, I suspect, a long story and a good explanation behind this. Atleast I hope so, or I will by Jove see you before a magistrate!”
At this, Mary’s eyes narrowed, although she never stopped smiling. Showing utter confidence was now the key. She could hear the steps of heavy feet outside the office now. Ever–efficient Anne had obviously told her father to get help before engaging the intruder.
“Alas, sweet Anne. There is indeed a story, and an explanation, but it is too important that I do not get caught right now. Be a darling, trust me, and tell them all about fellow student Henry and his unrequited crush on you, hm?”
As the Colonel burst in the door, on his heels the two riflemen on guard duty, Mary threw an arm around Anne, pulled her close and kissed her. Those green eyes grew large with shock, and a stray thought flashed through Mary’s mind — So soft … ’– and then they were apart; Anne staggering slightly, and Mary moving swiftly to the window.
For a fraction of a heartbeat, she stopped at the window–sill, looking out across the sloping roof. This was the same window she had spied coming up the driveway, and there — just above the gutter — was the same sparkle of glass shards.
She turned, flashed Anne a smile, tipped her hat to the men still crowding in through the doorway, and swung her legs across the sill, sliding rapidly down the roof with now only one thought in mind.
This is going to hurt, every little bit of the way …
Hurt it did, as she hit the gutter at good speed. Despite twisting her body at the last moment, a long shard cut deep into the outside of her thigh and sent blood splattering.
She struggled to her feet as soon as she had landed, biting her lip to keep from screaming even as the metallic smell of warm blood came to her; her back aching from the tender greeting of the hard ground. This, she knew, was going to work only at speed, and as she rounded the corner to the front of the house she started running.
By the time the guards got over the sight, turned around and bustled down the stair she was deep in the warren of streets.
“Who might that be, Anne?” — the Colonel was leaning out the window, pistol in hand.
“That, Father, was Henry Morstan” — Anne sighed, and slowly unclenched fists she never noticed having made — “He has…. He has expressed romantic interest in me.”
“Morstan…. A relative of Lady Mary? Is this interest mutual?”
“A cousin. And no. It is not” — as his daughter, back straight as a ramrod, swept out of the study, Colonel MacDougall fought a minute smile. There was much of her mother in the girl, and he was glad he was not in that young man’s shoes.
It actually hurts more — Mary thought, a few hours later in the basement of her own home — being put back together again than being broken. She collapsed in the back door an hour after falling off the roof, one hand clamped over the wound.
Sao Li’s wife pulled the last stitch through her flesh, and tied off the catgut. The woman was excellent with a needle.
Mary looked down at her leg once her butler and Jack–of–all–trades released his grip on her shoulders and let her up; cold water, with a touch of gin, was poured to wash the blood away and cleanse the wound. It burnt, for a moment, then the pain receded to a dull throb.
“Another scar to the collection.” — with the back of her hand she wiped tears from her eyes — “Thankyou, Miati.”
The small woman smiled, a quick flash of an expression, gathered up her things and fairly fled from the room. She was good at what she did, but too conservative when it came to women needing such patching.
“She worries” — the young chinese man remarked with the familiarity of old friendship — “She fears you will never find a man when you carry so many scars”. His smile held no real humour.
“Bless her for that, my friend. Not that there is much to worry about.”
Mary stood up, testing her leg. The dull ache would get worse, but she could move with little difficulty. Nothing important had been damaged. Except, of course, her very best pair of trousers.
“Sao Li. My gratitude to you and your family — again” — Mary bowed, formally; Sao Li doing the same.
“To business. Did the messenger get back?”
“Yes” — the servant busied himself with cleaning the room as he answered — “She agrees with your assessment, and direct you to follow the trail. Everything has been arranged; papers are prepared. You are one Martin Feltkirk, of Prussian decent but a citizen of the Empire. A place for you has been cleared as cabin–boy aboard HMS Revee, a troop transport which depart Southall Aether Port tomorrow morning at 7 o’clock.”
Deep inside Mary hoped the place had been cleared without the loss of life.
“Good. Please prepare the needed clothes for the role — and matching dye, of course. I shall need to leave by six am I to make it. Wake me at half past five and have a hot bath prepared. It might be the last I am to see for a while!”
“Replacement for…. Great Scot! Why weren’t you here yesterday⁈”
Mary, standing at a somewhat sloppy attention much in keeping with her assumed persona, was pretty sure they could hear the Quartermaster all over the Port. They could probably hear him at the Tower, come to think of it. Or in Oxford.
“Beggin’ y’er pardon, guv” — dropping her voice into a well practiced growl Mary pulled a lock of her now brown hair again — “Wasn’t told to report ‘ere, guv, not ’til five this mornin’ when they pulled me out o’ bed. Some emergency, they said, haul arse over to the port and report in, they said, and here I am, guv … ”
This — Mary thought as she watched the man calm down by a fraction – is the worst, and possibly best, part about improvised plans. It’s a pain in the posterior for all involved, but it’s a probable story, it’s exactly what is expected of those bumbling fools at the War Office, and there is no time to double check it even if someone quite against human nature thought to do so.
“It’s a bloody pain, that’s what it is!” — the Quartermaster bellowed, voice down from absolutely amazing to a mere slightly loud.
“Right, lad. We’re just about to start loading troops. You stick with me ’til we’re done, then we’ll get you settled. Y’er on duty from noon, so there’ll be no dawdling. And don’t slouch!”
Sitting on her kit bag in the shadow, Mary spent the next half hour watching a seemingly endless stream of infantry board the enormous troop transport looming overhead.
The air was stiff with coal–smoke from the three–wheeled outrider vehicles that accompanied the Regiment, one to each company; gunpowder, sweat, the pungent scent of flywood, the stink of heated asphalt and the fumes of aether–ship fuel mixed to make it all but untenable in the sunshine.
She found them fascinating to watch. The slouching forms sauntering aboard in company order did not look like any other elite troops she knew. They wore the new field duty uniforms, the traditionally dark green cloth but the silver buttons and leg stripes replaced by black.
These must be hell to spot in the dark — Mary thought — Even their chevrons are black. She looked down at her own, worn, uniform. It was, in keeping with the job as cabin–boy she found herself in, not the best quality, but well enough cared for that she’d attracted no attention either way.
The soldiers were carrying the 1840 pattern Baker electric rifle as the mood struck them; at the ready, half dragged, cradled. It was interesting to note that even here — on the outskirts of London, embarking a British troop transport — a number of riflemen from each company was walking on the flanks of their fellows, rifles at the ready, hands on the cocks, eyes everywhere. She had no doubt they were loaded and spun up; nor that the Portmaster turned a blind eye to it.
Mary smiled. It was impressive; if the worst came to pass, this lot would come in handy. From lectures half–forgotten she remembered they were raised in 1800 as an experimental corps, and brough into the line as the 95th a few years earlier. They earned their keep in the First Peninsular War, cut a goodly chunk out of the rebels of Boston and New York, and kept the Russian heads well down during the debacle at the Crimean.
Each of the two troop–carriers would load a battalion; the First and Second of the Old 95th held a thousand men and women a piece.
Enough for most jobs– Mary thought without humour — if not particularly subtle. Her left hand, idly and seeming without conscious thought, turned and twisted the large, gaudy ring she wore on her right middle finger.
For a moment she allowed her mind to wander, to contemplate the bulk above. It wasn’t very ship–shaped, she noticed, but looked rather like a gigantic crate on six stubby legs; the Physics Master at school had explained that the great aether ships needed no fine lines, for the medium they traversed, unlike water, did not resist their passage.
This did not prevent the frigates and battle–ships from being well–shaped and svelte, of course, but very little of their style and grace could be found in the design of the emminently practical troop–transports and bulk carriers.
There was a slight curvature to the bottom part, allowing for the slim strips of bright yellow flywood embedded in the copper hull. It was, she vaguely recalled, not really wood at all despite the name, not did it exactly fly. It just did something to gravity, when electrical power was applied. Anne would know. She always did.
In the distance, in the direction of the gates, came the high–pitched whine of a steam–carriage. Mary inched further into the shadows — this would be a poorly chosen time for the Colonel or his staff to pay too much attention to her.
While the officers and their belongings were loaded, she kept an eye on Anne. Last night had been her first look at the other woman for at least two years, but she had changed little. Composed, back straight, she looked every inch the professional scholar — a Fellow now, if Mary’s files were complete, at Oxford. In a quite somber, dark–blue day–gown and matching umbrella, Lady MacDougall looked less a steam–engineer than she did a stern teacher.
The tall lieutenant in Rifle green by her side was not in the files. Mary’s eyes narrowed. He appeared as stiff–backed as Anne — who was unreadable at the best of times — and yet there was something in the way he unbent to listen … something solicitious, a mannerism her old friend was not previously in the habit of encouraging. Making a mental note to update her files and examine the unpleasant feeling her observation gave rise to, Mary turned her face away as the party walked up the loading ramp.
Once aboard, Mary discarded the persona she had shown the port staff, got assigned to a bunk in crew quarters, and settled in to pretend at being a somewhat dimwitted RSN dogsbody.
The troop transport had only minimal staff beyond those required for the vessels operation. Unlike their more martial siblings, transport ships did not need the reserves to fill out slots for those lost in battle, or scuttled from breached compartments.
As expected, she was quickly set to fetch and carry. An ideal position for observation; most of the crew would soon find themselves in a well–rehearsed pattern of duty–stations, food, sleep, duty … endless repetitions of the same. Inexperienced as she was, if less so than she led her superiors to believe, is was natural to send her scampering all over the ship. To learn, to bring messages and — with a stroke of good luck — to serve at Captain’s Table.
“Feldkirk! Serve the brandy, if you would be so kind?”
“Brandy, aye–aye Capt’n.”
Of course, she did have to be inept at the serving bit too. This took some work; Mary had pretended to be a maid on several occasions when the situation warranted, and had the principles down well enough to fool most people for quite some time. Now she found herself having to pretend she didn’t know what to do, and when.
As she carefully poured — clumsy was one thing, tossed out an air–lock for dumping brandy in the Captain’s lap was something entirely different — she found herself distracted by the thought that, yes, it would actually be rather nice not having to pretend so much.
Focusing, she returned her mind to the conversation at mind.
“I trust you find our hospitality to your liking, Colonel?”
“Emminently so, Captain” — Laird McDougall half–raised his glass – “And a fine table, to boot.”
There was a general murmor of assent from the assembled officers, Navy and Army alike. Mary retreated to a dark corner, and kept her mouth shut and ears open.
The evening progressed slowly from there, until, inevitably, the Captain raised his glass “Gentlemen. The Queen.”. Equally inevitable, an ensign or two stood, looked confused, and sat to solemm, if amused, glances from their Navy counterparts.
Anne, as befitted the Colonel’s daughter, had been put up in a lieutenant’s berth near the bow. It was devoid of luxury, but had room for a single bed and a desk.
A creature of few habits, the scholar had brought with her only one. So, each day, precisely at five o’clock, a cup of tea was delivered. It had proven easy enough to volunteer for the extra duty. Noone else wanted it.
As Mary made her way there with the steaming cup this afternoon, as the transit neared completion, she mentally listed the things she needed to say — and the topics she’d like to avoid.
She knocked, knowing full well that conversations with her old school friend rarely, if ever, went according to plan.
“Feldkirk, Ma’am. With yer tea?”
“Enter” — there was, as far as she could determine, no surprise in the one word as to why, suddenly, the captain’s cabin–boy brought refreshment to a passenger.
“’ere ye go, y’er ladyship.”
“Thank you, Mister Feltkirk. Put the cup on my desk, please” — Anne did not look up from her writing, and paid only cursory attention to the arm in Navy whites stretching past her to deposit the cup of tea.
So absorbed was she that it took several minutes for her subconscious to notify her that “Feltkirk” had not left. Anne turned in her chair to find Mary lounging on the couch.
With a sigh the scholar put her pen down. Closing her eyes she rubbed her temples for a moment.
“For some reason I am not surprised.”
“Good. That makes this much easier. ”
Without waiting for a reply, Mary sat, and launched into a carefully prepared monologue.
“The day before we departed Earth I took tea with a certain Thomas Harlan, lieutenant, the Coldstream Guards. His mother is an aquaintance of mine, and he is assigned a most martial task, that of adjutant to a General at Horse Guards. In essense he shovels papers around on a desk, feeds the office Engine, and take its droppings away.”
Getting to her feet, Mary begun pacing — four steps from the door to the window[fixme: wrong word], and back.
“Thomas has always been an excellent source — his tongue wags freely in the company of a woman who listens; in the good lieutenant’s world the only thing we are good at, I might add. He is also quite unaware that I am adopted, and so I fulfill all the requirements for scatterbrained, but socially acceptable, company.”
Anne watched her friend intently, but remained silent.
“It wags indeed, and quite often on topics which should perhaps not even be mentioned inside the War Office, much less outside of it. I am not surprised promotion is long in coming for him.”
“For the minor inconvenience of tea, our dear lieutenant let drop a tidbit of information which, interestingly enough, was entirely mundane. It wasn’t even secret, merely one of these little things of which there are so many in those offices: the Old 95th of the line was embarking for garrison duty at the Martian colony of New London.”
Mary stopped in front of the window, and stood staring out at the starscape. Anne studied her friend closely; a certain air of puzzlement, perhaps, at a side to her friend’s personality so far carefully hidden.
“Not many know exactly how the rotation scheme for New London work” – Mary went on — “mostly because few really think about it much. Again, thoroughly mundane. One detail often overlooked is that some regiments, among them the Rifles, are exempt from the duty. They are too important in Europe — Bonaparte doesn’t sleep!”
Anne jumped as the woman by her window slammed her hand into the wall. She didn’t know this person.
“Why, Anne?” — Mary spun around — “Why, why, why? Sending them to Mars makes no sense; no sense at all when there is nothing more useful in the guerilla wars on the continent than a good shot. Dieu n’est pas pour le gros bataillons, mais pour ceux qui tirent le mieux. Why?”
Anne sat back, and frowned.
“I also wonder why, Mary. What is your part in this affair? Why do you pursue it?” — she paused, and added with a frown — “Also, why did you keep it from me that you were adopted?”
Mary grinned, but her smile was strained.
“I, or rather, the person with whom I am employed, take an interest in these things. Someone, somewhere, have inserted a small cog in the great machine which is the War Office. That cog has led to other cogs being out of alignement, and my … employer … is most curious to learn who, what, and why. She is not amused when people play games with Her Majesty’s presumably loyal troops.”
What Mary did not say, as well as how she phrased what she did, spoke volumes to Anne. As did her careful avoidance of the adoption issue.
Again pacing, Mary went on, grumbling — “I took a look in your father’s safe, to see if I could find a clue — but as you will undoubtfully be happy to know he isn’t involved.”
“I am ever so grateful.”
“He did, however, receive sealed orders just prior to departure; orders I learnt of while waiting tables in the Captain’s Dining–room yesterday evening. Alas, dear Anne, your father is not as closed–lipped as one might desire. On the other hand, I doubt the orders were particuarly secret.”
“When we arrive on Mars the Regiment will be split up. The first batallion will remain at New London, while the second will be embarked for a destination so far secret, but certainly distant as it involve a dirigble … and the amazing, if not particularly surprising, thing is that this has been managed without anyone noticing — save whomever was bribed in the first place, of course.”
“And the reason for these very curious movements?”
Anne remained silent for a moment. When she spoke she did so slowly, her voice tinged with disbelief — “Are you telling me that someone, for no reason what so ever, has moved an entire regiment, over two thousand men and women, with equipment, to Mars?”
“As far as I can tell. Yes. No, it does not make sense to me either. People with very pointed questions were asking them up until mere moments before I entered the Port. None got any useful answer.” — Mary looked rather annoyed at this — “We are trying to trace the paperwork, but there are a number of interconnected Engines involved.”
“This lack of information is the reason for your presence, I assume”
“Oh, yes. It was decided to let whatever is happening take its turn, and send me to … investigate.”
This time around the silence stretched to a point where Mary began to feel uncomfortable.
“And you are adopted?” — Anne’s tone was gentle, with only the faintest trace of the non–negotionable.
“Surely there are more important worries at the moment?”
“At this point in time, Mary, there is nothing we can do about the larger issues. We will reach Mars in another week, and until then I suggest you keep your eyes open, and explain to me about this adoption business.”
Mary laughed, but there were but faint traces of humour in it — “It is a long story, and will have to keep, m’dear. I should get back on duty before someone suspect Mr. Feldkirk of anything other than being hopelessly lost.”
Without waiting for a reply, and with undue haste, she made her way to the door.
Just as Anne thought the hatch was about to close, Mary stuck her head back in — “I am glad you stopped going out with Sir Henry. Terribly boring fellow, and between us he’s a bit of a pansy!”
It took her several more minutes to get back to her writing.
The stop at New London was not over in a hurry. Debarkation was simple enough; the 1st Battallion was moved into what was called the Old Barracks even when the city was Syrtis Major, the 3rd battallion of the 3rd at Foot which was due for Earth rotation was moved onto the troop transport, and the 2nd battallion was unceremoniously dumped at a dusty field there to await the morning, and a cargo dirigble.
Then, predictably, Her Majesty’s Most Exhalted Governor invited the senior officers to dine with him; an invitation which rapidly turned into a large–scale affair including not only the green–clad Rifles, but the red–coated Buffs, the Governor’s family, a few dozen of his closest friends, the local merchants, and ambassadors for the various, often none too friendly, other colony powers.
Despite her now somewhat desperate need to retrieve information, Mary counted her blessings that she could stay out of that wasp’s nest, and spent the evening faking a transfer–order from the Revee to the staff of the Colonel. It took little enough effort to make up something which appeared to have been communicated by Heliograph while the troop–ship was in transit; so little, in fact, that she begun to wonder if others might have played the same game with the original orders.
After the mess that was the Bombay mission, Mary had taken to carry a back–pack when on a job. It was a small affair, of solid but softened leather, and kept a number of items she often found useful when orders landed her in trouble. The four large bars of fine soap, the stoppered vials of medicine, needle and thread, bandages, a knife, her trusty Webley and two dozen boxer cartridges … it all came in handy once something unexpected happened.
The pack was wedged inside her trunk when the simple job of observation turned upside down, and it was the first thing she grabbed. Somewhere in the dirigble something or other shook strongly enough for her to feel the vibrations all the way down to the crew quarters. The sound of an explosion came next, followed by the screaming, wailing, inhuman shriek of an alarm designed for one single use and purpose — the vessel was burning, and burning fast as [older name for hydrogen] is won’t to do.
The minutes that followed were blurred in Mary’s mind. She remembered running like mad, finding and pulling Anne along; she recalled hands reaching out to help; hands reaching out for help. She could not forget the jolt as the passenger gondola hit the ground, wood and metal splintering around them. One image was seared into her consciousness — a man in a white uniform holding an escape–hatch open with his bare hands, allowing others to escape even as the cloth on his body turned him into a living candle. She suspected it’d join other pictures of its kind among the pantheon of black–souled deities that haunted her sleep.
Not many feet away, as she was half supporting Anne away from the twisted wreckage, she saw a soldier crawling. There was little left of him — he had been caught in the worst of the flame — yet he lived. A sergeant; a tall, gangly woman, was awkwardly kneeling down next to the charred and torn form. Mary could swear to a tear on the weather–bitten Sergeant’s face just before something metallic and sharp sparkled in the light from flames. She looked away.
It was, she concluded, a right mess. The weak sun could hardly pierce the morning fog, but the result of the disaster was all too visible. From where Mary stood she saw the still smoking pieces of man and machine alike. Some of the shapes were too badly burnt to make out; but the Rifles had begun gathering their dead.
No–one will do for the Navy — Mary thought. Save one little midshipwoman serving a tour on the troop ship there wasn’t a white–clad body left standing. The woman, regulation whites soot–stained and torned, was dragging a misformed lump sporting half–melted captain’s bars towards a small heap of Royal Space Navy dead.
Mary was about to help when the tall sergeant she had seen earlier limped forward and grabbed one end of the corpse.
Anne’s soft voice interrupted her bleak thoughts.
“Yes. Whoever did this made a damn thorough job of it” — Mary said as she took the sheet of foolscap Anne handed her. A long, yet painfully brief, list of names and ranks was written in a incongruous hand on the smudged paper.
“These are all, as far as we can tell. Out of over a thousand soldiers and sailors we are down to eighty–two men and women, many wounded. Most are from the forward compartments; the explosions begun in the engine–room. Everyone else, including every single officer of the 95th and the RSN, are dead.”
“Including your father.”
Mary could feel, they stood so close, how Anne breathed out. The pain in her friend’s voice was evident despite her tightly controlled expression.
“Yes. Him and Peter both.”
Mary thought back at the slim, handsome Lieutenant and could not supress the thought — I am glad … that he is gone. She kept that to herself.
“I am truly sorry.”
“You did not like them much.” — Anne’s voice was calm, on the surface. Mary had spent enough time listening; the painful tremble did not escape her attention.
“No.” — she also knew her friend well enough to avoid platitudes — “I did not. Yet no–one deserve to meet such an end.”
The silence was, for a brief moment, broken only by the sound of the fire.
“We shall need to find someone with clock–making skills” — Anne finally spoke, her usual, firm inflection back — “There are a number of damaged limbs that require seeing to, and I fear my own knowledge is for the most part limited to larger cogs and springs.”
With a gesture she indicated the limping soldier. Mary could, if she focused, see the faint glimmer of brass and steel.
Shall I tell you what I saw? Through the open bath–room door I saw the mirror, and in the mirror I saw your chinese robe slip from your shoulders and glide down your back, and I knew that not a sound could be heard from that meeting of silk and perfect skin.
I can’t tell you theses things.
Then she was gone, as if she was never there; and she wasn’t. How could she be? She belongs — hah! — to another, has given her life if not wholly her heart to a man; I count my blessings for that.
The only thing worse than not having her in my arms is thinking of her fully in my life, slowly growing into just another part of me, slowing coming to dislike me for what and who I am.
“This … is all about you, isn’t it? Not a thought for anyone or anything else?”
“Oh, aye. It is that. All about me — that is my life’s curse that is; all my emotions are centered on my place in the game of life, on where I was, who I am, what I will become. What makes you think there is any room for anything else? For anyone else? Why do you think I cry at night ⁈ Oh, aye. It is all about me, and that alone is enough for me to hate myself.”
“Beggin’ y’er pardon, Ma’am, but we don’t take orders from civilians, and going anywere but back ain’t what we consider a grand plan even if we did.”
Subtlety — Mary thought — left through the bloody window. She pulled the ring off, twisted the oblong upper part and tossed it to the Sergeant.
“Have you ever seen one of these?”
“Not … worn, Ma’am” — his eyes were fixed on the ring, narrowing as he deciphered the odd inscriptions.
“I regret that I have no paper to show you, but you remember the words I think … ”
“Aye…. I do. The bearer of this symbol — that being you, Ma’am, is to be awarded all courtesy and obedience given a superior officer, and ranks above all other officers save Her Majesty the Queen, regardless of circumstance or person. Them’s difficult words to forget, Ma’am … ”
“I am going to do you a damn bad turn, sergeant, and I think you know what.” — Mary paused, and watched the older man — “First I need you to tell me whether you can take orders from a civilian”
He looked up, and for the first time they locked eyes. Not for the first time in her career, Mary was glad the Rifles hand–picked smarter people than most regiments. Not to mention that it helped when they got briefed better than the average sergeants.
“I’ll make you an offer, Ma’am. You’re too clever to think you knows anything ‘bout fightin’ . Me, I’m too smart to think I knows what the hell is goin’ on ‘ere. I want to get out alive and bring my lads and lasses with me.” — he waved a hand at the assembled Rifles — “So you take charge, as it were, and tell me what you want done. I’ll do the orderin’ needed to do it”
“Fair enough, Lieutenant. As long as you keep firmly in mind who calls the shots, I don’t mind you doing the soldiering. I certainly dont know how. Make your two best rifles into sergeants, and sort everything out as you see fit, and I will do my best to get you and your people out alive.”
She paused. “Will that do you, Mister Smith?”
The freshly minted Lieutenant cringed only a little, and got himself back under control with — Mary thought — admirable speed.
Exhaling slowly, not openly sighing, never that, he turned back to the waiting soldiers.
“Right’o. Listen UP you buggers! It’s storytime”.
Mary left the Lieutenant to break the news, such as it was, to his people. Anne, working alongside the surviving chamber–maid, were cutting chevrons out of a table–cloth with a borrowed bayonet. She looked up.
She shows remarkable foresight — Mary thought.
“Not a happy fellow, our new Lieutenant.”
“No … ” Mary smiled, “He’d feel much worse had I told him the entire truth.”
“You mean there is worse?”
“From his point of view? Oh, yes. Such a promotion as I just bestowed upon him is called a field commission, and those are almost always overruled by Horse Guards. Which means that when this is over he’ll be bumped back down into his good old comfortable Sergeant’s slot – albeit with a nice, fat, paycheck and the Sovereign’s gratitude.”
Anne tilted her head and looked at Mary, a smile slowly spreading on her face.
“I listened carefully to Mister Smith. Am I right in that Horse Guards can not overrule your order?”
Mary nodded, wearily, and laughted as she sat down on the closest rock.
“Our friend the Sergeant will find himself stuck in the Officer’s Mess. If he survives. As it looks he will be free of his rank pretty soon.”
“You do not expect us to live.”
It was less a queston than a statement, and Mary found she had little in the way of a reply. Anne waited a heartbeat longer, then went on with perfect decorum.
“Lady Mary, may I introduce to you Amanda DeVille, Midshipwoman in Her Majesty’s Space Fleet?” — despite the seriousness of the situation, Anne’s aplomb was impressive, Mary found.
The diminutive figure in soot–stained uniform bounced to her feet and came to attention.
“No need, Miss DeVille; I am no officer” — Mary began, then saw the frown on the scholar’s face and the bare–bone need for order and structure in the Midshipwoman’s eyes — “Although the sentiment is appropriate and appreciated. At ease, Middy.”
If the moral of her rag–tag band of allies depended on playing yet another role, well, she’d shoulder it.
“I believe Amanda and I are far more interested in what you are than what you are not, Mary” — Anne said, voice pitched low, but with steel in the tone.
So it has come to this — Mary thought, and rubbed her face with one hand, spreading, as it were, the dirt more evenly. At the sight, Anne plucked a handkerchief from somewhere in her bustle. Dipping it in water, she moved closer “Sit still” and begun cleaning, much to Amanda’s poorly–hidden mirth, Mary’s forehad “and speak”
“Lady Anne!” — Mary’s objection was ignored, and so she did as she was told, in her own way.
“What I am is much akin to who I am — a whore’s daughter out of Shoreditch, pretending to be quality, for money”
The hand, now working rather rough around her left ear, did not falter, tho there was an audible gasp from Amanda. Mary guessed she was minor nobility, only that class became officers normally.
“I never envied you the money, the clothes, the servants, the castle. Not much, anyway. Did you ever have a best friend, Anne? One you could tell everything? A friend with who you could share feelings?”
Anne nodded — “Yes. She and I were very close.”
“That I envied you. From as early as I can remember I ran with Wiggins and his crowd; all boys and then me. Feelings weren’t ever spoken of, I can tell you that much. I guess…. I never got to be just a little girl.”
Now she had begun, Mary found that the story came easy enough.
“They were good mates, never treated me anything but fair. All for one; one for all — I remember reading Dumas years later, and thinking how true the musketeer motto was for us urchins.” — the memory of the beloved tome and the revelations reading had brought made Mary smile.
“Then, it must have been in ’82, I was introduced to Mr. Sherlock Holmes. Things changed then. We got jobs from him; good jobs. We were the Baker Street Irregulars, and we were damned fine!”
She couldn’t help it; there was still pride in her soul for the work they had done. A light touch on her hand drew her attention; Anne had two fingers resting on her wrist.
“Mr. Holmes’ brother was some bigwig in the Civil Service. Through him Her Majesty recruited us all to her Specials. When I was older they arranged an adoption, a quick lesson in how to be upper class, and a slot at your school. Ready–made, deeply seeded, agent in amongst nobility.”
“I recall Wiggins. He was once introduced to me as a friend of your brother’s. Where did he go, Mary?”
“He died” — Mary could tell; Anne understood that the story was longer. She wouldn’t ask. That damnable control. The Middy wouldn’t dare.
Do you really need to know that my last memory of him isn’t the bubbles from his last breath, breaking on the surface of the filthy water he lay face–down in, but of that hateful moment afterwards when I waited for the next bubble and realising it wasn’t to come; just before I fainted from loss of blood in some unnamed, dirty, back street of Bombay? Do you really?
“They all died.”
Wasted, piece by piece, in a dirty, secret, war.
“The Beagle” — Mary said. Anne looked up. Her friend was sitting with her back to a rock, staring into the fire. She vaguely recalled the name, and with it a face. He’d been born with a birth–mark covering his left eye and chin; with eyes that looked larger than life and an easy–going, loyal, nature the boy’s nickname was a given.
“I lost him in Norway, so far north your very soul freezes in winter. We were there … observing something or other. I don’t remember.” — But I can never forget the cold … — “Have you ever been there?”
When Mary looked at her, Anne could see her eyes, shining with tears just held at bay. Quietly she wrapped an arm around the girl, and pulled her close, shaking her head — “Never.”
Mary leaned against her, but looked away, for a moment following the shadow of a sentry as he walked by, silouetted against the horizon. There were others, she knew, less visible. That one … was the bait.
“The priests are all wrong. Hell isn’t eternity burning, but eternity freezing. The Beagle fell asleep one night while we were watching them do night maneuvers. I ‥ didn’t notice at first; he just slipped away. If you fall asleep there you’re dead. But it was peaceful. He never knew.”
“But you did.”
“I’ll always know.”
The guard, a middle–aged man with a dozen years experience of the Rifles, was walking very slowly across the camp. He knew he was bait; the job rotated among the old hands. The real sentries were further out, their backs to the fire so as to preserve their night–vision. His task was to draw attention, to make any lingering enemies focus on the wrong target.
Tonight, however, his attention was on a slowly moving shadow.
I dunno ’bout this. The lass … she’s strange. But so’s this. The Sarge doesn’t know what’s what. ’e ’ides it well, but … — the sentry turned, and walked back the same way he came. He knew more than he saw the shadow slide over to where the young woman was sleeping. She was on her side, oblivious.
The idea was terrible, but efficient. Take the agent out, and the Sergeant would have no choice but to head back.
The guard looked away. Ain’t nowt I can do now.
By the sleeping woman, the shadow — one of the younger riflemen – shifted his grip on the blackened sword–bayonet. He lifted the weapon; the smooth skin of the woman’s troath offering an easy target.
The sound startled him. It was metallic, harsh, sudden and so very near. He froze as Mary rolled over, the ugly muzzle of a Webley–Green army issue revolver pointed at his forehead.
“Some day I will be blessed. People will stop acting like fools.”– the woman rose to her feet, revolver following her movements and never pointing away.
“But tonight … tonight you are blessed. Now listen, you cackler. You, and everyone else in this happy little party.” — she raised her voice, knowing that everyone within range would be listening very intently indeed — “I have two goals in life. To figure out what is going on. That’s for the Queen. And to save her” — Mary tossed her hair in Anne’s direction. The other woman had woken and was staring at the tableu.
“That’s for me. It’ll be lots easier all around if I got you fine fellows to help me out” — the conversational tone scared Anne more than the topic — “but I can probably handle it myself. Whatever happens, one more or less certainly won’t matter.”
She pulled the trigger. The dull explosion from the heavy Boxer cartridge shook the silence. For a moment the night held it’s breath, then the assassin, still kneeling with his bayonet in hand, whimpered. Mary put her free hand over the cock, and pulled it back. She put the barrel between the young man’s eyes, and pushed.
“What do you know. I missed.” — she bent closer to his face — “Care to try again?”
“We are moving out at six o’clock tomorrow morning. My way.” — Mary turned away from the staring soldiers, making her way to where Anne was standing.
“I’ve fought the Queen’s dirty little war for the last ten years of my life.” — Mary stood facing Anne; her friend the only one to see her movements — “I’m twenty–three, and I have lost friend after friend to death. Knived, diseased, screaming their lungs out in French dungeons … ”
With exquisite care she opened the cylinder, and picked one shell out of it’s chamber. She twisted the cylinder, positioning the hammer over the now empty chamber. Then she shook the weapon, dislodging the stone she wedged between the hammer and the firing–pin after the first shot. She didn’t look up as she dropped the hammer carefully.
“I have no–one left to loose.” — she glanced up, and for a fraction of a second their eyes locked — “Perhaps it is too late. I want out. No more death. No more misery. No more tortured souls who happened to be caught in the middle of events they never even wanted to know about, much less participate in!”
With one smooth motion she holstered the Webley. It was, perhaps, her best bluff ever.
“I’d really rather like to avoid killing again — but another soul on my conscience won’t keep me from Hell. So make your bloody mind up, you bastards. My way on the morrow, or a shallow grave tonight.”
For a moment more she stood with her back to the riflemen. She held her breath. If only one of them decided to push — it would take just one. She could, possibly, with luck, handle three. Then the guard resumed his pacing; a slight noise betrayed the would–be assassin as he crawled away, and Mary could relax.
“Sunrise, Lieutenant. We leave at sunrise.”
The march was slow.
“Scholar … for now. Great things are — or were — expected of me” – their column was snaking its way across the landscape. Everyone in it were new to Mars, their dark green uniforms clashing violently with the red landscape.
Horse Guards again. They must buy brains wholesale at the knacker’s. Green–uniformed troops in a land with red shrubberies?
They should’ve sent the bloody Lobsters.
Mary squinted; there was a quality to the light that made them all uneasy, and they fought to keep conversations going.
“Great things?” — she prompted Anne, who had gone quiet again.
“Mm. A great husband. Great heirs. Great dignity. Great expectations. The poorest wench can go further than I ever could – what obligations does she have?”
It sounded to Mary … old.
“No–one expect it now.”
Anne didn’t answer at first. For a while they marched in silence.
“No. No more expectations. No more Da either. No more of anything, really” — Mary saw, for the first time in her life, tears in Anne MacDougall’s eyes.
“I am something.”
“Indeed I did, my dear” — Thomas, Mary could swear, preened. “The plan was simplicity itself. First I rerouted the Rifles. A mere detail among so many details.”
“Then, over tea, I let drop this tidbit in your lap” — he held up a hand, and waved idly — “No, no, don’t play coy. Rumours of your little band of, shall we say, specials, have been around forever. When Mother mentioned in confidence she suspected you were a bastard it took little enough to connect the two.”
“Adopted. My parents were properly married.”
“My apologies. Adopted.” — Thomas grin never faltered.
“I was quite certain you, or someone like you, would show up to investigate the anomaly. A minor bribe to a machinist’s mate on the Revee ensured that the ship would have to make an emergency landing half–way here, at which point my associates … ” — with another wave of his hand, wrist limp, he indicated the dust–covered troops behind him — “ … and I would take posession of what we came here for.”
She couldn’t help a laugh — “You can’t get away with this, Tom. Even if you could get that … monstrosity to fly, you wil be intercepted by patrols as soon as you near Earth. The French do not rule the Aether. We do.”
“Oh, it flies…. Quite correct, Lady Mary. How very clever of you” – Tom smiled, “Unless, of course … ”
Taking a step closer, pistol steady, he held his hand out “The ring, if you would be so kind”
Mary stared, aghast.
“All this, ALL of this, for my ring?”
“Yours, someone like you; whom is of no concern. That ring will identfy me as one of the Queen’s Own, a special, and will get me through everything and anything. When word is spread, if it ever is, it will be too late. I shall live comfortably, a rich man, in France. The ring. Please.”
“You killed” — Mary’s voice was a mere whisper — “near a thousand souls for money?”
“The deaths were not planned” — there was no trace of guilt in Thomas’ voice — “My friend the corrupted sailor must have exaggerated his skills. The ring, if you please.”
“The man’s skills were up to it” — the man next to Lieutenant … spoke for the first time. This prompted an uncertain half–turn from the redcoated officer, and a hesitant if proper introduction.
“Ah, where are my manners? Lady MacDougall, may I introduce Chef du Battailon , commanding these fine lads. You were saying, Colonel?”
“I had a bomb planted aboard the dirigble. The ring would survive a crash, and we would face less opposition.”
The frenchman lifted his pistol, and without fanfare shot Thomas Harlan between the eyes.
Despite the shock, Mary was moving before the surprised–looking corpse hit the sand. Throwing herself at Anne, she lifted a hand and made a quick, stabbing motion. The shot that rang out a moment later threw Gaspode back against one of his soldiers, and added blood to the already stained sand.
Both sides were very good. The Rifles started moving away as soon as the signal was given, raising, cocking and firing while walking backwards. They moved in sections, minding their fire–lanes, and covering eachother. The rearmost rank turned and ran for the nearest cover.
The French were a fraction late, and took casualties from that first volley. Then they dropped, dust–coloured uniforms making them harder to see, and answered
“Listen to your friend, Mary. Bloody clever. Besides, you should thank me for killing off her old man! ”
“Can you make it fly?”
“Oh, I can make it fly. Atleast I think I can. The theory, while advanced, is not incomprehensible. I’d try. For you, for the Rifles, and for the Queen — but I want an answer in return. A reason why I will do this; and not some philosophical mumbo–jumbo about my country and my Sovereign.”
Mary stared at her friend, crouching on the other side of the open hatch.
“I’ll go out there and die for my Queen, Miss Secret Agent, but you are going to have to tell me for whom I should stay in here and live!”
Mary was speechless. A tiny voice in her sleep–addled brain was screaming at her to speak up, but the order wasn’t reaching her ears or mouth.
“Time has caught up with you, dear. Your little illusions have got to go, and they have got to go now. Choose! Life together, or death together; but CHOOSE, damn you!”
Mary turned away; those smoldering eyes more than she could take. Looking out the hatch she saw that the Rifles were falling back – slowly, perhaps, but surely.
“You have no idea what you ask” — she whispered, and gasped when Anne cuffed her over the head.
“Why⁈ Why, you, of all people? Is that your love, treating me as a some child who asks without understanding?”
Anne cocked the rifle she was holding, and looked out.
“I so hate melodrama, but it seems I am the only one who can make this thing fly. You refuse me your life, so I’ll go give mine. Atleast the Queen will appreciate the sacrifice.”
Save the crackling of rifle–fire, steadily growing more sporadic as ammunition ran low, and the sounds of the wounded around them, the entrance area was deadly quiet.
“Pardon me, m’Lady” — sergeant Adams spoke up, keeping one eye on the situation outside; one on the corridor down which midshipwoman Coutts had disappeared mere minutes earlier — “I can’t tell’ye what to do, Lady, but both me and Amanda” — she inclined her head towards the corridor — “wouldn’t mind livin’ to ripe old age together. If she” – here she indicated Mary — “ain’t got it yet, she ain’t gonna do so by ye dyin’ out there”
Anne started, then looked at the tall sergeant — Noblesse oblige – and she knows it better than I, my blue blood nonwithstanding. She drew a deep breath.
“You are of course right, Sergeant Adams. I hope you can forgive me my momentary lapse into selfishness. I will borrow Amanda from you, and we will attempt to get this thing working right away. When we do, get the Rifles aboard as fast as possible.” — with this she tossed her weapon to a wounded rifleman sitting nearby, and headed after the midshipwoman.
Mary, speechless throughout, stared after her friend. The rapport of Jane Adams’ rifle shook her back to reality; while the gaunt woman started the process of winding her weapon back up to power, Mary focused on the outside.
“I’m being an arse, ain’t I, Jane.” she finally mumbled.
“I canna argue, Miss. Ye got a good woman, there; she’s willin’ to take a bloomin’ big risk with ye. Ain’t noone going to care nothin’ for Amanda and me” — Mary thought she sounded just a little uncertain for a moment — “but Lady MacDougal of the clan MacDougal? She’ll risk it for ye, Miss, but ye have to stop blitherin’.”
Mary winced. She couldn’t argue with herself either.
The room was far from oppulent, and reminded Anne of her father’s study. It was comfortably furnished, and conservatively decorated – the only spot of bright colour was the Indian tapestry on a wall.
With the exquisit care she had been taught, Anne curtsied. To her amazement, Mary did not. She stopped just in front of the enourmous desk that dominated the room, and tossed her ring onto the green leather top. As it lay there, Anne could see the vaguely T–shaped decoration on the front clearer than ever. Shimmering in green and splashed with dry blood the pattern appeared to her made up of finely cut hexagonal shapes.
“Mary, Mary, quite contrary … ” — the old woman behind the desk smiled, and rose, with some effort and a helping hand from the tall Scotsman who never seemed to leave her side. His greying hair still held traces of red; his sideburns massive and bushy. She turned to Anne.
“Lady MacDougal. Allow me to express my condolances on the death of your father.”
“Your Majesty.” — Anne curtsied again, earning a somewhat disgusted look from Mary — ‘We are both behaving quite out of character’ — she thought.
“His service to us will not be forgotten. Nor will what you have done go unheeded. You and your companions have saved the Empire.” — the Queen mused over her own words — “Quite frankly we are at a loss. So we will take the easy way out — you will have to name your own reward.”
She sat back down, looking at Mary. The girl sighed, and curtsied, earning herself a smile. Anne got an impression of an old battle.
“If it is within our power to give, it is yours.”
“Out. I want out”
“You knew, once you accepted our Comission, that there was no way out, Lady Mary” — Victoria’s voice was gentle — “But there is nothing which prevent a move to the reserves, with full pay, of course. Will that suit you?”
1. A Chance Meeting in Old London 2. X. Epilogue
This story has taken a long time being born. Years, to tell the truth – written, in pieces, in London, Paris, and Stocholm; on trains, planes, and automobiles; in bed, at Christmas dinner, and in the bath.
So, here’s to Palm for the Tungsten series, and particularly the T|X on which I started, and to Nokia for the N900 on which I finished; to GNU for Emacs, and to Miklos Seredi for sshfs which made combining the text and the device possible.
But it had never happened without Jörgen, who put up with my behaviour as I worked on it. Without his love and understanding I would be diminished. I love you.
The “t–shaped pattern of hexagonal tiles” is, of course, a reference and homage to the Torchwood–organization. As all good Dr. Who fans are aware it was set up by Queen Victoria.
Flywood is a product of the imagination behind Space: 1889.
Everything else, warts and all, is mine.