I have a message from another time...
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Features Future Imperfect
The Order of the Rose: A Duelist Opera
by Benjamin D. Hutchins
© 2014 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Nanami Kiryuu felt slightly silly, sitting in a tall-backed executive desk chair dead-center in an otherwise empty and featureless floor of a vacant office building. She knew it was good theater; it'd make a powerful impression on the people who were supposed to come and see her shortly. The phase before they arrived, though, there was something mildly ridiculous about that. She supposed she could at least have pretended she was working on something if she'd had a desk, but that would have defeated part of the purpose.
She opened one of the files on the datapad she held (her only prop for the little drama she was to play out) and read it again to kill time while she waited. The nature of the business was such that she couldn't be sure exactly when her guests would arrive.
For nearly six decades now I have been the custodian of a terrible secret. I have kept it faithfully and willingly, for the good of all concerned. It does not weigh on me, but I know there will soon come a time when I can no longer carry it. Even if the Germans don't manage to do for me, the White Plague will, soon enough.
If mine were an ordinary terrible secret, I would be perfectly willing to take it with me to the grave, but it is not. In fact it absolutely must not be allowed to die with me. For all that it must remain hidden now, there will just as surely come a day when it must be known. It is for this reason that I set pen to paper today and, for the first time, make a permanent record of the extraordinary events I witnessed in the winter of 1884.
That winter, I was a young engineer with the District Railway. I had just been entrusted with the first really significant work of my career: managing a crew of workmen digging part of the extension of the line to Whitechapel. It was late in January when the strange happenings began, and the work came to an immediate halt. It was my responsibility to get it underway again, but I found myself at a loss. I was an engineer, unprepared for the wholly unexpected occurrence that had left my men refusing to go back underground.
For a week I cast about fruitlessly, trying to find something that could motivate them to return to their work. Then, through a friend of a friend of an acquaintance of an old school chum, I finally learned of a person whose reputaton suggested that she might be able to help me. When my friend told me who that person was and how I might find her, I was deeply skeptical.
But I was also desperate, so on Tuesday, the fifth of February, I braved the filthy warrens of the Old Nicol rookery and its environs in search of a person who I was not entirely convinced even existed. What I saw there in the course of my search is best left unrecorded, but finally, just before nightfall, I found her...
It was coming on toward the end of a cold and unprofitable day, and the girl who sold matches on the corner of Bethnal Green Road was beginning, without much enthusiasm, to contemplate her strategy for the approaching evening. She'd made just about enough money to provide either a bad meal or a worse bed, but no better than either and not even both. Neither option had any particular appeal, which made the choice between them a difficult one.
She was still mulling it over when she spotted the gent approaching. Respectable-looking chap, too well-dressed for this neighborhood, but not to a really outrageous degree. The match girl pegged him for a reasonably prosperous working man, or possibly a slumming toff. She initially thought he was bound for someplace beyond her, but as he drew nearer she saw him surreptitiously consult a slip of paper, then thrust it back into his waistcoat pocket and cross the road, making straight for her.
"Excuse me," he said, and his voice gave him away at once, confirming her suspicions that he wasn't from around here. He sounded educated but not particularly cultured - a clerk, maybe, or similar. Up close, she could see that he was a fairly young man, in his mid- twenties, with a slightly-overgroomed brown moustache that would've looked less out of place if he had been ten years older.
When she didn't reply, he removed his bowler hat and fidgeted with it nervously, asking, "Are you Jenny Flint?"
She eyed him narrowly. "Wot if I am?" she asked.
"I, ah... " He hesitated, worrying at the brim of his hat a little more, then went on, "I understand you sometimes undertake... a different sort of work."
Jenny scowled at him. "Piss off," she said, turning on her heel. "I ain't that kind of girl." She began to stride briskly away.
"Wha?" the man with the moustache said, then hurried to get ahead of her, sputtering, "Oh! No no! Nonononono. That's not what I meant at all." Now backing hastily up to keep from being run down or passed again, he went on, "It's just that I'm told you sometimes undertake to... to investigate the... " He leaned toward her and spoke the last word in an undertone of furtive dread. "... unusual."
Jenny stopped, regarding him thoughtfully.
"Tell me more," she said.
I took her to the Rose and Crown, a workingman's pub where I was reasonably sure neither of us was likely to be recognised. She was shabbily dressed and a bit down-at-heel, but not so completely ragged as to be thrown out immediately, particularly as she arrived in my company; I had worn my oldest clothes for the expedition, but was still respectable-looking enough to pass the landlord's scrutiny. We sat in the snug, where it was quieter, so that I could explain who I was and what I wanted.
Off the twilit street and in better light, I was shocked to realise how young she was. I had been told to expect a young woman, but this was practically a child, small and slight of build. She had seemed more substantial outside, but that was largely because she wore several layers of clothing, the outermost of necessity too large for her, in lieu of the coat she didn't own. Her face was unwashed and her expression hard-bitten, but she would've been pretty under better circumstances, with large dark eyes and rounded cheeks, although her chin was perhaps a little too pointy.
I must have reflected upon her a little too long, for she furrowed her brow, started to get up, and said, "I told you, I ain't that kind of girl."
I coughed. "That's fine, Miss Flint," I told her, "for I assure you I am not that kind of man. My name is John Carruthers." I slid my card to her across the scarred wooden tabletop. "I'm an engineer with the District Railway."
She sat back down, picking up my card. I wondered whether she could read it; she didn't speak the utterly incomprehensible argot of the gutter, or at least she hadn't when speaking to me as yet, but few girls find themselves selling matches in Bethnal who have had the benefit of an education.
"So you work on the Underground," she said.
I nodded. "Quite so. You may have heard about the Whitechapel line extension we're working on with the Met?"
"Yeah, I can read," Miss Flint replied, a trifle shortly, tucking my card away in a pocket of her outermost dress.
I felt myself go a little red behind my moustache. Whatever else she might be, this strange girl was plainly no fool. "Er, yes. Well. Last night my men broke through a wall into a... chamber of some kind. Not on any of our surveys. Part of a whole complex of rooms, we think, that no one knew were even there."
She raised an eyebrow. "All right, I'm startin' to get interested now," she said.
"The room we breached was full of... strange artifacts," I told her. "Machines at whose functions I can only guess. The men must have damaged one of them, because... " I hesitated. This was the juncture at which she might well decide that, if I wasn't a punter, I might well be a madman. Then, with no real alternative, I leaned toward her and said quietly, "... they woke something."
Far from drawing back, she looked definitely intrigued, her dark eyes beginning to sparkle with interest. "Oh yeah?" she asked. "Wot was it?"
"No one knows," I said. "It was all over in seconds - none of us got a good look. Whatever it was, it attacked one of my men. He fended it off, and we think he wounded it in the process. It escaped deeper into the complex. Now the men refuse to go anywhere near the site. The work is at a standstill. I don't need to spell out for you how disastrous that will be, I'm sure... "
"So you want me to... wot?" Miss Flint wondered. "Go into a set of underground rooms no one ever saw before, full of stuff you don't understand, 'unt down some unknown creature one of your men managed to wound... "
I nodded. "And kill it."
"Kill it?" she asked. "You don't even know wot it is."
Privately, I agreed with her reservations, but I had my instructions. "I assure you, the mystery of it is the least important thing to my men," I told her. "And therefore to my employers."
She considered for a moment, then nodded. "All right, I'll look into it," she said, then smiled and added, "but it'll cost you."
We haggled for a few minutes, though I was at a distinct disadvantage, never having had occasion to discern the going rate for occult investigative services before. Ultimately I agreed to pay her an advance of five pounds, with ten more payable upon the satisfactory completion of the task. To someone in her position, this was a princely sum. I was sure the directors of the District Railway would consider it extravagant if they knew who she was, but since they did not, it would be written off as a minor expense compared with the cost of the delays.
She took herself off then, saying that she had to collect her equipment. We agreed to meet near the work site at midnight, when our comings and goings would be less likely to be noticed.
I confess I spent most of the intervening time sitting at my desk in the tiny field office next to the excavation, berating myself for a fool. As the minutes dragged on I became increasingly convinced that I had just been hornswoggled out of five pounds by a very canny street urchin. Investigator of the unusual indeed! A clever child, too clever by half for the straitened situation in which she found herself, but what was more likely: that she was truly a seeker after knowledge in the world's dark places, or that my friend's acquaintance's friend's friend had sussed me out as a man with more worries than sense?
I had just about convinced myself to write a letter of resignation and quit the country when there came a furtive knock at the office door. Rising from my chair as if thrown by a lever, I all but tore it open, and there stood Miss Flint, wrapped in a dark woolen cloak. She'd dispensed with the threadbare bonnet she'd been wearing before and simply pinned her long, dark hair up in a knot at the back of her head.
"Bet you didn't think I'd really show up," she said with an impish grin, and I felt my face go red again as I stepped aside and ushered her in. With the door closed behind her, she undid the ties of her cloak and shrugged it off, hanging it on a nail next to my overcoat. What she wore beneath it was so startling that I could do little in the next few seconds but stand there and gawp at her.
In the two hours since I had last seen her, Miss Flint had shed the layers of ragged clothing she'd been wearing on her corner. She'd replaced them with a heavy leather jacket of a kind similar to those worn by sporting swordsmen, dark trousers, black kid gloves, and high, sturdy boots. In this strange costume she seemed simultaneously younger and older: younger because the snug jacket and trousers fully revealed how small and slender she really was, older because they gave her an ineffable air of maturity that she had lacked when normally dressed.
At her left hip she wore a sword, long, curved, and curiously foreign - something of a flavor of the East about it.
She seemed to be expecting that her garb would take me aback; while I stared at her, she just looked back at me with a faintly mocking half- smile. This left me determined to say nothing about it. Instead I took up my bullseye lantern and led her underground. We walked in silence through the half-completed tunnels until we came to the broken-down wall marking the mysterious room. I wouldn't need the lantern here, for the strange room was illuminated somehow, pale grey-blue light filtering down from somewhere above.
"How's that light gettin' in here?" Miss Flint wondered, frowning up at the ceiling. "Can't be 'idden skylights or something, it's nighttime up above."
I shook my head. "I don't know. I thought it might be something like an arc lamp, but there's no sign of a dynamo. At least," I added ruefully, gesturing around at the strange machinery surrounding us, "none that I can identify."
She looked around the room, considering the various peculiar machines, then concentrated her attention on the one that was obviously damaged. This took the form of a vaguely coffin-like capsule set at an angle into a cluster of pipes. The capsule part had had a glass frontage, until Bannister smashed it; little glittering pebbles of glass littered the floor around it and the inside, which was padded like a coach seat.
Nearby, the dust on the stone floor had been disturbed by the scuffle. In the middle of this, Miss Flint found a large, dark stain. She knelt, tugged off one of her gloves, and touched her fingertips to the stain.
"That's the creature's blood," I said. She glanced up from considering her fingertips and nodded as if to say, I can see that. A trail of droplets followed a path of smeared footprints in the dust across the room and through a far door. Keeping to the edge of the room, I went to join her, and together we looked more closely at the nearest of the prints. It was smaller than the prints of my workmen's big, heavy boots, but still plainly that of a shod foot.
She straightened, pulling her glove back on. "Well, you were right about one thing," she said. "It's definitely wounded." As she headed for the far door, she told me, "You better stay 'ere. Could get 'urt." With a faintly sarcastic smile, she added, "There ain't nothin' more dangerous than a wounded... wo'ever."
As she delved cautiously deeper into the strange and silent halls beyond the Underground tunnel, Jenny pondered whether she'd ever seen anything like this place before. She decided, at length, that she hadn't. Weird subterranean tunnels, sure, more than her fair share in the two years since she'd begun delving into the strange dark places; but not ones that looked or smelled or felt like these. These were no rough-hewn passages, like the Druid tunnels of Salisbury, nor natural caves like the Cairngorm Grotto. They almost seemed like something modern men would build, with carefully interlocked stonework, every surface smooth and polished.
And yet so old, so old that the dust lay an inch thick on the floor where it wasn't disturbed by the uneven footprints and dripping blood of her quarry. So old that these halls appeared on no map of the metropolis to which the planners of the Underground had access, which Jenny presumed was all of them.
She shook her head and put that out of her mind. It wouldn't do to get so wrapped up in pondering the origins of this place that she blundered straight into the creature she'd come here to track down. The footprints were getting more erratic now, the blood spots larger as the creature hesitated longer at each pause. Jenny wondered whether she would find it alive - and what she'd do if she did.
And then... she found it.
Easing around the jamb of an open doorway, she found herself in another room similar to the one the District's workmen had breached, with a pair of those same capsule-like machines standing against the wall off to the left. In addition, this room had a couple of things Jenny could only liken to the consoles of church organs - great banks of switches and levers arranged around what was obviously an operator's seat - and a pair of long tables. One of the tables was empty.
On the other lay what Jenny at first took for a human form, bulked up a bit by vaguely medieval-looking armor - boots, gauntlets, and a short-skirted leather jerkin covered in small metal plates. The shape under the armor, she was faintly surprised to realize, was slender but unmistakably feminine. The legs, between jerkin and boots, were covered in some sort of tight-fitting leggings; the arms above the gauntlets were sleeved in some scaly leather that put Jenny in mind of a picture she'd once seen of a crocodile. Whoever she was, she wore a curious helmet, with several odd ribs that swept up and back from the face to form a kind of crest.
The woman lay on her back, head facing away from the door, with her left hand resting on her belly and the other hanging from the table. Underneath her right arm, the flank of her armor was damaged, two of its plates bent and caved in, and blood was still seeping out around them and running down her hanging arm; a pool of it had gathered on the floor, dripping from her fingertips. Jenny moved closer, stepping around to the side of the table to get a better look. At first sight of the mystery woman's face, she drew back in shock, breath hissing in between her teeth - the face was hideous, with bulging black eyes and a monstrous, snarling line of a mouth - until she realized that it wasn't a face at all, it was some kind of mask.
After a moment's hesitation, Jenny reached down and gently prised off the frightful mask. The sleeping face beneath looked like a young woman's in its shape and artistic composition, but it (like her bare upper arms) was covered in what Jenny had taken for crocodile skin, green and finely, intricatedly scaled. She wasn't wearing a helmet, either; that was just the shape of her head. She was emphatically not human, but rather looked, to Jenny's fancy, like what one of Sir Richard Owen's "dinosaurs" would have looked like if they had been people.
"Ohhh," breathed Jenny softly, her voice full of wonder. "Look'a you, eh? Ain't you just the most beautiful thing."
The lizard woman - girl, really; now that Jenny took a close look at her, she didn't seem much older than Jenny herself, assuming her people wore their age similarly to humans - stirred, moaning softly. Her eyes fluttered open (they were, unexpectedly, very blue) and looked around, first in confusion, then in something like panic. She tried to bolt up from the table, then grabbed at her side with a gasp and fell back.
"Whoa, easy, take it easy," said Jenny, putting a hand on her shoulder. "I'm not goin' to 'urt you. Can you understand what I'm sayin'?"
The reptilian girl looked back at her, pain and incomprehension plain in her eyes, and said something that involved a lot of hissing and guttural stops. She sounded agitated, but apart from that Jenny could make nothing of it.
"I'll... take that as a no," she said. Leaning down, she said in the loud, slow voice English people customarily used when speaking to foreigners, "I'm Jenny. JEN-NY," she added, touching her chest with the fingertips of one hand. "Do, you, 'ave, a, name?"
The lizard girl looked quizzically at her, then beckoned her to come nearer. She stepped closer to the table, still leaning down - and suddenly the girl seized the back of Jenny's head in her good hand and was, to her infinite shock, kissing her soundly.
Jenny did nothing about it for a couple of seconds because she was paralyzed with shock, and a couple of seconds more because... well, because; then, recovering her wits, she wrenched herself free and stumbled back from the table.
"Augh! Bit fresh for a first date, swee'eart," she declared.
"My apologies," said the reptile girl, her voice now low and mellow, touched with a faint foreign accent. "It was the fastest way to learn your language," she explained, seeming genuinely contrite.
"Wot," said Jenny, not really as a question.
"My name is Vastra," the girl on the table went on.
"Uh... I'm Jenny." Regaining some of her aplomb, Jenny bowed slightly and added with a faint smile, "Jenny Flint, at your service."
Vastra inclined her head graciously. " I am very pleased to meet you, Jenny Flint... because without your help I shall soon be dead."
The machine Jenny had taken for some kind of organ was actually something altogether more interesting: a surgery machine, sort of an automatic doctor. Vastra talked her through rousing it from its slumber and setting it to work on the wound in her side. With that done, she had no other role to play in the process, so she stood off to the side and considered the scene.
"So... " she said at length. "Wot are you?"
Vastra glanced at her. "What are you?" she replied. "When I last walked the world, my people were the only intelligent beings on the land. You mammals were just small, furry, furtive things, hiding in the undergrowth."
"Excuse me," Jenny muttered, folding her arms and glancing off into a corner of the room.
"I mean no insult," Vastra insisted. "But you were." She shook her head. "Something must have gone very wrong. We never intended to sleep for so long."
"'Ang on a minute, who's 'we'?" Jenny demanded. "'Ow many more of you are there?"
"In this area?" Vastra replied. "This was once one of our great cities. The chambers in our main suspension complex numbered in the hundreds of thousands. Worldwide, we were perhaps two thousand millions."
Jenny's dark eyes went wide. "Two thou - and you're all still alive?!"
Vastra shook her head sadly. "Not all. Some chose to take their chances on the surface when the Terror approached, and I take it from your complete ignorance of us that their line did not survive. As to how many of us still sleep beneath the planet's crust... after all this time, I can only guess. For your species' evolutionary line to have risen so far, a very great time must have passed. Millions of years. Tens of millions. There's little telling how many of our chambers are still operating after so long."
Jenny walked the short distance to one of the coffin-like capsules and stood regarding it. "You're tellin' me these things... they keep you alive while you sleep." She turned back to the table, a skeptical look on her face. "For millions of years."
"That's correct," Vastra replied.
"'Ow do they work?" Jenny wondered, returning her attention to the capsule.
"I have no idea," Vastra admitted. "I'm not a scientist, I'm a warrior." She chuckled bitterly. "You may not be able to tell, unfamiliar as you are with my species, but I'm not even an adult."
Jenny glanced back over her shoulder with a wry smile. "Neither'm I," she said. "'Ow old are you?"
"When I entered my hibernation chamber, I had just begun my sixteenth summer," said Vastra.
"Huh," said Jenny, mostly to herself. "We are about the same age."
"Nothin'." Jenny peered more closely into the glass front of the capsule she stood by. "This one's empty," she said.
"This is a medical room," Vastra explained. "The chambers here were only for emergency use." The surgery machine finished its work, its metallic arms withdrawing; with a thoughtful look, she slowly, carefully sat up, feeling experimentally at the place where her wound had been, then sighed with relief. "That's better," she said. She climbed down from the table, staggered slightly, and caught at its edge to steady herself.
"Are you all right?" asked Jenny, surprising herself slightly with the depth of concern she felt.
"A little lightheaded," Vastra replied. "The surgery machine repaired my wound, but it could not replace the blood I have lost." She removed her hand from the table and took a slow, careful step away.
"'Ere," said Jenny, moving up next to her. "Take it easy, lean on me. Maybe you should lie back down."
Vastra took Jenny's arm and leaned against her, but shook her head at the idea of returning to the table. "I can rest once I've carried out my duty," she said. Then, adding, "This way," she guided them out of the room and down the long hallway.
"Wot duty?" Jenny wondered.
"I was the youngest to be sealed in this section," said Vastra. "Too young to have a mate or dependents. My chamber was placed apart, set to unseal when certain conditions were met. Now I must investigate... see how the world had changed. Whether it's safe to wake the others."
"So you're like a scout," Jenny mused.
"In a sense, yes."
"Wot 'appens if you do wake the others?" asked Jenny. "I mean... did you 'ave a plan for what you'd do if somebody else lived 'ere when you woke up?"
Vastra shook her head. "I don't know," she said. "I am only a soldier, Jenny. Such matters were far above me. What we do will be for the elders to decide." Seeing that Jenny was giving her a worried look, she smiled and added, "We are not maniacs. Perhaps we'll share the planet. You know your people far better than I do - are they ready for such a thing?"
Jenny looked dubious. "I doubt it. We can't even get along with ourselves 'alf the time." Changing the subject slightly, she went on, "Mr. Carruthers said you attacked one of 'is men."
"I don't know who that is, but I don't doubt that I did," said Vastra. "I was very disoriented when I woke. There was a man - an ape, like you - standing over me."
"Thank you," muttered Jenny with a roll of her eyes.
"He had smashed the viewport of my hibernation chamber with a digging tool - I believe you call it a pickaxe. Who can say what he intended to do to me? As it is, he struck me with it when I defended myself." She thought about it for a moment, then said, "I am surprised he and the others I saw didn't pursue me. When I lost consciousness, I expected them to come and finish me off."
Jenny's smile was more than a little sarcastic as she said, "They're all too scared to come back 'ere. They sent their boss to go an' 'ire me to look into it."
Vastra eyed her speculatively at close range. "You must be a formidable warrior," she said, which made Jenny laugh.
"I'm a match girl," Jenny said. "But I do 'ave my moments."
By this point they'd reached the end of the hall, passed through another door, and entered a smaller room, this one containing little more than another control panel and a further doorway. Vastra went to the panel, impatiently brushed away dust that would have occupied an archaeologist for six months, and operated controls. Some didn't work, but there remained a feeble gleam of life in others. Jenny could make neither head nor tail out of what the fitfully glowing displays were showing, but whatever the information was, it filled Vastra's face with dismay.
"By the gods," she murmured. She worked the controls more urgently, almost frantically, but got nothing further out of them.
"Wot is it?" Jenny asked. "Wot's wrong?"
Ignoring her, Vastra lunged away from the board and toward the far doorway, nearly sprawling headlong before she caught herself on the frame. With a concerned sound, Jenny moved to help her, but Vastra waved her away and lunged through the doorway into the darkened room beyond. For a moment, Jenny hesitated, not sure whether to follow her or wait for her or what to do.
The cry that came from that doorway a moment later made up her mind for her. It was a sound of the uttermost anguish, a combination of horror, pain, and despair unlike anything Jenny had ever heard before, and it galvanized her. Shouting Vastra's name, she plunged through the arch, one hand on the grip of her sword, ready for anything.
She found the reptilian girl sitting on the floor, having evidently fallen to her knees and then settled back. One of her hands lay slack in her lap; the other was pressed flat against the blank stone wall in front of her.
"They're gone," Vastra said in a tiny voice.
"Who's gone?" Jenny wondered.
Vastra looked back over her shoulder, her expression changing from blank despair to fury. "Everyone!" she snapped, her voice ringing from the walls and ceiling of the chamber. Gesturing to the wall in front of her, she said, "There should be a great chamber here. The suspension capsules I told you about. My people. They should be here. But... " She put her hand against the wall again, bowing her head, and went on in a much lower voice, "Time... changes things. Given enough, and the very continents themselves move. All the others... lost."
Privately, Jenny wasn't sure that was such a bad thing - she couldn't even quite imagine the havoc she was reasonably sure would ensue if hundreds of millions of people like Vastra suddenly emerged from the Underground and stood blinking around at the world of men - but Vastra's pain was so stark that it touched her. Jenny knelt beside and a little behind her, placing a hand on her shoulder.
"You said your people was all over the world, right?" she said.
"They were once," Vastra replied, then shrugged her shoulder out from under Jenny's hand and added bitterly, "For all I know, you apes have dug them up and destroyed them all."
"I'm pretty sure I'd of 'eard of that 'appening," Jenny told her. "Also, tryin' not to take the 'apes' thing personal."
Vastra sat quietly for a moment, regarding the floor with a forlorn expression. Then, sighing, she turned toward Jenny, so that they were kneeling on the floor facing each other across a space of a foot or so.
"I'm sorry," she said. "You're right. It's... it's no one's fault. The systems malfunctioned, I slept too long. The rest is simply the work of time." She drew a slow, shivery breath, let it out with a meditative hiss, and then said with a sort of bleak wryness, "Now what?"
"Well... " said Jenny. She paused thoughtfully, and then, slightly to her horror, heard herself ask the dumbest question she had ever heard of: "When's the last time you 'ad anything to eat?"
Vastra regarded her with a faintly skeptical expression, then looked away, suppressing a snicker. That got Jenny started, and within moments they were both trying, and then failing, not to giggle. Before long, they had progressed to full laughter, and they just gave up and went with it, falling into each other's arms, helpless with mirth.
When, at last, they'd laughed themselves out, Jenny got to her feet and helped Vastra up, then said, "Well, c'mon, then. Let's get out o' this place, at least... "
Miss Flint had been gone for perhaps half an hour when the party of workmen arrived. Jim Robbins and his crew, the roughest of the men under my command, had evidently spent the evening fortifying themselves with the cheapest available Dutch courage, for they were armed to the teeth with various improvised weapons and roaring with their determination to track "the Creature" down and destroy it.
"I have already taken steps to deal with the situation, men," I told them, trying to sound as sure of that as I could. "Go home and try to get sober - you'll be needed back on the job in the morning."
The men grumbled, glancing among themselves, and began to subside; a few, at the back, turned and trudged away, but Robbins and his inner cadre weren't going to be put off by a few words from an engineer two decades their junior. They pressed forward, trying to back me out of their way.
"Beggin' yer pardon, sir," said Robbins insolently, "but what steps?"
"That's none of your affair," I told him, as forcefully as I could. "All you need to know is that it's being dealt with."
I'll never know if my second attempt at exerting some authority would have worked. Knowing Robbins, probably not, but at that moment one of his cronies looked past me, pointed, and cried, "There it is!" It was all I could do just to avoid being trampled as the whole drunken mob of them piled past me into the inner tunnels at that point.
What happened next is a jumble of confusion in my memory now. It cannot have taken more than a few seconds to unfold. As I picked myself up off the floor, I heard shouting and the unmistakable sounds of a fight from the tunnel... and then, to my horror, the sharp snap of a gunshot.
After that there came a sound such as I've never heard before or since: like a combination of a hiss and a howl, an alien but unmistakably animal noise. It was immediately followed by another, much more ordinary scream, the high, shrill sound of a man in agony, such as I had heard at the scenes of dreadful accidents in the works.
The men who had rushed into the tunnel rushed out again, white-faced and screaming, as if the Devil himself were after them. They passed me without a glance, racing through the antechamber and out of of the area altogether, the sounds of their terrified cries echoing back along the tunnels. I have to confess that my first impulse was to follow them; I had no desire to meet whatever had made that first noise. Before I could do so, though, a dark-clad figure emerged from the far doorway.
For a second, I thought it was Miss Flint; but when I turned and trained my lantern on her, I saw that it wasn't. I had no idea who, or even what, confronted me instead. Another young woman, but not... not a human one. She regarded me with piercing eyes, her scaled face a mask of fury, for a moment, and with a shock I realised that she was holding Miss Flint's sword, its blade smeared with crimson blood.
"You," she said. "You're not dressed like the others. Are you the one called Carruthers? The one who hired Jenny?"
"I... I am," I replied haltingly, unable to stop myself from staring.
She seemed to relax at that, the wrath fading from her face, to be replaced by something not too far from panic. "Come with me," she said, lowering the blade. "Hurry."
She led me back into the tunnel. I was not entirely certain that following her was a good idea, but the urgency in her voice and her eyes must have convinced me, because follow her I did. A few yards up the passage, my lantern's beam fell upon a thing that it took me several seconds to recognise as the mortal remains of Jim Robbins. He'd been cut in twain; actually into three pieces, since his left arm had been at his side. In his right hand he still held a revolver. By that point I was too shocked for the sight to move me much; besides which, with his penchant for drink and carelessness, I had always expected something of the kind would happen to Robbins one day in any case.
A short distance farther on lay Jenny Flint, sprawled on her back in a pool of blood, her face pale and drawn. The... lizard woman?... had fallen to her knees beside her. At my approach, that creature looked up with an unmistakable plea in her eyes.
"She's alive," she said, "but not for long, if we do nothing."
"Good Lord," I said. "I'll fetch a doctor - "
"There's no time," the reptilian woman interrupted me. "Bring her and follow me."
We took her to another room full of strange machines, not unlike the anteroom. The creature went to one of the machines, a capsule-like device like the one my crew had originally discovered, and opened its glass front, then gestured for me to place Miss Flint within it.
"I can't help her," she said as I did so. "The surgery machine... your species didn't even exist when it was built. It would have no idea of her anatomy. But this should at least preserve her."
I had no idea what she was talking about, but by now the sheer unreality of the situation had sufficiently preoccupied me that I followed her instructions without questioning them. Between us, we sealed Miss Flint in the chamber, and the creature set it working. We stood and watched as a thin layer of frost formed on the inside of the glass, slowly blotting out the sight of her unconscious face.
Then, turning, the creature opened the chamber next to that one and climbed into it herself. "Come here," she said. "I shall show you what to do."
"What - " I began, but she reached and took hold of my arm, fixing me with another piercing gaze.
"Hide this place," she told me, never taking her eyes off mine. "Whatever you must do, make sure it isn't found. Your world isn't ready for the likes of me." She glanced bitterly at Miss Flint's capsule. "That much is obvious now. Perhaps at some point in the future... but not now. So bury this place again and make certain that it stays buried... but see that we are not forgotten completely. Can you do that?"
"I can try," I said.
She gazed at me thoughtfully for a few more seconds, then lay back, releasing my arm. "It will have to do," she said.
Only after I had finished following her instructions and sealed her away in the chamber next to Miss Flint's did I realize that she had never told me her name.
Keeping the secret was a fairly simple matter. I dynamited the antechamber, burying the entrance under tons of rubble, and then redrew the plans for the line slightly so that the complex would be avoided. Robbins's death was attributed to a drunken accident; the wild stories of his fellows were written off as the effects of cheap gin and wormwood on overheated imaginations. Such things could be arranged easily enough in those days.
And so I have carried the secret, as I promised that unknown creature I would try to do; but I set it down now in hopes of fulfilling the second part of the promise, that it not be forgotten forever. I shall leave instructions that this document be unsealed two centuries after my death. Perhaps in that length of time, the world will be ready to know what really happened during the work stoppage on the Whitechapel line...
Nanami had just finished re-reading the journal excerpt when the office door opened and the people she'd been waiting for entered. Lowering the datapad, she straightened slightly in her chair, turning a cool, faintly disdainful smile on the new arrivals as they entered and looked around.
There were four of them, two men and two women, in the conservatively cut dark suits that were presently in fashion for a certain stratum of Earth's urban underworld. Both men and one of the women fanned out into a defensive formation as they entered, none with weapons drawn, but all obviously on the alert for trouble. The fourth, the taller of the two women, walked straight across the empty office to stop a respectful distance from Nanami's chair. Nanami found the slightly ironic little smile on her face pleasing; evidently she, too, thought the theater was a bit silly, but recognized it as part of the doing of business.
"Miss Blanke, I presume," the tall woman said (pronouncing it in the German style, blon-keh). She took off her sunglasses and tucked them into one of the outside pockets of her suitjacket, revealing eyes of such a dark brown that, in this ill-lit office, they looked black - contrasting starkly with her platinum blonde hair.
Nanami wondered whether it was dyed as she inclined her head graciously and replied, "Miss James."
"The items you requested are at the loading dock," Miss James said calmly.
Nanami consulted her datapad, switching it to show her the view from the building's loading dock camera. Sure enough, there was a truck backed up to the dock. A handful of people dressed very like Miss James and her associates were unloading a pair of large objects from the back of it, under the watchful eyes of a half-dozen of Mikage's more advanced students, whom Nanami had brought along to do the lifting and act as set dressing.
"Excellent," she said, and adjusted another item on the datapad with a negligent flick of her finger. Looking up from the display, she met the gangster's eyes and smiled slightly. "You just got paid, Miss James. It's been a pleasure."
Miss James's wrist chimed. Looking unconcerned, she pushed back her sleeve and regarded the display of a small wrist computer for a moment, then nodded and let her arm fall to her side again.
"Prompt payment is such a rare luxury nowadays," she said with slight irony. "Before I go, Miss Blanke, I have another item you might be interested in."
Nanami arched an eyebrow. "What makes you think I'm interested in anything other than what I've already bought?" she said coolly. "Upsells are so tedious, Miss James. And here I was thinking that this had been such a pleasant transaction."
"My organization deals in all manner of curiosities, not just from the London metropolitan area, but all over the world," Miss James replied calmly. "It so happens we've had an item in our possession for some time now. The only one of its kind, so far as we are aware. And based on what we know of your organization's other acquisitions, it seemed to me that your backers might be interested in acquiring it as well. If I've misjudged them, then so be it," she added with a nonchalant little shrug, "but there's no harm in offering."
Nanami suppressed a smile. This would be the item the Castellan had told her about - the one she was to get hold of as quietly as possible, preferably without seeming to have sought it out. She'd been wondering what lengths she'd have to go to in order to ferret out whether Miss James's organization had it, and now it appeared that the answer was none. Kind of a shame, actually. She found that she rather liked this young woman - surprisingly young for such an evidently senior underworld figure - and her air of calm competence. She'd actually been looking forward to making an attempt at setting her up for a little casual pillow talk.
Well, she mused, there's no reason why that can't still happen, but what she said out loud was a studiously neutral, "I'm listening."
Miss James snapped her fingers. The smaller of the two men who had accompanied her stepped to her side, raised the metal attaché case he had handcuffed to one of his wrists (nice touch, that, Nanami thought - classically old-school), and opened it to display the item within to her.
"Have you ever heard of the Fleet of Fog?" asked Miss James.
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Features Future Imperfect
The Order of the Rose: A Duelist Opera
in order of appearance
John R. Carruthers
Jim Robbins (and company)
Regina James (and company)
Benjamin D. Hutchins
The EPU Team
Jenny & Vastra created by
Jenny Flint woke up, sat up, and concluded that she must be dead.
She based this conclusion on three facts. First, she'd been shot in the chest, and death was a fairly general consequence of that; besides which, she wasn't even in pain. Second, she was in the whitest, cleanest, most-completely-unlike-anywhere-she'd-ever-been-before room she could've imagined. It was definitely not any of the hospitals of London, particularly those that would've been open to a person of her class. And third, she was dressed in a loose-fitting sort of smock, also snow white, of a kind she was given to understand that angels wore.
A moment later, a door opened off to one side (sliding to one side with a quiet swishing sound), and a figure entered the room who made Jenny wonder about the last part of her assessment. He appeared to be a man, dressed in a peculiar costume that was mostly an odd, minty shade of green under what looked like a white doctor's coat... but a man such as Jenny had never seen before. He was quite short, but broad-shouldered and barrel-chested; he had no evident neck; and his head was enormous and weirdly misshapen, its bald, brown dome putting her in mind of a potato.
"I knew it; I'm dead," she said matter-of-factly as this remarkable specimen approached her bedside.
"No, you are not, boy," the man replied, giving her a look she could only read as disdainful reproach. "Not any longer, at any rate. You had a simple fatal gunshot wound to the chest," he said, pointing in an almost accusatory fashion to that part of her with one of the two thick, ungainly-looking fingers of his right hand. "A trivial repair," he added.
Jenny drew herself up a little, her hand unconsciously gathering up a fold of her smock and drawing it in as if to shield her chest from his pointing finger, but before she could take verbal exception to being addressed as "boy", a low, amused-sounding voice said from the entrance to the room,
"She's not a boy, Strax, she's a girl."
Blinking, Jenny looked past the grumpy-looking potato-headed man and saw Vastra standing in the doorway. She was dressed differently than she had been when Jenny last saw her, in a dark outfit that looked weirdly like a boy's public-school uniform from the waist up: a black blazer with a pleat-fronted white shirt and red ribbon tie; an absurdly short pleated skirt in red-and-black tartan; black tights and short boots with just a bit of a heel.
While Jenny was taking in this unexpected vista, Strax turned a frown to Vastra and asked, "Are you sure?"
The reptilian girl advanced casually into the room, a tiny smile touching her lips, and replied dryly, "Reasonably," which made Jenny giggle in spite of herself.
"Hmph," said Strax, busying himself with some sort of contraption which made a high-pitched whistling sound. "I'll take your word for it, I suppose."
It was, Jenny supposed, indicative of the kind of day she was having that the sight of a lizard girl from the dawn of time gave her a reassuring sense of continuity, but she was glad of it all the same as she held out a hand for Vastra to take.
"How do you feel?" asked Vastra solicitously.
"I'm fine," Jenny replied. She resisted an urge to investigate the site of her supposed gunshot wound in more detail and added with a smile, "Doesn't even hurt."
"I'm glad," Vastra told her. "I'm sorry. I didn't see the weapon until it was too late."
"Yeah, well, neither did I, so... " said Jenny wryly, letting it trail off. "Right. So. If I ain't dead... where are we?"
Vastra's face went still, her eyes dimming slightly. "That... will take some explaining," she said. "It appears that... while we slept... we missed the end of the world."
and introducing Strax, RN
E P U (colour) 2014