Business As Usual
Business As Usual
illustration by nekro

Spring, 1890, and England needs a hero. Gideon Smith is yet to step up to the role as public protector of the Empire, but in the background and the shadows, Mr Walsingham pulls strings to keep the often outlandish threats to Britain and her interests at bay. It is a role that lies heavy on his shoulders, and here we find him composing his end-of-year report to Queen Victoria. “Business As Usual” is a standalone novelette that takes place some months before the events of the forthcoming steampunk/Victoriana novel from Tor Books (Snowbooks in the UK), Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl, which is published in September.

This novelette was acquired and edited for Tor.com by Senior Editor Claire Eddy.

 

Her Majesty Victoria, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, Queen, Defender of the Faith, Empress of India, Regent of British America, Commander-in-Chief of the Armies of the Rhine, Living Goddess of the African Nations and Ruler-in-Waiting of the Moon, on this day, the thirty-first of March in the year of our Lord Eighteen Hundred and Ninety, I beg your indulgence.

Your Majesty, I have committed many crimes in your name.

 

Mr Walsingham paused, his pen hovering a moment over the box in front of him. His nib was not dipped in ink, nor did he make his marks on paper. A thin sheet of vellum sat beneath the shallow wooden frame, and he described his invisible letters on a thin sheet of stretched leather. There were only a handful of these Antikythera coding devices in existence, a model Mr Walsingham himself had commissioned based on an ancient mechanism discovered in a wreck off the coast of Greece. Beneath the leather skin, a complex series of gears registered each letter and inked a corresponding cryptic symbol on the paper beneath. To anyone’s eyes, the coded message would be unknowable gobbledegook. To Her Majesty, keeper of one of the few Antikythera boxes, it would be easily translatable back into English.

Mr Walsingham laid the stylus down beside the paper and sat back in his high-backed chair, steepling his long fingers beneath his chin and staring out of the large window that looked out from his office in Whitehall. March, they said, came in like a lion and went out like a lamb, but London was still in the grip of a straggling winter. Cold, fierce winds tore along the Thames, the electric lamps slung along the banks bouncing alarmingly. Up towards Greenwich, the Lady of Liberty flood barrier, her torch held aloft, her book proclaiming the British victory over the nascent American Rebellion of 1775, would be keeping the swelling tides away from the capital as best she could. Down on Horse Guards Parade, a flower girl’s blooms were snatched from her basket and scattered along the street like multicoloured confetti. Mr Walsingham watched the sun sinking in the cold blue sky, the gas lamps flaring along the streets snaking between the Gothic towers and marble edifices, the ziggurats overflowing with greenery from their stepped terraces, lights blazing redly on the tails of the dirigibles circling and waiting to land at the Highgate Aerodrome. A stilt-train rattled along the river bank, hooting in the approaching dusk and chugging out plumes of white steam. Beneath its elevated rails and supporting steel columns, bowler-hatted bank clerks strode between costermongers and newspaper sellers, roaring boys full of gin and spring fancies bobbed and weaved, and in the darker recesses pinprick eyes of ne’er-do-wells shone like both warnings and invitations.

London, in all its glory. City of marvels, home to heroes, cesspit of sin, birthplace of kings and graveyard of the poor. As the sky darkened, Mr Walsingham’s reflection was presented to him in the glass of the window, a thin, pale man with a hawkish nose and sharp, cold eyes. His grey hair was greased to his pate, his white moustache waxed to the tips. Behind him, on the hat stand, his satin topper hung above his thick wool Crombie.

Mr Walsingham picked up his stylus again.

 

Many crimes, Your Majesty. Crimes that would keep a lesser man awake at night, and send him running to his priest or pastor, begging forgiveness. But I know in my heart that sometimes the lesser evil is necessary for the greater good. Thus, on this, the last day of the fiscal year, I offer to you my customary annual report into the activities of my department.

But where to begin? There is much to tell you, Your Majesty. Much indeed. Fitting together the disparate pieces of recent events to create some kind of palatable whole is a puzzle fit to test the Empire’s finest minds. And much of it seems to revolve around our good Hero of the Empire.

Her Majesty needs not me to remind her that the adventures of Captain Lucian Trigger, the dashing and vital Hero of the Empire, ably assisted by his good friend and constant companion Dr John Reed, have been thrilling the inhabitants of the Empire for years now, through the pages of the penny magazine World Marvels & Wonders. Neither does Her Majesty require me to reflect upon the true nature of this unique partnership, nor the truths that are necessarily kept from a sensation-hungry public happy to believe in the version of events which we allow to be published in the pages of the periodical.

Her Majesty has already been made aware of the situation with Dr John Reed, and it pains me to report that he is still missing. No-one, not even good Captain Trigger, knows his whereabouts. I am afraid we have to begin to fear the worst about this good servant of the Empire. But while there is no news of Dr Reed, we must presume he still lives. I am sure that our beloved Captain Trigger has made every effort and utilised all the resources at his disposal to locate Dr Reed and learn the truth.

 

It was now too dark to write. Mr Walsingham rose from his long walnut desk and lit the gas-lamps in the sconces on the wood-panelled walls of his office. Honey-coloured light flooded the room, but still he took out a box of matches from his waistcoat pocket and when he had got one to flare he held the flame against the blackened wick of a candle in a chamberstick on his desk. For all his gas lamps—and he was considered quaint insofar as he eschewed the electric lighting that most of the other offices in Whitehall had availed themselves of—Mr Walsingham was never so comforted as by candlelight. What was it that clergyman had written, in the wilds of British America’s pioneering communities in Vermont? “There is not enough darkness in all the world to put out the light of even one small candle.”

That was often how Mr Walsingham felt himself, a lone flame of righteousness holding the burden of terrible darkness back from the glory of the British Empire. And just as one had to sometimes fight fire with fire, so there was often only one defence against the darkness. He began to write invisibly again on the stretched leather.

 

Ma’am, for some years I have had in my possession a piece of work given the name the Hallendrup Manuscript, a venerable tome originating in an old part of what we now call Denmark. Among its mostly pedestrian contents is a passage detailing the mysterious sinking of a Viking longship in calm waters in the Atlantic, close to Iceland. The manuscript details the contents of the stricken vessel, which included a most peculiar artefact apparently originating in ancient Egypt. There are hints that this artefact is a cog in a much larger machine, a vastly powerful weapon beyond our understanding, developed by the ancient Egyptians but never deployed.

In the final days of Eighteen Eighty-Seven I despatched a covert party to investigate, none other than our very own Hero of the Empire and a crew of Royal Navy officers with a then untested prototype submersible vessel. They were transferred to the area where the Viking ship was said to have been lost by a merchant seaman I have had cause to utilise several times in the past, Captain James Palmer and his ship the Lady Jane, and in stormy seas the submersible and its crew made a most miraculous voyage to the seabed, where they indeed discovered the Viking wreck and its cargo of treasures.

There was much excitement attached to the journey, Ma’am, some of which you may have read about in the somewhat sanitized version presented to the aficionados of Captain Lucian Trigger’s adventures in World Marvels & Wonders—should Her Majesty’s literary tastes run to such a periodical. The submersible was beset by a fantastical underwater beast, a kraken, which threatened to tear apart the Royal Navy vessel. It was only the bravery of the Hero of the Empire which saved the day and drove the many-tentacled cephalopod back into the briny depths.

Not for public consumption were the events immediately after this admittedly thrilling adventure. The crew of the submersible did indeed locate its target—later given by myself the appellation the Atlantic Artifact—as well as what appeared to be a stone tablet giving, in hieroglyphic form, some very real clues as to the use and operation of the artefact in conjunction with the powerful weapon the ancient Egyptians had created.

However, even the Hero of the Empire was unable to prevent disaster. The necessary secrecy attached to the venture had impelled me to instruct Captain Palmer to forsake his usual, dependable crew and instead take on a team of casual seamen from Gibraltar. Whether good fortune smiled upon our enemies or if there had been some breach of security I am still undecided, but somehow the crew was infiltrated by spies.

I had instructed the Royal Navy officer in charge of the expedition to despatch this temporary crew—aside, of course, from faithful Captain Palmer and his loyal first mate, Mr Devonshire—after the mission was complete. A little harsh, you might think, Ma’am, but necessary given the covert nature of the expedition. However, while the Navy officers were battling with the kraken two of the crew made off with many of the items recovered from the sunken longship, fleeing in a lifeboat. Given the ongoing hostilities between France and Spain, Her Majesty will no doubt be as puzzled as I was to hear that the absconding villains were a Frenchman and a Spaniard. Quite what these strange bedfellows signify thus far eludes me. Among their booty was the stone tablet; however, all was not lost, as Captain Palmer had managed to rescue the Atlantic Artifact.

 

The flame of the candle flickered in the invidious breezes that clawed in through the window fittings, and Mr Walsingham gazed into its depths for a long moment. Those few who professed to truly know him would consider him rather coldhearted in matters pertaining to death. It was true that he had killed those crewmen as surely as if he had himself held the gun that put a bullet into each of their heads on the storm-tossed deck of the Lady Jane. But he did not revel in death. In truth, he looked forward to a time when there was no more killing required. But as long as there were those quarters of the world which refused to capitulate to the greater good of the British Empire, then it was sadly inevitable. And not just for faceless foreign sailors on distant, stormy seas.

 

Your Majesty, it behoves me to ask after the health and well-being of your grandson, Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence and Avondale. I trust he is much recovered after his sojourn to the sanatorium in Switzerland, and is maintaining more appropriate behaviour? You will be aware that we have arranged a match for him with Princess Mary of Teck, the daughter of Your Majesty’s cousin Princess Mary Adelaide, Duchess of Teck. The courtship we are trying to organise is slow-moving. Your grandson is, as I am sure you will forgive me for observing, somewhat difficult when it comes to matters of the heart. But I am sure he will see sense, and this year, perhaps the next, he will be fully supportive of our efforts to encourage him to ask for her hand in marriage.

Ah, dear “Eddy,” as he insists on being called among that unsavoury crowd from which we are trying to wean his interests. Did he ever tell you, Ma’am, why he decided to take some time out of the hurly-burly of society life and attend the sanatorium? I should think not, as we had to rather . . . forcefully insist upon his silence. But perhaps it is time you knew the truth.

Two years ago, in the summer of Eighteen Eighty-Eight, he set his cap at a rather different young lady. A wholly unsuitable match, Ma’am, one that would have scandalised London had it been allowed to continue. Why, we only just managed to take appropriate action in the nick of time, Your Majesty—myself, Dr William Gull and four of our most trusted men found him in the throes of proposing marriage to a mere shop girl, an Irish-born woman named Annie Crook who, so local gossip would have it, was no stranger to base prostitution when her poorly-managed finances required.

I can imagine your shock, Ma’am. It will be tenfold when I tell you that this Annie Crook resided on Cleveland Street—mere doors away from the brothel which homosexual men frequented and to which Prince Albert Victor’s name was so slanderously attached following the police raid last year. Gull and I managed to extricate the Prince from a very sticky situation, I am pleased to say. And you must believe me, Ma’am, when I say I took no pleasure in what had to occur next. Annie Crook will not threaten the reputation of the monarchy, Your Majesty, you can rest assured of that. Under my direction and Gull’s surgical ministrations, she is no more.

As I say, Your Majesty, terrible crimes have been committed in your name.

 

For more than thirty years Mr Walsingham had worked behind the scenes, in the shadows, for the protection and furtherance of the Empire. He had begun as a young man and had become old in the intervening years. And Queen Victoria was no longer young; she would be seventy-two years of age in a matter of weeks. They had grown old together, Mr Walsingham a not-always-obvious but ever-present fixture of her life.

And there was so much yet to do. They were very close to achieving the dream—the whole map of the world coloured pink, the dominion of the British Empire absolute. So close, yet still with so much to do. For the world was a very big place, its dark corners almost impenetrable. Almost. Mr Walsingham could do it, he knew—he believed. He could do it. Given time.

He cared not for his own life, save for the value it had to the Empire. But what really worried him was the fear that Victoria was already in her twilight. What if she were to die? What would the world be like after her? It was a day he fervently hoped would never come, even as he knew it must.

But it was a world of marvels, a world of wonders. Who was to say what must happen, what had to happen? Were there not new and exciting miracles being forged every day? Were there not possibilities springing forth from every adventure?

 

Your Majesty may be wondering why I bring up the topic of Her grandson and Miss Annie Crook. Everything is connected, Ma’am, as though by invisible spiderwebs that crisscross the Empire. After taking receipt of the Atlantic Artifact, I had our finest scientific minds examine it, in the hope of deducing the intent of the ancient Egyptians, even though we had lost the vital stone tablet to the traitorous crewmen who escaped the Lady Jane.

Sadly, their investigations came to naught. Without any kind of context on which to base their inquiries, the artefact seemed an impossible puzzle to solve. However, the Empire’s tendrils reach far, and I had previously had reason to request the presence in England of one of the more eminent German scientists, a Professor Hermann Einstein. Professor Einstein had been installed in a rambling, country house in the Home Counties for the purposes of exploring new types of engine which might, eventually, carry a man to the moon and thence to claim it in the name of the Empire. Einstein is something of a maverick, given to unorthodox methods and haphazard experimentation, and on a whim I took the artefact to him to see if his peculiar mindset could gain some insight into the treasure where our more methodical scientists had failed.

Einstein was delivered of the artefact early in ’Eighty-Eight, and by the summer of that year he was indeed making some kind of progress into teasing open the mysteries contained within. He made a most odd request in connection with his studies: a human brain, as “fresh” and intact as possible.

I was able to accede to his request.

Terrible crimes, Ma’am. Terrible, terrible crimes.

 

Walsingham wasn’t his real name, of course. It was more of a . . . job title. He had adopted it when he took possession of the situation in the late Eighteen Fifties, not long after the previous incumbent had sadly died in the aftermath of all that business in the Cornish tin mines. Walsingham often wondered how he himself would have handled that problem, had he been in position at that time. All who had been involved were either dead or raving mad, only the final notes written by the previous Walsingham before he took his own life in this very office remaining as any indication of the horror that had occurred. As far as Walsingham knew, no-one else other than the deceased and himself had ever read the full notes, and he intended to keep it that way. He shook his head in the gloom as he recalled the madness in that report, written in a tight hand that became increasingly and alarmingly scratchy and wild towards closing lines.

Creatures beyond our ken, from worlds beyond ours, summoned by inbred half-wits. And they might have consumed the earth, but for the efforts of those who ultimately paid the most final and terrible price.

Part of him hoped that when his time came, he would go like that, in servitude to the Empire, saving the world from abominable evil.

And then . . .? Then there would be a new Walsingham to take his place, someone who even now would be being gently and secretly primed to take on this most important of situations. Primed by agencies unknown even to Walsingham, because for all his importance as the lynchpin of the Empire, as the spider at the centre of the web, the shadows were deeper than even he could penetrate.

So it had always been since the time of Good Queen Bess, and the original and first Walsingham. So it would be forever.

 

You may—quite rightly—be wondering, Ma’am, what happened to Einstein’s experimentation between me giving him the artefact and the current time. I wish I could give you a more positive update. Another problem arose: another disappearance. Einstein has been gone since the beginning of this year, to where I have no idea. His manservant Crowe can offer no clue, only that the Professor was there one day, gone the next. Kidnapped, or of his own volition, we do not know. We do not even know what became of the artefact, whether Einstein took it with him, or whether it was spirited away by the same agencies that claimed him. A cursory search of the house was conducted, though it is a tumbledown place of mad creations, half-baked inventions, mechanical figurines and scattered, unscientific note-keeping. It is impossible to pry into every nook and cranny, so stuffed with amazing devices is the house, so the manservant, Crowe, has been instructed to remain at the house for the foreseeable future and to inform me immediately if there is any word at all from Einstein.

I need not tell you, Your Majesty, that finding Professor Einstein remains one of our major priorities. Whether he has turned traitor or been captured by our enemies, we must conclude that his experimentations with the artefact have not proved fruitful, either before or since his disappearance, as no weapon of the type hinted at by the Hallendrup Manuscript has emerged.

It would, I am sure we agree, be a job most suitable to the Hero of the Empire, returning Professor Einstein to us, but that is a solution which I fear now eludes us. With Dr Reed missing and Captain Lucian Trigger bereft, I am very much afraid that the age of the Hero of the Empire is shortly to be lost to us, Ma’am.

I know, this is distressing news. Captain Lucian Trigger’s adventures have thrilled the public for many years. He is very much the public face of what I endeavour to do, Ma’am, the acceptable version of events that are very often too secret, too upsetting, too unbelievable for the citizenry to fully and truly grasp. Captain Trigger gives the public a fillip when times are bad, gives them hope when all seems lost. Women love Captain Trigger, men wish they had a quarter of his bravery. Small children sleep more peacefully, knowing that Captain Lucian Trigger is keeping the world safe from the more unusual threats which cast their shadows over England.

The well of adventures appearing in World Marvels & Wonders magazine is beginning to run dry, I fear, with old exploits and half-forgotten stories being polished and served up. It will not be long before there are no new tales left to tell, Your Majesty.

As astonishing as it seems, we need a new Hero of the Empire, Ma’am. No, I do not know where we would find one either. Captain Lucian Trigger has served us so well, and for so long, that it seems almost obscene to consider replacing him. But as the world changes, so must we. I cannot think who would fill Captain Trigger’s boots, but maybe an answer will become clear soon. Perhaps, out of nowhere, a new champion will emerge.

That is the nature of heroes, after all.

 

Mr Walsingham sighed and laid down his pen. The day was almost at an end. He would need to finish his report and have it couriered over to Buckingham Palace immediately. There was so much left unsaid, so many things that had occurred in the last year that he had not even touched upon. Where to begin? Where, in fact, to end?

England needed heroes. No-one would ever consider Mr Walsingham a hero, not after the things he had done. His fate was to forever hide in the shadows, orchestrating, planning, moving the pieces across the board. Yes, he had committed terrible crimes; yes, his hands were red with the blood of many people. His soul, he imagined, was stained blacker than night.

Yet, everything he did, he did for the Queen, and the Empire. No thought for his own conscience, no thought for his own immortal soul. Let him burn in the fires of Hell, for he had devoted his life to the betterment of the Empire.

The candle blazed in front of him, wax flowing like tears along its length.

He gathered up the sheets of vellum he had filled and tapped them neatly together on their bottom edge against the surface of his desk. He stared at the symbols scratched upon the paper. Mysterious, unknowable.

Just like him.

With a sigh he held the sheets out to the candle, putting the corner of the stack of paper in the dancing flame until the sheets swiftly caught and burned brightly with oranges and blues into pale ash that rained down into the round dish at the base of the chamberstick. He held the sheets until the flames licked his fingers, then let the remnants drop into the dish, where they quietly burned themselves out.

It was a weight he carried, and one that he must carry alone. Queen Victoria would not thank him for sharing the darkness with her. There were some things that even a Queen should not be burdened with.

That was why there had always been, and always would be, a Walsingham.

Mr Walsingham watched the final burning scraps die into ash, then selected a clean sheet of paper. He moved the Antikythera device to one side and took up a more orthodox pen, dipped the nib into his inkwell, and began to write again.

 

Her Majesty Victoria, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, Queen, Defender of the Faith, Empress of India, Regent of British America, Commander-in-Chief of the Armies of the Rhine, Living Goddess of the African Nations and Ruler-in-Waiting of the Moon, on this day, the thirty-first of March in the year of our Lord Eighteen Hundred and Ninety, I beg your indulgence.

Business as usual, Ma’am. Business as usual.

I remain, as ever, your servant,

Walsingham

 

“Business As Usual” copyright © 2013 by David Barnett

Art copyright © 2013 by Nekro

4 comments
David Barnett
1. davidbarnett
Thanks to Nekro for another brilliant illustration on this one.
missallen
2. missallen
Nice, tidy, and atmospheric! Looking forward to the book release!
missallen
4. Tora Greve
Hallendrup manuscript, very funny.

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