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Mars is supposed to be dead .
Bizarre quakes are rumbling over the long-dormant tectonic plates of the planet, disrupting its trillion-dollar mining operations and driving scientists past the edges of theory and reason. However, when rocks shake off their ancient dust and begin to roll——seemingly of their own volition——carving canals as they converge to form a towering structure amid the ruddy terrain, Lt. Jain and her JSC team realize that their routine geological survey of a Martian cave system is anything but. The only clues they have stem from the emissions of a mysterious blue radiation, and a 300-year-old journal that is writing itself.
Lt. Thomas Weatherby of His Majesty’s Royal Navy is an honest 18th-century man of modest beginnings, doing his part for King and Country aboard the HMS Daedalus, a frigate sailing the high seas between continents and the immense Void between the Known Worlds.
With the aid of his fierce captain, a drug-addled alchemist, and a servant girl with a remarkable past, Weatherby must track a great and powerful mystic who has embarked upon a sinister quest to upset the balance of the planets——the consequences of which may reach far beyond the Solar System, threatening the very fabric of space itself.
February 18, 1779
You have often asked me about my life in service to His Majesty’s Navy, and I have endeavoured to tell you as much as I can, but often detail escapes me in the telling. So it is upon the occasion of my first assignment as second lieutenant that I have decided to keep a journal of my time aboard HMS Daedalus and make it a present to you when next I return.
Daedalus is quite typical of frigates in His Majesty’s Navy, boasting 32 guns and a crew of some two hundred souls. She is an older ship, but with fine lines and quick handling regardless. I hear tell of engineers and alchemists who would alter the design of our Void-going vessels, but ever since the Spaniard Pinzon ventured off Earth for the first time in 1493, it seems such talk has resulted in little. Be it sea or Void, Daedalus handles true, and to my eyes, needs no alteration.
As I write this, we are mere weeks out of Portsmouth, on a course for Jupiter that takes us quite near Mercury, where the Sunward Trading Company has a rather extensive mining operation. From there, we shall move past the Sun, skirt Mars and traverse the Rocky Main en route to our assignment. Upon our arrival in the Jovian system, we shall aid in the blockade of New York, so that the Ganymedean rebels shan’t receive aid from their fellows or, worse, the damnable French.
“Mr. Weatherby! You’re wanted on the quarterdeck!”
Lt. Thomas Weatherby turned and looked to the door of the wardroom, where Midshipman Forester—still evidently lacking in the finer points of decorum—had called for him. He thought of reprimanding the boy for his breach, but he was gone as quickly as he had arrived.
The young lieutenant closed his journal and quickly shoved it into his open sea chest, shutting the latter with a slam and grabbing his hat on the way out of the wardroom. Hurrying through the gun deck toward the stairs, he barely acknowledged the salutes from the crew as he buttoned his coat and brushed lint off his uniform. They could be under attack by the entire French fleet, but Capt. Sir William Morrow still expected his officers to maintain a high standard of appearance and composure, even under duress. Especially under duress.
Weatherby climbed out onto the main deck and saw the ribbon of yellow motes stretching into the Void from the ship’s stern—they had arrived at Mercury at last. He turned to search for the little planet, but had to look away quickly—the Sun was not only more than six times larger than it appeared on Earth, but six times as bright. While this was his first voyage to Mercury, he nonetheless cursed himself for being so careless. He instead focused on the leeward side of the ship, away from the glare and onto the inky blackness around the ship, punctuated by millions of tiny stars.
One of those stars would be Earth, where they had sailed from Portsmouth just four weeks ago. Mercury was but a stopover en route to Jupiter, where Daedalus was to join the fleet there and crush the insurrection of the British colonies on Ganymede. It was a good assignment, Weatherby knew, with a chance at both glory and prize money. What’s more, it was safer than most, for the Ganymedean Navy, such as it was, hardly deserved the name, and had few ships to match even an older frigate like Daedalus.
The young officer quickly mounted the stairs to the quarterdeck. “Lt. Weatherby, reporting as ordered, sir,” he said, crisply saluting the captain as he approached. The commander of Daedalus cut a fine figure on the lee side of the quarterdeck, standing beside the clockwork orrery that tracked the position of the Known Worlds. Morrow’s weathered face, lined by both wind and wisdom, held dark, discerning eyes that seemed to take in everything before him at once. His black hair, graying at the temples, was tied back in a simple tail, and his uniform appeared quite ready for a Royal inspection.
Morrow cocked his head slightly toward the young lieutenant, but his gaze was fixed outward, about three points off the larboard side. “We still cannot make out their colors. Quite a problem when you don’t know whom to shoot at. You have good eyes. Can you make them out?”
Weatherby pulled out his glass and looked ahead. Now that his eyes had adjusted, he could see Mercury off in the distance—a barren, pock-marked sphere suspended in the Void. Much closer, however, he picked out a merchantman, her planesails unfurled at either side, her ruddersail suspended a full eighty feet below her keel. Along her larboard side, puffs of smoke erupted from a second vessel, most likely a large frigate or small ship of the line.
“No, sir, I cannot see their colors,” Weatherby said. “The merchantman is certainly outgunned. The frigate looks to be a French make.”
“Very well. Stay on your glass,” Morrow said. He turned to his first lieutenant, George Plumb, who had already reported. “Mr. Plumb, we may as well be prepared. Beat to quarters, if you please.”
“Beat to quarters!” shouted Plumb, a large man with a stone face and gravelly voice. Immediately, the marine on watch below grabbed a drum and began to beat out a martial rhythm, while one of the young midshipmen started ringing the ship’s bell, just aft of the mainmast.
A torrent of ill-shaven, groggy and half-dressed men burst onto deck from below, roused prematurely from their slumber by the prospect of battle. The smaller, more nimble seamen started scurrying up the rigging toward the sails, while Maj. Harold Denning began sending his marines aloft, so they could rain deadly shot upon any enemy officers that might present themselves as targets.
Meanwhile, the larger, burlier crewmen pulled the wheeled guns back from the railings of the main deck, while others used giant brushes to swab out the insides and prepare them for firing. Sacks of powder were placed inside, followed by alchemically-treated cannon shot, then wadding to keep everything in place. That done, the guns were run out again, with ropes and pulleys doing the job, while the main gunner for each weapon primed his gun with more powder and prepared to fire.
Within less than three minutes, Daedalus was fit for battle, each of her 32 guns ready to spew forth iron shot and alchemical essences of destruction upon whatever target was deemed a threat.
Meanwhile, Weatherby tried to determine what that target might be, if any. While the Sun’s brightness masked many of the stars, it perfectly illuminated the two vessels in combat, as well as the golden stream of the sun-currents behind them. Those currents would make for a quick escape, whisking a ship toward the outer planets at incredible speeds—if only the merchantman could reach them in time.
“Ganymedean flag on the frigate, sir!” Weatherby finally shouted. “Dutch on the merchantman.”
Morrow frowned. “I thought the Dutch were well disposed to the Ganymedean rebels,” he said. “Thank you, Mr. Weatherby. You may join your division. We have no official quarrel with the Dutch, but we certainly have one with our wayward colonies. We shall engage the Ganny.”
Weatherby folded his glass, saluted, and clambered down the stairway to the gun deck. As second lieutenant, he was in charge of the starboard division, and he quickly inspected the readiness of his men and their guns. A slack line here, a misplaced powder charge there, but Weatherby found his men had responded well, especially given the early hour. He looked to the ship’s bo’sun, James—an older seaman whose time aboard ship likely surpassed his days on land—and this worthy returned his lieutenant’s gaze with a nod. They were ready.
“Ganny privateer, is it?” asked one of the men before him, the burly gunner Smythe, his eyes alight at the prospect of battle—or perhaps simply prize money.
“Mind your gun, Smythe,” Weatherby said steadily. “We’ll know soon enough.”
Weatherby turned to see Third Lt. John Foster approaching. “Our first battle then,” said the young man, who was a year shy of Weatherby’s age. He was newly minted a lieutenant, and like Weatherby, had yet to see action aboard Daedalus. Foster extended his hand. “Good luck, Tom.”
Weatherby managed a small smile. Foster was a good shipmate, if a little too sentimental at times like these. “And to you, John,” he managed, shaking his fellow officer’s hand. He then quickly turned back to his division, firmly putting his mind toward the task at hand.
Daedalus approached the two vessels under full sail, looking like a cross between a shark and a blowfish. In addition to her three masts of sails, used on terrestrial seas as well as the Void, she boasted a large planesail on each side, sticking out like the fins on a whale. These helped the ship move larboard and starboard and, more importantly, up and down against the planetary plane and giving them three dimensions of motion. Underneath, the ruddersail stuck out nearly a hundred feet from under the vessel, helping catch the solar winds and sun-currents to provide further direction.
Weatherby eyed the starboard-side planesail closely, hoping his recent drills amongst the men there would bear fruit. The sail would have to be quickly brought in before a broadside could be fired, lest the Daedalus shoot off her own sails and leave her without the ability to ascend or descend.
“What’s all this commotion then?” came a voice from behind him.
Weatherby turned to see Dr. Joseph Ashton, the ship’s alchemist and surgeon, tottering up to him. The elderly scientist might not have been the most nimble sailor, but his facility with the Great Work kept the Daedalus sailing between the Known Worlds. It was he who managed the sail treatments that allowed them to catch the solar winds, as well as the lodestones in the hold which provided air and gravity for all aboard. Ashton also provided curatives for the wounded and alchemical shot for the guns.
“Ganymedean ship engaging a Dutch merchantman, Doctor,” Weatherby replied. “We’re after the Ganny, of course.”
“Hmph. Yes. Rightly so, damned rebels,” Ashton said. “‘Free and independent states,’ indeed!” The alchemist clapped Weatherby on the shoulder and made his way toward his station below decks, where he would stand ready to care for any wounded that might result from the engagement.
Weatherby looked through the gun port and saw Morrow would be engaging the frigate off the starboard side. That would serve to position Daedalus between the Ganymedean and the merchantman, perhaps allowing the latter to make a run for the sun-currents and make a rapid escape. It would also put Weatherby’s division at the forefront of the engagement, firing the first shots and taking the brunt of the frigate’s response.
Faint booms echoed across the blackness, and Weatherby saw green fire erupt from the Ganymedean’s guns as she fired upon the merchantman. Morrow was right; it made little sense for the rebel to fire on the Dutch, as the latter nation was far better disposed to the errant Jovian colonies than the Crown; the Dutch, it seemed, wanted little else than to put a crimp in England’s burgeoning Known Worlds trade.
“Ready on the guns!” Plumb barked from the quarterdeck, snapping Weatherby’s attention back to the task at hand. The men of the starboard division primed their weapons and prepared to fire before Weatherby could echo the order. The young lieutenant was well pleased with their effort and hoped Plumb or Morrow noticed their efficiency in the coming action. The son of shopkeepers in London, Weatherby had long imagined more for himself than groveling before customers, though he would never say such before his hard-working, genial parents. A distant relation had secured him a spot as a midshipman when he was twelve. Now, at nineteen, Weatherby had embarked upon his first assignment as second lieutenant, and he hoped for a quick promotion to first lieutenant, or even post-captain, in a few years. From there, he occasionally allowed himself to dream of commanding a first-rate, of brocade upon his shoulders—but he tamped down on these fantasies quickly. While young, he had at least enough wisdom to know he had much to learn in the interim.
“The Ganny’s turning!” came the call from the crow’s nest, high upon the mainmast, the sailor’s voice filtering down below. “I count forty-two guns!”
Grim news it was, as the Daedalus was well outgunned by the larger ship. Nonetheless, Morrow appeared undeterred. “Three points upward on the planes!” Plumb called down, relaying the captain’s orders. The Daedalus quickly rose higher into the Void, above the level at which the Ganymedean sailed. Morrow had opted to try an angled shot in the hopes of raining a broadside—a fusillade of cannon fire from the entire starboard battery—down upon the rebel frigate’s unprotected main deck. Hopefully, that could occur before the Ganny’s guns could punch through the Daedalus’ lower hull.
Weatherby looked up through the cargo hatch toward the quarterdeck, where Morrow stood, a statue of calm except for his eyes, which darted about and beyond the ship, taking in everything and feeding the calculus of battle in his mind. Next to him, Plumb was a barely leashed hound, barking orders and seemingly ready to pounce on anyone not following them to the letter, ensuring the ship would be ready for whatever Morrow would have in mind.
“The merchantman’s making for the current!” Foster called from the larboard side. In the distance, Weatherby could see the yellow trail of the sun-current snaking past, away from the Sun and toward the other planets. Should the merchantman reach the current quickly enough, she would be miles away in mere moments, carried off at impossible speeds by the power of the Sun itself. While good news for the merchantman, it would mean Daedalus would have to capture the larger Ganny in order to determine what had transpired between them.
And the Ganymedean was closing fast, having abandoned the merchantman in order to turn and engage the English vessel. Weatherby could see her planes unfurled as well, trying to compensate for Daedalus’ trajectory, but it would be a lost cause. Daedalus would indeed approach from above, and a quick maneuver on the planes would bring her guns to bear squarely above the Ganny’s deck.
“Secure body lines!” Weatherby shouted. Immediately, the men began tying ropes around their waists; the other ends were affixed to metal loops driven into the hull. The ship’s gravity, administered by alchemically treated lodestones in the hold, often didn’t compensate quickly enough when the ship maneuvered radically, and the lines prevented anyone from being lost overboard.
The Ganny approached quickly—the engagement would be rapid indeed. Unlike battle at sea, where wind and tide forced opponents to creep together slowly, the sun-currents swept ships together as though they were mounted knights of old. They would have one chance at a blistering broadside before the two ships passed—and with luck, only one would be able to come around for a second pass.
Weatherby felt excitement and ambition dwindle into a familiar fear. Though this was not his first battle, either at sea or in the Void, it was his first in command of so large a division, and his first against a larger vessel. The other engagements to his credit were barely worthy of being called battles, lopsided as they were in favor of the Royal Navy. “Steady, men!” he called, though it was as much for his own nerves as theirs. Nonetheless, his voice rang out cleanly, and the men tensed and prepared for the coming onslaught.
“Down five points on the starboard plane!” Plumb shouted, immediately echoed by Weatherby. Four men heaved upon the appropriate lever, and the large planesail on the side of the ship angled downward so that it was perpendicular to the ship—right under the guns. The maneuver not only tilted the ship toward the other frigate, but brought the plane parallel to the line of the ship, freeing the guns to fire above it unimpeded. They would not have to draw in the sail after all.
Weatherby saw the other ship starting to angle upward as well, trying to bring its guns to bear. He frowned—they would get some shots off under the waterline. There would be repairs to be made before Daedalus could splash her keel down upon the oceans of any world.
Morrow shouted the command himself, which was quickly echoed by every officer and midshipman aboard. The Daedalus’ guns replied immediately, sending a towering crash of green-glowing cannon shot toward the enemy ship. The guns jerked backward from the recoil and were met by the well-drilled crewmen, who stood ready to swab out the bore and reload.
Suddenly, the ship lurched, and Weatherby was sent flying back into the thick trunk of the mainmast. He could hear cannon shot bursting upward through the deck behind him, and his vision was quickly clouded by a spray of wooden shards erupting from the wooden planking. He slumped to the deck, his back to the mast, just in time to see one of his cannons being shot apart by another blast, the gun itself hurtling up through the cargo hatch and out into the Void—along with two of the gun’s crew, their lines failing them. The rest were burned horribly by the alchemical shot, and blood and screams soon mixed with the wooden shrapnel in the air.
The cries of the wounded helped Weatherby focus his mind once more as he shook off the daze and ache and attempted to regain his feet. Yet he could not gain ground, and quickly feared that his head had been struck much harder than he realized.
And then he looked down. He was floating a foot above the main deck.
Likewise, a handful of the men near Weatherby—and one 1½-ton cannon—were no longer safely aboard either. Debris swirled in the air around him.
“Captain! We’ve lost a lodestone!” Weatherby called. He then turned to his men. “Lash that gun to the deck!”
Similar shouts came from all over the ship, detailing the damage inflicted by the Ganymedean, which by this point had limped away and appeared to be coming about in a wide arc, making for the sun-current. Morrow ordered pursuit, but it quickly became apparent that the Daedalus had been the less fortunate. There were several holes in her hull, some of which shot cleanly through the lower decks and out the main deck. At least one other lodestone was lost near the forecastle. While the gravity was erratic now, that was less troublesome than the prospect of losing air—a ship needed its lodestones to not only keep everyone on deck, but to retain the air necessary to breathe on long voyages between the Known Worlds.
Most importantly, the Ganny had managed to shoot the Daedalus’ rudder-sail completely away—making the capture of the Ganymedean an impossible task, as a ship’s sea rudder was wholly unsuited for navigating the sun-currents between worlds.
Yet Daedalus had acquitted herself admirably, causing the other vessel severe damage amidships. Lookouts reported that the rebel ship suffered a damaged mainmast and a number of guns lost. Little wonder she was making for the sun-current instead of coming around for another shot, Weatherby thought. Perhaps this would, at the very least, convince the Ganymedeans to stay in the Jovian system instead of targeting Crown assets such as Mercury.
“Stand down!” Plumb called. “Repair crews to stations!” Weatherby repeated the order with disappointment, but knew the captain was wise in not attempting pursuit. Besides, there were his men to attend to. Starks and Adler, two of his best gunners, were already out of sight and lost to the Void; there was nothing to be done for them. Flung far from the ship, they would soon succumb to lack of air, and drown on nothingness. Were they further out from the Sun, they might have died of the horrid chill of the Void first, but ’round Mercury, not even this small blessing would be theirs.
Yet there were four others severely wounded, with sickly charred burns and bloodied limbs, and these were men who may be saved. Putting the unfortunates lost to the Void out of mind, Weatherby quickly called for the orderlies, fighting back the bile in his throat as he knelt beside the worst casualty.
“Where is Ashton?” Weatherby demanded of one of the crew who came to render aid.
The man merely shook his head sadly. As the fog of battle cleared from his head, Weatherby could see the gaping holes in the deck beneath his feet, and feared that little aid would be forthcoming from the ship’s alchemist.
Thankfully, officers carried a handful of curatives on their persons at all times, and Weatherby managed to stop three of his men from bleeding out. The fourth, sadly, breathed his last before Weatherby could get to him.
With his men stable and the orderlies bandaging their burns, Weatherby picked his way up to the main deck to report, stepping around a small gathering of marines; Maj. Denning was among those who had fallen in the engagement, and they knelt in prayer over his corpse. Yet once Weatherby arrived upon the quarterdeck, he found Morrow was elsewhere; James directed him toward the cockpit, where the captain had gone to check on Ashton.
Weatherby rushed back down below toward the belly of the ship, hoping Ashton somehow managed to survive the battle. When he entered, he was aghast at conditions therein, and crushed at how misplaced his hopes had been.
There was a massive hole in the lower half of the starboard wall, where one of the Ganymedean’s shots had penetrated, strewing charred and blasted wood throughout. Floorboards and walls still smoldered where fires and acids from the lab were released. And in the middle of the room, Morrow and an orderly were kneeling over the battered and bloody body of Dr. Ashton, attempting to administer curatives in the dim lantern light.
Weatherby attempted to walk into the room, but tripped—upon Ashton’s severed leg, which had been thrown from his body. Unable to keep his stomach calm at this, Weatherby quickly rushed toward a hole in the hull, rent by alchemical shot, and made it there in time so that his hurried breakfast did not stain the deck as it came forth.
When he turned back around, he saw Morrow and the orderly, still kneeling before the rest of Ashton’s body, but with resigned looks upon their faces. “It’s no use at all,” Morrow said. “He’s dead.” The captain looked up to see Weatherby staring in horror; Weatherby knew full well that the captain had taken note of his lack of composure. “Mr. Weatherby, please ask Mr. Plumb to change course. We’ll have to put in at Elizabeth Mercuris to make repairs.
“And we’ll need to find a new alchemist, sad to say,” he added. Weatherby nodded and saluted, then rushed away above decks, grateful for Morrow’s discretion. He knew the captain would be less forgiving if there had been more crewmen about, however, and he resolved to steel himself more thoroughly next time.
As Weatherby delivered Morrow’s orders and began overseeing repairs, his thoughts drifted to the kindly Ashton—the old puffer had called Weatherby his fellow “bookworm”—and, more importantly, what he meant to Daedalus. Other than the captain himself, a ship’s alchemist was the most important person aboard ship. He conducted the occult operations necessary to keep the ship aloft in the Void, made air and gravity possible and, on small ships like Daedalus, also acted as ship’s surgeon. While officers sometimes made a study of the Great Work, their knowledge was typically quite limited compared to those who devoted their entire lives to the Art of Transformation.
I despair of finding an alchemist worth his Salt at the Elizabeth Mercuris mining colony, now mere hours away. There is little in the way of order there, let alone learning, and from what my shipmates have told me, the stories told in the London taverns are true, in that it is an altogether rough and ill-fortuned place. Yet the ores mined there, used in alchemical shot and shipbuilding alike, are critical to England’s supremacy in the Void. So the Royal Navy keeps Elizabeth Mercuris afloat above that sun-blasted rock of a planet—and because of that, I doubt they have an alchemist to spare, as it is no mean feat to keep a wooden outpost hanging in the Void above that woebegone cinder of a world.
And while we might press men into service there to replace those lost, I am certain no one of alchemical learning would find themselves in such a place without ill tidings having befallen them, despite the outpost’s importance to England. So even if there be an alchemist available to us, what sort of man would he be?
But we have little alternative, Father. Without someone to tend to the ship’s lodestones and sails, we would be adrift in the Void, perhaps forever lost to Earth, England and home. So I must hope that Elizabeth Mercuris may give us something of a miracle—in the form of a suitable alchemist.
The Daedalus Incident © Michael J. Martinez 2013