My Dear Rackham,
If things were different, it would be job enough for any man to simply be your correspondent, perhaps a sort of amanuensis, dutifully reading and recording your fantastic exploits and providing what research assistance and advice you might require. Instead, I have my own swirling intrigues to contend with, and in these letters we barely have space to catch each other up in the barest detail, let alone dwell with leisure and contemplation on what the other is experiencing.
I am opting for the double-letter approach again, rather than that of Martineau. I picture you having to write shoulder-to-shoulder with others, encamped in the midst of underground caverns, with no way to prevent them from seeing what you are doing. On the other hand, I am afforded my privacy, at least for the moment. And so I will write frankly and trust our flyers to deliver this to you only under secure circumstances.
Life on the island of Garnsey is increasingly surreal. I have a small room in town, where I am joined for meals most days by Jacobs or Sharma or both. Even though we are technically on Albion soil, in a civilized and peaceful place, sometimes it feels like it did when we were hidden in an attic in Machlou – surrounded by strangers, trying our best not to attract attention.
The Brotherhood of New Albion is a local militia that has sprung up in response to unrest near the docks. With a diverse assortment of trading vessels still trapped here due to the vortex storms, and with more rumors trickling in about the effects of the Incident, really it is no surprise that tensions have been high. Things came to a head when some opposing factions came to blows on the streets, but very soon after, this Brotherhood appeared: ordinary natives of Stockport and the environs, each wearing a blue armband with a red stripe. They put an end to the infighting among sailor-gangs with sudden and brutal efficiency, and have been patroling the streets and keeping the peace ever since. I thought it peculiar how quickly this local group came into existence, until, on my way to my wine cellar work-space one afternoon, I spied one of their number making a report to a member of Robards’ staff. I suspect the group’s origin is far less spontaneous than it appears to be. It goes without saying that the Brotherhood of New Albion supports Captain Robards and deeply appreciates the aid he is lending the governor.
Why “New Albion?” I asked one of their number that question on the street one day. He was of the belief that nothing remains of Albion proper, that everyone has been killed or transformed into monsters, and that Garnsey is all that remains of a once-great empire. Therefore it is time to start again. I assured him that, while things were definitely bad, it wasn’t as bad as all that, but he would have none of it. Though it did give me cause to wonder about the full extent of the devastation. Specifically, what about the capital? Alia and Alona have both reported too much storm activity in that area to even attempt a fly-over. It would be good to know whether we even still have a government. I’m sure you are curious whether there is still a Bank that holds some of your riches.
But I digress. Things have been very quiet and peaceful in Stockport since the Brotherhood arrived. I would prefer a little more noise and chaos in exchange for not having a populace enthralled under the eldritch will of their unofficial new leader. Jacobs and Sharma and I cannot be the only ones who, for whatever reason, have not fallen under Robards’ sway. But whatever others there may be are probably like us, going about their business quietly, meeting in private in the back rooms of taverns.
It was six days ago that Sharma told me that he had been called in to report to Robards. They had met in private, and the Pandjaran had given a full accounting (from his perspective) of everything that had happened at Mont-Bré. He was visibly shaken after the interview. As a loyal soldier, he would have told his commanding officer everything in any case, but he reported feeling a terrible weight from Robards’ gaze, as if, even had he wanted to lie to the man, he would not have been able to. That was troubling, but what was equally strange was that Sharma had been called and not me. I had, after all, made a public report and all but begged the captain to meet me in private so that I could tell him the whole story.
Two days later I was sent for, and for a short while I thought that he was simply debriefing each of us in turn, separately. A bit paranoid perhaps, but understandable to a point. It turned out to be something quite different.
The banquet hall that Robards was using as his center of operations had changed since the last time I was there. The desks and chalkboards and bustling activity had all been moved to adjoining rooms, giving the hall a much more cavernous feel. Earlier, the captain had sat behind a desk on a raised platform, suitable for performances, at one end of the room. That desk was now also missing; instead, Robards sat upon a high-backed, Gothic, ornamental chair. The sort of thing one might find in the foyer of some country estate, an heirloom, not a chair for actually sitting in. But there he sat.
“I understand you have been to see Campbell,” he said without preamble. This was at least a week after we had gone to the grotto, as I related in my previous letter.
“Indeed,” I replied. “He wants for some supplies to complete his repairs.”
“He shall have them,” he said. “But only because I need his ship. You must make that clear to him.”
“If you wish,” I said, “But captain, we have much else to discuss. Would it be possible for me to give you a confidential report?” I glanced at the half-dozen or so functionaries who stood around the room. One of them seemed to be dutifully recording everything that was said.
Robards gave a curt nod, and they all filed out of the hall, closing doors behind them. A good bit of the light had been spilling in from the adjacent rooms, so now the two of us found ourselves shrouded in a half-darkness, me feeling very small standing in the middle of the floor, Robards up on his – I hesitate to say it, but there is no way around it – his throne.
I started to speak of Mont-Bré, but he raised his hand to stop me. “I have all I need from Sharma on that matter,” he said. “The situation is in hand.”
“We really need to discuss what, if anything, we should do about Van Dyke. Whatever his connection –”
“It is in hand,” he interrupted. “Van Dyke is in custody. I need your attention on other matters.”
I was flabbergasted. “In custody how? And what other matters?”
“When the Sigsbee is repaired I need her to perform a salvage and recovery mission. Campbell seems to trust you, and you have a particular insight into the thing I want recovered.”
“And … what is that thing?” I asked, fearing to hear the answer.
“You know very well. The object you saw falling from the ship in the storm. My pendant.”
“Robards!” I stammered, “I hardly know where to begin! The vortex storms have not abated! That thing is on the bottom of the Channel, hundreds of feet deep! And when last we spoke of it, you said that when you lost it it was as if a weight was being lifted from your shoulders! Why the deuce would you even want to go back for it now?”
“As to the last, that is my affair. The depth is a concern, but the Society has some expertise in underwater exploration. They have equipment that will serve.”
“I have not seen them coming to pay their respects,” I said, “Even if they have such equipment at the College I hardly think they will hand it over.”
“I can be very convincing,” he replied. I searched his face for a hint of smugness, since that is just the sort of thing the Robards of old would have said with an grin, plying his boyish charm. But this Robards hadn’t an ounce of humor in him. He simply meant what he said. “As to the storms,” he continued, “We will simply have to risk it.”
“Listen to me, my friend,” I said. He stiffened a bit at my use of the word “friend.” “Please trust me when I say you must not do this. Whatever lies beneath those waves,” – I shuddered in spite of myself – “Leave it well enough alone.”
“You have your orders,” he said coldly. Then he fixed his gaze on me. And I sensed what he was attempting, bringing his Ability to bear on me. I could feel the weight that Sharma described, but only as an abstract concept; it did not sway me. But in a sudden (and rare) moment of devious insight, I feigned acquiescence.
“As you wish,” I said, bowing my head.
He nodded, satisfied. “I may need you at the College when we get the equipment. You will be sent for.”
Then, as if by hidden signal, the doors to the hall opened and his functionaries streamed in. The interview was over.
I have taken the liberty of relating that entire conversation in detail, given its importance. It should be clear that I had no opportunity to discern in what sense Robards may or may not be a “turncoat.” But I am beginning to wonder whether his previous associations and loyalties are in any way steering his current activities, or whether it all stems from his Ability in some way. He seems to feed off of the devotion that he is now able to engender in others almost effortlessly, creating a loop of ever-expanding influence. My intuition says that his desire to go after the ward is a personal obession and not part of some larger agenda. But of course I cannot be sure. And I need hardly tell you just what a very bad idea I think that would be. I still have nightmares about what I sensed beneath the waves.
But that fateful mission has not happened yet, so I hold out hope that it may yet be averted. In the days after the meeting with Robards I tried to discover where he was holding Van Dyke, and this proved far easier than I would have guessed. I was in the wine cellar one afternoon – in point of fact my work with the artifacts from Mont-Bré is more or less complete, but keeping it going in order to have access to the residence seems like a good idea at this point – when I saw a guard walking past the open doorway holding a tray. Peeking out into the hallway after him, I saw him unlock a door and deliver the tray, which was indeed bearing a modest evening meal, to the occupant of the room, then lock the door again behind him.
It could only be Van Dyke, I supposed, and here he was, my veritable neighbor, with only a wall and an empty wine rack between us! I stepped into the hallway, thinking to examine the locked door, but that is when I saw another guard stationed at the end of the hallway, very alert, and so I feigned another errand before returning to the cellar. Observation over the next couple days verified that he was being kept under very close watch. (For that matter, perhaps I was, as well.) So frustrating, to have him so close, and yet have no way to reach him.
Then I thought: all that lies between us is a wall.
Every other time my Ability has manifested, it has been outside my control, usually the result of adrenaline in the face of imminent danger. It had been some time since I had even tried to accomplish anything by will alone, but this seemed like as good a time as any to give it another go. On the theory that my conscious, active mind had not been of much help with this in the past, I helped myself one night to one of the bottles of wine still lingering in the cellar, drinking steadily until I felt fuzzy around the edges, as it were. Then I set my attention on the wall.
Let us sail past the hour or so of failed attempts, including the one where I bruised my forehead walking into the wine rack with considerable force because I was absolutely convinced that I was, at that moment, incorporeal. The time when it actually worked, it came as something of a surprise. It did not feel like it was going to be a successful attempt, for one thing, but also, the increased perception that had always accompanied my altered state in the past was not there. I experienced a momentary panic thinking that I had gone blind, but then I realized that I was inside the wall. Taking the next step forward was surprisingly difficult, and I shudder to think of my fate had I not been able to take it. But I did, and found myself in the bare room serving as Van Dyke’s prison. He sat on a cot, reading by the light of a single dim lantern. He only noticed me when I took another step forward.
You must forgive me if I do not render my conversation with Van Dyke in exacting detail. For one thing, it was rather long. But more to the point, I was drunk, and any specific dialogue I might relate would be more invention than recollection.
He was, of course, surprised to see me. At first I found it odd that he was merely surprised and not agape at my astounding entrance, but I gradually realized that, not having seen it directly, he simply assumed that I had come in quietly through the door and he had somehow missed the moment. We spoke quietly; it was understood that this was a surreptitious meeting, and that the reason for this was that something was amiss with Robards. Nonetheless, I made it clear that I was not there to give assurances, but to receive answers. And he gave them. I count it for little that he seemed completely sincere and forthright, for that is one of the skills of his profession. Who knows where the truth ends and the lies begin? With that caveat, here, in summary, is what he had to relate:
While the Society’s chief interests lie in scientific inquiry and the development of technology, there is a faction in their membership concerned with historical research; these are the ones who would throw a fit whenever Von Neumann or one of his protegés would utter the word “Ashkur” at an academic conference. But at the same time they apparently saw fit to insert one of their own spies as a student working under the old professor himself. Unbeknownst to us there was a very important dig in the Ruhr valley two years ago; the destruction of Essen in the Blood War had laid bare a heretofore unknown network of caverns beneath the city. Brown was the chief archaeologist on that expedition. That is where they unearthed what we now know as the “wards.”
Moving briefly to another track: you will recall that, after the Blood War, the Crown allowed the Society to share aero technology with New Columbia. This established connections between our scientists and their military; these connections have been maintained. Unlike the Crown, the New Columbians, perhaps insulated somewhat from the horrors of that war, seemed eager to utilize new discoveries in order to create better and more destructive weapons; in this they found willing partners in the Society, always eager to press the envelope no matter the consequences.
Apparently the discovery of the wards was a rather sensational affair, involving unexplained powers and dangerous creatures, the details of which Van Dyke either does not know or will not share. Word reached the Society via their mole, then reached the N.C. military via the Society, and they in turn reached out to Brown, who, in addition to studying under Von Neumann, had his own military connections, having served in one of those rare N.C. detachments in the Blood War. Whether it was the wards themselves, or some other information discovered there, something was valuable enough that they instructed Brown to abandon the expedition and return home, taking the wards with him. In doing so he undoubtedly had help from the Society spy who had posed as a student.
Now we reach an important period where Van Dyke avers complete ignorance; he describes himself as an “operations” man, valuable because he gets things done without asking too many questions. At any rate, for a long time work was done in New Columbia investigating the wards and whatever else they may have taken from under Essen; this work was a close collaboration between the N.C. military and the Society. The end point of that work was bringing the wards to Albion – Van Dyke’s personal involvement came in getting Brown and others in and out of the country undetected. He confirmed that one of those he helped Brown make contact with was Thompson/Throckmorton. He also acknowledged that “Rexley” was much in discussion among them, though he could provide no additional information about it.
This would have been a scant ten days before the Incident, which of course threw everything into chaos. And while no one at the Society had anticipated anything like it, they grew increasingly concerned that they did not have all the information, and that the Incident was indeed anticipated by, and perhaps even welcomed by, our dear departed Dr. Brown.
Sending Van Dyke along to Mont-Bré, then, was not just your typical nosy Society behavior. He had specific instructions to aggressively neutralize any threat, especially anything related to the wards, or to triggering ancient mechanisms or invoking ancient rituals. He recognized Brown, and, hearing what he had to say about “activating” the Obelisk, decided to follow his orders to the letter.
I wish I had more to report, but after having discussed that much, we heard noises in the hallway. The guards apparently checked on Van Dyke at regular intervals, even through the night. The next moment we heard the sound of a key turning; the suddenness of the danger perhaps worked to my advantage, since when I dived headlong for the wall, hoping for the best, I did indeed pass right through it and back into the wine cellar. I only wish I had thought to glance back and catch the expression on Van Dyke’s face as I did so.
It is at least somewhat gratifying to learn (if it is true, of course), that the Society has realized it made a bad partnership and now seeks to undo damage it may have been complicit in causing. But as Van Dyke was quick to point out, said Society is no more than a collection of individuals, many of whom were lost in the Incident, with the remainder desperately trying to piece things together and stay in contact just as we are.
It seems clear that Brown was some sort of apocalyptic madman. Maybe something he saw at the Essen dig drove him to insanity. But rather importantly: was he the only apocalyptic madman, or are there others still intent on carrying out his plans? You are, at this very moment, in the company of both a New Columbian spy and a Society scientist – what, if anything, is their connection to each other? Thompson’s relationship to all of this is undeniable; Bennington’s is less clear. I wonder too whether her research, these vials I still have, are part of this in any way, or are a separate affair.
Oh, and as to that, Van Dyke did confirm that Elizabeth College is far from being a backwater educational institution, and indeed hosts some of the Society’s most sensitive and secretive endeavors. Unfortunately he felt certain that somewhere on the campus could indeed be found the sort of underwater exploration gear that Robards was seeking.
I have not risked another walk through the wall in the days since. I am trying to decide just what I can do to dissuade or hinder Robards while overtly remaining in his good graces. I would ask your advice in all of this, my friend, but I fear your reply may reach me too late to do any good. Nonetheless, any insight you can give I will happily take, even if it arrives belatedly. Especially, I seek further clarification on what you have discovered about Campbell. He may be a “rogue from government,” but if he is a rogue from those New Columbians who may have set Brown on his path, that is a good thing to be. Or perhaps all of them who are involved themselves constitute an independent faction carrying out their own monstrous business, and Campbell is in on it. But I think of the orders that Thompson received, coming as they did from the N.C. High Command, and I fear the former is more likely the case.
I hasten to finish this while Alona stands waiting; she reported being harassed by Brothers of New Albion on the streets wanting to know her business. An ominous sign. I have instructed her that your reply is to be delivered only to me directly. Stay safe, my friend!