My Dear Rackham,
I am new to this business of spycraft. Feigning loyalty to a man while plotting his downfall is an exhausting business, especially since I would strongly prefer that said downfall be accomplished with as little bloodshed as possible – not a likely proposition, historically speaking. All the while I must take care not to be, as the parlance goes, “burned.” I do not believe I am quite burned, though at this point I am undoubtedly “singed.” Van Dyke thinks it is utter folly to return to Stockport; he would rather escape this damnable island and leave it to its sorry fate.
But I am getting ahead of myself. I have had some days to carefully observe Robards, and now additionally some time well outside his influence, and I think you will find my observations fascinating. His Ability, or Curse, might seem enormous in scope based on what he has been able to accomplish. But the more I observe, the more limited I believe it to be in fact. He possesses a heightened charisma, nearly unconscious in its effect on others, as well as a more directed ability to charm those on whom he focuses his attention. But with these abilities comes a dependence – the adulation of others is now like an opiate to him. In a very real, perhaps even physiological way, he needs to bask in the presence of those who are devoted to him. Similarly, someone ensorcelled by his charm will find the effect ebbing over time, at a steadily increasing rate. Whether he is cognizant of this or is merely responding intuitively, I do not know, but his practice of constantly bringing his aides and lieutenants to meet with him personally in his audience chamber now makes perfect sense. He is simultaneously feeding on their love and reasserting his control over them.
This being the case, what can we say about the hundreds of people who do not see him face-to-face, but nevertheless sing his praises and pledge their allegiance to New Albion? Is there some other facet to his Ability, or is it an ominous critique of the herd mentality of human nature itself? Even outside of Stockport, where I feel confident enough to say that no shred of his Ability is present, still you will find fisherman and villagers happy to accede to his rule. It does, after all, provide some measure of stability and continuity in tumultuous times.
However, outside of town, the majority of the islanders have not been taken in, and they are gradually converging on Carteret, which is where I write from now. But my narrative has not yet arrived there: patience!
First, the College. You will recall that the Brotherhood had swept through there, establishing control and taking prisoners; I was not present for that, of course, but after the escape, Robards sent me there. Until that point I had hoped to find deserted buildings stuffed to the gills with Society secrets that I could archive, index, and peruse. But, to the contrary, the whole place had been put to the torch. Burned-out husks of buildings were all that remained; the only shred of sanity in the whole affair had been to leave the mooring tower and aero beacon intact. From there Alia set off on repeated flights over the island, ostensibly to look for the escapees. I spent some time sifting through the ashes, trying to find anything of value, but without success. Only later did I learn that some things had been preserved – anything with obvious military applicability, in fact – but I have not been able to find out the full extent of it.
Next, the Sigsbee. I had long wondered why they remained in the grotto – surely the repairs must have been completed by now? But some snooping around at the residence and at the docks turned up the answer. To understand it, you must picture Stockport’s bay, a wide U, east-facing. Its northern side is comprised of a high, wide promontory. The grotto housing the Sigsbee lies directly under that promontory, but its opening onto the sea lies opposite the bay, facing north. A road winds around the tip of the promontory and ends in a cave that connects to the larger grotto. At some points it is little more than a track, ten feet wide with a cliff face on one side and a fall into crashing surf on the other; this is what makes the grotto so easily defensible, and the chief reason Robards never stormed it.
Now picture a cluster of a dozen or so shore-based mortar cannons – a collection of artillery wholly out of place for a merchant town of Stockport’s size. Some of them were the port’s original defenses, relics from the days of defending against the pirate threat. More had been seized from some of the vessels trapped in the port. And one in particular, a gigantic mortar not resembling anything I was familiar with, was one of the things claimed from the College before it was razed, some sort of experimental prototype.
Of course, the promontory itself blocked direct line-of-sight from the artillery to the mouth of the grotto. But there is a lighthouse atop the promontory, with a clear view of the waters immediately outside the grotto on one side, and the bay on the other. Robards stationed forward observers there and, through careful calculation and some trial and error, obtained firing solutions for all of the artillery to fire over the promontory and rain fiery hell upon the mouth of the grotto. Sentries were stationed atop the lighthouse, watching the grotto mouth around the clock, ready to give the signal to fire should the Sigsbee ever decide to stick its nose out.
No surprise, then, that not much had been heard from Campbell or his crew in over a month. I was determined to make contact again, but first I took some time to carefully examine the documents you sent featuring him, including the curious Daguerro-graph with Admiral Segismund. What I found puzzling about them was that they were not the secretive communiques one might have expected an undercover agent to have in his possession, but, as you noted in your letter, they included Campbell’s commission document as first officer on the Sigsbee, and their official orders, referring to a military exchange program between Albion and New Columbia, all thoroughly bureaucratic and pedestrian. I was reminded that, while Campbell was the commanding officer when we first encountered the ship, that was only because its original captain, named Tollard, had perished during the Incident-inspired strangeness at Yarmouth.
Wanting to minimize my contact with Robards, I did not want to offer myself up as an official envoy to the Campbell. I doubt he would have agreed to it in any case. That meant reaching the grotto unseen. I might have made use of my Ability in this context, and indeed I considered it, but that would mean leaving the ward behind. I was also not certain I wanted to reveal my capabilities to the New Columbians. And so I turned to none other than Bertram, the smuggler who had secreted us to Machlou and back. He had kept a low enough profile to avoid entanglements with the Brotherhood, though we had met surreptitiously on a few occasions to exchange updates on the state of things. Perhaps it goes without saying that he had not fallen under Robards’ sway. For someone who had invented a way to cross a treacherous seaway infested with vortex-storms, the prospect of a short smuggling run along the coast under cover of darkness presented no great difficulty.
As we rowed up to the mouth of the grotto I thought it prudent to announce ourselves, so as not to be taken as attackers by anyone on duty. The crew were, not surprisingly, in a state of high alertness, and more than a little on edge. We were immediately detained and locked in separate cabins on board; fortunately it was not long before Campbell came by to find out why on earth I had returned.
It was evident in our conversation that he still had some means of getting news from town, but this worked against me in that he believed me to be entirely loyal to Robards. Indeed, for a moment I feared I had made a terrible miscalculation, and that he would keep me to use as a bargaining chip, and do who-knows-what with poor Bertram. But then Alona arrived, took one look at me, and said to Campbell, “We can trust him.”
“And how can you be sure of that?” he snapped back.
“He orchestrated the prison break,” she replied.
I did a terrible job at masking my surprise when she said that. How could she know? But then I realized … I had told Alia as much, and if the two of them had some means of communicating with each other, then that would explain not only how she knew, but also how the New Columbians had managed to stay informed about goings-on outside the grotto. Campbell wanted very much to know how I had managed to free the prisoners without drawing any attention to myself, but I was coy on that point, hoping that it might add to my mystique as an unlikely master of subterfuge.
I learned that the Sigsbee was ready to sail, but could not hope to withstand the artillery barrage waiting for it, to say nothing of lacking a reasonable destination should it manage to escape. For the latter, I suggested Carteret, and as to the former, I allowed that I had a plan for that too, if they could be ready to leave by midmorning, and if Campbell would answer one question for me. “Name it,” he said.
I handed him the picture showing him standing alongside Admiral Segismund. “Who is he?” I asked.
“How did you –” he began, but then he settled back with a look of resignation on his face. I was not prepared, however, for what he said next: “He is my father-in-law.”
I will spare you a detailed rendition of our ensuing discussion. Segismund, a retired New Columbian admiral, arranged for his recently-married son-in-law to receive a commission as first officer aboard an ironside bound for Albion on an ostensibly routine mission. Campbell had reason to believe that his captain, Tollard, also had secret orders, and while he did not know what they were, he suspected that they were from his father-in-law, who, being retired, would only be issuing orders if it was a rogue operation or if his retirement was in fact a ruse. Campbell’s assumption was that he was being carefully evaluated, and that if he proved reliable, he might eventually be let in on the secret. But before that could happen, the strange blight struck Yarmouth, and … well, you know the rest. He was indeed charmed by the early manifestations of Robards’ Ability; when the effect ended he said it was like waking from a dream. He is eager to get out, and to find a way to somehow report back to the New Columbian High Command, but chiefly he just wants to get out of this mess and find a way to be reunited with his new wife back home.
So perhaps Stratham was keeping tabs on him precisely because he was not One of Them, at least not yet, and was therefore an unknown quantity. Did Segismund indeed intend to eventually bring him into the fold? Or was he there simply as a family favor, and therefore (from the perspective of someone like Stratham) an unwelcome complication? And what the deuce was Segismund up to, and what did it have to do with Dr. Brown, if anything? Getting some answers from Campbell has only spawned ever-more questions, in a pattern that is now all too familiar.
Far from being a cagey operative, Campbell seems to be an earnest and rather naive officer just trying to do his best, Deus bless him. It was he who thought me to be a personage of portentious secrets and untold abilities, and, I confess, I did give him one more reason to earn that reputation, the following morning.
The plan had come to me while I was investigating the artillery and the watch-post maintained at the lighthouse atop the promontory. But it was not until I was inside the Sigsbee that I decided it was best to brook no delay. I left the ward behind in my old berth on the ship, and in the pre-dawn half-light I left by way of the path leading from the side cave, and clambered my way to the top of the promontory. One guard was stationed at the door to the lighthouse, but the rest were all inside, either off-duty in a room at the base, or keeping careful watch of the waters near the grotto from the lantern room on top. From a distance I snuck around to the side of the lighthouse opposite the entrance, out of sight of the guard. Then I had to wait for more daylight to spot what I was looking for: the means the guards had to signal the artillery back in Stockport. The main lanthorn could have served them, of course, but lighting it would have been too time-consuming. Finally I saw it: a signal-lantern, small but powerful, of the kind used by ships at sea to communicate through fog and the like. It was bolted to the balcony ringing the lantern room, pointed back toward the docks in town.
To get to it, I climbed up the side of the lighthouse. And no, I do not possess incredible athletic prowess belied by my modest appearance. Just as I had done to get back into my upper-storey room after the prison break, I used my Ability at a sort of moderated level, making my hands insubstantial enough to pass into the stone wall, but not so light as to pass completely through it. The effect was like sinking one’s hands into firm clay, and with the lightness that came with a partially ghost-like body, climbing was surprisingly easy.
I found myself on the balcony, and, looking around for a means to disable the signal lantern, spotted the very wrench that presumably had aided in bolting it to the railing in the first place. I solidified myself, grabbed the wrench, and smashed down on the lantern repeatedly.
I should have realized just how loud this would have been, especially in the peaceful quiet of early morning. The sentries on duty had not been looking for anyone climbing up the outside of the lighthouse, of course, but now they came quickly enough – indeed, one of them had been just inside the lantern room, and emerged on the balcony just a few feet away. He wasted no time in lunging at me.
I have often thought about the fight at Mont-Bré, and specifically about how, in the heat of the moment and quite without meaning to, I used my Ability to propel the reanimated corpse of Dr. Brown away from me as it attacked. It had occurred to me that, with study and practice, I might use my Ability to great effect in a fight. Imagine a combatant who can be hit by neither blows nor bullets, but can solidify when needed to send his opponents flying through the air! And yet, as you well know, that sort of violence is not in my nature. The gentleman assailing me at the moment wore the armband of the Brotherhood, a group of ruffians for whom I had developed, it is safe to say, a rather extreme level of distate, and yet I had no wish to commit any physical harm against him.
So I jumped. As the ground rushed up to meet me, I resisted the temptation to de-solidify too early, for you see, I wanted to build up as much momentum as possible. In the instant before impact I ghosted (that is the term I have been using in my own notes, for lack of a better one) to the greatest extent possible. I wanted to pass through the solid earth not like a knife through clay, slowly, but rather steadily, like a pillow through a cloud. And into the earth I plummeted.
What followed was a time of profound fear and uncertainty. I wanted to be … hoped to be … sinking steadily through the earth, into the promontory, but was not afforded the greater level of perception that would have assured me that that was what was in fact happening. In the utter darkness, with my body ghosted to such an extreme extent, I saw nothing, felt nothing. I was a spark of consciousness in a black void. I held on with desperation to two pillars of faith: that gravity was still working its magic on me, even though I could not feel its effects, and that my rough measurements of the dimemsions of the grotto the previous night had been accurate.
Have you guessed my gambit yet? Forgive me for indulging in a bit of unnecessary dramatics in relating it. Since you are reading this, you know that I am not perpetually trapped underground. True to my hopes, after an indeterminate passage of time, I emerged from out of the earth, falling through the ceiling of the grotto, and splashing into its waters within a stone’s throw of the Sigsbee. After a bit of floundering I called out, was hauled aboard, and told Campbell that now was the time to sail.
The great steam engines engaged and the ship lurched forward for the first time in many weeks. As it emerged from the grotto, all hands braced for the sound of artillery fire, but none came. I imagined those poor guards at the lighthouse spying the Sigsbee and desperately trying to signal. They did in fact light the main lanthorn, and the mortar fire did rain down, but by that time we had already emerged and turned hard to port, and were making headway counter-clockwise around the island, hugging close to the shore so as to avoid the vortex-storms.
Now the Sigsbee is anchored just off Carteret. Its mooring tower has been erected, and if all goes well it will be Alona who puts this letter in your hands. I have been eager to write this so that you are apprised of the situation here, but obviously there are many more developments to come as we all meet and plot our next steps. As I indicated at the outset, however, my own plan is to return to Stockport. I doubt I was personally recognized atop the lighthouse, but I have been absent for what may seem to be a suspicious amount of time … hence my fear that I am “singed.” Time will tell.
You must pass along to Bennington my shock and disappointment that her mastery of Saxonian is not up to the task. I find the whole language nigh unintelligible when spoken, but written is another matter, and I feel reasonably confident that I could have had you on your way a good deal more quickly than you have managed. And so I wish you godspeed, but not without a word of caution. I remain ever-haunted by the Presence I sensed beneath the waves of the channel, that day the Sigsbee was tossed about by the storms. Der untersee is not a safe place, I fear, and if you are passing through it, do so as quickly as you may.
As for Thompson, I shall keep an eye out for him. That is perhaps not as unlikely as it sounds, as Campbell is eager to re-establish contact with his superiors, and as his vessel is the best chance at safety and mobility that we have at the moment. To the extent that said superiors may have been partially responsible for the destruction of Albion, I am not sure that puts me on any better footing than being at the disposal of a deluded megalamoniacal dictator. But my choices are, for the moment, rather limited.