Before your eyes pass over this latest letter from me, I am sure that you will have already pored over MacTallan’s map. If all has gone well and Alona has made yet another successful run between Greysham and your location, then you have been handed a waterproof packet, in which has been placed carefully folded piece of nautical chart paper, next to this letter. This represents a clean copy of MacTallan’s best efforts to concatenate, organize, and confirm the known “active locations” of “paraclysmic activity.”
As I shared the details of your last three letters now with Bennington and MacTallan, it has become clear to us that we laughably powerless humans have become embroiled in an ancient struggle for power well beyond our ken, especially given the news and manner of Rachel’s departure, over and above the vexingly slippery Dr. Brown. Even Tollard seems now to recognize the hot fire with which he played, like an ignorant but fascinated child in the glow of sheer energy; he had not understood the half of his danger, and was thrice-blessed that it did not destroy him altogether. Quite half-crazed in the state that he had been when we found him, he was simply a product of the pull of this antediluvian power—and with his mind and humanity fully reclaimed now, he has become rather useful.
It was Tollard, you see, who first put into words the code that we had been receiving each of the five nights after Alia’s last flight out. It took us until the third evening for any of us to recognize that, around the same time each night, we would see dancing lights out in the water, faint like a distant star and lost to anything but the very periphery of our vision. A black storm had swept up the sea out on the horizon after the third night, but by then we had been sure of what we all had seen at different times, with Parsons corroborating our reports. On the fifth night, we were ready with Bledsoe’s telescope, trained out with a low-powered lens toward the east along the line of the dark water.
And there it was: blink-blink-blink. I wrote furiously in the log-book as Tollard called out the letters, translating from international military code. R-E-N-D-E-Z-V-O-U-S-C-O-A-S-T-1-1-0.
“Ship in distress?” Bennington asked from behind me.
“Not if they want a rendezvous,” Tollard replied, his eye still fixed out onto the water.
A bolt of inspiration hit me. I closed the cover of the log-book, its golden letters blazing. “I think I know who it is, and where they want to meet us.”
Tollard looked up from the telescope. My idea seemed to leap from my mind straight into Bennington’s.
“Only one other person in this part of the world would know 1-1-0 means the Cairns.”
“Then draw a parallel from that point out to the coast,” she said, picking up from my thought.
Tollard struggled to contain his confusion. “Who’s sending that message?”
Bennington and I smiled at each other, oblivious to Tollard. “Can you signal him in the affirmative?”
Tollard brought up the kerosene lantern that I had carried out to the rooftop where we had set up the telescope. Holding it aloft, he swung it upward and downward in wide strokes, looking not unlike an acolyte with a censer on a chain. After a short pause, three long, deliberate flashes came as a response from the dark mist.
Parsons was quite put out, not understanding quite why we had roused him from his sleep at his house—but we thought better of simply leaving, and not a one of us felt comfortable with staying behind in this urgency. In addition, it crossed our minds that venturing outside of town in the wee hours of the night was something generally regarded as unsafe, so informing Parsons of our intention to do exactly that seemed a necessary formality.
Dawn had just broken as we arrived on the chalk cliff, some twenty miles south of town. Bennington, MacTallan, and I scanned the water with a sense of uneasy anticipation mixed with a nebulous disbelief while Tollard started a signal fire, having located some dry brush along the cliff’s edge and some crooked sticks from among the grasses. Once we had been situated for an hour or two, our disbelief converted to an abject and undeniable reality: the Jagdschloss surfaced before our eyes, the copper housing of its Sehrohr jutting first over the water, followed by the sweep of its gray-steel conning tower.
“Impossible,” I breathed, my words swallowed by the wind.
As I write this now, we are joined around the ashes of our little fire, our coats pulled tightly around us in the chill air, facing the shocking figure of a man whose features have now been quite perfectly blended with a reptile. Thorpe wears no clothes now, and has little need of them: while he retains two legs and two arms, the remainder of his hairless body is covered in a skein of glistening scales, pattered green and red and copper-gold. His head has flattened, presenting the sleek aspect of a snake; his smallish black eyes have now migrated to the sides of his skull, with slits that alternately dilate and narrow as he turns his head. Where his jaw and chin once outlined his strong face, he now has a slightly elongated snout with a slit for a mouth, and speaks with an unmistakable hiss—although his voice is still very much his own as I remember it. Behind him follows a tail, protruding from his lower back and reaching easily down to the ground. As he spoke his tale to us, the tail swished to and fro, independently tapping out its own restless rhythm on the ground.
I captured what he said into the log-book after we welcomed him ashore—he jumped from the hatch and effortlessly swam the short distance in the cold water to reach us. Rather than to attempt to re-produce the ensuing dialogue between the five of us, I have copied what I recorded below.
“I had to find a way to separate you three from Gates. He had already brainwashed the men somehow. I was afraid that once we reached Skald, there was no way I was going to be able to protect you. Arasaku, Laray, Bell—all of them were already under his power. I don’t know if he had the same kind of power that Crane told you about with Robards, but I came to see that Kilcannon was the only one I could trust. Kilcannon and I had already planned a fake sabotage and a ruse to make it look like we had sunk. We figured that if we could get you three safely away from the boat and headed toward the island, it would give Kilcannon and I the time we needed to confront Gates and take our men back; once we had the ship, we would let Bledsoe think the boat was sunk. However, when Thompson showed up on board, it was perfect—we could blame him, get you off the boat, and take it over. But we had to move fast.”
“Gates wasn’t any fisherman—he was another NC spy, just like Thompson. He knew all about the H-boat and had been looking for it for several months already. When he found it, he and Bledsoe knew they had to have some way of including our men while still having control of it. What it was originally intended for—I have no idea. Gates is under our guard now, back on the ship. We gag him, partially in case his voice is somehow the source of his power, and partially because we do not want to hear his pathetic sniveling.”
“After I jettisoned your lifeboat, I took command of the ship from Gates, knocking him unconscious. The men all slumped forward in their chairs. I shouted for the lads to wake up, and tossed them about, but we were in mid-climb. After a few minutes Kilcannon was able to remember how to level the boat out and take the helm. But the men seemed dead, or at least in a deep sleep. Kilcannon shouted from the engine room that O’Doole and Bell looked the same way. Later, we saw that the two engine-room men had both been shot in the chest, and to us they seemed as if they had struggled before the end.”
“At that point, I ordered Kilcannon to gather up and eject some oil drums, spare parts, tools, and other non-essential items out from the starboard torpedo tube. We also figured that you would need some food and basic medical supplies, so we sent what we could find out of the tube, too—keeping enough for ourselves, or course.”
“In the port torpedo tube we had already loaded up a torpedo on a timer fuse. Kilcannon shot it out, and it worked perfectly. It detonated away from the ship, but amid our debris field. It rocked us fiercely, however, and we lost most of our power.”
“When we were able, Kilcannon and I went back to look at the men in the control cabin. The men had been awake the entire journey, of course, but Kilcannon and I had noticed that they seemed only able to hear Gates’ voice. In fact, I recall them acting somewhat strangely during the last day of tests—taking orders from him and not interacting with others—but as we had assigned them to Gates, we thought nothing of it at that point.”
“This is when we became convinced that these weren’t our men. Something about them looked odd, altered, as if they were being played by others in a costumed disguise. Kilcannon said he thought they had been sort of copied, like people constructed out of the features of others, but lacking their own true identities. For all of our efforts, we could not get a single one of them to wake up, and as the initial hours passed after jettisoning your life-pod, their skin went gray and ashen, as if rapidly dying. Kilcannon and I took turns pushing them into torpedo tubes and out into the water. But O’Doole and Bell, we gave them proper burials on the island.”
“Over the next week, we set to work repairing the real damage that Thompson had done to the engine screw motor. We finally got the motor to work again, but we had to set it at a lower speed to avoid further damage. With our food getting low, we knew that there wasn’t much time to find you on Skald. We got to the island, but you three were well on your way to the interior—our week spent in repairs without our engineers set us too far back. We found the concrete bunker and eventually tracked you to the cave you had stayed in; we knew it was you because we found the log-book there. But you had already vanished.”
“We had to backtrack south to the beach-head because of the wererat activity—it was just too dangerous for us to stay and try to figure out what happened to you. That strange island. While we were on the island, my transformation seemed to accelerate—look at me now. I am a snake-man, and from accidental discovery I found that I can change the color of my scales to blend in with my surroundings.”
“That’s how I got the log-book to your desk, in fact. In the week that followed our arrival—and then departure—Kilcannon and I went back to the Albionese coast, piloting the ship as best as we could with only three at the helm. We forced Gates to help us steer, dive, and surface, and he knew better than to resist us. It seemed to Kilcannon and I as if he had given up on some kind of mission that he’d had. Anyway, we put the ship up the shore a way from Greysham, and I swam ashore with the book. My skin helped me slip into the town undetected, and my only idea to signal to you that we were still alive was to put the log-book where I knew you had kept Crane’s letters, and where you had instructed the flyers to look for a letter if you were gone. I had hoped, anyway, that if you were alive and were to someday return to Greysham, you would find the log-book again.”
“Over the last few weeks, I had been able to make a few swimming journeys ashore. Going into town at night as the human chameleon that I apparently am, I was able to bring back food for Kilcannon and I, as well as our prisoner. However, something changed this last week, and I could sense it. I took a chance that Bledsoe was dead or at least no longer in power by signaling you off-shore. I am just glad it finally worked. The H-boat is now completely out of power with this last journey to the rendezvous point.”
Thorpe has now been caught up with the story from our end—our time on Skald, my temporary disembodiment, the discovery of Tollard and the Rexley Device, the use of the conveyance line, the “bright blood” and our time at Thornskye, our escape from the same, our arrival back in Greysham, and our arrest of Bledsoe. I explained to Thorpe that Bennington, MacTallan, and I act, at least in the interim, as the “council of leaders” for the little town—but in no wise do we harbor political ambitions. Rather, our current push is to find a way to rescue the human population of Skald and to convert its remaining wererat groups (if any did not make the crossing to the Albion mainland) into humans somehow.
Bennington has not yet offered to Thorpe the possibility of reversing his transformation with a droplet of blood, but I can sense in her that the gears are turning, so to speak. We have far less laboratory equipment than we did at Thornskye, and at any rate, we do not have the blood with us; it is locked up in a steel safe back at the Arms. But now we look forward to a morning’s journey back to the town, where we can put this letter and the map in Alona’s hands and set to planning a way to helping the people on Skald. The map, I hope, might also lead to an eventual re-unification of our two expedition teams at some point when our missions seem complete.
One final detail comes to mind as I close this letter, once more concerning the map. MacTallan used the largest sheet of chart paper we could find here in the town, and it also happened to be blank—we took it, among other useful things, from Bledsoe’s stock in his library. It seemed a small triumph in a way; there were many things in his guarded house that suggested that he had lived off the fat of his townsfolk for months. This is no small surprise to me, as I have seen the weakest of men profit from disaster: and not just this one, but the time after the Blood War, to be certain, as well as in the wake of the Novgorod Famine when we were boys.
I must confess—writing with no small show of emotion now—that a descendent of one of those men, I foolishly followed in those footsteps. You know that my father’s fortunes expanded with the shipments made to the Argyars and the Mondravians to those impoverished countries; as I assumed more of the operations of his business in my young adulthood, I began to see exactly how these fortunes had grown. He claimed expensive and risky ventures, but in fact he had exacted high profits from communities both dependent on the goods he sold while being insulated from all other competitors through bribes and back-room deals.
Although I pour out my thoughts here for you, I will of course thank you for your discretion in keeping these words private. Indeed, Crane, I financed this expedition many months ago, when we set out to determine the devastation that blighted our fair country, but I had made my own deals, calculating my own fortunes. I once had the thought that should we find something valuable from among the ruins of our once-proud cities and towns—say, for example, Society technology or some kind of new metal—then the expedition could be said to be worth the pains we took to launch it, and I would find a way to convert our discoveries to coin.
I no longer care about monetary gain, or living the comfortable existence as a wealthy gentleman. That life now seems half a world away, a faded set of impulses and cares built upon the shallow vanities of a forgotten time. I know have seen the real; I have known fear; I have found courage; and I have seen the greatness in others, a nobility that cannot be bought or sold.
I blame the reunion with Thorpe, the heady promise of returning to Skald, and my pangs of missing Alia for my sentimentality today. I had better simply end it here, and wish you Deus’ speed in your search for both Rachel and Brown. Where the one is, my gut tells me, so will be the other.