My Dear Rackham,
We seem to be going in circles! I write again from back where we started, although this time with considerably more hope for the path ahead. You may have heard some details of our little fracas on the coast from Alona, but I will set them out here to provide my perspective.
After she found our beacon the first time, we decided to find a place to settle in for a few days while we investigated options for getting to Garnsey or crossing the Channel. A mile further up the coast from our beacon site, we found an old fishing hut, currently abandoned, which seemed to have been rebuilt and repaired a dozen times after being overwhelmed by storms. That put us two miles from Brehat, where Denis or I would go for news and occasional supplies – Denis owing to being an unassuming native, myself owing to my ability to ghost.
You can imagine my concern when I saw the poster on the town notice board, alerting the locals to “imposteurs étrangers,” wanted, and extremely dangerous. Apparently Gallian soldiers had been through asking questions as well. But all that was not quite as alarming as the gossip Denis overheard: local opinion is that Albion’s collapse was due to the machinations of an evil cabal of men with strange powers. One such man had had all of Garnsey under his rule and stood poised to send an army of abominations – part man, part animal – to conquer the Continent, but was stopped by heroic Gallian forces arriving in the nick of time.
Part of me was fascinated at how grains of improbable truth persist within these false rumors. But what it made clear is that our way out of Gallia would not be easy – not only were we being actively hunted, but the general populace was alerted to our presence and their notions of what we represented made them unlikely to lend a hand or turn a blind eye.
We had already arranged with Alona to activate the beacon on the 7th if we were still in the area; we decided to remain at our hut until then, which proved a mistake. (I should have had a letter ready to go at that point but did not, for which I apologize.) That morning we proceeded to the rocky outcropping where we had set up the beacon, activated it, and welcomed her a few hours later. She put your letter in my hand, we started to exchange news – and then all stopped as we saw figures approaching from the path leading to Brehat.
It was Sgt. Lascelles and half a dozen others – four soldiers, two men from town. Perhaps we were not as careful in our visits to Brehat as I believed. The soldiers had weapons at the ready, and Lascelles himself had a triumphant gleam in his eye. But they were not aware of Sharma, hiding behind some rocks thirty yards away, and were equally unaware of the damage he could do from that range with Kali.
“Are they hostile?” said Alona tensely.
“Very possibly,” Van Dyke replied.
“We must not kill them,” I said. “With the things people here already believe … it will seal our fate if word gets out …”
Alona spoke with a measure of calm that was terrifying: “Word does not have to get out.”
“No killing,” I insisted, and signaled the same to Sharma.
Lascelles and his men approached. “You will come with us. Do not resist.” His Gallian accent was thick.
“We have hurt no one. We want to hurt no one. We just want to find our way home,” I replied.
“You are spies. LaGrande should not have trusted you. You will be questioned, and then we will have the truth.” He gestured to one of his men and spoke in Gallian. “Secure the aero” were the words, though the intent was clear in any language – as was Alona’s opinion of it. She took two steps to position herself between the soldiers and her beloved “bird.”
The soldier yelled at her to move out of the way. Almost imperceptibly, she shook her head. He raised his rifle. I looked to Lascelles to see if he would tell the man to stand down, and only then appreciated the fear and uncertainty behind his own bravado. In that instant, he hesitated, and the soldier was about to shoot …
You are familiar with the game of darts, I take it? I suspect you are like myself and were never in the habit of passing the time in taverns, which is the lifestyle required for becoming an expert in such a game. In the handful of times I ever played it I never hit the “bull’s eye,” and thought it something of a marvel that anyone could manage the feat with any level of consistency. All the more of a marvel, then, when the dart in question is tiny and grey, little more than a heavy needle, removed from a hidden pocket on Alona’s belt and hurled forward in the same fluid motion. And when the bull’s eye in question is the barrel of a rifle! It happened so quickly that I am fairly certain the Gallians did not see it. They probably thought that the soldier’s rifle misfired in a rather spectacular fashion, the flintlock exploding, sending him to the ground, clutching his face in pain.
I heard the ominous report of Kali being fired, but Sharma’s aim was true: he hit one of the other soldiers in the arm, not the head. Jacobs charged like a bull at Lascelles and the soldier standing nearest, plowing into them and sending all three to the ground.
I turned to Alona. “Go,” I said. She had a knife in her hand and was poised to join the fray. “We will be fine,” I said, “And even if we are not, you cannot be captured.”
Van Dyke shouted a word of warning. I turned to see the fourth soldier, little more than a boy, hands shaking as he leveled his rifle at me. He fired. Despite his poor aim the bullet flew true, but in the second before that I had already ghosted, and it passed harmlessly through my chest. I spoke again, my voice distorted in my incorporeal state: “GO.”
And, indeed, we were fine. After several minutes of fighting, we subdued Lascelles and his men with no deaths, though Van Dyke ordered one of the townsmen to rush back to Brehat to fetch a doctor on behalf of those with bullet wounds in their arms and legs. Jacobs had broken a finger, lost a tooth, and was bleeding from a bullet graze on his scalp – I swear, the man attracts injuries like ants rushing to spilt honey – but the rest of us were unscathed. Van Dyke was the one to speak to Lascelles in Gallian as he tied up his arms behind his back with rope.
“You see we have not killed you. We mean no harm but we cannot allow ourselves to be taken by La Quarantaine. I am sorry for your injuries, but please, do not follow us.”
We left that place. Denis, who had prudently kept out of sight the whole time, fell in alongside as we hustled inland. There was no question that leaving them alive made things much more difficult. And something else had been nagging me: Denis, delighted as he seemed to be to take part in our travels, was not some abandoned child that we had taken in out of the kindness of our hearts. He had a loving family back at his village, and while he was with us of his own free will, it was all too easy to imagine Gallian authorities seeing it as a straightforward kidnapping at the hands of foreign fugitives.
In the end, that was what tipped the scales. Rather than risk the difficult way to an uncertain fate on Garnsey, we decided upon option #1 from my previous letter: that of returning to the conveyance node that we had come from. Once again I will elide several days of overland hikes made all the longer by the care we took not to encounter anyone else. Denis, detecting our somber mood, did not ask as many questions. I could tell that no small part of him was eager to be going home.
The last day of our journey, we were low on supplies and eager for the respite of a warm hearth, and the village was remote enough – it seemed likely that word of Lascelles’ manhunt had not reached them. So we decided to resume our original cover and return Denis in person, hoping to score a good meal before setting off again. The boy’s mother greeted him tearfully at the door of their modest house; her anger at us for keeping him away so long quickly dissipated when he assured her it had been his own choice. We left him there and made straight for the inn, and were seated at a long common table, images of a shepherd’s pie full of succulent chunks of lamb filling our minds, when the doors swung wide and Gallian soldiers entered. They did not attack, but took up positions around us as they filed in. The innkeeper and other villagers were suddenly nowhere to be found. My mind raced … it was impossible that Lascelles could have beaten us here. So who …
LaGrande entered and joined us at the table.
“So glad to see you again, Dr. Crane,” he said.
“The boy was from Roudouallecc. Your story about that … the notion that you would sail all the way around to approach Mont-Bré from the south. And even if you did, that such a path would take you through this village … ridiculous.” He shrugged. “Lascelles, ah well … ç’est crédule. When you disappeared that night I knew I would find something interesting here. Though I must admit I did not expect you yourself to return.”
“And what have you found?”
“Your campsite up on the mountain. Then the caves. And finally the chamber … ah, Crane. I can understand why you would want to keep such an amazing discovery to yourself! But I cannot understand how you got there in the first place. I have a theory, but it is so incredible that I would not even entertain it were it not for the times we live in.”
He took a book from his satchel and placed it on the table in front of us. It bore no title on the cover, but “Von Neumann” was clearly embossed on the spine.
“The chamber, the runes – they are from an antediluvian civilization, n’est-ce pas? Ashkur? I confess that I am getting up to speed on the subject myself, but it is fascinating. And the circle on the floor!” He placed his hand on the book. “This reads like the ravings of a madman until one has seen such a place, or heard tell of foreign travelers arriving at a remote village as if out of nowhere. Tell me, Dr. Crane. These ‘conveyance lines’ … is it true?”
I hesitated, then nodded.
“I see,” he said. “Thank you for the courtesy of being forthright about it, this time.”
“What is to become of us now?”
LaGrande suddenly laughed. “My friend, I am not Lascelles! When faced with such discoveries, how can we let the laws between nations stand in our way? You wish to use the chamber again, I think. I wish simply to understand it. Can we not work together?”
I found his answer a great relief, and more than we deserved. I did not wait to consult with my companions before responding: “We can.”
And so, in the end, we had our hearty meal, and look forward to sleep in good warm beds. Tomorrow we will go with LaGrande back to the mountain. I cannot wait to find out what is in his Von Neumann book, and am more confident than ever that this time, we can make a successful transit to where we actually mean to go. Nonetheless I am taking the time to set this all down, since I don’t know when I will next have a chance!
My thoughts are with you as you ready for your return to Skald. Knowing what you plan to do, my hope was that by now I would have mastered the conveyance lines, found Brown, and put a permanent end to his threat before he could get in your way. Instead I have lost valuable time trudging back and forth across the Gallian countryside. If I cannot give you my aid, at least allow me to wish you good fortune!
You may not remember me, but your friend Dr. Crane said he has mentioned me in an earlier letter. I am Dr. Julian LaGrande, and I have taken considerable pains to put the accompanying letter from him to you in the right hands. It was the very least that I could do, as I owe Dr. Crane my life. I include this note by way of explanation.
Crane and his men had happened to arrive on the eve of a big day for my expedition. Having first located the Ashkurian conveyance chamber through a series of narrow caves, I had taken time searching the mountainside to locate the original entrance, covered by a rockslide centuries old. That morning that he accompanied me to the site, we blew through the rock with dynamite and uncovered the tunnel mouth, allowing us at last to bring personnel and surveying gear to the site in force.
With the chamber fully lit at last, Crane and I went to work transcribing runes, comparing notes, making plans. It was a thrill to be working alongside him on something so momentous. All the while, though, the guards were increasingly on edge. One of Crane’s guards, the giant-sized rude one, insisted he saw runes on the walls glowing, though none showed any evidence of this when examined directly. We ignored this for too long, I fear. We started hearing unmistakable noises of movement and strange cries coming from the gash in the wall that opened onto the natural caves, but by then it was too late to seal it up.
That is when Crane handed me the enclosed letter. He asked me, if things went badly, to travel to the College on Garnsey and wait there until such time as I could place it directly in the hands of an aero pilot. Since I have done this, you may assume that things went very badly indeed.
The things that attacked were out of my nightmares. I mean this quite literally: the tales my nan told me as a child, the most terrifying bits of local folklore, were made real before my eyes. I fear my men put up a poor defense. Crane’s men fought to hold the circle, by which means he clearly intended to escape. He shouted for me to get out, but at the edge of the chamber I was caught by a creature whose hot breath singed my skin. I fell to the ground, expecting the end, not least because of the cries of agony around me. But then Crane was there, and he – I will write down what I saw, strange as it may be. He thrust his hands into the creature, then gestured upward, and it hurtled away, with its own cry of pain. Then he returned to the circle, where mist was beginning to rise up off the floor.
Half of my expedition died that day. Those that remained would no longer take my orders. Though we were not pursued once we emerged from the tunnel, they took it upon themselves to use the dynamite that remained to collapse the tunnel once again. And so I cannot say for certain what has happened to Dr. Crane. I can only say that there was no fear in his eyes, and while my men either fought in vain or cowered in terror, his fought well and seemed to be holding their own. I shudder to think what paths they have followed, that they addressed such an encounter with a calm and even practiced hand.
I am writing this on the 18th of May from Garnsey, in the presence of a Prof. Sanders and an aero pilot who gives her name as Alia. They are concerned that I keep secret the fact that she flies to and from the island in spite of Gallian control. If you would be so kind as to assure her that my allegiance to science and discovery exceed my sense of national loyalty, and she has nothing to worry about … some of her threats were very colorful indeed.
I must return to Gallia and make my report to La Commission, at which point I will do what I can to study these conveyance lines. As to that, I have received some news that gives me hope. One of Von Neumann’s former students, a professor from Nassau University in New Columbia, has apparently arrived in Les Rives and offered his services. His name is Dr. Amory Brown … I look forward to meeting him.
Dr. Julian LaGrande