Your Maman is perhaps wiser than I might have otherwise credited her for. Someone, indeed, knew. All along.
I have time now—or at least I am told that I have time—to write you a full account of what has transpired on my end these last five weeks. Upon receiving your last letter, I had a mind to write you immediately; I thought I might send a letter that would reach you in time before you left for your excursion to Yarmouth, and presumably, Highmark. Alas, at the point when your letter came to tell me of your time in Garnsey, and the next leg of the mission before you, I recognized that I had little to say.
Now I have much, and I write in fear that this letter may never find you, or it will find you too late to be relevant. In either case, I am compelled by the events of the last three weeks to write, if only to record the direction my research has taken. Thanks to my new benefactors, I can say that I am doing my research again, and with more success as when I was still at the College of Surgeons.
I will direct the letter to Sanders in any case, with a personal note of thanks to him—at least for his hospitality shown towards you—and ask that he forward it to wherever he knows or thinks you to be in Albion. I will not indicate that you reported the meeting that transpired between you both, but for that I am grateful too, and count him as an ally. If he is reading this, then, my friend: dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.
Speaking of allies, then, I have now many and several that I did not know about, and indeed should not have known until the critical time became apparent. Whether they need me more than I need them has been debated in my mind this last week, and my conclusion is that it makes no difference. It is perhaps a symbiotic relationship, one that I was reluctant at first to enter into—but which I found I had no choice—and now one that I intend to make the best of.
Allow me to paint a scene for you.
I had made perhaps a little home for myself at the Café zum Badenstor in the rainy weeks that bridged this past January and February. As you recall, this would have been after the removal of almost every valuable piece of research I had been working on from my office and laboratory at the College. While my hosts at the College were sympathetic to the robbery, they of course knew nothing, and made impotent inquiries with local constabularies. Of course, I could not share with them my suspicions as to the identities of the perpetrators, even if I had one. My work for the Society was not exactly sanctioned by the deans of the College, and they blithely assumed I would return to my writing within a week’s time as if nothing had happened.
At any rate, the Café patrons began seeing me as a regular, and I secured a favorite table from which to review our letters and the smallest of the star-charts that you had faithfully recovered for me. I had been able to reconstruct some small part of my work, cataloguing a linkage of the trajectories of notable comets with their patterned appearance in the night skies over the last few hundred years. It was slow work for me, since as I have reminded you and my superiors at many junctures, I am not a researcher of astronomy but rather a biologist and physician by trade. Without orders to the contrary in the wake of the break-in from my superiors, and no pressing need to return to my bare trappings at the College, I continued what little work I could, sipping dark teas in my lamp-lit corner.
I recall the man who I eventually came to know as Mr. Tarquin walking in three times during the course of one week, sitting quite on the opposite side of the warm, wood-lined room, watching me over whatever mug of drinking chocolate and buttered pastry he had ordered that particular day. I am no spy but I know when someone is watching me, and I know how to act as if I have not noticed. On the third occasion I had mind to clap up my book, bundle up your letters into their coffer, and exit quickly; I also thought to confront him, but I was afraid of a concealed weapon.
He did not allow me the luxury of choosing either option.
“Good evening, Herr Doktor,” he called, from his seat.
I looked up blankly, knowing I could not ignore him any longer but stultified at his brazen greeting. His Saxonian was not native, but the accent had been so well suppressed that I could not immediately guess at his nationality.
An ingratiating smile played at his thin lips. “Doktor Friedrich Emhaus Nussbaum. Hauptartztgenerall, Chirurgschule Zöllern. Secondary group, Circle of Regents, The Ancient and Maj—”
“What is it,” I interrupted testily. It was then that I became aware that the café was quite empty except for he and I, and that the door had been locked and shuttered. The portly proprietor was nowhere to be found.
“Your writings are excellent, Herr Doktor. I have long hoped to speak with you in person.”
At this I lost my next thought, which I recalled later was going to be a firm protest at his inquiry and an admonishment that he had mentioned the Society, even in private. I stopped and instinctively rolled up the chart, keeping my eyes on him even as I did so. He had the aspect of a lean and quick man, not quite devious, but hungry in a way, with darting eyes.
“What writings?” I finally managed, looking down at your letters. I initially assumed mockery in his tone, and the first conclusion my mind went to is that La Commission was displeased with me—with both of us, perhaps—and the confiscation of my equipment and materials had been a punishment of some form.
“Your studies of the allomorphic transformations, and your exhaustive treatment of the various categories of changes you observed. Your laboratory notes on the homologous development of musculature in the arouranthrope were especially intriguing.”
I confess this disarmed me perhaps more than it should have, especially given my recent loss and the bitter recognition that no quarter was safe anymore.
I cleared my throat. “Thank you, but before I say more or ask how you came to read my work, I must now ask you who you are.”
“Of course, Herr Doktor. I am Jacob Tarquin, formerly an explorer with the Knights of the Tower and Key. Golden Eagle, third operative.”
I breathed a sigh of relief. “Society man.”
I narrowed my eyes and the man stood up, bringing his mug with him. He stood before me, six and a half feet of sinew. I observed no weapon; not seeing any better use of the next several hours, I motioned for him to sit before me as I closed up the remainder of my notes and writing equipment.
“Thank you, Herr Doktor, you are most kind. I do not mean to frighten or alarm you with my appearance here today, but after careful consideration, I decided this environment would offer a chance to speak privately without raising too much suspicion.”
“Among whom?” I asked, still skeptical.
“Society informants. Your handlers. The ones to whom you currently answer.”
I paused, impatient now for the man to arrive at some kind of premise for this conversation. “And they are not those to whom you also answer,” I prodded.
“Not anymore. Not since the Schism.”
“I have never heard of a Schism,” I replied.
“Nor were you meant to,” Tarquin countered. “You were meant to continue your work, making only the discoveries they wanted you to, and advancing knowledge you never knew you were uncovering.”
I blinked and squared my chin. “This is nonsense,” I muttered, but something kept me in my seat.
Another crooked grin spread on Tarquin’s freckled face. “How many dissections did you perform at the College, Herr Doktor?”
“In excess of five hundred,” I declared. “Either as the supervising surgeon or as the operant myself.”
“Did you ever wonder where the specimens came from?”
“Never. They were poor devils that were caught in the wilderness or hiding in some cellar. Some had undergone their changes at prisons and others at sea. Many had died as a result of their changes, and others were killed by frightened or outraged compatriots.”
“That’s what they told you,” Tarquin said. “Ever get a rat-man from Yarmouth?”
“Ever receive a bear-man from a place called Innesmere?”
“I recall him exactly.”
“Ever dissect a dog-man from Duneaton?”
“I don’t recall the town, but I recall that specimen, yes.”
“Ever wonder why the specimens were always from places in Albion? And why you always seemed to have a steady supply?”
I looked down in an attempt for earnest recollection. I reddened a little, and was forced to admit that I never questioned the origin of my specimens, or the conditions under which they came to me.
“Herr Doktor, I must tell you now that I represent a small alliance of former Society agents and scientists who have come to the conclusion that the direction in which the world is heading is not, in fact, the direction it is meant to go in, and that there are secret but very powerful cabals that would spin it into their own hands for their own ends. I will tell you that the Society, such as it is, is one of those groups, and even now they continue to act in concert with elements from New Columbia. The catastrophe of Albion made hardly a correction in their activities, and, in fact, according to my friends, acted as the perfect cover for their agenda.”
I hesitated and my eye twitched. “Your friends?”
Tarquin nodded solemnly. “We are perhaps the world’s only hope.”
“You have a way to reverse these catastrophes?”
“No,” he breathed. “We must evolve from them.”
My heart fluttered and my palms began to sweat. Every inch of my skin seemed to crawl. I desperately wanted to leave and simultaneously I found myself riveted. “I—I don’t understand,” I stuttered.
Tarquin’s eyes drifted toward the thick scroll by my side on the bench where I sat. “Of course you do. Why would you have ordered the star-charts?”
“My sources pointed toward a correlation between the presence and types of allanthropic activity and certain celestial—”
“That doesn’t sound like medical research to me, Herr Doktor.”
“No,” was all I could manage.
Tarquin raised his chin. “You believe in the Weltstufe.”
“I do. But it is not a belief—”
“Correct. It is a theory,” Tarquin offered, “to which my friends and I adhere. In fact, it is a concept central to our work.”
I shifted. “You had me at a disadvantage during the first part of this conversation, Mr. Tarquin. Now I must inquire: what work is this?”
“Our theory—upon which we have amassed some considerable evidence—is that the workings of the world are cyclical. It is meant to continually evolve. To move toward a state of more perfection than it finds itself currently, yet a state that it once possessed. In fact, there have been several times of rebirth, so to speak, and they frame this world’s history like the rings of a cut tree.”
I took a long breath and signaled him to continue.
“Think upon it with me, now. You are a surgeon, but your training was in the natural sciences. You know, even as we speak, there are things you have seen which are unnatural and—well, perverse. I am willing to bet that there are other things you have seen which, although not within the typical order of things, seemed yet as improvements, beneficial changes to humans which seemed not to corrupt, but to enhance.”
I nodded slowly. “I don’t—I cannot disagree.”
“As a naturalist, now, think of how a forest fire works. A dry, overgrown, knotted wood, filled with hollow dead trees and others fouled by disease. Growth in strange directions, too close upon itself to efficiently drink in the sun or bring nutrients from the soil. A saphrophyte’s delight, but inhospitable to the rank-and-file of burrowers and birds, predator and prey alike.”
Here he paused for dramatic effect, or to gauge if I was still listening. His hands twitched in the air.
“A spark comes from the heavens—a dash of lightning that touches down somewhere in the forest. The tinder and parched undergrowth lights up in minutes. Soon a great and roaring fire springs up, engulfing all of the dead material in its hungry advance. Old trees, rotten roots, dead plants—everything. The flames carpet a wide area. And what is left?”
“Ashes,” I gulped.
“And there in the middle of the cold ashes, after the rain has fallen upon the blight?”
I stared ahead as if I could see the very scene. “A sapling,” I whispered.
Tarquin rested both of his hands on the table and straightened his back. “I put it to you, Herr Doktor,” he declared, “that there are people in this world that want to hold back that healing fire for their own horrid ends, to exploit the deadness of the world, and who at the same time claim to be able to cure what ails it; and there are others who recognize that this world is in the midst of cleansing itself so that it can become something new again, something brighter, with beings populating it whose bodies and minds are more wondrous than what they are now. It must evolve—but its progress is slowed. You can either work for those who keep you secretly shuttered away, recording what you learn of their own monstrous but failed abominations loosed upon the unknowing world, or you can join us, those understand what is truly happening and have the evidence to prove it. We seek to accelerate the evolution of the world toward a new beginning, as it once was and yet has already been many times.”
I joined them, Bertie.
More awaits in future correspondence, I promise. I will tell you where I am and what I have been working on. However, what I say and when I say it may depend on how you fare on the excursion upon which you embark even now. It also depends on whether this letter ever reaches you. Let us just say for now that for both our sakes, I hope you find a sapling in the midst of the ashes.