My Dear Rackham,
As you will see below, I had composed some letters before hearing from you, and have written once since. You may find them all herein. -E.C.
The Channel, 16 August
Sometimes it is helpful to sketch out the Best Case Scenario, if only because it gives an occasion for a hearty guffaw. For a steam-powered vessel like the Sigsbee, crossing the Channel should be an easy errand, an afternoon jaunt — in good weather, and at one of the narrower points, one could expect to be wiggling one’s toes in the sand of the Continent in two hours’ time. And, if nothing is to be found there — if the local inhabitants have been transformed into cannibalistic proto-beings, or if all that is to be seen is a vast wasteland — why then, back to Howgate in time for dinner!
I am writing at the end of our first day at sea, so that fact alone should indicate that we are not operating under the B.C.S. While this hulking ship does indeed boast a powerful engine, it runs on coal, and Campbell is (quite rightly) loath to use his stores up when he does not necessarily know where he will acquire more. So we have unfurled sails, but you can well imagine that the daunting weight and seeming impregnability of our floating fortress makes for slow going, especially when tacking into a headwind.
And, finally, we are not attempting the shortest crossing, but rather angling south and a little west, thereby doubling (or more) the distance we must cross before we make land. But for this we cannot blame harsh circumstance, or the weather, but none other than the obstinate Doctor Crane. I sold the notion to Robards this way: any crossing will tell us some of what we need to know about the reach of the Incident’s effects and the state of the outside world. Why not also choose a destination that pertains to our original mission and might help us understand all of what has happened? If you have not already guessed, I am referring to the dolmens we investigated at that old saint’s hill some years ago. At the time it was just another job, but I have been harboring a suspicion that the inscriptions on it might bear some relation to those on the stone, or the Obelisk, or both. If I had my notes from that case the matter might be settled quickly, but of course they are lost. And so there is nothing for it but to go there again.
But I may be getting ahead of myself; first we must cross. If you note a marked decline in my penmanship, you may blame the great swells and unpredictable winds that have plagued us thus far. Slow going indeed!
The Channel, 17 August
“Dark tempests of black dust.” Those were your words, were they not? Or at least your report of what Alia saw. If yesterday, nothing about our storm seemed out of the ordinary, today I am kicking myself for having missed so many clear signs of the unnatural. What I took yesterday for dark patches of sky now appear as coiling tendrils of blackness, connecting sky to sea in swirling funnels, the largest of which could engulf our ship. Dozens of these surround us now, and it is only the unceasing efforts of the crew that have kept us from being blown into one. We no longer have a clear sense of our heading or position.
I am not entirely unskilled in matters of sail, but these New Columbians are a proud bunch, and even if they had not rebuffed my offers of assistance, Robards ordered me to stay clear of the rigging. “We cannot afford for you to get hurt of all people, my good man!” I have remained at the ready in case of injuries, but there have been none, and so I have been keeping out of the way, spending my time observing.
First Observation: Robards is not wearing a magical amulet. I am being fanciful, of course, but in all seriousness I refer to my vision of him some weeks ago. Though the glow I perceived had no clear shape, it was certainly of a position and size that made it easy to imagine as something worn around the neck. But, our stormy environs being what they are, I have had opportunities to behold him barking orders bare-chested, and he wears nothing whatsoever around his neck or on his chest. If there is some sort of item responsible for the glow, is he keeping it in his quarters? I do not feel I am certain enough to merit breaking in and going through his things, though that does not keep me from wondering.
Second Observation: Those orders he barks … it is remarkable to me how readily both Campbell and his entire crew hang on the man’s every word. I have worked with military men many times over the years, and seen my share of war zones, and it seems to me that the norm when forces from different countries (even allied ones) come together is a great deal of machismo and posturing — harmless bravado at best, stubborn and counterproductive turf protection at worst. That Campbell would put his ship and crew at the disposal of, and under the command of, Robards so very readily continues to baffle me. But the way they respond to him is not simply a matter of protocol; it is eager, it is … devoted.
Writing those words just now, it occurs to me that their behavior is really no different than that of Robards’ own men in the expedition. They love their captain, they are devoted, they would die for him — and some have. But that has not struck me as odd, partly because they were in fact his men, partly because of the extremity of our circumstances, and partly because I have always known him to be a charismatic leader, one who easily inspires loyalty. That selfsame loyalty coming from foreign strangers remains puzzling, however.
Third Observation: The Sigsbee has a mooring tower for aeros! It was retrofitted with it, of course, and the structure is currently disassembled and lashed to the deck, since they lost their aero itself in the chaos at Yarmouth. I had found it strange that the New Columbians had a female crewmate, but now that I understand she is their aero pilot, it makes perfect sense.
Stockport, Garnsey, 20 August
So much to relate. The previous page ended abruptly, and with good reason — in the middle of writing I heard an eerie howling noise and the ship groaned from stem to stern. I quickly stowed my writing implements in a waterproof box and made my wobbly way to the deck to see what was going on. I was afforded only a glimpse before a dozen voices ordered me back down, and I was happy to comply. For what I saw was that we were approaching one of the dark funnels, the biggest one yet, and given our momentum, there was no question that we were going to hit it.
I was in a narrow corridor belowdecks when the ship pitched precipitously upward, and I suddenly found myself falling toward the stern, careening helplessly toward an iron-studded bulkhead that, I feel certain to say, would have split my head open like a melon had I hit it …
… but I went through it. I dispense with all the hesitancy and qualifications with which I described a similar experience in my first letter. I was awake, and entirely alert, and there can be no mistake. I became incorporeal, or at least partially so, enough so that my substance passed harmlessly through the bulkhead and through the space beyond. (My scientist’s brain counters: “But are you certain that it is you that became incorporeal, and not that by some force of will you made the environment around you so?” To which I respond: “It was me; I felt it; I know it to my very bones.”)
It did not stop there. In a blur I passed through the bulkhead, the galley, another bulkhead, and in one brief moment my torso and head were passing through the captain’s quarters while my legs were outside the ship — and then I was falling through the air. Of course I could scarcely make sense of any of it at the time, but in reflection I have surmised that the vortex had literally lifted the Sigsbee up into the air — only some ten yards or so, but still, no small feat. I hit the water with nary a splash, sliding into it like falling through a cloud.
I was down there for some minutes — whether, in my translucent state, I did not have to breathe, or simply found it easier to hold my breath, I cannot recall. But I turned, and I saw. Not with my eyes, I know that now, because I am one of those chaps who cannot bear to open their eyes under the water, especially seawater. By reflex mine were clamped shut, and yet I saw: the vast expanse of ocean around me, the ship suspended in the air. In the next instant, I saw the glow, the very one I had seen on Robards’ chest, falling from the ship. Not Robards himself — indeed, every soul on that ship I could sense, most hanging on for dear life, some, like me, falling or fallen into the brine — just the glow. It hit the water and continued to fall, not descending gradually as a stone might, but picking up speed the deeper it went.
I strained my perception to follow its course. Looking down now, I saw it disappear, somewhere near what I imagine must have been the ocean bottom. And then … oh, Rackham. Even as I write this now my hand trembles and my heart palpitates at the memory. Down there, I sensed … something. A vast, inky presence, size unfathomable, lurking at the bottom of the world. It exuded malevolence, and an insatiable hunger. The amount of will that was required to turn my gaze away from it, back upward … I had not guessed I had that will within me, my friend. Far easier it would have been to let go, to be sucked downward like that eldritch glowing thing.
But look upward I did. I saw that the vorteces were dispersing, that the Sigsbee had crashed back down to the water, but was now far from me, at the very edge of my perception. But I also saw that one of its landing boats was nearer at hand, perhaps having been knocked loose in the chaos, and that some of those others who had fallen overboard were struggling toward it.
Let me be clear: in my natural state I would not have been able to see that boat, to say nothing of the fact that I would have long-sinced drowned. I was still incorporeal, and found that easy strokes propelled me effortlessly toward the craft. Some had already clambered into it and were grabbing oars and paddling and looking around, trying to gather up other survivors. “What will they say,” I thought to myself, “When I rise up like a ghost through the bottom of the boat, sit down casually, and grab an oar myself!” But just then, it all ended: my body solidified, my vision darkened, I gulped down mouthfuls of seawater, and broke the surface sputtering and flailing. A lifering was tossed my way and I was pulled aboard.
Those other castaways believed it no small miracle that I was found. No one had seen me fall overboard; no one had seen me in the water; only at the very last moment had I surfaced, scant feet from the boat! It was a miracle, of course, but of an entirely different sort. And it was followed by yet another smile from Fortuna, to whom I really ought to consider building a shrine at this point: we had land in sight. Indeed, it was the selfsame land that the Sigsbee was now making for. Her masts were in shambles but under steam she was able to limp ahead, taking on water as she went.
And that is how I come to be writing from the isle of Garnsey. If you have a map handy you will realize that we were not as far off-course as I feared. Campbell grounded the ship on a sandy beach, and those of us in the boat rowed up some hours later. Half a dozen men lost, many minor injuries, but all in all things could have been much worse. We were greeted by locals, and learned that nothing amiss had happened to their island, though given the queer weather, they had remained isolated these past months. We unloaded the ship of vital supplies and began to hike overland to the town of Stockport.
I saw “we” in all this, but regretfully, I must admit that after my underwater experience I was in a state and of no use to anyone. Indeed, on the hike, I was hauled along in a stretcher, feverish and babbling (I am told). Only today has my mind cleared, and only now am I afforded a moment to try to record some of what has happened.
I have just come from a town meeting where Robards related to the local authorities all of what has happened back home and the dreadful state of the world. I say “all,” though of course there was plenty he left out. It is no lie to say that the Incident is a mystery, but he declined to mention our proximity to the source of that mystery. I had always thought of the captain as one of that sort who excels at navigating the social particularities of military life but can be surprisingly tone-deaf and awkward when interacting with civilians. Certainly I had seen him that way in the past, but today he had his audience enthralled. The governor of the island is falling over himself to make accommodations for us and to make arrangements to retrieve the Sigsbee and get it somewhere where repairs can be made.
Stockport, 26 August
I cannot tell you what a relief and a joy it was to receive your letter! I suppose first of all I should explain the remarkable chain of events that allowed this to be.
I mentioned that the New Columbians counted an aero pilot among their number. Alona is her name; she was quick to ask whether a functional aero was to be found on Garnsey, and her inquiries led us to Elizabeth College. It sits on the hill overlooking the town, and boasts an impressive number of faculty for such a backwater institution — none of whom had seen fit to join the town meeting or introduce themselves upon our arrival, curiously enough.
Or not so curiously, as we soon discovered. I accompanied Alona there, was ushered into the president’s office, and introduced myself. Upon hearing my name his eyes nearly burst out of his sockets, and only then did I observe the figure on his lapel and the embossment on his stationery. He is a Society man, and knew me by reputation. Indeed, Elizabeth (as it happens) is a Society college, through and through. Suffice it to say that the conversation was somewhat strained after that point! But I was civil, and, present circumstances being what they are, he thankfully seemed inclined to let bygones be bygones.
Say what you will about the Society, they gave us aero technology, and without that we could not have been corresponding all this time. I do not pretend to understand it. But the College is in possession of an aero, an older prototype. More to the point, they have a proper mooring tower. Alona managed to get its beacon working, and two days later, Alia arrived. The black dust she observed over land and the funnels that bedeviled our crossing appear to be similar — perhaps different manifestations of the same phenomenon. In any case, as I’m sure you have gathered, she is nothing if not confident, and felt sure of her ability to avoid them. She was curious enough upon detecting our beacon to risk the crossing, God bless her.
So. On to your letter. I laughed long and loud when you brought up school days, and those penny dreadfuls we used to smuggle in. I am sure you recall the one about the wily privateer Captain Peregrine, Scourge of the Iberian Fleet! He would sail from Garnsey, the very isle where I am now, and his secret lair was a cave in a cliffside, big enough for a ship to sail into. At this very moment, the Sigsbee is docked in just such a cave, undergoing repairs, and I am writing from a nook in the side of said cave, where every sound is an echo. Perhaps I should search for buried treasure! If only those Everwood lads could see me now …
You will forgive me if I have not practised my “ability” of late, certainly not since the storm. There will be a time for that but I am not yet ready. As for the glowing object, I believe it to be at the bottom of the sea, and have seen no sign of the same on Campbell. As for Robards: I have already mentioned the unusual level of devotion the New Columbians gave our captain. When I saw the exact same response to the man at the town meeting in Stockport, it suddenly dawned on me: what if he, too, has an Ability? Not to read the minds of men, or see and move through things, but to bend others to his will with only the slightest effort? And, if it is indeed some sort of Ability, as it is quite a subtler effect than what we have experienced, is it possible he is not even aware of it?
The clearest evidence for this has come in a sort of negative proof. This morning, at breakfast, things were very different. Campbell wanted to reconsider our plan. He was now rather disinclined to take his ship into Gallic waters. And by all that is holy, why should he be inclined? That he should have placed himself under the command of a foreign officer and sail into untold danger bound for enemy soil seems incredible, and it was as if that fact had finally dawned on him. Robards, for his part, did not seem to grasp what was happening. I watched him adopt the same commanding, inspirational tone that had served him so well, but now it fell on deaf ears.
In a way all this is moot, since there are still some weeks of repairs before the Sigsbee is seaworthy. But I am still determined to reach the dolmen site. I am readying for, if not a confrontation, let us say a “clearing of the air” with Robards, where I hope to find out much and perhaps even share a little. There is no shortage of other vessels in Stockport, and so perhaps a smaller sortie might endeavor to complete the crossing, if he is willing to spare some men.
I know where else I could look for help, but the thought of ascending the hill again and saying “please” makes me grind my teeth.
So, who knows what the future will bring? At the very least I will place these letters in Alia’s hands … or perhaps Alona’s. The two of them have been thick as thieves, comparing notes, making plans, and getting the prototype working. It appears we will soon have two working aeros, and therefore a more reliable communication network. Whether that will help in reaching you in the north, who can say, but at the very least I trust that you will be able to pen a reply upon your safe return!