“These are strange times, mark my words.”
The owner of the comment, a portly man in a charcoal grey suit, placed the yellow newsvellum on the coffee table. Cigar ash, pipeweed ash and the remains of a woman’s hand-rolled cigarette lay in the ceramic ashtray, a relaxed gathering of exhausted compatriots.
Of the human company, at least one was not nearly so relaxed. The portly man’s face became a brighter red as he spoke. “It is justice served at last. That madwoman Shelley’s unholy creation—the Daemon—terrorized half the continent before they ‘put him upon ice,’ —if you attend me, heh, heh. Just as well the authorities have finally locked her away in Bedlam where she may create no further monstrosities in the future.”
One of the women present shook her head. “But you yourself were speaking of the need for medical experimentation to continue improving our physical circumstances not two hours ago. Dr. Shelley pioneered the heart transplant while stationed in Sud-Africa; you know that as well as anyone here.”
“With all due respect to your opinion,” and here the man bowed, “I say it was good riddance to the unnatural thing she produced, and good riddance to Shelley, moreso. A pox on them all, the whole lot of ’em; it’s bad blood, mark my words. Look at her own father, Senator Godwin, with his blasphemously extended life. “Manipulating genetics” indeed. Of course he was burnt at the stake; no man should reach 300 years of age! ’Tis unnatural!”
“Oh Herr Mulcher, first you talk genetics, then you say it’s witchcraft. You should remain with one argument, lest your audience become confused.” The woman, angular pince-nez obscuring large green eyes, shook her head, smiling.
The man’s face bloomed a richer shade of red as he waggled his finger in the air. “Well then, who’s to say witchcraftery isn’t genetic? And anyway, if Mary Shelley needed a servant, there are always robots. Why meddle with the Natural forces of Life when someone with her talent could have hammered together a perfectly useful and obedient metal slave from spare tin and a few wires? ’Pon my word.” The outraged gentleman finally sputtered into a self-satisfied, if not particularly congenial, silence.
Another member of the party, a barrister by profession, turned to the large-framed man at the next table. “And you, sir, might you have an opinion? I shouldn’t like to presume, but perhaps you have overheard some small portion of the discussion”?
The barrister blushed after a few moments when the stranger said no more. “Well, if you have no opinion,” he started, glancing at his companions for moral support, “you might simply say so.”
The sunburnt man sat up in his chair meaningfully. The rest of the group suddenly found themselves straightening their ties, re-curling the ends of their moustaches, drawing from their pipes, and patting down their skirtfront folds.
The stranger reached forward to the table, lifted a long, thin glass and took a sip, pausing afterward to peer through the amber liquid at the light from the reflector overhead. The gilt-leaf deco pattern inset around the edges of the crystal glass glinted in the sunlight. He turned to the barrister.
“You’ll forgive me for any semblance of incivility. Your question caught me in the middle of consideration of that very topic—of unnatural things which I have seen with my own eyes. I was unable for a moment to pull myself from the memory of those events.”
The supposed affront thus explained fully enough to restore the offended party’s dignity, the company turned curious as to the man’s remarks and pressed for details. At first he declined, noting the hour and the company’s certain fatigue from the voyage. The travellers assured him that he was much mistaken, that they wished nothing more than to hear the man’s tale. After many entreaties, he eventually succumbed to the press of his companions’ requests.
“I must begin by apologizing, for you see, once I have retold my account, you will never look to the skies again without experiencing a shudder. You will never travel in this fashion”—here he gestured at the airship about them—“unless by necessity, and you will never again wish to gaze out these splendid windows at the clouds and skies about us. Take your last look, gentlemen and ladies, I beg you; enjoy the magnificence in innocence one last time, before you become sullied by the taste of apple in your mouths.”
The travellers looked as a person toward the great crystal portal. The late afternoon sun shone a bouquet of colour upon and through great cotton piles of clouds that spanned the horizon, the winds sending them scudding on a sea of air—a conquering fleet of ships painted in reds and golds, a starkly contrasting backdrop to the Parrish and cerulean blue sky above.
“My name is Highland Hexbourne,” he began, “of Pennyfarthing, outside of Caernavon. I was born into circumstances most would call quite comfortable, but I learned with the deaths of my parents, three pairs of uncles and aunts, and seventeen of my cousins in the recent plague, that many things in life are irreplaceable. Many years of happiness were lost with them, mourned to this day.”
The travellers nodded and spent a moment thinking of those they had lost during the Vikinghorn Plague of 1807, not ten years previous.
An attendant chose that moment to appear at the table with an empty ashtray, and at someone’s request—or perhaps on his own initiative as attendant—a bottle of Chathese, the renowned liqueur exclusive to the Duchy from which the airship had just departed. No one questioned what form of Providence had delivered this blessing, but merely set to pour for all those sitting at the table, followed by a toast to the departed. After Mr. Hexbourne set his empty glass on the table, he continued his story.
With the deaths of so many in my family there was lit within my breast an unrelenting passion, a compulsive desire to experience all I could of life. I had to that point been studying Parachemistry in Oxford-Dresden University, thinking nothing more than that of any dutiful child: to find a respectable position, find a suitable bride and move with her to the family home when the title formally passed into my hands.
But such a mundane existence was not fated to be mine. I see now that it was a form of madness that fuelled my mind’s flames, a perilous fixation upon the experiential as an excuse to deny myself the chance to face the reality of my loss. I should have grieved, should have mourned. But I threw myself instead into the embrace of physical pleasure, new visions, new delights, new excitement. After some months of this lifestyle I found I had become the subject of much gossip in social circles, with some less-than-savoury rumours travelling around as such commentary ever does. And I am only slightly ashamed that most of the rumours are true of course. They’re such great rumours, some of them.
Over the following months I noticed a decrease in the number of invitations to functions of high society, but those remaining made up for the lack of quantity by being more in line with my tastes. It was at just such a gathering, where the variety of alcoholic and fumable substances provided was only surpassed by the presence of the number of men and women of ‘talent’ provided for the guests. After a few hours of quite diverting social intercourse, I slipped out onto the balcony and drank some of the sobering drug of the black night air. Then a voice next to me spoke.
“The Marquesa DeS— certainly hasn’t lost any of her charms. The host and hostess are relentless in their desire to please.”
I bowed to the owner of the sentiment. “Of that I am in complete agreement, sir. Begging your pardon, but who might I have the pleasure of addressing?”
“I am Edward Lazenby.”
“Surely not the Sir Edward?!”
“Why, yes, I daresay. Not many of us Sir Edward Lazenbys about, eh?”
His wit caught me quite off-guard. Many questions lingered about his recent adventures and I pressed him for details. “Sir, you must tell me, I beg of you. Of your previous triumph in the Extra-Atmospheric Expedition I know much, but then you disappeared almost entirely from public view. I had heard of some activities in Central Africa related to mineral excavations and energy production, but very few details, despite a reportedly successful conclusion.”
“You are too kind. In fact there is much to tell in that, but…. Well Hexbourne, to be perfectly honest, you find me at the very moment in which all my plans prepare to fall apart, and I am defeated in purpose.”
“I cannot imagine sir, what force could beat the force of one of the greatest minds of our time; Sir Edward Wilhelm Lazenby.”
“You are too kind, but it is no less than Fate itself sir, Fate itself. My assistant of many months has collapsed with incapacitating pains in his abdomen two days previous, and my calculations of the electromagnetic forces are precise, sir, precise! I have another seven days before attempting to test my transportation device—the Aetheriolabe Engine—along the lines of force I have discerned. After that, an entirely new set of calculations must be made, and the experiment repeated from the beginning.”
I still wondered at the nature of the problem. “I apologize for appearing too forward as I am ignorant of the details, but it seems to me that the period of time it takes for your assistant to recover might be used to re-plot these electromagnetic lines for another attempt.”
Lazenby’s face was dimly lit by the blue light shining out through the wrought iron shades, his eyes, shaded in the darkness, now focused on me.
“Not at all sir. I appreciate candour and prize intuition. Unfortunately you are missing one essential piece. The calculations we made are so complex we had to limit one of the variables, and the easiest to eliminate was time. At the cost of “when” we were able to figure out “where.” That cost was seven years, sir. It took seven years of calculations to find the location of the anchor burst—the electromagnetic wave strong enough to carry us up. And without a greater investment of resources, it should take at least that long to discover the next.”
“That does sound unfortunate in the extreme. Your assistant— can another not be trained in time?”
“Found and trained within the next week? Impossible. To find a strong and healthy man with an adventurous spirit, no family ties, and moreover, someone with advanced training in parachemicals is simply….”
“Certainly you do not mean you yourself, sir?”
“I am precisely who I mean, sir. I have studied parachemistry extensively at O.D., am single, with no family, and am always on the lookout for a new challenge.”
My credentials and qualifications were so convincing that Sir Edward agreed on the spot to take me on as his second. He insisted upon hailing the first Growler he could find and returning immediately to his estate outside London. Sir Edward had made substantial alterations to his mansion, and after a short tour of the various laboratories, we spent the rest of the evening reviewing the project and detailing my role. Although I did not consider myself lacking in education on the subject of parachemistry, Sir Edward’s notes and designs were at a level so advanced I found myself having to stop him frequently for explanations, and often enough for explanations of the explanations, as well. It became clear to me that this would be in any case an endeavour with some risk. The complexity of the material involved in my preparation was such that we necessarily made many shortcuts in the fundamentals in order to allow me time to master the intricacies of running and maintaining the machines during flight: my primary responsibility in the project. Over the succeeding hours, Sir Edward explained the processes by which we would travel, but the more I saw, the less certain I became that such an endeavour would prove to be successful. I decided to question Sir Edward as to what appeared to me to be an impossibility. With the propulsion systems described, it would certainly be impossible to move aloft such a conveyance as he had built. He gestured toward a conspicuously large cube in the workroom in which we sat, a dark grey object set into the wall at the far end of the room.
“Highland, as you noted, I did have some success in Africa. We found a great supply of manaccanite, that remarkably strong and light metal, and it is from this that I have managed to forge a much lighter craft. Wait—I see you are about to protest. Of course you are right; even with a lighter frame we do not have enough force to be able to lift off using the engines you are to operate. I shall explain. As you’ve learned at university, Orenda-Ben Franklin pioneered the research in electromagnetic-aether field theory, and first postulated the EM-gravito-coalescence force. The Third Effect.”
I nodded. “Yes, but the theories about the Third Effect are incomplete.”
“Until now.” He picked up a small, flat disk and placed it on top of the cube, then switched one of three levers set into the wall. In a moment, the disk rose a few inches from its place upon the cube, in what I can only describe as an unnatural fashion. While electromagnetism simply repels, this force seemed to hold the disk in place while lifting it up. I came closer. “But… is this not simply some novel use of magnetic…?”
My host gestured me forward. “It is no magnetic trick, Hexbourne, of that I can assure you. Use your compass if you wish to confirm it for yourself.”
I pulled out my pocket compass and passed it between the cube and the disk. Though the compass moved when I passed it through the space between the objects, the slight movement indicated the strength of the field was far too weak to be providing lift.
“Do you observe, Hexbourne, the magnitude of the gravitic force involved? Magnetic energy alone is more efficient than this weak force, as is electrical energy, not to mention those other two forces combined. You see how much material is needed to create a gravitic force capable of moving even this small disk? By itself, it is impracticable. But as with water when combined with heat and pressure, great force can be created when the forces work in combination. Moreso than triboelectric power, the steam engine, or even chemical rockets….Well, a demonstration is more effective than all my talk. With the addition of electrical and magnetic field energies….”
Sir Edward flipped the remaining two levers. The disk immediately flew up to the ceiling and broke against it with great violence, knocking down several large pieces of masonry and causing two servants to anxiously peer in, waved out again by Sir Edward.
“You see, Hexbourne, the application of the three forces together creates an immensely strong force. This will completely revolutionize travel on the planet. If we can prove the potential of this wave, I can convince financial backers to invest in the next stage, to determine a timetable of both when and where these waves appear!’ He clapped his hands together with excitement and leaned forward to me conspiratorially, like an excited schoolboy speaking of some new plan to vex the schoolmaster.”
“You are ready for this, aren’t you Highland?” He took my hands in his. “I have spoken to you of my assistant, Alphonse. He and I understand each other, you see. He understood the nature of the plan and was ready for whatever happened. I just want to make sure, dear friend, that you are making the right decision. The forces involved, the speeds we will be travelling, there are so many risks. You know my history well enough, and though my luck has held so far, those who come with me haven’t always fared so well. This may be my riskiest expedition yet. We do not know what unexplored realms await us up in the clouds.”
“Why Sir Edward, you make it sound as if we were venturing to another world.”
Sir Edward glanced away from me, his eyes settling upon the cube. “Unexplored realms, sir, unexplored realms. We are using new energies, new forces, we cannot be sure they will not bring with them unexpected effects or unanticipated opportunities.”
As I lay in the guest room prepared for me at the far end of the mansion, that I might catch a few hours sleep before the real work began, my benefactor’s curious choice of words returned to me. Sir Edward Lazenby was a world-renowned explorer, and it was not unreasonable to attribute his phrasing to the life to which he was accustomed. Still, in what would prove to be a prescient sentiment, I almost felt as if Sir Edward was failing to provide the entirety of his plans to me.
I had little time to consider these early thoughts, as the next several days were spent in gruelling study, tests in parachemical reactions specific to the craft, the tribodynamic propulsion system and how to maintain reaction in varying atmospheric conditions, EM-inductors, EM-disseminators, a seemingly endless list of mechanical and parachemical equations and measurements to learn.
It was not until the morning of the sixth day, at a hurried breakfast, that Sir Edward elaborated on his earlier comments regarding the expedition. “Hexbourne, I must ask this again. Are you sure you are fully prepared to embark upon this journey?”
I responded with unfeigned enthusiasm, but he shook his head, seemingly unconvinced.
“If we find ourselves with an opportunity, we must be in agreement beforehand—now—to take it. You understand my meaning sir. We may not have a chance to discuss it once we’re aloft.”
“Sir Edward, do you speak again of your ‘unexplored realms?’ I remain puzzled as to the exact meaning.”
“What can one mean, when one speaks of the unexplored? But it is unfair to be overcautious in the theories I choose to share with you, I see that now. Yes, you must know more of what I think upon this matter, so that you may come fully informed and of your own free will. Please follow me.”
We trod the familiar steps down into the basement, but instead of leading me into the parachemical laboratory or the reproduction of the Aetheriolabe’s bridge, he continued down the corridor, opened a small black door at the far end, and stepped inside. The room was mostly taken up by a cube even larger than the one in the upstairs laboratory. Above the cube a wide metallic tube hung, mounted to the ceiling by a large piece of metal.
“I have explained how the Third Effect works to draw the craft toward itself, but I have yet to show you the actual event.”
He threw the switch. A low hum filled the room, and almost immediately there was a curious change visible in the airspace before the front end of the tube. It was something resembling the convection seen on a flat surface in high heat, like false water on a road. It was as if the atmosphere immediately before the engine were somehow curved in upon itself. I stepped toward it, and made to place my hand within the affected area when Sir Edward shouted a warning.
“Do not go near that, Hexbourne, for God’s sake!”
I immediately stopped. Sir Edward walked over, voice slightly raised over the sound of the engine.
“I call that distortion the ‘warp area.’ It affects physical space around it. Your hand would have been wrenched into pieces—and the rest of you might well have been pulled in along with it. That area of displacement is part of the way in which the Aetheriolabe engine is propelled. As I have explained to you, it creates a steady, attractive force, which draws the craft itself directly toward it. But see, see this here!”
He brought me to a position facing directly toward the warp. I could see that it created a circle in space, and at its centre I could just discern a darkness, a darkness that seemed three-dimensional. The effect was somehow disturbing to my senses.
“Now observe the space as I increase the power.”
The sound of the engine grew louder, and I heard the table begin to creak as the tube was pulled toward the warp area in front. Then the darkness in the centre of the circle exploded inward upon itself, creating a sort of funnel leading forward and in. For just a moment I felt I could actually look through the funnel to the other side—a side not part of the room we were standing in—then there was a loud snap as the electrical generator failed, and the sound of the engine faded.
“Tell me Hexbourne, what do you think?”
I confessed to him that I was somewhat at a loss as to how to describe what to me was an entirely novel experience. When I mentioned the funnel, and the sense of an ‘other side’ to the strange darkness, Sir Edward became very animated, grabbing my lapels in his excitement. “Then you did sense it! There have been times when Alphonse and I believed it might be an hallucination generated by extended exposure to these forces. But you’ve seen it too. That is what I mean by expedition, my friend. To move our Aetheriolabe we shall be creating a vortex many times larger than what you have seen today. Until we actually activate it and levitate on our Third Effect engine, we cannot know for sure what new forces will be released. All these calculations and we have yet to determine anything about… this effect. The vortex, the sense of an ‘other side’ beyond the far end of the vortex, we simply do not know anything!”
Perhaps Sir Edward felt something of my unease in my expression, for after pausing a moment to peer closely at me he averted his eyes from fear of my embarrassment at having expressed reservations and patted me on the shoulder. “My dear Hexbourne, I have phrased myself badly. Just as we know that the Earth orbits the Sun, so I assure you that this effect is perfectly capable of carrying us safely—safely, I say—including the weight of our craft, supplies, and ourselves; have no fear on that account. I merely say that the full nature this effect we see is as yet unknown, and may provide us further opportunities for exploration in the future. That is what you are seeking, is it not? Exploration! We are kindred spirits, eh?”
With such praise from so lofty a source, I could hardly press him for more concrete assurances regarding the vortex and our flight, and you can imagine that because it was such a preeminent figure as Sir Edward Lazenby leading the project, there should be no doubt as to dedication of purpose, nor fear of lack of preparedness. I resolved to maintain silence about any lingering doubts I had regarding our flight.
After showing me this latest incarnation of the Third Effect’s power, he led me back upstairs, where we took a cold supper before returning to my training. I don’t believe I was able to get more than two or three hours of sleep a night that entire week at the mansion, returning early every morning to new challenges, from the study of data on the effect of chemical compounds at varying air pressure levels to memorizing proportion tables, as well as extensive daily tests on the mock-up bridge of the Aetheriolabe.
It was all too soon that the appointed morning arrived. We left the evening before in order to reach the airfield where his invention was being stored, arriving just before dawn. The morning was a sullen one, with strong winds gusting around us. Sir Edward fastened up his greatcoat and looked up into the clouds overhead.
“It is fortunate that we’re not attempting to use an aereofoil or lighter-than-air gasses to raise us up. The wind would be much too strong for conventional transportation. But of course that is what we are here to prove.” A flash of lightning punctuated that remark. “And lucky for us the elements will provide a show for us while we are aloft. We should be able to obtain a great number of measurements of the electrical fields involved and how they affect the engine.”
Sir Edward then repeated his confidence that there would be no electrical interference to the Third Effect. My mind, however, did not dwell upon that particular problem. Our craft had been designed to minimize potential for lightning strikes, and our systems were shielded against overload. Instead, my mind returned to the size of the strange vortex at only one fourth scale and wondered what sort of maw would open before us when the engines were powered up. These thoughts occupied me as we manoeuvred our craft toward the large flag planted in the centre of a nearby field: the exact spot of the upcoming wave.
The vision of a great, dark funnel already pictured in my imagination was, in the end, not far from reality. As the minute approached and we began powering up the Third Effect engine, I peered over the nose of our craft. A circular space before us darkened, and then, as before, there was a sudden whoosh! of air, and the funnel tore its way into appearance. Sir Edward made some adjustments to the controls then increased power. The funnel expanded. Once again I seemed to discern an ‘other side’ through and beyond it, and the same disorienting sensation came over me. I turned back to my station and duties.
The gauges before me oscillated upwards on their dials as the EM wave beneath us gathered in strength. I counted down the seconds as we furiously made adjustments to the various chemical mixes and levels to match the characteristics of the carrier wave. The exacting requirements to match the balance was such that it took all my energies and concentration to maintain our engines and his to focus the counterbalance to the warp vortex, and for that reason neither of us actually saw the moment when our ship left the ground. We did feel the sensation of floating, however, and each spared a moment to glance at the other to confirm our success.
I began to call out our elevation and time elapsed, by the minute. We had finally discovered the balance necessary to maintain a steady ascent without too much monitoring on our parts (though of course we kept one eye upon the controls at all times), so we had a moment or two in which to look down upon the dwindling landscape. Below me at a nearby farm I saw a very large oak tree, and an astonished herd of cattle standing around it watching our ascent as I watched them growing smaller below, their heads craning upward to follow our path. I imagined they and I were sharing much the same sense of wonder and astonishment. We were flying on a scientifically sound magic carpet. Sir Edward Lazenby had once again broken new ground. I felt a profound thrill of accomplishment knowing I was part of this moment.
A shudder passing through the Aetheriolabe broke my reverie. I glanced up to see the afternoon thunderheads some thousands of feet above us, drawing nearer by the moment as we rose. The anemometer showed wildly gusting winds outside our craft, rocking even our gravity-wave-fastened mass. Sir Edward ordered me to the chemical rocket controls in order to further stabilize our ascent in the gale. It occurred to me at the time this was a particularly unfortunate season in which to be attempting a flight of this nature, but Sir Edward had dismissed the clouds and mentioned the advantages to seeing the mechanics of a thunderstorm first-hand, which had seemed sensible at the time. I’d had no sleep for more than forty-eight hours, and little the days previous, so I had simply listened and tried to retain as much as possible without questioning the truth or consequences to the result.
As we reached the cloud base, our ship encountered increasingly violent winds, and we found ourselves temporarily confounded by tremendous lifts and drops, resulting in a dizzying increase in our weight, or a frantic reaching for one of the safety bars on the bridge as our feet began to lift from the floor. Within a few seconds, the scenery outside was replaced by a dark, dancing fog of haze and obscure flashes as we made our way up through the thunderhead.
Surges of lightning passed so close to the Aetheriolabe it seemed I could feel the extraordinary power outside the viewing-ports, a feeling like proximity to a blazing fire, distant yet still severe. Once or twice our craft was immersed in light as an errant bolt came in contact with one of our EM control rods outside and the field surrounding the craft dispersed the energy outward. Then came a succession of bolts which hit us directly, overloading the craft’s ability to disperse, and we experienced a few moments of free drift as we were buffeted by the storm around us. I managed to hand-crank a charge into the battery and bypass some fused wires in time to allow us to maintain our upright position.
Sir Edward had been quiet for the duration of the power outage, and I had supposed it due to the amount of concentration it took to maintain control of our vehicle in the storm. This was not entirely the case.
“You have noticed the barograph, I take it?”
In my focus on maintaining level, I had not watched the progress of our ascent. I now looked over at the instrument. The needle was level. We were no longer ascending. He explained that the altimetry controls no longer responded. “It would seem that the ground force which raised us is now in contention with the atmospheric forces around us, and we are anchored somehow in stasis between the two sides.”
“Sir Edward, we shall run out of power within the hour. Our chemical tanks are already lower than anticipated due to the storm.”
“I concur. As I see it, we have only four choices: power down the Third Effect engine and try to restart it before we hit the ground, stay where we are, use the Da Vincis, or… use some portion of the remainder of our fuel to open a larger hole in front of us and attempt to break through.”
“Sir Edward! You said yourself that we could not take the Aetheriolabe through the warp area! We should be torn apart within moments.”
“That is not entirely true. I did not lie to you when I said your hand would be mauled by the vortex. But that effect only manifests itself outside the vortex. Within the limit of the circumference of the vortex itself, matter remains unaffected. Provided we give the vortex enough power, the Aetheriolabe will be able to pass through.”
“Pass through to what? We do not even know what awaits on the other side.”
There was a screeching noise from the Aetheriolabe’s superstructure. I looked forward at the spinning maelstrom in front of us.
“Hexbourne, I warned you this moment might come. We do not have a great deal of time. If we power down and release ourselves from the field, we may not have enough time to restart. You know the start-up procedure as well as I. We can wait here in the hope that the storm abates before our chemical supply runs out and we fall to our deaths. And though I have looked forward for many years to a test of the Da Vincis from a height as great as this, without our insulators, passing down through this storm seems equally doomed to failure.”
“But if we skip the secondary injection sequence we should be able to start up the engine much more quickly.”
“The primary start-up resulted in too many failures to risk not having a secondary sequence primed.”
“I can understand the reasoning under normal circumstances, but the circumstances are far from normal. We are taking a risk no matter which plan we choose. Can you not see that skipping the second sequence will give us the time needed to restart?”
My joy at hearing these words was washed away by the words which followed, while, though seemingly reasonable, filled me with the greatest foreboding yet.
“Skipping the secondary sequence also allows us more chemical fuel to use in the meantime, so here is my plan. We will increase power to the engine so that we may observe the vortex at full width for a few moments, then we shall power down and attempt your emergency restart as we fall.”
I had no wish to observe the maelstrom at its greatest power while battling with the other elements, as well as inviting a fair chance of my own death in any of the circumstances outlined, but it at least had the final outcome I desired—that of an attempt to return safely to Earth. So I simply nodded my assent and turned to the controls. The mixture console controlled the feeding of chemical components to the power system, and I now increased the fuel supply, anxiously watching the dials inch downward as the quantities of chemical remaining began to drop.
The howl that accompanied the Third Effect engine increased to a piercing wail as the vortex thickened and became wider before us. I could now discern flecks of red at its edges as it became broader, almost as if it were some strange hybrid rose, red outside, black inside, spinning. Through it, and beyond, I could see a dark green. What I had previously perceived as quickly narrowing walls of the funnel I now realized was great distance. It was as if looking through a tube thousands of miles long, at some impossible other place.
“Is it not glorious, Hexbourne?! We are the first to see, we are the first here, at the edge of it all! At the edge of a new world to explore! And now it is time to throw aside our fears and step boldly into whatever awaits!”
It was of course as I had feared. At that moment I realized that this had been Sir Edward’s plan all along: to enter the vortex. But while I felt betrayed, I could understand his passion, perhaps in a way few others might. I was an adventurer, Sir Edward was an explorer. And while I could help him this far, I was not ready to go farther. I set the chemical mix to optimum feed and untethered one of the Da Vincis from its place next to the aft portal. I called forward.
“Sir Edward, if you don’t turn the Aetheriolabe around, I shall be forced to abandon ship.”
“Mutiny, sir? Or worse. Cowardice?”
I was stricken by his comments, but had nothing to say in response. He waved his hand in a dismissive gesture.
“Do as you wish, Hexbourne. I feared you had not the stuff for this expedition, and you’ve proven me right. Go.”
Without any further exchange, I walked through the aft hatches and through to the exit portal behind. I released pressure to match differential and opened the hatch. Below me, tens of thousands of feet of cloud upon cloud, mist upon mist, lightning, and thunder. The craft jerked as it began moving. Sir Edward was steering the Aetheriolabe forward and into the funnel. I jumped into one maelstrom to escape the other.
“As I dropped away from the Aetheriolabe, I spun in the air and saw it move toward, then enter the funnel. Then I saw—”
The storyteller placed large fingers against closed eyelids for a moment, pressing against them, as if wishing to re-inter the vision before him.
“As the Aetheriolabe was pulled into the funnel, I saw red flecks rise from the edges of the vortex, extending, becoming like tentacles, attaching themselves to the craft, dragging the Aetheriolabe and Sir Edward into… only God—or the Devil—knows where.”
Hexbourne shook his head slowly in silence, before breaking the tension by finishing off the glass of Chathese and setting it upon the table.
“I had no time to dwell upon Sir Edward’s fate. My own descent took many minutes, and while I had no means in which to direct my movements other than to assume a spread-eagle position to stabilize my fall, the ongoing storm around me was a terrifying, howling swirl of darkness and thunder. It seemed an eternity before I finally broke through the cloud base and once again saw hills, villages, farms and fields below me, but when the familiar landscape finally appeared, I felt somehow reattached, as if some link had been restored. While the lightning continued above me, somehow I felt immune to harm. At least for now, I would be safe.”
“Of course everything is contextual. As it happened, the Da Vinci unfurled perfectly as soon as I pulled the release cord. If it weren’t for the inopportune placement of that large oak tree I’d seen earlier, I would have landed without injury. However, such was my fate to fall through its branches and end up in hospital for more than six months, felled by six broken ribs, a fractured skull, a broken collarbone, two broken arms, a broken leg, and seven broken toes. My last vision before losing consciousness was a number of cows gathering around me as I lay in a tangled mess upon the sodden earth. It was somehow comforting to see them, the same animals that had attended our launch, still there to welcome me back to Earth.”
“Some weeks into my convalescence, I received two visitors from the Lazenby estate who requested a statement as to the events leading to my solo return from the flight. I explained the circumstances to the best of my ability, essentially telling them the story you yourselves have just heard. They said they might call again, but I received word less than two months following their visit that the Lazenby estate and a portion of its grounds had collapsed, with only a sort of metal tube sticking out from the centre of the collapsed area—a tube I believe I had seen before. And I have never received any further word from the estate in the matter. And Sir Edward Lazenby has never been seen again.”
“It is quite possible,” Hexbourne said, stretching out his legs before him, “that Sir Edward’s notes were destroyed in whatever happened to the house and grounds. But it is equally possible that someone destroyed the house to cover their theft of the notes. I cannot forget the sight of those red tentacles attaching themselves to the Aetheriolabe, dragging it in. And I live in terror of the idea that someone else will open that same funnel and allow those tentacles access to our reality once again. They are too close to us,” he said, looking back at the port again, “too close already.”