My retelling of Cinderella, ‘Ashley’, will appear in volume 4 of the Clarion Call.
My retelling of Cinderella, ‘Ashley’, will appear in volume 4 of the Clarion Call.
After nagging you all about writing Steampunk narrative, I thought it might be nice if I finally shared one of my Steampunk stories with you.
Three Men in a Submarine – to Say Nothing of the Vampire
By Lynne Lumsden Green
“The Strategic Advantages of Submersibles
John Wilkes, 1648
One of the founders and a lifelong member of
The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge
Somewhere in London, on the docks, 1814
The workshop was busy, even at this time of night, choked with steam, noisy, and blazing with heat, with at least a dozen men hard at work on various projects. The smithy tolled like a great bell, while a fountain of sparks sizzled as they rained down from the hammering that accompanied the welding. The room was surprisingly well lit, thanks to a profusion of Faraday electric lamps, but the flashes from the welding created strange shadows on the roof and walls. Everything stank of the death of metal: coal, hot iron, burning tin, and singed copper. Something had to suffer and die in the creation of a new invention.
The man-powered submarine dominated the centre of the room, for it was nearly 13 yards long and 10 feet across the beam. It was highly polished and its sides gleamed like fish scales – the only piscine attribute it appeared to display. As the supposed pinnacle of British engineering, the vehicle didn’t look splendid or inspiring.
To Sir Joseph Banks’ eyes, it looked like someone had taken the hulls of two boats and glued them together to form an enclosed space, and then clad them in copper plate, brass beams, and rivets. It looked lumpy and graceless, and very unlike a fish of any description. He had been expecting something less clumsy, with the sleek lines of a pike or a shark.
“I can’t imagine anything that looks less like a predator,” said Sir Joseph, president of the Royal Society. He felt angry, rather than disheartened. He banged the armrest with his fist to emphasise his remark. “This is a monstrosity. It looks like it will sink like a stone.”
Mr George Caley, botanical collector (retired) and currently Sir Joseph’s assistant, was pushing his employer’s wickerwork chair. He twitched to see his employer turning puce with excitement. “Remember your health, sir,” said Caley, retaining his faint Yorkshire accent even after so many years abroad in the antipodes and further years spent living in London, “or your good wife will be having my guts for garters. Mistress Banks will also pour harsh words in my ear, and that is not the soft option.”
Sir Joseph rolled his eyes, but ceased his protests. His wife was not a woman to be crossed, and nor was his sister. He was an old man; exposure to the chill night air made his bones ache, and those aches tended to make him grumpy. At least it was warm in the workshop and his pains were fading to twinges. He found it quite easy to give into Mr Caley’s admonishments when the man had his – Sir Joseph’s – best interests at heart. To be truthful, Sir Joseph was regretting that he had agreed to this outing.
Sir Joseph Banks was, as a favour to the Crown, supervising any scientific research relating to the war effort. He might have declined the honour if he had known it would mean sneaking off to covert, late-night meetings. It wasn’t in his nature to be secretive. He was a firm believer in Science being separate and above political differences, and encouraged communication between scientists no matter what nationality they were, even the French. Proper science was meant to take place during daylight hours with lots of witnesses, not the other way around.
It never occurred to Sir Joseph that he could have delegated any late night meetings to one of his colleagues in the Royal Society, or that he could have sent Mr Caley in his stead. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust others – certainly, Mr Caley had proved himself to be dependable and able to work without supervision – but Sir Joseph had always taken the motto of the Royal Society to heart: ‘Nullius in verba’, which Sir Joseph took to mean ‘take nobody’s word for it’. He’d found that nobody could replace the knowledge gained by firsthand observation and experience. Being confined to his wheelchair by gout was not going to prevent him from doing his duty.
Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley, recently made the Duke of Wellington, patted Sir Joseph on the shoulder with his fine-boned hand. His long face might have looked severe with his high cheekbones and thin mouth, except his features were generally lit by a merry smile, and the expression in his eyes was always kind. Sir Joseph privately thought the Duke looked too good natured to be a proper soldier. When the Duke spoke, his voice hinted of his childhood spent in Ireland, though the lilt was being eroded as he cultivated a plummy, English accent.
“I know it doesn’t look like much. It is a work in progress. But Napoleon has encouraged great strides in science, and we can’t be left behind,” said the Duke.
Sir Joseph shook his head and said, “Napoleon’s scientists abandoned this design. And Fulton had already tried to get our government interested in his man-powered submersibles before going home and forgetting about the project entirely. I believe he is now working on designing steam-powered ocean-going ships, and good luck to him. So why did we build another vessel based on Fulton’s designs? Why not copy the design of one of the other submersibles?”
“To be sure, the British research on Fulton’s design stopped because of our victory at the battle of Trafalgar. It took away our main motivation to continue. But our London office still had copies of Fulton’s designs,” said the Duke. “I feel the man-powered submarine could be very useful in gathering information.”
“Spying, in other words,” said Sir Joseph. “All that secret poking about leaves a bad taste in my mouth, I’m afraid.”
“I don’t see it as spying. I see it as gaining information that might save the lives of my men. And maybe the lives of some of the French navy as well.”
“Isn’t it a tad underhanded using Napoleon’s own submarine design against him?”
“Not at all,” said the Duke. “Isn’t it the stated goal of the scientific community to have a free exchange of ideas and information over and above the mere shackles of politics?”
“Fiddlesticks!” exclaimed Sir Joseph. “You are parroting one of my speeches. Don’t throw my own words back at me.”
The Duke gestured to some of the other inventions around the workshop, cannons and guns and such. “Isn’t it better to see science used for spying rather than making weapons?”
Sir Joseph was about to make a sharp retort…
Mr Caley cleared his throat in a respectful manner. “Milord,” was all he said, but the reproach in his voice was the leash for Sir Joseph’s temper.
At this point, one of the welders appeared to finish his task, for he set his tools to one side, climbed down a stepladder and started making his way over to the visitors.
Sir Joseph noted with approval the welder’s goggles and leather cap, heavy leather gloves, even heavier leather apron, and extremely robust leather boots. He trusted a man who took his work seriously and dressed appropriately.
The apron was gently smouldering from the constant flow of sparks, and the welder removed it before approaching the visitors. Under the apron he wore sensible overalls, and this revealed a surprisingly slim, almost boyish physical frame; it didn’t seem muscular enough to have handled the hammer used for banging away at red-hot rivets. Then he took off his gloves and cap and goggles, revealing a cheery grin with too many sharp teeth and a luxuriant flow of red curls. The welder was a female! And a vampire!
“Who is this?” spluttered Sir Joseph. “I don’t recall any vampires in the employ of the government.”
There was a softly muttered curse from behind him. Sir Joseph subsided. He hadn’t used to be so curmudgeonly, but being confined to a chair soured his temper, for he was constantly reminded that his body was no longer as active as his mind.
Mistress Liùsaidh Lesley – known as Lucy to her friends – smiled at the Duke of Wellington. With her red hair, white skin and green overalls, she resembled a Christmas decoration or a peppermint candy cane, most appropriate for the coming winter season. She turned to the Duke.
“Good evening, your Grace. I’m assuming you didn’t warn them?” Her voice was a warm contralto, also accented, this time with a Scottish brogue from the Borderlands. Sir Joseph guessed she originated from Berwickshire or somewhere close to it.
Am I the only native to London here? he thought privately. Ah well, all the brightest and best in the Empire end up in the capital eventually.
The Duke smiled back at the young-looking mechanic. “No. I didn’t have a chance. Sir Joseph insisted on accompanying me to this test dive. He was most persistent.” He turned to the elderly man in the wicker chair and said, “Sir Joseph, may I present Miss Lucy Lesley, our chief mechanic and engineer. Mistress Lesley, this is Sir Joseph Banks, president of the Royal Society and his assistant, Mister Caley.”
Miss Lesley bobbed, in what approximated a curtsey in her overalls. “I am honoured,” she said.
“It is a pleasure to meet you,” replied Sir Joseph, bowing his heavy, leonine head in return. Miss Lesley looked about twenty, but to be an engineer – and most certainly since she was a vampire – she had to be much, much older. Sir Joseph wondered how she had become interested in the science of machines and engines, and how long she had been working for the British government. He turned to the Duke and asked, “Arty, how did you come to make Miss Lesley the head of this project?”
“Miss Lesley comes from a tradition of Scottish engineers. She is a master craftsman in the field,” said the Duke. “The Crown was approached by a group of British vampires who offered their skills in return for a promise of recognition as citizens; the vampires want to have the same rights as the living.”
Miss Lesley nodded. “Being declared dead can be an awful bore. I’ve had a dreadful time retaining my ancestral home, because my cousins keep threatening to take me to court, just because they believe they should inherit the place since I am ‘dead’.”
The Duke continued on, “The Crown saw an opportunity to benefit the war effort and it was decided to give them a chance to prove themselves. Miss Lesley had some very clever suggestions and so she was given charge of building and operating the Nautilus II. And, due to her nature, she is very good at keeping secrets.”
“I heard what you said about her looking clumsy,” said Miss Lesley to Sir Joseph. “A swan looks very clumsy on the land, too. The Nautilus II will prove her worth once we get her wet.”
“My dear, any engineer worth their salt is never going to say their project isn’t workable,” said Sir Joseph, but he smiled to take the sting out of his remark. “It might need more time, more money, more research, more equipment and more manpower, but an engineer will get it to work in the end, or die trying.”
“That’s where I’m ahead of the game,” said Miss Lesley, with a tiny shrug, her smile both wry and rueful.
Sir Joseph coloured up. “Please forgive my rudeness. That was an inexcusable thing to say.”
Miss Lesley shook her head making her curls bounce in a lively jig. “No need to apologise. I could see it wasn’t meant in a nasty way, which makes for a refreshing change.” She turned to face the submarine, and her expression softened into maternal pride. “I do believe, gentlemen, that since you are here to accompany me while I take my treasure out for a short excursion, you can soon decide for yourselves if she has any grace or not.”
“Will all of us fit?” asked Sir Joseph. Even though the Nautilus II dominated the workshop, it didn’t look like it would be spacious on the inside.
The Duke rubbed his hands, anticipating his comrade’s reaction. “It isn’t as comfortable as a clubroom, but I think you are going to be pleasantly surprised.”
There was a certain amount of fuss to get the portly Sir Joseph into the submarine, since he was no longer trim or limber. At first, he suggested that he could climb the ladder up to the conning tower, where the hatch was. After all, he had once scooted up trees and clambered over cliff faces in search of rare plants.
Gritting his teeth with determination, Sir Joseph stood up, with the faithful Caley hovering at his side. Sir Joseph shook off his assistant with a gruff, “I’ll be fine.”
Stop treating me like an invalid, he fumed silently.
He gripped the ladder for support, ignoring the pain in his feet. He went to pull himself up to the next step. The pressure of the step on the joint of his big toe felt like some creature was savaging his foot. Humiliated and betrayed by his own infirmity, his arms couldn’t support his weight, and he felt himself slipping.
Mr Caley jumped forward – followed closely by Miss Lesley – and grabbed him before he fell. “Thank you,” Sir Joseph said, gruff nearly to the point of rudeness.
In the end, Miss Lesley and Mr Caley had to carry him up the ladder and then lower him through the hatch in the conning tower. He came embarrassingly close to not fitting through the hatch.
“It looks like his coat is catching on the edges,” said Miss Lesley. “It might be best if you take it off, Sir Joseph.”
Mr Caley was very red in the face as he helped Sir Joseph out of his coat. He was a rangy fellow with a surprising amount of strength, but Sir Joseph was not a small man.
“I’m regretting all those puddings,” said Sir Joseph, as way of an apology.
“Not as much as I am, milord,” muttered Mr Caley.
Sir Joseph allowed Mr Caley the impertinent remark, since his assistant was trained as a botanical collector, and not as a nursemaid. Mr Caley duties were meant to be more those of a secretary and research assistant. Neither Sir Joseph nor Mr Caley had ever imagined that Mr Caley would have to try and carry Sir Joseph into a tin fish, and certainly not with the able help of a lady vampire.
Overall, entering the submarine was not an experience that Sir Joseph enjoyed; it was so undignified to be slung around by someone who resembled a slight, pretty girl, even if she was much, much stronger than any man. It also galled him that the entire episode was being witnessed by the Duke of Wellington. At least he knew the man wasn’t a gossip.
Once inside, he was settled into a comfortable chair in the main cabin. The chair was upholstered in leather, and it was fastened to the floor by a screw so that the chair could be swung to face in any direction, and then there was a lever that could fix the chair in place when you didn’t want it to swing. Sir Joseph took the opportunity to catch his breath and inspect his surroundings.
His chair was one of five in the cabin. The cabin itself was small but as luxuriously appointed as the chair, panelled in oak with polished brass fittings and elegant scrollwork decorations, so that it looked more like an office than a craft of war. It smelt very strongly of beeswax and oil. The submarine had only a few tiny portholes, so heavily glazed that he only caught a dim, obscured view of workroom; he wondered how anyone was supposed to steer with such a view. Behind him was another hatch which led through a bulkhead into the propulsion room.
This hatch was open, and Sir Joseph caught glimpses of several people busily working pedals and gears, oiling them and tightening screws, as far as he could tell. The Duke took the chair beside him, and Caley sat closer to the bulkhead. The chair closest to the front of the cabin, and closest to a desk set with switches, dials, levers, wheels, and gauges, was taken by Miss Lesley, after she had sealed the main hatch.
“Where is the captain?” asked Sir Joseph.
“That would be me for this jaunt,” replied Miss Lesley in a severe manner that brooked no argument, as she toggled switches and pumped a lever.
“May I ask you a question, Miss Lesley?”
“Of course, milord,” said Miss Lesley, and she tapped a glass-covered dial. “Ask as many as you like. I can’t promise that I’ll know the answers to all of them, but I’ll do my best.”
“I’ve actually seen a copy of the plans for this vessel. Isn’t there supposed to be a false sail attached behind the conning tower, to make the submarine resemble a sailing boat?”
“Ah! I know this one. That false sail created more problems that it solved. The Nautilus II isn’t meant to dive very deep, but it is still meant to be able to dive under the keels of ships. The original Nautilus did manage to dive to below ten fathoms. We can’t dive with the sail up, and getting out to lower and unstep the sail negates any attempt at secrecy.”
“Oh. That seems obvious now that you’ve explained it,” said Sir Joseph.
“May I add to Miss Lesley’s answer?” asked the Duke.
“Of course!” said Sir Joseph. “After all, this is your project. Fulton’s plans would have been forgotten, languished, if you hadn’t pushed to see this submarine built. Personally, I don’t like to see any research discarded before its full potential has been explored.”
“I am pleased you see it that way,” said the Duke. He gestured to the ceiling and the walls surrounding them. “Originally, these man-powered submarines were meant to have a bomb or two on board. The sailing ship disguise was to obscure the submarine’s function and let it get close enough to an enemy vessel to blow a hole in its hull. Miss Lesley adapted the design to make a silent and hidden vessel that can make sorties into enemy waters and spy out the lie of the land and the location of troops and camps.”
“I see. Very clever,” said Sir Joseph. “It reduces the risks taken to obtain information.” As much as Sir Joseph disliked spying and sneaking, he did prefer spies to bombs.
Miss Lesley turned to the Duke and said, “Your Grace, we are ready to launch. Do you want to do the honours?”
The Duke shook his head. “The Nautilus II is yours to command.”
Miss Lesley rewarded him with a charming smile. She shouted into a large shell shape hanging from the ceiling. “Chocks away!”
There was a clanging noise and a bump. The submarine started to tilt nose down. Then there was the sensation of movement, of falling. When Sir Joseph glanced at one of the portholes, he could see blurry objects moving past the glass. The vessel tilted further and gained speed. Then there was a tinny splash, foam and dark water danced past the portholes, and the Nautilus II slid into the water.
We must be on rails like a steam locomotive, thought Sir Joseph. But I don’t remember noticing rollers or wheels.
Since it was night time, once they were submerged it was like diving into an ink bottle. The lights inside the submarine could only illuminate the water for a couple of yards. All Sir Joseph could see were anchors and chains looming out of the dark for a moment before they disappeared back into the murk behind them.
“I would advise everyone to hang on to something,” announced Miss Lesley.
There was series of clanks and clicks, as catches released their hold on the Nautilus II. Then the submarine jerked as it bobbed away from its moorings. Sir Joseph – gripping his armrests for all he was worth – was grateful for the warning, as he might have been propelled from his seat otherwise. The hull beside his head hummed a deep note, sounding like a gigantic tuning fork; soon the humming was replaced by rather alarming creaks and groans as the hull adjusted to the pressure of the water.
The point of the man-powered submarine was to make the craft as silent as possible, for the sound of an engine could be heard for long distances through water. As well, an engine has exhaust fumes, smelly and hard to eliminate. Sir Joseph wondered if the Nautilus II was that much quieter, with the whirring and clanking that was coming from the propulsion room. He looked around at his fellow submariners, who were stirring in the seats.
“Might I suggest some sort of safety harnesses for the chairs,” said the Duke of Wellington. “Just as a precaution.”
“An excellent idea, your Grace,” said Miss Lesley. “I tend to forget mortals are easily bruised or broken.”
In the soft light of the cabin, the vampire looked … more sinister. More alert. Sir Joseph thought her canines seemed sharper and more prominent.
Miss Lesley noticed his expression. “You need not fear me, my lord,” she said. “I would never harm anyone under my protection. But I must let my more monstrous nature assert itself while we are under the water, so that my senses are much more acute and my reflexes are faster.”
“Well, that is just using good sense then,” remarked Sir Joseph. “I had heard some rumours to that effect.”
“Indeed. These days, we tend to use vampires for all our risky tests,” said the Duke.
Miss Lesley nodded and said, “Of course I would never endanger you or his Grace. This isn’t the first time the Nautilus II has been fully submerged. Most of the problems have been fixed.”
“This is only meant to be an inspection, isn’t it?” asked Sir Joseph. He looked nervously at the walls, almost expecting to see them leaking. Then it occurred to him that his assistant was being very quiet – much too quiet for the garrulous George. He swung his chair around to check on Mr Caley.
Mr Caley’s skin was nearly as pale as Miss Lesley’s complexion, his eyes were squeezed tightly shut and he was shaking, slumped in his chair like a sack of grain.
Sir Joseph said, “Good lord, man. Whatever is the matter, Mister Caley?”
Mr Caley opened his eyes with reluctance. He gulped and rolled his eyes, and said, “Well, your lordship, I was never a good sailor at the best of times. And I’m not overly fond of tiny, enclosed places, since I’ve spent most of my time out-of-doors under a big sky. I’m sure my nausea will pass.”
“I never took you for a pansy, Mister Caley, for all your botanical skills. Buck up! Show some backbone.”
“Yes, milord,” said Mr Caley. He sat up in his chair, but he gripped the armrests with desperate strength.
“Don’t be too hard on Mr Caley,” said the Duke. “Bravery comes in many forms. I wouldn’t have liked to trot off into the wilderness of New South Wales to look for plant specimens, with nothing but a backpack and hat, with that entire great unknown before me.”
“Hah! I’ll bet you’ve never had a fearful moment in your life!” said Sir Joseph.
The Duke looked thoughtful. “Once my blood gets up, I am like that boy in one of Mr Anderson’s fairy tales, for I lose all fear. If I’m afraid in battle, it is not for my own safety, but for my soul. I’m afraid of becoming a butcher and killing men unnecessarily.”
Sir Joseph thought for a moment before he spoke. “That seems unlikely. Your interest in the success of the Nautilus II would indicate it isn’t in your nature to seek unnecessary death.” He looked at poor Mr Caley, as white as a baker’s best flour. “This excursion can’t be too long, anyway. We need to keep the Nautilus II a secret. So we have to have her back at the dock well before sunrise.”
Sir Joseph glanced back at the open door to the propulsion room. “Can we trust the men manning the pedals?” he asked.
“Yes. Sir Joseph,” said Miss Lesley. “For the same reason you can trust me. They are all vampires and used to keeping secrets. But, if that isn’t secure enough for you, the crew are all vampires that I have personally converted. They are my coven, my family. They cannot speak, because I have ordered them to not to.”
“I beg your pardon,” said Sir Joseph. “Did I hear you correctly? Is that the specific reason why you chose them for crew? Because they can keep a secret?”
Miss Lesley smiled, and then stopped when she realised her expression wasn’t particularly reassuring. “Well, in a battle, a submarine is very likely to be damaged. Vampires can see very well in the dark, and it gets dark a few fathoms under the water even on the sunniest days. All vampires have extraordinary strength and reflexes, so they can keep pedalling the ship for a lot longer than mortal men. They don’t really need to breathe, and they can’t be killed by drowning or pressure.”
“Goodness. It’s a wonder that all our troops vampires,” said Sir Joseph. He didn’t look impressed; quite the opposite, in fact.
Miss Lesley stopped smiling and shifted in her seat as it has suddenly grown too small for her, but she answered honestly all the same. “Well, in a battle, vampires can die just as easily as anyone else, from untipped arrows, wooden pikes, or having our heads cut off by swords. We can’t fight during the daytime, of course; this is why all the portholes in the Nautilus II are made from a special safety glass that filters out the dangerous elements in the sun’s rays. And then, there is a lot of blood in a battlefield. It would send most vampires into a frenzy and make them rather useless as soldiers, to be honest. They might end up killing men from their own side.”
“Ah. I see,” said Sir Joseph. “Certainly, I can see the advantage of an entire crew of vampires in submarines.” As he considered how they might recruit such a crew, he felt concern, and then anger. “However, I hope these are not British sailors purposely converted to being vampires just to man this vessel? I could never condone such an act!”
“I haven’t ‘recruited’ these men. They were already members of my coven, and since I have agreed to assist the British government, well, that gains their assistance as well,” said Miss Lesley.
“These man-powered … vampire-powered submarines are just for short voyages. Sabotage. Spying,” said the Duke. “That is why I pushed for the government to fund the building of the Nautilus II. I know that the French abandoned the project, but the French didn’t have the genius of Miss Lesley to call upon.”
If Miss Lesley could have blushed, she would have. “You’re too kind, your Grace.”
Sir Joseph decided he should make up for his harsh question and said, “Well, Miss Lesley, I see that you have plans to become a mermaid. You will make a particularly beautiful one.”
“Thank you, Sir Joseph, for the compliment, but can I point out that mermaids traditionally lured sailors to their deaths by singing beautiful songs. I’m afraid singing is not among my accomplishments,” said Miss Lesley. “However, we four could always have a go at a barbershop quartet.”
“I’m not certain Mr Caley is up to singing,” said Sir Joseph. “However, if he gets his sea legs-”
It was then, by sheer bad luck, that an anchor from an unseen ship was released on top of the submarine. Everyone in the cabin heard the splash and rattle, and then suddenly the whole vessel rang like a bell as the metal anchor struck them. Because the Nautilus II was moving at a fair clip, the anchor dragged its way over the top of the hull, scraping the copper plates and catching at the ribs and rivets. It then became entangled in the structure around the rudders.
The Nautilus II began to bob and jerk like a fish snared on a hook, as the ship and anchor began to drag it along. Mr Caley turned a sickly green.
Sir Joseph knew a bit about the history of submersibles; he knew that the Spanish Ictineo I had been scuttled in an accident with a cargo vessel. The German Brandtaucher, another prototype submersible that had been powered by human beings rather than an engine, had sunk during diving trials. It looked as if the Nautilus II was going to suffer a similar fate.
“Bloody hell,” exclaimed Miss Lesley and swung her chair back to face her panel of instruments. Her hands were frantically busy as she tried to stabilise her vessel.
Sir Joseph tried to brace himself in his chair, so that he wouldn’t be tossed around the cabin like a ball. However, he could feel his hands and legs weakening.
Bloody gout! thought Sir Joseph.
Mr Caley was starting to moan and looked as if he might throw up. The Duke was firmly gripping his armrests, but his expression was rather cheery (to Sir Joseph’s surprise).
Near the ceiling hatch, a damp patch appeared. It grew rapidly, and water started dripping from the ceiling and running down the walls. It took only a minute for the floor to be awash with half-an-inch of water which continued to rise rapidly. It sloshed around everyone’s boots and smelt strongly of rotting fish, sewerage and the ocean.
I guess this is my time to die, thought Sir Joseph. Well, I never did want to die quietly in my bed.
He was surprised at how calm he felt. He supposed it was due to the full life he had led, and his constant battle to bring the light of rationality to the world. He liked to think of himself as the candle maker, helping others to shine against the darkness of ignorance. When a man has done his best all his life, he has few regrets at the end of it; well, maybe he had just the one … that his wife had no children or grandchildren to comfort her after he was gone. He gave himself a mental shake for such grim thoughts.
But what about the Duke? he asked himself, glancing over to his colleague. Arty is an essential part of our war machine. And poor George came back to England, thinking he would die safely in bed between clean, white sheets.
A quick glance at Mr Caley showed him to be manfully containing his nausea. Sir Joseph wished he could take back his hard words about his servant’s fortitude. With all the tossing about, even Sir Joseph was feeling ill.
Against all common sense, the Duke was looking happier as events advanced. He was grinning like a maniac as the submarine bounced him around, enjoying the experience just like a small boy on a carousel. Sir Joseph supposed that a soldier would enjoy the danger inherent in the situation; you didn’t become a professional soldier because you liked things safe and cosy. However, someone had to take charge of the situation. Miss Lesley was too busy fighting with the controls to think.
Dash it all, thought Sir Joseph. I might be old but I’m not dead yet. Time I put my much-vaunted intellect to work. We need not die here.
“Lucy! Take her up! Blast any pretence at secrecy. We must save the Duke at all costs!” ordered Sir Joseph over the din.
“Aye, milord,” said Miss Lesley. She shouted into the shell again. “Emergency! All hands prepare for an emergency release of the ballast.” She turned back to her passengers. “I know you’re all already hanging on. Be ready for an almighty bump!”
Lucy dragged at a lever and the Nautilus II rolled and yawed and spun. There was a sudden blast of bubbles past the portholes as the submarine sprang to the surface like a frolicking dolphin. Sir Joseph was pushed back into his chair by the force of their rapid ascent and felt his ears pop.
Everyone was jolted out of their seats as the Nautilus II rebounded from her leap into the air. Sir Joseph was flung into the ceiling and then the side of the cabin, to land in an untidy heap with the Duke and Mr Caley on top of him. For a moment, no one stirred, waiting for more gymnastics, until Sir Joseph groaned. The other two men hastily crawled off him, and Mr Caley helped him back into his chair.
“Milord! Are you unhurt?” asked Mr Caley. “Mrs Banks will strangle me if you are injured while you are in my care.”
Sir Joseph took a cautious look around. The submarine was still dancing a lively jig, but the action was smoother and water was no longer seeping through the ceiling. Most of the lights had been doused during the accident, but two lamps were still flickering. He felt a sore patch on his bottom lip, where his teeth had cut him while he was being tossed around. He put his hand to his mouth and came away with blood on his fingertips.
He looked up towards Miss Lesley, who had kept her seat. Their eyes met, and they both looked down to his fingertips. The vampire woman’s eyes gleamed very red, nearly as red as her glossy hair, and her teeth visibly lengthened as he watched. He felt his fingers tremble.
Miss Lesley jumped out of her chair and onto the ladder to the conning tower hatch. Her fingernails elongated into talons, as she grimly unscrewed the door fastenings. As soon as the hatch opened, there was a sudden gust of chilly fresh air into the cabin; Sir Joseph hadn’t noticed how stuffy the air had become. Then Lucy climbed out into the night faster than the eye could follow.
Sir Joseph nearly collapsed with relief.
It was but a moment later that the men heard the crunch and groan of metal being rent. And the Nautilus II ceased its frantic dance.
Sir Joseph looked to Mr Caley. Poor George was muttering curses or prayers under his breath, but he no longer appeared to be close to vomiting. He bent over Sir Joseph and helped his employer to his feet.
Pulling himself back onto his chair, the Duke looked rather disappointed that the wild ride was over. When Arty saw Sir Joseph looking at him, he grinned.
“I think we can say the excursion was successful,” said the Duke. “No one has died.”
The sounds of complicated destruction were still coming from the region of the rudders.
The Duke added, “And I do believe Miss Lesley is doing some on-the-spot structural modifications.”
“As one does,” said Sir Joseph. He wondered if it was appropriate to send flowers to a woman for not eating you. Maybe a nice cameo or a bracelet? He would have to ask Lady Banks … then again, thinking of his wife’s face as he tried to explain the circumstances, maybe not.
Mr Caley settled back into his seat and cleared his throat. “May I ask a question, milord?”
“Certainly,” said Sir Joseph. “At this moment, I believe you can ask me anything.” Sir Joseph prepared himself for a request of termination of employment. And he couldn’t really blame George. He rather felt like resigning his position with the government himself.
“This is meant to be a weapon for use against the French?” asked Mr Caley. His expression was earnest, serious.
“Yes? Your point being?” asked Sir Joseph, bewildered.
“Well, sir, I can see that it will be a very effective way of demoralising their troops,” said Mr Caley. “But how are we going to convince them all into taking a ride?”
The Duke of Wellington roared with laughter…
“The captain has requested a cocktail with her dinner this evening,” the first mate told the new cook.
“Did she ask for anything specific?” The cook was straight out of training; this was his first position. He was excited at being on starship and getting to see the galaxy, even on an old tub like the Esmerelda Weatherwax. He was keen to impress.
“Nope. If you have a specialty, make that. She enjoys a drink, or two.”
The new cook decided to go with a classic: a Gin Fizz over ice, decorated with a slice of lemon and a slice of lime. It would work well with the smoked salmon pasta, and he had all the ingredients to hand.
A minute later, the cabin boy was back, close to tears. The Fizz was a fizzle … the glass had been upended in the garden salad.
“It’s not your fault,” whimpered the boy. “Someone ought to have warned you. But the captain wants to see you. Now.”
Captain Ogg had a reputation for being a genial old soul and good to her crew. It was one of the reasons the cook had taken the position on the Esme. So, he was surprised to see the captain looking furious, her face plum-coloured with rage. The plate of pasta hit the bulkhead next to his head, spraying him with dream sauce and capers.
“You’re lucky I don’t space you, boy,” she growled.
“I’m sorry,” said the cook, trying not to tremble. “but I don’t understand what I’ve done wrong. You aren’t listed as having any allergies.” He took a stab in the dark, and added, “I apologise for serving you seafood.”
“So that slice of lime wasn’t a dig at me?” demanded the captain.
The captain relaxed, and the plum turned back to apple in her cheeks. She sighed.
“I guess you’re too young to know of the scandal,” she said. “Just know, boy, that you should never serve lime to an old sailor. Have you ever heard of timelimes?”
The cook shook his head. “It’s not something we covered in chef school.”
“Well, no. It wouldn’t be. Timelimes were once used to help humans adjust to the vagaries of space travel. Time dilation and all that. That was a hundred and sixty years ago.”
The cook swallowed. That was before his grandparents were born. He wisely didn’t share that fact with the captain.
She continued on, “However, timelimes have some mighty weird side effects. It isn’t pretty when your heart ages ten times faster than the rest of you, or your intestine reverts back to when you were three years old. I lost a crew to scurvy, because they all refused to eat the limes, and that was the only citrus we had on board.”
“Good god! How awful!”
“Indeed. Even a whiff of lime can cause flashbacks in an old sailor who has suffered a timelime accident.”
The cook nodded. He said, “I will remove all lime and lime-related items from my pantry. I promise not to make that mistake again.”
The captain twinkled at him. “Good lad. Now off you go. I still need you to cook me dinner.”
As he walked back to his kitchens, the cook wondered whether or not he had just been submitted to an elaborate hazing ritual. What would be next?
The next day, the first mate informed him, “It appears that the strawberries in last night’s desserts acted as an aphrodisiac for the alien crew members from the Discworld system. They are all pregnant, and they are claiming you are at fault.”
Little black flowers grow in the sky. They grow in between the stars, in the rich loam of eternity. Most people can’t see them, not even if they wanted to. Most people should be glad they can’t see them. Those black sunflowers glow with a light of their own, in a spectrum that mortal beings can’t register. Such dark light can blind you just as easily as staring into the sun, and then it burns down and turns your soul to ashes. This is the truth; signed in blood and hope to die.
Sullivan stared down at his hands, red with blood. He had always thought that blood was bright red, but his blood looked dark. It flowed like a river from his gut. He couldn’t remember why.
It was strange that he couldn’t remember, when some part of him knew that remembering was important. It seemed to be the one thing left of which he was certain, while the rest of his thoughts were breaking up and scattering like autumn leaves tossed in a high wind. He scrambled to catch them, as they fluttered further and further away.
Is this what dying feels like?
As his normal senses slithered away, he appeared to be growing new ones. He looked up from his bloody hands. People crowded around, forming a ring of heads above him. He could make out their mouths opening and closing, but their voices receded away from him. Instead, he could hear the rocks beneath him sing, sounding something like whale song and something like a carillon of crystal bells being struck. From his own broken body came the sounds of waves breaking and a steady drumbeat. The blue of the sky was fading, replaced by colours he had never seen before. His fingertips tingled as the Earth plummeted through the universe. He could smell the sadness and worry and horror of the people milling around him.
It was then he noticed the optical illusion the circling heads were forming. They were so close together, that they looked like the petals surround the central disc of a daisy or a sunflower. It amused him, and Sullivan attempted a laugh. Like his thoughts, laughter seemed to spiral away into the tunnel of the sun, where it was burnt into gilt and ash. The ashes smelt like fresh-baked bread.
“Sully? Sully, can you hear me?” called a woman’s voice across the void.
What a beautiful voice! It shimmered with a rainbow of moonlight walks, sharing cosy talks, happy tears, fighting fears, holding tight, and bitter fights.
“Sully. You stay with us, you hear?”
The voice reminded him that he had something to remember. It was so important to remember. What he had to remember was twisted up with that voice, like twine around roses.
“Sully? Becca is safe. You saved her from being run over. Do you understand? Rebecca is safe. But you were run over instead,” said the beautiful voice. “You have to stay with us. Stay with me.”
Stay? Stay? His very being was being pulled apart in preparation for roaming the starry sunflower fields. He wasn’t even sure if he was staying himself. Some nameless power was shaking apart the jigsaw that had made him Sullivan. It didn’t physically hurt, though his confusion was almost painful. Then the torment of his thoughts focussed on the name ‘Rebecca’.
Rebecca. An album of impressions flickered: the perfume of baby powder, soft blue eyes, dimpled knees and a smile framing four baby teeth. Rebecca: a chuckle that turned into a laugh, reading Winnie the Pooh, giggling tickle fights…it was good to remember Rebecca. It was very good to know that Rebecca was safe. It still wasn’t the important fact he was struggling to remember, yet knowing Rebecca was safe it did give him an intense glow of satisfaction.
His limbs had felt like they had grown too heavy to lift. That was changing. He felt buoyant; his heart weighed less than a feather, it was light enough to float way. There was no pain. No sorrow. No fear. Nothingness. Black sunflowers flew out of his chest, one after another, a chain of shadowy jellyfish floating upwards to the surface of the ocean.
The pain of that cry cut him deeper than any razor. It sliced away at his confusion. He remembered the beautiful voice belonged to his wife, Hayley, and Rebecca was their daughter. He managed to gain some control of his eyes. He focussed on the petal of darkness nearest to him. It resolved itself into the tear-jewelled face of his Hayley.
His lips and tongue were numb. Had he just visited the dentist for a filling? He fought to say her name. He couldn’t hear if he succeeded, but her eyes met his, so she must have heard something. She had one of his hands clutched in her own, oblivious of the blood and gore. He couldn’t feel her touching him. Why couldn’t he feel her touching him?
It didn’t matter. He could see her, and that was enough. Her eyes were mirrors, as always, showing him his own face as Hayley saw it, loving, kind, and dependable. He always looked handsome in Hayley’s eyes. It was his daily miracle that she loved him with such strength. And she had gifted him with a child of her body. He tried to squeeze her hand.
Suddenly it hailed gloves. Hayley was pulled away from him, and he didn’t have the strength to prevent it. Sullivan couldn’t feel what they were doing, but he could see and hear them, though they sounded very far away. Scissors cut away his clothes. Gloves with cloths swabbed away at all this blood. Voices made brisk comments that fell around him like snowflakes.
“Stand back please. Give us room.”
“There is internal bleeding”
“It looks as if at least one wheel ran over his hips.”
“His pelvis is shattered.”
“Bone shards cut his intestines.”
“We need to get him stable enough to transport to the hospital.”
“This is his wife and child.”
“Madam, can you give us your husband’s name?”
Hayley said, “It is Stephen George Aage Sullivan. But everyone calls him Sully. Please, he is only twenty-nine.”
“Don’t you worry, Missus,” said one of the brisk voices.
A concerned face swam into view. “You just have to hang on, Sully mate. You’ll be on your way to the hospital in just a minute.”
Sully could see the lie. The other snowflakes words floated gently to the ground… these words dropped like stones of ice and shattered all around him. The ambulance officers were working hard, but even as he watched them they grew further and further away.
The black sunflowers were now coming in bouquets and nosegays and daisy chains. They swam across his vision, obscuring his field of view. His back arched to help shake them from his chest.
A mouse screamed, “Sully!”
Another mouse shouted, “Arrhythmia. We’re losing him.”
The confusion took hold again, and the world spun around him, the calm centre in the middle of a cyclone. He tried to close his eyes; they wouldn’t respond.
It was snowing a blizzard now, but the sunflowers still drifted as though they were bubbles wafting on a gentle breeze. He no longer heard the bells or the ocean or the drum, but the rocks were still carolling like birds. He thought he could hear them whisper his name as part of their chorus. It was glorious. His thoughts were dropping off the string and rolling away, until there was just one thought left.
You have to remember.
Most of Sullivan had escaped by now. It was running free, no longer trapped by time or space or the puny laws of man or physics. He was both as large as an electron, as small as the universe, as still as sound wave and as slow as a ray of light. His existence was just a fading poem, with only one final task left for him to do.
He had promised to remember. And Sullivan was a man who always kept his promises. It was the one thing that defined him above all other aspects of his being, even as he stopped being a being.
His heart thudded for one final time.
For just one last time, he thought with perfect clarity. He remembered. I promised to love you until death do us part, Hayley. But I will love you forever.
He could hear the speaking stones sing and mutter his name. While his face remained turned skyward, the blue reflected in his glazing eyes, his vision was filled with infinite fields of shining, gorgeous, shimmering black sunflowers.
Little black flowers grow in the sky. They grow in between the stars, in the rich loam of eternity. Those black sunflowers glow with a light of their own, in a spectrum that mortal beings can’t register. Such dark light can blind you just as easily as staring into the sun, and then it burns down and turns your soul to ashes.
The only thing that remains is love.
This is the truth; signed in blood and hope to die.
Peter’s ears were assaulted by the shocking clatter of a smash, with a counterpoint of shattering glass. These were followed immediately by the sounds of grunting and swearing echoing around the deep ceiling of the renovated hall. The fuss halted the idle chatter between Peter and the gallery owner, and they both rushed towards the epicentre of the trouble.
They were in time to witness a drunken lout being restrained by two other men, as all three struggled beside the remains of one of Peter’s photographic portraits. Blood spattered the floor, testimony to an attempt by the drunk to smash the artwork with his bare fists.
“Fuck’n queers!” cursed the drunk, as he attempted to tug his arms free. “That’s what you all are…queers ‘n poofters ‘n fairies. Bloody lot of you should be shot on sight.”
One of young men engaged in preventing his tirade turned to the gathering crowd, “Quick, somebody, call the police! You can see he’s off his face.”
“I’m right on it. Don’t let him go, now,” uttered the gallery owner, and he rushed off to retrieve his mobile phone from his office. A couple of people in the crowd looked uncertainly after him, and a young woman reached for her own cell phone.
Peter couldn’t drag his eyes away from his ruined work. It was one of his favourite pieces. It was a drag queen, taken in full regalia as she marched in Sydney’s Gay Mardi Gra parade. The photo was a monotone, originally in black and white; Peter had tinted his subject every shade of blue. He had really captured the joy and pride that the transvestite had radiated like a beacon.
Now, the piece was crumpled and torn and bloodstained, and its frame was irretrievably smashed. Its despoiler must have known what to expect when he had attended Peter’s gallery opening. What would have motivated such an act of rage? Wasn’t this kind of Neanderthal response to the gay community meant to be just a memory in this more enlightened decade? With some effort, he managed to tear his eyes away from the scraps of his work.
His eyes met with another gentleman’s gaze, a handsome redhead who was watching the spectacle with obvious delight. Suddenly, Peter felt an overwhelming wave of fear, loathing and horror. It was a sensation akin to drowning, as he really couldn’t bring himself to draw a breath – he was so frozen with terror. His heart felt like it was beating within a cage of barbed wire. Was he dying?
A girl noticed his distress, the same girl that had just used her phone to summon the police. “Oh look,” she shrieked, “It’s the artist! He’s going into shock. Somebody do something.” The crowd’s attention was drawn away from the drunk, and towards Peter. Several people stepped forward to help him. A matronly woman stepped in front of him, and hid the glowing green eyes that filled Peter’s vision. The terror was shut off like a blowing of a light bulb.
He went to sink to the floor, but there were many hands to catch him. His consciousness took the best and fastest avenue of recovery from the utter madness of the last few moments, and Peter fainted.
It took a few days for Peter to regain his courage and return to the art gallery. The memory of those fleeting moments of complete and utter dread and hatred was still strong. It was like his mind was a sea, and someone had dropped an enormous jagged shoal right into the centre of it. Dangerous currents lurked just under his surface thoughts. Still, he couldn’t really avoid such a personally important venue as the art gallery forever. He bolstered his meagre store of courage, snatched up his camera case, and set off to his showing.
The gallery owner greeted him warmly. Peter’s works were selling steadily, and the showing was well on the way to success. Peter politely refused an offer of a shared pot of coffee in the office, preferring to wander for a bit. He had his camera at the ready. He never knew when an interesting or exciting subject might present itself.
The sheer beauty of one of the art gallery patrons quickly captured his attention. The man was a true redhead, with the clear-cut, patrician features of a Greek sculpture. Peter was usually attracted to men with dark, brooding features, but this guy’s gorgeous skin and hair lured and seduced his eye.
Unobtrusively, Peter snapped a few shots of the gentleman. Peter was so focussed on his subject that he didn’t notice that the man seemed to travel with an enormous area of personal space. As the redhead strolled around the gallery, his approach to the other patrons seemed to make them suddenly shudder or squirm, and hurry away.
Peter hoped the man was homosexual. He moved with an animal grace that was most sensual to watch, as he toured the photo portraits. After a while, the redhead noticed of Peter’s admiring gaze. He turned to meet Peter’s eyes.
Suddenly, Peter was trapped in a turmoil of repellent sensations. Hatred. Greed. The need to destroy. Disgust. Lust. Rage. It was a replay of the horror that occurred on the opening night of Peter’s exhibit. His bruised psyche recoiled in fear. The redhead grinned at Peter’s obvious distress. It was the same type of sneer that might lurk on a boy’s face, as the boy amuses himself by torturing a puppy with a stick. As he turned away from Peter, the redhead smiled with pleasure.
The photographer watched, pale and sweating and shaking, as the other man exited the art gallery in a leisurely manner.
Peter’s photographs of the redhead proved to be most enlightening, on several levels. Instead a suave and handsome human male, the pictures revealed a portrait of a devil, a gargoyle with the most intently evil expression imaginable. It was every sin personified, into one terrible, monstrous form.
After toying with the idea of releasing the photos to the press, Peter quietly burned the photos and the negatives. No one would believe the real circumstances behind the portraits. As well, Peter instinctively felt that any public release would be asking for trouble, lots of trouble.
Instead, Peter began to regularly attend church instead.
*I wrote this story nearly two decades ago. With ‘Lucifer’ playing on the small screen, I felt it was time to give it an airing. It need a major polish, but it has good bones.
This was the start of a chapter book I never finished. Upon rereading this opening chapter, I am beginning to wonder why I abandoned it. Any thoughts? Should I plan on finishing this?
Chapter One – Radio Daze
Isaac Murphy often wondered if his name had cursed him. He loved sharing a name with his hero, Isaac Newton, but Murphy thought that his surname was what brought him bad luck. Everyone knows about Murphy’s Law: Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. The law seemed all too true for Murphy. When he was around, weird things happened.
He wished people would call him Zak or Izzy, which were cool names. As a Zak, he would have smooth and in charge. As an Izzy, he would have been popular in Year Six. However, everyone called him Murphy, even his parents, and so he was jinxed to be clumsy, and to say or do stupid things when he was trying to be clever and witty. The episode with the hunky punk is perfect example of how strange things happened to Murphy.
Murphy wanted to be a cool kid, like a sports star. But no matter how hard he tried to play soccer and cricket, he seemed destined to be a science nerd. He tinkered with gadgets. His current obsession was ham radio; he enjoyed building home-made radios and antennas as well as chatting to people from all over the world.
Murphy’s call sign was VK*MUR (This is not a real call sign. However, in Australia, all ham radio call signs starts with VK. The VK is followed by a number that represents your state, and another couple of letters to identify the individual.). He held an advanced licence, which meant he was allowed to tune into all of twenty-three amateur bands available. It was great fun to talk to people from other countries, when the conditions were right. He had spoken with people from every continent on the planet.
He spent all his pocket money, birthday money, and any cash he earned doing odd jobs for his neighbours, on new radio equipment and on improving his antenna array. He was constantly working to improve the range and sensitivity of his radio setup. As well, he borrowed every book in his library about radios and electronics. He hunted through the internet, looking for sites and forums that were run by fellow fanatics. When his friends were gaming or watching television, he was fiddling with his radio dials.
His parents were happy that he had a hobby.
Murphy’s parents did not suffer from the same curse as their son. Mr Murphy was a psychiatrist who liked to tell Dad jokes; he always answered the phone “Hello. This is Murphy’s Madhouse.” Mrs Murphy was a computer programmer, specialising in financial systems. Both of Murphy’s parents were successful in their jobs, looked like normal people and were pretty good at golf. As parents, they were kind and encouraging.
Murphy often wondered if he had been given to them by mistake, even though he had red hair the exact same shade as his mum’s hair (his hair looked goofy, his mum’s hair looked brilliant). But then, they didn’t seem to suffer from Murphy’s Law. Weird things happened to him, while his parents didn’t seem to have strange or bizarre incidents. For example, they never did see why he wanted to change bedrooms after his run in with the hunky punk…
What, you’re telling me you don’t know what a hunky punk is? Well, have you ever seen a gargoyle? Gargoyles and hunky punks are ugly, gruesome statues that squat all over old buildings and some new ones. Gargoyles serve a purpose, as they act as drains, funnelling water away from the walls of a building like a pipe. Hunky punks are only there for show, to make the building look scarier.
There aren’t too many houses in Australia that sport gargoyles and hunky punks. However, Murphy lived in a house that had been built by an eccentric artist, one who had spent his days carving monsters and mythical beasts out of stone. Any that he couldn’t sell he put into the garden or used them to decorate the house. There was a truly horrible hunky punk set above Murphy’s window, with huge, spiky eyebrows and a wicked, leering mouth.
Most of the time, Murphy took little notice of the hideous thing.
“If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live.” Quote incorrectly attributed to Albert Einstein, but accurate all the same.
“I am afraid the logistics of making a mechanical bee is still years beyond current technology,” said Professor Melissa Beowulf. She pushed her honey-coloured hair back from her face, fighting hard against her overwhelming feeling of hopelessness. “We aren’t going to make the deadline following this path of inquiry.”
“What about the other projects? Maybe we should switch the focus and funds to one of them?” suggested Mr Woozle, the Prime Minister. He sat back into his chair, which was upholstered in an expensive leather too soft to squeak, and tried to look concerned. Melissa wriggled in her chair, seated across from him in a much cheaper and squeakier chair. He continued on, “I promised the country we would find a solution. I need something to give heart to the farmers affected by the bee shortage.”
He wasn’t fooling Melissa. She ignored the royal ‘we’. She knew the Prime Minister wouldn’t shoulder any of the blame and would be quick to distance himself from any failure, as slippery as any toad. He was infamous for it. He would then pull all funding from anything to do with the bee shortage … including the long-term breeding strategies, the best bet for recovery.
Instead of panicking, she sorted through her files and pulled out a couple of the ones that she mentally labelled as ‘pseudo-science’; as her granny used to say, Desperate times call for desperate measures. She laid the files out in front of her. She wondered just how little science Mr Woozle understood. Melissa assumed that, to become Prime Minister, he couldn’t be a stupid man, and yet he was popularly considered to be quite the Luddite in his attitudes to science and technology. Her pseudo-science files might test that assumption.
“I have here some innovative suggestions – you might even call them cutting edge,” said Melissa.
Mr Woozle leant forward, and Melissa resisted the urge to lean back.
“Well then, let’s hear them,” he said.
She opened the first folder and few out a few concept illustrations. She fanned them out in front and Mr Woozle. He looked them over, and Melissa took careful note of his expression; his face remained interested. He didn’t look amused, nor did he start to sneer, which Melissa found encouraging.
The pictures showed tiny people helping the bees to pollinate flowers.
“As you know, due to the lack of bees to pollinate crops, we are facing a food shortage. So, as an alternative to bees, or to assist them, one of my teams suggested we genetically adapt humanoid creatures. The success of the human form makes it a good all-rounder.”
Melissa was pleased that Mr Woozle nodded as if he understood.
She continued, “We know historically and traditionally that, in most cultures, homunculi were considered to assist in the growing of all sorts of flora.”
“Excellent,’ said Mr Woozle, steepling his hands and leaning even further forward. “As you know, I like to think of my government as standing for traditional family values. Maybe you should divert some of your funding to this group.”
“Well, the idea isn’t something we can pull together overnight. We would need secure, long-term funding for such a project.”
“Hmmmm. You boffins always say that,” said Mr Woozle, sitting back in his chair and twisting his expression to create his trademark ‘cynical eyebrow lift’. He used that eyebrow to cower junior members of his party and the opposition, but Professor Melissa Beowulf was made of sterner stuff.
“We can’t abandon the other projects just when some of them are coming close to showing results,” she said, gesturing to her pile of folders. “As well, we can profitably repurpose the results from my various teams. The robotic bees – as the project stands now – can be modified to be spy bugs, as just one example.”
The quirked eyebrow had lowered significantly at the mention of the word ‘profitably’. If there was one thing that Mr Woozle treasured over everything else, it was economic gain. It was ironic that it had been his devotion to great god of Economics that had created the problem in the first place. His government had approved the use of chemicals to improve crops by regulating harmful insects; except it had also regulated bees to near extinction. At first, the government had fobbed of the loss of bees as collateral damage and denied that anyone needed to be concerned. However, most of the very same crops that needed to be ‘protected’ from insect attack also needed bees to pollinate the flowers that produced the crop. When shortfall started to hit the general public with larger grocery bills, and the complaints had started pouring in, only then did the government set up a taskforce to save the bees.
Melissa tried not to feel bitter that she had been advocating for the bees for years before the crisis had finally occurred. As her granny used to say, An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure. It was a pity that governments spent money so grudgingly on science-related projects. The Prime Minister and his government were among the most technophobic she had ever encountered. Having to come to the man, subservient, with cap in hand, was a subtle form of torture.
Mr Woozle didn’t notice how Melissa’s lips thinned as she waited for his response. He was again studying the pictures in front of him. It would have taken a heart of stone not to be captivated by the images of tiny people frolicking with the fuzzy bees; he had enough fibres of humanity left to set his heart a-twitching. And he could see it wouldn’t be that hard to sell the general public on such an attractive project.
“It’s a pity we only have sketches,” he said. “An actual … what did you call it? A human-clueless? One of those would make funding this project so much easier.”
Melissa looked uncertain. “The file does make mention of a prototype,” she said, “but I haven’t witnessed it in action.”
“Excellent!” barked Mr Woozle. “Arrange a demonstration for me asap. You may go.”
Melissa gathered up her folders, smothering elation. The Prime Minister hadn’t mentioned anything about cutting her funding. She’d bury him in flower fairies if she thought that would keep her projects going.
Doctor Tündér was one of those men who looked like they were carved rather than grown, since he was all sharp angles and thin, long limbs, with smooth teak-coloured skin. Melissa found him attractive, but she was perturbed by what his motivations might be and what was it that dedicated him to his project; he looked too stern to be creating cute, thumb-sized homunculi. As her granny used to say, Handsome is as handsome does. However, he certainly looked like the type of scientist that the Prime Minister would best respond to: male, white-coated, clinical, and serious.
A good half of Doctor Tündér’s laboratory was a greenhouse, full of flowering plants and pleasantly a-buzz with bees. The air was fragrant rather than antiseptic. Instead of artificial lighting, it was full of sunshine. Melissa approved of the set-up. The more she saw, the better she like Doctor Tündér.
Mr Woozle flinched as a bee flew past one of his ears.
“Do they sting?” he asked, glancing around in a nervous manner, as he walked with Melissa and Doctor Tündér. The Prime Minister was nattily dressed in a Saville Row suite with Italian shoes … he had to look good in his photos. Behind him trailed his ‘crew’: his personal media assistant/spin doctor, his Minister for Industry – in lieu of a non-existent Minister for Science – and his personal media assistant, and the usual flock of housebroken journalists and photographers.
“Only if provoked,” said Doctor Tündér, “so I wouldn’t be too worried. Unless you are allergic?”
“I don’t think so,” said Mr Woozle. “I can remember being stung as a child.”
“Then you should be fine,” said Doctor Tündér.
Melissa fused a few of her brain cells at the thought of Mr Woozle as a boy. She just couldn’t imagine him playing outdoors. Surely he was more the type to stay indoors and play computer games about world domination. He did try to improve his image with action shots, but even the least cynical person could see that most were staged photographs.
Doctor Tündér led them through into the back of his greenhouse. There, on an ordinary wooden bench, stood a little object that resembled a pigeon coop merged into a doll house. “This is where I house my prototype. Please don’t crowd around too close. The creature is too small to be truly intelligent, and I have attempted to modify her instincts accordingly. The creature gets easily frightened by the presence of large animals and by unexpected loud noises.”
Melissa stood perfectly still, and resisted the urge to stop breathing, as Doctor Tündér leant down beside the strange little house and made a clicking noise with his tongue against his teeth. It was obviously how he communicated with his prototype, because a little person walked out of its house and onto the bench. The murmuring of the Prime Minister’s entourage grew silent. The creature was humanoid in shape, but it did not look like a miniaturized human being. It had a rotund, bottom-heavy body, so that its arms looked long and elegant by comparison. Its least human-like feature was its head, as round as a ball, small-featured, noseless, and crowned with a mass of dark fluff. It had been dressed in a simple tunic, but the stiffness of the fabric created the impression of a swing skirt; it was self-evident that Doctor Tündér was not a seamstress. Melissa guessed the creature stood approximately three bees in height, or just under the length of her thumb.
“Amazing,” she whispered. Doctor Tündér had managed a scientific miracle on a very limited budget. Her eyes met with her fellow scientist, and they smiled.
Mr Woozle, on the other hand, was disappointed. “It isn’t terribly sweet,” he said.
“Whatever do you mean?” asked Doctor Tündér, reluctantly breaking eye contact with Melissa.
“It doesn’t look anything like the illustrations. It’s kind of boring.”
Doctor Tündér just stared at the Prime Minister, literally and figuratively gobsmacked. In complete contrast, Melissa discovered a whole avalanche of words that she wanted to say, but most of them were unrepeatable.
“I think you misunderstand,” she said icily. “This is a magnificent achievement. World shaking.”
“This little toy? It doesn’t even look that much like human,” said Mr Woozle. He gestured at the creature with his hand.
The little creature jumped back and went into a crouch. Melissa thought it had a thorn clutched in one fist. And was it her imagination, or did the bees suddenly seem more agitated?
“Careful!” said Doctor Tündér. “I asked you not to frighten her.”
“Her? HER?” spluttered Mr Woozle, almost shrieking with disapproval. “Your prototype is a female?”
The creature went down on one knee as if she felt the Prime Minister’s outrage like a blow. The buzzing of the bees grew louder. More angry.
“I didn’t keep it a secret,” said Doctor Tündér.
“All worker bees are female,” pointed out one of the brighter media clones. He was death-glared at for his trouble. The Prime Minister’s face turned puce.
Melissa broke in before Mr Woozle to start into a rant. The furious bees were beginning to frighten her.
“Why does it matter?” she asked.
“How am I supposed to fund this ugly thing?” asked Mr Woozle, and he jabbed his finger down at the cowering creature.
She jabbed right back, using her tiny weapon. Then she turned and ran back into her house.
“It bit me!” howled Mr Woozle.
“Well, you frightened her!” replied Doctor Tündér. “I told you not to frighten her.”
“And she didn’t bite you, she stabbed you with something. Maybe a cactus thorn,” said Melissa. “She was defending herself. You look like a monster to her.”
Mr Woozle turned to inflict his anger on Melissa, but the bees stopped him. They rose in a stormy squarm and attacked. Panic ensued as Mr Woozle and his entourage fled, knocking over plants and overturning tables in their hurry to escape. Melissa expected to be badly stung, but it was soon apparent they were only targeting the Prime Minister.
The politician was shrieking and flailing his arms, driven out of his mind with pain. Melissa went to run to his aid, but Doctor Tündér grabbed her arms and held her back. “The bees are defending one of their own,” he explained. “You might get stung.”
“But we can’t just leave him to suffer like this,” said Melissa. As much as she disliked Mr Woozle, she had never wanted to see him hurt or injured.
“Wait… and watch,” whispered Doctor Tündér, still holding Melissa close.
From the doll house came a high-pitched crooning noise, almost too high to hear. The angry drone of the bees lessened immediately. The crooning noise continued until the bees were calm and returning to their flowers. Mr Woozle remained in a heap, moaning. One of his entourage could be heard calling for an ambulance.
“She is the queen?” asked Melissa.
“She is a queen analogue. It seemed to be the quickest way to gain the cooperation of the bees,” Doctor Tündér replied. He loosened his grip on Melissa, but she felt no urge to move out of his arms.
“How clever,” she said. And as her granny always said, You can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.