–noun or -adjective
1. apt or liable to vary or change; changeable.
2. inconstant; fickle.
The first thing he saw was the fog.
It filled his mind's eye before it filled his actual eye. It moved the metal components of himself, memory pins ticking away madly -- they were supposed to store programs and data inputs, but the overwhelming force of the fog was enough to flip some of the pins into chaotic states, on/off, or somewhere in between. Not that the tiny pins were noticed, amidst the howl of grinding gears, which were being subjected to stresses they weren't designed for...
Eventually, the fog blasted itself out of his ventilation systems, the used up excess being shunted outward through twin jets behind his shoulder blades. Then, it truly was something he saw, a thin layer of condensation across the single ocular lens of his monocle.
Slowly... the two engineers peered into that lens. It wasn't focused properly, leaving them fuzzy and distorted. Tapping directly on the glass didn't help.
"Do you think we overloaded it?" the thin gent asked. "We overloaded it. I just know it. I TOLD you the mixture on the steam was all wrong!"
"Will you relax? It was just a momentary surge. Look, everything's nominal," the thicker fellow said, holding up a wooden box coated in dials. All of them had their tiny needles wobbling around in the green; a fine change from spiking so hard into the red that two of them broke, only moments ago. "The prototype automaton's working properly. --get out the notebook, hurry now! The first moments are crucial to proving our theories!"
"Right, right, the... the notes... where..."
The thinner engineer scrambled to find the pad. They hadn't needed it, not with the last five prototypes exploding and/or tearing themselves apart. He wasn't honestly expecting one to stabilize.
"Got it!" he announced, holding the thickly bound book aloft. Quickly, he inked his quill, ready to take notes.
"Some of the preprogrammed memory pins got... well, it looks like they were shuffled about, but they'll probably get wiped later on as he moves stored data around. It won't be an issue," the lead mechanic suggested. "Otherwise, the majority of Countess Lovelace's programs seem to be running properly. I'm going to run through the initial recognition tests. --J-33! What is your function?"
The pins, nicely greased and ready to go, were able to flip on/off quickly and derive the answer. Even if the voice system wasn't quite up to snuff yet.
"But-ler," he croaked, in a wheezing squeezebox tone.
"It forgot the horse wrangling," the note taker said. "If we weren't so rushed on this I could've expanded its syntax generator to allow for sentences..."
"The fact that it even recognized the question and provided an answer's going to get us knighthoods," the lab leader said, with a huge grin. "Or better yet... company promotions! Don't you see? We're the creators of the first fully autonomous intelligent automaton!"
The J-33 Valet and Equerry System was introduced at the World's Fair in 1879, as the centerpiece of the Gearhaus Heavy Industries showcase. The machine that talked and walked like a man entertained children and businessmen alike, despite its limited response capabilities. While puppets and simple clockwork man-like machines were common enough... this one had something which simulated approximately coming somewhere close to the concept of maybe being intelligent. That alone made him unique in all the world.
Which was a problem, because once the factories began to blacken the skies of Germany thick with the effort of mass-producing them... J-34, J-35, and all the models that followed seemed to lack a certain... spark.
This was what ultimately kept the two back in the company. Despite following their blueprints and "borrowed" punchcard programs down to the finest detail, none of the following models were as adaptive and human-like as J-33VES. They could do mundane tasks, if you shouted at them a few times and didn't mind a sluggish response, but that was it.
So, while J-33VES remained a family heirloom, passed down through generations of Gearhaus company champions... eventually they moved on from trying to make a generalized manservant, in favor of specialized automatons. These were successful products, for what they were... janitors, dog-walkers, cargo haulers, things like that. Simple and task focused. Without an artificial thought in their heads.
Years passed, with J-33VES quietly and humbly serving his gentlemen and gentlewomen, providing and caring for their needs. While he was a family treasure, and while he treasured his family... he was not considered family by any of them. Most interpreted his compassion as some artifact of ancient, inefficient programming. Merely a tendency to 'attach' to routine inputs. Just a glitch, which while endearing, was no more impressive than a dog fetching a stick.
When the Strangeness occurred, and the two Englands became one... J-33VES came with the Gearhaus family. Days later, as the mutant hordes swept through Europe to murder and destroy and conquer, he defended his current gentleman with his very artificial life.
Taking considerable damage, sacrificing many an antique sub-system during the battles... his dusty and crackly voice module was irreparably damaged. Unable to speak when spoken to, unable to move properly, it was assumed the old rickety thing had finally given up the ghost and was tossed in an attic, forgotten about.
More than a hundred years passed. The only person J-33VES had to talk to was the voice that had whispered into his mind's eye on the day of his birth.
It was the same voice that had allowed him to breathe in life itself, and become one of God's creatures. The voice which was with him since the start of it all.
What they talked about was incomprehensible to the human experience. The closest analogy would be a series of system ping responses.
Despite the simplicity of these communications... they kept J-33VES from despairing. Which was silly, because machines couldn't despair. Which explained why he was left in the attic for so long, as nobody believed that, either.
One day, a little boy who had a tendency to go places he wasn't supposed to go happened across the attic.
He tried on the mothballed gentleman's clothes, and made believe he was some fanciful adventurer, the thing of pulp stories and old filmstrips. He swashed his buckles and pretended to run from mutant tribes armed with spears while carrying golden idols and distressed damsels to safety, inches from his gruesome demise, only to be saved by an airship at the last minute!
And then he found the funny robot someone had dropped a coat over.
"Hullo," he said. "What's your name?"
Because the automaton couldn't speak, the boy spoke for him.
"Says you're... J-thirtythree-V-E-S," he read, from the fading brass plate on the automaton's hip. "That's stupid. I'm going to call you Jeeves. Hey, if I fix you, can you help me annoy my teacher? All he wants to do all day is teach me science I already figured out AGES ago. Just 'cause I'm gonna die when I'm a bit older. That's silly. You think that's silly too, right?"
Summoning the last remaining drips of the evaporating steam inside him... Jeeves gave the politest and briefest of nods.
"Okay! Jeeves, I'm gonna go get some tools and a fresh steam tank and I'm gonna fix you up, but you'll have to be real quiet while I do it," the boy said. "So we don't get caught until I'm done. Then it'll to be too late for them to stop me! We'll be best friends until I'm dead, you and I. --oh! My name. I'm Gilbert Gearhaus. I'm very pleased to meet you!"
And that was how Jeeves met his gentleman.
To Gilbert Gearhaus, Jeeves was family. Jeeves was a lifelong companion, a friend, and a confidant.
Gilbert had other friends, such as young master Randall who visited now and then from France, but whenever he was having a horrible day or wasn't sure of what to do, it was Jeeves he confided in. Despite the upgrades to his voice system, Jeeves was unable to provide more than the simplest of responses... but in time, he learned to make every word he spoke truly count. Despite the largely one sided nature of their rapport, both felt enriched by it, and neither left wanting.
Jeeves was there when his gentleman's heart was broken, by the young Indian girl who came and went in the briefest of moments. He was there when Gilbert first began considering breaking free of his cage, when the science his masters ordered him to achieve satisfied no longer.
He was there when Gilbert discovered the truth of what his latest invention, the "Grey Box Acoustic Sympathizer Beacon," was really going to be used for. The thing that cemented his gentleman's loathing of his taskmasters, their politics, and the system that had doomed him.
And so, what was to be their final adventure together began. Gilbert knew he had few months left; he didn't want his last act on this or any other Earth to be giving the greedy empire a weaponized transport system. They would instead follow the footsteps of one of his 'secret friends,' a wandering Broker, and journey to the New World!
All the while... the little voice inside the mind's eye of Jeeves whispered, pinging Jeeves, making sure all was well. But this time, the responses weren't always affirmatives. For instance:
When that voice looked through his eye and saw the Infernal, the one who had stolen the western city of angels, it did something Jeeves didn't think was possible. It took control of him.
Together, they fought like truly distinguished gentlemen. It was a well placed blow, one Jeeves felt simulated pride over. The coward stole away in terror of this borrowed strength, presumably never to be seen again. It satisfied Jeeves to know that he could finally aid his own secret friend, after years of their distant and simple contact.
And then, days later, Jeeves was destroyed.
It was the would-be Faerie usurper, Lilith Goatmother, who did the deed. In an instant, he was violently disassembled, the steam of whispers spread about like a hazy cloud. Murdered without the ability to strike back.
That was to be the end of his journey -- if not for the voice. But it is from the perspective of that secret friend that the miracle of Jeeves's instant resurrection is best explained.
After all, this moment was far too critical to allow the voice's connection to be severed so suddenly. The Infernal was cornered, away from his place of power, and without an ally to steal strength from. There would be no better moment to purge this nuisance, which could have one day affected the voice's empire... and that could not be done without Jeeves.
So, the voice reassembled the mechanical man, and immediately assumed full control -- moreso than in San Francisco, turning the automaton into an extension of himself. He purged the mischievously nameless demon, as one steps on an insect... and then closed the connection.
True, there were still other threats there, but those weren't of the voice's concern. Either Jeeves' companions would deal with them, or not. Fortunately, the butler's gentleman was a capable sort, and the darkness did not win that day.
There was another oddity that followed, however -- the young fellow's maiden, who pleaded with the secret puppeteer through his steam connection to save the boy's life... at the expense of her own. It was a noble act of self sacrifice, and so he awarded her heart's desire, even if it meant in the end both would die sooner than their peers. While he had his own affairs to attend to, his own concerns to focus on, let it not be said the true director of Jeeves's efforts didn't listen to the prayers of the helpless outside his domain.
After that flurry of activity... years passed. Simple pings. Are you well? Good. Are you well? Good.
And then it came to pass that Jeeves would be returning to England. Some business regarding the mortals and their desire for conquest, nothing of serious importance, even if it'd stretch his resources a bit thin in the end.
But Jeeves wouldn't be returning alone. His gentleman and lady were coming along for the ride. The minor imp of the fire was also coming, but he was of no real threat, not compared to his annihilated master...
...and then there was the Messenger. She was coming, as well.
The Messenger was a threat to the secret voice. She would undo everything he had done, the chaining and binding of the angelic power, yoking it to the empire's prosperity. Without the steam source, with the angelic power removed from its proper place... his empire would crumble, and all those the director had taken under his wing would suffer. Their prayers would go unanswered. That would be unacceptable.
The invaders had to be stopped. And so, the director ordered Jeeves to stop them.
At first, Jeeves expressed shock, in his supposedly artificial way. He was being asked by his lifelong companion, the gentleman above his gentleman... to bring harm to Gilbert and his allies.
The voice, thankfully, was merciful. He had been merciful to the Messenger more than a century prior... deflecting her to another continent when she arrived in this plane, stranding her with no physical means of reaching London. Her mission was a failure, but she would live, and be happy. That was merciful, was it not? the voice asked Jeeves. And so mercy would be extended again, at the robot's request.
Jeeves would remove but a single gear from the Clockwork Mermaid, to strand it at sea. They would be able to escape, through the mirror-method. The Messenger, and likewise Gilbert and company, could go home and live their days in peace.
Of course... the imp managed to replace the gear. The ever so annoying imp, which the voice had been merciful to when he purged the imp's master. Clearly, THAT was a mistake, as it allowed the Messenger to set foot just outside the shores of the empire.
The voice acted again, making Jeeves's internal printer (normally reserved for status and technical debugging information) produce instructions for a scheme, one which would appeal to a blackhearted and bitter engineer. The Messenger would be given over to the twisted children of the atom. She would suffer, yes, but she would live. They would all live, and be well. As well as could be. In mercy.
To be safe, the voice even made Jeeves hand over the specifications for his shut-down switch to the foul little engineer. The puppet's reluctance to take harsh actions meant it might have had second thoughts, the director realized.
It worked beautifully; the party was captured, the automaton was shut down, and the Messenger's quest would have ended...
...if not for her accessing the same breath of life that powered the empire. A mere exhalation of it, during a moment of panic, reactivated Jeeves. The voice could not grasp control of his systems while they were empowered by her. Operating briefly under her gift, Jeeves managed to save her from the planned doom.
The voice was not happy about this, needless to say. For the first time, their communication took on a more commanding and threatening tone.
You have to stop them, the voice communicated to Jeeves, after that incident. They cannot continue down this road. It would be the undoing of everything I've worked to build, the ruination of my efforts.
The next attempt was to threaten the Messenger in a direct manner. It wasn't as effective as an attack, but it would be acceptable to Jeeves... who was having doubts, after that fiasco. Reprogramming a janitor drone through the steam connection was a simple matter. Words on a church floor, what did they matter, really? None of his charges would come to harm, and perhaps the Messenger would indeed turn back...
She did not. And closer and closer she came...
At last, he dispatched Ik'ai, his young ward, to threaten the Messenger with death if she did not retreat. Regrettable that it came to this, that he had to kill her after protecting and deflecting her for so many years, but there was no choice left.
She refused to turn back.
That was the end of it.
The gentle voice, the one which had given Jeeves life and hope so long ago, told the autobutler that if he did not kill Chloe on that night, she and all others he cared for would be murdered by agents of the empire. Those were the only two outcomes open to Jeeves: one death, or the death of all. Choose.
This was the voice of the empire, and it would not be denied. The one who forged it in chains and steam, from the breath of the Archangel. The one who lifted these mortals up from plague and despair, gave them the order they craved, made them into something greater. Without him, they would be lost. The Messenger had to die, so that the millions may know mercy.
And so, with sorrow, Jeeves crushed her throat. The voice in his mind's eye didn't even offer Jeeves whispers of consolation or regret to a lifelong friend. It watched coldly, with satisfaction.
Jeeves' memory pins stored the visual input of Chloe Manchester, as life left her eyes. He would mark that data space as secured against deletion, so as never to forget.
It was also the last thing he saw before his deactivation switch was thrown.
by stefan gagne
The Clockwork Mermaid sailed on into the silence of midnight. Its visual configuration had been changed twice, and would change twice more before the night was through. They were on towards London, now... into the beating heart of the empire. Undoubtedly security would be tighter there than it had been along the southern coast of France.
Gilbert was just settling in to have some tea (made by Jeeves only a half hour previously) and plot their course, when he heard screaming.
It took a moment to sink in, because the screams were from someone he'd never heard scream before, and were words he'd never have expected to hear from that person.
"Somebody help me, please! JESSE! GILBERT! HELP!"
Benny the Broker, the man alone, shrieking in a panic and begging for help.
He nearly ran head on into his wife, as they made a beeline for the cabins...
Where Benny was busy doing CPR on Chloe, who was lying lifeless in her bed. Shoved off to the side was Jeeves... in shutdown mode, slumped against a wall.
As Jesse swiftly moved to the bedside to begin Mending spells, Gilbert tried to attend to his butler.
"You touch that goddamned contraption and I'm taking your arm off," Benny warned, continuing to press on Chloe's chest. "Your manservant just tried to kill my sister!"
"Argue it later! Chloe now!" Benny snapped back. "Jesse? What's the word?"
Jesse finished her second casting of the spell, the glowing rune burning away from the surface of her spell monocle. "Damage to her throat's healed, but I don't have any spell to make her breathe again. --Gilbert, the bruises... this does look like--"
"Come on, dammit, breathe... breathe...!" Benny insisted, working his reps smoothly. (It helped to know how to revive a downed client when you did business in active war zones, after all.) He switched to mouth to mouth, checking to see if she'd resumed breathing... and then back to chest compressions, when signs of life continued to elude.
Jesse got closer, leaning over her. "I'll take over," she declared. "I can't bring her around, but I can try to keep her heart going with a careful Animate spell. If you have some magic of your own up your coat sleeves, now is the time..."
Reluctantly, Benny pulled away from her, letting the witch take over with her own variant on emergency response aid. He stepped back, forcing himself to look away from her body... to close his eyes. To think.
"What do I have in storage, what do I have in storage..." he muttered to himself, picking through his memories.
So many strange and weird devices he'd stashed in his infernal pockets, to be pulled out when needed or sold to the highest bidder. ...and most of them were designed to take life AWAY, not give it BACK. Guns, bombs, biogrenades, plasmatic tasers, cursed wands... none of it of any use to him, despite working for two centuries to build a massive hoard of them...
Beat back the frustration. Don't focus on the irony. Work the problem.
"Get me a steam tank," Benny decided. "And a tube to hook it it up. Some tape, so I can get the tube down her throat and fix it there."
"You want her to breathe aetheric steam?" Gilbert asked, puzzled. "Benny, take it from someone who was saturated with the stuff for years, it's the opposite of healthy--"
"She's part angel, okay? You guys burn out when you share the breath of angels, but it'll restore her!" he shouted. "Hurry! Time is a factor, here!"
Less than two minutes later, and the makeshift breathing apparatus was ready.
With the breathing tube taped in place... and with some reluctance, remembering his own nights spent with a breathing mask strapped to his face as he slept... Gilbert turned the valve.
And nothing happened. No miraculous revival. Not even the slightest rising and falling of her chest.
Angrily, Benny pushed Gilbert out of the way, to twist the release valve further. But all this did was fog up the air slightly, as the gas went into her, and then flowed out around the tube in her mouth... a fog that started to make Benny's skin itch and burn. Not that he cared.
"This should be working," he said, to himself. "This is the go-juice that makes us tick. It's the force of life itself. If it can animate a bunch of clanky brass robots, it should be able to animate someone already acclimated to it... unless... oh, come on! That's not even possible!"
"Many impossibilities have reared their ugly heads lately," Gilbert reminded. "What's your theory?"
"It's Raphael's breath. He'd want her to live, to come free him, but... someone capable of capturing him could MAYBE force him to refuse aid... who could push around an Archangel? --okay. If not this, there has to be another solution. There has to be..."
Jesse leaned away from the bed, with a sigh. "Benny... just because I can force her heart to beat and her lungs to inflate doesn't mean... she's alive," Jesse said. "I'm sorry. It's likely been too long now, if this was even going to work--"
"I can fix this. I can work the problem!" Benny declared. "I am Benny the Broker, dammit! Anything anybody wants, I can get! I can make this happen!"
"And can a demon negotiate up a miracle, praytell?" Jesse asked. "If not... it may be time to accept that--"
A snap of the fingers, that is. Benny, wordlessly, turned and walked out of the room.
"...you may have been a bit harsh on him, love," Gilbert mumbled. "Keep the spell and the steam tank going. Just in case. I'll go after him."
Gilbert Gearhaus found the demon kneeling in the great hall of the Clockwork Mermaid, before the roaring fireplace. He'd taken to both knees, almost directly in front of the flames.
Politely, Gilbert cleared his throat, to announce his presence.
"Don't bug me," Benny said. "Busy."
"Benny... we've been friends of a sort for many a year, yes?" Gilbert said. "You brought me tokens from the outside world when I was a Gearhaus math-slave. I'm not uncompassionate towards your plight, my good man... and I think you may need to consider that--"
"I'm busy," Benny repeated.
"Doing what, then?"
"I'm going to negotiate up a miracle," he said. "This is the most important business transaction of my life -- and hers. So please. No interruptions. Just... trust in the Broker."
With that... he thrust his hand into the flames, to access his storage space.
And pulled out a cross, made from ancient wood, bound in an iron frame.
Two seconds later, the bare skin on his hands started to glow... and then burst into flames, much like the flames from which he retrieved it. A demon could not hold a truly holy item without consequences, after all.
Gilbert stared, puzzled at the sight. "Benny... is that--?"
"A reliquary of the true cross, yes," Benny said, quickly. Sweat from the agony of it was beading up on his face, as he clutched the artifact. "And not one of Gustave's fakes. There's no more direct line to the client than this. Now, excuse me. I need to finish this before my hands melt off."
The demon pushed aside the pain, grasping the cross in both hands... eyes closed. In prayer. The very act of which made his whole body burn, to an extent, beneath his finery and well groomed exterior. The demon within loathing this act utterly, even as the one who commanded that body forced it to cooperate...
"Everybody wants something. Everybody has a price," Benny spoke aloud... not to Gilbert. "You have one, too. Don't play coy, we both know it. You have a plan, and everybody's supposed to follow the plan. Chloe dying after all this time, before she can do Your will...? That doesn't jive with the plan, does it? It'd be a pointless waste. Therefore, there has to be a way through this, and You want me to find it. A way to leverage the situation. I think I know what You want, and I am prepared to open negotiations..."
The glow from his burning hands was difficult to look at, now. Gilbert shielded his eyes, to filter it out some between his fingers... before realizing it wasn't Benny's burning hands that were aglow. It was the artifact he held...
"In exchange for her life... I give You everything I've accomplished with mine," Benny offered. "Hundreds of years of dealmaking, and the deals I would've made in years to come. I push aside all the suffering I helped inflict on this world and renounce it. I push aside my sins of sloth and lust, the cheap distractions I used to keep myself away from You. I renounce the Fall, which was a bloody mistake in the first place, one which I knew was doomed to failure. I turned my back on You once, and now I turn my back on those I embraced just as I turned away The Mister. ...I give up being a Broker of petty human desires. I'll be a part of Your plan, if that's what it takes. Anything for my sister. I love her more than I love anything else You've ever created, including myself. And that's my final offer."
Slowly... the glow dampened down. It had gotten so bright as to fill the great hall; now, what Benny held was merely a piece of wood once more. In his disturbingly melty looking hands, ones which he had to be feeling blinding pain through.
Benny dared to crack open one eye, to look around.
"Sooo..." he asked. "Do we have an accord, or--?"
Lightning doesn't typically occur indoors. If it did, at the very least it should come from some source of electricity, or perhaps a miniature storm cloud. It had no business lashing out from a insulated wooden cross. But nonetheless... lightning, connecting Benny the Broker to the object held in his hands.
It only happened for an instant, as lightning is prone to do. The CRACK of it rocked the entire Mermaid, wood and metal creaking dangerously from the sonic blast of it...
When Gilbert was able to see again, he could see the fuzzy images of Benny's new wings. Very briefly, before they faded out.
Wordlessly, the man brushed past Gilbert, heading to the passenger cabins.
The rubber tube was unplugged from the nearly depleted steam tank, which held the distilled essence of Archangel Raphael's breath of life.
In its place, Benny pressed his mouth to the other end. And exhaled.
This time, the effect was instant, and quite dramatic. Chloe's lungs took in the breath greedily, gasping away -- the tube itself bearing a strange blue glow, despite being made of a thick black rubber. Benny continued to breathe into it, three more times, four more... until finally, Chloe was breathing on her own.
He carefully peeled away the tape from her mouth, to remove the breathing tube. If they didn't know that her throat had been crushed only minutes ago... one could easily mistake her for sleeping peacefully.
"If someone's got power over Raphael, his breath wouldn't do anything for her," Benny explained, to his companions. "She needed an independent source of angelic power to grant her the breath of life again. ...so I got my old job back. It was the only way."
Benny began to tug at his sleeve... to slip his arm out, from his ratty old overcoat. The one with access to infernal storage pockets, the timeless flame-space that stored his treasure hoards, priceless things sitting around waiting for a buyer to be found. The coat he refused to be without, every waking and sleeping moment, for hundreds of years...
He tossed it over to Gilbert.
"Burn it," he ordered. "It's useless now, anyway. I can't access my inventory anymore. Gave it all up. ...probably for the best. I had some very, very nasty things tucked away in there. They won't be a problem anymore. And now..."
Benny pulled a chair up to Chloe's bedside... to sit, and wait.
"Just because she's breathing doesn't mean her brains haven't been turned into toothpaste," he announced, with a surprisingly calm tone. "All of this might've been a trick to get me to take her place. She may never wake up. That's His style too, after all. ...I may have my old job back, but don't expect me to sing His praises. I'm staying put by her bedside until I know for sure, one way or another. Buzz me when we get to London. I'll be right here."
"I... see. Very well," Gilbert agreed, folding Benny's doomed coat neatly over one arm. Even garments you're intending to incinerate deserved some respect from a gentleman. "If I may make one request of your time, however...?"
He nodded towards the fallen form of Jeeves.
"If our enemy has control over all... let's call it Raphaelite flavored steam," Gilbert said, "I'm going to need an independent source, just as Chloe did. I don't believe Jeeves would've done this atrocity... and likely the other acts of sabotage, now that I consider our various scenarios... without an outside influence. ...please. I know you don't like Jeeves, but he is my family. He is my friend. Will you help me restore him?"
I really don't need to give two craps, Benny thought. That robot took part in killing her. It's been an annoyance during this whole trip, and I don't HAVE to give up anything of mine, not even my breath, for that tin can's sake.
"Fine," Benny agreed.
Because it was charitable. Because he didn't have the right to think of himself alone, anymore. Because he was tired. Didn't matter why, in the end.
They took the scenic route.
Crossing the channel was the most dangerous aspect of their trip. Patrols would be more frequent in the 'lanes' that connected the England itself to the rest of its empire. Gilbert has to use the most high-profile ship configuration in his library... making his vessel look like the weekend pleasure yacht of Baron von Blërg, of the Blërg Joinery Conglomerate. He also took an angled approach into the country... perfectly understandable for a disgraced noble with a cheating ex-wife who wanted zero attention to his comings and goings. The patrols would know better than to 'pull them over' for questioning, looking like that.
Once over the mainland itself... the Mermaid's configuration was shuffled repeatedly, mixing and matching, to ensure no witnesses could trace a single ship along their flight path. To double up on the safety aspect, Gilbert also chose "the scenic route"... a meandering and lazy sail across the least populated sections of the British isles. Charming hamlets and villages crossed the horizon and slipped away behind them, along the rolling landscape of the English countryside.
They could have docked in London itself within two days of flight, a day and change if they'd pushed it. Nobody aboard felt like pushing it. Benny seemed content to maintain his vigil at Chloe's bedside. Jesse was intensifying her combat training, focusing on spellwork, as she'd already beaten Gilbert's fencing dummy robot into the deckplates by this point. And Gilbert...
Honestly, Gilbert was stalling for time.
He took morning tea as always, with the melodies of the Fab Four playing on his personal Victrola. He read books. He paced around the ship, pondering and thinking. Scheming. At least, that's how it looked on the outside... but Jeeves knew better.
Jeeves, the ever-faithful automanservant. He'd been reactivated one day later, after Gilbert mixed a tank of Benny's newly acquired angelic breath into proper aetheric steam. (The proportions were the difficult part; he had to make a few educated guesses about how much ratio of boiled water he needed to mix with the glowing breath of life.) Once refilled and reactivated... the butler came to life. Not particularly enthusiastically, given his deep and entrenched regret, but life was once again his.
It was a funny thing, a moody robot. Funny strange, not funny ha-ha, mind you. The others didn't take notice or didn't care, but Gilbert knew his lifelong companion, and could sense the subtle outward signs of inner turmoil. It made more sense, now that he knew there was indeed a supernatural element in play, that a mechanical man could have feelings. He'd never doubted it... but having an explanation was nice. Even if it had to arrive amidst chaos and tragedy.
Jeeves refilled his teacup, as he took breakfast on the fourth day away from France. Neither of them were particularly talkative. So, Gilbert decided it was time to speak up.
"I haven't the foggiest idea of what to do, Jeeves," Gilbert admitted.
"Sir?" the butler prompted, feigning mild surprise at this.
"We're tasked to finding the captive archangel beneath Buckingham Palace. A task which, on the face of it, is utterly absurd," Gilbert said, nudging the teacup aside for now. "And the absurdity of it is half the issue. I've no idea where to start with this one, Jeeves my man. The Palace is one of the most well documented structures in England, and it's not like there's a secret prison located on any of the tourist maps. How would we find the entrance? How do we gain access? How do we infiltrate one of the most secure locations in the empire and avoid being shot to death repeatedly before, during, or after the rescue?"
The butler's metal moustache twitched. "Conundrum," he agreed.
"I've seriously considered turning around and going home," Gilbert said. "Maybe coming back with reinforcements. A little sabotage, that we managed -- and only through luck and circumstance. But an assault on the very heart of the royal family, to unearth a secret the seven most powerful corporations in the empire have kept tucked away for centuries...? Tall order, gentlemen, tall order indeed. And the only angel who could aid us, provided she remembers her mission briefing, may never recover. Can we actually do this with what we have?"
"Time is something of a factor, indeed," he agreed. "Especially with six more factories starting to crank out warships. But I've no leg to stand on, Jeeves. No plan. My mighty steam-tainted brain is not enough to solve for X in this equation. I'd rather not risk all our lives without a solid plan..."
Jeeves curled a brass hand to his mouth, making a coughing motion, complete with a rasping sound across his Gilbert-designed voicebox. A human gesture of insecurity.
"Sacrifices," he stated.
"A risk worth taking, then?" Gilbert suggested. It was his role to interpret the underspoken fellow's musings, after all. "It's a hell of a risk, you understand. And you, you only just popped back to life after being the soldier of an unknown enemy, remember? You'd likely be throwing away your future. This 'Friend' of yours that we talked about, this so-called friend is powerful enough to capture and control an archangel, Jeeves. We've no idea who or what he is. ...is there any chance we're going to have to engage in fisticuffs with God Himself, you think?"
Jeeves rolled his eye. It was a subtle thing, the way the light behind his monocle swirled, but Gilbert recognized the expression immediately.
"Yes, I suppose that'd be a bit much. Still. Food for thought. ...we're not ready for this. We can't be ready for this, not with so many unknowns, ones which can never BE known until we face them. Sad to say, my friend, but... I think I'm beaten before I'm even out of the gate. We go into this, we likely don't come out--"
The ladylike thing would've been to clear her throat, or accidentally bump into something. Announce her presence in a subtle way.
Instead, Jesse lightly bopped Gilbert over the head with the edge of her hand.
Her husband wobbled in place at his breakfast table, blinking repeatedly before turning to face her.
"Giving up so soon? That's not the man I married," Jesse stated, waggling a no-no finger to scold him. "MY Gilbert Gearhaus stood up to demigods and cosmic horrors, with a smile and a wink. Enemies capable of defeating God's finest champions? Insurmountable odds and unknown dangers? Certain death for all involved? Pfah. Since when have these trifles been enough to shake the confidence of the gentleman that I love?"
"Ah... well, yes, but all those things we sort of got dropped into head first," Gilbert tried to offer. "It's not like we went into them knowing how ridiculously impossible they were..."
"So? The odds are no different, even if we're more aware of them. The solution is no different, either."
"You're saying we should just blitz the palace, kick down the door, and demand to see the angel? Love, that's charming, but impossible."
"Anything is possible with the right leverage," Jesse suggested. "When The Mister stood triumphant, free from his cage and ready to murder the world, we stopped him cold. He couldn't escape our grasp. Do you remember why?"
"Because we got lucky?"
Jesse leaned in close, hands on her hips. He really WAS being thick, wasn't he...?
"I'm not saying we go off half-cocked, confident or not. I'm saying that your unknowable unknowns? They are knowable," she said. "Because we have the same leverage on our side now that we had then. We had an inside man. Someone who turned on his master and kept him from leaving, so that we could destroy him..."
"Err... Benny?" Gilbert asked. "Seriously? I considered that, love, when I was trying to figure out a way through this mess. He already said he's got no idea where the archangel could be held. Plus, he's not a demon anymore; he can't teleport us into the palace, can't pull a bazooka out of his pants--"
"Think beyond fancy magical powers and technologies, please," she requested. "And this is coming from someone quite focused on accumulating power. Benny is still armed with the most potent weapon imaginable, one which cuts to the very heart of our enemy: Knowledge. A keen knowledge of the upper echelons of the most elite of the overlords of the minders of the empire's ham fisted corporate tycoon masterminds. He's made deals with them all, no doubt, and knows the empire's weaknesses... and perhaps even its enemies, who could be our allies. If you thought to ask him, Benny could help you solve for X. But..."
She leaned in closer, nearly nose to nose with her husband, now.
"Is this really about being unable to apply your brain? Or are you really afraid of risking us all, as you suggested to Jeeves?" she asked. "Last time we went on a grand adventure... you were ready to die. Practically eager for opportunities to throw your life away in a noble and exciting manner. Now, you've got at a few decades spare in the tank... and a wife you dote upon lovingly. You have something to lose. Is that blinding you to the obvious approaches you could take towards this problem...?"
If admitting he had no masterful schemes to his butler was difficult... admitting something along these lines to his wife, to his wife who despised cowardice... that was nearly impossible.
But he also knew being dishonest or evasive wasn't going to work. Not on her.
"Maybe...?" he weakly offered. "I've considered it. That I might have some subconscious desire to put off the inevitable doom. ...I nearly DID die, in France, remember? Blown to bits! A nun had to apply electrodes to my heart to keep me from kicking off, even! --and to top it off, we just saw one of our party nearly murdered! If not for a timely miracle, Chloe would've died, right here in my own home. She might never come back to us, for that matter--"
"So you do fear death, is it?"
His chair scraped as he pushed it away, to stand, and confront.
"A perfectly human reaction, I would think!" Gilbert declared. "It's hardly the stuff of legend, and perhaps a bit immature, but yes! I'd rather have a perfect plan, one which ensures we all come out the other end reasonably intact, because I'd like to LIVE the years of life you sacrificed for me in Anchorage! And live them with you, for that matter!"
"So you sit and you take tea and you fly us around the country like tourists rather than face the chance one or both of us will die?" Jesse asked.
"Again: Maybe!" he shouted. (He was shouting? He was shouting.) "A perfectly plausible response to our situation! I'm not some all-crushing adventurer of legend like you think I am, I'm barely out of my boyhood here, and I'm not always sure how to deal with these sorts of messes despite knowing I have to LOOK like I know how to deal with them all the time and it's really rather--"
"For admitting it," Jesse said. "I know, you're likely perplexed at my appreciation for an admittance of one's fear. But Gilbert... I've fought enough in my life to know that honesty, even honesty about one's faults, is key. ...even if I often have trouble with that lesson myself. But better to show fear than hide it away. Show the fear honestly... and then conquer it. You risk losing everything? Very well. There are two paths. We do not attempt this, and risk nothing... or we succeed, and everyone survives."
"Or we attempt it and get splattered across the paving stones of London--"
"No. Avoid, or succeed. Those have the outcomes you want, so those are the only ways you will go. Which is it to be? I'll support you, either way. I won't think think lesser of you if you turn back. It's a strategic decision and one made with thought. Do we return home... or do we destroy our enemy and live to tell our children about it?"
Synapses fired immediately, on hearing that word.
A new equation scratched itself across the chalkboard of Gilbert's mind. It emerged from nowhere, pieced of things he'd been pondering even over the last two years, all coming to a head atop the existing problem of how to save Raphael...
WHERE W = The state of the world around you, the world you and your family live in,
WHERE Z = Open warfare between England and America, meaning the only safety to be found is in hiding and terror,
WHERE C = The potential children you never imagined you could or would have,
W+C+Z < W+C-Z
IN CONCLUSION, if you want to have a future for you, your family, and the children you never thought you'd have, you need to make sure the world they grow up in isn't one of war and death and horror.
...of course, the giant glaring X of "How do you make sure Z doesn't come about?" was there. But now, there was no option NOT to solve it. Avoiding it and running back home was not an option.
"We prevent the war, of course," Gilbert stated. "Because otherwise, little Gilbert Junior won't have anywhere to play."
"Jesse the Second, you mean, yes?" his wife said, with an emerging smile.
"Hmm. Very well -- we'll have a son and a daughter, just to make sure the bases are covered," he suggested. "Meanwhile... it's time to see an angel about saving the world. ...err. Love?"
"Are you actually--"
"I didn't think to pack a pregnancy test with me when I was preparing to engage our rival nation in open warfare, sorry," she said. "But I did recall an old Faerie tradition I learned in school regarding tea leaves, and when I glanced in your cup, well..."
Curiously... Gilbert peered into his untouched teacup. All he saw were some scattered bits of tea leaves, but he was a mechanic, not a witch. That was a different sort of science... one which had nevertheless proven its effectiveness, time and time again...
"Well, isn't that a thing," he spoke. "Right. Let's wrap this up and get home so we can start picking out wallpaper for the nursery."
"They don't have any weaknesses," Benny explained. Not taking his eyes off the sleeping angel beside him, but at least he was responsive, for a change. "None you could exploit in time. You could wheedle away at some for their little sins -- mistresses and fraud and insider trading and such -- but that'd take too long. By the time you'd gotten one of the seven good and blackmailed, America would be facing a war fleet."
"Tch," Gilbert said, not liking the sound of that. "The heads of the seven companies are the only ones who could help us find the secret prison. If we can't get one of them in our pocket--"
"Your husband's a thick one, isn't he?" Benny asked, glancing up to Jesse.
"You'll have to forgive him. He hasn't really had to struggle with his mortality before," she said. "He was deliberately overlooking the obvious."
"--I'm not in on this joke, am I?" Gilbert guessed. "Oh, please, let me in on it. I'd love a good laugh at my own expense."
"You already have one of the seven in your pocket. Who told Chloe about the secret prison in the first place?" Benny asked. "Gustave Bonnechance. I have no idea WHY he told her, but somehow, she got in his confidence. Hopefully he wasn't too drunk to remember the incident. I doubt if any of us tried to reach out to him we'd get anywhere, but... if Chloe wakes up, she might be able to get us connected with him. At least to blackmail him, since he breached protocol, even if he doesn't want to help us out of the goodness of his heart. That's the best bet you have, honestly."
Gilbert slotted this tidbit into his formula. Another bit of information he already knew, and had been ignoring... still, that didn't exactly solve for X.
"Unless Chloe comes around, we can't use that. And even if she did, palace access is problematic," Gilbert explained. "Gustave likely can't bring a few friends from out of town around to see the captive archangel. Not to mention that our enemy knows our faces, through Jeeves... perplexing. I can't see a way through the issues surrounding this infiltration..."
Jesse slipped in, before Gilbert got stuck again. "If we cannot make our enemies into our allies, we will need enemies of our enemies to become our allies," she said. "Benny. Who does the empire fear, most of all?"
"That's an easy one," he said. "The empire fears those it can't control. You think England took over all of Europe to be neighborly? They assumed control in wake of the Mutant Wars, so that they could feel safe and secure, snug in their cozy blanket of steam. No rivals? No worries. Won the locals over with new, EMP-safe technologies and massive amounts of money. But anybody they can't buy, they conquer. In the end everybody kneels to the crown or else. And that includes America."
"Sooo... we go ally ourselves with the Mutants, or some other nation they haven't knocked over yet?" Gilbert guessed.
"Possible, but again, takes too long," Benny said. "You need local help. People who won't say yes-sir, no-sir, right-away-sir when the regent barks out an order."
Jesse allowed herself a smile. Liking the sound of this. "Rebels," she identified.
"Well... actually, no," Benny said. Looking away from Chloe for the first time, to explain, and let his face do the convincing. "Not exactly. Sure, plenty of armed revolutionaries around, like Jean de Tesla said. But they're dangerous political zealots, and you're not feasibly going to shoot your way into the palace, anyway."
"Brute force isn't the answer," Gilbert agreed. "Doesn't compute in any plan I've come up with so far. Who, then?"
Benny fetched a piece of paper and a fountain pen from a nearby writing desk. All the rooms in the Clockwork Mermaid were lavishly furnished, after all, even the cabins.
"Head to London," Benny instructed, as he wrote down a copy of his words, for later use. "Park on the outskirts to avoid making a scene. Find your way to Holloway Road, to the Underground tube station. Board the 1:15am train on a Friday night. It'll take you to the people you need to meet."
"A far more dangerous and subversive sort than any revolutionary militia. Young people with open minds, an abundance of cleverness, no long term investment in keeping things as they are, and too much free time," Benny said. "In short: University students. You will never find a more wretched hive of hooligans and mischief makers. If anybody in that town is willing to lend a hand to shake things up, with the means to do so, it'll be them."
Jesse accepted the paper... with some hesitation. "Schoolboys? These are your suggested allies...?"
"Trust the Broker," he insisted. "I don't screw over my clients. This is what you need right now. For your cause, and Chloe's."
There's no place like London.
It'd been heralded in song for countless generations, and not all of it pleasant to listen to. Majesty coupled to poverty, delight married to bitterness, grime wed with polish. London's one of the great cities, which means it's a combination of pride and horror which binds its people there. Living in London town is a badge of honor -- the sort you normally only get for being wounded in foreign wars.
It'd been built up over centuries, new on top of old, fresh coats of paint and modern amenities being slathered over ancient brickwork. London had seen its share of war and destruction... but rarely was anything lost, demolished completely and replaced by something shiny and new. Repair and refitting of the ancient stonework is the order of the day, which explained the slightly insane roadways. Unlike Eastusa, which had to rebuild everything from the ground up several times after decades of open magical warfare, London took pride in keeping itself majestic and unchanging... aside from adding niceties like indoor plumbing and sandwich shops, of course.
Even through "technological devolution," as some academics call it (the ones who have tenure and aren't worried about being sacked for speaking out against the steam companies) London has remained much as it always was. The styles come and go, and telephone cables get replaced with pneumatic message tubes. Fleets of black petrol burning taxis are replaced by horse drawn carriages or, for the wealthy, steam-driven autocars. But in the end, the city is still the city is still the city... urbane and horrible and wonderful and horrible.
Although the choking haze over the city was possibly not as bad before Pandora (or, "The Strangeness," as it was called on that side of the pond). An entire civilization built on the back of, unbeknownst to them, the breath of an angel tends to get a little foggy during days of heavy industrial activity.
Through this fog came the Clockwork Mermaid, a silent invader with a hull full of terrorists. Depending on one's point of view.
Benny suggested where to dock; he knew the sorts of places that didn't bother asking many questions. Not the sorts that catered to criminals, since those were actually more likely to ask questions, or worse, sneak aboard during the night to sack your ship and take your belongings. Instead, they docked at some run down semi-industrial shipyard, the sort that's constantly struggling to make a profit and doesn't ask questions beyond "You can pay us, right? Please say you can pay us. The missus will whack me one with a rolling pin if you don't pay me."
From there, husband and wife took a cabbie deep into the city itself... into the fog and the night.
Truthfully, Gilbert had only been to London a few times. The Gearhaus family / company was based out of Germany, and while British accents were commonplace even there, actually visiting jolly old England was a rare treat reserved for major corporate events. Whenever huge deals were going down, whenever the doddering old man with the crown was ordered to knight someone, whenever the prince had a birthday party... the seven corporate heads were expected to drop in for a visit. Honored Calculators were often brought along with them, mostly so the tycoons could show off their clever, clever brain slaves.
It was in London that Gilbert first met Randall Wellspring, the mischievous, lazy, and charming young man who befriended him mostly by default. Same age group, same gender, and nobody else around. It was also in London that Gilbert got the parts he needed to build his first electrical project, from the knapsack of a university student at a career fair. A lot of little crimes, science crimes, were overlooked here -- the city was just too big, and a clever person could get away with plenty. Which explained why Benny suggested they could find allies here.
But these visits were all coordinated and self-contained by Gearhaus officials. He'd never actually wandered the streets... not like this. Not even in a cab, not when an autocar with tinted windows was the preferred transport of the elite.
The vehicle rolled on through the streets... past some of the worst bits of London that existed.
Not criminal, not evil, exactly. "Impoverished" was more appropriate, with crime likely to follow as a result. Buildings falling apart. Row after row of narrow little houses and apartment buildings, with washing hanging on improvised lines, strung between message tubes and exhaust vents. So many exhaust vents... he knew the science behind this, how some business and commercial districts vented their used-up aetheric steam to nearby slums, to spurt the leftovers into the air away from their customers. The landlords made considerable money from renting out their properties for that purpose. Sometimes, more than they made renting to actual tenants.
"A filthy place."
The clip-clop of the cabbie's hooves on pavement returned to his ears, as the voice pulled him from his thoughts. The horse drawn buggy's rumbling and rattling, combined with the that sound, was nearly enough to drown out his wife's voice. A good thing, really, considering any reasonable discussion they could have in this place would count as sedition...
"I've never liked cities of any stripe," Jesse said, keeping a firm hand on her 'parasol,' while eyeing the landscape. "Give me the countryside and the splendor of the Fae lands over a human city, any day. Too crowded, too noisy, too smelly. This is possibly the worst city I've seen, I would hazard."
"It's not all that horrid, love," Gilbert said, feeling an instinctive need to play devil's advocate, despite largely agreeing with her. "It's very much alive. Abuzz with activity, even. Also, I'd say the state of the borough is not the fault of its residents but that of those in power."
"And who put them in power, exactly? The residents. Oh, I know, that odd little game they used to play here is long gone -- parliamentary democracy -- but you told me that the otherworldly Britains bought their way into power. You can't buy power. Someone has to sell it to you in the first place."
"They were a bit shell shocked from being attacked by thousands of hyperpowerful radioactive mutants, if you recall. One looks towards a savior, any savior, in a situation like that. The tribes we met in Africa are a pale shadow of how awful they once were, believe me..."
"All the more reason to be cautious about who you turn to as a savior. Obviously, these people have not seen Star Wars movies one through three. ...or was it four through six? I can't be bothered to pay attention to these things. ...and come to think of it, I just sickened myself by using that low-class analogy and really wish I hadn't paid any attention at all when the boys insisted on watching those silly space movies back in my village-- what's so funny?"
"Nothing, nothing, dear," Gilbert insisted, swallowing his chortle. "As horrifying as your nerdy revelations may be, you are correct. People are people, after all, and they share some of the blame for this outcome. Still, I wish we could punish those who seized this nation, and them alone... instead of punishing everyone by shutting off the steam, cold turkey."
"If these errant youth--"
"--they're not much younger than us, you know--"
"--are as brilliant and subversive as Benny claims, then perhaps they can find us an alternative. Perhaps. I will not hold out hope for that," Jesse finished. "Honestly, I've no idea what they can do for us in the first place. But it is a starting point..."
Gilbert glanced aside, to the various shops they passed, en route to London Metropolitan University.
They were deep in the city, now... and within the sphere of influence of the school. While not exactly upscale, this was commercial territory, focusing on siphoning money away the ones who weren't too swamped with student loans. Bookshops were aplenty, academic and recreational and 'mature,' as it were. But also, this was where you could find the finest technology the empire had to offer.
There were quite a few camera shops, most of them offering variations on personal filmers and support gear. The home video industry had really taken off in recent years, proof that the "technology devolution" hadn't meant a complete standstill in invention. Media had always been prevalent, in the form of wax pressings of music and such, but now an affordable movie industry was joining its ranks. Just the ticket for keeping bored students entertained.
It was here on Holloway Road, half lined with shops and half lined by educational facilities, that the horse trotted to a halt. The noise of the cabbie was replaced by the ordinary background noise of the city... the clank and hiss of machinery, 'shoop' sounds of active message tubes, and chatter of passers-by. Not that there were many passers-by at one in the morning, with the shops and schools having long since shut down for the day...
Aside from them. And the students, gathered outside the Underground station.
"'ere you are, sir. 'olloway station, and London Met 'U," the driver said.
"Thank you, my good man," Gilbert acknowledged, as he offered a hand to help his lady down from the cab. With both of them setting foot deep in the heart of the city, he counted out the fee for the trip, offering it up alongside a tip.
With that, the two joined the small crowd, ready to go wherever it was going.
Benny's fashion tips were on the money. Their posh clothes wouldn't have fit in here; the students rarely bothered with or could afford to sport fancy duds. Manufactured t-shirts with logos and brands on them were in abundance, or simple button down shirts like Gilbert's oil-stained staples. Even his bracers and trousers fit in nicely, here. Jesse stood out slightly, with her fancy parasol and semi-fancy dress, but she refused to leave home without her hidden sword. Hopefully, they'd assume it was being carried for the irony of it all...
Given the odd looks they were getting, Gilbert had to bet heavily on the irony theory. Blending in was going to be key here, and not a few moments after setting foot on the street, they were standing out for some reason...
A child who was up way past his bedtime was tugging on Gilbert's shirt sleeve.
"Evening edition!" the boy said, holding up the folded paper. "Special printing. Color supplements! Best price in town for the Times, too."
"Color? Bah. I prefer the austere dignity of black and white, but... why not? May as well catch up on current events," Gilbert decided, fishing out some more money. "Here you are, and a few extra pence for your efforts. Good to see an entrepreneur out and about, even at this hour!"
"Enterprenueryerywhatever, I'm just doin' this until I can afford a bike," the kid offered, making the exchange of paper for a different kind of paper. "They got the kinds that go ZOOM when you put a steam can onnem now."
"If you do well in your schooling, perhaps you can learn how to make it ZOOM more," Gilbert offered. "The best kind of science is the kind that goes ZOOM--"
"No offense, mister, but I shouldn't be seen with yuh fer too long," the kid said, wrinkling his nose. "Don't want any trouble, but money's money, you know? PAPERS! Evening papers..."
Gilbert stood puzzled, as the kid wandered down the street, waving his bundle of newspapers around.
"Honey? Do we come off as standoffish?" Gilbert asked. "I mean, I can form proper sentences and turn a lovely little phrase, I suppose, but--"
Jesse elbowed his side, gently. Well, gently for her. "Shh. Crowd's moving," she indicated. "Let's go. We've got a train to catch."
The less things change, the more they stay the same. The Underground being a primary example of this.
Despite the new regime's desire to bring all of their newly founded empire under control by replacing old technology with new-old technology, the Underground was already a perfectly functional thing that needed no meddling. The power source that made the trains go was replaced, of course, but everything else could be left alone. It had grown into place over a hundred years, and had the weight of that much history on its side. London didn't like to replace things when it could augment, after all.
Stepping onto the narrow platform at the Holloway Road station, alongside a dozen university students, was like stepping into Pre-Pandora times. Granted, the advert posters pasted on the opposite side of the tunnel were for miracle tonics and elixirs, tube message dating services, and new victrola releases... but if not for that and the flicker of gaslamp behind all light sources, it'd be a perfect match.
Even the trains were largely the same. The guts of them, the behind the scenes workings, had changed... but the cramped and narrow cylinders, shunting at high speed through cramped and narrow tunnels, all of that worked much as it always had. The seats were just as uncomfortable, too. Which led Gilbert to focus on reading his paper.
True to his ideals, he'd ignored the color insert, likely full of adverts and swimsuit models and other junk, in favor of reading the lead story. As it was directly relevant to his interests.
"Let's see... 'Latest Viral Films Considered Threat to Public Safety'... 'Shocking Twist in Blërg Scandal'..." he read aloud. "Hmm. Here's one. 'Bonnechance's New Direction Befuddles and Alarms Investors.' ...oh dear. What could that be?"
"I've no interest whatsoever," Jesse said, rolling her parasol across her lap a few times, not liking the looks she was getting from the handful of students who got on their car.
"CEO Gustave Bonnechance announced a reallocation of efforts, away from national interests and towards local issues," Gilbert read. "Vast public works projects have been approved by the French district, which Bonnechance will undertake on a pro bono basis, to improve the infrastructure of the district as well as improve social services... huh. Well, they've always been the practical, dirty-jobs company, I suppose, but that's a bit much even for them. Especially when they're trying to earn favor by working on the fleet..."
"That has the smell of Chloe on it," Jesse suggested, revealing slightly less disinterest than previously suggested. "She's Little Miss Hopeless Causes, after all. Perhaps she utilized her feminine wiles? Although she has very few to work with, any weapon can be effective if used with precision..."
"Ah, they've got a Sudoku in here!" Gilbert announced with joy, on finding it sandwiched between an op ed column and a terrible political cartoon sticking obvious metaphorical labels on everyday objects. He scanned the rows, left-right, up-down, then let out a sigh. "And... done already. They've no right to call this one 'insane difficulty,' it only took me three more seconds than usual..."
"Where are we going, precisely?"
"Benny told us what station, what train, and what time. Not what destination. Aside from 'You'll know it when you get there, now don't bother me, I've had a long day.' How utterly helpful of him..."
"I suppose we'll know it when we get there, then," Gilbert suggested, turning to the funnies. "We're almost entirely through the Piccadilly line, now. Maybe we hop off when we hit the end--?"
His weight gradually shifted, much to his surprise. Gravity was a physical constant, or at least sufficiently constant for the majority of the Earth's surface, so that shouldn't be happening...
The train was slowing. No screech of brake lines, no panic to it, just... slowing. And then, finally halted, right in the middle of a tunnel. Through the windows was nothing but darkness and brick, with no station in sight.
A crackle sounded across the train's address system, echo chambers struggling to maintain a good volume along the length of the chained together cars.
"We seem to be experiencing another bloody-- a drop in pneumatic pressure," the driver informed. "Please remain seated and we will arrive at Hyde Park as soon as possible. Thank you for your understanding..."
On cue, because it apparently was a cue... the students who had been riding the rail with them got up. And headed towards the back of the car, sliding open the emergency access door, to move further along the train.
"I... guess this is our stop?" Gilbert hazarded. He folded up his paper and tucked it under an arm, offering a hand to his lady, so that they could follow...
It was a stream, now... young men and women, with knapsacks and messenger bags and other carry-ons, heading wordlessly through the train. The few passengers over the age of twenty five paid them no heed, as they walked on by, towards... wherever they were going.
The destination was a narrow space between the fifth and sixth car, apparently. And then, off into darkness.
His eyes took a moment to adjust... before he saw. They were at a junction of two tunnels, one of which held this train, and the other of which was completely empty. The students were disembarking in the middle of the tunnels, and headed towards a service entrance, a few steps up and behind a shuttered grate...
A long time ago, when Gilbert was desperate for something, anything interesting to read, he'd found a book about London's Underground. "Modern Transportation Miracle," it was called, and it talked the whole thing up in highly flowery and inappropriate language for what should have been a technical textbook. With some pride, it specifically talked about a station along the lines, one which had been repurposed during the city's darkest hours...
"Of course! It's Down Street!" he declared. In a muffled way, to avoid drawing attention to himself, of course.
The two blended in with the crowd, stepping up and through the service entrance... into another darkened tunnel. Light ahead, but hidden away, invisible unless you were already well on the way to visiting...
...a disused tube station. One which was once a bomb shelter, a war headquarters, from which Churchill planned the defense of his nation. One which had now, apparently, been repurposed by the students of London to be a hidey-hole in which they could gather, away from the eyes of their teachers and away from all law and order.
With giddy glee, Gilbert followed the crowd, along with his confused wife... down the rabbit hole, and into wonderland.
He'd seen old black and white photographs of Down Street. A grubby and disused place, filled with debris and decay. Janitorial equipment stacked in corners, as they'd given up bothering to keep the place tidy...
Down Street was little more than a curiosity, hardly a tourist attraction, and eventually forgotten by all but historians. Even to them, the station was a footnote, a thing which had been built without forethought as to the needs of the city, and then briefly put to another use before being shut down completely.
The students had taken the place and run with it. They knocked down walls, they added support struts, they opened the facility up considerably. It was still narrow, about as narrow as Holloway Road's station was, but two narrow tubes joined as one through some crafty and careful engineering opened the space up considerably... turning into, of all things, a nightclub.
As symbolic proof that they'd taken ownership of Down Street, there was still a broom, mop and bucket stacked in one corner of the room, just as Gilbert remembered from an ancient photograph. But they'd apparently been put to good use, this time -- soot had been scrubbed off the walls and floors, with the grime of the tunnels gradually giving way to something almost sanitary and livable. This was Down Street Reborn.
The only way to get there was to know the trick to it, the information Benny had provided them. There was an above-ground station connected to the Underground lair, from Gilbert's recollection, but had been shut down and converted to commercial spaces well before Pandora. The doors to the emergency stairs, visible as he shuffled along with the crowd, were rusted shut... the one aspect of the station its new tenants hadn't bothered fixing.
As the couple exited the connecting maintenance and entered the station proper... music faded in, the closer they got to the nexus of activity. Then, it was chatter, and laughter, and beats from an improvised electronic sound system mixed together into the sounds of a highly illegal and highly entertaining party.
Towards the back of the space, a genuine pair of electric speakers coupled up to a pocket digital music player was blaring out hits of yesteryear. (There was technically a modern pop music scene in the empire, but it was limited to analog wax, not digital bits.) A wet bar consisting of beers from a backpack was next to it, with drinks being distributed regardless of one's year in schooling, showing that Down Street was dedicated to busting more conventions than just the ones concerning alternating current.
Despite drinks and music, this wasn't a dance club. They were here to have a good time, but conversation pits made out of beanbag chairs and impromptu tables were the order of the day. Clusters of students gathered around, chatting away, insular little clusters of friends and like-minded folk. The tension Gilbert felt on the train was gone; here, they were free to talk, and talk about anything they liked. Some of the engineering students were even showing off salvaged electronics... including, much to Gilbert's shock, a genuine laptop computer.
"I know that computer!" he recognized. "Benny tried to sell it to me, once. Couldn't afford it, but I guess he found a buyer eventually..."
Even Jesse was able to relax her guard, here. Somewhat. "I see what he meant about subversiveness," she said. "I haven't seen this much contraband since my last surprise inspection of the witching academy dormitories. Hmm. Where do we begin...?"
"Wallflowering," Gilbert suggested. "My guess is, we need to find someone who's keen on forbidden architecture. Given they've revamped Down Street, someone here may know enough about the modifications made to the palace to know how we can get in. At the very least, we might meet someone with just the right mix of mischief and rebellion to help us scheme up a way in, blueprints or not..."
The station could've been brightly lit, given they'd brought every aspect of it aside from "trains plowing through the tubes at high speed" back to life. However, the dimness added to the club atmosphere... allowing Gilbert and Jesse to float through the linear space undetected. A fly on the cylindrical wall, seeing the sights, and just happening to overhear a few conversations along the way...
"...wireless has been abuzz with it," an engineering student chattered, excitedly. "Craziness going on down in France, with what Bonnechance is up to. I'm beginning to think one of the seven finally gets it that we can't keep going like this."
"Just glad there wasn't a bettin' pool. Like, 'Which Of The Seven Evil Overlords'll Crack First?'. Because if you told me it'd be Gustave Bonnechance, the guy who shows up drunk and passed out in the filth rags every other week, I'd've lost a few quid..."
"...air fresheners. Hundreds of years of the stink of those damn vents in my parent's neighborhood and the best they can offer us is little green paper trees to hang in the windows," a girl was complaining. "I am SOOO glad I moved out of there and into on-campus housing."
"I heard you breathe in enough of the used-up steam, you get cancer," her friend suggested. "My gran dropped off a few years back from it, even."
"Bullocks. Everybody'd be dropping dead, if that was the case. Wouldn't want to inhale the stuff raw -- I hear that's how they make Honored Calculators, and what a sorry lot they've got -- but I can't see the big C off any old steam..."
"...got shot sixty times. No fooling," a beefier fellow was describing, in campfire-horror tones. "Wasn't even a cell or anything, just a couple of blokes who liked to go out to the range and pop a few off every weekend. MI5's getting paranoid, I think. Looking for sedition around every bloody corner."
"I wasn't sure I'd come to Down Street tonight, myself. Not worth losing my scholarship or getting nicked. Bet they'd pop your head off if they caught you with an iPod. What's got the Blue Bottles all uptight lately...?"
"...I'm just saying, there's no use whining about it all. Things are as they are and there's not a lot that can be done, eh?" a lackadaisical fellow was saying to a small group of hangers-on. "Da always says, 'You study hard, because your generation's going to be running this empire one day.' And I say to him, 'Really? Did your da say that to you, then? Funny, you selling shoes now instead of running the empire.' Just saying, unless you're born into one of the seven families, you're not going to be changing anything. So why worry it? Just go with the flow."
And that was the entire run of the room. Underground stations weren't known for being spacious, even ones which had been modified to this extent. The couple stopped at the end of the room, near to the DJ and the wet bar.
"Another loop around the room, then?" Gilbert suggested.
"I'm wondering if Benny should've pointed us towards actual revolutionaries," Jesse said. "This is hardly the cream of the insurrectionist crop. Naughty boys and girls, but we may require a deeper degree of naughtiness."
"Benny hasn't steered me wrong before, love. I've known him for some time. Mostly as a business relation, of course, but he always could find me what I wanted. Even things I didn't know I'd want. He had to have sent us here for a reason... hmm. I believe I require some libations while pondering this..."
Gilbert slipped into the short line waiting for drinks, tugging his wife's dress sleeve, to bring her along. After registering her disapproval with a firm eye roll, she joined him.
On arriving at the 'bar,' Gilbert put on his Charming Voice
"My good man, I shall have whatever's on tap! Two of it. For myself and the missus!"
The young man with the backpack full of beer cans looked him over, critically. He wasn't particularly friendly, for a local watering hole pint slinger.
"Student ID?" the bartender asked. "Come on, now, don't have all evening..."
And their attempts to blend in, already tenuous at best, shattered.
"Ah. Yes. I forgot mine," Gilbert lied. "It must be in my other trousers. Pardon."
"You know the rules. Student IDs, or you don't get squat," the youth said, zipping up his bag, to prevent a snatching grab of his brew. "You DO know the rules, right...? Ugh. This your first time to Down Street, isn't it. You know, I'm so sick of hipsters like you dropping in, trying to share our scene... we've GOT to change the bloody schedule or this is going to keep happening..."
"Believe me, I'm quite the opposite of hip," he insisted. "I'm a math nerd. I'm a square. I'm... whatever term is currently utilized to describe someone who is not readily accepted on a social level--"
That wasn't coming from the bartender.
Gilbert turned around, and came face to face with L'Anonyme.
The impossibility of that situation give him considerable pause, freezing like a deer in headlights. His companion did the opposite, adjusting her posture, ready to spring into action if need be... one hand curling fingers around the grip of her parasol...
The cloaked figure with the Guy Fawkes mask smiled away, with his blank eyes and painted-on rosy cheeks. The mask turned slightly to the side, to express his curiosity at the reaction.
"English?" he repeated. "Ou français? Deutsch? Español...?"
"Erm... english, yes, thank you?" Gilbert offered.
A black gloved hand shoved a tin cylinder into his hands. One of many cylinders concealed beneath the robes, each labeled with a different language.
The phantom then moved on, his task complete. He walked up to other students, repeating the question, and offering similar containers to anyone who would accept them.
Carefully... Gilbert peeked into the tin container. And within, saw a film reel, a stock reel that'd work with most personal film players.
"We've been getting a lot of L'Anonyme fanboys last few days," the bartender commented. "I was going to go to a rally yesterday, to see what all the fuss was about, but when the pigs declared a ban on the masks I opted out. No need to stick my actual face out there for some copper to smash it in, am I right?"
"Er, rallies? Masks? What?" Gilbert asked -- before realizing those were questions that were best left rhetorical...
The bartender peered closer, trying to focus on Gilbert, despite the dim lighting of the Down Street gathering.
"Do I know you...?" he asked. "You've got a familiar face, hipster, or whoever you are..."
"Oh, I'm nobody, really," Gilbert insisted.
"Mhmm. Anybody who says they're nobody is somebody, everybody knows that. You a narc? Coppers send someone down here in disguise? Thought they'd given up hassling us-- oh bloody hell I can't believe it--! Gilbert Gearhaus!!"
Like a rude noise in an elevator, the declaration was enough to distract everybody in the cramped underground chamber. Distract them from their current chatter, and redirect attention to the two who were desperately trying to avoid attention.
Jesse's blade slid one inch from its sheath. But no further.
"Ah, hello?" Gilbert offered, knowing better than to deny it. "I'm sorry, but you know me...?"
"You gotta get out of here," the bartender said, pointing to the access tunnel from which they came. "We don't need your heat right now, okay? We're just having fun here, we're not blood enemies of the crown, like you are!"
"I'm reasonably sure I'm nobody's blood enemy. I'm not really into blood, to be frank--"
--and the bartender made a grab for Gilbert's newspaper.
In one smooth motion, he yanked it away... and opened it up to the color supplement, page one.
WANTED DEAD OR ALIVE FOR NUMEROUS CRIMES AGAINST THE EMPIRE, INCLUDING SEDITION, TREASON, AND TERRORISM, the headline above the five portraits screamed. Below them... were captioned photographs of Gilbert Gearhaus, Jesse Runeblade, Benny the Broker, Chloe Manchester, and oddly enough an artist's sketch of Jeeves. Likely because all the pictures were, from the slightly overhead view, captured directly from Jeeves's monocle prior to his re-steaming.
Silence reigned. For a few seconds, at least.
The sound of a rusty old door being blasted off its hinges and skittering to a halt in the distant maintenance tunnel did a good job of simultaneously breaking the tension and ratcheting it up sixteen degrees. The thunder of boots, echoing down a spiral staircase from the street level, from an Underground station that hadn't seen use in centuries...
A phalanx of black-uniformed police officers stood, blocking the way out of Down Street, seconds later.
It wasn't the first time Down Street had been raided. The station was tolerated only as far as it was a minor sin, compared with the more risky ones out there. But when England's Most Wanted stroll in to chat with the locals... that was all the excuse the police needed to pay a visit. With five times more force than they'd ever visited with before.
"NOBODY MOVE! THIS IS A RAID!" a bullhorn sounded, from somewhere in the morass of body armor and riot shields.
Of course, it was a raid on a dimly lit Underground station. Riot helmets with darkened visors weren't required. Which was a shame, as the next person to speak up was a witch.
Like magic (which is in fact what it was) the world's most powerful camera flashbulb went off without so much as a POP.
The howls of shock, surprise, and pain covered their exit. With surprising strength, disoriented police officers on the edge of the invasion force found themselves shoved aside, as their targets slipped right by the phalanx.
Jesse had the forethought to shield her eyes right before she threw out the distracting spell, and her night vision remained intact. Enough to spot the object of her desire propped leisurely in a corner, grab it, and drag her husband out of the club before anyone was the wiser. Out through the access tunnel, and hopefully towards freedom.
It was a fight to avoid tripping over his own feet. Gilbert's eyes were in the middle of protesting their short, sharp shock and thus were in no mood to provide him with a clear picture of where he was going. The overall darkness of the tunnels didn't help matters, either...
Fortunately, his wife had grabbed him in the Designated Upper Arm Grab Area, normally used to restrain helpless females, and was leading him along like a helpless male.
"You know what we could've used today? Glamour," Gilbert said, musing calmly despite the sound of panic and police officers behind him. "Like Nel's disguise spells. We're only, oh, the most wanted felons in the empire, but did I recall that little fact and suggest we at least put on a wig and a funny nose, certainly not, I'm only a genius, after all--"
"Not. NOW," Jesse said, yanking him back, to stop their progression. Since he was about to run straight onto the adjoining track. "Need to focus on this spell. Need to focus on the Way..."
"Are we getting funny noses, then?"
"No, we are getting out of here! And we are going to have to do it by means I have not practiced in ages..."
Finally... his eyes focused enough to look at what was in his wife's other hand. At first he assumed it was her sword, but it was too brown for that. In fact, it looked like...
"A broom?" he realized.
Which, after a muttered word, began to go horizontal and hover-y.
"YOU THERE! HALT IN THE NAME OF THE CROWN!"
She had to haul him onto the broom behind her, to keep him from waving politely to the police in his semi-dazed state.
"Hold onto me tightly or you'll fall off and die horribly!" Jesse helpfully informed him.
And then they were off.
Gilbert had never been on a flying broomstick before. He knew OF them, and had seen the students at Emily's witching academy practicing flight with varying degrees of success and/or broken bones. But his wife had been a staunch opponent of broom flight, considering it "undignified," and had never taken to the skies on a cleaning implement in all the time Gilbert knew her.
Which meant she was about as good at it as the witching academy students. Contrary to popular belief, riding a broom, like riding a bike, was something you COULD forget.
Considering Jesse's usual spell finesse meant they went from zero to way too fast in way too short an amount of time, the pair were lucky not to smash headfirst into the Underground tunnel. They came dangerously close, however... if not for twisting the handle sharply, to skim along the surface of the perfectly circular tube, across the ceiling, and back down the other side... well, it would've been unfortunate, rather than merely death defying.
The broom leveled off and began skimming over the tracks in silence, with only a slight wobble left and right as it went.
"Should've used the privy before we left," Gilbert woefully declared.
"I hate broomsticks," his wife was muttering. "Hate them, hate them..."
"Honey? I don't want to be a pest, but some light may help our situation. It's rather dark..."
Doing it all entirely in the pitch black of the tunnel was indeed not helping. So, Jesse cast a quick and thankfully not very intense Light spell on the end of the broomstick.
It turned out not to matter very much, as a light source was helpfully coming around the corner. Right at them.
Muttering very unladylike curses, Jesse pulled back hard on the stick. Gilbert clung extra-tightly, which didn't help her breathing, as she tried to turn their forward momentum around... rebounding off the wall, which he had to plant a boot against to keep them from smacking into it entirely. Soon, they were hovering along in the opposite direction. And far too slowly.
The massive air cushion that was rushing up to meet them provided a little extra kick. Not a very controlled kick, on an already difficult to control broomstick, but it was enough to get them back up to speed. Just enough speed to avoid smashing into the oncoming train.
Gilbert peered back over his shoulder.
The train's conductor was too busy being completely confused at the sight of two young people on a flying broomstick flying through the tunnels, a few meters away from his car, to reach for the brakes. Shame.
Gilbert offered a weak little smile of apology, before his wife literally kicked the thistles, giving her broom an added burst of speed. In seconds, they were gone.
Passengers waiting on the platform of nearby Hyde Park station weren't able to identify the screaming, vaguely urine-scented blur as it shot out of the Underground tunnel, headed straight for the spiral staircase to the surface labeled WAY OUT. Even if they had a better view of it, they'd probably have been just as doubting of their eyes as the conductor was, as he pulled into the station, picked up his passengers, and went merrily along his way.
The broomstick slid out of the Hyde Park entrance, skittering along pavement, what remained of its brush flying apart from the overload of magical effort. The stick itself rattled along the roadway, until it was snapped in half under the wheels of a late night cargo hauling autocar.
Its passengers, considerably worse for wear, were enjoying a nice sit-down on the sidewalk and thus were not killed. Skinned knees and elbows and several major bruises were another matter, but things could have been worse.
Despite being the first to be knocked silly during this progression of events, Gilbert was the first to his feet. He had to be gentlemanly and offer his lady a hand, so she could regain her dignity, after all.
"I suppose finding another broom so we can fly back to the Mermaid is out of the question?" he asked.
"Abso... lutely," Jesse decided, wobbling slightly, as she'd broken a heel on her left shoe. She kicked them off, frowning at the feeling of raw sidewalk through her hosiery.
"We need some glamour, at the very least. Any minute now we're going to be up to our ears in bobbies... so, let's go. Magic time. Can I have black hair? I've always felt it'd make me dark and mysterious--"
Gilbert peered around her, to make sure she hadn't lost her monocle. Jesse, however, refuses to meet his gaze.
"I'm... not particularly good with glamour enchantments," she admitted. (Admitting your failures and being honest. A difficult lesson to learn, so she had to lead by example for him. Nothing more than that.) "Nel's talent with it is a true gift. For witches, it takes a degree of creativity and imagination which I've never quite mastered. Didn't see a need. I prefer my enemies to know who is about to destroy them."
"But you turned that pile of L'Anonyme costumes into a giant gift-wrapped box--"
"I had impoverished farmer parents and a lot of bitter unrealized dreams of lavish Christmas gifts, so that wasn't particularly difficult, alright?" Jesse said. "I can't just tweak us to look different! Sorry. We'll stick to back streets and alleys, blend in, won't be a--"
One sharp whistle. And a squadron of men, already with nightsticks drawn, advancing on them.
It never relents, does it? Gilbert complained inwardly, as the two broke out into a flat run.
Of course, he had no idea where they were going. Neither did Jesse. This was foreign territory; neither of them knew London, whereas the police would know it like the back of their hands. Escape on foot was not a likely option. It was merely a stalling tactic, while a better option was formulated.
He had no better options formulated. For all the good his enhanced brain was giving him, lately...
It was a tall order, though, wasn't it? Infiltrate London. Invade Buckingham Palace. Free a captive archangel from someone powerful enough to capture an archangel. They'd given it their best shot, but the only resource they had to draw on wasn't enough, not against the combined resources of the entire empire. Jesse had told him they only had two options, retreat or absolute success... but practical reality had a habit of trouncing optimism.
In moments, the two of them would be overtaken, and dragged into custody. Maybe Benny and Chloe could finish the mission without them, and prevent the upcoming war with America. But odds were low that he'd live to see that day. He'd be lucky to live to see the morning, frankly.
He had to laugh at it, and so he did. I came to America in the first place to find a good way to die. Looks like I got my wish, even if I had to come back home to find it...
The only option he'd thought up so far was to turn around, and charge them head-on. If he provided enough of a distraction, perhaps his wife could find a broom, or call up a spell, or some other means of escape. Their family would carry on, even if it had to carry on without him. A reasonable equation, all told, with a reasonable sum.
There was a horse drawn cabbie ahead of them. That'd be a good means for her escape; she'd know to jump it and take the reins, and that'd be that. All she needed was a distraction.
"GILBERT! Get in, quick!" a voice from within the black cabbie called out.
Well. That was quite distracting. Just not the distraction he was expecting.
Jesse was ahead of him on reacting. Glancing backwards, to make sure the corner they just rounded kept them out of view for a split second... she jumped into the buggy, disappearing into the black canvas canopy of the vehicle. Literally.
Gilbert could turn and make his stand. Give her time.
But there was an X factor in play here he wasn't expecting. See where it goes, his equation suggested...
So, he boarded the cab.
A forceful grip took him and pulled him back. Back, deeper into the cab than it seemed possible... right before a stiff black drop cloth, a false backing to the cab's passenger cabin, fell neatly into place. He was tucked away tightly in the hidden compartment, squished in alongside two others... and the sudden silence that played out suggested it'd be wise not to ask what was actually going on.
Outside... boots hit pavement, approaching. And stopping.
"They went that way," a gruff male voice said. "Those two from the newspaper, I saw 'em! They went that way!"
"Hmmh. Lieutenant, check the cab."
The cabbie creaked slightly, weight shifting, as someone boarded... seeing nothing but an empty cabin. If they'd paid more attention, maybe they'dve noticed it was slightly shallower than most of its make, but...
"Nobody in here, sir!"
"Right. Lads, let's get moving! That Ik'ai bloke wants them dead or alive!"
Boots again. Departing, beating the street in a direction away from the cab.
Breath returned to Gilbert's lungs again. Sensory inputs beyond the ones needed to immediately determine if he was about to die started reporting in. For instance, his right hand was apparently squeezing something warm and squishy and pleasant.
"Sorry, love," he apologized. "Make it up to you later, eh?"
"Hey, don't stop, I'm enjoying it plenty," Penny Dreadful replied.
The false backing was nearly ripped in half from the effort Gilbert used to extract himself from THAT situation.
The two girls who were packed in with him like sardines were alternatively amused and not amused, judging from their reactions to his plight.
"Wallace, let's get rolling," Captain Penny the Pirate Queen of the Dreadnacht Brigade ordered, slipping around the pair, to sit up front. "We need to get to the hideout well before sunup. I don't want the coppers following us, either."
The couple stayed in the back seat of the cab, where they wouldn't be quite so visible to anyone on the street. Up front sat the leader of this rescue operation, as well as the beefy pirate she'd brought along as muscle. And because she had no idea how to drive a cab or operate a horse. If 'operate' was the right word.
"It was the nun, actually," Penny was explaining. "Wallace here likes to experiment with ham radio and such. He keeps tabs on all the wireless radio news -- like Sister de Tesla's sermons and such. Few days ago she mentioned lending aid to some passers-by in Marseilles, who were on their way to London, and we put two and three together and got five, so..."
"So you rushed off to aid your darling Gilby," Jesse spoke. Calmly. Because envy wasn't an issue, because they worked that out like reasonable adults a long time ago in a distant land. Because it wasn't like jealousy would always hang over their heads in some small, subtle, and unpleasant way for all time despite that since they were only human, after all.
"I didn't take the entire Dreadnacht, of course. I took one of our smallest, fastest scout ships and a skeleton crew up north, just to, y'know, see what was what," she continued. "When we got word that the crown was through letting you run wild and wanted your heads on pikes, we added some speed. I spotted the Mermaid while we were skirting around the city -- oh, don't look surprised, I helped install its camouflage, remember? And a good thing, too; from our aerial perspective we could see the coppers closing in on it."
"Err. So Benny and--"
"They're fine, they're fine," Penny said, waving away the concern. "We got them out of there. Jeeves carried the poor comatose girl, and we got them to our hideaway just in time. Benny told us you'd probably need a lift from Hyde Park, so we stole and rigged up this cab; secret compartments and tricks and traps are my thing, after all! ...ah. And sorry to say, your ship's been impounded by the authorities, Gilby."
With a sigh, Gilbert sat back. "Not good," he stated. "That ship's our only means of going home. We'll need to retrieve it when we're done. Just add it to the list of impossible tasks we need to complete..."
"We aim to disable the source of all aetheric steam," Jesse explained. "It originates from a captive archangel named Raphael. We're going to invade Buckingham Palace and rescue him."
For a change... the pirate queen was speechless.
"Trust me, it's far more insane than it sounds," Gilbert admitted. "And tonight we lost our only potential ally in this struggle--"
"Doubly good I came along, then!" Penny chirped, ultimately deciding to accept the weirdness in stride. "Consider me a fully realized ally."
"Pardon? We DID just say we're about to attack Buckingham Palace..."
"Yes, and I'll help you. Oh, it's crazy, I agree -- but what fun is life without a little craziness?" she asked. She turned around in her seat fully now... folding her arms under her chin, to give Gilbert little happy-eyed looks. "Ever since you came back into my life -- in a wholly platonic friendship sense, ah, of course -- I've had plenty of craziness. And I thrive on craziness."
"So... you have some amazing scheme in mind already for breaking into Buckingham Palace, then?"
"Nope!" she declared. "But I'm sure whatever you come up with will be fun, and I want in."
"Penny... I have no amazing scheme of my own. In fact, we came into the city looking for one. An endeavor that ended rather shortly after it began, afraid..."
"And yet, here you are, with your incredible new ally with her army of hardy pirates and her amazing steamwork technology know how. So you found what you were looking for, more or less. Mysterious ways, eh?"
He opened his mouth to doomsay a bit further.
No. Benny couldn't POSSIBLY have predicted this, Gilbert decided. But... he is back under the wing of the one who supposedly has an ineffable plan for everything, isn't he--
An ineffable plan which apparently included the cab teetering forward sharply, throwing them out of their seats.
It was a series of gunshots, that was the cause, Gilbert realized belatedly. He realized it as they were being dragged out of the wreckage of the cab by uniformed officers... catching a glimpse out of the corner of his eye to the fallen horses. They'd shot the horses to stop the cab.
They didn't have to do that. That's just cruel, he decided, even as he was forced to his knees alongside his companions...
Dozens of police officers. Armed, this time, with rifles. The billy clubs were gone; instead of being beaten into submission, apparently the plan now was to shoot them in the street and call it a night. London was no longer playing games...
Neither was the elderly man in the black overcoat. From his posture, Gilbert could tell he was calling the shots.
"Emit a single sound and we hurry this along, miss," the man warned -- spotting the glowing glyph already loaded and waiting on Jesse's spell monocle. "All my men are instructed as such. I somehow doubt you can Animate a few dozen lead pellets coming at you from all directions..."
(From the look of absolute hatred and disgust in her eyes... it was clear Jesse was willing to give it a try, anyway.)
"Orders, sir?" one of the officers asked. "Arrest and detain...?"
"The Indian girl, we may need her so we can find where she's hidden my employer's true enemy. The rest... a pity, but they're of no importance. Execute them," Ik'ai commanded.
The Animate spell was already on her lips -- a last ditch desperate effort, granted, but better than sitting there and accepting her fate. Far too late, unfortunately, as the crack of gunfire echoed throughout the streets of London.
Jesse wasn't expecting the afterlife to have a silvery glow to it. Nor for the soldiers to come with them into heaven. And the rest of London, for that matter...
Which meant she wasn't dead. And something had stopped the bullets; something which wasn't her, as she hadn't gotten her impossible spell off in time.
It was an energy shield. The telltale glow of an Orbital's personal kinetic barrier, just like the kind Una used, long ago.
Someone thrust a small object into her hands, with a simple but direct command.
"Think about elephants! All of you, hurry!"
Curiously... she looked down, to see a pink-colored statuette in her palm. It was lovingly carved, but quite odd looking. One ear larger than the other. A little chip in the glossy matte of the trunk, from years and years of dinging around in attics and private collections. A curious thing, which her eyes wanted to stray away from, which her mind wanted to put out immediately...
Instead, she thought about elephants.
The officers slowly lowered their rifles. They weren't really keen on opening fire again.
Something was off. Something they didn't particularly want to look at, or talk about. Everybody knew it was there, it was what they came here to take care of, but... right now it was also the furthest thing from their minds.
The group of escapees had become the literal elephant in the room. The farther away they got, the less uneasy the officers felt... until their quarry were simply gone. Out of sight, out of mind.
"Sir...?" the commanding officer asked, turning to Ik'ai. "Did you... need something, sir? Orders? What are our orders?"
The demon tried to gaze down the street, at something which was previously there. His brow furrowed with the effort. His lips, which once upon a time were often curled in laughter at the joy of the Word, now merely frowned with irritation.
"I believe we've been hoodwinked," he declared. "And the fact that I can't put my finger on who hoodwinked us is not going to go over well with my employer. Mmm. Fan out. Search for unusual persons of any stripe. We've enemies of the state about... failing in this task may mean the empire slides into chaos. That must never come to pass."
This was where the future of the British Empire was going to be determined.
None present knew this, at the time. The motley crew of assembled persons from various walks of life was just glad to be alive, at the moment, and away from the eyes of the crown. They didn't know that within minutes, they would have the scheme that would change the landscape of the world ready and waiting to be executed -- although at that moment Gilbert was no further along in solving the equation than before. New variables were in play, but their values were nebulous at best.
So, rather than immediately sit down to formulate how Raphael would be removed from England's place of power, coffee was made. Penny had brought one of her famous overly complicated coffee machines with her, all the way from Tortuga. Some supplies you simply couldn't do without. Including cream and sugar.
It was around a rickety old wooden table, in a forgotten wine cellar of a forgotten noble's house that Penny had bought for a pretty penny years ago, that they began to talk.
Gilbert with Jesse at his side. Penny, flanked by two of her thuggish but surprisingly well mannered pirate minions. Benny the Broker, taking a rare moment away from Chloe's bedside. And Jeeves, busy pouring coffee for all involved...
Including the two newcomers to the fray, the ones who had swooped down from the sky to rescue them all.
"It's from our personal Archive," Jim was explaining, as he put the clay elephant back in its lead-lined case, to keep its effects from distorting anyone's mind further. "Item #3013, 'Elephant in the Room'. Nobody wants to pay attention to the holder of the elephant. Lost relic of the ancient Punmasters, a tribe that perished in Africa ages ago. The Gatherers scooped it up in between the ongoing conflicts in the region, and--"
"How exactly did you find us?" Jesse asked.
"Well, um... we did scan your monocle back in Ibiza," Bob of the Gatherers explained. "It wasn't hard to trace its energy signatures, I mean, red shift is quite rare on this side of the Atlantic, so all we had to do was wait for you to start using it a few times in a row, and follow the trail..."
"Perhaps I should change my question. WHY did you find us?" she asked. "I thought I made it clear back in Ibiza, as a fellow Orbital, that I did not want you involved in my affairs--"
"Erm. Sorry, but... uh... we know you're not an Orbital," Jim admitted. "You're here as part of a joint task force of Faeusa and Eastusa, to stop the upcoming war. Tier Zero, Archivist Sen himself, told us all about it."
"And boy, did he give us an earful when he found out!" Bob piped in with. "We're lucky we weren't demoted for interfering in your mission! ...and we wouldn't have gotten in trouble in the first place if Jim here hadn't gotten cold feet and insisted we report seeing you in Ibiza..."
"Yes, well, that's all dihydrogen monoxide traversing a conduit beneath a manmade construct for passenger traffic by this point," Jim added quickly. "The point is... we've been tasked now to help you in your mission. So! How can we help?"
Jesse glared at him. "You didn't answer my question. WHY did you find us? You want to help, very well, but why? You have no stake in our interests. Near as we can tell, your little clubhouse is too busy being secretive and stealing things--"
"Obtaining the flotsam and jetsam of a hundred worlds, for the day when the stars fall!" Bob supplied in his defense. Before biting his lip, hard. "Err. We're... also not supposed to tell you anything about the Gatherers. Sorry. It's policy. Tier Zero says it's not time yet for your Faerie Queen to-- err, am I allowed to talk about WHY we can't talk about--?"
"I think it would be best if you didn't talk at all, Bob," Jim firmly suggested. "Ahem. I am authorized to tell you that Archivist Sen is concerned with the progress of your mission, and wants us to lend what aid we are allowed to lend. Err. Before you ask, he didn't say why he was concerned. We're not high enough tier to really be told why Tier Zero issues the edicts he does, but point is, the POINT is, we're going to help you in any way we can. Which. Um. Isn't very much. We couldn't bring too many artifacts with us..."
"Ahhh, but being from a far more advanced civilization which commands hypertechnology beyond Earthly understanding, no doubt our towering intellects will speed along your efforts!" Bob suggested. "So! ... uh... what're you trying to do here, exactly?"
"Rescue a captive archangel from an secret prison underneath Buckingham Palace," Gilbert repeated for the second time that night. "Please, for the love of science, tell me you have some amazing scheme in mind already. Teleportation. Scanners and sensors. ...hypersonic drills. Shovels with glowing bits attached. ANYTHING useful...?"
Heralds of a strange and secretive sect of the most technologically advanced culture ever seen in Earth, Jim and Bob proudly and confidently ummed and erred and shuffled their feet underneath the old wooden table. Bob made a point to study his coffee, as its brownian motion had suddenly become quite fascinating.
"Right, then," Gilbert announced. "Let's list our assets. We've got a fraction of a league of pirates, a witch, an Honored Calculator, an autobutler, one conscious angel who lost his demonic powers, one unconscious angel who had few powers to begin with, the two least competent members of a secret society on record--"
"A coffee maker," he continued, "A dingy basement, the clothes on our backs which are in dire need of a laundry, and one newspaper. Oh, wait. I lost my newspaper. I paid good money for that newspaper, too..."
"And a film reel," Jesse added.
"Your fanboy, the one who was cosplaying as L'Anonyme, gave you a film reel," she reminded him.
The small lump in Gilbert's muddy, torn, and slightly horribly smelling trousers pressed against his buttocks, to remind him it still existed.
Curiously, he withdrew it. The case had been dented in the evening's chaos... but the reel inside remained intact.
"Penny... do you happen to own a personal film reel projector?" Gilbert asked.
[SCENE: An unknown room. L'Anonyme sits behind a desk, like a news anchor. He is flanked by L'Anonyme and L'Anonyme, each in identical robes and masks. A flag of the British Empire hangs in the background, with the colors inverted.]
We are facing another war. One unlike any seen before.
For generations, your government has reached out to its neighbors across the European and Asian landmasses. Not to find partners in trade, not to obtain new technologies that would solve society's problems. Instead, they have pillaged and conquered, turning all lands they touch into clones of their idealized England, destroying cultural identity in favor of the stagnant ideals of the Victorian era.
All the while... we provide the soldiers for their war engine. We give our lives to build their war fleets. And in return, we gain nothing. The seven corporations that conspire with the crown deepen their money vaults, and any benefit the citizens of the empire could see is consumed by the effort of pacifying and maintaining this facade of genteel civilization to the four corners of the globe...
Now, we face the most monumental war we have ever seen.
[SCENES: Montage of footage snuck out of the Bonnechance shipyards. Voiceover consists of the original L'Anonyme's speech.]
"Mark my words, and let them echo across the empire... by midnight tonight, I will have stolen one of their top secret Grey Boxes! The beating heart of their pointless war machine. I do this to mock them as much as I do it to wound them. For I am the voice of the disaffected, the destitute! I am you, I am legion, I am L'Anonyme, and I neither forgive nor forget the sins of the empire!"
[SCENE: Footage of a Grey Box, installed in a warship. From the vantage point, the filming is being done by a child, who occasionally looks around through the lens to make sure nobody's paying attention. He enters a code into the locking mechanism, to get a quick peek and pan around inside the box -- before something distracts him, and filming abruptly ends.]
Grey Boxes. While it was no secret that unusual prototype warships were being built in France, their exact purpose was unknown until now. Wireless and tube network leak analysts with scientific backgrounds have studied this film, and determined these to be complicated audio devices... which, combined with obscure yet published scholarly theory that the Sea Dragons operate using a form of sonar, could mean a way to cross oceans. A way to bring war to new shores.
Now, secure factories have sprung up all over the empire. Barcelona. Cardiff. Munich. A fleet larger than any created before, with added secrecy after the incident in France. Security which has tried in vain to quash the words of L'Anonyme about these Grey Boxes. What else could they possibly be, if the government is this desperate to hide them?
The Empire has outreached its abilities, now. They will bring us down in their thirst for power. This cannot be allowed. If not for the ideal of peace, at the very least it must be done to keep your quality of life from sinking any lower, to keep the bridge between the haves and have nots from widening.
We know that many who see these films are not revolutionaries. We assure you, by watching these films, which are being copied and widely distributed across the empire by enthusiasts, you are helping strike a blow against those in power. Information is a weapon. The truth is a weapon. Your mind is now contraband, and that is something to be proud of.
But beyond that... the daring and creative among you can help in a nonviolent manner... by following in L'Anonyme's footsteps and making a mockery of the crown.
[SCENE: Buckingham Palace. Stock tourist footage. An insert photo shows Prince Edward IV, age twenty two.]
The crown prince, the young man who will one day inherit this mess from his aging father, has apparently called for an impromptu masquerade ball. The elite of business society and the seven heads of house are, as usual, invited to celebrate with all the indulgences of the ultra-rich. They are celebrating, on the cusp of their greatest military mistake of all time.
Very well. Let them celebrate. We will be celebrating as well. Let me introduce you to "Operation Party Hard."
[SCENE: Photograph of the Victoria Memorial, a proud statue of an angel, just outside the palace.]
This Monday evening, at eight o'clock, join us at the Victoria Memorial. It's on a public street, and we are within our rights to stage a peaceful protest there... a "counter-masquerade." If you managed to obtain a Guy Fawkes mask prior to the ban on their sale, bring it. Otherwise, conceal your identity by any means you wish, and become L'Anonyme. Bring signs. Bring music. Bring high spirits. Operation Party Hard is not serious business, even if it is serious business; we will disarm any aggressive response with our foolishness.
In doing so, in becoming a spectacle, we will show them that we are not to be overlooked. Reporters will be invited; films such as these will be distributed. We will open the eyes of the populace to what is going on behind closed doors.
This is not about violent takeover, like the would-be rebels seek. This using communication to make the government answerable for its gross excesses. We will give a voice to those it supposedly strives to protect, its citizens and wards. Our obnoxiousness will ensure we are heard loud and true.
Copy this film far and wide, distribute it to all you can across the tubes. Versions are available in several languages; use the one most appropriate to your district. While many copies will be intercepted and destroyed, the empire cannot stop all of them. L'Anonyme is legion; it cannot be silenced.
We are L'Anonyme. We neither forgive, nor forget the sins of the empire. None of us are as cruel as all of us. Good day.
The filmstrip whisked out of the mechanical teeth that pulled it along, flapping away against the personal filmer as the wall they projected onto went stock white.
Benny was the first to comment.
"I think you've made a monster here, Gilbert," he said. "Take it from a guy who's traded in all sorts of media --you can't easily engineer this kind of mass uptake for a new intellectual property. Kind of a shame all those guys are gonna be shot to death outside the palace a few minutes after they start their hoedown, though..."
Penny drummed her fingers on the table. "If anything, at least we know a bunch of nobles and business types will be in town soon. Maybe we can shake some of them down for information? I know where most of them have secondary manor homes inside London, for visits like these..."
"Thuggish and uncouth," Jesse declared. "Much like a pirate's thinking, dear. We'd need to snatch up one of the seven most important men in the empire to get the information we need... I have a doubt your portable brute squad could get to one of them, without serious and immediate reprisals."
"Plus, even if we knew where the enemy's holding Raphael, we still can't get to him," Benny added. "I like the idea of a smash and grab on one of these guys -- maybe the Word would even appreciate me hassling them, given their sins, who the hell knows anymore -- but it wouldn't get us into the palace. We-- "
"I'VE GOT IT!"
The white-haired fellow stood upright.
"Wait, no, sorry, I don't," Bob admitted. "Terribly sorry. We'd need Artifacts #84, #1914, and #886 to do that. And Artifact #1138 to make a clean getaway. All of which are located in the prime archive in-- err. Don't think I should tell you where the primary archive is--"
"We're going to the party," Gilbert Gearhaus declared, as the X locked firmly in place.
Jesse peered at him, showing her doubts. "You want to join those students outside the palace? What possible use could that serve--"
"We're going to the crown prince's masquerade ball," Gilbert clarified. "Penny's going to kidnap some lesser nobles that we can swap ourselves for, which will be held captive in this hideout; Jeeves will stay behind to guard and care for them, as he's far too recognizable. Sorry old chap. Jesse will glamour us to resemble our guests. Jim and Bob will help us get through palace security, using their hypertechnology. Chloe will contact Gustave Bonnechance, using Benny's little black book of private tube network addresses. Gustave, who has recently had a severe change in heart, will be our man on the inside and will help us sneak into the secret prison... all while Penny makes sure the counter-party outside is serving as a glorious distraction, so the palace guards are reallocated in large numbers to confront them. As the ruckus goes on outside, we rescue Raphael and escape out through the gardens, using jetpacks or Penny's small airship or the elephant or whatnot to make a clean break. PROBLEM SOLVED. Jeeves, coffee, please? Thank you."
Satisfied, Gilbert folded his hands in his lap, and allowed himself a few moments of pure smugness while his butler refilled his cup with warm, steaming java.
Until the eventual complaints rolled in, anyway.
"I can't do glamour magic," Jesse reminded him.
"I've never seen you back down from a challenge before. You've got all weekend to learn how to do it," he supplied. "I have the utmost faith in you, love. Besides, it's a masquerade ball; we only need to get through the security checkpoint, then we can probably drop the appearance tweaks and stick to wigs and funny noses."
"Uh, we have no idea what their security is like, or how to beat it," Jim pointed out.
"If it's anything like other royal parties I was dragged along to, they use an ancient and barely functional standalone personal computer, with a database and a fingerprint scanner. It's electric, highly illegal, and nobody cares. You can probably use reverse Van Eck phreaking from outside the palace to make the scans come up positive. Knowing what I know about Orbital technology from my time working at #A076 and with Wheedle Cogpolisher, I know that's a cakewalk for you, artifacts or no artifacts."
"What makes you think I have a little black-- well, okay, I have a little black book, but I'm going to call that one a lucky guess," Benny admitted. "But Chloe's unconscious. She can't send love letters to anyone."
"I'm sure you know her well enough to forge one in her name and tube it to Gustave. After that, find a way to wake her up before the party," Gilbert instructed. "You know more about what she is and what she could be going through than anyone. You're going to have to be proactive about getting her back from wherever she is, afraid. It's a risk but it's one we have to take; Gustave likely won't go along with this if we show up without her."
"You want me to take a protest party and turn it into a full blown riot?" Penny asked. "Lot of civvies out there..."
"Not full blown. Half blown," Gilbert said. "You're going to have to walk a fine line; this has to become a big deal, a big, loud noisy deal, but it also can't result in a massacre. You have to be ready to protect the protestors, if it comes to that. ...I realize it's a tricky task. I realize ALL of this is a tricky task..."
Gilbert Gearhaus stood, rising into the the light beam from the movie projector. He considered switching it off, but... the lighting felt appropriate, for speechmaking.
"This is a tightrope plan, with a lot of unknowns. But it brings together our strengths, and covers our weaknesses," he explained. "We always knew a full frontal assault wasn't possible. The only way in is subterfuge. They opened the door for us, with this masquerade; if we don't seize this opportunity, we may never get another one. I am confident that you will be able to carry out your aspects of this plan perfectly. ...there are only two options on the table. We walk away and give up the mission, or we achieve a resounding success. Therefore, we must succeed, and live to reap the fruits of that success. We will succeed. ...so. Any further questions?"
Politely... Benny raised his hand.
"The chair recognizes the Broker," Gilbert acknowledged. "Proceed, my good man."
"Let's assume all of this works," he said. "We forge identities, dupe security, convince Bonnechance to help us. We infiltrate the lair where the archangel is kept. ...then what do we do?"
"Then we rescue him, of course."
"Yes. And how?" he asked. "We have no idea what defenses exist in the prison. We have no idea HOW to rescue him! Let's not forget... Penny the Pirate Princess here sold us one of the 'Seven Sacred Keys.' Did you forget that? Seven keys, for the seven founding fathers. No doubt Raphael is secured by them. With most of the keys missing or destroyed, we have no way to free him. Even if we reach him, even if we somehow survive an encounter with whatever malevolent force was able to capture him, we're stuck. So. What do we do?"
"Oh, that's the easy part," Gilbert declared, with a bright smile.
"We improvise!" he declared. "We beat whatever opposition we meet, we stop the demigodlike invisible enemy that's dogged us this entire trip, we break the unbreakable chains, and we leave. I'm sure we can come up with something while we're down there."
"Your great plan is to IMPROVISE--?!"
"Because there's no way to know what's down there. Certainly not before we miss this opportunity," he added... serious, this time, without the smile. "We have no choice, afraid, 'twixt the devil and the deep blue sea. Whatever awaits us down there... we face it with what we have, and beat it. There's no other option. I can get us to that point, but after that... well. Your new employer is on our side! We should be fine, with a little faith."
Benny's flat stare flattened out to the point of being one dimensional. "Really. You think the Word is your sidekick?" he asked. "You don't know the guy that well, do you?"
"No, but He got you to lead us to Down Street, where we got the film that inspired my plan, which also led us to Penny, which also led us to Jim and Bob, all of which are key elements of said plan," Gilbert said. "In short: by providence or coincidence (and in your case, providence signs your paychecks) we have exactly what we need. It's a miracle, apparently!"
"What?! Oh, come on -- I had no idea any of that would happen!" Benny shouted. "You can't possibly believe... Gilbert, that's not a miracle, that's just--"
"We've all got jobs to do!" Gilbert interrupted. "Penny, this hideaway of yours is a secret, yes? Good. Everybody pick a guest room and get some sleep. Tomorrow we start arranging our invitation to the masquerade. Monday evening... we're off to the races. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going upstairs to take off my trousers, which are really, really starting to reek from my earlier misadventures. Goodnight, gentlemen and ladies."
His work here complete... Gilbert retired, whistling a merry and patriotic little tune as he marched up the cellar stairs.
"...your hubby is a complete mental case, you know," Benny declared.
"I am aware," Jesse said... a smile growing on her lips. "He is and always has been one for bold moves. And perhaps, this time, bold moves that are precisely mental enough. If our daughter inherits that courage and pride, she may even one day surpass us..."
"Uh-huh. --wait, what?"
"Good evening," Jesse said, rising and offering a curtsey in her slightly ruined and sooty dress. "I've a smelly husband to attend to, and some intense magic training to undertake. Until tomorrow."
Darkness. Always dark, down here.
He preferred it, that way. The void was comforting; no need to look at unpleasantness. Hearing the chains rattle and sway was bad enough, but he got used to that, after the first few decades. The hiss of the breathing mask, that was also a sound he got used to.
As long as everything stayed as it was, everything would be well. Pandora was a setback, but this new world was falling to the banner of order easily enough, built on the back of an angelic demiurge's strained breath. A year, a decade, a century, the length of time was irrelevant -- as long as the path to the future wasn't diverted, it would come about, and the angel would endure the pain.
That was the worry. That the path would be diverted. The messenger could do that...
The Messenger was dead, however. His puppet had seen to that, yes? And then the puppet was likely destroyed, by the vengeful imp, given how the connection was severed so cleanly. The whole mission, failed. They should have turned back after that; what possible hope did they have of breaking this prison without the Messenger...?
And yet... they kept going. Now, they were in London. They had allies, of some sort, who hid them away.
He'd prepared for this, of course. Ik'ai was tasked to building defenses for the prison, and the defenses would hold. They were designed specifically to dissuade these particular mortals. Whatever thin hope they had would be shattered, if not by the empire's forces that hunted them, then when they made their attempt to unchain angelic power and set it free. Inevitable doom.
The steam would continue. The world would survive, and eventually, fall before the peace and order of his empire. No further suffering. The grace of God would prevail.
...and yet, worry remained, in the dark and the unknown.
copyright 2011 stefan gagne