EXCERPT: Harry and Marlowe Meet the Founder of the Aetherian Revolution by Carrie Vaughn

CATEGORY: Unexpected Cryptozoological Ramifications

RULE 715.2x: It’s Not Easy Being Tentacled

SOURCE: Maud Charlotte Mary Victoria, Princess of Wales

VIA: Carrie Vaughn

There are steampunk villains, and then there are steampunk mad scientist villains, who bring a certain panache to their evil-doing—although maybe it’s just the goggles and frock coats.

Our next story toes the waters of the steampunk subgenre, pairing the granddaughter of Queen Victoria against the crazed inventor of a powerful new technology. The story’s roots, however, lie in the kinds of classic adventure stories Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Wilkie Collins were writing at the turn of the twentieth-century.

Carrie Vaughn admits a love of those Victorian adventure stories, and says “I’ve been wanting to tell the story of a not-so-prim Victorian woman adventurer for a long time, and the setting here gave me a fun way to do that. This is an alternate history—an alien spacecraft crash landed, Roswell-like, in England in 1869, and a vast new technology was reverse-engineered from the debris.” It’s the perfect setting for a little madness.

Here we give you a princess with a purpose, a mansion with a secret, and a doctor with a plan. It’s a madcap adventure with a proper British accent.

 

Harry and Marlowe Meet the Founder
of the Aetherian Revolution
by Carrie Vaughn

“We could have taken George’s courier ship and arrived in a quarter of the time.”

“No, we couldn’t,” Harry said, scowling at Marlowe, who knew very well they shouldn’t be here at all, much less aboard her brother’s ship. But he seemed to enjoy mentioning her brother George and reminding Harry of the impropriety of it all. It was a long-running joke, and she let him have his fun. Marlowe just smiled.

They’d taken a carriage—a regular hired coach, horse-drawn even—from the Oxford station to the doctor’s estate. The journey from London had taken most of the day, which left them facing the gatehouse on an overcast afternoon, the sunlight fading, the world growing colder.

Despite the spiked iron gate, the estate was modest. Harry could have walked the perimeter of the grounds in half an hour, though the curving gravel drive gave the impression of greater space. At the end of the curve, one could glimpse the house, a two-story gray pile with a slate roof and clay chimneys, walls fuzzed with ivy, windows brooding—all of it easily manageable, easily guarded.

The gate was the only access through a ten-foot high wall that surrounded the house. At the top of the wall copper conductors placed every dozen feet or so guided an Aetherian charge, a crackling stream of deadly green energy: a second barrier, impassible, should someone think that they could climb the wall. The humming, flickering light traveled down the bars of the gate as well.

Impatient, Harry opened the carriage door before the driver or one of the soldiers from the gatehouse arrived to do so. However, before she could let herself out, Marlowe slipped out, let down the step, and offered his hand to her. Propriety, indeed. Remembering herself, she gathered her skirt in one hand, took his with the other, and stepped neatly out of the coach.

Four soldiers on weekly rotation from the local regiment served guard duty here. One of them—an officer by his insignia—approached. A Lieutenant Bradley commanded the unit, Harry knew. This must be him.

“I’m sorry,” the lieutenant said. “I don’t know what you’ve been told, but this area is restricted. The house isn’t open—”

“I know. This is Dr. James Marlowe, and I’m Miss Mills, his secretary. We’re here to see Doctor Carlisle,” Harry said, drawing a folded paper from her handbag. The letter was affixed with the royal seal, confusing everyone who looked at it, but everyone who looked at it was well-trained not to ask questions. They’d merely have to wonder why two unassuming travelers had the Crown Prince’s approval. (They didn’t, but that was beside the point.) The lieutenant opened the letter and read it over—taking his time, to his credit.

When he’d finished, he looked across the page and studied the unlikely visitors. “Very well, then. Give us a moment to open the gate. Sir, miss.” He tipped his hat at them and turned back to the house.

Marlowe tucked his portfolio under his arm and gave the driver a few coins. “Can you return for us in two hours?”

“Yes, sir.” The man remounted his carriage and drove off.

Marlowe could never quite manage polish, even when he meant to be traveling as a respectable gentleman. Locks of hair escaped from under his bowler hat, his face showed pale stubble, and his tie was loose where he’d tugged on his collar. His jacket, trousers, and boots were acceptable but not outstanding. Truth be told, Harry liked him better without the polish—he looked like a man who was too busy to worry about inconsequential details like trimmed hair and neat ties.

“I hope two hours will be enough,” Marlowe said, watching the driver depart.

“I fear we’ll be wanting out of here much sooner than that,” Harry said. “Part of me hopes this is all a waste of time.”

Marlowe shook his head. “No, this is a rare opportunity: To meet the genius who created the Aetherian Revolution? Without him we’d have none of this.” He gestured ahead.

The front window of the gatehouse revealed a pair of brown-uniformed soldiers at work, one hauling down on a wall-mounted lever, the other operating an unseen control panel. A metallic clang followed, the banging of steel on steel; the Aetherian hum faded, and the crackling stream of power guarding the wall vanished. Now the wall was just a wall, and the gate was just a gate.

Harry still regarded the wrought iron cautiously.“We might have been better off,” she said.

“Never think so,” Marlowe said. “Ernest Carlisle may be the only one who can move my work forward.”

“Don’t you think you’d solve the problem yourself, eventually?” Harry said.

“We don’t have time for that,” he said.

Of course, Harry thought. Not with the war on. It was the unspoken postscript to everything they did.

Lt. Bradley emerged from the gatehouse. “It’s safe, now,” he said. “I’ll escort you in.”

The soldiers in the gatehouse turned another set of levers, and bolts lurched open, another metallic clunk. The middle of the gate split apart, and Bradley pushed it open. Harry suppressed a flinch when the lieutenant touched the gate, but no Aetherian charge scorched him.

Marlowe offered his arm to Harry, and she took it. They walked with the lieutenant toward the manor.

The gates clanged shut and locked behind them, and Harry glanced over her shoulder, wondering how such an innocuous tone could seem so ominous, like the tolling of a church bell.

Turning back, she said, “Lieutenant, tell me about the Doctor. What is his schedule like? How many servants are here at the house, and how do you supervise them?”

“He has no servants, miss. By his own request. He said the necessary restrictions on them were too great to bother. A cook from the village comes in the morning to make his meals for the day, and a cleaner comes once a week. Her work is little enough—most of the house is shut up.”

“Is that so?”

“Doctor Carlisle is confined to a wheelchair, miss. He has chambers on the ground floor. I thought you would know, since you’ve permission to see him.”

“For how long?” she said. This wasn’t in any of the reports.

“Ten years, since the disaster. I’m given to understand he sustained injuries.” They’d reached the house now, and Bradley nodded. “If you’ll excuse me a moment, I’ll let the doctor know he has visitors.”

The door had a speaker box by it, which the lieutenant leaned into. Harry and Marlowe stayed back and spoke in whispers.

“Did you know Carlisle was infirm?” she asked him.

“I didn’t. There were rumors of illness, but I thought it had more to do with age. Or a broken spirit.”

“Why is it a secret, do you suppose?”

“Out of respect for the man’s dignity, I imagine.”

“As if he had any left,” she said. But he did, or he would not be living like this, in a polite fiction of genteel retirement—under guard. She frowned. “What does it say about us that we’re so afraid of a crippled man that we keep him locked up like this?”

“Because it’s Doctor Carlisle,” Marlowe said, and he was right. Carlisle certainly couldn’t be allowed to go free. Neither could he be truly imprisoned, or executed, or exiled. He was the realm’s great conundrum. Or rather, its second great conundrum, after the conundrum that Carlisle had made his name exploiting.

“Be careful, Marlowe. You sound as if you admire the man.”

“Oh, I won’t forget he’s murderer.”

“Good.”

“Are you sure you aren’t letting your personal feelings unduly influence you?”

“Of course I am. What else are personal feelings for?” She shook her head. “He can’t have turned everything over when he was arrested. A man like him—he kept something back as a bargaining chip should he ever need it. Some scrap of research, some artifact. I want to know what.”

“We both do. Are you ready for this?”

“Of course I am,” Harry said.

[End Excerpt]