Novel: Pulse Chaser


Available on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00D9CNM60
PULSE CHASER


Archer Garrett



* * *

This is a work of fiction.  All of the characters, organizations and events in this novel are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously; any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead is entirely coincidental.

* * *

Copyright © 2013 Archer Garrett

All Rights Reserved.

No Part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, copied or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission.

* * *

Acknowledgements:

My wife, for her patience during this project.


***

 “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

- Mark Twain

* * *

“The one who follows the crowd will usually get no further than the crowd. The one who walks alone, is likely to find himself in places no one has ever been.”

- Albert Einstein

* * *



Table of Contents

















161 – February 1893t: On the Banks of Acheron


163 – February 1893t: Ricket and the Cimmerian Strait


















The account of how I happened upon the following journal entries (and the larger collection of journals themselves) is indeed a story in itself, but I should reserve that for another time.  For the sake of brevity, I shall say that Mr. Stallworth’s journals are a mesmerizing web of adventure upon adventure, far too long to be contained in a single work.  I have excerpted entries from throughout his journals and collated them so as to make it more accessible to you, the casual reader.  I hope that I have done justice to his story.

--C.R.






September, 1890

Seizing the Opportunity – An Introduction





What if you were told that this world, as unique and isolated as it may seem, is quite actually far from being all alone in the universe?  Would you scoff or guffaw at such a notion?  Perhaps you might feel the urge to introduce the postulator to one of those delightful jackets that often accompany those plush, yet Spartan, padded rooms?  I will concede it certainly does seem preposterous, and I myself might even reject such nonsense as high fantasy, if I’d not been there myself.  Perhaps we are alone in the universe; I certainly’ve not met any strange-looking fellows from other planets, but we are most definitely not alone in the multiverse.

The multiverse, you wonder?  What might such a contrivance even be?  Please allow me to attempt to explain, given my utter ignorance in all things scientific, much to my grandfather’s chagrin.  The best that has been determined, this alternate earth has not always existed, at least not in its current form.  If it did, then it was a mirror image of our own earth.  Its history and inhabitants are exact replicas of our own, up until the point of the split.  This splitting of the worlds was when a unique life was breathed into the alternate earth, and its point of singularity was finally reached.  The split was a birth, of sorts.

The fissure of the worlds occurred approximately (or perhaps precisely) at the time of the Carrington Event in 1859.  The great solar storm was named after the late Mr. Carrington, a dear friend and colleague of my grandfather’s, though I never heard the storm referred to by its proper name.  When my grandfather and Mr. Carrington subsequently discovered the existence of this alternate earth, he took to referring to the storm as Dick’s Disaster.  Mr. Carrington was rather not amused.

Though they originally thought that they had discovered a completely new realm, a thorough examination of this alternate world’s history yielded an interesting find.  The history of the two worlds began to diverge after Dick’s Disaster.  The divergence was minor at first, like a bullet spiraling just slightly off its mark.  In the beginning, the differences were subtle and scarcely noticeable, but as time went on, the contrasts became stark.

The catalyst for these changes was the very thing that put the disaster in Dick’s Disaster.  Perhaps it was a defense mechanism formulated by the natural order to protect us from an increasingly volatile sun, or perhaps it was something else, but while our sun storms have subsequently grown more docile, their corresponding storms have been much more savage.  My grandfather would later hypothesize that after the storm of 1859, the alternate world began to act as a solar buffer for us, thus allowing our world to continue with its increasingly complex technological advances.  The alternate world however, was forced to evolve in a manner that was much more resilient to their frequently-occurring electromagnetic pulses.  The volatile atmosphere resulted in the abandonment of the study of electromagnetism, in favor of chemistry and biology, though even they were limited in certain developments because of the storms.  The alternate world fell into a prolonged, hybrid Industrial Revolution.

As a child, I always found my grandfather’s romanticized recollections of the era of his childhood to be fascinating.  Later, when he confided in me about his fantastical sojourns to a place that was even more peculiar to me than the world of his youth, I knew in my heart that I had to see it for myself.

Upon his death, my grandfather’s vast estate was distributed amongst his children and grandchildren.  Many considered it to be a family scandal when my brothers received all manner of oil and mineral rights, priceless works of art and numerous other riches, while I, his supposed favorite grandson, received nothing other than a bureau containing the bulk of his and Mr. Carrington’s journals and research notes.  I can still remember the feeling of elation as I, his sole confidante, opened the bureau and retrieved the sealed envelope that waited for me atop the collection of dusty papers.  His words are still as clear in my mind as the day I first read them five years ago.

My dearest William,

I have saved the most precious of my treasures for the only one that will truly appreciate them – you.  The greatest danger of wealth unearned, aside from arrogance and a life unlived, is the paralyzing fear of losing what has been gained.  I leave you nothing but the riches of an opportunity for a life well lived – a life of adventure.  Seizing the few, fleeting moments of glory that this life presents us is not about capitalizing on such an opportunity; it is about shedding the passive for the passionate.  So go, shed the passive, my son; revel in the passionate, live your adventure.

This journal shall serve as a record of my experiences.

-William Stallworth


August, 1895t

An Introduction to the Caribbean Expedition





Since the study of electromagnetism was mostly abandoned, the minds of many thinkers were freed to pursue other fields of study; namely, these being chemistry, metallurgy and biology.  Note I say that the study of electricity was mostly abandoned; the electrical does exist here, though it is very limited in scope.  Because of the need for Faraday cages in all things electric, the cost and application of such can be quite prohibitive.

The advancement of chemistry in Terra was far greater than anything in our world.  Many of these discoveries were used for the betterment of society, but some, I fear, will soon be used by evil men – just as we’ve seen in our own world.  That, however, I shall save for another entry.

As you look around your world, you’ve probably realized that science and technology often outpace the sensibilities and ethics of man.  We often have to learn by burning our fingers, but our collective memories are short-term and the lessons we learn are soon forgotten.  Our bandaged fingers eventually go wobbling back into the dancing flames. 

In the early years of the divergence, environmental concerns were nonexistent, and pollution was rampant in both worlds.  The inhabitants of the multiverse were forced to eventually address their smog-filled cities and the acid rain that pattered on their heads, but Terra had a far worse problem in the early days – what to do with the extremely toxic by-products of the chemicals and processes that were being developed?

At first they were dumped openly on the ground in the deserts and other sparsely inhabited areas, but this created vast wastelands.  Burying the chemicals was attempted next, but due to their highly corrosive nature, contaminated groundwater soon became a dire issue.  Finally, a solution was devised; the by-products would be dumped in the depths of the oceans, far from civilization.  What could possibly go awry?  As we would soon discover, quite a many things, actually.

Most of the creatures of the sea that ventured into the designated dumping grounds quickly perished, but this was not the case for all species.  Some creatures experienced horrific mutations, far worse than any could have imagined.  One class in particular that was affected in this manner was cephalopods – specifically squid and octopi.  These creatures experienced vastly increased growth rates and exhibited extremely aggressive and territorial mannerisms.  Even so, this journal entry would not exist had it not been for architeuthidae, known to us commoners as the giant squid.

The largest documented architeuthidae was 43’ long and weighed over 600 pounds, but many an old sailor had a tale or two of a monstrous beast that exceeded 60’ in length.  The toxic dumping had the effect of tripling, or possibly even quadrupling the size of the already-massive creatures.  Entire ships began to disappear without a trace, and sailors began to bring stories to port of mythical krakens, except they were no longer a myth.  After a particularly gruesome attack against a barque in the Caribbean was witnessed by a passing vessel, a team of men was organized to track down and exterminate the offending beast.  This is where my story begins.


August, 1895t

The Culmination of the Caribbean Expedition





We’d been on the hunt all of June and July, and every man was exhausted.  We had grown weary of our expedition.  All of the crew longed for more than a single night in port.  Consumption of rum was forbidden by the captain, because of the nature of our charge.  Some had even taken to murmuring that it all was a farce; there was no monster, it had all been just another fable created by drunken mariners to explain one more ship lost at sea.  I began to fear the men would soon mutiny if the campaign was not abandoned.

There had been no sign of the kraken, as if he knew we were seeking him out.  I don’t mean to imply that our presence would have struck fear into the beast’s heart, for we certainly wouldn’t have; he had taken ships much larger than ours.  If I should dare venture into the mind of the beast (which is a preposterous endeavor, I admit), I would suppose in hindsight that we’d been followed for perhaps weeks.  I shall never be convinced otherwise that the kraken had not taken it upon himself to follow us, so that he might better understand his adversary.

We had left Cockburn Town, on the tiny island of Grand Turk, only two days prior on a southeasterly course with a destination of Tortola.  Though I no longer recall our exact location, I do know it was somewhere in the Puerto Rico Trench.  Knowing what I know now, it should’ve been rather obvious to us that we should meet him where we did; the Trench was home to the deepest depths in the Atlantic, the perfect place for the kraken to set his snare.

Our ship was an armored cruiser of approximately 250’ in length, with a complement of 300 officers and men.  She was powered by twin steam engines along with three large masts for auxiliary propulsion, to aid us on the open waters.  She had been outfitted with a series of massive harpoons that could fire in any conceivable direction or angle.  The vessel was smaller than most cruisers, and was selected for that very reason.  The thought was that we would need a nimble ship to pursue the beast for days on end, slowly wearing it down until finally, we would strike.

The evening sun blazed like an unbridled inferno, deep in the west.  The horizon would soon be awash with oranges and reds and pinks, before fading into a purple so regal that Victoria herself would lust to be wrapped in its cloak.  Finally, all would be consumed by a blackness so complete, that we would all certainly be lost at sea, were it not for the countless, twinkling sentries of the Caribbean night.  But for now, the sky was still the deepest of azure, its only blemish the black smoke that billowed from our stacks.

I remember the sky so well because I was on deck, leaning against the starboard railing and breathing in its beauty. Pagan and French were beside me, puffing on their pipes and musing aloud the merits of abandoning ship.

“…No, I’m serious; when we make it to Road Town, I’m leaving this ship and never coming back.”

French laughed heartily and replied, “You said that in Cockburn Town, and on Cat Island, and in Nassau!  But here you are Pagan!  I already know you for a liar, but if you keep it up, everyone else will too!”

“He said it in Miami as well.” I added leisurely.

Miami!” French roared even louder in remembrance as he continued, “I forgot all about Miami!”

Bah,” Pagan muttered as he flicked his wrist, “the devil take you both!”

Pagan turned and stared out over the water as he continued to murmur to himself. 

French’s laughter slowly faded, until the three of us were standing in silence.  He slapped his friends shoulder reconcilably and said, “While I would agree that freeing ourselves from this floating stockade sounds rather appealing, they would surely find us and hang us from the yardarms, my friend.  Tortola is no Puerto Rico; we would certainly be found.”

Pagan did not respond to his friend, but rather continued to stare out across the waves.

“Come on now Pagan, don’t-”

“Quiet!  Look at that!” He exclaimed.

We both turned and gazed in the direction of Pagan’s outstretched arm.  In the distance, scarcely more than a hundred yards away, a dark shadow rested just beneath the surface of the water.  Slowly, the shadow drifted in our direction.  Suddenly, it surged towards us with a speed and fury that shocked us all into a stupor. 

French was the first to wrest himself free of the trance; he turned and fled to alert the others, shrieking and waving his arms all the way.  Pagan’s pipe clattered on the deck, its sound reawakening me.  I fumbled awkwardly with the rifle slung over my shoulder, while Pagan retrieved his in one fluid motion.  He tracked the shadow’s movement toward us with deft precision, while continually stepping back from the railing.  Suddenly, when it seemed it would certainly slam into our hull, the apparition disappeared into the depths.

We turned and stared at each other, dumbfounded as to what had just occurred and too frightened to speak.  By now, a group of sailors had begun to gather behind us on the upper deck.  A chorus of laughter began to erupt among them as they looked down upon the likes of us, shaking visibly while we clutched our rifles.  Pagan turned and violently shook a fist at them while remaining perfectly quiet, but it did no good.

Finally, I spoke. 

“Perhaps it was a whale?”

He turned and scowled at me as he snarled back, “Weren’t no whale.”

As Pagan began to edge closer to the side of the boat, I tried to talk him back, but it was no use.  “Give it a moment!” I pleaded.

When he reached the railing, he leaned over cautiously, his rifle still plastered to his shoulder at the ready.  For several long moments he stared down into the blue abyss, scanning intensely for any sign of the disturbance.

Pagan jerked his head around as the catcalls from above began to rain down on us more vigorously.  He pointed at the leader of the group and began to curse violently at them, his face red with fury.  The men cackled and riposted with insults of their own, until all at once, they grew silent and stared at him blankly.

I watched in horror as Pagan continued to berate the men, thinking he had triumphantly threatened them into silence.  His sneer faded into a look of confusion, as a steady patter of seawater began to rain down upon him.  My heart sank as I watched his face flash with terror as he looked skyward and saw the towering, black tentacle that loomed overhead.  I shouldered my rifle and fired at the limb, but it was too late.  The feeler lunged at Pagan and wrapped around his torso before he could utter a sound.  His eyes bulged from the pressure it exerted on his body as it squeezed him without remorse.  As it lifted him off the deck, the massive head of the kraken surfaced.   A series of smaller tentacles flailed about, until it brought Pagan near.  The feelers then folded outward, like a monstrous flower in bloom, revealing two mandibles that opened and closed hungrily over its mouth.  The kraken relaxed its grip just enough for Pagan to cry out to us.

Four loud reports rang out as I unleashed a barrage of rifle fire upon the beast.  The hot lead tore through the soft flesh of the monster’s mouth.  It squealed in agony and loosened its grip on my friend.  Pagan plummeted into the water and disappeared beneath the waves.

With the creature’s ire now fully focused on me, I turned and ran for safety.  Overhead I could hear the sounds of pandemonium, but it all was a blur of distant echoes, as if I had suddenly fell into some deep chasm.  A confusion of orders and panicked shouts rang out all across the deck.  Smoke began to fill the air as shots were fire from rifles and pistols.  All of it melted together into a collage of cacophony, except for one sound; I can remember the clarity of metal scraping against metal, as a group of men above me turned the crank and pivoted one of the colossal harpoons towards the beast.

Suddenly, I was slammed face-first against the deck as my feet were yanked out from underneath me.   A wave of pain rushed outwards from my nose as crimson sprayed all around me.  My eyes watered uncontrollably from the impact to my face.  I rubbed them with my sleeve in an attempt to regain my vision, and was astonished at the amount of blood that gushed from my nose and stained my coat.  This was not the condition I had hoped to be in during the encounter.  Still confused by what had happened, I rolled over onto my back and gazed in trepidation at the ghastly, black arm that had wrapped itself around my ankle.  The last moments of my friend’s life began to flash to the forefront of my own mind.  I strained to reach my rifle, but it was hopelessly out of my reach.  I clawed furiously at the deck as it began to drag me towards the railing.

In the haze that surrounded me, I could hear what sounded like the voices of men calling out to me.  Their chants were rhythmic and urgent, like the angry shouts of a lynch mob around a gnarled oak tree.  Were they calling for my death?

No!  My cutlass!  The words finally rang true to my ears; of course!  I twisted my body and unsheathed my blade; all the while, the railing loomed ominously closer.  Despite the sharp pains that shot through my face and the blood that now burned my eyes as it threatened to paint my entire face red, I focused my strength.  Every muscle in my body contracted at once, and like a bolt of lightning I shot upright.  I growled like a cornered animal and swung the blade in a wide, sweeping arc, connecting perfectly with the slimy, black limb.  All around me, I could hear the cheers of the men erupt and then fall silent again.  Still, it pulled me closer.  I hacked furiously, again and again at the tentacle, until finally a screech unlike anything I had ever heard pierced the air.  Begrudgingly, the kraken released its grip.

I turned and scrambled on all fours, searching for the traction needed to stand upright, but the deck was slick with my own blood.  I finally found my footing and again resumed my retreat.  I ducked low and snatched up my rifle mid-stride.

After disappearing behind the quarter deck, I attempted to regain my composure, but my mind refused my efforts.  I shrugged out of my coat and cut off one of my shirt sleeves to use as a temporary bandage for my shattered nose.  The crimson plume spread quickly across the white cotton, but the pressure did begin to restrict the blood flow.

A great disturbance to my right caused me to turn and look towards the ship’s bow.  A long tentacle wrapped itself around the ship’s front mast and began to tug vigorously.  As I peered around the corner, I gasped in shock at what I saw.  The kraken slowly began to pull itself up onto the deck.

Our cannons were useless at this angle; all that we had at our disposal were the mighty harpoons.  The sailor seated behind the giant apparatus began to move the sights into position as his companions spun him in the direction of his quarry.  The kraken screeched angrily as the disgustingly large eye (I would venture to say it was nary a bit less than four feet across!) on the side of its head focused on the sailor and the weapon fashioned uniquely for this very encounter.  The beast reared back unexpectedly and spread its numerous, smaller feelers wide, like a strong gust of wind tussling a dainty sun dress.  At first, I thought the kraken had seen enough of his foe, and at any moment, he would dive back into the depths, but I was wholly mistaken.

A wave of motioned rolled through the creature, as if all of his expanded muscles were contracting in concert.  A disgusting, belching noise filled the air, and an even more hideous, black blob shot forth at the harpoon.  The shrieks of the men were short-lived; the ink melted man and metal alike.

Something jerked me from behind and almost caused me to tumble backwards.  I teetered for a moment as I struggled to regain my balance.  Finally, I spun on my heels, rifle at the ready; it was French, urging me to follow him.  I chased after him and a small group of others as they frantically raced to the back of the ship.  A loud commotion caused me to look over my shoulder one final time.  While one of the kraken’s long tentacles continued to pull it farther up onto the deck, his other main tentacle whipped through the air and flung a group of men like rag dolls.  My nights are sometimes still haunted by the sound of their cries and the sudden, sickening crunch as they collided with the ship.

As we rounded the back of the vessel, we happened upon a group of marines and sailors.  Perhaps it was French’s plan all along to meet up with the men, but I am rather unsure – I never asked him later, and he never offered to explain his plans.  From the look in his eyes just moments earlier, I assumed he aimed to commandeer a lifeboat, which was a perfectly acceptable act of cowardice to me.  We were facing a kraken, after all.  Nonetheless, as the men came into sight, French threw his shoulders back and swaggered up to join them. 

 I’m certain I looked a sight to the others with the blood-soaked bandage tied around my face, but they paid my oddity no mind.  As we approached, the men were just finishing the discussion of the plans for their assault, which seemed to amount to nothing more than to charge the beast with guns blazing.  I wanted to remind them that such a tactic had not turned out well for Pagan, but instead held my tongue.  At this point, I was fully committed to the idea that we would all certainly die soon, so why should I preclude these men from dying with their honor?  The sailors were grim-faced, but the marines appeared as fearless and unshaken as any men I have ever seen.  Looking into their eyes, I found my courage.  I could fight and die beside men like that.

Once again on the starboard side, we were half the ship’s length away from the beast.  Martel, the marines’ commander, ordered us to follow him in a single-file line along the wall of the quarter house, so as not to garner the kraken’s attention.  We rushed forward while the beast continued to assault our compatriots.

On Martel’s command, we broke our formation and swung wide across the deck.  We stood shoulder to shoulder firing on the beast with our lever-action rifles.  The rounds pierced the kraken’s soft flesh and caused it to emit a blood-curdling squeal.  The hair on our arms stood on end as we continued to march forward, while the war cries of the marines urged us on.

The beast turned his attention to us and began to use his two, long tentacles to pull himself in our direction so that he might consume us whole.  The sight of the creature charging our ranks will always be remembered as one of the most strikingly fearsome images recorded in my mind.  With every awkward movement of the kraken as he dragged his body across the deck towards us, my life began to flash before my eyes with thoughts of everything I had yet to do.  In a moment of selfishness, I was filled with sorrow for my lot, before realizing that the men beside me had wives and children that would never see them again.

When I thought that our fate was surely sealed, a blur caught my eye in the distance.  Before I could conceive what the blur might be, a massive harpoon slammed through the kraken’s head and sent a hail of splinters in our direction as it pierced the deck an arm’s length from us.  With the creature pinned to the ship, we redoubled our assault with a newfound ferocity.  The kraken struggled in vain to wrest itself free, but it was no use.  After several more volleys from our rifles, the creature collapsed into a lifeless heap on the deck.

***



We found Pagan not long after we’d felled the beast.  He was half-drowned and had several broken bones, but he would survive.  He was fortunate.  We were all fortunate; unlike so many others.

That night, with a mangled front mast and the sobering loss of seventy brave souls, we turned south and made our way towards Puerto Plata with our trophy.  Perhaps it was a commendation from the fallen as they looked down on us from the heavens, or perhaps it was just another of the solar storms that frequent this realm, but we stood on the deck and stared in wonderment at the most magnificent aurora that I have ever witnessed in all of my time in this place.  A wholly indescribable array of reds and greens and blues swirled over our heads and reminded me that, as dangerous and unforgiving as our worlds may be, there is often beauty in the midst of the suffering. 

Armed with new knowledge of the beasts, the subsequent expeditions paid much less dearly with the lives of their men.  Though the beasts are rumored to still lurk in the depths of the deep sea trenches, the stories of them are much rarer these days.  Some already say that it was an elaborate conspiracy of sorts, and that they never truly existed at all.  But I remember the day, with a crimson-stained rag wrapped around my face, I stood in defiance alongside giants of men, and defeated the kraken.


September, 1890

A Storm Approaches



Terra, as I’ve taken to calling it, advanced in a manner that was technologically divergent from our own path, at least according to my grandfather’s notes.  Soon enough I shall be able to investigate this anomaly myself. 

As a note, Terra is merely Latin for Earth.  I’ve bestowed this alternate world with a title for no other reason than as a measure to distinguish between the two earths, so as to avoid confusion.  After perusing several collections of my own notes and documents, I sometimes found myself confused as to the whats and whoms of which I was referring.  Nonetheless, on to the topic at hand:

With this, I write my first true entry in this journal (though, in essence it is my second entry, but I digress.  If this journal is found to be of interest to some, and it is indeed read, I’m afraid my carefully constructed façade of outward normality will be certainly ruined.  My mind is a peculiar creation.  Try as I might, it often flitters off, like a frightened covey of quail, from the thoughts at hand.  At any given moment, a menagerie of thoughts are all clamoring for my undivided attention.  If you notice that I happen to be wandering from the topic, please forgive my transgressions against you, the reader).

Now (let us try this once again!), as I write this entry in my journal, I am waiting for the proper time to take a seat in the contraption that I have labored over for the past five years.  Five years ago, in the spring of 1885, I first read the letter that my grandfather had left for me in his bureau.  That bureau was my sole inheritance.  For many months I was not necessarily angry, but confused.  I didn’t understand why he would leave me everything I needed to prepare for my journey:  instructions, schematics, research notes, his diaries and even several key components (which I shall discuss shortly), but not the financial means to construct the equipment needed to leap* across (* I use the term “leap” loosely.  Those more learned in the sciences may have a more proper term, but I do not know it).  Now, I feel I may understand his reasoning.  If you will allow me, I would like to refer back to his letter once again:

The greatest danger of wealth unearned, aside from arrogance and a life unlived, is the paralyzing fear of losing what has been gained.  I leave you nothing but the riches of an opportunity for a life well lived - a life of adventure.

I am reminded of an excerpt from American Crisis by Mr. Paine: 

“What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value.”

I sit writing this entry in a secret room beneath my estate.  This dimly-lit space is hidden so that it shall not be discovered while I’m gone.  I occasionally look up to gaze upon the culmination of five year’s hard labor in between my thoughts.  I have been employed in all manner of trades since I first read my grandfather’s letter.  Trades that, a listing of which, would likely take up an entire page in this journal (trades that also provided me with skills that I never would’ve acquired otherwise, I might add)!  Had this struggle not been so great, I certainly would not appreciate the magnitude of this night.  Tonight shall be the first time since the completion of the machine ten days ago that thunder rumbles in the east.  In a matter of hours I’ll likely’ve left this world in one of two manners:  I will have successfully leapt, or I will be a charred heap of bones strapped to a glorified lightning rod.  God have mercy on my soul, for my lunacy is surely hereditary.

I suppose this would be a proper time to attempt to describe to you the nature of the machine.  I could of course refer you to any numerous sketches or schematics, but I would prefer for this journal to be as self-contained as possible.

The core of the machine is very similar in appearance to the newly-created electrocution chairs (the first successful electric execution having been performed less than two months prior in Auburn Prison).  This irony has not been lost on me, and has caused me numerous sleepless nights over the course of the last several weeks.  My more pessimistic inclinations whisper to me that I was indeed not my grandfather’s favorite progeny, and that he secretly loathed me (he did in fact, leave me with none other than the instructions to construct this machine!).  Being the scientific genius that he was, he crafted this elaborate scheme to have me waste my youth on this fool’s errand, only to die a slow, painful death.  I read in the papers where a witness stated that Kemmler’s electrocution was, “An awful spectacle, far worse than hanging.”  Of course, this is all most likely happenstance.  Probably.

The chair is constructed of the finest of oak, and has a leather seat and backing.  All connections are peg and groove.  There are leather straps to secure the occupants legs, lap, chest and head.  There are no metallic components in the chair or the straps.

Above the chair, a copper lightning rod ascends through the ceiling of the room and eventually terminates at a point thirty feet above the roof.  The base of the rod is three inches in diameter and the tip is a quarter inch across.  The tip of the rod is the highest point for miles.  Silver would have been a more efficient material to use in this application, but because of the prohibitive cost, copper is an acceptable substitute.

A vast array of silver coils extend out form the base of the lightning rod and lead to all sorts of gadgetry that I would be at a complete loss in succinctly describing the theory behind their individual applications without confusing you.  Tubes filled with gallium and mercury are mounted on various devices, along with their individual accompaniments of gauges, gears and magnets.

By the way, I suppose I was not exactly forthright in my introductory entry.  I was willed something of great value by my grandfather; actually two somethings.  He entrusted me with a pair of paragons – flawless white diamonds of immense size and rarity.  As far as I know, there are no others like them in the world.  The sale of a single paragon would’ve earned me wealth enough to live out the rest of my life without worry.  Without them I would live a life of nothing but worry, though, for all I would ever think about is what could’ve been.

You see, as valuable as the gems are to the rest of the world, they are priceless to me.  The diamonds completed a key component of the machine.  Without the paragon in place amongst the various other apparatus, the entire construct is inert, powerless, worthless.  Of course, I could’ve sold one to fund the construction of the machine that would remain in this world, but could I ever return home?  Without a doubt they are irreplaceable.

I find it ironic that, when holding these jewels, I possess immense wealth by the standards of any man.  But these diamonds alone, nor any other store of goods, could purchase what my heart desires.  So I labored for these years, refusing to cheapen my reward by seeking loans from my family (who would’ve certainly given me the funds I needed without question) or otherwise, so that I could revel in this moment when it finally came. 

The exact function of each component (especially the paragon) is somewhat a mystery to me.  In many senses, I am merely an oblivious erector, standing on the shoulders of giants.  From a purely artistic vantage point, which I can relate to much easier, I find the entire apparatus to be beautiful in its symmetry.  If it does not function, and I do not perish in the process, perhaps I can redeem it by offering it to the Smithsonian.

I will attempt to leap through with nothing more than copies of my grandfather’s notes, several recent patents, some novels, the remaining paragon and a worn, leather Bible.  Hopefully the patents I have selected will not have been developed yet.  If not, I plan to sell them for the purpose of funding my travels and for the construction of a second machine so that I may leap back to this world.

The storm draws near.  I bid thee farewell, if only for a time.


March, 1893t

Some Editorial Clarifications





Before I continue with my story, please allow me a moment to attempt to clarify several characteristics of my journal.  I realize that this may seem like tangential nonsense, but please endure me yet again.

Journals are difficult to read since they are most often an anagram of the authors thoughts, written as they were remembered rather than chronologically.   Entries are finite moments of clarity (though not necessarily honesty) flailing amongst a sea of omissions and contradictions.  They greater the period that exists between an actual event and the penning of the entry, the more susceptible it is to untruths.

Knowing that time is the enemy of candor, it is my goal to record my experiences as soon as possible.  Most entries are written in the past tense, because the events of course have already transpired.  Some entries, such as 155 (Works of Terra) and 1 (A Storm Approaches) are written in the present since their contents were occurring as I wrote them.

Of the entries written in past tense (which are most), only the month and year in which the entry was recorded is assigned, rather than an exact date – which is irrelevant.  Most entries were written over the course of several days anyway.




December, 1892 (An Addendum to the Journal)

The Ghazis, a Brief Introduction





After a few short years, it had become apparent that the threads that bound Terra and Earth together were beginning to unravel at an ever-quickening pace.  At first, the divergence seemed to be merely technological in nature, but after a time, the course of entire nations began to alter.  The consequences for Terra were unimaginable, particularly to an outsider such as myself.

Though our world seems somewhat stable in its projection (or at least in comparison), this world is becoming increasingly volatile.  Enemies of old, long since forgotten, are rising anew.  Long-established treaties are being broken, as strange new alliances replace them.  I fear this new world is on the brink of a great upheaval.  Perhaps my current demeanor has been affected by my encounter with the Ghazis only days ago, though I do not believe this to be the sole reason for my concerns.

The Ghazis are an old enemy, one the Western world has battled for hundreds of years.  They are ruthless, soulless villains that profit by way of possibly the oldest profession – no, not that profession, the one I speak of is the slave trade.

In our world, the Ghazis’ influence was finally subdued in the year 1830, by the French.

“The French?” you say.

Why, yes – truth is sometimes quite stranger than fiction.

By order of Charles X, as his reign was crumbling around him, Admiral Duperré and a fleet of over one hundred warships sailed to, and bombarded, the Port of Algiers from the sea.  Meanwhile, Marshall Bourmont and his detachment of nearly 40,000 troops invaded the city and wrested it from the Ottomans.  The assault began in the middle of June and was over by the first week of July.  In a flash, the threat to our world was over.  Confused?  I assume you most likely are, for the Ghazis were known by another name back then – the Barbary Pirates.

With the establishment of French Algiers, Muslim slave raids became a thing of the past in the Mediterranean, and the Ottoman Empire was dealt yet another crushing blow.  A time of great darkness in Europe had finally come to a conclusion.  From Malaga to Venice, Europeans could rest a little easier, for the threat of slavers landing in the dead of night and disappearing with entire villas was no more.

In our world, the rise of the West was inevitable.  In Terra, the Western hegemony was not clearly established.  The Manifest Destiny, so to speak, of America and the greater Western world, was a wholly uncertain supposition.

Paranoia gripped Europe as wary empires constantly brokered and dissolved alliances in an attempt to maintain the established balance of power on the continent.  Imperialism fueled unrest around the world as natives resisted the trespasses of distant rulers.  The world, and really both worlds, seemed to be on the precipice of a great upheaval.  I am, however, diverging from the scope of this addendum.  Allow me to return to the matter at hand.

In 1880t (“t” denotes that the year, and therefore the context of the sentence, refers to Terra.  I will strive to adhere to this annotation for the sake of clarity, but forgive my trespass if I occasionally forget.), the sparks for the resurgence of Barbary Pirates (what would come to be known as the Ghazis in Terra), were ignited.  France wrested Tunisia from the Ottoman Empire without firing a shot, further expanding its influence in North Africa.  The Turks’ crumbling realm was unable to stand against the French outright, so they resorted to subterfuge and the building of a resistance network within their former holdings.

By the spring of 1885t, the time for the Tunisian coup had come.  It swept quickly through the country and spilled over into Algeria.  The Ghazin Revolution, as it came to be known, was decentralized and not easily contained by the French.  Financed by a bitter Ottoman Empire, and bolstered by popular support, the Ghazis plunged the region into turmoil.  By 1888t, the French had abandoned all hopes of reclaiming their colonies.  Once again, the North African coastline became a haven for piracy. 

With this in mind, the story of my first Atlantic crossing (in Terra) begins.


December, 1892t

Helios, French and Pagan





Two years after my sojourn across the aether, I had finally acquired the means to leave the Americas.  I might remind you that I was left with no tangible inheritance, with the exception of a bureau that contained the what-fors of this new world’s existence, and the how-tos of leaping.  The topic of finances is best saved for an entry all its own, lest I descend into a lengthy discourse on the economic concepts of thought piracy and funding your own Pulse Leap.  Forgive me; moving along.

It is slightly ironic that my first foray out of the States had precisely nothing to do with the destination.  Though the transatlantic route was an adventure in its own right, it was not my reason for leaping at the opportunity.  No; I chose this expedition based solely on the ship I would be sailing on. 

Or rather, the airship I would be flying on.

Prior airships had not been ships at all.  Rather, they had been massive blimps filled with hydrogen or helium, with diminutive gondolas slung beneath them.  Or worse, they were giant, colorful balloons filled with hot air, with a tiny basket for two or maybe three occupants.  Not Helios, though; it was craft of revolutionary design.

Helios was the unbuildable dirigible.  To this day, nothing remotely similar to it has been replicated in our world.  To be honest, I do not even understand the physics of how it is able to achieve lift.  Perhaps the laws of nature in this world are actually far different than our own.  If you will humor me, I will attempt to describe its appearance and operation to you.

Imagine a ship that was at home on both the high seas and in the air, and you will have imagined the fundamental basis for the craft.  The most comparable design that I can submit to you is that of the trireme of antiquity, in both the principal and visible sense.

The ancient trireme pushed the technological boundaries of its time, much like Helios.  Weight was diminished to the point that any more reduction would result in a compromise to the ship’s structural integrity.  The ship’s center of gravity was set as low as possible to increase its resistance to waves and rollover, while affording minimal draught.  This would allow the ship to land in shallow bodies of water (or in the sense of the historical trireme, to navigate shallow waters), such as a small lake or river, far inland.

Helios had three masts.  Atop each of the masts were large, gas-filled balloons.  The balloons assisted with lift, but were of an insufficient size to float the ship on their own.  When the craft was not airborne, the balloons were kept unobtrusively deflated in large cages atop the masts.   If one was not aware of their existence, they would not be noticed until they were inflated.

Near the stern of the ship, two tall smokestacks protruded from the top of the cabin.  It was a long, narrow ship, with dimensions of approximately 300’ by 30’.  Its slender design made it look rather odd, but not so much that one might gawk at it if it sailed past them.

When we boarded the vessel, it appeared not unlike the clippers that still sailed the seas.  At first glance, I must admit, I was rather disappointed in having paid the exorbitant price for my boarding pass.  I even began to wonder if it truly could fly, or if I had been the victim of some complex scheme to deprive me of my treasure.  As I observed the numerous dignitaries and military men that were alongside me, I assured myself that the revelations must be true, or else the captain might soon find himself cast overboard.

Passage on Helios’ maiden voyage was reserved mostly for the representatives of wealthy industrialists, as well as foreign ambassadors, in hopes that the commissioning of additional vessels would be negotiated after the passengers had experienced the ship’s prowess and capability.  Those passengers of great means rode for free.  There were, however, a few seats that were available to the highest bidders.  I was one of the fortunate and newly-impoverished fools who had won their passage by way of auction.  In all, there were close to a hundred assembled for the voyage:  a complement of 30 sailors (or aeronauts), 20 royal British marines and 50 or so passengers.

We embarked from Freeport, Bahamas on December 15, 1892t, and set sail for Palermo, Sicily.  The excursion was one that would cover over 5,000 miles and was expected to take just over seven days to complete.  That translated to a sustained speed of around 27 knots – faster than any clipper or four-funnel liner.  Of course, one would certainly expect Helios to be faster, since the only drag against the ship would be the wind itself.  And if we caught the Westerlies just right, that drag would be all but negligible, since our sails would be bulging with the strong winds, urging us towards our destination.

A warm wind tussled my hair as we left the port.  I turned and leaned into it – there could not have been a more perfect day to be on the water, or over it.  Nevertheless, I had not come for the blue skies or the wispy clouds – I had come to experience a ship that flies.

A short, round man in an ill-fitting suit and tie led a gaggle of aristocrats across the deck.  He narrated the hither-tos and whither-fors of the vessel with his every waddle.  He paused for a moment and presented group of sailors as they skillfully worked the rigging.  A strong gust of wind surprised the group, causing coats and dresses to swirl and twist, revealing some rather unflattering sights.  The fat man’s hat danced precariously on his bald head, threatening to escape.  He grasped at it with his stubby arms, rescuing it from a watery grave.  With that, he motioned the group towards the stairs that led below.

A voice called out somewhere behind me, “Have you ever seen a group of asses that were more pompous than those?”

A woman in the group turned around a glared past me with righteous indignation.  I turned around as well, to see who the antagonist was.

Two men, not much older than I, were on the far side of the deck.  The apparent leader stared back at the woman for a few moments, before turning around, bending over and grabbing his ankles.  The second man slapped the leader’s rear with the back of his hand.  The woman covered her mouth with a gloved hand as she gasped at the sight, before hurrying after the group.  I could not help but laugh at the scene unfolding before me.  I chuckle even now as I write this.  I remember wondering if that woman had ever had anyone do such a thing in front of her, much less to her. 

The two men approached me while the last of the group disappeared below deck.

“I don't know you,” the antagonist said, “and that's odd, because I usually know all of these pitiful saps.”

“I don't usually run in these circles.”

“And yet, here you are.”

There was a moment of awkward silence as the three of us sized each other up.

Finally, the man extended his hand and said, “Name’s French, and this worthless bloke is Pagan.”

“That's an odd pair of names,” I replied as I shook his hand.

“Trouble always seems to follow us,” Pagan interjected, “we’ve found aliases to be a necessary measure on our behalf.”

“Excellent wordsmanship, Pagan.  'Seems to follows us.'  I couldn't’ve said it better myself.”

“Thanks mate.”

“Think nothing of it.”

I listened as the two bantered back and forth like two best friends, capable of finishing each other’s thoughts with ease.  The cadence of their dialogue was nimble and sharp.  Like seasoned fencers they sparred verbally for the pleasure of the game, mirthfully slighting each other with their wit.  From a safe distance, I chuckled at every lingual feint, lunge and parry.

As I listened, I wondered who they were, and where this encounter might lead.  Immediately I knew they were trouble – not trouble like I might wind up in a gutter knifed by one of them, but rather mischievous trouble, the type that the free-spirit sons of eccentric tycoons got into.  Exactly the type of trouble I was looking for.

From the looks of them, both men looked capable of battling their way out of any situation they might’ve stumbled into, and they had the marks to prove it.  The faint remnants of a black eye could still be discerned on French’s face, and Pagan had a grisly looking scar that started just above his collar.  Their accents were undeniably British, but they weren’t so thick that they were hard to understand.  Both were well kept in their dress and presented an air of confidence, but not arrogance.  It was obvious that they were comfortable in their own skin and felt no need to compensate with bravado or bluster.

Finally, French looked at me and said, “So, you never told us your name.”

“I’m Wil-”

“Hold that thought good sir!” Pagan interrupted as he turned to French, “He needs an alias.”

Of course, why yes.” French rubbed his chin as he mused the thought.  Finally, he reached out, dusted off my shoulders in an exaggerated manner and proclaimed, “Mr. Black.”

"Mr. Black?  You're naming me after the color of my jacket?”

“It's temporary, Mr. Black.  How can I bestow upon you an alias of befitting quality if I don’t properly know you yet?”

“Can’t I choose my own?”

The two bellowed with laughter, before French replied, “Do you think I wanted to be called French?  Or what about Pagan?  No, that’s ludicrous; completely out of the question.”

Completely out of the question,” Pagan parroted.

They turned and began to walk towards the bow of the ship.  I hesitated at first, until Pagan turned and urged me to follow.  I doubled my pace until I was beside them.  When we reached the front of the vessel, French turned and stared at each of us in turn without uttering a word.  We looked back at him curiously for several moments.  Finally, he spoke in an off-handed tone, as if he was completely disinterested in the subject.

“Any moment now…”

He retrieved a silver watch form his pocket and smiled as he viewed the time.

“Here we go.”

The low hum of an engine began to emanate from somewhere down below.  After several moments, the sound of scraping metal could be heard just off the sides of the ship.   As Pagan and I leaned over the railing, we saw a series of steel shafts extending outwards from the side of Helios.

The shafts were telescopic, meaning they were hollow and contained additional, smaller segments within them.  Each segment was about 10’ in length.  As a segment would reach its full extension, the following segment of a slightly smaller diameter would emerge from the end and continue outward.  And so this continued until all of the shafts were fully extended. 

The shafts emerged from three different levels of the ship, like the multi-leveled oars on a trireme.  The top shaft protruded from the vessel about 20’, and the middle and bottom shafts each stepped out a little farther from the ship.  There were four rows of shafts like this, so there were twelve on each side of the craft.  On the underside of each shaft was a series of pulleys that had been threaded with a steel cable.

“What’re those supposed to do?” I asked.

“Just wait and see,” French replied smugly.

The aeronauts descended upon the shafts like ants on some hapless prey.  The sailors climbed over the railing and walked out on the shafts with as much skill as any tightrope walker.  More men emerged from below deck carrying large rotors, approximately 20’ in diameter.  When they reached the edge of the ship, they attached the rotors to the cables and fed them along the shafts until they reached the end.  The nimble sailors at the tips of the shafts then removed the rotors from the cables and fastened them in place.  The rotors were horizontal, like giant ceiling fans.  Their purpose was singular – to provide the lift we needed.

As the last of the sailors walked the shafts back to the edge of the ship and climbed back onboard, the rumble of the engine somewhere below us grew even deeper.  The rotors began to turn slowly at first, but after a few moments they were spinning furiously.  Above us, the balloons atop the masts began to take form as helium was pumped into them. 

Suddenly, the entire ship began to tremble, as if it might rend in two at any moment.  The rotors had begun to whir feverishly.  Wind whipped across the deck as a sort of manufactured cyclone materialized around us.

French removed his hat, sat cross-legged on the deck and said, “I’d hold on if I were you two.  They haven’t quite worked out all the kinks yet.”

I mimicked French, but Pagan was too enamored by our surroundings to be troubled with the warning.  He stood in awe of Helios as it struggled to free itself from its watery chains.  The ship’s timber hull groaned and creaked as the entire vessel began to tremble.  The smokestacks chuffed dark black plumes into the surrounding air as the engines’ were pushed to their limits. 

The bow abruptly tipped up out of the water – not by much, but enough to send Pagan tumbling headlong to the deck.  He rolled end over end until he finally collided with, and grabbed onto, a coil of heavy rope.  French cackled at his friend’s predicament, while we clung tightly to the railing.

The heavier stern quickly caught up with the bow’s ascent.  And just like that, we climbed into the sky.

“On your feet gentlemen,” French proclaimed as he stood up, “take it in.”

I believe it to have been the surrealness of the entire experience, for the ship (now undeniably an airship) did not ascend that quickly, but the pit of my stomach floated around my chest during the entire maneuver.  To be exposed to such a rush for a moment may be exhilarating, but to have it linger for several minutes was more than a bit unnerving.

A strong gust filled our sails and gently nudged us forward as we continued our ascent.  After reaching an altitude of several hundred feet, however, Helios began to accelerate forward with a purpose.  A pair of large propellers on the stern, just above the rudder, hummed intently as they worked in concert with the sails.

I leaned over the ship’s rails and stared in amazement at the world beneath me.  Our large shadow continued to diminish below us as we seemingly defied all manner of scientific laws that had been postulated for centuries.  The lush greens of the island vegetation and the bright whites of the sandy beaches contrasted magnificently with the deep blues of ocean.  Of course, who was I to be impressed with all of this?  I had leapt through the very fabric of space to get to where I was standing.  Still, I could not help but stare.

A flock of gulls swooped towards the airship and eyed us curiously.  Their calls sounded like laughter, as if our presence had completely baffled them as well.  I whistled to the nearest bird as he flew alongside me, less than 20’ away.  He cawed several times in quick succession, before turning and rolling back towards his friends.

French wrapped an arm around each of our shoulders as Pagan and I stared about in wonderment.

“Isn’t it amazing?”

Here here,” Pagan replied.

“Who exactly are you?” I turned to him and asked.

French threw his head back and laughed.

“Who is he?” Pagan interjected, “He’s the son of the man that built this work of art.”

“You’re the son of Gordon Rhodes?”

French smiled widely as he shot me a wink.

So in mid-December of 1892t, at somewhere about 2000’ over the Bahamas, I met the son of the great airship-builder and set forth on a journey east – a journey I would not soon forget.

A Postscript Addition to This Journal Entry, by the Author: 

At the time, I did not realize how truly extraordinary of a feat I had experienced.  I simply imagined that within a year or two at the most, our world would see the same sort of flying behemoths gracing its skies.  This, as you know, was not the case at all.  It took over a decade before the Wright brothers were able to sustain flight – a humble feat when compared to Helios.  In 1892 on earth, the closest comparable construct would likely be the gliders of the renowned German engineer Otto Lilienthal – but his designs were pale shades of what Gordon Rhodes had accomplished.  As time wore on, I realized how truly unique Terra was becoming.

--W.Stallworth, 1905t


December, 1892t

Crossing the Atlantic





The flight across the Atlantic was brisk and without event, save French and Pagan spiraling into a fit of frantic restlessness.  At first, they passed the time by gambling.  They threw dice until I finally threw them overboard.  That was my first mistake. 

Then, they took to drinking – but only rum, because anything else, ‘just wasn’t a fitting libation for an airship.’  So they drank until they were utterly debilitated, and then they retched over the sides and drank some more.  If French had been anyone else’s son, he would have been surely pitched overboard by the crew.  There were several occasions where I was afraid that even that would not save him.  If crossing the Atlantic had taken just one more day, I believe the two would have resorted to some sort of floating feudal system – they would have carved up the deck and fought over it like crazed warlords.  And you think I jest!

I enjoyed the sparse moments of sobriety with my newfound companions, but otherwise spent my time enjoying the beauty of the endless blue waters, and clouds that I could almost reach out and touch.  When I was not clutching the railing and gazing out over the living canvas of our Maker, I was reading.  The novels that seemed so fantastical on earth suddenly gained an air of possibility in this world.  Had the men that had been proclaimed as literary giants of our world been mere petty thieves?  Had they too traveled to some far-flung world, stolen its realities and crafted it into some pseudo-myth?  It certainly seemed plausible to me as I lay on the deck at night, dreaming of worlds still beyond these worlds.

Our route to Sicily was very exact:  we would overshoot our destination and cross the northern reaches of Spain.  Upon reaching Barcelona, we would aim southeast until we arrived at Palermo.  It was, without deviating through the better part of Europe, the safest choice.

It was safer, by far, than casting our shadow across the cliffs of Gibraltar and straddling the narrow gap between Sardinia and Tunis.  Or worse, chancing a straight course and following the spine of the Atlas Mountains over Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia.  Though no one spoke it, they all seemed to feel the same, hollow dread nagging at them during the fleeting moments that danced between their idle thoughts and the banter of meaningless conversation.  Even French and Pagan managed to muster up enough concern to remain sober as we neared the Spanish coast.

Going by way of Barcelona was still too close for some, but that was paranoia, right?  Besides, this was not just any ship – this was an airship.  Not only was it an airship, it was one outfitted for war, with cannons, and Gatling guns, and a contingent of royal marines.  This was Helios, the first of her kind.  We were indomitable.

I say “they” all seemed fearful not as a boast, but as mere fact.  I had no real frame of reference, save for the tales my grandmother had told me of the corsairs that prowled the Barbary Coast.  Sure, I’d heard idle chatter of the Ghazis during my time spent here, but nothing of true substance.  My shipmates of privilege, who had certainly traveled the seas before, however, were another story.  They’d known people, unfortunate acquaintances of theirs, whose ships had been boarded and they had never been heard from again.  Most likely, some combination of the following had befallen them:  they had been murdered outright in the struggle (oh, but a lucky few), ravaged, flayed alive or sold into slavery.  As an aside, had I known at the time that the Ghazis practiced the flaying of live men (or the ravaging, mind you), my level of trepidation would’ve certainly been elevated!  To fight and die while resisting a boarding party of savages was one matter, but to be disarmed and brutalized by them was wholly another.  Getting anyone on Helios to speak of the Ghazi, even my stir-crazed companions, was an impossible feat.  It was as if the mere utterance of the word might doom us all.  Perhaps they were right.



***



On the dawn of the fifth day, somewhere off the coast of Portugal, our clever scheme began to unravel.  We were beset by a storm of truly Biblical proportions.  Now I must admit:  I realize that I am inclined to hyperbole (as many of you have discovered), but trust me to be using plain and sincere diction regarding this subject.  The integrity of the indomitable Helios, and therefore our very lives, was sincerely at stake – and we were sore afraid.

Now, I have discussed previously regarding my witness to the very nature of this world being one of extremes.  Events here regularly occur near the outer fringes of (and very often beyond) what we would consider conceivable.  Whether it’s in regards to the physical, social, or otherwise – tumult and upheaval is customary.  This tempest was no different.

At dusk on the fourth day, the horizon was as serene as one could desire.  The few clouds that were visible were plumes of cotton – sluggish and innocuous.  That night, I fell asleep underneath the tranquility of a blazing green aurora.  It was the first one I had seen since we departed the Americas.  Not a single flash of lightning or crash of thunder disturbed my slumber.

By morning’s first light, it was apparent that we had been lulled into complacency.  A silent wall of black clouds bore down on us from the northeast.  We tried to turn south and avoid its path, but the beast was seemingly endless in breadth.  As it began to envelope our horizon, we heard the first of its howling winds.

As the storm’s gusts began to toss us about, the captain of the ship began to usher all but the crew below deck.  French, being who he was, was not having it.  As he approached us, French leaned into the wind and began to shake his head in an animated fashion.

“Absolutely not, captain.”

“Sir, please.  Your father’d kill me if anything was to happen to you.”

 “And I’ll kill you if you ask me again.  My mind’s made up.  I will not die sitting next to some fat cow as she blubbers on and on and squeezes the life out of some pampered little mutt!”

“Sir!”

No!  If I should do that then castrate me now, for I am no longer a man!”

With that, he turned and stormed off.

The captain turned to us with pleading eyes, as if we had any sway over our companion.  His sincerity was real.  He truly did fear for our lives if we remained on deck.  Personally, the idea of being cramped amongst a roomful of hysterical socialites was as unsavory a thought as I could muster as well, so I simply shrugged my shoulders and turned to follow after French.

Pagan placed a hand on the man’s shoulder and added, “Our lives are our own, but this ship needs you.  Go, make ready.”

As we entered the first cloud, raindrops as big as acorns began to pelt us relentlessly.  Everyone left standing on deck was immediately drenched.  A midday darkness engulfed us as Helios’ stern passed into the tempest’s domain.  We had been fully consumed by the beast.  The wails of the wind were chilling, like the sounds of tormented souls. 

French was standing near the bow, staring defiantly into the blackness when we reached him.

“El Gran Vόrtice,” he said without looking our way.

“What?”

The Great Maelstrom,” he replied.  Gentlemen, it was a pleasure knowing you, but we’re all going to die.”

Just then, a violent gust slammed into the airship, sending it rolling towards the starboard side.  The mast groaned loudly from the strain as it tipped sideways.  Everyone on deck was sent tumbling towards the edge, before the ship finally recovered.  The angle was dangerously sharp.  Just a few more degrees and we would have certainly spilled out into the sky.

I was the first to recover and managed to crawl several feet towards some loose rigging.  I grasped the rope and tied it to the fore-mast, before quickly fastening it around my waist.  I fastened a second rope and cast it to French before we were sent reeling again.  The ship pitched forward this time, and threatened to hurl my companions over the bow.  As he slid precariously close to the edge, French looped the rope around his hand several times while Pagan clung desperately to his legs.

French called out to Pagan, “Hold on dear boy!” He tried in earnest to mask his fear, but he failed miserably.  Pagan tried to articulate a response, but the sounds that emerged were little more than a babble of groans and wails.

A condemned sailor careened towards me, crying out as he tumbled end over end.  I lunged at the man with both arms, but I was too late.  As he slipped through my arms, he bounced off the deck and was flung towards French and Pagan.  

When the sailor collided with my comrades, I was certain that they would all be given to the storm as live offerings.  The crunch of bone on bone was sickeningly loud.  The man’s head slammed directly into French’s, slicing his lip open and bloodying his nose.  A red sheen streaked down his face and across the deck.  French’s resolve was unwavering and his grip was solid, though.  As the sailor disappeared into the abyss beyond, he continued to hold fast.

While the men hung quite literally by a thread, I did all that I could do – I rappelled across the deck and procured a third rope that had gotten tangled in the railing.  After the ship righted itself once again, I tossed a final rope to Pagan.  While the men coiled their respective ropes around their waists, I wrapped the opposite ends around the mast.  The three of us were fettered to the doomed dirigible like ragdoll slaves.

French wiped the blood from his face and called out to me, “Excellent work, Mr. Black!  Now, tell me:  how good are your knots?”

I shouted back, “You’re still here, eh?”

He grinned and nodded as the wind continued to toss us about.  I dared not tell him that my knot-tying skills were nonexistent.  Our impending deaths were more than enough for one to concern themselves with, right?

I looked over my shoulder, only to see a dozen crewmembers frantically scurrying about in an attempt to secure the rigging before it was destroyed by the maelstrom.  They each wore harnesses and had a pair of ropes that they used to move around without the risk of being launched from the deck.  At least one of the two lines was always fastened to some point on the ship.  The aeronauts ran, climbed or swung to their destinations, depending on Helios’ equilibrium at that particular moment.  The team fearlessly disrobed the masts with an acrobatic finesse, like mile-high aerialists executing the final act of the show.  What would happen when these showmen finally brought the curtains down?

Perhaps I’d been momentarily enchanted by the feats of the crew.  Perhaps the constant pitching and rolling of the ship had disoriented my senses.  Whatever it was, I didn’t hear French’s cries until it was too late.  I looked up just in time to see a section of the boom shear off and begin to tumble towards us.  I tried leap from its path, but just as I did, another gust from the Vόrtice caused Helios to sway fiercely.  The motion sent me sliding helplessly back into the fray.  The boom swatted me across the ship like a stowaway rat batted with an oar. 

I remember lying prostrate on the deck, unsure if my world was spinning from the boom or the storm.  A strong, coppery taste filled my mouth.  My clothing hung tattered from my limp body.  The faint sound of the tempest filled my ears, howling at me like a distant, rabid beast.  I looked up, but everything was a dull blur.  My vision began to tunnel. Finally, darkness consumed me.



***



“Mr. Black.”

The voice was soft and pure, like an angel’s.

“Mr. Black.”

I opened a single eye and peered into the faintly-lit room.  The last I could remember was being tossed about by the storm.  Surely I was dead and this voice had come to take me home. 

“How do you feel?”

My head throbbed gently.  There’s no pain in the hereafter, I reasoned, I must be alive yet.  I opened my second eye with more confidence than the first.  Then I saw her.  It was the voice of an angel.

“My brother says you saved him and his idiot friend.”

I wanted to speak, but my words would have been wholly inappropriate for the conversation at hand.  I might have meant to say, “Who’s your brother?” but something ridiculous like, “Miss, beauty like yours is truly unrivaled – in this world, or any other,” would’ve certainly spilled out.  My mind was still too muddled, I dared not risk it.  Instead I simply stared at her without saying a word.

“The one that calls himself French?  Or did your brains spill out your ears after being hit by that beam?”

She was rude, and impatient, and demanding, but she was stunning.  Her blonde hair was long and flowing, and her skin glowed as if the sun had followed her below deck. 

I smiled sheepishly at her.

“Well, this is pointless,” she muttered, before turning and shouting, “French, come get your friend.  That blow has damaged him beyond repair; he’s as stupid as Pagan!”

“Wait,” I muttered.

Oh, now he talks.”

I groaned and rubbed my head as I replied, “Look, I think we’ve gotten off to a poor start.”

The door to the room creaked open and French appeared.

She turned to French and roared, “Thank God!  He’s your problem now!”

French feigned bewilderment and threw his hands up as his sister stormed past him. 

“Mr. Black!  What did you do?”

Me?  I just woke up!”  I sat upright in the bed.  I was a little sore, but nothing seemed broken.

After she had left the room, he slapped me on the shoulder and said with a smile, “Don’t mind her, she’s always like that.”

“Always?”

He sat on the edge of the bed and replied, “Well, usually it’s not like that, but to a lesser extent, or something…” His voice trailed off for a moment, before he added, “…She’s a woman, and my sister, and a Rhodes, so I understand absolutely nothing she does – but I do know she likes you.”

“Me?”

Oh, without a doubt.”

“Did you hear the same conversation I did?”

“That’s just Lauren.  Look, my sister, and the rest of the family for that matter, thinks I’m a complete fool.  I can’t live like them, though, I just can’t.  What good is a life of luxury, if it’s barely even lived?”

I nodded in agreement.

“But try as she might, she loves me more than all of the rest; I’m her big brother.  I mean, we practically raised each other.  So, by having saved her brother’s life, you’ve eternally endeared yourself to her, my friend.”

My face flushed slightly as I said, “I don’t know…”

French replied as he stood up, “Say what you want, but who do you think bandaged your head?  MeCertainly not Pagan.”  He chuckled at the thought as he walked away.  He paused as he reached the threshold and said before leaving, “Come up top when you can, there’s something you need to see.”



***



As I emerged from below deck, I was struck by the condition of the indomitable Helios.  How we were still airborne was beyond me – this craft was indeed a shipwright’s marvel!  Nothing was as it should’ve been.  The fore and main-masts’ sails were in tatters.  Booms were splintered or hewn in two.  One of our balloons was missing, and another had been deflated by a huge gash.  Everything was in complete disarray.

There was an odd sentiment in the air, one that I could not quite place.  Though the airship was in ruins, it could certainly be repaired.  And at the rate that the crew was working, most of Helios would be back in service before we even landed.  They weren’t working solely to return her to her glory, though.  Something else was amiss.

As I walked towards Pagan and French, I noticed that the detachment of marines had taken up positions in strategic locations all over the ship.  As I neared my two companions, I noticed they had rifles slung over their shoulders.  What was going on?

French turned and saw me approaching.  He smiled faintly and called out, “Ah, there you are.  How do you feel?”  His usual, blithe demeanor, apparent just a few minutes earlier, was gone.  In its place was a terseness that was completely out of character for the French I’d come to know over the past week.

I exhaled deeply and said, “Still a little sore and groggy, but I’ll probably be fine by tomorrow.  What’s going on out here?”

“The crew is just trying to get us in service again.  The mizzen-mast is the only one of the three that is even close to functional.  Only three quarters of our lift rotors are functional, we have one balloon and we have zero thrust.”

“Zero thrust?”

“The mechanics are working on it, but as of right now we’re adrift.”

“And that’s not even the worst of it,” Pagan added.

“What else?” I asked.

French sighed and continued, “The turbines that work the lift rotors are running at full power, but it’s not enough.  We’re losing altitude.”

“And that’s not even the worst of it,” Pagan added again.

I laughed out of frustration at the situation as I replied, “Come on, what else could there be?”

French stared at me without expression and said, “Go, have a look over the side.”

I furrowed my brow as I searched his face for answers, but none were forthcoming.  After several moments, I turned and walked towards the ship’s edge.  As I gazed out over the railing, my knees nearly buckled. 

Below was a parched landscape, barren and unforgiving.  Its sepia-toned ridges were far closer than I had expected them to be.  On two horizons were jagged mountain ranges.  Perhaps it was some sort of illusion, but the distant peaks seemed to reach higher than the ship.

French, where are we?”

“A hundred miles south of Algiers, between the Tell and Saharan ranges.  We’re about a thousand feet off the valley floor.  If we drift too far the south, we smash into the Saharan mountains.  And if we drift too far north, well, you get the idea.”

And if we don’t get out of here soon-” Pagan’s thoughts were interrupted by the sound of a cannonade. 

“Too late, old friend,” French replied. 

I stared at the two, waiting for an explanation, knowing all too well what it was.  All around us, the crew desperately hastened their pace.  Sergeant Toulson, the commander of the royal marines, stood on the starboard side with a pair of binoculars, searching for the source of the blast.

French asked, “How’s your aim, Mr. Black?”

I scoffed at the question.  “Aim?  My father rode alongside Colonel Mosby.”

“Your father’s not here, Black,” French replied as he approached.  He thrust a revolver at me and continued, “I hope he taught you well.”

I nodded in appreciation as I received it.  I wrapped my fingers tightly around the mahogany grips.  It felt good in my hands, like an old friend.

“Here’s a bit of advice:  kill the first man you see and take his sword.  That gun’ll protect you for but a short while, but a Barbary cutlass – now a thing like that might keep you alive to the end.”

I realized that I had presumed French for something he was not.  He was more than a free-spirit borne out of privilege.  This was clearly not his first battle. 

I started to thank him, but our exchange was interrupted by a second cannon blast, and then another.

French, sensing my confusion, said, “They’re not firing at us; those are signal blasts.  They’re rallying their warriors.  They won’t shoot us out of the sky.  They want us alive, at least for a little while.”

A group of sailors and a few of the patriarchs of the aristocracy emerged from below.  In total, our fighting force was just over fifty men, over half of whom were not soldiers.

Slowly, the ships of the Ghazis appeared in the sky.  They emerged from behind crags and out of wide-mouthed caves.  Some floated up out of deep gashes in the valley floor – chasms that were capable of hiding entire rogue cities.

Their vessels were of vastly inferior designs, but Helios had been seriously hamstrung by the Vόrtice.  Together, the small army of corsair dirigibles was a formidable force – one that would not be easily repelled.

The Ghazis’ dirigibles were more balloon than airship.  All achieved lift by way of large balloons filled with hot air generated by burners.  Most, if not all, of the burners appeared to be coal fired.

The balloons looked to have been assembled from the fabrics of a thousand sources.  They were more akin to patchwork quilts than an actual instrument of flight.  Nonetheless, the hot air from the burners surged into the balloons, stretching their seams and generating the necessary lift to float the ramshackle air-flotilla.

Instead of baskets or gondolas, large platforms hung from the balloons.  Like floating river-rafts of war, each platform contained a half-dozen or so men and various armaments – smooth-bore cannonades, massive harpoons, and catapults that seemed strangely out of place. 

On the rears of the platforms, a series of two or three steam-powered propellers allowed the marauders to navigate their craft.  By applying thrust to the appropriate propellers, they were able to guide themselves through the skies with relative ease.  Through a combination of wind drift and propulsion, they began to encircle us. 

Sergeant Toulson called out to everyone on deck, “Gather round!”  His voice was the very embodiment of resolve formed from steel.  We immediately complied.  After everyone had assembled around him, he spoke again.

“Our straits are dire ones.  We’re surrounded and outnumbered, but that simplifies our problem.  Every man is to find a position along the perimeter of this ship.  That position is now your position – do not yield your position!  You are the watchmen on the walls, let no man past you! 

We have women and children below deck, let no harm come to them.  And, we have some of the very best mechanics and engineers I’ve ever met, all working to redeem us.  Give them the time they need to repair our engines.  Understood?”

One of the soldiers asked, “Can’t we just shoot their balloons with our rifles and cannons?”

“Half of them are probably already torn, yet there they are.  A hole in one of those balloons doesn’t cause it to go spinning uncontrollably through the air, it just allows a little bit of hot air to escape.  They’ll just compensate by chucking more coal in the burners, unless it’s a huge gash – maybe five or ten feet across.  Besides, shooting ships out of the air is not a precedent I want to set.  Disable their lift and they’ll slowly drift back to the ground, but we’ll drop like a rock if we lose another engine.  Aim for the buccaneer, not the balloon.”

As they neared us, the corsairs readied long ladders and other boarding implements.  They meant for the fight to be a personal one, not an exchange from a gentlemanly distance. 

Some of their men were shirtless, their chests smeared with paint – or possibly blood.  Others wore traditional ensembles of long tunics with turbans or kufis.  They were armed with implements devised for hand-to-hand combat, such as scimitars, maces and tridents.

While they shrieked and howled at us from several hundred feet away, we remained deathly silent at our chosen positions.  Toulson demanded no less from us as he paced our ranks and reinforced his orders.

“Steady your aim!  Find your foe and keep him in your sights!”

“Hold your fire!  Not one shot until I give the word!”

“Bite your tongue!  I’ll not have any man of mine acting like a savage!”

Then, just as suddenly as the cannonade had sounded, it began.  A long, deep blast from a pair of horns was the signal the corsairs needed. 

“Hold your fire!”

The balloons lurched towards us and tightened their circle.

“Hold it!”

A second set of blasts from the horns caused the marauders to stop a little over thirty yards from us.  A sudden shuffling on the platforms revealed to me what the catapults were for.  More than a dozen marauders climbed onto the launchers, while pairs of men worked to torque the machines.  Finally, the horns rang out once again.

“Fire!”

Smoke filled the air around the airship and the platforms as gunfire erupted from all directions.  Wads of lead burst forth from rifled barrels and spiraled towards their targets.  Men to my left and right were cut down as the fruits of the volley tore through soft flesh.  They howled as they stumbled backwards or groaned and dropped to one knee to tend to their own wounds.  The maimed Ghazi raiders were not quite so fortunate, however.  They tended to tumble from their unbalustered perches to the desert floor far below.

As the exchange continued, human projectiles were flung from the catapults at us.  Some had been hit during the initial volley and were wounded or dead before they even left their platforms.  Others, however, were very much alive and ready for the fight.

I watched as one corsair sailed through the air and slammed directly into one of the marines.  The trident he was wielding completely impaled the man and sent them both tumbling across the deck.  I gasped at the sight, having realized just how effective the gruesome tactic truly was.  Less than a half-dozen Ghazis from the first volley landed on the deck in condition to fight, and were quickly dispatched.  The next human salvo, however, would arrive at full force.  Unable to contend with both the brigands were that were touching down all around us and the new ones being launched, we were quickly overwhelmed.

As soon as one man had been launched at Helios, the next one would climb onto the catapult and the cycle would begin anew.  The catapults must’ve been specifically designed for the distance they were from us, because the accuracy of the launches was nearly-impeccable.  I must emphasize the use of the word nearly, for there were a few unfortunate souls who overshot their target and were sent soaring through the sky.  I must admit, I was disappointed to see these miscalculated projectiles be saved from an early grave by the deployment of parachutes.  The launches continued until no one was left on the platforms, except for the launch crew.  Instead, they remained with their vessels and fired into the fray when they had a clear shot, which was rare – the deck of Helios was in a state of utter pandemonium.

With the battlefield reduced to an arm’s length, the use of rifles was completely negated.  Those men with bayonets managed to retain some semblance of functionality, but they were still at a clear disadvantage against the Ghazis.  A dozen duals unfolded around me as I recalled French’s words:

That gun’ll protect you for but a short while, but a Barbary cutlass – now a thing like that might keep you alive to the end.”

A deep growl caused me to turn suddenly and see a barrel-chested warrior bearing down on me.  I ducked low and rolled, missing the tip of his spear by a matter of inches.  By the time I looked up, he had spun and was preparing to charge me again.  I leveled the pistol with the top of his chest and fired. 

The round sailed high and he continued his charge.  I closed one eye and focused as I exhaled deeply.  Again I pulled the trigger.  That time, I did not miss.  My shot connected with the buccaneer’s neck. 

He ceased his charge and grabbed his throat in a futile attempt to remedy the wound.  The man’s trachea had been severed.  Blood spurted from his neck and gushed into his lungs.  His body pleaded for air, but he could not satisfy it.

The corsair was doubled over as I cautiously approached.  When he lost the ability to breathe, he lost the will to fight.  I pressed the revolver against the top of his head and expended my final round.  The man’s lifeless body immediately collapsed.  I stooped low and retrieved his spear and the revolver that was tucked in his belt.

With the spear in hand, I heard French’s words again.  Well, it wasn’t a cutlass, but it would surely do.  Several feet away, a marine and a Ghazi pirate were locked in intense fighting.  I took two steps forward and sunk the spear deep into the brigand’s side.  The man grimaced and contorted in agony, giving the marine the opportunity he needed to finish the man with his bayonet. 

What? 

Did you take me for a paladin in Charlemagne’s court?  Chivalry is for dead men and idealists.

“What’s your name?” I shouted as I spun full-circle, checking for threats.

“Bennett!”

“Bennett, I’m William.  We stick together!

The marine nodded and rushed to my side.

Bennett and I pressed our backs together and readied ourselves for the next encounter – a pair of cutlass-wielding assassins.  The swordsmen were skilled and much quicker than we, but the longer reach of our weapons helped to keep them at bay. 

As the exchange wore on, my arms began to ache and lungs began to labor.  Every thrust, parry, or riposte was just as critical as the last, and my attacker showed no signs of relenting.  With every swing of the assassin’s sword, I was left a little weaker than before.  Slowly, I was being worn down.  My adversary grinned as I struggled to remain resolute.  He knew I would not last much longer.

Just then, I heard a loud report behind me.  Bennett had managed, quite providentially, to maneuver his barrel into position and fire a fatal shot at his attacker.  The man’s shirt blossomed red as he sunk to his knees.  Bennett planted his boot against the fallen man’s face and sent him teetering backwards.  My companion spun and aimed at my adversary, but he was too quick.  The assassin dashed to the edge of the ship and dove overboard with his arms stretched wide.  After several brief moments, a black parachute sprouted in the sky.

I took a moment to catch my breath and scan the deck, and gasped at what I saw.  French lay sprawled on his back with a corsair hovering over him.  French was breathing his final breaths as his assailant stretched his mace high overhead and prepared to smash my friend’s skull.  I took three bounds and hurled my spear through the air, connecting squarely with the man’s chest.  French quickly rolled out of the way as the man toppled to the ground.  He grabbed the fallen man’s mace, flashed a wide grin and dashed towards us.

Breathless, French said, “I owe you twice now.  Where’s Pagan?”

“I thought he was with you.”

He shook his head a replied, “No, we got separated.”

Suddenly, Helios belched two thick, black clouds of smoke from its stacks and lurched forward.  The entire battle temporarily waned as men were nearly shaken off their feet.  All around, combatants took the moment to appraise the battlefield.  A little more than two dozen men were left standing, their allegiances evenly split between Ghazis and defenders.  The final moments of the battle would be decisive.

As the ship continued to accelerate, a group of nearly a dozen sailors emerged from below to the sound of valiant war cries.  Their clothing was stained with grease and soaked with sweat.  It was the men that had restored our engines!  They were glowing with confidence and army with Henry repeaters!  They jerked the rifles’ levers forward and back, before shouldering them.  They searched the deck for a target, but none were to be found.  The remaining Ghazi corsairs were rushing towards the ship’s edge and vaulting over indiscriminately.  An unlucky marauder leapt directly into one of the lift rotors.  It shredded him immediately in a most grotesque fashion. 

The remaining defenders cheered as the deck cleared.  We had repelled our foe, but not without great loss.  As the last of the Ghazi’s raiding balloons disappeared behind us, the remaining men began the arduous task of clearing the battlefield.  Wounded sailors and marines were rushed below deck to be tended to, while any dying corsairs were dispatched. 

French and I desperately searched for Pagan, but he was nowhere to be found.  We had all but given up, when we heard a faint groan.

“You hear that?”

“I did,” I replied.

Again, a muffled voice called out.

I glanced down and saw the tip of a boot wiggle underneath the body of a fat pirate.

“Here!”

It took both of us to roll the bulging corpse off of Pagan.  He coughed and gasped for air as he struggled to sit upright.  His face was flushed red, and his eyes seemed to be bulging a little, not unlike the fat man’s belly.

“Wha- what happened?”  French asked.

“I shot him mid-air,” Pagan replied faintly, “I shot him and the fat mongrel landed on me!”

“He landed on you?  Wait, you were under there the entire battle?”

“Not a word, French,” Pagan replied, “Not a damn word.”

French laughed uproariously as he tackled his friend.  They embraced like brothers, thrilled to be alive and to have each other still.

Unable to stand any longer, I plopped down on the deck.  As the power that the adrenaline had wielded over my body waned, I was left weak and shaky, but alive.  The ship had survived.  We had survived.

I glanced over to see Lauren standing with French as he assumedly recounted the events for her.  I could not hear his words, for the world around me was but a blur.  I closed my eyes and rubbed my head.  Before I laid my head down on the rough-hewn timbers to watch the setting sun paint the sky purple, I glanced back towards French and Lauren.  He was gone, but she stood there still, staring at me.  I smiled.  She nodded faintly and smiled back, before turning and disappearing below to tend to the wounded men.

It took us two days to limp through the sky to Sicily, but we made it safely without further incident.  I did not see Lauren again on the ship, for she was busy with caring for our injured.

As we reached Palermo and the passengers disembarked, French approached me.  I was waiting on deck with my baggage in hand, the last in line.  I had lingered in hopes of seeing Lauren, but she had remained below still.

“Wait.”

I turned and smiled as I stretched out my hand to him.

He brushed it aside and said, “What’re you doing?”

“What do you mean?  We’re here.”

“So you’re leaving?”

I shrugged and looked about, uncertain of what to say.

“Look, Black, you’ve saved my life twice.  Twice.  You don’t just leave after something like that.  I owe no man, and you’re not leaving me with a debt like that.”

I paused for several moments, before replying, “Anybody else would’ve done the same thing.”

“But it wasn’t anybody else; it was you.  I want you to stay.  And,” he paused and kicked at the deck, before continuing, “Lauren might want you to stay too.”

I tried to fight it, but I could not.  The mention of her name made me smile.  I don’t know why, mind you – she was rude, and pretentious, and probably irrevocably spoiled, and a hundred other things, but still I smiled.

French slapped my shoulder and said, “It’s settled then.  You’ll stay.  We leave this evening for Monaco to repair the ship and to recover.  You’ll be as a Rhodes, no different than I.  You’re owed it, Mr. Black.”

And with that, I became Mr. Black, owed by a Rhodes.

Available on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00D9CNM60

No comments:

Post a Comment