The Aether Nomads Project are thrilled to be part of #ApeQuest, Professor Elemental’s latest project. As part of the run up, the dear Prof is running a competition whereby folk can submit their artistic impressions of where the rogue time-travelling orang-utan butler has been spotted. Full details here: http://www.professorelemental.com/apequest-the-search-for-geoffery
Needless to say, the Nomads are keeping an eye out for him too and collecting reports in an attempt to intercept him at the correct prophetically-calculated point in space-time. The more images we receive, the better the chance of restoring him to Elemental Manor, where and when he belongs!
So follows a very fantastical Steampunk tale, with a fleeting report of the adventurous ape hidden somewhere in its telling. Settle down with a cuppa and enjoy.
Her Majesty Loses An Officer
by Martin Livingston
~ Chapter One ~
The sky was crossing that special moment, when the stars are the faintest ghost of themselves, the air itself silvered before there came the burning glow of a sandy dawn of cinnamon and rose.
« I say Felps old man, reminds me of Aunt Tilda’s Teas! Takes me right back to Blighty! »
Felpisham sighed inwardly, whilst maintaining a neutral expression. He had a measure of respect for his commanding officer. On some occasions, a small measure, but a measure nonetheless.
« Sorry Lord Sandsborough, but I fear you’ve lost me again. »
« Always liked her flowers…but more importantly, the old girl was obsessed with steamed treacle pudding. Blast, I’m making myself positively ravenous. When’s Cook bringing out breakfast? »
By reputation, Sandsborough was a man driven by two passions: soldiering on behalf of The Crown (preferably in exotic foreign lands) and food, (Breakfast, Morning Tea, Luncheon, Afternoon Tea, Dinner, and Supper and when duty demanded it, a Midnight Snack) this second passion for fine sustenance ostensibly to fuel the first.
Felpisham had never really faulted this aspect of his Lord’s character, regretting moreso and in greater part his seeming inability to see the world through any other lens than his mission objectives. In short there was as yet no sign, as the saying goes, of one romantic bone in his body.
For others within a similar start of society, upon hearing such (well publicised) comments on Lord Sandsborough’s character, could in part be forgiven for expecting to meet a charmless, brusque and fat old fool in a dress uniform hung with too many medals of no consequence. Indeed Felpisham had been one such himself until one afternoon, five years previously, he had met the Lord outside Horseguards to discuss a future position.
Contrary to expectation, he found a man, yes of some girth admittedly, but far from soft and certainly not a foolish brute. The man was neat in that way some men have, that infers any moment now they were prepared not to be. With thick waving fair hair, blue-eyed and with bristling moustache on a craggy face, Sandsborough was an officer whose men willingly followed him to the strangest of climes, often into the strangest of perils, all on behalf of The Crown.
What Felpisham (thus far) had also found remarkable of the fellow, was his habit for bringing his men (well the better part at least) back home alive and more or less intact from their dangerous forays in the outer borders of The Empire.
However, it continued to baffle Felpisham how a man, who could be judged quintessentially romantic at heart in his desire to visit strange lands, continued to this day to give no outward indication of being unduly interested in them, beyond his mission of the moment. And yet, by luck, fate, or genuine insight (Felpisham could not decide), he seemed blessed with a career of successful decisions and a deeply loyal unit of men.
« Well Sir, as the light is coming on, shall I give the order to the Engineers? »
Sandsborough smoothed his great moustache, then with a frown rubbed his now rumbling belly. He searched the pockets of his greatcoat for a handkerchief, pulled forth a green paisley and wiped the eyepiece of his bespoke Tri-ocular Heat and Light Amplifying Multi-projector (known rather dryly by the men as ‘The Lamp’) and raised it to his shoulder.
He squinted towards the jumble of red and ochre rock below them in the valley, only barely discernable as a ruin, whilst busily clicking various adjustment levers and twisting assorted lenses into focus on the site.
As the light grew brighter, the Sun sent bright fingers amongst the tumbled ruins. Sharp shadows revealed glimpses of pictorials and oddly twisted symbols carved upon the more intact blocks, strange and alien enough to send an unexpected chill through the heart of even the most well-travelled Englishman.
Second Officer of Her Majesty’s Hazardous Artefacts and Antiquities Recovery Unit, Lieutenant Victor Rupert Felpisham, did not like this place.
He, Sandsborough and their two-score hand-picked men were all veterans of one sort or another. None of them were strangers to the peculiar, the unusual, the supernatural or for that matter, the damnably dangerous. Over the course of their years together they had travelled countless thousands of miles on ship, on foot, mule and horse, steam-wagon, locomotive, balloon and dirigible.
Sandsborough even claimed (quite without unseemly fuss or embellishment) to have handled one of the last of the legendary Atlantean Cuttlefish Chariots, in spite of being ‘no sort of a sailor’. From the mouth of any other officer present, such a claim might have seemed especially outrageous hogwash.
They had hunted down (rumour said captured – there would be no comment on this), the last of the Styxian Harpies, recovered rare and dangerous gemstones from the ocean lair of the Albino Kraken somewhere beneath The Canaries, routed out unco-operative Vampire clans at home and abroad, recovered prized objects stolen from the British Museum by the Atheneans and in turn had stolen from them the Elgan Marbles. This last whilst seeming a petty use of their capacities, on direct ‘request’ from Her Majesty, leading to all manner of speculation as to their real nature and value beyond the obvious.
The ‘Haroos’ as they were known, were of course the soul of discretion. Not one even modestly classified fact about their activities had ever slipped from their lips, regardless of drunkeness, bravado, the egotistical posturing common between proud regiments, provocation, manipulation and even on one dastardly occasion villainous coercion by torture, resulting in a death beneath the streets of Paris – avenged with interest.
All of them, from the Engineers, Soldiers, Navigators, Linguists, to the Archeologists and Officers, had seen as much strangeness as any Egyptian gravedigger and escaped peril more often than the average Vampire Hunter.
This said, more than one fellow had, in an unusual (not to mention alarmingly ‘colonial’) outburst, declared this stoney place ‘accursed’ and not solely for the dust and heat.
As his Lordship muttered to himself and peered down the weapon-sights to the dark recess of interest to them, Felpisham noticed movement in the sky above.
« Sir, locals again. »
« Which ones Felps? I am somewhat busy here. Be precise man! »
« The flying locals, Sir. The Aether Nomads. Rhuk-gliders, but no balloons that I can see. »
Sandsborough placed the butt of ‘The Lamp’ on the ground and fished his brass whistle from a waist pocket.
« I’m sure they have many more fascinating tales to tell you Felps old boy, but the mission eh? The day’s not getting any younger and we aren’t even sure the thing is in here yet »
« Quite so Sir. I do however feel compelled to point out they are spiralling down towards us with what appears to be a certain degree of intent. »
« Just let the Engineers know they should be ready for my whistle, though it wouldn’t do any harm if you had a quiet word with some of our covering snipers. Did they take an Aether-set with them? »
« No Sir, too heavy they said. It’s a clear enough morning Sir, I’ll just Heliograph them. »
« Good. » He glanced at his pocket watch.
« Be ready in…seven minutes time. The door should be in full light at that point if I have my calculations correct. »
« Yes Sir! »
The younger man turned and double-timed his way across the broken edge of the slope, sending small avalanches of shimmering dark flints and rust-red gravel down amongst the boulders. Somewhat lower down, he found the pile of great rocks where two Engineering officers huddled amongst the sand and their boxes of gadgets. One nodded at his signal and grasped with gloved hands the handle of a knife switch mounted on a metal box, whilst his companion checked the wires trailing from its side. The man, as if conducting some priestly ritual, began murmuring some litany of a checklist from a Manual.
All being readied, Felpisham stood on one of the boulders and signalled to the snipers securing the area from cover on the opposite slope. Satisfied with the flashed reply, he spent a moment gazing upward, admiring the grace of the giant birds above and feeling just a hint of envy. The people strapped to their bellies were not quite visible yet, though he could see the glitter and flash of their harness. Weapons also perhaps? He indulged in another internal sigh.
Felpisham liked the Aether Nomads he’d met, even if they did positively reek of incense and bird sweat and he felt no desire to initiate conflict with them. Orders were orders however and no natives, flying with giant raptors or otherwise, could be allowed to interfere with the business of The Crown.
« Lieutenant Sir, I’d get down if I were you, time being near ‘n’ all. »
« Ah yes, you never know. »
Felpisham’s boots had barely touched sand before the sharp whistle pierced the air above them.
The Engineer threw the switch and there was an alarmingly bright flash and shower of sparks. In the rubble below there came a low rumble, then silence. One the Archeologists ensconced in other rocks nearby, was heard to mutter something about ‘bloody fool’s got his mixture wrong again’ one moment before a terrific boom set the hidden man on his backside and rattled the teeth in Felpisham’s head.
The Engineers looked at each other sheepishly, before calmly beginning to dismantle their equipment.
Felpisham raised his MkIII Fieldglasses and peered into the billowing dust that now obscured most of the ruins. It was at times like this he increasingly questioned his position. Once a passionate student of history, archeology, literature, with an enthusiasm for travel amongst the famous (and less famous) places of Europe, North Africa and the Orient, he felt as if his activities of late increasingly involved as much destruction of antiquities as the study of them. Granted, on this occasion it was fair to say unintended destruction, but still.
His older brother Richard, who had often shared his youthly travels, would have been physically ill at the disruption to such an untouched site and thank God his Father would never hear of this! Felpisham grimaced. His Father was the Head Archivist at the Natural History Museum and would most likely have disowned him at this point.
He wiped sweat and dust from his dark curls.
« Well Felps? Alive are we? »
Even Sandsborough was coated in a fine layer of dust, but he seemed remarkably calm in the face of this potential cock-up.
« I do hope we haven’t upset the Nomads too much Sir. Birds can be skittish. »
« Damn the Nomads Felps, what about our doorway? »
« Can’t see as yet Sir. Too much dust. »
He turned a meaningful look on the Engineers, who dutifully came and stood to attention.
Nearby, a coughing Archeologist could be heard cursing all Engineers and makers of explosions.
« Well chaps anything to report? »
« Best guess Sir, a build up of gases behind the gateway, Sir. No way to tell beforehand, not without drilling deeper. »
« And we didn’t because…? »
« Not got a long enough drill-bit Sir, none to be had in these parts, no time to get them in, Sir. »
« Well, at least we’re all still alive, that’s something I suppose. Carry on Chief Engineer. »
Lord Sandsborough came and stood beside him, shaking the powder from his pith and replacing it on his head. They watched as the sunlight began to pierce the swirling gloom below.
Felpisham raised his binoculars again and frowned. What was that?
He struggled to focus on an illusive flicker of movement in the jumble below, a darker swirling amongst the trails of dust, slowly coalescing into something solid and waving.
« Sir, I don’t like to raise a panic… »
« Felps, Her Majesty’s Haroos are not in the business of panic. Spit it out man, I’m keen to get done before lunch. I’m not fond of all this digging about at the best of times. »
« We didn’t find any inscriptions making mention of it Sir, but the ruins appear to have a resident. »
Whatever it was once named, in ancient times by other peoples ( or in other worlds), the epithet that sprang to Felpisham’s mind was along the lines of ‘Giant Arachnid-Squid of Bilious Yellow and Obsidian’ and possibly, ‘From Hell’.
Of all the strange beasts they had encountered in the wide world, this was certainly not the largest, nor had the most teeth or sharpest claws, but it was possessed of a manic energy unfamiliar in a creature so large. It scuttled, clicked and writhed it’s bulk up from the hole now gaping in the ancient wall, until it crouched on top of the fallen masonry: the stunted remains of a long arcade of red pillars.
« Interesting. Felps, which way would you say it is facing? Is it looking this way? »
« I couldn’t say in all honesty Sir. It has appendages in all directions. I can’t make out any eyes, or for that matter a mouth. Most curious. »
« Oh God, we’re not looking at another witchdoctor job are we? I’d really rather crack on. Signal the snipers to be ready and we’ll go have a look shall we? »
« Could I suggest some of the steadier lads accompany you Sir? Besides myself that is. »
« Just get those snivelling khaki-wearing Archeologists moving would you and bring an Engineer to check the tunnel is still fit for use. The beast’s barely forty feet across for godsake, nothing the snipers or old ‘Lamp’ here can’t handle. I’m more concerned the smell of the beast is going to put me off my lunch. »
On returning to his commander’s side, Felpisham asked if they shouldn’t just eliminate the monster now and was surprised by Sandsborough yet again.
« Oh I think readiness will do, I’m not a savage you know. No need to harm it unless it tries to stop us eh? Not in the brief et cetera eh? Besides, it might smell worse dead. »
Later on Felpisham would ponder this moment, unable (yet again), to fathom the character of this decision, which would turn out to have been another sound one but for a twist of fate.
As their small group struggled down the slope, with much slipping and waving of arms, so that at times they resembled a gaggle of fussing geese (or flustered chickens in the case of the Archeologists), they became aware that the Nomads had finished their descent and settled on an adjacent slope. Felpisham waved to them and a few appeared to wave back. They seemed quite content to remain where they were. Some of the Nomads were unstrapping themselves from the belly of their birds, stretching or leaning casually against boulders to watch the English foreigners as they made their own less dignified descent.
Through his field glasses, he thought he recognised a few of their number, somewhat perplexed at how relaxed they seemed as they observed his party’s progress. There was that rather striking young lady he’d met at the trading post several days ago, one of twin sisters, her huge dark eyes glancing up to the giant Rhuk at her side, a veil-hidden smile evident in their twinkle as she said something to the animal or perhaps her fellow Nomads, whilst adjusting the golden silks about her head. There too, was that old weather-beaten mass of creases and beard belonging to Tilomabah, who seemed to feel his gaze and stare quite calmly back at him.
« What are they doing Felps? Any sign of a problem man? »
« They’re not giving much away Sir. Perhaps we should take a detour to enquire…? »
« Blast them all Felps! If they have something to say, they can bally-well come down here and say it! I’m not having us slog up another damned rockpile just to hear them tell us they are merely waiting to collect our boots and leftovers. »
« But Sir… »
« They’ve known what we’re about for the last week. It’s a bit late for them to give us their pearls of wisdom now don’t you think? This is probably the most entertainment they’ve had out here in weeks. Let’s get on with it. »
Lord Sandsborough, stopping only once to knock red sand from his boot, led the party on through the tumbled buildings. Here and there the paper tags and wooden pegs left by their Archeologists the previous day, could still be seen on various carved stones and friezes or wedged between paving slabs, considerably more dust-coated than on their previous visit. As they neared the arcade where the beast squatted, one of the Archeologists at the rear suddenly exclaimed and then finding all eyes suddenly fixed upon him, mumbled an apology.
« Er… my tape measure you know…right..er.. here, left it at Sample Sixteen…been looking everywhere…erm..yes, good…relief that… »
Once the Engineer had furnished him with a few sound, if rather blunt words of advice, commensurate with keeping quiet at a time like this, but with rather more lower-class language, culminating in the words ‘…and keep yer cake-ole shut’, they all marched onwards.
The Lieutenant wondered, as they came within twenty feet of the monster, if the Aether Nomads had simply no idea the thing had been in here, or if they did indeed know and had come to enjoy the spectacle of these mad foreigners being eaten or otherwise molested.
Lord Sandsborough, though wisely holding ‘The Lamp’ at the ready, kept his eyes firmly fixed on the tunnel entrance now revealed by the Sun’s rays, the very picture of nonchalance. The last of the dust cleared from their view of the blasted portal. As the Sun climbed slowly, more of its light crept down this stoney throat, revealing a wide flight of steps descending beyond view.
The beast clicked and creaked like an old wooden ship at berth, but made no further move as they gathered at the head of the stairway, their long shadows jagged before them on the steps. A little higher and the light struck something below that glittered and flashed.
Felpisham knelt on one knee to steady his binoculars, pushing his holstered fire-pistol to one side as it dug, inconveniently, into his ribs.
« Can you see anything Lieutenant Sir? » asked the Engineer.
« Water, well liquid at least, some kind of enclosure. Perhaps an old fountain or pool of sorts. Sound like the right spot Sir? »
Sandsborough turned from his inspection of the wildlife crouched behind them and nodded.
« Right let’s get down there. Eyes and ears gentlemen, eyes and ears. »
As they followed their shadows downward into the the sepulchral depths, scurryings and scratchings could be heard in the walls and ceiling. Once in a while a faint clicking could be heard amongst the cracks and fissures, echoing from behind alien symbols and patterns, or more alarmingly, close above their heads.
« Engineer? »
« Solid enough Sir, I think we’re safe, from the stonework at least. »
The Archeologists and the Engineer both carried brand-new clockworked electric lamps, which they shone down off-shooting passageways and the larger fissures in the stonework, or illuminated carvings that caught their eye. The Archeologists were especially excited and made frantic scribbled notes as they trailed after the rest of the group. Their leader showed no desire to pause however, trotting at a steady pace down towards the chamber below.
Soon they could make out the faint sound of lapping water and see a large stone archway opening on a wide space, paved with many colours of stone or tile.
The steps ended about six feet before the portal and here Sandsborough halted with a grunt of surprise.
« Is it me Felps, or is there a hint of the Sicilian about these fellows? »
He gestured at some grotesque, not-quite-human, grimacing faces carved into the inner face of the archway, depicted with closed eyelids. Rather than an off-the-cuff racial slur against Mediterraneans, he was in fact referring to one of their previous endeavours, where the extermination of yet another ridiculous cult of Cthulu worshippers (Cthuloons, as his Lordship always put it), had led to a bit of impromptu tomb-raiding.
They had found amongst the paraphernalia due to be handed over to the Occult Department, a map of the local catacombs the troublemakers had occupied. This had made mention of a few antiquities and objects thought lost (but apparently stolen by the deceased cultists), the retrieval of which had proven dangerous and downright inconvenient to their teatime.
« Could be Sir. Shall I have the rest of the chaps have a look? »
« If you can tear their attention away from that damned wall for a moment Felpisham, yes. »
Both the Engineer and the Archeologists agreed that there was a resemblance to a section of the Sicilian catacombs and Felpisham cautiously confirmed this by forcing open one of the eyelids of the nearest face, to reveal a faintly luminous gemstone behind the silver-coated cover.
The Engineer crouched and blew aside some of the fine sand covering the threshold and found the anticipated slots in the paving and the edge of the pressure-sensitive slab before them. He shone his lamp on the area.
« You can just make out the leading edge of the blades Sir. Just like Sicily, well spotted Sir. »
Sandsborough took off his pith and handed ‘The Lamp’ to Felpisham, who in turn handed him one of their ‘acquired’ gadgets (acquired in a cellar in Soho at bayonet-point), from the Engineer’s backpack. It resembled a tea-kettle upon which a forward-facing, flared muzzle had been fitted along with several brass, steel and copper cylinders positioned around it’s girth. Set on top, an elaborate handle entwined in fine brass wire and boasting a wire-caged jewel of icy-blue, carried a switch connected to the jumble of mechanisms at the rear.
« Remember Sir, arm’s length if you can. »
« Can’t stand all this fussing about Felps old chap. No life for a soldier, but The Crown expects and all that. »
« Agreed Sir. Just hope these are the same kind of Bloodseeing Stones as Sicily, or you may lose your moustache! »
« Thankyou Felps, that’s quite enough of that. »
Sandsborough then stepped quite deliberately upon the pressure plate before the archway, raising the gadget as he did so.
The portal was suddenly bathed in a sickly yellow glow as the eyelids of each stone face flew open, their malevolent glare sending a shudder through the assembled men. There was a sensation of static electricity, the sudden grinding of gears and in the same instant Sandsborough flicked the switch on the device.
There was a momentary wheezing, bubbling inhalation, like an old man with a touch of London fog in his lungs, then a blast of white, cold foam sprayed from it’s muzzle. The officer quickly directed this icy blast into the ghoulish faces above and about him, covering them all in a winter-like blanket of white frost and snow.
There was a sudden quiet, broken only by a last few drips of moisture from the device to the floor, as the rumble of ancient cogs ceased and they held a collective breath.
Felpisham waved a hand at a frosted face.
« I believe that’s done it Sir. »
« If that’s the case Felps, step on through here and take this bloody contraption off me. My hands are going numb. »
~ To Be Continued ~
©Martin Livingston 2015 for The Aether Nomads Project