The Goddess Deception, Pt. 1

Issue #142 - Science-Fantasy Month 2

Chapter 1

Somewhere I’ve Never Travelled

They say home is a spiritual place. I’ve never been one to put much faith in that. Matters of the soul rarely mean a great deal in my chosen profession. Anarchists and sky pirates I can manage without a problem; it’s selfless acts of the heart that vex me every time.

It was just after the Feast of Avalon, two weeks into what should have been a month of badly needed debauchery. I stormed into the Victory’s helm room like a bandersnatch gone mad. One of the officers announced “Major on deck”, to no great effect. Everyone else hurried about the toggles and the polished brass consoles as if I weren’t there at all.

I dropped my satchel beside the ship’s map table with a deliberately heavy thud. “Just once I’d like to finish a leave without somebody pulling rank on my backside.” Captain-and-Master Johanna Marsh glanced up from the table, completely unfazed by my self-righteous bravado. She held a small prism of memory-glass in her hand.

“Agent Caul,” she said. “Welcome aboard. I do like the beard. You should keep it. Bathing wouldn’t kill you, though. If you need any help scrubbing the hard-to-reach bits, do give a shout.”

Johanna and I shared a long and decidedly labyrinthine history together; it’s the only reason she indulged the many variations of my moods. Tough as Bessemer steel, she was, and as history would have it, my former wife as well.

She tossed me the glass. I caught it easily in my mechanical grip.

“And this is what’s coming between me and two more weeks of rakish bliss?” I asked, peering at the ensorcelled pages deep within its crystal planes.

“Your new assignment. No protestations, Rom. We need you in the field as quickly as possible.”

“Ask me if I’m surprised.”

Gauges and dials confirmed that all three of the ship’s circumductors had been spooled and the lift-sails were fully deployed. Whatever had prompted the mission’s urgency had Johanna wasting no time. My reflection glowered in an unlit pane behind her, but I turned away. I knew what I would see: a grim amalgam of Man and alchemically forged Machine: unshaven, disarrayed, twin electrick orbs implanted where my eyes had once been. I didn’t care to see myself like that in Johanna’s company, shouldering the reminders that I was nothing like the young and fully bodied officer she’d wed so many years before.

I’d been distracted since the moment I’d stepped aboard, and didn’t like it. My gears were wound up like an eight day clock. I took a deep, pump-driven breath and only then noticed my partner, Special Agent Plio Plio Ah, leaning in the shadow of a bulkhead stanchion; stylish as ever, his arms folded in a pose that was thoroughly human. Not surprising since he had once again assumed a humanly form, his crimson skin bright against a black, exquisitely tailored suit. He looked far more like a decorated operative with Her Eternal Majesty’s Special Investigation Branch than I.

“Plio, thank Heaven,” I said. “What’s this about?”

He raised a hairless brow. “Why yes, Romulus. I did enjoy my holiday. Thanks so much for asking.”

Blast. “Nice togs, brother. You look sharp enough to shave.”

He nodded at the belated acknowledgment. “Much better. I know earthly couture is a new statement for me, but my Gantish vestments were just so depressing.”

The Symb’ral peoples of Gant, in their natural state, look like red-and-black centipedes, highly magnified. Ebony tendrils flowed from Plio’s head like the lock-dreads worn by Jamaican Maroons, woven throughout with beads and precious gemstones in the heraldic pattern of his birth-caste.

“If you darlings are quite finished....” Johanna rounded her station and dropped a photographic slide into the helm room’s projector. “We’re in deep shit, gentlemen. Have a look.”

An Engine-rendered portrait appeared in the light—the bust of a young woman in journeyman’s attire.

I stared. “Huh.”

“I thought that would shut you up. Kavita Patel, age twenty-three. Royal Company of Makers, Aetheric Telegraphy First-Grade, specializing in crystal resonance communications.”

She had flawless East Indian features: black hair brushed back and held in place with an ivory comb, eyes as black as the Aetherial Deep, a playful smile that rose just a bit higher on the right.

“A fortnight ago, the team of Makers that Patel was assigned to landed on Gamhanrhide to repair a series of ansible propagators. They separated to cover more territory. Six days into the mission, Patel vanished.”

“Reconnaissance divination...?”

“Has as yet found nothing.”

“That’s not possible.”

Marsh nodded. “Hence your conundrum.”

“Captain, is this not a matter best suited for the local constabulary?” asked Plio. “Why involve the Royal Flying Corps? Let alone Special Branch.”

“Whitehall is set upon keeping this in the family. The girl is affianced to Maxim Lysenko’s stepdaughter.”

I leaned back with the characteristic whir-and-clicks that accompanied my every movement. “And this Lysenko is...?”

“Adjutant Maxim Lysenko. Five-year veteran of the Neverland Campaign. And as of noontime tomorrow, my newly appointed Government Liaison. He’s transferring out from Muscovy as we speak.”

“Shit.”

“My word exactly. I don’t relish the idea of having the Queen’s eyes and ears aboard. For the crew’s sake I need to find Lysenko’s good side and stay there. We’ve just enough time to drop you two off and still make the rendezvous.” She pointed to the memory-glass. “Patel’s file, as compiled by the Seeing Stone. Her personal entries are included as well.”

I shook my head. “Something’s amiss, Captain. This smacks of calm before the storm.”

A wry smile I knew only too well lit Johanna’s face. “Mr. Beddington,” she said to one of her navigating officers, “show us Special Agent Caul’s drop site, if you please.”

“Right away, ma’am.”

She indicated the navigational display that dominated the center of the map table. “Watch....”

Beddington was already cranking the massive orrery of gears and globes that represented Great Albion and the known Aspects of the Aetherial Deep. Allies of Her Majesty’s Government were rendered in warm copper and bronze, adversaries in cold steel. Two adjacent globes swung into view before us: one representing the mighty orb Boru, the other its companion Gamhanrhide. The navigating officer focused a scrying-lens upon the latter.

In a flash we beheld the living surface of Gamhanrhide as if through a magick spyglass. Vast expanses of blues, magentas, and countless variations of earthly green rolled away in every direction. Farmland, enough to provide crops and botanicals to half the Outer Spheres. Yet far removed from the machines and automated processing centers that one would expect to find in such an environment, groups of men and women in stoic plainness worked the fields by hand, with scythes and hay forks and draft animals collected from Aspects throughout the Deep, and nary a steam nor motor-driven device of any kind to be seen.

“Hell and Damnation,” I muttered. “Luddites.”

“Renunciates,” Johanna corrected me. “Old Order. Funded by the Royal Society as a sociological curiosity.”

“Huh. I suppose they breed with their cousins and flog each other at every hour of oblation.”

Her eyes sparked with humor at the gibe. “They call themselves the Brethren of the Abiding Earth. And charming as your comparison is, I won’t argue it too strenuously. Wildcards are fostered here in the Outers. For all I know, Kavita Patel has run off and gone native. That’s why I need to send in two wildcards of my own.”

“It’s a moot point anyway.” I nodded at the amber waves of thaumically visible grain. “I’ve not been returned to active duty since Dr. Malign infected me with the rust.”

“Way ahead of you,” she said. “We’ve already conferred with the Medic-Elect’s office. Your internals have been successfully cleansed of mechanical pathogens for nearly a week now.”

“And?”

“You’re cleared for duty. There’s no time to test you in the field, of course, but they think you’ll acclimate just fine.”

“They think! I’ll take comfort in that when I’m swollen and dying from anaphylactic shock. There’s little enough left of me that’s flesh-and-blood as it is.”

“Whitehall wants the best, Rom. They want a Regulator. And I want you.”

“Well I for one,” said Plio, “think it’s a marvelous opportunity.” Cascading images reflected in his warm yellow eyes like mirrors of polished gold. “My ancestors lounged about in salt-water bogs for half a million years. This will be a unique experience for me.”

“Not helping, brother.”

“Major Caul,” Johanna said, “my orders are to transport you to Gamhanrhide and to do so with haste. I strongly suggest you be ready when we arrive.” She reached up and patted my mechanized shoulders. “If not, I’m only too happy to bust your hard-wired bollocks back to Albion. The Queen still wants to present you with that knighthood. You can’t hide out here forever.”

No one used my actual rank unless they were displeased or gravely serious, and here I’d heard it twice in a handful of minutes. “Heaven’s Engines, you’re adorable when you blow your jets. How’s about marrying me again?”

Captain Marsh rolled her eyes and turned to leave, as a yeoman swung the heavy door open ahead of her. “Ask me again when you mean it, you bloody big Hero. Now go.”

Chapter 2

How Many Miles to Babylon?

Plio had already assembled our effects from ship’s stores, so we left as soon as I’d made myself more presentable. (I liked garments sewn with heavy Brobdingnagian silks, as I tended to burst through fabrics of lesser strength with unfortunate regularity.) To my customary attire I added a heavy weapons harness, sapphire-loupe lenses for my eyes, and a black leather greatcoat and hat I’d won from a cardsharp on Ravenal. I was just glad to be out of there before meeting Johanna’s new Government shadow. ‘There’s a New World to Put in Order’ and all that Instrumentalist bullshit.

A new World.

Try ‘all of Creation’.

HMS Victory tacked the aetheric winds clear of the realm beneath us and commenced the jump to Gamhanrhide. Ships-of-the-line were engineered to leap the eldritch void that separated the Aspects one from another, independent of the Instrumentality’s great earthbound Mirrors. Our drop-vessel jettisoned immediately upon the disorienting lurch that carried us from Aspect to Aspect, then chewed up Heaven knows how many leagues in extreme gravitic deceleration before arcing about the giant orb of Boru to the docks high above Gamhanrhide. We arrived the next evening, local time.

Boru at first quarter loomed beyond the heavily riveted observation bays, half its colossal bulk ablaze in silver and ice-blue storms, the other half lost in darkness. A retinue of moons (of which Gamhanrhide was the largest) glistened within their shimmering baubles as they rolled across the great orb’s night side. Freighters and merchant rigs sailed between them with more than a few gun-brigs at the ready, armed to the teeth and bound for another border skirmish with the Umbrans. The Instrumentality’s ever present show of force.

Our conveyance was waiting for us in the central berths, a Nash Ltd. Cloudshaker with Government insignia emblazoned on either side. The pilot introduced herself as Constable Eliza Gilhooley, standing ready next to a control chair wedged among levers and pedals.

“Welcome to Gamhanrhide, gentlemen,” she said in a chilly monotone. She was a slender young woman, blonde hair tucked under the cap of her standard-issue livery. “Chief Carmody inquires how long you plan to stay.”

Her tone made it clear that we were, in fact, not welcome at all.

“To be honest, Constable,” I said, “my partner and I shouldn’t be here any longer than is necessary. But right now Journeyman Patel is hotter than a Symb’ral crèche in mating season, so for her sake let’s you and I hope for a happy resolution.”

She didn’t respond to my ribald analogy at first, then offered a slight nod. “We found Patel’s flivver three days ago in Crannog Green, just after the Blessing of the Fields. There was no sign of a struggle inside or at the site. We have the vehicle in custody now.” She said nothing more and busied herself with a list of preflight activities.

Plio winked at me. “Impressive. Diplomacy has never been your strong suit.”

I pulled a heavy sidearm from my weapons harness, a Navy variable-bore Persuader with deep scrollwork along the barrel and grip, as natural an extension of my mechanical hand as were wrist couplings and steel-jacketed fingers. “I’m a weaponsmith. I’ve got your diplomacy right here.”

“Let’s just hope you’re not compelled to use it.”

“No promises.”

With a gentle thrum the Cloudshaker rose and came about, trimmed for descent, with Gilhooley maneuvering us beyond the bright red warning banners. I settled back in a chair that was much too small and buckled my restraining belts.

“Caution,” reported the vehicle in its detached phonographic voice. “Extreme aetheric forces ahead.” Gilhooley silently mouthed the familiar phrase by rote. “Please maintain a constant velocity beyond the warning banners.”

Afterward, she leaned forward and spoke aloud into her annunciator. “Glencolumbkille Actual, this is Constable Two-One-Nine entering bauble periphery.”

Understood, Two-Nineteen. Is that you, Liza?

“Good morning, Hagan. How’s your brother?”

Still kicking himself for letting you go at Charles and Miriam’s handfasting.

“I’m sure there was wailing and the gnashing of teeth.”

“That there was, Two-Nineteen. See you down below in four, three, two....

I felt the catastrophic shift in aetheric stress an instant before the Master Alarm blared.

Gravitation slammed us as if we’d sideswiped a giant wall. The force wrenched Gilhooley headlong into her flight console with a sickening thwack.

“Constable!” I bellowed. “Can you hear me?”

“She’s unconscious,” Plio shouted above the klaxon, his features distorting in the grip of mad centrifugal force. “I can’t see her flight instruments. Romulus, what’s happening?”

“Quaternary and tertiary Engines are nonoperational,” the vehicle said. “Please maintain a constant velocity beyond the warning markers.”

“Yeah,” I wheezed. “That.”

We were tumbling, the ship’s Engine masts threatening to shear off one by one in the violent torsion.

Vessels manufactured for passage through a buckler field were protected by no less than four Causality Engines. Lose your Engines, alter your speed or trajectory in any way, and the bauble’s elemental stresses will tear you apart in the blink of an eye.

Bolts securing Gilhooley’s console were shaking loose; the massive thing would crush her bones if it wrenched free and fell—she being the only one amongst us with bones that actually could be crushed.

Another savage concussion outside the pressure hull.

“Secondary Engine is nonoperational,” the vehicle said. “Aetheric buffers have been reduced by three-quarters.”

“You really need to shut up now.”

“Please maintain constant—”

I drew the Persuader hand cannon and blasted the ship’s speaker-horns.

“Romulus!”

“I was compelled.”

Analytical mechanisms implanted in my brain clacked defense scenarios while I forced my flesh-and-blood half to stave off blind panic. With mechanical strength, I ripped my restraints loose and climbed the pipes and ventilation ducts to the cabin’s aft bulkhead, which was effectively now its ceiling. I grabbed the reinforced hatch and forced it open to access the air-lock, arguably the strongest part of the vessel.

“Get the constable, brother!”

Without a word Plio became elastic, stretching out of his clothes and restraining belts like red putty. He reformed naked beside Gilhooley—having no time for niceties or modesty—and began untangling her from her station.

With a final lurch, we dropped below the bauble periphery at last, but we were still falling freely. My augmented hearing picked up the hiss of pressurized air venting.

The hull had breached.

“Plio, on me! Now!”

He heaved himself upward, half his morphic body anchoring around my outstretched arm, the other half lifting Gilhooley. I hauled them both into the air-lock and sealed the hatch beneath us.

Gilhooley’s annunciator chimed. “—teen! Two-Nineteen! Glencolumbkille here. We’ve got you on the beam, Liza. Ambulances are at the ready—”

The rest was a blur of rapid-fire cause and effect: the final Engine collapsing, hull and flight deck tearing away from the air-lock in the furious blast of the wind. Emergency lift-sails deploying, slowing our descent just enough to prevent our splattering on Gamhanrhide’s surface.

“Hang on, brother!” I shouted, with Gilhooley cradled firmly between us.

We hit the ground in a fast tumble and rolled to a stop, plowing a soggy gouge through a bean field in the new and unearthly World about us.

Silence.

Gilhooley’s eyelids forced open, a trail of blood bubbling at her lips. “Please maintain a constant velocity,” she sputtered, “beyond the warning banners....”

She was a fighter, with an admirable gallows wit despite her pain. I liked that.

Medical aid was seen to once the authorities and ambulance had arrived. Inquiries, debriefings, and analyses quickly ensued, occupying every moment of our ride into town, all focused on what in blazes had happened inside the buckler field.

Glencolumbkille-in-the-Spheres was the only city of any size to speak of on Gamhanrhide, built on and into the eastern slope of the Kilclooney Highlands. The Home Office was a two-story block of native graystone in the heart of the Government District, commanding an impressive view of the city and multi-hued woodlands below, with the crescents of Boru and its moons up above.

Executive Chief Constable Neville Carmody and his staff of tuppence rats greeted us with the static I’ve come to expect whenever Special Branch sticks its collective nose into local affairs. I had to point out that Kavita Patel was in service to Her Eternal Majesty Gloriana the Everlasting, Empress-Queen of Great Albion and the Totality of Its Aetheric Possessions, and not part of Gamhanrhide’s population. That made her my affair.

Hindering our investigation, of course, was the buckler event, which had proved to be much more widespread than first surmised. Reports were coming in via ansible from settlements all over Gamhanrhide. As nearly as could be ascertained, the aetheric forces that comprised the buckler field had surged beyond measure and decreased again just as rapidly, as if a colossal switch had been thrown. Vessels from every corner of the Aspect had been caught in-transit. My companions and I had been luckier than most. The bulk freighter Princess Maud—a crew of thirty and 365,000 tons of grain, stripped down to their base elements, trapped forever in orbital Hell. All in all, one hundred and twenty-six souls had perished. The search for Kavita Patel became little more than an inconvenience.

“The female is not here,” said Deputy Kuhl g’Gompta, an indentured native Gamhanid taurg. A hulking blue-and-green reptile with a slicked-back crest of feathers and razor-filled mouth; quick-tempered and mean as sin, as were the bulk of his race, but good to have on your side in a fight, or so I was told.

I shook my head. “There’s no certainty of that, Deputy.”

“Where is she, then?”

“That’s exactly what we’re trying to discern,” said Plio, sporting a new suit of clothes and none the worse for wear. “Perhaps if you were to focus that displeasure on the matter at hand instead of sparring with us, Special Agent Caul and I wouldn’t need to be here at all.”

“Enough! Prepare to be eaten.”

“And if you ever threaten to eat anyone again,” said Chief Carmody, “I’ll personally hoist you back to Albion in chains.” He was a seasoned veteran of the Second Umbran War; Acadia born, with a deep scar where Proletariat weaponry had cut to the bone.

Alongside him was the Most Reverend Brogan Thackerley, the Archbishop of Gamhanrhide and chief representative of the Earther Brethren—a rigid glacier of a man in an unadorned hat and stiff black frock.

G’Gompta stood there like a massive slab of scaly muscle, then muttered under his breath and retreated to a neutral corner.

Kavita Patel’s flivver was parked in an examination bay illuminated in bright electricks, ringed by forensic automata. Thaumic light coruscated over the surface of the vehicle while its interior was probed with x-ray and alchemic glass.

Plio joined me at the watch commander’s station. Upon the main wall hung a map of Gamhanrhide’s surface (which the locals had come to call “Harvest Home”), overlaid with a grid of the ansible network and Kavita’s itinerary. Her confirmed stops were marked with red pins, only four out of her planned dozen stops: Fortingall, Watling, Crannog Green (where her flivver had been found), and Maeve. The next closest was in Ogham’s Wood, but she’d never arrived.

I looked from the map to the flivver and back. Kavita’s final journal entry wouldn’t stop vexing me. Lord of the Worlds Above, it’s beautiful, she’d written, in a hand surprisingly bold. What was beautiful?

“What do you make of this, brother?” I asked. “Her route couldn’t have been any more random if she’d tried.”

“Indeed. Not the regimented approach one would expect from an engineer.” Plio’s race had a natural affinity with the recognition of patterns, a handy talent for shape-shifters. “Perhaps ‘random’ isn’t the correct word, Romulus. Try ‘spontaneous’.”

“As in...?”

“Consider what we know thus far.” He counted off points one finger at a time, sprouting additional digits as needed. “Kavita was born in Indira Province, the second most densely mechanized conurbation on Albion. At the age of ten her family immigrates to Whitehall, the most mechanized. She’s never seen an environment as lush as Gamhanrhide, never been anywhere that was not irreparably blackened by industrial waste. She gads about the Aspect the moment she arrives—one day here, two days there....”

Realization hit me like a steel-toed boot to the head. “She was sightseeing.” I jumped into the examination bay. “Forget the map, people. Our girl could have gone anywhere, red pins or not.”

“That doesn’t follow,” said Carmody. He pointed from various lenses and phosphor screens to the wall map. “She couldn’t have travelled any further than Crannog. Her route was confirmed site by site in the fliv’s hodometron.”

“Instrumentation can be compromised, Chief,” said Plio.

Eliza Gilhooley studied the map, bandaged and bruised from our ordeal aboard the Cloudshaker but still alert. “Who would have the means to accomplish that?” she asked. “The Brethren aren’t rightly adept at such things. No offense, Archbishop.”

Thackerley nodded, though the effort seemed profoundly foreign to him. “Wisdom does not rebuke honest inquiry, child. Indeed, Agent Caul, whom amongst the faithful could possess such knowledge or skill?”

I had no answer for that, none at least that fit the parameters of a moon full of technological ascetics. I climbed into the flivver, an Empire Steamer with storage boxes strapped in back.

“She met a fine young lad on August Eve.” G’Gompta again, sliding his tongue over his teeth. “Likely servicing her tasty quim right now. Haw!”

Gilhooley glared at him. “Stick a sock in it, Kuhl.”

Plio glanced at me through the flivver’s windscreen. “With a fine young lad? Not bloody likely.”

Kavita’s Sapphic inclinations notwithstanding, I kept to the matter at hand. Gilhooley’s prior claim that there was no evidence of a struggle appeared to be true. I could find no sign of foul play, my eyes sweeping from one end of the magneto-electrick spectrum to the other, until I spied miscellaneous particulates beneath the dash. I focused my variable-loupe lenses into finer magnification and beheld botanical fibers and loose grains of soil. The constables’ analytical mechanisms had already concluded that none of the particles were remarkable. I looked back at the young fellow manning Deep Augury. “Break this down for me, son. What am I looking at?”

A kinetoscopic rendering of the plant fibers appeared in one of the phosphor screens. In flickering detail, it expanded to reveal tissues of unearthly origin, each with accompanying text in a variety of languages, human and otherwise.

Tang’hng k’gud’ra,” the constable said in the guttural croaks and hiccups that Gamhanids referred to as speech. “Still fresh, these. The essential oils have not yet begun to degrade.”

“And for those of us who don’t speak Taurg?” I asked.

Plio raised a red finger. “I speak Taurg.”

“Great thundering gear-trains, boy.” Carmody ushered the constable aside and took control of the kinetoscope. Animation multiplied the tissues at highly accelerated speed. Tinted blue-green vines lanced and coiled across the screen, violet blossoms bursting opening at the end of each quickened stem.

“Once again, people,” I snapped. “I’m looking at what?”

“Twilight-fire,” grumbled Deputy g’Gompta. The mature plant spun slowly with the illusion of movement in the eldritch display, flowers bunched in clusters of deep luminescent purple radiating from cores of bright red.

“Twilight what?”

Gilhooley stepped between us. “The flowers, Agent Caul. They’re twilight-fire.”

“Tis a resinous vine native to Gamhanrhide.” Archbishop Thackerley again. “They spring up most everywhere this time of year. The tenant farmers find them quite the nuisance.”

“The early expeditionists weren’t too thorough when they cleared this Aspect for settlement,” agreed Carmody. “The orb’s covered in the dratted things. Hardly warrant a second glance at all.”

“You’re only saying that because you see them everyday.” I commandeered the machine and projected the floral display to every screen, scrying-lens, and exhibition device in the laboratory. The room was suddenly alive with twilight-fire, enveloping the space in bright constellations of purple and red. “What if you’d never seen them before?”

And suddenly Kavita’s words made an intuitive sense.

Lord of the Worlds Above, it’s beautiful.

The archbishop raised a bushy brow. “Why were none found in storage if the girl was collecting specimens?”

“Blessed be. She wasn’t collecting specimens,” Gilhooley answered.

“You’ve got something to say, Constable?” asked Carmody.

“Just that I like the agent’s sensibilities. Sir.”

“As do I.” Thackerley narrowed his eyes. “Within reason.”

I looked up at the big map of Harvest Home.

Plio leaned in. “You’re thinking again, aren’t you?”

“Humor me.”

“I always do.”

“Neville,” I said to the Chief. “I’d like a vehicle and the names of the officers you have in the field, please. Let them know my partner and I are coming.”

“Why?”

“We’re going sightseeing.”

Chapter 3

O Brave New World, That Has Such Bastards In’t

Chief Carmody, after several creative bouts of expletives and finger gestures, finally gave us his personal gyrodyne, a Peerless two-seat Speedtwin. We rose above Glencolumbkille on the pillar of dust kicked up by our rotors and circled the mountains in an ever-widening spiral. Our course would take us south and east through the Highlands, then north and west to the shore of the Great Ossian Sea and south again along the River Callanish. Since I was fabricating this plan from one moment to the next, Ogham’s Wood was as good a place as any to begin.

“I’m still humoring you,” said Plio.

“I appreciate that.”

“Aside from the missing woman, we’re looking for...?”

“I’m not sure. I’ll know when I see it.”

“This is that ‘gut’ thing again.”

“Afraid so, brother.”

“Ah. The cognitive power of human entrails. How is your headache?”

“Firmly entrenched between dull throb and Merciful Engines of Heaven there’s an ice pick in my eye, thanks for asking.”

Plio nodded. “I took the liberty of testing the air this morning on your behalf. The allergen-count is off the rails. You’re not acclimating as well as the doctors had anticipated.”

“Tell me about it. When we get home, somebody at the Medic-Elect’s office is going to pop his clogs.”

Despite the assurances of the Corps’ Most Learned and Distinguished Physicians, Plio and I both knew that I was still harboring aftereffects of the rust. The mechanical pathogen inflicted upon me by the mad alchemist Dr. Malign had taken a heavy toll, attacking the grafts and boundaries where my flesh and metallic augmentations joined together. Fighting the rust had so taxed my natural defenses that I’d since become vulnerable to the most common of secondary infections and allergies, maladies that able-bodied persons shrugged off with ease. And yet here I sat, returned to duty before I was ready and, worse still, fussed over by my partner like a mother hen.

I caught Plio staring at the immensity of forest and cropland below, the panorama broken only by steep hills and chains of lochs; native basilisks and other flying reptiles took to the sky as we passed, sunlight glinting off iridescent wings. The Symb’ral race had even less experience with this type of environment than I, having come from an Aspect that was covered in swamps and steaming shallow seas.

Harvester mechanisms the size of houses criss-crossed the farms beneath us like great robotic armies. Every year the Instrumentality annexed more and more land from the Gamhanids, who, along with their great lizardy beasts of the field, had been nomadic herdsmen for untold millennia. Virtually all crop automation on this moon was now tended by disenfranchised taurgs and their clockwork overseers in a myriad of ever-deepening tunnels, while the Brethren of the Abiding Earth were granted use of select tracts on the surface.

We arrived in Ogham’s Wood and examined the ansible site, not finding what I’d hoped. Back again to Rannoch Mills and the Marches, then southeast following the forest roads to Senorach and Henge. It was the end of our first full day on Gamhanrhide, with false-night rapidly approaching—that period when the orb crept along its orbital rails into its companion Boru’s great shadow, eclipsing the Sun from view. Plio was reading from the memory-glass when he cocked an ear to the ansible speaker-horn and adjusted the volume.

“—until first light tomorrow. Repeating: by order of the Home Office in Glencolumbkille, a wyvern advisory has been issued to all provinces and municipalities bordering the River Callanish. All aerocraft are ordered to land or secure safe mooring effective immediately until first light tomorrow. Repeating: by order of—”

“A wyvern advisory?! What in Hell does that mean?”

Plio shrugged. “Here there be dragons?”

“This is bullshit. We’re not stopping.”

“I respectfully point out that we don’t know where we’re headed.”

“Special Branch has—”

“—the authority to supersede colonial laws, mandates, and customs. I’m aware. But consider, Romulus....”

“Here we go....”

“Perhaps, in the spirit of inter-departmental courtesy, it’s best we not alienate the locals any more than we already have.”

“They said ‘wyvern’, Plio. There’s a big difference between confronting giant flying reptiles and playing nice with the hayseeds.”

“Exactly. And in that regard, perhaps it’s best we defer to both and not ignore the ban.”

“Perhaps.” I exhaled loudly with a few choice interjections, then pulled back on the throttle and banked us into a descending turn.

“Where are we going?” Plio asked.

“I’m deferring to your illimitable logic before I seize up from exasperation.”

“Ah. Very good, then. Perhap—”

“Don’t push it, brother.”

We stopped at the river town of Dun Aenghus to wait out the flight advisory, setting down on a landing pad already filled with craft and moored airships. Gaslamps lit one by one as the luminous qualities of the Aspect’s native flora awakened, having long since adapted to frequent night and the shimmering aurora of Gamhanrhide’s buckler field.

We introduced ourselves to the local authorities with the intention of meeting their CO, one Chief Constable Marsallay Brome, but the constables-on-duty informed us that she’d been called to head off a possible situation, at a pub on the town’s main thoroughfare. I decided to seek her out, to use our forced downtime to glean anything, even if ancillary, that might aid our investigation. Plio opted not to join me, choosing instead to access the great analytical engine on Albion known as the Seeing Stone.

The night air carried the smells of wood-smoke rising from countless chimneys and the discordant hum of luminous motes the size of my thumb flitting about streetlamps and above the cold waters of the river. I kept thinking about the petals of twilight-fire we’d brought with us from Glencolumbkille. Kavita had touched petals just like them; she’d picked them, held them in her hands. Those flowers were the key. I just couldn’t recognize the lock.

Dun Aenghus after dark was full of farmhands and laborers from the granary docks intent upon getting drunk, rowdy, and rude. (Considering that most of them claimed to be ascetic renunciates, I was hard pressed to identify what exactly they’d renounced.) A public house named Hundred-Hand Harry’s sat at the end of its block on High Street. Shouts and laughter pealed through the windows as I crossed the cobbled lane, weaving between heavily laden wagons and men on the backs of exotic riding-beasts.

Chief Brome was outside the bar looking in through the door, clearly preoccupied with the goings-on, her hand resting on her holstered sidearm. She was a full-figured woman, older than me but not by much, with hair the color of steel wool pulled back in a ponytail.

“Chief?” I asked. “I’m Special Agent Romulus Caul.”

“One of the Regulators, yes. We were told you’d come to Harvest Home. Welcome.”

Brome’s demeanor was open and congenial enough, but I was feeling neither. “Special Branch is investigating a disappearance,” I said. “I thought it best that you and I meet and come to an accord before I proceed any further.”

“The vanished Maker, I know. Glencolumbkille sent us her dossier, and my people will offer any assistance, of course. But you’ve lost me, luv.” She cocked her head. “Exactly what kind of accord are you expecting? Dun Aenghus wasn’t on the woman’s itinerary. She had no reason to stop here.”

“And my only reason for stopping is in deference to your flight ban. You know I can countermand it.”

“Ah. In that case, I’d advise that you not,” she said. “Whatever happened in the sky last night spooked the local population of wyverns into a frenzy. One of those monsters alone can take down a gyrodyne. Three or more, a fully loaded dirigible. We don’t want to chance it happening again.”

“Horrifying, I’m sure.”

She stepped back. “Are you a gambling man, Agent Caul? Wyverns are nocturnal and black as night. You’d never see them coming.”

In point of fact, I was a gambler, but baiting Chief Brome into a jurisdictional pissing match wasn’t the prudent thing to do. She knew it, and I myself had been down that road too many times with Johanna. I swallowed my sour disposition.

“Well, then,” I said. I held out my hand, and was relieved when she accepted it. “My partner and I are at your disposal for the duration.”

“I appreciate that,” she said. It was the first time she’d smiled since our conversation began. She looked back inside the bar, and I followed her cue.

It was a crowded little dive, heavy with the odors of roasted hob and cutty-fish. Her deputies had said there might be trouble here, but all seemed harmless enough. Simply furnished, with a herd of barmy young boozers, many of them pilots downed by the advisory. Most were clean shaven; only a few wore the traditional beards of men fully baptized into the community. On the other side of the room, keeping to themselves, were native taurgs downing drinks the size of wash tubs. A red symb in natural centipede form scuttled back and forth behind the counter—Harry, I presumed—serving up libations with five sets of his hundred hands.

“Lively place,” I said.

Brome shrugged. “Not customarily. They’re still winding down from Lughnasadh. August Eve,” she answered my unspoken question. “Old calendar. Beginning of the harvest season. Barn dances, thanksgiving for the grain, sturdy young men getting bladdered and pissed....” Hoots and the crash of breaking furniture accentuated her point. “The bishops turn a blind eye to it this time of year.” She looked me up and down with the shrewd eyes of a horse trader. “You’re quite the sturdy man yourself. The workmanship is remarkable. Does every—?”

She trailed off, but I knew the query all to well. Does everything work?

I’d first heard those words a decade before on Albion, in New Philadelphia, after three-quarters of my body had been blown to Hell and back. Arms, legs, and most everything in between.

I felt the pressure of the Chief’s fingertips on the artfully scrolled chest plates beneath my garments (Plio wasn’t the only one with a sense of style), which, in turn, housed the cardio-respiratory pumps, pistons, and valves that kept my human half alive; gifts from the Crown after I’d thwarted the would-be assassination of William, Lord McKinley, then the governor-general of Her Eternal Majesty’s possessions in North Atlantica. Total rewire job. Industrial alchemy, a soul bound in burnished steel.

Our attention was thankfully drawn back to the pub before I could answer. A boy who looked like a weasel sat next to the staircase, loud and drunk off his ass. A serving girl in frills and black lace struggled in his lap. Her features were rendered in rich deep azure. A blue symb, in human guise. Her color and lack of heraldic beadwork marked her as having been born into Gant’s lower castes, a menial in their Aspect’s red-dominated culture. The weasel was all over her, his hands locked about her wrists.

“Laney’s a tough girl,” Brome said. “She can take care of herself....” But Brome’s hand tightened around her sidearm nonetheless.

I turned up my aural augmentations.

“You’re lookin’ powerful likely tonight, Laney,” the weasel said. “C’mon here an’ give us a snog.”

“Axel, keep it up and I’ll snap your twig from your berries.” Despite her retort, though, the tendrils writhing on her head belied her agitation.

He laughed. “You’d best mind that sass, girl. Me an’ my lads are gonna own this town. Our blessed Lady might not fancy me no symbie whore then.” He planted his lips on her smooth blue neck.

Laney cursed in the Shaper’s Tongue and drove a spiked heel onto the toe of Axel’s boot. He yowled and doubled over. She spun free and slammed her knee into his weasely face, then in the blink of an eye reverted to her true Symb’ral form. Black lace ripped to shreds as her spine stretched and arched into a long serpentine ‘S’, fifty pairs of blue segmented legs erupting from her sides.

The boy’s head snapped back, blood spraying from his nose. Another blink of the eye and Laney was human again, covering her nakedness with scraps of lace.

Axel’s posse moved as one and pinned her. He jumped to his feet, hands over his face, gore streaming between his fingers.

“Get away from her, dammit! Get away!” He whipped a gun from his ratty overcoat and leveled it between Laney’s golden eyes.

The weapon shone dully in the amber light: an Umbran Immolator. Dammitall! It was a blunt, ugly thing; its chitinous surface rough and scabbed over, as if it were made of materials that had once been alive. The pistol grip had been adapted for the human hand, but it was a device unmistakably manufactured by the Proletariat of Umbra-Nine.

What the bleeding Hell was it doing here?

“I knew it! Shit,” Brome hissed. “Cover me, luv.” She drew her sidearm and bolted round the corner into a side alley.

The mechanicals in my chest hummed into overdrive. Having been raised in the backwoods of Westsylvania, I’d seen my share of drunken indiscretions (and participated in more than I cared to admit). Most resulted in a bloodied nose or a night spent cooling off in the neighborhood lockup. But some of them turned nasty, and this one had “calamity” written all over it.

I pulled my Webley-Electrick Nullifier from my weapons harness, non-lethal but wickedly effective. The Immolator was still trained on Laney’s head, pyromantic energies building within the spinning parabolic mirror affixed at its end. I had to time this to the instant.

Chief Brome stepped in through a backroom door and inched forward, her sidearm fixed on the boy’s head. “Axel Creevy. Don’t be a fool, lad. Hand that dratted thing over.”

“Bugger off, you old chook. I’m gonna learn this pretty blue bitch some manners!”

“I’d take the Chief’s advice, son.” I stepped through the front door, arm locked, the Nullifier trained upon his heart. “You’ve got exactly two seconds to get righteous. Put the gun down. Right now.”

He flinched, turned his eyes to me but kept the heat-ray pointed at Laney. My steel-jacketed fingers tightened around the Nullifier. Precision wireworks give me perfect hand-and-eye coordination. I never miss.

Axel swung his weapon, and we fired. My leather greatcoat burst into flame at the same time as a stream of electrified flechettes from my Nullifier hit him dead center. The Immolator flew from his hand.

“Grab it!” someone yelled.

Axel’s boys leapt from the right as the remaining farmhands dove from the left, two waves crashing together with the mystery gun as the prize. And me caught in between. They hit from both sides and knocked me down, oblivious to the flames, the weapon rebounding from my fingertips. They wanted the Immolator, and I was simply in the way. I shoved back, which meant a good dozen of them went flying into walls and support beams.

“Go back to the scrap yard, Tin Man!” Fists and thrashing limbs hoisted me up in a concerted effort (despite the weight of my augmented mass) and hurled me through the front windows. I hit the walk in a cascade of flying glass. I leapt to my feet, tearing off my burning coat when earsplitting static burst into the center of my brain, followed by a voice I could not place:

Caul! Get down!

I dropped as the Immolator fired again, golden-white beams igniting what remained of the window casement above my head.

That did it. No one shot at me twice. “Marsallay!” I called. No answer.

I drew my Persuader hand cannon; loaded half a dozen pulse rounds and fired into the eclipse-blackened sky. If the Renunciates really were trading with Umbra, Heaven knew what other contraband was present.

Six sharp cracks roared, six alchemic pulses to overload wiring on either side of the thoroughfare (myself excluded, protected by military-grade fortifications). Most of the windows in Dun Aenghus went dark.

I dashed across the lane, grateful at having escaped near-certain immolation. My guardian angel had focused a tight ansible burst directly into my aural implants. An impressive trick if you had the wherewithal to do so. My annunciator chimed—Plio.

“Your timing leaves much to be desired,” I said.

If you could refrain from trouble for more than five minutes’ time, this wouldn’t be an issue. What in blazes is going on over there?

“Barroom brawl out of control, brother, with a complication you won’t believe.”

I’ve got Brome’s deputies with me. We’ll be there any moment.

“Give them my thanks for the save.”

What save? I’ve been with them all the while.

“No one called?”

Called whom?

“Blast, never mind. Just keep your heads down. They’re armed and barking mad.”

Heed your own advice, Romulus. My head will grow back. Yours will not. And don’t even think about unleashing the Gaze of Doom.

“Nag, nag, nag.”

Brome’s officers hurried round the corner no sooner than I’d reloaded, some of them packed into steam lorries and others on the backs of riding-beasts: chirons, striders, galleytrots, claws and hooves scraping the damp cobblestones. Plio hopped down, his own weapon drawn. (Toppled down was more like it, having never ridden a live mount in his life, but he recovered nicely.) Brome herself reappeared, battered but indomitable, with Axel in one hand and her sidearm in the other.

The brawl fell apart as quickly as it had come together, vanishing into lanes and alleyways thick with river mist and the dark glow of plant life. August Eve antics out of control, they all agreed. The taurgs had no such excuse; they just liked a good row. It was Brome’s business now, regardless, as was her insistence that none of her officers possessed the means to broadcast the warning that had saved my life.

The presence of Umbran weaponry in a tank town like Dun Aenghus was another matter entirely, one the constables wanted to keep quiet at all costs. The Immolator was nowhere to be found, spirited away in the confusion of the brawl—presumably the reason I’d been lobbed through the window in the first place. I put the question to our boy Axel as Chief Brome snapped a pair of electrick shackles on his wrists.

“You mind your place, cobber,” he said, still groggy from the Nullifier. “I got nothin’ to say to the likes’a you.”

“Keep yammering, son, and see if we don’t go a few more rounds.”

The front of his shirt was torn open. Tattooed in silver beneath the hairs on his chest was the circle of a full moon flanked by two crescents, one on either side.

“Come along, Axel,” said Chief Brome. “You’ve bodged up enough here already.”

“So that’s it, then?” he slurred. “The great Lady passes judgment and the very Earth trembles in awe and humility....” He made a grand show of bowing deeply at the waist, wrists still shackled, then rammed his head into Brome’s gut. “...but you gotta find me first, you sorry crone!”

I caught Brome, and Axel was gone, hooting and howling as he bolted up the thoroughfare.

Then the sky was torn by a deep harrowing screech.

It was upon him in an instant—swooping down on wings as black as night, the long serpentine tail slashing the air like a whip. The thing caught Axel in its talons before he could utter a word and soared upward again to be lost in the night, black-on-black. But not before I saw the boy ripped in two, viscera raining down from both halves of his torso.

Plio was beside me. I hadn’t even realized he was there. “What...?” he stammered.

Sometimes there are no words. I couldn’t say a thing.

He shook himself and brushed the dirt from his otherwise spotless attire. “I’ve had just about enough excitement for one outing, thank you very much. What in Niista’s Name happened?”

“Lughnasadh,” I finally answered, not knowing what else to say.

He raised an eyebrow.

“Old calendar.”

“Ah.”

The blue symb Laney watched us from Hundred-Hand Harry’s, having wrapped herself in a tattered blanket. She caught Plio’s eye, then backed through the broken door into the dim amber glow of gaslight.

Plio raised a brow and followed her inside. I trailed behind. Smashed furniture and glass covered the floor. Harry scurried about in a mad frenzy, whistling and clicking and pushing three brooms at once.

With tentative steps Laney approached Plio and knelt before him. His birth-caste held a queer theological significance that an iconoclast like myself couldn’t begin to understand, though he was happy to drone on about it without end. The two spoke in whispers. He reached down and touched her hands, his fingertips melting into hers, red into blue, in a ritual born thousands of years ago on Gant. Communion on a biological level. I looked away. Shit like that unnerved the Hell out of me.

Plio introduced us once their ritual was completed. “Special Agent Caul, this is Lan Ylan Ir.”

“Are you hurt, milord Romulus?”

“You know me?”

“Word gets around. The Earther Brethren aren’t as simple as they appear.”

“I’m fine, thanks. High and fly and too wet to dry.”

Laney stared.

“That’s alright,” Plio assured her. “I don’t understand what he’s saying half the time either.”

“You stood up to those cobbers by yourself,” Laney said. “It’s rare that anyone ever does that for me.”

I brushed debris from my high collar and necktie. “I was lucky.”

She hesitated, then pulled us away from the broken windows, away from prying eyes and monsters hunting in the dark. She wanted to share something, clearly, but was reluctant. Or afraid. Likely both.

“Laney, I’m looking for a girl who came to Harvest Home and never found her way back again. I need to find her. And I’m counting on the expectation that word really does get around....”

She glanced outside to the horizon darkened by Boru’s great shadow, at something only she could see. “I don’t know where she is. But Baloq the Beatified may well guide you to where she was.” Laney offered us an empathetic smile. “I wish you both well. Good night, milords.”

Plio blessed her, then she knelt before him one last time and departed upstairs.

I rubbed the back of my neck; a force of habit, as most of my body no longer possessed the muscles with which to feel stress in the first place. “And Baloq the Beautiful is...?”

“Baloq the Beatified,” Plio said. “He was Fourth of the Seven Priest-Kings of Iy’samine during the Fifth Gantish Age. Exceptionally fierce in battle. It’s believed his blades were the manifestation of Death itself. Paradoxically, he advocated charity for the poor and dispossessed. Castes like the one into which Ylan was born regard him as something of a patron saint.”

“And that helps us how?”

“It doesn’t. As much as Ylan is of the opinion otherwise, our honored dead have no communicative powers from beyond the grave.”

“At this point, I’ll take any opinion I can get,” I said. “Talk and walk. I need to catch up with Chief Brome.”

I left a few pounds sterling on the countertop to help Harry cover his losses, and we stepped into the lane. Plio drew Kavita Patel’s memory-glass from his pocket and studied the glowing script within it.

“Whilst you were busy playing knight errant,” he said, “I confirmed that Kavita’s hodometron has indeed been compromised. I submitted my analysis to the Seeing Stone. The conclusion is certain.”

“Damnation. Now we’ll never get this put to bed.”

“Not necessarily. Shadows of past configurations are often left behind in a device’s clockwork movement. Fortunately, I have more than a passing familiarity with the interpretation of patterns.”

Touché. “So what was altered?”

“Unknown. Given enough time I can use the hodometron to back-trace her vehicle’s actual route, but at the very least it will take....” His voice trailed away as he read. “Orda’s Eyes.”

“What? What do you see?”

He waved me off. “Nothing. Honestly, my mistake.”

I snatched the prism from his hand. Displayed within the alchemically rendered ledger were the names of ansible sites Kavita had not yet inspected; among them Blasket and Ith along the Callanish, and Myddleham-on-Tyne further eastward in Fianna Province.

I read the names again. Myddleham. Myddle....

“Plio. That patron saint. What did you call him?”

“I know where you’re going, Romulus. Ylan was mistaken.”

“Plio!”

“Right. He was Fourth of the Seven—”

I pulled him away from curious passersby and steered us next to the soot-covered bricks of a smokehouse.

“That’s it, brother. Kavita went to Fianna. That’s what Laney was trying to tell us.”

“And you’re basing that on Ylan’s turn of phrase? I can interpret ‘fourth of seven’ any number of ways, all of them equally valid.”

“Don’t interpret. Take her words literally. What is the fourth position of seven?”

Plio hesitated. He was caught in the double standard of a provincially driven symb assimilating into the modern age of Instrumental Enlightenment. His insular perspective wouldn’t allow Lan Ylan Ir to act beyond the limits of her station, even though his “humanity” was telling him quite the opposite.

He sighed. “It’s the middle.”

“Laney told us to go to Myddleham, brother. The only way she knew how.”

“And you believe her?”

“I do.”

He grumbled. “Entrails again.”

I looked down Dun Aenghus’s lanes to the river’s edge and the horizon beyond. Couldn’t see a thing. But past the deep blue and black was something Laney did see, and that was good enough.

Chapter 4

The Shape of Things to Come

We were on our way before second dawn—the Sun’s emergence from Boru’s shadow—flying above the northward road to Dalriada as if we were returning to Glencolumbkille. The thought of being followed hadn’t escaped either of us; at first opportunity we arced about and headed east through the Belagog Expanse to Fianna, speeding over patchwork fields large enough to swallow small nations. Plio was at the helm. My headache had returned with a vengeance, a continuous pounding throb behind my facial plates. I administered myself a liberal dose of laudanum and settled back, closing my eyes.

Umbran weapons and wildflowers. How in blazes were we supposed to find Kavita with that?

Plio woke me as the rugged hills of the Fenian Ridge rose beneath us. We followed the silos and docking masts of a grain distribution facility to a nearby cluster of river towns, then dropped altitude and came about.

Myddleham-on-Tyne was one of the smaller of the Renunciate communities but we’d arrived on market day. The hillside lanes bustled with men and women in hook-and-eye plainness, most of them driving gigs and buckboards pulled by animals from Aspects scattered throughout Creation; domesticated rotchets and m’ugs tramped alongside them as would earthly dogs. The steep terrain inclined further, climbing into a group of high knolls.

“Plio, set us down!” I said. “There!”

He landed the Speedtwin on loose black dirt. I jumped out and ran for a better view. There it was. By Heaven, I was right after all.

Nestled in a glen of heavy native ebonyleaf was a chapel abandoned since the Before Time, its walls overgrown with blue-green vines. Broken windows reflected Boru and the baubled faces of its moons overhead.

The glen was covered in twilight-fire.

Plio caught up with me. “Sacred Provenance River....”

The grass was thick with them. Exotic flowers of purple and red blanketed three-quarters of the slope.

I stood there and heard Kavita Patel’s voice as if she were alongside us, the wind rustling her long black hair.

Lord of the Worlds Above, it’s beautiful.

“She was here, Plio. She was here, I know it.”

“You never cease to amaze me, Romulus. Remind me to give Ylan due credit in my report.”

I climbed into the gyro. “Now we begin the real work, brother.”

We followed our map back to the ansible site, Kavita’s most likely destination: a large tract of farmland in one of the high valleys overlooking the villages below. A half-timbered cottage stood in a clearing, surrounded by hawthorns and yew imported from Albion. A small barn and outbuildings in the back, along with silos and what looked like a fanning mill.

An elderly man sat on the porch, cooling his brow with a tattered hat. He was a long, gangly old gaffer with brown skin darker than mine and clothing patched many times over. A white beard hugged the lines of his jaw. He stood as we landed outside the open gate.

“This is not at all what I expected,” Plio said.

“What has been? Commence with a full-circle sweep, radial increase every twenty yards or so. I want to know what’s out here.”

Plio reached behind the seat and withdrew a divining-assay from his field pack. “What about our friend over there?”

“I’ll see to it. He might be more comfortable with me.”

“Right. Says the mechanical man with electrick blue eyes. Do me a courtesy and be nice. He looks like your great-great-grandfather.”

We stepped out of our conveyance as Plio focused his assay on the green Fenian countryside, wreathed in mist spilling through gaps in the ridge.

“Good day, sir,” I said. “If you don’t mind we’d like a moment of—”

The farmer bolted inside and slammed his door with a crash that shook the house.

Plio glared at me.

“I was nice!”

“You could’ve done without the silly blue lenses.”

The muffled scrape of claws on gravel sounded on the road behind us. A peace officer and his mount emerged from round a bend and slowed to a loping gait, the strider’s narrow tongue testing the air.

“Once more unto the breach, dear friends,” I muttered.

Plio followed with an all but invisible nod of his head.

A blonde youth in Government livery swung down from the saddle. Perspiration darkened his hat and riding cloak, and a badge of office was pinned to his vest. Despite the whiskers on his face, the boy barely looked old enough to shave.

“Mornin’, gentlemen.”

“Constable,” I said.

“Deputy Chief Constable, truth to tell. Thought I’d stop by and—blessed be.” He looked at the beadwork in Plio’s tendrils and lit up like a beacon. “Cor. Ascendant caste, innit?”

Plio raised an eyebrow in quiet appreciation. “Very good, Deputy. Fifth Sect of Gant, Chromatic Semitone. Keepers of the Sacred Stones of Veo Veo Vash.”

“Brilliant.”

I watched the bizarre exchange for a moment. “You’ve got quite an eye for Gantish heraldry, Deputy. Get out of these valleys very often?”

“What? Oh, no sir.” He blushed and stepped back. “My cousin Gilbert had him a scholarship to Oxford-on-Athene when he was younger. Sent me copies of his schoolbooks an’ such.”

“I’m Special Agent Caul. My friend with the stones is Special Agent Plio Plio Ah.”

“Hollis Foley, Junior.” He shook my hand. “Talk from the lads in Glencolumbkille says the Hero of New Philadelphia is on the loose. You’re a right long way from home.”

“We’re sightseeing,” said Plio.

“Tell you what. Glencolumbkille may as well be on the other side of Creation. I reckon I don’t have to say nothin’ to ‘em if you don’t.”

I nodded. “I appreciate a man who goes his own way.”

The boy smiled again and patted the strider’s sinuous neck. It was a handsome animal, a lanky feathered reptile built for speed. “Go get somethin’ to eat, Dejah. There’s a good girl.”

Foley’s overgrown lizard snapped its jaws and trotted off in the direction of the barn. Striders were carrion eaters. I didn’t want to think about what its meal might entail.

I looked out over the cropland instead. “So what’s the story, son? You find our girl yet?”

“Ain’t no one to find. It’s pretty quiet right now. Most of the fields are lyin’ fallow. Just finished up a harvest of witch’s minge to feed the livestock. Winter wheat’s next. I ain’t seen nothin’ to prove your bird made it this far at all.”

“Is that a fact.” I didn’t say anything about Kavita’s vehicle or the wildflowers. “What’s on your assay, Special Agent?”

“Minge.” He pointed to the phosphor screen.

“Brilliant.”

“Traces of field corn, chaff, assorted grains. I’m noting the presence of helium, however. Very faint. It could be an echo of noble gasses from the bauble periphery overhead. The stratum here is highly reflective.”

“Helium?” I read the gauges on his bewildering brass-and-wood apparatus. “We’re going about this backward. Run another assay, a deep one. Access the Seeing Stone again and cross-reference all known constants in surroundings such as these. I mean all of them, native and imported. Factor out the common cause variables. We’ll see what’s left.”

“That will take some time.”

“Understood.” I tapped the corner of my eye. “Telegraph the results directly through here. I want to review them firsthand. Deputy Foley?” I pointed my unshaven chin to the farmhouse.

“Name’s Linus Caines,” Foley said. “He’s a harmless ol’ sod. Been here forever.”

I found myself wanting to pace, stroking the unaccustomed presence of whiskers on my cheek. We were getting nowhere very quickly.

“Deputy, I have it on good authority that my girl made it as far as the ansible propagator in Myddleham-on-Tyne. Which against all logic is apparently right here. So if you don’t mind....”

Foley counted the stitches in his boots. I thought he might keep us at arm’s length like the constables in Glencolumbkille had, but he turned and faced the house.

“Linus? It’s Hollis Foley. Why don’t you c’mon out here an’ talk to these gentlemen.” Silence. “Linus Caines! I don’t want’a have to come in there an’ get you!”

“We just want to ask him a few questions, son. He’ll feel better if you’re alongside us.”

“These are my people, sir. Let’s go pay us a visit.”

The boy was turning out to be a stand-up fellow. I liked that. We approached the house.

“I’ve got the assay conjuring,” Plio said. “We’ll receive the results soon enough.”

We stepped onto the porch, and I knocked on the door.

“Mister Caines, this is Agent Romulus Caul from Special Branch. Deputy Foley is here with me.” I knocked again. “Please open the door, sir.”

Nothing.

I motioned to Plio that Foley and I would circle the house and come round from behind. He nodded and prepared to hold Caines’s attention from the porch.

“Mister Caines,” said Plio. “A young woman with the Royal Company of Makers may have passed this way. Anything you might know with regards to her whereabouts would help us immeasur—”

A shrill mechanical whine rose from inside the house, and the door exploded in wood and high-density shot. Plio flew backwards and crashed to the walk with a nauseating thud, wet goo spurting from a dozen holes in his chest. I grabbed Foley’s cloak and threw him sideways, diving after him as a second explosion thrummed. Railgun. A Goliathon 8-gauge, from the sound of it.

“To Hell with you!” A man’s voice, deep and heavy with years. “Sod off now while you’re still able!”

I pressed Foley between my back and the wall; drew the Navy Persuader, and fixed it on the gaping cavity where the door had been.

“Plio!” I yelled. “Plio! Status, brother!”

He lay sprawled on his back, immersed in a pool of the thick lavender ichor his race used as circulatory fluid.

“Well, that’s bloody wonderful,” he answered, his voice strained and gurgling. “I just bought this suit.”

He stopped twitching, and the gleam in his eyes went dark.

Shit! Shit, shit. I should have seen this coming. Damn my cocksure arrogance.

“Back me up, Hollis.”

I dove through the ruined door and rolled behind a quilt-draped settee. Another blast roared overhead and shattered a cupboard behind me. The old fool was packing a Hell of a wallop, I’ll grant him that.

Foley’s sidearm barked in response. I waited, my vitals pumping madly, then surveyed the room as best I could. It was finished as befit a simple country house: low ceiling, narrow doors and windows, a wood-burning stove to heat the small space.

A door slammed in the cook room, followed by rapid footfalls. I ran in. Breakfast dishes were drying in the basin. Through a kitchen window I saw Caines duck into the barn, the railgun cradled in his arms. I followed, charging across the yard in anger-fueled overdrive.

I slid to a stop beside the barn doors and weighed my options in the space between seconds. I spun inside...

...and was immediately confounded by the perspective-shift of dimensional transition. The walls and slate roof receded away faster than my electrick eyes could follow.

The barn was a foldbox, thaumaturgically built to occupy more space inside than it did outside. Dammitall. Harvest Home was proving to be an endless pain-in-the-ass full of surprises.

It was dark, just a few shafts of sunlight beaming through gaps in the slate, and was thick with the brown odor of animals and dry grass. I expanded my eyes’ capacity to see in shadow and fired the Persuader two or three times at random.

“Come on out, Pop,” I said, circling the cavernous space, keeping my back to something solid at all times. Luminous motes flitted out of the straw underfoot with each heavy step. “I’ll bring the whole place down if I have to. There’s nowhere you can go.”

Which was a lie, of course. There was no way to tell how many exits had been built into the foldbox. The space was taken up by threshers, grain cradles, and mountains of rolled hay; enough to service the entire community. Draft animals were lowing in stalls along the wall, most of them galumphers and great horned thunderbacks. All I could do was keep the old fool occupied while Foley took him out from behind. I cranked up my hearing.

“Let’s talk about the girl, Pop. Her name is Kavita. Did you know that? A happy girl, with a beautiful young woman at home waiting to marry her. You’ve seen Kavita, haven’t you. Couldn’t have missed her, a pretty thing like that. But we’ve got a problem, Pop. We don’t know where she is, and I’d truly like to believe that you do. So why don’t you tell me about it. I’ve got plenty of time.”

Timbers creaked, above and behind.

He was in the loft.

“Clear off!”

I turned, Persuader up, as a heavy cask of rainwater crashed down like one of the Hercules mass-drivers they use to drill tunnels in the Downbelow. I spun out of the way as it hit the floor and shattered. Metal bands whipped back, slicing above my eyes, slamming into my shoulder. My arm rang like steel before I’d even hit the ground.

I lay there, hanging onto consciousness, blood trickling from my forehead; heard the rainwater draining through cracks in the split timbers, wet splashes echoing far away. There was an open space beneath the barn, a deep one.

Caines peered over the loft’s edge, crying, the railgun shaking in his hands. He was older than I’d thought, his face like care-worn leather.

“I ain’t touched that girl,” he wept. “I just ran her off is all. Why cain’t you buggers let me be?”

Dust and allergen-laden straw floated down about me, as if my less-than-perfectly attuned immunities weren’t taxed enough already. I was sure my shoulder was broken. If I’d been any slower, my entire left side would have been crushed. I silently cursed the alchemic wirework in my mechanicals and their dratted capacity to relay pain.

A placement-marker blinked in my eyes—the telegraph from Plio’s divining-assay, still functioning. The familiar dots and dashes of Mr. Morse’s code slid across an exhibition display that only I could see:

Seeing Stone access/begin: Compositional cross-reference aborted. Target area obstructed by ionized helium, surface to minus thirty feet. Reconnaissance divination cannot penetrate. Adjust assay constants to include ionized particles. Seeing Stone access/end.

What the Hell was this? Helium....

Aw, shit. Foley, you stupid, stupid bastard....

The young deputy chose that moment to catch up with us. He ran into the barn through a side door and skidded to a stop three or four yards away. A nasty welt blemished the side of his face where I’d tossed him on Caines’s porch. Blood matted his beard.

His weapon was drawn and pointed directly at me.

I thought it best not to move any more than was necessary. The electrick recoil was agonizing. I really wanted to be back on Johanna’s ship.

“Nice to see you, Deputy,” I said through clenched teeth, born of equal parts pain, anger at Foley’s betrayal, and my own failure to reason it out sooner. “Where’ve you been, time enough for tea or did you need to use the loo?”

“I’m sorry, Agent Caul.” Perspiration beaded on his brow. I could see straight down the barrel of his gun. “You should have left when I told you there was nothing here to see.”

“That did occur to me, but then we would have missed all this country hospitality.”

“Again, I’m sorry.”

Think fast, Regulator. My weapons were mere inches from my fingertips but even I couldn’t outpace a bullet. The pounding in my head increased by the second.

“I have to hand it to the old codger,” I finally said.

“Meaning what?”

“I keep thinking about Kavita Patel, you know, and the ways in which she might have disappeared. It gnaws at me. You can bury her, chop her up, even burn her to ash with only bits of teeth and bone left behind for your trouble. But you know what really sparks the imagination? You can turn her invisible, so to speak. It looks as if your friend Caines here figured out a way to accomplish just that.”

“What’s goin’ on down there, Hollis?”

“Linus, not now.”

I had to keep their attention focused solely on me. “Know anything about glamours, Deputy?”

One of his eyes twitched. “Can’t honestly say that I do.”

“Neither do I, truthfully, not in the strictest sense. Now I don’t mean glamours of a thaumaturgical nature, the sort that can hex a man into seeing something that isn’t really there. I mean quite the opposite—a glamour within which you can’t see anything at all.”

“What’s he on about, Hollis? He talks like a book.”

“Linus, please!”

“You see, Deputy, if a steady current of electricks were to be administered to a gas—a noble gas—it could result in some very interesting military applications, which is something I do understand. The presence of, say, ionized helium, to pick a random example, can be manipulated to confuse reconnaissance divination, the same way a glamour can confuse the mortal eye.”

“Do tell.” His gun hand was trembling, his shirt soaked through the chest and down his sides.

“It’s all those charged particles swirling about each other like hornets, deflecting an assay’s line of sight as would a carefully aimed mirror. Now what do you suppose old Linus here would want to hide under all this hay?”

Foley said nothing.

“Not that it would be without some degree of difficulty. I imagine specialized schooling would be required, and the only place with a curriculum like that in the Outers is Oxford-on-Athene. Your cousin, yes? Assuming he’s not just a figment of your imagination in the first place.”

Something dark passed over Foley’s face. “I’ll thank you to speak of my family with respect, sir.”

“Strike a nerve, son?”

“Gilbert met his end when he was fourteen. We were climbing atop one of the harvester automatons and he fell. I watched him break his neck, Agent Caul. Don’t dishonor him again.”

I suddenly became aware that Foley’s vocal pattern had changed. The thick rural inflection was gone, his bearing and manner more refined. When the Hell had that happened?

“One can argue,” I countered, “that you’re better connected to the Aspects outside Harvest Home than you let on, Deputy. Your interest in Agent Plio Ah was a bit too on the beam.”

“It wasn’t a problem to switch the University records from my name to Gilbert’s. I had to.”

“You use a dead boy to hide your identity, then lecture me about respect?”

“I said it wasn’t a problem, damn you. I didn’t say it was easy.”

“He’s talkin’ bollocks, Hollis!” pleaded Caines. “Don’t pay him no mind!”

“Shut it, Linus!” Foley said. “Sweet Mother Earth, both of you just shut it! I have to think this through.”

A silhouette moved in my peripherals. Caines’s callused finger tightened around the railgun’s trigger. I needed just a few more seconds....

“Let me be honest with you, Hollis. I don’t understand what’s happening here. I truly don’t. But I will, I promise you that. Just as surely as I’m taking you down right now.”

“Drop the weapons!” Plio stood in the open barn door, thick purple fluid dripping from his ravaged torso. He had a Sharps Emancipator luminiferous carbine trained on Foley’s sidearm and looked transcendentally inconvenienced.

Foley raised his pistol. Caines flinched sideways. A ruby flash sliced across the boy’s gun hand. He screamed and fell. I grabbed the Nullifier and fired into the loft. Caines was out before he hit the hay-blanketed floor.

I held on a beat, then collapsed back into the mud and started to breathe again. It felt good.

Plio dropped his Emancipator and knelt beside me, examining my arm and the gash above my eyes. The center of his body had been shredded in the railgun blast, but he’d managed to pull most of it back together. Thank Heaven for the resilience of his liquid physiology. You can’t keep a good metamorph down.

“Honestly, Romulus, look at this mess. I can’t take you anywhere.”

I wiped blood from my eyes and sighed. “I love you too, brother.”

I dosed myself with industrial-strength pain foggers and immobilized my arm in a make-shift sling. It would’ve been easier just to detach the arm altogether, but the flanges and swivel-joint in my mangled shoulder were bent out of true. Plio bound the men’s wrists with electrick shackles and buckled a set of brain-obfuscators about their heads. An offshoot of shock therapy, the devices fed current through the cerebrum and played havoc with intelligible thought, rendering subjects quite docile in the process; provided, of course, they didn’t chew through their own tongues.

I looked back at Foley, his eyes twitching and vacant. “They’ve got a glamour, Plio.”

“I saw the analysis on my divining-assay. Romulus, these are hardly the adolescent pranks of harvest season. Something is going on. Something big.”

“You can say that again.”

“Any idea where the Engine is hidden?”

Rainwater trickled through the timbers of the barn floor, splashing down into the open space below.

“Yeah. A pretty damned good idea, at that.”

Concluded in Pt. 2, in Issue #143


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Dean Wells is author of the ongoing post-steampunk series "The Clockwork Millennials." His short fiction has appeared in Ideomancer, 10Flash Quarterly, Eldritch Tales, ShadowKeep Magazine, and The Nocturnal Lyric, as well as multiple times in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. He's also written for the performing arts in various capacities. Dean is an active member of SFWA. Visit him online at www.dean-wells.com

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