Monday, January 05, 2009

 

Free Fiction: "Secret Histories: Peter R. Bonaventure, 1885"

It's been too long since I've shared any free fiction here on the Ramble. My apologies, internets.

The following is a standalone chapter from Cybermancy Incorporated (which is currently out of print, but is available on the Kindle), which might be of interest to the readers of my forthcoming novel, End of the Century. Several characters from this story reappear in the new novel, which also addresses the question as to whether there is any connection between this Jules Dulac and the Giles Dulac of Set the Seas on Fire.

Conversely, if you enjoy this story and want to find out what happens in that "story for another time" mentioned at the close, you'll want to check out End of the Century.

Secret Histories: Peter R. Bonaventure, 1885
by Chris Roberson

It was six weeks out of Bristol that the island was sighted. A Welsh seaman working aft had got the first glimpse of it, and for his troubles had earned a five pound bonus on their return to port. The steamer ship, the Clemency out of Liverpool, would be near enough to send over a landing party by sunrise on the following day. With any luck, the mystery of the phantom island would be put to rest by week’s end.

Professor Peter R. Bonaventure, noted explorer and member in good standing of the Hythloday Club, had spent the better part of the voyage stationed near the prow of the ship, his gray eyes scanning the far horizon, either alone or in quiet conversation with his associate, Jules Dulac. Bonaventure had been commissioned by the Royal Geographical Society to investigate reports of a new island which had appeared suddenly a few hundred fathoms from the coast of Ireland, as he had performed certain useful functions for the Society in years past. However, as he was not officially affiliated with the Society, except in the most tenuous of circumstances, it was decided that he should be accompanied by Mervyn Fawkes, MA in Geography and Cartography at Oxford, lecturer at Cambridge.

Fawkes had been a junior representative to the Society on Joseph Thompson’s later expeditions through eastern Africa, his contribution to the effort noted by the Society’s president. While still a student at Oxford, he had written a monograph on the problem of accurately sounding the depths of the continental shelf and the mid-Atlantic reaches, which had caught the eye of more than a few of the Society’s members, and had resulted in correspondence with such notables as Fergusson and Von Hardwigg. For all of that, Fawkes had developed the distinct impression that Bonaventure did not welcome his inclusion on the expedition, though the older man had not made any concrete statement to that effect. As it was, Fawkes held the Professor somewhat in awe, owing to the accounts delivered to the RGS over the course of several years as to the gentleman’s doings abroad. Having spent the past week in Bonaventure’s company, however, and having attempted unsuccessfully to draw him into discussions on certain key scientific topics, Fawkes had begun to suspect that perhaps the Professor’s reputation might have been artificially inflated.

The first reports of the phantom island had been made two months before, in February of that year. As the London papers to that point had been filled with stories of the bloody rebellion at Khartoum, and the subsequent massacre, the publishers were only too happy to turn their attentions to matters of a less grave nature, and to excite the public interest with a mystery of an entirely benign aspect. In the weeks that followed, the initial reports were corroborated by ship captains and sailors who frequented the North Atlantic passages, each offering detail in agreement with those previously recorded.

In short, it seemed that, in a theretofore open channel between Ireland and the reaches of the North Atlantic, had appeared without warning a new and fully formed island. It was, by all accounts, of perhaps a few square miles, dominated by two hills, with an open bay or river mouth presenting itself to the open sea. A low bank of fog seemed to shroud the island, in most reports, and any ship attempting to land on the island found herself lost momentarily in the fog, then passed back again to the open sea, the island nowhere in sight.

The initial accounts of this phantom island were dismissed out of hand by the educated men of England, the purported “island” seen either as seamen’s delusion or a mirage. With the increasing number of respected mariners coming forward, however, all with stories identical in most particulars, it was decided that some effort must be put forward to get to the heart of the matter. The Royal Geographical Society called upon Peter Bonaventure, and Bonaventure rose to the challenge.

###

From Mervyn Fawkes’ Journal:

I find, increasingly, that I do not trust Professor B___. His manner has been most dismissive throughout this entire expedition, and he seems more inclined to value the counsel of his manservant D___ or the seamen aboard this vessel than that of a fellow scientist such as myself. To that point, he seems hardly a scientist of any stripe. I have questioned him repeatedly on his theories regarding the phantom island, and advanced my own view that it might be the result of the gradual shifting of the earth’s crust around its molten core, resulting in the displacement of some seafloor strata. Professor B___ has not seen fit to share his own theories, and on the topic of my own will only point out, in his somewhat smug manner, that any tremor or displacement sufficient to create a new land mass must certainly have been felt a few hundred fathoms away on the coast. He seems extremely short sighted, in my view, and I have begun to question the decision of the Society to place him in control of this expedition, rather than opting for a member of the Society itself.

###

The steamer dropped anchor just after sunrise, Professor Bonaventure and his landing party setting out aboard two dinghies. In addition to the Professor, his man Dulac, and Mr. Fawkes, came two members of the Clemency’s crew, hand-picked by their captain for the occasion. Bonaventure had interviewed each briefly after his selection, and given the captain’s choice his imprimatur. The first of them, Taggart, an American, had in his youth fought on the side of the secessionists during the American Civil War, and had served as a midshipman aboard the CSS Florida, a steamer ship employed by the secessionists which had been sturdily built by solid Liverpudlian hands. The second, Calhoun, an Irishman, had been a supporter of Home Rule in his native country, a fiery-eyed follower of Charlie Parnell. With Parnell imprisoned, and Irish sovereignty no closer than it had been years before, Calhoun had put out to sea. Like Taggart, he’d been on the losing side of one too many fights.

The fog bank, described in so many of the accounts of the phantom island, hung about the coast like a halo, nearly obscuring the mass entirely. From the deck of the Clemency, the crew had been able to sight the hills only dimly, and could not make out any manner of habitation or settlement. The dinghies, breaking through the fog, came at last in clear sight of the island. As described by so many mariners, the island presented two hills of identical size, one wooded, the other rocky and barren, with a valley in between.

“It has not, as yet,” Bonaventure remarked, “eluded us.”

“Perhaps,” his man Dulac replied, in his slight Gallic accent, “it is frightened off by the approach of larger ships, as reported, and our two small craft have yet to make an impression.”

“Hardly,” said Fawkes, from his position in the other craft, rowed alongside with strong strokes by the Irishman Calhoun. “I fail to see why you persist in anthropomorphising the thing.” This last was directed at Dulac, with whom Fawkes had shared hardly a civil word, but the meat of it was intended for Bonaventure.

“I have seen, in my time,” Bonaventure replied, “stranger sights than you might imagine. The reaction of some newfound land to foreign intrusion is hardly the strangest.”

Calhoun, from his post in the prow of the craft, turned momentarily to glance in the direction of the island, both to ensure his course, and to get at last a clear look at their goal. He wore a worried expression on his face, and turning back to his labors muttered something low under his breath.

“What was that?” demanded Fawkes, gripping the board of his seat. “What did you say?” He had displayed little patience for the crew of the steamer, and even less for the Hibernian.

“Tír fo-Thuin,” the Irishman replied in his ancient tongue, and then translated, “The Land Beneath the Waves. It is a legend in my country, the Island of the Blessed, the home of the saints.”

“Rubbish,” Fawkes answered.

“I wouldn’t say so,” Bonaventure called from the other craft, overhearing. “In my experience, the legends of the ancients often have a solid foundation in reality, and our Mr. Calhoun might be right in thinking we are seeing here the source and origin of his people’s myth.”

Fawkes sulked in silence, hardly seeming pleased with the company.

The two crafts beached at last, the expedition set out to make a quick survey of the island. They began by charting the shoreline, one party of Bonaventure, Dulac and Taggart starting off along the beach to the North, another of Fawkes and Calhoun heading off to the south. Just before they parted, strange sounds could be heard from the interior, like the wailing of the damned, or an animal’s cry of terror. Bonaventure, paused for a long moment, listening until the tumult died on the wind, and then ordered the two groups to proceed.

“But, pray God,” he added, “be careful.”

###

From Mervyn Fawkes’ Journal:

A quick note as I walk, a habit I picked up in East Africa from Thompson. Thus far, after less than two hours exploration, I can state with confidence that no such island has ever before been glimpsed by man. The regularity of the coast, and the uniformity of the twin hills, would indicate, were such a thing not wholly impossible, some intelligent hand behind its formation. The arc of coast the seaman and I have thus far marked out is, impossibly, a virtually pristine and perfect mathematical figure, describing a curve corresponding to one portion of a perfect circle. The twin hills, the bulk of the wooden one dominating this portion of the island, appear from my vantage point identical in height and breadth, the one distinguishable from the other only in the differing composition of their covering (the one covered in what appears to be stout pine or some other evergreen, the other seemingly barren and rocky). The river, which we glimpsed from the boats, seems to run on a gentle recurve, east to west, through the heart of the island. When the seaman and I forded it, we found it pure and sweet freshwater, and standing along its banks and looking inland, we fancied we could see straight to the ocean on the other side. We should rendezvous with Professor B___’s party shortly, at which point we will begin our journey into the interior, and hopefully quickly come to the bottom of those strange noises which earlier sounded.

###

The two parties convened again within a few hours’ time, and after a comparison of their findings, agreed that the island was, in fact, an almost perfect circle. A few theories were quickly offered, and as quickly dismissed, touching on the cause of such an unusual geographical formation, but with the return of the anguished wailing sounds from the interior, attentions were soon turned from the question entirely.

All told, the island seemed about three miles in diameter, with the river each party had passed, one group at the eastern extremity, the other at the western, bisecting it neatly down the middle. How this freshwater river might run in two directions, east and west, was another question postponed by the growing interest in the mystery of the interior.

Returning quickly along the coast to the site of their landfall, the party prepared a base camp where the tree-line met the sands, and then set off as a group into the heavily wooded interior. Taggart and Calhoun armed themselves with long-bladed knives, both to assist their passage through the undergrowth and to defend themselves should the need arise. Bonaventure wore a brace of pistols, and Dulac carried a long-barreled repeating rifle, while Fawkes was armed only with a revolver.

The going was slow through the trees, which as Fawkes had suspected were some genus of evergreen. Dulac, who had some experience with botany, could not say with certainty what type they were, though he agreed with Fawkes, somewhat reluctantly, that they seemed closely related to the pine.

At the first, Calhoun and Taggart led the party, hacking at the brambles and branches with their knives, the plants themselves seeming to resist their passage. After a brief rest, all of them fatigued and weary, Bonaventure instead took the lead, finding a passage through the growth that did not necessitate cutting, and the going was that much easier.

The party came at last to the foot of the wooded hill they had seen from the shore, and judging it the best vantage point to make a quick observation of the island, made their ascent.

“There,” Bonaventure said, once they had reached the hill’s peak, “do you see that shadow at the base of the opposite hill?”

He pointed, indicating a dark area across the river where the rocky hill rose above the trees.

“A cave?” Dulac answered, to which Bonaventure nodded in agreement.

“Still,” Fawkes observed, “nothing to indicate a source of that horrible wailing with which we’ve twice been assaulted.”

“Nor anything to suggest where this spot of land might have come from, two months past,” replied Bonaventure.

“Maybe what you’re looking for is in that there cave,” commented Taggart, momentarily breaking with his accustomed silence.

“Possibly,” Bonaventure answered.

“What in heaven’s name is that?” cut in Calhoun, pointing down the side of the hill upon which they stood.

The other four crowded around to see, and following the line of Calhoun’s sight saw a dark shape flit from the top of one tall tree to another.

“It’s just a bird,” Fawkes replied.

“I’ve never seen a bird like that,” Calhoun answered.

“Nor have I,” Bonaventure added, stepping forward. “Dulac, with me.”

The Frenchman joined him, and together they crept down the hillside towards the dark shape, leaving the other three to watch safely from the hilltop.

“It has no feathers, but leathery wings,” Dulac whispered to the Professor, his eyes narrowed. The Frenchman had remarkable eyesight, and was often called upon by his associate in that capacity.

“Nor any head that I can discern,” answered Bonaventure as quietly. “It looks something like a bat, but twisted and wrong.”

The pair stopped cautiously a few dozen yards from the tree in which the creature perched. Seen from this nearer vantage point, the dark creature seemed if anything more mysterious and otherworldly than it had from a distance. It clung to a high branch on the pine-like tree with menacing talons of the same uniform black as the rest of its body, slowly moving its wings as though cooling itself, or preparing for a sudden flight. As Bonaventure had remarked, the thing seemed to have no discernable head, just a cavernous wound-like mouth that stretched between the joints of the two wings, opening and closing rhythmically with an unsettling smacking sound.

“I can safely say,” Dulac observed, “that I have never seen anything like that in all my travels.”

“Nor have I,” answered Bonaventure. Holstering the pistol which seemed to have appeared unbidden in his hand on their approach, the Professor uncoiled a length of rope from the pack at his back, fashioning a hasty lariat.

“I’d like to have a closer look at that little monster,” he instructed his associate, “if you’d be so good as to keep your rifle at the ready.”

Dulac nodded wordlessly, raising his repeating rifle to his shoulder and taking careful aim. Both of them were reluctant to do much more than capture and examine the creature, but if it came to a choice between scientific discovery and the safety of his good friend the Professor, Dulac would err on the side of caution.

Bonaventure crept toward the tree which housed the black creature, positioning himself a few yards off, and began to twirl his rope lariat, first in a loop over the shaded ground, then to one side, and finally overhead.

“Now,” Bonaventure said softly, “to see if the tricks Taylor and his Chinaman friend taught me will pay off.”

With that, he let fly with the lariat, placing the loop around the creature squarely between its wings. Pulling taut the line, Bonaventure planted his feet solidly and brought it down to earth. In the span of a single breath, Dulac was at his side, his rifle still trained on the winged creature.

“Can you somehow stun the thing?” Dulac asked, eyeing nervously the rapid working of the creature’s mouth and talons. A strange, high pitched whine was issuing from the cavernous mouth, sounding like the pathetic cry of a drowning animal.

Before Bonaventure had the chance to answer, the ground at their feet seemed to erupt, the air filling in a heartbeat with a cloud of black wings, grasping talons and gaping mouths.

The Professor released his hold on the downed creature, his hands flying to the pistols holstered on either hip, and all thoughts of scientific inquiry forgotten, he and Dulac met the onslaught of the black creatures with a hail of bullets. A single shot appeared sufficient to take down each of the winged creatures, but the succeeding waves that replaced the fallen ones seemed almost endless. Firing and reloading, firing and reloading, Bonaventure and the Frenchman worked their way down the hill, joined partway by the two crewmen of the Clemency, whooping loudly and swinging their long knives at anything that moved. Fawkes, hanging back, let off a shot or two from his revolver behind the safe cover of sheltering trees.

By the time the party reached their base camp at the shore, bruised and covered with the gore of their countless kills, the last of the creatures was down. Thankfully, they had sustained no permanent injuries, and had even had the foresight to preserve one of the least damaged of the creatures for later study. As the light dimmed, they discussed in low tones the close shave they’d had with the mysterious creatures, and wondered aloud at what other perils the strange island might have in store for them.

###

From Mervyn Fawkes’ Journal:

We have established a watch for the night, and are spending the evening hours recovering from our troubles of the day. Come the morning, we will ford the river, and make our way to the cave I spotted from the hilltop. With any luck, we should avoid any more of these flocks of strange bats, and once within the cave will discover if it contains the keys that will unlock the secrets which have presented themselves to us. (The seamen, despite Professor B___’s gaffs of the day, seem more taken with him than ever. I had hoped to wrest control of the expedition from him by inches, but at this stage I’ll have to content myself with carrying out my own researches, and leave the Professor and his lackeys to their own devices.)

###

The party reached the cave’s mouth just after sunrise, having set out from the base camp in the still dark hours of the early morning. To that point, they had as yet not encountered any more of the black winged creatures that had harried them the day before, and which the American seaman Taggart had taken to calling “devil bats.” Even so, they were cautious as they proceeded, hands never straying too far from holstered pistols or shoulder-slung rifles, and each man carrying a surplus of additional ammunition.

Closer by, the stone of the barren and rocky hill was less gray, as it had seemed from a distance, and more of a pinkish green color. To the touch the stone had an almost porous quality, and when a small amount of water was poured from a canteen onto one area the stone drank it in like a sponge. What was remarkable about the composition of the hill was that, although it seemed as irregular and random in shape as any other hill or mountain one might chance upon, it appeared to be composed of a single large stone. There was no gravel, no boulders, no sand gritting underfoot. From the base to its pinnacle, so far as the party could see, the mountain was a single, monolithic mass.

The mouth of the cave itself, which they had glimpsed from the opposite hill the day before, was an irregular opening at the base of the mass, roughly ovoid in shape, and wider than the five men standing shoulder to shoulder. Within, the darkness was profound, an inky black well which seemed primordial night even when viewed from the bright day above. Taggart and Calhoun had fashioned torches for the party in the night, and with these lit, sputtering and smoking but casting a wide circle of light, the party descended into the cave.

Professor Bonaventure, in the lead, having had no small experience with speluncar exploration, quickly found that his expertise was of little application in this expedition. The cave did not conform to the characteristics of any subterranean cavity he had previously encountered, neither those created by the passage of molten hot rock nor those worn slowly away by water over the passage of millennia. If the cave resembled any others at all, in the Professor’s experience, it was the coral caves found in shallow waters; the delicately curved and slightly bulbous walls of the cavity were similar in some respects to those submarine voids left behind by the growth of a coral colony. Unlike coral with its delicate lace and filigree, however, the walls of this particular cave were solid and sound, virtually diamond-hard, and interrupted only by small openings every few yards, each about the size of a closed fist, which seemed to lead to narrow passages or fissures in the rock.

The party had descended for some time, single file, down the smooth and easy passage of the cave, when Calhoun remarked that he thought he noticed a lightening of the darkness ahead. They were, by the Professor’s best estimate, at or just below sea level at that point, and had as yet not encountered any obstacle, nor any useful information.

“What was that?!” barked Dulac, leaping backwards suddenly, almost colliding with Fawkes who followed in his steps at the rear.

Before anyone could respond, Fawkes squealed like a child in terror, and dropping his torch to the ground scrambled forward to join the rest of the party.

“What is it, man?” Bonaventure demanded of Dulac, ignoring Fawkes.

“Something brushed past my leg,” the Frenchman answered, angling his torch towards the ground.

“It… it… it b-bit me,” Fawkes added, his voice strained.

Taggart dropped to a crouch to check the condition of Fawkes’ legs, while Bonaventure stepped back to join Dulac.

“What was it, do you think?” Calhoun asked, holding his torch higher with one hand, tightening his grip on his long knife in the other.

“I don’t know,” Dulac answered, “but if felt as though something had passed over my foot. A solid mass, like a large snake, perhaps.”

Bonaventure stood still, his head cocked to one side, listening to the darkness beyond the meager reach of their torches’ light.

“How is he?” he asked the crewman.

“He’s fine,” answered Taggart dismissively, letting go of Fawkes’ leg and standing. “Not a mark on him.”

“I thought myself bitten,” Fawkes said in his own defense.

“Count yourself lucky you were not,” Bonaventure answered. He retrieved Fawkes’ dropped torch, relit it from his own, and returned to the head of the line. “Come on, men,” he added, “we’ll press on. But keep a watchful eye, particularly on these fissures. We don’t know what they might hide.”

The party continued on, and within a few dozen steps found their torches were no longer needed. As Calhoun had remarked, the cave grew lighter as they progressed downward the white bands, first with a slight lightening of the darkness growing slowly brighter with each step, until at last they were able to see one another and the cave around them unaided. The light, which seemed a variety of phosphorescence, had a pale greenish quality to it, and seemed to emanate from the very cave walls around them.

Further on, the passage seemed to widen, both in height and breadth, until at last they found themselves standing in the midst of an immense cavern larger than the grandest ballroom in Europe. In the center of the cavity rose a wide pillar a few feet tall, with a wide, chair-like mass at its crown. In the dim light, the party could see seated atop this chair the wizened and desiccated figure of a man in tattered rags.

“Hello?” Taggart called uncertainly.

“He’s long past answering,” Bonaventure replied, stepping forward. “By the state of him, I’d say he’s been dead some five years.”

The Professor waved Dulac and Taggart forward, and mounted the low step-like protuberances to the level of the “chair.”

“You’re right,” the crewman answered. “He’s not talking.”

The man, who seemed almost mummified, sucked dry of all life and moisture, was seated on the chair-like stone as though it were a throne, his arms at his sides, his hands resting palms down on the porous surface of the rock. His clothes hung in tatters around him, all colors dimmed to a dirty gray in the greenish light of the cave walls. His unseeing eyes were open, pointed directly ahead, and his mouth hung open in a silent scream.

“Look there,” Dulac said, pointing to the figure’s chest.

Around the neck of the desiccated figure hung a small bronze medallion on a fine link chain. Gingerly, the Professor reached forward, and drew the necklace from around the figure’s head without disturbing the remains. He turned it over in his hands, and found an insignia comprised of the letters “J” and “C” superimposed on an antique globe on the front, a brief inscription on the obverse. The inscription read, “In recognition for services rendered to His Royal Majesty Henry VII, 1496.

“What does it mean?” asked Taggart.

“It means, unless I miss my guess,” Bonaventure replied, “that we have found the last resting place of John Cabot, a now nearly forgotten explorer of the late fifteenth century. He was commissioned in 1496 to chart a northern sea passage to the East in opposition to Columbus’ southern route, and was successful in that he eventually made landfall in the New World, thinking it the Asian continent. He was lost at sea a short time later, however, in an attempt to find an island to act as a midpoint station between the East and Britain. He was trying to find the fabled island of Hy Brasil.”

The others looked from Bonaventure to one another slowly, and then stepped respectfully away from the wizened figure on the stone. In silence, they surveyed the rest of the chamber carefully, though Fawkes lingered by the stone chair, his hands resting gently on the rough surface.

There were a number of smaller passages opening off the main chamber, seeming to lead up into the body of the hill, and the continuation of the small fist-sized fissures they had seen in the passage. Besides the central chair-like pillar, there were a number of other stone outcroppings of varying sizes positioned about the cave, though unlike stalagmites they did not have corresponding protuberances descending from the ceiling above. Other than the discovery of the four-hundred-year-old corpse in an unusually slight state of decay, however, they found nothing more of note, even after a few hours’ searching.

Finally, the Professor called the members of the party together. Indicating his pocket watch, he informed them that, if they planned to be back at their base camp by nightfall, they would have to start back. No one was eager to be out in the jungle after dark, not with the threat of the devil bats still hanging over them.

The caverns, Bonaventure announced, while still potentially part and parcel of the mystery of the phantom island, did not contain the answers for which they searched. There were still several square miles of jungle to search, and it would be best to get an early start the following day.

Relighting their torches, and returning the way they had come, the party made their way back into the light of day.

###

From Mervyn Fawkes’ Journal:

I find, hours later, that I cannot drive the strange impressions engendered by the green glowing cave, and by the figure of the man on the stone chair, from my mind. While Professor B____ and the others went about their pointless explorations of the chambers, I made it a point to make a careful study of the pillar. I thought at several instances that I could hear a steady and low humming noise from the roof of the cavity, though when questioned on it neither Professor B_____ nor the others would allow that they could detect it. Even now, miles away, in the quiet stillness I fancy that I can hear it still, like a low and thrumming song, the heart of the island calling to me. I have no doubt that the figure of the man in the stone chair is precisely as Professor B_____ has opined, a lost fifteenth century explorer, but I think that the others are mistaken in assuming it sheer chance that the sailor found his end here on this island. It occurs to me, remembering the air of potency which seemed to pervade the caverns, that the answers we seek are to be found there in that chamber, there upon that stone chair. Professor B____ does not agree, but in this, as in all things, the professor is a fool.

###

Come the following morning, the party found Mervyn Fawkes missing. He had pulled the straw for the last watch, from the early morning hours until sunrise, and appeared to have stolen away in the night.

“Where has he gone?” Dulac asked.

“From the looks of things,” Bonaventure answered, indicating prints in the beach sand and tracks through the undergrowth, “Fawkes has headed back towards the rocky hill.”

“I say let him go,” Taggart said.

“He’s not been much use to us so far,” Calhoun added, “no offense intended.”

“Hmm,” answered the Professor. “I’d hoped to make a closer survey of the jungle today, and look for any sign of other landfalls like the ill-fated Cabot, but I’m loath to put a member of my expedition at risk through my inaction. No, I’m afraid we’ll have to go after Mr. Fawkes, and hope that he hasn’t run afoul of any of those devil bats, or whatever startled Dulac in the caverns yesterday.”

Grumbling, the other members of the party reluctantly agreed, and provisioning themselves followed the trail Fawkes had left in his wake. Just after they had set out, the strange sounds they had heard soon after landfall sounded again once, like the plaintive cry of a wounded animal, from somewhere in the interior.

The tracks led directly to the mouth of the cave, which they reached much more swiftly on the second journey, aiming more for speed than surveillance. Arriving long before noon, they quickly decided that Fawkes had already descended into the caverns. Lighting their torches, they followed down into the darkness.

They had gone perhaps half the distance between the cave’s mouth and the glowing chamber with the stone chair when Bonaventure called the party to a halt.

“Something passed over my foot,” the Professor announced in a low tone, holding his torch near the cave floor. “The same something which plagued Dulac and Fawkes yesterday, unless I miss my guess.”

Calhoun gave a quick cry of alarm, almost dropping his torch.

“It brushed against me, too!” he answered.

“All of you,” Dulac said quietly, stepping forward and holding his torch high overhead, “do you note the walls?”

“They… they seem to move,” Taggart replied.

At a sign from Bonaventure, the party fanned out to the sides of the passage, holding their torches as high and as near the stone as possible. As they had seen before, the intermittently-spaced, fist-sized fissures covered the walls, but the bumps and protrusions they had taken for irregularities in the stone appeared to be dark, slug-like creatures the length of a man’s arm.

“What are they?” Calhoun asked.

“Some undiscovered variety of ophidian?” Dulac ventured.

Before the Professor had a chance to answer, a number of the cave slugs detached themselves from the passage walls overhead, and dropped on him with a low, sibilant hiss. At one narrow end, each of the creatures had a perfectly circular mouth, ringed with a double row of jagged teeth, with which they attempted to attach themselves to the Professor’s arms, legs and neck.

“Quickly, men,” Dulac shouted, “get him clear of them!” Before he or the Clemency crewman could get to the Professor’s side, however, each found himself encumbered by one or more of the foul creatures.

“Burn them off,” Bonaventure ordered, holding his own torch to the side of his neck, scorching the cave slug’s dark flesh and sending it dropping to the ground with a pitiful hiss. “The seem ill-equipped to resist the flames.”

In a matter of moments, the men had got rid of their unwanted passengers, but regrouping at the center of the passage, they found their way back to the daylight barred by a swarm of the creatures emerging from the fissures in the wall and snaking their way towards them.

“Too many to burn,” Bonaventure observed, “and there’s still no sign of Fawkes. We press on, quickly now, and hope they have not got to him already.”

The way forward was easier going, fewer of the creatures barring their way, and these few quickly dealt with at the end of a long blade or at a quick swipe of their torches. Moving with speed, they made their way to the lighted chamber without serious incident, though each of them were marked by one or more ring-shaped cuts and bruises.

It seemed, on first glance, that the figure of the man on the stone chair had somehow miraculously been restored to life and health in the night, lording over the silent chamber on his high rocky throne. Seeing the remains tossed carelessly to the cave floor, though, and more closely inspecting the features on the man upon the pillar, the reality of the situation quickly became apparent.

“Fawkes,” Bonaventure began, striding towards the stone chair, dropping his torch to the ground. “What the devil are you playing at?”

“He’s gone mad,” the Frenchman added, when Fawkes would not answer. “Look how he sits, head back, eyes closed, ecstatic expression on his face. He’s lost his senses, and wishes to join this corpse here in the bowels of this cursed island.”

Bonaventure waved his companion to silence, stepping closer to the chair.

“His lips move,” the Professor said, leaning in close. “He’s trying to speak.”

Putting his ear almost to Fawkes’ mouth, careful not to disturb his positioning, the Professor listened carefully.

“Lonely. Alone. The One.” The words issued from between Fawkes’ lips, but the voice was not his.

“What are you saying?” Bonaventure asked in a gentle tone. “Who are you?”

“The One. Lonely. Alone,” came the reply.

“He’s possessed,” remarked Calhoun, crossing himself.

“Or something very near the same,” answered Bonaventure. “I’ve seen this sort of business before. Now quiet, all of you. Let’s not alarm him.”

The Professor turned back to the rigid form of Fawkes’ upon the chair.

“Where is Mervyn Fawkes?” he asked. “What have you done with him?”

“The One has need of him,” the form of Fawkes answered. “The One requires a pilot, for the guidance of action and decision.”

“Where are you from?” asked Bonaventure. “What is ‘The One?’”

“The One is conveyance and habitation, home for the long journey and sanctuary in places inhospitable.”

“Journey from where?” Bonaventure asked. “Whence came you to this place?”

“Across the sea of stars, through the shoals of night, the One came gathering information. Worlds beyond count the One visited, until reaching this watery world, so long ago, where the Pilot fell to harm.”

The form of Fawkes paused, an expression of pain flitting across his face.

“The One failed in its duty to the Pilot, allowing the Pilot to come to harm. Awaiting orders, the One floated here, buoyed upon your waters, avoiding your constructs of minerals and dead organic material, waiting for one to come and take the Pilot’s place. Others have been tried before this body before you, washed up on the skin of the One by your waters, but their minds were fragile, their bodies frail, and they could not take the strain of communication with the One. Their thoughts crumble into dust after conversing with the One, and their forms are left to rot in the place prepared for the Pilot.”

Bonaventure straightened, rubbing his chin and considering his options.

“Is this body,” he indicated the form of Fawkes before him, “stronger in form or mind than those you have tried before?”

“No,” the voice answered simply from Fawkes’ lips, “but he is the body which answered the One’s call, and so he is the One’s only option.”

“What is to say that you will not drift on the seas forever, entrapping an eternal succession of shipwrecked sailors, each failing to meet your needs?”

Again, the form of Fawkes was silent for a long moment before answering.

“Nothing. Nothing is to say that is not precisely what is in store for the One, precisely what will happen for ages to come.”

“Then let us take this body away with us, and we will look for a body and mind strong enough to suit your purposes,” Bonaventure said firmly. “We will find your pilot for you, and end your ceaseless wandering.”

The form of Fawkes twitched slightly, in silence.

“To have purpose again. To receive instruction. To converse with a Pilot, and again sail the sea of stars.” Fawkes’ lips were stilled for a moment, and his head inclined forward, eyes still closed. “You would do this for the One? You would seek out the suitable Pilot?”

“In exchange for our man?” Bonaventure answered. “Yes.”

“Then take the body with you and go,” the form of Fawkes answered. “The antibodies within the One will not hinder you on your way through the One’s arteries, and the cleansing agents on the One’s skin will not trouble you again. Take this body with you, and return to the One a suitable Pilot.”

With that, Fawkes slumped forward, like a puppet whose strings had been cut, and in that moment came again the low, wailing cry the party had heard before. The wail seemed to issue from the very cave walls around them, as though they were standing in the midst of the sounding box of an enormous musical instrument, and all of the strings had been plucked savagely at once.

“Come on,” Bonaventure ordered, dragging Fawkes from the stone chair and helping him to his feet. “Let’s get out of here.”

Fawkes seemed to drift in and out of consciousness, but with Bonaventure on one arm and Taggart on the other they were able to move him without too much trouble.

As the strange voice of “The One” had promised, the party made their way through the passage to the light of day without incident, the few of the cave slugs they passed retreating into the fissures as they approached. They crossed the island to their base camp as quickly as possible, arriving with a short amount of daylight remaining, and wasted no time in breaking camp and readying the dinghies.

Though it would have been standard practice to wait until the coming of the next morning to set off for the ship, the party wasted no time in debate, in silent agreement that the sooner they were off the island and back on the deck of the Clemency the better. All except Fawkes, that is, who, too weak to resist, nevertheless objected weakly at being pulled from “the embrace of the One,” demanding that he be allowed to return to the glowing cavern.

Dragging the dinghies to the shore, the party pushed off, rowing their way back through the fog and towards the waiting ship.

###

At Bonaventure’s recommendation, the British government would instruct all commercial sea-vessels to steer clear of the area, at least until “Floating Island,” as he called it, floated elsewhere in the seas. Bonaventure likewise strongly advised the Royal Geographical Society to consider denying any future requests to investigate the island, or to ensure that any who did attempt an expedition did so heavily armed and provisioned. Calhoun and Taggart returned to their duties aboard the Clemency, though each seemed to have lost hise taste for life on the sea, and eventually returned to port once and for all. Dulac made a careful study of the carcass of the “devil bat” the expedition brought back to the mainland with them, though he found no one in the scientific community would take his findings seriously, and in the end he found it easier to drop the matter entirely.

As for Mervyn Fawkes, he was badly shaken by the events of the expedition, and of his brief encounter with the “mind” of the floating island, and was remanded to the care of a mental hospital for a brief time by his family following his return home. After a short stay, however, Fawkes left the hospital against his doctor’s wishes. He spent a good deal of time and energy attempting to charter a sea vessel up and down the coast of England, and at last report had gotten passage on a tramp steamer to Iceland, where he hoped to have better luck. It was several years before he would be heard from again, though that is a story for another time.


(c) 2009 Monkeybrain, Inc.

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Is this the same as the Revolution SF one?
 
Yes, aside from a few minor textual changes. I reposted it largely because the links on the RevSF one kept going wonky, for some reason.
 
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