The Caves of Ceres

by Sawyer Grey
 

Part 1
SPITALFIELDS, JUNE 11, 1890

 
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Part 1 - Spitalfields, June 11, 1890
Part 2 - RNS Antigon, August 8, 1890
 

They picked me up coming home from the docks that night as I turned off Commercial Street into the fetid squalor of White’s Row. It was two weeks past the anniversary of my desertion from the Navy and flight into obscurity in the slums of London, and I had finally allowed myself to relax a bit. Oh, I knew I would never be free of looking over my shoulder, but I breathed a little easier as I drifted with the crowds along the streets towards home—a three shilling a week windowless cellar beneath a hovel that would have made rats turn up their noses in disgust.

I caught the first man out of the corner of my eye, turning in as I did on the other side of the street. Policemen in Spitalfields rookery are not unusual, but they never venture in there alone. This one stepped along bold as brass, looking straight ahead but obviously pacing me. A cold chill swept down my spine. There would be more of them ahead, positioned to cut me out of the crowd, and others back on Commercial Street waiting in case I tried to bolt that way.

A knot of filthy, half-naked urchins clad mostly in worn strips of sacking swirled around the policeman, distracting him just long enough for me to squeeze into a cramped little alley between two crumbling lodging houses. I slogged as quickly as I could through ankle-deep filth and tried not to choke on the foul air trapped in those awful confines. At the end of the alley I stepped over the sprawled form of an insensible drunk and out into Dorset Street, where I pulled my cap low over my face and shuffled into the crowd.

It was still early evening, but already throngs of drunks and whores swarmed the narrow street. I started to head west, in the opposite direction from where I had entered Spitalfields, but after a moment I changed my mind and doubled back the way I had come towards Commercial Street again. The police were not likely to expect me to go back that way, and I could not see any uniforms standing out from the crowd around me. To my surprise there were three more policemen standing across the street at the intersection when I got there, but fortunately for me they were looking the wrong way and I took advantage of their lapse to slip into Ringer’s pub.

Flickering gaslight cast a mask of subtle shadows on every face, granting me a degree of blessed anonymity. Even if the police ventured inside, it was doubtful that they would recognize me at a glance. I found a place at the far end of the bar and waved down Mrs. Ringer.

“Gin,” I called out over the roar of voices.

She quickly returned with a chipped mug stained from long use, and I was reaching for my money when I heard a low voice beside me say, “Allow me.”

Mrs. Ringer’s eyes widened as a white-gloved hand dropped a couple of coins to clatter on the bar. She scooped them up with a bob of her head and scuttled off to the other end of the bar, wanting no part of whatever was behind me.

“Commander Warren?”

I gripped the mug tightly, ready for trouble, and found myself facing a lady who had no business being in Spitalfields. She had dressed down a bit, but at a glance you knew she was someone used to moving in the most rarefied heights of society. Earnest blue eyes regarded me from an oval face that while not strictly beautiful was starkly handsome. Her lips quirked in a half-smile as I realized that she was also a good four inches taller than I was. Striking as she was, I did not even notice the four Royal Marines flanking her until it was far too late to attempt an escape through the crowd.

“Please relax, Commander. I’ve gone to a great deal of trouble to find you. I don’t mean you any harm.”

I looked pointedly at the grim-faced Marines behind her, but she only shook her head.

“They are here for my protection. I would much rather have come alone, but the Foreign Secretary insisted.”

What the hell; I wasn’t going anywhere. I forced myself to relax. “Good thing for you that he did. You wouldn’t have made it halfway down this street without that escort. The police would have found your body in an alley. Now, who are you?”

“My name is Margaret Wylie.” She offered me a gloved hand, and I bent over it just as though we were not standing in one of the very worst dives in London. “Sometimes when the government has a problem that can’t be solved with ordinary means, they send me around to see if it can be solved with extraordinary means. And just now I have a problem that I think you can help me solve.”

“I’m not interested in solving any problems whatsoever for the government. You might as well just arrest me now.”

“Will you at least do me the favor of sitting down and hearing me out? I might persuade you.”

It was her eyes that did it. Once they got hold of you, they just would not let go. “Very well, Mrs. Wylie, I’ll listen.”

The Marines rousted a trio of whores from one of the long tables by the wall, and the pub grew noticeably quieter as the patrons realized that something was going on. I held out a chair for Mrs. Wylie, and she smiled again as she sat down. I knew I was in trouble.

“Now, Commander, let’s see if these will help to change your mind.”

She slid two cream-colored envelopes towards me. I opened the first and scanned the paper inside. Then I read it again, but it still didn’t make any sense.

“What is this?”

“Your letter of resignation from the Navy. Dated two years ago.”

“I never wrote a letter of resignation.”

“That piece of paper says that you did, and it will be filed with the Board of Admiralty whenever you like.”

Bewildered, I looked up to find her watching me with a look of sad compassion. “You don’t have to run any longer, Commander,” she said softly.

The contents of the second envelope were just as confusing. “And this?”

“Full pardons for Bosun’s Mate Wilkinson and Midshipman Harding. They have already been released.”

I let the papers slide to the table from fingers gone numb. She had me. I would do anything to prevent my men from being locked up again, and she must have known that. “And what must I do in return?”

“You don’t have to do anything, Commander. I insisted that the Foreign Office arrange these matters before I ever agreed to try to find you. If you decide not to help me, then I will have your resignation filed, and you’ll be retired at half pay with the arrears for the last year deposited in the bank of your choice. And your men remain free.”

“Why?”

Her mouth tightened. “Because I believe in justice. I can’t give you back what you lost, but you needn’t suffer for the crimes committed against you.”

I looked at her for a long time. Finally I nodded. “What do you want from me?”

“I want you to lead an expedition to Ceres.”

“Ceres?”

“It’s one of the asteroids between Mars and Jupiter.”

It was my turn to smile. “I know what it is, Mrs. Wylie. I just don’t understand why anyone would want to go there.”

“I’m afraid it’s rather complex. You see, the Empire is finding itself pushed on all sides—the Russians and Japanese in the Orient, the Dutch in the East Indies, Mexico and Brazil in the West Indies, France and Russia on Venus. We have a firm grip on Mars, but that might not last. Now we’ve learned from the Martians that they once had an outpost on Ceres, and that there is some kind of alien confederation in the outer solar system. The Foreign Office would very much like to lay claim to the base on Ceres and get a jump on the other great powers in setting up relations with these new aliens.”

“Somehow I feel that I was not their first choice.”

“No. The Foreign Office already sent two expeditions; both of them simply vanished. So the Secretary sent for me, hoping I might be able to help. I told them what I was able to glean from the Martians about the outpost, and after doing some research I suggested that they put you in charge of the next expedition.”

“I think you’re making a mistake, Mrs. Wylie. I’m not anything special. A lot of men I should have brought home died.”

“I’ve talked with the other survivors of the Mercury expedition, and they were unanimous in giving you credit for saving their lives—your bravery, your quick thinking, your gift for command. Commander, we will send another expedition to Ceres; the government is set on that. I personally think their odds of survival will be much higher if you lead it.”

My stomach churned with nausea at the thought of setting foot inside another aethership. Memories of that awful flight back to Venus would haunt me for the rest of my life.

“You say that Red and Harding are already free?”

“Yes. I installed them in a hotel myself, and the Navy gave them their back pay for the last year as well. I believe that your bosun’s mate is attempting to drink through his as we speak.” She did not smile, but her eyes danced.

I looked up at the ceiling, took a deep breath, and forced the horror back into its box in the corner of my soul. “Very well, Mrs. Wylie. I suppose I will lead your expedition for you.”

She did smile then, her first real smile of the night. “Thank you, Commander. Would you like to go see your men, now?”

“More than anything.”

She gave a signal to the Marines, who began clearing a path through the mob for us. As we stepped into the thick night air I stopped her.

“How did you know that I would agree? That I wouldn’t just take the pardons and disappear?”

It was too dark to see her eyes, but I could feel them boring into me. “Every single person I’ve talked to, everything about you that I’ve heard, the one thing that shone through about you was that you are a man who pays your debts, Commander. Regardless of the personal cost, you pay your debts. The man in charge of the second expedition to Ceres was Commander Robert Symes.”

Captain Isaiah Symes had led the rearguard action that allowed some of us to escape from that disaster on Mercury. Robert Symes was his only son. Indeed there was a debt there, and Mrs. Wylie had judged quite rightly that I would not have been able to turn her down.

Without another word, she turned and led the way into the darkness, and freedom.