City of Mists

by Sawyer Grey
 

Chapter 8
SECRET MISSION REVEALED

 
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Prologue
Chapter 1 - A Night in Hong Kong
Chapter 2 - A Secret Mission
Chapter 3 - The Airship Zambesi
Chapter 4 - Attacked by Sky Pirates
Chapter 5 - Singapore
Chapter 6 - A Voyage by Aethership
Chapter 7 - Return to Mars
Chapter 8 - Secret Mission Revealed
 

“MARGARET!”

“It’s so good to have you back home, Jack.”

I grinned happily as I stood up to seat her across from me. “They said they would send someone to fetch me, but I never imagined it would be you. What are you doing in Cydonia?”

She shook her head with a sigh. “We’ve got trouble, Jack. Bad trouble.”

That did not surprise me. The government called on Margaret Wylie when they needed to put a heavyweight on the scene without it being official. She had spent the last twenty years—over half of her life—travelling and exploring Mars as an amateur archaeologist, she spoke several Martian dialects fluently, and the Martians trusted her far more than any company or British government official who had ever set foot on the red planet. Her influence had been crucial in establishing the Syrtis Company a decade ago, and the rumors I heard on Earth said that she still had an open invitation to pop in on the Martian High Emperor any time she cared to.

I had fallen a bit in love with Margaret years earlier, long before I was shipped back to Earth. I think everyone who knows her does eventually. You cannot help yourself; Margaret is one of those people who just seems larger than life. Incredibly brilliant, she seems to know everyone and everything on Mars, and she can sit in a run-down bar in a godforsaken outpost and trade tall tales and drinks with crusty old lifer sergeants without batting an eye. She is quite striking if not precisely beautiful, six feet tall—an Amazon of a woman—with sandy blonde hair and intense blue eyes.

When I started following her around like a puppy she handled it as gracefully as everything else she does. I barely felt the sting of rejection, and apparently she saw something in me because she decided to keep me around. I figure I occupy a position with her somewhere between a pet and a rather obnoxious younger brother. Which is fine with me as long as she will have me; life is never dull when Margaret is around.

“So do you want to tell me what kind of trouble it is that we have?”

She signaled the waiter and sent him scurrying to fetch a gin sling. “Two months ago the Cydonia Company and the Royal Geographical Society sent an expedition to Odusar, a few hundred miles from the Elysium Sea. Odusar was one of the biggest cities on Mars before the Collapse, and the second largest port in the northern hemisphere; now it’s abandoned and surrounded by miles of impenetrable marshes and swamps. The archaeologists thought that with it being so isolated, they might find a treasure trove of intact artifacts and records.”

I looked up as the waiter sat Margaret’s drink on the table. Except it was not the waiter, it was the girl from behind the bar. My mind went blank and I missed Margaret’s next few sentences.

“Jackie? Jack? Are you all right?” Margaret asked in concern. “Do you need some tea?”

“What?” I blinked at her. “Oh, no, I’m fine.”

She saw the direction of my glance and the light dawned. She shook her head at me with an exasperated smile. “I might have known.” Taking my hand, she slid her chair closer to mine, her expression suddenly deadly serious. “Listen to me, Jack,” she said urgently. “We’ve been friends a long time, and I love you like the brother I never had. You’re a good boy, sans peur et sans reproche, and I’m telling you this for your own good. Stay away from her. She is nothing but trouble for you and chasing her will bring you nothing but grief.”

“Who is she?”

Margaret sighed. “That is Miss Charlotte Beira. She owns El Nivel. That’s all you need to know except I mean what I say—stay away from her.”

“Is she a deportee or something?”

“Or something. Forget about her, Jack. I pulled every string I could to get you back on Mars. I need your full attention, now, no distractions.”

The girl vanished into the back of the building. “Oh, all right. So the expedition set out for Odusar,” I prompted.

“A month after that, the Geographical Society sent another airship with more men and supplies. But when they got to Odusar, the expedition was gone. The relief party found the wreckage of two of their airships and a few bodies, but nothing else. Cydonia Company sent some scouts, but the area is desolate and the swamps are full of hostile tribes so they couldn’t stay long unsupported.”

I took a long sip of my whiskey. “Why am I here, Margaret?”

“To find out what happened to the expedition and rescue any survivors.”

“Stop playing games, Margaret. Why me? There’s no way that the Tharsis or East India companies would have let me back on Mars just to track down some missing archaeologists. Someone with an awful lot of influence convinced East India to put me on Canopus.”

Margaret reached into her purse and slid over a small photograph of a rather handsome young man in a cavalryman’s uniform. “That is Lieutenant Richard Daunt, of the 3rd Cydonia Lancers.”

The name meant nothing to me. “So?”

“Perhaps you’ll recognize him better as His Royal Highness Prince Alexander John.”

Things suddenly became exquisitely, painfully clear. “Ah, I see. I recall hearing about Johnnie-lad causing a bit of trouble in London and India. I take it they shipped him off here to get him out of sight for a while?”

“The prince is a gambler, a womanizer, and a drunkard. Unfortunately he is also an entitled fool who doesn’t even attempt to hide any of his vices from the public. His father arranged for him to be posted here incognito to avoid further scandals.”

“Misplacing him in the Martian wilderness seems a rather extreme way of keeping his name out of the newspapers, Margaret. Effective, certainly; I haven’t caught a whiff of scandal in weeks. But extreme.”

Margaret frowned. “No one expected them to be in any great danger, Jack. They took fifty soldiers with them just in case, and the Geographical Society had already gotten permission from the Martian king of that region to go in there.”

“No great danger?” I laughed. “Did anyone bother telling them that this is Mars? Margaret, you know quite well that permission was worthless. It’s the local tribes and villages that are in control out there. Most of them probably don’t even know, and certainly don’t care, that they have a king.”

“I know, Jack. I wasn’t consulted, and too many of the people we get here are discards from the offices in India and Asia who simply don’t understand the societies they’re dealing with. I explained that in no uncertain terms to the Colonial Secretary, and I told him that if they expected to have any chance at all of finding Prince Alexander John and returning him in one piece, they needed you and had better lean on East India to get you back here as quickly as possible. And here you are.”

“Sir Henry Clement in Hong Kong did say it was a Crown matter. Probably the only thing that could have gotten me back here. So now I have to go find the poor boy?”

“I have put together a rescue party. Two airships and enough soldiers to provide security. I personally picked the lieutenant coming along to manage the riflemen; he’s a fine young man, I think you’ll like him.”

“Who is leading this little parade?”

“You are.”

That surprised me. I had expected to be sent along as an advisor and guide. “Me? Really?”

“Given the stakes involved, I was able to convince the Colonial Secretary that it would be better if you didn’t have to argue every order from some colonel who had never been out of Stanleyville. Everything should be ready to go, but feel free to alter any of the arrangements you wish.”

“Aren’t you coming along?”

“Not this time, I’m afraid.”

“Why not? I’d have thought I’d have to tie you up to keep you here.”

All the humor vanished from her face. “Because if you don’t come back, I’m the one who’ll have to lead the follow-up party.”

“I see. And what exactly is my reason for sticking my neck out on this little venture? I don’t owe anything to our princeling, and I am certainly not beholden to any of the companies. And I don’t recall being visited by any Crown agents anxious to strike a blow for justice and get me home after I was dumped in Hong Kong.”

Margaret winced at the bitterness in my voice. “I’m sorry, Jack. There were very powerful people with millions of pounds invested in the Tharsis and Syrtis Companies who insisted that you be removed. I fought them, you know I did, but they bribed so many officials, bought so many in Parliament. There was nothing I could do.”

“I know, Margaret.” I felt like an ass. “It wasn’t your fault. I’m sorry.”

“To answer your question, you will receive another £5,000 when you return with the prince. The Cydonia Company will carry you on their rolls as a captain, with full pay and benefits, as long as you live. And you’ll have the personal gratitude of the Prince of Wales. As powerful as the chartered companies are, they don’t dare openly defy an express command from him, and the word will be given that you are not to be touched.”

I had my doubts about just how much that was worth, but I figured I owed Margaret for getting me back to Mars. “All right, fine. I’ll meet with the rescue party in the morning. Tonight I’m going to relax and enjoy the first good night’s sleep I’ve had in years.”

Margaret stood up and bent over to softly kiss my cheek. “Welcome home, Jackie. I’ll see you in the morning.”