“We could have taken George’s courier ship and arrived in a quarter of the time.”
“No, we couldn’t,” Harry said, scowling at Marlowe, who knew very well they shouldn’t be here at all, much less aboard her brother’s ship. But he seemed to enjoy mentioning her brother George and reminding Harry of the impropriety of it all. It was a long-running joke, and she let him have his fun. Marlowe just smiled.
They’d taken a carriage—a regular hired coach, horse-drawn, even—from the Oxford station to the doctor’s estate. The journey from London had taken most of the day, which left them facing the gatehouse on an overcast afternoon, the sunlight fading, the world growing colder.
Despite the spiked iron gate, the estate was modest. Harry could have walked the perimeter of the grounds in half an hour, though the curving gravel drive gave the impression of greater space. At the end of the curve, one could glimpse the house, a two-story gray pile with a slate roof and clay chimneys, walls fuzzed with ivy, windows brooding—all of it easily manageable, easily guarded.
The gate was the only access through a ten-foot-high wall that surrounded the house. At the top of the wall, copper conductors placed every dozen feet or so guided an Aetherian charge, a crackling stream of deadly green energy: a second barrier, impassible, should someone think that they could climb the wall. The humming, flickering light traveled down the bars of the gate as well.
Impatient, Harry opened the carriage door before the driver or one of the soldiers from the gatehouse arrived to do so. However, before she could let herself out, Marlowe slipped out, let down the step, and offered his hand to her. Propriety, indeed. Remembering herself, she gathered her skirt in one hand, took his with the other, and stepped neatly out of the coach.
Four soldiers on weekly rotation from the local regiment served guard duty here. One of them—an officer by his insignia—approached. A Lieutenant Bradley commanded the unit, Harry knew. This must be him.
“I’m sorry,” the lieutenant said. “I don’t know what you’ve been told, but this area is restricted. The house isn’t open—”
“I know. This is Dr. James Marlowe, and I’m Miss Mills, his secretary. We’re here to see Doctor Carlisle,” Harry said, drawing a folded paper from her handbag. The letter was affixed with the royal seal, confusing everyone who looked at it, but everyone who looked at it was well trained not to ask questions. They’d merely have to wonder why two unassuming travelers had the Crown Prince’s approval. (They didn’t, but that was beside the point.) The lieutenant opened the letter and read it over—taking his time, to his credit.
When he’d finished, he looked across the page and studied the unlikely visitors. “Very well, then. Give us a moment to open the gate. Sir. Miss.” He tipped his hat at them and turned back to the house.
Marlowe tucked his portfolio under his arm and gave the driver a few coins. “Can you return for us in two hours?”
“Yes, sir.” The man remounted his carriage and drove off.
Marlowe could never quite manage polish, even when he meant to be traveling as a respectable gentleman. Locks of hair escaped from under his bowler hat, his face showed pale stubble, and his tie was loose where he’d tugged on his collar. His jacket, trousers, and boots were acceptable but not outstanding. Truth be told, Harry liked him better without the polish—he looked like a man who was too busy to worry about inconsequential details like trimmed hair and neat ties.
“I hope two hours will be enough,” Marlowe said, watching the driver depart.
“I fear we’ll be wanting out of here much sooner than that,” Harry said. “Part of me hopes this is all a waste of time.”
Marlowe shook his head. “No, this is a rare opportunity: To meet the genius who created the Aetherian Revolution? Without him we’d have none of this.” He gestured ahead.
The front window of the gatehouse revealed a pair of brown-uniformed soldiers at work, one hauling down on a wall-mounted lever, the other operating an unseen control panel. A metallic clang followed, the banging of steel on steel; the Aetherian hum faded, and the crackling stream of power guarding the wall vanished. Now the wall was just a wall, and the gate was just a gate.
Harry still regarded the wrought iron cautiously. “We might have been better off,” she said.
“Never think so,” Marlowe said. “Ernest Carlisle may be the only one who can move my work forward.”
“Don’t you think you’d solve the problem yourself, eventually?” Harry said.
“We don’t have time for that,” he said.
Of course, Harry thought. Not with the war on. It was the unspoken postscript to everything they did.
Lt. Bradley emerged from the gatehouse. “It’s safe, now,” he said. “I’ll escort you in.”
The soldiers in the gatehouse turned another set of levers, and bolts lurched open, another metallic clunk. The middle of the gate split apart, and Bradley pushed it open. Harry suppressed a flinch when the lieutenant touched the gate, but no Aetherian charge scorched him.
Marlowe offered his arm to Harry, and she took it. They walked with the lieutenant toward the manor.
The gates clanged shut and locked behind them, and Harry glanced over her shoulder, wondering how such an innocuous tone could seem so ominous, like the tolling of a church bell.
Turning back, she said, “Lieutenant, tell me about the doctor. What is his schedule like? How many servants are here at the house, and how do you supervise them?”
“He has no servants, miss. By his own request. He said the necessary restrictions on them were too great to bother. A cook from the village comes in the morning to make his meals for the day, and a cleaner comes once a week. Her work is little enough—most of the house is shut up.”
“Is that so?”
“Doctor Carlisle is confined to a wheelchair, miss. He has chambers on the ground floor. I thought you would know, since you’ve permission to see him.”
“For how long?” she said. This wasn’t in any of the reports.
“Ten years, since the disaster. I’m given to understand he sustained injuries.” They’d reached the house now, and Bradley nodded. “If you’ll excuse me a moment, I’ll let the doctor know he has visitors.”
The door had a speaker box by it, which the lieutenant leaned into. Harry and Marlowe stayed back and spoke in whispers.
“Did you know Carlisle was infirm?” she asked him.
“I didn’t. There were rumors of illness, but I thought it had more to do with age. Or a broken spirit.”
“Why is it a secret, do you suppose?”
“Out of respect for the man’s dignity, I imagine.”
“As if he had any left,” she said. But he did, or he would not be living like this, in a polite fiction of genteel retirement—under guard. She frowned. “What does it say about us that we’re so afraid of a crippled man that we keep him locked up like this?”
“Because it’s Doctor Carlisle,” Marlowe said, and he was right. Carlisle certainly couldn’t be allowed to go free. Neither could he be truly imprisoned, or executed, or exiled. He was the realm’s great conundrum. Or rather, its second great conundrum, after the conundrum that Carlisle had made his name exploiting.
“Be careful, Marlowe. You sound as if you admire the man.”
“Oh, I won’t forget he’s a murderer.”
“Are you sure you aren’t letting your personal feelings unduly influence you?”
“Of course I am. What else are personal feelings for?” She shook her head. “He can’t have turned everything over when he was arrested. A man like him—he kept something back as a bargaining chip should he ever need it. Some scrap of research, some artifact. I want to know what.”
“We both do. Are you ready for this?”
“Of course I am,” Harry said.
Bradley was exchanging words with the person on the other end of the speaker box. The responses were little more than incomprehensible scratching. But eventually, Bradley drew out a key and unlocked the front door.
“The doctor is ready for you,” Bradley said. “I’ll show you to the library.”
“I very much appreciate your help, Lieutenant. I know this must disrupt your routine terribly,” Harry said with a kind and practiced smile.
The soldier beamed back at her. “It’s no trouble, miss.”
“You’re very good at that,” Marlowe whispered to her after Bradley led the way inside.
“I’ve had a lot of practice.”
“Better you than me, then.”
She smiled; they did make a good team.
Bradley guided them through a tiled foyer and into a parlor.
Nothing in the house indicated the character of the man who lived in it. She might have been in any respectable gentry home: decent furniture, lightly used; unassuming still-life paintings on the wall; neat wallpaper and drapes, carpet over hardwood. All of it might have been chosen by some matron desperate not to stand out. On the other side of the parlor, Bradley opened a set of double doors and guided them into the library.
This was the doctor’s room, where he spent his waking hours. Apart from walls full of books, the room had a great fireplace with a well-worn armchair in front of it, a window overlooking a patch of flowers, and many framed photographs on the walls, desks, and tables. In the middle sat two large worktables. One of them was overflowing with books—stacked, open to different pages, as if Carlisle were reading a dozen at once. The other held various crafts and hobbies: fly-tying equipment, the clockworks of antique pocket watches, a sketchbook, a set of watercolor paints . . . even toys: windups and clockworks that Carlisle seemed to be in the process of repairing. Or dissecting.
Carlisle himself sat at the table in a wheelchair, a blanket over his lap, covering his legs to his toes. He’d aged, his formerly robust form sagging on a stooped frame.
“Doctor Carlisle, here are your visitors,” Lieutenant Bradley announced, then bowed himself out of the room like a good foot soldier, closing the doors behind him.
It was good that he did. Smiling, his eyes glittering, Carlisle greeted Harry, “Princess Maud. Your Highness.”
She was a little surprised he recognized her and tried to act offended. “Miss Mills, today,” she said, clasping her gloved hands before her.
“Ah. Of course. My apologies.”
Marlowe hovered at her elbow, waiting to be protective.
“Doctor Carlisle, this is Doctor James Marlowe. He has some questions he was hoping you could answer.”
“And he needed you to pull strings and finagle permission to come here? That’s highly irregular.”
“It’s unofficial,” she said.
“Doctor Marlowe? Should I have heard of you?”
“I wouldn’t expect you to have, sir,” Marlowe said. “I’m not affiliated with Oxbridge, though I have laboratory privileges at University College London. My interests tend to lie in fieldwork.”
“No prestige in fieldwork, lad.”
Marlowe’s lip turned up. “Perhaps.”
“You aren’t an Aetherian engineer, then?” the old professor said.
“I have an interest in Aetherian mechanisms.”
“Of course you do, or you would not need to come see me.” Carlisle leaned back and steepled his hands. He had been kept alive and in relative comfort because no one knew more than he did on the subject. “What exactly is it that he does, my lady?”
“He solves problems,” Harry said.
The photographs on the walls documented the professor’s exploits—the images were monuments to his work. A history of the last two decades, even: the strange, looping coils and pocked hull of the Aetherian craft where it crashed in Surrey; the rows of canvas tents housing the hundreds of workers who built the warehouses and laboratories around the site; Ernest Carlisle directing the project, leading a team of white-coated assistants like a general commanding an army. Harry drew closer to one photograph in particular, startled by its familiarity. She had a print of the same photograph in an old scrapbook. George probably had one as well.
The event, twenty-odd years ago, was Dr. Carlisle’s first public demonstration of his adapted Aetherian mechanism. He’d fitted a train engine with an Aetherian propulsion device—it would triple the power of a coal-driven steam engine, with none of the smoke and soot. The royal family had gathered to watch, bestowing their approval of the project by their presence.
The engine itself was the backdrop, its alien brass couplings and broilers projecting, an unearthly glow emanating from them like halos, visible even in black and white. On one side, apart, stood Dr. Carlisle in his prime, stretched and haughty, hand resting on a nearby strut, almost caressing it.
A space stood between him and the family: the Queen, solemn in her mourning, and her vast tangle of progeny. Harry’s parents, arm in arm like they always had been when photographed or painted together, looked resigned to her eyes. And why not? The world and realm were changing before them, and this engine was proof of it. Their five young children gathered around them, as vibrant and proper a brood as any parents could hope for. The youngest, five-year-old Harry—though she hadn’t acquired the nickname yet—clung to her brother George, who seemed very straight and proud at the age of nine.
A surprising number of people in the photograph had died since it was taken. Harry’s father, the Crown Prince, for one. Her oldest brother Eddy, which made proud George the Crown Prince now. On the other hand, her grandmother the Queen showed no sign of fading.
Dr. Carlisle caught Harry studying the image.
“You’ve grown up very well, my lady. I remember you, from the day that photograph was taken. You hid every time I tried to speak to you.”
The little girl in the picture wore her brown hair in tight curls, tied back with a velvet ribbon. She wore a white dress and lace-trimmed pinafore, shined shoes peeking out underneath. Chubby and shy, she gripped her brother’s hand. She remembered George trying to urge her forward.
Now, she was tall and straight, a proud lift to her chin, auburn hair gathered back and bound, topped by a simple hat, secured in a corset and rose-colored silk gown, with all its fashionable layers and buttons. And she never hid.
“That was a long time ago,” she said.
“Not so very long, when you’ve lived as long as I.”
“Strange, isn’t it, that you should still live when so many who were there that day have died.” She dropped the hook and hoped he would bite.
Carlisle’s tone was far from offended. He sounded amused. “My dear, are you implying something?”
The cheek of him. He spoke so to her because there’d be no repercussions.
She said, “If you could have continued your research, what would you have done? What further horrors would you have concocted?”
“That’s a useless question,” Carlisle said. “I believe I received a message from the Almighty that my research had run its course, and that to continue further was to invite disaster.”
It was hard to argue with the interpretation. Disaster had already accepted the invitation.
“It seems to me,” Harry said, “that once you learned everything you could from the Aetherian craft, you would next turn to the pilot. But you found more than you expected, didn’t you?”
Marlowe reached a timid, placating hand. “Your Highness, this isn’t why we came—”
“I want to hear him say exactly what he thought would happen,” she said, brushing Marlowe away. She was repeating fables from penny dreadfuls. There was no plague, no extraplanetary conspiracy against the Empire, no Aetherian miasma that killed the Crown Prince and his eldest son and thousands of others. It had only seemed very much like it. They had died years later, her father assassinated and Eddy of flu, both unrelated to the accident at Woking.
But that accident, a horrific event borne of one man’s hubris, was more than enough reason to treat Carlisle with contempt.
Carlisle frowned. “The body was thoroughly dissected. The notes published. I’m sure anyone has learned anything they’re likely to learn from the beast.”
“I don’t believe you,” Harry said.
Carlisle narrowed his gaze. “Does your grandmother know you’re here?”
“I have a letter with the royal seal.”
“That doesn’t answer my question.”
“What did you save, Doctor Carlisle? What did you learn of Aetherian biology that you didn’t tell anyone?”
“My lady, I spent many days in a very uncomfortable room with men more powerful and clever than you asking me such questions. Why do you think you’ll learn what they did not?”
She smiled, adding a tilt to her head that showed off the fashionable trim on her hat. “My charm.”
Marlowe lay the portfolio on the table before Carlisle. “I’m terribly sorry, Doctor. When Her Highness agreed to procure permission for me to see you, it was on the condition that she accompany me. She assured me she could control herself.” He threw her a glare. Playing his part.
“What’s your connection to the family? Are you a schoolmate of her brother’s or such?”
“Just so,” Marlowe said. “My only concern here is a mechanical problem I’ve been attempting to solve—an air compression system for providing breathable atmosphere at high altitudes. I’m sure you know that the airships based on your designs are reaching thirty thousand feet now.” He began producing pages, schematics, charts.
Carlisle still watched Harry.
“Your Highness,” Marlowe said. “Perhaps you’d rather wait in the parlor.”
“Yes,” Carlisle added. “Perhaps you should.”
Dismissed, she turned and stormed out of the room, careful to act as if she wasn’t used to opening and closing doors herself.
The manor house didn’t seem much altered from official accounts. The lieutenant had said most of the house was shut up, which made sense given Carlisle’s condition. But it didn’t mean anything. If anyone could find a way to climb stairs in a wheelchair, Carlisle would be the man. She commenced exploring.
The dining room had an air of abandonment—Carlisle took his meals elsewhere. The table was set like a museum piece, covered with a red damask runner, a vase filled with dried flowers placed in the middle. There was dust on the flowers, and the rug around the chairs was unscuffed, as though they’d never been pulled from the table.
At least the hinges on the double doors didn’t squeak. She passed through a foyer, through another set of doors, and here were a set of stairs leading down. Neither the stairs nor the railing were dusty. So the cleaner paid special attention to them. Or they were used often.
As Harry descended, she retrieved the hand lantern—another Aetherian mechanism derived from Carlisle’s research—from the pocket tucked into a pleat in her skirt.
The door at the base of the stairs was locked. From the opposite pocket, she drew out her lock picks and set to work. Defeating the mechanism took longer than she expected; this wasn’t the door’s original lock. While the rest of the house had been all but embalmed, the lock had been replaced with a complex modern version. Fortunately, her tools weren’t those of a common burglar. In a few extra heartbeats, the lock clicked, and the door swung open.
The air inside smelled of alcohol and preservative.
She waited a moment, for a trap door to open under her feet, for poison darts to spring from the doorframe. But nothing happened. If Carlisle really were hiding something, his traps would be more nefarious. His laboratory would be better hidden, wouldn’t it? On the other hand, no one had any reason to think he ever went down here—the man couldn’t walk without assistance, after all. At least, that was what they all believed. Easy enough to maintain such a fiction.
Briefly, she worried about Marlowe, alone with the man upstairs.
Perhaps Marlowe was right and she was letting her fears get the better of her.
Harry switched on the lantern and closed the door.
The glow revealed glasswork first, pale light reflecting off the smooth surfaces of beakers, flasks, slender piping secured to wooden stands with clamps, all arranged on the large table in the center of the room. This was where servants would have eaten in the house’s old days. None of the equipment seemed to be in use—the glassware was all dry, a gas burner was cold. She might have made an excuse for why it was here: This was simply storage. When Carlisle had been situated in the house, his scientific equipment had been put here, locked away because he would not need it. But none of it was dusty. Not even the cupboards along the room’s sides. She brought her lantern close, swept it along the table and sides of the room, studying what details revealed themselves.
The table also held a microscope, with trays of slides beside it. She drew out several, hoping the labels would give her insight, but they were only numbered. The samples on them might have been some kind of tissue—translucent pink splotches that could have been anything. A nearby cupboard contained more slides, racks and racks of them. A second cupboard held flasks of liquid, jars labeled with the names of various solvents and acids, other tools of a biologist’s or chemist’s trade.
This might have been all innocent hobby. He had been studying the internal structures of worms. But she didn’t think so; somehow, he had access to the basement, perhaps via a secret elevator, and he was still experimenting. She didn’t have the expertise to know toward what purpose the efforts were directed, but she could record this evidence and have him arrested—again. And sent to prison this time, not this polite fiction in deference to all he had done in his former life.
She would only have to explain why she’d come here at all to her brother. He could make excuses to anyone who questioned her. Likely, she wouldn’t be mentioned at all.
With her small notebook and pencil in hand, she began to record an inventory. Marlowe would know what to make of it. In fact, he should probably come have a look at this himself if they could manage it.
It was the angle of light from her glowing lantern that revealed the irregularity in the wall by the cupboard full of microscope slides. A tiny gap in the paneling wavered. In full lamplight, the slight shadow would have been invisible. Perhaps this was Carlisle’s hidden elevator. She had to take off her gloves and needed several moments of testing to find the catch that opened the secret panel, revealing not an elevator, but a wall of narrow shelves, filled with glassware.
The light of her Aetherian lantern glinted off of rows of two-gallon jars, dozens of them, all filled with murky liquid. The sour reek of formalin hung about them, enough to make her cover her mouth and nose with her hand. And yes, inside the jars floated preserved creatures. Her imagination tumbled. Aetherian specimens rescued from the wrecked ship perhaps? If so, Carlisle had kept them very secret.
But no . . . She’d seen photographs of the Aetherian pilot’s body and the engravings diagramming the autopsy. She’d even studied some of the speculation that followed, regarding what other Aetherian creatures must be like, derived from the pilot’s physiology and using Mr. Darwin’s theories.
These specimens were nothing like that. They were far too familiar, in fact, despite some grotesque mutations. Pale, furless, smooth. Curved backs, large heads, arms and legs tucked in. Just small enough to cradle in her arms.
They were infants. Newborns and slightly older at the very most. Harry held the lantern closer, to study the bodies, the faces of these horrifying creatures. The mutations that distorted them weren’t normal—if mutation could ever be called normal. Expected grotesqueries would include extra limbs, fused limbs, scaled skin, and so forth.
Several of these had fleshy, thorned tentacles extending from their skulls to their bellies. Some had metallic armored plates covering their heads, glinting bronze by the lamplight through the murk of preservative. Some faces had been distorted, elongated, the teeth fused and eyes bulging from sockets so that the body appeared alien. Others had limbs with too many joints that bent the wrong way. In their way, these alterations, these details that she tried to examine from a scientific, unemotional perspective, were familiar, like a certain famous photograph and set of autopsy diagrams.
These were Aetherian mutations, wrought upon human infants.
Were these accidents or experiments? And what had Carlisle been doing with them?
She had an irrational thought to drench the room in kerosene and drop a match, destroying it all, eradicating the horror. Then throw Doctor Carlisle into the inferno. An untempered response, to be sure. How much more satisfying to prosecute him in a court of law. That was the only way to learn what Carlisle was trying to do here, and where the unfortunate infants had come from. Harry wondered where their mothers were.
Marlowe needed to see this. She went back up the stairs, not bothering to close the door behind her.
No one had ever come down here. Why should they, when Carlisle could never navigate the stairs? How many dozens of officers before Bradley had declared so, confidently? Nevertheless, Carlisle had managed to find a way down the stairs.
Marlowe was still with Carlisle in the library. He’d led the old man into making sketches of some Aetherian principle or other, and they bent together over the table, studying the page before them. When she rushed through the doorway, they looked up.
For all that she was practiced at deception—putting on masks and behaving in a manner consistent with those masks—she could not face Dr. Carlisle and pretend that she had not seen what she had. Marlowe, of course, knew something was wrong the moment he saw her. Lips pressed with concern, his expression asked the question.
She felt more sure of herself, with Marlowe standing by. She could face Carlisle, her breathing steady despite her rage. But her stillness, the flush in her cheeks, gave her away. Carlisle frowned.
“Where have you been?” Dr. Carlisle asked. “Making sure I haven’t stolen any of the silver?”
“I suppose I could tell you I’ve been in the garden like a good little girl.”
“You’ve seen the laboratory.” She nodded. “You came here at all because you guessed I was hiding something.”
“We came for exactly the reason we stated,” Marlowe said. “For information. We just didn’t trust that you would tell us all you knew. By Her Highness’ silence, can I judge you’re hiding quite a lot?”
She had to swallow the lump in her throat before she could find her voice. “Marlowe, would you be so good as to have a look in the basement?”
With a last glance at Carlisle, he left the room. She followed, gesturing ahead to show him the way.
The wheels of Carlisle’s chairs creaked on the floor as he pushed himself along to follow them.
“I know what you think you’ve found, girl. But I warrant you haven’t a clue what you saw. Your unsophisticated mind cannot possibly comprehend.”
She gritted her teeth and ignored him.
Marlowe stood at the top of the stairs. “Harry, how could he even get down here?”
“I don’t know, but he has. Go and see.”
“Doctor Marlowe, I assure you, the girl speaks nonsense.” Carlisle’s voice echoed after them as they descended.
“Take my lantern,” she said, her hands fumbling as she handed it over at the base of the stairs.
She’d left the unholy cupboard open. It was the first thing he saw, the rows of jars, the dark eyes of the creatures within peering through translucent flesh.
“Oh, my God,” he murmured.
“This is an invasion!” Carlisle shouted from the top of the stairs. “You have no right!”
“I have every right, as a loyal subject of the Crown,” she called back.
Marlowe said, “I wouldn’t have thought this was his doing because of the stairs, but he’s all but claiming responsibility, isn’t he?”
“What now?” she asked him. “What do we do? I started to write an inventory, but this . . . seems a bit beyond that.”
“I want an explanation,” he said, and turned to the stairs.
Which Carlisle was descending.
He’d left the wheelchair, but he wasn’t walking. Slithering, perhaps. Creeping. Seeping. His legs had become something else, some kind of boneless limb that he’d kept hidden under the blanket all this time. The pseudopod stretched forward, long prehensile tendrils grasping, reaching ahead of him to pull him down the steps, balancing against the walls to either side. His torso rocked atop them, like a man learning to ride a bicycle. Carlisle held the wall for balance as he lurched toward them.
Marlowe drew his pistol from the holster hidden at his back, under his jacket. Harry stumbled away and tried to think. If the basement had a speaker box, perhaps she could call Lieutenant Bradley. But no, the guards thought the room shut up, a speaker box never would have been installed.
“It’s a matter of time,” Carlisle said, explaining, lecturing. “Ten years ago, I tried to do it all at once, but I’ve learned that it’s a matter of time, careful injections, a little every day—”
“What are you saying?” Marlowe aimed the pistol at him, but Carlisle seemed not to notice.
“The promise of Aetherian biology!” Carlisle said. “Just as our machines have become more than they ever would have, so can we!”
“And what about them?” Harry said, pointing at the cupboard of dead children.
Carlisle filled the door, his alien limbs spreading around him like some grotesque anemone. “They are products of the first experiment.”
“You mean the accident?” Harry said, disbelieving.
“Everyone thinks I was making a weapon, and that’s why all those people died, but that is not it at all, I had no interest in weapons. I was trying—I was trying to improve.”
“I paid the women for their participation; it was a simple transaction.”
“You mean you paid them—and took their children from them?”
“It hardly mattered, as you can see not a single one survived.”
Marlowe switched on the charge of his pistol—an energy pistol, powered by the Aetherian mechanisms. “Stop there, Doctor.”
One of the strange, mutated limbs whipped out and smacked Marlowe’s hand. The pistol skittered away, and Marlowe fell back.
Carlisle rolled toward him, preparing to climb on top of him, to crush or strangle him. Marlowe was pinned; he struggled to find a path of escape, but Carlisle’s sinuous limbs caged him. “Forget the problem of air compression. We can’t bring our atmosphere with us. Instead, we will travel through Aetherian spaces ourselves! But to do that we must be like them. We must breathe like them!”
Harry realized now where all those tissue slides must have come from. No matter that he had killed thousands when his poisonous chemical bath leaked into the water supply of Woking. His crime had been more than mere neglect—mere neglect, ha. The chemical bath had been some sort of Aetherian concoction, the leak had been intentional, and he had managed to collect samples to analyze his results.
Harry looked around. To the right imagination, the laboratory was a warehouse of weaponry. She went straight to the cabinet on the opposite side of the room, containing the flasks of acid and solvent, and the hypodermic needles and syringes alongside.
When she had what she needed and approached Doctor Carlisle, he stopped her with one of those horrid limbs, fleshy, covered with thorns, like some of the embalmed infants, like the images she had seen of the Aetherian pilot. Merely placed it before her, waving the tip of it, while still harassing Marlowe.
“What are you doing, dear Princess Maud?”
“If you harm me, there will be repercussions,” she said.
“Still hiding behind your brother’s trousers after all?” Carlisle said, laughing.
“Harry, do you see the pistol?” Marlowe called.
“Quiet,” Carlisle said and slapped him. Marlowe’s head slammed against the floor and he groaned.
Harry jammed the needle into Carlisle’s mutant limb and rammed home the plunger, emptying a dozen cubic centimeters of hydrochloric acid into his bloodstream, or so she hoped.
Carlisle lashed out, and the blow threw her back. She fell hard to the floor and managed to scramble away, taking shelter under the table. From there, she could see Marlowe, lying on the other side. She crawled toward him, reached for him; he grabbed her hand and squeezed.
Carlisle had fallen and lay twitching. She didn’t know what she had expected—screaming, perhaps. Skin and fluids bubbling as the concentrated acid ate him from within, assuming her attack had worked. But he simply lay silent, convulsions wracking his muscles. Foam collected at his mouth and dribbled down his cheek. His horrible pseudopod flopped like worms.
“What did you put in there?” Marlowe said.
She told him, and he hissed.
“I don’t know what I’m going to say to George,” she said.
“It hardly matters. You were right, he was hiding something. I thought we would find a packet of notes. Not . . . not this.”
“We should go tell the lieutenant,” Harry said, crawling out from under the table, brushing off her gown. There was little dust; Carlisle had kept the place very clean.
Marlowe scrambled to his feet in time to offer her a hand up. She accepted and kept hold of the hand for an extra moment, for comfort.
“Give me a minute, if you don’t mind,” Marlowe said, and went the cabinet of equipment. He started preparing a hypodermic and syringe.
“What are you doing?”
“I just want a sample.”
“We’ll tell the lieutenant. We’ll tell everything, and Doctor Carlisle and all his nightmares will be studied, dissected, and locked away to keep anything like it from ever happening again. But in the meantime, I want a sample.”
He knelt by the dying Doctor Carlisle, inserted the needle in one of the pseudopods, and drew back the plunger to collect a syringe full of thick, yellowish liquid.
He glanced sharply at her with a look of pleading. Don’t tell, let him have this, to continue with his own experiments. How else was Britain to win the war?
It wasn’t as if this was the only secret she’d be keeping. Her entire partnership with Marlowe was nearly scandalous. And since she wanted that partnership to continue, she would keep quiet.
Marlowe secured the syringe in a tin box which he slipped in a pocket, then retrieved his pistol.
“Harry,” he said, pausing at the foot of the stairs. “Are you all right?”
“I don’t know.” The hideous jarred infants kept staring at her. Her hands were shaking.
Marlowe reached for her. “Come. Everything’ll be all right.”
She chose to believe him, and, hand in hand, they went up the stairs.
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