In an alternate nineteenth century where a technologically advanced Britain holds sway over most of the known world and the American Revolution never happened, young Gideon Smith is firmly established as the Hero of the Empire.
Gideon Smith and the Mask of the Ripper is the latest in David Barnett’s riproaring steampunk adventures about a Britain that never was…but should have been. We hope you enjoy this excerpt.
Captain James Palmer held the wheel steady as The Lady Jane lurched into a trough between gunmetal waves taller than Big Ben. There was a volley of shouts from the deck and a crack of splintering wood; Palmer ignored it, concentrating on keeping his vessel upright on the storm-ravaged sea. It would be that damned cargo, swinging around on the gantry and crashing into midships. He didn’t care how much the bloody thing had cost or whether there would be hell to pay; if it threatened to drag the Lady Jane over he would order it cut loose, and hang the consequences.
The door to the bridge banged open, letting in the howling Atlantic gale and a spray of seawater. Cursing, Palmer reached one hand out for the papers the wind tried to snatch up, the wheel skidding a half-turn, the ship shuddering and dipping in the storm.
“Our status, please, Mr. Devonshire,” called Palmer without turning around, shoving the papers into his oilskin and returning his full weight to keeping the wheel immobile.
“Never seen anything like it,” gasped the first mate, throwing himself at the door to force it shut against the sodden wind. “It’s bloody hell out there.”
“It is December, and it is the Atlantic,” said Palmer. “You were perhaps expecting sunshine and lily pads, Mr. Devonshire?” Not waiting for the first mate to answer, Palmer went on, “Here, take the wheel. I need to look at these charts again.”
Devonshire, his woolen sweater drenched, his gray hair plastered to his head, applied his meaty forearms to wrestling the wheel into submission. A sudden lull allowed Palmer to place himself at the bolted-down table and withdraw the papers from his coat.
“How are our guests taking this bit of weather?” asked Palmer mildly.
Devonshire gave him a gap-toothed grin. “They’re Royal Navy, so they’d never let on. But I can tell they’re shit-scared.”
Palmer grunted with satisfaction. “Good. Perhaps teach them not to try to lord it over us on our own ship.”
Us, of course, was a bone of contention for Captain Palmer—of the Lady Jane’s regular crew, only himself and Mr. Devonshire were on board. If the ever-mysterious Mr. Walsingham’d had his way, it would have been Palmer only, but the captain had drawn the line there. He was an experienced seaman who had done his fair share of work for the Crown on enterprises that were not always aboveboard, and very often beyond the ken of ordinary folk. When Walsingham had come to visit him at Portsmouth he’d outlined the mission, named his price, and laid down the terms: A journey to Gibraltar to pick up a secret cargo, three Royal Navy officers, and a civilian. There Palmer was to give his regular men shore leave and pick up a casual crew from the sailors who hung around the place they called the Rock, paying them in coin and telling them nothing of the next leg of the journey—a specific spot some 150 miles west by southwest of the Faroes, just about midway between Scotland’s northernmost tip and the arse-end of Iceland.
“No,” Palmer had said. “My crew goes with me.”
“Not this time,” said Walsingham, watching him intently with those hawkish eyes. “Not if they want to live.”
Palmer had leaned forward, his elbows on the table in the shadowy quayside pub where he liked to do business, and filled the bowl of his pipe with tobacco. “Suicide mission, is it?”
“Not for you, Captain. But dangerous. Very, very dangerous. And most secret.”
“You wouldn’t be here otherwise,” said Palmer, stroking his beard.
He’d negotiated his trusted first mate, Mr. Devonshire, on board but had eventually capitulated on the rest, of course, taking Walsingham’s handsome purse and granting the rest of his men a week’s paid furlough on Gibraltar. He’d picked up five new crewmen easy enough; once word got out that Captain James Palmer was hiring, they were lining up to sign on. His reputation preceded him, and it was one of adventure and—more often than not—riches. There were two Spaniards, a Frenchman, a mulatto built like a brick outhouse with tribal tattoos on his face and a silent way about him, and an Irishman from Cork. Like all sailors-for-hire who hung around the Gibraltar ports, they had a slightly desperate air about them: they were men who had nothing to lose because they’d already lost it, travelers with no ties who went whichever way the winds—or the steam-engines—took them. Gibraltar was a Royal Navy base these days, but still the Rock drew the flotsam and jetsam of the merchantman trade as a way station between Europe and Africa and a place to hear stories, listen to gossip, pick up rumors, and sign on for the next voyage. It was a melting pot, which was why Captain Palmer had both Spaniard and Frenchman on board without—as yet—any bloodshed. Even with grog in them and their blood up, land-bound enmities were put aside in favor of the brotherhood conferred by a life on the sea. The ocean was a constantly shifting, ever-changing territory, but still men such as those he had hired on Gibraltar considered it home more than they did any land-locked state.
Palmer spread the papers out on the table. He had been given them by Walsingham, who had insisted that he was to show them to no one else, nor copy them in any way, and that they were to be returned at the close of the venture. They were excerpts of a larger work that Walsingham termed the Hallendrup Manuscript, dating back to Denmark sometime in the 1650s, but the hawkish representative of the Crown had not elaborated further. The hand-copied pages given to Palmer seemed to detail the journey of a Norse longship in the late tenth century, which had met some calamity in the Atlantic Ocean. The clumsy translation suggested the ship had fallen victim to what the original manuscript called hafgufa, which seemed to translate as “sea mist.” The Lady Jane lurched again, the wind howling around the cabin, lashing the windows with thick rain that hinted at fledgling ice. Palmer shook his head. A ferocious sea mist, to send a Viking longship to the bottom of the sea. But that name … hafgufa. He was sure he’d heard it before, or something like it, but in a much different context than a sea mist. He shook his head. A sailor of his years heard a lot of things. He checked the coordinates on the notes against his own charts and rolled up the sheets of paper again, secreting them in his oilskins.
“We’re here,” he said to Devonshire. “I’ll take the wheel; go tell the Corkman to kill the engines and inform the navy boys that they can start getting their little toy ready.”
“Better them than me,” sniffed Devonshire.
Palmer gazed out at the storm-lashed sea again. “And me, Mr. Devonshire. And me.”
The three Royal Navy officers were dressed in regulation yellow oilskins, two of them hanging on to the tarpaulin that covered the bulky cargo dangling on chains from the gantry that had been bolted to the Lady Jane’s deck while the third, Commodore Peter Leadbeater, stood with his fists on his hips, riding the bucking and rolling of the deck with the consummate ease of the seasoned seaman. The fourth man was gray haired and steely eyed, but wiry and fit, and the tossing of the deck didn’t seem to bother him overmuch. Dr. John Reed he was called, and despite his lack of military title the navy men—including Leadbeater—seemed to defer to his quiet authority. Devonshire emerged from belowdecks as the steady thrum of the engines ceased and the ship danced freely on the storm-tossed waves, the Corkman behind him.
“Captain Palmer,” acknowledged Leadbeater, his waxed mustache standing proud despite the weather. The sky above the ship boiled blackly, the last trails of smoke drifting from the Lady Jane’s chimneys to add to the gloom, and the deck was slick with rain and the seawater that crashed against the hull.
“We have reached our coordinates,” shouted Palmer above the storm. “Are you sure you want to do this? It seems folly to me.”
Leadbeater smiled crookedly. “Once we’re down there, the weather won’t trouble us, Captain.” He nodded to the two lieutenants, who began to untie the tarpaulin from the object slung beneath the gantry.
What emerged was a sleek, cigar-shaped object, twenty feet in length and the height of a man, with a hatch fitted into the side and a glass dome at what Palmer assumed was the fore of the vessel. At the aft was a propeller, and flexible cables as thick as a man’s arm were attached to the top. The whole thing was plated in steel, riveted tightly together. The hull bore the legend HMS Proteus.
“Tell me you’re not getting into the water in that thing,” said Devonshire, agog.
“That we are, Mr. Devonshire,” said Leadbeater proudly. “This is a submersible, an underwater ship. The first of the Royal Navy’s new fleet. Experimental, admittedly, and highly secret, naturally.”
Palmer raised an eyebrow; Leadbeater was being remarkably loose lipped with a crew of casual sailors culled from the Gibraltar dives. Palmer said, “Steam?”
One of the lieutenants had opened the hatch and unfurled a rope ladder. He began to clamber inside the cramped space and Leadbeater said, “Yes, with a gear-driven backup. We take in water as ballast in a chamber beneath the submersible and expel it when we want to rise. The cables you see attached to the top will connect us to an air pump up here on the deck of the Lady Jane.”
Palmer pursed his lips. “And what are you looking for down there, Commodore? I presume you are looking for something? We haven’t come all this way to carry out mere testing of your experimental underwater ship?”
Finally Reed spoke up, fixing Palmer with his stare. “I’m afraid that is above top secret, Captain Palmer.”
Palmer returned his gaze. “What exactly is your role in all this, Doctor? You have been awfully quiet the whole journey.”
Reed smiled. “You don’t need to know, Captain. You don’t want to know.” He turned to Leadbeater. “I think you boys should get ready.”
The commodore saluted and followed his lieutenants into the cramped submersible, clanging the hatch closed behind them. Palmer nodded to Devonshire, who rallied the hodgepodge of a crew to begin hauling on the ropes that swung the gantry’s twin arms, the Proteus suspended between them, over the rising gray waves.
“Better them than me,” said Devonshire again.
“Unlikely to be you, Mr. Devonshire,” said Palmer as the sailors lowered the submersible into the sea, where it immediately began to sink. He glanced at Reed, who leaned on the railings, watching the operation. “Above top secret, and all that. Not for the likes of you and me.”
The coils of thick rope fixed to the deck began to unspool as the Proteus dropped out of sight beneath the cold Atlantic, and Devonshire nodded for the Irishman to begin working the bellows that pumped fresh air through the pipe that was similarly coiled on a giant bobbin.
“How deep do you think they’ll go in that thing?” asked Devonshire.
Palmer shrugged, tightening his oilskin around him as the freezing wind tore across the deck with seemingly renewed vigor. “Until they find what they are looking for, whatever that might be. Perhaps Dr. Reed can enlighten us.”
Instead, a crack of thunder clapped overhead, and Reed said, “They used to say not far from here that storms were called up by the thunder god, Thor, when he was angry.”
Palmer raised an eyebrow. “Perhaps your mission does not have the blessing of the gods, Doctor.”
They waited an hour on the storm-battered deck, until the wind and rain seemed to drop slightly, though there was no respite from the oppressive gray clouds overhead. One of the Spaniards shouted in alarm as the thick rope still connected to the aft of the Proteus went suddenly slack. Palmer raised an eyebrow; were the navy boys in trouble? He joined Devonshire at the starboard side and peered into the brine.
“Wind those ropes,” he ordered the sailors, nudging Devonshire in the ribs. “Look.”
Beneath them a dark shape that could have been a small whale or even a shark shimmered in the deep, rising until half a dozen yards off the starboard bow the Proteus surfaced with a splash, seawater coursing off its brass panels, the ropes slack on the sea’s surface. The hatch sprang open and Leadbeater, grinning broadly, waved.
“Captain Palmer! Dr. Reed! Would you be so good as to wind us in?”
The mission had been a success then, given the smile on the commodore’s face. Reed nodded, evidently satisfied. Devonshire put a man on each winding coil and they began to haul the ropes taut, dragging the Proteus back toward the Lady Jane. Palmer turned to go to his cabin to get a bottle of rum; it was customary to toast a successful expedition, and he trusted the navy chaps wouldn’t spurn his hospitality.
“Captain!” Palmer was only halfway to the bridge when Devonshire’s cry rang out, followed by a volley of shouts and screams. He turned to see the ropes tighten, just as the deck bucked beneath him, almost throwing him off his feet. The Proteus seemed to be making steam, trying to dive again. What on earth was that fool Leadbeater—?
Then, as he reached to steady himself on the rail, he saw a brown mass seeping over the submersible—it appeared to be brown fronds of seaweed, but massive, creeping over the brass hull.
No, not seaweed. Tentacles. One yellow eye opened and seemed to regard Palmer directly, balefully, as the slick, bulbous shape fully twenty feet across wrapped itself around the Proteus and emerged from the iron-gray waves.
Palmer swore. Suddenly he remembered where he’d heard that word before, hafgufa. Sea mist his foot. An old Danish sailor, always the worse for ale, used to burble the word all the time in one of the pubs in Portsmouth. He was an old drunk, not to be trusted with even the most menial jobs on board any ship. He was white haired, which he said had happened through sheer terror, after coming face to face with the most terrible of creatures that roamed the oceans.
“The kraken,” said Reed at his side, drawing a revolver from his belt.
Leadbeater poked his head out of the hatch, looking around at the source of the commotion, and his eyes widened as one of the kraken’s tentacles swung by his head. Palmer stood transfixed; he had never thought to see such a beast, never really believed they existed. Then the deck lurched again; the kraken was determined to take the Proteus down—and it threatened to take the Lady Jane with it.
“I’m going to have to cut you free!” roared Palmer at Leadbeater. “The thing’s going to pull us over!”
The commodore disappeared beneath the hull for a moment then returned, hauling an oilskin bag with him. “Doctor Reed, take this!”
He tossed the bag over the three yards between the Proteus and the Lady Jane, and it skidded to a halt at Reed’s feet. Devonshire had at least had the foresight to take out his gun, and he was emptying the chamber into the thick hide of the beast that tugged and tugged at the submersible. Reed was firing, too, and Leadbeater took out his own pistol and began to fire at close quarters, gore and slime spraying up from the kraken’s eye as the commodore’s bullets found their mark.
On the deck, the bag had spilled out something remarkable. Almost like a glass bowl. Palmer stooped to pick it up. It seemed to be made of something much harder than glass, opaque with a yellowish tinge. He hefted it; it was perhaps three pounds in weight, the curved side bisected by a slight indentation, the underside peppered with symmetrically spaced holes and one large aperture, an inch in diameter. It seemed both incredibly old and fantastically other at the same time. A shout brought Palmer back to his senses.
“Cut the ropes!” he ordered, then headed to the bridge, still clutching the glass artifact. He stowed it in his deep desk drawer and broke out his rifle, feeling the Lady Jane right herself as the Proteuswas cut loose. Loading the rifle, he headed back out on deck, to see the submersible and the vast kraken wheeling away in the waves. He raised the weapon and blasted at the beast, ripping a huge wound in its flank. Leadbeater had crawled out on to the hull of the Proteus, stabbing at one of the kraken’s leathery tentacles with a knife. The man was not short on bravery, Palmer had to give him that.
Another of the navy crew had appeared at the hatch, firing at the kraken’s other eye. By accident or design, the monster swung a tentacle at him, curling it around the sailor and lifting him, screaming, into the air. Palmer reloaded and fired again, but the kraken plunged the navy man deep into the water with a forceful finality.
It seemed to be loosening its grip, sliding backward off the Proteus, whose air-filled cells were proving more than the beast had bargained for. Reed cupped his hand to his mouth and called, “Leadbeater! Swim for it, now the beast is injured!”
The commodore nodded and shouted into the submersible. The surviving lieutenant climbed out and the two men dove into the choppy waters. Palmer ordered the two Spaniards to throw them lines; that water was freezing and they wouldn’t last long. As they were dragged toward the Lady Jane, Palmer raised his rifle to his shoulder and took careful aim. The thing was built like an octopus, and he hoped its brain was in the same place. He aimed for the bulge above its stricken eyes, and fired. The kraken uttered its first sound, a high-pitched shriek, and slid from the submersible and under the waves. As Leadbeater and his surviving lieutenant were pulled aboard by the mulatto and the Irishman, the Proteus, evidently greatly damaged by the encounter, spun once, up-ended, and sank stern first out of sight.
“I’m sorry we lost your ship,” said Palmer. “But at least we saved the—”
“Captain!” said Devonshire.
“What now, Mr. Devonshire?” asked Palmer, turning to where the first mate was pointing. One of the Lady Jane’s lifeboats, only a slender affair, had been put out to sea off the port side. Two figures were in it, and a quick headcount identified them as the Frenchman and one of the Spaniards. The oilskin bag that Leadbeater had tossed aboard was gone.
Leadbeater glanced at Reed then closed his eyes. “Curses. We’ve lost the Proteus and the—oh, bollocks.”
With a swift coldness that surprised even Palmer, Reed took his pistol and put a bullet each into the remaining Spaniard, the mulatto, and the Irishman before they even had time to realize what was happening.
“That was my crew,” said Palmer, stunned.
“You were told to leave your crew at home,” said Reed wearily. “This is why. Throw them overboard.”
Palmer looked into the distant sea, the lifeboat lost to sight. “What of the other two?”
“Spies,” sighed Reed. There were a couple items scattered on the deck, leftovers from the bag. Reed picked them up and held to the dim light a ruby of fantastic size, suspended on a gold chain. He stared into its depths for a moment then pocketed it.
“A Spaniard and a Frenchman? Working together?” said Palmer incredulously.
“Apparently so.” Reed puffed out his cheeks and exhaled. “Bother. Bloody bollocking bother.” He looked up at Palmer. “Don’t suppose you have any rum, do you?”
Palmer led Reed and Leadbeater to the bridge while Devonshire and the navy lieutenant disposed of the Gibraltar sailors. “You going to be in trouble when we dock?” Palmer asked.
“A world of trouble.” Leadbeater nodded.
“But at least you got something,” said Palmer. “That ruby I saw you pocket, Dr. Reed.”
“A trinket,” said Reed. “Not what we came for.”
Palmer opened his desk drawer and took out a bottle of rum, pouring two generous measures. He sipped his and watched Leadbeater throw his drink back in one swallow, then refilled his glass.
“Good job I saved you this, then,” Palmer said, taking out the strange glass object.
Reed’s eyes widened, then he broke out into a wide grin.
Palmer said, “Don’t suppose there’s much point in me asking what it is.”
“This,” said Reed, taking the artifact from Palmer and holding it reverently, “really is above top secret. Well done, Captain Palmer. Now I’d be gratified if you could take us all home.”
Copyright © 2015 by David Barnett