Jen Air: Asterion – Gosforth

Another extract from the sequel to The Little Queen I’m writing.  It’s a slightly different type of story.  Little Queen was sci-fi thriller/horror, whereas this story is more like a dungeon crawl that takes place on an island.  At the beginning, there is this journal entry, and then later on as the protagonists explore the island they slowly learn more about what happened after Gosforth agreed to help Hendel.

Usual disclaimer – it’s an early draft and so subject to changes and corrections.  Still, feel free to send me comments or feedback or suggestions:

It was around spring or summer I think, in the year of our lord eighteen ninety, when I first met the architect.  I recall that the weather was unseasonal; smoky grey and black clouds choking out the sun as our coach clipped and clopped through the bleak iron gates.  From the outside it appeared a stately home, but once within we soon encountered the insane ghosts that haunted this place, most of them trapped here for whatever was left of their existence.

We were greeted by a pale thin woman with sunken eyes who led us through the harrowed halls.  The windows were mostly boarded and nailed shut from outside so most our illumination came from the little lamp the lady held aloft, casting a circle around us in a hellish yellow glow.  We encountered several ghastly apparitions.  An old man with long white hair and gown like father time, his ghostly eyes looking through us as he ambled along muttering about snails in his head.  I looked into a room and saw a room painting on a canvas with her own faeces, and was glad to have contracted a cold just that morning blocking my sinuses from all that would otherwise have assaulted them.

So engrossed was I in the horror of my surroundings that I failed to count how many flights of stairs we ascended, but I believed we were on our way to the highest room in the manor.  When we arrived the woman fumbled for her keys to open the heavy barred door.

“You have visitors,” she said like an elderly relative bringing news to their children.

There was already a lamp within the room, set down upon a small and rotten table with worm worn seats around it. There was little other furnishing besides a wardrobe and bed.  There was no covering on the walls, save for chalk numbers and symbols crawling over each surface.  They may have meant something to minds better educated in such things than mine, or they may have just been gibberish.  In any case, the mind had spawned them sat frog legged in a corner of the room, his eyes slowly turning to strangely scrutinise the foreigners who had entered his domain.  But then, seeming to recall the social etiquette and niceties that had served him well in the distant past, he jumped to his feet with a wide toothy grin, dusty off his old jacket and straightening his kerchiefs.

“Gentlemen!” He called, gesturing to the table.  “To what do I owe the pleasure?”

Stephen Gosforth had once been a brilliant, promising mind.  He was regularly invited to parties and balls of well to do across the land, where his humour and mechanical contraptions thrilled and excited the minds of adults and children alike.  But now he seemed at home with all the other spirits here.  A mere shadow of the genius inventor and entertainer he once had been.

I followed Mister Hendel to the table, taking a seat beside him and opposite Gosforth who grinned inanely at the two of us, his bony fingers curling and scratching at his striped grey and black beard.  Laid out on the table was a plate without any cutlery, and a jug and a cup filled with some warm brownish liquid.  I assumed tea and of curiosity for the service here attempted a sip.

“As you may have surmised,” Gosforth said, “I have few guests.  I would offer you some tea and biscuits, but all I have that I can give is shit and urine.”

I spat.  Stephen seemed just mildly amused, but Mister Hendel maintained a sturdy disposition.

Stephen continued, “I am allowed almost no contact with the outside world, other than Lady Dent,” he said raising his palm at the woman who had led us to him.  “Perhaps my family believes she is safe from me on account of my ‘deviation’,” he chuckled wryly.  “Or perhaps they hope that one day I will fall for her charming looks and personality and thus be cured,” he chuckled again.  The thin old nurse just kept staring stony eyed straight ahead, not a flicker of emotion on her face as she held her lamp.  “Despite how she seems, she is a kind person.  She allows me books and papers to read so that I may keep abreast of the situation outside.  You are the industrialist William Hendel.  And you are…?”

Of course he had no way of knowing who I was.  I was but an assistant employed to keep Mister Hendel’s books and other documents in order and had just been two months in his service.  Recalling my own manners, I dropped the case from my lap and leant across the table with my hand extended, but in my haste knocked the cup and jug on their sides, their contents dripping to the floor.  “I’m sorry!” I exclaimed.  “Er, S-Scott.  Charles Scott.”

Gosforth smiled awkwardly at my profound embarrassment, but took my hand.  “An honour, I’m sure,” he said.  “And since I assume you both know who I am, I must ask again, to what do I owe the pleasure?  And why now?”

“I saw your brother,” Mister Hendel explained, speaking for the first time since our arrival.

“Oh?  And how is my dear brother?  In a coffin, I hope.”

“Not measured for one yet.  But it may surprise you to learn that he does still take an interest in you.  He showed me your drawings, passed on to him by Lady Dent, and in turn bought by me.”

“And so you have come to ask for your money back?  Yes, as an artist I’m afraid I have little talent despite having had a great deal of time to have practiced.  But I must again leave you disappointed as I have no money.  You will have to talk to the rest of my family about that.”

A smile cracked on Mister Hendel’s for the first time since I had been employed.  He beckoned with his hand, which I understood to mean to fetch the drawings from the case while he spoke, “Oh, but I think you are wrong, Mister Gosforth.  I believe you to be a great artist.  For what is art but an act of creation?  The ability to summon forth in one’s mind an idea or image of something that has never been seen before by man.  Never existed at all anywhere in our world, until you imagined it and chose to share it with others.”

I thumbed through a bundle of yellow papers until the found the schematic Mister Hendel had puzzled over the most.  It depicted a metal sphere held within a torus attached to wires and other rigging.  Around it were scribbled notes and formulae.  Stephen looked on it and seeming unimpressed he shrugged, “it is just a drawing.”

“I am here to offer you a chance to bring the thing you saw in your mind into living reality.”

Gosforth leant back, scratching at the nasolabial line just above his moustache.  “Why would you do this?” He asked, seeming genuinely surprised and perplexed by the offer.

Hendel leant back as well, producing and tapping his pipe.  “I was in Paris last year, attending the Exposition Universelle.  The French have built some three-hundred-metre-tall metal monstrosity at the heart of their city.  Around it there were wild west shows and exhibitions of culture and art from all over the world.  But the machines, locomotives and other creatures of steel that can do the work of hundreds of men… that was what caught my eye.  You see the world is changing, Gosforth.  There will be more machines on every street in every corner of the globe doing more of the work that men once did.  But what will power those machines?  Gas and coal are dangerous and filthy and will not do at all for so many.  There will need to be other sources of energy, and whoever controls those sources and produces the most energy most efficiently will lead the world.”

“And you think my little drawing will help?”

“If we build your machine and it does what you say it will, then our company will be a second sun here on Earth, providing light and warmth and energy to every human alive.  And you will be Apollo.”

Gosforth snorted, his lip curling up at the notions.  “Gods rarely have happy and contented lives, do they?  Everyone they love ends up dead or turned into a flower or some such thing,” he stood up, walking over to the wall silently reading as he stretched.  “The sun can burn and take life as easily as it can give.”

“I am certain with you and other great minds on board any accidents can be avoided.”

“Accidents?” The inventor spun about, his dark and misty eyes locked on to Hendel.  Then he looked to the side and thought.  “Of course they can.  I understand what you want, Mister Hendel, but why should I help you?”

“Freedom from this place, for one thing.  Plus you’d be doing a great service not just to me, but to the whole Empire.”

“The Empire,” Gosforth laughed mockingly as he sat down again.  “Queen and country?  The society that is the whole reason for my incarceration?  Am I a robber or a murderer?  No.  Did I pay my taxes?  Yes.  The only thing I ever did wrong was fall in love, and so my family arranged to hide me away and treated like the poor souls here who are wrong in the head.  I wouldn’t even let the Queen suck my cock.  And Britain… Britain can be swallowed whole by the ocean, and I would not feel it a loss.”

If he was hoping to provoke an angered response from Hendel, it did not succeed.  I knew my employer well enough to know that to him patriotism was just another one of the cards he could play to bend others to his will.  But it was far from being his only card.  He joined his hands together and leant across the table.  “You’ll be rich.”

“Rich?” Stephen folded one lip over the other and nodded.  “Rich is good.  Go on.”

“Rich enough to live anywhere and with any lover you want.  Or lovers, if you have enough energy for it.  I can make the world forget about whatever affairs you had before and prevent them prying into any new ones.  And when the depends on us for all its energy, we can force them to change their ways of thinking.”

“And my family?”

“Have no say.  I own this institution now.  I can have you declared sane and released by dinner time.  What say you?”

Gosforth responded with a toothy, mischievous grin.  “Perhaps you and I can get along.  And I assume you intend to go ahead with this endeavour with or without my help?”

“We have the plans, and I have other scientists and engineers who could see it through.  But I am certain the path will be quicker and smoother with your aid.”

The inventor nodded thoughtfully, but Mister Hendel looked confident that the answer would be yes.  Indeed, after a few moments Stephen said, “there are a number of experiments that have to be done first.  We shall have to take it in steps… start small, and work our way up.  And given the amount of power we could potentially be dealing with, it should be done far away from any city or other habitation.  You see, despite my hyperbole earlier I do still value some human life.  So some place isolated.  A desert, perhaps, or an island…”

“I’m sure it can be arranged,” Hendel said.  “So, you will help us?”

“Goose,” was the answer he heard.

“Excuse me?”

“You said you could have me released by dinner time, so I want goose.  With wine and vinegar.  Can you arrange that?”

“I believe I can,” Mister Hendel said, reaching out and taking the man’s hand.  But although the industrialist seemed in control, the only one of us in that room whose mind had begun to machinate all that would follow was the brilliant man, Gosforth.

  • From the journals of Charles Scott, 1890.
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