Asterion – Prologue, Part One

I’m posting the first few chapters at least of the current novel I’m writing in order.  Not absolutely final yet, but any feedback, comments, questions or suggestions are encouraged and welcomed.  Also be sure to check out the first book.  It’s really quite good.

Prologue, Part One

England, June, 1890…

It was the beginning of summer when I first met the architect, although one could not tell by the pallor of the sky as our coach clipped and clopped through bleak iron gates. Coming down the road we appeared to be approaching another stately home in the country, but once within we soon encountered the ghosts that haunted this place, most of them trapped there for whatever remained of their existence.

We were greeted at the doors by a ghostly woman, thin and pale with sunken features.  She spoke few words, merely nodding as my employer, Mister Hendel, showed his papers.  She held aloft a small yellow lamp casting a hellish glow as we were led through the harrowed halls.  Most the windows were boarded, nailed shut from outside, and as we ascended several flights of stairs inside we encountered several ghastly apparitions. An old man with long white and a gown like father time, absent grey eyes looking past us as he ambled along muttering about snails in his head.  In at least one room was a woman painting with what I was convinced were her own faeces. I was glad to have contracted a cold just that morning as I’m not sure my sinuses could have handled the assault. Mister Hendel however was as professional and resolute as always, marching onward, confident and proud, as he would to any other business meeting.

So engrossed was I in the horror of my surroundings that I failed to count how many steps we climbed, but I believed we had reached the highest room in the manor when the woman fumbled for keys to the heavily barred door before us.

She stepped inside, saying “You have visitors,” like a matron bringing news to a child in her charge.

There was already a lamp within the room, set down upon a small rotten table with some hastily assembled chairs around it.  Little other furnishing but a wardrobe and dirty mattress.  No covering on the walls, save for chalk numbers and symbols crawling in every available space.  It would take a mind far better educated in such things than mine to tell you if they meant anything or were just gibberish, but the mind who had spawned them sat frog legged in a corner, still scrawling when we entered.  He paused, slowly turning his head and neck to scrutinise the foreigners who had walked into his domain.  But then, seeming to recall the etiquette that had served him well long ago, he leapt to his feet, straightening his kerchiefs and dusting off his jacket.

“Gentlemen!” He said with a wide a grin, gesturing to the table.  “To what god of fortune do I owe the pleasure?”

“Stephen Gosforth?” Hendel enquired as I followed him to the table, although we both knew the answer. Gosforth had once been the most promising young engineer of our time, and a rising star in England’s well to do social circles where his humour and mechanical contraptions excited the minds of both young and old.  Now, he seemed at home with the other spirits here with his greying appearance and frantic, bulging eyes.  A shadow of what he once was, and what he could have been.

But now he winced when he heard his name.  “Gosforth…” he tutted and slowly shook his head.  “My family name.  But as I’m sure you must be aware, that family disowned me.  Had me locked up and hidden away in this place to avoid them suffering any further disgrace and embarrassment.”

“Stephen, then,” Hendel corrected as we all sat.  “I represent a group of like-minded fellows who consider your incarceration to have been a grave waste.  I am here to offer you a chance to change that.”

“Truly?” Gosforth… Stephen, sat back, his bony fingers curling and scratching at his stripy grey and black beard as he weighed the two of us.  I looked down on the table, where laid out were a plate without any cutlery and a jug and cup filled with some warm, brown liquid.  I assumed tea as I sipped, out of curiosity for the service here. “As you may have surmised,” Stephen said, “I have few guests here.  I would offer tea and cake, but all I have that I can give is shit and urine.”

I gagged and spat, Stephen seeming just mildly amused, but Mister Hendel maintained his sturdy disposition.

The fallen genius continued, “I have been allowed almost no contact with the world beyond this room. Other than the good Lady Dent, of course,” he said, gesturing to the woman who had led us to him.  “Perhaps my family believe she is safe from me, on account of my ‘deviation’.  Or perhaps they hope I will one day fall for her obvious looks and charming personality and thus be cured,” he chuckled wryly.  The old nurse kept a stony, straight face without a flicker of emotion.  “Ah, despite how she seems, she is a good person. She allows me books and papers to read so that I may keep abreast of what’s happening out there.  And so I know that you are the industrialist William Hendel.  And you are…?”

Of course he had no reason to know who I was.  I was merely Mister Hendel’s assistant, employed to keep his books and other documents in order and had been just two months in his service.  Nevertheless, remembering my own manners I dropped the case from my lap and extended my hand, although in my haste knocked the cup and jug on their sides, their contents dripping as I ashamedly blurted, “I’m sorry! It’s, er… Scott.  Charles Scott.”

Stephen smiled awkwardly at my profound embarrassment, but took my hand.  “An honour, I’m sure,” he said.  “And so you tell me you are here to right a wrong.  How?  And why now?”

“I met your brother,” Mister Hendel explained.

“Oh?  And how is my dear brother?  Close to meeting his maker I hope.”

“Not measured for his coffin yet.  But it may surprise you to learn that he does take an interest in you.  He’s kept a number of your drawings, passed on to him by Lady Dent, and in turn now bought by me.”

“I see.  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 to spare.  You will have to talk again to my brother or the rest of my family about that.”

A smile cracked on Mister Hendel’s face for the first time in my entire employment.  He beckoned with his finger, which I understood to mean to fetch the drawings from my case as he spoke, “Oh, but I think you are wrong, Stephen. 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 I found the schematic Mister Hendel and his colleagues had puzzled over the most.  It depicted a metal sphere held within a torus attached to wires and other rigging, around it scribbled notes and formulae.  Stephen looked on it and seeming unimpressed shrugged, “it is just a drawing.”

“Until it isn’t.  I am asking you to help me and my fellows to bring this thing you have imagined.  You need not be concerned about the cost.  We are each of us men of considerable means.”

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

Now Hendel leant back, producing and tapping his pipe.  “Power, of course.  Specifically, energy.  I was in Paris last year, at the Exposition Universelle.  The French have built some three-hundred-metre-tall metal monstrosity at the heart of their city. There were exhibitions of culture and art from all over our globe.  But the machines, locomotives and other beasts of steel that can do the work of hundreds of men.  That’s the future, but all those machines will need energy, far more than can be produced with gas and coal alone.  Whoever controls the flow of that energy 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, Stephen, you will be Apollo.”

Stephen snorted, his lips curling as if amused by the notion.  “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 suddenly swung off his chair, stretching his body as he paced to the wall.  “Suns burn and take life as easily as they give.”

“Of course, we will take every possible precaution to ensure any accidental incineration is avoided.”

The inventor spun about, his dark misty eyes fixing on Hendel before he tilted to the side as he thought.  “Of course. I understand what you want from this, Mister Hendel, but why should I help you?”

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

“The Empire?” Stephen laughed as he threw himself back into his seat.  “Queen and country?  The society that is the whole reason for my being here?  And for what crime?  Robbery? Murder?  No.  Did I pay my taxes like a good little citizen?  Yes. My crime, what I did to deserve this punishment, was to be in love.  So forgive me if I say that the country that considers that a crime can be swallowed whole by the ocean where its Queen will feel quite at home among the other sea pigs. I would not feel it a loss.”

He seemed to revel in the discomfort his words caused our English sensibilities, but an appeal to patriotism was far from the only card my employer had to play.  “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 choose.  Or lovers, if you have enough energy for that.  If you prefer, I can make the world forget whatever affairs you had in the past and prevent it prying into new ones.”

“And what of my family?”

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

Stephen sighed.  “I suppose I can assume you intend to go ahead with this endeavour with or without my help?”

“It will go far more smoothly with.”

The inventor nodded thoughtfully, but Mister Hendel looked confident of what the answer would be. Indeed, after a few moments Stephen said, “It will take some time.  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,” The industrialist grinned, reaching out and taking the man’s hand.  But although he seemed in control, little did either of us know then that the strange yet brilliant man we were making a deal with was not Apollo, but the trickster, Prometheus…

–        From the journals of Charles Scott.

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